Friday, 28 February 2014 00:00
Once upon a time a redoubtable farmer from the Deep South retained an up-and-coming lawyer in a land dispute. On the day of the hearing the lawyer appeared in court with the customary bundle of law books .The counsel appearing for the opposing party was also similarly armed, but being somewhat a veteran also had a junior accompanying him.
During the lunch adjournment, the farmer approached his lawyer insisting that he too bring another lawyer into the team. The lawyer assured him that he was perfectly competent to handle the matter himself and besides an extra lawyer would mean more expenses for the farmer. “You are only paying the leader’s fee, why pay a junior as well?” asked the lawyer.
The farmer replied: “But sir, when the lawyer for the other side in on his feet talking, his junior sits there in deep thought. But when you are talking, who does the thinking?”
We do not know what clever arguments our planeload of delegates to the UN human rights sessions in Geneva will pull out of their hats to counter the impending resolution on Sri Lanka. All of them are surely not going to address that august gathering. If they were to follow the native logic of our old farmer, each member of the delegation has a very specialised function.
The speaker who walks on to the podium will only be giving expression to the arguments thought out by the different members of the team, each a recognised specialist carrying in his head an impressive store of knowledge on a designated subject. These may vary from vote buying to surgical strikes with no collateral damage. One may stray on to the domain of the other only at the risk of earning the label of a dabbler or worse.
No strange phenomenon
This caste-like avoidance of even minor labours is no strange phenomenon to us in South Asia. In our culture the ‘boss’ will not carry his books, drive his car or even make his tea. These functions are the responsibilities of others, entrusted with the humdrum tasks. Each function is not only defined in this manner but also given a certain value in a hierarchical sense. A Brahmin cannot put his hand to the plough without shame. If you want to understand the popular image of a ‘boss,’ watch any of our tele-dramas; long-sleeved shirt, tie, measured talk, thoughtful demeanour, all very cranky, limited and obviously contrived.
Although the old farmer has a different perception of a legal proceeding, we know that the dialectical process inherent in a court room drama does not depend on the number of lawyers on one side or the other. Neither should the seniority of the counsel nor his various connections matter.
A winning argument is purely a question of rationality and intelligence, of course provided the facts and the law favour one’s cause. However imprecise its definition or faulty its outcome sometimes, the ultimate end of a judicial process is justice, for each and for all.
But maybe a recipient culture does not see it that way. Invariably, a culture not in tune with the essence of the adopted system views it through what is visible, its physical manifestations. The numbers of lawyers in their robes and gowns, the chauffer-driven car of the professional, and the minions running around the boss represent the system to them.
It matters not whether the spirit of the system or the minutia of its workings are understood in its completeness, so long as we know enough to run a copy. Since the pretence of a system is acceptable, the semblance of a system or rather the mimic thereof suffices.
Good governance obsession
So we go to Geneva proclaiming loudly, “Please, we have our own systems, our own leaders and our own ways of doing things, so do not interfere, thank you”
The fact that we have to even argue on these lines perhaps reflects the reality that there is no unanimity on these matters as we would wish for. As much as the issue of human rights abuses, there appears to be a concern among some countries about the quality of our institutions and the leadership thereof. It is widely-accepted today that periodic elections alone do not make a democracy. After all, even Hitler was elected to power. If elections were the only factor, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt would be a shining example of a democratic ruler. In Geneva we will argue that we have an independent Judiciary with no pressure on our judges to toe the line of the Government. Our investigative apparatus, the Police, watchdog institutions and the media, are free to investigate and expose any wrongdoing with no fear whatsoever. The public service is independent of any kind of undue influence or coercion in the exercise of their duties. As far as possible the machinery of the Government works in a fair and transparent manner. We are a democracy where the people elect their rulers through an open and fair electoral process. And above all, the people of this country have proven their political maturity as well as democratic instincts over and over again. An old culture has given them a sturdy sense of independence of character while inculcating contempt for sleaze and corruption. The concept of good governance is almost an obsession with Sri Lankans. No advocate could have asked for a better case to present before the world. Going by the size of the delegation, we have not ignored the homespun wisdom of our farmer either. Given this situation, old hands will know how to place their bets in Geneva…
(The writer is an Attorney-at-Law and a freelance writer.)