by Qadri Ismail
I remember it well and I remember it poorly – the conversation at the Arts Centre Club. It was quite remarkable, actually, in that bar where more than half the regulars were my friends, in that bar where I am sure I had my first drink – either a rum and coke or a gin and lime, certainly, but again I don’t know for sure, although I swear I remember who paid for it – that we appear to have had an uninterrupted conversation. How do I know that? Because parts of it were published a few days (maybe weeks) later in the pages of The Sunday Times. (On the 27th of September, 1987, for those bibliographically inclined.)
I called him Naresh, then, to preserve his anonymity.
He was a member of one of the Tamil militant organizations, of that fine generation of Tamil youth that refused to shirk its responsibilities. And more. He was by any standards brilliant.
He was that rare undergraduate who, when he dropped names, could back it up with a relevant quotation and an intelligently coherent argument. A first class was his for the taking. But he wasn’t a nerd. Sivaram was up to painting the town red. Then, in the second term of his first year, he dropped out.
This might have been 1982. Though 1983 is more likely. I could check. But who cares! History is for those without imagination. (I got that line from a fortune cookie.)
I next met him three years, a race riot and many deaths later. He turned up at my doorstep one evening and asked me if I remembered him. Vain question; he wasn’t easy to forget. He looked very different: shaggy hair, scraggy beard, spectacles tied together with wire, torn track-shoes. We proceeded to talk – or, rather, he did – till the early hours of the morning.
Most of the talking, no doubt, must have happened in a bar somewhere. But, surely, we’d have eaten at home first. Indeed, to this day my mother doesn’t know how many Tamil militants she fed over those years. And I’m not about to tell her.
I asked why he joined up. He replied as if he was saying something self-evident. “What else is there to do?” Then proceeded to relate story after story that gave life to the facts and statistics of Tamil grievances…The idealism came out clearly, as did the commitment, the purpose, the dedication.
That last statement reads embarrassingly now. Idealism is not something I have associated with Sivaram for a long time.
Today he looks like anybody’s favourite son. The beard was trimmed neatly enough to make a naval officer jealous; the jeans were Jordache; the t-shirt, Lacoste; the run down spectacles had given way to Daniel Ortega-style tinted glasses; he had even polished his shoes. After three weeks of the good life in Colombo, one saw the beginnings of a pot.
Maybe that’s when he changed, after the Indo-Lanka Accord. But then, again, who knows?
The conversation turned to the PLOT critique of Tamil separatism and its argument for co-operation with the radical southern left.
He had been drinking arrack all evening. Then he lit a Bristol and said: “The whole enterprise was doomed to failure from the very start.
“Our first mistake was theoretical. We called it a national liberation struggle and compared ourselves to Cuba and Vietnam and Nicaragua. We should have thought of Biafra, of Basque Spain, of Eritrea. They have been fighting for years in Eritrea against Ethiopian repression and nobody cared. You know what Harold Wilson said about Biafra? He said he didn’t care whether a million Ibos had to die, that Nigeria had to remain unified.”
Wilson, we might remind ourselves here, was supposedly a leftist.
“The postwar international system does not permit the creation of new states.”
How about Cyprus, Bangladesh?
He smiled, lit another cigarette. “Turkish Cyprus has not been recognized by any other country apart from Turkey. Bangladesh is a special case. Pakistan was the artificial creation of the British. From the start, the Bengalis had problems with the west Pakis. And it suited India’s geostrategic interests to bifurcate Pakistan.”
What would Sivaram have said today about the many recently-established states, especially Eritrea? I don’t know. I stopped reading his stuff when he became an unapologetic Tamil nationalist. The 1987 Sivaram’s explanation would have gone something like this: The new states emerging from the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, like Bangladesh from Pakistan, could be explained by the artificiality of the old states argument. Eritrea, in contrast, would be the perfect example of the PLOT thesis: they got nowhere for years until they made an alliance with anti-Mengistu Ethiopian forces.
But, for our purposes, what is relevant today, what might be useful to think about, is the PLOT assessment of the specificity (or, for the more theoretically minded, singularity) of the Sri Lankan situation. For I would hold now, as a card-carrying literary critic, that analogy – making comparisons or, in this instance, arguing that merely because something happened or did not in one place, it can happen or not in another – is just a plain and simple literary device; not the truth. Those who say we can learn from history forget that history is, to use a term from Aristotle, emplotted: it is something that is made, written. Events do not narrate themselves; they are narrated, ordered, structured – indeed, made into objects we recognize as events – by the discipline and discourse of history.
As for analogy, a clever enough person can compare anything to anything else. Or not, as the case might require. Example: pineapples and oranges are both fruit. They are both sweet, and soury; therein lying their appeal. They are both juicy and are guaranteed to wet the fingers while being eaten. Their color is usually similar. On the other hand, one grows on trees, the other from the ground. One has a smooth skin, the other a prickly one. One has a navel, the other a crown. You get the point…
At a certain stage of the evening, Sivaram got really angry. “What the bloody hell, I say! All those statements against Thamileelam made by India. Couldn’t they realize? India had nothing to gain from creating a separate state here…We had no mountains, no jungles to retreat to and attack from. The Sri Lankan state was so developed that there was a police station within fifteen miles of any place in the country. We had to use India as a rear base. From that point on, we were pawns in a larger chess game, a tool that was going to be used by India to achieve its ends.”
Some of those police stations, of course, have been destroyed by the LTTE; not to mention many army camps. And the Wanni jungles have turned out to be surprisingly attack proof. But the gist of the argument is still persuasive.
“Take the border. It is more than three hundred miles long – and there are Sinhalese at every end of it. Nobody ever thought of this. Nobody in any group came up with an intelligent idea of how it could be secured and then maintained.”
The LTTE had an idea, of course: exterminate all the Sinhalese on the border. But not even an intelligent feline could call it a smart one.
He went on to examine the Tamil economy and ecological environment, as he put it. The Tamils did not have a separate economy. They were dependent on the south for a market. Separation would have caused havoc here. Agriculture was the mainstay of the economy. The two eco-systems were inextricably linked. The east got its water from rivers that began in the Sinhala areas. What if something was done to the rivers?
This sounded persuasive to me then. It still does.
Electricity schemes were in the south and supply could be knocked off. And then, he said, take the nature of the state. It was all-pervading and centralized. There was no local capital that could be captured, leading automatically to separation.
Yes, the LTTE has won some remarkable military victories. But they have been unable to refute this thesis.
“And what about the Muslims. We had in our midst a large minority. We artificially tried to make them a part of us by inventing this nonsense of a Tamil-speaking people. They never wanted Thamileelam and we didn’t know what to do about them.”
As with the Sinhalese on the border, the LTTE had a plan for the Muslims: it tried what, in some parts of the world, is called ethnic cleansing.
But the more important, more general point is that, for all these reasons, PLOT rejected separatism in favor of the emancipation, or liberation, of all the people of Sri Lanka by the people of Sri Lanka.
He then defended the Accord. “We fought for our rights. We have not got everything, but all fights must end some day.” The conversation ended on this mournful note: ” As guerillas fighting for Tamil rights, our historical role is over.”
What changed? What transformed Sivaram from a socialist into an unalloyed nationalist – and, even worse, eventually an LTTE lobbyist? Again, we’ll never know.
Some have said it was the continued racism of the Sinhala state. That argument has some merit. But, then, not all of us opposed to the racist Sinhala state – now looking amazingly like it did then, during its Jayawardene/Premadasa incarnation, with the ultra-racist JVP in government (and I am making an analogy here, not a truth-claim) – chose the LTTE as the mode to resist it. Not all of us believe the stupid political science cliché that the enemy of one’s enemy is one’s friend. (I mean, look what that logic has done to U.S. imperialism: the enemy – the Taliban – of its one-time enemy – the Soviet Union – is now its nemesis.)
Some will say, given D.B.S. Jeyaraj’s reporting that Sivaram was first rejected by the LTTE, by no less than Mahattaya himself, before he joined PLOT, that his political instincts were always pro-LTTE. That argument also has some merit. But it does not explain his advocacy of the PLOT position that night at the Arts Centre Club.
Others will say that he was simply an opportunist. That is, that he never really changed. Sometimes, I think so too. (After all, he wooed Vijaya Kumaratunga and his killers, the JVP; he hated India – and yet informed the High Commission about his comrades during the Maldives coup.) But it takes guts to promote the LTTE openly, in print, from the south. Opportunism cannot explain that. On the other hand, there are too many stories about Sivaram’s activities within PLOT, going back to the early 1980s, for anyone who knows them to accuse him of courage. The mystery, then, remains.
So what, you might ask, is this all about? Am I mourning, in some eccentric or even perverse fashion, the death – nay, the murder – of an old friend?
Yes, of course. But I’d rather, than dwell on death, take a lesson from his life. From the time we were friends. Good friends.
From the time parts of the Tamil resistance, the radical Tamil left – EPRLF and PLOT – was so incomparably superior, politically and ethically, to the genocidal brutality that was and might still be Sinhala nationalism. (After all, if the JVP controlled the government, we’d surely be at war again by now. Although the president – what on earth is she doing allied with the JVP? – could very well take us down that road, too.) Or, for that matter, the Tamil nationalism of the LTTE.
That ethical time, of the EPRLF and PLOT, need not be understood as past – because it was never really a historical time. Indeed, it is better understood as a moment of the imagination. A moment, unlike now perhaps, when anything seemed possible.
In his famous essay, Freud makes a distinction between mourning and melancholia: the mourner accepts the loss of the object; the melancholic desires its return.
Will we ever see a Tamil left quite like that again? EPRLF and PLOT at its best? (And, yes, I am familiar with PLOT’s atrocities.) Probably not. Though you never know. But we can fucking well insist that we must, and will, be inspired by that imagination.
Qadri Ismail was an attesting witness at the marriage of Sivaram and Yogaranjini. He remembers drinking and laughing a lot that night with some of his funnest buddies: Richard de Zoysa, Newton Gunasinghe, D.B.S. Jeyaraj.
[Qadri Ismail is Associate Professor Department of English University of Minnesota]
[This article appeared in the Lines Magazine in August 2005]