03 August 2014

Re-classing the national discourse*

Pic courtesy w3lanka.com

These are days when there is a lot of talk about media rights and the freedom of expression. There is talk of resolving the alleged ‘ethnic’ conflict, about redressing minority grievances and addressing legitimate aspirations. Through the three decades of the conflict, the political upheavals, regime changes and ideological shifts, the ups and downs of the political fortunes of one community or another, one factor has received scant attention in political commentary, or else has been tainted so much with the ethnic brush of political comment to render it invisible. Class. Let me be more concrete. ‘The poor’.

Sure, we have the trade unions with their grievances, their agitation, their threats and even acts of sabotage. We have the JVP saluting old Marxist-Leninist slogans and student activists spouting venom about the capitalist class and of course Kumar David and Wickramabahu Karunaratne alluding to capitalism and its ills. All this is peripheral in the broader political discourse.

Let’s face it: we are more concerned with issues of democracy, level playing fields for communities, structures that yield better governance as more appropriate representation, more transparency and accountability. I mentioned this on two occasions to two people, Prof. Carlo Fonseka and Jayantha Seneviratne, the former a long-time member of the LSSP and the latter who made a career for a while out of marketing Chandrika’s infamous ‘political package’.

I told Prof Carlo that all the self-labelled leftists in the rush to embrace minoritarian politics and other social causes (and thereby extend the validity of the ‘leftist’ tag) had happily abandoned ‘class’ but that I still critique capitalism (even though these leftists call me all kinds of nasty names such as ‘Sinhala Buddhist chauvinist’, ‘extremist’ and ‘war monger’). Prof. Carlo smiled and said, ‘yes, and I appreciate’.

Jayantha, when I put it to him that the leftists are operating as though class does not matter, said ‘it doesn’t’.

Doesn’t it though? Ranil Wickremesinghe has said that there is no king, but that under a UNP government everyone would be king. Silly. Kings are kings because there are subjects. The rich are rich because the poor exist. And vice versa of course. The same goes for the powerful and the powerless. Even in the neo-liberal formulations there is ‘labour’ (they fight shy of using ‘class’). I have myself tended to footnote the class factor in my commentaries and I now admit that while a certain privileging of issues is inevitable this does not justify the neglect of a factor as important as ‘class distinction’.

I was alerted to this when I received an email from Amsterdam a little over a month ago. My friend underlined the class-thread that is distinct (though ignored) in the overall fabric called social process. He cited a couple of examples.  

"The common struggle for citizenship rights and dignity for all will help everyone especially the poor. As it is, the notion of citizenship rights in Lanka is a joke. The police torture suspects if they are poor, Sinhala or Tamil. The first falsely accused torture victim I encountered was a slum Tamil Catholic girl. The accusers were rich well connected Sinhalese Catholics. The IP (crimes) who arrested her was a Muslim. His fellow-torturer was Sinhala Buddhist sergeant. In my second big case the victim was a 30 year old Buddhist woman illegally arrested kept overnight and tortured by pushing a water hose inside her vagina. She was an SLFP Samurdhi worker. (this was after the UNP won the 2001 election). The Catholic (NGO) SEDEC in Kandy (affiliated to AHRC, Hong Kong) came forward on their own to provide legal assistance for a HR case. Suddenly SEDEC dropped the case and the lawyer provided by AHRC did not turn up in court. Later it came out that the brother of the priest in charge of SEDEC, Kandy was an high profile UNP-er from Kegalle and the case was an embarrassment because the UNP Minister of Women’s Affairs was from Wariyapola and the abduction took place on Women’s Day.  

What sense of citizenship and of rights accruing from them do even the ordinary Sinhala poor and powerless have? What does carrying a Lankan passport mean to all those women of all ethnicities toiling in the Middle East?  

I am convinced that there are a million similar stories that never get articulated, talked about and congeal into political projects. Just consider this for example: it was the poor who fought the LTTE, it was they who lost their limbs, lost their lives. During the last three years, people had to tighten their belts. In the national interest, they were told. Who really tightened their belts? The super rich? No. The poor.

The same with the LTTE cadres. The rich were living it up abroad, goading their poorer brethren to fight. And die. It is reported that some 10,000 persons living in Welfare Centres in Chundikulam have managed to leave these places without the knowledge of those running them. How did they do it? The allegation is that they bribed their way out. With what? Money! They either had the money or they had friends and family who could provide it.

Who dies during election violence? The wealthy? The powerful? No, the ‘rank-and-file’. The poor.
Quite apart from such deprivations, we have to take note of the fact that the structure of political and economic power and yes, even the structures of justice and law-enforcement, are skewed against the poor.

My friend and former colleague at the Island, C.A. Chandraprema, put it well when I ran into him last week. ‘Do you think Tissainayagam, had he been rich, would have ended up with what he got? No machang, the Tamil community would have moved heaven and earth to get him out.’ Yes, regardless of the legitimacy of detention, charge, judicial process and determination, we can’t get over the fact that J.S. Tissainayagam was not wealthy. Rs. 50,000 is peanuts for the usual NGO operative. Only a man desperately in need of money would withdraw the amount the moment it was sent into the relevant bank account.

If you are not convinced, ask yourself how it so happened that J.S. Tissainayagam got sentenced to 20 years of RI for being untruthful in what he wrote, for inciting communal disharmony (largely a subjective determination) and accepting money from a terrorist outfit, while George Master and Daya Master who were in the thick of the LTTE get released on bail. I am not convinced that this difference came from a certain refusal to ‘repent’ on the part of Tissainayagam and a willingness to cooperate on the part of Daya and George.

Tissa had an edge, though. He wrote in English. His case was taken up internationally by the Eelam Lobby as well as its cheer-boys. He still lost and I am not convinced that this was purely because he didn’t have a case. But imagine a poor Tamil (or Sinhala) boy or girl held for some petty infringement of the law or worse, was being detained on grounds of patently false accusations. I am sure there are hundreds of thousands of such cases. Do we know a single name? No. Is anyone agitating for their immediate release? No.

It is in this context that the largely abandoned struggle for meaningful citizenship rights acquires or ought to acquire privileged position in the political discourse. It will not end poverty or alter the structures of exploitation, but it will make things easier for the poor. At any rate, the issue of class and the politics that are consequent to the condition of class structure will not leave us. If we are to be a united nation, a nation that we can be proud of, then we cannot privilege certain citizenship anomalies over others. ‘Class’ is something we have to return to, especially now that the ‘ethnic’ in our politics is showing signs of dying a deserved and long overdue death.

*First published in the Sunday Island, September 13, 2009




Anonymous said...

Class is and was a system of exploitation for us, and the users would loath to part with it. Feeds ego and its a life struggle of moving to the upper or hanging in there once the moving is done. Interesting to note that Buddha’s teachings in Sathpurisa Sutra seems to have ‘influenced’ the concepts of egalitarianism in those developed countries.