Let my country awake

Thursday, 27 February 2020 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;

Where knowledge is free;

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;

Where words come out from the depth of truth;

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;

Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action –

Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

‘Let My Country Awake’ is a poem Rabindranath Tagore wrote in 1910. The original Bengali poem was under the title ‘Chitto Jetha Bhayashunyo’. I do not know Bengali. But I suspect Tagore refers to the mind – Chitto and conquering fear – bhayashunyo. 

I found the poem in an anthology published under the charmingly honest title ‘Poems that make grown men cry’. 

When I heard Eran Wickramaratne’s strikingly anguished, patently aggravated appeal to the nation’s intelligentsia and the professional class I sat up and cried.

I supported the movement for a just society led by venerable Maduluwawe Sobhitha Thero. I hoped for change. 

When in January 2015, Ranil Wickremesinghe indicated that Arjuna Mahendran was his preferred choice to head the Central Bank, I realised that the crap would hit, sooner than later, not only the fan on the ceiling but all pedestal fans around as well. 

I was not a political activist with access to anybody of note, to pass on my concerns. I knew two people who I believed had ring side seats in the ‘Yahapalana’ circus.

First was the sister of a Cabinet Minister whose enlightened value judgements often made him the enthusiastic fly in our tribal ointment jar. I can name the other with no pangs of conscience – Jayampathi Wickremeratne PC. 

I told the sister of the Minister and the appointed MP that the appointment was a disaster and that the cognoscenti in the field of finance were chuckling over Ranil’s apparatchik replacing Mahinda’s apparatchik to head the reserve bank. 

I did what I could as a citizen. I wrote an essay, ‘Maithree’s mandate and Ranil’s royalist regency’ published in the Daily FT of 19 January 2015. 

In that essay I said that Ranil Wickremesinghe was no different from Mahinda Rajapaksa. In January 2015 Ranil Wickremesinghe had no mandate to be the Prime Minister. I said that he was only a Caretaker Prime Minister. I said that ‘he was a closet autocrat with equally unfathomable links to the oligarchs and was only a puppeteer of the earlier order’.

Eran Wickramaratne

So dear reader, you must believe me, when I say that on hearing Eran Wickramaratne that I sat up and cried. Then I remembered Anthony Holden’s brilliantly edited anthology aptly titled ‘Poems that make grown men cry’. 

This is not the time to cry. It is the time to act. 

As soon as I accessed Eran’s speech on ‘YouTube’ I shared the link with friends who value appraisals I thought were like mine. I was amazed by the harsh tone and the derisive dismissals I earned for my civic-minded effort. 

“Oh! Has he just woken up?” was the near universal rebuke I collected. With a friend who has a particularly sharp wit, I made the mistake of sharing Eran’s homily on ethical and moral propriety with a haughty observation of my own. I said here is Eran offering a moral compass for a nation in drift. 

“You imbecile!” he responded with his endearing aplomb. “What is the use of a compass for a shipwreck?”

We are not a shipwreck yet. Hence this essay. 

But first things first. I must get this off my chest. We have heard much about the brilliance and the professional prowess of the detective now demoted to be a personal assistant to a senior cop. 

He cannot be all that bright. If he was as clever as claimed, he should have recused himself as several arbiters of the law did when exiled royalty of the ancient regime appeared before them. Maybe, he was tired. Maybe he really wanted a break and as a personal assistant in a copshop in the hinterland he could be away from it all. 

With that attended to, we return to the ship adrift but not abandoned and yet capable of making to a safe harbour. 

Our parliamentary democracy is facing an existential threat. The Government now in power claims that the President has received an unprecedented mandate from the people. It was indeed unprecedented in terms of totems and taboos. In a plural democracy it also engenders primitive instincts that excludes rejecting the notion of the inclusive. 

The new dispensation now demands a two-thirds majority in Parliament, to translate vision into reality.

The President received 52.25% of the votes cast or 6,924255 votes out of 15, 992,096 registered electors. That makes the demand for a two thirds majority equally fascinating and unprecedented. 

The family and the following wish to abolish the 19th Amendment. It is our business to ensure that it should not happen. 

Why do we need to preserve protect and even attempt to further strengthen the 19th Amendment?

So, the time has come, as they say in Hollywood scripts to cut to the chase. We need an independent Judiciary, a public service with integrity, law enforcement that is impartial and an Elections Commission that is demonstrably independent. That was the purpose of the 19th Amendment.

The purpose of the 19th Amendment was to subject Government action to public scrutiny. The people must possess the means to develop a critical understanding of the consequences and especially the unintended consequences of Government action. 

What will happen if we give the ‘Pohottuwa’ coalition, the Mahinda Rajapaksa-Maithripala Sirisena combine and or the Rajapaksa family a two-thirds majority in Parliament? 

Obedience to the State will become the highest virtue. To doubt the sincerity of the Government or the clan would be unpatriotic. To question the wisdom of the visionary leader would be heresy. A two-thirds majority eliminates doubt and dissent. With a two-thirds majority given, we can forget politics and statecraft. It is in safe hands. The idea that the rulers will make mistakes would be absurd. 

The problem with multiparty democracy is that it thrives on doubt and dissent. The idea of democratic debate appeals to a higher virtue that is unknown to the simple honest military mind that is trained and disciplined to demand simpleminded obedience. 

Progress according to human history has moved forward in chaos and not according to a plan or in the fashion of a regimental parade. 

Though delivered four-and-a-half years late, Eran’s concluding plea needs constant and persistent repetition. 

“I must again urge professionals who are holding powerful positions to execute their duties professionally and the others to stand up for your peers despite your political differences. If we do not stand by those who do the right thing – those honest, capable and qualified professionals and experts – Sri Lanka’s brain drain will be accelerated and not reversed, and over time, we will lose all the people of the calibre we need to develop this country and develop the institutions we need as a nation.”

We are not short of people of that calibre. Thanks to the leader of Eran’s party they have lost hope and are now in a state of emotional stupor. 

Thanks to the Presidential Election of 2019 the people of such vitally needed calibre have not gone into a perpetual stupor. Pun intended. 

Since the last Presidential Election there is a debate among the chattering class, the stuttering class, the swaggering class and the bantering class about the idea of justice. 

Now the Prelates of Kandy have their idea of justice. Their idea of justice demands punishment for those responsible for the boondoggle of bonds. But they refuse to board the Airbus, for they do not know where it is headed to. 

The Buddha according to Dr. Sarvapalli Radhakirisnan approached justice by focusing on injustice. The Buddha said that ignorance (Avidya) was the main cause of all our sorrows, desires, attachments, evils, violence and injustice.

Now our hill capital Kandy is a great repository of the Dhamma. What do those political pilgrims who go to Kandy almost every week look for? Vidya or Avidya? 

Since our idea of justice needs to be framed in the context of democratic politics, we must opt for guidance not so much from a spiritual angel but from the angle of justice as fairness. John Rawls explored this idea in his monumental study ‘A Theory of Justice’. 

John Rawls examined the idea of ‘justice’ for those who engage in social interaction. We must decide in advance how we regulate our claims against one another according to a foundational charter. In it we must decide by reflection, what constitutes the good and what is bad. 

“Just as each person must decide by rational reflection what constitutes his good, that is, the system of ends which it is rational for him to pursue, so a group of persons must decide once and for all what is to count among them as just and unjust. The choice which rational men would make in this hypothetical situation of equal liberty, assuming for the present that this choice problem has a solution, determines the principles of justice.” 

When you give a two-thirds majority to the President or his brother the Prime Minster, you cease to be a rational person. No rational person will allow ‘principles of justice’ to be decided by a two-thirds majority.