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Difference between being Privileged and Ordinary


13 May 2013 06:30 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


There was a famous joke about USSR in the days of Joseph Stalin. A Muscovite is woken up in the middle of the night by ominous knocks on his apartment door. He opens the door to find grim-looking NKVD men (Stalin’s secret police) standing outside.

“Nikolai Nikolayevich, you are under arrest!” one of them barks.

Heaving huge sighs of relief, the Muscovite happily points at the adjacent apartment, and says: “Nikolai Nikolayevich, comrades, lives over there!”

When I first heard this story as a schoolboy, I used to think, with typical schoolboy naivete, that we were a really lucky people living in a thriving democracy (this was after thousands had been summarily executed after the April 1971 JVP uprising, which was crushed with Stalinist ruthlessness. But that was in defence of democracy, or so my schoolboy reasoning went) whereas the poor Russians lived perpetually in fear of tyranny and imprisonment, with no idea what free speech was all about.
I was newly married, young, and still a naïve believer in our democracy when, in the late 1980s, our own tradition of ominous, late night knocks on the door started. That’s all over now? I don’t believe a word of it, and I no longer believe in our ‘democracy’. I’m middle aged now and not so naïve.

 The problem is that we were brought up on a romantic literature about this sunny, beautiful isle with its gentle people and religion. Almost all 19th century travellers sang of these virtues, and it’s so easy to believe when people tell you how good, nice and beautiful you are (after all, a citizen is a microcosm of the larger universe of his or her country, a reflection in that large mirror, though I fervently hope I inhabit a different cultural and ethical habitat).

Therefore, it’s rattling to realise that, as far as freedom of expression goes, there is hardly a difference between Soviet Russia and contemporary Sri Lanka. This could lead to howls of protest. Those outraged are badly in need of a reality check. There is one principal difference, however. The privileged (this means politicians or members of the various power bearing clans) stand a chance of better treatment than the average citizen. The latest case is that of Azath Sally.

I have neither intimate knowledge nor realistic assessment for the reasons behind his arrest, But the manner of his arrest reminds me of the days of Soviet justice. But there is one difference. Being a  privileged member of the ruling class, Azath Salley who used his status to get into a hospital bed once arrested by the dreaded CID. He staged a hunger strike. Now, if an ordinary citizen detained under the PTA in a similar manner attempts to stage a hunger strike, he’d in probability get beaten to a pulp.  That is the stark difference between being privileged and ordinary in Sri Lanka.

 Back to Soviet Russia. During Stalin’s time, people were arrested on charges of conspiracies with enemies of the state, either foreign or domestic. In reality, the only crime many of those arrested had committed was to criticise Stalin or his policies. One famous example is Nobel Prize winning author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who was sentenced to 20 years in Siberian labour camps for a remark he made about Stalin. He was an obscure artillery officer in the Red Army at the time. He was lucky because he survived to write about the Gulag – the poet Osip Medelstam perished in a labour camp.

The Soviet security system, however, did not offer any special favours to those famous or privileged people unlucky enough to fall into its clutches. Marshal Tukhachevsky, the brilliant Red Army chief of staff who tried to modernise the Soviet armed forces in the 1930s was arrested, tried and shot within 24 hours under Stalin’s orders. The same fate befell Lavrenty Beria, head of the secret police. Lena Prokofiev, the wife of Soviet composer Sergei Prokofiev, was arrested by the NKVD for ‘conspiring against the state’, kept under detention for months, beaten and tortured with needles stuck in her body. In reality, her crime was to ask for a visit visa to France.

One might protest that being arrested by our secret police (which is what it is called in Sinhala – ‘Rahas polisiya’) is not the same thing as becoming a victim of the NKVD. After all, we have courts and procedures. So did the Soviets. ‘Conspiring against the state’ is a universal excuse used by authoritarian regimes. In Sri Lanka, the late Vijaya Kumaratunga was one famous victim. He was detained under the PTA and kept in solitary confinement for months under President J. R. Jayewardhene’s orders, who accused him of being sympathetic to the Indian Naxalite separatist movement. Vijaya did not have Azath Salley’s political savvy to stage a hunger strike and get into hospital. Or it may be that such ruses work only for the truly privileged, and Vijaya was hardly in that class at that time, being just a popular actor turned socialist politician.

One could still argue that our prisons are  superior to Soviet-era labour camps, or that Gen. Sararth Fonseka’s slide from star-spangled glory to ignominious jumper suit in prison, while as sudden as the fall of Marshal Tukhachevsky, was better in every sense since he wasn’t put up against a wall and shot. But, the more I think about it, the more I feel that the lot of the average Sri Lankan citizen today is only marginally better (in some respects) than that of his Soviet counterpart from the 1930s to the 1970s. It is only the privileged citizen who stands a better chance.

The status of the average Lankan is as perilous as that of the ordinary Soviet citizen if the state sees him as an enemy. The country being called a democracy only makes it worse. The only difference is that, while being privileged did not win anyone reprieve in Soviet Russia, we can be certain of being spared of the third degree if only we are privileged enough. That’s feudalism with a millennium mask.

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