By N Sathiya Moorthy
It is not the right way, leave alone the best way, for anyone to aspire for any position of the kind. Yet, the untimely death of Justice Prasanna Jayawardena of the Sri Lankan Supreme Court just a week or so ahead of the New Year is sure to raise demands, comments and suggestions for President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to name a Tamil to fill the vacancy. The question then will be, if so, why – and if not, why not.
The last of the Tamil Justices on the Supreme Court Bench was K S Sripavan, who also retired as the Chief Justice – when the previous Government was in office. Coincidence as it may be, but then no one questioned the credentials of Justice Sripavan at any point in time. Nor did anyone, especially the Tamil polity, asked their own inevitable question why no Tamil Justice after Sripavan retired.
First and foremost, you cannot have Justices nominated or elevated the nation’s higher judiciary, based on language, ethnicity and even region. It is equally so in a multi-ethnic community as Sri Lanka’s where issues remain from Independence and beyond. If a Justice or any other senior constitutional or administrative authority happened to represent a particular community, ethnicity or religious denomination, then that should remain a coincidence, still.
Temples or kovils, churches or mosques, as maybe, for Justice, higher judiciary maybe, they are still not based on denominational distinctions for choosing the presiding officers. It is only the presiding deity, Justice, that has chosen itself. If nothing else, the controversial former Chief Minister of Tamil-majority Northern Province, retired Supreme Court Justice C V Wigneswaran would not like to be branded as a ‘Tamil Justice’ or a ‘Justice only for the nation’s Tamils’.
However, it is unfair to bracket him or any other Justice that way, though it is not impossible that some of many of them may have their own personal views on politics and society, economics and history. The question goes beyond their linguistic and ethnic or any other identities and ideologies. Instead, it is about their ideology or identity coming in the way of their delivering Justice, free, fair and unbiased – or, influencing the same one way or the other, to put it more precisely and directly.
It is here that the Tamils’ political accusations of the kind, particularly in the post-Independence past, needs to be looked at from an equally unbiased manner. It should apply to other segments of the society, rich and poor, urban and rural, Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim or Upcountry Tamils – or, even the numerically miniscule aboriginal Veddas, if it came to that.
Just as the Tamils or others cannot try to fix an ‘ethnic stamp’ on members of the nation’s higher judiciary, the State too cannot be seen as singling out any one community for promotion, and any other, or all the rest for rejection. If thee are efficient Justices and other top officials from among Sinhalese, there are those from the other communities and ethnicities, too, language no bar.
This should be particularly so in a country where folklore has it that the national cricket selectors reportedly asked of an aspirant standing/sitting in front of them, “This thing knows to play cricket !?”. True or not, the apocryphal story is a reflection on the biases that every Sri Lankan Establishment has inherited and passed on and around – at least until not very long ago.
Yet, there is no denying the possibility bordering on probability of those from certain linguistic and ethnic backgrounds being denied promotions on the way to moving up to the top slot in their respective areas of expertise. The question, for instance, arises how a Tamil or a Muslim officer who was good enough to be elevated to the rank of an SSP could be found unfit to become a DIG of Police.
This is particularly so in cases where a junior officer of questionable integrity gets elevated to a coveted position, either in the police force or in other areas of civilian administration, and his ethnicity can easily be thrown about as the sole marker. It is not about the selected person’s superior qualifications are suspect, but it is more about the need for Caesars wife having to be above suspicion.
The Government cannot have it either way – nor can the Tamils, who have been at the centre of such controversies all along be. The West does not know it and those nearer home from among the Tamil community, for instance, do not want to acknowledge what they had known. The truth lies in between.
Long before the Sri Lankan State purportedly began to discriminate against the Tamils in military promotions and the like, the LTTE had forced many of the ranking officers quit quietly and re-settle outside the country, after hosting family members in their own strongholds hostage. Not that there was no discrimination of the ethnic kind, before or after that, in recruitment and promotions, but after what the LTTE had done to them, the Tamils were the least qualified to complain.
Post-war, thus, when the Government recruited Tamils for manning the police force, fellow-Tamils, both in the North and the East, ridiculed them, forcing many of them to quit, if only over time. When over a hundred Tamil girls were recruited into the army and joined the forces after training, wanton rumours were floated that they were gang-raped and humiliated. This held back other Tamil parents from sending their daughters to join the forces even though the salaries that they brought home would have helped the family income in times of post-war recovery period.
Today however the binary approach to judicial appointments and non-judicial promotions may not hold as one between the Sinhalas and Sri Lankan Tamils. Such issues had limited at greater relevance when all Tamil-speaking people were seen as one, and they too saw themselves as one. That should include the Upcountry Tamils, who stayed mostly out of the national reckoning after earlier post-Independence SLT politicos identified more with the Sinhala majority than the Tamil-speaking minority, all three ethnicities put together.
It got further fragmented when the LTTE branded the Muslims as ‘anti-Tamil’ and caused their forced exit from Jaffna and many deaths in the East. With the result, any question of representation for the SLT community alone in higher judicial and other Governmental postings and promotions, or demands thereof may trigger similar expectations and aspirations from the Muslims – and sooner than later, the Upcountry Tamils, as well.
Maybe, in the shocking aftermath of the Easter Sunday serial-blasts, the Muslim community and their polity may be too tentative, unsure and even fearful to make such demands. But it is the absence of such frank and bold approach from the early Tamil leaders that led to their own next generation, raising up in arms and worse.
As a nation and people, Sri Lanka is a bundle of contradictions of the kind, going beyond urban-rural and rich-poor divides. In no other nation-State could you find a people speaking the same language, Tamil, who are already the nation’s designated minority, has created further divisions in the name of ethnicity’ – namely, SLT, Muslims and Upcountry Tamils.
Had it not been for such internal divisions, maybe the Sinhala majority might have learnt to accept the reality of ‘minorities’ better and earlier without being tempted to play around with those distinctions – which in turn has brought no distinction to the nation. Suffice is to point out that President Gota Rajapaksa’s decision for the National Anthem to be sung only in Sinhala – and not any more in Tamil, too – could also flow from the narrow perception of the Tamil version getting identified with only those of the SLT in the North in particular. While the Upcountry Tamil leadership has been making suitable political noises when it is politically convenient for them, the Muslim polity, most of whose factions and groups have a Tamil linguistic background, have been indifferent, now as has always been the case, whenever the issue had cropped up.
The fact is that as and when a Tamil-speaking Justice or an IG or a DIG gets to position, then the larger linguistic minorities would begin diagnosing his caste and regional ancestry, then school (read: college), et al. While the educational institution means more to most Sri Lankans in calling someone a friend, though removed by age and years, it applies even more to the Sinhala majority – at times to the exclusion of the rest.
It is not just about the ‘Battle of the Blues’, for the high school-level cricketing trophy played annually, especially among Colombo pre-university generations, but about the career graph that keep meeting and/or clashing from then on. As is not unknown, even at the height of the ‘Eelam War IV’, you had senior commanders of different Services carrying their school-time antagonism to strategy sessions – though thankfully not to the battle-field.
Octogenarian Sampanthan is today the unquestioned leader of the TNA, despite all the internal divisions and dissensions that they may otherwise have. An ‘Eastern’ Tamil, he was humiliated with an electoral defeat by fellow-Tamils when he contested a parliamentary election for the party (then TULF) because he was ‘not one of us’ – meaning a ‘Jaffna Tamil’. Less said about the divisions within the Jaffna Tamil community, in terms of education and elitism, all centred on caste and nothing more, the better.
Worse still is the caste divisions and distinctions within the majority Sinhala community. After the presidential polls, losing UNP boss and outgoing Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe attributed it to the party not having the continued blessings of the religious clergy. The UNP leaders, cadres and voters should also look themselves up in the mirror – whether it also had to do with losing Sajith Premadasa’s caste background in a community in which the upper caste Govigamas are also the numerically strongest despite the three or four-way internal divisions thereof.
This in turn raises further questions about the need for an open-ended approach to high-level appointments, where the 19-A selection panels should be seen as doing justice as much as it may pronounce doing so. Even if the present Government gets 19-A scrapped in toto, the Sri Lankan State structure needs to devise mechanisms and methods to ensure that justice is not only done, but is also seen as being done, in such and such other matters!
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email: email@example.com)