By Jehan Perera –
The killing of a Sri Lankan in Pakistan by a frenzied mob who accused him of committing an act of blasphemy serves as a grim reminder of the ever-present danger of pent-up emotion exploding in society. Over the eons, religion has served to humanize the more primitive nature lurking within human beings. “Be kind to the stranger in your midst, because you were once strangers in the land of Egypt,” is the biblical injunction too often ignored by the very people who profess to follow its teachings. It is not only in Pakistan that such inhuman acts have occurred, especially when there has been a failure of national leadership to instill a higher ethos of morality in the people, too often for the sake of electoral gain.
Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan has been accused of defending Pakistan’s blasphemy law and promoting Islamic fundamentalism to come to power and now to shore up support for his government that is failing to solve the problems of the people. A clause of the constitution mandates the death penalty for any “imputation, insinuation or innuendo” against the Holy Prophet. Presently Pakistan faces economic sanctions by the EU, as does Sri Lanka, due to its adherence to this law and other human rights issues. The EU has raised issues related to the protection of journalists, religious extremism, misuse of blasphemy laws, and forced conversion in some parts of the country. A compromised political environment in which there is impunity leads people to take the law into their own hands according to their notions of what is right and wrong.
Mobilising the emotions of people, whether by religion or ethnic nationalism, to gain and retain power is like sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and other members of the Sri Lankan government have expressed their strong condemnation of the heinous crime against its citizens and demanded justice. Prime Minister Khan has pledged justice and referred to the “day of shame” for Pakistan. More than a hundred alleged participants in the crime have been arrested. There have also been images of Pakistani civil society groups saying sorry for what has happened. Likewise Sri Lankan civil society will also recall the support that Pakistan gave to Sri Lanka during the years of war and diplomatically on the issues of human rights violations raised by sections of the international community. We must also be apprehensive when purveyors of hatred against other religions and ethnicities are given prominent positions in the state apparatus.
It is necessary for Sri Lankans to be mindful about what has happened within Sri Lanka itself during the JVP insurrection, the 1983 riots and more recently in Aluthgama, Digana and Kurunegala. In all of these instances there was a measure of state complicity or inaction which is worse than the savage deeds of a mob as the state represents the civilization of the country. This state failure has been on account of the over-politicisation of the state machinery to the point where senior officers of the state, most of whom have joined the state for idealistic reasons, cannot and do not perform their duties due to political interference. In a manner similar to Prime Minister Khan, President Rajapaksa and the current government won elections by catering to the nationalism and fears of the ethnic majority, with some of its allies spewing hatred towards the ethnic and religious minorities.
There are disturbing signs that the situation of state failure is growing more serious in Sri Lanka. The release of former Governor Azath Salley after he had been in remand jail for eight months on charges that the court said were not sustainable. All charges against him by the Attorney General were dismissed as they lacked merit. The injustice done to him and his family, the loss of eight months of his life and his reputation, require reparations which may be forthcoming as he is a person of stature. There will be countless others who are less able to fight their cases like the former Governor did. In addition, there have been several killings in police custody of prisoners who are alleged to have tried to escape when taken to find their store of weapons or in cross fire or by suicide. Making matters worse is that in some of these cases the families and lawyers of the imprisoned persons have given advance warning that those held in custody are scheduled to be killed, but nothing is done and the deaths take place.
The same inability or unwillingness to ensure accountability can be seen at multiple levels, be it in relation to the manner in which the three decade long war ended, or the Easter bombings or Central Bank bond scandal, or sugar tax scandal, the Yugadanavi Power Plant issue and most recently the explosion of large numbers of cooking gas cylinders which have led to deaths and burning down of people’s homes. In none of these cases has investigations led to the masterminds being found and meted out justice. With time the cases might be forgotten and the wrongdoers get away with their crimes. Perhaps it is in apprehension of the potential crisis situation in the country that the Supreme Court has written a strong judgement in a case that is representative of the people’s sense of compassion and care for all living beings as directed by the sacred religious texts. This was with regard to whether elephants captured from the wild and taken to homes and temples as objects of social prestige should be returned to their supposed owners or released to the wild or sent to protected sanctuaries.
In a decision that can have far reaching ramifications for the rule of law, and for the system of checks and balances, and wisely in a case that is less politically controversial, the court cited a famous judgement by Lord Denning in the English courts where he said, “It is settled in our constitutional law that in matters that concern the public at large the Attorney General is the guardian of the public interest. Although he is a member of the government of the day, it is his duty to represent the public interest with complete objectivity and detachment. He must act independently of any external pressure for whatever quarter it may come.” The court said that “these observations aptly apply to the role of the Attorney General of Sri Lanka.” Notably the respondents in this case were the Prime Minister and Minister of Wildlife.
If positions such as the Attorney General are to be filled with persons who will make decisions in line with the court judgement above, it is necessary that they should be persons with integrity and competence. They also need the space to be able to do their work without political interference. It was to achieve this objective that two different governments, headed by two different political leaders from two different political parties took steps to ensure the passage of the 17th and 19th amendments in 2001 and 2015 respectively. These two amendments had the common feature of reducing the president’s powers and seeking to increase the independence of state institutions from political interference. A police force that is independent of political influencers who act behind the scenes, is more likely to act with integrity in dealing with the impunity that is growing in the country.
The government’s pledge of a new draft constitution before the end of the year provides an opportunity to reform the system of governance and put an end to the multifarious violations and weaknesses in it that breeds impunity and resentment which is the fuel for extremism of all sorts. The political space should be kept secular unlike in the case of Pakistan with its religious law and kept free from religious or ethnic nationalist biases. The reintroduction of the scheme of appointment of higher officials of state through a multi-partisan constitutional council consisting of members of government, opposition and civil society would lead to better appointments than the president alone making the appointments. The members of the constitutional council would together select the most appropriate persons to high offices of state and to insulate them from politically motivated interference. This is particularly important in the case of the higher judiciary, the last bastion of freedom in a democracy that is going wrong. The present deterioration in the integrity and quality of decision making at multiple levels and in multiple institutions highlights the need for a strong system of government based on checks and balances–real good governance.