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The edge of tolerance

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BY Kusum Wijetilleke

(kusumw@gmail.com)

In March of 2021, a nine-year-old girl from Delgoda, died as a result of injuries sustained at the hands of an exorcist. Her helpless screams were reported by several of the exorcist’s neighbours. The ritual required that the girl be beaten with a cane, presumably to drive out the undesirable spirit. Her father spoke to multiple news outlets, decrying the ritual and exhausting himself; insistent that his daughter was never under any sort of demonic spell.

In this supposed age of information, not only do ancient belief systems, including those that revolve around witchcraft, demons and exorcisms persist, they remain culturally relevant and widely practiced.

Garudan Thookkam, a symbolistic ritual involving Lord Vishnu, that originated in Kerala, and is also practised in Sri Lanka, requires that devotees be hung with metal hooks from a moving vehicle. An ancient Hindu ritual called Sati, which requires a widow to leap into the funeral pyre of her husband, is still practiced and was documented as recently as 2006. In parts of Africa, children suffering an epileptic seizure are treated not at a hospital, but by a witchdoctor.

There are literally hundreds of reports of exorcisms and witchcraft in various parts of India. In 2011, a woman from Kamhara died after an exorcist performed a ritual to banish a demon allegedly preventing her from conceiving a child. The exorcist branded various parts of her body, including her genitalia, with hot iron tongs and proceeded to beat her. In that same year, in Poaltore, several villagers were suffering from diarrhoea and fever. The local witchdoctor suspected a man from the same village had placed a curse and ordered his murder as well as those of his two sons. In 2021, in Odisha, an elderly couple was burnt to death while they slept, on suspicion of practicing witchcraft. Just a few months ago, a man and his toddler, from a village outside Delhi, were beaten to death during an exorcism.

There are no official statistics for the practice of exorcisms in Sri Lanka, though anecdotal evidence persists. What happened in Delgoda should not shock or surprise: these rituals occur regularly and in households of varying socio-economic backgrounds. The widespread belief in exorcisms may indicate a higher number of injuries and deaths than are reported.

Around the world, we have more substantiated evidence. The Vatican, Roman Catholicism’s HQ, has a programme that specializes in training and tutoring would-be exorcists. All the major religions have some belief in exorcisms or similar rituals.

Belief in ritual is a part of culture, and to each of us, our cultural inheritances can be definitive. The things we believe are unquestionably influenced by our environment, teachers, elders, parents and family; these are considered sacred. For many, the practice of these rituals is a key determinant of success and failure, of life and death.

The demise of the nine-year-old girl is proof that not all belief systems are benign. In Sri Lanka, we are taught the importance of culture, from an early age. We are obligated to participate in ritual and ceremony without question.

During this once-in-a-century pandemic, when the focus must be on using the latest available science to inform our decisions, Sri Lanka’s Minister of Health was pouring pots of ‘holy-water’ into a river. She approved a ‘potion’ as a remedy for Covid-19. Despite condemnation, she is still the Health Minister. She paid no price professionally for making laughable, ill-informed and potentially dangerous decisions. This should be alarming for any modern society that is serious about progressing.

Sri Lanka is hardly alone in the battle against dangerous dogmas. The UK Government’s own statistics from 2017 show 1500 child abuse cases linked to witchcraft and demonic possessions. This cannot be explained away by a lack of education. In 2018, a GP from Manchester was delisted from the NHS after taking a mentally ill patient to a church for exorcism. He also faced additional charges for threatening that she would be cursed if she told anyone about the ritual.

An average of polls from the last decade shows that more than half of all Americans believe in demonic possessions. A Gallup poll shows that belief in the devil was at 55% in 1990, but reached 70% in 2007. In 2011 the US had fewer than 15 ‘official exorcists’ (licensed by the Catholic Church); in 2019, there were over a hundred. It must be noted that, in the US, the official request for an exorcism requires a psychiatric evaluation with a mental health professional. The vast majority of mental health issues, when investigated, were found to be results of psychiatric issues and/ or related to psychotropic medication.

There has to be a reckoning, an acceptance, that we as a society must discourage belief systems that require nonsensical and often dangerous rituals, which very often leave deep psychological scars on the victims. Sometimes, it really does seem polite to simply ignore blatant incoherence. Society tolerates nonsensical statements and damaging actions if they are based on deeply and solemnly held beliefs.

Beliefs are our personal representations of the world, they affect our emotions and thus our behaviour, especially towards one another. If we feel that someone in our vicinity is disrespectful towards our belief system, this invariably affects how we treat them. This prejudice has led to the oppression of homosexuals, non-believers, scientists and philosophers. Fundamental differences in belief systems have disastrous consequences. In fact, it seems that part of the story of humanity’s progression has been the constant struggle to survive our cultural ethno-religious differences.

Liberal thought and modernism prescribes a tolerance of other’s belief systems so as to co-exist in a society. Tolerance, in the hopes of minimizing the chances of conflict, defines modern liberal thought on social issues.

The neuroscientist and author Sam Harris has eluded to the “balkanization of the world” and the consequences of being defined by our cultural assemblies. A belief is one’s personal representation of the world. A structure of thinking that guides our emotions and behaviour. The (new) liberal consensus also believes that the most appropriate means of countering extreme beliefs is to encourage moderation.

Then when skeptics question even the most extreme religious doctrines, they are instantly told that questioning these beliefs will only serve to isolate the moderates. Thus moderation provides a safe haven for fundamental beliefs because very often, moderates do not question more extreme beliefs. The conversation is muted.

Throughout history, reason and debate have left a lot of dogmas in the past and it is that willingness to question a belief about reality that has led to human progression. To hide behind moderation for the sake of tolerance, to ensure no offence is caused, has consequences of its own.

The endgame for any civilization or society is not to be politically correct and tolerate all manner of absurdity, but to use reason and openness to evidence to challenge dogma. The idea that one’s beliefs, religious or otherwise, must be respected is deeply flawed. Ultimately, as sentient human beings, it is not up to us to respect a person’s belief, it is up to us to evaluate their reasoning. Modern society has weaponised tolerance in a manner that runs counter to human progression and flourishing.

 

 



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Features

TNGlive relieving boredom

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Yes, indeed, the going is tough for everyone, due to the pandemic, and performers seem to be very badly hit, due to the lockdowns.

Our local artistes are feeling the heat and so are their counterparts in most Indian cities.

However, to relieve themselves of the boredom, while staying at home, quite a few entertaining Indian artistes, especially from the Anglo-Indian scene, have showcased their talents on the very popular social media platform TNGlive.

And, there’s plenty of variety – not just confined to the oldies, or the current pop stuff; there’s something for everyone. And, some of the performers are exceptionally good.

Lynette John is one such artiste. She hails from Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, and she was quite impressive, with her tribute to American singer Patsy Cline.

She was featured last Thursday, as well (June 10), on TNGlive, in a programme, titled ‘Love Songs Special,’ and didn’t she keep viewers spellbound – with her power-packed vocals, and injecting the real ‘feel’ into the songs she sang.

What an awesome performance.

Well, if you want to be a part of the TNGlive scene, showcasing your talents, contact Melantha Perera, on 0773958888.

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Supreme Court on Port City Bill: Implications for Fundamental Rights and Devolution

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The determination of the Supreme Court on the Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill was that as many as 26 provisions of the Bill were inconsistent with the Constitution and required to be passed by a two-thirds majority in Parliament. The Court further determined that nine provisions of the Bill also required the approval of the people at a referendum.

Among the grounds of challenge was that the Bill effectively undermined the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka and infringed on the sovereignty of the people. It was argued that several provisions undermined the legislative power of the People reposed on Parliament. Several provisions were challenged as violating fundamental rights of the People and consequently violating Article 3, read with Article 4(d) of the Constitution. Another ground of challenge was that the Bill contained provisions that dealt with subjects that fall within the ambit of the Provincial Council List and thus had to be referred to every Provincial Council for the expression of its views thereon as required by Article 154G(3).

 

Applicable constitutional provisions

Article 3 of our Constitution recognises that “[i]n the Republic of Sri Lanka, sovereignty is in the People and is inalienable”. Article 3 further provides that “Sovereignty includes the powers of government, fundamental rights and the franchise”. Article 3 is entrenched in the sense that a Bill inconsistent with it must by virtue of Article 83 be passed by a two-thirds majority in Parliament and approved by the people at a referendum.

Article 4 lays down the manner in which sovereignty shall be exercised and enjoyed. For example, Article 4(d) requires that “fundamental rights which are by the Constitution declared and recognised shall be respected, secured and advanced by all the organs of government and shall not be abridged, restricted or denied, save in the manner and to the extent hereinafter provided”. Article 4 is not mentioned in Article 83. In its determinations on the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution Bill, 2002 and the 19th Amendment to the Constitution Bill, 2002, a seven-member Bench of the Supreme Court noted with approval that the Court had ruled in a series of cases that Article 3 is linked up with Article 4 and that the said Articles should be read together. This line of reasoning was followed by the Court in its determination on the 20th Amendment to the Constitution Bill.

Under Article 154G(3), Parliament may legislate on matters in the Provincial Council List but under certain conditions. A Bill on a matter in the Provincial Council List must be referred by the President, after its publication in the Gazette and before it is placed in the Order Paper of Parliament, to every Provincial Council for the expression of its views thereon. If every Council agrees to the passing of the Bill, it may be passed by a simple majority. But if one or more Councils do not agree, a two-thirds majority is required if the law is to be applicable in all Provinces, including those that did not agree. If passed by a simple majority, the law will be applicable only in the Provinces that agreed.

 

Violation of fundamental rights and need for a referendum

Several petitioners alleged that certain provisions of the Port City Bill violated fundamental rights. The rights referred to were mainly Article 12(1)—equality before the law and equal protection of the law, Article 14(1)(g)—freedom to engage in a lawful occupation, profession, trade, business or enterprise— and Article 14(1)(h)—freedom of movement. Some petitioners specifically averred that provisions that violated fundamental rights consequently violated Articles 3 and 4 and thus needed people’s approval at a referendum.

The Supreme Court determined that several provisions of the Bill violated various fundamental rights and thus were required to be passed by a two-thirds majority in Parliament. The question of whether the said provisions consequently violated Article 4(d) and thus Article 3 and therefore required the approval of the People at a referendum was not ruled on.

The Essential Public Services Bill, 1979 was challenged as being violative of both Article 11 (cruel, degrading or inhuman punishment) and Article 14. Mr. H.L. de Silva argued that a Bill that violates any fundamental right is also inconsistent with Article 4(d) and, therefore, with Article 3. The Supreme Court held that the Bill violated Article 11 but not Article 14. Since a Bill that violates Article 11 has, in any case, to be approved at a referendum as Article 11 is listed in Article 83, the Court declined to decide on whether the Bill offended Article 3 as well, as it “is a well-known principle of constitutional law that a court should not decide a constitutional issue unless it is directly relevant to the case before it.”

A clear decision on the issue came about in the case of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution Bill; a seven-member Bench of the Supreme Court held that the exclusion of the decisions of the Constitutional Council from the fundamental rights jurisdiction of the Court was inconsistent with Articles 12 (1) and 17 (remedy for the infringement of fundamental rights by executive action) and consequently inconsistent with Article 3, necessitating the approval of the Bill at a referendum.

When the 20th Amendment to the Constitution Bill sought to restore the immunity of the President in respect fundamental rights applications, the Supreme Court determined that the “People’s entitlement to remedy under Article 17 is absolute and is a direct expression of People’s fundamental rights under Article 3 of the Constitution.”

In the case of the Port City Bill, however, the Supreme Court only determined that certain provisions of the Bill violated fundamental rights and thus required a two-thirds majority, but did not go further to say that the offending provisions also required approval of the people at a referendum.

Perhaps, the Court took into consideration the Attorney-General’s assurance during the hearing that the impugned clauses would be amended at the committee stage in Parliament.

However, Parliament is not bound by the Attorney-General’s assurances. In the absence of a clear determination that the clauses concerned required a referendum as well, Parliament could have passed the clauses by a two-thirds majority. The danger inherent in the Supreme Court holding that a provision of a Bill violates fundamental rights and requires a two-thirds majority but makes no reference to the requirement of a referendum is that a government with a two-thirds majority is free to violate fundamental rights, and hence the sovereignty of the People by using such majority. It is respectfully submitted that the Court should, whenever it finds that a provision violates fundamental rights, declare that Article 3 is also violated and a referendum is necessary, as it did in the cases mentioned.

 

The need to refer the Bill to Provincial Councils

The Port City Bill had not been referred to the Provincial Councils, all the Provincial Councils having been dissolved. The Court, following earlier decisions, held that in the absence of constituted Provincial Councils, referring the Bill to all Provincial Councils is an act which could not possibly be performed.

In the case of the Divineguma II Bill, the question arose as to the applicability of the Bill to the Northern Provincial Council, which was not constituted at that time. The Court held while the Bill cannot possibly be referred to a Council that had not been constituted, the views of the Governor (who had purported to express consent) could not be considered as the views of the Council. In the circumstances, the only workable interpretation is that since the views of one Provincial Council cannot be obtained due to it being not constituted, the Bill would require to be passed by a two-thirds majority. Although not explicitly stated by the Court, this would mean that if the Bill is passed by a simple majority only, it will not apply in the Northern Province. The Bill was passed in Parliament by a two-thirds majority. The Divineguma II Bench comprised Shirani Bandaranayake CJ and Justices Amaratunga and Sripavan, and it is well-known that the decision and the decision on the Divineguma I Bill cost Chief Justice Bandaranayake her position.

It is submitted that Article 154G (3) has two requirements—one procedural and one substantive. The former is that a Bill on any matter in the Provincial Council List must be referred to all Provincial Councils. The latter is that in the absence of the consent of all Provincial Councils, the Bill must be passed by a two-thirds majority if it is to apply to the whole country. If such a Bill is passed only by a simple majority, it would apply only in the Provinces which have consented.

The Divineguma II determination accords with the ultimate object of Article 154G(3), namely, that a Bill can be imposed on a Province whose Provincial Council has not consented to it only by a two-thirds majority. It also accords with the spirit of devolution.

A necessary consequence of the Court’s determination on the Port City Bill is that it permits a government to impose a Bill on a Provincial Council matter on a “disobedient” Province by a simple majority once the Provincial Council is dissolved and before an election is held. What is worse is that at a time when all Provincial Councils are dissolved, such as now, a Bill that is detrimental to devolution can be so imposed on the entire country. It is submitted that this issue should be re-visited when the next Bill on a Provincial Council matter is presented and the Supreme Court invited to make a determination that accords with the spirit of devolution, which is an essential part of the spirit of our Constitution.

 

 

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‘Down On My Knees’ inspires Suzi

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There are certain songs that inspire us a great deal – perhaps the music, the lyrics, etc.

Singer Suzi Fluckiger (better known as Suzi Croner, to Sri Lankans) went ga-ga when she heard the song ‘Down On My Knees’ – first the version by Eric Guest, from India, then the original version by Freddie Spires, and then another version by an Indian band, called Circle of Love.

Suzi was so inspired by the lyrics of this particular song that she immediately went into action, and within a few days, she came up with her version of ‘Down On My knees.’

In an exclusive chit-chat, with The Island Star Track, she said she is now working on a video, for this particular song.

“The moment I heard ‘Down On My Knees,’ I fell in love with the inspiring lyrics, and the music, and I thought to myself I, too, need to express my feelings, through this beautiful song.

“I’ve already completed the audio and I’m now working on the video, and no sooner it’s ready, I will do the needful, on social media.”

Suzi also mentioned to us that this month (June), four years ago, she lost her husband Roli Fluckiger.

“It’s sad when you lose the person you love but, then, we all have to depart, one day. And, with that in mind, I believe it’s imperative that we fill our hearts with love and do good…always.”

A few decades ago, Suzi and the group Friends were not only immensely popular, in Sri Lanka, but abroad, as well – especially in Europe.

In Colombo, the Friends fan club had a membership of over 1500 members. For a local band, that’s a big scene, indeed!

In Switzerland, where she now resides, Suzi is doing the solo scene and was happy that the lockdown, in her part of the world, has finally been lifted.

Her first gig, since the lockdown (which came into force on December 18th, 2020), was at a restaurant, called Flavours of India, with her singing partner from the Philippines, Sean, who now resides in Switzerland. (Sean was seen performing with Suzi on the TNGlive platform, on social media, a few weeks ago).

“It was an enjoyable event, with those present having a great time. I, too, loved doing my thing, after almost six months.’

Of course, there are still certain restrictions, said Suzi – only four to a table and a maximum crowd of 50.

“Weekends are going to be busy for me, as I already have work coming my way, and I’m now eagerly looking forward to going out…on stage, performing.”

In the meanwhile, Suzi will continue to entertain her fans, and music lovers, on TNGlive – whenever time permits, she said,

She has already done three shows, on TNGlive – the last was with her Filipino friend, Sean.

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