The Big Lie
Marx once said that “in all ideology”… “men and their circumstances appear upside down as in a camera obscura”. Professor Charles P. Sarvan thinks that the Sinhalese are fascists or pro-fascist. Writing in a Colombo paper last Sunday (‘The Sinhalese: Blasé!’ Nov 21st, 2010), and earlier in a British publication called Confluence last May, Sarvan explicitly attempts to portray the Sinhala people as similar to the Germans who supported Nazism. Though the choice of the photograph accompanying last Sunday’s article may not have been the good professor’s personal pick, the piece is aptly illustrated — given the content and argument- with but a single picture, that of Adolf Hitler. Get the picture? (Or as Tarzie Vittachi’s quip went, “get the poto”?)
There may be much wrong with Sinhala society, but if any community on the island bears a resemblance to German society in its compliance with fascism it is surely not the Sinhalese. The editor of the Penguin/Pelican Reader’s Guide to Fascism, a standard text on the subject, Emeritus Professor Walter Laqueur, wrote of the Tamil Tigers in ‘The New Terrorism’, that â€œin respect of its ruthlessness and fanaticism,[he] could find only one parallel: the fascist movements of Europe in the 1920s and 30s”. John Burns, the Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times journalist described Prabhakaran as â€œthe Pol Pot of South Asia”. Several months ago, The Economist referred to the LTTE as â€œalmost classically fascist”. Robert D Kaplan refers to the “Tamil Tigers, among the post World War II era’s most ruthless and bloodthirsty organisations”.
Each one of these characterisations may be contested, but the cumulative conclusion is unavoidable, namely that the Tigers were the closest that the island came to a fascist, fascistic or fascistoid movement, and in so far as the preponderant tendency within Tamil society, both in Sri Lanka and the Diaspora was to support or excuse them, then it is that society that most closely approximated German society at the time it fell under the sway of the Nazis. As bad as Colombo administrations can get, I have yet to read of a single one described by any analyst of international repute as “among the post World War II era’sÂ most ruthless and bloody” or as paralleled only by the European fascist movements of the 1920s and 30s”!
It certainly wasn’t the Sinhalese who supported this monstrosity, and made excuses for it even when it murdered Nehru’s grandson or M. Tiruchelvam’s Harvard educated son. It is not the Sinhalese who displayed such collective delusion and blind hubris as to think that a movement which murdered a former Indian Prime Minister, several Sri Lankan leaders and hijacked a Chinese ship killing several Chinese sailors, would not have to pay a terrible price at the end of the day. It was however the Sinhalese who defeated this fascist movement. It was also the Sinhalese who defeated a Southern equivalent, Wijeweera. If Professor Sarvan wishes to preach to any collective which resembles Germany marching in the wake of a fascist movement, he should look much closer home.
None of this means though, that the Tamil people should be treated oppressively, unequally, unjustly or ungenerously. In the first place there were those who courageously dissented in different ways against the pro-fascist loyalties of the bulk of Tamil society. While some, like K. Pathmanabha, Rajani Tiranagama and Kethesh Loganathan have been murdered by the Tigers, others are still around, ranging from Devananda, Siddharthan, Sritharan, Karuna and Pillaiyan to Prof Ratnajeevan Hoole and Dr Mutukrishna Sarvanandan. More importantly, as Judge Christie Weeramantry, one the most distinguished and enlightened Sri Lankans of our time, wrote in a two part piece as the war ended, the Tamil people should be treated not in the unwise manner that the Germans were after World War 1, but in the humane, generous and sagacious manner that they were after WW2 (the Marshall Plan etc). There was no question however, of who was playing the defeated Germans who had supported fascism and lost.
Whatever is wrong with Sri Lankan society today, it is neither a matter of ‘fascism’ nor the lesser offense of Mahinda Rajapakse being a Sinhala replay of Prabhakaran. No serious analyst can equate the Tigers, still less Nazism, with the Lankan State or southern society at any level: system or process, formation or project. Rajapakse hasn’t declared the Tamils a disease that has vitiated the majority race, as did Hitler in Mein Kampf, torched the local Reichstag, shattered the opposition through lethal violence and murdered his political opponents (as Prabhakaran did his). The silly syllogism seems to go like this: â€œAdolf Hitler was a moustachioed leader who assumed power through the electoral path, Mahinda is a moustachioed elected leader, ergo Mahinda is an Adolf Hitler (or is Hitlerian)”.Â It is accompanied by a sister syllogism: â€œthe Germans supported Hitler, the Sinhalese support Mahinda whom we have deemed a Hitler, ergo the Sinhalese are akin to the Germans who supported Hitler fascism”.
The main negatives and problems in Sri Lanka today reside in the domains of political culture and discourse. Here too, aesthetic aversion cannot substitute for comparative evaluation and comprehension of content. Historicism, antiquarianism and quasi-monarchic references in the political culture and dominant ideology did not originate with the Tigers or the war: merely recall JR Jayewardene’s ascent to the Pattirippuwa and his claim to be the latest in an unbroken line of Sinhala monarchs. Premadasa received the credentials of ambassadors while seated on a gold painted mock throne gifted by a well wisher, and at the time of his assassinationÂ a giant ‘mock up’ (or ‘cut out)’ of his, created by the State Engineering Corporation (not at his suggestion) towered over the Galle Face Hotel. This strain in Southern political culture metastasised with the war of secession, the ethnic aggression of the Tigers and the abdication by the more pluralist or (neo) liberal Sri Lankan leaders of the duty to defeat them. I didn’t judge the role and content of the Premadasa presidency by its aesthetic form and style, and not having done so, I haven’t become sufficiently hypocritical in the intervening years to judge Mahinda Rajapakse’s primarily by his sense of political theatre and taste in stage props.
One of the downsides of waging an ethnic war to dismember a country and carve out a separate state, is that it automatically rekindles historical memories or (if I may bow in memory ofÂ Prof Leslie Gunawardena) lends itself to the reactivation of ‘constructed’ historical memories.
If the bulk of the Tamil people had supported the PLOTE or the EPRLF instead of the LTTE, they would have had a resonance in the South and the fight-back by State and society would not have had the aspect of a Sinhala backlash. But this was not to be. When Tamil society had several chances- with options such as the PLOTE and EPRLF or personalities like Neelan Tiruchelvam, with exits such as the Indo-Lanka accord, with guarantors like the IPKF, with opportunities like the dialogues with Premadasa and Chandrika â€“ it chose to stick with Prabhakaran and the Tigers, i.e. the most purely ultranationalist and ethno-terrorist option.
The character of the Tigers, their politico-military behaviour and the discourse of the Tigers and the pro-Tiger Diaspora reactivated memories and fears of ancient struggles inscribed in the ancient Sinhala chronicles and buried deep in the collective southern psyche. The backlash was therefore steeped in historicism and archaicism. The thing about wars is that they have an afterlife; their effects last a long time. Once a historicist mindset is awakened, it takes hold, settles in, at least for a period. Simply put, if someone chooses to wage a war which reminds the Sinhalese or any other community anywhere in the world for that matter, of ancient challenges and threats, even the modern response is garbed in ancient robes and references. Such a throwback, a journey on a time machine, is not automatically and instantly reversible. Imagined continuities take time to subside.