Waiting for the Edison moment?

By N Sathiya Moorthy

Now that the event is behind them, the multiplicity of Tamil leaderships in the North especially should ask themselves if they did the right thing by asking their people to gather in public places to observe what the LTTE called the ‘Heroes Day’ and their moderate counterparts now dub ‘Martyrs Day’. On the larger canvas, they should be asking themselves if taking the ‘rights’ route to political assertion is also the right way, the only way, to do so.

Under the presidency of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, there is a discernible regularity to the issues on which the Tamil parties unite and protest or protest but don’t unite. Only months back, fresh from real and perceived setback for them all in the parliamentary polls of 5 August, the Tamil street sentiments forced them to come together on the question of observing the death anniversary of LTTE leader Thileepan.  Only weeks later, for the Heroes/Martyrs Day, they were already divided.

Yet, the divided Tamil polity did seek to observer the day in public, but not many defied the police ban orders in force, enforced through independent court directives for individual towns in the Tamil North. The political leaderships all sounded alarm at the curtailment of their political rights and freedoms, though separately, that too using the judicial route, unlike in most cases during the Thileepan anniversary.

Independent of the political administrators’ perception of these two anniversaries, the Tamil leaderships, separately if not together, ponder over the wisdom of their calling for public memorial services of the kind in times of Covid pandemic. Clearly, the health hazard need not have been foretold, they knew it all. They should ask themselves if they would have called for public protests if the covid curfew were in place even now.

The advisory is for the individual and communities to follow Covid protocol in daily life as long as is required. And no one can predict that there won’t be any spread of the pandemic even if prospective protestors in public places followed all the protocols and more. Do the Tamil political and social leaderships needed to do it to their people, who are even otherwise vulnerable on every other score?

Unpardonable disconnect

If the idea is still for the Tamil political leaderships, especially post-Covid, to agitate the needs and demands of their people, they need to look at issues of daily concern of the common man. To them all, post-war, their lives and livelihoods matter more than the rights that the political leaderships (alone) are talking about. This shows the kind of unpardonable disconnect between the people and their leaderships, which are mostly from the past and are still living in the past.

Even granting that the Tamil commoner on the street is ready to die again for the cause, his rights over livelihood and livelihood issues, the leaderships need to acknowledge that they cannot be expected to fight on empty stomachs, and die for a cause that is not going to make any difference to his individual self-esteem, life and lifestyle.

Together, the Tamil polity and people need only to look across, to see the pitiable life their Upcountry Tamil brethren are leading. Many of them may even have problems acknowledging the other as brethren, in private, caste and cultural differences being only two of them. That is where the Northern Tamils are slipping into, if they are not already there. Their political leaderships should be seeking to arrest this slide, socially, economically and politically. The politics of it all can come later, or can come only later.

It is not as if the existing Tamil leaderships do not understand it. They are all too intelligent and smart not to have known such basics. The problem is not with individual leaders and their parties. It is a problem of the system and scheme. Theirs is a continuance of multiple political identifies dating back to the LTTE past, or even the pre-LTTE Tamil moderate political past, There is no fresh blood, hence no fresh ideas.

Barring a very few like Justice C V Wigneswaran and M A Sumanthiran, there are very Tamil leaders who are a post-war find. Even here, Wigneswaran’s political views were known all along, only that he did not get or seek a political platform even during the weeks and months immediately after the one-sided end of the war.

But then, Sumanthiran too has been unable to bring in fresh ideas, whether to continue the Tamils’ rights for a fight, or their fight for their rights, or the larger issues of life and livelihoods. His and that of Wigneswaran, like the rest of them all, is only old wine in new bottle – in that all moderates, pre- and post-LTTE and during  the long lifespan of the militant outfit, share not only near-similar ideas about a political solution, their moderate ways are also the same.

Fresh ideas….

Social anthropologists and psychiatrists will explain the limitations of the human mind even as the world celebrates the limitlessness of the same. There are pattens that a human’s mind is able to divine and innovate, but once stabilised, it is difficult for the same human and the same mind to think differently from its own trained past. Ask the policeman on the street and he will tell you what is called the ‘MO cases’ in criminal investigations.

The term ‘MO’ refers to ‘modus operandi’ or the way one criminal would execute a crime. Once he falls into a patter, even if caught, he would not be able to think out-of-the-box. So when at a new crime-site, the investigating officer looks around for a patten than he is familiar with, so that he could short-list the possible actors who had been at the scene before him.

There is no comparison between a common criminal and our honourable political leaders, no. The long years after the war has repeatedly shown that the Tamil community needs a leader who could think differently even if for fighting their moderate fight against the Government that they choose to fight with. It would be even more difficult to find a Tamil mind uninfluenced by the past that it can offer constructive solutions for the short, medium and long terms.

Not one of us

Long centuries of history has produced only one Thomas Alva Edison, capable of making multiple inventions. The Tamils needed an Edison long ago, someone who can wear multiple political hats – moderate, extremist, militarist, all rolled into one – but neither SVJ nor LTTE’s Prabhakaran was one. Today, post-war, if there is someone around, he is still hiding, or let’s say, he does not know his strengths that are woefully lacking in others in limelight, big and small.

It is another matter that even if an Edison were to appear before the Tamils today, the existing leaderships will run him down so much, as they have already done in the case of Sumanthiran because ‘he too is not one of us’. That is because that Edison may not have a militant past, nor a history of moderate political assertion for rights over livelihood.

Even while waiting for an Edison to appear, even if to ridicule them, the existing leaderships can look inwards, not necessarily into their individual inner selves, but into the larger community, and just in their neighbourhood, to see what civic facilities that their people lack, what kind of jobs are available for them, both inside the country and outside, and how they can facilitate it for their constituents, existing or prospective, a bridge here, a road there, and an electric supply line elsewhere.

Some leading Sinhala politicians in the South are known to talk only about their constituencies and the facilities that they lack, even if a parliamentary debate is on such esoteric subjects as climate change or geopolitical issues like Sino-American political and economic one-upmanship.

If there are Government jobs to be had for their constituents, Government projects for their constituencies, like roads and bridges, Tamil-speaking Muslim MPs will be among the firsts to queue up before the minister concerned to get a share of the same for their electorates or jobs for their party cadres, if it came to that.

Full 11 years after the war, the Tamil politicians can learn some of that tact. After all, it is a not a crime for them to meet with a minister in the Government. Just because, for instance, an SJB parliamentarian hobnobs with an SLPP minister now, does it mean that either of them is going to change political colours? But the Tamil MPs say that of each other, though in the case of the Sinhalas and Muslims, they agree it is on and is acceptable.

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)



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