26 February 2015

Are you ready to shut down your petrol shed?

This is the twenty second in a series of articles on rebels and rebellion written for the FREE section of 'The Nation'. Scroll to the end for other articles in this series.  'FREE' is dedicated to youth and youthfulness.

A single individual is not a front.  This is why, when you take on forces beyond your individual strength, you try to identify people who share your views, pool resources, organize and then move together to bring down governments, transform the social order and revolutionize ways of thinking.  That’s how organizations are born. 

Like all things organizations are formed, they decay and they perish.  One of the greatest and yet one of the least acknowledged dangers that rebels and rebellions face is the fascination with organizations to the point that their preservation is valued more than the objective which brought them into being in the first place.  When this happens, organizations remain but message gets garbled; flags flutter merrily but they lose meaning; slogans get louder but no one knows what the words mean.  Rebels end up clinging to the frills of a cause whose birth and purpose they’ve long since forgotten. 

Here’s a story of an organization which came into being, made some waves for awhile and then ceased to be.  Looking back one might argue that the National Movement Against Terrorism (NMAT) was formed by a set of young people who needed some cause to remain politically relevant rather than an organization that emerged out of shared objectives derived from common objection to a particular state of affairs.  Indeed, in time NMAT became less of an outfit concerned with terrorism than an adjunct organization of a political party.  As time went on NMAT became ‘irrelevant’ as far as the political party was concerned.  Its ‘use by date’ had passed, so to speak.  What had not passed was ‘terrorism’.  What remained was a need to counter terrorism.  And so this discarded, largely name-board organization was handed over to a bunch of young people to do what they would with it.

NMAT did not concern itself with all the problems of society. As one of its key spokesperson put it, ‘NMAT is not a supermarket, it’s more like a petrol shed: our petrol is countering terrorism’.    NMAT was ‘run’ by a group of 5-6 people.  They considered themselves independent of political parties but political parties associated NMAT with the groups it used to be aligned with.  That was key to NMAT’s political strategy.  NMAT didn’t have any resources.  When a poster had to be printed, the members had to beg people to contribute.  They however had good friends, among whom were highly creative art directors in the advertising industry.  Since they identified with the cause they came up with some powerful posters which of course could be put up only in Colombo due to budgetary limitations.

A rival outfit whose political concerns included the need to counter terrorism worried whenever NMAT put up a poster because this party thought that the group the NMAT used to be part of was encroaching on territory.  Naturally, they ‘counter-attacked’.  So they came up with their own poster the following day itself, using the same idea but altering it just enough to avoid being called ‘slogan pickpockets’.  They not only ‘covered’ the NMAT posters but pasted them all over the country.  They were successful in robbing NMAT of its thunder.  The message, however, went to places the NMAT could never hope to reach. 

So someone else took the flag.  The flag was still held high.  The organization disappeared but the objective won a larger embrace.  A couple of years later one of those NMAT activists was asked, ‘What happened to NMAT…we don’t see any posters, there’s no noise?’  He answer, ‘they changed their leader.’ 

A second question was asked: ‘So who is the new leader?’  The answer was soft and was accompanied by an impish grin: ‘Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’.  Laughs all around.  A couple of years later, there were no terrorists to be countered.  Nothing to be ‘against’.   The petrol shed had nothing to ‘sell’.  It shut down. 

Other articles in this series