SRI LANKA: What Poddala Jayantha means to us

By Basil Fernando

I do not know Poddala Jayantha personally. However, I have felt for several years and still strongly feel that I as a human being, and we as Sri Lankans, owe a serious obligation to him.

I remember the first day I heard about the cruel way he was dealt with some 7 years back. Though no stranger to the extreme forms of cruelties that have taken place in Sri Lanka in the recent decades, or perhaps because of the knowledge of these things, what I heard about this incident left a deep sense of disappointment within me.

Now, reading his own published statement about the incident in a Sinhala publication, seven years after the events, my sense of disappointment in the Sri Lankan State, and in us as a community, re-emerges, fresh, as it was when first felt.

The expertise with which the abduction into a mobile torture chamber was carried out, the speed with which the series of acts of cruelty were done, and the utterly emotionless and remorseless manner in which it was completed, are all reminders of a training that some persons have received to become torturers on sheer command. The torture industry in Sri Lanka has reached this advanced stage.

However, now, in this present moment, what I see in my mind’s eye is the sheer horror and depravity of the one who gave the command to carry out this horrible act. That command came from a man who had by then become very smart about the use of cruelty to achieve his ends. Perhaps on hearing that his commands had been carried out the same way as he wished, he would not only have been happy but also thrilled. Such is the way of the human brain, which can play tricks by sophisticated techniques of mental perversion. The pleasure of power addiction is like the pleasure of drug addiction.

However, the greater disappointment is in US. We have made it possible for these things to happen in the land that we call ours. What really surfaced in this incident more sharply, as it has in various ways in other similar incidents that can be counted in the thousands, is why and how we have become incapable of outrage against moral depravity and depredation.

This drama of cruelty was done in a way for it to become a spectacle for all of us. We were all supposed to see this and be awed by the power of a cruel master who was telling all of us – “beware, this is what I am capable of”. This message was brought to us through a mobile torture-team. To the producing mastermind, the whole nation was his theatre. This was that producer’s way of teaching us all a lesson.

What is disappointing about ourselves is that we have all become humble learners in the traditional book on cruelties that has moulded us all, where we have such punishments as breaking of legs and bones. The threats of breaking legs and bones is not uncommon in our parlance. There is an underwritten fear in our minds about such threats. However, we dismiss these kinds of threats perhaps as bad humour. However, Poddala Jayantha was used as an example to demonstrate that such things can be done and all that is needed for such things to happen is for one of us, who has become a monster, to become capable of giving such a command.

A society that has become so timid it is now incapable of outrage in the face of such acts and words has no other option but to watch such horrible spectacles of inhuman cruelty.

If we are to become our own saviours, we have to discover the capacity for outrage against moral wrongs. Every moral wrong that happens in the public sphere, is an insult to the whole population. A population that puts up with such insults allows itself to be demeaned. Such a population will be visited by many such cruelties packaged and sent by its rulers, who would have learned that acts of extraordinary cruelty are a useful means of subduing the ruled.

Democracy becomes possible only if a population learns not to tolerate insults and becomes truly capable of expressing its outrage in a manner that the rulers become aware that the people in the country are not willing to be treated as fools.

A population becomes capable of moral outrage only when it sees social responsibility as the core value that keeps the society together. It is the sense of responsibility to each other that creates a strong society.

In the 3rd Century B.C. when under the influence of the Great Dharmasoka, Buddhism was bequeathed to Sri Lanka, it was envisioned as a great philosophy to unite people together by a sense of moral responsibility. Romila Thapar, one of the eminent historians India has produced, in one of her great books, “Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas”, makes this point sharply:

“In the past, historians have generally interpreted Asoka’s Dhamma almost as a synonym for Buddhism, suggesting thereby that Asoka was concerned with making Buddhism the state religion. We propose to show that this was not his intention, although he himself, as a firm believer in Buddhism, was convinced that it was the only way to salvation. The policy of Dhamma was a policy rather of social responsibility than merely of demanding that the entire population should favour Buddhism. It was the building up of an attitude of mind in which social behaviour, the behaviour of one person towards another, was considered of great importance. It was a plea for the recognition of the dignity of man, and for a humanistic spirit in the activities of society.”

What happened to Poddala Jayantha is something so serious that it should, even belatedly, lead to an adequate response from the society as a whole. This can be done only if the society willingly re-examines its own position in relation to the value attached to social responsibility. It we accept responsibility for each other and are willing to examine where we have failed, on that score alone, we could lay the foundation for a society that does not ask: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”