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Speaking Truth to Power: Complementary Roles of Qadri and Rajani

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BY RAJAN HOOLE

(Talk delivered by Dr. Rajan Hoole on 01 October, 2021, at the virtual launch of the book: Muslims in Post-War Sri Lanka: Repression, Resistance and Reform. The keynote address was by Dr Ahmed Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur on the freedom of religion or belief, followed by the panellists Prof. Savitri Goonesekera, Dr. Radhika Coormaraswamy,  M. A .Sumanthiran (PC) and Dr. Hoole.)

In congratulating those who have brought out this volume, Muslims in post-war Sri Lanka, and Shreen Saroor who spear-headed the effort, I will dwell on a historical note. An individual whose silent influence speaks through is Shreen’s late husband Qadri Ismail. Qadri devoted his intellectual life speaking truth to power in the cause of human rights and to the conviction that we are stronger together. Aneesa Firthous and her companions from Batticaloa, who challenged Zahran’s isolationism, reflected on their long-standing experience with political violence:

“… we have no reason to invest our faith in anti-terror laws that propagate violence and repression as a solution to such brutality. We strongly believe that the lasting solution to such hatreds lies in our fundamental human relationships and mutual support that have withstood the brutalities of war for decades.”

This is something that Qadri (as illustrated in his book Abiding by Sri Lanka) and Dr. Rajani Thiranagama (in the Broken Palmyra), believed in. Both in their own ways played the role of an intellectual speaking truth to power as described by Qadri’s teacher Edward Said in his 1993 Reith Lectures: “this figure of the intellectual as a being set apart, [is] someone able to speak the truth to power … for whom no worldly power is too big and imposing to be criticised and pointedly taken to task.”

Muslims in post-war Sri Lanka goes beyond the victimhood narrative. That effort is important for any community to emerge without dehumanising itself in the process of fighting against oppression. Harnessing only the victimhood mentality to mobilise people may work in the short run but will entrench the community in an ideologically narrow and internally oppressive environment. In this regard the book challenging the internal oppressiveness also helps Islamophobia to be challenged from a strong position. Those who argue that it is counterproductive to raise these issues at present, when Islamophobia is dominating mainstream narratives, are actually reinforcing and undermining the struggle against it.

I had the great good fortune to witness Qadri’s development as an advocate and intellectual over many years. 1983, a year of notoriety for Lanka, resulted also in a crisis of truth. The need to break out of it was widely felt. ‘The Ethnic Conflict,’ by the Committee for Rational Development was a scholarly response to this need in 1984. A leading article stated: “Contrary to Tamil opinion I do not believe that the government actually organised the riots; rather it was organised for the government by forces which the government itself had created, albeit for other purposes.” Such evasions provided cover for the President to shift the blame by proscribing three left parties. It defined judicial and academic responses for the coming decades. It must have been very frustrating for someone like Qadri. The resulting impunity seems irreversible at present.

In a rare sign of hope, VijithaYapa, then editor of The Island, encouraged Qadri and D.B.S. Jeyaraj to write quite freely. On 28th April 1985, Qadri, in his column, trashed the government’s attempt to blame local Muslims for an attack on Tamils when it denied that the STF had attacked the Tamil village of Karaitivu two weeks earlier, killing 11 persons, pointing out that guns possessed by local Muslims had been taken back under emergency regulations. That was Qadri’s uncompromising commitment to the truth, which had become dangerous. In Jaffna a similar commitment to the truth was advanced by some of us involved in the Saturday Review, edited by Gamini Navaratne with A.J. Canagaratna.

It was in October 1987, just after the Indian Army took Jaffna that Qadri was in Jaffna, where he was injured by shrapnel from a missile. He had discussions with my colleagues in UTHR (Jaffna) Rajani and Sritharan, who with me conceived of the book, The Broken Palmyra, to tell the unvarnished truth about the war and ourselves.

In it Rajani wrote a scathing (and prophetic) assessment of the LTTE: “The legendary Tigers will go to their demise with their legends smeared with the blood and tears of victims of their own misdoings. A new Tiger will not emerge from their ashes. Only by breaking with this whole history and its dominant ideology, can a new liberating outlook be born.”

Qadri wrote in the CPA collection Republic at 40, in 2012: “I hold the LTTE a dogmatically nationalist, self-glorifying, monopolistic, militarist, capitalist, antidemocratic, patriarchal, mass murdering entity; and the same of the Rajapaksa government.” The latter he described as insatiably corrupt, anti-poor, anti-subaltern and pathologically insecure.” This was a time Qadri must have still felt keenly the murder of his former journalist colleague Lasantha Wickrematunge in 2009, confirming that Sri Lanka was no place for him.

To Qadri, speaking truth to power had to be done bluntly. No individual was to be spared. He said in his book, ‘social science is allergic to the singular; it must repress difference.’ Abiding by Sri Lanka was written in the context of the Norway-sponsored peace process, which Tamil dissidents felt placed them under a sentence of death for an elusive peace. Qadri further wrote: “…is it ethical to seek compromise with a genocidal nationalism? We have two in this case, given not just Sinhalese nationalism’s response to the Tamils but also Tamil nationalism’s response to the Muslims.”

That question has not gone away. It created a sharp divide between anthropologists and scholars whose focus was human rights. The former tend to denounce the latter as not academic, as also seen in reviews of Qadri’s book. Even academics know the convenience of links to power and that is why they generally fail in speaking truth to power.

As for bluntness, Qadri, after leaving journalism, confined himself to critiquing academic writings. In Rajani’s case, while attacking the LTTE as condemned by the process of which it was both an agent and victim, she did not attack Prabhakaran directly. To her, he was a product of elite politics: “The militants were not the initiators; they were the continuation of this history. The ideology, in its totality, goes to the credit of the “moderate” and “middle of the road” nationalists, who were the initiators of this narrowness.” She felt deeply for the people and the young LTTE cadres, who were victims. She wanted to be an abiding presence in the community and an agent for liberating change.

Rajani and others, who challenged both external and internal terror, identified the fatal destructiveness of internal terror. Internal terror is frequently deployed as justification for external terror; to some extent it weakened the Tamil community on many fronts. Opening up space was the main aim of the Broken Palmyra and the UTHR reports; and the volume Muslims in post-war Sri Lanka too will play an important role in this regard.



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Encouraging signs, indeed!

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Derek and Manilal

Local entertainers can now breathe a sigh of relief…as the showbiz scene is showing signs of improving

Yes, it’s good to see Manilal Perera, the legendary singer, and Derek Wikramanayake, teaming up, as a duo, to oblige music lovers…during this pandemic era.

They will be seen in action, every Friday, at the Irish Pub, and on Sundays at the Cinnamon Grand Lobby.

The Irish Pub scene will be from 7.00 pm onwards, while at the Cinnamon Grand Lobby, action will also be from 7.00 pm onwards.

On November 1st, they are scheduled to do the roof top (25th floor) of the Movenpik hotel, in Colpetty, and, thereafter, at the same venue, every Saturday evening.

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Constructive dialogue beyond international community

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by Jehan Perera

Even as the country appears to be getting embroiled in more and more conflict, internally, where dialogue has broken down or not taken place at all, there has been the appearance of success, internationally. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be leading a delegation this week to Scotland to attend the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26). Both the President, at the UN General Assembly in New York, and Foreign Minister Prof G L Peiris, at the UN Human Rights Council, in Geneva seem to have made positive impacts on their audiences and, especially amongst the diplomatic community, with speeches that gave importance to national reconciliation, based on dialogue and international norms.

In a recent interview to the media Prof Peiris affirmed the value of dialogue in rebuilding international relations that have soured. He said, “The core message is that we believe in engagement at all times. There may be areas of disagreement from time to time. That is natural in bilateral relations, but our effort should always be to ascertain the areas of consensus and agreement. There are always areas where we could collaborate to the mutual advantage of both countries. And even if there are reservations with regard to particular methods, there are still abundant opportunities that are available for the enhancement of trade relations for investment opportunities, tourism, all of this. And I think this is succeeding because we are establishing a rapport and there is reciprocity. Countries are reaching out to us.”

Prof Peiris also said that upon his return from London, the President would engage in talks locally with opposition parties, the TNA and NGOs. He spoke positively about this dialogue, saying “The NGOs can certainly make a contribution. We like to benefit from their ideas. We will speak to opposition political parties. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is going to meet the Tamil National Alliance on his return from COP26, which we will attend at the invitation of the British Prime Minister. So be it the NGO community or the foreign diaspora or the parliamentary opposition in Sri Lanka. We want to engage with all of them and that is very much the way forward”

INTERNAL FRAGMENTATION

The concept of a whole-of-government approach is indicative of a more cohesive approach to governance by government ministries, the public administration and state apparatus in general to deal with problems. It suggests that the government should not be acting in one way with the international community and another way with the national community when it seeks to resolve problems. It is consistency that builds trust and the international community will trust the government to the extent that the national community trusts it. Dialogue may slow down decision making at a time when the country is facing major problems and is in a hurry to overcome them. However, the failure to engage in dialogue can cause further delays due to misunderstanding and a refusal to cooperate by those who are being sidelined.

There are signs of fragmentation within the government as a result of failure to dialogue within it. A senior minister, Susil Premajayantha, has been openly critical of the ongoing constitutional reform process. He has compared it to the past process undertaken by the previous government in which there was consultations at multiple levels. There is a need to change the present constitutional framework which is overly centralised and unsuitable to a multi ethnic, multi religious and plural society. More than four decades have passed since the present constitution was enacted. But the two major attempts that were made in the period 1997-2000 and again in 2016-2019 failed.

President Rajapaksa, who has confidence in his ability to stick to his goals despite all obstacles, has announced that a new constitution will be in place next year. The President is well situated to obtain success in his endeavours but he needs to be take the rest of his government along with him. Apart from being determined to achieve his goals, the President has won the trust of most people, and continues to have it, though it is getting eroded by the multiple problems that are facing the country and not seeing a resolution. The teachers’ strike, which is affecting hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren, is now in its fourth month, with no sign of resolution. The crisis over the halting of the import of chemical fertiliser is undermining the position of farmers and consumers at the present time.

EARLY WARNING

An immediate cause for the complaints against the government is the lack of dialogue and consultation on all the burning issues that confront the country. This problem is accentuated by the appointment of persons with military experience to decision-making positions. The ethos of the military is to take decisions fast and to issue orders which have to be carried out by subordinates. The President’s early assertion that his spoken words should be taken as written circulars reflects this ethos. However, democratic governance is about getting the views of the people who are not subordinates but equals. When Minister Premajayantha lamented that he did not know about the direction of constitutional change, he was not alone as neither does the general public or academicians which is evidenced by the complete absence of discussion on the subject in the mass media.

The past two attempts at constitutional reform focused on the resolution of the ethnic conflict and assuaging the discontent of the ethnic and religious minorities. The constitutional change of 1997-2000 was for the purpose of providing a political solution that could end the war. The constitutional change of 2016-19 was to ensure that a war should not happen again. Constitutional reform is important to people as they believe that it will impact on how they are governed, their place within society and their equality as citizens. The ethnic and religious minorities will tend to prefer decentralised government as it will give them more power in those parts of the country in which they are predominant. On the other hand, that very fact can cause apprehension in the minds of the ethnic and religious majority that their place in the country will be undermined.

Unless the general public is brought aboard on the issue of constitutional change, it is unlikely they will support it. We all need to know what the main purpose of the proposed constitutional reform is. If the confidence of the different ethnic and religious communities is not obtained, the political support for constitutional change will also not be forthcoming as politicians tend to stand for causes that win them votes. Minister Premajayantha has usefully lit an early warning light when he said that politicians are not like lamp posts to agree to anything that the government puts before them. Even though the government has a 2/3 majority, this cannot be taken for granted. There needs to be buy in for constitutional reform from elected politicians and the general public, both from the majority community and minorities, if President Rajapaksa is to succeed where previous leaders failed.

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JAYASRI twins…in action in Europe

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The world over, the music scene has been pretty quiet, and we all know why. This pandemic has created untold hardships for, practically, everyone, and, the disturbing news is that, this kind of scene has been predicted for a good part of 2022, as well,

 

The band JAYASRI, however, based in Europe, and fronted by the brothers Rohitha and Rohan, say they are fortunate to find work coming their way.

Over the past few months, they have been performing at some of the festivals, held in Europe, during the summer season.

Says Rohitha: “As usual, we did one of the biggest African festivals in Europe, AfrikaTage, and some other summer events, from July up to now. Some were not that big, as they used to be, due to the pandemic, health precautions, etc.”

For the month of October, JAYASRI did some concerts in Italy, with shows in the city of Verona, Napoli, Rome, Padova and Milano.

The twins with the
late Sunil Perera

On November, 12th, the JAYASRI twins, Rohitha and Rohan, will be at EXPO Dubai 2020 and will be performing live in Dubai.

Rohitha also indicated that they have released their new single ‘SARANGANA,’ describing it as a Roots Reggae song, in audio form, to all download platforms, and as a music video to their YouTube channel – www.youtube.com/user/jayasri

According to Rohitha, this song will be featured in an action drama.

The lyrics for ‘SARANGANA,’ were created by Thushani Bulumulle, music by JAYASRI, and video direction by Chamara Janaraj Pieris.

There will be two audio versions, says Rohitha – a Radio Mix and a DUB Mix by Parvez.

The JAYASRI twins Rohitha and Rohan

After their Italian tour, Rohitha and Rohan are planning to come to Sri Lanka, to oblige their many fans, and they are hoping that the showbiz scene would keep on improving so that music lovers could experience a whole lot of entertainment, during the forthcoming festive season.

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