Jonathan Spencer is Professor of the Anthropology of South Asia at the University of Edinburgh: : firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Certain Gesture: Reflections on the Murder of Sivaram
Article first published online: 21 MAR 2013
© 2013 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
Journal of Historical Sociology
Special Issue: The Self in South Asia Guest Edited by Nayanika Mookherjee
Volume 26, Issue 1, pages 83–99, March 2013
How to Cite
Spencer, J. (2013), A Certain Gesture: Reflections on the Murder of Sivaram. Journal of Historical Sociology, 26: 83–99. doi: 10.1111/johs.12009
- Issue published online: 21 MAR 2013
- Article first published online: 21 MAR 2013
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a generation of young Tamils in Sri Lanka joined one or other of the militant separatist groups that sprang up in opposition to the Sinhala-dominated government of Sri Lanka. This paper examines the life of one member of this generation, the journalist and intellectual, Sivaram Dharmaratnam, who was abducted and murdered in Colombo in 2005. Sivaram's death provoked a flood of reflections from his peers and these are used to ask questions about the relationship between personal biography, intellectual trajectory and political commitment in a post-colony in long-term crisis. The subsequent appearance of a biography of Sivaram, written by his friend the anthropologist Mark Whitaker, provides an opportunity for further reflection on ethnography, friendship and the limits of biography.
The artist (let us retain this somewhat kitsch term) is by status an “operator” of gestures: he seeks to produce an effect and at the same time seeks no such thing; the effects he produces he has not obligatorily sought out; they are reversed, inadvertent effects which turn back upon him and thereupon provoke certain modifications, deviations, mitigations of the line, of the stroke.
Roland Barthes “Works on Paper”1
“Terrible is the temptation of goodness,” wrote Brecht. We have learnt what Wordsworth learnt before us: the good life is “no mechanic structure built by rule.” Socialism, even at the point of revolutionary transition – perhaps at this point most of all – must grow from existing strengths. No one – neither Marxist vanguard nor enlightened administrator nor bullying humanitarian – can impose a socialised humanity from above.
E.P. Thompson “Outside the Whale”2
In November 1983, I returned to Britain after two interesting years in Sri Lanka, a place which by then was sliding inexorably toward political disaster. On arrival, one of my first academic encounters was with James Manor, a political scientist with an interest in Sri Lankan politics. Manor gave a talk in Oxford about the causes and consequences of the July 1983 anti-Tamil violence. My friend Mark Whitaker and I, fresh off the plane and (as we imagined) rather better informed about recent events in Sri Lanka itself, heckled from the back, particularly about the likely role of ruling party thugs in the violence, and the palpable absurdity of the government's own conspiracy-theory account of events. Manor took our shrill commentary in his stride, and generously invited me to write a brief account of what I knew about the violence for a book he was editing. He gave me a deadline a few weeks away.
I agonized about this assignment. I had been in the country during the violence, and had watched the build-up with growing concern. But I hadn't actually witnessed anything beyond the immediate reaction to news and rumours in the averagely out-of-the-way village in which I had been living. Eventually, though, I thought of a rationale for documenting that rather unspectacular perspective.
The piece I wrote was written directly for one very specific reader. He was a young Tamil intellectual I had recently met through Mark. This young man had been a student at Peradeniya University, but had left after a number of anti-Tamil attacks from his fellow students. Mark had met him on the East coast where – in my imperfect memory of Mark's account of the time – he had sidled up to the innocent ethnographer watching a Tamil temple ritual and, out of the blue, introduced himself with the devastating comment, “Don't you think this can all be read as a Foucauldian power discourse?” Mark seized on this remark with all the hunger of a conversation-starved intellectual struggling to cope with the everyday idiocies of rural life. The two became firm friends, and for a time I too was beguiled by Mark's tales of his East coast savant. I only met the friend in person at the very end of our time in Sri Lanka. Mark and I had booked to fly out on an early morning flight from Colombo, and we spent the evening, (and most of the night) before we left, with the friend and a great deal of arrack, arguing about the political future of the country.
I have a vivid visual memory of the conversation: it is an especially hot Colombo night, we have a large room at the ineffably seedy Ottery Inn, and Mark's friend paces back and forth in his undershirt, never letting the argument drop. We finish the arrack, but abandon any hope of sleep, talking until it's time to take a pre-dawn taxi to the airport.
Like many other young Tamil men at that moment, Mark's friend was flirting with the possibility of signing up to one of the various Tamil militant groups that were swiftly recruiting in the wake of the government pogrom. I argued against this course of action. I can't even remember my specific reasons but I suspect they included the point that, however emotionally satisfying, meeting intolerant racist violence with unthinking counter-violence was only going to make a bad situation very much worse, and the major sufferers would be the people who had already suffered enough. But he saw a possible future in which opposition forces on both sides of the ethnic divide united against the Colombo government. We must have been arguing from some piece of leftist common ground, though, because Mark's friend tried to counter my warning tales of everyday Sinhala peasant chauvinism with questions like “Yes but what about the local intellectuals in your village? What about the local Marxists?” I tried to explain that the most obviously intellectual members of local society I had encountered were either Buddhist monks or schoolteachers, none of whom displayed much interest in his vision of an emancipatory future of pan-ethnic class politics.
The conversation started to fix on the topic of violence. My view at the time – and truth to tell, it hasn't changed much since – was pretty similar to Auden's
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.3
The more awful the tactics of the Colombo government, the more pressing the need to avoid imitating those tactics in opposition. But Mark's friend explained tortuously that, although he saw his role in the militant movements as that of an intellectual, possibly a propagandist, nevertheless in order to have any credibility in the movement, it would be necessary for him to – how could he put it? – “make a certain gesture”. He wouldn't be drawn on what exactly he had in mind – it seemed to be something more than Edward Said's carefully staged rock-throwing on the Israeli-Lebanon border (a more recent and self-conscious “gesture” by an intellectual seeking credibility); but did he mean a bombing, a murder, a full military operation? Again and again he took refuge in his well-honed euphemism: the movement required him to make a certain gesture.
So the piece I wrote for Manor was written directly for this man, and it was conceived as a response to his desire to make that “certain gesture”, with all that might follow from it. In my piece I wrote about the way in which rumour in 1983 had combined with the distortions of a chauvinist press to create the impression among the Sinhala people I knew that Tamils were invariably the perpetrators of violence, almost never the victims. There was no sign of incipient class alliances forming in the area I knew best. And I ended on a rather distraught note:
There are those on the left in both major communities in Sri Lanka, but especially among the radicalised northern youth, who see the Tamil question being turned into a national class struggle, with the Liberation Tigers joining hands with the oppressed Sinhalese masses to fight the bourgeois state. My experience would suggest that this is not merely a pipedream; it is a very, very dangerous pipedream.4
This article was first drafted in the summer of 2005. At the time I had been thinking a lot about that long conversation, and the implications of the young man's idea of that certain gesture. The young man in question was Sivaram Dharmaratnam. Sivaram survived the consequences of his necessary gesture, and much else besides, among the militants of PLOTE (People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam) in the mid 1980s. He also survived the purging of the more left-leaning militant groups, including PLOTE, by the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) in the second half of that decade. As the LTTE assumed leadership of the anti-government struggle, Sivaram surfaced in the late 1980s as a journalist with special knowledge of the inner workings of the Tamil militants. In the 1990s he had been centrally involved in the setting up of the impressively slick Tamil news website Tamilnet, which, before the demise of the LTTE in May 2009, had been a popular source of reference for outsiders mistrustful of the official government version of the war. An urbane and articulate conversationalist, Sivaram was well-known to visiting academics, to the more adventurous members of the Colombo diplomatic community, and of course to fellow writers, drinkers and talkers on the Colombo left. He had survived, but he had also, it seemed, been forced to make certain accommodations in order to survive, most notably with the LTTE who received – and continue to receive – a more than fair press on Tamilnet, and in Sivaram's own columns. On April 28 2005 Sivaram was forcibly taken away from a group of friends after an evening's drinking in central Colombo. His body was found the next day, shot twice and dumped in an official High Security Zone near the parliament building.
Sivaram was of course a pioneer of internet journalism, so it was not surprising to find his death widely reported on internet news sites. What I did not expect to find was the public commentary from his old friends that started to appear on various Sri Lanka-related websites as I wrote, with different pieces of the jigsaw of his life being filled in by different old cronies, almost on a daily basis. The result made the writing of that original draft an odd experience: conceived as a meditation on a person so distant in my memory as to have drifted into semi-symbolic vagueness, the piece that gradually took shape itself helped me constitute a much more three-dimensional sense of a complex and very real person. And in writing him into life, the sense of loss, not just at his death, but at the other lives someone like this might have lead in other circumstances, is all the greater.
So what follows was written in the immediate wake of a murder, one which turned out to be a forerunner of many other murders of journalists and activists in the years that followed. I have deliberately retained most of the immediacy of the original draft in the voice that runs through what follows. Sometimes something has to be written, and it has to be written in a way that the author is simply obliged to accept. Thus it is that this article strays from the detachment of the conventional academic voice, and retains a closeness to the moment of Sivaram's murder.
In revising the text 5 years after that murder I have had to confront one obvious issue. At the time of Sivaram's murder, Mark Whitaker had already been working for some years on an intellectual biography of Sivaram. That biography was published in 2007 and has been warmly received on the whole.5 Whitaker's Sivaram is rather self-evidently different from mine: he has a much higher opinion of Sivaram's claims as an original thinker, and – I would argue – is over-dependent on Sivaram's own account of highly contested moments in the history of Tamil politics. But then Sivaram was his friend not mine. Whitaker's Learning Politics from Sivaram is, I think, a great book about friendship, and if that makes it a less great book about Tamil politics, then so be it. But for me to massage my own piece into a point-by-point response to Whitaker's biography would be just too weird – frankly, too unbefitting a friend – so I have left that conversation for another day.
When a prominent figure is killed in Colombo, theories quickly proliferate about the killers and their employers. Sivaram could have been killed by the break-away Karuna faction of the LTTE which had split off in 2004, by agents of the security forces, by other non-LTTE Tamil political factions, by the LTTE themselves, or by Sinhala chauvinist extremists. Sivaram was from the East and knew the leaders of the breakaway faction well, but had nevertheless backed the main leadership of the LTTE against them in his writings. In terms of timing, this would be the most plausible explanation. The security forces had certainly given Sivaram grief in the recent past, and media prominence had not been much of a protection to earlier victims of official death squads in the 1980s and 1990s. Since the ceasefire started in 2002, the LTTE had been quietly bumping off ex-members of rival Tamil organizations, including ex-members of PLOTE. But at the time of the murder, it was hard to see why either the security forces or the LTTE should choose that particular moment to stage such a provocative and high profile murder. That leaves Sinhala chauvinists. In the 1980s, the radicals of the JVP brutally targeted their enemies on the Sinhala left, but never tangled with Tamil figures like Sivaram. In their more recent return to the political mainstream, the JVP and allied groups had not, so far, returned to the tactics from the 1980s.
Although hard-line Sinhala nationalist groups had never targeted Tamil figures like Sivaram in the past, a hitherto unknown Sinhala group, the Theraputtabhaya Brigade, named after a Buddhist monk turned warrior hero in the Mahavamsa, claimed responsibility in a statement sent to the press in early May 2005. It is worth quoting their statement in some detail, not least for its sense of the peculiar fusion of leftist and nationalist concerns in contemporary Sri Lanka:
These infamous imperialist forces that are shuddering in the face of the revolutionary economic uprising of China, Malaysia, Thailand and India, have united themselves with the traitorous Wanni Tigers who are engaged in dividing this country under the guise of a national liberation struggle, taking the shelter of peace and are advancing step by step to set up a Tamil Eelam. For this purpose the Norwegian white Tigers and UNP green Tigers have got together and showing their dollar bags are building up a flock of Blue Tigers by deceiving the eunuchs in the United Peoples Freedom Alliance. And also a set of traitors in the guise of scholars, intellectuals and artists are acting as the directors of this heinous sin. The Tiger called Dharmaratnam Sivaram who call himself a journalist is only one among these enemies of the motherland, engaged in this traitorous conspiracy of destroying the motherland.
It is with a heart full of joy that we are informing the patriotic people of this country that we had to put an end on 28th April 2005, at 11.20 p m, to the infamous traitorous operation he carried out, defacing and darkening the international face of Sri Lanka, with the help, encouragement and sponsorship of a sinful, traitorous herd, calling themselves media men, born of Sinhala parents.6
But, even as I wrote these paragraphs, Tamilnet, Sivaram's own news service, reported the arrest of one of his former PLOTE comrades in Colombo, in a house where police claim to have found the SIM card from Sivaram's cellphone, missing since his abduction and murder.
This would not be the end of the story. Even if this report had revealed who pulled the trigger, there is still the question of who sent them, who enabled the abduction, why it happened when it did, and not 15 years earlier when the wounds opened by the PLOTE's demise were so much more raw? The theories and rumours continue. No one has been prosecuted for the death.7
Sivaram's death shocked me and made me reflect in a new way on the fate of intellectuals and activists in Sri Lanka in the years of conflict. First of all, though, it is important to start with a simple observation: there is something profoundly stupid, – deeply moronic, idiotic – about the crude silencing of Sivaram's fluent and productive voice. I remember in that conversation in 1983, Sivaram saying how the Sinhala students who beat up their Tamil batchmates at Peradeniya in the early 1980s, punctuated their blows with words to the effect, “That will teach you to do so well in your exams.” His murder seems to me to follow the callow emotional logic in that earlier warning: it is the act of the inarticulate playground bully taunted one time too many by the clever boy with the silver tongue.
But having said that, I had never followed up our conversation all that time ago, and was suspicious of Sivaram's comfortable way with the language of ethnic exclusion, his chameleon ability to code-switch between the pious abstractions of leftist cosmopolitan intellectuals, and the martial rhetoric of the LTTE. “Suspicious” is an understatement: I often disliked the Sivaram I encountered in his writings, however warm my memory of the brilliant and intense young man I had briefly met in the 1980s. Sivaram hated the underground human rights activists in the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), because they dispassionately highlighted the failings on both sides of the conflict; I could only admire them for this very reason. He believed the LTTE could with time be diverted onto a more democratic and conventionally socialist path; I saw no evidence for this. Reliant as I was on his writings, rather than his conversation, I could find little trace of the brilliance and subtlety identified by his friends. Crucially, he refused to think his way out of the constraints of nationalist ideology unlike the Tamil anti-LTTE dissidents he hated so much.
Sivaram's death generated a lot of media reaction, including some very interesting commentary from his political peers. Much of this tries to steer a path between registering outrage at the killing, and careful distancing from Sivaram's own political decisions. A number of questions press in. Do we acknowledge a death like this more than others, because Sivaram was, in some sense, one of “us”, an intellectual comfortable with other intellectuals? Should his murder therefore count for more than that of the thousands of more anonymous victims caught up in the fighting of the past 20 years? Or should his support for the LTTE somehow count against him in our estimation of loss?
This is not the place to debate these issues in any detail, except perhaps to note the obvious implication: some combination of his biography and the circumstances of his death have combined to make Sivaram an especially dense symbol of much that has happened in Sri Lanka over the past twenty years. His biography is sufficiently similar to many others who took to politics in the 1970s and 1980s, to use it as a vehicle for some more general reflection on the political fate of his generation. His death echoes the deaths of others: Vijaya Kumaratunga, the charismatic Sinhala leftist movie star killed by the JVP in 1988; Rajini Thiranagama, the human rights activist killed by the LTTE in 1989, whose life is celebrated in the stunning Canadian film No More Tears Sister; Richard de Zoysa, the multi-talented media figure, whose body Sivaram identified in 1990, and whose death provides a template for much of Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost; Neelan Thiruchelvam, centrist Tamil politician and lawyer, killed by the LTTE in 1999; and Ketesh Loganathan, the brilliant activist who made his way from youthful militancy to a place with the official Peace Secretariat, also murdered by the LTTE in 2006.8 Each death echoes its predecessors, and each echo foregrounds an obvious parallel, if only to draw attention to some uncomfortable divergences.
One point of departure is Jayadeva Uyangoda's passing observation that “the biography of my generation is also the biography of Sri Lanka's post-colonial nation state” (Uyangoda 1997: 12). Uyangoda, a former radical and now distinguished academic, was born in 1950; Ketesh in 1952; Rajani in 1954; Sivaram in 1959. A reflection on Sivaram's life and death is necessarily a reflection on the commitments of a generation of Sri Lankan intellectuals for whom, at different points between the 1970s and the 1990s, the necessity for a violent assault on state power assumed an aura of incontrovertible self-evidence. As Dayan Jayatilleka put it a week after his death: “How is a man whose grandfather was a member of the State Council ending up being a victim whose murder indeed is to be debated in the successor to that State Council, the Sri Lankan Parliament? What does Sivaram's roots and trajectory tell us about our country, society?”9 What indeed.
In the same spirit we could ask what was Jayatilleka himself, the son of the former BBC correspondent in Colombo, more recently star student in Immanuel Wallerstein's circle at SUNY-Binghampton, doing undercover and desperately seeking shelter in 1987, when according to his own account, he was rescued by Sivaram among others:
In 1987, I was on the run, hiding in a lamp lit shed of a partially burnt out house, when one night, in the rain, [Sivaram] was brought in by Qadri Ismail, one of our young comrades (now a professor of literature in a US university). Sivaram contacted Vijaya Kumaratunga and Ossie Abeygoonesekera who promptly volunteered to give me shelter. After the Indo-Lanka accord, Sivaram (or SR as we called him) visited me late nights in my new safe house rented by Vijaya's sister, and we lay on the floor of the unfurnished place, discussing the Tigers: he was worried about their plentiful ammunition supply.10
The answer is not a simple one, although the list of people involved is impressive enough. Kumaratunga (husband of Chandrika Kumaratunga who was President at the time of Sivaram's murder) and Abeygoonesekera were co-founders of the SLMP, a leftist splinter of the more mainstream Sinhala SLFP. Qadri Ismail was then a political journalist, but by 2005 had become a Professor of English in the American Midwest. (“Teaching English literature is not a purely intellectual project. At bottom it is, for me, a means of political engagement,” as he put it in a newsletter from his department in Minnesota at the time.11) Jayatilleka has had more lives than any of them: journalist, radical, briefly a minister in a doomed attempt at devolved government, then close aide to an assassinated authoritarian President. By 2005 he was a junior academic in Colombo, and apparently a humble PhD student somewhere in Australia.12 This loosely knit group of readers, talkers, drinkers, and would-be men of action were, amongst many other things, seriously talented and, in their more sober moments, seriously serious. (Women – even Chandrika Kumaratunga, the woman who went on to dominate Sri Lankan politics for a decade – have an oddly old-fashioned absence in the crop of 1980s Sivaram reminiscence that followed his death.)
This was a heady moment for some, and to understand it, we need to acknowledge that the political failures of the 1970s and 1980s in Sri Lanka which culminated in the cynical use of ruling party thugs to attack Tamil persons and Tamil property in 1983, perversely created a strong sense of political possibility among the young and committed.13 As normal politics became ever more violent and authoritarian so it became necessary to dream of something, some kind of post-politics, which pushed beyond the constraints of the normal. Qadri Ismail published a short reaction to Sivaram's death, juxtaposing sections from a newspaper article he wrote in the late 1980s, which related an encounter with Sivaram in his guise as fluent and informed radical intellectual, with his own commentary on Sivaram's fate and his memory of the moment of their first friendship at Peradeniya. He ends with a paradox followed by an affirmation. The paradox involves an acknowledgement of Sivaram's own morally ambiguous career: never just an opportunist, because what kind of an opportunist defends the LTTE in the Colombo press, but not a straightforward man of courage and principle either – and here Ismail acknowledges “too many stories about Sivaram's activities within PLOT”. (“And, yes, I am familiar with PLOT's atrocities.”) Ismail instead insists on returning to that moment in their shared past when:
[P]arts of the Tamil resistance, the radical Tamil left – EPRLF and PLOT [sic] – was so incomparably superior, politically and ethically, to the genocidal brutality that was and still might be Sinhala nationalism … That ethical time, of the EPRLF and PLOT, need not be understood as past – because it was never really a historical time. Indeed, it is better understood as a moment of the imagination. A moment, unlike now perhaps, when anything seemed possible.14
Ismail's short piece can be usefully read as one part of a broader structure of feeling within which all who were part of that moment participate to a greater or lesser extent. Sivaram himself, for example, put the incident when he helped arrange shelter for Jayatilleka, at the centre of a piece in a Tamil newspaper in the year before his death in which he reflected on the repeated failure of Sinhala intellectuals to understand what it is that Tamils want politically. The second half of the article is a litany of U-turns by sometime sympathetic figures on the left, of whom Jayatilleka receives the most extensive and sympathetic treatment and the harshest criticism (not to mention the most variable spelling). I shall quote this part of the article at some length:
One of the main speakers in the Stalinist Study Circle (STC), who spoke about the Tamil rights and their right for self determination and who justified the Tamils armed struggle, was Dayan Jayatilleka. Not only that, he and his comrades formed an armed organisation called “Vikalpa Kandayama.”
With the leftist ideologies as their base, the STC joined with some of the Eelam liberation organisations, and worked for the self-determination for the Tamils. I used to meet them in Kandy and Colombo and had discussions with them. (Nobody can underestimate the impact of the analysis and sharp explanations put forward by Dayan Jayatillake on the liberation wars in the third world and on oppression by imperialists worldwide.)
Vikalpa Kandayama was banned in 1986 on the accusation that it conspired to topple the Sri Lankan government. Dayan Jayatilake went into hiding. The Sri Lankan police and the armed forces were combing the country looking for him. When he was about to be captured, he contacted me.
Even many of the good friends of Dayan Jayatilake refused to help me when he had to flee from his hiding place in Colombo. In the end, we managed to take him from his hiding place to another safe place outside Colombo. We did this after taking him to see the late Vijaya Kumaratunge, actor and husband of Chandrika Kumaratunge, at midnight. Vijay Kumaratunge helped me. (In this regard, without even asking his wife Chandrika or anybody else, he helped me immediately. He was a unique person.)
Dayan Jayatilleka later escaped to India. Then, after getting pardoned by the SL government, he came back to Sri Lanka and became a minister in a Regional Council.
What is Jayatillake, a person who moved intimately with the Tamil liberation organisations, doing today? Today, he writes without cease how the Tiger liberation struggle should be crushed.
Once an extreme opponent of American imperialism Jayatillake writes week after week emphasizing that Sri Lanka should seek collaboration with the US to crush the military power of the Tamils.
In those days Jayatillake used to write and say that we must go beyond Sinhala-Tamil differences and fight against American imperialism and fight for the class struggle.
Such a nice friend of mine, Dayan Jayatilleka, now writes in the Island newspaper that “We [i.e. the Sinhalese and Sinhala nation] must seek the support of the US to crush the military power of the Tamils.” What happened to him?
Is that all?15
Then Sivaram moves on to tell of his other attempts in the early 1980s to work with leftist Sinhala opposition groups, and of how so many of the figures with whom he then had good relations, have gone on to take up extreme Sinhala nationalist positions: Nalin de Silva with Jathika Chintanaya (a campus-based movement which combines bits of the postcolonial critique of Western science with large amounts of Sinhala nationalism), Tilak Karunaratne with Sinhala Urumaya (an ultra-nationalist party launched at the end of the 1990s).
Sivaram's article ends with the figure of Chandrika Kumaratunga herself: how did the 1980s supporter of Tamil self-determination become the 1990s architect of what Sivaram calls “The war for peace”? “If we want to find explanations for all these,” he concludes, “then we have to do an in-depth analysis of the psyche of the Sinhala nation.” The irony is almost too rich. Sivaram's lament for his former comrades' diversion onto the path of ethnic chauvinism, ends with a call for urgent analysis of an object – “the psyche of the Sinhala nation” – which is itself only intelligible within the language and preconceptions of that same ethnic chauvinism. Once more his critique is contained within the constraints of his own nationalist ideology.
Of course, Sivaram's reminiscence produces a disturbing mirror effect, when read against the counter-reminiscence of his contemporaries. As Ismail puts it in his own piece: “What changed? What transformed Sivaram from a socialist into an unalloyed nationalist – and even worse, eventually an LTTE lobbyist? Again, we'll never know.” Neither can make sense of the political place in which the other has fetched up. Old friends, united in mutual occlusion.
There is a simple story which can make sense of all of this. It is the story of a group of young idealists who thought they could see a way to appropriate the oppositional momentum of Tamil, and later Sinhala, youth in pursuit of a utopian post-ethnic agenda. In his article, Sivaram himself resurrects past betrayals: how the leaders of the Trotstkyist left in the 1940s later became partners in the governments which passed the Sinhala-only language bill, and introduced the constitution which gave Buddhism the “foremost place” in the island's religions, how S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike forgot his early support for a federal structure on the island as he attempted to ride the wave of Sinhala Buddhist populism. The simple story would be that the ethnic card trumps all other cards in the pack: the idea that it is possible to use the language of ethnic division for other, loftier purposes, without facing the consequences – what Gayatri Spivak famously called “strategic essentialism” – doesn't translate too well in the divided landscape of Sri Lankan politics.
The story of course is too simple, and ultimately mystifying. It suggests that the ethnic card is the only card in Sri Lankan politics, that nothing ever changes, and that there is no space for imagining an alternative, let alone organizing and working for that alternative. Ismail's closing appeal to the ethical superiority of PLOTE and EPRLF is a reminder of roads not taken, of other possible paths that could have been trodden. The very contrapuntal structure of his article, which reproduces Sivaram's voice from the late 1980s, with Ismail's own responses interjected throughout, brings out the fact that Sivaram, on that night in that company, produced an eloquent argument against the whole LTTE project, starting with its impossibility in the actually existing world of international relations, then its failure to deal with India, then the political-economic absurdity of separatism, then the failure to come to terms with its own minority, the Tamil-speaking Muslims. The very fact that Sivaram could have once argued these points, and argued them so well, in itself shows things might have been different.
For me, though, as my opening to this article suggests, the ethnic issue is only part of the story. The other part is what Sivaram called his need for a “certain gesture”. It is this issue of political violence, and the tangled relationship between intellectuals and the use of violence, that I want to close with. After first drafting this piece, I discovered thanks to D.B.S. Jeyaraj's articles on Sivaram, that the gesture in question was probably either a raid on the Highways Department in Batticaloa, in which some explosives were taken, or the theft of several hundred farmers' guns – handed in because of the security situation – from the local government headquarters in Batticaloa.16 But one thing leads to another, and Sivaram's time in PLOTE is as often remembered for his alleged role (denied by his friends) in the execution of two internal dissidents in the organization, while acting military commander for the organization in the East.
This last tale recalls Auden again, this time on an imagined day in the life of a 1930s activist:
To-day the deliberate increase in the chances of death,
The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder
To-day the expending of powers
On the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting.17
This stanza was the subject of a famously coruscating attack by Orwell in his essay “Inside the Whale”: “But notice the phrase “necessary murder”. It could only be written by a person to whom murder is at most a word.”18 Beneath the surface of Orwell's critique is an undercurrent of manly contempt for Auden and his friends, who had been to Spain sure enough, but who had kept clear of the action, and who had bolted to the US at the outbreak of the Second World War. It is contempt for the poseur, for those who only write about war but don't actually participate. One senses that the word “sissy” is never far away.
Unlike Auden, Sivaram must have been only too aware of what murder looked like close up. Whatever the truth behind his critics' claims about his own role in the dissidents' execution, Sivaram was too intelligent to have any illusions about what the LTTE were capable of, and why. He was not an innocent defender of that organization; he was an extremely well-informed and self-conscious defender. But interestingly, violence itself is not much of an issue in the critical reminiscence I have been reading. “There are too many stories …” says Ismail wearily of Sivaram's PLOTE work, before quickly moving on. If a failure to criticise the atrocities of one's own side is a sin, argues Jayatilleka, it is “one we all share. It comes with the territory of commitment, of political engagement.”19 For both Ismail and Jayatilleka, the real problem is not Sivaram's work with the paramilitaries per se, but his specific and sustained support for the LTTE in the second half of his life. He made his choices, but in the end he chose the wrong paramilitaries.
Is it too much to suggest that it is here, in the felt imperative to commit, to engage, above all to take sides, that we find the common thread that holds together these different memories of the 1980s? And taking sides was, in the climate of those times, of necessity a commitment to a violent assault on the powers that be. Orwell's focus on the word “necessary” is important, but not for the reasons he advances. The word does not always imply evasion as he suggests, nor is it not solely an excuse that can only be offered from the point of view of a disengaged spectator. What is most problematic is precisely that an engaged participant can argue morally that this murder or that atrocity is indeed “necessary”.
So the real issue for me is not, as the opening section of this paper might imply, whether or not I was “right” in my argument with Sivaram. Anyone with a half-knowledge of 20th-century history can argue the strong link between omelette-making and the breaking of eggs, and this is one of history's more transferable lessons. The question I am left with is why what was so self-evident to me – that the whole game, gestures and all, would end in tears – was so equally not self-evident to him. It is a question that also occurs as we listen to the reminiscences of Rajini's former comrades in No More Tears Sister: how could anyone who knew the history of 20th-century political violence, and specifically the historical fate of those who see themselves as the intellectual vanguard in revolutionary situations, be surprised at how things have turned out? “Terrible is the temptation of goodness” as my epigraph from E.P. Thompson reminds us.
As such, Sivaram's story can be added to the bulging file of unfortunate intellectual experiments with popular struggle, one more attempt at vanguardism gone wrong. But, of course, the role of intellectuals in Sri Lanka's troubles has not been straightforwardly Leninist at all: far from providing the spark of critical consciousness to the unenlightened masses, more often the intellectuals have tended to take a minor role, providing apologetics in the wake of the masses' equally unenlightened leaders. What is most interesting about Sivaram is not his decision to commit himself to the struggle all those years ago, a decision which could quite easily have left him dead and long forgotten in some minor East coast engagement at the start of the war. No, Sivaram is interesting because he went into the movement and, somehow and at some cost, came out the other side. His participation in the “certain gesture” may have earned him a little militant credibility at the time (though less than might be thought, if Jeyaraj's claim that he was subsequently turned down as a recruit by the LTTE is at all true).20 What it did do, though, was earn him enduring credibility with the pressmen and diplomats he met back in Colombo, who delighted in listening to his insider analysis of the militant movements.
Midway through the writing of this paper I thought I was on course to repeat the argument of an earlier piece, which sought to explore the circumstances which had impelled so many young people to sign up to the insurrectionary movements of the 1980s.21 In focusing on the position of someone who – all else being equal – really should have joined the JVP in the mid 1980s, but instead elected to stay aloof from the cycle of violence and counter-violence, I tried to open up a set of questions about violence, agency and necessity. The case of Sivaram (and equally I think those of his close friends of the 1980s like Ismail, Jayatilleka, Jeyaraj and the late Newton Gunasinghe) requires us to rethink the problem. This is a man whose life was his project, a skilled self-fashioner forced to adapt his persona to the objective limits set by bloody times. One task that looks likely to defeat the memorialists is trying to ascertain where self-fashioning ended and necessity set in. (Jeyaraj, for example, suggests that Sivaram's “fascination for armed struggle” predated the political catastrophe of 1983, and can be traced back to his schooldays.22) Jayatilleka and Ismail both admit their own inability to explain certain moves Sivaram made in the course of his life.
Perhaps it is wisest to close with a passage from a great book on intellectual self-fashioning, Alexander Nehamas' The Art of Living. At the end of the final chapter, which makes a strong case for reading Foucault's life as an exemplary working through of his intellectual project, Nehamas returns to two of his earlier exemplars, Socrates and Montaigne:
When I started to think about the lectures that have resulted in this book, I thought they would belong to the history of ideas: on the one hand, various treatments of Socrates, on the other, my account of their features – a work of clarification, standing slightly to the side of its subject, perhaps capable, in the ideal case, of reaching some lasting conclusions. I did not then realize that Socrates himself would turn out to be like the books Montaigne had in mind when he asked, “Who would not say that glosses increase doubts and ignorance, since there is no book to be found, whether human or divine, with which the world busies itself, whose difficulties are cleared up by interpretation? The hundredth commentator hands it on to his successor thornier and rougher than the first one has found it. When do we agree and say, ‘There has been enough about this book; henceforth there is nothing more to say about it'?” I did not realize that, in my mind at least, I would leave my Socrates thornier and rougher than I found him.23
I leave the reader, I hope, with a thornier and rougher Sivaram, an uneasy exemplar for uneasy times. Further argument is the most appropriate memorial, until we can look at Sri Lanka itself and say, “There has been enough about this place”.
This paper was originally written for a workshop on activism held in Oxford in 2005, and was resuscitated for a workshop in Lancaster convened by Nayanika Mookherjee. I am grateful to David Gellner for the original invitation, to Nayanika for encouraging me to publish, and to various friends in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, for their comments on the original version. Sumathy Sivamohan directed me to the epigraph from Barthes, taken from an essay on the painter Cy Twombly.
The Responsibility of Forms, Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 160–161 .
The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays, London, Merlin, 1978.,
Spain” in Selected Poems (1937/1979) ed. E. Mendelson , London: Faber .“
Popular perceptions of the violence: a provincial view” in J. Manor (ed.) Sri Lanka in Change and Crisis (1984), London: Croom Helm, p. 194 .“
Learning Politics from Sivaram: The Life and Death of a Revolutionary Tamil Journalist in Sri Lanka, London, Pluto, 2007 .,
“Mysterious group claims it killed Siva, grim warning to others,” LankaNewspapers.com, Friday 13 May, 2005, http://www.lankanewspapers.com/news/2005/5/2001.html, accessed 4 October 2010.
Five years after the murder, it can now be seen as part of a pattern, the systematic targeting in Colombo and elsewhere of what could be seen as “soft” pro-LTTE figures, itself the precursor to the return to open warfare that followed a year later.
No More Tears Sister: Anatomy of Hope and Betrayal, Dir. , National Film Board of Canada, 2005 ; , Anil's Ghost, London, Bloomsbury, 2000 .
Sivaram: A Postscript as Reply”, The Lanka Academic, June 7 2005 .“
The Murder of Sivaram” Asian Tribune 29 April 2005; http://www.asiantribune.com/news/2005/04/29/murder-sivaram, accessed 4 September 2010.“
http://english.cla.umn.edu/pdf/Spring2005newsletter_web.pdf, accessed 13 June 2005 .
In 2009 he acted as apologist-in-chief for the Sri Lankan government's final brutal offensive against the LTTE in a new role as Ambassador to the UN in Geneva. Two years earlier he had published an academic study of Castro's “Ethics of Violence”.
My ownA Sinhala Village in a Time of Trouble: Politics and Change in Rural Sri Lanka (Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1990) is one account of the build-up to 1983 seen from the point of view of a village many miles from the violence itself; 's Sri Lanka The Arrogance of Power: Myths, decadence and Murder, (Colombo, University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), 2001) provides the most detailed account so far of government complicity in the violence.
Mourning Sivaram” Lines August 2005 ; http://www.lines-magazine.org/Art_Aug05/qadri.htm, accessed 13 June 2005 ; now also available at http://www.tamilweek.com/Mourning_Sivaram_0023.html, accessed 4 October 2010 .“
“Taraki” “On the Psyche of the Sinhala Nation” Virakesari 10 October 2004 ; available online at http://www.tamilnation.org/forum/sivaram/041010.htm, accessed 20 June 2005 .
From gun to pen: The story of Sivaram” Sunday Leader, 8 May 2005 ; available online at http://www.tamilnation.org/hundredtamils/sivaram/dbs.htm, accessed 20 June 2005 .“
Spain” in Selected Poems (1937/1979) ed. E. Mendelson , London: Faber .“
Inside the Whale” in Inside the Whale and other essays, (1962) Harmondsworth: Penguin, p. 36–37 . Orwell's essay has generated a small but distinguished literature of its own, from 's “Outside the Whale (1960; reprinted in The Poverty of Theory) to Salman Rushdie's (pre-fatwa) defence of engaged literature, also “Outside the Whale” (originally in Granta in 1984, and reprinted in Imaginary Homelands, Granta, London 1991 ).“
Sivaram: A Postscript as Reply”, The Lanka Academic, vol 6 (62), June 7 2005 ; accessed 20 June, 2005.“
From gun to pen: The story of Sivaram” op. cit .“
On not becoming a terrorist: problems of memory, agency and community in the Sri Lankan conflict” In V. Das et al. (eds) Violence and Subjectivity (2001) Berkeley: University of California .“
From gun to pen: The story of Sivaram” op. cit .“
The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault (1998), Princeton, pp. 187–188 .