A Black Sunday over the Black Sunday

By N Sathiya Moorthy

By conferring his blessings for the call of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference for Christians in the capital to observe 7 March as ‘Black Sunday’, and also participating in the same, His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjit, the Archbishop of Colombo, might have stretched their cause a little too far. But by ensuring that the Christian angst over the issue did not go out of hand, and concluding the protests with a call for the Government to implement the recommendations of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) into the ‘Easter serial-blasts’ (21 April 2019) fast, the good Cardinal has also ensured that things did not go out of hand.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, too, for his part, has found nothing amiss in the Christian protests. He having caused the sharing of the PCoI Report with Cardinal Ranjith earlier, as sought by the Church, the President also ensured that the Government approached the issue with great patience and equal pragmatism. This has not been the case, be it in regard to the Covid dead cremation in the case of the Muslim community, or the Tamils’ multiple concerns in terms of their religious beliefs and cultural practices since Gota came to power.

While the Christian demand for justice viz ‘Easter Sunday serial blasts’ in 2019 is appreciated and justified – and its handling by the Church, appropriate in its own way, for them to use religion as a weapon to take up what is increasingly becoming a political cause as much as it was a criminal act for which the nation’s criminal justice system alone could find the answers, if only over a period. Then, there is the larger question of inevitable politicisation of the PCoI issue, as different from the blasts proper. Already, multiple political leaders, from within the government and outside, have taken positions, seeking to draw votes, starting with the much-delayed Provincial Council polls, whenever held.

Not in normal course

Truth be acknowledged, for the Church to seek a copy of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) into the Easter blasts — the real ‘Black Sunday’ for the nation as a whole — itself should be seen as being not in the normal course. It’s part of a public proceedings, involving the government, the inquiry commission and such other agencies as need to be involved. This is independent of the criminal proceedings, and also the findings of a parliamentary committee that went into the same issue, but from a more political and politicised angle or angles.

Some in the parliamentary committee were seen as being overzealous to fix at least much of the responsibility on Muslim counterparts, both inside the House and outside. Some of these issues have also been addressed by the PCoI and also in multiple criminal cases proceeding from the blasts, but not always centred on the same. There were already allegations of political witch-hunt. Such charges have taken a new / additional direction, with the PCoI report, what with the camps of then President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, calling ‘foul’.

For the Catholic Church to add to what already is a Tower of Babel can only do more harm than common good – for both the nation’s Christians, especially the numerically substantial Catholics and the rest, the Muslim community included. While the blasts-perpetrators were all Muslims, yes, the entire Muslim community was made to feel guilty.

This was despite the proven fact that the community leaders and the community’s political leaders had been repeatedly cautioning the powers-that-be, how the Zaharans of the world needed more than ‘watching’, and needed to be put down. The trend continues. At least the Muslim community in the country seem to feel that the ‘burial denial’ issue involving their Covid dead owes also to this misplaced mis-trust.

Justice and ‘transitional justice’

From the early days of the blasts, the Church has been persistent in demanding justice for the innocent victims of the pre-meditated gruesomeness. But they do not seem to have outlined what they mean by ‘justice’ and against whom. If it was against the actual perpetrators, most of them are dead. The rest cannot escape the long arm of the nation’s criminal justice system.

There is a moral question, though. The Christ punished himself for the sins of humanity. He preached his followers to show the left cheek to the one who had hit you on the right. This may not be the appropriate course in the twenty-first century. But to move away from what is genuinely thought of as ‘Christian justice’ into what the Christian West preaches as ‘transitional justice’ is what should worry Christians themselves. And it is some kind of transitional justice that the Church is now seeking.

In the international political context of our times, the Christian West has added a ‘preference’ angle in the implementation of the very concept of ‘transitional justice’. The kind of ‘Us vs Them’ bias, or ‘Out Perpetrator vs Theirs’ has come to dominate the discourse over the past several years, if not decades.

Over the UNHRC-centred issues of alleged war crimes and human rights violations, the Sri Lankan State is at the receiving end. Both in the choice of a nation, or of governments, there are differences and distinctions – as between the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration and the Rajapaksas, both before and after, the other one.

An interesting query emerges. Could the blasts have been averted if only the UNHRC had shown as much enthusiasm in driving the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government up the wall as much as it had and now has targeted the ruling Rajapaksas. Maybe, maybe not, but a sense of ‘accountability’ even to the voters nearer home was wholly missing under the previous government.

Nothing explains the nation’s predicament of the time than reports of the then political and security leadership mishandled, or not handled specific information provided by the Indian neighbour, and reportedly repeated ad nauseum, until the morning of 21 April 2019, the very morning of the dastardly blasts.

Omissions and commissions

Thus far, both criminal probes and PCoI / parliamentary inquiries have held that the dead Zaharan was the brain behind the blasts. The presidential probe has also established that the blasts were in retaliation for the attack on the mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand and the attacks on ISIS in Syria. No local causes or reasons have been identified. If the Church has any information on this score, they should not hesitate to share it with the authorities concerned.

This again leaves us with others whose alleged omissions and commissions of irresponsibility may have created conditions that facilitated the despicable action by an unthinking group of individuals. The names of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has cropped up many times since in this regard and in multiple fora, in terms of political accountability.

Wickremesinghe was on record, first that it was only a home-grown group and there was no external help or assistance. So far so good, and he was correct. That he could declare thus with great confidence on the very evening of the blasts should go to show the level of intelligence available with the government. There were also related reports that Team Zaharan was upset with the targeting of Muslims elsewhere. At least the PCoI has concluded thus – and this too has not been contested, at least until now.

Wickremesinghe also said that despite being Prime Minister, he was not privy to the reports to the National Security Council (NSC). After their intervening tiff, the President had even stopped him from being invited to the weekly NSC meeting. If it was escaping accountability or not, Wickremesinghe too could have taken it up politically and officially – or, even taken it to Parliament, and thus the nation. There is no clarity if he could have gone to the Supreme Court for clarification and/or direction, even if not officially but through surrogates. He did not do any one of them, and yet claimed to be the Prime Minister, and more of politico-administrative powers.

The less said about President Sirisena the better. Not only did he reportedly stopped invitation for his own PM Wickremesinghe for the NSC meetings, but also seemed to have not taken things as seriously as he should have, especially at the helm. Or, that is what published sections of the PCoI Report and also the proceedings of the Parliament Select Committee (PSC), when he was still in charge, showed, or at least claimed.

Negligence and murder

The case against blsts-time Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando and Inspector-General of Police (IGP) Pujith Jayasundara stand on their own legs – or, they do not. Their matter is before the Supreme Court after having been made to face the ignominy of being arrested by the police reporting to them until the other day. Jayasundara’s case also highlighted the inadequacy of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, by which he could not even be sacked after being named as an accused in the criminal case flowing from the blasts.

The charge is that they did not take the Indian alert seriously and act on it. They were also believed to have not shared the information with their political masters, the ultimate authority in a democracy. Promotly, the two moved the Supreme Court, challenging the accusations and also the arrest.

There is a primary legal question in this, which is also of great legal prominence: Can ‘negligence’ in the discharge of one’s duty be construed as ‘criminal negligence’, attracting punitive action under the nation’s penal laws? That is if the charge is proven beyond reasonable doubt, to the entire satisfaction of the courts.

It is unlike a road accident or a building collapse, where a driver or a builder could be charged with ‘criminal negligence’ for causing death or injury without proven ‘mens rea’, or motive, and handed down a relatively lighter punishment. The legal question thus remains if the ‘murder’ charge levelled against them in the context of the blasts deaths, amenable to the four corners of the laws of crime and evidence – or, it could at best be termed only as ‘criminal negligence’ – which again is something for the Supreme Court to rule upon.

Tamils’ demand

It is also unclear as yet as to what the Church and the Christian community want – especially in terms of ‘justice’ for the Easter blasts victims. If the government conceded the kind of ‘justice’ implied in their demand, the government will also have to acknowledge the decade-long Tamil demand for ‘justice’ for their war-end dead and ‘missing persons’.

The latter will then have to be done to the entire satisfaction of the Tamil community nearer home and the international community outside. This too would flow from what looks like an impossible situation in which, the Christian community seems wanting to be satisfied with the kind of ‘justice’ that is offered. Such a line has consequences, which no government in Colombo, would want the nation to face.

All this could end with the Church demonstrating the political strength of the community, followed by electoral power. In 2019 presidential poll especially, they voted against the ruling regime’s nominee, and went back to the Rajapaksas, not that their contribution alone sufficed Candidate Gotabaya’s election as President. After the ‘Weliweriya incident’ in which army soldiers entered a suburban church and bet up local people, mostly Christians, wanting clean water from their wells, cost the Rajapaksas the community’s 5.5 per cent vote-share, that had been theirs for granted until then. Not afterwards!

Right now, over the Christian demand, SJB’s Leader of the Opposition, Sajith Premadasa has readily conceded that they failed to stop the blasts when in power – and has extended his party’s support for their demand on the PCoI report – whatever it be, however interpreted. While Cabinet Minister Prasanna Ranatunga was among those that blamed in on the blast, junior minister Dilum Ranatunga went as far as to observe that there would not have been the blasts if the Mahinda presidency had not been defeated in the 2015 polls. “Not even firecrackers were burst in the name of protests after the end of the LTTE war until after incumbent Mahinda lost the presidency,” he argued.

Some argument, this, a lot of politics, all the same…

(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)

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Colombo Gazette’s point-of-view