Even if we do have inclinations toward violence, we also have inclination to empathy, to cooperation, to self-control.
by Susantha Hewa
Before Covid-19 struck us we scarcely thought that altruism could ever be partnered with selfishness. However, the plague’s deadly path of destruction has shown that you can no longer afford the luxury of considering altruism as a virtue to be summoned ‘at your convenience.’ In the present context, it has become a necessary ingredient in any recipe for survival.
The pandemic has turned the conventional view of altruism on its head by making it synonymous with self-interest; “to protect yourself is to protect the whole society.” If you want to give more punch to it you may rephrase it as, “you are not safe until everybody is safe.” Perhaps this may be the all-compassionate magic slogan which has eluded sapiens for millennia. It is worth being printed on all national flags, one may feel. At least it will make each of them appear an emblem of global solidarity although those who value uniqueness above solidarity may not like the idea much. However, the plague has driven home quite a different message.
Unfortunately, altruism is a rare quality among those who make us believe it to be their mission in life every five years or so. Perhaps the world could have avoided the present catastrophe if we had the spirit of that slogan enshrined in the two most influential social institutions: politics and economics. Incidentally, the powerful few who wield power in these two overarching fields seem to have been persuaded by a less altruistic doctrine. They may profitably quote Ayn Rand, Russian-American writer/philosopher who asserted that “if any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject.” You wouldn’t be accused of being pessimistic if you were to say that that those who control politics and economics do firmly believe in creeds like: “you are not safe until all the others are rendered powerless”; “you cannot be content till all the others are deprived”; “you cannot be happy until the earth is plundered to the maximum for optimizing profit!”
Most of us are convinced that the coronavirus has made it necessary for us to shift gear to a “new normal” in which we consider the lurking pathogen as a fact of life in order to ensure everyone’s safety- at least for a couple of years. The longer you take to realize it, the greater your contribution would be to inviting more deadly variants of the virus, and the greater the chances of your experiencing needless bereavements.
The pestilence also has other lessons. For example, it underlines that the dictum, “you are not safe until everybody is safe” can transcend health concerns and serve as a sound principle to ensure the safety of everybody- physically, emotionally and financially. In the present context, we all cooperate in varying degrees to keep the virus at bay. However, can this idea of participation for everybody’s safety be made to outlive the pandemic and extended to combat other insidious social viruses like injustice, discrimination, poverty, bigotry? What about combating the virus of ignorance that makes fertile ground for superstitious beliefs? It is time that somebody unravelled the strange ‘complicity’ between our high literacy rate and the corresponding irrationality rate! The onset of the pandemic has exposed in no small measure the superstitious character of the nation, which received state patronage and media backing. And the damage caused is for everyone to be comprehended according to his or her lights.
“You are not safe until everybody is safe” has relevance in multiple contexts. It is the most eloquent message the deadly plague sends us to help coax people into a participatory culture. It is also highly relevant in every important aspect of modern life: education, livelihood, relationships, social welfare, peace building, poverty alleviation, conflict resolution, environmental issues, economics and politics. In fact, the present catastrophe is to a great extent the cumulative result of lack of opportunities for active mass involvement in many of the above fields. Not in any of the foregoing arenas is there a viable mechanism to address the natural human urge to feel a sense of belonging by contributing towards our collective wellbeing. Instead, you are made to feel that the height wisdom is to mind your own business. Unfortunately, many institutions that ought to work towards the solidarity of people are true to it only in theory. Generally, we are hell-bent on discovering our differences and points of divergence.
George Monbiot, author of a number of books including How did we get into this Mess? and Out of the Wreckage: a new politics for an age of crisis, is a keen advocate of making space for all concerned people to participate in improving all aspects of social life, which he calls “the politics of belonging.” He suggests that people’s sense of belonging can be made more meaningful and pervasive by giving more and more opportunities for larger numbers of people to participate in deciding our ‘collective wellbeing,’ which is now in the hands of a few. Proposing the broadening of democratic space, Monbiot says that in a political system of belonging, “the language of government changes, allowing anyone to understand the issues at stake and the means by which decisions are made.”
Ironically, today in many countries including ours, people get a sense of participation only by way of protesting! The rulers’ notion of ‘the common good’ and that of the majority of the populace happens to be is in constant conflict during the greater part of every five years irrespective of whoever is in power, the election day being the only exception.
At present, the principle “you are not safe until everybody is safe” has no currency except with respect to health. “Success” is the buzzword and it is always personal and never collective success. It is unfortunate that nothing short of a disaster of the magnitude of Covid 19 had to urge us to think of personal wellbeing in terms of collective security. Wouldn’t there be the least chance of moving towards a more participatory culture in which we may seek to make the sense of sharing a more regular experience- a way of life instead of it being restricted to those occasional events of a cultural or familial nature like New Year celebrations, weddings and funerals?
In a society where ‘the market’ is idolized as the ‘supreme natural law,’ it is greed, not collective happiness, which makes people cooperate. Unfortunately, the existing system can only make alienation the rule and cooperation the exception for the vast majority. It only triggers cooperation among politicians, businessmen and vested interests who amass wealth at the expense of the common good. The historian Yuval Noah Harari says “most human cooperation networks have been geared towards oppression and exploitation.” We can only hope that the world leaders would make Harari more optimistic about ‘human cooperation’ after we have put the pandemic behind us.
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
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