06 March 2016

Independence is ‘square’

Today, March 6, 2016, there was a protest of sorts.  Well, we could also call it a celebration. It was in a sense a questioning of the meaning of 'freedom' that intangible something that's often associated or confused with 'independence'.  It was about, let's say, the right to be, the right to love, the right to show affection and about objecting to those who interpret vague guidelines as per their own understanding of propriety.  It's all grey. Anyway, there was quite a crowd.  

But this is another story from 6 years ago.  Again it's about freedom.  Independence Square was the site of contestation.  I wrote about it in the Daily News, for which newspaper I used to write a column titled 'The Morning Inspection'.  

Independence Square is a nice sit-and-wait place, now even more than before after a walkway was built on one side, extending towards the Planetarium. It is pretty at night, with the lights playing off the grandeur of the structure. It is also a place where a lot of wealthy people who really don’t know what to do with the weight they’ve accumulated over the years come to ‘work it out.’

I am not a student of architecture and the aesthetics of edifice are beyond me. I like the place but that liking depends on the time of day, the company I am with and the mood. I suppose it is the same for everyone else. It is a quiet place on most days and has that unmistakable ambience of ‘history’, assuming of course that we got ‘independence’ in 1948 (some would dispute this).

Strange things happen at Independence Square, my friend Muditha told me a couple of nights ago. Muditha who has spent many years in the USA, reading for a PhD in Chemistry is right now in Sri Lanka. He had been passing Independence Square and had decided to talk a look-see. He had walked around, noting the new couple-friendly landscaping and other things. He had wanted to take some photographs. He had been stopped by an official at the place who had politely told him that permission had to be obtained before hand, explaining that there was a security threat involved.

Muditha had not complained. In fact he had acknowledged that sometimes there is a logic for certain rules and regulations. He had moved around, looking-seeing. Then the full weight of what ‘independence’ meant had hit him square in the face. This is how it happened.

He had seen a bus-load of Europeans arriving at Independence Square. The passengers quickly got off and started clicking away merrily. Muditha had inquired about ‘permission’ and found out that nothing of the sort had been obtained. He had then gone back to the official and sought clarification.

He had been told that an agreement had been reached between those tasked with issuing licences to photograph and tourism authorities to waive the permission-requirement for tourists. Muditha, being a reasonable man, had thought this was still understandable. Not for long. This the gist of what he told the official.

‘There are all kinds of tourists. There are Europeans and there are also local tourists. Just assume that a man from Anuradhapura comes to Colombo and visits this place. It is not just another building but one that has historical significance. He wants to take a picture to show his family. He is stopped because he is a Sri Lankan, never mind the fact that he is also a tourist. The man is required by regulation to go to Sethsiripaya, wander around that huge office complex until he finds the relevant desk, obtain a document that allows him to take photographs, come back to Independence Square and click to his heart’s content.

‘What wrong has this citizen done that he is required to waste a couple of hours just so he can take a photograph that a foreigner can take without having to suffer any kind of hassle? Surely, it cannot be that difficult to set up a small booth where such permission slips as such are necessary can be issues? They could charge a nominal amount to cover costs, couldn’t they?

‘And what about South Asian tourists? You assumed I was Sri Lankan, but I could have been from South India. You ask me questions that you don’t ask a person who is light-skinned. You are racially profiling me, aren’t you?’

Muditha had been cordial throughout and the official too had been courteous, explaining that such issues had been brought to the notice of relevant authorities but nothing had happened.

There are several issues here. First, thee is the matte of the principle of equality being violated. Then there is the colonial mentality; the readiness to hassle a fellow citizen while going out of the way to accommodate someone just because he or she is white. The insensitivity of those whose job it is to think about these things.

Finally there is the issue of ‘independence.’ All this is ‘wrong’ whether it happens at the Museum, the Zoo, the Vihara Maha Devi Park, the Cultural Triangle or wherever. This is particularly telling though because the place is a signifier for something we are supposed to have secured some 60 years ago: ‘independence.’ Being belittled for being Sri Lankan and not French, German, Norwegian etc., is doubly unacceptable.

It is not only physical things that need to be protected. There is a psychological space within each of us and in us as a collective that is vulnerable to attack and this too needs to be protected.

I am not asking people to go overboard and I know Muditha was not too. Something wrong here, though, and it leaves a bad taste on the tongue of our national psyche. We can do without it, especially now, when we are ready to explore ‘tomorrow’ with vigour and hope that was hard to come by for thirty years.

We have a ministry for building the nation. We have one for cultural affairs. The Constitutional Affairs Ministry must take note of the differentiation that is facilitated by these policies.

I am going to Independence Square (perhaps with Muditha) a week from now. I sure hope I will not have material for a second article on this subject.



nilamal said...

This sure is blatant disregard for the citizens and their right to freedom. I have worked in the tourism trade for three and a half decades in Sri lanka and overseas. Sri Lanka is one of the few countries that has double standards.
More of this should be brought up and hopefully something will be done.