12 November 2015

An invitation to ‘Ethics’

Dr. A.C. Visvalingam, President, Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG), commenting on the horrific murder in broad daylight of Balavarnam Sivakumar, (reportedly a mentally challenged individual) by some police officers, argues for the resurrection of the 17th Amendment.

It is a fact, as Visvalingam points out, that the 17th Amendment was passed in a hurry ‘in a serendipitous moment’.  He is also correct in that it contained serious flaws. He is also correct when he says that it was nevertheless a step forward in the process of de-politicizing governance structures.  I lament with him and CIMOGG the fact that ‘flaw’ was read as ‘loophole’ and that pledges to ensure the setting up of structures robust enough to insulate citizen from overzealous and self-seeking politician have been compromised by foot-dragging, abuse of constitutional ‘outs’ and of course the distraction of other overarching issues.  Quibbling among parties who have marginal clout in Parliament and wording-flaws that foster chauvinistic drives have not helped either. 

For me, the 17th was at best a ‘starting point’ in the long and arduous process of correcting the flaws of the country’s institutional arrangement.  The 17th Amendment is dead as CIMOGG tacitly acknowledges by calling for its ‘resurrection’.  If it is dead and it can be resurrected, flaws and all, I would still support this. If one does not believe resurrection is possible, then it should be buried once and for all.  Burial of course will not resolve the problems that gave rise to the 17th Amendment. Burial confers on all of us the responsibility of searching for an alternative, an 18th Amendment perhaps, written in the same spirit but with greater attention being placed on plugging the kinds of holes that sank the 17th

This is not an essay about constitutional reform, though.  My friend Pradeep Jeganathan, while appreciating my sentiments regarding the intent of the 17th, also expressed certain reservations. His thesis, essentially, is that getting the wording right, fiddling with structures or even overhauling them, while not necessarily being useless, would not be ‘enough’. He strongly recommends a return to ethics. 

What struck me most in this incident was not the mindless brutality of the murderer and his accomplices but the silence and immobility of the spectators.  Apparently some people did ‘act’ in that the Police and a TV station were informed, but the footage didn’t show anyone intervening or even trying to intervene. 

Marissa De Silva, writing to the Groundviews website (‘We the spectator state’), elaborates adequately on the troubling horror of this spectatorship.  I am not in agreement with the parallel she draws with respect to IDP camps and the conclusions she draws about the Government, the international community and battlefield realities, but she does paint an accurate, vivid and horrifying picture of a kind of apathy that can only exacerbate the general problems this society is beset with. 

I remember seeing a man brutally assaulting a woman, apparently his wife, in broad daylight near the Pettah bus stand.  It was ‘spectacle’. There were spectators.  I saw a policeman on the other side of the street and quickly informed him. He casually and rudely asked me if I had a problem.  I told him that he is required to help maintain the peace.  He responded ‘just mind your own business and you’ll be ok’. The quarrelling parties had sorted out their problem by this time. 

A few days later I saw three blind lottery-sellers assaulting a man who they believed had robbed one of them.  The ‘suspect’ had been recognized by his voice.  This was ‘citizens’ justice’ to the spectators.  One of the blind men threatened to and even attempt to gouge the man’s eyes out.  Again, I told a police office and this person intervened and took all four men to the Police Station. This happened outside the Fort Railway Station. 

Even the best institutions and the most disciplined police force cannot prevent some nutcase taking the law into his/her hand and assaulting or poisoning someone.  And there aren’t any laws to forbid a witness from opting to look the other way.  That’s where ethics comes in, or should come in.  It is in these tiny incidents that we see the flaws of our societal psyche and it is this apathy that gets multiplied into a general ‘look-aside’ when it comes to matter of greater magnitude.  One can argue that it is the structures and political culture that promotes this kind of inaction of course but the chicken-or-egg discussion is meaningless.

An individual can plead innocence to the world and point finger at structure.  But he/she must live with him/herself and the choices he/she makes or does not make. 

I believe there’s a scandalous dismissal of or negligence of this thing called ‘ethics’ in our society and too often we get caught up in the supposedly overarching ‘political’ and defer a consideration of this simple issue.  Until it hits us in the face.  After that, we cannot be silent.  Not to our conscience at any rate.

This was first published in the Daily News, November 6, 2009