Monday, February 25, 2008

The (faulty) arithmetic of federalists

By Malinda Seneviratne

Recently I read an article by one Rohini Hensman who claimed that ‘tens of thousands of Tamils had been killed in July 1983’. Even the most passion-swelled number does not exceed 3000 and this is a fraction of the total number of Tamils living in the areas where the violence took place. The vast majority that survived those dark days survived in part because Sinhalese intervened, not because all Sinhalese are non-racist (all communities have communal-minded and chauvinistic elements in their midst), but because there are decent human being in all communities.

No, I am not downplaying the ‘ethnic’ in the violence that took place or divest myself or the community I belong to of blame, even though as a 17 year old I did my best to fight the thugs who came to plunder the houses of my neighbours.

Tamils were most definitely killed during that terrible July and most certainly should not have been. No one should be killed, period. While it is easy to pass the buck on to the then government which looked the other way and also unleashed its thugs on innocent people, society in general cannot fully escape the charge of complicity. Those who killed, those who ordered the killing are the first accused in this tragedy. Those who were unable to save their fellow-citizens are guilty of a lesser crime but are guilty nevertheless because no one need have died. Simply, they were unable to save everyone. Simply, we were unable to save everyone. Simply, I was unable to save everyone.

I am not surprised by this ‘tens of thousands’ argument for Hensman belongs to a small pack of ferocious and self-righteous (yes, anti-intellectual) federalists who are wont to move around digits, add and subtract as dictated by preferred political utopia.

Take Jehan Perera for instance. In an article titled ‘Engaging with the enemy for the common good’ (Daily Mirror, February 19, 2008), he throws in an interesting quote from Chandrika Kumaratunga: “The JVP and JHU are marginal forces with less than 5% of the total vote. It is this 5% that is making decisions today on behalf of about 90%, This is not even democratic”. That quote is quite out of place with the thrust of Jehan’s article and the flow of the same, but it is square in the middle of his general tendency to fudge the numbers.

I am footnoting here that Chandrika has no right to complain about the absence of democracy, and I don’t think Jehan would disagree.

The JVP and JHU have close to 50 members in Parliament. That’s more than 20% representation. Let’s assume that the JVP’s true representation was hidden by the fact that they contested in an SLFP-led coalition. Let’s assume that Mahinda Rajapaksa would not have won if not for these two parties, that they in fact designed his manifesto, ran his campaign etc. Let’s assume that these two parties influence decisions. The fact is that their recommendations are accepted by the ruling coalition and the President. Is Jehan (and Chandrika) trying to say that the entire SLFP group in parliament, all those who voted for Mahinda and the UPFA and Mahinda Rajapaksa himself were unwillingly railroaded into embracing JVP/JHU proposals regarding the character of the state, the need to vanquish the LTTE militarily etc?

Why doesn’t Jehan (or Chandrika) ‘factor in’ the fact that the UNP has eschewed federalism, which would place them by default in the ‘unitary’ camp? Why does Jehan conflate ‘devolution of power’ with ‘federalism’ (He says, ‘during 1995-2000 70% of the population were in favour of the devolution of power’ and posits this as an indication that ‘from 1995 onwards the Sinhalese were willing to contemplate a solution beyond the unitary state’)?

Let’s get the arithmetic right here. Someone who visited Norway recently told me that he was amazed by the fact that many Norwegian subjects (they are still a monarchy by the way) believed that all Sri Lankan Tamils lived in the North and East of Sri Lanka! They were also under the impression that only Tamils lived in the North and East. Jehan knows the truth. He just doesn’t write it. I challenge Jehan to give a breakdown of the numbers: ethnic identity versus residence (province-wise, district-wise), in terms of absolute numbers and proportions, for Sinhalese, Muslims and Tamils.

Let’s get back to the Chandrika formula/formulation which Jehan is so in love with. Their thesis is that a small minority are giving policy direction and swaying public opinion away from their pet project, federalism. Now I would like to ask this lady and gentlemen to tell us something about the process in which 70% of the Sinhalese came to be ‘in favour of power devolution’ between 1995-2000. Did ‘enlightenment’ suddenly dawn on them? Did not the deliberate, concerted and moneyed efforts of the then Government which depended heavily on the federalists for policy direction, have something to do with this number (even though it does not, as argued above, indicate an antipathy to the unitary state)?

How many numbers does Tissa Vitharana represent? The man does not have a constituency! Add up the representative weight of those who signed the so-called ‘Majority Report’ put together by the APRC, and there’s no majority there. Will Jehan please take issue with the lack of democracy on these counts?

Now let’s add up the ‘federalists’. According to Jehan’s logic, the JVP and JHU are anti-federal. The UNP has by admission chosen ‘unitary’ over ‘federal’. The SLFP, willingly (or unwillingly, if we assume the Chandrika/Jehan thesis) stands for ‘unitary’. Who is left? Those 54 confused individuals who wanted Rama Mani reinstated as Executive Director, ICES, the parts of the TNA and SLMC and a few others?

Why doesn’t Jehan admit that the federal idea was birthed, nurtured, marketed and even sold to a few influential people (like Ranil Wickremesinghe and Chandrika) by a tiny minority and one which would not have garnered even a single seat if it organized and contested parliamentary elections? If it was ok for that miniscule minority to make decisions on behalf of about 90% of the people, what’s wrong with the JVP/JHU doing it (forgetting of course that the vast majority of those who voted for the UNP and SLFP would not say ‘federalism yeah!’ either)?

As for the military initiatives against terrorism, who says ‘no’ these days? Certainly not the UNP. Time was when people like Jehan said ‘the LTTE cannot be defeated’ (an assertion that helped develop the myth of invincibility and a political culture describable in the following terms: ‘we have to concede’), but that’s all gone now. The word in NGO Avenue is that the LTTE will be defeated. So this business of the military ‘option’ (actually it is an imperative) being some JVP/JHU coup is utter rubbish.

There will always be Rohini Hensmans. Always, Jehan Pereras. Always those who fudge numbers. Always fear-mongering. Always wild extrapolations. That’s just your day-in-day-out politicking. No moral high horse here. And those who feed the good people at Human Rights Watch this kind of arithmetic (and I have absolutely no doubt that they do) will never put things in proper perspective.

Oh, and before we close, let’s get this in: if they failed arithmetic in school, for argument’s sake, could they at least come up with some history that can be substantiated to fix the exclusive traditional homeland claim once and for all? Or are they as bad at history as they are at arithmetic, one can’t help wondering.

1 comment:

  1. I was in the US at the time of the '83 riots, and followed closely the reports of what took place.
    The numbers of deaths reported at the time were in the 200s, but after a year or so, this number increased to the round figures of 600 and gradually to 2000 in the 1990s. However, This is the first time that I have seen the number reported as being 10,000!
    Perhaps in another couple of years it may double that too!!