07 November 2014

Returning to 'The One in Ten' of 2006

Eight years ago, during my first stint at 'The Nation,' when among other things I wrote the weekly Editorial, I wrote about the British band, UB40 or rather drew from their lyrics to comment on things that were more immediate.  It was a two part editorial, referring to two situations but drawing from the same song: One in Ten.  Someone brought up UB40 in a conversation.  Reminded me of that piece from a different time and a vastly different country.  This is it. 

What if you were one of the one in ten?
Those of you who are old enough or conversant enough with pop music and the politics that meandered in and out of the lyrics might remember the UB40 song ‘One in Ten’.

The name of the band, formed in Birmingham, England in 1978 was derived from a form that the unemployed had to fill during the Thatcher years: Unemployment Benefits, Form 40. The ‘one in ten’ referred to the fact that 10% of the British workforce was unemployed at the time. It is worth quoting, at least in part:  ‘I am the one in ten, a number on a list; I am the one in ten, even though I don’t exist, nobody knows me but I’m always there; a statistic, a reminder of a world that doesn’t care; my arms enfold the dole queue, malnutrition dulls my hair, my eyes are black and lifeless with an underprivileged stare.’

We are living in the year 2006, i.e. 26 years after the song. We are living in Sri Lanka, where the unemployed rate is less than 10%. That ‘one in ten’ is not applicable to us. There is, however, a one-in-ten that is most unfortunately relevant to all of us. It is a statistic, a reminder, an uncomfortable presence decorated with miseries common to all those in that plight. Hang the poetry, let’s get specific here: one in ten of all Muslims in this country is a refugee, is internally displaced. 

It didn’t happen with ‘Muttur’ whichever way you may want to read that two-syllable thing with all the politics, maneuvers, shelling, bloodshed, death, destruction, displacement, chest-thumping, agonizing, what have you. In fact it doesn’t matter when it began. What matters is that the ‘liberators’ so celebrated by a wide-eyed world ethnically cleansed the Jaffna Peninsula of Muslims long before Kosovo demanded that a term be coined for the crime. What matters is that the self-same ‘liberator’ gunned down some 600 Muslims in the Eastern Province while they were at prayer. What matters is that if there were many ways of engaging the security forces in Muttur, the LTTE chose to do it in a way that forced Muslims to flee. What matters is that hundreds were butchered even as they fled. What matters is that this unhappy community has been hounded out of their homes and driven into the hard-to-palate status called IDP by those who have the gumption to complain about ethnic intolerance. 

These people did not flee into a vacuum. They, like more Tamils fleeing a war that Prabhakaran has foisted on them, ran southward. This is an old story. The Muslim traders, when hounded by the Portuguese, found in the Digamadulla District a refuge, thanks to the largesse of King Senarath. All this is true. All this is hardly compensation for our home-grown one-in-ten.  

This war, the one-in-ten demand that we recognize, is not about Tamil vs Sinhala, about a territorial dispute. It is about barbarity and civilization. It is about terrorism and democracy. It is about a thug who cuts a water line to destroy 35,000 acres of paddy and force impoverishment on 15,000 families and when the objective is achieved, releases or claims to have released water for which ‘heroic’ act he wants to be crowned in some capital as a benefactor of humankind. It is about the intolerance of a terrorist and whether or not civilized society wants to have zero-tolerance for terrorism. 

The one-in-ten demands that they be reduced to none-in-ten. Let us remember one thing: if we say and do nothing about this one-in-ten, we would be doing nothing else other than getting on the fast-track to joining them.

Children who will never learn to read
The UB 40 song had this line too: I’m the child that never learns to read, ‘cause no one spared the time’.  There is a child who cannot be allowed to be a number, a child who has a name that we have to remember. Asvini. Say it again and again. Asvini. Asvini. Asvini.

Age: two and a half years. Story: the son of a domestic worker, she had been thrilled because her grandfather, Rasiah, an employee in a restaurant, had bought her a pair of shoes. She wanted to try them out. She wore them as she walked to the bus halt, after kissing her grandpa goodbye. That was all. A bomb set up by the LTTE targeting an ex-MP of the EPDP took her away. For all time. Asvini was a Tamil. So was the intended victim of the bomb. So was the perpetrator of this crime. Something has gone dreadfully wrong somewhere if this is what ‘liberation’ entails. 

Asvini is a child that will never learn to read, because her time was brutally taken away from her, because she was taken before her time.
Asvini was not a Tamil. She was a little girl, a child in fact. In death she testifies to the futility of a struggle whose self-appointed heroes have robbed all meaning from it. That struggle has to be objected to if all it does is produce children who are not allowed to read, ever.