Groundviews

Counter-Thuggery Doesn’t Pay

Out there, in the Northern parts of post-war Sri Lanka, anyone who cares to look will see a difficult situation prevailing. There live people who have not been re-settled in places they were displaced from, there is out of proportionately high presence of the armed forces, there are people who are still searching for their loved ones whom they last saw with their hands held high, and they are being watched all the time. They can be taken in at any time, released or not at will. The place has been pushed so far back in time that the notion of due process is yet to be invented. Of such facts, when denial cannot be sustained, “it is for their own good,” it is fashionably claimed.

A day or so ago, as far as I can glean from news reports of what happened – which I hope is true at least to a first approximation, forgive me please for any inaccuracies — some people who are still looking for their loved ones organized a protest, a peaceful protest which they are perfectly entitled to do in a functioning democracy. And there was also a counter protest – again something anyone who can spare a few bucks and bottles is perfectly entitled to organize in a democracy.

Now it is known that one protest can be peaceful, but two quickly become too many and the environmental tension will hit the stratosphere. Mr Suresh Premachandran MP, a Member of Parliament from the Tamil National Alliance (and holds high office as its official spokesperson) arrives in the middle of it, has an exchange of words with the counter-protesters and someone in the crowd goes to attack him. The police intervene to stop the scuffle.

A policeman who looks a bit like a senior officer (holding a walkie-talkie in his hand) waves rather rudely at the MP to go away. Two junior cops try to move the people, including the MP.

And then it happens.

One of the cops, in the process of separating the crowd, puts his hand on the MP’s shoulder. This annoys the MP immensely and he shouts at the policeman: “Touch my shoulder and I will kick you.” “What is `kick’?” asks the cop who either does not understand Tamil or has never been kicked before in his life, the former being a more plausible hypothesis. The MP repeats his offer to kick him. Perhaps somebody in the background helps by translating, or the policeman works it out using his own imagination, he gets it. He hands over his gun and cap to a colleague to sort it out with the MP by a fist fight. Some unprintable words are spoken during this. Others intervene and avoid further escalation.

Photograph courtesy http://www.athirady.com

Watching the video, I find the behavior of Premachandran MP unacceptable. However tensed the situation was, his behaviour can be best described by the term “thuggery.” The language he uses and the hand gestures he makes towards the policeman are totally inappropriate from someone who is, at least in theory, supposed to represent me. His responsibility is to calm the situation – not aggravate it.

More importantly, even if he manages to deliver a few blows which he can later gloat about, he is unlikely to win a fist fight with the ralahamy (policeman).

Now some ask the usual question of political philosophy as applied to Sri Lankan politics: “Didn’t the other side start it?” May be, I do not know. And I do not care.

Others ask me “Would the policeman have behaved in that way – touching an MP’s shoulder to move him away – had it been a Sinhala politician?” “Perhaps,” we would infer from some opposition MPs who encountered the gun wielding Mayor in Hambanthota — that toy gun, remember?

Yet others say “Would the policeman have behaved that way had the MP been from the ruling party?” “Probably not,” we would infer from the cop who is now in hospital for daring to issue a speeding ticket.

Whatever the fine details of the situation are, we ought not to forget the single most important lesson we learnt by looking back at the last thirty years of political history of our country. A lesson learnt at enormous cost to a community as well as the country. That lesson is this: Counter-thuggery doesn’t pay. That cannot be the way.

And Mr Premachandran is well placed to know this.

In that context, with all due respect, may I offer a challenge to the MP?

Write a note of apology to that policeman whom you threatened to kick. Write it in your own handwriting in Tamil and don’t forget to include a Sinhala translation. Along with the note, send him a small gift – a dozen of Jaffna’s best variety mangoes.

You see, your stature as official spokesperson of the Alliance that stands for Tamil Nationalism will not be diminished by showing such goodwill. You see, you will be showing the cop that you recognize him as the instrument, and not the architect. You see, you can only stand tall by doing so. You might even earn the right to represent me by doing so.

And there is gain to be made from that investment, I assure you.

Next time you organize a protest, and this policeman is on duty, and the order comes from an air-conditioned office in Colombo to shoot into the crowd – just as we saw in Chilaw, Katunayake and Weliweriya — can you guess what might happen?

He will miss – deliberately!