18 December 2012

The politics of commemoration

Sometime in the mid 1980s, the students of Peradeniya University put up a statue, a memorial of sorts.  It was of a young man, book in hand and his foot on a gun.  I am not sure if the statue resembled him in any way, but it meant to commemorate a Medical Faculty student, Padmasiri, who was shot dead on June 19, 1998 in the course of an altercation between officers manning the Police Station that was at the time located on campus and some medical students returning to Marcus Fernando Hall after celebrating the end of examinations. 

The ‘memorial’ was a crude construct and lacked the sobriety and aesthetic elegance evident in an older monument in memory of another student who was shot dead, Weerasooriya, in 1976.  Other undergraduates who were unceremoniously and in secret killed during the 1971 were not commemorated in like manner.  The comrades’ who died in the 1988-89 insurgency were not similarly honored in Peradeniya, although I believe both the University of Sri Jayawardenapura and University of Moratuwa ‘monumentalized’ of a fashion. 
The ‘Padmasiri Statue’ disappeared during the bheeshanaya.  ‘Weerasooriya’ was left intact, perhaps because he was shot dead during a different regime.  I believe the other monuments mentioned above were vandalized recently. 

Way back in 2006, ‘The Nation’ devoted the center-spread of a section then called ‘Eye’ for a feature on heroes and commemoration.  It contained photographs of memorials for the war dead.  Included on the page was a photograph of an LTTE cemetery, accompanied by the following caption: ‘These birthday-less stones represent citizens of this country who too fought and died, misguided and tragic and yet no different from other children elsewhere. They deserve to be mourned’.  That cemetery was bulldozed immediately after the LTTE was vanquished, possible following a logic that objected to ‘trace of terrorism’s glorification’.  A blank square was also scripted into the layout.  It was for the JVP dead, from 1971 and also 1988-89.  This was the caption: ‘The white space represents the unhonoured and unsung, the 60,000 plus who died between 1988 and 1990.  Many were JVPers who, perhaps misguided and foolhardy, nevertheless fought for a land, a way of life.  Heroes in their own right.
The dead are remembered by loved ones.  Some corpses, however, are useful as political exhibits Weerasooriya’s being one of the early examples.  Shed of all the spirituality of the moment, prophesy claimed and so on, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ also made for politicking of a kind. In Weerasooriya’s case, the United National Party, then in the Opposition, carried that corpse, so to speak, to every electorate.  Vijaya Kumaratunga had a politicized funeral , not surprisingly since it was a political assassination, largely believed to have been ‘authorized’ and ‘ordered’ by the late JVP leader, Rohana Wijeweera.  When Wijeweera himself was killed (a summary execution that not surprisingly did not disturb the sleep of any human rights advocate, here or elsewhere) the time had passed for a politicized funeral. 

The dead are not remembered by only the loved ones.  The collective dead, especially, can be used to market this or that political position or organization, more often than not without the consent of the individually dead.  That’s politics.  Hardly anyone among those who shed tears at these political funerals and subsequent memorial services of one kind or another can claim to have known the dead personally or if they did actually cared deeply enough to deserve the tag ‘loved ones’. 
There is, then, a thing called the politics of commemoration which unfolds within structures of power that determine what is allowed and what is not.  A political street-drawing commemorating the war dead (without distinction) in Colombo was, for example, tarred over unceremoniously.  The ‘artists’ were of course not value-neutral; the movers and shakers of this ‘remembrance’ did take sides during the war. 

Does this mean that the political logic of commemorating permissibility is something we have to live with?  Does it mean that power decides and these decisions should go uncommented on, forget the fact that the selectivity and erasure could be detrimental to the political objectives of the selector and eraser? 
There was an incident in the Jaffna University recently.  A ‘happy coincidence’ of the infamous ‘Maaveerar Day’ announced and commemorated by the LTTE before that organization was militarily vanquished and a religious ceremony naturally made for multiple (mis)interpretation as well as mischief-making.  The authorities intervened.   There was violence. There were protests. There were arrests. 

This was followed by howls of protests by political groups, NGO operators and some commentators, including the Inter University Student Federation.  I have little sympathy for objectors who are primarily motivated by regime-hatred and petty political ambition.  The Inter University Student Federation, a known but unofficial affiliate of the JVP has a considerable track record of intolerance which has often involved thuggery in the universities.
As for other objectors, there are among them those who bent over backwards to confer parity of status to the LTTE vis-à-vis the Government and operated according to the principle, ‘My enemy’s enemy is my friend’ throughout the first decade of the millennium.  It is typical for such objectors, after all, to drag in other miseries, real and imagined, to frill objection.   Many who talk of what the Tamils suffered, let us not forget, find it embarrassing to state that their suffering was largely an outcome of choices made by the so-called Tamil representatives and indeed the direct harassment by the LTTE.  They would find it difficult to whisper the fact that the LTTE terrorized without distinction, that they killed Tamils in their thousands and held some 300,000 Tamils hostage. 

But does this mean the objection itself is illegal or wrong?  Is commemoration wrong, politically motivated or otherwise?  The question was asked, ‘If the JVP can commemorate those who died during an armed insurrection, what is wrong with commemorating others who died in another armed insurrection?’  A related question: ‘If the JVP commemoration is allowed and this is not, assuming of course it was an LTTE-remembering event, does it mean that the authorities don’t mind terrorists being remembered as long as they are Sinhala?’
When someone decides to lament, only a clairvoyant can even pretend to claim what or who it is all about.  Even a terrorist’s death can be lamented for reasons that have nothing to do with the choices that the particular terrorist made.  Prabhakaran’s death, for example, could have been lamented by his parents because he was their son and not because they identified with his political, military and whatever other pernicious designs and practices associated with him.  Even if they identified with his larger politico-military-terrorist persona, no one can tell if the tears shed were on that account and not the blood-relationship. 

Terrorism is illegal.  Grief is neither illegal nor amenable to prohibition through legal writ.  Prabhakaran was a terrorist.  The LTTE was a terrorist organization.  This does not mean that those who identified with the cause and/or the methodology employed were terrorists.  They are complicit in some way, but this does not mean that they should be shot or even tried.  Authorities in a country that has suffered for three decades at the hands of terrorists cannot be blamed for being alert to resurrection moves and erring on the side of caution.  On the other hand, being circumspect does not give right to put out a lamp lit for a dead person.  It is not only illegal, but also uncivilized and moreover rebels against the culture of the land, a way of life and living heavily influenced by Buddhism, almost to the exclusion of other religions and philosophies. 
Prabhakaran was no Elara, let us be clear on that.   King Dutugemunu issued a directive to the effect that Elara should be accorded the highest respect, requiring those passing to descend from chariot or horse and the observation of silence.  Elara was a usurper, a land-grabber, true, but he was recognized as a wise and just ruler.  Prabhakaran was a land-grabber of sorts, but he was no Elara.  He is dead though.  One respects the dead.  That’s cultural.  There can be a security concern in someone showing loyalty to a terrorist.  There can be none in expressing grief over a dead terrorist.  Indeed, one cannot legislate to prohibit emotion.  One cannot make it illegal not to agree with the Government or anyone else when someone or some organization is called ‘Terrorist’. 

Space for commemoration by anyone of anyone is part of reconciliation.  The political objectives and the strategic choices of the dead are irrelevant here.  The Sinhalese hold that whatever differences one may have with someone else, in times of celebration and lamentation, one puts them aside.  It is possible to recognize the need to grieve without having to agree with the politics of the person or organization whose demise is being grieved over or the politics of the grieving.  That’s where humanity is tested.  And it is in the affirmation of that humanity that Governments stand taller, commonalities are recognized and communities are forged.  Erasure wrecks all that.