Beneath the Toga of Gota’s War; Or, Where Has All the History Gone?

The toga -- the Roman fashion sense

The toga — the Roman fashion sense

At a time where Sri Lankan politicians and bureaucrats churn out biographies and supposed autobiographies at a feverish rate, Gota’s War by CA Chandraprema should not be missed. Not only does this add to a rich corpus already featuring Muthu Padmakumara’s Mahinda (in all three languages) and later additions such as Lakshman Hulugalle’s Lakshman, but at the point of release it was also partially seen as a “counter narrative” to work such as The Cage by Gordon Weiss, who was unpatriotic enough to disfigure the government’s post-2009 euphoria with disturbing facts and compelling records of war crimes. However, expectations aside, Gota’s War by no means undermines the kind of narrative Weiss has come up with – whose submission, much recently, is complemented by works such as Frances Harrison’s Still Counting the Dead – and resigns to be a self-promoting, egoistic statement.

Gota’s War is an analogy for regimental history. It is the document of one-sided traffic flow which, if taken seriously, is detrimental to the discursive reading of “historical” processes. At the crudest as well as at its best, Gota’s War defines a series of political events that left a dent in Sri Lankan affairs over the past three decades as they illuminate the story’s protagonist and the political and ideological positions he represents. Gotabhaya Rajapakshe is the pivot of the narrative construction and from this centralization as a referent point, “what took place” is made relative to whatever “Gota” is. This is a trivialization, but more so, this configures the desired hegemonic principle of government – the current government of Sri Lanka included.

Weiss' "The Cage", to which "Gota's War" was, at one level, seen as a potential counter.

Weiss’ “The Cage”, to which “Gota’s War” was, at one level, seen as a potential counter.

History is blurred or undermined. The youth uprise of 1971 is unpardonably reduced to several fleeting references in three isolated paragraphs. In Chapter 8 there are two surface references to this changing point of post-independence Sri Lankan history, while in Chapter 9 there is one further superficial brush stroke.  Gravity and historical importance of the politically favoured 1983 pogrom, in Gota’s War, is contained to a couple of unelaborated paragraphs (Chapter 17): almost in the guise of a redundancy. The same deletion and de-selection can be seen in references to the 1988 insurrection, which is limited to one chapter. Gordon Weiss’ strength, as I saw it, was how he insists on reading the events that happened in the run up to the LTTE defeat in 2009, with a historically informed platform. In this regard, Weiss’ submission of charges related to war crimes is meditatively lined up with a history of violent suppression which the governments of 1971 and 1988-90, along with their military wings are held responsible for.

Launch of "Gota's War" in 2011.

Launch of “Gota’s War” in 2011.

Rohitha Munasinghe – ex-JVPer and a political prisoner during 1989-90 at the Eliyakandha torture base in Southern Sri Lanka (who later self-exiled to France) – writes in his From the Underside of the JVP History (‍ජේවීපී ‍ඉතිහාසයේ සැගවුනු බිදක්) of the need for state accountability and of transparent inquest into these regimental quelling under light. The first two chapters of Munasinghe’s book is dedicated to the memory of numerous female cadres of the JVP who were detained, tortured and killed. More so, Munasinghe questions the unrecorded, unreported, statistically unclear suffering of women at the hands of the military during those years of anarchy. How many women were raped under military custody in ’71 and ’88-90? How many were tortured and killed? How many were overall killed or vapourized? These numbers and stories are inconclusive. If the Second JVP Insurrection was a “violation” of the law, who are the “guilty” of this violation? Munasinghe underlines the lack of “due process” – or, even a “process” – in the crushing of the 1988 uprising. In spite of the heavy crackdown, the 1971 insurrection – Munasinghe cedes – at least has a legal procedure and legally prescribed remedies that it resorted to. There were culprits identified and based on their involvement, “sentences” were pronounced. Munasinghe is appalled by the state round up of1988, which is seen as a brutal, extra-legal operation; and by that precedence a violent turning point in our “justice-meting” process.

CA Chandraprema, in Gota’s War, partly apologizes for the use of such violent methodology, while partly making the complex political discourse which lead to the crises the book deals with trivial and simplified. Macmillan, however, does a better job at simplifying David Copperfield, as he still includes that episode where Copperfield is made to wear a board saying, “Beware, he bites”. Such warnings do not come in Chandraprema, who is quick enough to champion the regimental ideology, ahistorically dismissing the JVP as “terrorists”. It is crucial to notice that this designation is retrospective. In the late 1980s, the word “terrorist” was not as fashionable as it is now, and the JVP has rarely been branded as such or denounced in such irrelativist terms in general narratives. But, in the re-writing of history in post-2009 discourses we see the regimental incentive whereby such retrospective redefinitions come in.

Frances Harrison’s title – Still Counting the Dead, used with special reference to the closing stages of the war – in fact, has wider, national implications. From 1971 onwards, Sri Lanka has been infested with unnumbered killings, killings “sans addresses”, disappearances, incarcerations without process, imprisonment without conviction and undocumented assaults, threats and intimidation. Gota’s War, however, is a chronicle that bypasses the confounding and the compelling. It therefore triumphs in being a predictable and essentially selective personalization of a history which cannot be – which shouldn’t be – collapsed in the way it has been done by Chandraprema. Some projects are by all means hard and in its hardness lies the futility. The writing of an unabashed glorification in total disregard for the complexity of (what for the past three decades have been happening in) our geo-political landscape is, in a sense, an achievement. But, that is the story of almost all VIP biographies. From where that comes we already have one too many.

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