There is nothing in this universe that politicians and their henchmen don t use to gain mileage. We even see them declare open public toilets, don t we? (A wag says that is where they belong!) They haven t spared a single wayside wall or lamppost their posters and cutouts are ubiquitous. When Sanath and Murali reach turning points in their cricketing careers, it is not their hearts that skip a beat but those of political leaders anxious to be seen with them and share the limelight. When Murali set a new world record a few months ago, politicians flocked to Kandy like crows to congratulate him before TV cameras. Never mind the Master Blaster and the Spin Wizard, who are genuine heroes who have put this country on the map. Even lesser minions who have become known for anti-social activities are going places thanks to politicians predilection for mileage.
On Monday, we saw Maradankadawala Yakadaya Jinadasa is his real name at Temple Trees. He had been turned away by the presidential security earlier on but the government propagandists arranged for a meeting between President Mahinda Rajapaksa and him in the full glare of the media. Yakadaya, it is reported, had handed over two talismans to the President. He may be an ex-convict but he seems to know how to play on the feelings of insecurity that grip the head wearing the crown. A few years ago during the UNF government, it was reported that a powerful politician had got into a gunny bag filled with gingelly in his birthday suit on the advice of an astrologer! In this country, people do as politicians say and politicians do as astrologers say.
What has qualified Yakadaya to be invited to the abode of the Head of State? He is said to be over one hundred years old. But, he is not the only person of that vintage in this country. Would he have received so much of publicity in the exalted company of the President had he been a member of the SLFP s much flaunted Pancha Maha Balavegaya (Buddhist monks, Ayurvedic physicians, teachers, farmers and workers)? He is going places on his history of crime. Decades ago, he murdered a post master during a robbery and served a prison term for that crime. How he got his epithet Yakadaya (Iron Man) is not clear. He has said in a press interview he got the name because of the extraordinary strength he displayed during his prison days.
It is not only Yakadaya who has been lionised in this way: Several others who committed worse crimes than he, have also been deified. The late Rohana Wijeweera, who was responsible for tens of thousands of deaths, is still commemorated as a hero by some. It was not only post masters who were murdered in cold blood at his behest. Doctors, lawyers, university dons, artistes, Buddhist monks and many others perished at the hands of his death squads. But, he is remembered every November. The month of November reminds us of Mahaveer of the Wanni aka Prabhakaran, who cut his teeth on terrorism by gunning down Jaffna Mayor Alfred Duraiappah on his own admission. Ever since, he has been responsible for many assassinations, massacres and a plethora of robberies. But, he is hero to the lunatic fringe supporting his terrorism. Worse, once a priest who met him considered him a humane person! Foreign diplomats are falling over themselves to see him, and he, to his credit, has had the courage to turn down their requests.
This is, however, not a phenomenon peculiar to this country. If one takes a cursory glance at other countries, one will see how criminals have become heroes. An observation by James M. O Kane (in The Crooked Ladder: Gangsters Ethnicity and the American Dream pp 159) is of import in this regard. He says: `As outcasts, the rural social bandit outlaw and urban ethnic gangster occupy central places in American literature. We fear and despise them, but we endow them with mythical qualities, romanticising their exploits even as we condemn them. We loathe their violence and amoral outlook on life, yet we admire these criminals, exhibiting enormous curiosity about their deeds. We voyeuristically examine these acts while we simultaneously decry them. We transform these criminals into figures larger than life, some anti-heroes, others genuine folk heroes.` His reference is to Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd, Dutch Schultz, Al Capone et al.
Besides criminals and ex-convicts, even mythical beings have become larger than life. The much dreaded hooniyam yaka of yore is now on its way to the pantheon of popular gods. It has now been elevated to the level of devathava and it will become a god in time to come. (Some Buddhist temples have shrines dedicated to it, cheek by jowl with those of gods.) In a way, in a country where criminals become VIPs by entering parliamentary politics, yakas transforming themselves into gods is something to be taken for granted.
President Rajapaksa was right in inviting Jamis, who had been languishing in prison without a charge for fifty years, a few weeks ago. The state is duty bound to look after him. But, why should an ex-convict be received by a Head of State? Instead of dissipating his time and energy on such frivolous matters, the President should have appointed a Special Commission to probe Jamis statement that there are many more like him in prison without charges. We, too, have pointed out in these columns that a large number of remand prisoners are being kept as their papers have been either lost or misplaced. The plight of those voiceless people must be heeded.
Does this mean Yakadaya should be avoided like a plague because he is an ex-convict? No, he has been punished and freed according to the man made laws and he must be treated as such. If he has no means of living or any other grievance, he deserves State assistance like any other helpless citizen. If he is homeless, let the government accommodate him in a State run elders home without making him a Super Star.
Why should we transform ex-convicts into figures larger than life? In so doing, we send a wrong message to the society. On seeing the warm reception that Yakadaya had at Temple Trees, others of his age, especially the state pensioners without access to the President to discuss their problems may have regretted having abided by the law right throughout their lives. They may have thought that had they, too, forcibly entered a post office and killed an innocent post master, they would have been able to meet the President with TV cameras in tow to discuss their problems.
O tempora, O mores!
Many of our readers have asked us the name of the banker and gentleman, who had, as we said in yesterday s editorial, defied President J. R. Jayewardene s order that credit be stopped to Upali Newspapers Ltd. We didn t mention his good name as we had not obtained his permission. But, now we are in a position to name him respectfully. He is none other than eminent banker Mr. Edgar Gunatunge.