A young father is bathing at the not so deep garden-well with his two kids and the bucket suddenly slips into the well. The little girls look distressed. Their dad thinks that it’s a good opportunity to have some fun at their expense. He pretends to be reflective for a few seconds and tells them that they had better let the bucket be in the well so that the fish could bathe with it! The kids seem scandalized and look at each other and at the father disbelievingly. The father enjoys his joke immensely- for a few seconds, though.
The elder kid picks up the bar of soap ingenuously and drops it into the well telling him “The fish need soap too, don’t they?” Now, it was the poor father’s turn to look dismayed- he had been too slow to have divined what she was up to. That’s hardly the climax, anyway. Down goes the towel next and the younger kid says, “Oh, don’t they need a towel too?” A visibly upset father whose sense of humour is no match for that of his progeny knows not where to put himself. True, the two scamps had looked confused at the beginning – but only for a moment. Next they pretended to believe that the fish actually needed soap and a towel, so that they could afford to have the last laugh by turning the tables on their father.
The episode narrated by a much wiser father to a sniggering audience of officemates the next day might provide comic relief to a layperson’s idle thoughts about belief and disbelief. Did the father succeed in wheedling the girls at least momentarily to visualize a weird shoal of fish bathing with a bucket? How did they, after recovering from the fleeting confusion, build on a blatant falsity to give it a preposterously logical end? Is there a neat fact/belief and fiction/disbelief pairing? Do we use trust and doubt at our own convenience to play the life’s game? Let the experts seek definitive answers. The rest of us may speculate.
Both belief and disbelief accompany us to the grave. They are not averse to sleeping in the same bed, and life is sure to be worrisome if you choose to hold on to one to the total exclusion of the other. And, each of them comes in handy every now and then. It seems as though scarcely anybody could live a normal life without judiciously shifting between these two states of mind- belief and disbelief, or, as some may call them – the twin gears for “cruising in life.” Perhaps, a person newly diagnosed with a terminal illness may find himself amidst the strongest currents of belief and disbelief; the others would navigate between the two consciously as well as unconsciously to the end.
Take children for example. They are natural skeptics and believers at once. Many parents find themselves out of their depth when their children start asking endless “why” questions about anything and everything they see, starting from things like the moon, fire, cow, puppy, shadow, wind, rain, sky or stars and moving towards “metaphysical” questions about birth, ageing, time and death. Even well-informed parents get stumped when they are called upon to explain why the moon and stars wouldn’t fall, why mommy and daddy too have to die one day or why dead people wouldn’t talk, much less wake up. Often the “explanations” need to be fashioned to suit their level of comprehension- so the parents think. The kids continue to believe in them with waning conviction as months and years roll by and sagaciously drop them in favour of more acceptable pieces for the jigsaw of their expanding “universe.”
Some kids “suspend disbelief” long before they hear of Coleridge. As children become smarter or “prematurely mature”- as some hardnosed adults may choose to describe them, they become more and more skeptical about their parents’ obviously guarded explanations on “delicate topics.” They discreetly “suspend disbelief” to avoid embarrassing their parents. Very few of them who may perhaps happen to google Coleridge later would remember that the latter’s counsel to his readers was a trick they had warily used as children to make their parents enjoy their own unimpressive “stories.” Thus, it is hardly likely that they would ever recall using the selfsame trick to optimize their harvest of goose bumps on their arms as they sat cuddled up on the lap of their grannies to listen to the adventures of the brave podi gamarala.
Feigning belief is not the exclusive preserve of children, although the two brats in the above anecdote made use of it to outsmart their father who subsequently became famous among his colleagues for his unlucky ingenuity. Clever grandparents play the same game when they readily believe that their grandchild, who suddenly gets a tummy ache on a Monday morning, is too sick to attend school. When the kid “recovers” too soon and asks for a piece of chocolate to go with the breakfast, she realizes that grandma’s credulity has a sting in the tail. The old lady wouldn’t hear of letting sick children eat sweets- she needs plenty of convincing that chocolates wouldn’t make a stomachache far worse!
Often there is little difference between feigning belief and believing- in the former you deceive the other; in the latter you deceive yourself, although you won’t often be aware of it. Take any instance where you are accustomed to taking something as a fact because you have believed in it for ages. For example, you believe that the two people whom you have called “parents” all your life are your biological parents – of course, no reason to verify unless something serious happens to make the identification necessary. So is the case with your siblings. It’s the unrivalled example of an intimate term of family relationships gradually acquiring the nuances of an established biological fact.
However, if you were to ask your “parents” to prove their parenthood, you would be considered weird or, worse still, insane. Such a doubt would surely be made to seem irrelevant and redundant by convention. However, in rare situations requiring scientific validation, such “irreverent” identification would be perfectly in order. As such, under ordinary conditions, our habitual belief as regards family relationships amounts to more or less culturally-sanctioned and convenient self-deceit. Here, what should be highlighted is that a perpetuated belief can often pass for fact leaving you to be ignorant of it all your life. Of course, many would hasten to point out that such ignorance is harmless, sure enough.
Generally, we are hardwired to believe. We believe what we see, hear, touch, smell and taste. Life would be practically impossible if we refuse to believe what our five senses communicate to us. For example, you suddenly spot a snake on your path but choose not to believe what your eyes report to you; you will immediately pay the price. In fact we have been relying so much on our physical perceptions that we hardly factor in “belief” in the transmission process. In other words, the vital role of “belief” in our sensory perceptions is taken for granted. Don’t we unconsciously provide proof of this when we say, “I could hardly believe my eyes.” As such, disbelief, with regard to physical living, is often the exception.
Faith in sensory perceptions is rarely challenged. When we look at the tree out there we ‘know’ that it is there and the question of “belief” scarcely arises. Yet, let’s take another example. Just as the tree in the garden, we “know” that there are stars in the sky, but we are told that perhaps some of them may not be there now, which immediately makes it clear to us that what we thought we knew was possibly an illusion. Only a scientific explanation of the phenomenon helps us to see our mistake.
So, we naturally take what we perceive through our senses to be a fact, and asking for proof is deemed redundant if not hilarious. However, we don’t necessarily have the same sense of complacency when it comes to responding to an explanation. For example, although we don’t ask for reasons to believe that stars are there, we ask for reasons if we were to believe astronomers when they claim that some of the stars visible now may have died out centuries ago. Thus, taking belief with a pinch of disbelief may perhaps make matters in life a little more wondrous and above all serendipitous.
Bernard Shaw is perhaps a bit too disparaging of belief when he says: “the fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.”
We condemn casteist violence at Vaddukoddai; We resolve to fight against all forms of caste oppression
The Jaffna People’s Forum for Coexistence strongly condemns the casteist violence unleashed on the oppressed community in Arasady, Vaddukoddai, in Jaffna, on the 19th of September 2021 by a group of dominant-caste youth and men. Many members of this community were injured during this violence. One person’s finger was slashed off. Houses, properties, work equipment and workshops belonging to the members of this community were vandalized.
Caste-based violence has a long history in Vaddukoddai and its neighbouring villages such as Ponnalai, Thunaivi, Koddaikaadu and Muthali Koviladi. The incident that happened in Arasady cannot be viewed merely as an incidental use of physical force by one group on another or a conflict between two groups, as sections of the media try to portray it; it is a violent manifestation of deep-seated caste prejudices existing within caste-based hierarchies and socio-economic dimensions of caste oppression that characterise Jaffna society.
Caste Structure around
Arasady, where this violence occurred, is a village that is geographically and socially divided along caste lines and caste-based boundaries. The villages in and around Vaddukoddai, where marginalized communities live, do not have paved roads. The sand pathways in these villages become clogged with flood water during the rainy season. Some of the houses lack basic facilities.
Parents from these communities complain that their children are discriminated against in the schools at Vaddukoddai. Even in places of worship, the community faces marginalisation and exclusion. The religious and social organisations that operate in Vaddukoddai are organized along caste lines. In everyday life, the marginalized people from this area face casteist slurs from those of dominant caste groups.
The oppressed communities at Vaddukoddai have been affected by poverty. Many of them work as daily-wage labourers. Some of them do not own inhabitable or cultivable land. Children from some of these families have had to drop out from school due to poverty. This community has faced systemic marginalisation in education and economic development, transportation and infrastructure facilities and culturally as well, for many decades.
Some members of this community were among those most severely affected during the protracted civil war in the country. They were displaced from Jaffna during the 1995 Exodus. Some of the displaced people later moved to the Vanni and had to live through the horrific violence that unfolded during the end of the war, before returning to Vaddukoddai a decade ago. In the post-war years, the state did not offer any robust programs for the socio-economic upliftment of this war-ravaged community. Some members of the community, in their effort to make ends meet, fell into the debt-trap of predatory microfinance companies. The violence they faced in September has compounded their sense of marginalisation.
Historically, caste chauvinism is transmitted from one generation to another; economic policies of the state do not take into consideration the ways in which caste oppression works in society; and Tamil political leaders ignore, downplay and conceal casteism prevailing within the Tamil community. These factors and forces have led to the current predicament of the oppressed communities in Jaffna. We need to understand the violence at Vaddukoddai as a part of these continuing social, political, economic processes of caste-based oppression and exclusion.
Caste struggles have been fought and the oppressed caste communities have risen against their oppression. They have fought, negotiated, compromised, and individually and collectively challenged the oppressive conditions of caste domination. The community at Vaddukoddai that faced casteist violence has shown great resilience and courage in overcoming caste-based marginalisation over the years. Their will to survive and to survive with dignity and their ability to recalibrate their struggles for the future bear testament to this. Their perseverance, resistance and community building and the openings created by the larger and everyday struggles against casteism in the North have made possible changes, mobilities and progress in geographic, social and economic terms.
Taking pride in all that they have achieved as individuals and as a community against all odds stacked against them, the people collectively and continuously strive for a dignified life for their community. They have faith in life and persevere to ensure that their children will not face the problems they and their ancestors had to face. Even though the recent violence has caused fear among the community, they are confident that they will overcome the threats they face in a collective spirit and by building alliances.
Justice for the Community and Eliminating Caste Oppression
The measures taken by the Police to ensure that those affected by the violence at Vaddukoddai have justice are unsatisfactory. It is even alleged that the Police on some occasions allied themselves with the dominant caste group that perpetrated this violence. The Police have not done enough to bring to book many who were involved in this violence. Politicians and lawyers associated with the perpetrators and others who are hesitant to challenge casteism head-on are sending feelers to the affected community to dilute the latter’s demands for justice and their democratic struggle against casteism. Such insincere attempts to weaken the community’s spirit of resistance should end immediately.
The Vaddukoddai incident has brought us to the crossroads of anti-caste activism and a reappraisal of how we look at the societies we live in. We need to acknowledge and struggle against the deep economic, political and social divisions that are amidst us, signified most potently by caste. As the community in Vaddukoddai rises against this latest infraction of their right to inhabit place, the right to work and live in society, we as a whole must act in solidarity with them. While condemning the casteist violence in Vaddukoddai, we commit ourselves to fighting and resisting all forms of caste oppression and building a social and political culture where there is no room for caste-based oppression.
The Jaffna People’s Forum for Coexistence was inaugurated following the Easter Sunday attacks of 2019 with a view to promoting coexistence and social justice among different ethnic and religious communities.
Following the casteist violence at Vaddukoddai in September 2021, the members of the Jaffna People’s Forum for Coexistence visited Vaddukoddai and held discussions with the people who were affected during this violence. The Forum met on the 22nd of October 2021 to discuss the violence and the challenges faced by the oppressed community in the aftermath of the violence. A decision was made at this meeting to issue a statement condemning this violence.
Prof. Anthony Joseph Weeramunda
An online commemoration event was held last week, organised by the Sociology Alumni Association of the Colombo University, in association with the Department of Sociology there, to appreciate the contribution that Professor A.J. Weeramunda, who passed away three months ago, made to the Department, training of undergraduate and graduate students and sociological and anthropological research over three decades, since the early 1980s. The well attended event showed the wide ranging impact that his presence and work at the University of Colombo has had on his students and colleagues there, over several decades. What I attempt in this short narrative is to highlight a few significant contributions he made to promote critical social science research in Sri Lanka, based on my own observations, over three decades, when I had the opportunity of closely interacting with him as one of his colleagues in the Department.
Professor Weeramunda became a regular staff member in the Department of Sociology, in the early 1980s, and was already the Head of Department when I moved in there, in 1985 as a young lecturer. Though he was much senior to me, at the time, I immediately felt that he did not worry about his seniority in dealing with his colleagues. He began to address me affectionately as Siri, giving me the tacit understanding that I should reciprocate by addressing him by his first name, Joe. No doubt our graduate studies for several years, in two broadly similar western countries, made the above interpersonal adjustment that much easier. But, then it did not take long for me to realise that he was a kind, unassuming, friendly, informal, humorous and down to earth person who did not worry about hierarchical values.
Joe Weeramunda was not just another academic. While his commitment to serious academic research and dissemination of knowledge was quite clear throughout, his personality has been multifaceted from his undergraduate days. Though his main area of study at Peradeniya was English, he also had an interest in the Sinhala language, performing arts, drama, and even religious activities in the area of his own faith. Exposed to the work of such well established, eminent academics, like Edmond Leach, S.J. Thambiah, Gananath Obeyesekere and Ralph Peiris, already as an undergraduate, his interest in Anthropology and Sociology no doubt grew rapidly. His decision to pursue his post graduate studies in Anthropology at Washington University, in the United States, was no doubt a reflection of the above interest. On the other hand, his subsequent research interests that he pursued after his post-graduate studies indicated an influence of even a wider spectrum of scholars.
Several years prior to joining the Colombo Sociology Department, as a permanent staff member, in 1985, I was a visiting lecturer there for several years. It was during this period, in 1984, Joe worked with several Sri Lankan and foreign academics, notably James Brow, Mick Moore and Gananath Obeyesekere, to organise a landmark conference at Anuradhapura on Symbolic and Material Dimensions of Agrarian Change in Sri Lanka. ‘This conference brought together many Sri Lankan and overseas scholars with diverse theoretical orientations. This was necessary given the longstanding theoretical controversy over symbolic versus materialist orientations among anthropologists and sociologists at the time. In the Colombo Department of Sociology itself, this division was evident. While Dr. Newton Gunasinghe, another well known academic there at the time represented the Materialist school, as was evident from his research and writings on agrarian relations in Sri Lanka, while Joe was more tilted towards the symbolic. When a good selection of papers presented at the above conference was published by Sage India in 1992 as a collection of essays edited by James Brow and Joe Weeramunda under the title: Agrarian Change in Sri Lanka, it immediately attracted the attention of many scholars and students alike, in both Sri Lanka and overseas. I was fortunate enough as a younger academic to have had the opportunity of contributing to both the conference and the publication.
As a well trained liberal arts scholar and an Anthropologist, Joe displayed a keen interest throughout in conducting field research on diverse themes over several decades. He was convinced that undergraduate students should not only be exposed to theoretical discourses within the subject but also undergo practical training in conducting ethnographic research in the field. This would have been been at least partly due to his own exposure to field research conducted by senior scholars there with the involvement of undergraduate students at Peradeniya. So, he naturally tended to encourage students to spend time in the field, both in rural and urban areas. For instance, even the academic curriculum was modified to some extent to accommodate this aspect of undergraduate education in sociology in Colombo.
The Department of Sociology in Colombo was fortunate to establish an academic exchange programme with Leiden University in the Netherlands, in 1985, when Joe was still the Head of Department. This programme opened up many possibilities for promoting sociological and anthropological research on a range of themes, including the growing phenomenon of labour migration from Sri Lanka to the Middle East. Many academic visitors from the Netherlands actively took part in research activities for a number of years in collaboration with members of the academic staff and students in the Department. These research activities no doubt pleased Joe as he could see his students playing an active role in field research as part of their studies.
Joe Weeramunda served the University of Colombo for about three decades. He made a highly significant contribution to the development of the academic and research programmes in the University’s Department of Sociology. He took an active interest in the development of research and other skills of the students. His very friendly and informal ways of dealing with his students helped him to develop a good rapport with students. As many of his former students attested at the commemoration event, he was not just another university professor for them. It is no doubt his multifaceted personality that appealed to them, turning their experiences as undergraduate and postgraduate students into lifelong memories.
I, as one of his colleagues in the Department for three decades, would remember him not only as a brilliant scholar but also as a good friend and a humble, down-to-earth person.
Emeritus Professor of Sociology,
University of Colombo
What to do with political ‘dishonourables’?
Everybody, it seems, is appalled by the attraction of politics as a haven for the Intellectually challenged. It is revealed that some 60 % or something, in Parliament (Our Head Office for Democracy), do not boast of six passes at the “O-Level”. The actual numbers are unimportant, because even one (in 225) is excess. (Please ask the peons who scuttle around the chamber, keeping the water bottles of MPs recharged. Their percentage will surely be higher). For their contributions to State performance, even tapeworms would probably be more generous in the returns to their hosts.
But give it to the Honourables and their ingenuity, they use a very fine method. This is to bestow, as many as possible, Doctorates – thereby raising the average – assuming that credits are transferable! Suits me, as my conscience does not permit the use of “honourable”, I feel more comfortable with Dr. – at least I would be right 50% of the time, and still rising!
It has often been stated that members of the Singapore Legislature are among the highest paid in the World, but as the Chinese itinerant cloth seller of yore would say to the bargaining housewife, “Yes, m’am, but good things no cheap, cheap things no good”. It has to be noted that in the Singapore comparison, the much-envied numbers are “absolutely all-inclusive”. No housing allowances, cars, petrol, attendance fees, subsidised meals, light bills, telephones, medicals or any other. I believe that the legendary Lee Kwan Yew, generously conceded that ‘any of his cabinet’ was at perfect liberty to dwell in the swankiest neighbourhood, or own the poshest vehicle – but at his cost.” The recently retired German Chancellor, Angela Merkel was asked, “Why are you always clad in the same overcoat? Do you not own another?” Retorted she, “I am a public servant and not a fashion model!” What modesty, what class!
It would be unrealistic to expect the electoral process to operate on the basis of an objective assessment of the merits of contending candidates. Equally, it cannot be denied that the performance and contributions of the successful are demonstrably unequal.
However uncomfortable it may be, some means of recognising and giving effect to the indisputable principle that “Performance must match emoluments” or “Service must match reward”. There is no simple method of achieving this manifestly fair goal. May one suggestion be useful as a working proposition? Every member should draw as emolument, their last drawn salary or fee, (supported by the latest Income Tax declaration), multiplied by a pre-agreed factor of five, 10 or even 20 (or whatever), as all-inclusive remuneration. Beyond that, no other payments or perks, hidden or otherwise whatsoever. It would be a great index of sincerity, if such a proposal were to be seriously considered (or voted upon, by a secret ballot if desired). This might help us to separate the grain from the chaff, and go some way in raising the public esteem of Parliament, from its unhealthily low present position.
One other compelling benefit will be that the indefensible crime of hawked vehicle permits would cease. We cannot afford to have criminals in our Hallowed (or Hollowed?) Parliament, can we? If this suggestion secures approval, a great improvement in quality of debate, behaviour, decorum and usefulness will soon manifest.
The vehicle permit issue deserves a further mention, because one justification is laughable and serious at the same time. One person close to the political centre and thus reliable, argued that contesting an election was very costly, and beyond the reach of the capable and the untainted. Only drug kingpins, smugglers, cheats, procurers and similar criminal types could afford such an outlay. All agree that an improved composition of Parliament membership is urgently needed. Therefore, the honest ones selected, deserve some means of recovering their costs. So, what could be wrong in their selling a privilege – vehicle permit, petrol coupons, fake medical claims, etc.? And if I may add, “Take-away packs” of the heavily subsidised restaurant grub?
But some problems arise with such a cozy attempt to justify this clearly improper practice. The major problem is, why did not this principle of “The end justifies the means” apply in the case of that poor woman who attempted to pinch two packets of milk powder to feed her starving kids, or that girl arraigned for picking a few fallen coconuts to help pay for her class books?
One may well be tempted to ask “Why should not those who make the Law (Legislators) be also permitted to break them?”. Or, in the case of politicised appointees, “Why should not the person who appoints, be denied the right to “disappoint”? Neat but not logical nor moral enough. Two wrongs do not make a right. Or, do they?
Dr UPATISSA PETHIYAGODA
JVP, too, moves court against deal with US company
Govt. in dilemma over anti-terrorism law:
West Indies campaign in disarray after back to back defeats
7-billion-rupee diamond heist; Madush splls the beans before being shot
The Burghers of Ceylon/Sri Lanka- Reminiscences and Anecdotes
Unfit, unprofessional, fat Sri Lankans
Sports5 days ago
Mahela leaves Sri Lanka team with a heavy heart
Features6 days ago
‘Killi’ Rajamahendran: One of a kind
Life style3 days ago
The poem Neruda never wrote
Features4 days ago
Travellers and traders: Muslims of Sri Lanka
Sports6 days ago
Daniel anchors Sri Lanka Under 19s as hosts seal series
news5 days ago
Imported liquid Nano-Nitrogen fertiliser not organic, says a group of academics
Features2 days ago
How many roads must a man walk down?
Features6 days ago
Didi’s campaign theme song based on Yohani’s ‘Menike Mage Hithe’ Are we patriotic as a nation?