DISSENT IS NOT ANTI-NATIONAL – So says a Supreme Court Justice in India, a land set ablaze by bigotry today. Can ‘Little Brother’ across the shallow waters benefit from keeping an open mind about critical engagement with the powers that be, before a similar conflagration envelops us also...?
Quick! Pick between reading this and opting to do something that really makes you happy. I suspect 99% of you would be more fulfilled getting to work half-an-hour earlier, going to market or school sooner than later, or simply goofing off at home or in your favourite chill-out spot – without an opinionated editorial offering in sight. But something keeps us coming back to the old black and white piece on the state of the nation. And that is a nagging sense of unease that all is not quite well in the realm.
Some of us get that vibe from champions of liberal democracy in parliament. Those inveterate crusaders for good governance – still at it, even out of office after five years of incompetence at best or complicity and lack of integrity at worst. Other followers of happenings in the kingdom get their news from sundry social media, as religiously as they do their morning exercise or steaming cuppa. However jaded the eye may have become of late (because the last lot of them spoiled political hopes for most of us), those fascinating factoids on Facebook or the thinking-person’s reflections on Twitter keep us tuned in.
The National Police Commission was among the first in the line of fire. One analyst tweeted: “45 senior police officers including 1 senior DIG, 6 DIGs, 4 SSPs, 3SPs, 6 ASPs, transferred: Police HQ”. Of course, this comes in the context of several ‘deals’ – some of whose names dare not be spoken except by unbending magistrates and sterling CID officers – being in the works…
Then the late great free media. Where, “in (a) joint letter to #lka prez, @amnesty @pressfreedom & @RSF_inter say they are ‘concerned by repts (sic) that journalists & other media workers in #SriLanka are being subject to harassment, intimidation & surveillance by the authorities as well as other actors’” (sick… and tired).
State shenanigans being a shadow of power at private citizens’ functions also came in for short shrift. As one observer noted: ‘Impunity 101: Accused invited for the birthday party of a state witness.’ The latter in this instance was named in a case filed against an MP who is the scion of a powerful political family in a money-laundering scheme related to rugby and a high-rise property development. Also, present at the bash were a stalwart of the movement that brought the incumbent to his presidency; a testifier to the effect that the government has no stake in the investigation into the Airbus fraud; and a chair-throwing minister-MP. To round off the usual suspects, a former chief justice was also snapped there by the paparazzi.
Defence of the realm seems to be in something of a jam or crossroads at the present juncture too. Especially after the security establishment announced that in addition to cadre of the Military Police (MPs), the Navy’s Provost Branch and Air Force Police would also be deployed to control traffic. Facebook meme generators were not quite ‘disciplined’ in their less-than-pleased responses. Nor were armchair libertarians examining the role of MPs in both peace and war and tweeting about the irregularity – if not illegality – of it.
Terrorism and responses to it – as well as its consequences – are also at the fore. On the one hand, the international community actually putting their money where their mouth is by banning Sri Lanka’s army commander – a first for the sabre-rattling West walking the talk. If we’re to be ranked among the likes of Iran and North Korea now, what price SOFAs and ACSAs – to say nothing of MCCs? To judge by the state’s strong response to the travel ban, the powers that be want the issue to be fresh in the minds of nationalistic voters come elections in April. You can hang the would-be monolithic (executive and legislature united in practice and purpose) government for a goat as for a lamb… but there is no one who plays the national card more sure-handedly!
As someone suggested to me, there is nothing quite as sacral or tribally unifying as the outraged victimhood of a majority under attack from manufactured – or in this case, real – enemies.
In all of this, however, there is some measure of comfort to be drawn. For starters, though, keep in mind what another former observer of goings-on in our blessed isle noted about events across the Palk Strait. “Criticism of the executive, judiciary, bureaucracy or armed forces cannot be termed ‘anti-national’. In case we attempt to stifle criticism of the institutions, we shall become a police state instead of a democracy: Indian SC Justice Gupta.” There is more to gladden the truly patriotic heart and stimulate the critical mind…
For one: that civil society in smaller Sri Lanka even if it is in café society and among coffee klatch commentators, rather than the customary big guns of business and academia in the major-league cocktail circuits – are still alive and active. For another, that the grinding militarisation of public spaces that intrudes on polite society as much as potentially on people’s rights in a country still governed by a constitution has not gone unnoticed or uncommented upon.
For example, here’s food for thought from another acute analyst. That the president is ex-military, defence secretary the same, and a host of other state actors – from ambassadors to bureaucrats to chairpersons of state institutions – former soldiers or sailors or airmen.
Pity that the JVP, which had a similar insight of late into the militarisation of our national leadership, is not taken seriously in town hall or marketplace. They, it would seem, are strangely fated to the prophetic curse of being in the right most of the time and being ignored for their pains for much of it. Perhaps it’s the albatross of having once taken up arms against the state – for which sin it will be always be no more than a voice in the wilderness forever.
Pity also that the erstwhile champions of ethics in governance – aka Sir Eran and the Knights of the Routed Table – have evidently lost their social capital by dint of playing politics with promises made. Even if some of their number have not run out of steam by virtue of their abiding passion for speaking truth to power while occupying opposition ranks!
Pity the nation whose people are sheep, and whose shepherds mislead them;
Pity the nation whose leaders are liars, whose sages are silenced, and whose bigots haunt the airwaves;
Pity the nation that raises not its voice, except to praise conquerors and acclaim the bully as hero, and aims to rule the world by force and by torture;
Pity the nation that knows no other language but its own and no other culture but its own;
Pity the nation whose breath is money and who sleeps the sleep of the too-well-fed;
Pity the nation – oh, pity the people who allow their rights to erode and their freedoms to be washed away… my country, tears of thee, sweet land of liberty.
Not me, this verse above – rather, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. But it might as well be you and I. And not about the US or even India at that, sorry plight as they are in today…
(Journalist | Editor-at-Large of LMD | Writer | Son of a small island. Scion of a larger destiny)