An invitation to ‘Ethics’
Dr. A.C. Visvalingam, President, Citizens’ Movement for Good
Governance (CIMOGG), commenting on the horrific murder in broad daylight
of Balavarnam Sivakumar, (reportedly a mentally challenged individual)
by some police officers, argues for the resurrection of the 17th
It is a fact, as Visvalingam points out, that the 17th Amendment was
passed in a hurry ‘in a serendipitous moment’. He is also correct in
that it contained serious flaws.
He is also correct when he says that it was nevertheless a step
forward in the process of de-politicizing governance structures.
I lament with him and CIMOGG the fact that ‘flaw’ was read as
‘loophole’ and that pledges to ensure the setting up of structures
robust enough to insulate citizen from overzealous and self-seeking
politician have been compromised by foot-dragging, abuse of
constitutional ‘outs’ and of course the distraction of other overarching
Quibbling among parties who have marginal clout in Parliament and
wording-flaws that foster chauvinistic drives have not helped either.
For me, the 17th was at best a ‘starting point’ in the long and
arduous process of correcting the flaws of the country’s institutional
arrangement. The 17th Amendment is dead as CIMOGG tacitly acknowledges
by calling for its ‘resurrection’. If it is dead and it can be
resurrected, flaws and all, I would still support this.
If one does not believe resurrection is possible, then it should be
buried once and for all. Burial of course will not resolve the problems
that gave rise to the 17th Amendment.
Burial confers on all of us the responsibility of searching for an
alternative, an 18th Amendment perhaps, written in the same spirit but
with greater attention being placed on plugging the kinds of holes that
sank the 17th.
This is not an essay about constitutional reform, though. My friend
Pradeep Jeganathan, while appreciating my sentiments regarding the
intent of the 17th, also expressed certain reservations. His thesis,
essentially, is that getting the wording right, fiddling with structures
or even overhauling them, while not necessarily being useless, would not
be ‘enough’. He strongly recommends a return to ethics.
What struck me most in this incident was not the mindless brutality
of the murderer and his accomplices but the silence and immobility of
the spectators. Apparently some people did ‘act’ in that the Police and
a TV station were informed, but the footage didn’t show anyone
intervening or even trying to intervene.
Marissa De Silva, writing to the Groundviews website (‘We the
spectator state’), elaborates adequately on the troubling horror of this
spectatorship. I am not in agreement with the parallel she draws with
respect to IDP camps and the conclusions she draws about the Government,
the international community and battlefield realities, but she does
paint an accurate, vivid and horrifying picture of a kind of apathy that
can only exacerbate the general problems this society is beset with.
I remember seeing a man brutally assaulting a woman, apparently his
wife, in broad daylight near the Pettah bus stand. It was ‘spectacle’.
There were spectators. I saw a policeman on the other side of the street
and quickly informed him. He casually and rudely asked me if I had a
problem. I told him that he is required to help maintain the peace. He
responded ‘just mind your own business and you’ll be ok’. The
quarrelling parties had sorted out their problem by this time.
A few days later I saw three blind lottery-sellers assaulting a man
who they believed had robbed one of them. The ‘suspect’ had been
recognized by his voice. This was ‘citizens’ justice’ to the spectators.
One of the blind men threatened to and even attempted to gouge the man’s
eyes out. Again, I told a police officer and this person intervened and
took all four men to the Police Station. This happened outside the Fort
Railway Station. Even the best institutions and the most disciplined
police force cannot prevent some nutcase taking the law into his/her
hand and assaulting or poisoning someone. And there aren’t any laws to
forbid a witness from opting to look the other way. That’s where ethics
comes in, or should come in. It is in these tiny incidents that we see
the flaws of our societal psyche and it is this apathy that gets
multiplied into a general ‘look-aside’ when it comes to matter of
greater magnitude. One can argue that it is the structures and political
culture that promotes this kind of inaction of course but the
chicken-or-egg discussion is meaningless.
An individual can plead innocence to the world and point finger at
structure. But he/she must live with him/herself and the choices he/she
makes or does not make.
I believe there’s a scandalous dismissal of or negligence of this
thing called ‘ethics’ in our society and too often we get caught up in
the supposedly overarching ‘political’ and defer a consideration of this
simple issue. Until it hits us in the face. After that, we cannot be
silent. Not to our conscience at any rate.