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Queen Victoria’s regime marked the birth of a brave new nation, but should that mean that she continue to dictate how we behave?
March 20, 2017
By Chanuka Wattegama
6 min read
Queen Victoria ruled the island, then called Ceylon, from 1837 to 1901 – for 64 years. If you just ignore the reign of King Pandukabhaya of Mahawamsa narration that has not been historically established by archeological evidence, Victoria’s regime is the longest the island has seen.
Her reign was not just long, it was also the period that marked the most substantial transformation in Lankan history thus far. The implementation of the Colebrooke-Cameron Commission recommendations for administrative, financial, economic and judicial reforms commenced just before she assumed the throne and continued throughout her reign. These, for the first time, gave birth to a modern state replacing Kandyan feudalism. The estate economy – first coffee, then tea – paved the way for capitalism. Judiciary was made free from the absolute monarch. Administrative, railway, postal, education, healthcare and legal systems were introduced. The country also, for the first time in history again, enjoyed half a century of peace – no wars were recorded in the second half of the nineteenth century, which might have contributed significantly towards development. In short, it was an era of harmony and prosperity that created a brave new nation.
This Victorian transformation did not happen just in Ceylon. First and foremost, England and all of its then colonies that represented a global empire went through it. Then came parts of America and Canada that were colonised by the British. Finally, it also happened in countries like Thailand and parts of China – mainly Shanghai – which were not British colonies but did international business with them.
In fact, it is not easy to list countries that missed it, like France and Germany, for example. Victorian values were suddenly the fashion in more than half the globe. They were strong – particularly when compared with the feudal systems they replaced. Our challenge today is outlived Victorian values. We still blindly follow Victorian norms from a hundred years ago. That shouldn’t continue; the world changes. Whatever seen as unacceptable a hundred or even one hundred and fifty years ago may now be acceptable. It would be naïve to follow a value system that was the norm hundred years ago.
Our challenge today is outlived Victorian values. We still blindly follow Victorian norms from a hundred years ago.
Why this sudden concern?
For the longest time, the practice was only a nuisance, but now it’s started to disturb us. Two recent policy issues – both related to the country’s legal system – demonstrate that it is the right time to deviate from the Victorian value system. Both these issues – LGBT and marijuana – shouldn’t have become policy issues in the first place. The very fact that we consider them ‘policy issues’ indicates our inability to see beyond the Victorian straightjacket.
Let’s consider the details. The Ceylon Penal Code, based on the Indian version, was first introduced in the latter part of the Victorian period in 1883. Actually, the English law was applied even before, as judges applied it instead of Dutch criminal law. The penal code has criminalised LGBT activities.
Sections 365 and 365A of the Sri Lankan Penal Code of 1883 (as amended by Act No.22 of 1995) criminalises sex between individuals of the same gender. The term of imprisonment for the offence is two years or less, and it allows this offence to be prosecuted by the police in the Magistrates Court. Initially, the law didn’t cover women, most probably because it was beyond Victorian thinking. But in 1995, substituting the word ‘males’ with the gender-neutral ‘persons’, women too now face anti-homosexual regulations.
Naturally, the penal code could not have reflected anything but Victorian values of 1883. They may have been strong then, but these values were neither universally accepted nor had any scientific basis as suitable human behavior. They were just the thinking of the day.
One should also consider the convenience factor. A law could also be made for the convenience of society and not because it criminalises unacceptable behaviour. As the colonial law applied largely to the masses rather than the white masters who governed them, it is not unreasonable to assume that an objective of this law was to reduce the number of sexual harassment complaints the police would have otherwise received. As the law punishes even the victim, it effectively prevents an individual from complaining if subjected to a sex crime by another of the same gender.
Sadly, present Sri Lankan authorities ignore reality. Either they are not aware of globally altered social attitudes to the LGBT community or ignore them for political gain. A Google search reveals that 67% of nations now have nothing against same-sex relationships, with unanimous approval in Europe.
As of end-2016, 41 countries allowed same-sex marriages, while nearly 100 others are in the process of enacting necessary laws. The right to change one’s gender is not acceptable only in 44 countries. Adoption by same-sex couples is also becoming common as LGBT discrimination declines. In short, most countries still seeing the LGBT community as abnormal or detrimental to society are either extremely religious, naively communist or conservatively Asian. The last category includes many former British colonies that adopted Victorian values in the same period.
The next issue is even more interesting. Sri Lanka’s penal code prohibits the possession, sale, transportation and cultivation of cannabis, among other drugs. While the punishment is relatively mild compared to those for offences related to serious narcotics like heroin, meth and cocaine, they still exist.
Victorian rules against the LGBT community and cannabis consumption must change. That is the least we expect from a government that promised to listen to its people
Is cannabis that dangerous to be considered banned?
Although many people typically associate drugs with crime, most criminal activity tied to marijuana has to do with illegal distribution, not violence committed by people who smoke it. On the other hand, the number of crimes that are committed after excessive alcohol consumption is massive. It is far worse than what’s going on with marijuana. Violent assaults, in particular, are often fueled by alcohol, not by marijuana, which calms rather than provoking.
The thinking about cannabis too is changing globally. In the US, medical cannabis is legal in some states, although medical and recreation use is illegal by federal law. While federal law is controlling, the Obama administration has taken a bold decision not to prosecute users operating in compliance with local medical and recreational marijuana laws. Canada recently allowed medical use in some states.
We cannot expect Sri Lanka to follow suit as fast, but change must come. Victoria is dead. She should be respectfully buried. Victorian rules against the LGBT community and cannabis consumption must change. That is the least we expect from a government that promised to listen to its people.