By Uditha Devapriya
With input from and photographs by
The social and cultural history of Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka has been the object of study for well over a century. Far from receding into a world of their own, these temples occupied a prominent place in the world around them. Buddhist monks essentially lived under a code of piety and self-denial, and they operated under their own rules and customs. Yet despite being cut off from mundane concerns, they were very much linked to the society they hailed from. Granted entire villages for their upkeep, the clergy made use of the social institutions of their time, most prominently caste, to maintain their hold.
The first proper sociological overview of the relationship between the Buddhist clergy and Sinhala society was R. A. L. H. Gunawardana’s Robe and Plough: Monasticism and Economic Interest in Early Medieval Sri Lanka. Gunawardana’s point, in essence, was that conventional narratives of Sinhalese kings, especially Parakramabahu I, uniting warring religious factions underlay a very complex reality. For Gunawardana, Parakramabahu I didn’t so much enable the triumph of one faction (Theravada) over another (Mahayana) as achieve a compromise between the two, a compromise that was in line with the interests of a monarchy in search of unity against the threat of South Indian overreach.
Comprehensive as it was, Gunawardana’s book did not delve much into Sri Lanka’s post-Medieval history. Nor did it examine the sociological relevance of Buddhist temple art and architecture. Coming in almost 70 years after the publication of Ananda Coomaraswamy’s Medieval Sinhalese Art, Senake Bandaranayake’s Sinhalese Monastic Art sought to fill this gap. Published five years before Robe and Plough, Bandaranayake’s book limited itself to the same period covered by Gunawardana, the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa periods. It laid the groundwork for a more comprehensive study two decades later, The Rock and Wall Paintings of Sri Lanka. This latter work, a landmark for its time, has since proved itself useful to scholars of social and cultural history, particularly of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
In The Rock and Wall Paintings of Sri Lanka, Bandaranayake divides the history of Buddhist art into four distinct periods: the primitive rock-shelter paintings, associated with prehistoric times and Veddah tribes; the paintings of the Early and Middle Historic Periods, dating from the 5th to the 13th century AD; the Kandyan Period; and the Southern or Maritime Period. The latter two belong to the period between the 14th and 19th century, while the Southern Period can be located in the Dutch and British eras, going beyond the 19th century and well into the early 20th century. Bandaranayake constantly emphasises that these periods can’t be viewed in isolation from each other, since there were, to quote the title of another of his works, important continuities and transformations between them.
I wish here to examine some of his insights on the Southern Tradition. Concentrated along the coastal belt between the Galle and Matara districts, the Southern Tradition has been the subject of much study over the decades. However, owing to its position in the nationalist consciousness perhaps, it is the art of Kandyan temples, the murals and the sculptures, that has won more attention. Even more intriguingly, though it has been claimed that Southern painters either stuck independently to their artistic visions or borrowed extensively from the Kandyan tradition, the reality was much more complex. There were important intersections between the Kandyan and the Southern traditions, to be sure, but there were also cleavages and distinctions.
Bandaranayake underscores this rather painstakingly.
“What is not yet clear is whether the Southern murals are a provincial offshoot of the Kandyan school, branching off in the late 18th or early 19th century; or a continued and late development of that same tradition, as most observers view it; or a partly independent school or sub-school, with its own history and character… What is not so certain, due to the lack of sufficient evidence, is the nature of the relationship between the two schools in the period from about 1750 to 1830 and before, and the forms of art that were extant in the southern and western regions in the preceding phase of the 17th and early 18th centuries.” (Senake Bandaranayake, “The Rock and Wall Paintings of Sri Lanka”, page 201)
Part of the reason why we don’t have a clear answer to this, Bandaranayake observes, is that there is a substantial body of work belonging to the Southern mural tradition that has been lost to us, “the reconstruction of which… is about as impossible a task as the retrieval of the pre-1750 painting styles of the Kandyan kingdom.” Although scholar-painters, like the great Manjusri, attempted to date the temples and monasteries to which this phase belongs, Bandaranayake rightly cautions against his chronologies. For instance, while Manjusri dates the murals at the Sunandaramaya in Ambalangoda to 1802, Bandaranayake argues that they appear “too elaborate” to belong to that period.
Perhaps the most important point to note about Buddhist temple art in the South is its immense diversity. To say this is not to deny, or underestimate, the artistic diversity of the Kandyan murals. They too were influenced by other periods and cultures, predominantly Dravidian. Like the Kandyan Tradition, the Southern Tradition was influenced heavily by a folk culture. Whatever period they belonged to, these murals epitomised the spirit and age of a people who were yearning for freedom from colonial subjugation and at the same time accommodating the colonial presence in their homeland. It is this latter quality which sets the Southern Tradition apart from the Kandyan School, since direct confrontations between the Kandyan Kingdom and British colonialism transpired later.
These confrontations threw up their own bundle of contradictions, even in the post-1815 Kandyan political landscape. At the Maduwanwela Manor in Embilipitiya, for instance, we are told that Maduwanwela Dissawe spurned the colonial administration by laying on his floors mosaic tiles, including those with Victoria’s face. Popular lore has it that the Dissawe wished to spite the British, against whom he nursed a grudge, by walking on tiles that bore obvious colonial associations. One can accept this view, but one can also question it, on the grounds that the post of Dissawe under the British required acceptace of colonial structures and above everything else of the suzerainty of the British monarchy.
The Maduwanwela Walawwa is a secular establishment, with its own share of intrigues. We can note similar contradictions in the Southern temples, extending beyond the Southern coastline. Victoria’s portrait adorns the entrance of many of these temples, including the Kotte Raja Maha Viharaya. We can cite several reasons for this. For instance, the Head Priest of the Randombe Viharaya in Ambalangoda, who has been officiating there since 1965, told me that since it was under Victoria’s reign that Buddhists in Sri Lanka obtained certain rights and freedoms, such as the promulgation of Vesak as a public holiday, devotees wished to note their gratitude and thus placed her portrait at the entrance.
Another possible reason, told to me by a history writer, is that Buddhist monasteries wished to remain neutral vis-à-vis the confrontations between locals and colonial officials in the Maritime Provinces. By setting up Victoria’s portrait interspersed with Dutch insignia at the entrance, these temples more or less promoted their fealty to the British crown. This does not, however, fully explain the rationale given by certain monks for the mosaic tiles laid down in the budu-meduru or image houses: as with the Maduwanwela Walawwa, to openly spite the colonial powers by symbolically “trampling” them. The Randombe Head Priest’s explanation is particularly interesting, and needs to be cited in full.
“Under the Dutch and the British, there was a general feeling among the people of the South that an alien power was treading on our way of life, on our history. By laying down these tiles in the image-house, devotees ensured that when perambulating around the outer chamber, they would pay their respects to the Buddha and also spurn European rule. They essentially had treaded on our way of life and we were treading on theirs.”
These are, to be sure, anecdotal accounts and explanations, and they must be taken with a pinch of salt by the scholar. Yet they cohere with the artistic and architectural motifs of these establishments. Bandaranayake does not fully delve into this aspect of Southern temple art, but he does mention imply that there’s a great deal about the tradition that we are yet to ascertain. Why, for instance, would a temple feature Victoria’s portrait at the entrance while also featuring a depraved foreigner languishing in the fires of hell on the wall, as is the case at the Kataluva Purvaramaya in Ahangama? What explains the incredible church-like architecture of the Dharmasalawa at the Pushparamaya in Balapitiya? And what of the presence of art nouveau in the image house at Randombe?
Senake Bandaranayake’s explanation is perhaps the most accurate: these motifs and details, he tells us in the closing paragraph of The Rock and Wall Paintings of Sri Lanka, are “as much a comment on our perceptions of that tradition and the historical trajectory that produced it, as they are indicators and reflections of our contemporary moment.”
The writer can be reached at email@example.com
Love-hate relationship between airline management and pilot unions
by Capt. G.A. Fernando
RCyAF/ SLAF, Air Ceylon, Air Lanka, Singapore Airlines, SriLankan Airlines
Former Crew Resource Management (CRM) Facilitator for SIA.
Member Air Accident Investigator Pool
Airline pilots are at the operating end of all decisions, be they policy or practice-related, made by managers of an airline’s various departments. From the ‘pointy’ end of an aircraft, only pilots see the performance of their airline at its best or worst. Furthermore, they see how other airlines solve problems under similar circumstances, and are able to observe those carriers’ ‘best practices’ at work.
Ideally, feedback from pilots to management must be an essential requisite for an airline’s progress, while balancing safety, schedule fidelity, and profitability. That is ‘Productivity with Protection’, as declared by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). Now there is also emphasis on Security.
Yet many pilots in this country say that they are treated like mushrooms: kept in the dark and fed ‘bovine excreta’. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a mechanism to improve this loss of communication. Administration should be by participation; not by suppression.
Culture is glibly explained as “the way we do things around here”. Every organisation has its own culture. Naturally, this applies to SriLankan Airlines, too. Over the past 44 years, through its earlier Air Lanka incarnation too, SriLankan has evolved into and ‘grown’ its own unique organisational culture.
According to the ICAO Safety Management Manual, organisational culture has the potential to affect the following:
a) Interactions between senior and junior members of a group
b) Interactions between industry and regulatory authority personnel
c) The degree to which information is shared internally and with the regulatory authorities
d) The prevalence of teamwork in the regulatory authority or industry organisation
e) Reactions of personnel under demanding operational conditions
f) The acceptance and utilisation of particular technologies
g) The tendency to take punitive measures in reaction to operational errors within a product or service provider or by the regulatory authorities.
Organisational culture is also affected by factors such as:
a) Business policies and procedures
b) Supervisory behaviour and practices
c) Safety improvement goals as well as minimum tolerance levels of management’s attitude toward quality or safety issues
d) Employee training and motivation
e) The relationship between the regulatory authorities and product and service providers
f) Policies on work/life balance
As can be seen, these factors cover all aspects of airline pilots’ working lives. This ICAO document goes on to state further that the method in which administration deals with day-to-day safety issues is also central to improving organisational culture. Collective interaction between front-line personnel and their colleagues in matters of safety and quality, as well as with agents of the regulatory authority, is indicative of a positive managerial culture. This relationship should be characterised by professional courtesy, while maintaining respective roles as necessary to ensure impartiality or accountability.
This statement from the same manual sums it up succinctly: “A healthy safety culture relies on a high degree of trust and respect between personnel and management and must therefore be created and supported at the senior management level.”
Unfortunately, in reality there is a widespread feeling of ‘us’ and ‘them’, especially when times are hard and the ‘going gets tough’. When debt-servicing is high and eats into operational profit, the management (at higher and lower levels) chooses not to listen to those operatives in the front line, who have been working ‘red-eyed’ for many hours, to the best of their ability at day and night, in good weather and bad, and have ‘seen it all’.
It cannot be overemphasised that, where airline pilots are concerned, one small mistake, of either omission or commission, could mean a major catastrophe for which they would be held accountable by management who themselves have lost millions for the airline through bad decisions, yet remain exempt from retribution. This results in animosity and mistrust between the airborne and the chair-borne, the latter being those who work, arguably, 9-to-5 hours while wallowing in the belief that they are the prime movers-and-shakers of the aviation world in the eyes of the general public.
The Ceylon (Hatton)-born ‘father’ of Human Factors in Aircraft Accidents, Capt. David Beaty, said that when there is an accident or a serious incident, “Management is part of the establishment. Even small bits of establishment stick together, and there is a political and economic necessity not to rock the boat, nor lower the management status in their own eyes and those of other people.”
Managements will blame the pilots as it is more convenient, and will be relatively litigation-free and, most of all, self-satisfying (Prof. James Reason; former Professor of Psychology at the University of Manchester). This is exactly why air safety experts are worried about ‘signs of the times’. After an accident or incident, the investigator has to rely on the help of the pilots involved to reconstruct the chain of events that led to the event. If pilots are now deemed to be legally liable, they are unlikely to provide the investigator with a full and accurate account of events. As someone put it, it is a “damned if you do and damned if you don’t scenario.”
The Pilots’ Association in Sri Lanka has already put up its defences. They recommend to their membership to declare, after an accident or incident: “Before making a report or statement of any kind, I wish to exercise my right to consult with my Association representative and/or attorney”. (This instruction is printed on the back of the ALPGSL Membership Card.)
An airline pilot, manager, or worker?
Gerrard, the holder of Flight Engineer Licence No. 1 in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), also held the managerial post of Chief Flight Engineer while he was President of the Flight Engineers’ Association. He always insisted that as the aims and objectives of both organisations are, or should be, the same, it was possible to serve them equitably. In fact, when the Ceylon Air Line Pilots’ Association (CALPA) was formed in 1954, Capt. Peter Fernando, the Manager-Operations of Air Ceylon, was elected as its President.
Subsequently, though, it didn’t seem practical as there could be, and were, conflicts of interest. So, is an airline pilot a manager or a ‘worker’? It seemed that they were neither fish nor fowl, in a category of their own. At any given point in time a large portion of company assets are under their charge. Although earning high salaries, they still have to resort to trade union activity, for their voices to be heard. The sad truth is that all over the world the management types seem to hate arrogant confidence (guts?) exhibited by airline pilots, who are consequently and frequently labelled ‘trouble makers’. Often, management and pilots are working on two different ‘frequencies’. When a pilot is ‘loaned’ to management he ceases to be an active member of the Pilots’ Guild until his managerial tenure is over. Only then could he re-join the ‘EXCO’ (executive committee) after a prescribed cooling-off period.
Those brave pilots who go on to serve in operations management are in the minority of the cohort of other managers, and are usually out-voted at management meetings. Later, they are expected to ‘translate’ top management decisions into ‘pilot-speak’ so as to obtain commitment from their flying colleagues.
A possible solution
A possible solution to the problem is a process of continuous feedback directly from the front line to higher management through the Airline Pilots’ Guild, thus completing the ‘loop’. Higher management should attempt to ‘change frequencies and listen without bias to “the unknown, unheralded airline pilots who fly without incident or accident, making decisions, stopping potential disasters before they happened, flying all night to see through scratchy, tired eyes; fighting bad weather in all seasons from ice to thunderstorms; away from home and family for at least half of every month. You see him, and now her, walking through the airline terminals wheeling their black brain bags and overnight cases, unnoticed except for their uniform.” (Capt. Robert N. Buck; former Chief Pilot of TWA)
Full implementation of 13A: Final solution to ‘national problem’ or end of unitary state? – Part V
By Kalyananda Tiranagama
Executive Director, Lawyers for Human Rights and Development
(Part IV of this article appeared in The Island of 29 Sept., 2023)
Present Provincial Council System and 13th Amendment – Solutions forcibly imposed on Sri Lanka by India
The Indo-Lanka Accord signed on July 29, 1987 is not an accord voluntarily entered into between two independent States of their own free will, after mutual discussion and understanding. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution and the Provincial Councils Act of 1987 are also not documents drafted and enacted by the government of Sri Lanka of its own free will to give effect to the understanding and agreements reached between the Govt. of Sri Lanka and the Tamil political parties and militant groups following discussions that went on for years.
When talking of Indian pressure brought on Sri Lanka to sign the Indo-Lanka Accord and bring the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and set up Provincial Councils, the general impression is that it refers to the Indian threat of invading our air space and dropping dhal by air on the North East of Sri Lanka.
However, when one goes through the negotiation process between the high officials of the Indian government and Sri Lanka, as mentioned in the President Jayewardene’s address to Parliament, and the documents cited in the Judgement of the 13th Amendment case, it appears that the Indian government brought pressure and compelled the government of Sri Lanka to move away from the consistent stand taken by Sri Lanka all along and to accommodate certain unacceptable demands of Tamil political parties by incorporating them into some of the provisions in these documents.
As stated by President J. R. Jayewardene in his address to Parliament on February 20, 1986:
‘‘At the Thimphu discussions, on August 27, 1985, when Dr. H. W. Jayewardene, the leader of the SL delegation refused to accept or discuss the ‘Four Cardinal Principles’ raised by the six Tamil groups, and indicated areas on which discussion and agreement possible, the TULF together with the other groups walked out of the conference and refused to participate in the discussion.
The Four Cardinal Principles were as follows:
a. Recognition of the Tamils as a distinct nationality; b. a separate home land; c. self-determination for the Tamils; and d. the linkage of the Northern and Eastern Provinces,
‘‘Thereafter, Dr. Jayewardene left for New Delhi to meet the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and discussion resumed with Indian officials and drafted the Terms of Accord and Understandings, initiated by Dr. Jayewardene and the Deputy Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs of India, Ranjan Mathai. Then Dr. Jayewardene met the Indian PM and informed him of the decision reached. On 31. 08. 1985, the Ministry of External Affairs of India issued a press release on their meeting. Dr. Jayewardene had a detailed and constructive discussion with the Foreign Secretary Mr. Romesh Bhandari. A comprehensive paper was drawn up covering all issues of importance and relevance. This detailed draft could serve as the basis for negotiations towards a mutually agreed Accord by the parties concerned.
‘‘On the return of the delegation to Sri Lanka, it was found necessary to amplify some of the matters in the Draft Accord. Three members of the Sri Lankan delegation had discussions with senior officials of the Ministry of External Affairs of India in New Delhi from 10 to 13 Sept. At the conclusion of these talks, the Ministry of External Affairs of India issued a press release: ‘The SL delegation gave some amplification of certain issues which figured in the paper drawn up earlier in New Delhi. They also provided some facts and figures about how some of the proposals contained in the Paper would work in practice. It will be recalled that the Paper drawn up during Dr. Jayewardene’s visit is to serve as a basis for further negotiations towards a mutually agreed Accord by the parties concerned.’
‘‘The SL delegation returned to Sri Lanka with the full expectation that future discussions with a view to arriving at a solution would be on the basis of the Terms of Accord and Understanding.
‘‘The Accord reached in Thimphu and New Delhi were to be the basis of any future discussions. Such discussion would not reopen the Four Principles mentioned in any form whatsoever. This was the understanding of both the Govts of India and SL.
‘‘The Terms of Accord and Understanding were to be forwarded to the representatives of Tamil groups by the Indian Govt. But all the efforts of the SL delegation and the representatives of the Indian Govt. proved of no avail as these groups did not make any response to reach a settlement.
‘‘More than three months later, on 1st December 1985 the TULF submitted some proposals to Rajiv Gandhi. But they were by no means an attempt to discuss the draft Terms of Accord and Understanding. TULF proposals were diametrically contrary to the draft Terms of Accord and Understanding. Govt. observations on TULF proposals was dispatched to New Delhi on January 30, 1986.’’
President Jayewardene’s Address to Parliament, made on February 20, 1986, mentioned only what had happened up to the end of January 1986. Justice Wanasundara’s Judgement in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution Case (1987/2 SLLR Pp. 333 – 383) mentions several things that happened after that date in this process.
The following passages are taken from the said judgement:
‘‘As early as September 1985 the mechanism of Provincial Councils had been proposed. In the Draft Framework of Terms of Accord and Understanding of 30.08.85, it was stated that –
‘ 5. A Bill for the amendment of the Constitution to enable the creation of Provincial Councils and the devolution of powers on them shall be enacted by Parliament by a 2/3 majority. Thereafter Parliament will pass an Act directly conferring on the Provincial Councils the requisite legislative powers. Such power shall not be revoked or altered in any manner except by an Act of Parliament passed by a two-thirds majority after consultation with the Provincial Council or the Councils concerned.’
‘‘The next development was further talks held between the Sri Lankan Government and an Indian delegation, led by Hon. P Chidambaram, Minister of State, in July 1986. Based on those talks a detailed Note containing observations on the proposals of the Sri Lanka Government as the Framework was sent to the Indian Government. The following three paragraphs of the Note are relevant for the purpose of this determination:
1. A Provincial Council shall be established in each Province. Law-making and Executive (including Financial) powers shall be devolved upon the Provincial Councils by suitable constitutional amendments, without resort to a referendum. After further discussions subjects broadly corresponding to the proposals contained in Annexe 1 to the Draft Framework of Accord and Undertaking of 30.08.85, and the entries in List ll and List III of the Seventh Schedule of the Indian Constitution shall be devolved upon Provincial Councils.
2. In the Northern Province and in the Eastern Province the Provincial Councils shall be deemed to be constituted immediately after the constitutional amendments come into force….
7. Any amendments to the constitutional provisions or any other laws providing for devolution of legislative and executive (including financial) powers shall require a 2/3 majority as provided in the present Constitution. Any further safeguards for example a further requirement of a referendum may also be discussed.”
‘‘In a preamble to this Note it was agreed that suitable constitutional and legal arrangements would be made for those two Provinces to act in coordination. In consequence of these talks a constitutional amendment took shape and form and three lists – (1) The Reserved List (List II); (2) The Provincial List (List I); and (3) The Concurrent List (List Ill) too were formulated.
‘‘The next stage of the discussions were the Bangalore discussions between our President Jayewardene and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in November 1986. The Agreement between them recognised that the “Northern and Eastern Provinces have been areas of historical habitation of Sri Lankan Tamil speaking peoples who have at all times hitherto lived together in the territory with other ethnic groups.’’ According to these discussions Sri Lanka agreed that these two Provinces should form one administrative unit for an interim period and that its continuance should depend on a Referendum and it was also agreed that the Governor shall have the same powers as the Governor of a State in India.
It was also proposed to the Sri Lanka government that the Governor should only act on the advice of the Board of Ministers and should explore the possibility of further curtailing the Governor’s discretionary powers. The Indian side also proposed that provision be made on the lines of Article 249 of the Indian Constitution on the question of Parliament’s power to legislate on matters in the Provincial list and, likewise, that Article 254 of the Indian Constitution be adopted in regard to the Provincial Council’s power to make a law before or after a parliamentary law in respect of a matter in the Concurrent List. The Sri Lanka Government’s observations on the Working Paper on Bangalore Discussion dated 26th November 1986 show that the suggestions made by the Indian Government were substantially adopted.
‘’ On the 29th July, 1987, an Accord was signed by our President J. R. Jayewardene and the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in Colombo. The First part of this Accord reaffirmed what was agreed at Bangalore that the Northern and Eastern Provinces have been areas of historical habitation of Sri Lanka Tamil Speaking people who at all times hitherto lived together in the territory with other ethnic groups. It also provided for these two Provinces to form one administrative unit for an interim period and for elections to the Provincial Council to be held before 31st December 1987.
The Second Part was the Annexure to the Agreement. It provided, inter alia, for a Indian Peace Keeping Contingent and for Indian observers at the Provincial Council Elections and a Referendum to be held in the Eastern Province to determine whether the Northern and Eastern Provinces should continue as one administrative unit. The legislation now tabled in Parliament is in terms of this Accord. Of course, an attempt is now being made to take shelter under Article 27 (4).’’ (13th Amendment case Judgement – Pp. 369 – P. 371)
When the material placed above relating to the negotiations between Sri Lanka and India for bringing about a solution to the Tamil ethnic problem in Sri Lanka is analysed, it becomes clear that India took the Sri Lankan government for a ride, compelling the latter to abandon its principled stand of rejecting the Cardinal Principles raised by the terrorists and the TULF at the Thimphu Talks, to accept a solution imposed by New Delhi and to accede to some of these unacceptable demands of Tamil political parties by incorporating them into the Indo-Lanka Accord and the 13th Amendment.
On 31. 08. 1985, the Ministry of External Affairs of India issued a Press Release on their meeting. Dr. Jayewardene had a detailed and constructive discussion with the Foreign Secretary Romesh Bhandari. A comprehensive paper has been drawn up covering all issues of importance and relevance. This detailed draft could serve as the basis for negotiations towards a mutually agreed Accord by the parties concerned.
The Paper drawn up during Dr. Jayewardene’s visit is to serve as a basis for further negotiations towards a mutually agreed Accord by the parties concerned.’’
The Sri Lankan delegation returned to Sri Lanka with the full expectation that future discussions with a view to arriving at a solution would be on the basis of the Terms of Accord and Understanding.
The Accord reached in Thimphu and New Delhi were to be the basis of any future discussions. Such discussion would not reopen the Four Principles mentioned in any form whatsoever. This was the understanding of both the Govts of India and SL.
Then what happened?
Three months later, on 01 December 1985, the TULF submitted some proposals, not to the government of Sri Lanka, but to Rajiv Gandhi. The TULF proposals were diametrically opposed to the draft terms of accord and understanding. The Sri Lankan government’s observations on the TULF proposals were dispatched to New Delhi on 30 Jan., 1986.
(To be continued)
Biden and Trump vie for American Workers, Canada and India spar over Sikhs
by Rajan Philips
After burdening this column by writing serially on political reforms, I was looking for a break from, yes, the Constitution. The Canada-India spat over Sikhs seemed a good topic for a thousand words, especially after the long distance lecture by Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister to the government of Canada. The most that the lecture managed to accomplish was to make a splash across the Palk Strait in Chennai. Then came the breaking news of US President Joe Biden joining the striking auto-workers on their picket line in Detroit, Michigan. That is quite historic, not only for an American President but also for a head of state anywhere, including China.
It is also a very therapeutic topic to write about, inasmuch as in the world of politics it is usually one step forward and at least two of them backward. You grasp and make the most of whatever foot that progressively steps forward. On the other hand, it may not be therapeutic to write about President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s politics, but it is a Sunday hazard that some of us have grown addicted to. Mr. Wickremesinghe has of late been morphing into a flying president. Let us spare him this week while taking a break from the constitution.
On Tuesday, September 26, President Joe Biden did something that no US President before him has done or would have thought of doing. He may have also set a precedent that future presidents will likely be forced to follow. Biden flew from Washington to Detroit and joined the striking United Auto Workers (UAW) union members who were on a picket line outside a General Motors’ Redistribution Centre in Wayne County, Michigan. Donning a UAW blue hat, the President mounted a wooden platform and used a bull horn to tell the workers, “You deserve what you’ve earned, and you’ve earned a hell of a lot more than you’re getting paid now. Then his middle class theme: “The unions built the middle class. That’s a fact. Let’s keep going.”
Not quite the socialist message, but a message you will hardly hear from another Head of State anywhere in the world today. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), the Democratic Congresswoman from New York and the pretty face of millennial socialism, would be pleased. She once remarked, as we were reminded recently in this paper, that she and Joe Biden will not be in the same party in any other country. In many other countries she could be in jail.
But that is America and where Ms. Cotez is assured of a virtual lifetime Congressional seat in a progressive borough, in the heart of New York City. It will not be easy to move up the American political ladder – as Senator, State Governor, or even US President, based solely on progressive politics and hard work. The US political system is stacked against people like AOC by the weight given to America’s insular hinterland in the Senate and in the Electoral College.
Reactionary and systemic stacking against progressives, let alone socialists, is not unique to America. That has been present from the beginning of representative democracy in any country and every country. And attempts at violently overthrowing representative democracy have produced cures that are worse than the ailments.
Yet Ms. Cotez, and her gallant Squad in Congress (that began with four women of colour in 2018 and has now grown to eight including two men) can make a world of difference for many Americans from where they are today. One of AOC’s main initiatives has been promoting the Green New Deal plan for fighting climate change along with fighting economic and racial injustice.
Although President Biden did not endorse the Green New Deal, he had no qualms in borrowing ideas from it for his own Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice. His signature legislative achievement is the euphemistically named Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which includes specific measures for combating climate change. One of the key measures is at the core of the current labour dispute in the auto industry, and that is the shift from gasoline-driven cars to electric vehicles (EVs).
The Biden Plan goal is to make half of all new vehicles sold in America to be zero-emissions vehicles by 2030. That means greater production of EVs by auto makers, along with government commitment to providing federal funding and tax incentives, and installing 500,000 chargers to make EVs accessible nationwide. More so in rural America, the bastion of the political right, where 20% of Americans live and account for 70% of road miles of national travel. Just like the political lopsidedness. Now to the strike dynamic.
America’s big three in automakers (GM, Ford and Stellantis, which owns Chrysler) are laggers in EV manufacturing. They lag behind Tesla, BYD Auto and the Volkswagen Group, the three global leaders, by quite a distance. As they plan to repurpose their production base to increase EV production, the big three face competition from foreign automakers who are also eligible for the IRA tax incentives so long as their factories are in the US, Canada or Mexico. Some of them, mostly Japanese firms, already have their bases in one or more of the three free-trade countries. Also, unlike the big three, the foreign firms and the EV manufacturers like Tesla do not have unionized workers.
The top three are insistent that they cannot afford to pay the current union demands for wage increases and benefits, given the level of investments required for transitioning to EV; nor can they be competitive with automakers without unionized workforce. On the other hand, the union claims are based on the sacrifices workers made during the 2007-2008 financial crisis in order to keep the automakers solvent and in business.
The workers now want restoration of overtime work and retirement benefits, ending of wage differences between contract and permanent workers, as well as protection against potential labour retrenchment as part of EV production. The huge profits that the auto companies made during the Covid pandemic and the inflated salaries and bonuses that flowed to company CEOs, are not lost on the unions and the workers. Nor are they unaware of the huge financial support and tax benefits the US government is giving the automakers to switch from gasoline to electric vehicles.
In the backdrop to the labour dispute, there are both political interests as well as technological implications. On the latter, industry observers are opining that the transition from gasoline to electric vehicles involves “the biggest technological transformation since Henry Ford’s moving assembly line started up at the beginning of the 20th century.” And the workers and their unions are determined not to get shortchanged a second time as they were at the last technological changeover, not to mention the start of the industrial revolution itself. However, there is a major difference between the age of Ford and the present time, and it is that the economy now is highly diversified and is not ‘over-determined’ by a single industry.
And then there is politics, with the presidential election coming up next year. Regardless of the Republican primary clown show and Democratic party doubters, President Biden and Donald Trump would seem to have decided that they are the de facto candidates and that it is time to start the real campaign. After President Biden’s visit to the picket line of striking union workers, Donald Trump visited Drake Enterprises, a non-union auto parts supplier in Clint Township, Michigan. Trump’s pitch is of course diametrically the opposite. He wants union workers to peel away from their leaders and vote for him because he will save their jobs by removing the requirement for shifting from gasoline to electric vehicles.
The trouble with that reactionary approach is that Mr. Trump will not find any takers for it from any of the main automakers. But Trump being Trump, he is not interested in the fallout for the auto industry or the American economy, let alone climate change. He is only interested in using any slogan to win back the workers who voted for him in 2016 in the three battleground states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Trump won all three of them in 2016 and lost them all to Biden in 2020. And Joe Biden will do everything to keep those states on his side of the tally. Including, joining a picket line.
Canada stuck between China and India
From the auto industry and presidential politics in the US, it is quite a stretch to comment on the recent spat between Canada and India over Sikhs and their politics in the two countries. But in the ‘globalized world’, everything is interconnected, hierarchically and horizontally. It is the global interconnections that Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt may seem to have captured in conceptualizing the current global order by counterposing the new global Empire (of superpowers – past, present and wannabe) and its anthesis, the new global Multitude.
One of the empirical processes driving the global multitude is the movement of people across nation-state boundaries. In this process, China and India are giant exporters of the multitude and Canada is literally caught up between them as one of the main recipients of global migrants. And the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that has more immigrant ministers than any other government in the world has become the object of derision and vilification both by India and China, as well as its domestic detractors.
For the greater part of this year the Trudeau government has been facing relentless criticism from opposition parties and the media for its alleged failure to deal with Chinese interference in Canadian elections and intimidations of Chinese Canadians who are opposed to the Chinese government and its representatives in Hong Kong. The criticisms became personal and right wing attacks targeted the Trudeau family as having a soft spot for China, even harking back to then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s historic 1973 visit to China as a breakout leader from the western world.
The critics conveniently forgot that for nearly three years (December 1, 2018, to September 4, 2021) the Trudeau government was delicately pre-occupied with getting the release of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig (the two Michaels), two Canadian citizens who were arbitrarily jailed in China, in retaliation to the detention of Meng Wanzhou, the daughter of the founder of the Chinese tech giant Huawei and its Chief Financial Officer.
Her detention, while travelling through Canada, was in response to a US extradition request for allegedly violating US sanctions against Iran. All three were finally released following a tripartite understanding between the US, China and Canada.
There was a chorus of calls for an independent public inquiry into Chinese interference. After months of back and forth, the government and the opposition have agreed on the launching of a Public Inquiry into “Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions.” The inquiry will be led by an Appeal Court Judge from the Province of Quebec, and will cover not only China but also Russia and other countries with alleged interferences.
Just when the hullabaloo over Chinese interference seemed to be quietening down, Prime Minister Trudeau dropped a bombshell in a statement to parliament on September 19, that there were “credible allegations of a potential link” between Indian government agents and the killing of 45 year old Hardeep Singh Nijjar in June, near Vancouver. Mr. Nijjar was born in India and fled to Canada in 1995 as a teenage refugee allegedly to escape a government crackdown on Sikh activists in Punjab.
He worked as a plumber and was a community leader. In 2019 he became the leader of the Guru Nanak Sikh Temple in Surrey, Vancouver. He advocated Sikh separatism through non-violent means and was one of the organizers of the Khalistan Referendum campaign. He was killed by masked gunmen outside the Guru Nanak Temple.
The Indian government rejected Trudeau’s allegation as absurd and accused the Canadian government of not heeding India’s concerns over Sikh separatist activities in Canada. There have also been questions about Mr. Trudeau’s decision to make an open statement when he was not in a position share detailed information in public.
Apparently, he was forced to go public with his allegation to pre-empt media outlets that were set to publish the story based on their own investigations. It is also known that Mr. Trudeau raised this matter with Prime Minister Modi during the G 20 Summit in New Delhi and asked for the Indian Government’s co-operation in investigating the killing.
Prior to that, Canadian intelligence and security officials have visited India multiple times for discussions with their Indian counterparts. The intelligence premise for Canada’s allegations came through the interception of communications between New Delhi and the Indian High Commission in Ottawa, reportedly by the old Five Eyes (comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US) intelligence network. Canada’s concerns were and are shared by its traditional allies. It is also reported that in the face-to-face meetings between Canadian and Indian officials, Canada’s allegations were not formally denied, in contrast to the vigorous rejections in India’s public statements.
After his explosive statement in Parliament, Prime Minister Trudeau has appeared to be trying to calm diplomatic waters by insisting that Canada is “not looking to provoke or escalate.” He has gone on to say, “We are simply laying out the facts as we understand them and we want to work with the government of India to lay everything clear and to ensure there are proper processes.” Further, “India and the government of India needs to take this matter with the utmost seriousness.” Similar diplomatic overtures are said to have emanated from the Indian side. After the initial furor, there seems to realization on both sides to let quiet diplomacy take its course.
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