By Vishwamithra –
“Culture is the widening of the mind and of the spirit.” ~Jawaharlal Nehru
A black-hole is defined as follows: ‘a region of space having a gravitational field so intense that no matter or radiation can escape’. In today’s context, Sri Lanka is increasingly drawn towards that cultural black-hole which soaks and sucks every ounce of social decency, financial discipline and passionate idealism that once resided in the sublime hearts and minds of countless inhabitants of this once blessed land. Traveling down the lane of bygone times and history, one may argue, is an exercise in futility. The past is dead. Rabindranath Tagore said dwelling in dead yesterdays is death-dealing. But this is not an expedition into our past, nor is it a ‘futile’ journey to an era gone by. However much that past has been good and satisfying, however much it has been more analogous to a reasonable period of time in which one citizen was not treated above or below the other in socio-political sense, one has to come to terms with the brutal fact that it is dead, never to be reborn.
Against a backdrop of such material, socio-econo-political dynamic, how can we try to rationalize the contemporaneous times and its bizarre realities that are manifestly eating into the very tapestry of our society? Along with the palpable collapse of the inherent nature of the cyclical turn of any human society, what has been painfully visible during the last couple of decades, or maybe since the so-called ‘opening’ of the economy, is socio-cultural decadence and a manifestly real degeneration of the core character of a transparent and accountable Sri Lankan. Political influence on the average citizen has expanded slowly after Independence but more rapidly so since the 1956-transformation- the dawn of the common man’s era- that influence gained a rapid acceleration. With the socialization of the economy, as has been evidenced in countries behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ during the Soviet Union days, shaping and defining of daily life of all men, women and children has come under the severe influence of government regulations, either in the sphere of the economy or in the social and cultural development of society. A rapid process of politicization of lives of the ordinary people assumed an accelerated pace.
A culture of aggressive and vigorous activation of their political supporters aimed at their opponents, especially against the allies of the United National Party (UNP), set in and no continence on the part of the party in power, Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), was forthcoming. Although inter-party rivalries most often climaxing in some instances with violent confrontations, sometimes leading to even murder on rare occasions, set the pattern that has continued to date. Apart from these skirmishes between political party supporters, the general rationalization of such violent confrontations as a natural evolution of a ‘proficiency’ that was deliberately fashioned and crafted to justify and legitimize the angst amongst their supporters who take it upon themselves as a natural ‘right’ to suppress the legitimate rights of their opponents.
This is the culture that reached its zenith in the middle of the second decade of the twenty first century. A debased and desecrated pattern of human development whose most conspicuous elements were impure practice of corruption and nepotism began to be accepted as the norm in our society. The most dangerous aspect of this process of debasement is, when such corruption was tolerated and condoned at the highest level, it empowered the lower layers of government service to embrace such a corruption-culture as an embroidered garb. From the highest echelons of the bureaucracy to the minor staff level of peons and drivers in the local civil service and from President downwards to Ministers, MPs to Pradesheeya Sabha members, this novel art of socio-political lifestyle took total control of their daily behavior. The additional money so earned through these nefarious means became a constituent portion of their monthly incomes. This was so not only in the public sector, in some cases, it was more so in the so-called ‘sophisticated’ private sector Boardrooms. Unnecessary obsequiousness to higher-ups on the ladder of seniority, unquestioning obedience to carry out unethical, immoral and sometimes illegal directives and orders seem to have come to stay. In the private sector they do it with a cosmetic finesse while in the public sector it is done with obscene brazenness.
We certainly have arrived at a defining moment in history, a history that has been tarnished with many a scandalous misdemeanors and nepotism; that history of nepotism did not begin with the Rajapaksas and it won’t end with them either. The civil service of the olden days, which was earmarked for the best of the best in the country’s intelligentsia, is now being manned and ‘womanned’ by mediocre personnel of the greediest order. The culture off corruption and nepotism has not spared them.
A history of forthrightness is being challenged by the dark forces of nihilism and servility. A service which once stood up to the politicos; a service which once was adamant that nothing contrary to the moral compass of one’s beliefs and faiths was materiel in the process of decision-making has given way to the temporary satisfaction of dark and inglorious desires of man. Its hold on the very determination of the masses’ needs and essential demands is absolute. It is not a very palatable consequence of this ignominious conduct of the holders of official reins.
Whether it’s the Senanayakes or Jayewardenes, whether it’s the Bandaranaikes or Rajapaksas, the wheel of corruption has been turning in its brutally excruciating spin. The masses sincerely hope that it won’t be the same with the Wickremesinghes and Sirisenas. The unfortunate victims have been the unsuspecting masses who fell in line at the poling both of each successive election. They, in their naïve belief and faith, expected the would-be rulers would be more honest and plainspoken than the ones they had chosen to reject. It is true of the old men and women who religiously stick to their daily routines of worshipping the gods and other of their choice; it’s true of the middle-aged breadwinners who day in and day out commute to and from their workplaces; it’s true of the youth whose rebellious nature caters for a more rapid and radical transformation of life and objective conditions prevalent in the country.
In this convoluted context of human aspirations and wishes, politicians who are far behind the sophistication of a developed liberal mindset, invariably look forward to making their own fantasies and avaricious demands prioritized over and above the demands of those who elected them. It is not a confrontation that is conducive to an amicable end. Yet each time the country’s masses chose to rebel against such unbearable odds, the State has overrun the forces of rebellion. In a democratic country it should be so. The lack of sophistication of the democratic maneuvers, the lack of maturity of the societal structures and punishing gap between haves and have-nots have contributed to a massive sense of insensitivity and complacency on the part of the masses. They have not only come to accept the exception as a norm, they have chosen to embrace this culture as part of their own incomplete lives.
The religious visit Kataragama as part of a pilgrimage; the riotous merchants of corruption and politicos’ henchmen visit the so-called abode of gods as a ritual to purify themselves of all their ungodly sins; children visit it because they are forced to worship a god considered to be all-powerful and more omniscient than any other religious leader. A culture of substitute values has overpowered and buried a culture whose foundations were built, brick by painstakingly laid brick, over centuries of serene and sublime belief in the noble teachings of the Thathagatha.
Gods and other deities of another religion have invaded the Teachings, corrupted and debased it with short-term solutions to age-old problems of mankind. More easily saleable items such as concepts of deities and instantaneous pardoning of sins have made their way into the Four Noble Truths and its versatile validity. Rational thinking and compassionate responses to human needs have been replaced by ‘credit and debit’ as social barter. When rulers reside in their lonely ‘bunkers’, they don’t realize that mayhem is breaking out outside their protected habitat. The warrens of august corridors are no more august, nor are they hallowed by humility and patience. The culture of all politicians, barring none, who are cocooned in their presidential palaces and other ignoble hideouts, has become insensitive and self-righteous and is a direct reflection of society’s ills. The self-righteous character of politicians has entitled them, according to their own assessment, to offer solutions to all problems facing their constituents.
It certainly is not a promising landscape. The choice is between acceptance of this dangerous and destructive culture as our norm and its total rejection. How determined and gritty we could be is the ultimate test of our times.
*The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org