Patriotic paranoia: legacy of a carnage
Why is this age worse than earlier ages?
In a stupor of grief and dread
have we not fingered the foulest wounds
and left them unhealed by our hands?
Russian poet- Anna Akhmatova
In the stupor of grief following Easter Sunday, it now seems that we have not ceased to finger our foulest wounds as the Russian poet observed in her poem written exactly a century earlier in 1919. A poets wisdom outlives human folly through centuries.
When confronted with a mindless mass murder in the most horrific fashion what do we do? The natural response of those who witnessed the horror from a distance as well as those who survived the event at close quarters have one essential human emotion.
We search for some meaning in the mindboggling event. In this aftermath we did not do that. Why? Because our leaders failed to do that. The President said he was not informed of the threat. The Prime minister said that he was excluded from the inner circle in charge of national security.
In the age of 24 hours news we get news. More than news we get opinions of those who provide the news. The owners of the news disseminators have opinions and they want us to listen to their opinions.
The favorite TV feature of this writer is the Sinhala program called ‘Derana Aruna’- a lyrical rhyme of a promise that translates to “Our Land at Dawn.”
The presenter is a skilled artist convinced of his persuasive powers of motivation and manipulation. It is a treat to watch him explain why Mangala Samaraweera is mistaken and why our nation should be prefixed as ‘Sinhala Buddhist.
We live in a mediated world. Only the naïve and the indifferent would dispute the centrality of mainstream media as an information source with tremendous persuasive powers.
The mistake we often make is that we think that the discerning will not succumb to the ‘intoxicating brew of persuasion and fantasy. The media magnates know better.
Media coverage can cover an issue that is not yet controversial by covering it ad nauseum insisting that it is necessary and in the national interest. They can turn on and off the coverage of any public discourse.
This enables them to make the inconsequential, in to a consequential and the serious in to a trivial. This is the vital media lesson that was driven home in the aftermath.
In the aftermath, we must grapple with two aspects of its consequences. First is the human aspect that contends with those who died, wounded, disfigured, and the orphaned.
The second is the civic aspect. Easter Sunday carnage has ignited cataclysmic consequences in a fractious society that is now suffocating in the toxic mixture of suspicion and primordial tribalism.
Competitive politics has captured the discourse of justice, equality, citizenship, democracy and the battered economy.
This civic aspect is made more complex by a not very pleasant discussion on the ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ heritage of Sri Lanka and the real locus of national power.
When a country emerges from a terrible war, the manner and the spirit and the élan in which its people decide to confront the legacy of death and suffering plays a crucial and an integral part in the construction of its post war national image.
When we ended the 26 years of a war against separatist terrorists, we invited tourists to come to a triumphant land that defeated the most viscous terrorists in all human history.
Therein lies a tale. After the watershed year 2009, the Rajapakse family under whose leadership and benign watch we won the war had the rare genius to introduce perception driven politics in place of objective politics.
Since then we are perception driven. Objective reality has given way to perceived reality. It does not matter that the million odd trishaws or ten thousand busses of the CTB cannot ply on our expressways. The superhighway is progress.
That the money and the effort could have had a more meaningful impact if invested on mass rapid transport systems in the major cities is neither here nor there. The few oligarchs have decent highways to test their Bentleys and Maserati Gran Cabrios.
Truth no logger matters. Perception is what matters. Alas! The perception engineers are all in the Rajapakse camp.
Last week we witnessed a great example of perception engineering in a rather innocuous event that earned a lot of television coverage.
Ruwan Wijewardene the acting defense minister visited Minuwangoda for an on the spot assessment of the damage caused by rioting and to be briefed on the progress of restoring normalcy.
The television channel owned by the preeminent perception engineer of the ‘Api Wenuwen Api ‘fame telecast the event live.
The cameras zoomed on the armored convoy racing with their sirens emitting ear splitting wailing carrying the acting Defense minister. The racing convoy segment was appreciably disproportionate to the main news segment of the minister meeting the local people.
It created the perceived reality of
a. the acting defense minister was enjoying the perks of office during his brief acting tenure, and
b. that the delightfully detached, politely reticent acting defense minister was no match for the macho alternative candidate, waiting in the wings.
Twenty-six days after the event, the country awaits the findings of the committee of inquiry that the President decided to appoint no sooner he learnt of the event while still in Singapore.
Since then Nero has played the fiddle at many gatherings including distant China. Yet, we are nowhere near the truth about why we failed to heed the warnings about the attack received as early as 4th April.
In the aftermath, the Leader of the Opposition Mahinda Rajapakse has helped us to locate the elementary dynamics of our politics.
In the backdrop of these tragic events Mahinda R is an unqualified success in the hearts and minds business.
The size and scope of the impact of his success after the cataclysmic event has an unambiguous correlation to the failures of Ranil Wickremesinghe and Maithripala Sirisena.
When competitive politics is reduced to a simple correlation of opposition success and government failure, it is obvious that the nation is at a standstill, petrified in fear of the unknown unknowns and exhausted by the known unknowns.
And now we must turn to the other conundrum of the aftermath.
Mangala Samaraweera’s stubborn claim of universal equality of all in a land where the majority are Sinhala Buddhists is countered by the ultra-orthodox patriots who insist that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala Buddhist land where others are welcome with that proviso firmly entrenched.
Hereon, the focus of this essay is on the identity labels that have surfaced in the aftermath.
A new wrangle has erupted in the aftermath over what is righteous and what is lawful in framing a national identity.
This is all about nationalist thought process.
The nationalists are obsessed with the notion that they are unique. That they are above all others. Then they are griped by the fear of isolation.
Nationalism is immune to reality. In other words, nationalism is power hunger wrapped in self-deception.
A rational discussion in this setting is an exercise in futility. It is simply a game for an imaginary prize divorced from truth. A political discussion calls for a reasonable degree of mutual understanding.
Here the Mahinda Rajapakse school of political science has a proven track record. They are proving performers in the Orwellian tradition.
“Facts are selected or suppressed in order to make a case; if need be, the necessary facts are simply invented or, contrariwise, erased.”
It is futile to engage the Sinhala Buddhist Sangha fraternity in the politics of recognition and dignity. Mangala Samaraweera the brave man talks of universal recognition of individual rights and the core values of a liberal society that holds the promise of individual autonomy. Those who insist on the Sinhala Buddhist identity assert a collective identity – the authentic product of the alchemy of nationalism and politicized religion.
In the aftermath, the Rajapakse monolith is firmly on a comeback trail. Not so much by their effort but by default of the team that we propelled to power in 2015. The aftermath promises bleak days ahead.