Allowance and Expression as Mechanisms of Control

In my earlier submission my focus was on how the desire of commemoration and memory are controlled and condemned by the state machinery. For this, I made the recent attack on the Jaffna University students by the military arm my departure point. As an extension of this branch, I would like to raise a few observations on the “allowance of memory” as well. Of course, by this I do not underline the commemoration of military personnel who are decorated as having “paid the supreme sacrifice” – for that mandate should solely be the government’s, as one should not unduly pump air into the paid militia of a regime. Such “memorial tribute” is a twisted political project and in “post-war” Sri Lanka the military service has been metamorphosed into a (more) profitable industry: more like the medieval church.

The SL police in action, barring the progress of a protest march

The SL police in action, barring the progress of a protest march

Memory and the allowance for such memory is partly demonstrated through street names, memorial tablets and statues put up in public places and squares. The regime does not allow the visual display of dissent or of radical opposition – which I concede is understandable – and within the streamlining of society this is very closely monitored. The erasure of opposition, in actual or in symbolic forms, is deemed as a consolidation and extension of one’s authority; and the purpose of power is to manipulate it and enlarge it in hegemonic terms. Hence, the suppression of “opposites” – a fact best seen in the motivated attacks on alternative groups, the crafty infiltration of opposition parties and the use of reward or punishment in humbling those who beg to differ.

Control can be exercised in two main forms – the more obvious of these being the use of force and battery. But, by giving facility, too, the energy of the opponent can be diluted or lessened and this perhaps is an angle the political masters of our time have missed out. For instance, though in official policy the political charter of the regime condemns the consumption of liquor (though not as much as the selling of it), we know that there is neither sincerity nor solemnity in such a proclamation. This is because, among other things, the revenue which the sales of alcohol and other liquors bring in the way of taxes. In addition, alcohol consumption is both a cultural aspect and item that is too intimate to our people that to speak of a non-alcoholic society in a clean breath by itself is an anomaly. But, in the antithesis of “condemnation” while making “allowance”, the government is simultaneously ceding free play to two groups: the anti-ale camp (who consist of diehard believers of the cause, religious kingpins and corrupt politicians) and those of the “liquor culture”, including the liquor brewers and retailers.

NM Perera with JRJ

NM Perera with JRJ

The liquor story is by all means a parable. This can be transferred to the day-to-day discourse of power and control to assess how ‘allowance’, too, can be used as a weapon of neutralization. The brute mentality of the successive regimes has rarely implemented the allowance of free play as a humbling mechanism, but in its promised diplomacy, the power to counter subversion can therein be found. One notable application of this policy can be seen in political coalitions, where by the offer of ministerial and other lucrative privileges “radical elements” within a collective are kept mum or muffled. The allowance for protest and demonstration, for instance, can be used to neutralize the subversive forces against a hegemony, for the very act of protest is a release of aggression and energy – an outlet that will release the anxiety and strain caused by the merciless pressure the polity exerts on the subject.

Today, two of the most prominent streets in greater Colombo are named after two persons who were once considered “radicals” and hazards to right of center politics – Colvin R De Silva and N M Perera. While N M Perera Mawatha is one of the longest roads in residential Colombo 7 (where roads are generally shorter than the names of those whom the roads are baptized after), Colvin R De Silva Mawatha connects the Slave Island end of Colombo with Union Place. Both fellows of the now belated Old Left have memorial statues, lofting them above the grassroots with whom their lot was once cast. The allowance for the “November Heroes’ Day” and its April twin, too, fall into this line. While giving the JVP/FSP sufficient premise to energize itself and to generate momentum for their party activity, these two memorial forums are nonetheless given allowance for the “de-stressing” of collected and concentrated apathy against the opponent: the regime.

In a different time, with different rulers, disturbed graveyards and tombstones should be restored and sufficient room be cleared for mourning and commemoration. With a history of disregard for the dead (which, perhaps, is only second to the disregard for the living) we have known deaths without faces, burials without rites, disappearances without traces and coffins that are carried at knee high: freaks that undermine solemnity and dignity. Even in our suppression or control of the other we have become unimaginative and brute-like, that the creative use of power and authority is not worth the time or the trouble.

[Written for the Nation]

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