Celebrating a Victory: Complexities in Perspective

The other day, out of the blue, a vehicle packed with people, waving the national flag, whizzed past me in Colombo. Celebrations, I then thought, continue; in some measure, in Colombo, around the country. These celebrations, such frenzied celebrations, signify something momentous, historical, unbelievable. So much so that questions are being raised, especially amongst the privileged segments of society; isn’t this all too much? Aren’t these people going overboard? Are they not antagonizing? What would the others think, those who do not celebrate?

These celebrations initially reminded me of my schooldays, not too long ago. Celebrations of the kind witnessed today came to us, when in school, in the form of the Big-Match, the Royal-Thomian encounter; the ‘Big-Match season’. The same kind of celebrations seen today was seen then, running into days. Perhaps we had more ways to celebrate - there was ‘trucking’ with papara bands in full swing, the literal ‘jumping’ over the walls into schools, ‘hat-collection’ at junctions etc. There was the cycle-parade too. The police, at most times, tolerated all this, as long as we were peaceful, not unruly. All this, because of an inter-school cricket encounter. If we had won the match, a holiday would have been declared. This time, in 2009, we didn’t win, but were able to manage a ‘draw’ which was so remarkable that a holiday was announced; jubilation. After all we, the Thomians, had emerged valiantly, unscathed, from the jaws of defeat, of humiliation, at a cricket match played over three days - Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

How then could one dismiss the importance of the celebrations taking place due to the victory over terrorism, due to the defeat of the LTTE? What moral right does one have to claim that these celebrations are unnecessary, improper? If I had grown up in a society in which you parade the streets of Colombo to mark an annual school cricket encounter, how could I, or anyone else, claim with some anxiety, surprise or shock that parading the streets to mark the end of a brutal terrorist outfit that threatened our existence is not right or proper?

I didn’t complain, I don’t. These celebrations – the lighting of firecrackers, the papara bands, the offering of kiri bath down the streets etc. – are for good reasons. These celebrations are ways in which innermost feelings of happiness, joy, delight, triumph and relief are expressed; feelings which, for many years or decades, were suppressed. It is because a thirty-year old armed conflict has come to an end, not a three-day cricket match. It is because we, Sri Lankans, have comprehensively won, not because we were able only to manage a ‘draw’. A victory is, in the final analysis, a victory. Victories of this kind merit celebration.

Also, one cannot apportion any blame on those who celebrate the way they do today for another reason; i.e. due to the way in which news of the victory was brought to us, the people. Some feel that people had celebrated for days, some feel it’s too much. This is unfair, unreasonable, for news of victory came to us, the people, intermittently, slowly, one by one. A story with a sweet ending was unfolding before us. Every single news item, especially since the 17th of May, was reason enough to celebrate. The victory, long awaited, was finally coming; and if you read the papers about it, you will sense that even the most sanguine observers and supporters of this military onslaught had not expected such an outright victory for Sri Lanka, for our Armed Forces.

So, news came, slowly. We had won, it was said; celebrations. The terrorists had decided to ‘silence’ their guns, the war had reached a bitter end, the LTTE said. The President informs that he is returning from Jordan to a land which had ‘vanquished’ terrorism; celebrations. Next day, he arrives, graciously; a country, a people, are assured of the triumph. Reports of Prabha’s son’s death come in, photos are shown; celebrations. Further reports that Prabha is killed come in, along with the news that other leaders have perished; more celebrations. Then, the official announcement by the Armed forces, the conveying of the message to the President, that the war is over, that sovereignty, territorial integrity, is secured, protected. Next day, the President’s speech to the Parliament is followed by a public declaration by Army Chief Sarath Fonseka that Prabha is indeed killed, that photographic evidence will be released soon. They were. Euphoria, celebrations at an unprecedented scale. MP Karuna and Daya Master were shown, identifying Prabha’s body, confirming, assuring and re-assuring that it was him. They meant it, their faces did. Celebrations went on and on.

Hence, there was a process, a sequence of events; every single news item was important, thrilled us to the core. If all this had happened within a few hours, or a single day, then, we might not have felt that celebrations had extended over a long period. Consider the scale of the victory, the scale of what was achieved. Then consider what the scale of the celebrations could have been. These celebrations we see today should not surprise us.

The problem then is not so much with the fact of celebrations. It has more to do with the way in which we celebrate when celebrating. As with regard to all other actions, celebrate we should in moderation, with our feelings and emotions controlled to the best of our ability.

Firstly, people need to realize that not all people celebrate, not all people light firecrackers. I didn’t, even though I enjoyed witnessing these celebrations, of being served kiri bath, of being able to listen to a papara band when it wasn’t in fact the Big-Match season. But it didn’t mean I wasn’t happy about our victory over the LTTE. I was, I am, I will be. But the way in which I decided to express my feelings was different. Sometimes, those overjoyed and unable to control feelings tend to see this attitude as a lukewarm, dispirited one. This gives way to various interpretations and misinterpretations. Being too emotive makes one difficult to consider things in perspective. Most often, a sense of imbalance creeps in, doubt about others whether their silence is equal to sorrow over the defeat of the LTTE. It is a grave mistake, which could lead to serious and unpardonable consequences.

Why should these emotions of euphoria be guarded? Imagine a scenario, where some disgruntled element, the odd terrorist, carries out an act of terrorism, even at this stage. At a time as this, it would come as a shock, a sudden and violent rupture, which throws you completely off balance. The immediate reaction, of some, would be to view many things in an unfavourable light; ‘he who didn’t celebrate is a terrorist’, ‘are enemies within’, ‘are not patriots’, ‘are those who are behind this’.

Secondly, celebrations extending beyond a certain point become political. When politics enters the picture things do become somewhat ugly, grotesque; like a brawl at the Big-Match which if not for the involvement of that politician’s son, would have ended ever so soon! Hence, when celebrations take a purely political overtone, arrogance and hatred, political rivalry, set in, inevitably. A Sri Lankan victory is then seen in a different light; as a victory of President Rajapaksa alone, or of the Government, over and against Ranil Wickremasinghe, against the Opposition. Furthermore, if communal politics creeps in, it would be painted as one which is a victory of the Sinhalese over Tamils, a victory of the majority over a minority. These are the dangers which need to be avoided. They could be avoided, and fortunately, Sri Lanka has so far avoided them splendidly. There is of course political mileage that politicians gain, and justifiably so, for giving leadership to a victory as this. But politics should not be the sole factor that drives us to celebrate in the way we do now.

Thirdly, the world is watching; watching how a country celebrates; watching also, as some do, whether we would go wrong, and when; watching what mistakes we would make if then, who will be harassed and hurt, in the process. These are some of the complexities surrounding celebrations of the kind witnessed today. We should be mindful.

The best in our collective ability to tread an all important middle path, the ability to veer away from treading an ‘extremist’ path, should be brought out in times like these. Hence, I have no problem with these celebrations, as long as they don’t harm or hurt anyone else, as long as they don’t encroach upon the freedoms of others. After all, there is something to be proud of in being able to live in a country as this; when all of a sudden, out of the blue, a vehicle full of men, women and children, whiz past you, waving the national flag, unlike never before.

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