A joke is a serious thing—or so we hear

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Now that was a shocking thing to say, even if it came from the mouth of a government MP. Just the other day I read an MP of the Pohottuwa party claim there are some idiots in the cabinet.

So what. Even idiots have a constitutional right to sit in the cabinet and vote with their hands held high or whatever way they show approval in that sanctum sanctorum. If anyone convicted of criminal offences or anyone with an unsavoury past like dabbling with the banned LTTE has at one time or another been elevated to the rank of a cabinet minister, why not a few idiots?

I am only asking, of course, not questioning their educational qualifications or capabilities to function as ministers as long as they do not abuse or misuse their position and trample on the rights and freedoms of the citizenry.

Had I the parliamentary privileges of the MP who has, in his opinion, identified some idiots enjoying the luxuries of ministerial life, and can claim such privileges I might have been lured into saying a thing or two.

There must surely be others with greater sophistication and education who might express their opinion very simply as déjà vu, which, if the characterisation of Ampara District MP Wimalaweera Dissanayake is correct, some in the cabinet would hardly understand it.

These days one needs to be careful what one says as recent events have shown. So careful that even at home some are reluctant to crack a joke which I am told comes somewhat naturally after a shot or two—no, no not by the police–but from a bottle of local brew which is now beyond the reach of many, except those upper bracket earners who are still avoiding paying IMF-ordered taxes but enjoy their malt whiskeys.

That is unless you are an MP who, at the drop of a diphthong can and does claim parliamentary privilege under which he can say virtually anything that outside that hallowed chamber our guardians of law and order (which I have heard some call low and odour) would call defamatory, inflammatory, incendiary and any other new word they have picked up while dumping even dictionaries into a pile of forbidden reading under a new cultural “Index” as they did in ancient times.

If I avoid mentioning who was responsible then for doing so it is because I do not wish to be tainted as creating religious disharmony which is the latest offence uncovered by some, well idiots, as MP Dissanayake would say, even outside the chamber.

But then that is why one is an MP, besides of course hanging around for five years to collect one’s pension before being kicked out by our democratic system which is stalled for the moment or for how long, who can tell.

In the meantime, those who serve the country in the state administration must wait 20, 30 or even more years (I really do not know how many it is today after the IMF throttled the citizenry) to claim a pittance as their rightful share.

I cannot be sure whether MP Dissanayake’s remark about idiots in the cabinet was in jest or he was deadly serious. If it was intended to be a joke, I don’t want to have anything to do with it–not even to repeat it hereafter.

If it was serious-and that is what it seemed like–I still like to stay away because a serious thing could well turn out to be a bad joke as interpreted by some who have stood the respected International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) on its head as learned lawyers have argued.

MP Dissanayake’s chastisement of some in the current cabinet was reportedly said at a Pohottuwa media conference. That should exclude him from claiming parliamentary privilege.

But today what is normal, acceptable law and privileges to the citizenry seems an entirely different matter to some MPs and to the police who believe that carrying a placard is an offensive WMD–a Weapon of Mass Disturbance.

Mr Dissanayake failed to say how many idiots there are in the cabinet which one thought the media should have pursued by asking the MP for names.

What matters here is that MP Dissanayake can wriggle out of making such derogatory remarks about those who run the country. But what would have happened to an ordinary citizen had he made the same remark even in jest?

My former Peradeniya University batch mate and later journalist colleague at Lake House, Thalif Deen, and I have both admired Groucho Marx as not only our favourite comedian but one with a superb sense of repartee. Over the years, the New York-based Thalif (who I still call Dino from the old days) and I have been exchanging jokes drawn from various sources or our own humour mill.

Happenings in our one-time home make me wonder where Dino would be if his last book “No Comment….and don’t quote me on that” which recalls years of dedicated journalism covering the UN and tales of diplomats and the bureaucratic hierarchy that evoke stomach-gripping laughter, was to have been published in Sri Lanka in today’s politico-social climate.

Humour, exchange of jokes about politicians and loud laughter after a late breakfast was a regular part of our working day at Lake House. But today a casual joke could be a dangerous venture.

I still recall the annual Staff-Student debate at Peradeniya which was the only occasion we had to take on our teachers and get back at them with good-humoured vengeance. I was leading the student team against the staff side which was led by Prof W.S. Karunaratne and included one of my own lecturers, the sharp-tongued and witty Doric de Souza.

The leaders were allocated five minutes each to sum up the debate. I had finished and Dr Karunaratne, who as I remember was Prof of Buddhist Civilisation, was ‘batting on’ unconcerned about time for 10 minutes or so when I rose to a point of order protesting at the professor’s endless speech.

At that point, Dr Karunaratne apologised for exceeding his time claiming that he had forgotten to bring his wristwatch.

With his guard down I thought it was just the time for the final punch. “Mr Chairman”, I said, “He does not need a watch, he needs a calendar”. There were the typical undergrad hoots and rounds of laughter.

The recent events that smack of the rise of our own Taliban determined to attire the people in religio-cultural straitjackets, made me wonder what it would have been if this atmosphere prevailed during our university days.

Would one have been hauled before the law for causing disharmony in the student community and insulting Buddhism by laughing at the Prof of Buddhist civilisation for speaking out of turn or would it have been endured as a part of our democratic life?

Best we ask some idiot, no!

(Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor of the Hong Kong Standard and worked for Gemini News Service in London. Later he was Deputy Chief-of-Mission in Bangkok and Deputy High Commissioner in London.)