The "village" in our political culture: A postscript to an undergrad’s death

by Malinda Seneviratne
"Rag Vs. Anti-Rag" was how the bout was dubbed. Title fights don’t fall from the sky, however. They have histories. They impact futures. "9/11" or the attack on the World Trade Center might have "come out of the blue" literally speaking, it may have surprised George W. Bush and your average arrogant, boorish American, but for much of the world which is at the receiving end of US sponsored arrogance and theft, it was "waiting to happen". The clash at the Jayewardenapura campus which led to the death of Ovitigala Vithanage Samantha is no different. True, it was not of the same horrendous proportions. The principle holds, nevertheless. Was it about ragging? Yes. Was it only about ragging? No. Those are the short answers to questions that history will prove to be irrelevant.

Wimal Weerawansa and the JVP leadership have categorically stated that they are not responsible, challenging the government to prove that there was JVP involvement in the incident. Key government spokesmen have stated, "prove that you are not responsible"! Both these statements are preposterous, the latter because its subtext reads "You are guilty until proven innocent!" the former because the JVP has a history, especially in the universities. Let me explain.

Can Tamil youth surround and/or overrun army camps or destroy EPDP offices in the North and East without the LTTE knowing anything about it? That the Inter University Student Federation (IUSF) has no relation to the Socialist Student Union (the JVP student wing) is a carefully manufactured fiction, but one that no undergraduate will believe. No "incident" of this magnitude can occur in the universities without the JVP, IUSF and the SSF knowing all about it.

The Inter University Student Federation has always been a pawn of the JVP. The JVP, for all its democratic rhetoric, is not averse to resorting to thuggery in order to retain control of the student population in the universities. The JVP fears organised dissent in whatever form. Samantha challenged the IUSF in the JVP stronghold, Jayewardenapura University. The "tag" was anti-ragging. Had he advocated ragging but was ideologically opposed to the IUSF and was determined to organise against the IUSF, he might still not have escaped his tragic fate.

The UNF government blamed the JVP leadership. Fine. I believe all the finger-pointers have some questions to answer themselves. First, the Trans Asia Hotel fracas. Who brought the thugs, and who got the thugs to unleash violence? A backer of the UNF’s election campaign. Who is responsible for the blood that was spilled and for the manifest reluctance of the Police to step in and "maintain law and order"? Politicians are believed responsible for causing communal tensions in Maligawatte. One person was killed. How about Mawanella? The alleged key "movers" here were in the government at that time. There was much violence. Is Chandrika responsible? Yes, and no, of course.

The JVP may have looked the other way while the IUSF went about maintaining political control in the universities. This does not mean that they "ordered" the killing of a student. What is pertinent is that there have been other thugs who were not exactly letting the students "do their thing". It is not that the IUSF always had a free hand. Politicians belonging to the PA and later to the UNP have done their bit to promote alternatives to the IUSF, especially in the J’pura campus. They have had their people and these sudents have not been unorganised or entirely innocent.

There are other "histories" pertaining to the tragedy which I shall comment on presently. The "future" demands attention at this point, because all the pera nimithi speak of the unspeakables that are to unfold once again. John Amaratunge, Interior Minister went on record to say, "If this is the third revolution, we are ready to face it". Neither 1971 nor 88-89 were "revolutionary", but Amaratunge’s words deserve serious consideration because he is right in one thing: readiness. The UNP/F knows how to unleash terror. The UNP/F is ready to unleash terror. The UNP/F has the means and the know-how.

What is disturbing is that the UNF government is politically shaky at the moment and despite all its spin-doctoring G.L. Peiris and Co. are finding it increasingly difficult to sell the "peace" mantram to the people. We should not forget also that the "economic prosperity" lie, especially after Choksy’s budget is in pieces already. Last time, we had a vigilante group called "Kola Koti". This time, there is a real danger of there being Green Tigers, because the "greens" and the "tigers" are cohabiting to the hilt. Not something to be applauded, surely.

It was not the anti-rag boys and girls of Samantha’s group that went all over the country putting up posters lamenting that "apey Samantha" had been killed by J’pura student leaders. If they actually had the numbers necessary to carry out such a poster campaign, it wouldn’t have been Samantha who would have died that tragic day. It was not the gam vaseen that went around with paappa buckets, plastering the walls with anti-JVP posters. I actually saw some labourers of the Kotte Municipal Council doing the "poster round" in their garbage trucks while the police turned a blind eye. Their posters were supposedly authored by a group calling itself "Lankeeya Shishya Vyaparaya".

Immediately after the incident, several JVP offices were attacked. The spontaneous outpouring of righteous anger by a vigilant and offended community? Hardly! The JVP did themselves in J’pura, this is true. The UNP pounced on the opportunity. True. And typical. But what is the message? John Amaratunge keeping his word? Possibly. We don’t need another bheeshanaya, and especially not a Kola-Koti one which promises to make 88-89 look like nothing more than a schoolboy skirmish.

Let’s get back to the root causes, i.e. "the past". How did our society become so intolerant and violent? We are frequently told that university unrest is due to a few belligerent, politically motivated students suffering from all kinds of inferior complexes. This is not entirely untrue. At a recent seminar held at the Public Library, Deepthi Kumara Gunaratne of the X-Group argued that the overriding factor in our political culture is "the gama". He was metaphorically speaking.

The following slogans were scrawled on the walls of the campus after Samantha died: "JVP merayo, thopi ena thuru gama bala sitee" (The village awaits the JVP thugs), "thopi hithuvada para ballo, nikan innavada game kollo" (Did you think, dogs, that the village boys will keep quiet?). What is this gama? According to Deepthi, both the killers and the revenge seekers come from the village, defined broadly as consisting of uncultured, anxiety-ridden ruffians suffering from inferiority complexes. He is speaking here more about a "village mentality" rather than an actual social, economic, cultural and geographic entity.

As the X-Group argues, all the key leaders of our polical parties come from this gama. This is the tragedy of our country. Samantha was but yet another victim of processes unleashed by this "village" and its "villagers". This "village" is what feeds what devils there are in the JVP. It nurtures the devils who are wont to vanquish the "JVP devils".

We need to ask, how did O.V. Samantha suddenly become "Apey Samantha" or "Our Samantha"? If Samantha was thus claimed by some group, are their "Unge Samanthas" or "Their Samanthas"? Too many Samanthas have died. I remember a "Samantha" by the name of Thrimavitharana, a medical student at the University of Colombo. Nails were driven into his head, he was tied to a jeep and dragged along the rough earth after being subjected to untold tortures. There were, according to some counts, over 60,000 Samanthas who died between 87 and 90. Who was responsible? The X-Group is correct, if I am reading them right. The very same "village" that killed O.V. Samantha and which now demands the blood of others in revenge is at the heart of the problem.

Most candidates come from these village and therefore they become our "leaders". Such "villagers" can only lead us to tragedy and history has proven that. This is why, when John Amaratunge makes veiled threats, and when people like Rajitha Senaratne threaten "retaliation" in not-so-veiled terms, we ought to realise that things are serious. For, another key attribute of this "villager" is idiocy. Idiocy and arrogance make a lethal mixture, it goes without saying.

If it was a matter of two or three groups of villagers from this misbegotten "village" going at each other’s throats, I for one would not be overly perturbed. The problem is, whether the X-Group agrees with me or not, there does exist another "village" in our country, again metaphorically speaking. This is the village that has sustained civilisation, our way of life, values and culture. Whatever civility and tolerance of difference exists today, owes to the cultured people who inhabit this "village".

I hasten to add, neither of these "villages" exist in well defined geographical locations. Both villages can be found in Hambantota, for example. Both kinds of villagers exist in Colombo. Children from both villages attend St. Thomas’ College, Mt. Lavinia. And Anand College. And Tholangamuwa Central. Both exist in different proportions in each individual. The tragedy then is that it is the moronic and vile version that dominates power politics and politicians of all hues.

There is violence. There are the periodical deaths of young people like Samantha which start like the first drops of rain heralding the monsoons but which eventually produce flood waters laced with blood. And in the grand Clash of Moronic Villagers, it is the simple, peaceful villager who abides by a value system that is nurturing and tolerant that falls victim.

It would be utterly naive to expect our culturally deformed and politically inept and bankrupt political parties to prevent such blood letting. Where does one seek refuge? I take refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. Someone else could seek shelter in the church, the kovil or the mosque and their relevant priests and doctrines. Fine. The vast majority of our people are Sinhala Buddhists. As the storm clouds gather, I must begin to visit again the sacred spaces of my "village". I take refuse in the Triple Gem. I take refuge in the Triple Gem once and again and for the third time too. This village, sheltered by our siritha must not be allowed to perish. For when this happens, we will perish as a people and as human beings.

Such are the histories that come to me today as I reflect on Ovitigala Vithanage Samantha, his tragic death. I refuse to be burdened by political life unfolding like a corridor of mirrors. I refuse to end up like Jose Arcadio Buendia in Garcia Marquez’ novel "One Hundred Years of Solitude" trapped in an eternal Monday.