Groundviews

Review of ‘Fire and Storm’ by Michael Roberts

When Michael Roberts left Peradeniya in the late seventies, he was part of an exodus of intellectuals from the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, arguably one of the best universities at that time. The exodus of academics at that time was compelled by the economic difficulties faced by university dons. It was the second wave of such emigration that diminished the intellectual life of the university and country.

The Arts Faculty of the University of Peradeniya never regained its prestigious academic status after that. Today the University of Peradeniya cannot take pride in intellectuals of the eminence of E.F.C. Ludowyck, E.R Sarachchandra, H.A.de S. Gunasekera, Fr. Ignatius Pinto, Ian Van den Driesen and many others.

Fortunately, Michael Roberts left his heart behind in the country of his birth. His writings on Sri Lanka have been as prolific as varied. This anthology of articles reprinting essays published in many journals and websites is proof of that involvement with the country’s problems. Despite his shift from History at Peradeniya to Anthropology at the University of Adelaide, his continued interest, engagement and involvement with national questions is amply demonstrated in these essays written between 2000 and 2009.

This book is a companion volume to the author’s Confrontations in Sri Lanka: Sinhalese, LTTE and Others published in 2009. The earlier book was a collection of essays that had been published in refereed academic journals. In comparison, Fire and Storm is a collection of mostly shorter articles published in popular journals, newspapers and web-sites. The author presents these essays as less academic and addressed to the intelligent general reader. However several of the essays are of academic excellence and enquiry.

The book also contains two articles intended for an academic journal:  “Self-annihilation — Tamil Tigers & beyond: cultural premises inspiring sacrificial suicidal acts”, and “The Tamil movement for Eelam” and a lengthy essay, entitled “Suicide for Political Cause” that has combined four short articles presented initially in the web site Transcurrents.

Organisation of book: The 38 chapters of the book are organized under six parts. The first part, Political Excursions on Historical Reinterpretation consists of five chapters that address the issue of the historical validity and veracity of the Vijaya legend and the uses and abuses of history. The second part of four chapters, Political Excursions on Identity analyses the ethnic composition of the Sri Lankan nation and seeks to debunk concepts of ethnic and “racial” purity. These chapters address a vital issue: what constitutes the Sri Lankan identity.

The third part, Political Excursions on the Polity, has eight chapters that deal with the concept of Eelam and the different identities within the Sri Lankan polity. The fourth part of four chapters explores beliefs and convictions, including suicide, that have motivated political actions in the LTTE. Self–immolation, sacrificial devotion and cultural premises favouring sacrificial suicide are scrutinised in these chapters that explore the use of suicide for political projects pursued by different communities.

The three chapters of the fifth part examine in detail the foundations of the Tamil movement for Elam and the relationship between the Tamil people and the LTTE. The five chapters of the sixth part, which is arguably the most controversial part of the book, discuss the last few months of the final stages of the war. Roberts takes a pragmatic view of the turn of events of the last stages of the war that are very much the core of the current controversies on human rights.

Summary of contents: The essays in the first part, Political Excursions on Historical Reinterpretation, address the issue of the historical validity and veracity of the Vijaya legend. As a historian, Roberts debunks the legend of Vijaya that has led to Sinhala chauvinism. In the first three chapters of the book he points out that the Vijaya legend is a myth without any historical basis or evidence. Since the legend is accepted popularly by the Sinhalese, it is the basis for a separate Sinhala identity and the view that Sri Lanka is a country of Sinhala Buddhists for the Sinhala’s. This mindset, he points out, is inimical to ethnic harmony and a united Sri Lanka. He contends that the Vijaya legend is a mythical story not validated by empirical evidence and, furthermore, that the story is undermined and contradicted by evidence.

Roberts contends: “So can we do without Vijaya or Ravana? Indeed we can. It is imperative that we move into the new millennium without the weight of such archaic baggage.” He regrets the tendency of any ‘Tom, Dick or Harry’ writing history to argue for positions that ignore the several waves of the country’s history that makes those interpretations irrelevant or false. He laments that history is considered fact and that in the teaching and writing of history there is inadequate weight attached to the interpretation of facts in any analysis and the presence of contested interpretations.

The significance of this perspective for contemporary problems is that it undermines the concept of a pure Sinhala “race”. A central theme of the essays in this part is the danger of the misuse of history and the pitfalls of being motivated by the myths of history. He argues that a modern nation should not be burdened and retarded by history. “History as Dynamite”, the title of the second Chapter is an apt statement of the author’s view that history could be used for the detriment of a modern nation as has happened in many countries.

In the four chapters of the second part Political Excursions on Identity, Roberts analyses the ethnic composition of the Sri Lankan nation debunking concepts of ethnic and “racial” purity and addresses the vital issue of what constitutes the Sri Lankan identity. He pleads for a Sri Lankaness rather than an ethnic divisiveness. “We must decry chauvinism and racism and retrieve, if possible, the idea of a Sri Lankaness constituted upon the building blocks of a Tamil nation, a Sinhala nation, a Muslim community and other communities …..”

The six chapters of the third part on Political Excursions on the Polity explores the origins of the term Eelam and its changing interpretations and meaning over time among Tamil protagonists. It poses the issue and discusses whether Eelam as a separate nation was at anytime a viable proposition as the existence of two separate nations in such intertwined proximity would be beset with tension and conflict that would generate continuous violence and even wars over time. Roberts’s “pragmatic realism” therefore led him to alter his position and opt for a plural polity which had a pyramid structure wherein the building blocks made up of a Sinhala “nation, a Tamil “nation”, a Muslim “community” and a multiplicity of other “communities” that constituted a sustainable “Sri Lankan nation”.

The four chapters of the fourth part Political Excursions of Comparative Scope, attempts to discover the philosophical, religious and cultural foundations that make people lay down their lives for a cause. He tries to discover the motivations for selfless commitment to a cause among different cultures by comparing the selfless sacrifice inspiring Japanese Kamikaze, radical Islamic Mujahidines and the Tamil Tigers of Eelam. He dismisses the idea that brainwashing was the primary reason, though admitting it was a part of the techniques of preparation for suicidal actions.

The fifth part, Tamil Tigers: Emergence, Actions, Rituals examine in detail the evolution of the Tamil movement for an independent state. It discusses the embryonic origins of the Tamil movement for Eelam from 1956 to the 1970s, beginning with the disaffection caused by the Sinhala Only Act and the discrimination of the quota basis of admission to universities. It analyses the relationship between the Tamil people and the LTTE, disillusionment among Tamil people with the old leadership of Tamil parties, the formation of the not too successful TULF and the ideological foundations of the LTTE and gives an informative time chart of events that resulted in the formation of the LTTE. The three chapters in this part are a comprehensive well documented historical record and analysis of the ethnic divide.

The five chapters of the sixth part of the book are the most controversial part of the book.  They survey the last few months of the final stages of the war that are very much the core issue of the current controversies on human rights. Roberts takes a realistic view of the turn of events of the last stages of the war saying that the brutalities were inevitable. His reply to the cruelties of the last stages of the war is through the rhetorical question: “What war is not cruel?” This is a more realistic attitude than that which claims zero casualties a goal that is impractical in wars, especially the type of unconventional and brutal Sri Lankan civil war.

An appraisal: Being written over a long period of time when the government’s stance, as well as that of the LTTE changed, and the fortunes of the war kept changing, Roberts’ views on the national question too understandably changed over time. One factor was critical: as the intransigence of the LTTE became clearer, Roberts’ sympathy towards the Tamil cause, changed. He makes these changing views over the period very clear in the introduction to the book. He discloses his shift thus: “Some outstanding errors in my evaluations will become immediately evident: some articles (chapters 10-13 below) were informed by my belief in the early 2000s that the government of Sri Lanka did not have the capacity to defeat the LTTE. I was not alone in this mistaken assumption. Several Indian and Western military analysts are known to have held a similar view.”

This view guided several of the articles in this book; those written between 2002 and 2005. At that stage he advocated a compromise: a modus vivendi, on the lines of internal self-determination for the north and east as the pragmatic means of ending the conflict. He characterises this stance as “pragmatic realism.”

In retrospect Roberts confesses that this contention had “a fatal flaw within its own realist realm. “There has never been a federal state where two units of federation had separate armies and navies. Therefore he contends that internal self-determination on such foundations would not have lasted long. He also admits in his introduction that he was mistaken in his early view that Prabakaran was ready to compromise. “He (Prabhakaran) was not prepared to accept what I have called ‘Pragmatic Eelam’ as distinct from ‘Wholesale Eelam’.” Indeed, Roberts notes that during the past year many moderate Tamils have lamented this short-sightedness and have sharply criticized the LTTE and its migrant hardliners for their inflexibility.

Sri Lankan nationhood: On the other hand, Roberts postulates the concept of an overarching “Sri Lankan nation” constituted by the varied communities that live in the country with the “Sinhala nation,” the “Tamil nation” and the “Muslim community” being the three main components. The recognition of a “nationality” or “nation” within the polity does not necessarily undermine the broader sentiments of Sri Lankan-ness; it could buttress and strengthen its foundations. A person could thus see oneself as a “Sinhala Lankan” or a “Tamil Lankan or “Muslim Lankan as the case may be; while others see themselves only as “Sri Lankan”, downplaying their lineage ethnicity. This is the underlying conceptualization that could lead to a durable peace devoid of ethnic conflict and a united nation.

Unity in diversity: This line of thinking impliedly rejects the American melting pot concept of nationhood as irrelevant at this point of time in the nation’s history. The American concept of the large number of different communities melting together into a harmonious whole with a common culture is not a pragmatic alternative at this point in time when there is a clash of ethnicities and religions. This concept is not an antithesis to the concept of multiculturalism, which recognizes that cultural differences within society enrich the national fabric within a strong American nationalism.

Roberts underlying conceptualization too underscores   the need to be Lankan rather than a Sinhala nation to ensure a durable peace devoid of ethnic conflict and a united nation. However he accepts the need for greater cultural heterogeneity and cultural identity.

Evolution of ideas: Much of the earlier essays in this book are interesting as an evolution of ideas during the nearly three decade conflict and war. They are also fascinating to the perceptive reader on how the conflict can now be resolved after the Rajapaksa regime’s convincing military victory.  The book would have been a much more succinct and forceful book if the essays had been integrated. However this should not detract from the fact that the essays are an essential read for those interested in the ethnic conflict and the war that destroyed so many lives on both sides of the divide.

Scrutiny of Sri Lankan polity: A review of this nature cannot convey the many facets, ideas, arguments, contentions and conceptualizations of a book of 38 chapters categorized into 6 parts. Only a reflective reading of the book would convey these adequately. Readers would no doubt find that arguments forcefully put by the author are often contentious. The changing perceptions of the author as the country’s conflict changes must be kept in mind in reading the first four parts of the book in particular.

Michael Roberts’ book Fire and Storm is an important contribution towards a dialogue on the Sri Lankan polity. It records contrasting views on Eelam and the politics of Eelam. It also provides a basis for clearer understanding of the LTTE terrorism and armed conflict. This book would enrich one’s understanding of recent Sri Lankan history. The perceptive reader would also find ideas for national unity and nation building.