20 November 2011

'Just deserts' and related indigestion


Anoma Fonseka grieves alone?

Ven Mahamankadawala Piyaratana Thero who has led the struggle to save the Eppawala Phosphate deposits from multinational corporations and others who have no regard for traditions, traditional knowledge systems or sustainability prerogatives often relates a story of faith and conviction about the movement.  

The venerable thero claims that the people of the area take their petitions to the ‘Jaya Siri Maha Bodheen Vahanse’ and the local deity who protects the good and punishes the evil, Kadavara Deiyo. ‘All those who attempted to ravage these lands in search of quick profit were punished, especially the politicians and businessmen, one way or another,’ the Thero observes.

Even if we were to leave aside the question of natural justice, the play of karmic powers or divine intervention, the fact remains that politicians are, among other things, a superstitious tribe.  Many are reported to have fled the country during the recent graha maaruva (Saturn’s change of sign), i.e. on November 15th.  They purchase, so to speak, insurance from all agents, those thought to be divine and those who are considered human.  In this context Ven Piyarathana could have been toying with this particularly quaint vocational tendency.  It must be mentioned of course that there is some truth in the notion, ‘pinkaranne paukaarayo’ (only sinners engage in meritorious acts), for they more than anyone else know they have erred and perforce try to compensate on their terms before they get hit by the unknown. 

The belief that everyone gets ‘just desserts’, on the other hand, implies an acknowledgment that the law doesn’t always ‘get it right’.  It is perhaps a sign of the times that whenever something drastic happens to a politician there is a tendency for people to say ‘serves him right’ and leave it at that!  In other words, there is a sense of not giving a damn whether or not crime and criminality were assessed, penalties determined and extracted through the relevant institutional apparatus.  It is not, as some might say, a vile tendency to celebrate the fall of the mighty.  One does detect some pity, but this is secondary to the notion that justice has been delivered, never mind the deliverer or exactor.  The lesson to be taken is that regardless of the name of arbiter, people in general do want justice served. 

An equally important element of the justice equation is proportionality; punishment must fit crime.  Then there is the question of equality, which implies that there cannot be selectivity when dispensing justice.  We know that these have been observed in the breach for so long and so many times to the point that the credibility of the entire judicial system has been compromised.  The tragedy, perhaps, is that the credibility gap is in fact a license to question each and every determination, whether or not such query is justified by the facts at hand.  It makes for crass politicking.  Contributors to this sorry state of affairs include those in the legislative, the executive as well as the judicial spheres of the state, in a process that has a history going back several decades.  Selective myopia on the part of the citizenry, cheering when decisions are in concert with political preferences and screaming ‘foul’ when they are not, have also contributed. In other words, we are all to blame. 

It is easy to pin the blame on constitution flaws, especially mechanisms that violate the principle of power-separation between legislature, executive and judiciary.  What is conveniently forgotten is that ‘the public’ is not absent in any of these spheres, both for representational reasons and as repository of public will.  Their flaws mirror the errors of the people subject to the caveat that arrogance and ignorance of those in high seats amplify these flaws and therefore exacerbate the repercussions.  There is no denying, however, that institution-fail borrows from a culture of apathy, ignorance and selectivity.  

It is against all this that one needs to speak of the recent judgment regarding Sarath Fonseka, the much-decorated former Army Commander who played a key role in ridding the country of the terrorist menace.  One notes that among those who are crying ‘foul’ are some who spared no pains to vilify the entire offensive against the LTTE as well as the key players in that effort, Fonseka included, which of course doesn't give him license to do as he pleases.  One notes also that among those who take refuge in the easy ‘let’s not interfere with the judicial process’, are those who have taken issue with the very same institution and cried ‘foul’ with equal ferocity.  The big-name politicians and political parties who backed Fonseka have all but abandoned him, one also notes. And then there is the common notion of ‘just desserts’ which takes part license from judicial hanky-panky referred to above, proclaiming ‘he’s already paid’ and by implication pooh-pooh court decision as irrelevant.    

Societies, however, cannot pass judicial buck to fate, the grand plans for supernatural entities or the ways of karma and hope to secure any cohesion that enables peaceful social intercourse.  This is why it is of crucial importance for there to be a broader and intense public discussion on the issue of law and order and judicial independence and integrity.  While these issues are discussed, they’ve tended to be (dis)coloured by political and ideological prerogatives, i.e. ‘only when and to the limits of convenience’.

It is said that the laws go silent in times of war.  Having gone through two bloody insurrections and a separatist war, it was natural for some laws to go silent.  ‘Extraordinary situations call for extraordinary measures’ was a convenient alibi.  It was, moreover, a lovely loophole that was used and abused by politicians of all hues. 

The war is over, though.

There was relief, but relief is not immortal.  War-end relief is now over and done with.  In fact it died some time ago.  It is high time that political society contend with the hard issue of assessing the institutional arrangement and its adequacy.  It is high time that we question our own integrity, as individuals and collectives, assessing our own contribution to this state of affairs.  It is no longer enough to curse and/or applaud.  It is not enough to play on the superstitions of the wily.  It is not enough to colour ‘just desserts’ with ideological hue. 
 
  
[Editorial of 'The Nation', November 20, 2011] 
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