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On thinking past Arundhati Roy’s rant

By Malinda Seneviratne

(April 05, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) When Arundhati Roy talks like a Karunanidhi, then you know the world is pretty much screwed up. A lot has been written by way of rejoinder on her ill-researched rant on Sri Lanka "This is not a war on terror. It is a racist war on all Tamils". Nothing is served by repeating the cogent arguments penned by writers from around the world taking Roy to task for being lazy and ignorant.

What is sad is that Arundhati Roy by being lazy and ignorant has compromised the veracity of everything she has written on the many political projects she has embraced with so much passion in the past decade or so. She was quite a voice for the more or less voiceless. Her piece on Sri Lanka has made it possible for every tyrant and every tyranny she has taken issue with to rubbish her and the particular struggles she chooses to espouse.

Over the past few weeks we have seen other such voices saying nasty things about Sri Lanka. I believe the Government has taken some steps to invite foreign journalists to see things for themselves. Not enough. Every small-minded, self-appointed god/goddess of things big and small, lies included, who think fit to believe terrorist propaganda should be invited to visit the IDPs, listen to their stories and put together their stories (which should be recorded of course to ensure that their brains, so ready to be twisted by every two-bit propagandist, do not extrapolate beyond the reasonable).

The cry now is for a ‘humanitarian’ pause, a ‘humanitarian’ ceasefire. What kind of world the advocates of such measures live in, I really don’t know, but I would think it must be several million light years away from the city called ‘Reality’. The Government could, I suppose, humour these people. It is easy. All the Government has to do is to declare another 48 hour period where all operations are stopped. The civilians are now trapped in a piece of land less than 10 square kilometers in extent. Given the geography of the said area, it would be a maximum of an hour’s walk from any point within this zone to safety. The Good Samaritans can line up on the boundary, arm in arm, singing ‘Give peace a chance’ or any other song of their choice, welcome them with a flower of their choice, and accompany them to relevant IDP facilities. I would wager that none of these do-gooders will dare put their money where their mouths are. It is one thing to rant, but when the rubber hits the road, wild conjecture meets hard fact and the true dimensions of ‘humanitarian concern’ are revealed.

There will be other Arundhati Roys of course. It is a relatively cost-effective way to enhance image. Pick a war, paint terrorist as rebel, delete ‘fact sheets’ and you have a heart-warming story and you feel good all over. Sure it hurts us and our valiant attempts to rid our country of the terrorist menace and that’s why the Roys of this world must be countered at every turn. I believe we are doing this far more effectively than it was done 10 years ago. We could have done better and had that been the case, Arundhati Roy would not have had occasion to add this piece to what I now sincerely believe is her rant-list. But then it’s all spilt milk, isn’t it?

Two things need to be done, I believe. First, the lie should be countered with truth, without leaving out the uncomfortable parts, for no war is ever executed with clinical precision and no IDP camp is the rural equivalent of say a gated community in Los Angeles, California. More importantly, we have to stop letting others define for us our reality and to the extent possible resist being forced to inhabit that reality-version they foist on us. This I believe is the unfinished part of the independence project.

Such an exercise will necessarily take years and has many aspects to it. For too long we have found it sufficient to assert ourselves in relation to some threat, be it the LTTE, Western imperialism or India’s hegemonic thrusts. Arguably such assertion is necessary, given the character of the threat, but will remain inadequate if that is all we do.

The task is to take on bravely the question, ‘Who are we?’ When the war is done and the LTTE is no longer the threat it used to be, when there are no more suicide attacks to worry about, and when resolution involves matching articulated grievance and aspiration to history, geography, demography and political milieu that can be substantiated, we will still have on our hands this unanswered question.

There will be all kinds of people telling us "stop thinking ‘Sinhala’ or ‘Tamil’, think ‘Sri Lankan’". That is not the way to go. Erase ‘Sinhala’ and ‘Tamil’ and supplant these with a flesh-less ‘Sri Lankan’ and we will be a nation without history, culture, civilizational referent and meaning. In the alternative exercise of revisiting our ‘Sinhalaness’ or ‘Tamilness’, there will certainly be encounters with rights, ownerships, historical privilege and so on. We will all come across the questions ‘Who made us a nation?’ and ‘What are the sources of our national ethos?’ (if we have one) and we will come to realize that the "one ethnicity – one vote" kind of formulation is patently misleading and historically untenable. History is version, we will realize, but we will all have to acknowledge that this doesn’t sanction fantasy.

It might be better in view of recent history to forget such things and move on, but I believe that’s just sweeping things under the carpet. Good for the moment, but bad for the future. It is important in the mish-mash that is inevitable in historical process to glean out determinant cultural strands. A tapestry is made of many colours but there are always some which dominate, give shape and character. The sources of such threads have to be excavated if we are to truly and usefully locate ourselves at this historical moment. This is a necessary precondition for charting a future, even one which seeks a gradual dissolve of (perhaps) disparate identities in a homogenous ‘Sri Lankan’.

Most important in this exercise, I believe, is to consciously stop ourselves from slipping into a game where we, as communities, try to determine our slice of source. Instead we have to investigate our Sinhalaness, our Tamilness, our Moorness and so on; that which is best in our particular cultures and that which we ought to be ashamed about. In short, it has to be an honest engagement or not at all.

This is an archaeology that goes beyond artifact. It will take us to the temple or kovil, the literatures that have nourished our languages, the personalities that played defining roles in our history and the events that tested our ancestors and ourselves, the decisions that were proven right and those that we have been forced to regret, the times we chose silence when we ought to have raised our voices and the times we spoke but ought to have remained silent.

So no, we are not going to give Arundhati Roy a break, not least of all because we owe neither her nor India any favours. At the same time, we should not give ourselves a break, even after finishing off the LTTE. Especially not, I might add. Complacency is not the privilege of those who choose to protect the nation they love and the society that has with the greatest difficulty sustained them and contributed to who they are.

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance journalist who edits the monthly magazine Spectrum. He can be contacted at malinsene@gmail.com
-Sri Lanka Guardian

1 comment

Fran said...

I am not surprised by the stance taken by Arundathi
on Prabhakaran as a 'folk hero' of sorts. She is looking at the Tamil Nadu scene of some 5 Million Tamil Dalits (Untouchables)...
3,000 yrs of being Tamil Dalits is a long time. She is hoping that the ltte's ruthlessness will provoke Tamil Nadu into eradicating the caste menace there.

Ms Navi Pillai of the UNHR said that she is opposed to "INSTITUTIONALIZED DISCRIMINATION" right at the outset of her tenure in the UN. She too has similar hopes like Arundathi.

But why fight it out in Lanka ? LANKA HAS NO TAMIL DALITS ! This is a off 'shore fighting', and will not bear the expected results in Tamil Nadu.
The battle has to be taken to its source and fought legally, without violence.

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