Saturday, January 17, 2015

Mahinda, Maithri, and the politics of marginalisation

S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike knew politics well enough to pick on-the-moment fads and turn them into ideology. He has been criticised and praised for all the wrong reasons. He has been called a chauvinist, as erroneous as the the "opportunist" and "demagogue" tags that have been pasted on him by his critics.

There are also those who admire and censure him for different reasons. Having an axe to grind with what he stood for, they consider him a cunning politician, one who tricked his supporters into making him popular. As crass a generalisation as this is, it's an observation that has gained currency among the self-styled intelligentsia, mainly but not only hailing from Colombo (the "Colomboans").

S. W. R. D. was a politician. He knew words. Rhetoric. He felt the on-the-moment need and transformed it into want. He rode on a populist platform and ended up in 1956. To say that he did all that with words alone isn't true. To say that he was the shrewd, Machiavellian politician-statesman purely by this isn't true. Both are claims. Unsubstantiated and crass. This isn't to say that he was a lily-white angel, but this doesn't make him a deceitful politician either.

I have often wondered whether these claims have anything to do with post-independence politics. After all, as Kumari Jayawardena has so brilliantly observed in Nobodies to Somebodies, it was a ruling dynasty that got to dominate our political landscape. For some, Anglicised and deeply Westernised, the sight of one of these somebodies turning into a "nobody" and trying to learn the ways of his own country would have been unbearable.

That is why they resent Bandaranaike. Why they imagine him as a vulgar nationalist and a demagogue. Why they relish it whenever and wherever they stoke their hatred by marginalising his contribution to our country. The truth is that those who belong to that elite and privileged class resent him for having unshackled himself of their class interests and detoured.

This isn't all, of course. The Colomboans (or, as Malinda Seneviratne calls them, the "Kolombians") have always believed that it was a particular class who were destined to rule the country, wherever and whatever the context. Bandaranaike was an unforgivable rebel, never to be tolerated again.

When Maithripala Sirisena won this year, everyone cheered. Change was needed. The Colomboans, long resentful of his predecessor's regime, shouted. Some of them shouted because of regime-change, others because Mahinda Rajapaksa lost. Whatever the reason, however, they raised a cheer. All of them. Accordingly therefore, in an attempt to belittle everything that man did or at least tried to do, they began to marginalise.

The abuse began on social media. It began right after the election results began to get ethnicised by those who couldn't bear Rajapaksa's defeat: right after claims that the former president had all but the North and East began gaining (undue) currency. There were statuses and comments which began poking fun at those who had voted for him, particularly from the South. I can't pick out one status to speak for them all, but looking through it all, it's easy to understand just how insular, how bigoted, some of them are.

Things move fast on social media. Hashtags and labels gain currency pretty quickly and move all over. It didn't take long for these insular statements to gain popularity. Most if not all of them called Southerners and in particular those who voted for Mahinda a bunch of uneducated barbarians. At a time when we were condemning those who were trying to script ethnicity into the election, these commentators were raising up bigotry of a different form.

Almost subconsciously, these commentators began associating "villager" with "barbarianism", claiming that the reason they voted for Mahinda was their lack of education and "refinement" (whatever that meant). They didn't (and couldn't) identify the simple fact that even in certain Southern electorates, Mahinda won only by a margin: a dramatic volte-face from the last election.

Accordingly, in an attempt to "make use" of the former president's victory to spurt out their prejudices, the Colomboans alleged that the Southerner voted for Mahinda owing to how easy he was to fool. Indeed, if we were to go by this logic, those who vote for the TNA and the SLMC would have blindly followed those parties for that same reason - a statement no-one with any sense of decency would make.

There was vilification that day. We saw Tamils being branded as Tigers. We saw needless divisions between voters being made. Some cheered, others sobered. Those who had thought Mahinda invincible were shattered. That's natural. When you've cheered the same guy over and over again, you tend to assume he won't lose. This is what happened. To go beyond this and claim that one section (or subsection thereof) of this country are uneducated barbarians is as bigoted as it's going to get.

It was Malinda Seneviratne who correctly observed that vilifying an entire collective was indicative of hypocrisy, whether in social media or elsewhere. More often than not, the "trend" was to criticise one form of "blanket vilification" while absolving another. That's what surfaced (slightly, I should say) when those who condemned the Northern and Eastern voters were rightly thrashed while those who rubbished Southerners did so with impunity. As a part-Southerner myself, I found the latter's statements offensive and downright insulting. But those who condemned them were in the few. Sadly.

The reason has more to do with self-inflated notions of "education" and "refinement" than with actual bigotry. It's significant that those who ridiculed Southerners hailed from Colombo or at least from neighbouring suburbs. It's also significant that their puffed up notions of education came from privileged backgrounds rather than from any real sense of what that term really meant. Most of them came from that English-speaking and self-styled "intelligent" crowd who couldn't probably identify Kandy or Galle on a map and would probably be comfortable with the British ruling us, thinking that West is best and those who can't speak in English or afford fine dining can't think and are brainless.

There were claims made that day. Counterclaims too. Those who condemned one form of racism were in the many. It's sad to think that even some of those who condemned it got themselves involved with bigotry of another sort: not fueled by racism, but by the need to emphasise that imaginary line between them and those they deem to be brainless village idiots.

The postscript belongs to a friend of mine who, by way of explanation, had this to say: "The elite castes always considered Southerners (as) lower beings."

So it's not racism. Not even bigotry. It's class consciousness. The same kind of consciousness that continues to vilify Bandaranaike and ridicule him as a Westernised elitist who took everyone, Sinhala Buddhists et al, by their (imaginary) horns and fooled them into electing him. That's politics. The politics of marginalisation.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at