By Charles Sarvan –
Many may stand apart from the general current (because they are distracted, bored, indifferent or disdainful) but few actually have the independence of mind and courage of spirit to go against the powerful and destructive torrent.
Neville Jayaweera recently sent me his tribute to Adrian Wijemanne who died in July 2008 at the age of 81, and it serves as a kind of prolegomenon to what follows. Jayaweera takes note both of Wijemanne’s distinguished public career, and lauds him as a person who was “remarkably modest and devoid of ego, neither talking about himself nor ever deliberately seeking public profile or visibility”. He was one who lived modestly, “never accepting payment either for lecturing or for writing” and having only his pension for an income. Yet, Jayaweera observes, such a human being was distanced by former colleagues, by most former close friends, and by some relations. Why? Because of his stance on Sri Lanka’s ethnic question: he was seen as a Sinhalese who was pro-Tamil. If colleagues, friends and relations did not understand him, then it’s not surprising that others heaped abuse, often intense and vulgar, on him; threatened and futilely tried to intimidate him with dire physical consequence. (In another communication to me, and with reference to Wijemanne, Neville Jayaweera writes of “closet racists”: seemingly cultivated, liberal-minded and progressive in public but “troglodyte in private”.) Jayaweera, employing a Biblical reference, describes Wijemanne as a voice in the wilderness. One may add that it was, by and large, an unheard and certainly unheeded voice. But lines from Robert Frost’s poem, ‘Bereft’, come to mind: “Word I was in the house alone / Somehow must have gotten abroad / Word I was in my life alone / Word I had no one left but God.” The last would have more than sufficed for Adrian Wijemanne because he was a deeply religious man whose ethics and morals (they are not the same) were drawn from, and based on, his religion. But would it be accurate and correct to say that the few Adrian Wijemannes of Sri Lanka, both male and female, are pro-Tamil? This is what I seek to address here.
I used to suggest to students that there are three kinds of protest. The first is where I am unjustly treated and protest against it. The reaction is natural, quite understandable and to be expected. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” is a Talmudic saying used by Erich Fromm as an epigraph in his classic study, ‘Escape From Freedom’ (1941).
The second is if I protest at the treatment meted out to, say, a group living in the Amazon forest or to the occupation of Tibet. That would be disinterested protest on my part, ‘disinterested’ being differentiated from ‘uninterested’ and defined as action, verbal or otherwise, not influenced by considerations of personal or group advantage.
The third type is when I protest against injustice, even though I and the group to which I belong profit by that injustice, be it in terms of material advantage or status. Such a stance – noble, brave and unselfish – is rare and met with incomprehension by the majority. It carries a heavy and painful price, one which Wijemanne paid. Doris Lessing, Nobel-Prize winner who died recently, comes to mind because she strongly and publicly opposed the government of Ian Smith in what was then Rhodesia, even though members of her family were serving in the armed forces of the regime. Similarly, some whites in America joined the African-American Civil Rights movement. White supremacists hated them even more than they disliked African Americans, branding them “Nigger lovers”. (In a situation where blanket group-superiority is assumed and asserted, every member of the group can believe he or she is superior to all who do not belong, irrespective of intelligence, character, conduct or contribution to society: “I may be ignorant, crude and brutal, but I belong to the master group and, therefore, am superior to you”.) But those white Americans were not fighting for blacks but for the recognition of a common humanity which, in turn, leads to inclusion and full equality. South African apartheid was sold internationally as separate but equal development. (Western powers knew full well that it was separate and grossly and cruelly unequal but pretended to believe in the claim.) Of the several whites who fought against the injustice of apartheid, I would mention Bram Fischer. He was not only white but came from a prominent Afrikaner family: his father was a Judge President of the Orange Free State; his grandfather, a prime minister of the Orange River Colony. (Imagine the son of a Sinhalese ‘racist’ becoming a champion of equality.) Imprisoned for supporting The African National Congress and Nelson Mandela, terminally-ill Fischer was released and allowed to spend his last days under house arrest entirely because of international publicity and outcry. Looking elsewhere, Gandhi fought against the inhumane caste system even though, presumably, he being a Brahmin, stood to gain by the continuation of that pernicious belief and system, one that the Compassionate Buddha rejected. Some of the most forceful criticisms of Israel policy vis-a-vis the Palestinians I have read have been written by Jews. Apropos, it is a Jewish professor, Shlomo Sand, living and teaching in Israel, who wrote a book, ‘The Invention of the Jewish People’, questioning Jewish identity: see, Sarvan, Groundviews, 3 July 2013. A simple couple in Germany, having decided to oppose Nazism, wrote anonymous cards and left them where they would be picked up and read. They were not pro English; they were not traitors working against ‘race’ and country. They knew their action would have no impact at all; they knew they would soon end in the hands of the dreadful and dreaded Gestapo, and be killed. It was suicidal, yet they felt they had no moral choice but to act: see, Hans Fallada, ‘Alone in Berlin’. Such individuals, though few in number, restore hope both in, and for, humanity. The world seems to be a better place because of them – whether the cause they espoused succeeded or failed. They may be voices in the desert largely unheard and, when heard, unheeded but they are not entirely alone.
This brings me back to what I term the Adrian Wijemannes of Sri Lanka, and to words in Neville Jayaweera’s tribute: “I believe that what motivated Wijemanne was a total dedication to justice and righteousness”. This is the essence: dedication not to a group but to justice. The Wijemannes of Sri Lanka are not pro-Tamil but pro humanity; pro such concepts as equality, justice, decency and kindness. If the Sinhalese had been discriminated against; if the Sinhalese had been oppressed, the Adrian Wijemannes would fight with equal courage and self-sacrifice. One can draw a parallel with Nelson Mandela’s declaration during his trial (1964): “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities” (emphasis added).
The fundamental beliefs and resulting conduct of “the Adrian Wijemannes of Sri Lanka” are incomprehensible to others. Not being able to appreciate their commitment to lofty abstractions, they simply see it as being pro-Tamil. The syllogism seems to run as follows: She (or he) is pro-Tamil. Anyone who is pro-Tamil is, ipso facto, anti-Sinhalese. Therefore, she or he is a traitor. That the Wijemannes are not pro a group but are strongly “pro” ideals of equality, decency and fair-play is beyond their comprehension. Besides, for them to accept that the Wijemannes of this world stand for justice for all irrespective of skin-colour, religion or ethnic group is to admit that they themselves are ‘racist’ and unjust.
I hope it is clear this is not about Adrian Wijemanne the individual but about Adrian Wijemannes in the plural, male and female. To label them “pro-Tamil” is to avoid, through calumny, facing fundamental political and moral issues. It is easier to damn the Adrian Wijemannes than to examine the truth about oneself. The surface manifestation may be “pro Tamil” but the struggle, at root and as ever, is for justice; for a common and equal humanity.
There are, I suggest, no “pro-Tamil” Sinhalese but only some Sinhalese who never forget that every “you” is also an “I”.