| by Malinda Seneviratne
( January 26, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) There are two kinds of radicals in universities. Well, to be honest, I can’t speak for today’s undergraduates. Back then, in the eighties there were two kinds of radicals and I suspect these two categories exist today as well, wearing different clothes, speaking different languages, screaming different slogans etc., but beneath it all, the same two individuals I noticed when I was an undergraduate.
The first kind was the more numerous and naturally the more visible. Here’s a profile. He is easily swayed by rhetoric. Has very little analytical skills. Prefers slogans and sloganeering to persuasive and substantiated argument. When challenged ideologically or on any theoretical point, slips into ‘action’ (over ‘talk’) and readies to employ fist and not intellect. Loves revolutionary trappings such as Che Guevara t-shirts and other iconography. Would readily purchase the full works of V.I. Lenin (at rates heavily subsidized by the Soviet Union), set it all out proudly on table or bookshelf but would be hard pressed to quote him in any relevant, context-bound manner.
These are those who at the time wore red on ‘strike days’, red on days commemorating students who had been killed, red on May Day. They were the shobana viplavavaadeen or show-off revolutionaries. To this day I am not sure why they did this; perhaps to feel bigger than they were or maybe a cover for some insecurity. A lot of them were very poor students, ‘poor’ meaning that they were not very keen on the learning part of university life. There were very few ‘revolutionaries’ of this kind who were good at sports or excelled in some creative field. This ‘lack’ didn’t save them when the UNP-JVP bheeshanaya arrested our land. They were killed.
Then there were those who deliberately keep to the background, coming out only if and when necessary. I would call them ‘doers’. They didn’t talk much and were not interested in the trappings or the show. This does not mean of course that they were better read than the other type of ‘revolutionary’. Indeed many of them were as averse to intellectual engagement. Some had a theory: we’ve talked and talked and talked but never done anything; now it is time to act. They took refuge in Karl Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach: ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.’ They knew enough of Marx, Engels and Lenin to throw quote and book at a heckler, but it was mostly about designing plan and using text to justify act. They still thought they were revolutionaries.
Unlike the earlier type, many of those who belonged to this category were highly gifted. They were very articulate, both in the one-on-one of daily politics and the politics of thundering from stage. There were many who could write. Poets. Artists. They too died.
Together they were no more than a handful of students. And yet, in the late eighties they decided what would and would not happen in the universities. They were big on rights and small on responsibility, but tried to convince others that they were being more responsible than anyone else in view of the fact that they were putting their lives on line for country, class and history. That’s another story altogether and one which will be explored some other time.
What did the others do? I am not talking about those who were very serious about politics, i.e. those who were affiliated to other political parties or organizations and subscribed to this or that ‘ism’. I am talking about the led, the vast majority of students who were held to ransom by both ‘revolutionary’ and ‘reactionary’, who was asked to choose one mad adventurer over another.
Well, they went along. When the universities were open, they made up numbers in processions and demonstrations, they carried placards, shouted slogans and put up posters. When the universities were closed they were pushed by local realities. This was a time when those born in the sixties were seen as ‘JVPers’ and so they were hounded by the police and paramilitaries. Some joined the JVP because ‘one had to go stand with someone who was strong’. Some fled. Some were slow. Some are dead.
Now, twenty years later, I look back at the various kinds of ‘revolutionaries’ of our ‘political moment’. Some of the show-offs are dead and I feel sorry for them. They were young and wearing a red shirt is hardly cause for assassination. The ‘doers’ are dead and that’s even sadder for they had far more commitment, integrity to cause and love for country than the fops and more than their assassins. There are those who were taken for a ride because they were ignorant or were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Many died. I lament.
But when I look back twenty years and look at who survived and what the survivors did and did not do, I find the greatest contributors were not those who were ‘red’ or ‘revolutionary’. The self-effacing, politically laidback or disinterested have done far more than the ‘political personalities’. This utterly colourless creature was the one who did the hard work, at home, village, community, workplace and indeed wherever he/she happened to be.
It is good to speak and good to speak up, speak out. It is good to match deed with word, to put your money where your mouth is. It is good to do. It is not so good to talk about doing, or planting bathala with the mouth as our villagers put it. It is best, I think, to do and be done with, without making a song and dance. That’s radicalism at its best.
I remember the unnecessarily murdered. I salute the commitment and integrity of those who were powered by a need to inhabit a different time, a different country where the terms of exchange were not as skewed against the poorer classes as they were then. I bow low before those apolitical ladies and gentlemen who never used the words ‘comrade’, ‘sahodaraya’ or ‘sahodaree’ and was not addressed or referred to in this way, but who did the ‘little little things’ that made a different.