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Midweek Review

Parliament goes ahead with traditional tea party,regardless of corona threat !

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Nov 17, 2020: MPs were invited for tea, halfway during the presentation of the budget.(pic courtesy Parliament)

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Parliament on Monday (16) afternoon announced that following the budget speech on Nov 17th, the traditional tea party, hosted by the Minister of Finance, would be held this year, too, though being limited to Members of Parliament, Ministers, Ambassadors, High Commissioners and invitees.

The statement issued by the Department of Communication, Parliament, didn’t explain how the House intended to hold a tea party, in terms of health guidelines in place, due to the rampaging coronavirus. The statement refrained from explaining how those who had been invited were to maintain the required distance, among guests, as well as follow the strict laws, pertaining to wearing facemasks.

Parliament also announced that only Ambassadors/High Commissioners, and officials, authorised by the Ministry of Finance, were invited, and seats reserved in the Speaker’s Gallery, during the budget presentation, subject to health and safety regulations. The Public Gallery and the Media Gallery ,will remain closed, Shan Wijetunga, Director, Department of Communication, stated in a media communique.

The decision to go ahead with the party is surprising, in the wake of the growing threat posed by the highly contagious coronavirus. Recently, Parliament closed doors to scribes, after several journalists, who covered its proceedings during the fourth week of October, tested corona positive. During the same week, Parliament overturned its own decision to deprive All Ceylon Muslim Congress (SLMC) leader Rishad Bathiudeen of an opportunity to attend the proceedings. The original decision was taken on the basis that lawmaker shouldn’t be allowed to participate in the proceedings, as all those in custody were subjected to quarantine laws.

With the national economy in tatters, as a result of debilitating losses caused by the country being deprived of major revenue sources, due to the worldwide pandemic, lawmakers shouldn’t have been in the mood to join the party. The unprecedented Corona attack disrupted major revenue sources, namely tourism, garment trade and foreign remittances, while also hitting relatively smaller business enterprises. The losses suffered by the national economy and the projected losses are likely to be much bigger than the losses experienced during the conflict.

Having watched former JVP lawmaker and Chairman of the COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) Sunil Handunnetti, on Sirasa ‘Pathikada,’ on Monday morning, the announcement of the tea party, later in the day, seemed ridiculous. Responding to host Asoka Dias, Handunnetti lucidly explained the rapidly deteriorating financial situation, due to years of waste, corruption and irregularities, further worsened by the corona crisis. The JVPer painted an extremely bleak picture. Handunnetti pointed out how the incumbent government found itself in a deep financial crisis, with growing foreign and local debt threatening to overwhelm the country.

The JVP presence in Parliament has now been reduced to just three members, including one National List nominee (Prof. Harini Amarasuriya). In the previous Parliament, the JVP group comprised six with two National List members (Sunil Handunnetti and Bimal Ratnayake). Handunetti’s presentation was quite disturbing and underscored the urgent need for reforms to stop the rot.

The JVPer warned there were no short term solutions for the rapidly deteriorating situation. “The government cannot overcome depleted foreign reserves by printing money. Perhaps, printing money may seem a short-term answer, though the economic woes cannot be overcome by such measures,” he said

Parliament, as an institution, must review its duties and responsibilities. The country wouldn’t have been in the current financial mess if Parliament had fulfilled its obligations, in the past, under successive regimes. The bottom line is that the House has failed in its primary responsibilities with regard to ensuring financial transparency/stability and enactment of new laws.

 

Two key watchdog committees

constituted

Parliament will have to take tangible measures to drastically curb waste, corruption and irregularities, or face the consequences. Corona has dealt a massive blow to the national economy, already ruined by an utterly corrupt political party system. Parliament turned a blind eye to those hell-bent on cashing in, even at the expense of economic stability. There cannot be a better example than the Treasury bond scams, perpetrated in Feb 2015 and March 2016. The then President Maithripala Sirisena, having catapulted into power by an array of forces, led by the UNP, and, obviously, directed by foreign hands, used executive powers to save his benefactor, the UNP. Sirisena dissolved Parliament on the night of June 26, 2015 to deprive the then COPE Chairman, the intrepid Dew Gunasekera, an opportunity to present the report on the first bond scam to Parliament.

The then UNP-led government prevented police investigation into theTreasury bond scams. The President, in spite of growing differences with Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe, delayed the appointment of the Presidential Commission to probe it, till January 2017. Parliament received the report in late Dec 2017. Whatever the disputes between the government and the Opposition, the system ensures at least a debate on the report, but that, too, was sabotaged from within and was never held. Over a year after the last presidential election, and the incumbent government’s first budget, Parliament is yet to discuss the bond report. Can there be a system as corrupt as ours in any part of the world! Financial discipline seems the last thing in the minds of our people’s representatives as the situation now seems to be spiralling out of control.

Ironically, the Western champions of democracy, including certain warped UN bodies, who are ever ready to hound this country on apparent trumped-up war crimes charges, are quite conspicuous by their total silence over the sins of their darling, the UNP, when it comes to highway robberies it staged here, like the bond scams, its numerous incompetency, including the handling of the country’s security.

The COPE, the PAC (Public Accounts Committee), as well as the Finance Commission, under the leadership of newcomer National List MP Dr. Charitha Herath, Prof. Tissa Vitharana (86-year-old LSSP General Secretary) and Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, respectively, bear a very heavy responsibility for ensuring financial stability. The economy is in dire straits. The country is facing such overwhelming challenges, in the wake of the corona-devastated economy, the two watchdog committees and the Finance Commission will have to stand firm or accept responsibility for economic ruination.

The Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) lawmaker Dr. Harsha de Silva offered to accept the daunting challenge of heading both watchdog committees. The government simply ignored the former UNP Deputy Minister’s offer, though he served as UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s deputy in the yahapalana administration.

The SLPP has now taken the responsibility for maintaining financial discipline among its ministers. Would it be beyond the strength and capacity of COPE and PAC to ensure transparency in financial matters? The Finance Commission primarily deals with the allocation of funds among the Provincial Councils, established in terms of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, forced on Sri Lanka by New Delhi.

Dr. Herath faces an extraordinary challenge in leading COPE. Whatever political parties said, both COPE and PAC pathetically failed to improve financial discipline, though some of their revelations shocked the public. In spite of periodic revelations, those in power pursued their corrupt strategies, regardless of the consequences. None of those exposed by COPE had ever faced disciplinary inquiries, at party level, whereas those found guilty of corrupt transactions by courts were subsequently rewarded.

As part of the overall efforts to face the economic fallout, resulting from the unprecedented pandemic in our living memory, the government will have to take tangible measures to curb waste, corruption and irregularities. The economy is in such a bad shape, that lawmakers and the top administration cannot afford to continue corrupt practices, or receive further benefits for themselves, like for example brand new luxury vehicles, while the rest of us curse and suffer in silence.

 

A peacetime UN missive

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Office last Thursday (12) received a missive from Ms. Hanaa Singer, the UN Resident Coordinator here. Singer intervened, on behalf of those demanding that burial of Muslim corona victims should be resumed or face the consequences. Ms Singer concluded her letter by offering UN assistance in this regard, if Sri Lanka required such support. The UN official cunningly copied the letter to Health Minister Pavitra Wanniarachchi, Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena and Justice Minister Ali Sabry, PC. Naturally it became a cause celebre in newspapers and electronic media.

Why on earth does the GoSL need UN assistance to speak to the Muslim community? Let me reproduce Ms Singar’s missive to the Premier: “Allow me to reiterate the solidarity of the United Nations with the people of Sri Lanka in these challenging times marked by the COVID-19 emergency.

“Please be assured that the United Nations and its specialized agencies, funds and programmes, will continue providing support on the management of the epidemic.

“Across the world, the safe and dignified handling of those patients whose life has been tragically claimed by this virus has been an important part of the COVID-19 response.

“I am following with encouragement recent media reports that the current prohibition of burials of COVID-19 victims in Sri Lanka could be revisited shortly. In this context, I wish to take the opportunity to reiterate the concerns of the United Nations with the existing Ministry of Health guidelines, which stipulate cremation as the only method for the disposal of bodies suspected of COVID-19 infection.

“The World Health Organization, in its 24 March 2020 and subsequent updated interim guidance on 4 September 2020 on the ‘Infection prevention and control for the safe management of a dead body in the context of COVID-19’, notes that based on current knowledge of the symptoms of COVID-19 and its main modes of transmission (droplet/contact), the likelihood of transmission when handling human remains is low. The common assumption that people who died of a communicable disease should be cremated to prevent spread is not supported by evidence. Instead, cremation is a matter of cultural choice and available resources. According to World Health Organization guidance, people who have died from COVID-19 can therefore be buried or cremated according to local standards and family preferences, with appropriate protocols for handling the body.

“In the same context, I deem it important to inform you that I have received impassioned appeals from within and outside the Muslim community that perceive the current policy on burials as discriminatory.

“Against this background, I fear that not allowing burials is having a negative effect on social cohesion and, more importantly, could also adversely impact the measures for containing the spread of the virus as it may discourage people to access medical care when they have symptoms or history of contact.

I recognize that during epidemics, for reasons of public health, Governments often need to take difficult and at times unpopular measures. However, in this case, the negative consequences of not allowing burials seem to outweigh any potential epidemiological benefit. Considering the evidence-based guidance of the World Health Organization, as well as the commitments of the Government of Sri Lanka to respect and uphold the rights of all communities, I therefore express my hope that the existing policy be revised so as to allow the safe and dignified burial of COVID-19 victims.

“The United Nations avails itself of this opportunity to renew its highest consideration to the Government of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka and stands ready to provide any relevant support on this matter.”

 

UNP in a bind

Four months after the last general election, the UNP and the Ape Jana Bala Pakshaya (AJBP) are yet to name their National List candidates. The UNP and the AJBP won a NL slot each at the August general election. The UNP had 106 lawmakers elected and appointed through its NL in the previous parliament, whereas AJBP has never had any representation in Local Government, Provincial Councils or Parliament before securing one NL seat last August.

In the 225-member Parliament, two vacancies remained when Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa, in his capacity as the Finance Minister, presented the 2021 budget.

The AJBP suffered irreparable damage due to a simmering dispute between former lawmaker Ven Atureliye Rathana and Bodu Bala Sena General Secretary Ven Galagodaatte Gnanasara over the NL slot.

Ven Rathana sought the NL slot after making an abortive bid to get elected from Gampaha, whereas their Kuurnegala District nomination list containing Ven Gnanasara and others was rejected by the Returning Officer on technical grounds.

The court dismissed the AJBP’s appeal against the rejection of its lists in several districts, including Kurunegala. The contentious issue of who fills the NL slot is now before the court of law.

In terms of the Parliamentary Election Act and the Constitution, a political party, if so desired, can refrain from naming its NL members. When the writer raised this issue with the then Chairman of the Election Commission (EC) Mahinda Deshapriya explained that the concerned political parties could retain the vacancies. “EC has no power over NL appointments,” Deshapriya said, recalling how the USA (United Socialist Alliance) delayed filling its vacancy in Parliament, following the 1989 general election. The vacancy was filled in 1991 when Raja Collure took oaths as a Member of Parliament. The USA consisted of the Communist Party of Sri Lanka, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, the Nava Sama Samaja Party and the Sri Lanka Mahajana Pakshaya. The USA, in addition to one NL slot, won two seats.

Today, the vast majority does not remember how the UNP, by way of an infamous referendum, conducted in 1982, put off the general election, scheduled for 1983, to 1989. In other words, after the 1977 general election, that gave JRJ a 5/6 majority, there hadn’t been a general election, till Feb 15, 1989. At the violence-marred ‘89 poll, the UNP secured 125 seats, whereas the SLFP managed 67.

In terms of the system now in place, the appointment of NL members is the prerogative of the General Secretary of a particular party. UNP General Secretary Akila Viraj Kariyawasam will not move until party leader Wickremesinghe directs him. Contrary to expectations, Wickremesinghe refrained from making his decision before the vote on the 20th Amendment to the Constitution on August 22. The UNP is likely to keep its NL slot vacant during the budget debate, too.

There had never been a previous budget debate without the participation of the UNP. The failure to reach consensus on the NL slot has further weakened the party, with the SJB consolidating its position. With corona on the rampage, the SLPP, too, is likely to suffer, both in short and long term, in the absence of a cohesive strategy to meet the daunting economic challenges.

The SLPP winning a 2/3 approval for the 20th Amendment seems to be irrelevant as the epidemic continued to cause debilitating damage to the national economy. The government’s failure to properly ascertain/investigate the eruption of the second corona outbreak raised concerns among the public. The Attorney General seems to be on a collision course with the police, with the latter apparently adopting delaying tactics, an accusation, however, denied by the police. In the meantime,  the origins of the second eruption remains a mystery, over six weeks after the detection of the first case in  the second wave. The police cannot ignore the fact that the AG, issuing instructions as regards an inquiry, specifically referred to negligence on the part of the Brandix as well as government officials. Contrary to specific instructions received by the police, the police are yet to furnish a progress report on the corona eruption, as requested by the AG.

In the wake of the August defeat, the UNP appeared to have lost its prominent place in national politics. The UNP is unlikely to participate in the budget debate and, therefore, its NL slot is likely to remain vacant this year.

In spite of having an unbeatable near 2/3 majority, the SLPP, too, seems to be in some trouble, against the backdrop of the split over the 20th Amendment. Although the ruling coalition overcame differences and finally voted on Oct 22 for the 20th Amendment without division, political woes remain.

Minister Wimal Weerawansa complained to Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa, before the vote on 20 A, of an alleged attempt made by SLPP NL member Jayantha Ketagoda to convince some NFF members to vote for the new law even if their party decided not to. Political turmoil is set to continue as finances deteriorate.

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Midweek Review

A philosopher emperor

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by Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan

 

The titles of books can be misleading. I recall the surprise of a colleague when she saw me carrying a work titled ‘Why is Sex Fun?’ In that book, biologist Jared Diamond explores why human sexual behaviour is so very different from that of animals, even though we are descended from them and still retain some of their behavioural characteristics. The book’s subtitle is ‘The Evolution of Human Sexuality’. The title of Professor Ronald Dworkin’s work, ‘Religion Without God’ (Harvard University Press), seems to be a contradiction, if not an absurdity. Can an atheistic doctrine (the negating particle ‘a’ + theo) be called a religion? But then atheist Einstein said he was religious: “To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty … this knowledge, this feeling, is at the centre of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong in the ranks of devoutly religious men.” Some have argued that in true Buddhism, that is, as it was preached, there are no gods; even that Buddhism is not a religion but a set of moral precepts and wise, compassionate guidance. So much depends on our definition and concept of terms.

The title of the work that occupies us here, ‘How to Think like a Roman Emperor’ by Donald Robertson (New York, 2019), can initially be misleading. Did all Roman emperors think alike? Not being a Roman emperor, how can I possibly think like one? Again, the book’s subtitle clarifies: ‘The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius’. This brings us to Aurelius (121 – 180 CE) and to Stoicism. Admittedly, I have long admired Marcus Aurelius and, to alter words from Ben Jonson, have honoured him “this side of idolatry”. As a note has it, “Marcus Aurelius was the first prominent example of a philosopher king. His Stoic tome ‘Meditations’, written in Greek while on campaign between 170 and 180, is still revered as a literary monument to a philosophy of service and duty, describing how to find and preserve equanimity in the midst of conflict by following nature as a source of guidance and inspiration.”

Socrates, at his trial at which he chose death, said that an unexamined life was not worth living. Aurelius began each morning by thinking about, planning and preparing for the day. The second phase was when he, as emperor, had to act. Finally, at night he reviewed the day and his conduct during it. The ‘Meditations’ was not written for others: it was a kind of “stock taking” of himself, his reactions and behaviour. Aurelius warns himself not to become a Caesar, that is, a dictator. He tried, as far as custom and circumstances permitted, to reduce the pomp which surrounded him (Pope Francis comes to mind) preferring a simple, unpretentious life. As the Greeks knew, we can never see our own face, except by reflection in a mirror. A true friend can act as a mirror, showing us as we really are. Aurelius, therefore, welcomed criticism. Severe on himself, he was patient and kind towards others. As history shows, this extended even to those who had rebelled against him. I wonder if Forster’s comment in his novel, ‘A Passage to India’, that truth is not truth unless spoken gently, derives from the words and example of Marcus Aurelius. Truth, if spoken unkindly, serves only to alienate and antagonise. It may silence the other but does not convince or persuade. In his ‘Meditations’, Aurelius records and rebukes himself when he falls short of the standards he has set himself. The emperor wondered how he could estimate the worth of an individual, and decided it was by seeing to what things that person gave value. In modern terms, it doesn’t mean we must not take an interest in cricket, fashion or food but how much importance and value do we place on such things? Aurelius as emperor couldn’t retreat to his library but had to act. When war broke out on the frontier, he left the safety and comfort of Rome and placed himself at the front with his soldiers. Nor was he solemn and humourless. He is reported to have been good-humoured, affectionate, and close to his family and friends. Before age and responsibilities burdened him, he had hobbies and, as was expected of Roman youths and young men, was active in sports.

At the end, knowing that he was dying; that doctors and medicines couldn’t help, the Emperor calmly and courageously declined food and drink so as not to engage in a futile prolongation of the inevitable. Such an attitude and action are the result of long and serious thought, and preparation: in Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ (Act 1, Scene 4) it’s said of a man that he faced his own execution as one who had “studied” how to die. Aurelius must have known the Latin saying that someone who is not afraid of death cannot be enslaved. Changing time and place, John Donne in a sonnet that begins “Death be not proud” argues that since a person can die only once, having killed him, it’s Death that dies. And in Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ (Act 2, Scene 2) Caesar says: “Cowards die many times before their deaths”. As he was dying, Seamus Heaney, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, managed to send a text message to his wife in the language he loved, Latin. It consisted of two words: Noli timere (Don’t fear).

Though I am in no way a specialist in either, I am struck by important similarities between Stoicism and Buddhism. For a start, the cornerstone of both is rationality. The Buddha lived from 563 – 483 BCE and Zeno, credited with being the founder of Stoicism, from 334 – 262 BCE. And long before Alexander the Great reached India in 326 BCE, there were links between India and the West. Did Asian Buddhism play a role in the development of Western Stoicism? If research has been done in this area, it has not received publicity: the most effective way of “sinking” a book is to ignore it. Take, for example, Martin Bernal’s thesis in his ‘Black Athena’ that the roots of Western Classical civilization were Afro-Asian. So too, many a male must have been outraged by Martin Stone when he argued in ‘When God was a Woman’ that the first divinities before whom we bowed our heads or prostrated ourselves were female, particularly the ‘mother goddess’. In Sri Lanka, that lucid and refreshing, if radical, work by Dr K S Palihakkara, ‘Buddhism Sans Myths & Miracles’ (Stamford Lake publishers, Pannipitiya) has not excited much, if any, public discussion. Dr Palihakkara’s declared effort was to rescue and cleanse Buddhism from the accretion over time of “myths and miracles and metaphysics”: these took away what was unique to Buddhism, making it more like other religions.

So much of our attitude to life and death depends on our eschatology, our ideas and beliefs about death and the afterlife. The Stoics were atheists believing that at death we disintegrate into and merge with the material, a material which is itself constantly changing. Whether there’s a similarity here with Buddhism, I leave to the reader. The cardinal virtues of Greek philosophy, as of Buddhism, include wisdom (the product of reason and thought), moderation and justice. With Buddhism, it’s not mere verbal and public protestation but actual practice, and so it was with the Stoics. Stoicism was a way of life, assiduously trained in; exemplified by character and conduct.

While in Islam representations of the Prophet are forbidden, Christianity has many paintings and sculptures of Jesus; Jesus with different expression, including pain, even agony. In contrast, the Buddha is almost invariably depicted as being serene. When we lived in Bonn, I used to admire the swans on the Rhine, their sedateness and dignity but, looking more carefully, one saw that these were the result of their feet working constantly, often against the current. So too, the serenity of the Buddha is the result of thought and effort: as is the calm associated with the Stoic.

Anger is temporary madness. Because a deranged person is not controlled by reason, it follows that someone who is angry, someone whose anger is not under control is, for the duration, mad. True Buddhists and Stoics do not give in to anger; they remain detached; free and above this “madness”.

Stoic calmness, the result of mental control, must not be mistaken for emotionlessness. To feel pain and sorrow is human: what counts is our reaction to them. The operative word here is “acceptance”. Sorrow, while it has its impact on us, must be met with wisdom; pain, with acceptance. (Related to acceptance is the key term and concept of relinquishment.) Thorns hurt, and the Bible advises us not to increase the pain by kicking against them. The Stoic image was of a dog tied to a cart: the dog can either walk along or make things worse for itself by struggling, futilely and painfully. A 20th century philosopher asked for the courage to change those things which can be changed; the serenity to accept what can’t be altered, and the wisdom to know the difference. Donald Robertson, a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist, brings in modern terms and concepts to an understanding of Marcus Aurelius, among them the Stoic reserve-clause. Our expectations are ‘reserved’ for what is within our sphere of control: the rest is up to chance or, as believers would say, “Deo volente” or “Deo gratis”. (When I asked a friend why he often said “Inshallah” though he had never been a Muslim and was in fact a thorough atheist, he replied that it was in a philosophical and not in a religious sense: “If my effort and chance will it”.) As with emotions, so with our desires: of importance to the Stoics was (a) what we desired; (b) to what degree, and (c) how we set about achieving these desires.

Central to Buddhism and Stoicism is an awareness of transience, known in the former as “Anicca”. Heraclitus (500 BCE) famously declared that all is flux. We cannot step into the same river twice because fresh waters are ever flowing in. For better or worse, we are not the same as we were several, or even a few, years ago. We change, others change, relationships change, the world around us changes. All is flux. And as T S Eliot, borrowing from Hinduism, writes in ‘Murder in the Cathedral’, only a fool fixed in his folly thinks he can turn the wheel on which he turns.

I read that there’s a tribe which mourns birth and celebrates death, and Shakespeare in his major tragedy ‘King Lear’ suggests with ironic wit that all infants cry when they are born because they have come to this world! Freud suggested that in as much as we have an instinct for preservation and survival, there can also be a wish for death, for a return to a previous state of non-existence: see terms such as ‘Todestriebe’ and ‘Thanatos’. James Thomson in his poem, ‘City of Dreadful Night’ writes:

This little life is all we must endure,

The grave’s most holy peace is ever sure,

We fall asleep and never wake again;

Nothing is of us but the mouldering flesh,

Whose elements dissolve and merge afresh…

 

 

“And the cessation / of life’s peacock scream / will be relief” (Liebetraut Sarvan).

In Book 1 of his ‘Histories’, Herodotus relates the story of a mother who, full of love for and pride in her two sons, prays in the evening to the goddess Hera that she bestows on them “the greatest blessing” that can fall on mortals. The goddess answers the prayer, and the young men are found in the morning – dead. Diagones (412 – 323 BCE) who had a sharp sense of ‘humour’ requested that his dead body be thrown over the city walls so that the wild animals could have a meal: no longer having consciousness, what was done to his body didn’t matter. Respect for a corpse; gravestones and monuments; memorial services, prayers and rituals are for the living, and not for the dead. Buddhist nirvana means the final deliverance from suffering and sorrow: an escape into freedom effected by ceasing to be.

Given these conceptions of life and death, it is not surprising that suicide (not on impulse; not in despair or in a state of temporary madness) was accepted; indeed, in certain situations it was admired and highly honoured. Shakespeare’s Hamlet contemplating suicide and the “sleep” that follows it, saw death as a “consummation” devoutly to be wished for. Each individual must decide, with utmost clarity and calmness “whether the time is come to take leave of life” (‘Meditations’, Book 3). Or as Aurelius expresses it elsewhere, the chimney smokes and I leave the room (Book 5). To the Stoics, lamentation at death was for the loss that the living experienced, and not for the departed:

 

No motion has she now, no force

She neither hears nor sees;

Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course With rocks, and stones, and trees

(William Wordsworth)

 

Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970) wrote: “I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting. Many a man has borne himself proudly on the scaffold; surely the same pride should teach us to think truly about man’s place in the world.” And so I return to the serenity of the Buddha and to the calm of Stoicism: the aim of both was (through rational thought and conscious, controlled, behaviour) to minimise pain and to increase peace and happiness. Both Buddhism and Stoicism are positive and life-enhancing.

Addendum.

I draw attention to what I wrote in ‘Colombo Telegraph’ (1 February 2018) under the caption ‘Religious doctrine and religion’. If we say that Christianity is a gentle, or Buddhism a compassionate, religion what we mean is these faiths as they were taught – most certainly, not as they are practiced in private and public life. I suggested a distinction between religious doctrine and religion with its rituals, paraphernalia, hierarchy, myths and superstitions. Religious doctrine has a divine or semi-divine origin or is from an exalted, exceptional, individual. Simplifying, one could say: “Religious doctrine is ‘divine’ but religion is a human construct”.

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Midweek Review

Heisnam Kanhailal (1941-2016): Remembering a Theatrical Legacy

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Sabitri demonstrates walking upstream during an actor training workshop at NSD, 2010. Photo credit Saumya Liyanage.

 

by Dr Saumya Liyanage

Victor Thoudam, one of my closest friends, was a student at the National School of Drama (NSD) New Delhi, India; he was about to launch his latest performance in Imphal, Manipur amidst Covid-19 pandemic. I contacted Victor to congratulate him on his work. During our conversation, I asked him about Kanhailal, a visionary director and writer I met in 2010 in New Delhi. He said, “Kanhailal is no more with us”. I was saddened and felt lost while remembering my short but worthy conversation I had had with Kanhailal in the early winter days of 2010 at the NSD. I have associated with Indian theatre directors from the northeastern region, and I had fruitful conversations with three of them during my visits to NSD. One was theatre and film actor Adil Hussain. Other two were theatre directors and writers Heisnam Kanhailal and Ratan Thiyam. Since 2010, I have had spoken with my Indian colleagues and nobody informed me that Kanhailal has passed away. Then I asked Victor about Ratan Thiyam, and he said, “He is getting old but is still active in theatre”.

 

NSD Years

It was winter in New Delhi and the chilly wind was unbearable when travelling at night in a trishaw for a play or a movie. But Bharath Rang Mahothsav (BRM), the International Theatre Festival, organised by the NSD, provided warmth and the motivation for me to witness regional and global theatre trends. The International theatre festival was on at several theatres around the school, including Abhimunch; theatre productions from all over the world and every part of India were being staged in the evening. There were also dance experimentations and other happenings in various non-conventional performance spaces in the school premises.

After watching plays at night, students, teachers, actors, and directors would gather around a bonfire outside the school premises, sipping milk tea, eating samosas and discussing what they have seen. On such an occasion, my colleagues at NSD, Prof. Robindas, and Adil Hussain got me to watch a play from the Manipur region. The Director was Heisnam Kanhailal. During my breakfast at the crowded canteen of the NSD, students also insisted that I see Kanhailal’s production and Ratan Thiyam’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s last play, When We Dead Awaken. NSD staff was generous enough to provide me free tickets to watch all the plays during the festival.

Ratan Thiyam

It was the first time I saw Ratan Thiyam’s theatre work. The hall was packed with students, theatergoers, critics, and laymen. Some spectators were even sitting on the floor. Ratan Thiyam was very famous in Delhi. I was mesmerized by Ratan Thiyam’s theatrical approach to Ibsen’s play. It was adapted and produced in a Manipoorian style with mind blowing sets and costumes. Ratan’s actors, their rigor in performing on stage, are unforgettable. But critics like Rustom Bharucha argue that Ratan’s theatre is more festival centric and elaborate colours and sets which overpowers the real essence of his theatre. As Bharucha further emphasizes, Ratan Thiyam creates a theatrical extravaganza or an ‘invented tradition’ through which an imagined ‘Manipooriness’ and indigeneity is created for the cultural centers such as New Delhi and elsewhere.

Kanhailal and Indigenous Theatre

The theatre has stunned me twice so far. The first one is the play titled Othello in Black and White directed by Royston Abel. It was staged at the BRM festival before 2010. cannot remember the exact date. My colleague Adil Hussain played the key role in it. His performance as Othello was fantastic. The second was the Manipur play, adapted from a folk tale, and directed by Heisnam Kanhailal. It was very simple and minimalistic. The key role was played by a matured actress. Later I found that she was the collaborator and lifelong partner of Kanhailal’s plays, Sabitri. Today, I vaguely remember the play as I saw this production way back in 2010.

When Artaud writes how an actor should impact upon the audience member and should vibrate her body similar to a serpent feeling the vibration of the floor, Sabitri’s lyrical body and stylized movements directly communicated with me. Rejecting the mundane theatre conventions, Kanhailal’s actors used human voice in its fullest capacity and tonal variations, and the lyrical body movements to convey the meanings of a human story. This masterpiece exceeded my generic understanding of proscenium theatre and was a vibratory theatrical experience with a minimum effort of extraordinary theatre effects.

After watching this play, I was eagerly waiting to have a discussion with Kanhailal. My friend Victor came, the following day, with a photocopied book. It was about Kanhailal’s theatre practice written by Prof. Rustom Bharucha. It was The Theatre of Kanhailal: Pebet & Memoirs of Africa (1992). Because it was out of print. It was a precious present for me as I started reading Kanhailal’s theatre career and his practice. With the support of NSD staff, I managed to get an appointment from Khaneilal to meet him for a discussion. I met him at the NSD with his wife Sabitri and had a long discussion on his theatre, his beliefs, his practice, and training regime of actors in Kalakshetra, theatre ensemble located in Imphal, Manipur.

Third Theatre

For Bharucha, Kanhailal’s ‘poor theatre’ (meaning the avoidance of excessive theatre technology or other auxiliary material) is a powerful political idiom which captures the indigenous sentiment and oppression of people live in Imphal, Manipur. Writing about Kanhailal ’s famous theatre work, Pebet (1975), Bharucha contends that as a theatre director, Kanhailal questions the idea of janmabhumi, the patriotic ideology created by the dominants, used as an oppressive tool to suppress the marginalised communities (Bharucha 1992). In this play, mother Pebet (a small extinct bird) is disgracefully attacked by her own children after being manipulated by her opponents. When this play was first performed, it was considered not only as anti-Hindu production but also a theatre work promoting anti-Indian sentiment.

Kanhailal and Sabitri conducted several actor training sessions for graduate students during my stay at the NSD. These sessions consisted of learning from nature and working with various natural metaphors to create imaginative bodily movements. Most of the time, Kanhailal appeared as a guru, discussing and explaining things to students while Sabitri demonstrated all the exercises they discussed in class. One of the exciting acting exercises that I observed was walking upstream in a river. Sabitri’s body was a flexible tool although she was in her later fifties at the time. She started showing students how to imagine a shallow river and wade it. Students were then asked to imitate Sabitri and her body movements. Workshop went for two hours followed by a discussion.

Similar to other theatre practitioners in the new era of Indian theatre, Kanhailal has been inspired by European Avant Guards such as Grotowski’s corporeal theatre and also Badal Sirkar’s approaches to communal theatre coined as ‘third theatre’ in India (Nair, 2007, Hirsch and Brustein, 1970, Brahma Prakash, 2010). While his contemporary theatre director Ratan Thiyam’s theatre was criticized as ‘reinvention of tradition’ and meant to please for the cultural centres in India, Kanhailal’s theatre is minimalistic and dominates non-verbal theatricalities opposed to established proscenium, middle class theatres. However, Bharucha is critical of being non-verbal and the domination and overemphasis of pre-expressivity of Kanhailal’s theatre. As he argues ‘Kanhailal seems to have overstressed non-verbalism and the physicality of his actor’s training at the expense of confronting the spoken word […] The instincts and reflexes of Kanhailal’s actors are extremely sharp, but their minds have been somewhat numbed by their essentially dream-like response to performance.’ (Bharucha, 1992, p. 19). Kanhailal’s theatre is unique in that he borrows most of his materials from his inherent Meitei tradition and its folklore. Yet, these folk tales and fables are transformed into political idioms through lyrical and corporeal works of actors. As a theatre producer, Kanhailal rejects elaborate sets, costumes, music, stage props, make-up, or stage light. His theatre can be performed either on conventional proscenium theatre or any space where people can gather. This simplistic and minimalistic nature lays emphasis on actors’ contribution, their mannerisms, and vocal capacity to impress the audience more than anything else. Hence, Kanhailal creates a powerful and unique theatre mode through which our senses are filled with a novel theatrical experience.

Conclusion

Kanhailal’s theatre and Sabitri’s performances have been well received by many critics, theatre scholars in India and abroad. Kanhailal received the Padma Sri Civilian Award in 2004 and later in 2016 he received the highest Padma Bhushan Civilian Award from the Government of India. Kanhailal and his collaborative partner Sabitri have created over 20 productions during their theatre career. Most of these productions have been performed in major cities in India and at international theatre festivals. Sabitri as an actresss has received many awards and accolades including Best Actress awards at Cairo International Theatre Festival, Natya Rathna and other state wards such as Padma Sri and Sangeeth Natak Academy Award.

Working and dedicating one’s life and energy to sustaining a community-based theatre is a difficult exercise. Kanhilal and Sabitri have both succeeded in their endeavour. Many students who graduate from the NSD are attracted to more popular entertainment industries such as television and cinema. But theatre artists such as Ratan Thiyam or Kanhailal were not drawn towards those popular expressions. Instead, they dedicated their lives to creating a form of ephemeral arts, whose original quality cannot be preserved in another form.

(The author wishes to thank Himansi Dehigama for assistance in preparing this article.)

Reference

Bharucha, R. (1992). The Indigenous Theatre of Kanhailal. New Theatre Quarterly, 8(29), pp.10–22.

Brahma Prakash (2010). Theatre of Roots: Redirecting the Modern Indian Stage (review). Asian Theatre Journal, 27(1), pp.175–179.

Hirsch, F. and Brustein, R. (1970). The Third Theatre. Educational Theatre Journal, 22(1), p.113.

Kothari, S. and Panchal, G. (1984). The Rising Importance of Indigenous Theatre in India. Asian Theatre Journal, 1(1), p.112.

Nair, Sreenath. (2007). Poetics, Plays, and Performance: The Politics of Modern Indian Theatre (review). Asian Theatre Journal, 25(1), pp.165–168.

Rustom Bharucha (1992). The theatre of Kanhailal: Pebet & Memoirs of Africa. Calcutta: Seagull Books.

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Midweek Review

The rise of the Bonapartists:

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A political history of post-1977 Sri Lanka (Part I)

By Uditha Devapriya

Viewed in retrospect, the yahapalanaya regime seems almost a bad memory now, best forgotten. This is not to underrate its achievements, for the UNP-SLFP Unity Government did achieve certain things, like the Right to Information Act. It soon found out, however, that it couldn’t shield itself from its own reforms; that’s how 2015 led to 2019. Despite its laudable commitment to democratic rule, the yahapalanists reckoned without the popularity of the man they ousted at the ballot box. November 2019, in that sense, was a classic example of a populist resurrection, unparalleled in South Asia, though not in Asia: a government touting a neoliberal line giving way to a centre-right populist-personalist.

What went wrong with the yahapalanist experiment? Its fundamental error was its inability to think straight: the moment Maithripala Sirisena reinforced his power by wresting control of the SLFP from Mahinda Rajapaksa, he ceded space to the Joint Opposition.

Roughly, the same thing happened to the C. P. de Silva faction in 1970: after five years in power, it yielded to the same forces it had overthrown from its own party. The lesson de Silva learnt and the yahapalanists so far haven’t was that no progressive centre-left party can jettison its leftist faction while getting into a coalition with a rightwing monolith without having its credentials questioned at the ballot box. When voters responded by electing the leftist faction in 1970, the leader of the rightwing coalition, the UNP, faced electoral defeat. Dudley Senanayake had to step down, just as Ranil Wickremesinghe had to.

Deceptively conclusive as comparisons between 1970 and 2020 may be, however, there is an important distinction to make. The rightwing ideology the UNP under Dudley Senanayake, adhered to was qualitatively different to the rightwing ideology Senanayake’s successor J. R. Jayewardene embraced. The two Senanayakes, Jayewardene, and John Kotelawala lived and had been brought up in the shadow of the British Empire. Upon coming to power they oversaw a shift in their party ideology from Whitehall to Washington; this process reached its climax in the McCarthyist Kotelawala administration.

Jayewardene was the last of the Old Right leaders whose fortunes were tied directly to the plantation economy and whose ideology cohered with the Bretton Woods Keynesian Right of Richard Nixon and Ted Heath. The paradox at the heart of his presidency, and the shift to populism at the hands of his successors, has much to do with the transition from this Old Right to a New Right. I begin my two-part essay with that transition.

The New Right, or the neoliberal Right, came into prominence via the election of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher on either side of the Atlantic. These two figures eschewed not only the leftist opposition, but also predecessors from their own parties; Ted Heath remained to the Left of Thatcher, for instance, while Gerald Ford criticised certain parts of Reagan’s reform programme (though eventually he extended his support).

In the industrialised economies of the West, to put it succinctly, the Old Right adhered as much to price controls, quantitative easing, and economic stimulus as did their rivals on the Left. By contrast, the New Right preferred low inflation even at the cost of full employment, the elimination of subsidies, and privatisation. Readers’ Digest called David Stockman “David the Budget Killer.” The epithet was not unjustified: at the Office of Management and Budget where he served as President during the first Reagan administration, Stockman oversaw the biggest rollback of the US state since the New Deal. Nixon famously claimed that we were all Keynesians, but Reagan enthroned monetarism. So did Thatcher.

How did that spill over to underdeveloped economies, particularly non-industrialised ones such as Sri Lanka’s? In the aftermath of the 1973 oil crisis, much of the Non-Aligned non-West suffered a full decade of unprecedented calamity in the form of famines, shortages, and inefficient, unresponsive bureaucracies. The governments of many of these countries opted for state-led industrialisation, which coupled with stagflation and incomplete land reforms at home failed to deliver on what it pledged and promised.

Indeed, laudable as Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s reforms were, they became mired in their own contradictions: as S. B. D. de Silva observed, they entrenched a class of intermediaries who benefited from the regime’s economic programme. “Nothing came out of [its] attempt to industrialise,” he recounted in his last interview in 2017, “because the industrialisation was really foreign exchange driven.” In other words, embedded in it were the seeds of its own electoral destruction, a fate accelerated by the jettisoning of the Left in 1975.

The transition from the Old to the New Right in the West led to the growth of finance capital, the deindustrialisation of Western economies and the shift to Free Trade Zones in the global periphery, and the enforcement of structural adjustment vis-à-vis the IMF, the latter revolving around four principles: economic stabilisation, liberalisation, deregulation, and privatisation (Thomson, Kentikelenis, and Stubbs 2017).

Between 1970 and 1980, debt levels in Latin America alone rose by over a thousand percent. Structural adjustment, at the time lacking the kind of critique evolved by the likes of Joseph Stiglitz and Thomas Piketty later, promised a way out of indebtedness which would lead to growth, development, low inflation, and free trade. The flip-side to these benefits, which its champions left out of the discussion, was widespread poverty, a widening income gap, high unemployment, and trade practices slanted and tilted heavily to the West.

Not unlike the World Bank prescription that preceded it, structural adjustment favoured the dismantling of local industry. But where the World Bank had prescribed the establishment of small cottage industries and continued emphasis on agriculture, the IMF recommended the privatisation of local industry AND agriculture to multinational corporations. This was in keeping with the new monetarist philosophy: reduce the money supply, lower marginal tax rates, maintain a minimal social safety net, and welcome the robber barons.

The East Asian economies grew against a different backdrop. Multinational companies until then were largely, if at all, limited to Central and Latin America: the United Fruit economies. In essence, the IMF and World Bank repackaged the United Fruit model and introduced it to countries newly embracing neoliberalism. Among these was Sri Lanka.

In a critique of Mangala Samaraweera’s maiden Budget Speech in 2017, Dayan Jayatilleka pointed out that inasmuch as the J. R. Jayewardene administration enacted open economic reforms, it did so within the framework of a centralised state. Therein lies a paradox I earlier alluded to of the Jayewardene presidency and, to an extent, of the Premadasa presidency: the dismantling of the economy did not follow from a dismantling of the state.

Yet this differed very little from what was happening in other countries enacting structural adjustment packages: economic liberalisation took place under the watch of a centralised, authoritarian state. Much of the reason for this has to do with the contradiction at the heart of structural adjustment itself: while it freed the economy, it shackled the majority, and to keep them from rising up in protest, it had to shackle dissent too.

It’s no cause for wonder, then, that many of the leaders of countries who would oversee the transition from state-led industrialisation to “export-oriented” MNC driven growth hailed from the Old Right. Jayewardene was no exception: an eloquent, shrewd populist, he made overtures to a virtuous society while entrenching a merchant class of robber barons.

Meanwhile, the rise of a civil society posing as an alternative to the private and the public sectors, but in reality aligned with the private sector, made it no longer possible for radical scholars, educated in the West, to get involved in policy implementation with the state. As Vinod Moonesinghe has noted in a paper on relations between civil society and government (“Civil society – government relations in Sri Lanka”), after 1983 there came about a steep rise in NGO numbers. Susantha Goonetilake (Recolonisation) has argued that the structures and relationships of power within and the activities of these enclaves came to reflect those of a private organisation more than of an institution affiliated to civil society.

In stark contrast to its earlier position of engagement with the public sector, civil society stood apart and aloof from the latter, inadvertently breaking away from its historical task of getting involved at the grassroots level in policy formulation and implementation. Ironically this served to speed up the government’s delinking from civil society: enmeshed in the private sector, NGOs ended up spouting postmodernist and post-Marxist rhetoric, offering no viable alternative to the UNP’s development paradigm.

Even more ironically, what that led to was a situation where, at the height of the second JVP insurrection, their most ubiquitous representatives took the side of the government over the rebels while taking the side of Tamil separatists over the government: a paradox, given that both groups were fighting the state over class as much as over ethnicity. The NGOs’ selective treatment of the JVP and the LTTE justifies the view that in the 1980s, ethnicity replaced class as the dominant topic of discussion by social scientists.

All this undoubtedly contributed to the separation of the state from the public sphere: a prerequisite of structural adjustment and economic liberalisation. Yet paradoxically, while that process of separation went ahead, it required as a lever an autocrat who could, and would, crack down on trade unions, appease a growing petty bourgeoisie and middle class, and in contradiction to the principles of nonalignment, ally with the West. This meant couching everything domestic in Cold War terms and slanting it to an anti-Marxist position: not for no reason, after all, did Jayewardene refer to the LTTE as a group of rebels fighting to establish a Marxist state in a BBC interview. Appeasing the middle-class with these methods was easy because the middle-class faced a dilemma: while it bemoaned the government’s authoritarianism, it was in no mood to revert to the autarkyism of the Bandaranaike era. It wanted more representation, while keeping the economy open.

At the heart of middle-class support for the Jayewardene presidencies, however, lay a fatal time bomb: its Buddhist constituency. When Jayewardene, in 1982, authorised the writing of a continuation of the Mahavamsa, he reaffirmed his regime’s commitment to a Buddhist polity. In an essay on the Jathika Chintanaya, Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri argued that while in one way 1977 appeared to be “a symbolic marker of a new epoch”, in another it betrayed “a loss of something that is Sinhala Buddhist.” Supplementing this was the rift at the heart of J. R.’s reforms: political authoritarianism versus economic liberalisation. Both were viewed as betrayals of Buddhism, quoting Stanley Tambiah’s book; dharmista samajayak, after all, was as much the winning promise of Jayewardene’s campaign as it was the title of Ediriweera Sarachchandra’s critique of his regime’s breach of that promise.

The suburban Sinhala middle bourgeoisie of artists, artisans, and professionals responded lukewarmly to Jayewardene. The results of the 1989 election confirmed the scepticism with which they viewed the achievements and failures of his administration: more than 46% of the UNP’s votes came from a third of the country’s electorate, none of which comprised Colombo’s suburbs (except for the city and the Catholic belt to the north of Colombo), while 38% of the SLFP’s votes came from, inter alia, those suburbs. The new UNP candidate they viewed cynically; “they were not convinced that Premadasa represented adequate change” (Samarasinghe 1989). The SLFP’s popularity among state employees, in particular, showed when it won 49.5% of the postal vote. A crucial litmus test for Premadasa would therefore be how his presidency would be viewed by the Sinhala Buddhist middle-class.

To be continued next week…

 

(The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com)

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