As he embarks on his official duties in this month of October 2013, Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council and former judge of Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court C.V. Wigneswaran must be left in no doubt of the hopes reposed in him by Tamil and Sinhala moderates despite extremists who revile him post-elections.
Overheated election rhetoric appears to have given way to a saner approach as signified by the Chief Minister taking oaths before President Mahinda Rajapaksa even as he was increasingly criticized for doing so from within his own ranks with some particularly ugly manifestations.
The Northern Province now has as its provincial head, a man distinguished by specific traits, one of which certainly is the tendency to speak out, quite regardless of the heat that this may endanger. This forthright tendency was well seen in his tenure as a superior court judge during the particularly controversial Sarath Silva era (1999-2009).
In an aside, it is no doubt amusing to see retired Chief Justice Silva gravely expounding on the proper function of a court of law and the judicial role as we saw this week in relation to the recent delivering of a Supreme Court judgment under the State Lands Recovery of Possession Act (1979), when his own stewardship of the Court was marked by unprecedented public controversy from which the judiciary never really recovered.
Indeed it was none other than the present Northern Chief Minister who, just after his retirement as a Supreme Court judge, spoke of a constrained judicial environment where ‘errant politicians and policemen who should not have received any patronage from the judiciary were perceived as important persons and original court judges were compelled to comply with orders illegally issued to protect or pamper such errant offenders…,’ (Justice on a Razor’s Edge, The Sunday Leader, October 31st, 2004).
Politicians in sports and judges in politics
And when dissenting voices were rarely heard from the Bar and still less from the Bench, Justice Wigneswaran defiantly stood out from unappealing judicial mediocrities who grumbled in private but meekly acquiesced in public to the highly authoritarian tone of the Silva Court.
One of the more piquant asides was when parliamentarian Arjuna Ranatunga’s fundamental rights application asking that he be allowed to contest for the post of the president of the Sri Lanka Cricket Board was heard for leave to proceed before a Bench presided over by the former Chief Justice and numbering also Justice Wigneswaran. Ranatunge was contesting a regulation promulgated by the Sports Minister under the Sports Law No 25 of 1973 prohibiting a politician from becoming an office bearer of sports associations on the basis that it was discriminatory.
In marked contrast to the other sitting judges, Justice Wigneswaran’s emphatic observation was that ‘I do not approve of politicians entering the sports arena.’ At the point that this remark was made, entering politics as a retired Supreme Court judge would undoubtedly have been the farthest from his mind. Close to a decade later, as this former judge becomes the North’s Chief Minister, it is ironic to see the twists and turns that life may bring.
A proverbial last hope
From that perspective, this is someone who is uniquely placed to differentiate himself from the cacophonous babble that passes for the political process today. Indeed, beset by a disastrous Opposition and repeatedly hit over the heads by a Government which has turned the notion of the Rule of Law upside down, Sri Lankan liberals (or at least those who still doggedly remain in this country) may well see him as a proverbial last hope for the majority as well as the minorities, provided that destructive ethno-centric politics are minimized in the process.
In general, his persona lends itself to this expectation. In the early days of his retirement from the Bench, Justice Wigneswaran’s comments on the degeneration of Sri Lanka’s judiciary were characteristically pungent. In that 2004 media interview, his prophetic comments which reflected much of our own thoughts, foresaw the calamitous collapse of the Sri Lankan judiciary in 2012 when a sitting Chief Justice was forced out and the military brought into the heart of the courts complex.
His caution is equally relevant then as now; “the judiciary must not be filled at its higher echelons with executive-pliant officers who have had very close relationships with the executive and the legislature….unless recruitment of judges and the process of judicial administration undergo radical change, I see the judicial process becoming a question mark.”
A common issue of the role of the law
In 2013, as he assumes office as Chief Minister of the Northern Province, Sri Lanka’s judicial process has gone far beyond being a question mark. Its role as a separate and independent branch of government has been undermined as never before. In the North, the lands of the Tamil people are being seized under the twin prong of the government’s militarization and development drive. In the East, even as the Sampur agreement is signed by Sri Lanka this month reportedly with potential heavy burdens to consumers, the displaced people of Sampur lament bitterly. In other parts of the country, marginalized Sinhalese farmers are being evicted from state lands and private lands are being sold to foreign companies with fat commissions to local politicians. The role of the law has receded into the background.
These are unpropitious times indeed for honest men and women, let alone a former Supreme Court judge whose integrity was unimpeachable, to function in politics. And true enough, the transition from the judicial to a political role can only be hedged about with thorns of a particularly prickly kind. Regardless, Sri Lankans who recall what this country once was with profound regret as well as helpless anger can only wish him well.