Friday, June 23, 2017

The legacy of Dayan Jayatilleka

In politics there are degrees of expedience, of imperative, of loyalty, of friendships that sour and enmities that are forgotten. Nothing is cast in stone, which is why no one can be counted on as a permanent ally or foe. Picking on parties and individuals has naturally become a political necessity. Not just a necessity, but a necessary frill.

The truth is that Dr Dayan Jayatilleka, whose critique of Gotabaya Rajapaksa while the latter was in power years ago has resurfaced on social media, has changed. The truth is that he's not the only commentator bearing similar credentials and beliefs who has changed. The Joint Opposition is chock-a-bloc with those who affirm Sinhala Buddhist monoliths, multicultural monoliths, federalism, and chauvinism.

These faces were different while the man they support was in power. They were different then because when the man you support is in power, you tend to push for your beliefs and diverge from his. Now that he is not in power, they have skewed those beliefs, or set them aside, until directly or through a proxy he does return to power.

My point is that both the government and the Joint Opposition are operating on flawed premises. The government has made itself out as an anti-racist, anti-majoritarian coalition. The Joint Opposition has made itself out as the obverse of it. The tragedy here is that these stances (some laudable, others not) are being denied by their own representatives. So you have a policy of anti-racism by the government being subverted by the alleged racism of some of those who head that same government.

No less a figure than our president, let's not forget, was touted as the panacea for the primitive traditionalism of the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime. That this was only make-believe transpired much later. It transpired when the president condemned the organisers of a concert with the threat of a rather archaic punishment. It transpired when he openly condemned those who were investigating members of the armed forces. And it transpired when those who headed the many outfits formed prior and consequent to his election (to mention just one of them, Sarath Wijesuriya) began clashing with the same majoritarianism they had combated in the previous regime.

Dayan Jayatilleka is the ideological counterpoint to the majoritarianism echoed by the Joint Opposition. He is to it what the likes of Sarath Wijesuriya are to the government, with a caveat: the government is essentially two-faced, maintaining one in front of the people (reminding them that the armed forces will not be witch-hunted) and another in front of the international community (reminding them that certain elements in those forces will be tried in court). The Joint Opposition, on the other hand, is chauvinist, by which I am not condemning them: after all there are degrees of chauvinism, and when compared to certain individuals who condemn them, those who house the JO are saints. Which, incidentally, is what makes Dayan's dilemma even more poignant.

The ideological founders of the movement that birthed Mahinda Rajapaksa were, if I may put it, Nalin de Silva and Gunadasa Amarasekera. They were combating Tamil chauvinism in the seventies and eighties when the likes of Dayan were condemning Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism. They were behind the Jathika Chinthanaya, which tried to find a figure to continue Anagarika Dharmapala's national revivalist program. Dharmapala had been succeeded, rather paradoxically and incompletely, by S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike. The Jathika Chinthanaya's attempts to legitimise a more cohesive successor in that respect culminated, I believe, in 2005, when Chandrika Kumaratunga was ousted and Mahinda Rajapaksa became president.

But I’m digressing here.

Chandrika Kumaratunga in a speech on S. J. V. Chelvanayakam argued that Dayan's current position(s) on power sharing couldn't be squared with his appointment as a minister in the Vadarajah Perumal North-East Provincial Council. That is true. (Not that she was any better at sticking to rhetoric, of course.) But this is only half the story: the other half, I believe, can be gleaned from perusing his background.

Dayan Jayatilleka was born to a largely cosmopolitan society and intelligentsia. His father, one of the finest prose stylists of his time, had attended what the son later pointed out as the three most powerful ideological apparatuses of modern Sri Lanka: Royal College, Peradeniya University, and Lake House. One of Dayan's most enduring qualities is his penchant for types as opposed to absolutes, a legacy of his education in political science, which led him to describe his upbringing as follows:

My parents read Grimm’s Fairy Tales out to me at bedtime, but my maternal grandmother from Moratuwa told me stories in Sinhala and was the only one to do so. She related Martin Wickramasinghe’s story “Rohini” to me. It is a romantic martial tale set within the Dutugemunu saga. She couldn’t have been a Sinhala Buddhist chauvinist. She was a Catholic, originally from Nuwara Eliya, married to a highly literate Buddhist from Panadura.

At a time when lesser intellectuals were making the waves lambasting Sinhala Buddhism and affirming Tamil separatism, he stood out by opposing both. He made his political presence known to us most vividly in the eighties, and, for better or worse, his subsequent political stints have been measured against what he did back then. He was active at a time when Gorbachev was preaching the gospel of glasnost, when Castro was moving away from the Soviet Union, and when Communism was collapsing everywhere. It was a period of change. Change at all costs.

His most virulent critic, who happens to be a mentor of sorts to me, was at one point Malinda Seneviratne. Like Dayan's father, Malinda was nurtured in those aforementioned three institutions. Like Dayan's father, Malinda rejected the right-wing, elitist ethos of those institutions. Unlike Dayan's father, he became a nationalist. But there's never just one kind of nationalism: there are nationalisms, so soon enough we saw Dayan and Malinda fighting via newspaper columns despite the fact that both were opposed to the government over its handling of the war. Consequently, no one batted or bowled for them: the "intellectuals" were opposed to both since they were "nationalists", so they enjoyed the fires they were igniting against each other.

Today Malinda and Dayan are on the same plane, though only barely. But I think it's a mistake to vilify the latter with the same criterion the "intellectuals" use to vilify the former. Malinda never batted for anyone. People despised him because he had the guts to call out those opposed to Rajapaksa without supporting him explicitly, something he does even today. Dayan, on the other hand, is despised because he believes in the lesser of the two evils, an argument Malinda does not subscribe to at all, and because, for him, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is that lesser evil today.

The values those who hedge their bets on Gotabaya stand for are patently Dayan's as well. Dayan is against any intrusions made by external players on our country's sovereignty. He is also a moderate federalist, one who believes in the ideals, but not the substance, of the arguments of those who bat for the 13th Amendment. To hardcore nationalists, particularly to those responsible for Mahinda Rajapaksa's political ascent, he is an outsider. Despite this, however, I believe their idealisation of Gotabaya Rajapaksa is not too different to Dayan's: both see in him an administrator who can save us. At the end of the day, the success or failure of Project Gotabaya will depend on how these two camps come together by 2020. And I think much of the task to convince the two of Gotabaya's political veracity has been left to Dayan.

It's no surprise that in his support for Rajapaksa, Dayan attracts more flak than Malinda, Nalin de Silva, and Gunadasa Amarasekera. That's to be expected: all these people have been attracting flak ever since they went active, even from Dayan. The latter's support of a political figure that is incongruent with his wider political beliefs, however, is recent. In politics the recent always sells, more than the old. So Dayan, who I daresay has become the most significant political commentator of our time in Sri Lanka (something none of those intellectuals who rail against him can equal), will be at the receiving end of even more flak, even more anger, even more vitriol, as the days and months progress.

He therefore remains a lone wolf. But then, we all are. Perhaps that is enough to cut him some slack. I wouldn’t know. All I know, and all that everyone who rails against him knows, is that the man can prevail. “Dayan wins battles but loses wars” was how someone summed him up. Maybe the battle hasn’t ended. Maybe the war is yet to come. Again, I wouldn’t know. And I wouldn’t want to know. At least, not yet.

NOTE 1: In a comment on the article in Colombo Telegraph, Dr Dayan takes issue with me categorising him as a nationalist. I believe I may have erred mildly there, so I quote him in full: "I am not ontologically a nationalist. My support for nationalism is neither unconditional nor unqualified. I am, however, a patriot who is also an internationalist and a universalist."

NOTE 2: He also takes issue with me categorising him as a moderate federalist. Again, I shall quote him: "I have never been a federalist, moderate or otherwise. I have always been for equal rights as well as for devolution/regional autonomy. As the Chinese Constitution makes clear, it is perfectly possible and is often the case that those (especially those from a Leftist political culture) who are for regional autonomy are also staunch supporters of a unitary state... with regional autonomy/devolution."

Written for: Daily Mirror, June 23 2017