Image courtesy The Hindu

I must admit that reading Dr. Dayan Jayatilleke’s (DJ) recent piece, on Groundviews and elsewhere, on Mr. R. Sampathan’s (RS) speech at the ITAK convention, left me very disturbed.

In his piece, DJ draws attention to one statement in the speech in particular, which he notes is central to revealing that the RS/ITAK are separatists in disguise. The statement in question reads thus:

“To put it more strongly, the international community must realize through its own experience, without us having to tell them, that the racist Sri Lankan government will never come forward and give political power to the Tamil people in a united Sri Lanka” (emphasis added).

Indeed what RS said was that “the racist government”—note, he did not just say “Sri Lankan government” but qualified it with “the racist”—will never come forward to grant political power to Tamils. And this is true; forget about a racist Sri Lankan government, does anyone think that any government that is racist will come forward to grant the full spectrum of rights to a minority ‘other’? And this is just one of many reasons why a racist government can never even foster a genuine sense of being united.

Now, is the present Sri Lankan government racist? There are different opinions on that and of course not everyone will agree with RS, and DJ can certainly challenge him on that and by the way, just for the record, he actually doesn’t. In fact, I find it very curious that hardly anyone who lashed out at RS for this statement of his—on Groundviews and elsewhere—actually took issue with his claim that the Sri Lankan government was racist. And I think at least part of the reason for this lies in the conditioned reflex to look for signs of ‘otherness’, so much so that attention is fixed not so much on what is said but on what one wants/expects to hear (or read in this instance).

In fact, such is the effect of this conditioning on DJ that he does not even seem to have read the speech carefully (or perhaps the ‘Find’ functionality on his computer is flawed). Thus, contrary to what he claims, the term ‘devolution’ does figure in the speech, not once but twice (page numbers below as per the Google docs version posted on Groundviews along with DJ’s piece):

First on Page 4:

“Powers must be allocated under this structure based on the understanding that meaningful devolution should go beyond the 13th Amendment to the Constitution passed in 1987.” (emphasis added)

And again on page 9:

“The Commission made several recommendations for the achievement of ethnic harmony, including specifically, the need to reduce military presence in civilian areas, to return to people the lands that belong to them, investigations into human rights violations, the release of those being kept in detention and most importantly, promptly arriving at a political solution that includes maximum devolution of power. We ask that the government implement these recommendations made by the Commission that it appointed itself.” (emphasis added)

How significant is the fact that DJ does not even register the word devolution? Is this because, like many in this regime and indeed outside it, he does not want to even hear it, after all why bother with a political solution when there is a military solution?

However what is actually most worrying is DJ’s position that RS’s use of the word ‘united’ (in his oft-repeated phrase “united Sri Lanka”) actually reveals a latent commitment to a continuation of the politics of secession. Just by way of demonstration, it would be just as banal for one to claim that DJ’s failure to refute RS’s view that the Sri Lankan government is racist implies a latent agreement with that view!

DJ also laments that RS did not use the word ‘unitary’ but preferred ‘united’ instead. So now being ‘united’ is not enough, we must be ‘unitary’. Or is ‘unitary’ reserved for Tamils (and perhaps Muslims) while Sinhalese alone can lay claim to ‘united’?

In speaking about a nation-state, I can understand ‘unity in diversity’ but what is ‘unitary in diversity’? And it is not just syntax and semantics that are awry in the latter. One can indeed speak about a unitary state, just like one can about a federal or a confederate state but one cannot speak about a ‘unitary nation-state’ other than in exclusive terms, like Israel for the Jews, Sri Lanka for the Sinhalese or Ealam for the Tamils etc.

It is old news that many Tamil parties did not and still do not support a ‘unitary’ state—‘unitary’ has a definite baggage given its political and intellectual history in Sri Lanka. And of course this position is open to debate and challenge but to suggest that RS’s use of ‘united’ is a proxy for secession (latent or otherwise), as DJ does, is disingenuous to say the least. Actually the danger is that now ‘united’ is contaminated, in as much as its use is somehow construed as subversive, especially when used by Tamils or possibly anyone else critical of the regime.

In reality, does not ‘unitary’ (like federal etc.) only signal a political-institutional arrangement, however much its proponents and opponents hype it and load it with emotional content? On the other hand, isn’t a ‘United Sri Lanka’ necessarily of a higher order, signalling much more than just an arrangement or a system but in fact a precondition for a harmonious state, unitary, federal or of any other nature?

Finally, this affair also raises the issue of policing and regulating speech. It is important to note that the reactions to this view of RS’s speech, more explicit elsewhere than on Groundviews, have included calls to ban the TNA, ‘teach them a lesson’, etc. Sadly, and more ominously, this signals a singular narrowing of imagination bringing with it the further danger of spawning, as Arendt reminded us, evil.

PS: There is a wonderful episode in Star Trek’s Next Generation series in which the protagonists go in search of the most successful mediator in the galaxy; only to discover, on finding him that he can neither hear nor speak. The secret of his success is his disability, which forces the parties in conflict to rely on their imagination rather than conditioned modes of communication to find a way of interacting with him and each other in the mediation process.