BY RAJAN HOOLE
(Talk delivered by Dr. Rajan Hoole on 01 October, 2021, at the virtual launch of the book: Muslims in Post-War Sri Lanka: Repression, Resistance and Reform. The keynote address was by Dr Ahmed Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur on the freedom of religion or belief, followed by the panellists Prof. Savitri Goonesekera, Dr. Radhika Coormaraswamy, M. A .Sumanthiran (PC) and Dr. Hoole.)
In congratulating those who have brought out this volume, Muslims in post-war Sri Lanka, and Shreen Saroor who spear-headed the effort, I will dwell on a historical note. An individual whose silent influence speaks through is Shreen’s late husband Qadri Ismail. Qadri devoted his intellectual life speaking truth to power in the cause of human rights and to the conviction that we are stronger together. Aneesa Firthous and her companions from Batticaloa, who challenged Zahran’s isolationism, reflected on their long-standing experience with political violence:
“… we have no reason to invest our faith in anti-terror laws that propagate violence and repression as a solution to such brutality. We strongly believe that the lasting solution to such hatreds lies in our fundamental human relationships and mutual support that have withstood the brutalities of war for decades.”
This is something that Qadri (as illustrated in his book Abiding by Sri Lanka) and Dr. Rajani Thiranagama (in the Broken Palmyra), believed in. Both in their own ways played the role of an intellectual speaking truth to power as described by Qadri’s teacher Edward Said in his 1993 Reith Lectures: “this figure of the intellectual as a being set apart, [is] someone able to speak the truth to power … for whom no worldly power is too big and imposing to be criticised and pointedly taken to task.”
Muslims in post-war Sri Lanka goes beyond the victimhood narrative. That effort is important for any community to emerge without dehumanising itself in the process of fighting against oppression. Harnessing only the victimhood mentality to mobilise people may work in the short run but will entrench the community in an ideologically narrow and internally oppressive environment. In this regard the book challenging the internal oppressiveness also helps Islamophobia to be challenged from a strong position. Those who argue that it is counterproductive to raise these issues at present, when Islamophobia is dominating mainstream narratives, are actually reinforcing and undermining the struggle against it.
I had the great good fortune to witness Qadri’s development as an advocate and intellectual over many years. 1983, a year of notoriety for Lanka, resulted also in a crisis of truth. The need to break out of it was widely felt. ‘The Ethnic Conflict,’ by the Committee for Rational Development was a scholarly response to this need in 1984. A leading article stated: “Contrary to Tamil opinion I do not believe that the government actually organised the riots; rather it was organised for the government by forces which the government itself had created, albeit for other purposes.” Such evasions provided cover for the President to shift the blame by proscribing three left parties. It defined judicial and academic responses for the coming decades. It must have been very frustrating for someone like Qadri. The resulting impunity seems irreversible at present.
In a rare sign of hope, VijithaYapa, then editor of The Island, encouraged Qadri and D.B.S. Jeyaraj to write quite freely. On 28th April 1985, Qadri, in his column, trashed the government’s attempt to blame local Muslims for an attack on Tamils when it denied that the STF had attacked the Tamil village of Karaitivu two weeks earlier, killing 11 persons, pointing out that guns possessed by local Muslims had been taken back under emergency regulations. That was Qadri’s uncompromising commitment to the truth, which had become dangerous. In Jaffna a similar commitment to the truth was advanced by some of us involved in the Saturday Review, edited by Gamini Navaratne with A.J. Canagaratna.
It was in October 1987, just after the Indian Army took Jaffna that Qadri was in Jaffna, where he was injured by shrapnel from a missile. He had discussions with my colleagues in UTHR (Jaffna) Rajani and Sritharan, who with me conceived of the book, The Broken Palmyra, to tell the unvarnished truth about the war and ourselves.
In it Rajani wrote a scathing (and prophetic) assessment of the LTTE: “The legendary Tigers will go to their demise with their legends smeared with the blood and tears of victims of their own misdoings. A new Tiger will not emerge from their ashes. Only by breaking with this whole history and its dominant ideology, can a new liberating outlook be born.”
Qadri wrote in the CPA collection Republic at 40, in 2012: “I hold the LTTE a dogmatically nationalist, self-glorifying, monopolistic, militarist, capitalist, antidemocratic, patriarchal, mass murdering entity; and the same of the Rajapaksa government.” The latter he described as insatiably corrupt, anti-poor, anti-subaltern and pathologically insecure.” This was a time Qadri must have still felt keenly the murder of his former journalist colleague Lasantha Wickrematunge in 2009, confirming that Sri Lanka was no place for him.
To Qadri, speaking truth to power had to be done bluntly. No individual was to be spared. He said in his book, ‘social science is allergic to the singular; it must repress difference.’ Abiding by Sri Lanka was written in the context of the Norway-sponsored peace process, which Tamil dissidents felt placed them under a sentence of death for an elusive peace. Qadri further wrote: “…is it ethical to seek compromise with a genocidal nationalism? We have two in this case, given not just Sinhalese nationalism’s response to the Tamils but also Tamil nationalism’s response to the Muslims.”
That question has not gone away. It created a sharp divide between anthropologists and scholars whose focus was human rights. The former tend to denounce the latter as not academic, as also seen in reviews of Qadri’s book. Even academics know the convenience of links to power and that is why they generally fail in speaking truth to power.
As for bluntness, Qadri, after leaving journalism, confined himself to critiquing academic writings. In Rajani’s case, while attacking the LTTE as condemned by the process of which it was both an agent and victim, she did not attack Prabhakaran directly. To her, he was a product of elite politics: “The militants were not the initiators; they were the continuation of this history. The ideology, in its totality, goes to the credit of the “moderate” and “middle of the road” nationalists, who were the initiators of this narrowness.” She felt deeply for the people and the young LTTE cadres, who were victims. She wanted to be an abiding presence in the community and an agent for liberating change.
Rajani and others, who challenged both external and internal terror, identified the fatal destructiveness of internal terror. Internal terror is frequently deployed as justification for external terror; to some extent it weakened the Tamil community on many fronts. Opening up space was the main aim of the Broken Palmyra and the UTHR reports; and the volume Muslims in post-war Sri Lanka too will play an important role in this regard.