07 September 2012

Let us take a collective bow!

UB 40, a band formed in Birmingham, England in 1978, took its name from a form that the unemployed had to fill during the Thatcher years: Unemployment Benefits Form 40.  Their song, ‘One in ten’ referred to the proportion of the British workforce that was unemployed at the time.  The song had the following line: ‘I’m the child that never learns to read, ’cause no one spared the time’.  Six years ago I had opportunity to refer to it.  There was a child whose time came, not for reading, but for death.

Asvini was two and a half years old.  She was the daughter of a domestic worker.  August 8, 2006 was a happy day for her.  Her grandfather, Rasiah, an employee in a restaurant had bought her a pair of shoes. She wanted to try them out. She walked towards a bus halt on Dickman’s Road, Bambalapitiya, after kissing her grandpa by way of thanks.  That was it.  She was a bystander, ‘Tamil’ if such identity-tags matter for one so young.  A car bomb set up by the LTTE targeting a rival Tamil politician (and here ‘Tamil’ counted for both killer and intended victim) ensured that Asvini would never walk, that she would never learn.  She died right there.

Maybe it is a lesson that we, as a species, will never learn.

On March 2, 1991 the Minister of National Security of the then Government, Ranjan Wijeratne, was assassinated by the LTTE using a remote controlled car bomb. A total of 19 people died in the blast, including five of his bodyguards and 13 civilian bystanders. Dozens were injured. Few would know that this day was significant to a man called Raman Varathan Kumar.

Raman Varathan Kumar was not rich. He was as poor as his Sinhala or Muslim counterpart living in one of the 500 plus shanty communities in and around Colombo.  On that day Varathan was about to go to hospital. He was 26 at the time. He had married his childhood sweetheart, Rajamani, five months before. She was pregnant and had spent most of the previous night vomiting. Varathan at the time was in the business of making and selling sweets, along with his brother-in-law. He had hired a taxi. The taxi driver had dillydallied at the Highlevel Hotel at Thunmulla, close to where they lived, Mailvaganam Watta. He had been chit-chatting with the mudalali over a cigarette. Varathan, anxious about his wife’s health condition, had to drag the driver, his friend David, from conversation and cigarette. His world exploded right then.

He was unconscious for three weeks.  His left collarbone was broken. He lost part of his leg.  He had surgery done on arm, leg and stomach.  He survived.  For three months he did not know what had happened to his beloved Rajamani. Rajamani had died instantly. She was carrying twins. Varathan is a Tamil and he is conscious of that fact, even though it is less pronounced that his consciousness about his humanity. 

On September 4, 2012, in the name of ‘Tamil brethren’ thought to be suffering untold depravations in Sri Lanka, ‘Tamil’ mobs gave vent to what some Tamil Nadu politicians call ‘righteous anger’ by attacking with stones and sticks 5 buses carrying Sri Lankan pilgrims on their way to the Trichy Airport.  They were Tamils and ironically some of them consider Tamil Nadu ‘motherland’ (a politically significant self-identification that warrants further commentary). 

Neelan Thiruchelvam was a Tamil, assassinated by Tamils fighting for a ‘Tamil State’.  So were Appapillai Amirthalingam, the former Jaffna Mayors Alfred Duriappa and Mrs. Sarojini Yogeswaran and countless politicians, academics, religious leaders, community leaders and ordinary people. 
In 1971 and in the late eighties tens of thousands of Sinhala Buddhist youth were killed by Sinhala Buddhist soldiers.  Indians kill Kashmiri ‘Indians’.  The ‘India’ commonality is forgotten when Indian Hindus massacre Indian Muslims, or when ‘Indian’ soldiers re-enacted a British Colonial massacre of Sikhs at the Golden Temple, Amritsar.

Politics, then, rises above community, identity, religious faith etc.   On the face of it, that looks like a good thing.  But if you were to ask Rasiah or Varathan or Mercy Fernandez (who was in one of the buses attacked a few days ago in Tamil Nadu), they would tell you stories to make you wonder if you should be cheering. 

The former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Muthuvel Karunanidhi blames current Chief Minister Jayalalithaa Jayaram.  I want to say ‘Take a bow, both!’ but won’t because I think they wouldn’t get the sarcasm.

More importantly, we could all take a collective bow for what we do to one another and thereby to ourselves.  I don’t think the sarcasm would be lost on anyone.