By Mahesan Niranjan –
Prof. Mahesan Niranjan
Sometime this week, three guests arrived at the cafeteria of the Sri Lankan parliament on the banks of the Diyawanna. They were from the past. Of that past, 1976 was a special year that needs mention. That was the year when political Tamil nationalism reached its peak in the form of a declaration, at the town of Vaddukkoddai, for the formation of a separate state by the name of Tamil Eelam. Our three guests were not really the architects of that declaration, nor did they believe in that call, but their names and photographs were used very widely in advancing the trajectory the Tamils of Sri Lanka were set.
The guests are here to hold an inquiry and pass judgement.
On trial are the present guardians of Tamil Nationalism, whom we shall refer to as A, B and C. I have to be quick with defining notation, for otherwise, you the reader will be tempted to use characters from the disciples of මහදැන මුත්තා or பரமார்த்த குரு, which won’t be very nice for referring to parliamentarians.
The guests are keen to know how the trio of today wish to proceed with the agenda of the 1976 declaration, given that the declaration itself was followed by three decades of bloody war which ended in a sad state of affairs, the massacre of tens, hundreds or thousands or more of those whom one sought to liberate, and a further decade of unimaginative inaction during which the top item on the political agenda was the pursuit of subsidised food at the Diyawanna cafeteria.
A, B and C were called to explain themselves.
“To be brutally honest,” said A, who was first summoned, “I am a non-believer. The ideas you gentlemen advanced back in 1976 is not something that ever appealed to me. I have occasionally spoken out against the evils committed by our own side, on our own people.”
“But just as averages are misleading in a bimodal distribution,” said A, showing off some recently acquired knowledge of statistical inference seriously lacking in the profession he had mastered, “when I try to walk that middle path, I get found out and neither side seems to want to accept me.”
Though he directly contradicted his stated objective of nationalism, the judges appeared sympathetic. After all, on the political front, they themselves were non-believers.
And on the professional front, A’s achievements impressed them. Getting used to the habit of calling each other as his “learned friend” has a lasting effect. You should try that, readers. Get several of your friends and relatives to address you as “my learned friend” on every Saturday, Sunday and Poya (full moon) day, and you will find in about six months you would have gained much confidence in your knowledge and wisdom.
It was B’s turn next.
There was a sense of unfairness about the trial because B was a relative of one of the judges, inheriting wealth and genes across two generations. But nobody objected because the concept of “conflict of interest” has not reached the part of the world we are interested in. After all, just a couple of years ago, to make a senior appointment in an institution of high learning, they managed to set up a search committee with a chairperson whose spouse was a candidate for the job concerned. And highly educated people of the community couldn’t see anything wrong with that, denying and defending their actions to the hilt. And that parliament itself, once when in conflict with the Chief Justice, summoned her in and sat in judgement over her.
B spoke to explain himself. “I have analysed the global situation,” he thundered. “There is China. China will come. Then there is India. India will come because China come. Then there is America. America will come because India and China come. Then there is Russia. Russia will come because America, China and India come.”
“When all these geo-political forces align in one straight line, which passes through Geneva, just like the planets Moon, Saturn, Mars and Venus aligning to produce health and wealth to believers of astrology, solution to the Tamil problem will come and we will be liberated from the clutches of Sinhala chauvinism.”
“I have spent much energy explaining such geo-politics to our people during the last decade, and they are beginning to understand me,” he said with a touch of pride induced by his recent electoral success at gaining access to the Diyawanna cafeteria.
Now it was C’s turn.
“Om Muruga (Hindu God),” he said, calling for divine intervention to save his hide.
“You were given a chance and you blew it,” one of the judges said to C. “You were elected to office, with the election held under Indian pressure, and were given the chief position of a local council to look after the interests of local people. What did you achieve?”
“Were you able to deliver the manifesto commitments of building public toilets, developing places of multi-faith worship and seeking reconciliation as was defined here?” asked the judges, well informed regular readers of Colombo Telegraph.
“My Council passed several motions, your worship! We defined precisely how to define the definition of enforced disappearance of the Tamil genome.”
The judges from the past retired to consider. During the break, the accused treated themselves to iced coffee from the cafeteria, priced cheaper than a තැඹිලි (thambili, young coconut) you could purchase from a roadside vendor at Thummulla junction.
The judges returned with strong words to the trio, who have been pulling Tamil nationalism in three different directions at angles of one hundred and twenty degrees to each other: Alliances that cannot hold together, backstabbing to grab preferential votes and infighting over the attraction of perks. This cannot be our legacy the judges had decided. They were mindful that people will realize that they themselves were no different. Hence this cannot go on. They were determined.
“We want the three of you to take a pause and reflect,” the judges said firmly.
“Part of the reason for our predicament are the sins of our past. We have advanced a form of nationalism that was focused on a small part of the community in a small part of the Island. We failed to be inclusive. You guys should not make the same mistakes we ourselves made. Hence, we have an action plan for you!
“You three are to take a break from talking about Tamil nationalism for a minimum period of six months from now.”
The three were rather pleased. “Easy peasy lemon squeezy,” they said in chorus of agreement, a rhyme they had learnt when schooled in that posh place, far removed from the average population they were claiming to represent. It is easy to take a break from nationalism now. After all, a round of elections just finished a week ago and it is another five years before the next one.
But the judges were serious and demanded more.
“During these six months, the three of you will have to be active in advancing the case of the tea estate workers, those Tamils who have toiled under semi-slavery conditions, generating the revenue that formed the backbone of the Sri Lankan economy. They are the most neglected and oppressed parts of the Sri Lankan society. And they are Tamils, too!”
“Mr A, our learned friend, you shall argue for a decent pay for the tea estate workers. You will leave no stone unturned in fighting for an acceptable minimum wage!”
“Yes Your Honours,” said A, quickly trying to think of technical jargon that might come in handy, either to achieve or to dodge the goal.
“Mr B, our learned friend, you shall argue for better schooling for kids of the tea estate workers!”
“Yes Your Honours,” said B, avoiding eye contact with the judge who read this instruction out, so as to hide his ancestor’s reported role in depriving the tea estate workers of their rights to be citizens of the country to which they had given much sweat.
“Mr C, our learned friend, you shall argue for better housing for the tea estate workers so they have access to clean water, toilets and stable houses that do not bury them alive at the slightest of landslides during rainy seasons.”
“Yes Your Honours,” said C, mumbling “Om Muruga,” gently under his breath.
“We will return in six months,” said the judges, “and will judge you by your actions and achievements. Not by the eloquence of the prose you can synthesize.”
The astute reader might be confused by the judgement. Is this an action plan for A, B and C to follow, directing them towards a much needed course correction? Or did this come about from thoughtful reflection on the past irresponsibility of the judges themselves.
Whatever it is, there ended the trial of the three Tamil nationalists in the cafeteria overlooking the Diyawanna lake.
We shall return in six months’ time.