Groundviews

The Incident at Kumbukgate: Reflections on the Attack on Young Artists and Activists

Photo courtesy Nidahasa

The chilling news came in the afternoon – our friends, colleagues and comrades who had been holding a small scale meeting in Kumbukgate, Kurunegala, were under attack, surrounded by a group of goons clad in blue t-shirts of Nil Balakaya. ‘What on earth can we do’ was the question that we both silently shared but were frightened to ask out loud. We could call our friends in the media, of course, and alert them of the horror unfolding there. But all that could only have significance later, after, and if, they come through unscathed.

In the infinite abyss of the present there was nothing we could do.

Except perhaps to hope that they would indeed come through unscathed and to reflect on the terrifying state that our collective existence had come to. To be sure, this is not the first eye-opener we have had apropos the sad predicament of this society, worsening in its condition every single day. This is not the first time we realized that this is a society that does not tolerate dissent, peaceful argument, or even dialogue. It was indeed the president Rajapaksa himself who said, in his widely heard ‘victory speech’, five years ago, that this country would henceforth contain only those who love this country and those who are its enemies. Put differently, those who do not agree with the Rajapaksas and their world-view would become, by default, enemies of this country. An enemy is not someone you can agree to disagree with. It is someone who should be defeated at any cost.

Ironically enough, the Rajapaksas may be right in this regard. In the same vein they think of us as enemies to be wiped off the surface of the earth, we too should confront the hard fact that the figure of the enemy is inevitable in politics, no matter how hard the good-hearted liberals try to convince us otherwise. For we have nothing to converse with the Rajapaksas. Nothing to discourse about. Nothing to communicate. They are simply the enemy and they should be defeated.

Naturally, this does not mean that we endorse murderous violence unleashed on ones enemies. On the contrary, it is precisely because that we do not endorse such violence that we want to defeat those who do – like the Rajapaksas. Unlike them, we believe that every person – even someone one would consider to be an enemy – should be given the right to hold onto his or her own opinion and the right to propagate that opinion. Unlike us, on the other hand, they do not believe in the necessity of the existence of such a terrain of disagreement. That is why our friend and veteran artist Lakshman Wijesekara was assaulted today by a Provincial Council member claiming to represent the Will of the People. That is why stones were thrown at our friend Samanalee Fonseka by a Nil Balakaya claiming to create a better tomorrow for our youth. For those goons were indeed following the rigorous logic of their Master – since neither Lakshman nor Samanalee was with the Nil Balakaya they have to be those who do not love this country and, consequently and naturally, enemies of the country.

So this makes everything clear. What confronts us is a choice, not so much a choice between abolishing and withholding the executive presidency or a one between a unitary state and a devolution of legislative power, but rather a one between those who deny the existence of a terrain where political disagreements are a possibility and those who believe that its existence is a fundamental necessity of our collective future. One can even put this in a way that appears to be silly: Rajapaksas should be defeated because they consider us to be their enemies.

The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre famously remarked that man not only can be free but that he is condemned to be free. By that he meant, given that there are no external guarantors – like God or Karma – to give meanings to our values, whatever we do will necessarily carry with it the burden of freedom. One will always be forced to make a choice of freedom. Even remaining silent is a choice we would choose freely. Our friends chose to defend the right to dissent. Nil Balakaya has chosen to defend the binary logic of the Rajapaksas. What will you choose?

Saumya Liyanage & Vangeesa Sumanasekara