Photo courtesy of University of Minnesota

To mark the first death anniversary of Qadri Ismail

“The past is another country. But it has left its mark on those who lived there,” Eric Hobsbwam (Interesting Times)

The caption was pure Qadri: F*** you, Mr. President. No quantity of gray hair could wean him from the habit of littering his conversation with the F word. But that Groundviews piece of June 2020 might have been the first time it strayed into his public writing. But then, as he points out, appointing a taskforce to create a “virtuous, disciplined, and lawful society” was an unheard of development in the modern world – outside of the Taleban.

The taskforce consisted of serving and retired generals, admirals, and air marshals and the IGP. Its head was Defence Secretary Kamal Gunaratna, who at a Viyath Maga confab in Gampaha in October 2017 branded as traitors anyone supporting a new pro-devolution constitution and proclaimed that such traitors should be killed and denied normal last rites as the JVP did during the second insurgency. Virtuous, disciplined, lawful indeed.

Qadri’s article, which contained a scathingly accurate analysis of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, ended by insisting on the need to use the upcoming election to hobble him. If this “unprecedented president” cannot be deposed for another five years, wrote Qadri, oppose and expose him, defang and declaw him by denying him a parliamentary majority.

The article created a minor uproar on the internet amongst the Our Hero Who Labours crowd. There was even an online petition condemning it, calling Qadri a racist. The signatories wanted him to be sacked from his job, deposed and arrested. They and others of their ilk, six million of them, mostly Sinhalese, ignored all the warning signs and gave the SLPP a landslide victory.

Qadri didn’t live to see the aftermath of that monumental folly. He died in May 2021, a few days before the 40th anniversary of the burning of the Jaffna Library, having lived almost all his adult life in a historical time shaped by that seminal event. Black July was the luminal point but had Jaffna library not being burnt, had the perpetrators of that act of cultural genocide not been rewarded with judicial and societal impunity, would Black July have happened, at least on the scale it did? As Heine said in Almansor, where books are burned, people get burned too. Inevitably so, if a book burning receives state sanction and the silent/vocal approval of we, the people.

In a piece he wrote after the murder of D. Sivaram (Taraki), Qadri recollected a conversation they had in 1987, when they reconnected after several years. Sivaram had left Peradeniya to join the Tamil struggle “I asked him why he joined up,” wrote Qadri. “He replied as if he was saying something self-evident. ‘What else is there to do?’” That might have been the answer Qadri would have given if asked why he was part of the miniscule minority in the South who tried to resist the sweeping tides of racism and authoritarianism: What else was there to do, after the burning of the Jaffna library, after the referendum, after Black July? What else was there to do if you had a dream of a different Sri Lanka and the conviction, however misplaced, about the achievability of that dream?

So Qadri joined a small revolutionary group of (more or less) likeminded people, a choice that carried not inconsiderable risk. It was as one of the junior-most members of that group I came to work with Qadri for several years in the 1980s. By that time the group had all but ceased to exist due to state repression; some members were in jail while others had gone into hiding here or abroad. The work we did was not unlike salvaging whatever possible after a shipwreck. Ajith Serasundara (who survived the turbulent 1980s but died of kidney failure in 2005) and Nirmal Ranjith Devasiri were our other companions. It was Ajith who gave Qadri a kind of nom de guerre: Q Sahodaraya (Comrade Q), as transparent as glass, still it served the purpose.

Whenever a knotty problem arose, Ajith would invariably ask me two questions: “Did you tell Comrade Q? What does Comrade Q think?” More often than not Qadri had no solution to give; he would listen, respond with his own litany of problems, cracking a joke to lighten things when the mood turned too despondent. Even when there were no remedies, there was solidarity.

Politics in gloaming

The Scottish word gloaming captures better than its English fellow twilight the essential sadness, the sense of loss and apprehension of the temporal no-man’s land between a hopeful day and a despairing night. The mid to late 1980s was a time not of dreams but of their painful dying. In the North, the LTTE was beginning to show its intolerant stripes. In the South, the JVP was labelling anyone who sympathised with the Tamil struggle and supported devolution traitors and threatening them with violence. Northern politics was moving towards state-Tiger polarisation and Southern politics towards state-JVP polarisation. Across Sri Lanka, the middle ground between contending extremes was vanishing rapidly. Walls were being built, lines drawn; not belonging was uncomfortable societally and dangerous politically.

Qadri was the Other twice over, by birth and by the political choices he made. Still he would persist, doing his duty, if not with enthusiasm then with dogged determination, until the end of that particular political journey (as he persisted with his journalism, even after he was almost killed by an IPKF bullet while covering the IPKF-LTTE war in Jaffna). He wasn’t the reckless type who sought danger for the thrill of it. He wasn’t impervious to fear. He was often frightened and would freely admit to it. Yet he didn’t give up his two dangerous callings, journalism and politics. Journalism at least brought him renown and some fun. His political work brought him nothing but headaches and risks.

When Qadri began his political involvement, he would have known of the accompanying dangers, incarceration (with torture thrown in), injury, maybe even death, always at the hands of the state or some para-statal entity. That familiar territory would change as the DJV (Deshapremi Janatha Viyaparaya – Patriotic People’s Movement, the armed wing of the JVP during the second insurgency) started targeting anti-racist leftists in the South. One evening in mid 1988, Qadri told me that he had received a death threat from the DJV. He was both shocked and shaken. He had not allowed his political convictions to subdue his journalistic ethics. In his professional work, he didn’t take sides (despite ceaseless badgering by me and others like me) but he didn’t pull his punches either. Maybe it was what he wrote when Vijaya Kumaratunga was murdered; maybe it was his “unpatriotic” stance on the Tamil struggle and devolution. He should not have got that letter, but he did.

By this time Qadri had begun writing what would have been his first book, on Sri Lanka’s troubles. He was going to call it Blood Flood. Rather appropriate. Now he was facing the possibility of his own blood joining that flood.

When I next inquired about the progress of the book, (weeks or months later, I cannot be certain), he told me that he had destroyed the draft. When I protested, he shrugged.

“Exile is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home.” So begins Edward Said’s The Mind of Winter: Reflections on life in exile. Did the rift between Qadri and Sri Lanka begin when he received that threat? Did the act of destroying his quarter-finished book symbolise a growing conviction that Sri Lanka was no country for him? Did the murder of his friend and colleague Richard de Zoysa serve to complete a break that had been in the making for a while?

I never asked him. When we reconnected, via Sanjana Hattotuwa, sometime in 2013 or 2014, most of our conversations were about the Rajapaksas, the rampaging BBS,and the turning of Muslims into new Tamils. Absorbing topics, too much so to permit long ventures into a distant past.

In The Mind of Winter, Said mentions “quasi-theological ambitions of totalitarian rulers” as one of the main causative factors leading to exile. But organisations that come into life as liberation movements too could become “totalitarian with quasi-theological ambitions.” In the late 1980s Lankan politics was dominated by two such movements, the LTTE in the North and the JVP in the South. As Qadri pointed out in his critique of Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost, “I have had occasion to term the Tigers terrorist myself, but I would extend the same adjective to the JVP too. My point, in other words, is that this novel cannot notice the senseless violence of the JVP…the murder of the family of policeman Udugampola, civilians all, and of course, of this country’s most courageous anti-racist, Vijaya Kumaratunga”.

In the absolutely intolerant landscape created by such entities, there was not much space for contending voices. Qadri, a dissident by nature, an “eating drinking man” (as he phrased it) and a laughing one (he was as capable of taking a joke as delivering one), could not have survived well in such inhospitable terrain.

So Qadri left Sri Lanka but Sri Lanka never left him. As his periodic articles demonstrate he never ceased caring about the (mostly self-created) trials of his native place. Thus the urgency, the anger, ending with that final outburst against this most “unprecedented president,” how unprecedented the country knows at last as it struggles with the lacerating aftermath of a sovereign default.

“So I say, Mr. President, you are a truly hideous human. F*** you,” Qadri said at the end of that final article, a sentiment with which most Sri Lankans agree now, going by the Institute of Health Policy and Centre for Policy Alternatives opinion polls.

All his life, Qadri’s political positions pitted him against the majority. One year into his death, the majority is with him and he is one of them. It would be unfamiliar, confusing territory. Would he laugh or reach for the bottle?