Inching Towards an X’ian Party?
Posted on July 19th, 2021

By N Sathiya Moorthy Courtesy Ceylon Today

The way the Catholic Church is going about with their own follow-up on the ‘Easter blasts’ investigations and prosecution, there may be something for the Tamil and Muslim victims of physical assaults on the respective communities to learn from. In a way, the National Catholic Committee (NCC), under Malcom Cardinal Ranjith, has gone one up on the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), appointed by then incumbent, Maithripala Sirisena, by finding fault with the work of the PCoI on specifics, even while endorsing its findings otherwise.

The NCC has since shot off a 20-page missive to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, signed by the good Cardinal and a host of other Catholic Bishops, mostly from the ‘southern’ Sinhala belt. They have asked why no action has been taken against President Sirisena, who was named by the PCoI. They have also asked why action could not be initiated against then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, under relevant provisions of law.

In short, the Church does not want anyone even remotely associated with the perpetrators of the act, or anyone in authority whose actions and/or inactions could have facilitated the blast. This is a part of the post-War western concept of ‘closure’ based on ‘transitional justice’ or whatever.

The two Great Wars of the previous century, especially the Second World War, taught the Christian West when, where and how to cross the invisible line drawn by Jesus, in the name of Love. In all such cases, the fable of Christ asking to show the left cheek if hit on the right cheek has remained a fabulous fable.

The good Cardinal, his Bishops – and by extension, the community that they shepherd – want the ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’ Sri Lanka to practice that. Before him, the West as nation-States has been pressing the Sri Lankan counterpart to do it in the case of ‘Tamil victims’  of the separatist war against the LTTE, and more recently, against the Sinhala-Buddhist perpetrators of the nation’s Muslim community, in the post-war era, especially.

They may have a point. Since at least the Independence, this Land of Buddha, who preached universal peace and harmony, love and forgiveness, has been practising everything other than these stellar qualities in men and their rulers. The last such ruler was born in the battlefield of Kalinga in neighbouring India.

Emperor Ashoka sent his message of Peace, Buddhism and Peace through Buddhism, to the country, and he was the last such ruler anywhere to follow the Buddha’s diktat.  His choice of sending his own son Mahinda (Mahendra) and daughter Sangamitta (Sangamitra) for taking Buddhism to Lanka might not have had anything to do with his love towards this land. But it had everything to do with his love for Buddha’s preaching.

None of it meant that any ruler in the country, even in the days of Sangamitta, followed the good words of the Lord. Nor has anyone since followed in Ashoka’s footsteps. It’s not that they were cheating the world and cheating themselves.

Instead, the reality of statecraft is much different from the preaching of a religious order. One cannot do justice to your subjects, both under the divine law and also all the man-made rules of ruling, if he were to let dacoits loot his subjects, rapists indulge in their obsessions and ruffians rule the streets.

Until the British colonial masters brought all parts of the island under the Union Jack, there were separate kingdoms, which fought with one another – at times taking the help of neighbours and distant rulers alike. They all violated the words of Buddha’s words of love and kindness.

In the Tamil kingdoms, their rulers too did precisely that, not that their gods asked men to kill others. The Dutch, French and the British rulers, all swearing by the Book, carried the ‘Sword’, too, in the other hand.

Today, with a series of messages since the ‘Easter blasts’ in 2019, the Catholic community leadership in the country seems to be crossing the Rubicon, slowly but surely from one world of theology to the world of statecraft. One is humane, the other is human. That seems to be the only difference.

Going by the past pronouncements of the Church and the Cardinal, they seem to be deliberating about the future course, too much and too frequently, that they may be the only repository in the country, of all available information and analyses of the post-blast probes and their directions. Their deliberations, it would seem, have been leading them to take one deliberate step after another.

Thus far, all such deliberate and deliberated steps have stopped with the issuance of one statement after another, one media event after another, for all of the nation to see and hear. This time round, Cardinal Ranjith has told President Gotabaya that the Government would have to ‘face the consequences’ if justice was not done to the victims of ‘Easter blast’.

Sure enough, the Cardinal’s justice is not the Justice that awaits all humans in the other world – to whichever faith and religion they belong to while born on earth. Instead, his demand, and that of his fellow-Christians is for justice of the human, less humane kind, so to say.

From that kind of justice, they do not want anyone excluded. In the land of the good Lord, Justice is rendered differently. Or, so do gospels of every religion tell us. That’s what makes the difference between Man and God. That difference still remains.

Inevitable future

In this hoary and holy background, there is the inevitable ‘what if’ question about the Catholic Church’s caution to the Government that it would have to ‘face the consequences’ if it did not act on their 20-page letter (or, otherwise ensure justice for the innocent blast victims. They had no reason to die other than they were at the wrong place at the wrong time on a right day. Easter is the day of Christian Redemption, and yet, it happened….

 Multiple options are available before the community that justifiably feels victimised, and that successive Governments have not addressed their call for Justice. Lesser blame, they should apportion, at least at this stage on the incumbent dispensation – as much of its time and energy were taken in by the unanticipated and unprecedented havoc caused by Covid pandemic.

The same cannot be said of the predecessor regime, yes. But then, you do not expect the President and Prime Minister of the day to quit their elected offices and hand themselves over to the police, to be arrested. Yes, the PCoI Report became available only after they had left office, but then even at the time, both the Church and the rest had begun finger-pointing in their case.

Yet, none of it means that the Sri Lankan State could initiate criminal proceedings against either, again at this stage of judicial processes. The courts have recently commenced hearing in near-similar cases of culpable responsibility viz then Defence Minister Hemasiri Fernando and then Inspector-General of Police (IGP) Punith Jayasundara.

It may or may not be the Government’s intention, but it is not unlikely that it may want to wait until after the judicial processes had been completed in the case of these true, to see if any such criminal case would stick on the other two, who are political masters, with a relatively better mass-base.

If nothing else, a section of the polity and civil society nearer home and the international community elsewhere would cry ‘Foul’ if in particular the incumbent Rajapaksa leadership were to initiate criminal proceedings against the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duo. The fact that the Nation has consumed them to the electoral dustbin since then should be an eyeopener.

This is how culpability of the political class has been judged in most cases of this kind – which are unlike anything like corruption and nepotism. It is also not unlikely that a case can be made out in this way unless new laws are passed and new judicial mandates given. This is what the international community has been demanding for ‘war crimes probe’.

Political means, electoral process

What does it all mean for the ‘threat’, if any, that the Church has held out at the Government leadership? It needs to be measured in political terms, to be executed through the electoral process. One could be the existing Government and the ingrained polity forcing the hand of these men of god to enter politics, directly or indirectly, and hold out their threat by floating a political party, of the Christian community, by the Christian community, for the Christian community!

At last count there are 16 Members of Parliament belonging to the Christian community. If the community’s grouse is about the State meting out justice for the Easter blast, there are other minority communities in the Tamils, Muslims and Upcountry Tamils with near-similar complaints for long.

When they levelled similar complaints against the Sri Lankan State, the Sinhala Church especially was looking the other way, all along. But the Tamil-speaking Catholics, who dominated the denomination in the North and the East, and also such other Christian denominations, stood away and aside of their Tamil-speaking Hindu brethren. Rather, it was an ethnic issue, not a religious issue. It remain so, when it is about the Tamil concerns since Independence.

If you add all three minority communities and now add the Sinhala Christians, there are about 60 MPs in a total of 225. That is not a small number in an Election uninfluenced by electoral events of the Easter blast kind.

It’s more than the number of Tamil-speaking MPs cutting across party and ethnic lines, when then President Mahinda Rajapaksa was reportedly considering the late Jeyaraj Fernandopulle for prime minister. He was a Tamil, so to say, and the rumours were enough for the LTTE to assassinate him lest there could have been a challenge to Prabhakaran’s hegemony. Or, so it seems from this distance in time.

Going by available figures, there 165 Sinhala-Buddhist MPs, 20 Muslims, 16 Christians and a combination of 24 Hindus, comprising Sri Lankan Tamils and Upcountry Tamils, taking the total to the existing Parliament’s strength of 225. The minority MPs in terms of ethnicity thus add up to 60. In a normal election year, if the majority Sinhala voters were to split, the ‘minorities’, Sinhala-speaking and Tamil-speaking could decide the victor. This may not be so for the presidential polls – but could still be a possibility.

Through the past decades of ethnic war and violence, the Tamil-speaking Christians have all along identified with their ethnicity and not religion. It has been so with the Sinhala Christians, too. They have remained more Sinhalese and less Christians. In fact, Cardinal Ranjith’s writ does not run in the Tamil-speaking areas and the ‘Tamil churches’, so to say.

Imagine a future and futuristic alliance where these communities are able to come together first within themselves and then with one another – and create a ‘national minority front’ of some kind. A Sinhala challenger to the ‘Sinhala throne’ would need to get only 55 MPs on his own – but then he could well be a ‘minority within a minority’. For such calculations to commence, the Sinhala-speaking Christians have to form a political grouping of whatever kind. If that is the message on the ‘consequences’ from the Church, that is saying a lot, yet not saying anything!

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)

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