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Sri Lanka: Has ‘political bug’ smitten the Cardinal too? – N. Sathiya Moorthy

By reportedly asking the nation’s rulers to resign, Archbishop of Colombo, His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith may have crossed the Rubicon on politicising his Catholic faith more than already in this weeks and months after the Easter Sunday serial-blasts. By mentioning State Minister Ranjan Ramanayake’s Catholic faith while seeking action against him for his criticising the role of Buddhist monks in fomenting communal trouble post-blasts, Venerable Omalpe Sobitha Thera might not have done any greater service to the nation, either.

No one needs to read too much into the good Cardinal’s expression of his community’s frustration and desperation, post-blasts. Long ago, he dismissed demands for his contesting the presidential polls later this year, thus ending all speculation in the matter. Yet, his on-again-off-again politically-loaded statements have their own way of making into the hearts and minds – as much of the nation’s political class as of the faithful.

Re-consecrating St Sebastian’s Church in the Colombo suburb of Negombo, which was destroyed in the blasts, Cardinal Ranjith did not ask the nation’s rulers to resign. He reportedly went a step further and asked them to “allow those who were capable of governing the county to take over”. In the nation’s highly-polarised political atmosphere, especially of the majority Sinhala-Buddhist community, it points to only one direction – that of the Rajapaksas, whatever the real intention and meaning of the Cardinal’s ‘message’.

What should add grist to the nation’s speculative political mill is Cardinal Ranjith’s reported reiteration of the nation’s rulers acting according to the whims and fancies of external forces. “This Government has dismantled the intelligence agencies that were once very strong. This was done to fulfil the needs of international organizations and NGOs,” he reportedly said, obviously referring to the UNHRC resolutions on ‘war-crimes probe’ and ‘accountability issues’.

As coincidence would have it, in power at the time, the Rajapaksas stoutly declined all efforts by external forces and INGOs on the ‘war crimes’ front. In a way, they even put the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency on the line in Elections-2019, though there were multiple factors that contributed to his poll-defeat. One issue of course was the ‘Weliweriya episode’ (2013), where the army was called in, to quell a Catholic-majority mob that had blockaded the main Colombo-Kandy thoroughfare, if only to press their demand for safe drinking water.

‘Misguided youth’

In laying all the blame for the Easter blasts at the door-steps of the present-day rulers, Cardinal Ranjith distanced the Muslim community from the Easter blasts. As is known, the perpetrators of the blasts belonged to the Muslim community, and the Cardinal was careful in describing them as ‘misguided youth’, all over again.

In delineating identities, Cardinal Ranjith seemed to imply that the blasts would still not have occurred if and if only the Government had acted on external intelligence tip-offs or acted on alerts from local community leaders. It is anybody’s guess if the State authorities had since shared with him, the police investigation reports into the blasts, as directed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe through a public statement.

As the Cardinal reportedly pointed out, when the security forces arrested some (Islamic) extremists for running a training camp at Wanathawilluwa, for instance, they were allowed to go scot-free. In the same spirit, he also criticised the authorities for not taking action against those who had destroyed statues of Lord Buddha in some places.

According to media reports, Fr Manjula of the re-consecrated church thanked the Sri Lanka Navy for re-building the Catholic place of worship in double-quick time, after the Easter blasts had destroyed the same. Thus the division in the perception of the Catholic church is clear: give credit to authorities concerned where due, but condemn those that have seemingly failed.

Impartial probe

On earlier occasions, post-blasts, Cardinal Ranjith has been calling for a “very impartial strong inquiry” into the terror attacks and punish those found responsible “mercilessly, because only animals can behave like that”. Such a dictum raises equally interesting questions on a variety of issues related to the blasts.

If the Cardinal still wanted an ‘impartial inquiry’, did he mean that the police investigations, the presidential commission and the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) were looking at the wrong direction? If at least one of them stood above the rest and above suspicion, maybe it is time that he clarified his position, on which one is that he trusts, or at least trusts more than the rest.

it would go a long way in assuaging the sentiments of the blasts-affected Catholic community in particular, but the nation too would feel relatively relieved. If the Catholic Church in the country, on the other hand, is not satisfied with any of the probes, then again the Cardinal should spell out the why of it, and also suggest what could be the way forward, even if late.

As is known, PM Wickremesinghe has directed the officials concerned to brief the Cardinal on the police probe. It implies that the investigations are more or less complete. There is the Presidential Commission, appointed unilaterally by incumbent Maithripala Sirisena, that submitted an interim report some time ago. As with the bonds scam presidential commission report and the rest, Sirisena seems enjoying, sitting on the same, rather than going public with the whole of it, and nothing short of the whole.

The PSC is the most political and equally controversial of them all, almost since the beginning. It is anybody’s guess why the PM should have initiated the process when the police and a presidential panel were already at it. At least, Wickremesinghe seems to be unclear yet about the contradictions, if any, between the police probe and the PSC report.

Fertile imagination

Running parallel to the police investigations, the PSC probe could end up undermining the credibility of the more reliable other, if and when the two seem to be an adaptation of each other. Halfway, or more than halfway through the PSC probe, the nation doesn’t seem to be any wiser about the purpose, goal and direction of the same, other than reading some hidden/unclear political motives therein.

With the result, as and when the PSC report is out, the ruling UNP especially will have to go to town, explaining the very rationale behind the probe, not stopping with the credibility of the findings. If handled callously, as UNP Minister Ramanayake has handled his criticism of Buddhist monks, there is every chance that the people may end up having to believe that the Easter blasts itself was a product of somebody’s fertile imagination – and did not happen in the first place. Already, there are those who seem to feel that way, that the nation would be happier if only together they all declared that no blasts ever took place on the fateful Easter Sunday, 2019.

In the midst of all this keeps cropping up speculation about the PSC inviting President Sirisena to testify before the parliamentary panel. For all those eager to ‘fix’ Sirisena at the PSC, or even pay him back for the twin constitutional crises that he had engineered late last year, they can be circumspect at least at this late hour. Independent of all technical arguments and constitutional rights some PSC members might put forth, they always need to remember that they are seeking to compromise not just Sirisena the man, or even the truncated SLFP’s boss.

Instead, they are seeking to compromise the highest constitutional office in the nation. It can have long-term consequences, long after the current players are all gone and promptly forgotten. But then, the nation’s polity has seldom looked beyond its shoulders – and has never been in the habit of looking at its own face in the mirror, even one morning in their life time, leave aside every morning.

The worse may come off if Sirisena were to take the stand at the PSC than otherwise. He may not have the numbers inside or outside Parliament, that should not discount his ability to turn the tables on his adversaries, better than the other way round. The last time it was incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa, this time it could be PM Wickremesinghe and his UNP ministerial colleagues. If nothing else, Sirisena can take off from where his UNP/TNA interrogators at the PSC may leave. He could take them to and through areas of discomfort and inconvenience to them all, be it the bonds scam or the LTTE era, or more that the nation may not have known as yet.

Already, Sirisena, unknowingly, may have had some support from Cardinal Ranjith, whether unintended or otherwise. By calling for severest punishment for the blasts’ perpetrators, Cardinal Ranjith might have cast his lot with Sirisena, who has already started saying that they deserved nothing less than death-sentence and execution. With Sirisena’s revival of the death penalty discourse at its peak, there is greater legitimacy to the same if he were to take that line than possibly otherwise!

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: [email protected])

  • Courtesy of CG


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