I recently had the opportunity of reading Malinga (Herman) Gunaratne’s Tortured Island and the Price of Peace. This book – primarily a memoir – had been written in 2004, in the height of the Ranil Wickramasinghe’s UNF cabinet and the “peace process” brokered by Norway. The impetus for the writer to compile this work – a reflection on numerous conflicts the political history of the island was tear shaped by – appears to be the anxiety of possible segregation. Gunaratne makes a strong plea for “oneness”; making claims – some of them naïve and populist – as to why a “separate state”, for the Tamils, should not be constituted.
Why Tortured Island and the Price of Peace first detained my attention, however, was the book’s account of the JVP as a party and as a rebellious movement. Gunaratne had been fascinated of the JVP’s carder constitution and of how its forces were mustered by the subscription of the “lower” and “oppressed” castes of the Southern geography. The “caste factor” in the JVP and its implications are established with several references to personal encounters Guneratne had undergone in the late 1980s. What originally stimulates him to undertake the study, we’re told, is when a group of JVPers come to his estate in Ahangama and acts with presumption.
Guneratne, as always, does not lose his cool. On the contrary, he manages to confound the JVPers – who, according to Guneratne, often like to “show off” their presumption with a gun in hand – and come out trumps. An investigation proves him that the band of JVPers who had stormed his bungalow were from a nearby village and of the Oli caste. Gunaratne, too, is a class ‘A’ planter in Sri Lanka. He has had very close links with both the SLFP as well as the UNP regimes through the 1970s and 1980s. He has also held several key positions and walked shoulder to shoulder with prominent statesmen – he himself makes a clear testimony of the fact in his work.
Therefore, the sudden epiphany Gunaratne has of the existence of “caste” in Sri Lankan politics comes as no surprise. The mainstream party politics of the island being, in its basic essence, a politics of caste is acknowledged. But, when the JVP’s caste fault lines are “newly discovered” it creates a doubt in the author’s mind as to whether the late Wijeweera – the original leader of that party – was actually manipulating caste oppression to enhance his own mileage.
Gunaratne’s class-bound assumptions, on the whole, are rabid to the touch. He is already prejudiced against the JVP – the “lesser” yakkos – even as he undertakes an analysis of their agenda. The text is merely a substantiation of that undermining. The neo-Marxist party, the first organized “people’s force” that almost shook Gunaratne’s upper class cradle over, is seen as an idealist rabble who were “misled” in their assumptions. He quotes an anecdote about a JVP “rebel” who, after successfully capturing a Police station in 1971, had donned the Police uniform and paraded his authority. This “rebel”, later, had been captured and detained in reprisal attacks. Guneratne’s theory is that the activist in question is the prototype for the JVP’s political consciousness – that they were a band of frustrated “have nots”, who were craving to invert the status quo and to oppress the socialite. Based on this singular event, a gross over-simplification is made and meted out at a mass collective project of historical importance.
Gunaratne also relates to a meeting with Shantha Bandara – the JVP student leader – while the latter was in custody. Gunaratne makes this an occasion to further belittle the JVP for its “idealist fervour”, but more so, to apologize for the regime of the day. Gunaratne’s shopping cart, for once, is full as he skims through the surface of a dark age of state sponsored violence. Rather, what we find is a patient and generous government, trying its optimal best to avoid human carnage; being reticent to the last, but being pushed by the “rebels” to a violent end.
Nor does Gunaratne sufficiently historicize either the Southern or the Northern rebellions against the state. The political marginalization and contempt which garnered dissent and distemper are mere scenery by the way. The state agents and proxies who were closely linked to the top political brass of the 1980s are marked for their resource and tact. The likes of Zernie Wijesuriya and Ravi Jayewardene play Homeric roles in these chapters, as opposed to the illusionist in Shantha Bandara – the misled idealist – who hollowly speaks of a JVP victory to be. Shantha, in fact, is released to work out a “peace deal” for the government; but, is later “captured” and “killed by his enemies”. Gunaratne, however, acts innocent and makes no mention as to who these “enemies” are.
[A wiki entry on Shantha Bandara: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shantha_Bandara]
Gunaratne’s lack of empathy of the politically and culturally down-trodden is the more real tragedy. The fact that the literature of his ilk, which propagates similar vanities, makes the shelves is both the torture and the price of their peace.
[Originally carried by the The Nation]