14 November 2014

Dear Rebel, P is (also) for Proportion

Pic by Rukshan Abeywansha
This is the seventh in a series of articles on rebels and rebellion written for the FREE section of 'The Nation'.  'FREE' is dedicated to youth and youthfulness.

More than twenty years ago some undergraduates staged a protest.  This was at the University of Peradeniya.   It was not a major issue but for some reason the student leaders were not able to sort it out with the university authorities through discussion.  The students protested. 

It didn’t seem to have any effect.  Suddenly a first year student got up and said that he will launch a fast unto death.  Some of the senior students calmed him down.  They told him that if such a course of action was chosen for an issue that was relatively trivial, they would have to take the Vice Chancellor hostage if there was a more serious matter to deal with. 

Not too many years before that, i.e. during the turbulence at the end of the eighties, at a meeting of second year students of the same faculty, someone suggested that the entire batch must boycott lectures.  The reason, they said, was that a fellow student of the same batch had been arrested. It was a time when the student leaders wanted the universities closed or at least the academic work disrupted.  Everyone knew this.  Some were brave enough to object to the business of boycotting lectures at the drop of a hat. 

That arrest had taken place a few months earlier and so someone pointed out that it was strange that the proposal had been voiced so late.  Another objected in a different way.

‘There was a time when all the universities would boycott lectures if one student had been arrested.  Later, only the particular university that the arrested student belonged to would boycott.  Then just the particular faculty.  Now you want the batch to boycott.  Next would you want just the roommate to “strike”?’

The criticism was about the direction in which a protest should move.  It was also about something else, something that is relevant to the first case detailed above.  Proportion. 

Dimensions matter.  All the time.  And if you are a rebel you have to be twice as more particular about the length, breadth and depth of things than other political animals, simply because you are by definition on the weaker side of the equation (if you were not, you would have the power to eliminate the cause of your agitation).  Your error gets amplified; that of the enemy can be subdued. 

This doesn’t mean you should not make grand claims of course.  There’s nothing wrong in stating objective.  You are not in this to lose.  You want to win.  You are convinced you can win.  So you go ahead to describe what victory will look like.  Through it all, you have to keep in mind that you are not yet there.  There is distance to be covered, still.  The getting there is never easy. 

Once a self-proclaimed set of revolutionaries put up posters all over the island vowing to kill 10 (or was it 20) members of a soldier’s family for every ‘revolutionary’ killed.  That was the beginning of the end.   The Army, which didn’t seem at all enthusiastic about crushing the insurrection, got very serious about things. 

That was an extreme example of course.  But in general, proportions matter.  Size matters.  You need to know the size of the enemy and also the sizes of its constituent parts so that you can identify its weaker elements and attack them.  You need to know your size too.  There’s often a gap between pledge to act and action itself. 

Not too long ago, some brave young people wanted to replicate the ‘Arab Spring’ in Sri Lanka. They called it ‘Colombo Spring’.  They probably believed all the lies people said about social media playing a key role in the ‘Arab Spring’.  So they took the matter on Facebook.  Lots of ‘likes’ and ‘shares’.  Lots of ‘I will attend’.  No one turned up. 

So make a lot of noise.  It’s good to be heard.  But remember if you make too much noise or rather the noise is way out of proportion to numbers and will, you will find deliverability a big problem.  ‘Big on talk,’ people will sneer.  Worse, the ‘comrades’ will lose faith in the leaders and in themselves.  It’s good to have vision, but one must remember that most things get tested on the ground.  ‘The Ground’ is made of dimensions.  There are proportions.  They matter.