22 May 2020

Let's talk about 'defeatism' (for a change)

Many celebrated writers flocked to Spain in 1936 to defend the Spanish Republic. Among them was the poet W H Auden, who served as an ambulance driver. Auden wrote ‘Spain, 1939’ as a call to arms. This is how the poem ended:

The stars are dead. 

The animals will not look.

We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, and

History to the defeated

May say Alas but cannot help or pardon.

It has been claimed that chancing on a copy of a book that carried this poem, Auden had highlighted in some form the last line and written a short comment, ‘this is not true.’ Flag that for now. First let me share some thoughts that were posted in social media platforms regarding the 11th anniversary of the defeat of terrorism in Sri Lanka.

Here’s the first: ‘Our country ended; a propitious moment to leave the past behind and to unite as Sri Lankans. Instead an orgy of triumphalist majoritarianism was unleashed and today it has been given a new lease of life. O Sri Lanka, when will you ever learn?’ [maybe the semi-colon was a typo]. Here’s the second: ‘It's 11 years today, 18 May, since the war was won. But Sri Lanka is still to win the peace. Still divided on ethnic lines. Still spouting racism. The State still turning a blind eye. When will #lka stop bleeding & burning & start healing? #unity #WeAreAllSriLankans #SriLanka.' And the third: ‘Eleven years have passed since the war ended. The Tamil question is where it was. Be a Tamil. Then you’ll see.’ [translated from Sinhala].

Triumphalist majoritarianism. We’ve heard that before, together and separately. ‘Haven’t won the peace,’ is frequently observed. ‘Still divided on ethnic lines,’ this too. ‘Spouting racism,’ yes, that too. And then of course the ‘Tamil Question.’

Now the Tamil Question remains unasked. Those who seem to swear by that term are hard pressed to offer it without frills, i.e., exaggerated grievances, wild aspirations and creative historiography. And we are told, ‘Be a Tamil, and you will see.’ I don’t know if there’s a defining/single ‘Tamil’ understanding of ‘Tamil Question.’ However if people are telling me ‘look, I have an issue that I will not tell you and if you can’t figure out what I have refused to state, THAT, friend is the problem,’ I am certainly not going to waste my time worrying about it. 

So we are told we haven’t won the peace. Now, what is this ‘peace’? Yes, there’s bleeding and burning. Think ‘Easter Sunday Attacks’ and the ‘National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ).’ Such things are not mentioned. We have ‘majoritarianism’ flagged. We have ‘no-peace’ tossed into the discourse. We have ‘bleeding and burning,’ but no mention of the NTJ and no mention of rabid communalism and celebration of terrorism by Tamil nationalists. And so the implication is that it is the majority community, the Sinhala Buddhists, who are doing the blood-letting, burning and racism-spouting. No one else. Clever, isn’t it? 

I think it is clever. You say ‘please let’s be united’ and want everyone to chant ‘we are all Sri Lankans,’  even as you directly or indirectly ignore the enemies of peace from other communities and it’s a peace in which the majority community is footnoted or left out altogether.  Maybe that’s the ideal unity-formula for some people. Maybe that’s what would make Sri Lanka ‘one.’ Well, that’s an opinion and I’m ok with opinions that are different to mine. I am not obliged to purchase the same, of course. And, when things are kept vague, I have the right to say ‘dude, that’s an incomplete narrative and quite mischievous, to put it mildly.’    

So let me ask again, what is this peace we haven’t won? Maybe the answer lies not in any broad understanding of that word but a turn of events which pleases the complainants. Theoretically there can be all kinds of peace formulas. One might say ‘Eelam’ is what would deliver sustainable peace. Another might say ‘federalism.’ A third could say, ‘a full erasure of citizenship anomalies,’ adding that territory based ‘equalizing’ does not obtain from ground realities when we consider geographic, demographic, historic and economic factors. 

There was a time when we were asked to swallow a pill called ‘you can’t defeat the tigers.’ That complement of medicines included ‘best to let them have the North and East.’ These (quack) doctors did their best to undermine all efforts to eliminate the LTTE militarily. ‘No one wins in a war,’ we were told. ‘We have to stop the blood letting.’ Yes, they said all that but didn’t utter a word about the LTTE’s blood-lust. They saw nothing wrong in an entire country being held to ransom by a gun-toting set of thugs. Their ‘peace-equation’ included an terrorist who never once entertained any thought of laying down arms.

None of that happened. The LTTE were defeated. It brought an end to blood-letting. And end to death, dismemberment, destruction and displacement. It ended fear. It ended child abductions, forced conscription, hostage-taking (for purposes of shielding terrorists), pilfering of food and medicines intended for civilians, suicide attacks, political assassinations, the gagging of Tamil politicians and all the terrible acts perpetrated by security personnel upon orders or on their own steam (a lot of which we saw in the 1980s and 1990s).

May 18, 2009 marked ‘the end’ of all that. Something to celebrate, surely? But no, it was not the outcome that some people preferred. So the sour losers did the next best thing. They misidentified the festivities. The relief and the outpouring of joy at life being effectively divested of all the horrors that armed conflagration yields, was called triumphalism. No. Majoritarian triumphalism. It’s as though war-end did not allow any of these ‘mourners’ to breathe easier. So they had to say something bad. And they found that misnaming was useful. ‘The Sinhalese consider it a victory over Tamils,’ they claimed. Sure, there would have been Sinhalese who saw it that way. But that’s just part of the story. ‘The Tamils feel they lost,’ they also add. Sure, that sentiment can be understood. Part of the story, again.

But outside that cheap caricaturing, there is probably serious political and ideological dismay. The political project of destroying the unitary character of the state had failed. Obviously for those who advocated this, it was not a moment of triumph but defeat. They were absolutely crestfallen. They had reason to mourn. It was a moment of defeat and defeatism was the inevitable affliction that marked their lives. Naturally, they could not but see ‘triumphalism’ as the other half of the world of flawed binaries they had constructed. 

And so, we return to Auden. ‘Spain, 1939’ is a wonderful poem. It is a call to arms, whichever arms they may be. A rebel’s anthem. Auden, then, believed the Spanish Republic would prevail over the fascists. It did not. The last line might have haunted him. Some say his ideological positions were transformed later. I like to think that when he wrote (as reported) ‘this is wrong,’ he meant that there is no finality in ‘defeat.’ The defeated need not think ‘cannot help.’ They need not seek pardon. The discourse continues and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Without guns. That’s the better way.  And if it is to continue, then it is best that it is honest, that half-truths are not marketed as though they are bible-quotes, that categories are not deliberately misnamed and that sour losers resist the urge to hide their defeatism by calling those they believe have won ‘Triumphalist.’

This article was first published in the DAILY MIRROR [May 21, 2020]

Notes for a manifesto: reconciliation

Ninety four percent voted for 'one country, one law,' so there!
Taking ownership of reconciliation: truths, half-truths and humbuggery