‘Ashokan Persona’ and the ‘Rooster Coop’

A comment on Michael Roberts’ article entitled: Some pillars for Lanka’s future

By Basil Fernando

(June 11, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Michael Roberts’ article, Some Pillars for Lanka’s Future, is a useful reference in discussing some of the more important contemporary issues in Sri Lanka.

His concept of ‘Ashokan Persona’ meaning: ‘the Big Man (invariably male) has to control every fiddling little thing. My theory therefore highlights a deeply-rooted cultural tendency towards the over-concentration of power at the head of organisations and a failure (if not an ingrained inability) to delegate power,’ deserves some reflection. Others have articulated the same problem of the ‘Big Man’ in a different way.

Aravind Adiga, in his recently published, Man-Booker prize winning novel, the White Tiger, introduces this as ‘the rooster coop’. The book is presented as a series of letters written to the Chinese premier who was to visit India explaining who ‘is an India entrepreneur.’ In a very simple style he explained ‘the rooster coop’ as the explanation of the Indian system of the master/servant relationship, the relationship of the ‘Big Man’ with others, thus:

“The greatest thing to come out of this country in the ten thousand years of its history is the Rooster Coop.

Go to Old Delhi, behind the Jama Masjid, and look at the way they keep chickens there in the market. Hundreds of pale hens and brightly coloured roosters, stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages, packed as tightly as worms in a belly, pecking each other and shitting on each other, jostling just for breathing space; the whole cage giving off a horrible stench — the stench of terrified, feathered flesh. On the wooden desk above this coop sits a grinning young butcher, showing off the flesh and organs of a recently chopped-up chicken, still oleaginous with a coating of dark blood. The roosters in the coop smell the blood from above. They see the organs of their brothers lying around them. They know they’re next. Yet they do not rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop.

The very same thing is done with human beings in this country.”

The novelist thereafter explains why the ‘rooster coop’ was made possible. He attributes it to the Indian conception of family and the system of punishment where entire families of the servant class are punished for any transgression of one member of the family.

“The answer to the first question is that the pride and glory of our nation, the repository of all our love and sacrifice, the subject of no doubt considerable space in the pamphlet that the prime minister will hand over to you, the Indian family, is the reason we are trapped and fled to the coop.

The answer to the second question is that only a man who is prepared to see his family destroyed — hunted, beaten, and burned alive by the masters — can break out of the coop. That would take no normal human being, but a freak, a pervert of nature.”

Why is the conception of the rooster coop more useful, perhaps more authentic in comprehending Sri Lanka’s present context? Discussions of the minority situation in Sri Lanka have been seen more on ethnic and racial considerations and then reduced to “Extremisms (that) have been feeding off each other...” Such discussions do not see what the majority of people (who do not belong to the ‘Big Man’ category) in the Sinhala community has in common with the same kind of persons in the minority communities. The result is an attempt to find specific solutions to minority problems without ever bothering to find a solution to problems that commonly affect the majority of persons belonging to ALL communities.

From that perspective we can look to the problem of the 1978 Constitution. Despite of whatever advice Professor A.J. Wilson may have given to J.R. Jayewardene, the 1978 Constitution has nothing what so ever to do at all with De Gaulle’s constitution. In an article I have published earlier I have compared in detail the fundamental differences between the two constitutions. Rajiva Wijesinghe, when he was still a liberal wrote the following words about the 1978 Constitution:

Thus as the 1978 Constitution was introduced without much thought, Sri Lanka finds itself having the worst of both worlds.
(Pg. 99/100 - Political Principles and their practice in Sri Lanka – Rajiva Wijesinghe – 2005)

Both worlds refer to American and French constitutional systems.

The 1978 Constitution was meant to dismantle, or at least to seriously undermine, the rule of law system introduced by the British so that the ‘rooster coop’ could resurface. It was meant to remove barriers against corruption, undermine every possible avenue, including judicial intervention to abuse of authority and not to have any system at all except the direct use of force on all, trade unions, and opposition political parties, young radicals looking for new avenues and on everyone else. A further important component was to close the electoral map.

Since 1978 there has been 31 years of experience of this constitution. The survival of the constitution was greatly enhanced by the rise of the JVP movement from the mid 80s and Tamil nationalism which finally came under the grip of Prabakaran’s LTTE. It was possible to deflect the attention of people to the need of repressing ‘the terrorisms’ and thereby to ensure that no real democratic challenge was made against the constitution itself.

The present moment is important because after 31 years the people of ALL communities now have the opportunity to look back at the assault on democracy and the rule of law that has taken place in their country. The life of everyone is affected by that problem. Without finding a solution to this problem there is no way to stop the nation from “going down the palama” to use a phrase Michael Roberts used in an earlier article.

The demise of the LTTE will have a devastating effect on the other extremism. One extremism needs the other to survive. Extremist nationalisms are now politically obsolete concepts. Extremisms can feed on each other only until one of the extremisms ceases to exist. In the days and months to come this problem is bound to surface sharply. That way again one of the ploys used to deflect attention from the colossal undermining of democracy and the rule of law by the 1978 Constitution will cease to have lesser impact.

Michael Roberts correctly points out that “What the Sri Lankan President gives as a constitutional gift, he can withdraw too.” The 17th Amendment to the Constitution is an example of this. That is possible as long as the constitution we have is one that has the worst elements of both worlds. There is nothing that anyone can do, including the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka to change that. As J.R.J. said the only thing that the president cannot do is to make a man a woman. His fantasy matched the constitutional monstrosity he created.

In any jurisdiction what gives meaning to a constitution is the rule of law. The constitution is the paramount law. However, in a place where the law has little meaning and the supremacy of the law has been removed and replaced with the supremacy of the ‘Big Man’ all that can happen is the continuance of the ‘rooster coop’.

Thus, the foundation for the achievement of the rights of all within a democratic constitution is the basis of achieving specific rights for any of the minorities. If the bigger project is abandoned the associated project of respect for minority rights is doomed to remain an illusion.

In Michael Roberts book, Essays in exploring confrontation, published in 1994 he kindly included one of my poems, ‘Yet another incident in 1983’. It was about a family whose car was set on fire during the riots. As petrol was being poured on the car a bystander notices two children inside and removes them. The father comes out of the car, takes the two children and returns to the car and closes the door. The car and the family are destroyed in the fire. The poem was based on an actual incident. For many years I have wondered who that man was. More and more I began to realise that subconsciously it was I. To be exact it was an ordinary Sri Lankan, very much like I am. We have all perished within the totally failed democratic project in Sri Lanka. Now, looking back, many of the decisions I have taken ever since have been made under the subconscious influence of the realisation of that failure. If the citizens of Sri Lanka are to have a rebirth that failed project needs to be revived. Until then, like it or not we will have to live within the framework of the rooster coop.
-Sri Lanka Guardian