“Life has to be designed by your intellect and not by emotion”

An Interview with Justice C. V. Wigneswaran


( February 20, 2014, Jaffna, Sri Lanka Guardian) My recent interview with the newly elected Chief Minister for the Northern Province, Justice Canagasabapathy Visuvalingam Wigneswaran, was somewhat controversial. Justice Wigneswaran needs no introduction. He is a Sri Lankan Tamil lawyer, judge and politician. He was in turn magistrate, and then judge of the District Court, High Court, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court. After his retirement he was elected as the Chief Minister of the Northern Province when the Province held its election in 2013.

Justice Wigneswaran is a newsmaker in a meaningful sense. Many people believe that he is someone who can make a difference. He entered one of most corrupt and deteriorated political systems pretending to be a democracy. However, he remains enthusiastic and maintains his ideology in an effort to create something meaningful.

I must express my appreciation that he talks honestly and expresses himself with a deep understanding of the root causes of the problems that we Sri Lankans face as a nation. He is a politician-administrator without illusions about the system he presides over. What I personally took away from this interview is the deep impression that his ethos combines peace and justice: “Life has to be designed by your intellect and not by emotion,” he said.

Politics in Sri Lanka is a cynical manipulation of power and the lack of justice. I have no idea how long that society will benefit from the politics of Justice Wigneswaran as the state is doing its best to eliminate the intelligentsia in from society. It will come as no surprise to anyone that he claims his life is under threat.

Please see below the full text of the interview:

Nilantha Ilangamuwa (NI): There is a traditional saying in Tamil that goes, “You can’t drink thick porridge if you want to keep your mustache clean.” You have entered politics in order to make your life more meaningful. Justice Wigneshwaran, you are one of the most respected jurists in the country. You turned to politics under the banner of the Tamil National Alliance. But, as we know, ‘politics’ in the Sri Lankan sense is deteriorating rapidly in practice and has actually claimed many lives leading to social disorder in the country. So, do you think that you, the staid jurist, made a wise decision in becoming a politician?

C.V. Wigneswaran (CVW) : Why don’t you look at this positively? Because a former Supreme Court Judge has taken to politics, could it not mean that the deterioration that you mentioned might get stemmed? I have seen positive developments around me. There is a humane attitude being shown even by those who criticized earlier just for the sake of politics. We have to all do our part – we cannot sit on the sidelines and moan. I think it was Benjamin Franklin who said it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

I am not sure about my decision being wise or not. But I certainly will not be a party to any vice! I have faith in Divinity. He who brought me into this must take the responsibility for me. If he prefers to call me early so be it! Why worry? God bless you!

NI: I believe that you have made your position clear on the problem that we have argued and counter-argued over the course of many years. Recently you commented, “We do not want our own homeland; we only want power-sharing within a united country”. Are you really sure that fighting for the establishment of a homeland in order to enjoy total freedom from the central government is wrong?

CVW: Wrong or right depends on you. Before we go into the morality of the issue, let us look at it pragmatically. Somebody fought for a separate country and lost even the little freedom we had earlier. Of course, they internationalised the problem. Yet the North is now under the control of over 150,000 soldiers. Let us say you fight them and establish a separate country. Already over half the original population in the North have left the shores of the Island or have gone to see their Creator! In your renewed attempts at fighting how much more human suffering are you wanting to see and experience? Whom are you going to fight for when the majority of the other half will also be out of the Island or would have gone to see their Creator at the end of your new war? Do you think a separate State even if it is obtained after a brutal, bloody war would be able to peacefully proceed on as a unit? Don’t you think it would have to become a vassal of another country to keep itself safe from the Country from which it separated? Don’t you think you have to start all over again with fear that your boundaries might be attacked? Total freedom or partial freedom is all a state of mind.

Therefore please remember life has to be designed by your intellect and not by emotion. All the emotional outbursts and rhetoric must be safely kept for a cultural get together. Think positively, humanely and pragmatically. Then you will find our decision is the correct decision.

NI: So do you think that the bloody terror that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives during the last few decades was meaningless?

CVW: That question must be directed to the persons who refused to see the writing on the wall. If I remember right Dr. Anton Balasingham advised prudence at the end of a summit meeting. He wanted certain positions to be accepted and a settlement brought about. If we had had the political maturity at that stage in addition to our military superiority we could have saved many, many, many lives. Now you are indirectly telling me because we lost so many lives we must fight further and lose all we have. You know the story of the Vittil Poochi (locust). It sees light in the night and charges towards it only to get burned and die. Please do not hoard up hatred and envy and aversion just because our beloved have died. Any rational examination of our politics would bring even you to our side – the present TNA’s side!

NI: What are your feelings about the role of the rebel movements in the conflict which ended in May 2009?

CVW: There are no rebel movements now. They have all taken up to democratic politics – except that a few are still carrying arms with the concurrence of the Government. That is most unfortunate. The democratic verdict of the Tamil people is loud and clear – we will use all our determination, courage and resources in a manner that eschews violence of all sorts.

NI: May I remind you of the point of view of the late Professor Stanley J. Tambiah, who, while agreeing with you that the understanding of reality will guide you not to fight for a separate State but to find a sustainable solution within the State, pointed out that a separate Tamil state is not a practical solution. The main reason why it was not practical he said was the irrational, formless internal diversity and problems that Tamils are maintaining within themselves. The crisis due to the caste system and religious beliefs prevails even today. Do you think that you and the TNA can change the peoples’ attitude towards finding a good solution while extending the cohabitation with the center?

CVW: Sorry I did not read the Professor’s piece and therefore cannot comment. The Tamils are divided among themselves because they are all very clever. That cleverness unfortunately is channeled for mostly selfish benefits only. Yet, Prabhakaran with his armed might was able to keep them unified. Though clever they were scared. Let us try a new way. I think it is a two-fold approach. Both of them point to the same path. The first is based on compassion and humanism. The war has made several people realise the importance of these approaches. Even those who are not going to be swayed by this I think will be attracted by the intellectual argument. I think we should also appeal to the intelligence of the populace so that we adopt a path based on enlightened self-interest. I think this dual approach of showing the morality of our actions as well as their practicality will change people’s attitudes towards each other as well as the Centre. We will try to point out the limitations of hatred and aversion and also their consequences. We are trying to do so with our detractors too and that includes the Centre! There is nothing wrong in trying and failing. The Tamils have made tremendous sacrifices when a violent path had been adopted – surely they are willing to expend the same degree of determination in pursuit of a non-violent path.

NI: You decided not to visit Geneva, but send one of your staff to represent you at the event. Northern Provincial Councilor Ananthy Sasitharan is now in Geneva to attend the Human Rights Council sessions where the UN is planning to adopt its third resolution on Sri Lanka. Why did you send her instead of going yourself? And what do you think about the next resolution that is going to be tabled at the sessions?

CVW: Firstly politics is done by our Parliamentary Members. They are the real politicians. I have come more or less as an Administrator. So Parliamentarians are due to attend. We have simply endorsed Ananthy as the most suitable person to attend if she could make it.

Secondly, the Countries that attend Geneva are interested in adequate proofs for them to take a stand one way or the other. Ananthy gave evidence quite boldly before LLRC, Navi Pillay and recently before the Paranagama Commission. In fact it was she who brought to our notice that ‘persons’ in civil clothes were preventing people who came to Kilinochchi from giving evidence and even weaning away such persons on promises of compensation for the loss of their dear ones. We felt she would be in a position to give a first-hand account of the problems faced and currently being faced by our people, boldly and pointedly.

Thirdly, it was our women who lost the most by this war and who are most vulnerable even today. They needed someone who could empathise with their views. Ananthy, we thought, fitted in well.

As for the Resolution let us wait and see!

NI: There are conspiracies against you within the TNA and some senior members of the TNA have expressed their views against you. How do you understand the situation and how do you intend to tackle the problem?

CVW: I recently called such a person and told him that I was aware of his activities. I said ‘Why do you trouble yourself so much? There is an easy way to get rid of me. Just call up the TNA for a special general meeting and pass a resolution that you do not want Wigneswaran as Chief Minister or even as a member. Within seconds of your passing such a resolution I will be travelling back to Colombo. But if you can’t do that please try to help me to carry this burden.’ Remember one thing. I am a Lawyer. I have accepted a brief. None other than my client could ask me to hand back my brief. The TNA is my client more or less, as the trustees of the people of the Northern Province. I will work for them so long as they want me.

My life outside politics is fulfilling and far less stressful. I came into politics because the TNA felt I would be useful. If they feel that I am no longer useful I am happy to leave. Politics does not give me any personal benefit. Therefore I do not have to tackle the problem you speak about.

NI: While opening a hospital in Jaffna the President announced the reduction of Army camps and military personnel in the peninsula but the TNA and other parties accused the government of continued militarization in the area. I must say that I thought it strange when I saw you sitting next to the President at the same event and listening to the President without any objections. Do you believe the President is honest? Please elaborate on the situation in the area.

CVW: Please do not label persons and jeopardise the working relationship between the President and myself that we are trying to maintain. First, we have to remember that it is important to maintain civility and decorum. We can disagree but we need not be disagreeable. We must maintain our humaneness, refinement and culture.

As for the military check points and camps, no doubt, there has been a reduction after Major General Udaya Perera took over. But he is an excellent professional soldier. He must also be from Army Intelligence! Because at every place where the check points vanished you could now see soldiers on bicycles moving around. In that sense the people still feel insecure. There is no let up on treating the Northern Province as occupied territory. What we Tamils want is the complete withdrawal of the Army and the taking over of Intelligence and Security by the civilian Police. Of course, we have no objections to a few units of a limited number of Army personnel being kept in strategic places like ports and harbours.

I have responded to the statement made by the President in my recent keynote address at a conference organised by the University Grants Commission. I pointed out that almost immediately after the President made that statement about the number of soldiers presently occupying the Northern Province, it was contradicted by the Secretary to the President, and that the troop levels were five times more than what the President indicated. Perhaps, the President had been misinformed. Let us approach the issue with transparency and frank discussion, which focuses on upholding democratic freedoms and national security.

Let us tackle issues and avoid going down the path of labeling people as good and bad, honest and dishonest and so on. Remember to fight the act not the actor!

NI: The resolution passed by your Council recently has been criticized by many including the ruling party members. Some of them observed it as a dangerous outcome in the Council. What is your expectation? And how do you convince the people that it is not a dangerous move by the NPC?

CVW: There is nothing dangerous in asking somebody to ascertain the truth. Nor is it dangerous if we say the local inquiring institutions suffer from a lack of credibility. Can any person honestly state that justice could be achieved in Sri Lanka in a matter that has serious political ramifications?

We are aware of what happened to us in the North at the end of the war. The State is even more aware of what happened. The problem is because they are aware the Government does not want the truth to come out. So it is doing everything in its power to cover up the wrongs committed. Aiding and abetting is equally culpable. So the path of danger is traversed by the Government; not by the NPC.

NI: While passing the crucial resolution, you managed to convince the Speaker and other members of the NPC by arguing that genocide has to be ‘proved’. You used that term and so presented the position that the case for investigation should use the phrase ‘equivalent to genocide’. This chilling argument has made some activists unhappy and angry. One report said, “Wigneswaran’s argument not only blunts the spirit of the resolution but also goes against the rights of the prosecution judicially.” Please let me know your point of view.

CVW: I have not read the report you speak of. And I cannot make out what is alleged to have been said. But firstly let me ask everybody who hurries to comment to get a certified copy of the resolutions passed and have them properly translated to your language before pontificating. All I did was to point out that there could be acts. Whether such acts constitute a particular offence is a matter of judicial opinion. We are quite qualified to refer to the acts in the manner in which they were committed. We are also entitled to say that they seem to constitute a particular offence. But whether in fact they constitute that particular offence is a judicial function. Therefore I pointed out that we are aware of the acts committed, that is the manner in which the war was conducted during the concluding phase, we are no doubt also of opinion that the acts so committed amounted in our minds to a deliberate act against one category of people residing in this Island from prehistoric times, but whether in fact our opinion is correct can only be judicially decided. Therefore I said not to be emotional in these matters but to be pragmatic and realistic. Hence I called upon my brethren to refer to the acts if they must but refer to them as amounting to the offence rather than identify them as the offence itself.

NI: What I understand is that, power sharing, fighting against injustice, and cohabitation with the centre, are an illusion if no one is going to change the Constitution. Why are many Tamil politicians reluctant to talk or deliberately avoid talking about the constitutional problems in this country? Why aren’t you passing a resolution against the executive presidential system in the country which has evaporated hopes of the personal liberty and true meaning of democracy for everyone and not just the Tamils?

CVW: I do understand what you say. But you cannot find fault with us. When we brought out our report somewhat like a manifesto before the NPC election, we specifically said that we need to change the system constitutionally. We were for a federal constitution which is quite in contrast to the unitary constitution presently prevailing. In other words we were for a system, whether labeled federal or otherwise, which ensured maximum devolution to the North and the East, within a united Sri Lanka.

As for the Executive Presidential system, which seems to bother you, what difference would it make to us if a single man’s dictatorship is replaced by a community’s dictatorship? You forget that Tamils were made second class citizens under the 1972 Constitution which did not have an Executive President. In any event, you may have seen several speeches I have made condemning the regressive 18th Amendment and pointing out the flaws of the 1978 Constitution, which heaps power on one individual.

NI: Not only Tamil people, but also Sinhalese and Muslims were living together in the Northern Province before the LTTE forced them out. The Sinhalese politicians have a strong argument when they ask why those who left the area have no right to return and enjoy their rights to the land. But some of the Tamil politicians oppose this claiming it as a part of Sinhala colonization of the area. How do you explain the situation?

CVW: Simple. People who have been forcibly evicted should be resettled. However, resettlement should be for genuine displaced persons and should not be used as a ruse for forced demographic change. Unless those who now claim the right to come back could prove their connection to the original inhabitants they must be persons brought in for colonization purposes, promoted by the Government or by certain ultra-Sinhala Nationalist institutions.

Regarding the Muslims we intend setting up an institution very soon to address their issues. We have clearly indicated in our Manifesto that the Muslims who were evicted should be resettled in their lands. The People have given their mandate to proceed with this. We consider this our duty. However, this does not mean we are unaware of a Muslim Parliamentarian who is also trying to bring in outsiders to further his own political interests.

Regarding the Sinhalese the elders here could easily identify where the Sinhalese lived and who they were. They were such a minuscule minority. For example the person who sold bread to us at Manipay when I was very young was an Appuhamy from Matara. He was so loving and spoke Tamil so much like a Jaffna Man. Senior Lawyer Ilayathamby from Alaveddi told me of a Sinhala Bakery person who used to sell bread to them. He too had been there for a very long time and spoke Tamil well and had integrated well into the local society. Around 1983 the Army came and forcibly took him away against his protestations saying his life was not safe even when the locals guaranteed his safety. If the new claimants could show their connections to such persons why not resettle them? But the persons coming in are generally not the descendants of those who lived here. They are people brought in with the sole idea of changing the demographic pattern of the North.

Don’t forget that Tamils lived in the South too. There is a Temple Trust in Matara which owns properties even now strictly according to law because Prescription does not run against Trusts. The Trustee was Mr. Krishnadasan, Retired Commissioner of Assize. You think the encroachers will hand over the properties back to the descendants of the Judge or the successors to the Trustees? I think they tried and failed. You may not know that one Mr. Pasupathy and his brother owned around half the paddy lands in Tissamaharama in the 1950s and early ‘60s. Everything was destroyed by hooligans during riots and their descendants have no chance of going back there. The planned driving away of the Tamils from the South was the modus operandi of successive Sri Lankan governments. Now they want to colonise the North and drive away even those left in their areas of traditional occupation. But we will not follow that path – we will follow the law and address all genuine cases in accordance with the Law.

NI: It is very visible and understandable that many Tamil people are living in Colombo and other areas in harmony and peace. Why aren’t we applying this positive achievement or logic in the northern and eastern provinces?

CVW: Firstly the ‘Others” are in a majority in the Metropolis. Not the Sinhala Buddhists who claim this Country as theirs exclusively. Therefore there is comparative peace in Colombo.

Secondly despite all the Laws in place English is still in the forefront in Colombo and as during the time of the British their language is able to keep us all together to a great extent. Though the standard of English has no doubt suffered, the people in the Capital City are able to communicate in English or even Singhlish or Tamlish!

Thirdly the fact that there are so many Diplomatic Missions in Colombo keeps the ultras under check. Or at least the Politicians who direct them keep them under check.

If you allow us to live in peace in the North we will no doubt live in peace. When there is rewriting of history in a partisan manner, when there is planned colonisation to change the demography of the Northern Province, when you have an occupational Army in place in the North interfering with all aspects of daily life of the people, when you refuse to grant rights already in the law to run our Provincial Council, how on earth can we live in peace?

You must understand that Tamils outside the North and East have also been subject to pogroms and untold horrors. 1983 was merely the worst. Even afterwards there have been massacres in Bindunuwewa and other areas. You also seem to have forgotten the religious extremism that is currently being given a free hand in the South and West. Muslims, Christians and Hindus have all been targeted, attacked and intimidated. In the circumstances, what is it you are trying to replicate in the North and East?

NI: We are a nation with very bad experiences. For hundred years we fought for freedom but did we achieve it. Instead in time we created the worse constitution in the world. We thought our leaders would protect us but instead they took away our liberty. The result is that neither protection nor liberty is available and the society at large is being dragged into a black hole. There are hundreds of sad, bad and mad developments in recent history from the killing of Dr. Rajini Thiranagama by the LTTE to the removal of the first lady Chief Justice in the Country, by the President. I think a most fundamental question remains to be answered - which is - how do we start to respect each other? How do we find what we really need?

CVW: You are not asking this question from the CM of NPC. You are really asking this from the old Wigneswaran, whoever he was. The answer too is from him not from the CM.

All our religions have given the answer to your question. But we have forgotten what had been said in the Religious Scripts or by our religious greats. I would take Buddhism to answer your question. Tanha (desire) is the cause for our ills. Unfortunately our politicians the moment they get power they are interested in consolidating such powers as much as possible. They are interested in perpetuating such power. They have forgotten they were sent for a specific purpose to look after the needs and wants of the people who voted them.

We need to focus on morality as well as intellectual arguments to change people’s mindsets. The moral arguments could be buttressed by having recourse to our respective spiritual roots. This means rejecting extremist views and enshrining pluralist values. On the intellectual side we need to explain the rational basis for mutual respect. This has to be a priority. The Government should use the immense control it has over the media to achieve this as a first step. I recall during the Peace Process there were a lot of people from the South who were supportive. This was due to the fact that the official policy of the government was different. The bottom line is that it needs the political will and commitment of the powers that be.

NI: There are many issues we have not had time to discuss but I believed we have covered many important issues in this first interview. I sincerely hope to talk to you again, and to finalize this discussion. In closing is there anything you would like to add?

CVW: Yes. I like to take the Sinhala masses into my confidence. You have been fed with many negative particulars about the Tamils by certain sections of the politicians and the press so far. Try to probe into the truth of such particulars. On inquiry you might find the situation is not as bad as it was portrayed by various interest groups. The moment you come out of your prejudices and conditionings there is every chance that we could work out a durable solution to our problems. The Tamil Speaking Peoples have given a very clear mandate – they eschew violence and support a political solution within a united Sri Lanka. They love this country as much as you do. What they seek is human security, fundamental freedoms and the right to manage their affairs in their areas of traditional habitation.

May Divinity guide the ways of all of you towards peace and prosperity! Thank you!

Justice C.V.Wigneswaran, PC is a Sri Lankan Tamil lawyer, judge and politician. He was a magistrate and a judge of the District Court, High Court, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court. He is the current Chief Minister of the Northern Province.

Nilantha Ilanguamuwa edits the Sri Lanka Guardian, an online daily newspaper, and he also an editor of Torture: Asian and Global Perspectives, a bi-monthly print magazine. He is the author of the just released non-fiction, “Nagna Balaya” (The Naked Power), in Sinhalese.