By Uditha Devapriya –
Warren Beatty’s extraordinary film Reds charts the life and career of John Reed, who became the first American to be buried in the Kremlin for his sympathy and support for the Bolsheviks. The movie is extraordinary not so much for its vast, epic canvas as for its depiction of the protagonist’s trysts with idealism and disillusionment. I am, of course, talking about his support for the Russian Revolution.
There’s an interesting scene towards the end of the film. Reed (played by Beatty) is on a train with his “Comrades”. They’re returning from the Fourth Comintern Congress held at Baku, Azerbaijan, where he had been amazed at Muslims chanting “Jihad!” as his inaugural speech was being translated. In the train Reed realises the reason: his speech was rewritten, not translated, and in place of “class war”, which was what the Revolution was SUPPOSED to be about, the translator had substituted “Holy War”. He then angrily confronts Grigory Zinoniev, the man who sanctioned the translation.
What unfolds thereafter is a classic argument on the merits and demerits of revolution and truth, underscored by Reed’s growing disenchantment with the Bolsheviks. To quote: “When you separate a man from what he loves the most, what you do is purge what’s unique, and when you purge what’s unique in him, you purge dissent. And when you purge dissent, you kill the Revolution.” Which leads to possibly the biggest “truism” nearly every revolution in human history has venerated: “Revolution is Dissent!”
There’s a catch here, of course. Reed probably never had this confrontation. He probably never argued with Comrade Zinoniev the way the film makes us believe he did. It was Beatty who scripted that sequence.
Poetic license notwithstanding however, Beatty’s Reed was spot on there. Revolutions are birthed by idealists. But can these idealists go on without the need to accommodate dissent, without realising that truth can only lead to reconciliation and that the gains of a revolution can only be solidified if (and ONLY if) that reconciliation isn’t fudged or frilled? To be more concise: if revolutionists grow complacent with time, doesn’t that take back the gains of their revolution?
One year ago (we’re told), there was a revolution in Sri Lanka. Commentators today never seem to grow tired of chirping on and on about the overthrow of tyranny that this led to, and about how the world (no less!) can take a leaf out of our book with regard to restoring democracy. I know for a fact that these commentators genuinely believe what they’re harping about: that after more than 10 years of a despotic tyranny, “overthrow” was definitely not that easily to achieve.
Not easily to achieve perhaps, but not impossible either. Those who laud the people for having overthrowing Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime, not surprisingly, are silent over how the people went to the ballot and threw other complacent leaders out in the past.
That is a silent if not forgivable omission on their part, though. What I find unforgivable and laughable, however, is their assessment of the situation AFTER the revolution. Put pithily, there’s discontentment. There’s also happiness. For the most however, there are mixed feelings. And there’s hypocrisy.
Let me come out with it: none of us was happy with the way Mahinda Rajapaksa handled the country. After he passed the 18th Amendment, he embraced a new self, a no-no as far as amity and peace for the country were concerned. He sanctioned acts of theft, violence, quackery, and chicanery on the part of those who, at the last moment, disowned him and “became” lily-white angels. Most horrendously though, he implied that he himself realised this. No other president in this country, after all, has on the verge of an election claimed that the “known devil” is better than the “unknown”.
In comparison, Maithripala Sirisena is way ahead. No other president had the guts to clip his own powers. No other president tried so hard to be simple in behaviour and appearance. I attended functions where he spoke at length, not about his political career but about his personal life. I saw and heard him speak about his schooldays when I attended the 150th Anniversary Day of St Benedict’s College, Kotahena, where he was Chief Guest. His reminiscences, at once poetic and free of frill, moved me.
And I know he’s still trying. There were those who lambast(ed) him over the Budget, his conduct at the UN General Assembly, and his reaction to that disastrous Enrique Iglesias concert. But look closer: he may have committed the gaffe, but it’s someone else who has to take the blame for that gaffe. He is not Mahinda Rajapaksa, at least not to an extent, in this regard.
Yes, we are grateful.
But not being like Mahinda Rajapaksa will neither salvage nor sustain the revolution. The president has been quick to affirm, deny, or apologise, but he has also been quick to trip himself up. He has contradicted himself on various policy issues (most notably his stance on the death penalty, denied by his own Foreign Minister overseas). His stand on nepotism has raised eyebrows. His affirmation of a multiethnic and rational society, where primitivism doesn’t hold sway, has fallen flat on the ground when confronted with the way he lambasted the organisers of the Iglesias concert (and that on the pretext of protecting our Sinhala Buddhist culture!).
A friend of mine once gave his take on revolutions of the sort our president authored: “They are fine for rhetoric. They are fine for those insured against transition. But for those who lose from them, not because they backed the ‘other side’ but because that transition leads to economic instability, the government remains hard to support, harder to sustain.” I think he was being a tad too unfair on the government, but I see his point: at a time when the world’s turbulent enough, revolutions of THIS sort, coupled especially with the sort of policy U-Turns we’ve been seeing soon after the president took oaths last year, need to be handled well.
This government hasn’t handled it well, truth be told. I’ve lost faith in the rupee. I don’t bother keeping a tab on prices. I can’t think of a worse time to save or invest or borrow (except during the war years). I don’t remember whether we even had a Budget last year, given the number of shifts and capitulations the Finance Ministry has done with respect to that. And no, I can’t understand why we STILL haven’t apprehended the likes of (Dr) Mervyn Silva (where is he now, I wonder?).
As if this wasn’t bad enough, I have another complaint: I don’t know why the president had to slap democracy in the face and appoint rejects as Ministers last August.
Oh no, I’m not saying we need to go back to the Rajapaksa Regime. But that doesn’t mean those who won on account of their allegiance with the former president should be “punished” by being relegated to the parliament. I remember what another friend of mine said: “We can’t afford five-star democracy when it comes to Mahinda Rajapaksa”. A poor justification of what transpired in August 2015, I believe.
For those still trying to justify what Sirisena did, hence, I have only one thing to say: just stop it. Democracy isn’t five-star, it’s unqualifiable. Purely and simply.
And so one year has gone by. Losers are occupying Ministries and they run the show. Some even seem to be behaving as though what they’re doing was and is accepted by the same people who reject them. Crass. Pathetic. Typical.
No wonder we have a de facto “Join Opposition” in addition to (and apart from) the TNA-JVP de jure Opposition! No wonder that Joint Opposition can still play on fears perceived and imagined, for the most revolving around issues of sovereignty, suzerainty, and political quackery. No wonder, also, that racist rhetoric is on the rise, what with a segment of the population virtually unrepresented thanks to a government that refuses to recognise their grievances and demands!
Enough to make you a cynic, right?
When I reflect on all this, I can only grin at the Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, and WordPress activists who ranted against Mahinda Rajapaksa, who’re now bending over backward to defend the man they elected to power, even in the most ludicrous situation. I can only guffaw at their pathetic attempts at criticising the president’s statements while defending the president himself. And I can only scowl and glare at their EVEN more pathetic attempts at trying to place abuses and misuses of power by this government in a better light than those of the Rajapaksa Regime, and that by using the “relative merits” argument.
No, quackery isn’t relative, folks. Especially when it’s political. I think that’s the biggest lesson we’ve learnt this past year.
And I think we’re done listening to these activists and bloggers trying to tell us otherwise.
*Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His articles can be accessed at fragmenteyes.blogspot.com.