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Chapter 7


"The institution of war is now at least 5000 years old. Our predecessors began to go to war with each other as soon as they had learned to produce a surplus beyond the provision for the bare necessities of life. War is a chain reaction. War breeds war without end. We ought never to have committed ourselves to this wicked institution: war, and we had learned by experiences what its nemesis is, we ought to have abolished it at least as long as the middle of the third millennium B.C.. Can we liberate ourselves from the Karma of war? If we can, we shall have performed a very great spiritual feat. If we cannot, we are doomed". (Arnold Toynbee, Surviving the Future, Oxford University Press,U.K., 1971.)

7.1       The Vanishing Prospects for Peace

The prospects for peace in Sri Lanka seem dim indeed. What started out as an ethnic conflict has escalated to produce internecine fratricide among the Tamils, an involvement by India, and a bitter struggle for power among the Sinhalese. The minds of growing children are increasingly conditioned to think only in terms of violence, and to opt for violent solutions. Public apologists were not slow in justifying and accommodating violence with such rationalizing concepts as "preventive violence, after having exhausted all means of nonviolent struggle." And the vicious cycle continues. As a community, the ultimate blame for creating the conditions for violence and a power vacuum inviting intervention, rests squarely on our shoulders. An observant Sinhalese trade unionist taking refuge in Jaffna surmised that the militant youth are the legitimate offspring of Tamil society, reflecting their hidden aspirations and thinking.

Professor M. Paliawadana, ("Violence: Who is Guiltless?," Lanka Guardian,10 (23), 20-24, 1988) speaking for both the Sinhalese and Tamils, traces the source of the violence to our own minds:

 ".....We are ourselves engulfed in the general disorder and violence and hypocrisy and we are all the time mutually reinforcing these things in our day to day relationships. The human crisis is not the product of some mysterious, unspecified people other than ourselves. .....(We) have the same mind as others, that ambition, hypocrisy and violence sit there like a solid rock, that because of these things, our minds are basically "separatist", and that as long as our mind is like that, we are likely to keep on contributing to the present chaos. ...Let us try to remember that we are ourselves among the creators of the problem."

Sigmund Freud in "Civilization and its Discontent" comes to a more pessimistic conclusion on the darker sides of the psyche-Thantos- the instinct to destruction and death:

" The element of truth behind all this, which people are so ready to disavow, is that men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbour is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him,to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus (man is a wolf to man). Who, in the face of all his experience of life and of history, will have the courage to dispute this assertion? As a rule this cruel aggressiveness waits for some provocation or puts itself at the service of some other purpose, whose goal might also have been reached by milder measures. In circumstances that are favourable to it, when the mental counter forces which ordinarily inhibit are out of action, it also manifests itself spontaneously and reveals man as a savage beast to whom consideration toward his own kind is something alien".

In fact, even after all this turmoil among the Tamils, some social institutions such as nepotism and the dowry system are more entrenched than ever. While the traditional caste system is publicly disowned as an embarrassment, more insidious distinctions have been gaining ground. One may be able to justify defensive aggression against political discrimination and oppression of a minority, as a natural reaction to recurrent mob violence. But when this aggression turns inward, towards the community itself, manifesting itself as fanatic intolerance for any form of opposition or difference of view, internecine fratricide, political and extra-judicial killing of ordinary civilians, massacres of men, women and children, desecration of dead bodies, torture and exporting of violence as hired mercenaries, then it is a sign that we have reached the stage of what Eric Fromm has termed malignant transformation ("The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness," Penguin Books, England., 1973).

7.2            The Forgotten Spiritual Heritage

In spite of the clamour for liberation, our dominant materialism has prevented us from reorganising social and economic relations for the common good. Our farmers are forced by economic considerations to produce cash crops to the detriment of the whole society. We clamour for a homeland, and an end to colonisation, and yet, few Tamils are willing to settle down in the outlying areas of Trincomalee, Vavuniya, and Mullaithivu, where there are no modern comforts and no easy profit, but only a life of struggle and sacrifice to start with.

Traditionally, occupations held in high esteem in our culture were those of the healer, teacher and priest. Sadly these professions too have been adversely affected by materialistic considerations. The first is a caring profession devoted to alleviating pain and sickness, the second to a non-stinting dispensation of knowledge. Today they have both become pecuniary enterprises. Some of the first institutions to start functioning after the recent disruption due to war, were the tutories and places of private medical consultation. The impact of the West has changed the primary motive in education, observes the educationist, Professor K. Nesiah, from the ancient goal of self-realization towards economic goals. The social institution of dowry which often deteriorates to commercial bargaining is another good example of materialistic priorities.

We clamour for physical and material freedom, when we have so readily mortgaged our spiritual freedom. Whatever the mystical interpretation of the recent events, it is quite evident that we have wandered far from the goals expressed by so many of our sages, including the poetess Auvayaar who has sung:

"Rare, rare indeed is human birth

The true object of human birth

is to realise him within".

This calling to our deeper self has been discarded by the wayside. Without the transfiguring or, at least, the restraining influence of the moral and spiritual values of love and nonviolence, we have resorted to violence and hatred to achieve our goals; only to see the growth of the more virulent forms that have torn Tamil society apart. For each one killed there is a brother, a sister, a father, another kin or a comrade seeking revenge. Life has become cheap. We have lost all respect for life. It is indeed a gruesome and tragic plight for this ancient civilization with such a rich spiritual heritage.

It is equally true that compassion for living beings, human or animal, is the foundation of Buddhism, and this lofty principle too has been sadly neglected and forgotten by those professing its faith. Even the most Utopian political systems can never provide freedom. There will always be domination of one over another, a scramble for limited resources and unequal distribution of wealth.

In questions of life, it becomes quite evident that there is an additional factor that defies analysis. The ironical twists of fate, the failure of the best laid plans by the most powerful forces and the unexpected turn of events, cannot be explained away. The situation as it has developed has not been determined or manoeuvred by any one person, be it Rajiv Gandhi, J.R. Jayewardene or V. Prabhakaran, however much they may project a mastery of the situation. Nor does it reveal the sum of an interplay of forces. Rather it appears to have a logic of its own and to convey a meaning beyond the particular. The immense suffering of the Tamil people themselves cries out for a deeper interpretation and a reason for it all.

Perhaps at the end of all this, when we have exhausted our material desires, grown weary of violence, drained the cup of suffering and travelled the road of experience, we will finally realize the value of who we are and where we are. As T.S.Elliot so aptly puts it:

We shall not cease from exploring

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time"

7.3            Nonviolence

The moment the slave resolves that he will no longer be a slave, his fetters fall. He frees himself and shows the way to others. Freedom and slavery are mental states." (M. K. Gandhi, "Nonviolence in Peace and War," Navajivan, India, 1946.)

Talk of love and compassion may make fine sermons. But such moral and spiritual platitudes are difficult to practise and may not be seen as having much relevance to real life. The Tamil community was faced with progressive discrimination and violent repression by the state and it had to react: either with passivity and submission or with defiance and resistance. Violent struggle would seem to be the only way against an opponent who is ruthless and cruel. It would appear to be not only more effective, faster and sure of its goals, but also more exciting and glamorous, thus appealing to the young at heart. Non-violence, if properly understood and practised, can be more effective, less costly and not necessarily slower, the pace being set by determination, discipline, the techniques of the non-violent activist and the general support from the local population. Gene Sharp has dispassionately, without appeal to morality or ethics, analysed the politics of non-violence and has shown it to be, by the ultimate modern test, cost-effective. ("The Politics of Nonviolent Action", Horizon Books, U.S.A., 1973).

      In order to understand the active struggle against a repressive regime, the nature of political power has to be first understood. The exercise of political power must in, the final analysis, depend on the consent, tacit or otherwise, of those subject to it.

It is doubtful that nonviolence was ever taken seriously by those who advocated it. The T.U.L.F., publicly committed to non-violence, talked of a secret plan for establishing Eelam and selected a popular militant leader as its representative for parliament. In all the public activities, the spirit that characterised Gandhi's actions was completely lacking. Some of the public protests were a complete farce. For example, during the so called fasts, it is taken for granted that many notables would take a break at meal times. One was able to observe during the Indian occupation, much duplicity in methods of protest. Thus non-violence was not looked upon as an effective method, and no public faith or respect for it was built up.

Nonviolence was only used as a stop-gap measure, while reliance was placed on violence. Nonviolence does not guarantee victory every time it is used. There may be failures as in any military struggle. Rather, each failed action should become the foundation to build a more united and determined effort, to learn from mistakes and to move forward. As in war, nonviolent struggle involves the matching of forces, and the waging of "battles". It requires wise strategy and tactics, and demands of its soldier, courage, discipline,and sacrifice. (Gene Sharp, "The Politics of Nonviolent Action", Horizon Books, U.S.A., 1973).

There are many misconceptions about nonviolence in our community and it may be worth while, now with the cost of violence becoming apparent, to look at nonviolence more systematically and thoroughly.

7.4            Brutalisation Versus Reconciliation

The means of confrontation are as important as the ends, for the methods used transform the user and the final end in the process. A local writer referring to the execution of a local militant leader by another group wrote:

Ones mind goes back to the morn when people looked up gratefully to the young men - even boys - who set out with ideas of freedom and brotherhood. That such noble ventures came to grief in dissent and fratricide is an old story. What has gone wrong? The answer must come from the people at large and must be sounded abroad with both courage and compassion. Defeat and humiliation stare us in the face. May God forbid that the tears which drench this ground brim forth their wonted crimson harvest.

The problem with violence is with its nature itself and it's inevitable progress to more malignant forms. Violence dehumanises and brutalises the user. Once the hands are soiled with blood, as it were, the usual inhibitions and taboos that operate internally are broken. With this lack of restraint and loss of control, comes a feeling of power -absolute power. A marked intolerance for difference of opinion, a fanatic faith in ones own view or a blind obedience to leadership, a conviction of infallibility, and a casual indifference to pain, suffering and life, manifest themselves. A false sense of a feeling of absolute power is evident in the talk of several army officers, leaders of violent groups and representatives of undemocratic regimes.Their talk often betrays a feeling that others owe them gratitude for being allowed to live, or that they possess legitimate power over the lives of others. One need not probe too deep to find their hidden feelings of insecurity.

Further, violence and the shedding of blood create an atmosphere of raised emotions, hostility, hatred, fear, suspicion and paranoia that makes clear thinking impossible. This was evident during the successive anti-Tamil riots. Sinhalese leaders who had previously adopted a civilised and accommodating attitude towards the Tamil problem, in the wake of subsequent violence, made statements betraying unaccountable intolerance. Paradoxically, in human affairs, there is a tendency for the aggressor to feel more aggrieved than the victim.

The act of killing creates a whole host of enemies seeking revenge. Persons enmeshed in this world of fear and paranoia unleashed by their violence, are unable to trust anyone and are always alert and suspicious. Studies of war veterans who have committed atrocities, show an increase of stress symptoms such as startle reactions, terrifying dreams, distrust, behavioural problems and drug abuse. In addition, there is the danger of addiction to the thrill and excitement of violence, which has been described as malignant post traumatic stress syndrome. They come to "feel most alive when they are in a situation of intense conflict or potential danger", and feel bored or depressed in the absence of such situations. Many are anxious or paranoid in crowds or public places, and could get irritated and argumentative in such situations. They develop a severe self-loathing and self-hatred, sometimes "a manifested and boastful and exhibitionistic pride in being loathsome," perpetuating spirals of violence and counter-violence. In children, their personality development can become permanently distorted and deformed due to their experience of violence. A NAMDA report claims that they

"become incapable of imparting trust to their friends and associates, and, subsequently, even to their own children. They may develop smouldering bitterness and resentment, and a thirst for revenge which overwhelms them. They may be unable to exercise control over their own feelings and behaviour and may act their impulses in antisocial ways" ('Bitter Waters' -The effect on Children of the Stress of Unrest," Source: Red Barna, Oslo.)

The state of our debasement is nowhere more vividly portrayed than in scenes of children bearing arms and few acknowledging that something was amiss.

In contrast nonviolence has a more wholesome effect on its practioner, strengthening him spiritually and developing in him what Gandhi called "soul force". Mahathma Gandhi's prescription for nonviolent struggle basically constituted a strict discipline and gradual spiritual development to evolve a pure state of mind and soul that radiates love and nonviolence, a state where no harm, physical verbal or mental, is intended or practised towards anyone, including the adversary. The "soul force" or love towards the opponent has the power to transform him in ways that defy rational explanation. This is what Martin Luther King was talking about when he said, "We should love our enemies because love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend". Gandhi reported that each nonviolent campaign aroused one or more of five responses in the adversary: Indifference, ridicule, abuse, repression, and, finally, respect. Though the success of nonviolent struggle may depend in its early stages on the sympathy, good will or moral appeal to the conscience of the opponent, when the spiritual development of the practitioner has progressed far enough and his soul force is strong enough, he develops an ability and power to transform a situation and the adversary, that is of a new dimension. Thus while nonviolence, practised at a political or physical level, is effective as Gene Sharp has shown, it entails a degree of covert violence, a defiant withdrawal of consent and a threat of retaliation or consequences, a matching of different forces and 'combat'. Gandhi's technique goes a step higher, into the spiritual realm having truth and nonviolence as its foundation, and thus should have the additional attraction to us, as we claim to be steeped in a culture that gives prime importance to spiritual development.

On a social level, when nonviolence is properly practised with the participation of the general population, it binds and unites the people, the young and the old, the men and the women, giving them a sense of purpose and pride in their action. Going back to the pragmatic level, it is often argued that nonviolence will not succeed against a violent and ruthless opponent. But this is not true. In Norway, during the Nazi occupation, teachers were able to resist non-violently Quisling's effort to impose a puppet state. The military strategist Liddel Hart claimed that Hitler's Generals found nonviolence in Norway, Denmark and Holland far more baffling than the violent resistance in other occupied countries. There should, in fact, be no dismay or surprise at repression: it is often the result of the opponent's recognition that the nonviolent action is a serious threat to his policy or regime. Nonviolent activists must be willing to risk punishment as a part of the price of victory. There are also risks when both sides use violence. It is abundantly clear that the Tamil community as a whole has suffered much more after five years of violence, and is left with fewer choices, than it would have had if it had chosen to wage a nonviolent struggle. For much of the violence that was unleashed on the Tamils by the state was a reaction to the escalating counter-violence. Although this is by no means an excuse for the atrocities committed by the government, we ourselves have to take cognizance of the effects of this spiralling vicious cycle of violence and counter-violence. And after all the suffering and destruction, we are nowhere closer to the goals of human liberation. Whether the political concessions now gained will be more tangible than what Mr. S. J. V. Chelvanayakam realised on paper in 1957 and 1966, is left to be seen. Nonviolence would have been far less costly, if the Tamils had been voluntarily prepared to suffer even a little of what they underwent during the war. More importantly we would have come out a united and strengthened community. What we have are the inevitable consequences of violence. After thousands have died, we have a community in disarray and with little control over its destiny. We have condemned future generations to this veritable cult of violence.

      In the prevailing climate of polarized racial hatred and prejudice, the Tamils stereotype the Sinhalese as brutal, violent and without a moral conscience. The Sinhalese, they maintain, will only will understand the language of violence. Nonviolence, they say, will not evoke a chord of sympathy and is bound to fail against such violent repression. Even if we accept for the moment this extreme image of the Sinhalese, it has already been pointed out that nonviolent strategy expects violent repression from its opponent and that it is not dependent on the good will of the opponent or on converting him. It works simply by refusing to obey. We have the inspiring example of the Norway teachers' resistance to, perhaps, the most oppressive regime in history, the Nazis. This demonstrated the effectiveness of nonviolence even against extreme violence.

The Sinhalese people themselves are, as a whole in normal times, a compassionate and loving people. Nevertheless, together with their politicians,the Sinhalese must share the collective guilt for unleashing death and terror against the Tamils and then attempting to justify it. This has been acknowledged by several conscience-stricken Sinhalese individuals. For their part, despite all the rhetoric, the Tamil militants were never in a position effectively to protect the Tamil civilians against such a policy by the government. The Sinhalese themselves are now going through a violent inner convulsion that may make the ethnic divisions pale into insignificance. It is the reaction to the violence that had been unleashed on the Tamils .We have to break this spiralling cycle of violence and counter violence, if we are to find peace. But it is difficult to see how it can cease, now that it has been started.

It would seem so simple and easy for the Sinhalese and Tamils to resolve their conflict as brothers. For ultimately, being fated to live side by side on the small island, these two communities will have to come to terms to live as neighbours, whatever the political settlement - even if it is as two separate states, or as an Indian protectorate or territory. Obviously, it is in the best interests of all the parties involved to come to some kind of agreement. Well what is preventing them? It is that subtle but complex psychological process we have been talking about that is intervening between war and peace. For ultimately, war and peace are states of mind. [Top]


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