Colombo Telegraph

These Indian Givers!

By Ravi Perera –

Ravi Perera

An “Indian Giver” as we all know is one who gives something and then tries to take it back, a conduct most cultures would look at unfavourably. Common decency dictates a certain finality in an act of giving. All religions tell us that once given there is no taking back. Claims to the gift are extinguished and attachments severed, when given. Even in the law, a gift is irrevocable, save in a few exceptional circumstances. If noble is the giver, so ignoble is the Indian giver.

If one wanted confirmation of the moral degeneration of our society in recent times there was no sadder confirmation than the pictures in the newspapers of a mob besieging a Buddhist temple somewhere in Borella. According to the reports this is the temple where the political activist Reverent Athureliya Ratana resides. Borella is in the heart of a Capital city which could be considered, if one goes by the number of uniformed personnel on the streets, one of the most over-guarded cities in the world.

The mob apparently were claiming that the property that had been gifted to the temple (such institutions not being temporal, are assumed to be unable to purchase land) ought now to be returned for another purpose. In the heat of the agitation even some missiles were thrown at the temple. Until the day before, the mob had no such claims on this property. What then happened was that Reverent Atureliya Ratne openly withdrew his support from the government and joined the opposition that day.

We are not looking here at the rightness of Reverent Athureliya Ratne’s political decisions or even the ethics of monks in politics. The high ideals of religion are so alien in the crass and brutal politics of today. In a society experiencing such a fundamental deterioration of morals and standards there are no institutions untouched by corruption. But we still can prevent anarchy. The mob that demanded the return of the temple property could have just as easily be directed to an address nearby to claim that land for another temple! That a mob can act in such a brazen manner and still have no legal action taken against them, surely points to the connivance of a higher patron.

It seems that the particular land was gifted to the temple by the present government only recently. We do not know whether one of the conditions of the gift was that its incumbent priests had to openly support the government. This is most unlikely. But going by what has been happening in other similar situations, it seems that there is  an  implicit pre-condition prevailing that compliance with its dictates is a fundamental requirement in all government appointments, promotions, recruitments, grants and what have you.

In 2009, in the aftermath of the war, the government went over the top in honoring the then army commander Sarath Fonseka. No praise was good enough for the victorious General including the title of “the best commander in the world”. Perhaps the islanders’ unfamiliarity with wars of larger magnitude and general lack of sophistication contributed to the hyperbole. Soon after the euphoria died down, it was found that the General’s eyes were set on larger horizons than the battle fields of the north. Of course he went on this new campaign by facing an electoral process, a far deadlier field, going by the consequences suffered by the former soldier! Soon after he lost the elections to the incumbent president all that was given to him; honours, land, perks and titles were withdrawn. A few years later it was the turn of the Chief Justice. While the motion to impeach the former Chief Justice was being debated in parliament a threatening mob camped outside her official residence, an action calculated to intimidate and humiliate. Several others have faced similar plights. Maithripala Sirisena the challenger at the impending Presidential elections, and his family, are bound to have many “gifts” withdrawn from them in the days to come.

On 21 of November all of Sri Lanka had their right to listen to a political discussion withdrawn when a popular TV program featuring Maithripala Sirisena and other opposition figures went off the air. On that day, for a few hours, the “gift” of political freedom was taken back from us.

But make no mistake; our democratic rights are not gifts from a generous benefactor! These are inherent and unalienable rights that we are endowed with as members of the human race. The freedom of expression, the right to a fair trial and due process, the right to representation (this is fundamentally violated when a member elected to a parliament by one party crosses over to another), the right to enjoy good governance, the right to our personal dignity and so on are not gifts. We must not allow anyone to play Indian giver here.

Now it has become culturally acceptable for an appointee to a public office to be deeply beholden to the appointing authority. A person is not appointed a judge because he is abjectly and humbly grateful to the President for the appointment. He is appointed because he is suitable; learned, honest, independent and decent. A person is not appointed as an ambassador because he has done some personal favours to a politician at a time when the man was down and out. We have a right to expect that Sri Lanka’s ambassadors are appointed on the basis that they are capable, sophisticated men who can hold their own with other diplomats of the world. We ought to be proud of them, not blush for their incompetence.

It is no secret that every day hundreds of persons are summoned to the Temple Trees for meetings and then treated lavishly with food and drinks. Some may argue that it is a gift, a free meal! In the grinding circumstances of a poor society our expectations are small. A free ride is exhilarating, a free meal satisfying and some inane verbosity intellectually stimulating!  But if the partakers were to pause for a moment in their rush for satisfaction, it may occur to them that all this generosity is paid for with their own money. It is they who have made the party possible. The irony of the party goers funding the party and yet thanking the host may be lost on them. So vulnerable is their situation, they may even fear the host turning Indian giver!

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