I think the greatest curse that Marxism bequeathed to this country is the conceptual trap called dichotomy. To put it bluntly, the ‘intellectuals’ in this country suffer from a disease which is best captured in that erroneous but frequently employed operative logic, ‘if you are not with me, then you are against me’.
The inevitable victim of this kind of mindset is ‘nuance’ or, if you want to stay with the black-white metaphor, ‘colour’. This malady takes many forms and even someone will just rudimentary knowledge of our political scene would come up with quite a long list of examples. I will share a couple.
On Friday, March 6, 2009, the National Movement Against Terrorism (NMAT), an organization I have been involved with until a couple of years ago, came out with a book to commemorate its 11th anniversary. ‘Satanaka Satahan’ (Notes of a struggle) had a tagline: ‘thrastha virodee satane sangavunu kathava’ (the hidden story of the struggle against terrorism).
There is no doubt that NMAT played a key and perhaps even a decisive role in the ideological realm in relation to overthrowing the hegemonic view about the LTTE and how to deal with it. Mahinda Rajapaksa, let us not forget, was for reasons of political expediency perhaps, quite in favour of going for accommodations vis-à-vis the LTTE. He, after all, was the person who presented PTOMS to Parliament. The NMAT intervention began and proceeded at a time when the then Government was thick-as-thieves with the pro-LTTE sections of the NGO lobby.
Under Ranil Wickremesinghe and Chandrika Kumaratunga, the media, public and private, was dominated by federalists, peaceniks and shameless apologists for the LTTE. Those who questioned the status quo were branded as extremists, chauvinists and racists. There were only a few objecting voices anyway; prominent among them were Nalin de Silva, Gunadasa Amarasekera, S.L. Gunasekera and a couple of columnists who wrote to the Island and Sunday Island. And outside the newspapers, there was the NMAT.
When Mahinda Rajapaksa became President, he inherited a state media peopled by loyalists of the previous regime, a party that did not support his candidacy, and a set of officials who for years had been bombarded into silence by the Eelam lobby, which, we repeat, was nurtured and even pampered by a President who deliberately subverted the state and strengthened its detractors. Naturally, he was cautious. Even ‘Mavil Aru’ did not provoke him. It took a civilian protest march to get things going. It is in this context that the NMAT’s role should be assessed.
I was associated with the NMAT, so I am biased. On the other hand, I must mention that when the NMAT deliberately took a position independent from that of its founders (who later played a major role in forming the Sihala Urumaya and the Jathika Hela Urumaya), sometime in the year 2005, we were just a handful of activists. Paikaiasothy Saravanamuttu once expressed ‘grave concern’ in his column in the Sunday Leader that the NMAT is a dangerous entity since it had among its membership prominent members of the clergy, professionals, academics and politicians. Our response was not published by the Sunday Leader. We made the following point: ‘the NMAT does not have any members of the clergy among its membership; we have no politicians, prominent or otherwise; we have two professionals and one academic (the academic is also one of the professionals)’.
At the time, the operative logic was simple. The NMAT knew that the JVP believed it to be an arm of the JHU (that NMAT has reverted to that physiology recently is beside the point). The NMAT knew that the JVP, believing thus, would spare no pains to best the NMAT in whatever it did. We would design posters and with our limited resources cover parts of the capital, knowing fully well that within two days (maximum) the JVP would cover the entire district and even the entire country with posters that took the same position but were differently designed. The same with demonstrations; the JVP would consistently outdo the NMAT in terms of colour and size. The NMAT was not interested in brand visibility. What mattered was the message.
At the same time, it has to be recognized that the NMAT did not play a lone role in this struggle and this is my objection to this ‘record’ that the NMAT has produced. The JVP did ‘react’ to the NMAT, but that’s not all they did. It was the JVP that took the message down to the grassroots. There is no mention of that. The entire ‘history’ is conflated with the history of the Sihala Urumaya (which is valid) and that of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (which is mischievous). There is no mention of Wimal Weerawansa or the JVP, no mention of the decades long efforts of Nalin de Silva and Gunadasa Amarasekera.
This is not just an issue of claiming parenthood for the ideological victory which helped transform the ground reality articulation of the political. It is symptomatic of our political culture, dominant in which is the tendency to accumulate credit and pass on blame to others. It is also symptomatic of that other ‘political reality’: the organization is more important than the principle or the objective.
I tease my NMAT friends often. I tell them (and others) that their project is over in the sense that the organization has got a new leader, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. It is all very well for the JHU to get some mileage out of the NMAT’s role in the thrastha-virodee history, but complicity in their narrow party project is a sad reflection on the NMAT.
The problem, I believe, is one that resides in the larger political cartography of which the JHU and NMAT are but two players with limited residency. It is one where we, as a nation, prefer small boxes over wide spaces. This is a recipe for ideological claustrophobia which, paradoxically, is a condition that is preferred by the arch enemies of nationalism, the Left (old, new and armchair).
Anyone who refuses to acknowledge the presence of his/her political relative will not recognize and take into account the reality of his/her political opponent. Such a person will tend to sort things out using the proverbial bahu balaya than the weight of logic and argument. I believe that the nationalists (of all persuasions) had a distinct advantage over those who were over-enthusiastic about the LTTE. They had the arguments. They were articulate. They were not purchasable. They were fighting among each other for advantage in a political equation, but not over funds.
Today, as nationalism stands triumphant, perhaps it is time to employ that intellectual advantage to see beyond the war and the warrior, to move beyond the fixations with organization and personal political project. This is after all as good a moment as any other for a broader political embrace, not in the sense of abandoning position, but a deliberate decision to listen, to argue and let the power of logic win the day. More than all this, isn’t it time we got over our fixation about organizations and concentrated on the objective? This, I believe, is a question that everyone and not just nationalists, ought to consider.
Beyond black and white, there is colour and beyond the black and white of ‘usual’ political practice these colours must include those that reflect a commitment to a broader political practice. As such, I want to finish this piece with a question. Prabhakaran will be killed or commit suicide tomorrow. What would be the ‘nationalist’ thing to do, as per our national ethos (as articulated by nationalists)? Should we light firecrackers or should we urge the President to declare a 24 hour unilateral ceasefire so that man, ruthless terrorist though he is, can have a decent funeral?
Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance journalist who also edits the monthly magazine ‘Spectrum’. He can be contacted at email@example.com.