By Charles Sarvan –
At the outset let me say that my field was Literature and not History or Anthropology. Nor do I have any experience of, or insight into, high public-administration, so my reading of the above work is that of an ordinary layman. I acknowledge too that a text can have as many ‘readings’ as it has readers: not even an author has authority over a text once published and in the public domain. Neville Jayaweera while Government Agent of Jaffna from 1963-1966 kept a diary. Now, about half a century later, the diaries form the basis of this book which records not only the past but also reflects on future possibilities.
Barbara Tuchman in ‘The March of Folly’ offers three criteria for describing an historical event as “folly”. The policy pursued must have been seen as imprudent by some – in its own time. Secondly, a wiser, alternate, course of action must have been available but not chosen. Thirdly the unwise (and unjust) policy should not have been that of a single individual but of a group. As it has been observed, the only lesson humans learn from History is that humanity does not learn from History. Folly marches on, and the reproach of History weighs heavily on us (Jayaweera, p. 126). Jayaweera saw, not with hindsight but with foresight, something of the tragedy that followed the period of his work in Jaffna. What is more, he warns of possible tragedy still ahead. In that he, like a few other Sri Lankans, can be seen as a Cassandra figure: able to foresee and warn but fated to be unheeded, even ridiculed. (The title of Paton’s novel comes to mind: Cry, the Beloved Country.)
Jayaweera’s main driving forces are morality (religion-based), decency and justice: qualities he finds tragically lacking in Sri Lankan politics where each group, trapped in its own cave of self-righteousness (p. 35), blames the other. However, to ask, ‘What grievances do the Tamils have?” (p. 195) is either ignorance or denial; “a woeful lack of understanding” (p. 199). Only the Marxist parties based their programmes on a set of values (p. 36), but that too only between the mid-1930s and 1970 (ibid). “Beyond assuaging the hunger for power and the perks that power bestows, politics in Sri Lanka has been utterly unprincipled and opportunistic and devoid of the larger vision” (ibid). Jayaweera cherishes the Buddhist paradox of the power of non-power; “the ascendency of understanding and harmony over prejudice and conflict” (p. 125) because where there is domination, there are the dominated; where there is oppression, there are the oppressed.
Jayaweera sees the leader of the Tamil Tigers, Prabhakaran, as “a ferocious megalomaniac and a psychopath […] incapable of rational thought” (p. 41):
To take on in a conventional war, a modern military machine of over 250,000 highly trained men that was supported by supersonic jets, helicopters, drones, MTBs and the state-of-the-art military technology, when all he had at his disposal were about 25,000 men (at the most) points to the absence of “even a rudimentary military mind, let alone being a military genius”. He was barely fitted to be a company commander, never mind being a full general. The wonder is not that he was defeated but that it “took over 30 years to overpower him!” (p. 42). The end of the war, Jayaweera implies, reflects no military credit, neither on the vanquished nor on the victors. (Jayaweera is most unlikely to win a popular contest – neither with Sinhalese nor with Tamils!)
Barca Hannibal (BCE 243-181) comes to mind. In the absence of an early and decisive victory, he was doomed because a long-drawn war worked in favour of the Romans. Finally the Carthaginians were driven out of Italy; then pursued to their home-ground. The Romans rejected concessions and peace overtures on the implacable policy of Carthago delenda est: Carthage must be destroyed. Once-proud Carthage was utterly destroyed and turned into a province of Rome. (Scipio, the Roman general, though victorious, shed tears at the carnage of war. Similarly, the Duke of Wellington surveying the bloody field of Waterloo after the final defeat of Napoleon commented: “Next to a battle lost, the saddest thing is a battle won”. Of course, such humane reactions are most unusual.)
Jayaweera’s description of the members of the Tamil ‘lower castes’ (so-called), the “non-Vellalars”, seems to me to be an over-generalisation and therefore unjust: the lower castes are simplistic and crude; driven by paranoia; highly volatile and prone to violence (p. 179). He categorises The Mahavamsa as myth (p. 63) but like many, if not most, Sri Lankans appears to give credence to its story unconsciously, for example, by arguing that the Sinhalese are half Tamil since Prince Vijaya and his 700 comrades married women from South India (pp. 192-3), and that the Tamils (unlike the Sinhalese) have been on the Island only for about a thousand years (p. 179). Surely, after hundreds of years, who came first to the Island should have only an academic significance?
The author states that Tamils announced they did not belong within the larger Sri Lankan family (p. 39) and withdrew into a sense of “Tamilness”. But this was not always so: there was a time when S J V Chelvanayagam contested on the federal platform and lost to the UNP candidate. Going further back in time, H A J Hulugalle observes that when he became a journalist, Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan was the leading politician – not of the Tamils but of Ceylon. Ramanathan fought untiringly for “the Sinhalese Buddhists who were badly treated by the Government over the religious [Buddhist-Muslim] riots of 1915.” Standing up for justice, he took their appeal to England, despite the danger posed by German submarines. On his successful return, jubilant crowds placed him in a carriage, detached the horses, and dragged the carriage themselves. It will be startling for many to find Hulugalle saying that Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam is “the father of the nationalist movement” (see Sarvan, Sunday Island, 24 January 2010; reproduced in my Public Writings on Sri Lanka, Volume 2). One wonders whether the change in self group-perception was not enforced, the result of treatment and experience. A. Sivanandan, former Director of the Institute of Race Relations, London; author, amongst others, of the novel When Memory Dies wrote: Ever since independence successive Sri Lankan governments have done everything in their power, from state-sponsored racism to state-sponsored pogroms, to render the Tamils a separate people, and inferior – and then cried out against that separatism when the Tamils embraced it to carve out their dignity and future: Race & Class, London, Vol XXV1, No 1, Summer 1984. (Not given to making assertions, open to correction, I admit that I might here be trapped in a cave of subjectivity. After all, objectivity is judged by a subjective self: Martin Heidegger).
Where the future is concerned, Jayaweera is not sanguine, mindful of repeated failures in the past: “SWRD in 1958, Dudley in 1967, JRJ in 1987 and CBK in 2000 [were] stymied by the Sinhala supremacist” consciousness (p. 217). Whichever party comes to power, given racist “supremacist” beliefs, it will be very hard to realize the dream of equality and justice; more tempting, easier and profitable to pander to and exacerbate ignoble emotions. In an Epilogue written when Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa was in power, Jayaweera feared that the then-President will “stoke the southern supremacist consciousness” (p. 220). Jayaweera is a humane and moral individual. For example, he ponders how an individual can reconcile the material and the worldly – ambition, career, income and status – with one’s ethics and inner conscience. Nor does he hesitate to criticise himself: “I cringe in shame and disbelief… I have no plea to offer in mitigation, except a vacuous ego’s vulnerability to delusions” (p. 81). As I have written elsewhere, one way forward is always to see the other as an I; see others as we.
“Sir, how would you like it to have your children’s marriage certificates issued in Tamil, or your grandchildren’s birth certificates issued in Tamil or your own death certificate issued to your next of kin in Tamil?” (p. 96).
“The lament running through these memoirs” is that Sri Lanka’s leaders have lacked a higher, nobler, vision (p. 63):
“More than the power it derives from an overwhelming superiority in numbers, what exalts any majority, and endows it with true greatness and moral authority, is its willingness to accord to all those other communities who lack the advantage of numbers, a status and a dignity equal to its own”.
(African-American Langston Hughes in his ‘Harlem’, a poem of eleven short lines, asked what happens to the dream of a people that is “deferred” and deferred.) At the end I turn to the beginning and to the sub-title of Jayaweera’s book: the only way to exorcise the past with its mistakes and crimes, its ugliness and tragedy, is to attempt to realise the vision of a just and compassionate society in the present.