The Shafi fiasco

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The announcement of the reinstatement of Dr. Shafi Sihabdeen of the Kurunegala Teaching Hospital by the Health Ministry last week has once again brought into focus the politics of deception so skillfully used by our politicians for political gain. It also exposes the naiveté of a section of the people that inevitably forms the bloc vote that ultimately decides the country’s leaders. Even though it is said that “one can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, you cannot fool all the people all the time”, Sri Lanka seems to be the exception, going by the sheer number of scandals that take place almost on a daily basis at the expense of the people.

While on the one hand, the Dr. Shafi Sihabdeen scandal reflects the resourcefulness of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) to capitalise on the naiveté of a section of the people to do what would normally appear impossible, it also unambiguously portrays, in one story, all that is wrong in this country and therein the lack of hope for better times ahead. It is said that politics is the “art of the possible”, and this incident has proved once again the political acumen and dexterity of the SLPP to seize the opportunity to feed off the fears of a section of the population during a vulnerable period. The episode also highlights the absolute impunity enjoyed by those who carry out favours for and on behalf of the regime, which is an altogether different story. 

It is yet unclear as to the basis on which the Health Secretary issued the order to reinstate Dr. Sihabdeen after more than two years of him being consigned to medical oblivion in the absence of any investigative report or other document vindicating the order. Therefore, one can only surmise that no evidence has been found to either incriminate the doctor with regard to the allegations against him or, on the other hand, substantiate the mind boggling allegations against the doctor, who as a result of which had to fear for his life and that of his family and disappear underground.

Under normal circumstances, reinstatement, together with reimbursement of all salary arrears since the date of suspension nearly two and a half years ago, would amount to admittance of wrongful action and gross injustice. It would therefore warrant remedial action on the part of the victim for loss of reputation at the very minimum. However, interestingly enough, there does not appear to be any such inclination on the part of the marginalised doctor, giving rise to speculation whether he too was a willing actor in the sordid saga. While the truth behind that speculation remains to be seen, what is clear at this point is that the whole thing was nothing more than yet another political drama to fool the gullible masses.

It could be recalled that the first indication of a set up to frame the doctor was revealed in court on or around 9 August 2019. It was at this time that the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the Police reported to court the outcome of their investigation. The CID had found evidence of collusion between the Kurunegala Hospital administrators and law enforcement to alter judicial records and fabricate evidence to implicate the doctor.

It can be assumed that the motivation to do so was to derive political advantage at a time when there was a general sense of anger directed towards the Muslim community in the aftermath of the Easter attacks. The primary allegation was that Dr. Sihabdeen, who was in charge of the gynaecology unit of the Kurunegala Teaching Hospital, had been personally responsible for sterilising an estimated “4,000 plus Sinhala Buddhist women” by tying up their fallopian tubes following caesarean surgery, which naturally enraged quite a lot of people.

This purported “news” was carried with a screaming headline in a Sinhala language daily on 23 May 2019 and the report was attributed to a “top police official”. However, the Police, in their submission to Court on 9 August 2019, indicated that the Director of the Kurunegala Hospital was well aware that the allegations against Dr. Sihabdeen were “untrue”. Court also heard that the Kurunegala Hospital had surreptitiously carried out tests on seven or eight patients of the doctor to ascertain the veracity of the allegations against him and found no evidence to support the claim. However, none of this evidence was ever presented in court for reasons best known to the Hospital Director. 

Based on the newspaper report, Dr. Sihabdeen was detained on 24 May 2019, citing alleged links to the National Thowheeth Jama’ath organisation that was allegedly behind the Easter attacks. He was released on bail on 25 July 2019 when the Police failed to find any links between the two. However, an interesting development during the court proceedings was a presentation by the Hospital Director, who vehemently objected to the examination of the women alleged to have been sterilised by Dr. Sihabdeen on the grounds that it would pose a cancer risk. It was later revealed that this part of the Director’s submission had been omitted from court records based on an order from the magistrate, who it also transpired was married to an anaesthetist working at the Kurunegala Hospital under the purview of the Hospital Director.

What this entire sordid episode shows is the nature of institutionalised, institutional political meddling, and the profound impact it invariably has on the national narrative through voter influencing. The frenzied investigation and live updates by an equally frenzied media lost its fizz like a soda that had been popped following the election that same year. Nothing much was heard of the man or the matter until last week’s announcement of reinstatement. Which begs the question: What became of those that the police accused of fabricating evidence? Will the law be allowed to take its course or will the whole thing be swept under the carpet and the accusers allowed to walk away scot free? The fact of the matter is that reinstatement will amount to the case being closed and no further action deemed necessary.

The immediate outcome of an election is the mass purging of state sector personnel perceived as loyalists of the previous regime and their replacement by those perceived as loyal to the incumbent regime, inevitably resulting in pending matters of the state coming under review. Those matters that are likely to make the regime uncomfortable are usually dispensed with or put on the back burner, while those perceived as advantageous and usually involving the persecution of officials perceived as loyalists of the former regime, are brought to the forefront.

It is this vicious cycle that keeps repeating in the aftermath of every regime change and is the primary cause of the general dysfunction in the state sector. If this situation is to be overcome, the leaders must be prepared to rise above party politics and put the national interest above all else. There is no other way to get out of this vicious cycle that keeps pushing the country back to square one every five years or so. Whether today’s political leaders will be equal to the task is for history to judge, but for the time being, the Dr. Shihabdeen episode is a pointer that says otherwise. It will certainly not be the last time that the people are taken for a ride by a bureaucracy that has become a willing tool and plaything of its political masters.

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