14 March 2015

Know your comrades

This is the twenty fourth 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.

Long ago there was a medical student attending the University of Peradeniya.  He did his thing.  He was a gifted individual.  He had lots of interests.  He loved music.  All kinds of music.  He was a voracious reader.  He read all kinds of books, in Sinhala and English.  He could talk about literature and music, films and history.  He had interesting things to say about philosophy too.  He was a sports fan too.  On top of all this he was one of the top young chess players in the country. 

This medical student was not interested in politics.  He wanted to become a doctor and wanted to specialize in surgery.  The late 1980s were quite violent and the universities shut down frequently.  Now in general medical students are among the most lethargic when it comes to student politics.  They just did their thing.  They were even vilified as being selfish.  But at that time, medical students had a fight on their hands.  They wanted the Government to shut down what was then referred to as the Private Medical College (the North Colombo Medical College).  They claimed that students of inferior standing (in terms of A/L results) were able to become doctors just because they were rich. 

Radicalization can happen any time.  Random things can radicalize young people who are otherwise focused on their studies and careers.  The issue of the private medical college radicalized a lot of medical students of the time.    Fighting perceived injustice opened their eyes to other injustices and other struggles.  In time some of them all but abandoned the issue of the private medical college and committed themselves to broader national struggles. 

We don’t know if the medical student mentioned here was radicalized thus.  All that is known is that when the universities were closed for a long time, the student movement had to find different ways of mobilizing undergraduates for what they believed was a struggle to liberate the nation from all kinds of oppression.  So they set up student action committees all over the island.  Our medical student was in charge of Gampola.  We don’t know how he first got involved or what he did to make the movement decide that he was the best person to lead undergraduates who lived in that area.   All we know is that he was in charge. 

All we know is that those he mobilized were not exactly political animals.  They certainly didn’t identify themselves as rebels.  It is not even known if they identified with the cause the way the leaders of the movement did.  What is important here is that this regional student leader could get a lot of things done in Gampola with very little resources and what was essentially a ragtag ‘army’ of activists at a time when there were half a dozen vigilante groups as well as the Police and Army ‘cracking down’ on suspected rebels.  Undergraduates were particularly marked.  Young people were literally picked off from the streets and ‘disappeared’.

No one in the Gampola ‘committee’ was ‘picked up’ during the time this medical student was in charge.  He explained, years later:  ‘I knew that not everyone was committed to the struggle.  I knew that those who identified with the cause had different levels of commitment.  I knew how far each one was ready to go.  I knew what their other commitments were.  So whenever I gave anyone a task I made sure it was within those limits.  It was always “a small thing” for the particular person.  I never pushed them to the point where they had to ask themselves “is this worth it?” Risk was something that never crossed their minds, I made sure of this.’

He had to pay for this.  In trying to ensure that his comrades operated in a low risk environment, he made himself vulnerable.  He was arrested.  He was beaten up.  He still thinks it is a miracle that he was not disappeared.

There must be better ways of organizing a group, i.e. where ensuring comrades are safe does not end up with the group losing its leader.  What is important here, however, is that the leader had obviously taken the trouble to understand those under his command.  He clearly knew the dimensions of their individual concerns, he knew their constraints, he knew what their abilities were and he probably had a decent assessment of how courageous each one was. 

If you are a rebel and you have people under you, it is important to know them.  Every little detail counts.  Comrade A just might be better at executing Part 7 of Plan C than Comrade B, but you will not know this unless you have intimate understanding of the skills, thought-patterns, courage and commitment of both comrades. 

You have to know your comrades.  And that’s not about knowing names and addresses.  It is far more complex.  It can make a big difference.  

Other articles in this series