10 July 2015

The 'underworld' was always 'above board'

A little more than 13 years ago, June 2, 2002 to be exact, I wrote a piece for 'The Island' titled 'The Paathaalaya comes to town. 'Paathaalaya' is Sinhala colloquial for 'underworld'.   The article, which I called 'The Pathalaya comes to town,' was inspired by noises made by the then UNP Government about arresting Range Bandara.  I took the opportunity to comment about thugs and politicians.  Three years ago I posted it titled 'And up came the underworld'.  Good to read again, I think.

The word "underworld" refers to the world of criminals or of organised crime; in common parlance, the pathalaya, literally "abyss", meaning "a deep chasm, or a catastrophic situation as likely to occur". 

The origin of the word is interesting. It comes from the Greek abusso, or "bottomless". If it sounds like I am engaged in word play, I am sorry. The point is, the "games" associated with the pathalaya are the least like a crossword puzzle or Jumble ("that scrambled word game by Henri Arnold and Mike Argirion), pale against the vibrant cloak and dagger stuff of political/criminal life which has made me wonder if the under/over dichotomy of worlds exists in reality.

It has long known that there is an unholy nexus between the pathalaya and the politician. They feed off each other. Time was when the territories were clearly marked with set boundaries and (probably) well-defined modes of communication between the two. Things were never confusing. One didn’t turn up in the other’s costumes. The politician wore the national dress. The thugs operated out of the public eye as befits any self-respecting underworld denizen. The politician would contract, pay-off and protect if necessary. His/her hands were always clean. As for the hired killers, they would not stray into the unfamiliar territory of legislating, budgeting, diplomacy and legitimizing. 

I am not sure when these naughty twins confused their identities, but if I were to hazard a guess I would say it happened when the thugs took over the matter of running the country and parliament became the battleground for warring rival gangs. Naturally, for this to happen, the world has to suffer tremendous convulsions and we’ve had more than our fair share of such eruptions over the past three decades or so. 

There is a video clip of Eminem’s song "Will the real Slim Shady stand up?" where the inmates of a mental asylum respond to the question by standing up en masse. If we could get a good cross section of our politicians and thugs, clothe them in say, full suit, shuffle them like a pack of cards and ask them "will the real politician stand up?" (or, alternatively, "will the real thug stand up?") and I am sure that either they will all remain seated or they will all jump to attention. 

In this abuddassa era, it is natural they say, for labu to taste bitter. The tongue apparently gets used to bitterness. And so we have come to accept the aberrations that make up our world, sometimes to the extent of allowing us to become aberrations in order not to look like a sore thumb. I believe we can do better, but that requires more than clever turns of phrase and giving the finger to the grotesque people who are powerful because we allow them to strip us of our agency. 

What am I talking about? The PSD, what else! Just kidding. I don’t have to talk about the PSD for the simple reason that it is now boring. The government might think that directing the police to "take whatever action" with respect to Ranga Bandara is sufficient to give a "we-are-fair" look to their witch hunt, but it fools no one. And in any case, I remember a time of Ukussas, Kalu Balallu, Kaha Balallu and Green Tigers, those PSD-creatures of an earlier era (a time, which, I must add, seems to be waiting in the wings for a second coming). So I don’t really get excited about thugs calling each other names. 

Last week Kaduwela Wasantha and six of his associates were gunned down. A rival gang, led by one "Karate Dhammika" is suspected of having carried out the massacre. Gangs kill gangs, politicians kill politicians, thugs kill politicians, politicians get assassins (especially if they change colours along the way) assassinated. Not many moons have passed since Beddegane Sanjeewa of the PSD and a high profile assassin by all accounts was shot dead. 

Before him there was Kalu Ajith, Nalin Chinthaka, Gamage Ariyapala, Kotte Sunil, Gangodawila Asoka, Christopher Barry, Gonawala Sunil, Soththi Upali and other underworld operators killing and dying violently. Most of these would be household names in high places of power. We get to hear them only when there’s a spectacular shootout, almost as though life was playing out a film script. And much later, we learnt that they were actually police officers of high rank, pradeshiya sabhikas and even nagaradhipathis. 

All the above mentioned worthies were directly associated with one or more politicians. Add to this all the "respectable" people who were sworn in as representatives of the people by the President now behind bars now free to have a free hand, and it would seem that all of a sudden the entire population of the pathala lokaya have crept out of the woodwork that separates it from the lie that is civil society. That’s the law of the land, right now. People criss-crossing from one world to the other and back again. Without passports. Without visas.

For today, we have pistol-brandishing politicians actually leading the mob, especially during election time. The number of PA members holding public office or were candidates for local government bodies in police custody is mind boggling. If the UNF kept good its promise of better governance, then an equal number of hooligans from that party would have joined their PA counterparts in various cells all over the country. That this didn’t happen should not raise any eyebrows, after all the "We Want Independent Commissions" cry has been swept under a huge carpet embossed with the letters "L", "T", "T" and "E".

Conversely, we find that people, like money, can be laundered. Any underworld king pin can, after a short period in the washing machine operated by a beholden politician, contest a pradeshiya sabha, win some contracts, move from assassin to racketeer to clean businessman. At some point along the way they can drop their gang name. Theyways to get membership in exclusive clubs, do the cocktail circuit and when enough time has passed they suddenly appear totally clean. They shed their gang tag, but the gangster seldom abandons them.

Upheavals of the kind that turn thugs into gentlemen and vice versa are almost always preceded by tell-tale signs. For example, it took a long long time for the Tamil pathalaya to emerge from its hell holes, mix with the gentry of the Tamil Shishta Samajaya (a.k.a. Tamil "moderates"), bump the good gentlemen off one by one and turn them into pathetic softies capable of doing nothing except faithfully parroting the bile dished out by the Northers Maheepalas. 

So today, in the North, the pathalaya crept out from its earthly burrows. The gentry now grovel at the feet of the home-bred thug. The distinction has been erased. The story of how Tamil society capitulated en masse to the rule of terror is tragic. If the rest of our country follow suit? I dread to answer that question. The optimist will say, "we are nowhere near that". It’s good to be hopeful. Far more prudent to be realistic. I have rattled off only a few names of the various regional rulers of the underworld. I don’t have to name our representative strong-armed bad boys. And girls. But I will tell a story which ought to make people think again.

I remember Arjuna Parakrama relating how the pathalaya came into the Kelaniya Campus. This was in 1978. He was an undergraduate then. Years later, others fleshed out what were just sketchy details that had somehow remained in my mind. Rajan Hoole, in his latest book, "Sri Lanka: the arrogance of power", gives a blow by blow description of the incident. Just like Kelaniya Campus today, back then too the students clashed with the hired thugs of politicians. 

Rev. Baddegama Samitha, MP, who was the Vice President of the Student Union, was both a witness of and a participant in that incident. The Welipara Member of the UNP, one Piyadasa (appointed as a Director of the Hardware Corporation by Cyril Matthew) led the gang who were sent to tame the anti-UNP union. He was supported by JSS members of the Tyre Corporation. 

A lot of blood was spilled on March 16, 1978. Rev. Samitha knows all about it. A thug named Christopher Hyacinth Jayatilleke was literally stoned to death by the students. That, apparently, had to happen for the university to be free of UNP-led intimidation. 

A paragon of virtue of the area had insisted that the Prime Minister J. R. Jayewardene be present at Christopher’s funeral arguing that Christopher was a party man. JR came. He saw. He pronounced: "Christopher is a national hero". 

A lot of "national heroes" had died before then and have died since, sometimes at the hands of other "national heroes". Christopher’s funeral was a first in that never before had the leader of the country attended the funeral of such "heroes". Between 1978 and 2002, many national heroes have accounted for the lives of thousands of unarmed... hmmm.... "traitors", I suppose. 

Twenty two years, two months and a couple of weeks have passed since those paragons of virtue wept over the body of Christopher. They are today... throwing "thugs" behinds bars, He has come far. This is why this pathala-shishta samaja dichotomy looks nothing more than something separated by a revolving door to me.

I don’t know about you optimists, but I am very, very worried. Perhaps it is time for the real shishta samajaya to go underground. Maybe it is there already.