By Harini Amarasuriya –
Thank you very much for inviting me to speak a few words on the book Palmyra Fallen – From Rajani to War’s End by Dr Rajan Hoole. What I thought I would do today is to share a few thoughts about certain themes that I found particularly relevant, interesting and provocative. First let me say that I was in absolute awe of the wide range of ideas touched in this book – ranging from Apartheid South Africa, to conflict-ridden Ireland and Nazi Germany; the poetry of T.S Eliot, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman; the Holy Bible, the Mahavamsa, the Mahabaratha, theories of Karl Popper and mathematical formulas. This book is as interesting for what it reveals about the author’s eclectic and varied interests and sources of inspiration as for the actual substance of the book itself and the often tragic events it documents. I certainly can’t do justice to this huge breadth of ideas, thoughts and events expressed in the book. What I am going to focus on in the time that I have today are the questions and ideas that the book provoked in me as I read it. These questions and ideas are not regarding specific events, ideas or the people discussed in the book – but at a broader level what it says about society, politics and civil action.
I was an empty-headed, rather sheltered school girl at the time of Rajini Thiranagama’s assassination. Like for most of my peers in the South, the event did not have a particular significance at the time. It was later, that I began to be curious about Rajini’s life – what kind of person was she? How did she do what she did? In the course of my work I met people who knew her well: Saratha one of the first people to get to Rajini as she lay dying on the street; Rajini’s younger sister Sumathy; her daughter Sharika and I just missed each other at the University of Edinburgh – she was leaving Edinburgh as I started my doctoral studies there. I had heard of Rajani’s colleagues Prof Daya Somasunderam, Dr Sritharan and Dr Hoole and her husband Dayapala Thiranagama from my own friends and colleagues who knew them or who had worked with them. All of these encounters made me more curious about Rajini; what was she really like? How do we or can we separate the real Rajini from the legend? What made a 35-year old woman take the risks she did for what she believed in?
This was not just idle or ghoulish curiosity; I became interested in the 1980s, particularly the times when the state was at war with the LTTE in the North and East and with the JVP in the South. It was one of the most violent and brutal periods in Sri Lanka. What also fascinated me about that period was how during this period, individuals like Rajini and others; groups like UTHR and others in the North as well as in the South, got together and at great personal risks stood up against violence, against brutality and repressions, against nationalisms. They provided an alternative voice – an alternative ideological and political space. Many like Rajini paid for their work and their beliefs with their lives. How did they do it? Were they simply individuals with great personal courage and strong convictions or was there something else?
I was particularly interested in these questions also in comparison to the post 2005/2006 period when our country began to witness one of the most brutal, repressive, anti-democratic and violent state regimes in operation. How is it that in the post-2005 period, particularly during the height of the war, there was somehow less resistance; weaker alternative voices and political spaces? How was it that unlike in the 1980s, when universities were hotbeds of activism and debates of all kind, good and bad, in the past several years, universities have become practically moribund, either upholding the status quo or being completely irrelevant? What had happened, what has changed in the space of two decades or so?
It is important that we examine closely the extent to which forms of activism, civil society engagement has changed over the last couple of decades. Particularly, I think because of the NGOisation of activism. I don’t think we have considered enough the consequences of this for the shrinking of dissent and alternative political and ideological spaces.
Of course, there were NGOs in the 1980s as well, but there was a huge qualitative difference. The 1980s were, if I am to say, a gentler, more trusting, less cynical period of NGOs. Funders were happy to provide financial support for work that didn’t have to produce results based on SMART objectives – specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and targeted objectives and outcomes. The audit and corporate culture hadn’t yet invaded civil society, activist spaces or universities in the same way as it has now. NGOs existed – but they functioned more like collectives of friends (and sometimes families) rather than as corporate entities. The dark side of this was of course corruption and nepotism, but our efforts to correct that has resulted in mechanical interventions that are usually not grounded or led by local concerns and contexts.
But most importantly, not all activism had to be NGOised. People met, argued, debated, organised and acted – and these actions were in response to immediate situations and needs that were actually felt and experienced by people. Ideas of social and political transformation were implicit rather than explicit in these actions – the point was to respond. Sometimes, money had to be spent – but money was somehow found. People first responded – and then figured out how to find money if needed. And somehow budgets were smaller then – giving one’s time towards causes wasn’t something that happened separately from one’s life and work – how one lived one’s life could also be about one’s politics, beliefs and values. Meetings could be held in homes, you strategised over meals and cups of tea. The strict separation of work and life (oh how I hate the term work life balance – as if work is somehow distinct and separate from one’s life and more often than not, something only women have to worry about) wasn’t such a big deal. And politics wasn’t still a dirty word – it was ok for actions to be political. It was ok to be political. Politics could be about ideals and values and transformative action, not simply about identifying oneself with a politician or a political party. Politics had meaning.
It may seem odd for me to be talking about the harrowing, difficult and tragic events and times described in Palmyra Fallen in such ideal terms. But what the book provoked me most to think about was our (and I speak specifically of the South in this regard) relative inaction and apathy during the last 15 years in the face of aggressive, state sanctioned Sinhala Buddhist supremacy and state repression of any form of dissent. I cannot believe that the difference was simply in the nature of the state – that somehow the state steadily became more repressive, more undemocratic than ever before. Chapter 5 in the book could be as much a description of the situation in the South as it is about Jaffna.
Palmyra Fallen highlights another important and related point – and that is the role and relevance of the university.
The book dwells at length about the role of the university; this was an issue that was close to Rajini’s heart as well. And I think this is also something that we need to seriously think about today. What is the relationship between the university and society? I think the idea of a university as a space that is removed from the rest of society, an ivory tower, happy to engage in knowledge production simply for the sake of knowledge production, a space of privilege, is no longer acceptable – it is far too elitist. Yet, it is equally problematic that the relevance of universities today is primarily measured in economic terms: how much economic return does society get for its investment in education? And the economic return is also extremely narrowly understood in terms of the employability of graduates and the worth of those graduates in the market. I think Palmyra Fallen pushes us to think about the relevance of a university in much broader terms: what is the role of a university in times of trouble and also in times of relative calm? How should it engage with the world in difficult times? What kind of leadership should it provide? As shown in the book, universities all too often, instead of providing an alternative vision get mired in the mess themselves. If we think about the last several years, not only did our universities produce some of the strongest defenders and promoters of authoritarianism, state repression and nationalism, often our universities became part of the state apparatus to the extent of upholding those values and ideologies and even more seriously, not tolerating or allowing dissent of any kind because it saw dissent as an attack on the state or the government. Students and faculty who expressed different views were often penalised and hunted down. Our universities failed in upholding one of the most basic principles of university culture – the principle of not just tolerating but encouraging dissent, diversity and debate. It was fortunate that the Federation of University Teachers Associations (FUTA) in many ways particularly since 2011, provided some degree of leadership within the university system for dissent and activism – yet, that is not enough. The issues that are being debated and discussed within FUTA should not be confined to our trade union meetings – these are debates and arguments we should be having in our Faculty Boards and in our Senates and in our lecture halls with our students. We need to redefine what it means for a university to be relevant to wider society – how to make it accountable to the public and not let that be determined by market forces or by financiers and economists, or by governments.
I think it is extremely important if we are to move forward as a society to reflect seriously (as the book recommends) on our failures, omissions and non-action. Not simply to engage in some navel-gazing orgy of guilt and self blame (that would be simply self-indulgent and unproductive) – but to examine closely the structural, institutional, ideological and political failures and limitations that created the conditions for the emergence and sustenance of a repressive, undemocratic and nationalist state and society.
For I don’t believe for a moment that the events and situations described in books such as the Palmyrah Fallen or even The Broken Palmyrah for that matter are just matters for historians to document or to be dealt with only by commissions on truth, reconciliation, transitional justice or whatever the current term is. The conditions that gave rise to those events and situations are still alive; they may be temporarily suppressed or we may simply be under the illusion that they are suppressed. But they are very much alive and present. See for example, the fact that despite defeat, Mahinda Rajapaksa just refuses to go away; in no other country would a defeated politician occupy public space to this extent. The fact that he does is a reflection of the fact that all the reactionary forces he represents – Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, authoritarianism, crony capitalism, are very much alive. And unless we ensure that they are not allowed to dictate how we live our lives and what we are also allowed to stand for, I am very much afraid that we are doomed to relive the cycle of violence and repression that we experienced in the past.
I think therefore the idea of ‘responsible action’ discussed in the book is something that needs to be debated and talked about much more. It is not simply about choosing between violence and non-violence, between right and wrong, justice or injustice, one political position or another. It is about choosing a path of action in difficult and complicated and sometimes even contradictory times that respects humanity – not least of all the humanity within us.
That is the legacy Rajani and people like her have left behind – the importance of striving for responsible action that respects and protects all humanity. And the outstanding value of this book lies in its ability to provoke us to think about these issues more deeply.
Thank you very much.
*Dr. Harini Amarasuriya’s speech – Discussion on Palmyra Fallen: From Rajani to War’s End – by Rajan Hoole – 24th April 2015, Jaffna