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A CASE OF MISTAKEN INDENTITY ON AN OFFICIAL VISIT TO YUGOSLAVIA IN 1959

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by L.C. Arulpragasam

I was a sick man when I reported for work relating to the implementation of the Paddy Lands Act of 1958. I had pleurisy of the lungs due to my work with fever during the Batticaloa floods of 1957. The Minister of Agriculture (Mr. Philip Gunawardena) hearing of my plight, sent me on an official study visit to Israel and Yugoslavia. I had to be cleared by a Medical Board before I could go abroad. Fortunately, I personally knew all three doctors on the Board. One of them laughingly said: “If we don’t send this fellow abroad, he will die on our hands: it is better if he dies abroad!” Dr. John Wilson gave me a course of antibiotics, warning me that I should see a doctor as soon as I reached my destination.

President Tito had visited Ceylon in early 1959, where he was lionized as a pillar of the Non-Alligned Movement. He was shown in photos at Pasyala with the cadju girls, on his way to Kandy. This was probably his first visit to a tropical country – and it received overwhelming publicity among the people in Yugoslavia. My official visit to Yugoslavia happened soon after.

When I arrived in Beograd (Yugoslavia), there was no official to meet me at the airport. Since this was my first official trip abroad, I did not know what to do. My suitcase had been off-loaded, sitting lonely on the tarmac. So I sat on my suitcase, just as I had done as schoolboy, waiting for the Royal College Boarding ‘bus! In the mean time, I had noticed a black African being met by important officials together with a gaggle of reporters, taking him to the VIP Lounge. There they discovered that they had the ‘wrong number’ (they had been interviewing the wrong man) and ran across the empty tarmac to me, sitting lonely on my suitcase.

They then escorted me with pomp and ceremony to the VIP Room for a photo op and interview. I said that I had come to study their agriculture, agrarian structure and cooperative farms. The next morning, my picture was splashed on the front page of the main newspapers: it read, “The Minister of Agriculture of Ceylon has come to Yugoslavia to buy sheep and goats!” I was 31 years old at that time, in the CCS, but only a Deputy Commissioner of Agrarian Services! I definitely was not the Minister of Agriculture! I laughed the whole thing off, thinking that it was only a genuine mistake. I had not come there to buy sheep and goats!

That was the beginning of an improbable but impressive journey! My first meeting was with the Minister or Commissar of Agriculture and his cohorts. It was conducted in Serbo-Croat: so when I asked a question, it had to be translated into Serbo-Croat and back again into English. While this was going on, every time that I caught an official’s eye (which was often), he would stand up and offer me a toast with slivovitz (plum brandy). They would then all stand up, look smilingly at me and quaff the brandy in one gulp. I got used to doing the same! This would continue with many toasts till I was whisked off to the next meeting – and the next meeting, and another, interspersed with shots of slivovitz until both the hosts and I were quite tipsy.

This was followed by a sumptuous lunch of five courses accompanied by different wines for different courses, all laid out with an impressive array of wine glasses, cutlery and napery to match. This routine was followed the next day and the next. Although this was my first official trip overseas, it did not take me long to realize that these grand receptions were the only occasions where my hosts (all officials) could get free booze and lavish meals – using me as an excuse!

On some evenings, I was taken to a ballet or an opera – of which I had read of only in books. I was escorted by students, hired cheaply, who could speak only French or German – but not English. I could understand very little: for even the programmes were in Serbo-Croat.

One evening, while walking to a park round the corner, I saw large posters of Satchmo (Louis Armstrong) who was going to give a concert in Belgrade. I also noticed a bunch of urchins about 7-11 years of age, who were disputing in whispers whether I could be Satchmo, as my skin colour confirmed their suspicions! Looking straight ahead, proudly pointing to my chest, I proclaimed loudly “Me, Satchmo”. That excited the band of urchins, who followed me in awe to my hotel, crowding at the large display glass windows – I still remember their hot breaths frosting the glass – till the security guards chased them away.

The next day when I ventured out, the urchins having learned the truth, lined up to hoot me. When I laughed to signify that it was all a joke to fool them, they jumped all over me, one at my waist, one on my arm and one on my back till I arrived at the park, laden with small children. They were excitedly pulling me in all directions, wanting me to come to their homes. I guessed that they had never seen a dark man before.

The young girl who quieted them managed to speak some English. Some days later, she wanted to come to my hotel room! Whereas no girl would look at me in Ceylon, I found that the girls, attracted no doubt by my dark skin, were making physical advances to me. In Central Europe after the War, a dark man was a rarity; besides, the country had lost many of their men in WWII against the Nazis.

After my meetings in Belgrade, I was flown to the capitals of each of the six constituent states/ republics. I was met at the airport by the Ministers of Agriculture of those republics/states – which should have aroused my suspicions. Here was I, a lowly state functionary of Ceylon, being entertained by the Minister of Agriculture of Yugoslavia and met at the airport by the Ministers of Agriculture of each of the republics/states. Since this was the first time that I was on an official visit, it never occurred to me that this was quite disproportionate, diplomatically speaking. At the state/republic level too, I was entertained in the same way: meetings specifically to brief me, enlivened by shots of slivovitz, followed by lavish lunches with more wine and more inebriation.

I was also taken to the countryside by my guide and mentor. He was a polished guy with a PhD from France, who spoke English, French and German. He smoked through a gold-tipped cigarette-holder and drove in a Mercedez-Benz with a driver. He was a theoretical Marxist and a confirmed state socialist. Having read Marx and Hegel myself, I was able to dispute his Communist beliefs; he was surprised that I could match his knowledge of Marxism and of world history! One day, in one of the states, he took me to a collective farm. The land had belonged to a Prince and had been taken over by the state of Yugoslavia to be run as a collective farm. I spent time talking to the farmers. I learned that they were still farming with oxen, cultivating about 1 hectare each. In the evening, my mentor waxed eloquent about the economies of scale in their collective farms. “What economies of scale”, I snorted, “when each farmer is actually managing and operating only 1 hectare!” True, Yugoslavia at that time could not afford mechanization, but to distort the facts in order to satisfy Marxist theory was too much!

Another interesting event happened to me. At the collective farm, an old white haired woman approached me: she stroked my face lovingly, saying repeatedly, “My son, my son”. Someone explained to me that she had lost her son, who had never returned from the war. I was amazed at her lack of colour-consciousness: was it due to the lack of colour consciousness in Yugoslavia at that time? Was it due to the socialist ethos, or was it due to the lack of coloured people in Central Europe in those days?

That night, my guide/minder excused himself saying that he would like to meet some friends. He wondered whether I would mind eating alone in the collective cafeteria. When I went down to the dining area, I found that it was filled with women and girls. There were hardly any men left due to their deaths in World War II. The lone coloured man (he was from Egypt) invited me to his table. Sitting at his table were about five or six girls. After the introductions, his opening words were: “Brother, I cannot manage any more, can you please take over from me?” – meaning the girls!

I replied lamely that I was there only for that night. Shortly after that, two of the girls took me by the hand insisting that I should come to their home, which was only a short distance away. They were mother and daughter – and extremely beautiful, with the high cheekbones of the Slavic race. I could hardly make out who was the mother and who the daughter: they both looked so young! The daughter was a medical student, who spoke good English. They insisted on taking me to their home, clinging on to me physically, while walking down a dark lane. At one point, fearing the worst, I dug in my heels, so that they had to drag my dead weight. I refused to go any farther, since their intentions had become clearer! Making lame apologies, I disentangled myself and ignominiously fled to the well-lit cafeteria!

I was flown to the capitals of most republics of Yugoslavia – to Zagreb, Ljubljana, Skopje, etc. When going to the field in one of the republics, I chatted with a high official in the car. He wished to ask me a personal question and when I agreed, he asked me: “How did you become Minister of Agriculture of your country when you are so young?” I exploded: “I am not the Minister of Agriculture” – which must have taken him by surprise. It is only then that I realized the charade that the Yugoslav Government was playing. It all fell into place now! There had been no high-level reciprocation of President Tito’s visit. So they had concocted a story that I was the Minister of Agriculture of Ceylon, being sent there to reciprocate President Tito’s widely advertised journey to our country! I had been blissfully unaware of this charade – which was being carried out at my expense.

For some years, I had thought that it was due to a genuine mistake: their head of the Agriculture Ministry was probably called a “Commissar” – which could easily be mistaken for “Commissioner”: but I was only a Deputy Commissioner. After some time, I became convinced that the deceit was deliberate. To put the best face on it, I reasoned that the Yugoslav state was entitled to deceive its own officials and people – although I had been used as an unwitting pawn!

In retrospect, I had not really paid any price at all for this extravaganza – which had not really been “at my expense”. In fact, I had lapped it all up: the perks, the ballet, the flights to different parts of the country, the visits to the different types of farms, the lavish lunches – and the slivovitz! I had in fact enjoyed being the “Minister of Agriculture” – if only for three weeks!

 

(The writer was a member of the former Ceylon Civil Service who took early retirement and had a long career with FAO in Rome)



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Politics

WHY AKD’S SECTARIAN OUTBURST IS MISPLACED & COUNTERPRODUCTIVE

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DR. DAYAN JAYATILLEKA

The JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake (AKD) used rude language in Parliament to criticize the No Confidence Motion moved by the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB). He called it “stupid, moronic”.

Curiously he and UNP leader Wickremesinghe seemed to share a similarly negative view of the No Confidence Motion. Ranil thought that the NCM qualifies the Opposition to belong in the Guinness book of records.

AKD’s remarks and their timing weren’t exactly a model of political wisdom and intellect.

Firstly, one would have thought that any attack by the SJB on the government, however amateurish one thought it was, would be a positive thing. After all, in his famous ‘Message to the Tricontinental’ Che Guevara commended “battles won or lost—but fought—against the enemy”.

The leader of a party that led two unsuccessful uprisings should know better than to judge a battle simply by its immediate outcome and its strengthening of the enemy.

Secondly, the timing of AKD’s crude sideswipe was atrocious. A major battle has commenced and is about to move to the next level with the presentation of the KDU bill in Parliament in the first week of August.

That battle is being waged against an enemy that is qualitatively different from any that the JVP has ever faced. Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his closest associates aren’t planters and volunteer army officers like Gen Ranjan Wijeratne or Oxford-educated hawks like Lalith Athulathmudali.

This battle therefore needs a broader front of alliances, partnerships and blocs than ever before in Sri Lanka’s history since 1947. Insulting the country’s largest Opposition party isn’t perhaps the best way to built a broad united action front or to secure covering fire in parliament. Rather, it is “moronic”.

AKD’s sectarianism is not limited to the SJB and its recent no-confidence motion. Given the stakes in the coming confrontation over the KDU bill, AKD should be ready to appear on the same stage as his counterpart Kumar Gunaratnam, leader of the FSP. If the JVP and FSP leaders appear on the same stage and address the crowds, it would give a huge boost to the Movement. However, AKD remains the guy who said on TV that there was never a JVP member, let alone leading personality (who by the way worked hard, clandestinely, to rebuild the party) known as Kumar Gunaratnam. Kumar Gunaratnam’s older brother Ranjithan, who was eliminated by the state, was one of the JVP’s hero martyrs.

Thirdly, AKD’s situation is both absurd and hypocritical. He purports to lecture the SJB on political stupidity. Under AKD’s leadership, the JVP which had 40 seats in 2004 has dropped to three in 2020. He is also a leader under whom the JVP’s vote-share dropped to 3%. If the SLPP rolls back the low cut-off point that President Premadasa instituted and restores the original cut-off point that JRJ imposed, AKD’s party would be in dire straits.

Fourthly, AKD is attempting to talk down from a lofty height to a party which has achieved much more than his. Rohana Wijeweera had the ambition—as announced in his two master classes which he took around the country, about the fate of the LSSP and the SLFP- to become the main left party (which it is) and then the main opposition party. Having existed for 55 years it has failed to achieve the latter status.

By stark contrast, Sajith Premadasa’s SJB did so shortly after its formation. In the first general election it faced it obtained more seats and a higher percentage of votes than SWRD Bandaranaike’s SLFP obtained at its first general election in 1952.

It achieved the status of the biggest Opposition party in a few months; a status the JVP long aspired to. This was Sajith Premadasa’s achievement, coming on the heels of his ability to score 42% of the vote against Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the 2019 Presidential election. It is amusing when he and his party are given lectures on political unwisdom from someone who reduced his party from 40 seats to three.

While Sajith has been able to secure the leadership of the Opposition by making his party the largest in the Opposition space, the zenith of AKD’s achievement has been to knock Ranil Wickremesinghe’s dead UNP into fourth place and gain the third spot (and three percent of the vote).

Fifthly, a glance around the world will show that however dramatic the protests and upheavals, the endgame is either electoral-democratic or a military coup perhaps in electoral form.

The Arab Spring and its Egyptian outcome provide one example of the latter. Latin America provides the better example, of the former.

It would take the wildest leap of the imagination and the widest deviation from reason, to assume that a candidate who obtained 42% on the deep downswing, and a party that is the main opposition formation, can be outpolled by anyone from a party that cannot get into double digits.

A little modesty is in order therefore, from AKD; not an outburst of misplaced arrogance.

I was there, watching and listening, the last time the JVP, on a high, was dismissive of a Premadasa. It was at Nugegoda in June-July 1989. The event was a well-attended JVP rally by the roadside, which went on into night. President Ranasinghe Premadasa had released over a thousand JVP detainees, declared a unilateral ceasefire, invited the JVP to re-enter the democratic electoral process, offered it three portfolios- and the JVP had spurned it all, returning to violence. By mid-year Premadasa invited all parties to attend a Roundtable. Advised by Anton Balasingham and Gopalaswamy Mahendrarajah (‘Mahattaya’), the LTTE agreed and participated for tactical reasons, to gain time and space.

At the Nugegoda rally, the JVP declared it was not the LTTE and would not bend, and announced that it would fight on till victory. That was June or July 1989. In six months, the party that AKD now leads, had learned a lesson about being “politically stupid, moronic”.

He should not repeat the mistake of talking down to another Premadasa; especially not the only son of the Premadasa that AKD’s predecessors thought themselves superior to.

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Politics

RECOLLECTIONS OF BLACK JULY 1983 ANURADHAPURA – AN OASIS OF PEACE

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BY MAJ. GEN. (RTD) HARSHA GUNARATNE VSV

The so-called “Black July” riots of July 23, 1983, marked the culmination of a slow build- up of inter-communal violence over the years. Starting in 1956, going on to 1958 and growing in intensity by 1978, it saw the climax of this process in 1983.

Apart from the areas which were predominantly inhabited by the Tamil Community, almost the rest of the island was overwhelmed by the conflagration.

Anuradhapura District stood out as the one region that did not succumb to communal violence. Today, the then role of the Security Forces and the Civil Administration in Anuradhapura in successfully handling this crisis appears to have faded into the limbo of forgotten things.

The purpose of this narrative is two-fold. Firstly, to bring to notice the phenomenon of communal harmony that prevailed in one region, amidst the disturbing events of the time. Secondly, to show that in a Unitary State – there can be no other practicable constitutional arrangement- it is possible for all communities to live amicably if we only have the will to do so.

The morning of July 24, 1983, dawned bright and clear. I had returned home from Anuradhapura the evening before for an enjoyable weekend with my family, after a long stay there. I was the North Central Commander based in Anuradhapura.

While having my morning tea, I casually turned on the radio for the news. Then, I was astounded to hear the startling news that 13 soldiers had been ambushed and gunned down by terrorists at Neeravali Junction, Jaffna, the previous evening.

I immediately surmised, that this event boded ill for our Island and that Prabhakaran would succeed in orchestrating a stunning communal backlash – as intended – if immediate counter measures were not taken.

The District of Anuradhapura was my responsibility.

I therefore, packed my bags and left for Anuradhapura via Kurunegala within the hour. On the way I noticed people huddled in groups by the wayside talking in an animated manner. Their attitude and gestures confirmed my premonition that matters could soon get out of hand.

I reached Anuradhapura in double quick time and held a conference with my Detachment Commanders, the Police and the Civil Authorities. They all agreed on the need for immediate action to forestall trouble.

The Tamil population in Anuradhapura numbered a little over 5,000. Most were concentrated in the City and the rest scattered around. They were mostly traders and government officers. They could be easy prey to designing mischief makers within the District as well as elements infiltrating into the region. Kekirawa, had about 13 Tamil families – isolated and vulnerable.

Our intention was to ensure maximum normalcy in the region without resorting to the setting up of “Refugee Camps” or moving the Tamil population to safe havens outside the District.

Accordingly, the following measures were adopted for immediate activation.

Patrolling to commence immediately within the city and the outlying areas.

The three main approaches to the District i.e. Kekirawa, Kurunegala and Puttalam to be kept under round-the-clock surveillance by joint Army-Police teams. They were given clear orders to apprehend and to deal firmly with intruders.

Known trouble makers were summoned to the Police Stations in their respective localities and sternly warned against resorting to acts of mischief. They were also subjected to the closest surveillance by the Police.

Mobile patrols fanning out from the local Police Stations monitored progress and gave Situation Reports to my HQ at Anuradhapura.

The services of the local Gramodayas were harnessed to supplement the efforts of the Army and the Police. They enthusiastically, joined in organizing vigilance groups and kept a close watch on possible flash points.

The troops were addressed by their respective commanders and the gravity of the situation as well as the need to maintain the highest standards of discipline was impressed on them. The gist of this address was to point out that the killing of the soldiers was a matter to be dealt with professionally by the military and not by civilians killing civilians through outbursts of impotent rage. Such a reaction would in the long term be counter-productive and without a doubt disastrous.

On the evening of July 24, whilst our activities were under way, I was appointed Coordinating Officer for the North Central Province with full powers under the Emergency laws to ensure the peace. Since our plans were already in motion, keeping the peace caused no difficulties.

Eventually not a single Tamil was hurt in the entire District of Anuradhapura which continued to be a haven amidst the turmoil and carnage around.

Our success was mainly due to the enthusiastic cooperation of all the principal actors.

The District Minister, the late Chandra Bandara, in his enthusiasm, even tried to assume overall control of operations! I had to tactfully remind him that as the ultimate responsibility for maintaining law and order was entirely mine, I needed to exercise the necessary powers commensurate with that responsibility. He fully appreciated the position and gave me his fullest cooperation. He assured the Tamil government servants that they had no reason to fear for their safety or that they were being abandoned to lawless elements. He even occasionally accompanied me on patrols and was alert to keep me briefed on possible trouble spots.

The able Government Agent, the late T K Dissanayake, saw to the smooth functioning of the Civil Administration and gave all possible assistance to the Security Forces. He also ensured that the supply lines to the Province were running smoothly and that there was no dearth of food, grain or other essentials.

The police under SSP Sumanasekera were to me a tower of strength during this crisis.

On the personal side, my Staff Officer major – later Maj Gen Rtd – Vasantha Perera rendered yeoman service liaising with the Civil Authorities and coordinating arrangements.

My overall Commander Operations – later Maj. Gen – Vijay Wimalaratne, meticulously attended to all arrangements in the field and tirelessly monitored operations.

I have gone into detail about personalities because I feel that ours was a truly unique achievement which was solely due to their cooperation. There were no recalcitrant elements among them.

Our efforts at keeping Anuradhapura as a zone of communal harmony did not go unnoticed by either the media or the public.

I quote one excerpt from the editorial column of a principal daily newspaper – “the advance measures taken in Anuradhapura, a sensitive border area in terms of communal differences …….., the preventive action to preserve law and order, to protect the minorities, is deserving of study, of praise and of emulation.”

Finally, when I took leave of Anuradhapura shortly afterwards to assume duties as Commandant Military Academy Diyatalawa, a grateful public led by the District Minister, the Government Agent, the Police and other notables gave me a most moving send off.

This gesture remains firmly etched in my memory.

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Politics

Whither or wither NGOs?

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Not too long ago, a friend of mine observed that many if not most NGOs, in their quest for values such as transparency and reconciliation, embark on lavishly funded projects that target a broad audience, yet appeal to a narrow base.

Exhibitions at galleries in and around Colombo, discussions with foreign experts in Colombo hotels, and art, essay, and photography competitions: these, she pointed out to me, tend to leave out people who matter to those who want to achieve reconciliation and accountability. By doing so, NGOs not only alienate people, but also discredit themselves.

She then showed me an expensive, glossily laminated book that an agency had brought out to commemorate a particular event. Around 30 photographs, each revolving around a specific theme, incident, or person, stood out on the pages, and the accompanying text, simple, brief, and poetic, pointed out the significance of the event as perceived by a person: a hawker on one page, a distinguished filmmaker on another, and so on.

The publication obviously seemed worthy of the care and commitment its authors had put into it. Yet my friend questioned, rightly I think, whether such a project would mean anything to the country. While she did not come out with it vocally, what she wanted to say was that much money had been spent on a book which would reach very few.

The problem with NGOs – and I mean most of them, barring the occasional agency that serves its community – is their inability to go beyond their quarters. Many of them seem to believe that forums, discussions, and exhibitions can somehow compensate for their lack of presence in the world outside Colombo or other major cities.

If this had the effect of merely discrediting them in the eyes of the people who should matter to these agencies, there wouldn’t be an issue. But it has also had the effect of turning the people who matter away from the very values that the agencies advocate. One can’t blame them, because when you intellectualise reconciliation and projects which supposedly promote reconciliation, you distance yourself from a majority whose unfamiliarity with the language employed in those projects puts them off.

If you want to market these values, you have to market them to the people. While I’ve always believed that liberalism, the ideological prism through which these values are promoted if not marketed today, is largely a construct of 18th and 19th century European, bourgeois, white civilisation, this does not and should not discount the universality and timelessness of values such as human rights, transparency, and accountability. That these have been hijacked today and put in the service of a neoliberal agenda is another question altogether; that is a legacy of the Cold War, the end of history, and the clash of civilisations.

In other words, we should not fall under the illusion that because these are being touted in the interests of certain ideological interests, they should be discarded completely. To do so would be to assume that such values are alien to our civilisation. They are not.

Human rights, transparency, accountability, and reproductive rights are not, nor have they ever been, Eurocentric. Historical narratives and accounts tell us that long before cities emerged in Europe, long before Luther pinned those 95 theses on the Wittenberg Church, scholars and rulers from this side of the world were making important moral distinctions, going beyond the dual logic system that the West would later pioneer.

It would be more correct to think of freedom, individuality, responsibility, and fundamental rights as universal values refracted through particular ideological systems. For instance, Rupa Saparamadu in Sinhala Gehaniya argues that, prior to European colonialism, Sinhala women were treated quite well and certain inalienable rights were accorded to them.

I myself take issue with such a claim – Praveen Tilakaratne, responding to a piece by Senel Wanniarachchi on the image of the goddess Tara at the British Museum in which he makes a similar observation, also takes issue with that claim – but the point that such an argument could be made, and historical evidence be marshalled for it, obviously points to a narrative of rights, duties, and justice falling outside the matrix of Western civilisation.

The vexing question, then, is whether we must accept these values for what they intrinsically are or whether, given how they have been modified to suit Western ideological interests and preferred political outcomes, we should try to relate them to a worldview that differs from a Eurocentric perspective. Indeed, Iranian human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi has suggested that we view rights through cultural prisms.

The struggle to “universalise” these values and tenets must be taken from another angle also. For far too long, the human rights agenda, as it’s called, has been criticised, not unjustifiably, for being not only Eurocentric and white but also middle class and elitist. In other words, they are seen as the preserve of English speaking upper or upper middle class society, a point that has more often than not been borne out by the reality; a glance at some of the big names in NGO society will make it clear that agencies tend to operate through cocktail circuits rather than tangible, live encounters with people. Naturally this should not be the case, though it is: from the choice of officials for agencies to the language they employ in their press releases, they project distance from rather than proximity to the people.

I realise the dilemma that these NGOs are caught in. Agencies rely on donors and donors can only give once certain criteria are met. Forgetting for the moment the vexing, debatable issue of whether donors set certain agendas that are detrimental to national interests – a moot point which I think deserves further analysis and assessment – the truth is that agencies are, not a little ironically, as bureaucratised as government departments, if in a less discernible way.

As such policies tend to be ironed out by top officials, then reinterpreted by the rank and file of the organisation, policy is filtered through many layers, making consistency impossible. As the scholar Anna Ohanyan (2009) has noted, donors tend to “capture” NGOs and deny them both organisational autonomy, an issue exacerbated by the entrenchment of the NGO sector in the developing world in the face of weak, authoritarian regimes.

In fact, it is when the public sector is on the verge of collapse and the State veers towards authoritarianism that donors focus their attention on NGOs. This trend is hardly specific to Sri Lanka, yet it is a phenomenon prevalent in countries like ours that fluctuate between long periods of authoritarianism and brief periods of neoliberal reform. That, moreover, is not the case all the time: NGOs may flourish at times of authoritarianism and censorship since it can “market” the need for large funds, but it can also erode in such periods.

On the other hand, while donors may be willing to fund agencies during a transitioning from right wing authoritarianism to neoliberal reform, once the transition is made, or is assumed to have been made, they may exit the industry since, frankly, there’s no further need for them. A random visit to one or two offices of the most prominent agencies here will make clear how lack of funds has left the sector impoverished, especially in the wake of the post-2015 wave of neoliberal reforms that swept through the country and penetrated the State.

The fluctuating fortunes of NGOs deserve scrutiny. It’s certainly a paradoxical world out there, one which a seasoned academic, devoid of a bias for or against such agencies, must undertake to study. On the other hand, the universality of values that these agencies espouse must not and cannot be denied. To fit them in the larger cultural mould we come out of, to relate them to people whose conception of individuality is different from how the West’s, is to embark on an endeavour far removed from the cocktail circuits of local NGOs.

My critique of NGO led civil society thus is that we have allowed a certain group to dominate the conversation, letting them decide which issues are “larger causes” and which are not. By giving this clique carte blanche, we have let them do what they want, and what they please, on behalf of “us” or “the rest of us.” The need here, then, is to reform civil society. Unless we do this, all we will get out of reconciliation will be laminated coffee table books that mean nothing to people who matter. Reform within NGOs, by NGOs and not the state, is therefore an imperative need of the hour. It cannot wait, and it should not be delayed.

 

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

 

 

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