The Rajpal Abeynayake Column                     By Rajpal Abeynayake  

Seeing it now, and not in retrospect
Sri Lankan society - Colombo society in particular -- has this inability to see itself in perspective until much after the event. This is why people now write of the year 1987, and say that "events overtook us'' for instance, while we were huddled in our seminar rooms in the OPA or the Foundation Institute which most of Colombo's confused punditry call home.

It is very much after we weave ourselves into a tangled web that the reality of what was happening dawns on all. For instance, that the Provincial Councils system was called a "sellout of the nation'', when in fact even those who fought tooth and nail not to be in those Provincial Councils now call these Provincial Councils home.

Fourteen years from now, the pundits will have their own versions of what happened in 2003, and 2002 before that. But retrospect has its own charms, but is otherwise quite useless. A friend, a meticulous keeper of a diary, said that a diary helps him realise at least ten years later how he wasted his time today. (I was tempted to say, "yes, ten years later, when you are wasting even more of your time you will be saying that.'')

It's better to see 2003 in perspective now, at least to understand how we are wasting our time, so that some amends can be made while we still can have a go at it. One strand of opinion that I hear in the seminar circuit these days is one that needs no special airing here. This is that the Wickremesinghe government is being led, that it has absolutely no initiative, and that it is capitulating entirely to the LTTE diktat because it sees no other way of clinging onto power.

Whether you or me or anybody else agrees with that version of current events is another matter, but this is one view that pervades the large op-ed spaces and the even larger spaces of cooled air in our seminar rooms.

But in tandem with this, is another view that is now heard regularly, if only in staccato fashion, but nevertheless quite clearly. It is the one from the fringe, which is that even the most ardently committed to the rights of the Sinhala majority now concede that there should be some measure of devolution of power to the Tamil minority. In other words, that there should be a general acceptance of the fact that the Tamils in Tamil speaking areas should be entitled to run their own affairs.

As one furiously anti-LTTE gentleman himself put it in his own evocative way "if H. L. de Silva was not around - - we would have had to invent him.'' Meaning of course that it is only a rare bird such as H. L. de Silva who would argue that the Tamils have no right of self-governance whatsoever, in their areas, even within the territorial space of Sri Lanka.

So, while on the one hand there is a feeling of unease about the peace and a sense that the Wickremesinghe government is waltzing to the tune of the Tigers, there is a softening of positions of some sort among the majority elite, even though one needs to perhaps leave the JVP aside from that calculation at least for the moment.

Even with gritted teeth and a grimace, we have gone through the probable reasons for the beginning of unrest among the Tamil youth in Jaffna. With a battle going on in the backdrop, guessing the reason for this violence been a necessary chore for even the most indifferent among us.

Though there is no agreement about the exact events that might have precipitated it, there seems now to be at least some agreement on the fact that there was a reason for the alienation of the Tamil youth in the 1970s. Apart from the diehards who say that theirs is a virulent strain of pan-Tamilian nationalism imported from some ideological hothouse propagating Chola imperialism in some alleyway in Tamilnadu, most others agree that there was indeed some real misunderstanding between Tamil youth and Sinhala ruling elite.

Reading Isaac Deutscher recently, I was struck by the way this Israeli leftist talks of the Palestinian-Israeli problem by way of an analogy. He says: "A man once jumped from the top floor of his burning house in which many of his family members had already perished. He managed to save his life, but as he was falling to the ground, he hit a person that was standing down below, and broke the person's legs and arms.

The jumping man had no choice, but to the man with the broken limbs he was the cause of his misfortune. If both behaved rationally they would not become enemies. The man who escaped from the blazing house, having recovered, would have tried to help and control the other sufferer, and the latter might then have realised that he was the victim of circumstances over which neither of them had control. But look what happens when the people behave irrationally.

The injured man blames the other for his misery and swears to make him pay for it. The other man, afraid of the crippled man's revenge, insults him, kicks him and beats him whenever they meet. The kicked man again swears revenge and is punched and punished. The bitter enmity, so whimsical at first, hardens and comes to overshadow the whole existence of both men and poison their minds.''

To Deutscher, the falling man there was the European Jewry, escaping the holocaust. The other character represented the Palestinian Arabs who lost their lands to the Jews. "They gaze fondly at the native places which you have taken and you kick them senselessly, but what is the sense of it?'' Desutscher once told an Israeli audience.

Sri Lankan Tamils faced no holocaust (even though 1983 was quite bad) but Sri Lankan Sinhalese, invaded and humiliated by the British who also made use of the minorities as an instrument in their suppression, came out of the colonial condition like the man tumbling from the top floor of that burning house. In the rush, they fell upon the man standing by the house (the Tamil community) breaking his limbs in the process. (Read as Sinhala only in 24 hours etc., and University Standardisation.)

The rift has never healed, and positions, as in the Deutscher example, have congealed. Most people have come around to the view that this senseless fight need not take place any more, especially because the original perpetrators, the outsiders who caused the original problem by 'burning the house' (oppressing the majority community of this country by colonising it) are still arming one side or the other if not both sides, when they are not cheering for peace that is.

Deutscher also said 'from the moment when independence is won, or nearly won, nationalism tends to shed the revolutionary aspect and turn into a retrograde ideology.'' (He cites India and China etc.,) There is retrograde nationalism, or at least a residue of it here in Sri Lanka as well, and though caving into the LTTE is an entirely different subject altogether, it is perhaps time to catch up with the burgeoning reality. Which is that there is an acknowledgment at least at important levels that there is a need for accommodation if there is to be any end to this conflict this time around.

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