Wijeweera and Yessir

There are at least two types of “leaders” – those that are born through circumstances; and those that are “moulded” by existing machines. The former category is stimulated largely by existing socio-economic conditions and political definitions. They often portray a charisma and a peculiar personality that push them as central pillars of whatever causes they represent. In addition to charm and magnetism, a “circumstantial leader” often projects a “resourcefulness” that complements with the conditions against which s/he emerges. The late Rohana Wijeweera, for instance, was one such “leader.” He was not a product of a “leadership programme,” but emerged through a climate of what he saw as social and economic disparity – and he mustered his intellectual and activist energy in reacting to these at an extreme level. Contextually speaking, the likes of Prabhaharan, Che Guevara, Gadaffi and Arjuna Ranatunga (in Cricket, back in the mid 90s) are some other random names that come into my mind as I write this. If I isolate Wijeweera, his measures and means towards “social justice” did not correspond with the political theory of the State. But, to deny the man of his ability to manage an association that was twice crippled by its opponents and to lead it towards a preconceived goal will spell out hypocrisy on our part.

Then, there is the second type of “leader:” the one that is “moulded” by existing machines. “Leadership-enhancing” programmes – such as the controversial project undertaken by the government to make “leaders” out of all prospective university entrants – and “personality-development” projects of the Kuma Iddamallena calibre constitute this second group of leadership-building. Between category one and two there is a tangible difference. While the “leader” of the first category is born through society, engaging with it and its tensions, being perceptive of and committed to disparities of sort, the “ready-made leader” comes out as a conditioned product from a machine with a preconceived political agenda.

Gamini Viyangoda

It is in this context that we have to read the “leadership-enhancement” programme conducted by the Government of Sri Lanka, targeting all potential university entrants. At the time of writing, there are at least four petitions filed against this move by numerous bodies concerned about human rights and the civilians’ right to free education. Many academics and activists have been writing on the issue for the past month or so; but the governmental arm, with adamant commission, is all set to go ahead with the “Second Stage” of the said programme in the coming weeks where a further 10000 students will be directed to 28 or so military-related bases for “leadership training.”

Out of the many articles related to the subject, the
Lakbima News (to which a version of this piece was first submitted for publication) alone had three last week; and another two pieces following up. Out of all articles written on the subject Gamini Viyangoda’s comments submitted to his column in “Raavaya” arrested my attention. In his essay, Viyangoda draws on how militarization and military regimentation impedes on a person’s ability of critical perception. He alludes to Rudolph Hess, the officer in command of the Auschwitz extermination camp under the operation of Nazi Germany. When the post-World War inquests into war crimes commenced, Hess had been questioned – Viyangoda writes – as to whether he never, for a moment, hesitated to stop and rethink the gravity of what he on routine was performing: the incineration of close to six million Jews. His answer had been that, given the intense training they had undergone, it would not have even been feasible for them to “rethink” an order or directive. That there was no room for such a tendency to even occur.

The concept of “leadership” is not alone to do with “personality.” It is more to do with natural charisma, charm, as well as one’s addressing of a circumstance or a crisis. Today, the word “leader” – along with many other of its kindred – has become a cliché of a sort through commonplace and abused use. Today, we anticipate to “create leaders” – “feel good” promises to maintain our political footholds by keeping the ignorant masses at bay. A close scrutiny discloses that the second category of “leaders” I have highlighted at the outset of this piece – the “leaders” who are “made” – are, in fact, mere camp followers and slaves of authority – than them being original thinkers and improvisers. They emulate a model and the prerequisites of this model, in turn, are fed into them in order to fulfill the needs of a higher authority in the power game. 


Sanjeewa Bandara of the IUSF. The IUSF and 4 other concerned parties have appealed against the compulsory nature of the training for university entrants. At the point of writing this, the Bar has dismissed the petitions without hearing

In the case of Rudolph Hess, he was an agent of the Nazi Consciousness – another top tier of political and cultural activism, whose agendas are satiated through “leaders” of Hess’ calibre. Such “yes sir” robots – when conditioned unconditionally – serve the state prerogative without any hesitancy, as that “service that is due” is already naturalized into the individual. Consider the case of Classical Sparta in Greece. In Sparta, there was a military/education system where children were removed from their homes at the age of six, to be made into “military soldiers” citizens who, in turn, were used for the defence of the city. The objective of the exercise was to stabilize the state and to hegemonize its administrative and civil layers with a “oneness” in loyalty. As much as Sparta remained an awe-arousing military power till its fall in 371 BC, it never took off as a home for arts, liberal thinking or philosophy.

The concerned accuse the State of attempting at drilling in the “state hegemony” into university entrants through this “leadership training” programme. Writing to the Lakbima News last week Dhanuka Bandara had systematically analyzed how this programme is meant to restrict the inquisitive mind that challenges authority at the nipping stage itself. This form of regimentation, in a sense, becomes a voluntary alternative to the Students Union sponsored ragging (ironically, in the Students Union parlance, “students’ orientation” to the university “sub culture”) – for, in ragging, too, it is a form of “uniformity” or regimentation which is the aim. The petitioners against the governmental pre-orientation programme seek a disavowal to the “compulsory status” which the programme – it is made to understand – bears at present. The State may will to regiment; but, leaving sufficient grounds for those that resist such conformity to opt out of it.

As much as the four legged creature is the best friend of “Man,” the military is the best friend of the VVIP. The essence as well as what is detrimental in “regimentation” is reflected by the military itself. Here, we have a state-sponsored band which, as Status Quo memorably puts it, “shoots on sight” (upon the VVIP bidding) and is guaranteed to carry out orders no matter what the circumstances are. 

Two types of "Leadership"

In this era of “peace-speak” we have seen the Sri Lankan military multi-tasking at crises: vegetable selling, environment preserving, garbage disposing, cricket ground constructing, etc. Here, in reality, we have a plebian entity empowered by the patricians as a gate keeping force. The gate, of course, is that of the ruling political class – and if their bidding is to straitjacket the campus entrants of the island, there is the “efficient and effective” military to carry out the order.

The question is least to do with suitability and qualification. Even the highest authorities mumble that the military is the best place where qualities such as punctuality and precision are preached. But what in essence has punctuality or precision to do with a “leadership” that has no imagination or a critical faculty? Of course, these latter are the discouraged elements of any hegemonizing mechanism. As noted above, it was true in the case of Sparta; it was true to the case of Nazi Germany as well. As long as the heart of the matter underneath all that dressing remains as the will to regiment and hegemonize, minimally will the imaginative and the cognitive be encouraged. To eat with the fork and to present oneself in tweed suits are to beguile the mass consciousness. These are not even a part of the equation. What matters is whether you have the choice not to use your fork and whether you have the choice to present yourself bare-bodied.

[A version of this was carried in the Lakbima News over the weekend]


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