Leader of the Opposition Ranil Wickremesinghe raised a pertinent question in Parliament. He queried the relevance of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) considering the comprehensive defeat of the LTTE in May 2009. Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne, in response, pointed out that there are still attempts to revamp the LTTE and that this validates the PTA.
What’s special about Azath Salley? He’s a politician. Some would say, he’s a party-jumper and attention-seeker. Well, that’s par for the course as far as Sri Lankan politicians are concerned for even if you’ve not jumped there’s nothing to say you will not. As for publicity, it is a professional need. Salley loves to talk but which politician does not? Salley formed a party, what’s wrong in that? Sally doesn’t speak Tamil but his party is about Muslims and Tamils, but then again there are many in parties whose names contain the word ‘national’ who can’t speak Sinhala or Tamil.
Azath Salley is a politician but even if he were not he has the democratic right to express his opinion. He could even advocate the division of the country, for we have evolved to a point where the 6th Amendment is assumed to be absent in the Constitution.
What is not sanctioned by the Constitution or by informal agreement obtained by observing degrees of apathy is the call to arms. Defenders of Salley have argued that he never called for an armed uprising and that he was but misquoted. An analyst has brought in the fact that the newspaper in which the report appeared is edited by a strong opponent of the LTTE. Association counts. The analyst’s other point, is that of turning someone who could be nothing more than a firebrand politician into an insurgent, or having a word out of place taken too seriously transforming it into an insurrection (comparison with the arrest of some Tamil youth who raised black flags at the promulgation of the first Republican Constitution), must be treated as rhetorical device for no state, especially one that has seen three decades of terrorism, can be expected to take chances. One thing leads to another of course, but outcomes have more than one contributing impulse.
For all this, if Salley’s arrest and detention was about just that statement and if that statement was a misquote, then it is an injudicious act. But is this all?
Association counts up to a certain point. Salley’s father was a Communist, for example, but he is not. Association counts. Let’s consider the facts, not all of which have been revealed in the newspapers and not all of which need to have been mentioned at the point of arrest.
Salley received an invitation to participate in a forum titled ‘Freedom of rights for Sri Lankan Tamils’, organised by ‘Popular Front of India’ (PFI) and held at the Singapore Palace Hotel in Egmore, Chennai on April 16, 2013. The PFI, strangely is an organisation formed to protect the rights of Muslims. Apart from Salley, brother of TNA Parliamentarian Suresh Premachandran, had also been invited. Suresh’s brother at the forum, said, ‘Although Muslims have not taken up to arms, the time has now come for them to take this decision ….the Muslims also should take up their issues to the UNHRC countries that supported Sri Lanka at the recently concluded Geneva Sessions. “The Popular Front of India” should now together with Sri Lankan Tamils and Muslims jointly act on this issue”.
Salley subsequently gave an interview to the ‘Junior Vikatan’ magazine, which carried it with the following headline: ‘Muslims too will take up arms - Colombo’s Azad Salley’. No one can blame the Defence Ministry for being worried and erring on the side of caution. On the other hand, ‘Muslims too will take up arms’ is part prediction and part confession of intent, the latter being hard to prove. If all this was of the one-off kind then the arrest and detention seem excessive.
The PFI, however is an organisation with strong links to pro-LTTE elements in India, having actively engaged in anti-Sri Lankan activities including a protest in front of the UN office in Delhi on March 7, 2013 under the banner ‘Genocide of Tamils Committed by Sri Lankan Rajapaksa Government’.
A memorandum submitted to the UN following the protest contained demands similar to those made by LTTE and pro-LTTE elements both overseas and in Sri Lanka.
The Popular Front of India had also organised another protest on April 1, 2013 in front of the Sri Lankan Deputy High Commission, Chennai with the participation of approximately 100 people. Subsequently, the Chennai police had arrested some of the members of this group and released them on the same day.
Anyone who associates closely with any pro-LTTE organisation has to be viewed with suspicion. By the same token, anyone who associates closely with any organisation that incites people of a particular collective against another or the state must be viewed with suspicion, even if armed insurrection is not advocated. That would mean that the likes of MP Sumanthiran and the TNA, Rev. Galagodaaththe Gnanasara and the BBS, would need to come under scrutiny and warrant vigilance. The difference here is that the LTTE, unlike the BBS, has a history of perpetrating ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. That fact alone does not warrant the arrest of Salley. The difference also is that organisations such as the PFI and rhetoric as such defines the PFI have precipitated violence against Sri Lankans in India. Salley cannot plead ignorance of such things.
We live in fragile times. It is said that if a war lasts for an X number of years, another X number following the end of war is required for communities to reconcile completely. In post-conflict Sri Lanka, poverty, underdevelopment, mal-development and other ills have taken centre stage, but have for reasons of political expediency been decorated in ethno-religious garb. As such Salley’s indiscretions are not politically innocent just as the rhetoric of the BBS amounts to a pernicious play on a frayed ethno-religious socio-political fabric. All the more reason for circumspection on the part of the defence establishment, one can argue, for the logic applies to it as well.
Salley has not been innocent. He let the alleged misquote go without calling for correction. This is akin to tossing a grenade; even if the pin was not pulled, someone can take it and use it to destroy something or someone. The TULF did much less in 1976 let us not forget, but look what the spawn ended doing!
Salley is a politician. This doesn’t give him any special rights. He refused to appear before the CID. That kind of arrogance does not help. More than all this, anyone, regardless of political affiliation, social standing, educational qualification etc. must be checked if he or she does anything to jeopardize post-conflict reconciliation processes. In this exercise there cannot be selectivity. What is considered ‘wrong’ in Salley must be ‘wrong’ in others who take up arms or advocate the same, whether it is to incite an ethnic group or to gun down a political opponent. Leniency or selective severity makes ‘security concern’ worthy of nothing but mockery. The ball is now in the courts. While the Prime Minister’s rejoinder to the Leader of the Opposition has some merit, it has to be mentioned that we cannot forever live under a PTA unless of course the PTA is written into the core of the Constitution and not allowed to remain an adjunct device which is plainly open to abuse. This is perhaps why even those who would not cheer the likes of communalists like Salley are not cheering his arrest. In this, the biggest accomplice of the possibility of abuse, ironically are the likes of Salley who by acts of omission and commission, mischievous and irresponsible statement and injudicious association, make a solid case for the perpetuation of the PTA.
The full story may still be unknown. If what exists in the public domain at present happens to be all there is to it, then the entire thing appears like a circus. If there’s more, we need to hear it and fast. As for Salley, he better learn to pick and choose his friends better.