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Building a future and forgetting the past

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by Professor Savitri Goonesekere

At the ceremonial opening of out first Parliament on February 4, 1948 the late Mr. SWRD Bandaranaike addressed the nation with theses words. “It is true that no people can live on memories alone. It is equally true that history often provides a source of strength and inspiration to guide them in the future. It is only against the background of the past that the present and the future can be viewed in their correct perspective”

The new political ideology of “thinking out of the box” in governance seems impatient with the idea that history and experience has any value. This may be the “new normal” in a country where history was not taught in our schools for decades. The 20th Amendment that has just been gazetted and will go before Parliament for adoption demonstrates that the newly elected government is embarking on the important task of constitutional reform without reflecting on our experiences of governance under the 1978 Constitution.

Most nations in South Asia have not had to carry out frequent changes to the basic law of their country, the Constitution. It is true that our country has not in general experienced illegal power grabs. Yet electoral politics has also encouraged ad hoc amendments to the Constitution. In debating the cost of recent exercises in constitutional reform, the 20th Amendment, we should reactivate our collective memories on governance over the years. In doing so we should reflect on SWRD Bandaranaike’s statement of 1948 giving due consideration to the kind of governance we deserve and want for our country in the future.

The SLPP campaign for repealing the 19th amendment and adopting a new constitution.

The opposition and the media did not ask them to clarify their rationale for doing so or their vision. Within a month of taking office the 20th Amendment is being brought to Parliament to give supreme powers to the President without the system of checks and balances on distribution of powers between the three agencies of government in a Parliamentary democracy – the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary (courts). It is true that strong leadership in governance is essential for national development. However Parliamentary democracies create institutions and systems to help great leaders govern without forgetting the responsibilities of office and accountability, heeding not just electoral majorities, but all the people.

The 1978 Constitution provided the framework of governance for our country for 42 years. A Constitutional amendment that gives supreme power to an elected popular leader without institutional checks and balances can determine governance in a country long after he has left office.

 

The 19th amendment 2015

The 19th Amendment continues to be demonized by politicians in the government and others as a conspiracy of the previous regime to cunningly increase the powers of the then Prime Minister and undermine the President’s powers in governance. Yet the consensus within and outside Parliament in 2015 was that the dismantling of the Executive Presidency of the 1978 Constitution done in stages pending a new Constitution was a worthwhile objective and in the public interest. It was agreed at that time and up to mid 2019 that the Executive Presidency was a demon that had to be destroyed.

That agenda itself had a long history that we have all forgotten. President Chandrika Kumaratunga, when she took office pledged to dismantle the “bahubootha” 1978 constitution which she said was responsible for decades of bishanaya and dooshanaya (violence and corruption). Prof. GL Pieris and the late Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam were tasked with giving leadership and drafting a new Constitution that would transfer executive power to an elected Prime Minister and a Cabinet responsible to Parliament and the people. When taking Cabinet office in that government Prof. Pieris said “a Parliamentary executive model must be re-introduced. The Peoples Alliance has received an overwhelming mandate … for the abolition of the Executive Presidency.” (Sunday Times September 13, 2020, page 14).

The 2000 Constitution that Prof. Pieris brought to Parliament had strong provisions on the appointment and removal of judges to prevent political interference. It had a stronger bill of fundamental rights and a carefully thought out system of power sharing between the central and Provincial governments. This 2000 Constitution was rejected because there was no consensus on its adoption within Parliament.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa assumed office in 2005 on a mandate to dissolve the Executive Presidency. His Mahinda Chinthanaya policy for national development called for strengthening the Bill of Rights in a new Constitution. The National Action Plan on Human Rights was drafted and adopted. The President also appointed an Expert Committee to assist the All Party Conference (APRC) on constitutional reform and asked them to work towards maximum devolution to resolve the “national question” with power sharing. Yet in 2010 after giving leadership in ending the armed conflict in 2009 President Rajapaksa seized the moment to bring an 18th Amendment to the Constitution that would enable him to become a President for life. He acquired full powers on appointment and removal of holders of high office and Public Commissions without the scrutiny of a Constitutional Council and procedures introduced by the 17th amendment.

When President Sirisena was elected in 2015 he assumed office with a pledge to the nation to dismantle the Executive Presidency. He repeated this pledge on the passing of Rev. Maduluwave Sobitha who had led an election campaign to eliminate the executive presidency reinstating the checks and balances on abuse of executive power through institutions such as Parliament and the courts and independent commissions. It was in this environment that the 19th amendment was adopted by consensus and the two-thirds majority without challenge within the Parliament or in the Supreme Court.

A comparison of the 19th and 20th amendments.

A comparison of these two amendments clearly demonstrates that the cores principles of government in the 19th Amendment has been removed by the 20th Amendments in areas of great significance for the governance of the country.

 

The term  of the Office of President and

Eligibility for office

The 19th Amendment repealed provisions in the 18th Amendment, and set a term of office of five years, and a two term limit on the period in which he could serve in this office. These provisions have been retained in the 20th Amendment .However, the President  holding office under  the 20th Amendment will have all the powers of the Executive President  in the 1978 Constitution,   and some more powers. 

When the 19th Amendment introduced limitations on the President’s terms of office, it also REDUCED Presidential powers to accommodate the concept of a transfer of powers from the President to an elected  Prime Minister in Parliament. The changes  in  the Presidential term of office were combined with what Parliament agreed was a first step in LIMITING the executive  powers of the President, to  ensure accountable exercise of these powers.

The 19th amendment prohibited a dual citizen from being elected to office as a Member of Parliament, or as the President. These prohibitions have been repealed by the 20 Amendment and such persons can be Members of Parliament or President. 

There is a perception that this prohibition will prevent dual citizens from holding ANY public office. This is incorrect. The prohibition in the 19th Amendment only applied to the public offices of President and Members of Parliament, recognizing the potential for a serious conflict of interest should such a person be called upon to “carry arms” for another country, or support controversial policies of that country. An ordinary holder of public office may have choice and can resign. However resignation for conflict of interest has  Constitutional implications, if a person is   the President of the country, or a member of its legislative body, Parliament.

Presidential Powers and Accountability to other organs of Government and the People, in the Exercise of these Powers.

Significant changes to the 1978 Constitution were made  by the 19th Amendment in keeping with the overall objective of reducing the powers of the Executive Presidency, in the interests of accountable governance .

 

a) Duties of the President.

 

The 19th Amendment defined powers and also introduced a principle of “duties” that had to be fulfilled by the President. Some of the significant duties were, to:

i) ensure that the Constitution is respected and upheld

ii) promote national integration and reconciliation

iii) create a proper environment for the conduct of free and fair elections, on the advice of the Election Commission

 

The 20th Amendment retains provisions on Presidential powers and REPEALS  the provisions in the 19th Amendment on Presidential duties under the Constitution, and to the People, and the other organs of government.   

 

b) Accountability for Violation of the Fundamental Rights of the People by Presidential Acts and Omissions in Governance

 

 The 19th Amendment removed the blanket immunity of the President that was incorporated in the 1978 Constitution. The  19th Amendment recognized that the President was immune from liability in criminal or civil proceedings for anything done or omitted to be done in his official or private capacity. However, it placed a limitation, by permitting actions for violation of fundamental rights in the Supreme Court. This was to ensure that the exercise of Presidential powers, in his official capacity, could not involve a violation of fundamental rights guaranteed to all by the Constitution, or by the provisions on the use of Official Languages in the Constitution.

The declaration of war and peace was excluded from this limitation. 

The 20th Amendment repeals these limitations on Presidential immunity. It goes back to the principle of complete Presidential immunity from liability for his acts and omissions.  

There is a provision in the 20th Amendment on the right to bring actions against the Attorney General in respect of the President’s acts as a Minister, his /her impeachment, elections and a referendum, but the  scope of this liability is not clearly stated.

 

The Presidents Relationship to Parliament

a)  Responsibility to Parliament in the exercise of Presidential Powers

 

The 19th Amendment gave prominence to the President’s responsibility to Parliament in the exercise of his powers and functions, as a core principle of governance, in the Chapter of the Constitution on the President’s powers and duties. This principle was originally stated in the 1978 Constitution in the Chapter on the President and the Cabinet – the branch of the executive also represented in Parliament. The 20th Amendment brings this principle back to the part of the Constitution that deals with  the Cabinet, denying it the importance given in the 19th Amendment.

The change can be interpreted as limiting the President’s responsibility to Parliament. It is significant in a context where the 20th Amendment gives total presidential powers in regard to appointments to “High Posts,” defined by the Constitution, and the Public Commissions defined in the 20th Amendment. The Constitutional Council that was given oversight responsibility by the 19th Amendment had a significant majority of Parliamentarians on the Council. The Constitutional Council has been abolished by the 20th Amendment, and the Parliamentary Council that replaces it has the Speaker, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, and two Parliamentarians nominated by the latter, who are appointed by the President, and who can also  be removed  by the President at his discretion!

The Parliamentary Council under the 20th Amendment is under the control of the President, and  there is only a token  role for Parliamentarians, including the Speaker the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. They have no contribution to make in their official capacity as members of the Parliamentary Council.

 

                  b) Dissolution of Parliament

 Presidential powers on the Dissolution of Parliament, and the provisions on presentation of urgent Bills, also erode the role and responsibility of Parliament, and the capacity for oversight and scrutiny of legislation.

The 20th Amendment empowers the President to dissolve Parliament  one year after a General Election. This places the country in a situation where a costly General Election can be held in a very short time , and with no assurance that this decision will be made in the public rather than the rulers’  interests.

c) Other changes of concern relate to the Presidents capacity to refer legislation that has been rejected by Parliament for a referendum.

This provision in the 1978 Constitution was repealed by the 19th Amendment and has been brought back by  the 20th Amendment. A new provision on legislation states that “any amendment to a proposed Bill in Parliament must not deviate from the merits and principles of such Bill.” This sweeping provision can restrict debate and modifications of legislation in Parliament, and will encourage greater passivity and disinterest in serious discussions.

 

The President, Prime Minister and Cabinet,

as the Executive in Governance

The agreed  objective of the  19th Amendment was  to reduce the executive power of the President and transfer some of these powers to a Prime Minister and Cabinet from Parliament. Consequently, the provisions in the 1978 Constitution were changed significantly. The 20th Amendment has repealed all these provisions and gone back to the concept of supreme executive powers given to the President.

The President has complete discretion in determining the number of Ministries and the topics allocated to Ministries and State Ministries. “Jumbo Cabinets” can hold office without regard to national resources, at the discretion of the President. More importantly, the office of Prime Minister,   Cabinet Minister and State Minister, will be held at the “will and pleasure” of the President, with the full power of appointment, removal, and selection of Ministries left entirely to the discretion of the President. He can also assign any subject to himself, and take away Ministries allocated to any Minister, without even consulting the Prime Minister, exercising these powers in any manner that pleases him. 

There are no checks and balances at all on the exercise of Presidential powers in relation to the Prime Minister and Cabinet, under the 20th Amendment. Can this not encourage complete servility to the President, within Cabinet?    

The changes ignore the fact that the Prime Minister and Members of Parliament have been elected by vote to Parliament with separate responsibilities to voters. Having permitted voters to exercise choice, the 20th Amendment disempowers them completely, and makes them accountable to a single individual – the President. The Prime Minister has been reduced to an ” peon (office orderly),” as one holder of the office described himself, when he held the position under the 1978 Constitution. Yet ironically the provision that the ‘Cabinet has the direction and control of government and that they are answerable and responsible  to Parliament” has been  retained in the 20th Amendment.

 

(to be continued in The Island tomorrow)

(The writer, a highly accomplished academic in law, is a former Vice Chancellor of the University of Colombo)



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‘Is India going to steal land, water and air?’

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by Neville Ladduwahetty

The question cited above was the title of an article published in Ceylon Today by N. Sathya Moorthy (SM), who identifies himself as a Chennai based Policy Analyst/Political Commentator (Friday 10, 2024).The answer to his question is – NOT YET. For the present, stealing is limited to marine assets and the destruction of its habitat in the process by Indian fishermen. These practices have been going on for decades. By resorting to bottom trawling not only is the habitat destroyed for decades, but also the infrastructure of the Sri Lankan fishermen thus affecting their livelihoods. However, going by past and ongoing practices notwithstanding all the protests, expanding the scope of stealing to other fields of activity cannot be ruled out from opportunities arising from increased Connectivity.

STEALING MARINE RESOURCES

In a United Nations-Nippon Foundation of Japan Fellowship Programme of 2016, Aruna Maheepala claims: “There are over 5,000 mechanised trawlers in Tamil Nadu and nearly 2,500 of them enter Sri Lankan waters on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays and often coming at 500 m of the shoreline (emphasis added) …. More than 50,000 marine fishers live in the northern fisheries districts of Sri Lanka (Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mannar, Mullaitive), and they account for about one-fourth of the marine fishers of the country”.

“Before the commencement of the war (1982) around 40% of the fish production of the country came from Northern fishery districts (except Kilinochchi). However, contribution of the fish production in the northern fishery district drastically dropped to 5% in the peak period of the war (2008) and gradually increased after 2009. Livelihoods of Sri Lankan fishers’ have been drastically affected as a result of the Indian poaching” (Ibid).

Judging from the map of Sri Lanka’s EEC and its proximity to India’s coastline, to claim that Indian trawlers “drift” into Sri Lankan waters is unacceptable. On the contrary, the India trawlers “drift” into Sri Lankan waters because they have exhausted resources within India’s EEC.

In the context of the ground situation cited above, for Dr. Jaishankar’s claim that ‘India is committed to the wellbeing and progress of nations of the Indian Ocean is based on our Neighbourhood First’ is far from the truth. Instead, it sounds more like India First in the neighbourhood. To expect India to address this issue despite Dr. Jaishankar’s commitment to “a multilateral rules-based international order along with sincere respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity” are only words in the wind because it is alleged that the majority of Indian fishing boats entering Sri Lanka waters are connected to Indian politicians who are Members of the Legislative Assembly of Tamil Nadu.

This being the case, stealing marine resources and destroying their habitats is bound to continue without a word of ‘Thank you’ from Sathiya Moorthy or any others in India. In contrast, he expects Sri Lanka and its People to say ‘Thank you’ for the ‘ship-to-mouth assistance granted by India and Indians to the ‘People of Sri Lanka’, repeatedly referred to by External Affairs Minister, Jaishankar, not realising that the monetary value of what was and is being stolen and what is wantonly destroyed in the process, not to mention livelihoods of thousands, far outweighs the value of the assistance given. Therefore, there is no cause whatsoever to say ‘Thank you’.

IMPACT of CONNECTIVITY

With increased Connectivity through a Land Bridge, there is a strong possibility that Indians may Steal Sri Lankan jobs judging from the job situation in India, presented by Mr. Dharmawardana in “System Change: Is Sri Lanka to become an Indian Pradesh”? (The Island May 8, 2024). The article states that “some 93,000 candidates applied for 62 ‘peon’ posts in Uttar Pradesh police department which required a minimum eligibility of grade 5; However, there were 3,700 PhD holders and 28,000 post graduate and many graduates”. In such a background, there is a strong possibility for Indian applicants to offer their services at considerably reduced rates for employment in Sri Lanka, thus depriving Sri Lankans from gaining employment in their own country.

Commenting on the proposed “Massive Investments” in Sri Lanka by India, Sathiya Moorthy is of the view that there is a limit to what he calls a “good compromise in the name of environmental protection”, if “Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans should decide whether they want to live in stone-age caves or live in the times and with the times”.

If he thinks that these unsolicited Investments are being undertaken by India to ensure that Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans live with the times, he is being pedestrian in his thinking. Instead, it is all part of a fall-out arising from geopolitical rivalry by the QUAD to counter China’s influence in Sri Lanka; a fact evident when the US International Development Financial Corporation (DFC) agreed to fund the West Coast container terminal with a contribution of $533 to the Adani Group to build, as a Joint Venture with the Adani Group holding 51% of the shares and the rest, only 49% held by John Keels Holdings and Sri Lanka Ports Authority.

According to a Bloomburg report the Adani Group, the Indian ports-to-power conglomerate, is considering a $750 million investment in Sri Lanka to set up two wind projects that will generate 500 megawatts on the island as another component of extending Connectivity.

Continuing according to the report, Modi is seeking to tilt the balance in a strategic tussle with China on Sri Lanka, a pivotal battleground because it lies on key global shipping lanes and plays into India’s concern of encirclement from Beijing. New Delhi plans to boost air connectivity and also speed work on linking electricity grids with Sri Lanka. The two nations will also conduct a feasibility study for a petroleum pipeline as well as for a land bridge and passenger ferry service.

It is therefore, crystal clear that these Massive Investments are undertaken in the pursuit of the individual and collective national and geopolitical interests of the US and India and not for the benefit of Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans per se as Sathiya Moorthy contends, but only because Sri Lanka’s strategic location has imposed a degree of importance that needs to be controlled by the QUAD. In the light of these external compulsions Governments representing Sri Lanka’s interests have hard and limited choices.

Furthermore, since these are unsolicited Investments, relationships between and within governments factor in and invariably influence the negotiating processes involving costs and leniency towards environmental and other contractual obligations, etc. Consequently, client States such as Sri Lanka invariably end up with the short end of the stick. What is more surprising and disappointing is for a US Government Agency such as DFC to fund an unsolicited investment to the tune of US $533, thus violating good practices such as transparency associated with open bids.

SENSE of VULNERABILITY

The report cited above conveys the sense of vulnerability that has influenced India’s relationship with Sri Lanka. The need for Modi to tilt the balance in a strategic tussle with China on Sri Lanka, a pivotal battleground because it lies on key global shipping lanes and plays into India’s concern of encirclement from Beijing says it all. The sense of vulnerability felt by India regarding its security and territorial integrity is not new.

India’s leadership has repeated often enough, that the ‘security of India depends on the security of Sri Lanka’: a concern that causes India to seek regular assurances from Sri Lankan leaders and even prospective ones, that they would not undertake any ventures that have the potential to threaten India’s security. Such a perception has compelled India to adopt proactive measures to “tilt the balance in a strategic tussle with China on Sri Lanka”.

STRATEGIES to CONTROL DIRECTION of SRI LANKA

The way India is planning to “tilt the balance” in India’s favour is by adopting policies and strategies to CONTROL Sri Lanka’s political, financial and economic determinations in a direction that ensures India’s security and does not hinder India’s national and global aspirations.

POLITICAL CONTROL

For instance, control over internal political arrangement is through the repeated insistence of the full implementation of the 13th Amendment crafted and imposed by India. This entrapment is a serious fetter to the introduction of system changes at the Provincial level where powers Constitutionally devolved to Provinces are further devolved to Districts and Local Governments in a manner that enables development in the peripheries based on their respective determinations and capabilities. The strait jacket imposed by the 13th Amendment seriously restricts autochthonous development in the peripheries, thus affecting the livelihood of the majority in Sri Lanka.

FINANCIAL CONTROL

Financial control is through the use of the Indian Rupees in acquiring Assets, Trade through lines of credit and other transactions. For instance, the recent launch of the Unified Payments Interface (UPI) mechanism claims to reduce the cost of financial transactions between India and Sri Lanka. It is reported that Indian Government is actively exploring the possibility of facilitating Indian Rupee investments for Indian Companies in Sri Lanka.

“In the fiscal year 2023, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI)granted permission for international trade for invoicing and payments to be conducted in Indian Rupees. This move allowed for exports and imports to be denominated and invoiced in Rupees, with trade transactions settled in the currency. The RBI’s decision aims to stimulate global trade growth, particularly Indian exports, while also working towards the internationalisation of the Indian Rupee” (Ceylon Today, February 28, 2024).

“Last year, Sri Lanka officially recognised the Indian Rupee as a designated currency, ending trade settlements between the two countries to be conducted in Rupees” (Ibid).

“Currently, Indian Investors typically engage in investments in Sri Lanka using international currencies like the US Dollar, which involves additional complexities and conversion costs. The transition to Rupee investments is expected to streamline market entry for Indian companies, with the Ministry of External Affairs reportedly advocating for this transition” (Ibid).

The report finally states: “The push for Rupee investments aligns with India’s broader vision to elevate its currency to the status of hard currency in the future, potentially leading to inclusion in the IMF’s SDR basket and bolstering its foreign exchange reserves. This move is anticipated to benefit Indian firms with significant investments in Sri Lanka, such as the Adani Group’s development projects in the country’s port and power sector” (Ibid).

ECONOMIC CONTROL

Economic control is through unsolicited “Massive Investments”, that Sathiya Moorthy refers to in ports, renewable energy and other infrastructure projects to consolidate connectivity on lines cited above. Other actively pursued projects are the under-sea pipeline for petroleum products and for electricity grid connections together with the Land Bridge cited above. The collective impact of all this is not only to control the future direction of Sri Lanka but also constrain future choices open to Sri Lanka, in order to ensure a dependence that guarantees the security of India without depending on verbal assurances of Sri Lankan political leaders whatever their hue.

CONCLUSION

The answer to Sathiya Moorthy’s question “Is India Going to Steal Land, Water and Air?” is: NOT YET. For the present, stealing is limited to marine resources and the wanton destruction of its habitat within Sri Lanka’s Exclusive Economic Zone; a practice that has been going on for decades without acknowledgment of any kind – not even a Thank You. The stealing that is yet to come would be later, and would be through unsolicited projects judiciously selected and proposed by India in the name of Connectivity in order to control determinations of Sri Lanka in a manner that guarantees the security of India without depending on verbal assurances by Sri Lanka’s political leaders.

The reason for the obsession with security is because of a notion of vulnerability that India and its leadership has experienced for decades and repeated often, that the ‘security of India depends on the Security of Sri Lanka’. Although the sense of vulnerability brought about by a perception of encirclement had affected India for decades, the growing economic clout that India is experiencing in the background of geopolitical rivalries has emboldened India to adopt more proactive strategies to “tilt the balance in a strategic tussle with China on Sri Lanka”.

The strategy adopted guarantees security as far as Sri Lanka is concerned, is by being in a position to CONTROL determinations of Sri Lanka through Internal Political arrangements (13th Amendment), Financial through UPI and the role of the Indian Rupee in Trade and other transactions and Connectivity through Massive Investments in unsolicited infrastructure projects, investing in existing projects, resources and assets in order to colonize Sri Lanka and make it DEPENDENT on India. The policies currently being adopted by Sri Lanka are facilitating this process.

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Diana’s noisy exit; super women brings credit to Lanka and unwanted experts

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Finally, the case pertaining to State Minister Diana Gamage’s position as a British citizen has been brought to a close by a judgment of the Supreme Court. She has been dislodged from her National List post. Even her very continuance of living in Sri Lanka is unlawful, Cass surmises, for she does not even hold a visitor’s visa.

As an illegal resident of this country did Diana Gamage live mouse-like? No, not Defiant Diana! She roared like a lioness and even bared her claws like an enraged tigress in an argument with two co-MPs in the House of Reps on the Diyawanne.

Much was written about this anti-heroine in the Sunday newspapers of May 12. I quote from the Sunday Times: “After the highest court in the land gave its verdict, you were unrepentant and defiant. It was a bit puzzling when you said you ‘respected’ the judgment but saw there was a political conspiracy behind it. … Talking of conspiracies, the court did ask why the CID didn’t investigate your alleged offences for three years; and why you were so privileged. There seemed to be evidence of your obtaining several passports from the Paradise.”

That quote from a columnist who writes letters in a tongue in cheek manner but hits severely on truths of how Sri Lankan politicians and services function, opens up some issues. The judgment said that all must be treated equally before the law. It also focused the spotlight on persons obtaining several passports, DPL included. There is another flashy dame by the name of Sashi, who assumed more than one date of birth and hey presto, was the possessor of a diplomatic passport too!

What stuck in Cassandra’s throat chokingly over the defeated yet defiant Diana centered hoo-ha is her remark at a press briefing quoted by another columnist of the Sunday Times: “Why should I go from this country? I am a full-blooded Sri Lankan, with generations of Sinhala blood in me …” For that remark alone, Cass pronounces Diana Gamage with her British passport, not even having sought dual citizenship, should be banished from this land for ever. Cassandra googled entering her name. Many references but all the same and not one reveals her parentage.

Diana tried to rouse women to her cause and defence. Cassandra declares vehemently, echoed by most women of this country: “No woman who calls herself a Sri Lankan woman will rally round you. You are not one of us, Diana.”

Woman to be admired

In sharp contrast to Diana of the many deceptions, a sportswoman, activist and supreme achiever is featured in the news on Monday May 13. Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala was presented the IOC 2023 Gender Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Champions Award for Asia at the 43rd OCA General Assembly in Bangkok on May 11. (IOC is the International Olympic Committee and OCA stands for  Olympic Council of Asia). We heartily congratulate Jayanthi and thank her for bringing honour to Sri Lanka when our beloved country was declared bankrupt and so high on the list of countries with rampant corruption.

In 2016, Jayanthi scaled the summit of Everest on a Vesak full moon day. Cassandra interviewed her sometime after all the kudos offered to her – overseas mostly. She detailed the absolutely strength-draining feat however much training had been undergone. Remembered are what she said. Queues just below the summit were large and time short. Jayanthi was almost beyond endurance and will to continue, when her Sherpa guide started verbally abusing her. Luckily, she realised why his change of demeanour. He was urging her on by rousing her anger, knowing she was capable of the final mighty effort. She publicly expressed her debt to him for his guidance, protection and last-minute tactic of annoying her. She is admirable in her career as an activist, trainer, researcher and programme manager. She holds a Masters in Gender Studies from the University of Sussex among other educational qualifications. Most of all, she is a true Sri Lankan woman with no crowing over it or her many achievements.

Our women have shone in other areas of the sports field. Our Women’s Cricket Eleven have brought pride to us, beating many a team to be selected to play in the T20 World Cricket Cup matches. Here’s a blurb for you: “The ICC Women’s T 20 World Cup 2024 is set to ignite the cricketing world from October 3rd to 20th in Bangladesh. With ten teams, twenty-three matches and the promise of high-octane cricket, the tournament is a must watch for fans around the globe.” Our young women cricketers led by dynamic Chamari Athapathu are among that ten.

Plenty local experts

Cassandra makes bold to say that Sri Lanka has plenty of experts doing very well overseas, but plenty have stayed back and are available, in any field including medicine and IT. So, why hire experts from overseas at horrendous cost when ours can serve the purpose well and at such a saving of forex.  Dr Upul Wijayawardhana asks the question in The Island – May 13 – that we have asked before and of course got no reply to it. Why Solheim?

Solheim was totally non grata during and soon after the LTTE created civil war, since the perception was that he was biased towards Prabhakaran and the LTTE. Then we heard he had been severely rapped on the knuckles as Exec Director of UNEP (Environment Programme) for massive spending on air travel and high living. UN SG asked him to resign.

Cass echoes a million voices surely, when she questions why the need of an environmental advisor was met by hiring Solheim when there are educated Sri Lankan experts in the country itself or overseas, who score further by knowing full well the prevalent conditions of the country. Things are done in SL like in no other country! No explanations either. Cass applauds Shamindra Ferdinando and Dr Upul Wijayawardhana for turning the spotlight on this further expense to the country which is unnecessary.

Taxes

When Cass complained that interest earned on deposits was taxed, which is the sole means of income to many a retiree, a woman banker told her that even interest earned on savings in children’s names is taxed. Interest rates have plummeted and the meager amount earned from hard earned money deposited is now taxed. And where does that money go? For health, education, prevention of malnutrition in children? Dr Nishan de Mel, Verité Research, is heard in a video clip saying that 40% of increased taxed money – 75 billion – went to one line item in the military: diet and uniforms, whose costs have increased fourfold within the last two years.

Put your thinking caps on!

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The Opposable Thumb and the Big Toe: Of The Thinker In Auguste Rodin and Sarath Chandrajeewa

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Thinker in front of the empty doorway (2023), Sarath Chandrajeewa

by Laleen Jayamanne

What do the prehensile hand and the big toe have to do with the unique and exalted human ability to think? These two vital anatomical features of our body, the thumb and the big toe, don’t draw attention that much (we take them for granted), but a canonical French sculpture and a small Lankan painting have brought them to my attention recently.

I was predisposed to notice the function of the big toe in Rodin’s modern sculpture, The Thinker (1904) and in Sarath Chandrajeewa’s painting, Thinker in front of the empty doorway (2023), because of a photo of a big toe in the book, Gesture and Speech by the palaeo-anthropologist Andre Leroi-Gourhan. In extreme close-up, it is not a pretty picture, though what Leroi-Gourhan has to say about its function in human evolution is startling, certainly food for thought. He says that the evolution of the human foot with its big toe created the bipedal ability to stand up firmly, and walk upright, without losing balance.

Try walking with the big toe lifted up! Similarly, without the freed prehensile hand, humans could not have evolved to create tools and language, with a big, highly differentiated brain and nervous system of precise sensitivity. He demonstrates the unique refinement of the human hand and foot by providing diagrams of the gradual differentiation of these two drivers of evolution in contrast with some primates. Here’s Leroi-Gourhan:

“The human hand is not fundamentally different from that of other primates. Its ability to grasp, like theirs, is due to an opposable thumb. The foot, however, is radically different from a monkey’s. A primary stage with an opposable big toe is conceivable, but the two paths must have diverged very early, before the earliest known anthropoid stage”.

The Thinker as Archetypal MAN Just imagine placing a woman in the posture of The Thinker. Would it be credible? Sumathy Sivmohan asked this rhetorical question in our recent piece on ‘Abstraction & Empathy’ (Island 19/4/24):

“We already have the figure of the Thinker in Rodin. Do we immediately know to make those connections, and therefore think of the Thinker? Or is it a MAN holding himself in a ‘thoughtful’ pose which kindles the idea?”

So, I did a search and found that there is at least one such example, but its parodic register makes the point. In singer Ariana Grande’s “God Is a Woman” music video, she sits in The Thinker pose while being attacked by small angry men. Rodin’s thinker, though celebrated as a rare modern bronze sculpture, has been parodied in mass culture from as early as 1940. Charly Chaplin parodied The Thinker by placing multiple plaster copies of the statue to decorate the road on which Hinkel’s motorcade travelled in The Great Dictator. He adjusted a detail by making The Thinker stretch out one arm in a ‘Heil Hitler’ salute. Jean Luc Godard parodied The Thinker in his 1968 anti-Vietnam war essay-film, A Letter to Jane. It seemed that the solemnity of this perennial European male posture was unsalvageable.

The Archaic Thinker

But the prototype for the Thinker goes back to ancient times with clay figurines striking the same pose of a seated male figure holding his head in his hand. This iconic gesture (gestus in Brecht, Abhinaya in Mirror of Gesture (Abihnaya Darpan), of resting or holding the weight of the head in his hand with down cast eyes is what makes it an archetypal image of introspective, thinking man, self-aware man. The organ of thought, the brain appears to be weary and heavy, needing support of its ally, the hand. Wikipedia says the following about The Thinker’s archaic lineage:

“The Thinker from Yehud, also known as the Thinker of Palestine,[1] is an archaeological figurine discovered during salvage excavations in the Israeli city of Yehud. The figurine, which sits atop a ceramic jug in a posture resembling Rodin’s famous sculpture “The Thinker,” dates back to the Middle Bronze Age II Palestine (c. 1800–1600 B.C.E.). It was found in a tomb accompanied by various items, including daggers, spearheads, an axe head, a knife, two male sheep, and a donkey, all likely buried as offerings. After its discovery, the broken jug had to be stabilised and restored before being displayed in the Canaanite Galleries of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.”

“The “Thinker of Cernavodă”, Romania, a terracotta sculpture, and its female counterpart, “The Sitting Woman”, are works of art from the Chalcolithic era. The Hamangia culture produced these remarkable sculptures, with The Thinker believed to be the earliest prehistoric sculpture that conveys human self-reflection instead of the more common artistic themes of hunting or fertility. About 5,000 BC.”

And then Sarath Chandrajeewa does a small painting in 2023 and gives it a discursive title; Thinker in front of the empty doorway, which recollects Rodin’s work respectfully, in that it is not an ‘appropriation,’ neither a copy nor a pastiche of an old master, both tired gestures. But here, the exchange is between two bronze sculptors, one of whom also paints and makes pottery. There is a complex exchange of thought encoded in craft praxis (a theory-practice exchange) going on here, in this act of naming. A rare Lankan practitioner of bronze casting of monumental statues, (trained in the European tradition in Britain and post-Soviet Russia), and of abstract work in bronze, from the global South, salutes a modern European master in an oblique manner, fully cognisant of the vast aesthetic, historical and political differences that separate them. The gesture is quiet, measured, very modest indeed.

The sheer monumental form of Rodin’s Thinker (6 feet), is emphasised by the fact of its placement at a height emphasising the weight of thought bearing down. Besides, seated on a rocky surface he leans forward, twisting his body by placing his right elbow on his left knee, with his hand supporting his head lost in thought. Thinking appears to strain the body to an extreme. The feet rest on an uneven slope creating a sense of a somewhat precarious balance, emphasised by the big toe of his right leg which grips the rocky ground as though to steady himself from slipping.

The Asian Squatting Posture

In contrast, Sarath’s thinker is squatting on the ground and therefore has a stable stance working comfortably with gravity, as all Asian dancers and martial artists also do in their bent-knee stance, while standing. However, the thinker’s right big toe is separated from the little toes and appears to have a life of its own. which is why it stuck out like a sore thumb, as we say in English. The mimetic correspondence between the two thinkers helps to differentiate them on the basis of this similarity. Their big toes sharpen our perception and readies the mind to perceive differences and diverge. This power of divergence, while working within a tradition, is what the late Kumar Shahani called creativity, within Indian Modernism. A contribution to the richness of Indian Modernism which engaged with tradition without reproducing clones and neo-traditionalist kitsch.

‘All that is Solid Melts into Air’ Marx

The high seriousness of Rodin’s The Thinker easily lent itself to parody partly because it is a highly abstract work, free of context, universal. It is in the great lineage of nude sculpture from classical Greece of idealised male figures such as Apollo, to the perfect anatomy of David by Michelangelo. These lessons have been internalised by Rodin who comes at the tail end of this European tradition, after the famous Laocoon of the twisted bodies entangled in a serpentine struggle with a large snake. Rodin’s The Thinker appears belated, an anachronism in the midst of the dematerialisation of space and time in impressionism and other Modernist work of the late 19th Century capitalist, industrial modernity.

Rodin’s model for his The Thinker, ironically, was a boxer who often suffers from brain damage as an occupational hazard! But by then the division between the body (manual labour with the hand) and mind (intellectual labour with the brain) had had a long history in Europe from the Florentine Renaissance on, where the abstract brain work produced Linear Perspective and mapped the globe, as well as the factory system with its division of labour, to produce wool for the market, which required workers with manual skills.

The European Thinker as a Melancholic

It was in this 16th Century tradition that the pathology of Melancholia was written about in Italy, as the signature malady of men who lived by exercising their intellect, that is men of genius, artists, poets and philosophers. In contrast, in classical Greece the thinker was a man who walked and talked, a peripatetic figure as in Plato’s Academy, seen in paintings. Socrates and his students appear to have had a wide repertoire of gestures for picturing thinking as a collective, active process. But it is in the Renaissance that the iconography of the head resting on a hand was revived from prehistoric times to represent a unique male individual as the thinker. Is this because of the immense archive of Classical Greek knowledge that opened up to be mastered, creating the Italian Renaissance?

Thereby in the Renaissance, the thinker as a sedentary, isolated figure of genius became a well-recognised archetype in both the philosophical and medical discourse on Melancholia and also in painting. The German Albrecht Durer, who is the major figure of the Northern Renaissance made the most iconic image of the pathology in his copper engraving, Melancholia 1, (1514). Here the allegorical figure of melancholy is an angel with wings, but in the form of a large woman sitting with her head resting on her hand, in a workshop with craft tools and a geometric form all scattered on the floor unused. His St Jerome in his Study shows the scholar alone in his study at his desk, with a dog, associated with the ‘black dog’ of melancholia. This tradition presents male artists and scholars as being prone to melancholia. They are thought to suffer from a manic-depressive polarity, where creativity of genius flowers when experiencing inspiration or enthusiasm (meaning possessed by divinity), and that very exertion creates the depressive melancholia as well.

The Melancholy Prince of Denmark; ‘To be or not to be …’

With Hamlet as the melancholy prince, the iconography gets theatricalised and dramatic in the sense of being subject to conflicting emotions and moods which give rise to the soring poetry of existential agony and incomparable scenes such as his address to the skull of ‘poor Yorick’ (the Court Jester), at his grave site. The young prince thinks on his feet unlike the older men weighed down by abstract thought.

There is a vast European archive devoted to the pathology of Melancholia. In entering it one risks never returning from it intact. Such are its seductions. So, it’s best to have a brief peek into it and salvage Freud’s essay on ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ which is a very accessible text worth reading. He makes a distinction between mourning and melancholia by saying we mourn the death of a beloved person but the sadness of melancholy is a more generalised, defused feeling of profound emptiness and we are unaware of what it is that we have lost; its unconscious.

Feminists have done some very important work on this pathology of depression (an epidemic in the global North), and have asked why the category of genius has been coded as male. One of the reasons being that gifted women have only rarely had access to the symbolic means to express their profound experiences of loss, sadness and melancholy, unlike men who have had the full range of cultural expression at hand through access to deep education and training.

Ophelia or Portia?

In this force field of Male Melancholia and attendant exceptional classical erudition and creativity of highly gifted men of genius, the figure of Ophelia cuts a sorry picture, no doubt a depressive, given how she is treated by Hamlet, but without the corresponding eloquence of speech, she simply drowns herself in her sadness. In contrast, the clever Portia was a favourite among school girls of my era when there were inter-school Shakespearean competitions where her verbal eloquence, quick wittedness and stirring speech were always on display; ‘The quality of mercy is not strained…’.

Melancholia (Kalpanacari-Thanikam dose hewath Kalakireema?)

Sarath’s ‘Thinker in front of the empty doorway’ is one of the few paintings I was drawn to in his Visual Paraphrases exhibition of 2023 at Barefoot Gallery. And that it was placed next to The Ascetic, (in the catalogue), created a montage, where one noticed the counter-intuitive vibrancy of colour of the Ascetic with primary colours and the disturbingly unruly manner in which the mostly light colours and lines formed the semi-abstract Thinker.

The Ascetic was inviting while the Thinker was sort of disturbing to look at, though I found both compelling in their own way. While the brush strokes abstract the body of the thinker, he is very firmly situated in front of ‘the empty doorway’, a void. The figure is also firmly grounded in his striking squatting position. It’s a class specific posture, though not gender specific, and perhaps it’s also very South Asian, which is easily performed by manual workers, both urban and rural. People of upper classes who do not sit on the ground do not have the muscle strength and flexibility to sit in this manner.

A Void

It’s the incongruity between the title, Thinker…, with its European art history lineage, and the Asiatic squatting posture which struck me at first. The empty doorway is haunting with its yawning void, marked in black, fading to a grey white background with a barely delineated doorpost with the missing door, recalling ‘The’ looted doors and windows of Jaffna during the civil war. Here’s how Sumathy Sivamohan formulates Sarath’s mode of abstraction:

“Sarath’s art is abstract – but they build on the ideas of palpable forms of the real – images of the war that have come to be both tactile and material, like the wood, and have come to stand for the dislocation of war”.

Unlike Rodin’s context free thinker, the melancholy thoughtfulness (kalpanakari-thanikam-dose?) has a social/historical referent presented as a fragment, ‘…the empty doorway’, but abstracted from realist coordinates of place and time. Sumathy identifies a similar dynamic in the abstraction in Fallen Monument where she recognised immediately the scattered fragments of the Jaffna peninsula as her home.

But it’s the rough brush strokes, scrapings and scratching perhaps and the variety of patches of pastel shades of colour mixed with patches of black that emit energy which makes Thinker in front of the empty doorway as alive as The Ascetic but in a more troubling, agitated way, which I guess is what thinking feels like when it does not repeat the same thing over and over, but plunges into a void to find a foot hold, to grip onto something or hang onto something to orient oneself.

The Limits of Realism & Empathy

Had this figure been painted in a realist more empathetic mode, with a sad facial expression say and solid anatomy, its power to create meaning would have been quite different, more limited, I think. What is definitely solid in the painting, though lightly sketched, is ‘The empty doorway’, a fading trace of a violent civil war history, marked with the definite article for emphasis.

In the absence of a realist anatomy to identify with empathetically, one feels a pulsing of the nervous system, suggested by the jostling markings, scribbles, incisions even and colours that don’t ‘complement’ each other. The texture is imperceptible on paper and barely registered on the computer screen, my only forms of access to this painting. The thinker’s bowed, slightly turned head with downcast eyes, rests lightly on his hands with clasped fingers held in front symmetrically, as in a gesture of prayer, elbows resting on the knees, a figure of introspection.

Celestial Blue

A light, radiant, soft, celestial blue patch of colour on the thinker’s head echoes the same colour at the top left-hand corner of the frame and elsewhere on the body including the right big toe, suggesting an outside, out of frame. These qualities of blue appear to lighten the existential gravity of the ‘Thinker in front of the empty doorway’. Here, there is no weighty realist musculature of Rodin’s Thinker to weigh us down with sorrow.

Instead, one feels an energetic, intensive body (expressed with movement-colour somewhat muddied and a variety of markings, abrasions), that makes the beholders minds’ eye restless; perhaps an image of thought under duress. The blue big toe fires a neural connection in the brain of a thinker (an old woman) who thereby dodges the blues.

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