“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?’
– WB Yeats, The Second Coming
Though that may change, this island has so far produced only one movement which qualifies as Fascist by international standards. When the LTTE was decisively defeated in May 2009, the prestigious journal The Economist (London) described it as “almost classically fascist”. This was not a journalistic flourish. In his 1999 book ‘The New Terrorism’, Emeritus Professor Walter Laqueur wrote that “in terms of its ruthlessness and fanaticism the only parallels for the Tamil Tigers I can think of are the European fascist movements of the 1920s and ’30s.” This of course meant Mussolini and Hitler. Prof Laqueur knew what he was talking about. When I was an undergraduate, the Penguin/Pelican Reader on Fascism was required reading. It was edited by Walter Laqueur.
Now that the New York Times is all the rage in Sri Lanka, it is worth recalling that John F Burns, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, wrote in the NYT that Prabhakaran was “South Asia’s Pol Pot”.
So, Vijayakala Maheswaran has just called for a revival of a separatist movement, a terrorist movement and a totalitarian fascist movement. She is a member of the United National Party. She is a Minister of State. She was speaking at an official function. She is not a rehabilitated member of the LTTE Women’s Wing. The statement was not made in the Jaffna university canteen or in an off-campus boarding house after the shades of dusk had fallen. This was as open as it gets and Ms. Maheswaran is as mainstream as you get. Which tells us something about the Northern mainstream. As the late Izeth Hussein, literary critic and diplomat used to say, what do you do when the mainstream is a sewer?
Let us see whether the North passes the basic moral-ethical test, as the South still barely manages to. When a senior Buddhist cleric called for “even a Hitler” and “military rule”, there was immediate negative reaction, just as there were those others, arguably more numerous, who tried to whitewash the reference and spin the statement. What is important is that there was a continuing debate; a critique and counter-critique. So far there has been no negative reaction in the North to Vijayakala’s statement, or the illumined Tamil Eelam map at a religious ceremony in Anaikottai. Let us await the critical voices, but I for one shan’t be holding my breath. Just as there was resistance in the South to the authoritarianism of the regime in the 1980s as well as to the JVP’s Pol Potism, there has been a critique of the Southern Alt-Right’s flirtation, witting or unwitting, conscious or unconscious, with Nazi fascism. This means that the pluralist democratic political culture in the South remains alive. However, the political culture of the North has long displayed an addiction to totalitarianism, and has been morally and ethically dead for quite a few decades.
It is quite clear that there is a large pro-LTTE constituency in the North, which regards Prabhakaran as a hero and leader. This means there is a large fascist or neo-fascist sentiment in the North. In any western society this would be correctly criticized as neo-Nazi sentiment.
Vijayakala Maheswaran just did not care about the exquisite timing of her statement either. She called for a revival of the LTTE a week after a cache of Tiger weapons was intercepted in Oddusuddan and days after a festival at a Hindu temple in Anaikottai sported an illuminated map of Tamil Eelam as backdrop for the image of the deity. Something is rotten in the Northern Province. Something is sick in that society. The videoed glee at the slaying of the leopard was the smallest symptom, but symptom it was.
By her televised remarks, Vijayakala Maheswaran has suicide-bombed the UNP and the project for a new Constitution. The UNP will survive the bombing but has taken a heavy social hit. The new Constitution project which was highly unlikely anyway—as noted by that most intelligent and realistic of Tamil politicians, Dharmalingam Siddarthan—has just been blown to bits by this political suicide bomber, Vijayakala Maheswaran.
Liberals would of course say that Ms. Maheswaran’s statement shows the radicalization in the North and it is precisely to arrest (pun intended) such radicalization and revive the moderate TNA that a new Constitution is needed. Nice try, but it just won’t fly. Northern political behavior even under a politically permissive government at the Center has been utterly provocative, without even the excuse of resistance to repressive rule. It doesn’t get more liberal than this Government and it doesn’t get more precarious electorally than this government’s current perch and prospects, but the Chief Minister, the Northern Provincial Council, politicians like Ms. Maheswaran, the Jaffna university student movement and sundry civil society organizations have cared so little as to indulge in raucous proto-separatist political discourse and behavior. This has damaged the government and the UNP just as much as the LTTE’s behavior did in 2001-2004.
The nature of Northern politics under a pro-Western liberal administration has resulted in a North-South trust deficit that cannot be bridged for years. It has generated a backlash just as the Gorbachev and Yeltsin years of weakness and appeasement generated one in Russian society.
Northern political behavior has created an atmosphere that is the least propitious imaginable for a new constitution. This is probably the worst time for such an experiment. It may not make it through the Cabinet leave alone obtain a two thirds majority in Parliament. In fact the attempt to move a new Constitution through Parliament may be the trigger for defections on nationalist grounds (or excuses) that can overturn the governmental apple cart. If it makes it to a referendum, that would turn out to be a Brexit or a Chile 1988 moment. Certainly after Vijayakala Maheswaran’s performance, a new Constitution has less of a chance than an entrapped leopard in Kilinochchi.
The cross-party consensus among backbenchers against Vijayakala’s statement which included laudatory reference to the LTTE is a welcome development. Anything less from the UNP ranks and the party would have had a hole blown below its electoral waterline. The cross-party revulsion shows that there is zero-tolerance of the LTTE and para-LTTE sentiment even among parliamentarians who are not unsympathetic to the principle of devolution. Insofar as the Northern political mainstream has not renounced pro-LTTE sentiment, no real North-South consensus is possible, and without such a consensus, no Constitutional reform is imaginable. All that remains is the existing scheme of devolution. Even that is not a given. While there is still a sufficiently broad consensus to entrench existing devolution, a new Government is likely to respond swiftly and sharply to any continued manifestation of political militancy in the North.
The liberal atmosphere should have been utilized to make the Northern Provincial Council work as it was meant to in 1987-88. That was a real chance because of the confluence of two factors—peacetime and a liberal dispensation, unambiguously sympathetic to devolution, in Colombo. This chance was quite deliberately ignored and passed up, in favor of a new Constitution which would be “ekeeya” but not “unitary”!
Not only was the best the enemy of the good, the utopian was the enemy of the feasible and the imaginary of the real. Real gains in the now were passed up for a whole new Constitutional architecture in the supposedly near future. That is the narrative of Tamil politics: no notion of reforms as distinct from total transformation; no strategy of a “long march through the institutions”.
Any push for a new Constitution while Northern politics remains exhibitionistic and militant, is only likely to generate a backlash even against the existing Northern Provincial Council. The only prudent posture currently is a defensive one which can safeguard existing Constitutional arrangements for power-sharing and not an offensive one that drives for a new Constitution.
The nasty negativism of Northern politics, capped by Vijayakala’s unpardonable theatrics, has and will continue to mightily aid the rise of the New Right in the Sinhala areas, shifting the balance between Populism and ultra-nationalism in favor of the latter.
The ideological atmosphere on the island as a whole has never been more foreboding. To return to Yeats, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity”. As blues guitarist Robert Cray sings, “The forecast calls for pain”.