26 December 2014

The R, L and H of rebellion

In 1971 a determined set of young people sought to overthrow the then Government, secure the commanding heights of the state and establish a revolutionary social order led by workers and peasants, a Lankan version of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.  They failed.  In retrospect the words ‘idealists’ and ‘romantics’ are used to describe the move, dubbed as an adventure by some and as a CIA-sponsored exercise to overthrow a progressive government. 

The truth of various assertions can be debated forever of course.  Interesting as that may be, our purpose here is different.  The insurrectionists led by Rohana Wijeweera belonged to the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) of People’s Liberation Front.   They called themselves Marxists.  They were inspired as much by Lenin as by Mao.  They were referred to as ‘che-guvera kaarayo’ (i.e. a group inspired by the revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara, who was born in Argentina, fought alongside Fidel Castro to make a revolution in Cuba, fought also in the Congo and died fighting in Bolivia). 

The men sported beards, whether it was out of choice or because they were too busy fighting to shave we don’t know.  Che and Fidel were both bearded as were many of the Cuban revolutionaries.  Whisker-solidarity, perhaps?  Che was and still is a revolutionary icon, both for deed and word.  He was known by self-styled revolutionaries and by ordinary people as well.  The tag ‘Cheguverakaarayo’ had some logic, then.  That’s where it stopped though.  In terms of method, there was very little commonality between the JVP insurrection of 1971 and the Cuban revolution of 1959.  

 And yet, a common mistake that would-be rebels make is replication.  Sure, they’ll add the qualifier ‘adjusted to local context’ to their blueprint.  You see, there’s mileage to be got from piggybacking on revolutionary icons.  ‘Sri Lanka’s Lenin,’ (or Mao, or Fidel or Ho Chi Minh or Malcolm X or Gandhi) in a different time might sound more alluring than say Ranasinghe Ramanayake,  Deshan Matthews or Guruparan Ramakrishna.  Serious rebels, on the other hand, would recognize the utility value of pinning heroic brands to berets (also brands, by the way, thanks to Che) and flags, but would go further, study theory as well as example.  And will go beyond paying lip service to icons.

There’s only so much that we can take from a rebellion that has taken place in a different place and in a different time.  Just like water does not have a constant form, political engagement never happens in identical contexts.    The circumstances are always different and moreover are constantly changing.  There are lessons to draw from but it is a big risk to use any successful revolution as a blueprint.  This is where a lot of Marxist-Leninists got it dead wrong.  Russian of 1917 was not Sri lanka of 1917 and not Sri Lanka of 2014 either.  Russia of 1917 was Russia of 1917, nothing else. 

And so, if you venture into Dehiattakandiya expecting to encounter something that Mao Zedong faced during the Chinese Revolution, you are going to be disappointed.  It will not be the Little Red Book, the Communist Manifesto or the Bolivian Diaries that will show you the pathways to the concerns of people, their anxieties, their hopes and strengths, their revolutionary readiness etc., but they themselves.  And they won’t say it in the language of your choice.  They won’t use terminology you are familiar with.   But they will tell you their story, if you are patient enough and humble enough. 

There are many ways to be a leader, many ways to be rebellious.  There’s knowledge to be gained through the study of those who came before, there’s knowledge to be shed by listening to those who fight with you and in whose name you want to fight. 

In the end, the best persons to tell you about the territories you have to fight on are those who live on the particular tract of land and who make and break it.  Local people.  ‘Land,’ here, refers not just to something geographical but the ways of doing things, the culture, ways of being and thinking, ways of believing, the no-no things that are not always said but which count and which can make the difference between success and disaster. 

There are two things to remember here.  The rebel would do well to listen.   Humility alone gives ears.  

‘R’, then, is also for replicability.  The size of the ‘R’ is determined by the ‘L’ which stands for things ‘local’.    The ‘L’ can only be ascertained with ‘H’ and that stands for ‘humility’.

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

Other articles in this series