The Land of the Indifferent

| by Tisaranee Gunasekara

“That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
Were axioms to him, who’d never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept”
Auden (The Shield of Achilles)

( May 30, 2013, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The Lankan crisis is a multi-dimensional one. There is the political crisis which encompasses the crisis of democracy and the crisis of peace-and-nation-building. There is the economic crisis.

There is also a psychological crisis, a moral-ethical crisis, a crisis of values. This societal affliction was cast into sharp relief by two incidents which happened during the Wesak season.

The callous manner in which several doctors and nurses in the General Hospital treated a seriously injured patient has received a fair degree of publicity thanks to the efforts of Seylina D Peiris, the Good Samaritan who took the young woman to the hospital and witnessed the pageant of indifference first hand. This incident cannot be pigeon-holed as typical of the state sector, because similar horror stories have emerged from private hospitals as well, the most recent being the death of a young child at Nawaloka1. Nor is this problem limited to hospitals. It is present in every possible space, public and private, political and non-political.

In today’s Sri Lanka, a militarised value system ensures that weakness is scorned, strength worshipped and victims ignored. This is augmented by religious brands which enthrone empty piety in place of real kindness.

The state Wesak Festival was held in Buttala, under the patronage of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. A few days previously, the local authorities poisoned 38 homeless dogs in the area to prevent them from disturbing the Wesak celebration. Can anything encapsulate the damning hypocrisy and the vacuous exhibitionism which pass off as Buddhism today than this act? Killing living beings in the name of celebrating the Birth, Enlightenment and the Final Extinguishing of a teacher who placed compassion to all living beings at the forefront of his teaching: is this what Buddhism is becoming in Sri Lanka?

This week 35 families in Dambulla were given 24 hours by the local authorities to vacate their homes of more than 3 decades. That callous order was made supposedly in furtherance of developing Dambulla as a Sacred City. As illegal occupants of state lands, these families may not be entitled to any compensation; but as human beings and as citizens, they are entitled to some sympathetic consideration. Rendering men, women and children homeless and destitute to protect a temple does not accord with the teachings of the Buddha.

According to another media report, 13 islands in Kalpitiya have been sold to foreigners. This will deprive thousands of people of their homes and their livelihoods. But this tragedy too will pass us by.

This is what happens to a country when pity dies.

When Pity dies

In October 2009, a man started throwing stones at passing vehicles in Bambalapitiya.

We all know, instinctively, that no sane man would throw stones at passing vehicles; that a man who does so is indubitably an insane one. The normal, ordinary, civilised reaction would be to restrain such a man and ensure that he gets some medical attention.

But in Bambalapitiya, on that day, monsters reigned. A mob consisting of policemen and civilians started chasing the stone-thrower. When he waded into the sea to escape from his demented pursuers, two policemen waded in after him and started beating him with stout poles. The footage shows the victim begging for mercy, but his attackers, immeasurably more unhinged than him, had none to give2. In the end, he waded ever deeper into the sea in order to escape the savagery, and drowned.

Having caused a man’s death and watched him die, the two attackers and the more than 100 spectators returned to their momentarily interrupted ordinary lives.

Initially the police claimed that the victim died of drowning. But a cameraman from a private TV station had videoed the tableau of inhumanity. It was after the footage was made public that the police admitted that a crime was committed.

Eventually it was discovered that the victim was indeed a mental patient.

That grisly incident, and the moral depravity and lawlessness it embodied, was a forewarning of the rapid de-sensitisation and brutalisation of Sri Lanka.

In commenting on the Holocaust, Hannah Arendt said, “The deeds were monstrous but the doer…quite ordinary, commonplace”3. Clearly her observation has a relevance far beyond that time and that place:

The men and women who watched passively as a defenceless man was beaten and forced to drown, the doctors and the nurses who ignored the plight of a patient (and watched television amidst the Wesak decorations honouring the Compassionate One) are not monsters; they are perfectly ordinary people, and in all probability, good family men and women in their private lives.

What does this say about our future?

Sri Lanka has had her share of times when ordinary virtues which underpin a liveable life such as decency, sympathy and kindness were in abeyance. The Black July, in which the killers were ordinary people rather than soldiers, militants or even terrorists, was an ideal case in point. That was a time when crime became the norm and legality the exception, when deeds of brutality were committed in the wide open, with pride – often to the acclaim/approbation of onlookers – while acts of mercy, of ordinary humanity were carried out in stealth. What made that horror even more appalling was the way it continued, day after day – every morning mobs would come out to burn, pillage and kill; every evening the constituent individuals would go home to their families, and to a few hours of normal existence; the same surreal process would be repeated the next day.

But until recently such descents into savage amorality were incidental and episodic; they flared up, lasted for a while, and died.

Today the germs have infused every fibre of Lankan society. Today no corner of Sri Lanka, no aspect of Lankan life is immune to the disease.

The culprits are not just politicians, though they too bear their share of blame in setting this devastating trend, especially by enthroning impunity in the name of patriotism. Religion, as it is institutionally practiced in Sri Lanka, is a part of the problem. It will build magnificent edifices while helping to create people devoid of basic human decencies.

The self-immolation by a Buddhist monk has merely added another layer of deadly violence to a society already choking on violence.

In the past, after atrocities happened, there would be some shame and guilt, and perhaps even some soul-searching. But that necessary, civilising practice died with the Humanitarian Operation and the Welfare Camps. Not only did we shut our hearts to natural human pity during the war and in its immediate aftermath. Four years later, we still have no pity to give; nor see a need for it.

Pitilessness is habit-forming; now it’s devouring our own.

The Rajapaksas can be ejected, democratically, someday. The political and economic crises can be resolved, to some extent, in a post-Rajapaksa Sri Lanka. But curing Lankan society of the plague of ruthless-indifference will be far more difficult, if not impossible.



3 Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report of the Banality of Evil