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The state as an agent of systemic lawlessness

Ratnajeevan Hoole’s anxieties are justified

Jaffna is a crucible in which the political and the unlawful merge seamlessly but it is important to bear in mind that this phenomenon is island-wide since the political abuse of state power is island-wide.
by Kumar David

(August 28, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The reason why the machinery of state has lost the confidence of the public as an entity that can be relied upon to uphold the law, dispense justice and conduct public administration is that state agencies are used and abused by government politicians to promote partisan ends, or cover-up crimes, or further nefarious purposes. If the government of the day draws the organs of state power (police, military, the administration and the courts) into partnership for such ends, the next step is but a short one; quick learners, these agencies start batting on their own and multiplying their repertoire.

A recent example of how public confidence in the organs of state power (police, elections department and the courts) has broken down is not the case of Ratnajeevan Hoole per se, but the fact that most people, this writer included, are satisfied that Hooleanxieties of mistreatment at the hands of the state are justified. That is to say, not just Hoole but most people I have discussed with are of the view that had he placed himself at the mercies of the police and the courts, he may have suffered wrongful incarceration and unfair treatment. Confidence in the impartiality of state agencies has evaporated. Therefore it was sensible of Hoole to decline to trust the authorities. It is pointless for Rengan Devarajan, legal advisor for the complainants, to ask "why didn’t he (Hoole) attend the courts and disprove the case?" No one in his right mind about the proto-fascist state of affairs in respect of the enforcement and dispensation of the law will ask this question. However, this is the fate that awaits any citizen who falls foul of the powers that be.

Jaffna is a crucible in which the political and the unlawful merge seamlessly but it is important to bear in mind that this phenomenon is island-wide since the political abuse of state power is island-wide. Last week once again an appeal was circulated by a Reverend Peries of Horton Place who alleges that a politically inspired mafia type mob in cahoots with the police is attempting to drive his family away from the home they have lived in for many years. There are many other reports of lawful bourgeois property rights being violated or threatened by politicos in cahoots with gangsters and agencies of the state.

Big picture uncertainty and unlawful threats to private and state property discourage investors. Foreign investors may not have been attacked as yet, but once the rot starts there is no controlling its spread. I made reference to state property since encroachment into national parks with the complicity of state-power is on the rise and widely reported. The state does nothing about these violations because it stands behind the encroacher.

Relevance of the Hoole case

The details of the Hoole case have been widely reported so I need to summarise only the barest minimum. First however, I need to make clear that had the legal action against Professor Hoole gone forward, I am not taking bets on what the outcome may have been, if the police and legal processes were fair and transparent. Had Sri Lanka been a jurisdiction where law enforcement and the dispensation of justice are impartial, the public could relax, sit back and await the outcome. The point is that in this country, and particularly in Jaffna, the public perception is different; it is this reality that I will pursue today.

I also wish to insert a second caveat at this stage. In his various public statements Professor Hoole complains of unfair treatment, misleading promises by President Rajapaksa and gross discrimination in his personal academic appointments. This article, which is confined to the broader political dimension, will not comment these more personal matters either.

Political significance

The politically significant portion of Hoole’s assertions is four fold. (a) Electoral malpractices by the government and the EPDP were rampant in certain areas in the North during the recent elections. (b) The EPDP and its leadership are behind a string of robberies and murders. (c) Devananda functions like a vice regal satrap in Jaffna, summoning public officials, university vice chancellors, and anyone in authority to carry out his every fancy. (d) The Council of the University of Jaffna consists of appointees from Douglas Devananda’s list and Hoole contemptuously calls it the "Douglas Council". (e) Notwithstanding these allegations, the government supports, deals with and leans on Douglas.

Item (e) is obviously true since Douglas is a Cabinet Minister and the EPDP a partner in the UPFA. Item (a) is borne out by other reports while some of Hoole’s allegations in item (b) and item (c) are common knowledge in Jaffna. I am unable to comment on item (d) which alleges that the University Council is populated by Douglas’s toadies. Now, it is not the case-by-case truth or otherwise of each particular allegation that is stunning. Rather, it is surreal that a whole gamut of such allegations surrounds the government’s leading partner in the North, that Jaffna people take it as given that most of this is true, and most surreal of all is that the state not only turns a blind eye but is also a partner in this distemper.

What is true of the North and the East is also true of the South but not quite so blatantly. Perhaps I should not put too fine a point on this remark considering that drug kingpins, thugs and alleged rapists score high among government party preference vote getters. Nevertheless, the exclusion of the people from the processes of governance and the strict military control of life in the Tamil areas by a Sinhala state makes such excesses more execrable in those areas. I am making it a point to emphasise this disjuncture between the nature of the state and the ethnicity of the people not because I am a Tamil nationalist – I am not – but because it better explains the severity of the problem in the North.

It is admirable that the people in the Tamil and Muslim areas rejected the Rajapaksa led UPFA decisively in the local government elections of July 2011; at last a breath of fresh air! The national alternative, the UNP, is one walking disaster and I am not speaking up for this calamity Jane, but strengthening the opposition sometimes as the TNA, in other places as the Left and even as the UNP, is very much for the public good. The reasons why the first mobilisations of opposition to the government are surfacing in minority electorates are well understood. What is unfortunate is the mutation of a legitimate struggle against the abuse of power into ethno-politics. The root is that the mass mind is possessed to a certain degree of identity related hysteria, a form of political psychosis. This is a challenge that leftists and democrats will need to expend much energy in combating.

Hoole’s naivety

It is however naïve indeed of Professor Hoole to title his recent missive "Respectful Advice to His Excellency the President". Hoole writes at some length on the deplorable breakdown of law enforcement and the dispensation of justice in the North, the gist of which I have summarised above. In his naivety Hoole assumes that the President is unaware of all this and not immersed in the important actions of his government. Therefore he proceeds to advice President Rajapaksa not to keep such bad company, nor let his partners in government get away with these foul deeds. As with some newspaper editors (not only local) and liberal do-gooders all round, as well as other naïve correspondents and advisors, it is clear that Hoole is not employing a tongue in cheek style. He seems to genuinely believe that Rajapaksa is not fully aware of the rampant abuses penetrated by his politicos and is not personally a party to some if it. A remarkably simpleton like misjudgement for one who is said to be an internationally recognised researcher!

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