By Gopalkrishna Gandhi –
There is a saying in Tamil about the tiny cylindrical rice measure, the aazhaakku. It smiles at the aazhaakku imagining that its little roundness has an ‘east’ and a ‘west’ : aazhaakkil kizhakku-merkku.
Well, whether the little aazhaakku has directions or not, islands do. Sri Lanka does. Directions are about places and about paths. We can say today, Sri Lanka knows its directions, its paths and is walking with steadiness on the path its people have charted for it.
And so I offer my felicitations on the first anniversary of the government of national unity to Sri Lanka in its multi-directioned roundness. I offer felicitations to its north and its south, its east and its west and to its Central Highlands where, under the shade of the Sri Dalada Maligawa, I spent four deeply formative years. The government, headed by you Mr President, and with you, Mr Prime Minister, at its executive helm, has sought to bring together all of Sri Lanka’s දිශාව and its sacred මධ්යස්ථානය.
It has done more. It has given not just to itself but to the whole of South Asia something that was thought impossible of achievement but has been achieved by the good sense of Sri Lanka’s far-sighted people, its முதிர்ந்த மக்கள், its දුර දක්නා අය. And which Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, is the replacement of fear බිය by confidence – විශ්වාසය , of suspicion சந்தேகம் by trust – நம்பிக்கை.
The idea of a joint SLFP-UNP government, bringing two traditionally opposed parties together, with one of them pitted against one of its own leaders, none other than the President of the day, was thought oxymoronic beyond description, a contradiction within an impossibility, a naivete within a hallucination as absurd as, say, a tembili growing on a mango tree , an இயலாமை, a මනඃකල්පිත විකාර. Such a coalescence was seen not just by incurable cynics but by experienced observers as a poetic fantasy until what was regarded as an ‘out-of-the-question’ idea stood here, right here, as an ‘out-of-the-box’ reality.
At the call of the pioneers, the integrated will of the people of Sri Lanka drew out reconciliation from revenge, dialogue from division, peace from war ; and indeed, at the cost of sounding platitudinous, life from death.
If there is one nation, aside from Afghanistan, where the phrases ‘war and peace’, ‘life and death’ have been as real as the breath in our lungs, it is Sri Lanka. Countless people in this land have lived and continue to live under the spectre of death, have felt its cold hand, with many carrying scars on and shrapnel in, their limbs. Some of them who, in what is called active public life, are here, have chosen paths that will always be log-jammed with peril. I use every word with deliberation and – admiration. I celebrate and salute their guts, their wit.
And above this, I celebrate and share the sense of relief, the utter relief Sri Lanka felt and Sri Lanka’s friends felt, at being pulled back from the brink.
Sri Lanka stood last year on nothing less than, nothing less dangerous than, a precipice – விளிம்பில்,
Its people brought their motherland back from that precipice, that edge of disaster. To what exactly ? They intended, clearly, to bring it back not to the old hearths of mutual suspicions but to a new threshold of continuing and incremental trust. ‘Incremental’ is the crucial word here.
Coalitions are as old as opportunism சந்தர்ப்பவாதம் ; political alignments as stale as cunning, தந்திரம். Every country, every generation, and nowhere more than in South Asia, has known political collusions, contrived in haste only to collapse in a trice because deceit is two-edged. Both partners in the politics of coalition are first-divisioners in its art, post-docs in its science.
But in the matter of විශ්වාසය, நம்பிக்கை, they are still in kindergarten, மழலையர் பள்ளி, බාලාංශ and they do not want to leave it. Sri Lanka has , in fact, a particularly telling phrase for arrangements in smartness – ‘cutting deals’. That is done in the hastening shadows of dusk, where the face conceals what the hand deals till the real day the truth reveals. But , unbelievably, a year ago, Sri Lanka did something that was not about cutting deals. It was about cutting egos, personal egos, party egos.
I do not have to recite the sequence. But I would like to dwell on its meaning.
The players involved were taking a risk, courting an ஆபத்து, an අවදානම් and no ordinary one at that. The issue was of course trust, plain විශ්වාසය, simple நம்பிக்கை. But the plain and the simple do not come plain and simple. If the players trusted too little, they would lose even before they started. If they trusted too much and the trust was betrayed, they could lose more than their political futures. President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, when they decided to start on their risk-ridden path, with the mature support of former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge, were confident but somewhere in their minds they must have been prepared for defeat as well. And not just defeat but more than defeat. Today is the exact anniversary of Lasantha Wickremetunge’s death. Need I say more ?
When those who trust trust like the three leaders I have mentioned did, they step beyond the politics of the predictable into the margent of the unknown, of a future that could either be a farce or a force. They acted in faith, those three, and their colleagues, and became a force , a force for change. Not the change that comes from modifying laws alone but modifying relationships.
Trust is a strange thing – හරිම අමුතු. மிகவும் விசித்திரமானது. If it works, it is seen as noble ; if it does not, it is seen as stupid, මෝඩ . A politician, like a cricketer, can live with the image of a loser. He cannot live with the title of முட்டாள். Losing is reparable, forgivable for it can be caused by factors beyond oneself. Stupidity is different ; the stupid are sole copyright-holders of their talent. I will not share with you the title that is used in India for a politician thought to be deficient in brains. It invokes a certain quadruped with long ears. The Sri Lankan experimenters with trust took the risk of being called exactly that and worse. Their only safety lay in that they were sharing that risk equitably and bravely between themselves.
They were, let us make no mistake, being phenomenally brave. They were in fact taking a sabbatical from safe politics to do an internship in unsafe trust, not grabbing at chance but merging their own known footprints with the unknown contours of fate. How many enter elections saying they will drop their prerogatives, like an executive presidency ? How many offer to change the rules to their own detriment , their personal de-aggrandisement ? How many dare set aside their knowledge of their traditional adversaries’ animosity, for a new faith in their readiness to change ?
And we can see they proved to be totally and indisputably right. Simple people, Lankans of all categories, linguistic, religious, political, coming from various occupations, representing the integrated will of their nationhood chose, a year ago, carefully but unambiguously, to affirm the hypothesis of trust for the nation’s greatness. Not without courtesy, but with firmness, they held authoritarianism by the hand, took it to the out-door and said to it : පසුව හමුවෙමු. They held bigotry by the hand and said to it: பிறகு பார்க்கலாம்.
They chose not to forget the past, but to take the sting out of it. They chose not to deny the differences, but take the pathology of suspicion out of them, not to deny discord but make dismemberment obsolete. They chose, in other words, to pull the nation back from the brink of disaster. If Destiny decided that mullai mullaaldaan edukkuiyelum – a thorn can only be removed by a thorn – it had also decided that once the thorn had done its work, another instrument, an instrument of healing was needed. And it turned to the people of Sri Lanka to ponder the situation from all angles. Destiny in our times has to be a good democrat. It asked the people of Sri Lanka to choose between the thorn of conflict and the harvest of reconciliation. They chose.
Politics became , thereby, about the nation, not about political parties. In fact about the nation as a civilisation, not the nation as a political formation. We are celebrating the electoral intelligence that drew out of the nation’s politics a civilisation, a ශිෂ්ඨාචාරය, a நாகரிகம்.
This day is , therefore, not as much about the completion of the first year of the government of national unity as it is about the relinquishing of power monopolies, of political prejudices, of suspicions and of greed. And that is where India and the whole of South Asia, mired in those traits, can and must learn from the Sri Lanka that is being felicitated today.
There is a Tamil saying – I am sorry to be inflicting so many Tamil sayings on this gathering today but then one’s childhood learning never goes away mullai mullaaldaan edukkuiyelum. mullai mullaaldaan edukkuiyelum.
But what of tomorrow ?
The answer to that lies in what Sri Lanka does today.
Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, an Indian regards the giving of advice to be his birth right, in fact, his birth duty, his very mission. Whether in government or out of it, young or old, within India or abroad, he will not resist giving advice, unsolicited, know-all, expert advice, well-meaning , prompted with the noblest intentions and coming free. But in what a prodigious cataract!
Let me make it plain that what I propose to say now is only contextually different, not substantively, from what I would say, with suitable modifications, back home in India, to myself, to my fellow-citizens, to my government.
The people of Sri Lanka have done their work. It is now for the leaders to fulfil the expectations of the people. The Government of National Unity has a thousand issues on its plate, including economic recovery, employment generation, the re-instating of the liberal apparatuses of a Republic from the contortions to which they came to be subjected. It will give to all these issues its best attention. But the primary, defining, foundational priority of a liberal Republic has to be the retaining and consolidating of trust between the principal communities that make up the nation. And the strengthening of the trust those communities have in the government’s ability and its determination to be wholly and actively fair in its attitude to them.
Liberal democrats in office have a problem on their hands. They have to be strong but they ought not to be bullies. They have to be firm but they ought not to be rigid. They have to follow the rules with those who have made it their business to flout them. They have to do right by the wronged without provoking the wrong-doers from doing more wrong. And most difficult of all they have to be handsome and magnanimous with those that have been anything but, with them. This is a problem. But then to help solve the problem is the fact of the mandate that people give, even people who want to see their government headed by a strong man or woman, to the good leader in the knowledge that the good can also be smart. It is good to be smart in the short term, it is smarter to be good in the long. The difficulty is one lives in the short term.
And that short-term is the arena for the illiberal un-democrat to do his little acts of violence to democracy, to republicanism, to civil liberties, human rights, and get away with several crimes including murder.
It does not behove a visitor celebrating this anniversary to say anything critical of a predecessor government , and of the then leader, His Excellency Mahinda Rajapakse. I will not be guilty of that contretemps. Destiny chooses its agencies in mysterious ways and there is no doubt that history will accord to President Rajapakse a place of pre-eminence in its annals for his role in the turning of the world’s most gruesome chapter of terror. But the massacre of innocents at its denouement has compacted the gore of terror with the blood-thirst of revenge. And the killing in cold blood of a child for the sole reason that he was his father’s son, has left the world in cold horror. It was therefore inevitable that when the bitter and fratricidal war ended in Sri Lanka ,peace stayed out of sight. The guns fell silent, but dialogue too lost its voice.
Velupillai Pirabakaran became history, but what of his goal ? Did that – has that – become history too ? Or has it only gone into hiding to reveal itself once again? Separatism may fall out of the immediate agenda but as long as it lives as a simmering sentiment, it has not gone away.
Let there be no doubt that a liberal renascent phase has only that much of a tenure. The process of converting ideals into programmes, programmes into action, action into results is fraught with disappointment and dismay. When that action is to heal, the perseverance needed is that much more. The post-inaugural phase of a renaissance is also the phase when the diehards, the perennials stake-holders in vengeance, and malcontents come out of their hibernation. These are professional solution-killers whose job it is to forage in the debris of chaos and indecision. They will find in new setbacks or delays that are only inevitable, their playing field, their hope. They will find national unity inconvenient, unproductive. They will say ‘You are giving too much, too soon…’. They will also say ‘You are trusting too much, too many…’ They have their own field of vision, their own plans for advancement which includes tempting those who are not obstructionists to become obstructionists. India has known the type. They used to engineer legislative defections with finesse, until an anti-defection law made it difficult for them. Difficult, but not impossible Nothing is impossible now for money. I do not what may come from a cobra mating with a viper. Perhaps nothing. But when money mates with power, the most abhorrent mutants result. They could be called genetically modified legislators.
Sri Lanka cannot afford to be deflected by them or by anyone or anything else from devolution, from inclusion and from the more positive dimensions of both those, in terms of a celebration of plurality, in terms of incremental trust-building . In a situation that calls for reparation, it is the one who needs reparation that must report satisfaction, not the reparation-giver. The thirsty must announce the thirsts’s quenching, not the water-dispenser. It is for the Lankan Tamil to acknowledge relief, it is not the relief giver to declare the work is done.
It is, I know as well as all in this hall do, a fact that the insensitive thwarting of moderate Tamil Lankan leaders’ legitimate aspirations, decade after decade, by narrow ethno-linguistic nationalism, grew into the nightmare that ended with one of the world’s most sanguinary wars. The Ponnambalams and Chelvanayagams and Tiruchelvams were men of vision and equal perseverence.
If the Ponnambalamas and Chelvanayakams had not been disappointed, spurned, marginalised, Velupillai Pirabakaran would not have been required. We may not have those great leaders today, but we have in the Tamil leaders of Sri Lanka today, let us not forget, persons who have survived terror. Every Sri Lankan politician who has worked for a united Sri Lanka is a terror survivor, by design or default, an ආශ්චර්යය ; the Tamil nationalist who has striven to find political solutions within a united Sri Lanka is a terror survivor many times over, an அதிசயம். The very presence of such a politician is a huge acknowledgment of the efficacy and strength of perseverance.
The Tamil Lankan who is a constitutionalist, a parliamentarian and a believer in a united and just Sri Lanka must not be disappointed, spurned. The old vicious cycle must not be repeated. An early and sincere meeting of Lankan Tamil aspirations is non-optional, for there is a historical imperative to those. Sri Lanka must do all it can to prevent new disappointments, new spurnings, new marginalisations to lead to a revival of the Eelam goal which lurks in the Tamil Lankan diaspora’s alienated mind. A return of vengeful violence, in some new second coming, and its twin, hideous repression would be disastrous.
As Sri Lanka moves into constitution making , all that made the earlier constitution vulnerable would have to be kept firmly out and all that makes for the federal spirit within a unitary system strengthened. Here, the 1987 Indo-Sri Lankan Accord, much criticised in both countries, has in its long-term recommendations much which, through Sri Lanka’s 13A constitutional route, remains valuable. There cannot be a better anchor for the ship of Sri Lanka’s inclusive unity than that Indo-Lankan accord, even as there can be no truer friend of a united Sri Lanka than a reassured India.
Inclusivity, power sharing, between the centre and periphery , and the deepening of democracy are imperative. But this cannot be done patronisingly. Who includes ? The majority ? No, rationality does. Who gets included ? Is it the minority ? No, it is civility. The majority which confers rights on a minority remains dictatorial, an overlord. The majority which self-effaces everywhere except in the matter of seats in an elected house of representatives, is democratic, is republican. Inclusion is about more than tolerance, accommodation. It is even more than respect. It is about a celebration of the other, pride in the other. Politics becomes, then, a matter of culture, civilizational culture.
Had Mohammed Ali Jinnah been offered the Prime Ministership of India ten years before Mahatma Gandhi suggested it, or if B R Ambedkar had become President or Vice President of India, the history of the Indian sub-continent would have been different. If a Tamil had been President or Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, the nation may still have gone through the tribulations that it has been through, but there would have been a saving grace to the proceedings. Not as an Indian, not as a half-Tamil, but as a South Asian who knows the value of saving graces and of Amazing Grace, I long to see a Tamil Lankan take her or his oaths of constitutional office to the playing of Sri Lanka Mata, Namo Namo Mata. This may not come from political reasoning ; it could come from a moment of political inspiration.
Nelson Mandela included in his first cabinet a startlingly large number of Indian South Africans. His colleagues in the African National Congress asked him “Madiba why so many of them…completely out of proportion to their numbers…?” And Mandela replied “The Indian South Africans in my cabinet do not represent their numbers, they represent their contribution to the struggle”. This has a lesson for India and Sri Lanka. We should have minority representatives in our councils of ministers not on the basis of their population percentages but on the basis of their contribution to the making of what Mandela called a “rainbow nation”. If the cabinet’s size can go beyond prescribed limits to accommodate coalitions, it can also go beyond legal provisions to real-life action in order to accommodate trust.
Why do as many Sinhala Lankans not speak Tamil as Lankan Tamils speak Sinhala ? Why should more Sinhala Lankans not see and share the wisdom of Colvin de Silva’s famous all-time utterance : ‘One language, two countries ; two languages, one country’ ? And N M Perera’s equally famous scoffing at the idea of one superior race ? Why ? ඇයි ? ஏன்?
But ethnic fairness is never a one-way street alone. Mandela said famously “I am against White racism”. There was no big deal to that. But he also added the very next moment “ I am also against Black racism”. That was a big deal, a very big deal.
If the Lankan Tamil were to say , “I am against Sinhala racism “ there would be no big deal. But if he were also to say “…and I am against Tamil racism”, a huge difference would be made to trust and trusting. The Lankan Muslim and the Lankan Christian also need reassurances of trust, as do the plantation Tamil , especially the Tamil tea-plucker, whom Professor Suryanarayana has characterised as Sri Lanka’s ‘Cinderella’, and, I must add, the unaffiliated Lankan dissenter and the independent Lankan iconoclast as well.
Sri Lanka as a parliamentary democracy will always give to its people a government formed by the majority party or by a majority, as is the case now, by two or more parties coming together. A majority is ever to be celebrated , not so majoritarianism. A majority is the fruit of the democratic tree. Majoritarianism is a blight that poisons and destroys that fruit. amil Sri Lanka must ask for and must receive what is its due by way of just and reassuring provisions in the new Constitution that keep majoritarianism out. At the same time Tamil Sri Lanka must also not forget that just as majoritarianism is undemocratic, minoritarianism can damage Republicanism. Minority aspirations must be a charter but must not become an ‘ism’. Every vadakku must remember that there is a terkku which must understand what it means to be a spurned vadakku and for which understanding, the vadakku must understand what it means to be a scorned terkku.
In an ultimate sense minority aspirations have to be not just about numerical justice but about justice, not just about numerical rights but about human rights. It is time in South Asia , at least, minority needs be seen in terms of adverse numbers plus adverse context, adverse numbers plus adverse status, adverse numbers plus adverse socio-political conditions, adverse numbers plus adverse access to resources and opportunities. If the numerical adversity has been fully and irreversibly compensated for by contextual favourability, no minority need think of itself as a minority except in terms of Census categorisations for distinctness alone. Like the Indian Dalit and the Indian Muslim, the Lankan Tamil is yet to realise the fullness of his and her Republican status. And in a Republic, it should be not just the majority’s duty but the majority’s pleasure to rectify the situation.
The transition in Tamil Lankan positions from constitutional reform via constitutional means to separatism via violent means to an Eelam via terrorism was thought irreversible. That has changed. Negotiated change is now back on the table. It must not slumber there. Vengeance is waiting to see how reform fares. Not just Sri Lanka but the whole of South Asia and in fact liberalism and pluralism everywhere require the success of the Government of National Unity’s endeavours, for this opportunity, if lost, is unlikely ever to come again.
I believe the opportunity has not come only to be lost. This island is not Serendib for nothing.
What, I conclude by asking, is the difference between an island and a continent? An island is a small continent, a continent only a large island. Let no one think of Sri Lanka as a small island. In what it has done over the last year and more for building trust between communities and political groups, in cutting egos and trimming pride, it has shown itself to be large, larger than many a large country, including mine, India.
An island of discord විසංවාදය දිවයින, for decades, Sri Lanka has become an island of hope and is meant to, destined to and must become a continent of trust, a நம்பிக்கை கண்டம், a විශ්වාසය මහාද්වීපය.
*Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s address at the President Maithripala Sirisena’s first year in office, on 8 January 2016 at BMICH, Colombo.