Judgment Reserved

Judgment Reserved

By N Sathiya Moorthy

Reports that the Tamil judge of northern Mullaitivu, T Saravanarajah, had quit and fled the country, all at one go, fearing for his life, should be remembered as yet another dark chapter in the nation’s post-war legal and judicial history. Worse still, for Justice Minister Wijedasa Rajapakshe, himself a senior Supreme Court lawyer, with the honour of ‘President’s Counsel’, or PC, tagging his name, to have cast unfounded aspersions on the judge, shows that something is still rotten in the State of Sri Lanka.

It is not known if the said judge shared his concerns or the threats handed out to him with his superiors in the hierarchy, going all the way up to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. If not, why, if so, what – rather, whom did he take up his case with and what was the response? Did he take it up with the government authorities, say, starting with the district officials and going all the way up to the Justice Minister and maybe the President himself? If so, again what was the response?

Does it all mean that he could have been provided police security, had he alerted the higher-ups, or did he alert them and did not act on it? What then are the details in this regard – if any? Or, was the judge intent on emigrating elsewhere, maybe as an ‘asylum-seeker’? At least that is the kind of picture that Minister Rajapakshe, no kin of THE Rajapaksas, though from the same Hambantota district, has sought to paint about the man but without saying so much.

The Minister has just said that the Judge, before leaving the country, had met some diplomats of foreign countries. Sections of the Tamil media in the North even surmised that he might have taken or might have been offered asylum in Canada – though again, no confirmation or official word about it. Not even the clichéd line, ‘according to official sources…’.All of it means that much of it is all in the realm of speculation.

Human considerations

According to news reports, Judge Saravanarajah had shared his plight with the Judicial Services Commission (JSC), a creature of the Constitution, before emplaning. The JSC has not commented on it yet. If he has appealed to the JSC, did he give time for them to follow up on it – act? At least, the JSC too would have required a couple of hours to offer security cover of some kind for him and possibly his family too – because those that had threatened him could not have been expected to wait until the governmental papers moved in its own slow pace to take the required decisions, otherwise.

Maybe, the JSC or even he SC, if alerted by either the man or the JSC, take the initiative to give him the confidence required under his particular circumstances? Did anyone from the JSC, SC or the government at the appropriate-level speak to him once the JSC had received his communication – not in officialise but in sheer human consideration and humaneness that the Buddha had preached?

Yet, it is sad and out of form for a judge to have taken to the social media to announce his resignation and exit from the country. But the plight under which he was placed after delivering a series of orders over the alleged forceful construction of a Buddhist tempt in Kurunthur Malai (Kurundi Viharaya) under his jurisdiction, possibly he alone encountered and had known. After all, it was a civil suit with certain criminal law implications as the Buddhist monks and their supporters repeatedly violated court orders after they had unilaterally claimed that a vihara had pre-existed a Hindu ‘kovil’ on the mount.

Width and depth

For the uninitiated, the use of the Tamil term ‘kovil’, even in media reports, government documents and gazette notifications, in reference to ‘Hindu temples’ but reserving the English term ‘temple’ exclusively for Buddhist shrines should show the width and depth of the pervasiveness of ‘Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarianism’ in everyday life, circumstances and environment. And for them to claim every inch of Tamil Nadu, either as a forgotten old Buddhist shrine or as a larger archeological site (again hiding only Buddhist artifacts and none else) or as forest land – especially the last one goes on to show that they are interested not only in claiming lands and religious sites in the possession and enjoyment of the Tamil community for generations and centuries but also in denying the Tamils whatever they have had by branding them as ‘State lands’.

Kurundur Malai or Kurundi is not the only site under the more recent claims of the Sinhala-Buddhist hard-liners. The list had mushroomed after the predecessor government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed an official committee of historians and archeologists – yes, you got it right, all of them were Sinhala-Buddhists — to do the job for the majoritarian group, which is slowly but surely displaying a mob mentality, as happened to some of the Tamil MPs in recent weeks.

Gajendra Kumar Ponnambalam, the chip of the old bloc as far as Tamil politics goes – otherwise, uncompromising to the point of being impractical, he is the grandson of the late C G Ponnambalam of the All-Ceylon Tamil Congress — and his party colleague and fellow-parliamentarian Kajendran were both beaten up, the former at least on two different occasions.  At present heading the ACTC-led Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF), Gajan incidentally is now away in Geneva, speaking about ‘war time crimes’ and post-war manifestations of the past, coming all the way down to la affaire Judge Saravanarajah.

The worst part of it all is that all those that had started by the Gota administration is being continued by the government under the so-called liberal President, Ranil Wickremesinghe. In failed discussions with Tamil party leaders more than once – all of them have already forgotten those talks months down the line – the President did promise action. And Sravanarajah’s twin exits seem to be a fall-out of the promised action, nay, inaction, or one-sided action, to b e precise.

Standing in the Bar

In this background, for Minister Rajapakshe to deny that he did not pressure the Judge in a way that he ended up quitting and exiting makes a mockery of the entire episode. Worse still, he has gone on to heap insinuations on Saravanarajah, saying that he had sought a meeting with the Attorney-General’s office, and that he was facing six or seven cases against him and wanted the meeting in this regard – or, something coming close to that.

According to subsequent media reports, unfortunately only in Tamil and not possibly in any so-called ‘national newspapers’, nor in mainline Sinhala language, there were some cases appealed against the Judge’s orders and that was all to it.
For a minister familiar with court procedures as Wijedasa R is, to say such things may not amount to contempt of court, but would definitely be contempt of his own standing in the Bar – which is where he had belonged during his decade-long estrangement from politics, 2005-15.

For now, the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), and of course Tamil parliamentarians, for once cutting across their internal differences, have decided to take it up at their levels. There is also a call by all Tamil parties for a protest later this week. It is not unlikely that it all may culminate in them fielding a common presidential candidate next year, without supporting one or the other of the Sinhala majors’ nominees. Already, some moves have reportedly commenced in this regard – and incidents like la affaire Saravanarajah would only hasten that process.  

(The writer is a policy analyst & political commentator, based in Chennai, India. Email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)

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