“Democracy is not freedom. Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to eat for lunch. Freedom comes from the recognition of certain rights which may not be taken, not even by a 99% vote.”
- Marvin Simkin
The Western World, particularly the United States of America (USA) and Western Europe, can well afford to boast about human rights and their vehement protection on international platforms and fora. Especially in the United States, the first ten amendments (also known as the Bill of Rights) to their Constitution talk volumes for the safeguard of the rights of an individual. What is most significant about the US Constitution is, it has been crafted to safeguard the individual from the government and its potential threats to the individual. Freedom of Expression and of the Press is no more the luxury of a privileged class or creed. With their tumultuous history of agitation for civil rights, their intricate complex of immigrant-oriented social coherence and their firm and solid constitutional safeguards for separation powers, The American Constitution has indeed stood the test of time. No country, whether in Europe, Africa or Asia other than the US would have elected a representative of a minority (African American) to its highest office. The only exception would be India, yet she would be electing a leader of a minority caste or religion, but not a non-Indian.
Would Sri Lanka elect a Tamil or Muslim President? In the current background, it is more than inconceivable, given the collective mindset of the majority voter-bloc, would Sri Lanka elect any person other than a Sinhalese? She may elect a Sinhalese non-Buddhist, even which is not likely in the context of the brainwashing our majority has been subjected to especially during the last few decades, firstly by the myths and fairy tales of Mahawansa, secondly by the arrogant and thoughtless assertions made by the so-called modern-day protectors of the teachings of the Great One, Gautama Buddha. Our collective consciousness is too deep-seated in self-aggrandizement. The ultimate test for Sri Lankans as one nation, not as disparate ethnic groups but as one cohesive nation, will be if and when a representative of a minority ethnic group stands for election from one of two leading political entities, the United National Party (UNP) and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).
It is beyond all imagination, wild or not, for the SLFP even to nominate a Tamil or a Muslim, however much he or she may be qualified, from their ranks for the highest office in the country. Its base is so steeped in ‘Sinhalese-Buddhistness’, it is not in the realm of anticipation of an SLFP-sponsored non-majority candidate for President. The not-so-recent past has a glaring example, when President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s wish to nominate Lakshman Kadirgamar, a Rhodes Scholar and the then Minister of External Affairs for the post of Prime Minister when she was the President, met an unfortunate abortion and the result was the country got Mahinda Rajapaksa who, by virtue of the fact that he was the Prime Minister at the time, got the SLFP nomination for President. The rest is history and a very forgettable one.
Would the United National Party have the guts and courage to nominate an eminent Tamil or a Muslim for President? My guess is: it would, provided they could find an exceptionally qualified and suitable choice. The UNP, on the contrary to the SLFP since the beginning of the Party, has had a liberal mindset at leadership level and its non-myopic, non-doctrinaire approach to social disputes has had its effects on their grassroots too. Its non-socialist approach to socio-economic issues where the individual is not sacrificed at the altar of an abstract society, has been diametrically opposed to the approach adopted by Marxian theorists who propagate that society’s good should always take precedence over that of the individual. The UNP’s thinking has its personal appeal to millions of individuals who at the same time consider that ‘social justice’ is an essential constituent of the overall social fabric. If and when social justice is at the core of one’s fundamental premise, safeguarding individual rights at whatever the costs becomes more palatable and amenable to the general public whose majority is always, in the writer’s mind, reasonable and not extreme and treacherous.
Many lives, whether of loyalists of the revolution or innocent bystanders, have been sacrificed in the so-called proletariat revolutions that have been embarked upon with some degree of success. The romanticist shade that is often associated with these revolutions has attracted a multitude of followers and sympathizers towards their cause. While some erudite pundits have gone out of their way to defend individual rights, many on the left of the political spectrum who believe in a Marxist dreamland still cling on to fantasies like state-owned economic factors as well as control over the proliferation of ideas could ultimately deliver the ‘goods’. Any ‘means’ to a good ‘end’ theory has fallen flat on the road to democratic capitalism.
Both Capitalism and socialism, if practised with the sole aim of achieving a noble end and at the same time being devoid of any speck of social justice and catering, only for a select few of cronies and henchmen, they are bound to fail. Crony-capitalism as well as crony-socialism has its intrinsic flaws and idiosyncrasies which ultimately direct and determine the path along which each dogma is taking its uninformed pilgrims.
Foreclosure of arguments for individual rights is the greatest danger that humanity faces today. Whether one comes from the Far West or Far East, or from Europe or South Asia,one would understand and acknowledge beyond any shadow of doubt that suppression of individual rights is a cardinal sin, in fact the greatest sin that any person, organization or government could commit against humankind. In Sri Lanka, the fundamentals are the same; they hardly change, even an iota, to submerge individual rights and spread state-controlled propaganda. And the most ironical political reality that has emerged, particularly during the last regime of the Rajapaksas, is State-controlled programmes wrapped in sugary coating were advanced as leading to achievement of greater good for greater numbers while they in fact were programs and projects that, for all practical purposes helped fatten their own financial purses.
Individual rights matter most in the context of a pluralistic, multicultural society such as Sri Lanka. But the collective consciousness of the people whose rights are violated on a constant basis, tends to become blurred in the face of other mundane demands on an average family in the context of increasing living costs and declining living standards. This greater and more pressing demand on the economic and financial aspects of human life invariably results in mass apathy which is the breeding ground for a corrupt and crafty politician to exploit to the maximum and create a domain of comfort zone wherein the average citizen is apathetic to the suppression of human rights and as a result, the corrupt politician is fine-tuned to the weaknesses and susceptibilities of the system. The crucial effect of this brutal process keeps producing one corrupt politician after another, for the system is too busy feeding on itself.
Against such an unkind backdrop, the governing parties of today in Sri Lanka are trying to grapple with an uncommon dynamic in that, having assumed power after a brutal campaign against an insensitive and cruel ruler-clan, the very forces that propelled them to power take to the streets demanding even freer and more liberal expression for better living standards and cleaner governance. The Government cannot afford to be seen to be faltering on this account at all-most of us will remember what happened in 1971 and the revolt of the betrayed children of the 1970 Sirimao Bandaranaike doctrine. The guns of power politics may have silenced the socio-political worriers of a different era, but in a modern enlightened social reality, the use of guns by the State against unarmed troops for a socio-economic change may prove redundant sometimes and unproductive most of the time.
Tamils from the North, Muslims from the East and Sinhalese Buddhists from all over are powerful stakeholders of this polity. No government can summarily dismiss the crying needs of any of these communities. The Constitution has some safeguards against the rise of any dictator, but the civil leadership in the country needs to ensure that no community, big or small in numbers, can be discriminated against; human rights is no monopoly of the majority and any country that does not look after the interests, hopes and legitimate ambitions of the minorities is as guilty as those who fire bullets against the un-armoured breasts of all civilians.
Bigoted fools may keep barking and unfriendly foes may shriek from the top of their lungs, yet the innocent whose only sin is being born poor and helpless in an abject squalid circumstance might lend an un-hesitant ear to these fringe men and women for they know not what else to hear or listen to.
The task at hand is enormous and those who mean well will ultimately succeed for their mite too is not too weak nor inconsequential. It is apt to pose the same question Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru whose writings and orations have continued to echo in the chambers of learning: ‘How amazing this spirit of man?
The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org