Kath Noble

A one-man show with a one-man agenda

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on October 25, 2012

Why the search for another non-party ‘common candidate’ is doomed to failure

When launching an initiative in Sri Lanka, it is well known that one should be careful to call it the opposite of what it really is. Worried about infighting? Then be sure to include the word ‘united’ in the title. Concerned that the dubious public image of the leaders may dissuade people from joining up? Then it is inspirational concepts like ‘freedom’ that one needs to reference.

And so it is with the National Movement for Social Justice, whose inaugural rally was held in Colombo last week.

Sarath Fonseka’s latest attempt to resurrect his political career was a flop. Several hundred people came to listen to him speak. But he could not get the support of any established political parties, which is after all what is needed when it comes to winning elections. The organisers didn’t bother to invite the TNA, the JVP was united in ignoring the event, and even the UNP reformists weren’t keen on attending – Sajith Premadasa was convinced from the off that it wasn’t worth the struggle with Ranil Wickremasinghe, while Karu Jayasuriya left it to the last minute to decide to drop out. Even the remnants of the DNA, which Sarath Fonseka himself established, didn’t all show up.

He was left with the United Bhikkhu Front and a few individuals like Sarath N Silva, former Chief Justice, about whom the less said the better, plus assorted NGOs.

As such, Sarath Fonseka proved once and for all that his role as the ‘common candidate’ in the 2010 presidential election campaign was a one-off. It was an extraordinary contest at an extraordinary moment in the country’s history. Just a few months after the end of the generation-long war, the Army Commander took on his Commander-in-Chief. He will not get another chance.

I am relieved, I must say.

Few people believed Sarath Fonseka’s pledge to abolish the Executive Presidency when he made it the first time around. Indeed, even he didn’t seem totally convinced, so busy as he was making promises.

I certainly didn’t trust him to give up power. For why did he enter politics? Because he was upset at Mahinda Rajapaksa’s refusal to allow him to further increase his empire as Army Commander. His plan for the post-war expansion of the Army was rejected by the Government. Critical as I am of Mahinda Rajapaksa, I believe that this decision indicates that he is not as bad as Sarath Fonseka might have been.

While this may not be saying much, it is the choice that Sri Lanka was faced with.

Also, justified or otherwise, Sarath Fonseka was commonly regarded as a guy concerned more with ends than means. Even if this was necessary in the circumstances, which is debatable, surely we can all agree that it is not a desirable trait in a peacetime leader? In peacetime, there can be no discussion about the acceptability of exceptions to the rule of law, although, as we have seen in the last three years, they may still occur in abundance. (Mahinda Rajapaksa is working hard to develop a similar reputation for himself.) But although we do not know for sure who is responsible for many of the worst crimes committed during the war, such as the various attacks on journalists (now totally forgotten, unlike the attempted assassination of Sarath Fonseka, one of the perpetrators of which was sentenced to 35 years rigorous imprisonment this week), I don’t think that there is any chance that Sarath Fonseka is less guilty than Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Sarath Fonseka may have changed since then, having lost first an election and then his liberty. But I still believe that there are many people more suited to running the country than him.

I also believe that symbolism is important. Sri Lanka’s president should not be a military man.

Of course there is nothing wrong with people from other fields going into politics after their retirement. Even there is nothing wrong with military men going into politics. But the presidency is different. The president represents the country, to its people and with the rest of the world. Sri Lanka should be giving the impression that it is moving away from the military, not drawing closer to it.

This is a sensitive time, and such matters should be handled sensitively.

It is for the same reason that the proposal being advanced by various people in the last month or so for the Ven Sobitha Thero, Chief Incumbent of the Kotte Naga Vihara, to put himself forward as a ‘common candidate’ is also undesirable.

Whether or not one agrees with the analysis of those who took up arms against the State, there is no getting away from the fact that one of their arguments was that the State is irretrievably Sinhala Buddhist in nature. And there is no need to give them another reason to think so.

Also, if the Ven Sobitha Thero were to pledge to abolish the Executive Presidency, many people would trust him.

I dare not suggest that they would be anything but wise to do so, which is why I believe that the clergy should keep out of politics altogether.

The clergy are given special treatment in view of their office, and rightly so. Religion is important to the vast majority of people in Sri Lanka, and the leaders of the various faiths play an important role in their lives. They should maintain their honoured position. But when the clergy become politicians this is impossible. Either respect for them diminishes or the democratic functioning of society is undermined. There cannot be any hesitation about criticising elected representatives.

In any case, it is not the Executive President who can abolish the Executive Presidency. That is the task of Parliament.

The real question for those who advocate a ‘common candidate’ is whether or not they can trust the UNP.

I think that last week’s rally gave us a good indication of the future, and it is a future without the National Movement for Social Justice.

The UNP may be divided, but its various factions are clearly agreed on one point – it will be putting up its own candidate for the next presidential election. Ranil Wickremasinghe will of course try to make sure that it is him. After all, he will only have been party leader for a mere 20 years by then! But he won’t have an easy time. Sajith Premadasa is perhaps starting to think that he might make it, while Karu Jayasuriya undoubtedly hasn’t given up hope either.

Sarath Fonseka’s role as the ‘common candidate’ in the 2010 presidential election campaign was only possible because the UNP was sure that it could not win, the vote taking place so soon after the war victory.

And such circumstances are unlikely to be repeated.

Rather than ignoring this reality, people interested in anything more important than Sarath Fonseka’s political career had better shift their focus away from distractions like the National Movement for Social Justice and back to where it is needed.

The established political parties need serious attention. Each one of them is in chaos, with no clearly defined programme and leaders who should have relinquished their positions long ago. They have split or they are in the process of splitting. And with each split they get weaker, leaving Sri Lankan democracy worse off. They should be looking inward, working out how to get themselves and the country out of the mess they are in, not waiting for outsiders to act.

They all have good names. They just need to remember what they mean.

This article was published in The Island on 25th October 2012. The internet version may be accessed here.

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The deafening silence on electoral reforms

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on October 17, 2012

Why Mahinda Rajapaksa wants to get rid of Proportional Representation and why Ranil Wickremasinghe is ready to help him

The Local Government Elections Act was amended last week, with no debate either inside or outside Parliament. But was the change genuinely uncontroversial? I don’t think so.

Given that the process was initiated in the immediate aftermath of the passage of the 18th Amendment, we should have been more suspicious. The 18th Amendment was part of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s post-war strategy to tighten his grip on power. He was thinking about how to make use of a moment at which he enjoyed unprecedented popularity to achieve what is best for him. Are we really to believe that reforms to the voting system announced just a few weeks later were about what is best for the country?

People have a general sense that Proportional Representation is problematic, which leads them to assume that a mixture of Proportional Representation and First Past the Post – the new legislation calls for 30% of seats to be decided using Proportional Representation and 70% using First Past the Post – would be better.

The argument goes as follows. The country is unstable with Proportional Representation, since it is difficult for any one party to achieve a majority. Proportional Representation also leads to violence during elections, as candidates fight each other for preference votes. They have to spend more since constituencies are larger and they have to cover a larger area, leading to more corruption. And it is more difficult for voters to hold their elected representatives to account. First Past the Post disadvantages minority parties, but what is being proposed is a compromise.

Will the reforms actually solve any of these problems? Are they even the problems that need solving?

When it comes to accountability, it seems to me that voters will have even less chance of controlling politicians under the new legislation. At the moment, people can choose between candidates while maintaining their allegiance to a party. This is important. They need not vote for a party whose policies they don’t agree with simply because they don’t like the individual the party has nominated in their area. I bet plenty of UNP supporters stayed at home or even backed Mahinda Rajapaksa in the 2010 presidential election rather than cast their vote for Sarath Fonseka. That is what happens when choices are limited.

Electoral reform as a means of reducing corruption is even more of a stretch of the imagination. Are politicians compelled to steal in order to pay for election posters? Or is it rather that they pay for election posters in order to be in a position to continue stealing?

Meanwhile, violence may or may not be reduced. Intra-party violence should be wiped out with the abolition of preference votes. But this is not the only sort of violence. Inter-party violence is already a problem, as we saw last month in the Eastern Province – one of the most serious incidents reported was a knife attack on SLMC candidate Azath Salley by supporters of Ameer Ali of the UPFA. That had nothing to do with preference votes. With competition from within the ranks of their own party eliminated, politicians could focus all of their attention on their opponents.

The only real solution is the empowerment of the Police.

Parties themselves can have an impact. They don’t have to tolerate intra-party violence, as the JVP has demonstrated. They don’t have to nominate thugs.

These days, much more of a problem than violence is the abuse of state resources.

Parties must commit themselves to a no-tolerance policy on all electoral abuses. They would be substantially reduced almost immediately, without the need for any change in the voting system. But the Government isn’t interested, since it knows that without electoral abuses its performance would suffer.

The only completely logical part of the argument is the bit about stability, but this is a reason to oppose the reforms not to support them. Under First Past the Post, a party can win representation far in excess of its vote share. It tends to guarantee one party a majority, reducing the need for potentially destabilising coalition building. But surely nobody in Sri Lanka believes that the country is currently short of stability, electorally speaking? Mahinda Rajapaksa isn’t under any pressure from the members of his coalition – on the contrary, he could easily do without them. Does he need a guarantee? Even under Proportional Representation he has managed to secure enough seats in Parliament to change the Constitution, which was supposed to be impossible.

First Past the Post is even more problematic than Proportional Representation.

What kind of a compromise is that?

The new legislation ignores genuinely popular and important electoral reforms, such as a compulsory quota for women candidates. Women make up only 2% of elected representatives at the local level. And according to a 2010 survey by the Centre for Policy Alternatives, the vast majority of people from all communities, including over 90% of Sinhalese, support quotas. They were even promised in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s now forgotten Chintana.

If the voting system is to be changed, the introduction of a compulsory quota for women candidates should be the top priority.

I hope that there would be at least some debate on the matter before the Government gets around to extending the new system to the provincial and national levels, as it announced following the passage of the amendment to the Local Government Elections Act last week. The implications are bad enough at the local level. But at the provincial and national levels, the reforms have even greater potential for causing trouble. Minority parties, and in particular the JVP whose supporters are spread relatively thinly across the country, will be badly affected. Of course, this is hardly a coincidence, since it is the JVP’s seats Mahinda Rajapaksa wants to take over, in case the UNP gets rid of Ranil Wickremasinghe and starts to challenge him. Changing the voting system is just another way of shoring up his position.

Given that Mahinda Rajapaksa already holds the over-powerful Executive Presidency, shoring up his position is not something we should encourage.

That the task of defining constituencies in the new system is entrusted to the responsible minister with little in the way of oversight is even more reason to be suspicious of the move.

But such a debate is unlikely to be initiated by the Opposition.

Ranil Wickremasinghe has already indicated his support for the new system. Naturally, since the amendment will result in an increase in the power of party leaders. And when it comes to power, he is as obsessed as Mahinda Rajapaksa – only less successful.

Party leaders don’t like Proportional Representation because it gives some of their power to voters. They make their nominations, but it is voters who choose which of the candidates get elected. With First Past the Post, party leaders can give the areas where the party has a strong base to their favourites and consign their bêtes noires to areas where they have absolutely no hope of winning.

It is obvious why that is appealing to Ranil Wickremasinghe.

This article was published in the Midweek Review of 17th October 2012. The internet version can be accessed here.

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Drunk and disorderly

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on October 10, 2012

What the university teachers’ strike tells us about Mahinda Rajapaksa’s thinking

Something has gone to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s head, and I’m guessing it’s power. Because that seems to be the only thing that interests him these days – how to bolster his own position and how to undermine everybody else’s.

Hence his first priority after the end of the war was to get himself another term as president. The presidential election was called early, and it was followed within a couple of months by a parliamentary election, enabling him to strengthen his grip on the legislature too. The Opposition was in disarray. But that wasn’t enough. He wanted a two thirds majority, so a few more crossovers had to be engineered. Neatly bringing us to priority number two – legislation to reduce checks and balances on the executive, and to enable him to run again, as many times as he finds convenient, by abolishing term limits. The Constitution was changed. And it was ‘urgent’. Naturally, for what could be more important than Mahinda Rajapaksa’s future? Not peace-building, certainly. That’s for wimps. The third and final priority was to keep the Opposition cowed. Which is why he has called one election after another, to keep them in campaign mode so that they never get around to replacing their has-been leader.

The actual running of the country has suffered. But that needn’t matter if people learn to be satisfied with the mere appearance of achievement rather than the real thing. What matters is announcing that resettlement is complete and Manik Farm closed down, right? Not whether the IDPs are actually back home with roofs over their heads. Get with the programme, folks.

The Government isn’t bothered about ‘details’ like that. After all, it won the war – nothing else matters.

It certainly doesn’t matter that university teachers have been on strike for three months. Never mind that such a massive and sustained trade union action by a normally rather conservative group of people is unprecedented in Sri Lanka.

What matters is not giving in to terrorism.

Sorry, did I say terrorism? I must be getting confused – the modern world is so difficult for those of us with only limited intelligence. It’s academics Mahinda Rajapaksa shouldn’t negotiate with, right?

The FUTA struggle presents us with a crystal clear picture of the Government’s post-war failings.

The debate has exposed just how little substance there is to the grandiose vision that was set out in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s much-hyped Chintana. He wanted Sri Lanka to become a knowledge hub, for people to flock to its universities from around the world and for them to turn out graduates prepared to transform the country into the ‘Miracle of Asia’.

So far, so inspiring.

But Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed a man with half a brain to make it happen.

SB Dissanayake had only one idea for the development of universities – put a stop to ragging. Because this is how he managed to spend four years at the University of Sri Jayawardenapura following a degree in ‘public administration’ without learning even the basics of how to minister to a government department? I guess not. It was training in how to be a politician he was after those days, for which purpose I imagine ragging was very helpful. Who knows. Wiping out ragging is a pretty simple task. And as a ‘bonus’, it can be linked up with the further militarisation of society by making young people eager to discover the origins and meaning of life in the universe march around in circles and learn how to salute. A no-brainer, in other words. Anything else would no doubt turn out to be a bit tricky, the Minister may have thought, so it had better be left to the private sector. At least that would bring in some money.

I have already discussed the follies of the Private Universities Bill in these columns, so I will not bore readers by repeating myself, except to say the following – companies may provide the kind of education that students think will get them jobs, but they have absolutely no incentive to do anything more.

That leaves stopping ragging.

Now, ragging is a waste of time (and worse) that certainly ought to be stopped. But stopping it falls rather short of being a comprehensive plan for the creation of a knowledge-based society in Sri Lanka!

When confronted with other people’s ideas, the Minister hasn’t demonstrated a lot of patience. Indeed, his response to the FUTA struggle has mirrored the Government’s reaction to any and all criticism, displaying a totally absurd war mentality.

SB Dissanayake alternates between claiming that the demands of the university teachers are unreasonable, if not downright sinister, and saying that they have already been met.

Take the call for the Government to spend 6% of GDP on education. According to SB Dissanayake, this is a random figure dreamt up by Nirmal Ranjith Devasiri over his morning tea, with short eats provided by the Opposition, NGOs or most imaginatively Prabhakaran’s ghost, all to make trouble for Mahinda Rajapaksa. However, it is actually a globally accepted norm. What’s more, it is a target that the Government along with its counterparts in many other countries, including the whole of South Asia, has committed to reaching. The only person who thinks it is not important is the responsible minister in Sri Lanka.

Adding insult to injury, he then manages to claim both that public expenditure on education is already nearly at 6% and, in his very next utterance, that it need never be anywhere near 6% since Sri Lankans are already very well-educated. What a propaganda machine! The figure of 1.9% was calculated by the Government. The last time the UK allocated such a tiny proportion of GDP for education was during the First World War – it currently spends 6.1%. Think of all the extra ministers we could have if only we realised that 1.9% was enough for countries with near universal literacy! Maybe SB Dissanayake would agree to look after our universities once he has finished ‘revitalising’ the ones in Sri Lanka. We could do with some help with our trade union movement. But coming back to the point, it is official statistics that UNESCO includes in its global database (www.uis.unesco.org). FUTA has nothing to do with it. Rummaging around in the national income accounts to find some other vaguely associated spending to add to the 1.9%, as SB Dissanayake sometimes advocates, is simply not credible.

When the Minister is in a mood to accept that Sri Lanka does indeed spend only 1.9% of GDP on education, he is keen to point out that increasing the allocation would take up an impractically large share of government revenue. How thoughtful! Like any good housewife, he is keen to keep expenditure within income. Will he also offer to give up his perks in the national interest? Don’t hold your breath. But of course the economy doesn’t function like a household – increasing government expenditure can generate more income. The share of government expenditure, which is the only relevant figure, wouldn’t have to be unduly large either, since government expenditure could be increased to meet the 6% target.

But enough with the ‘details’, right?

SB Dissanayake would rather waste our time (or worse) calling the leaders of the FUTA struggle names, trying to make us suspect their motives.

Smear tactics are the bread and butter of the Government.

Its objective is not to find a solution to the problems in universities, but to hang on until academics have to give up their strike – three months is a long time to go without salaries.

It simply hates to lose. And winning has come to mean sticking to a position, whatever happens.

Mahinda Rajapaksa should be ashamed of himself for losing track of what is truly important. He did Sri Lanka a tremendous service by putting an end to the generation long war, for which the vast majority of people are extremely grateful, even if they do not approve of each and every action taken in the process. He amassed massive political capital. And he was, and indeed still is, in a position to do even more good for the country. Sri Lankans waited a long time for peace, not only to escape the relentless death and destruction but also because so many things were excused or put on hold because of the war. They have a long list of priorities, none of which it seems Mahinda Rajapaksa can be bothered to tackle now that he has ensured his own place in the history books.

A change of attitude at the top is required.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 10th October 2012. The internet version can be accessed here.

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In solidarity with the Kudankulam villagers

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on October 3, 2012

Why people are protesting on both sides of the Palk Strait

As university teachers were marching from Galle to Colombo to press their now well known case for the education sector, an equally impressive mobilisation was taking place just a few hundred miles away in Tamil Nadu. The villagers of Kudankulam were burying themselves up to their necks in sand in a last ditch attempt to prevent a nuclear reactor from being commissioned, having spent a couple of days standing in the ocean and several weeks picketing on the beaches.

The sheer numbers involved brought the protests a lot of publicity, including in Sri Lanka, to the extent that the Indian High Commission felt obliged to issue a ‘reassuring’ statement.

Fishermen opposing nuclear power have a tough job. They are automatically dismissed as backward and determined to remain that way.

But ‘progress’ sometimes takes us into blind alleys.

A simple calculation by an Indian researcher demonstrates that nuclear power is not unavoidable for Tamil Nadu (‘No more empty promises’ by Nityanand Jayaraman in Tehelka, September 22nd). The argument goes as follows.

The first phase of the Kudankulam project will add just 1,000 MW to the grid, of which some 48% is due to Tamil Nadu. Since nuclear reactors in India generally operate with a plant load factor of 60%, the additional power generated works out at a measly 280 MW. Compare this to what is lost in transmission – 18% of Tamil Nadu’s total installed capacity of roughly 10,400 MW, or a massive 1,900 MW. Reducing losses by half, which can be done at a tiny fraction of the cost and which must be possible since the Chinese manage 7%, would supply 900 MW extra. Even including another 280 MW from the second phase at Kudankulam doesn’t come close to wiping out the deficit for nuclear power.

Meanwhile, people inclined to think that Tamil Nadu needs to do both to meet its demand for electricity should note that in the immediate vicinity of the Kudankulam project are windmills generating more than 3,000 MW. They do so at only INR 3.50 per unit, compared with a cost of INR 4.00 per unit for nuclear power.

There are plenty of alternatives. And they are cheaper.

It is indeed vaguely worrying to think that the wind might not blow enough to support all the gadgets in the shiny new air-conditioned buildings in Tamil Nadu’s ‘IT corridor’ for every minute of every day, but this would probably not be quite so much of a headache as a nuclear meltdown that released into the environment materials with the capacity to maim and kill for many thousands of years to come.

In any case, why should the Kudankulam villagers care about the ‘IT corridor’? Why should Sri Lanka?

Why should the Indian government, for that matter? The corporate sector in India sucks up all the country’s resources while providing almost no employment. It is the reason the vast majority of its people continue to live in poverty.

The golden rule of ‘development’ as it is commonly practised these days is that the poor masses have to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the stellar growth of the elite.

This must also be the answer to another rather perplexing question. Why on earth is India stepping up investment in reactors in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, while so many other countries are thinking again?

One of Union Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde’s vital contributions when he was in charge of the power sector, other than the biggest blackout in history, was to confirm plans to boost India’s nuclear installed capacity to 63,000 MW by 2030, from under 5,000 MW today. The French, Russians and Americans were delighted, since their companies are for some mysterious reason having considerable trouble flogging their reactors at home.

The Indian government claims that there is absolutely no chance of anything going wrong, but the Kudankulam villagers aren’t stupid. For a start, that’s exactly what the Japanese said even after they were hit by the tsunami!

Natural disasters cannot be ruled out, as we know from the bitter experience of 2004, and there are plenty of man-made disasters to worry about too. The Japanese are known for their technological sophistication and concern about standards. Yet their nuclear meltdown demonstrated that they are not immune to failure. Their investigators found that they had not done all they could to avoid it. The company in charge of Fukushima hadn’t paid enough attention to safety, even to specific warnings about the kind of catastrophic event that actually happened. India has the handicap of its Nuclear Liability Act. And its record is hardly reassuring. Its reactors have suffered hundreds of accidents over the years, of varying degrees of seriousness, as documented in some detail by Indian academics such as MV Ramana, despite the ‘radioactive curtain’ of secrecy that has shrouded its nuclear agencies for much of their lives.

After the Fukushima disaster, India’s nuclear regulator set up a committee to look into safety issues. It recommended 17 improvements to be made at Kudankulam before commissioning the reactor, but only six have been completed to date.

No wonder Sri Lanka needed ‘reassurance’.

But the information that a Sri Lankan delegation will be visiting India later in the year to talk about it doesn’t really qualify as such. These discussions should have been completed long ago.

Still, it could be worse. The villagers of Kudankulam have faced even less useful responses to their concerns.

Imagine this. A nuclear reactor is being constructed a couple of miles from your home, and researchers from the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro-Sciences turn up on your doorstep offering ‘counselling’ to try to find out what you’re so upset about!

The Indian government has now dropped the idea of brainwashing its people and is focusing instead on harassment. The Prime Minister declared earlier in the year that opposition to the Kudankulam project was a foreign conspiracy (sound familiar?), and deported an unfortunate German backpacker who happened to be enjoying a spot of winter sun in Kanyakumari, on the pretext that he was the brains behind the campaign – officials later had to admit that there was absolutely no evidence to demonstrate that money from abroad had played any part whatsoever in the protests. Then having exhausted the NGO option, they moved onto treason (heard this one before too?). According to the convenor of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy, SP Udayakumar, who is currently being sought by the Tamil Nadu Police, hundreds of cases have been filed against an extraordinary 200,000 people, either for sedition or for waging war against the State.

You’d have thought India had enough real wars not to want to start imagining them!

The scale of the crackdown in Kudankulam is almost as extraordinary as the scale of the protests.

This reminds me of the opening of a widely-circulated piece from the Indian media supporting Jayalalithaa’s decision to send home a visiting sports team (‘Boycott Sri Lanka until Tamils get justice’ by Meena Kandasamy in Tehelka, September 5th). The author argued that the sight of Sri Lankan schoolboys kicking a ball around might lead Indians to believe that all is well in Sri Lanka, which is certainly a possibility. However, she went on to illustrate just how bad the situation is with reference to the fact that 4,000 university teachers had been on strike for two months. This ‘evidence’ even took precedence over the usual claims of genocide. Well, if that’s how we’re going to decide on a boycott, even small babies are going to have to be repatriated to India, in ‘solidarity’ with the villagers of Kudankulam.

As we approach the Universal Periodic Review of Sri Lanka at the United Nations, at which the country’s performance in terms of human rights will be assessed by India as one of the three appointed rapporteurs, Indians must try to look at Sri Lanka’s problems against the background of their own.

As for FUTA, of course Mahinda Rajapaksa should have resolved the matter amicably long ago.

This article was published in the Midweek Review of 3rd October 2012. The internet version can be accessed here.

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