Colombo Telegraph

The Story Of Red Traffic Lights

By Mahesan Niranjan

Prof. Mahesan Niranjan

On a cold winter evening in 1984, a handsome young Sri Lankan was cycling in the Dutch city of Eindhoven. He had arrived there the previous day, his first time out of Sri Lanka, and the experience of freezing cold and early sunset were amusing for the young fellow. Having read that the landscape of The Netherlands was as flat as his village back in the north of Sri Lanka, the first thing the young fellow did was to purchase a bicycle.

“Do you also want a puncture kit?” the salesman asked. The young man was puzzled. Back home, you simply wheeled it to a shop and the local Oliver fixed it for 50 cents, right? “How much is it?” he inquired. “2.5 guilders.” “If I had a puncture and brought the bike here, how much would you charge?” “12.5 guilders!” So the young man purchased the kit, cycled to his apartment, pierced a hole in one of the tyres and followed the instructions to fix the puncture himself. Bravo! He then went out on a test-drive.

At a junction, the traffic lights were red against him. He noticed there was no traffic perpendicular to his direction of travel, decided to ignore the red and crossed. He was stopped by a policeman on the other side.

Now, The Netherlands has a minority population from its former colony of Surinam, a place with an artificially mixed population whose members look like those from India, Africa, China and a colourful combination of these. The statistics the policeman has learnt associates Surinam immigrants with petty crime, localised violence and drug peddling.

That prior belief the policeman held was unfortunate for the young Sri Lankan fellow and he had to listen to a long lecture: “glug glug bla bla glug glug bla bla glug glug.” After listening to it patiently, the young fellow responded in English “You know, all those things you said, I didn’t understand a word of it.” The realisation that it was a foreigner he was dealing with, and not a member of his country’s ethnic minority community, produced an instant change in the policeman’s attitude. “When the light red is, crossing forbidden,” he said rather politely. Not wanting to end up in jail on the second day in that country, the young man thought of an ingenious way of getting out of the situation he was in. “Sorry officer, in my country, if it is red you go, green you stop!”

The young fellow, if you have not guessed already, is the Sri Lankan Tamil chap Sivapuranam Thevaram, my regular drinking partner these days in pubs in Bridgetown, UK.

Several years after that encounter, Thevaram and his son Samaanthiram, cycling in Bridgetown, stopped at a traffic light on red. There was no other traffic around them. “Let’s go Appa (dad),” said Samaanthiram, “there is nobody coming from the other side.” Thevaram refused and waited until the lights turned green. He gave junior a long explanation. “You see putha (son), when an arbitrary person makes an error, it counts as an instance of individual guilt. But when an ethnic minority fellow makes an error, the guilt – as measured by newspaper reports, or the statistics accumulating in a policeman’s head – is a shared guilt, a community-wide guilt. So, I have to be a little bit more responsible:

“I should not just cross on red, I should not even be seen to be crossing on red!”

It was not clear what young Samaanthiram made of that observation, but Thevaram is of a generation of immigrants to whom over-performance as a way of gaining equal recognition is an engrained trait. It does worry him that in modern day Britain, the next generation may not see their environment as that black and white, and are likely to face disappointment by expecting parity in recognition and performance.

We now turn to a rapid summary of modern Sri Lankan history.

A long running war in our country ended in 2009. Though the foundations for the defeat of the Tigers were laid by our current Prime Minister, who during his previous term in office offered peace to the rebels – a shocking concept they were not ready for – and the systematic work put in by a Foreign Minister, whose diplomatic skills cut off supply lines, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the President in 2009, claimed all credit for the defeat of the Tigers and went onto celebrate a grand victory over the Tamil people. For several years after 2009, he systematically alienated the Tamil people, telling them they do not belong in our country, thereby putting the finishing touches to what SWRD started for short term political gains, and JR continued with exceptional efficiency.

Then dawned 2015.

The first to predict the defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa at the 2015 elections was the seasoned politician himself. Rather early that night of January eighth, upon seeing the voter turnout reported in the North, he knew what the outcome was going to be, before the rest of us. If you can predict the future, even just a few hours, you have a crucial advantage. Rajapaksa exploited that advantage by calling in the favours he had previously dished out to his Leader of the Opposition. As the counts were being reported, and we were all getting excited about a military coup, a deal was struck. Signed and sealed in the early hours of January the ninth: “will go without a fuss, protect the Royals!” That a year and a half after that mini revolution, the longest to be held in remand prison is the former Eastern rebel Pillaiyan should be proof enough to anyone doubting that there was indeed a deal.

The new government gave citizens much hope, but bad behaviour of the Sri Lankan political class is engrained in the epigenetics of its makeup, too. Uncontrolled urchin behaviour of offspring and favours for a sibling have been reported. The highlight of nepotism was the appointment of Arjuna Mahendran, as the Governor of our Central Bank, who probably broke a record by achieving the shortest time between appointment and scandal. The report of an inquiry is out now, charging him with direct involvement in a decision so unfavourable to our country and massively benefitting a member of his family.

It was reported – almost celebrated as evidence of a new era of reconciliation — at the time of his appointment, and of course his name suggests so, that Arjuna Mahendran is ethnic Tamil, the minority community in Sri Lanka in whose name that long running war was fought and most horrible crimes committed, and whose members were massacred in very large numbers in the process of bringing that war to an end. That puts a certain spotlight on him, just as happens at traffic lights on red. Under that spotlight, he had an enhanced responsibility: not to cross on red, and not to be seen to be crossing on red.

To be fair, it is entirely within our space of imagination that when Mahendran was parachuted in, vultures within might have been out to get him, and he naively fell into a set up. Had that been the case, one would expect him to have stepped down sooner and taken time to clear his name, rather than holding onto the job on the strength of schoolboy friendship.

At best it was carelessness, at worst his is a serious offence.

Let us not wish upon Mahendran the standard practices of law enforcement in our country – the beatings, the suspensions under gravity, and the applications of chilli powder shocks to private parts. Given his standing, we can be confident this is unlikely. Let us hope he will be charged in a court of law and can defend his position. Should such due process find him guilty, let us wish him a long term behind bars at Welikada, where he will be in the company of about two hundred other ethic Tamils languishing without charge or trial for two decades.

If on the other hand, Mahendran is cleared of bad behaviour, let us still not forgive that trespass of the ethnic minority man, forgetting the higher level of responsibility on him, carelessly let himself be seen to be crossing on red, just as with a Surinam immigrant caught by a Dutch policeman.

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