“The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies – the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people the torture of suspects – are the product of democratic will. And so to challenge the police is to challenge the American people… The problem with the police is not that they are fascist pugs but that our country is ruled by majoritarian pigs”. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
Over the past week, we have been entertained – if that’s the word – by UNP MP Hirunika Premachandra’s public pronouncements condoning the threatening, beating up and abduction of an individual, who was ostensibly having an extra-martial affair with one of her staff members. The reason for the violence? Her lack of faith in the Police. So there we have it. A well-known Member of Parliament, basically affirming through word and deed, and to date with complete impunity, the rule of law is optional and if one has Land Rover Defenders with enough goons on call, it is more desirable to bypass the Police entirely and administer one’s own brand of justice to those suspected of wrongdoing. Meanwhile, the victim has also gone on record in the mainstream media saying he has no connection whatsoever with the MP and has no clue why he was subjected to violence.
Before the 8th of January, the story would have hardly made news. It is extremely jarring today precisely because this is the culture of violence, and impunity, we wanted to vote out. It sadly endures. At the height of the Islamophobia driven by the BBS, when abductions took place under the previous regime, when individuals in the former government, or linked to those in power made outrageous pronouncements and came up with the most incredible claims to excuse the use of violence (remember the toy pistol?) we were told they were manifestations of fringe lunacy, with little risk of corrupting what remained a plural, democratic centre or core. A silent majority as it were. The argument did not hold, because the very silence of this ostensible majority is what allowed the most heinous of human rights abuses to occur and worse, become the new normal.
We are then left to consider the nature of the State, and whether the violence that MP Premachandra condones is a manifestation of a deeper problem that she too is a product of. What if, in fact, the Sri Lankan state is deeply racist, violent and illiberal, where regular participation in elections is no real marker of underlying interest in democratic governance? No doubt, this may offend many who see, and for reasons entirely justified and valid in their eyes, a Sri Lanka that for the most part is opposed to a culture of impunity and violence. Countering this – leaving aside the more obvious examples of violence, over decades, against the Tamil speaking peoples of our country condoned by so many – is to imagine what if any the possible consequences will be for MP Premachandra as a result of being so deeply implicated in tribal justice. Likely, the media scrutiny will die down. Adorning thick pirith nool, she will be photographed in resplendent white at some Temple in the future, genuflecting in front of monks. At rallies and public functions, her telegenics will ensure she is seen with and indeed, welcomed in the company of President Sirisena and the Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. Talk shows will continue to court her to speak on the merits of yahapalanaya. The Police may, at best, arrest and question her, but she will be soon released. Amila Priyanga Amarasinghe will fade into history, dealing as best he can with the ignominy of being threatened, beaten up and abducted. Hirunika Premachandra will remain in the headlines. Many will vote for her again in the future.
This is after all, not the first time this has played out. In March 2013, MP Premachandra, with her then cohort of goons, barged into a business establishment on Kynsey Road, Borella. Its owner, Dhammika Siriwardene, noted in the media that Hirunika Premachandra threatened and abused him, for what reason he couldn’t fathom. She was arrested and released on bail. Exactly a year later, in March 2014, before she switched her political allegiance, Hirunika Premachandra got the highest number of preferential votes in the Colombo District for the UPFA, at the Provincial Council Election.
As Marx averred, history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. If this is how justice works – or more accurately, doesn’t – in the South, how can we honestly say the rule of law stands any chance over the longer term and especially for those who have been under the jackboot of majoritarian rule? Yahapalanaya isn’t about not doing wrong – it is about the rule of law kicking in when someone is suspected of actions, behaviour or expression that were the norm under the previous administration. And yet, in this case and so many others since the 8th of January, it is clear Lady Justice is still partially blindfolded.
Hirunika is a product of democratic will. Challenging her is in effect to challenge all those who elected and continue to support her. The banality of violence in Sri Lanka today is such that this incident will be seen as a minor infraction, and life will go on. Ta-Nehisi Coates, as a voice of a visible minority in the US, speaks of a structural violence invisible to most, and when openly flagged or questioned, results in outraged denial. The violence of our own state is embedded so deep in our national psyche that the likes of MP Premachandra can actually go scot-free by just concocting the most incredible spin.
The litmus test of Sri Lanka’s democracy isn’t around dealing with crimes against humanity or war crimes. It is anchored to seeing the violence that pervades governance for what it is, and resolutely rejecting it.
Published in The Sunday Island, 27 December 2015