Saturday, December 19, 2009

Judging Public Intellectuals: Dayan and Sivaram

Beyond Borders, as part of a discussion series aimed at connecting youth activists with key opinion and decision makers, organised a discussion with Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka on 8 October 2009. Around 25 young people interested in politics participated in the discussion. Negligible Minoritist, SP and i who were present shared our reflections on Groundviews. My piece is reproduced here with two comments that were specific to my piece.

It is impossible not to be swayed by Dayan’s display of intellect. The way he answered questions was exemplary, being able to quote from very ‘high theory’ and then engage with us the very next minute in some very good ‘common sense’ but vivid and sharp analysis, replete with anecdotes, a quality I must say, is in the dying in our intellectual tradition.

I asked Dayan a very lengthy question with primarily two limbs 1) the role of public intellectuals and the choices that they make regarding direct, mainstream political engagement 2) his prescription for Tamil politics (I asked him rhetorically: what would he say if he after twenty years is invited to lecture at the Jaffna University). I shall reflect only on the first one here and save the second for sometime later.


Dayan explained his alignment with Rajapaksa and earlier with Premadasa as justified because he thought the greater evil of the LTTE and JVP had to be wiped out. He argued that the Sri Lankan state offered always a ‘minimum democratic space’ which these two actors never were able to provide and for the oppressive politics that LTTE and JVP practiced they just had to go was his argument. He compared his engagement with the GoSL as something close to Kethesh Loganathan’s decision to join the Peace Secretariat. He was careful to point out, as he has done in the past (see for example his interview with the Groundviews editor given shortly before his departure from Geneva) that he did not defend what he thought he could not associate with – some of the atrocities committed by this regime, like for example the Trinco five killings. He maintains that there was no willful targeting of civilians during the final war (which I am not sure) and that to have defended Sri Lanka in the UN Human Rights Council was right because the resolutions brought by the West was not about things like the Trinco five but about war crimes which Dayan wants to believe did not happen. (This question of how to be ‘anti-imperialist’ and at the same time ‘anti-statist’ in a third world country is a pretty fascinating debate. Can you be unhappy about the West for its double standards and still agree with the content of their accusations of what they say are wrong with Sri Lanka? I think you can.) He told us that this was not him disassociating with the Rajapaksha regime and in an abstract sense said part of the decision to engage and take sides is also the readiness to take the moral guilt that comes with association. I am not sure however what moral guilt that Dayan is prepared to share with this regime. At this point I asked him about the process of disassociating as justifying any engagement including the Late Dharmeratnam Sivaram’s (Taraki’s) engagement with the LTTE. Could not then Sivaram argue that he never sided with the LTTE on all what was bad about them but only aligned with them because he believed in the importance of the struggle and chose to ignore the mistakes of the LTTE?

Sivaram is quoted by Mark Whittaker his biographer as having said:

“Let history judge.. to all these people I ask do you sell off your mother because your brother has cut off your arm? Because your brother is a scoundrel? So are we just going to say that the LTTE is a static thing, that it is fascist and that it killed a lot of people. Yes it killed a lot of people… I don’t care a f*** being called an LTTE apologist.. Because I am fighting another war – my war. .. This problem has nothing to do with the LTTE. It started long before there was a LTTE in the 1950s, when Prabaharan was a f***ing kid…If the LTTE was not there we would all be f**ed. At the end of the day that is why the Tamils do not want the LTTE gone. Because we know what the Sri Lankan state has done… So you have to make practical choices – that this is your own man, was a brother once, so you try to reform him. And it is not just him who is the problem”

(See Mark P Whitaker, ‘Learning Politics from Sivaram: The life and death of a Revolutionary Tamil Journalist in Sri Lanka’, Pluto Press, London (2007), pp. 216-7)

Dayan at the discussion referred to an article in which he was quoted, written by Philip Gourevitch for the New Yorker,

“Rather than blaming the dead journalist for failing to denounce the crimes of his side, Jayatilleka said, the Sinhalese should ask themselves what offenses they have chosen to ignore. He posed as “the final question” of his friend’s life a conundrum that belongs equally to every side in every ethnic-nationalist conflict on earth: “Had we been Tamil, are we sure we would not have been Sivarams?”

(available here)

I am very happy that Dayan acknowledges this difficulty – that choices of engagement by public intellectuals are not divorced from considerations like ethnicity. But I think Dayan argued (if I understood him properly) despite all of this that Sivaram’s choice of supporting the LTTE was a wrong one.

I understand that the choice of side for political engagement that one makes can never be satisfactory. While I don’t blame people for non engagement for the reason that they do not want to be associated with any sort of guilt, I respect people who make the decision to do so and get their hands dirty. This paragraph from Edward Said which is from a speech that he delivered n the subject of public intellectuals says so much about the difficulty of taking sides:

“..Just as history is never over or complete it is also the case that some dialectical oppositions are not reconcilable, not transcendable, not really capable of being folded into a sort of higher, undoubtedly nobler synthesis. The example closest to home for me is the struggle over Palestine which, I have always believed, cannot really be simply resolved by a technical and ultimately janitorial re-arrangement of geography allowing dispossessed Palestinians the right (such as it is) to live in about 20% of their land that would be encircled and totally dependent on Israel. Nor on the other hand would it be morally acceptable to demand that Israelis should retreat from the whole of former Palestine, now Israel, becoming refugees like Palestinians all over again. No matter how I have searched for a resolution to this impasse, I cannot find one for this is not a facile case of right versus right. It cannot be right ever to deprive an entire people of their land and heritage. But the Jews too are what I have called a community of suffering and brought with them a heritage of great tragedy. But unlike Zeev Sternhell, I cannot agree that the conquest of Palestine was a necessary conquest. The notion offends the sense of real Palestinian pain, in its own way also tragic.”

Edward Said, “Public role of Writers and Intellectuals’, Alfred Deakin Memorial Lecture, 19 May 2001 available at

Given this complexity that Said so vividly explains how does one then pick and choose a side? I think we need people who will not pick sides and will make contributions that will help us see politics beyond what the different sides show us. I also think it is important that there are people who choose one or the other side and work towards transforming it. But the emphasis is engagement and the picking of one side should help transform the other side. Did Dayan and Sivaram do this is the question? How much of criticism did Sivaram make of the LTTE at least internally? Is Dayan with the demise of the LTTE now prepared to take on this Government for all what it is wrong about it, at least in the post war scenario?

Dayan Jayatilleka said: It wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t say something about Aacharya’s post which is the most philosophically probing. For those who are interested, I have dealt with some of these issues in my treatment of the Sartre-Camus debate on commitment and violence, and my attempt at a resolution or synthesis, in my “Fidel” book.

Suren Raghvan said:

It is a positive sign that even under some NGO arrangement the space is created for direct (honest?) discussions on how we as different nations and schools could move forward. Let this be a beginning of a long and fruitful endeavor. The kinds of stimulation that average university lecture(r)s have failed to do in SL to investigate the current political anthropology.

Having read the questions and the comments, I believe Acharya is spot on in his politically transcendent analysis.

Having associated and worked with Siva (Anna) in his last days, on an important project to connect him to the noted Sinhala intellectuals for a wider dialogue , I could vouch that he was involved in the internal as well as the external dialectical on the LTTE and the State of SL. I am sure Prof. Sumanasiri Liyange, Prof Desmond Mallikarachchi, Prof Jagatha Weerasinghe and many other academics and some members of the (thinking)JVP and (former ) X Kandayama, will testify that Siva was a defender of the State while willingly challenging its post-independent surrender to the world order , largely led by the Sinhala elites. Those who were associated with this project will remember his analytical defense of Lanka even against the Indian Imperialism into the very late hours of every night that we met with. In this sense he was more Bhoomiputhra than the ones claiming to be. And that is the reason that the majority of the Sinhala youth gathered in these discussions, who were originally hostile even to have him as a speaker, agreed to continue the discussion with Siva, till he was assassinated.

I agree with Achraya, one has to take sides as much one can avoid sides. But that decision should be governed by the judgment one makes on the outcome S/he intend to bring however marginal it may appear.

Since we have talked of him, I wonder whether Dr Jayathilake with his international and local connections help to narrow the search of the killers at least for the friendship (he had) with Sivaram? Because Siva Anna in the manner he lived and died was a true internationalist beyond lecturers or writing thesis on the same.