By Mahesan Niranjan –
Things can change so fast that “a week,” said the former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, “is a long time in politics.” Recent turn of events in Sri Lankan politics impressed upon me the accuracy of Wilson’s statement, in the form of a friend in tears at the other end of the phone on Friday, just over a week ago. She is a Sri Lankan Tamil – in that order, Sri Lankan first and Tamil second – who chose to live and work in Sri Lanka, unlike me who took the first flight I could find after collecting my degree certificate. There is something special about it. When I called, she was watching the swearing in of a new Prime Minister.
The timing could not have been worse. I had just returned after a short visit to Sri Lanka. It was a particularly enjoyable and worthwhile trip after a gap of four years.
It was enjoyable because my mother is no longer alive to give me strong instructions, as she has done on every visit. Soap should be in a soap case, not wrapped up in a piece of cling film. Temple should be visited. Poojashould be performed. Tuk-tuk rides should not be taken after dark. Politics should not be spoken to tuk-tuk drivers. “How much did he charge?” “Rs. 500.” “Five hundred?” the economist in her would protest instantly, “Ah well, money going to a poor chap anyway, no” the Sri Lankan in her would compromise.
The trip was worthwhile because I worked hard on completing a task I was invited to do. I was able to take a weekend off and travel to Mannar and Karainagar. Speak to lots of people: University staff, students, University guest house cleaner, yes, tuk-tuk drivers and even to navy personnel. Observing Kilinochchi, that part of our country most devastated by the long running war, I could write an entry in my diary: “In peace, our people will prosper.”
I wish my mother could have read that, for the first half of her life she lived through everything what we, Sri Lankans, could be proud of – health, education and others key performance indicators (KPI) that placed us well above countries in the post-colonial Third World – all working in her favour, for she survived childbirth with high probability, had a carefree childhood in a rural farming community UpNawth, and, at the age of seventeen caught a train to attend HillTop University. The second half of her life, she lived through everything we, Sri Lankans, ought to be ashamed of, with our political class slowly bleeding us of any advantage we had in terms of the aforementioned KPIs, but also monotonically squeezing out any sense of societal values we probably were endowed with.
My mother had no time for our politicians and would not hesitate to insult the canine species by making comparisons to our elected representatives. The political class lived up to her calibration in the two weeks since that visit.
The week after returning from Sri Lanka with that positive note I read an announcement. It was from the former Chief Minister of the Northern Province and former judge Wigneswaran, who, in early days of his professional career is known to have sought the Truth, from the perspective of the Law. Something he has since forgotten. He is a relative of former Minister of National Reconciliation and former leftist Vasudeva Nanayakkaara, who, in early days of his political career is known to have spoken the truth, from the perspective of the marginalised. Something he, too, has since forgotten.
Wigneswaran declared he was to form a new political party and contest the position of Chief Minister, a post he held for the last five years, and for which he has demonstrated beyond any doubt, his lack of suitability. He has come close to claiming that it is not development his people need, but their rights. Has he not heard of the Irish politician John Hume whose father said to him as a young boy, “you can’t eat a flag, son”?
Shortly after him and his team assumed office, they made a rendezvous with the Provincial Governor and former military man General Chandrasiri. “As a matter of principle,” the team had declared, “and in representing our people in the pursuit of their rights,” they thundered, “we will not accept the cup of tea offered by the Governor.” But why were they there at his office, you might wonder. It was to collect the keys to the brand new Pajero vehicles that have been issued to them, necessary tools-of-the-trade for those in the service of their people, working to win their rights. My mother was no expert in the intricacies of evolutionary genomics, but there is enough data, just in this anecdote above, for her to call out behavioural similarity to the canine species.
Just a few days from then, the Southerners showed their colours. After all, they cannot be any second to their Northern rivals, can they? Having arrived in the island first and having two and a point five thousand years of heritage to boast about, they wouldn’t want to be out-smarted in odd and unpredictable behaviour by the Northerners, would they?
In the pursuit of power and by its abuse, the rule-book has been dumped. We have a deadlock with two Prime Ministers in office, and a lack of clarity on who commands majority support and how and when that should be measured. You might think it is easy – just count. But counting is a process that takes a bit of time and during the time it takes to count up all two hundred and twenty-five, one or two might have switched sides and you have to start all over again. Much money, on an astronomical scale from the point of view of the average voter, would have changed hands during this hopping process.
While this drama is being played out in the South, some in the North make the case that there isn’t much to choose from among the two who are at present holding the same office. After all, one of them is credited with fighting the war with determination, defeating the rebel group and then celebrating victory over the Tamil people, while the other has held senior office in his Uncle’s government when the library in the North was torched under supervision of his colleagues.
The nuance those who so suggest miss is best illustrated by students of the University of Jaffna, the institution I was visiting just the week before all this thamasha unveiled. And that is about the change that happened, brought about by the electorate, with a mandate primarily attributable to the minority communities of our country, on January 8, 2015.
Consider the following two events:
In 2012, students of the University of Jaffna protested and marched over some issue. I forget what it was, but they certainly were not demanding better books in the library or that it be kept open for longer. Their march did not last long. Governor Chandrasiri made a telephone call. He knew that the large military base at Palaly was just 45 minutes away. Truckloads of armed soldiers and police were brought in. Rifle butts and batons were used to smash up the demonstration. Within half an hour, the protest ended, several went to hospital and several were locked up, later to be rehabilitated (a term that nobody really understands) and released at random times.
In 2015, students of the University of Jaffna protested and marched over some issue. I forget what it was, but they certainly were not demanding better books in the library or that it be kept open for longer. This march culminated on the grounds of the Nallur temple and a few students went on a hunger strike. Governor Palihakkaara did not make that call, though he knew that the large military base at Palaly was just 45 minutes away. Instead he went to meet the hunger strikers. He was confident he knew the pulse of the hunger striker. No, to be precise, he knew their guts. “Kids,” he said to them, “if you go home now, you can have a bath at the well, your mothers would have made red rice string hoppers, there will be kiri hothi and pol sambol, too!” Within half an hour the protest ended and the students returned home. After the bath and dinner, some even worked on their essays due the next day.
For the Northerner, a random travelling academic being able to make a diary entry from the location where a deadly war was fought, “in peace, our people will prosper,” is what January 8, 2015 was all about.(click on link for an exceptionally articulate poetry read).
Be it the genetic similarity my mother saw and was minded to compare the behavioural traits of our political class with that of the canine species, or be it the epigenetic imprints our politicians suffer in exhibiting corruption, nepotism, greed and incompetence in their pursuit of power, the nuance experienced by the students of the University of Jaffna, is what ought to be in the line of sight of the Northerner.
[Author’s Note: Text in first figure approximately translates as “Today, some parliamentarians are like stale fish on sale, shifting to the side that offers higher price; morning they are in Wijerama (MR’s place); afternoon in Temple Trees (RW’s place) and in the evening they are taking oath as minister; they are selling themselves in auctions, and have no shame.”]