Sri Lanka: Institutions serve the leaders, not ‘The Law’

Source : Daily World

All institutions become slaves to the process. The parliament goes through a process and a law gets made although the institution was meant for threadbare discussion whether the proposed piece of legislation is lawful. That task is left to another institution, that of the judiciary. That institution, in turn, gets bound by the process and by the Constitution, which is another law, not “The Law”. As long as the process is followed, institutions made of people enable certain people to do what they want to do. Yet, as we shall see, there is “The Law” that is not fettered by the process, whether of the prescribed kind or of the due process kind. Whether a law or process is in conformity with “The Law” is not a legitimate question to be asked by or before an institution that is itself a creature of the process. Thus, a breakdown occurs when leaders legitimised by the process fail to act according to “The Law” but legitimise their acts by the process.

H. G Wells in his 1896 science fiction “The Island of Doctor Moreau” presents an example of a law masquerading as “The Law”. The Faustian Doctor Moreau performs cruel surgeries and contortions on animals to make them look, walk and talk like humans. To make them obedient to himself, he gives them a set of rules to recite but calls it “The Law”. Every man-made process going around as “The Law” needs a priest and the priest in this grotesque story is another animal transformed by Doctor Moreau and named “Sayer of the Law”. It makes all modified creatures recite a litany that essentially prohibits animal behaviour. It repeatedly makes them assert, “Are we not men?”

Yet, the animals keep reverting to animal behaviour and are given punishment and more surgeries. For them “The Law” was that they were animals, walking on all fours, sucking their liquids, eating flesh and fish. Yet, the process created by Doctor Moreau legitimises acting against “The Law” and enforces behaving like humans. Ultimately, there is a breakdown and a half-finished puma woman kills Doctor Moreau.

Can we relate this story with what happened in Sri Lanka on July 9, 2022 when a huge mob swarmed over the presidential palace and the armed forces had to help the president sneak out by some back door? Then the mob burnt down the private home of the prime minister in spite of the police and armed forces using tear gas and firing in the air. Both the president and the prime minister had been elected by a process and could not be delegitimised by appealing to that very process, irrespective of their failures, negligence, incompetence and worse. Had people gone to courts, they would have been asked whether these leaders had violated any prescribed process. The parliament, the courts, and the leaders had given the people a set of rules that masqueraded as “The Law”. People suffered pain and misery, deprivation and hunger. Children could not go to school, as there was no fuel for the buses. Factories could not run, as there was no electricity. Mothers could not cook even when they could lay their hands on some food, as there was no fuel.

Sri Lanka was originally called Sinhaladvipa. It was a tongue twister for the Europeans who descended on this region looking for spices. They preferred Serendib, the simplified Arabic word for it that led to the word serendipity, meaning the luck or good fortune of finding something good accidentally. During his visits to this piece of heaven on the earth, the present writer did find the island true to that word, where one finds ubiquitous beauty and peace. Yet, in the last few months, it oozed tears more than serendipity. People, in this teardrop-shaped nation, screamed as the animals on Doctor Moreau’s island did under the blade of Doctor Moreau. Their bodies and souls were being twisted under the cruel knife of corruption of the Rajapaksha clan during the last two decades that had devoured the country’s economy from within. These leaders borrowed in the name of the nation, lined their nests at home and abroad and when the creditors came calling, handed over to them pieces of the nation, like the Hambantota port ceded to the Chinese.

All such kleptocrats have their day of reckoning. They are swept away by the process, if the process has still left in it that vestige of democracy called “free and fair elections”. In the alternative, they are washed away by the human tide as happened in Colombo on July 9. This had happened to Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, to Ceausescu of Romania, to the Czars in Russia, to the last emperor in China. Sadly, in many cases, a new Doctor Moreau comes on the scene with his own knife and makes them recite his set of rules as “The Law ‘’. Did “The Law” ever exist or have human beings always lived under a set of man-made rules, nourishing the leaders who thrive under the legitimacy provided by those rules? The Ṛgveda points to Ṛta, the eternal cosmic order and the principle that sustains it. It was not created or willed by any beings or even by any gods and existed before all of them, they all being powerless to even alter it. Let alone rulers, even the gods had duties under Ṛta. Usha, the goddess of dawn, was ṛtāvarī, the most honoured Ṛta, as the symbol of an inevitable new beginning after every spell of darkness. She participates in the cosmic order and is the enemy of the chaotic forces.

The Indians were not unique in visualising “The Law” that has to be followed by the people, their rulers, the priests and their gods. Egyptian pharaohs obeyed Maat and had the duty to uphold it, to bring about order in place of disorder. Egyptian civilization lasted millennia and so did Indian civilization, the latter outlasting even the former. Maat represented truth, justice and the cosmic order. India’s motto, borrowed from the Mundakopnishad, “Satyameva Jayate, (nānritam)”, truth alone triumphs, not un-Ṛita, mirrors the Egyptian description. Somewhere on the road to power, the rulers lose sight of Ṛta or Maat. Drunk on power, they believe that through a process, their “Sayers of The Law” can coerce the masses to recite their rules as “The Law”. The animals on Doctor Moreau’s island had accepted their pain for a long time because the fake Law said so. Yet, they kept reverting to “The Law”, their real nature as animals. As social animals, humans’ nature, their real Law, is to create order out of disorder. Any leader, who, backed by the institutions and the process, thinks that he can violate the Ṛta for long, does so at his own peril but in the process causes avoidable pain and misery to his countrymen too.

The writer RN Prasher is a retired IAS officer of Haryana cadre | Personal Opinions

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