29 May, 2023


The Story Of Nuancing The News: Part II

By Mahesan Niranjan

Prof. Mahesan Niranjan

Sometimes attributed to Winston Churchill, but probably much older than that, is the witty quote: “The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with an average voter.” Any doubt in it was convincingly quashed recently when the British electorate voted in the present Conservative government of Eton and Oxford-schooled Boris Johnson and his jolly buddies. “Schooled,” I say with care. “Educated” would be stretching it. 

For the likes of my drinking partner, the Sri Lankan Tamil fellow Sivapuranam Thevaram and I, of course, there is escape from observing such disaster. We very quickly make that identity transition from ethnic minority to foreigner. We can sit back, sip on our pints of Peroni at the famous Bridgetown pub and record our amusement. Of the locals, at our local.  

Careful with the nuance there. The quote is about the average voter. Averages can be misleading, as any statistician worth his p-values will tell you. That dreaded R number of epidemiology is an example. For Boris Johnson, if this magic number is above one — one point zero zero one, what — we need to lockdown to prevent the virus wiping us out. If it is lower than one — zero point nine nine nine, what — you know what, we can open up and respect the ancient, inalienable right of free-born people of the United Kingdom to go to the pub. Encouraged by Johnson’s remarks, Thevaram and I met up for a pint.

The statistician in me screams: you can realize an average of one by having half the population running at 0.8 and the other half at 1.2. And that has been the dreadful experience of the UK, with disproportionately large numbers of ethnic minorities getting infected, infecting others and ending up in coffins far sooner than they had wished. Contagion in clustered communities does not go by averages.

Just the day before yesterday, Sri Lankans did something wonderful. They controlled the virus at low enough levels to be able to hold a general election. Peacefully and fairly. 

But if you look at the results, on average, the message is clear: we are no less average than the British.

Of note is how the winning strategy had evolved over the years since independence from the suddha (white man), back in 1948. For a brief period we did well, advancing policies of free education and rural healthcare, some of which giving us a significant edge in quality of life over much of the Third World. The public health arrangements are strong to this day, helping immensely in keeping the virus in check. 

Then came the innovation in the mid-fifties. The discovery of electoral success and its causal link to racism. “Vote for me, to teach them a lesson” and “Vote for me, we will beat out of them what is owed to us” became popular slogans. The louder you shouted them, greater was your chance of success. 2009 saw a phrases reversal in one: “Look, I taught them a lesson, vote for me!”.     

Thevaram, who had already arrived in the pub greeted me in a rather unusual manner when I walked in: “ආයුබෝවන් (Ayubowan — “greetings” in Sinhala), he said. 

The pub landlord appeared puzzled. Why would this Tamil fellow, his regular, greet his drinking partner, also a Tamil chap, with ආයුබෝවන් ? But with the art of maintaining a stiff upper lip running in his genes, he did not show a reaction. If you don’t guess the reason, I offer my sympathies. There is a saying that goes like this: Predictions are hard, especially of the future.

“Tamil nationalism is going to flourish in the new Parliament, no?” I suggested to Thevaram, knowing full well how much this will annoy him. “Not just one, but three versions machan: கூட்டமைப்பு (Alliance), முன்னணி (Front) and பேரவை (Council). “Mind you, each has a leader schooled at Royal College.”  

I was hinting at the purely linguistic technique to advance Tamil Nationalism. As long as you have access to a thesaurus, you are in business. Combine the words “Tamil” and “National” with something meaning a group, like “alliance”, “front” and “council”, and you are at the service of the Tamil people, seeking their votes and fighting among each other for the perks you get in the form of subsidised cafeteria food at Diyawanna. 

That urge for Diyawanna cafeteria food cannot be overstated. As counting progressed and results were yet to be announced, a midnight drama of shame and thuggery was played out at the Jaffna Central College grounds. Little do thugs realize that accusing a candidate of cheating is also an accusation levelled at the returning official and his staff. As I watched via a facebook feed, I was hoping that the police would step in and beat the thugs out of the college grounds. So predictable is policing in Sri Lanka, that within a minute of me making my wish from some 6000 miles away, they obliged. Slapping, punching, boxing, and kicking.

Wordplay in the interest of the Tamil people is not new. When it was thought one could fight it out, permutations of words like “liberation” and “organization” — and not to forget the ferocious striped animal — were taken from the dictionary and several armed groups, over two dozen at some point, came to the rescue of the Tamil people. The mostly tried to achieve their objectives by shooting at each other, and killing anyone who dared to express an opinion different to theirs. 

“Oh, you would say that, wouldn’t you!”  Thevaram dismissed my reference to  Royal College schooling of the nationalist leaders, teasing me of my own education at the rival St Thomas’ College for a brief period.

“Instead of blaming it on their schooling, using Boris Johnson as your reference, why not take a look at Tamil nationalism itself?” he said. “What exactly did those who advanced it actually deliver?

“Other than leading our people to that brutal massacre at Mullivaaikkal, in their tens, hundreds, thousands or more?”

“And they are also complaining about Tamil representation in parliament going down, no?” I suggested to Thevaram.

“Really?” he asked with a touch of annoyance. “Have you looked at results from Nuwara Eliya?” pointing to the election of half a dozen Tamils from those regions. “When did Tamil nationalism from the Jaffna peninsula think of being inclusive of other Tamils in the island?”

I did not need my friend to remind me that over a pint. It has always been the curse, and cause of the downfall: that peninsula-centric thinking of the Tamil political class, even if schooled in Royal College in  Colombo. That downfall is set to continue when the trio debate among themselves: Of words to which they can attribute not much meaning. Of geopolitics of which they have not much understanding. Of the needs of development of which they have not much competence. Of international institutions at which they have not much influence. 

All that will be achieved is providing ammunition to strengthen the entrenchment of the transition in the South: We taught them a lesson, you owe us your votes. 

“You know,” Thevaram said firmly, “the failure of the last decade of Tamil nationalism is its failure to critically apprise the failures of the previous three.”

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said he did not need minority votes to win. He was right. That is equally true this time, too. Unlike in 2015, the winners achieved majority, and much more, without minority votes. On average, such arithmetic is correct. But the nuance in it remains the sad determinant of Sri Lanka’s future: 

At both elections, they needed the minorities!

“ආයුබෝවන් machan,” Thevaram and I raised our glasses!

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Latest comments

  • 3

    This obviously is a must read, but it may take some time.

  • 7

    Prof. Mahesan Niranjan

    It is sarcastic, yes. But beautifully written – a lesson for Tamils who refuse to learn lessons.

    All Tamils especially peninsular Tamils must read and digest not to accept but to practice out of box lateral thinking.

    • 8

      Nice writing, Prof M.N. A little quibble though. How did that stiff-upper-lipped landlord at your local know the difference between Sinhala and Tamil?
      Still, “Any doubt in it was convincingly quashed recently when the British electorate voted in the present Conservative government” you say.
      So we in the Pearl of the Indian Ocean are finally on par with the Brits?

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