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Race or class: A critique of the Jathika Chintanaya (Part I)

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Somewhere between adolescence and adulthood, from 18 to 21, I read Nalin de Silva. It was hard for anyone to miss him, especially anyone who read the Divaina and The Island. While I cannot remember when I read his first piece, I do remember that piece well: a polemic on the relevance of philosophy, science, mathematics, and English. What caught my attention was its ending. Reflecting on Arundhati Roy and Noam Chomsky, de Silva contended that had the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan remained in Chennai without meeting the British mathematician G. H. Hardy, his contributions would have been more perennial.

For de Silva, philosophy remains a monopoly of the West, since for centuries the West had determined its trajectory, leaving the rest of humanity with very little to contribute to. In that sense, and in his estimation, Ramanujan erred: he should have continued to formulate his own theories, appealing to Namagiri Thayar in much the same way de Silva had appealed to Natha not too long ago, without seeking validation from a Westerner.

What I find interesting about the essay, characteristically didactic and pugnacious to the point of acute hostility, is what it reveals about the thinking behind not only the author, but more pertinently the ideology he spearheaded with Gunadasa Amarasekara four decades ago: the Jathika Chintanaya. It is also interesting in what it says about its foes: not just Arundhati Roy and Noam Chomsky, but the very idea of English education and Western culture.

What did de Silva think of science and philosophy, and of politics – domains which centuries ago remained bound together, and not cordoned off from one another like they are now – and what did he want to do with them? If for de Silva Ramanujan remained a failed intellectual – and there are many other intellectuals his contemporaries have deemed failures, based on the same criteria – who were his preferred scientists, artists, politicians? The more I searched for answers, the more questions I found and the more those answers evaded me. That does much credit, I suppose, to the amorphous appeal of the ideology he avers.

Looking at it in retrospect now, the Jathika Chintanaya achieved a great deal as an ideological outfit, even if it didn’t count many allies on its side. Yet it was hardly unique: various other outfits had cropped up, or were cropping up, in other parts of the world, at around the time it was coming into being in the 1980s. The Jathika Chintanaya represented a cultural response to economic forces; it evolved a cultural critique of neoliberalism and globalisation: issues of political provenance, but which, with the slow demise of the Left during the 1980s, turned into subjects of nationalist, specifically ethno-nationalist, polemics. Again, hardly unique to Sri Lanka: across much of Asia and even in Reagan’s USA, these debates were undergoing an epochal transition, from political economy to ethno-nationalist ideology.

To give due credit to these outfits is only fair: in its critique of such topical issues, the Jathika Chintanaya took the place of, and gained more credence than, the Marxist and post-Marxist outfits it ended up opposing. An anecdote would help here. Somewhere in the 1990s a Left politician confessed openly that there was no alternative to privatisation. At that time no less than the daughter of the country’s most prominent socialist head of state, elected president on a popular mandate, was going about preaching the virtues of free market economics. Yet only a few years earlier, Nalin de Silva had launched a campaign against Coca-Cola and Fanta in local universities, and had got involved in protests against the Kandalama Hotel.

I find these contrasts intriguing: a Marxist confessing to the wonders of globalisation and the inevitability of Marxism’s fading away, versus an avowed anti-Marxist protesting against the symbols of those wonders from a non-Marxist perspective. This contradiction, intriguing as is, becomes disconcerting when you explore it further. Since lack of space prevents me from delving into it in detail, I’ll concern myself with two pertinent issues, issues which reveal for me both the enduring appeal, and the inherent flaws, of the movement: firstly its relationship with the Left, and secondly its contradictory array of class interests.

The tenuousness of the Jathika Chintanaya’s relationship with the Old Left had a great deal to do the latter’s relationship with Sinhala nationalism, for by the late 1980s the Old Left had ceased to be of any concern or relevance to a burgeoning Sinhala Buddhist middle-class. The reason isn’t too hard to find. With Old Leftists seen to be either Indophile (given their support for the Indo-Lanka Accord) or integrated into foreign funded and NGO-driven civil society, vast swathes of a newly bourgeoisied middle-class, disillusioned with Marxism, converted from a radical cosmopolitan perspective to an insular communalist one.

To be sure, not everyone made this transition so deterministically or dramatically: there were some who took a longer ideological route, from the Old Left to the JVP and later to Sinhala nationalism. A few even stuck through the Old Left in spite of the Indo-Lanka Accord before turning to the nationalist Right. All in all, though, that transition remained the same for most: disillusionment with Marxists turning into disillusionment with Marxism itself.

It should be mentioned here that no less than Nalin de Silva began his political journey with that same Old Left, in a party that had as its founder a man who was later to praise the leader of the LTTE in public; a man ensconced today in the same party whose leader stripped him of an academic post, and blacklisted him, in the 1980s. Like Wordsworth pondering his youthful ardour over the French Revolution, de Silva eventually absolved himself of these associations by formulating and evolving a cultural critique of Marxism in toto.

It should also be acknowledged that the crisis of the Old Left predated the 1987 Accord. The crisis had its roots in the then government’s crackdown on trade unions, and its deployment of a brutal military-security apparatus to crush every real and imagined vestige of dissent. Yet despite this indisputable fact, nationalists see it differently; for them the Left’s crisis sprang from its siding with India, an act which “betrayed” its anti-nationalist character.

 

Race…

 

Such critiques of the (Old) Left did not materialise after the Indo-Lanka Accord. Gunadasa Amarasekara had made them years before with his Anagarika Dharmapala Marxvadiyekda?, in which he reflected on the links between Marxism and nationalism and lamented the failure of contemporary Marxists to maintain those historical links. What the Indo-Lanka Accord did was to provide a litmus test, a testing ground, for these critiques; having set up the Left as a straw man, the Jathika Chintanaya naturally saw in the support given by prominent Leftists to the Accord a confirmation of its fears, and suspicions, about Marxists.

Its response to India and the Old Left – and the Indophile section of the UNP, not to mention the fiercely nationalist SLFP-MEP – do not, however, explain its response to the JVP, i.e. the New Left. This is problematic when you consider the interests which brought these outfits together. Apart from the SLFP, the party most opposed to Indian intervention happened to be the JVP. The Jathika Chintanaya opposed it too, resorting to the same rhetoric vis-à-vis India: if not so chauvinistically, then certainly in the same communalist breath.

In fact the founders of Jathika Chintanaya went as far as to sympathise with the JVP (“a complex grouping of people representing thousands of rural youth who want socialism” was how Amarasekara saw them in 1988, before the peak of the second insurrection). Insofar as the JVP’s socialism cohered with the Jathika Chintanaya’s nationalism, a value congruency thus prevailed between the two (“We must give them every possible opportunity,” implored Amarasekara). Yet despite this congruency, the two never came together. Why not?

I suggest that this failure of consensus despite congruence has a great deal to do with the difference in tactic, strategy, indeed ideological grounding, between the JVP and the Jathika Chintanaya. When I pose the question as to why these groups could not reconcile and unify, the two most frequent responses I get from followers of the Jathika Chintanaya are, that the JVP resorted to violence antithetical to Sinhala Buddhist tenets during the insurrection, and that it has shed its Sinhala Buddhist character today. These represent two distinct failures of tactic and strategy from two distinct periods: back then and right now.

On the face of it, the Chintanawadi perspective is right: the JVP did engage in excesses which marginalise any sentiments condoning violence and group supremacy that the founders of the Jathika Chintanaya espoused back then, and it has through its entry into the democratic mainstream been co-opted today by a left-liberal intelligentsia, who for Sinhala nationalists remain as “anti-nationalist” as their Old Left counterparts from the 1980s. But this difference of ideological grounding between these groups does not in itself explain the failure to reach a consensus, and must not be assessed on its own. Instead it must be compared with the second of those points I highlighted earlier: the class composition of the Chintanawadeen.

 

To be continued…



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Features

Save the Last Dance for me

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By Capt Elmo Jayawardena

elmojay1@gmail.com

A few months ago, I was in Hong Kong, visiting a well-known charity organisation called Crossroads. It was to seek assistance for a project in Sri Lanka. Crossroads has an enormous warehouse filled to the brim with anything and everything; ready to be sent to places where people in need plead.

The store surroundings looked familiar. Then I realised I was standing where the old Kai Tak airport was, now pastured and replaced by the glamour of the new Hong Kong International Airport.

Yes, I have been here before, many a time at that, bringing jet aeroplanes into land on runway 13, turning at the famous Chequered Board at 600 feet and pointing at the short runway besieged by the sea. The final turn and approach was made between sky-scrapers that stood on either side, like sentinels, and one could spot the flat residents’ laundry hanging outside their windows.

The Chequered Board was fixed to the mountainside, big board with orange and yellow squares, clearly to say “Turn now, beyond this is damnation”.

That was Kai Tak, surrounded by hills, minimum length to stop, and the weather gods playing their fancy games so often that we, mere mortals who flew the machines were nothing but puppets on a string.

But we managed; day in and day out to put our aeroplanes down and brake like crazy to make sure we didn’t overrun and tip into the water.

When the skies were friendly, it was a thrill to land at Kai Tak. The runway usually was direction 130 (runway 13) and the wind rolled from the East, nice and steady and we came past Green Island and saw the Chequered Board in front to tell us we have to change direction lest we too got pasted like the Chequered Board on the same mountain. Then came the turn, low and precise to make the final approach, the laundry run, to fly between the buildings and place the wheels precisely at the touch down point to avoid going swimming.

Every time a pilot landed in Hong Kong in the olden days, there was that gleam in the eye. I’ve seen it a hundred times in my co-pilots and I’ve felt the same whenever I made the approach; the accomplishment of doing something right where the demand was high, which sent the adrenalin into overdrive.

The typhoon time was another story. The winds sheared, gusted, backed and veered and the rain swept across the field, diminishing visibility. Dark grey clouds hung low, covering the mountains and the Chequered Board was hardly visible. We went in by the leading lights, which were very powerful strobes that throbbed, giving us a path to follow to take us to the laundry lane. All this was with the wind playing wild symphony and the rain pattering down like machinegun fire. Most times, lining up on the runway for the short final run was almost impossible and that is where the pilot’s skill mattered, kicking rudders and wagging wings like a mad man playing drums just so that the aeroplane landed and stopped all within that little wet and slippery runway with the sea awaiting with open jaws for a luckless pilot’s mistake.

I remember my last flight to Kai Tak, in June 1998. I left home determined to do the landing. Most days, I would let the co-pilot fly, I’ve seen a lot of this airfield and the younger pilots were always grateful for a swing at Hong Kong. But this was my final flight to Kai Tak and I saved the last dance for me, just like the The Drifters sang.

The co-pilot was young and he mentioned he had never landed in Hong Kong. It was a hard call on me. I could not let this young man go and run through a flying career having never landed in Kai Tak. Maybe, years later his first-officer would ask about the infamous Kai Tak approach and my friend would have to answer that he had never done it.

All in all. the deck was stacked against me, there is something called professional courtesy and out went my last dance, “Son, you take it to Hong Kong”.

The weather was bad, the winds were howling, and we went in. The young man turned at 600 feet and the aircraft was bucking and jumping and he hung in there like a rodeo kid but that wasn’t enough.

With 300 feet to go we were pointing at mountains and the field was almost below us and then I took over and went around to the safety of the sky.

One thing I never did in an aeroplane is if I ever took over from a co-pilot, I never gave it back. I flew it and landed it – that was the golden rule, the safe approach.

The rodeo kid and I were now loitering in the sky to await our turn to make the next run. Then it hit me like a thunderbolt, same co-pilot, years later would be a Captain and when his co-pilot asked him about Kai Tak and how it was to fly in he would have to say “I got one chance and I blew it, couldn’t make the field and the Captain had to take over.”

There was no way I could crucify this young man’s soul, make him poor as gutter water in a field where professional prestige mattered most.

‘Son you take it in, go and land this aeroplane.”

That’s precisely what he did. He waltzed with the wind and came through the clouds and turned at the Chequered Board and flew down the laundry lane and lined up the big 747 on the short runway to land as smooth as Mr. Neil did on the moon.

Then I saw the glitter in his eye – Last dance or no dance, I wouldn’t have traded anything for that look. That’s what flying was all about.

It is possible that my rodeo-kid friend would read what I write and remember. It was all between him and me and the old Kai Tak Airport.

He, I am sure by now, is a Captain. I like to think that he too would at times give away his turn to dance just to see the gleam in a fledgling’s eyes. That should be the legacy.

If not, what would we be worth as professional pilots?

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MICHELANGELO OF ITALY and BARANA OF SRI LANKA

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BY Sampath Fernando

“Every block of stone has a statue inside and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” –

Michelangelo (AD 1475-1564). And he discovered THE DAVID inside a rock of marble around AD 1501-1504.

Barana, the Sri Lankan sculptor, performed a similar act in the 5th Century AD. He was supposed to have accomplished this around 455-477 AD during the reign of King Dhatusena. Avukana is a standing statue of the Buddha near Kekirawa in the North Central province of Sri Lanka. The statue, which has a height of more than 40 feet (12 m), was carved out of a large granite rock face.

 

BARANA, THE SCULPTOR

There are enough historical records about Michelangelo and his paintings and sculpture. Barana was virtually unknown. My speculation is that he was employed by the king, not for his artistry but merely for his skills to get a Buddha statue sculptured. In ancient Sri Lanka, kings were well known for creating Buddha statues and Stupas (dome shaped buildings to preserve relics).

Whatever the reason both Barana and Michelangelo deserve great honour from us. Why? It is amazing the genius of both of them, how they produced such wonderful work of art without the aid of modern cameras and computers, electromechanical drills etc. Also, how did the Romans carve their tall fluted columns which are perfectly proportioned. The magnificence of ancient Egyptian pyramids goes without saying.

 

SPIRITUAL ASPECTS

Michelangelo later in life developed a belief in Spiritualism, for which he was condemned by Pope Paul IV. The fundamental tenet of Spiritualism is that the path to God can be found not exclusively through the Church, but through direct communication with God. I speculate than Barana was a devout Buddhist. Buddhism being the only organised religion at the time. As mentioned earlier the kings spent lot of wealth and employed skilled artists to honour the Buddha.

 

THE PERFECT BUDDHA STATUE

Carved out of the living rock with supreme assurance, Avukana Buddha is a magnificent image. His expression is serene and from his curled hair sprouts the flame called siraspata signifying the power of supreme enlightenment. Although the statue is large and stands straight up with feet firmly planted on the lotus stone pedestal, the body retains a graceful quality enhanced by beautifully flowing drapery clinging to the body.

 

THE TALLEST BUDDHA STATUE IN THE WORLD

The magnificent free-standing (still attached to the original massive rock) statue carved out of a single rock is the tallest Buddha statue in existence today. Following the destruction of similar but much larger statues at Bamiyan in Afghanistan, the Avukana Buddha has gained even greater significance in the Buddhist World.

 

MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE

My parents were devout Buddhists and school holidays were combined with a family pilgrimage. So, I was taken to Avukana statue with my two brothers and the two sisters to worship the Buddha. I was only about 10 years old. As I reached my adulthood I began to look up to Buddha for his philosophy.

As an octogenarian, I visited the site on 7 December 2019 and venerated Barana for giving us such a marvellous image of art. A combination of philosophy and art!

“I am still learning” said Michelangelo at the age of 87. I can say the same thing now, seven years ahead.

 

(The writer taught Applied Physics at The University of Arts London (UAL) and retired as a professor.)

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Identity issues continuing to fuel Mid-East conflict

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On the face of it, the decades-long Middle-East conflict is all about who controls which plot of land in the chronically conflict-ridden region. For example, the powder keg city of East Jerusalem is claimed by both the Israelis and the Palestinians. On and off, the city erupts in violence on account of its disputed nature and we are just witnessing a new round of such blood-letting. Ownership of real estate seems to be at the heart of the conflict. But there is more than meets the eye in the conflict and land ownership is just one vital aspect of it.

As important as land and issues relating to material well being that grow out of it is religious identity and connected cultural markers that are seen by the Israelis and Palestinians as defining them as ‘nations’. This accounts for the centrality of East Jerusalem to the complex problem which is the Middle East.

In the latter city are places of worship which are seen as being of the utmost sacredness by the groups concerned. For example, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which is sacred to Islam and therefore the Palestinians, and which came under attack in the current round of violence, is located in East Jerusalem. Likewise, numerous are the sites in East Jerusalem which are sacred to the Jews. The Temple Mount is one such structure which is revered by the Jews. But many of these places of religious worship are revered by almost the entirety of the communities of the region, although some groups proclaim exclusive ownership over them.

It is for the above reasons that pronouncements to the effect that ‘Jerusalem is the undivided capital of Israel’ could be anathema in the ears of a considerable number of Palestinians and many of those of the Islamic faith. Recognizing this statement as true and factual could be tantamount to conceding that all Islamic sacred sites in East Jerusalem should come under the complete control and jurisdiction of the Israelis.

To very many sections professing the Islamic faith in the region, conceding East Jerusalem to Israel would be unthinkable because East Jerusalem is integral to their identity as a people or as a ‘nation’. This is the reason why they would see themselves as fully justified in taking up arms to defend their perceived ownership of East Jerusalem. And ‘native’ places and locations are almost sacred to most communities and ethnic groups because those are the sites where they could practise their religions and cultures. The same line of reasoning holds good for traditional Jews. Since East Jerusalem is home to numerous sites that are sacred to them they would see themselves as justified in possessing the city by even the force of arms.

It is in view of the foregoing that former US President Donald Trump could be said to have destroyed peace prospects in the Middle East to a considerable measure by fully endorsing the position that ‘Jerusalem is the undivided capital of Israel’. By doing so, the former US President legitimised Israel’s complete hold over the city. But the truth is that ownership of the city is bloodily contested and this has been so for decades.

The question could be asked as to why one group should consider it unthinkable and revolting that the other group should exercise controlling power over religious sites that are claimed by it as well. In short, why are these group antagonisms so deep-rooted? We go to the heart of the Middle East conflict with this question.

In fact, the ‘enmity’ could be centuries long. Its roots could lie in the ‘myths of origin’ churned out by hard line sections in both communities. Both Judaism and Islam revere Abraham, seen as the originator of most theistic religions of the Middle East. Abraham is believed to have had two sons of different natures. At the popular level, each of the adversarial groups in the Middle East sees itself as deriving from the ‘better-natured’ of the sons. Like most popular myths, these notions die hard among the more impressionable sections.

However, there is no denying that land and territorial disputes have been keeping the flames of conflict and war ablaze in the Middle East. This is true of today as it was at the turn of the last century, when the British were seen as implanting the Jews in the land of Palestine at the expense of those who were already inhabiting it. That is, the Palestinians of today. The Jews were seen as growing in number in Palestine and they very soon laid claim to a state of their own in Palestine. Thus were sown the early seeds of the conflict which has bedevilled the region to date.

As matters stand, Israel controls to a considerable degree all contested areas in the conflict except the Gaza strip where the militant group Hamas exercises extensive governing control, backed by some staunchly pro-Islamic extra-regional states. At present, the religious unrest in East Jerusalem has invited the military involvement of Hamas, which development has, in turn, triggered off a spiral of violence between the Israeli security forces and Hamas. At the time of writing, the violence has claimed more than 30 lives.

It is highly regrettable that the violence is occurring in the holy month of Ramadan. It is hoped that the international community would intervene to end the violence and make a fresh effort to work out a political solution to the conflict.

A scrutinizing look at Middle East developments over the decades would indicate a close link between land issues and identity questions. These factors could be said to have been mutually-reinforcing. To the extent to which the Palestinians see themselves as being deprived of land and other means of livelihood, to the same degree are they seeing themselves as suffering on account of their religious identity. This trend aggravates religious tensions. Economic issues deriving from land questions trigger a sense of being victimized on account of religious and cultural markers.

Accordingly, US President Joe Biden has his work cut out. If he is serious about bringing peace to the Middle East, he will launch a fresh bid towards evolving the two-state solution. Under this formula there is a possibility of resolving land issues equitably.

 

 

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