On the appropriations that follow victory

Last night I dined with an old friend, Pradeep Jeganathan. Pradeep and I have known each other for close to four decades now and although we may not be on the same political page, we share I believe a commitment to ethics, humanly frail though we are. We were discussing the issue of trauma, or deep personal anguish, the memories that we feed and things that find residence in the subconscious. How does one respond to that which is repressed? We didn’t have an answer. But we spoke at length about the issue of ‘appropriation’.

As the security forces get ready to finish off the LTTE in Mullaitivu, we see a swelling of national pride. The cheering squads are out with drums, trumpets and of course firecrackers. Credit-claimers are lining up in their thousands. The thousands who fathered victory must after all claim rights of paternity. Politicians, ‘magnanimously’, pass credit to the fighting men and women, shower praise on those who lost their lives and salute mothers and fathers who sent their children to defend the nation. They know that those whose heroism is hailed are not going to run for public office.

Two statements I heard this week provided material for a lot of reflection. First, the UNP’s chief ministerial candidate for the Central Province, S.B. Dissanayake, said that the war against the LTTE is not being fought by soldiers who are members of the United People’s Freedom Alliance. He was essentially objecting to the political capital that is accruing to Mahinda Rajapaksa in unprecedented volumes. He knows that people will not be voting for the UPFA’s candidates but would essentially be endorsing/rewarding the President.

The second was a comment on a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) piece on terrorism that did the email rounds yesterday. The WSJ had this line: "For all those who argue that there’s no military solution for terrorism, we have two words; Sri Lanka. I repeated this to a few of my friends and one of them, Pulasthi, a stamp-designer among other things, said that the WSJ had got the words wrong.

‘"Sri Lanka" was there in the 1980s and 1990s and terrorism was thriving. The difference this time was the political leadership. The correct two words therefore are "Mahinda Rajapaksa".’

There is truth in both these observations. Politicians will not pass an opportunity to make political capital. In this instance there is a regime-something that made a difference and as such credit-gathering cannot be grudged. Appropriation there will always be and misappropriation too.

In all these things, I believe there should be a sense of proportion. The problem is that ‘sense of proportion’ cannot be legislated. It is in the end a personal choice regarding what one does with what’s at one’s disposal in terms of general or specific objectives. In other words, it boils down to notions of what’s ethical and what’s not.

Appropriation is a process by which one party gains at the cost of another; one party’s lot is enhanced, the other is dispossessed in one way or another. After all the fighting is done and the LTTE is comprehensively defeated, there will be wild celebrations. What would we be celebrating? First of all, we could celebrate the securing of ‘territorial integrity’ even if we can’t really say we secured sovereignty or that we ‘made independence meaningful’. Removal of (at least) the immediate threat of a terrorist attack is certainly reason enough for celebration. If this was all that all this fighting was all about, then of course we are indeed a nation with limited vision and modest political objectives. I say this because there is a real possibility that we will all lull ourselves into complacency if and when Prabhakaran is taken out of the political equation. It is very likely that politicians, while showering praise on the valiant troops and saying over and over again that it was a ‘people’s victory’ (which it is), will use victory to obtain political breathing space, only to a small part of which they have rightful claim. This is appropriation of meaning from that difficult-to-describe thing called ‘victory’. The problem is there are no rules that govern such processes.

Pradeep spoke about Y.L Juliet, the 61 year old mother of the much celebrated hero, Corporal Gamini Kularatne, better known as Hasalaka Gamini, who saved some 800 lives of fellow soldiers at Elephant Pass on July 10, 1991. Gamini had climbed onto an explosive-laden enemy bulldozer and tossed a grenade inside, blowing himself in the process. Juliet, upon the re-capture of Elephant Pass, is reported to have said that her only wish before she dies is to visit Elephant Pass and see the bulldozer that her son had destroyed.

One cannot fathom the anguish of a mother who lost a child or penetrate into the deep recesses of memory, navigate the avenues of remembrance and forgetting that people construct just to retain sanity, to get to ‘tomorrow’ somehow. What does one say to a mother who has lost a son to the war, to a little girl who lost her father, a lover who lost a lover, to a soldier who lost a leg? What does one say to the liberated/vanquished?

Let’s assume the remains of the bulldozer are still around. Will Juliet die a happy death or live a happier rest-of-her-life if she sees them? Let’s assume she is taken to Elephant Pass. It’s a nice news feature, is it not? Any chance that the ruling party will not make sure it benefits from that encounter? None at all! Grief and memory are highly-minable things, one notes.

We don’t know what to say, and yet, things get said. Things are assumed. Sacrifices are duly acknowledged. Victory is said to belong to the people. Politicians will reap the tangible rewards, though, in excess of what’s theirs by right. This is misappropriation and it happens partly because we allow it to happen.

The solution is obviously not of people, especially troops and their families, being given a one time grant of some reasonable amount of money by way of ‘dividend’. The solution is not about people being given a shot at getting elected. The dividend, I believe, is peace in its broadest sense.

This includes better governance as per transparency and accountability. It includes development that is meaningful and sustainable and more than this, people-designed.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa may very well have delivered something the people longed for. He has given us back a map we love, let’s say. That is only part victory. Recovery of territory is good. It is not everything though. Presidents and Governments do not usually think it necessary to deliver on other things, such as dignity, control over futures, and the right to transparent and accountable government for example. That kind of recovery is not something that troops can deliver. And unless the people assert themselves, these are the very things that politicians will go out of their way to deny them.

We can appropriate these military victories, sure. We would be insulting ourselves as citizens, however, if we stop at that. We should, we must appropriate portions of self-respect, dignity and democracy as such are arguably our birthright (if ‘nationalism’, ‘motherland’ etc. are terms we have embraced).

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