Constitutional Framework for the Election Commission (EC)
§3 of our Constitution declares our sovereignty: “In the Republic of Sri Lanka sovereignty is in the People and is inalienable. Sovereignty includes the powers of government, fundamental rights and the franchise.” It provides in §103(2) for an independent EC to oversee the exercise of our franchise: “The object of the Commission shall be to conduct free and fair elections and referenda.” It adds in §104B(2) that “It shall be the duty of the Commission to secure the enforcement of all laws relating to the holding of any such election or the conduct of referenda.”
An obstacle to the free exercise of the people’s franchise is election violence. Associated closely with it is bribery of the law enforcement machinery. During the last local government elections, the EC faced several problems of cheating by nearly all parties. The worst offender is an old party of Tamil Cheats (TC). It takes the position that the EC is being partial when it charges the TC when it cheats – that neutrality demands that the EC should not charge the TC!
The police rarely prosecute TC for their election offences, and reduce charges when they do. In one egregious case, they suppressed the evidence given by EC for a year without marking it and as a result that evidence was excluded. In effect, the corrupt TC gets away, and the police probably make good money; but the people cannot freely exercise their franchise. It would have been more justice -friendly to ask the Police Commission to inquire against the errant police officials and allow the evidence to be used. That would punish the TC and the Police for cheating the people – rather than the people whose fundamental right to franchise is violated.
The EC therefore feels a dire need to eliminate violence and cheating from our elections.
Nonviolence – A Reserved Day for Youth
Mahatma Gandhi whose birthday is 2 October, is a well-known apostle of nonviolence. The United Nations therefore celebrates 2 October as International Day of Non-Violence, promoting non-violence through education and public awareness.
With children moreover, drugs and gang violence threaten their idyllic world. In Sri Lanka the crescendo-like news reports of drugs being interdicted like never before, drugs being freely available in our prisons despite guards, and youth joining gangs even in conservative communities, have all combined to cause alarm bells to ring.
When President Maithripala Sirisena from 21.01.2019 launched a drug eradication week in all national schools, in Kilinochchi District a poor schoolboy took it seriously and reported activities in his village of Konaavil to the police. The gang responsible turned up at his home to harangue the family. Subsequently motorcyclists rammed into him as he bicycled at night. When he was hospitalized, the police told him he had no lights or brakes and he would land in trouble if the matter was pursued. The father was told he would have to come to court several times. Unable to contemplate loss of his daily mason’s wage, the father signed a letter drafted for him by the police in Sinhalese, and the DIG told the press it was a road accident.
When former NPC Leader of the Opposition Thavarasa raised it with the Police Commission and Governor Suren Raghavan. Dr. Raghavan ordered a new inquiry on 06.02.2019 which laid the facts bare.
The police are part of the nexus of drugs, violence and our loss of rights. On January 30, the anniversary of the Gandhi’s death therefore, the International School Day of Non-Violence and Peace is commemorated specially for children. Entreculturas, by the Jesuits of Spain, plays a major role in this. It “reminds [us of] the importance of living in a peaceful context to guarantee quality education among the youth.”
A family situation with violence, an education system unable to cope with youth problems and the need to look for protection are some of the reasons why the youth join the gangs, according to Chiqui, the Jesuit coordinating the project in Lima: “The gang becomes their home.”
The Election Commission’s Work with the Ministry of Education
We in Sri Lanka have much to learn from the Jesuits’ project. Faced with obstacles to upholding the people’s franchise, the EC, ever trying to ensure fulfilment of our mandate, launched a new programme with the Ministry of Education to educate our children on nonviolence through workshops.
We executed a national event in Ratnapura at the Sabaragamuwa Provincial Council Auditorium on 30 Jan. 2019, led by Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya, accompanied by the Ratnapura Acting Deputy Commissioner of Elections Mr. Suranga Ambagahathenne.
Our three Chief Guests were Hon. Governor of Sabaragamuwa – Dr. Dhamma Disanayaka, and Hon. Chairman Mr. Kanchana Jayarathna, and Chief Secretary Ms. D.M. Malani from the Sabaragamuwa Provincial Council. Five hundred students and 200 teachers participated. The essence of what Mr. Deshapriya spoke is to instil empathy among students. To engage with and challenge our primitive biases we used guest lectures and thematic competitions in street drama and art.
In addition to what we did, the UN stresses, as it sees it, that all religions share the values of nonviolence, and advocates multi-faith prayer. To prove shared values, advocates quote
- The Dhammapada (Danda Vagga: All fear punishment; all fear death; comparing oneself with others, one should neither kill nor cause to kill);
- The Bible (Luke 6:27ff: But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also);
- The Dharmasastras (The Manusmriti 6.60: By not killing any living being, one becomes eligible for salvation);
- The Quran (Surat Al-Ma’idah 5:32: Whoever kills an innocent life, it is as if he has killed all of humanity).
In the other 24 districts we picked a school from each to do a special event. For example at Vavuniya, the workshop was conducted by the Election Commission’s Denicius Canute Aravindaraj, our Assistant Commissioner there. The 100 students invited were at Grade 10 or above who would soon be voters. He kept off religion and focused on the relationship between elections and violence, violence in schools and the importance of registering as a voter. Similarly the workshop in Kandy was conducted by our Deputy Commissioner there, Namal Talangama.
At all other schools the principal or a teacher was asked to give a 15 minute talk on nonviolence, bullying, teasing, multiculturalism, etc. at the daily assembly.
The news headline “Ninety Percent Of Bars Owned By Politicos,” in the Daily Mirror of 29 Jan. had two important messages for us – that our politicians will want to profit from making drunkards of our children, and there is a special need to focus on children, especially if they are to grow up as responsible citizens who exercise their franchise and elect representative unlike our liquor dealers.
We felt redeemed by the headline in launching these workshops.
A Caution on Multi-faith Worship
Our well-intentioned programme is certainly timely when many MPs have an interest in corrupting our children. But does it need fine-tuning the UN’s shared-faith emphasis? I think so.
Comparing religions, even if to show common themes, is dangerous territory. Our religions are diverse and often mutually exclusive. We as a country are still not mature enough to discuss religion dispassionately. When common worship is engaged in, those from monotheistic backgrounds will find themselves pushed into polytheistic worship forms. The fact is that most Sri Lankans cannot see that when we offer prayers to the Buddha by a priest from a caste-based Sangha, to Allah and to Jesus, and then a pooja to Siva by a Brahmin, that we are practising polytheism and endorsing caste. It reveals a thickheaded hegemony and promotes majoritarianism in religion, leaving out egalitarian monotheists.
We are in a very religiously prejudiced country where some demand that their religion is owed state patronage. Their attitude does not let them see how wrong that demand is. There is also widespread prejudice against Muslims. We all hear the insults within our communities – it does not help to repeat them. As I point out in my textbook Ethics for Professionals: A Human Rights, Internationalist Perspective (San Diego: Cognella Press, 2018):
“According to Princeton University’s Bernard Lewis, Islam “from the first denounced aristocratic privilege, rejected hierarchy, and adopted a formula of the career open to the talents.” The Prophet Muhammad’s Charter of Medina of 622 was a formal agreement between him and the significant tribes and families of Medina, including Muslims, Jews, and pagans, to bring peace between the warring people of Medina. The Charter instituted a number of rights and responsibilities for the signatories which covered security, religious freedom, and the safety of women, and made Medina a sacred place free of weapons and violence. He introduced a tax system for supporting the community in time of conflict, and providing food and clothing to prisoners without regard to their religion.”
He was far ahead of India in his thinking. Most of us do not know this. When we ask for one religion to be given primacy and look down on other religions, especially Islam, is multi-faith worship not a mockery?
Furthermore, since EC attempts sincerely to do good through this UN-advocated programme, the programme does not invite the natural self-criticism that any programme deserves.
Sharp children, however, will see that for everything quoted from a religion as above, another line may be found to suggest the opposite. For instance many meat eating Buddhists deny, despite the above Dhammapada quotation, that Buddhism demands a vegetarian life. Indeed, the sentences quoted may likewise be dissected to the detriment of what we want to say. For example, “Whoever kills an innocent life it is as if he has killed all of humanity,” it may be argued, permits non-innocent lives to be killed.
Fine Tuning Activities
The required fine tuning of the UN programme requires selecting carefully those service activities that truly are shared by most religions – the alleviation of poverty, caring for the sick, taking care of the destitute, orphans and widows, and giving political equality to citizens, etc. If we can get people from all religions to work together to make ours a kindlier world, it would be a useful fine tuning of the activities of the next International School Day of Non-Violence and Peace.