Excerpt From my Review of Christopher J Lee’s “Frantz Fanon: Toward a Revolutionary Humanism”

Posted in Politics by Karthick RM on August 14, 2016

See full review at Marx and Philosophy Review of Books

““Concerning Violence”, a recent documentary by Goran Olsson, a Swedish filmmaker too reinforces the ‘angry black man’ stereotype, albeit unwittingly. Olsson’s documentary takes select passages from The Wretched of the Earth to make a case against European colonialism. The Fanon we see here is an anti-European, who rejected all that Europe stood for. Yes, Fanon was genuinely angry towards the brutality of European colonialism, but he nevertheless believed that there was something worthy of redeeming in the European tradition.

Fanon writes in the Conclusion of WOTE – and this is a passage that the documentary conveniently missed – “All the elements for a solution to the major problems of humanity existed at one time or another in European thought. But the Europeans did not act on the mission that was designated by them.” These are not the words of a man who hated Europe; these are the words of a man who accused Europe of not living up to its own egalitarian values. This is a Fanon that neither the Right nor the Left recognize, and this is the Fanon desperately needed now. The “prophet of violence” who allegedly hated all things Europe is a person whom Fanon would have loathed. But one can suppose this is the fate that befalls all great thinkers. Nietzsche remarked that a martyr’s disciples suffer more than the martyr. What he should have added is that a martyr’s principles suffer most in the hands of his disciples.

Lee’s reading of Fanon provides a much needed nuance that is often missing when dealing with Fanon. “Fanon must be viewed not only as a critic of colonialism but a critic of postcolonialism.” (175) Arguably, Fanonism provides not just a compelling condemnation of the brutalities of European colonialism, but also a pre-emptive critique of the postcolony. While Fanon is most prominently used by the postcolonialists to denounce the alleged arrogance of European universalism, often they produce a narrative that excuses the worst excesses of nation-states in the Third World by attributing it to a hangover of colonial ideology. But this is an approach that Fanon scrupulously avoided, if the last chapters of WOTE are read diligently. And it is this Fanon that needs to be retrieved now – his “radical empathy” and universalist humanism do provide crucial insights on the several problems of identity that plague this century.”

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“முற்போக்குவாதி”களும் கருத்து சுதந்திரமும்

Posted in Society and Culture by Karthick RM on June 1, 2014

sartre1அல்ஜீரியா நாட்டு விடுதலைப்போராட்டத்தின் போது பிரஞ்சு இடதுசாரிகள் வைத்த வெட்டி விமர்சனத்தைக் கண்டு, மற்றும் 1968 பாரிஸ் மானவர் எழுச்சியின் போது இந்த இடதுசாரிகளின் இயலாமையைப் பார்த்து, பிரஞ்சு சிந்தனையாளர் சார்த்தர் “கம்யூனிஸ்ட்டுகளுக்குப் புரட்சியைக் கண்டால் பயம்” என்று சொன்னார். அதேப்போல், தமிழகத்திலும் சரி, ஈழத்திலும் சரி, புலம்பெயர்ந்தத் தமிழர் மத்தியிலும் சரி, “முற்போக்குவாதி” என்று திரியும் சில கும்பல்கள் தான் நேர்மையான முற்போக்கு அரசியலுக்கு எதிராகச் செயல்ப்பட்டு வருகின்றார்கள். அது என்னவோ தெரியல, தமிழ் “முற்போக்கு எழுத்தாளர்”னா என்ன வேனாலும், யார் மேல வேனாலும், எப்போ வேனாலும் விமர்சனம் வைக்கலாம்னு உரிமை இருக்கு போல. ஒரு எழுத்தாளருக்கு கருத்து சுதந்திரத்தின் உரிமை இருந்தால், அத்தோடு கடமையும் சேர்ந்து வரும் என்பது சார்த்தரின் வாதம். “நாம் சுதந்திரமாக இருக்கச் சபிக்கப்பட்டுள்ளோம்” என்று அவர் சொன்னது, நாம் எதனைச் செய்தாலும் செய்யாவிட்டாலும், அதனால் ஏற்படும் விளைவுகளுக்கு நாம் தான் பொருப்பு என்பது பொருள். இது விமர்சனம் வைப்பதற்கும் பொருந்தும்.

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Slavoj Zizek – The Dark Conscience of the 21st Century?

Posted in Politics by Karthick RM on September 23, 2013

Originally published on Countercurrents

A conversation with a particularly perceptive liberal friend a few days back turned to the subject of ‘offensive’ jokes and whether the proponents of free speech should really grant the freedom to offend. Ever the politically incorrect, I defended it, citing Zizek. She quickly responded that everyone tolerated Zizek because they knew that he was crazy. After a pause, I asked her “What if Zizek understands the way everyone, the world, functions and that drove him crazy?”

(I had in mind the Joker from Alan Moore’s critically acclaimed graphic novel The Killing Joke who proclaims to the Batman “When I saw what a black, awful joke the world was, I went crazy as a coot!”)

Now this is certainly not the first time someone has commented on the Slovenian’s sanity. Intellectual pop star, celebrity, left-fascist, Stalinist, ‘Elvis Presley of Marxism’ are some of the terms used to describe him. Those familiar with his preface to the selected works of Robespierre in Virtue and Terror, his In Defense of Lost Causes, and even better, or worse if you prefer it, his monumental work on Hegel Less than Nothing, will have an idea why he is called the “most dangerous philosopher in the world”.

The last philosopher to earn such accolades, criticism, praise and invectives would be Jean-Paul Sartre. Now, Sartre was a man, to use a clichéd phrase, that all loved to despise. The Catholic Church passed an order in 1948 prohibiting the reading of any of his works. Around the same period, a church of a different kind, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union also banned Sartre’s works, irked over his play Dirty Hands that was critical of the functioning style of the Communists. French nationalists, liberals, structuralists, the initial post-modernists, and many others loathed him. Sartre’s biographer John Gerassi called him “the hated conscience of his century”.

If there is one thing that the several Sartre scholars agree upon it is that his philosophy was a “philosophy of action”. Doesn’t the very idea of conscience presuppose an imperative to act ethically? But then, the temptation to act is precisely what Zizek has been campaigning against. He calls on us to do nothing, step back, and think. Such an opinion would have been anathema to Sartre, who threw his weight behind every cause of the oppressed – and everyone claiming to fight on behalf of the oppressed – that came to his notice.

Yet, towards the end of his eventful life, Sartre admits in an interview to Benny Levy, that while he still believed in the possibility of hope, “I hold to the idea that a man’s life manifests itself as a failure: he doesn’t succeed in what he tries to do. He doesn’t even succeed in thinking what he wants to think, or in feeling what he wants to feel.” But what if the failure of man’s life is that he does what he tries to do, feels what he wants to feel, and thinks what he wants to think BUT refuses to think in any other way for fear of wanting to take responsibility for thinking that way? Isn’t this precisely the problem that Zizek has been systematically hammering at, this willingness to feel and act without contemplation? You think that you think poverty is bad, you choose to buy a coffee from some brand that will send some pennies to a starving kid in Africa, and you feel a sense of elation over having played Good Samaritan. As Peter Verkhovensky, a fascinating nihilist character in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed observes, there is always something fundamentally depraved about charity.

With Zizek, there is no happy grand solution. No confirmation that a utopia of some sort will be possible. No comforting words for the marginalized and the suffering. No feel-good concepts on which the politically correct can fall back on. Heck, in Zizek-speak, the antonym of love is not hate, but tolerance! He is that dark, unforgiving voice that speaks to us on the left, that laughs at our desire to prescribe solutions to problems that we have no clue about, our inability to see the big picture, and our trivial happiness over disorganized outbursts of popular sentiments. Why else would he crack the rape joke about the Mongol warrior and the Russian couple? Only the best comedians awaken us to reality as it really is. Usually, it is black comedy.

To take one from The Dark Knight, Sartre was the hated conscience the 20 th Century needed. Zizek is the dark conscience that the 21 st century deserves. But radicals in the later part of this century will require visiting both personalities once the academic posturing of the politically correct and the banal optimisms of the ‘activist left’ come crashing down eventually.

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Mullivaikaal – The Time For Mourning Is Over

Posted in Liberation Struggles by Karthick RM on May 14, 2012

Originally published on Countercurrents

What happened three years back at this place called Mullivaikaal?

Some called it a climax of a long story. It is a turning point. Some called it a full-stop. It is a comma. Many call it a tragedy. Of Epic proportions in the history of the Tamils.

Tragedies are often best expressed in verse. I found the best description of what happened in Mullivaikaal in the verses of Pablo Neruda.

In defiance of the assassins: Holding the Tamil flag high

“Here they brought rifles loaded
with gunpowder, they ordered bitter extermination:
here they found the people singing,
a people united by duty and love,
and the slender child fell with her flag,
and the smiling young man rolled wounded beside her,
and the people’s stupor saw the dead fall
with fury and with grief.
Then, on the site
where the assassinated fell,
they lowered the flags to bathe them in blood,
to raise them again in the assassins’ presence.”
(Canto General)

In defiance of the assassins in Colombo, and those who armed them, the Tamil Eelam standard still flies wherever there are Tamils in the world, remembering Mullivaikaal.

Adorno had said that poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. In a somewhat similar vein, a Tamil scholar told me that Mullivaikaal rendered the veneration of Tamil classics pointless. He argued that ‘puram’ poetry, that aspect of Tamil poetry that deals with themes pertaining to war, heroism, sacrifice, military code etc. was outdone in Vanni, and that the depiction of the same in Tamil classics were but dust in front of those Tamils who stood their ground against insurmountable odds in Eelam War IV. Rather than the classics setting standards to gauge Tamil values, the martyrs of Mullivaikaal set a standard to gauge classics, he contended. I could not disagree.

In Mullivaikaal, we witnessed the zenith of Tamil civilization. We witnessed an unimaginable heroism of the fighters for Tamil sovereignty and the people who nurtured them, the people for whom they acted as human shields against a genocidal army. We saw them enduring starvation, thirst, disease, Kfirs, shells, claymores, cluster bombs, chemical weapons. We saw people whom we called amma, anna, thambi, machaan, appa, akka getting killed, tortured, raped and crippled by the tens of thousands. We saw families evaporating, widows becoming staggering statistics, and numbers replacing persons. In ways more than one, we were left orphans.

Award winning film-maker Beate Arnesatd’s latest documentary “Silenced voices” has a clipping of a child wailing before the corpse of her mother, a scene that left many Tamils in tears, both during its screening in Oslo and at a closed-door show in London. The child cries (quoting from memory. The actual sentences are more or less the same.) “You have left us as orphans… now who will take care of us? Our real suffering is going to begin now.” A friend who also saw the documentary gave me an interpretation of this moving sequence – the little girl’s words reflected not just her personal loss, but also a portrayal of the state of the Tamil nation after our de facto state was crushed with the aid of the world powers, with the Sinhalese acting as executioners. The protracted genocide that is still unfolding in Tamil Eelam occupied by the Sinhala state is open for the world to see. If it would see, that is.

Likewise, we also saw the nadir of Sri Lankan barbarism in Mullivaikaal. We are witness to what the Sinhalese were willing to do to ensure the permanent victory of their state. We see how they trample upon everything that we cherish as a nation, our identity, our language, our culture, our family, our land and above all, the memory of those who loved us so much that they fell so that we may stand. And we also bear the brunt of the brutal jokes that they throw to us, calling rape as reconciliation, plunder as peace, and death as development. As we are compelled to hand control of our lands, bodies and minds to their coercive power, we see them celebrating their festivals in our cultural capital with a conqueror’s mentality, replacing the names of our towns with their language, settling their people in our lands, and forcing us to be things that we never can be without being permanently mutilated. To paraphrase Sartre from his stunning preface to ‘The Wretched of the Earth’, we know our oppressors by our wounds and shackles; that is what makes our testimony irrefutable – we only need to know what they have done to us for them to realize what they have done to themselves.

But the priority is clear. The onus is on us. We are not facing any form oppression – we are facing THE form of oppression. Genocide. If we are going to be dreaming about a time when a genuine realization comes in the other side or in the world of how moral we were, by that time there would be no Tamil nation on our side to fight for. Gauging by the way things are proceeding in the Tamil homeland, in ten years the Tamils are bound to become a scattered minority, with no sense of territory or identity. The morality of our position alone will secure nothing. If morality decided affairs in politics, then the Native Americans, the aborigines, the indigenous tribes of Latin America should be having control of the lands they lost. As a good Tamil friend pointed out to me citing Bertrand Russell, war does not determine who is right, it determines who is left. Sri Lankan war on the Tamils continues and will continue till there are no Tamils as a nation left in the island.

We have mourned enough for Mullivaikaal. Mourning can unite people and give them a sense of identity in abstract. But for concrete identity politics, there is no substitute for using the moment to convey a consensus of a political position. So let the occasion not just be a time to shed tears for those butchered, but also a time when we try to live up to the standards of those who fought till the end for what they believed in, for what is our right. Let the month of May be a time we undertake a ruthless analysis of where we stand and why, a cold assessment of who our friends are and who our enemies are, and frame a strategy that will deliver the primary political goal of Tamil Eelam. While symbolism is important, let us realize that in politics, symbols are meaningless unless they are used to take a people to material political goals, and that symbols themselves should be interpreted in a way that they conform to the primary political objective.

For instance, the Tamil youth in Canada have decided to call the occasion as ‘Tamil Uprising Day’. That probably is the closest tribute to the spirit of those Tamil women and men who went down standing in May 2009.

In Defense of the LTTE Tradition

Posted in Liberation Struggles by Karthick RM on March 2, 2012

Originally published at Sanhati

“our friend, valiant heart,
exemplary child, golden warrior:
we swear in your name to continue this struggle
that your spilt blood may thus flower.”
-Pablo Neruda

A few weeks back, in an interview to the right-wing Indian news channel Times Now, Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa stated that they still feared the rise of LTTE in Sri Lanka. Likewise, the paranoia of the Lankan army was so high on the Heroes Day week (November 21st to 27th) that it even forbade the ringing of temple or church bells, lighting of candles or public gatherings in this period. Despite this, the Heroes Day torch was lit in the University of Jaffna and people in Batticaloa gathered in public, in open defiance of the occupying Lankan military, to commemorate the occasion. Likewise, the Tamil Sovereignty Cognition declaration that was released on Heroes Day also stated that the symbols and expressions of the national struggle of the Eelam Tamils must be upheld.

The Other observed the occasion too. Sinhala officers in the Anuradhapura prison gave the Tamil detainees a present by stripping them and trashing them on the Day. It was rather obvious that even after their claims to have defeated the Tigers, the Sri Lankan government is unable to get over the spectres from the past that haunt their present. But just why this persistent obsession with an organization that has been, by all accounts, considerably militarily weakened? Is it the simple paranoia of the dictator of a banana republic or is it something more? While it might appear that what Rajapaksa and co. fears is a military regrouping of the Tigers, the essence of their apprehension lies in the persistence of the LTTE tradition.

The difference between LTTE as tradition and LTTE as organization needs to be emphasized here. As an organization, a movement can be crushed by assassination of its leaders and brutal suppression of its followers. But once the organization creates a tradition that stands above it, as ideas that reflect on society and provides a framework of and inspiration for action, a mere military defeat is never enough. The oppressor needs to do a lot more.

Every progressive national liberation struggle, especially when it is an armed struggle, creates, fashions and refashions traditions in the concerned society. A movement like the LTTE, an organization with a leadership and cadre that emerged almost entirely from the popular classes, the peasantry, women and other historically backward sections, works with traditions in a dialectical fashion.

First, it filters those traditions from the nation’s past and deploys them concretely, not as abstract cultural lamentations, in field as praxis. Second, via revolutionary praxis and the subjective pressures of the popular classes it serves, it purges tradition of its rot and heralds in a new one. Thirdly, and most importantly, the new tradition constitutes a radical rupture with the schemata of the oppressor regime in that it creates the political polarization that makes collaboration ethically difficult. Such a tradition exposes the Manichean reality of oppression and compels one to take a side.

The struggle is formed out of identity and the struggle itself takes identity to a new level [1]. For a people that were inferioritized by systemic state violence for decades, the counter-hegemonic violence of the LTTE was therapeutic – for a people who were made to accept an inauthentic existence through the look of the Other, it gave an option of becoming authentic subjects. Fanon writes in The Wretched of the Earth that

Fanon's mouth in Vanni - speaking for the Wrethced of Tamil Eelam?

“At the individual level, violence is a cleansing force. It rids the colonized of their inferiority complex, of their passive and despairing attitude. It emboldens them, and restores their self-confidence.”

More so for the Eelam Tamil woman, the worst ‘casualty’ of the occupation, for whom the violence of her participation in the Tiger resistance killed three birds in a stone – not only did she annihilate a colonizer and clean herself of inferiority, she also asserted her feminity by her symbolic castration of the Sinhala patriarch’s penetrative presence. Her weapon and her uniform was not just her humanity, it was her Tamil feminity. The authentic Tamil who backs the Tiger tradition fully comprehends the violent reality not just of war, but of Lankan socio-politics as such and realizes his identity, his politics through a movement that allows him to transcend his individual frailties and by engaging in a liberation of his group, through it achieving his own realization and liberation.

Once this phenomena is grasped, it is easy to understand patterns of Sri Lanka’s colonization of Tamil Eelam, its repressive apparatus demolishing all symbols of resistance and imposing physical threats on those who seek to adhere to them while its ideological apparatus, with aid from the collaborator-intellectuals in the Lankan institutions, funded NGO’s, spiritual organizations etc steadily perpetuate a discourse that the Tiger resistance was harmful to Tamil interests. The strategy of the Sri Lankan state and the powers that support it to prevent the mass discontent that prevails among the Eelam Tamils from breaking out into revolt – which would inevitably involve an appropriation of the LTTE tradition, would be to prop up dummy figures from among the various Tamil political groups as a voice of the people. Such figures would be used to deradicalize sentiments, deny the past resistance and its goals, and eventually made to settle for a solution that works against the interest of the majority of the Tamils.

A similar tactic can also be observed among the powers that seek to manipulate the Eelam Tamil diaspora. While a vast majority retain their sense of identity around the tradition of the LTTE, preserving its political and cultural symbols, there is also a privileged ‘Tamil aristocracy’ that is promoted by the host countries as a counter-weight to the voices that emerge from the grassroots. Splits are engineered, voices are divided, dubious NGO’s and organizations like the oxymoronic ‘Sri Lanka Without Borders’ are assisted in order to sow confusion among the people, and attempts are made through grand terms and tall promises to pacify a community that has a sharp sense of injustice. Vacillating elements that have lesser understanding of ground realities owing to both objective class positions and subjective decisions tend to move towards a piece-meal solution as it is put across as ‘reasonable’ while those who reject to compromise on the struggle’s goals are painted as ‘irrational’ or ‘extremists’.

The fundamental problem that such ‘reasonable’ people overlook is that unless the representatives of the oppressed community place their demands, in their terms and in view of the larger interests of their people, the powers have more than enough resources to scuttle the essence of the struggle and churn out a solution that would stop short of addressing the fundamental national question. As Sartre said, “If you accept to play the games by the rules set up by those who own or control the board, you will always lose.”

Progressives must, then, denounce such ‘reasonable’ solutions that would give the Eelam Tamils neither justice nor a lasting peace, but would only mask the mutilation of their polity. The LTTE had issued a statement in the early 90’s that defined a traitor as “whoever accepts or supports the Sri Lankan unitary constitution, the Sinhala national anthem, the Sinhala national flag.” In a scenario that is being hailed as ‘post-LTTE’ one should take this a step further and unhesitantly mark as renegades those who deny and/or denigrate the LTTE’s tradition of uncompromising emancipatory struggle against oppression.

The political resolution adopted by the 5th conference of the Co-ordination Committee of Maoist Parties and Organizations of South Asia (CCOMPOSA) on March 2011 said that “the defeat of LTTE is an immense loss to the struggling people of the world.” LTTE was not defeated because the Sri Lankan government was strong, LTTE was defeated because the LTTE was strong and it presented a model of development and resistance that was not in tune with the paradigms of the world imperialist forces. The credit for the military defeat of the LTTE then should not be given to the ‘genius’ of the Lankan government but rather to the calculated designs of the geo-strategic compulsions of world powers that had much to lose had a Tamil Eelam been formed in the wake of the Tigers. The weakening, distortion and the destruction of their tradition are a must not just for Sri Lanka but for these powers as well. Marx said that life may die but death must not live. Eelam Tamils were left to die. If the now ‘united Sri Lanka’ is allowed to live, as a system it is not only hostis Tamil generis, its very idea is hostis humani generis, an idea that the resistance of a people can be crushed by brute military force, pillage and unrestrained colonization. Its sinister implications for other people’s movements in the region and in the world should be obvious. The idea and the system need to be intellectually and politically defeated even as the tradition of the Tamil resistance is defended.

But this again should not lead to an over-confident assumption that the tradition of the LTTE cannot be defeated. Highlighting the role of principled subjective commitment even if there was no guarantee of success Lenin polemically asked “shall socialists behave like socialists or really breathe their last in the embrace of the imperialist bourgeoisie?” So the question we can ask is whether Eelam Tamils will behave like the inheritors of the Tigers’ tradition or will they walk like sheep into the welcoming arms of those who facilitated their genocide? For just as the LTTE tradition is the only potent force that can give the Tamils a practical rigor, an idea of an egalitarian society, a sense of dignity, a collective hope – all of which are necessary for future struggles to defeat the oppressor regime – the only force potent enough to defeat the LTTE tradition are the Tamils themselves if they waver in their understanding or commitment. And this is something that the oppressors know very well. And if there could be a worse crime in the history of the Tamils than Mullivaikaal, it would be if the latter is allowed to happen.


1. See ‘Eelam Tamil’ – The Politics Behind the Term for further on LTTE’s role in Eelam Tamil identity formation and consolidation

‘Eelam Tamil’: The Politics Behind the Term

Posted in Liberation Struggles by Karthick RM on September 4, 2011

Also read at Radical Notes

“Words are never “only words”; they matter because they define the contours of what we can do.”
-Slavoj Zizek

In the discussions that have taken place on the Tamil national question in Sri Lanka, the concerned subjects have been referred to, even by well meaning comrades, as ‘Sri Lankan Tamils’. Whereas the subjects, if one should go by the term used by various Tamil activists, intellectuals and just common people who stand for the struggle for a Tamil homeland, refer to themselves as ‘Eelam Tamils’. What is in a name, as the bard asked ages ago? While the word ‘Eelam’ has been part of Tamil vocabulary for ages to denote the geographical entity which is called Sri Lanka today, the latter name became popular only a few decades back. All the same, today’s ‘Eelam’ has a completely different meaning and connotation from the ‘Eelam’ of the ancient period. Followers of national liberation movements across the world be it Palestine, Kurdistan or Chechnya, would know that the terms used to describe the people and the geographies they contest were not the same in the past as they are now. Of more value than the etymology of self-defining terms of oppressed nationalities is the deployment of such terms in their present resistance and thus, the contemporary usage of such terms is more political than anything else. Keeping this argument in mind, the article seeks to explain the politics of the term ‘Eelam Tamil’ and what it means to the Tamil resistance and its participants.

The sociologist Manuel Castells defines identity as a people’s sense of meaning and experience. He argues that though identities may originate from dominant institutions, “they become identities only when and if social actors internalize them, and construct their meaning around this internalization.” From the day Sri Lanka achieved its independence, the recognized powers defining Tamil identity were primarily Colombo-centred Tamil elites, who were mostly bureaucrats in service of the Sri Lankan state. The institution they served and the Sinhala elites whom it primarily benefited championed a Sri Lankan nationalism that was essentially based on suspicion and/or hatred of the Tamil people. At its racist worst, Sri Lankan nationalism aimed at annihilation of the Tamil identity. At its liberal best, it aimed at assimilation. The post-independence Tamil elites found it easier to negotiate with the latter aspect, and like all elites disconnected from masses, had only their sectarian economic interests in mind. Despite the rather obvious structural racism that was being installed against the Tamil people, the Colombo Tamil believed that a liberal balancing act between two loyalties was possible. Accordingly, they sold out on popular classes. The best example of such betrayal was their unquestioning support to the Sirimavo-Sastri pact of 1964 – the first major act of ethnic cleansing – by which over half a million upcountry Tamils, almost entirely belonging to the labouring classes, were stripped off their citizenship rights and shipped to India. Likewise, the process of colonization of Tamil territories and the phenomena of Sinhalization, where certain Tamil sections either owing to apprehension or seeking benefits ‘converted’ as Sinhalese, were also not challenged by these gentlemen.

For the Tamil popular classes the contradiction inherent in this identity project was becoming apparent even in the 50’s. Almost as if giving voice to this, V. Navaratnam, a theorist of Tamil nationalism and a doyen of the Federal party, wrote in 1957 in a short tract called ‘Ceylon in Crisis’ of the irreconcilable antagonism between the Tamil people and the unitary state. He was also highly contemptuous of the ‘Colombo Tamil intelligentsia’, a constant throughout his life – he would brand them as traitors later. While the Tamil people were unable to relate to the identity project of the pro-state Tamil elites, being unable to internalize it or relate it to their experiences, facing discrimination and violence at a day to day level from the very state they were called to be loyal to, they were still unable to come to terms with the terms of the radical nationalists. To use Sartrean terminology, the critical transition from seriality to a group-in-fusion was still incomplete. But not for long.

The Black activist Stokely Carmichael said that “We have to fight for the right to invent the terms which will allow us to define ourselves and to define our relations to society, and we have to fight that these terms will be accepted.” The 60’s and 70’s in Sri Lanka, periods that witnessed anti-Tamil violence, repressive laws, an escalation of colonization and institutional discrimination, were also periods where the Tamil political actors contesting the powers-that-be were fervently searching for the terms with which they would address themselves vis-à-vis the oppressor. Even as in 1972 Sri Lankan nationalists got a shot in their arm with the ethnocratic ‘republican’ constitution that effectively made Tamils third grade citizens, the political vocabulary of the Tamils was rife with an old word that got a new lease of life and meaning – Eelam. In 1973, S.J.V. Chelvanayagam, hailed later on as the father of the Eelam Tamil polity, pleaded for the recognition of a Eelam Tamil nationality as a distinct political entity with its right to self-determination. Three years later, the historical Vaddukkodai resolution that declared the necessity of the struggle for a “Free, Sovereign, Secular, Socialist State of Tamil Eelam” was passed under his aegis. After decades of attempted negotiations, reconciliations and compromises with the oppressors, the oppressed now had a paradigm, a terminology of self-definition of their identity. The Eelam Tamil discourse was set – and after 1976, one either recognized it or opposed it. It was then no coincidence that the birth of the most resolute defenders of the Eelam Tamil struggle, the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), happened in the same year.

Identity formation was one thing – to wage an uncompromising political struggle to secure rights by/for the people who assert that identity is another. The assertion and struggle are interlinked and inseparable. Of the various organizations that emerged in the late 70’s, it was only the Tamil Tigers who were able to keep track of both. Rapidly winning support among the Tamil masses, they promoted an Eelam Tamil politico-cultural identity that was modern, secular while at the same time politically ‘intolerant’. An example of this ‘intolerance’ is a statement of theirs from the early 90’s that defines a traitor as “whoever accepts or supports the Sri Lanka unitary constitution, the Sinhala national anthem, the Sinhala national flag.” (The French Resistance was no less ‘intolerant’ of the Vichy regime collaborators who served Nazi Germany, sang the Deutschlandlied, saluted the Swastika.) Zizek argues that it is not enough that one finds new terms with which to define oneself outside of the oppressor’s tradition, one should go a step further and deprive the oppressor of the monopoly of defining tradition the way he wants it. The Tigers’ much criticized ‘intolerance’ towards renegades was then but a progressive negation of the discourses framed by the oppressors – not only was the Tamil subject required to denounce the oppressor’s polity, he was also required to denounce the oppressor’s political language and political symbols. In short, assimilation was to be made impossible.

What is Tamil Eelam?

Taking on from Chelvanayagam, V. Prabhakaran, the leader of the LTTE, argued for the rights of the Eelam Tamil nation to self determination by virtue of their possessing “a distinct language, culture and history with a clearly defined homeland and a consciousness of their ethnic identity.” Amilcar Cabral argues in ‘The Role of Culture in the Struggle for Independence’ that this type of a resistance against a militarily superior power is possible only because “the popular masses, who have preserved their culture and identity, maintain their sense of individual and collective dignity despite the torments, humiliations and depredations they must often suffer.” Such struggle, he says, “the organized political expression of culture”, is necessarily a test of identity and dignity. The struggle is not just aided by the progressive aspects of the culture of the subject people, it also injects newer progressive elements into cultural life, preventing asphyxiation at a time of crisis.

For the LTTE, this was imperative. For the first time in the modern history of the Eelam Tamils, there was organization with a leadership that emerged almost entirely from the popular classes with an exceptionally high percentage of women at decision making levels – in 2002, 5 out of the 12 member central committee were women (If one subscribes to Marx’s belief that the progressiveness of a movement can be gauged by the position that it gives women, then this fact alone should vindicate the Tigers). The philistinism of the comprador Tamil elites of Colombo, long considered the face of Tamil culture, would have to be challenged and so would decadent cultural relics among the natives. The very historical fact of the massive support among popular classes, peasantry, women and backward sections for the Tigers, and owing to their cadre base and leadership being derived from such sections, they had to look at Eelam Tamil identity and culture not just as agents of political change, but also to radically remould them to fit a project of a progressive Eelam Tamil nationalism. It was pointless to talk Tamil culture or identity in abstract – it had to be rooted in the concrete, in the socio-political context that the Eelam Tamils found themselves in. Thus, Capt. Vanathi, a LTTE leader and poet martyred in 1991, did not find the subject of her poetry in a hoary Tamil antiquity – she found her revolutionary Tamil woman in the battlefield confronting the enemy, a political agent heralding a new culture and identity.

A Secular Faith?

Another phenomena, probably the core aspect of the Tigers’ Eelam Tamil project was the ‘Cult of the Hero’, a close equivalent of Robespierre’s ‘Cult of the Supreme Being’. But while the latter demanded a faith in a common secular god and the immortality of the human soul, the former required a faith in the martyrdom of fallen comrades and the immortality of the meaning of their sacrifices. The result was the creation of a secular festival – ‘Heroes Day’, held every year on the 27th of November, the day the first LTTE cadre fell in battle. Under the Tigers, the occasion drew more crowds than any religious festival of the Eelam Tamils – it still does among the diaspora – and the event not just fostered a sense of solidarity but also provided the Eelam Tamils a shared memory of opposition to persecution. Besides, the festival produced a horizondalizing effect on what was once a vertical society. The Tamils paid common homage to martyrs of different castes, subcastes, religions alike and their graves were rallying points of the Eelam Tamil culture that the Tigers hoped to create, transcending sectarian affiliations. The grave of the martyr was also symbolic of an uncompromising rejection of assimilation by the oppressor’s tradition. Thus, the annihilation strategy of the Sri Lankan state that found its highest expression in the Vanni massacre of May 2009 was accompanied by a systematic destruction of the martyrs’ graves. The message Sri Lanka wanted to give to the Eelam Tamils was this. Resistance to assimilation would meet this fate alone.

Despite the different ways that supporters looked at the project of the Eelam Tamil identity and its protagonists, there was an agreement on certain fundamental points – recognition of Eelam Tamils as a unique national formation with inalienable rights to exercise their political and economic sovereignty, which includes their rights to oppose colonization of their lands and the concomitant mutilation of their cultural consciousness by means of assimilation. With the military crushing of the LTTE, the Sri Lankan state proclaimed the end of Eelam Tamil identity as such. Let alone recognition of nationality, Mahinda Rajapaksa declared that there are no minorities in the island and that all are Sri Lankans. This, of course, implies that the Eelam Tamil is beyond the frameworks of his definition. In this, he is complemented by both Sinhala and Tamil liberal intelligentsia.

While a Tamil using the word ‘us’ to refer to the Tamils as a community perturbs the liberal Sinhala, he nevertheless tolerates it. One can be anything as long as one is Sri Lankan. The Sri Lankan liberal views the Tamil as a minority whose rights must be protected, under his patronage of course. ‘They may be Tamils, but they are Sri Lankan citizens’, he argues while protesting against the abuses of the state. The elite liberal intellectuals of Colombo recognize a plethora of rights for the Tamils – citizen rights, human rights, women rights, children rights. All rights except that one right that the Eelam Tamil people fought for – right of a nation to self-determination.

It was pointed out before how the Colombo based Tamil elites pursued an identity project that was antithetical to the interests of the popular classes of Tamil Eelam. After the tragedy of Vanni, the farce of such intelligentsia became all too apparent. Take for instance, the Colombo based Centre for Policy Alternatives, an institute extensively funded by foreign capital, a hub of Tamil intellectuals following the collaborator Neelan Tiruchelvam’s line, opposes human rights violations while at the same time justifying the war on the LTTE. According to them, the Eelam Tamils deserve human rights accorded to a minority. The national question is blasphemy to them. Their demands for “non-violent conflict resolution and democratic governance” are nothing but cover language for their attempts to defend the economic interests of those privileged sections who defend the ‘Sri Lankan Tamil’ identity against the interests of the Eelam Tamil masses who would be stripped of their powers to resist assimilation at politico-ideological levels and are also left helpless to defend their national economy pillaged by colonization. The struggle of the Sri Lankan liberals, Sinhala or Tamil, is then at odds with the struggle of the Eelam Tamil people. Their struggle is for good governance. Our struggle is for self governance. This is the crux of Eelam Tamil identity politics – not a defence of abstract cultural rights or human rights, but a concrete assertion of political sovereignty.

But the limits of Sri Lankan liberal tolerance is tested when a Tamil questions the foundations of Sri Lankan nationalism, challenges the political economy of Sinhala colonization and refuses assimilation, that is, when a Tamil subscribes to Tamil Eelam – at this point, the lines are blurred between the Tamil liberal Saravanamuttu, Sinhala liberal Sanjana Hattatuwa and the racist Gothabaya whom they claim to oppose. All three are united in denouncing and denying the status and rights of the Eelam Tamils. No wonder that liberal and racist alike find the Tamil diaspora that adamantly refuses to be defined by them an eyesore (the ideological offensive that is being waged on diaspora requires a separate analysis in its own right). After all, only an Eelam Tamil nationalism has the power to negate the reactionary negation of Sinhala colonization, thereby ending privileges of local compradors as well. It would be naïve to expect the ruling class or their liberal apologists to recognize the same. The liberal Sinhala is only the human mask of a monstrous Sri Lankan nationalism and the Sri Lankan Tamil liberal is its make-up paint. The need to recognize and expose this is imperative for those who stand by the Tamils’ rights as a nationality and it is also imperative to deny the terms and definitions of those with the Sri Lankan establishment. For starters, the Eelam Tamils should be referred to as such, and not as ‘Sri Lankan Tamil.’ The political differences between the two terms are too much for them to mean one and the same.

To sum up, the Zizekian matrix of the Event* can be used to explain the state of the Eelam Tamil politics while also drawing equations for the future.

(1) Fidelity – Vaddukkodai resolution of 1976, LTTE & secular-modernist Eelam Tamil nationalism
(2) Reactive re-integration – politics of ‘Sri Lankan Tamil’ identity, minority rights
(3) Outright denial of eventual status – Sri Lankan liberalism, assimilation
(4) Catastrophic total counter-attack – Sri Lankan fascism, annihilation Vanni style
(5) Total enforcing of the Event leading to an ‘obscure disaster’ – emergence of a Hamas-styled Tamil nationalism
(6) Renewal of secular-modernist Eelam Tamil nationalism

(2) (3) and (4) all contributed at different levels to weakening of (1). (2) and (3) also require a weakening of (4) as it weakens the moral legitimacy of their advocacy of ‘co-existence’, especially in the wake of various gross abuses coming to light in the international arena. All the same, (2) and (3) will not hesitate to rally behind (4) in case of an emergence of (5) or (6). In case (6) does not emerge, considering the continuing betrayal of the interests of the Tamil popular classes by protagonists of (2), the probability of (5) cannot be ruled out – as an example, we have seen the Hamas fill the vacuum in Palestine in the face of a weakening of a progressive movement and sell out by elites. In the long run, (5) may deliver freedom, but its ability to be egalitarian is a question. Hence our case for progressives to lend their support to (6) and for the subscribers of (6) to pick-up the thread of the uncompromising emancipatory political tradition of (1) and take it forward.

So, the question “What is in a name?” is not appropriate with regards to the Eelam Tamils. After all, a people do not wage a struggle for decades and sacrifice over 200000 lives for a rose to be named differently. Considering the Eelam Tamils’ political struggle now, the more apt Shakespearean question to be posed is “To be or not to be”!

Sri Lanka, Eelam Tamils and the Ethical Crime

Posted in Liberation Struggles by Karthick RM on August 8, 2011

Also read at Sanhati

Sound, it can be said, is relative to the silence that precedes it. Deeper the silence, louder the noise. There was indeed relative silence in the world on the Sri Lankan war and the Eelam Tamils’ struggle, a silence that benefited a fascist state the most. The ‘Killing Fields’ video of Channel 4 came with a devastating bang and exposed to the world the horror that was Sri Lanka’s ‘war on terror’. While the news was already old for Tamil activists, something that many have been writing about for long, the powerful visuals of the 48 minute documentary created shock, especially among the ruling elites of Sri Lanka.

The Lankan government went on a hyperbole in its attempts to dismiss the video as false. The army spokesperson rubbished the video as ‘propaganda’. Der Fuhrer Rajapaksa, in an interview to his Indian Goebbels, an Indian journalist who was awarded the Sri Lanka Ratna and has remained loyal to the country that gave him that honour, remarked that the video was just a “film”. His brother Gothabaya, the defence secretary, was even more forthcoming – in his characteristic chivalrous manner that the Tamils are so familiar with, he wanted to know why one of interviewed war victims was not raped by the army men even when she was “a person so attractive”. Others in the Lankan defence were also more or less gender sensitive while commenting upon allegations of rape by the Lankan forces that the video has proved.

There were some comic gestures on the part of other Sinhala politicians as well. Chandrika Kumaratunga, for one, said that after watching the video one would be ashamed to call oneself Sinhalese. We laughed. When the Lankan Army overran Jaffna in 1995 under her rule, all the atrocities that we accuse them of today were committed then, maybe on a slightly lesser intensity. If the naked story of Vanni massacre is embodied in the face of Isaipriya today, the face of brutalities under Chandrika’s regime were depicted in the stories of Koneswary and Krishanty yesterday. Rajapaksa did not jump from the skies to commit these crimes. The wheels of genocide were set against the Tamils much farther back and Chandrika was as much a spoke in it as Rajapaksa. One thing is clear after the Channel 4 video now. No one can claim innocence over what happened in 2009. It is all a matter of taking sides.

But where is the Sinhala ‘civilian’ in this debate on genocide? The following is an excerpt from a conversation I had with a Jaffna Tamil friend who was personally affected by the war about the supposed progress of ‘reconciliation’ between the communities of Sri Lanka that Rajapaksa and his PR men were boasting about.

“What do you see when you look at a Sinhala army man?” I asked her.
“A murderer and a rapist,” she said.
“Ok. What do you see when you look at a Sinhala civilian?”
“The employer of murderers and rapists.”

Further enquiries on ‘reconciliation’ were unnecessary. There are those who are largely ill-informed of the Sri Lankan situation who would lay the blame of the war on the Lankan leaders alone owing to their being “mere instruments of class rule and national oppression” and/or because they are “puppets of imperialism.” Such an argument only partially exposes Sinhala racism for it ignores the essence of fascism in Sri Lanka.

The tragedy in Mullivaikaal in 2009, the largest massacre in the history of the Tamils, was celebrated by huge numbers of Sinhala ‘civilians’ across the island country. Over 100000 Tamils were butchered in the last stages of the war and while we mourn it, remembering our loved ones, the Sinhalese participate in government celebrations. The condition in Sri Lanka bears likeness to that state of a society that Hannah Arendt so famously described as ‘the banality of evil.’ The genocide of the Tamils in their homelands was not executed by a ruling class and its military alone, it had the wilful consent of the taxpayers-citizens who stood by the state in all its violent measures. Sartre was more explicit in condemning the inactivity of the passive citizen in such societies, if one did not protest when the government that one voted for commits genocide, then one was “undoubtedly a torturer”. What else explains the absolute absence of any major anti-war demonstrations from the Sinhalese side while there have been massive outpourings of support for the jingoistic rallies celebrating victory over the Tamils? How do we account for the anti-war Socialist ideologue Siritunga Jeyasoorya receiving less than 0.36% of the total votes in the Presidential elections after the war while Rajapaksa, with his fascist diatribes, emerged with a thumping majority as a national hero? Fascism has its roots deep in Sinhala society and the ruling class alone cannot be blamed for it.

Celebrating Sinhala triumph: dancers at a Lankan government's 'victory' function post-Vanni massacre

The Sinhala today is in a unique position in history like never before. He is much like the German ‘civilian’ on the dawn of Nazism, and he will be remembered by the Tamils in the future the same way a Jew today would think of the German in 1938. If the regime he voted for is drunk with power, he is inebriated with a sense of permanence. He denies that anything is wrong with the regime he supports. Even if the truth, as naked as the executed Tamil civilians shown in the C4 video, is thrown in his face, he will still stare with adoration at his national emblem and rally behind calls for unity. He is the ethical criminal who gives the power to the war criminals in the state. Then, the fascist at the top is not an aberration, he is the rule, while the likes of Viraj Mendis and Jude Fernando who live in exile for supporting the Tamils are oddities – much like what Oskar Schindler was in Nazi Germany. My friend was not off the mark when she said that she saw in the Sinhala ‘civilian’ an employer of murderers and rapists.

There is another layer that seems supposedly ‘in between’ in the whole conflict. The liberal multiculturalist, the likes of those who run ‘groundviews’ and other such outfits that use sophisticated jargon like ‘post-conflict reconciliation’ ‘coexistence’ ‘citizen’s alternatives’ to cover what they really are – apologists of state oppression. They are indeed a spectacle – they endorse all identities provided it does not hurt the general identity of ‘Sri Lankan’, which for the Eelam Tamils means occupier of their lands. And like all multiculturalist hypocrites, their organizations and positions resolutely deny the existence of the unique Eelam Tamil identity, the identity of an oppressed people asserting which they sacrificed over 200000 lives, serving the purpose of no one but the oppressors and their ideology. Collaborating with them are a group of Tamil intellectuals, an elite, steeped in liberalism and groomed in NGO politics. There are those who deny that there was a genuine liberation struggle led by the Tigers. There are those who say that the war on the LTTE was justified, but the govt needs to give the ‘right reasons’ – as if any such reasoning would assuage the wounded sentiments of those asserted their rights to their homeland and were thus hunted. And of course, there are those who say that let bygones be bygones. Against this academic onslaught, where does the politics of the Tamil patriots stand?

The ‘groundviews’ from Vavuniya, Kilinochi and Jaffna, the views of the Tamil natives, are this – the average Sinhala colonizer views the Tamil as a defeated person, to be pitied or to be held in contempt, if not to be trampled upon. The average Tamil views the Sinhala as a sadist who turned the other way while his army committed genocide in his name, a torturer, if not a killer. If the Sinhala colonizer’s gaze makes of the Tamil an object, it is because it is backed by an occupying army. If the Tamil’s gaze shows despair, a precursor to rage, it is because the most committed defenders of her interests, the LTTE, have only recently been militarily defeated, a defeat that the occupier flaunts in her face as the end of her genuine political aspirations. The raw material required for explosion, resentment and shared memories of persecution and injustice is prevalent throughout the territory of Eelam. And this is the truth in united Sri Lanka, no matter what its apologists like Sarvananthan and Ahilan Kadirgamar might like to portray.

Let me deploy a parallel. In colonial Algeria, there were compradors who betrayed their fellow nationals, collaborating with the occupiers, for privileged positions in the bureaucracy. Among Algerians, there were men who fattened themselves with the crumbs that colonialism threw, with the blood money of their countrymen, and could even buy luxurious villas in the occupying power’s metropolis. And there were Algerian intellectuals who sought to be more French than the French themselves, who would justify a peaceful coexistence between oppressor and oppressed, violator and violated, with colourful jargons and sophisticated prose. Did the FLN wage the Algerian independence struggle for such men? Or did they wage it for those countless men and women who saw the brutal face of French occupation and chose to assert their rights and their identity, for the martyrs of Setif and Phillippeville? I leave it to the sensitive reader to make her/his conclusions and draw appropriate parallels with the Eelam struggle and its protagonists. All I can say is that the Eelam struggle was, is, and will be waged for those Tamils who assert their legitimate right to their homeland, to be different and to secede, at the risk of sounding sentimental, for the thousands of young Tamil men and women who chose to fight and die even when they had a choice to collaborate and live, and at the risk of sounding metaphysical, for the vindication of their faith that one day there will a land called Tamil Eelam that we can call home.

So, the Tamil liberal who infests the elite circles of Colombo 7, who speaks of ‘post-war reconciliation’ or ‘citizen activism’ without addressing the fundamental political demands of the Eelam Tamils is as guilty of ethical dishonesty as his intellectual bedfellow, the Sinhala liberal who, like all liberals of oppressor nations, primarily serves his nation’s interests only. The Eelam Nation is still facing war – as even a cursory glance of Gothabaya’s recent statements would indicate. The reality of war, as Sartre observed, is always Manichean and all discourses of ‘plural identities’ and ‘multiculturalism’ is nothing short of a farce. And the intellectuals who take refuge in such arguments are as guilty of crimes as the rapists and murderers and their employers.

Liberalism vs Identity Politics In “X-Men: First Class”

Posted in Society and Culture by Karthick RM on July 13, 2011

I had to watch X-men: First Class. It was high priority on my list of to-do things in Chennai once I landed here from Delhi. Since I had watched all the other X-men movies, I was intent on seeing this one considering that it was supposed to explain the origins of some of the main characters.

The politics of the movie aside, it was good entertainment and I will suggest it to superhero movie buffs. The director Matthew Vaughn was blessed with a great cast. While James McAvoy as Charles Xavier gave a good performance, he was dwarfed by the towering Michael Fassbender who played Erik Lensherr/Magneto. Fassbender seemed to be at ease with expressions of rage, pain, sadness and above all, loss, probably the toughest of emotions to enact unless genuinely felt. Veteran artist Kevin Bacon played the role of arch villain Sebastian Shaw with élan. And the other characters acted their roles pretty well too.

For those who are beginners to X-men, here’s the deal. There are humans and mutants and tensions are brewing between them. Amongst mutants, there are ‘good’ mutants led by Charles Xavier alias Prof. X and his band of X-men, who believe that it is possible for mutants and humans to live together in peace and harmony. The ‘bad’ mutants, led by Erik Lensherr alias Magneto, believe that this argument is a farce, that humans will always persecute mutants owing to their fears and prejudices, and that the only way for mutants to survive would be to overthrow human rule by force. While the humans in general are suspicious of the mutants and there are some among them who seek to use these sentiments to the detriment of the mutants, there are the good humans too. So, the fight is basically between the good side of the mutants and humans against the bigots of both sides in order to usher in an era of multiculturalism and tolerance – the American way. That’s the theme of the earlier X-men movies in brief.

Now to the politics of this particular movie. In the entire series, X-men: First Class had, in my view, stronger political tones than its predecessors. The clash between liberalism and identity politics, which was an underlying theme in the earlier movies, came out much clearer in this one. Charles Xavier leads the liberal camp. Accordingly, he has the power to read and manipulate the minds of people – as liberals think they can. (Had he been a radical, he would have been a Leninist. But that’s another story!) Despite having grown in opulence, he thinks he can authentically feel the pain of others, as he tells Lensherr. He conducts personality development classes for fellow mutants so that they can be… ‘better’ mutants, or mutants who will be liked better by human beings (Vaguely remember a liberal Tamil politician making a statement that if the Sinhalese hated the Tamils, it is our responsibility to make them love us. Oh Xavier!). The priority is clear here. He recognizes the difference of the mutants and its corresponding discrimination by the humans. But he does not want to emphasize on them. He is the multiculturalist who believes in mutual tolerance and coexistence. He personifies the ‘American Dream’ and its accompanying drama. He is the ‘home nigger’ of Malcolm X, the conformist, the mutant who tries to be more human than humans themselves. The director favours him obviously. Necessary for the reel triumph of liberalism.

The ideologues: Xavier (McAvoy) and Lensherr (Fassbender)

I, on the other hand, the viewer with my freedom of interpretation and reading into signs, am predisposed to supporting Erik Lensherr. A Polish inmate of Nazi camps as a young boy, he realized his powers under brutal conditions. He controls metals and electro-magnetic fields and, as if living up to his name, is indeed an magnetic personality on screen (maybe the director’s hint at how radical identitarianism attracts hard things and people and is eventually dangerous). He witnessed the execution of his mother by Shaw, another mutant who worked for Nazis, and his powers developed further under Shaw’s torturous manipulations. Here is the monster created by greater monsters. Xavier wants Lensherr to understand that though the grievances of the persecuted may be legitimate, there are boundaries they cannot cross. Of course, who devises the frames of these boundaries is a question that Xavier does not deeply consider.

Hunted down for being different, yet bold enough to assert his difference, Magneto is the Tamil ‘separatist’ in Sri Lanka, the Kurdish ‘secessionist’ in Turkey, the ‘violent’ Dalit-Bahujan in India. He is fully conscious of his identity and chooses to assert it, to wield it as a weapon, knowing well that a refusal to do so would mean submission to or collaboration with the powers that be. He also contests that humans would never be able to grasp or genuinely empathize with the ‘mutant problem’ and that the only solution lies in the struggle of the mutants themselves. Is it so? An example: the spontaneous feeling of rage and pain that a Tamil patriot experiences over the atrocities committed on her kind in Sri Lanka can never be replaced or represented by an occasional pamphlet or words of denunciation from a Liberal/Marxist/whatever in, lets say, New Delhi. This not to say that solidarity is not required for identity based resistances, but these are only of strategic value. For such politics to translate into radical action, the essential requirement is for the actors to bond on the basis of an identity and to recognize it as what Everett Hughes calls the “master status”, that is, the identity that takes priority over other identities. For me to be a genuine actor in, lets say, a backward caste resistance, I need to identify myself as a backward caste primarily. Acceptance of identity. Assertion of identity. Action on the basis of identity. (A question can arise: Can a brahmin lead an anti-brahminical movement? I would argue that he can support it but the leadership must be in the hands of those affected by brahminism – following Ambedkar’s, Periyar’s and Lensherr’s case for self-representation at all times). Lensherr’s brief advice to Mystique, that we need to accept ourselves if we want society to accept us, sends out a far more powerful message than any of Xavier’s therapy sessions in the movie. As Nietzsche would say, “you must become who you are”.

After Magneto, Mystique is probably the most interesting character in the movie. With the power to change appearances, she has the ability, or rather, the option to appear as a ‘normal human’ – and so she chooses to be for most parts of the movie till she is fully convinced of the force of Magneto’s arguments. In Sartrean terms, she is initially the inauthentic mutant, always striving to pass off as ‘one of them’, but never fully able to do so. Perpetually caught in an ethical dilemma, she personifies what we call ‘identity crisis’. She is the oxymoronic ‘Sri Lankan Tamil’ of Colombo, an elite, a creature trying to underplay the latter part, the part that really matters, of her identity and attempting to live with the herd, a darling child of Sinhala liberals and of collaborator-intellectuals like Ahilan Kadirgamar. She is the Kurd in Istanbul who would, in public, accept that Turkey consists of Turks alone and that she is one of them while wondering deep inside whether such is the case. She is the Dalit in Delhi University who will avoid eating non-veg so as to not offend the sentiments of her brahmin roommate, who will never disclose her caste identity and who shies away during debates on reservations for fear of being identified.

Mystique: As she is

Unable to be true to any side by virtue of her birth and by matter of her choice, her existence is traumatic. With the well-timed advice of Magneto she confronts reality as it is. And when she realizes what she is, she becomes who she is. A mutant, an aberration to the ‘normal’ but a beauty to those with the perspective. So when she proclaims ‘Mutant and Proud’ towards the end of the movie, one is compelled to join with her saying ‘Tamil and Proud’, ‘Kurd and Proud’, ‘Dalit and Proud’. For broken women and men, pride in what they are, what they should become, is the first emotion that needs to be kindled if at all a liberatory praxis on the basis of identity is to be envisaged.

Magneto: Mutant Power

The ethical argument between Xavier and Magneto at the climax is highly relevant for our times. Magneto, who manages to prevent the annihilation of the mutants – including Xavier – by weapons deployed by humans, decides to use his powers to wipe off the humans who launched the attack. Xavier’s argument against this decision is that the men who initiated the attack were “just following orders” but otherwise were “good, honest, innocent men”. Really now? To those who have watched the Channel 4 video on Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields I ask, do we believe that the men who dropped bombs on hospitals in Tamil areas, who shot children at point blank range were “good, honest, innocent men”? Do we presume that the Sinhala army men who were vividly describing the naked bodies of Tamil women whom they had sexually abused and executed with words that would make a pornographer blush were “just following orders”? If the answer is affirmative, let us assume that they were indeed “just following orders” of their superiors… that they may have been “good” fathers to their children, “honest” citizens to their country… but innocent? Well, in the perspective of the Tamils who suffered, Magneto’s rejoinder seems apt – “I’ve been at the mercy of men just following orders… Never again!” – and his war begins from that moment. I am sure that the Tamil journalist Isaipriya, who also was at the mercy of such men, who was raped, mutilated and murdered by these humans, would agree with him too.

The ‘mutant problem’ of X-men and the polar opposite views of Xavier and Magneto not just convey arguments on liberalism and identity politics, they also indicate that choices are to be made. The Tamil ‘mutant’ in Sri Lanka must choose living as a slave, or collaborating, or fighting for her freedom. The Kurdish ‘mutant’ must forego his identity or struggle to secure a land where his kind can exist as they are. The Dalit-Bahujan ‘mutants’ must choose becoming invisible, or fighting for their rights by themselves, or handing over the leadership of their struggle to those will act in their name but will never be one of them. The choice is ours to make. We can assert our identity and fight for our right to be different and to secede from the rest or we can embrace our oppressor communities and live under their shadow. I have made my choice.

What about you, fellow mutant?

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A Grave in Montparnasse Cemetery, Paris

Posted in General by Karthick RM on June 6, 2011

It’s a place where famous personalities are buried. A renowned writer and his, if I may take the liberty of using the term, ‘soul mate’ were also interred there. Rebels throughout their lives, they challenged established norms of relationships and family. Probably, they were the most famous polyamorous couple in modern times. They felt that the ‘normal’ monogamous relationship restricted individual freedom, lovers of the concept that they were when they were alive. When the female died six years after the male’s passing away she was buried together with him. Posterity would care less for their other relationships. The grave makes us ponder the intensity of the love and respect they had for each other (that far surpassed the feelings they had for other people in their lives). That is how I shall remember Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, as theorists of freedom who were bonded to each other in life and in death. Sartre said that the living choose the dead. So do we choose the images of death and give it meaning. The stone grave of Sartre and Beauvoir reminds me that love, freedom and responsibility are not empty terms, not matter how hard cynics may try to conceive of them as such. They are lifestyles.

Together in Life and Death

Sartre died on April 15th, 1980. Beauvoir got a nervous breakdown after that. She writes in her farewell to Sartre “I lay down for a moment by the side of his dead body, knowing that we would never meet again.” This rather sentimental and irrational act, from the author of several books that deconstructed existing ideas of gender and love, should be witness to the greatness of the person to whom it was directed at and the nature of bonding she shared with him. This testimonial of affection from the mother of feminism should melt even the coldest heart of those who claim to be ‘feminists’ in her path but are sceptical of the Beauvoir-Sartre relationship, often disparaging the latter. I don’t think either would have thought much of their ‘criticisms’ though. Sartre himself admitted that Beauvoir was “the only critic who mattered.” Indeed, his adoration and immense respect for her was such that he would discard hundreds of pages of his work should she raise objections against them. This short man who was a giant in the philosophy of ontology found his greatest strength in the company of the tallest figure of feminist thought. Their grave sends us that message.

John Gerassi called Sartre the hated conscience of his century. This was a man, to use a clichéd phrase, that all loved to despise. The Catholic Church passed an order prohibiting the reading of any of his works in 1948. Around the same period, a church of a different kind, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union also banned Sartre’s works, irked over his play Dirty Hands that was critical of the functioning style of the Communists. French nationalists made two attempts on his life owing to his vocal support of the Algerian cause. Liberals like Raymond Aron and Camus, who eventually became hits in the US academia, hated his guts. Structuralists like Strauss, who stood for completely depoliticized academics, condemned him. Foucault and Derrida, the grand champions of anti-humanism, rejected Sartre. So did defenders of a kind of Marxism, that kind that believed in structures like an astrologer believes in stars, like Althusser and co. Sartre’s rejection of the Nobel Prize in 1964 on ethical grounds also added him to the hate list of many others.

Sartre really didn’t care. He knew the intellectual-academicians and the politics that they upheld. He knew that people who treated humans like ants in their study would never take their message beyond a classroom of elites. And he was right. Imagine a mass movement or radical activism propelled by an Althusserian or Foucauldian understanding of politics. Besides, he had his own crowd too. In his heyday, Sartre’s name was popular in the costliest restaurant in Paris and in its cheapest brothel. His books were carried by students of the best universities in town and by blacks working on pavements. And wherever he was, he shocked and he stimulated. One of the foremost theorists of decolonization and identity, referred to Sartre as ‘a living god’ – probably the greatest compliment a thinker could get from a contemporary who was also his critic, an iconoclast like Frantz Fanon.

When Sartre died, his funeral was attended by about 50,000 people, probably the largest in history for a philosopher. It was attended by students, activists, intellectuals, writers and poets. Frenchmen, Germans, Blacks and Mulattos participated. The crowd contained homosexuals, transvestites, prostitutes, petty criminals and all those ‘abnormals’ on whom Foucault gave extensive lectures on in his career, along with large numbers of Althusser’s beloved working class. Few of these people would mourn Foucault’s or Althusser’s demise. The loss of these intellectuals was felt only in the spaces where they had created most impact – among NGO activists and academics – while the loss of Sartre’s was felt by a diverse section of people even after his political thought fell out of fashion in academic circles. That a philosopher should have left such an impact should speak volumes about the dynamism of his philosophy.

If one considers an intellectual to be someone who has written and reflected on a wide variety of complex issues, in a complex manner, then probably Foucault is the better intellectual than Sartre. One can spend years studying the works of Foucault but manage to grasp only a part of his thought. One needs to spend twenty minutes reading Sartre’s preface to The Wretched of the Earth, with something akin to a conscience, for one’s own thoughts to be radically altered. Foucault may be the better intellectual; Sartre was the better man.

And what a preface it was! A better text to claim humanity for the oppressed could not be found and a better preface could not have been written. Sartre’s words to French citizens condemning their silence on their state’s crimes in Algeria “It is not right, my fellow countrymen, you who know all the crimes committed in our name, it is really not right not to breathe a word about them to anybody, not even to your own soul, for fear of having to pass judgements on yourselves” are still as applicable to citizens of so many oppressor regimes today. Sri Lankans, Indians, Turks, Israelis, Chinese can place this statement in the right context today, provided they have an iota of sensitivity. One can see the Sartrean spirit operating through a Jude Fernando or a Viraj Mendis, Sri Lankan intellectuals who faced death threats and had to undergo exile for standing by the struggle of the Eelam Tamils. But the world that we live in now, such intellectuals who have made enormous personal sacrifices to stand by an ethical position are rarely highlighted in the news. Only the shrill-tone empty-content kind catch eyes and ears. Maybe this is somewhere connected to the general amnesia prevailing among the intelligentsia of the existence of a man called Sartre…

I have told quite some of my friends that there are no post-modern intellectuals. Only post-Sartrean intellectuals. You had those post-structuralists who talked about everything but took a position on nothing. You had those on the ‘left’ taking positions only on those issues that would give them instant attention in the media. You had those Marxists giving moral lectures on the bankruptcy of capitalism and imperialism but rarely turning a critical eye towards themselves and their own positions in society. Intellectual activity became a matter of convenience when it should have been of responsibility. Sartre, with the kind of intellectual courage that only an anarchist could possess, was never shy of making his position clear. Even should it alienate him from his fellow people. A trenchant critic of capitalism, Sartre, along with his partner, knew that socialism was meaningless without individual freedom. He realized that irrationality and emotions were as powerful forces as reason and logic in driving political movements. He gave theoretical justification to the violence of the oppressed, even if it was on identitarian lines, and acted in their support while others on the left were toying with terms or were just weak-kneed to take a stand. He had neither the comfort of a party like the communists nor the company of the elites like the liberals. As a person, he was alone but for Beauvoir. And that was his integrity.

We need to remember Sartre today. We need to remember him to remind intellectuals of their role in a world where there is such rampant oppression and few credible solutions. We need to remember him if we are ever to understand why in certain circumstances terrorism needs to be defended. We need to remember him to frame out a human and humane alternative to a world pillaged by capitalist machinery, an alternative that would not further dehumanize man under the illusion of taking him to some predestined goal. We need to remember him to make ethical choices in politics, in life and in literature.

We need to remember Sartre because we writers live in his shadow.

To his memory…

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