To be able to engage in dissent politics one needs enormous courage. Not only in terms of the threats and dangers that come your way as a result of your decision to dissent (I remember Kethesh Loganathan once mentioning that when you dissent you risk bullets from multiple sides unlike when you take sides, when you have some cover) , but also whether you are convinced whether you are doing the right thing. Particularly, when you are faced with a situation where as a result of the dialectics of power, one power (which I shall call the ‘initial source of power’) has led to the creation of another as a natural corollary. As a member of a political community subjected to immense oppression by the ‘initial source of power’ I have found it immensely difficult to decide how to respond to the power that was created as an anti thesis – as a response, in opposition and in resistance to this initial source of power. This is a dilemma, I am confident, would have been faced by every single Tamil political activist who takes his or her politics seriously. I do not believe in dissent for dissent’s sake. Though I am willing to concede that we need a group of people who can dissent for the sake of just dissenting too. But that sounded to me right from my very early days of political consciousness as too much of a luxury. The idea is not about being politically correct. It is about deciding what what kind of politics on a balance is the right thing to do. It is about being conscious and being very deeply critical about this choice that you make. Something similar to what the Marxist critical theorist Paulo Freire called critical consciousness or conscientisation. I seriously believe that in deeply divided and violent societies like ours the type of politics that we choose to do has an enormous impact on the life opportunities of the people who are at the receiving end of our politics. (I have written briefly about this before on Groundviews. See: http://tinyurl.com/4kptpzb)
Having said this, it should be a truism to state that dissent politics is also a type of politics which needs to be introspected. I have great respect for the line of Tamil dissent public intellectuals that our community has had, some of whom lost their lives in the cause of dissent, to name only a few, Rajini Thiranagama, Kethesh Loganathan, Neelan Thiruchelvam et al. Respect does not mean agreement, but it does mean a deep sense of acknowledgement in that that they took their politics seriously, were self critical and self evaluative. I never knew any of them personally. I deeply regret that we don’t have any of them today (and in this list I include Taraki Sivaram) to converse, guide and critically engage us in the type of politics that we need to be doing at present.
It is in this spirit that I read and write this response to Sumathy Sivamohan and Mahendran Thiruvarangan’s contribution to the second edition of Dissenting Dialogues, a web-based magazine of the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum on the politics of boycott of Galle Literary Festival and the International Tamil Writers Conference of 2011. (accessible at http://tinyurl.com/5t6j3mg pp. 30-32) Sumathy and Thiru are aware the identity of this pseudonym author and I hope they excuse my cowardice in hiding beyond a fake name in writing this piece. I am hoping that this piece does not lead to the general trend of blogosphere exchanges, that of trading of accusations, of identifying our respective ‘camps’ of politics and the rest. I am also desirous and deeply eager that Sumathy and Thiru do not misunderstand and interpret my criticism of their article (it is only a vehicle for the larger point that I wish to make) as an attempt on my part to fit them in such a very vague category of politics that I call anti-LTTEism (by which I mean a type of politics that is hell bent on attributing all that ails Tamil politics as primarily originating from the politics of the LTTE)
The passage from Sumathy and Thiruvarangan in the above mentioned article that provoked this response, is as follows:
“(T)he appeal [for boycott] endorses and even embraces a dangerous trend of political disengagement, a liberal imperial version of the self-destructive politics of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The tone of the appeal resembles the LTTE’s persistent refusal to examine any form of political solution to the ethnic conflict other than a separate state or its suicidal call demanding that the Tamils boycott the presidential elections in 2005. This suicidal approach to politics was destructive for the Tamil community. It suppressed discussion and dissent. For us, such generalised acts as the calls for boycott – first of the International Tamil Writers’ Conference and then of the GLF – are reminiscent of that time of terror. We continue to live in terrible times; but the way to confront that is not through disengagement, but through mobilisation, discussion and dissent – through greater participation of the people”.
I cannot understand the logical premise and proximity that Sumathy and Thiruvarangan see in drawing a parallel between the politics of boycott of the JDS/RSF with the politics of the LTTE. Is it the most relevant parallel for us, in the present times that we live in? Is this how Sumathy and Thiruvarangan wish to engage with the past, in retrospection? Is it required that every single critique that dissent activists such as Sumathy make have to contain a necessary element of Anti-LTTEism in it? I find it highly problematic that the terror of the times that people have gone through and still undergo can be compared with the displeasure that has been caused to the writers because of the call for boycott. When reflecting on this analogy that Sumathy and Thiruvarangan draw, I could not help but be reminded of Sarah Palin’s ‘blood libel’ remark in response to the accusations leveled against her for possibly evoking sentiments leading to the Arizona shooting incident. (See for example http://tinyurl.com/4h9jwuh)
Sumathy and Thiruvarangan complain and are highly critical of the lack of nuance shown by Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy in signing up to the GLF appeal. But where is the nuance in dealing with the reasons for the destruction that fell on the Tamil Community? One might or might not agree with the criticism that they level against the LTTE, but where is the nuance in generalising this factor as the sole or main reasoning that turned out to be destructive to the Tamil community?
Sumathy and Thiruvarangan characterise the actors that called for the boycott as liberal imperialists. Do Sumathy and Thiruvarangan really think that Chomsky, Roy, JDS and RSF are all liberal imperialists? They ask for example whether Chomsky is ‘free and un-circumscribed by the illiberal politics of the US government and economy’. Is this what they gather from Chomsky’s writings and activism over all these years?
Sumathy and Thiruvarangan, to be sure, are very critical about the GLF. (I recommend to all those interested in the GLF, the excellent debate between Hartosh Singh Bal and Willian Dalrymple on whether the Jaipur Literary Festival is a manifestation of the fact that the Indian life of letters is still beholden to the British. http://tinyurl.com/6gxllv5) They say it’s more about tourism than literature. But they still maintain that it provides some space for discussion and positive action. They provide two examples of GLF’s positive contribution. One is where Sumathy herself was accommodated by the GLF on two occasions in the past and the other was the case of US embassy funding (no concerns about imperialist funding here) university students including from Jaffna to attend the GLF. As someone who has been associated with the Jaffna University in a similar capacity like Thiruvarangan, I am aware of the importance of opportunities like these but I am sure Sumathy and Thiruvarangan will understand the limits of tokenistic engagements. Sumathy and Thiruvarangan need to engage with the more substantive, worthy objections raised regarding the Galle Literary Festival as for example why they accepted sponsorship from Sri Lanka Tourism Board (particularly so because Sumathy and Thiru agree that GLF was mostly about tourism). I also wonder why the BBC forum on post-conflict Sri Lanka at GLF did not have a single minority representative on it. I would have also liked Sumathy and Thiru to engage with the question for example why Mrs. Ekneligoda welcomed the GLF boycott.(See http://tinyurl.com/5vqt6lq) If Sumathy and Thiru’s problem was strategy or not engaging with the local activist community before calling for the boycott they could have raised that in their article. The subject of their attack in the article is instead the good intentions of those who called for the boycott. Further, it is deeply problematic that Sumathy and Thiruvarangan do what should be nerve wrecking for dissent politics itself – What authentic local standi Chomsky and Roy have, they ask, to talk about Sri Lanka. Surely Sumathy and Thiruvarangan might not want to engage in this type of politics, do they: on who can speak for whom?
Let me clarify that I was not necessarily for the boycott. I have nothing against a section of the Colombo literature crowd having fun. (This Sumathy and Thiruvarangan admit was the main purpose of the Literature Festival) and them sharing their fun with some of those not too well provided (how generous indeed!). But I have a problem with it when promoted as a space for discussion and dissent. In December 2010 a conference in Jaffna under the heading ‘Post-May 19, Development in Sri Lanka’s North and East – Whose Development and at What Cost?’ was deliberately blocked by the Government (See: http://tinyurl.com/6fjwwvt ). A conference that Sunila Abeyasekera was scheduled to speak at the University of Colombo on reproductive rights was cancelled by the Vice Chancellor of that University either because she wanted to prop up her image as being extremely pro Government or the Government itself wanted such cancellation. But the Government is happy with the GLF and even allows one of its its agency to sponsor the event. Is it wrong to raise questions about this? Sumathy and Thiruvarangan say nothing about the International Tamil Literary Festival. Those who called for a boycott of this festival included S.V. Rajadurai, V. Arasu and A. Mangai – you definitely cannot say that these people know nothing about Sri Lanka. Finally, Sumathy and Thiruvarangan do not say that boycotts as a political strategy is intrinsically bad. They could have done us a lot of good by engaging in a constructive dialogue (not just a dissenting monologue) on how we may use the politics of boycott in the present political climate that we live in. What engagement is politically acceptable? What is the role of pragmatism in political thought and importantly action? What are the legitimate and illegitimate ways of questioning power (On this see Slavoj Zizek’s recent article titled “Good manners in the age of Wikileaks‘ available here: http://tinyurl.com/5wmrfbg) These are the burning questions of our time.
May I say this in conclusion. I have no doubt that we have to engage critically with the past and be involved in a process of deep retrospection. Such a process needs to identify not just the role of the mainstream actors responsible for what went wrong with the Tamil struggle for self determination but also how we the broader society, including the community of dissenting activists within the Tamil polity contributed to the present state of affairs of the Tamils self determination struggle. I think that there is an enormous burden on all those who engaged in dissent politics that was disproportionate in their condemnation of the LTTE, that bordered at times as a defense of the Sri Lankan Government, which at times identified LTTE as the sole obstacle at arriving at a solution to the ethnic conflict (See for example my reflections on this here: http://tinyurl.com/d5wn9j), to help navigate through this difficult post war situation of political and social vacuum. So far, very unfortunately, I have seen nothing concrete coming from the dissenting Tamil activist community. I am afraid that two or more decades of pure- dissent-politics has truly robbed them off their political acumen and creativity.
What we have seen for a long time within Tamil politics is two dichotomously opposed discourses – a discourse that supported the LTTE, come what may and its reflection, die hard criticism of the LTTE, come what may. Both sides have been exhausted now. We were told repeatedly that cross-ethnic, progressive, mass based movements is the alternative and we need to know how we are doing on this front. We need to hear more nuanced criticism of the powers that haunt the Tamil community and broadly minorities in this country today, for the power that was born in response to the ‘initial source of power’ and oppression is no more. The initial source of power remains, and has become even more oppressive, in a nuanced and sophisticated way. As much as we need the pro-LTTE discourses and groups to rethink their options we also need the anti-LTTE discourses and groups to rethink their ways. We need UTHR (J) reporting more than before now. More SLDF activism on the ground now.