Issues: Sivaram, his murderers and his mourners

By: J. S. Tissainayagam

The murder of D. P. Sivaram evoked widespread grief and consternation among his professional colleagues, political actors and for the want of another term, intellectuals, from southern Sri Lanka. Unlike the deaths of many other Tamil journalists at the hands of assassins, which merely provoked media and human rights organisations to issue statements, and, perhaps, hold a demonstration in front of the Colombo Fort railway station, the reactions to this killing were different.

What made the response to Sivaram’s demise different to others was the widespread public articulation of emotion. Among emotions such as outrage, sadness and praise emanating from the south however, there were two recurrent themes. These were (a) we did not necessarily like what he wrote and (b) we still allowed him to write. Those holding these values went on to say that Sivaram’s murderers were vile and inhuman because they did not share such hallowed ideals as allowing the proponents of unpalatable ideas and dissenting views to stay alive.

This is nothing new however. It is the stereotypical position of the liberal which basically states: “I disagree with all what you say, but will not take away your right to say it.” Those who are a little more forthright would perhaps add, “While acknowledging your right to say it, I would even go so far as to persuade other people too, to refrain from placing obstacles on your path.”

We have to understand that when people put forward such points of view they are shifting emphasis from the ideas expressed by the person, to the person himself or herself. The idea takes on a secondary role as it were, while the agent or vehicle of that idea or view assumes greater significance. In other words, the person who advocates such ideas is allowed to do so, not because of the importance of the content of what is expressed, but because of the sanctity of the person saying it.

Human personalities are complex because the elements are so mixed in them. This either endears them to others, or makes them repulsive. And depending on which assumes ascendancy, one is either attracted or turned off. In most cases where people have ideas that are repugnant to others but are allowed to express them anyway, the negative facets in the idea itself is compensated for by the positives in the personality from whom the idea is transmitted.

If we take the case of Sivaram, he was the symbol of Tamil nationalism and openly uncompromising about the fact that Tamil rights could be won only through military means and that if the Tamils were to negotiate without supporting their position by the ability to wage war, they would come out, if at all, second best.

Despite this being generally considered an extreme view, there was agreement among sections of the south claiming they knew Sivaram as a person, that he should be allowed the liberty to express it. This is due to the ‘extremism’ in the idea or view being mitigated by the personality who advocated them. Among those who condemned his killers were those who admired Sivaram for his undoubted erudition, his conviviality, his antecedents in Batticaloa and more than all that his ability to be a friend of the Sinhala establishment. In other words, he, (the vehicle of his ideas) was acceptable because of these facets that made up his personality.

One of the important factors that make us like some people and not others is due to what we see in them to which we can relate. It is due the ‘us’ we recognise in others – those factors that allow us to identify ourselves with someone else, someone who is different. To see a part of our selves reflected in who is essentially the ‘other.’ It is seeing the ‘us’ in other people that go to build collective identities that is articulated in groups as diverse as races, religious fraternities or the old school tie.

In the case of Sivaram too, it is essentially the same thing the Sinhala establishment is saying. It found points of commonality with the murdered man because he was part of ‘us,’ who sipped good wine, spoke the common language of the coloniser and discussed western philosophy. And the establishment in turn, by virtue of the fact it could identify itself with him, allowed him to live and practice his profession though what he professed might have been inimical to many in southern Sri Lanka. And it is also this group that has come out in revolt against Sivaram’s assassins calling them evil because they dared to transgress the rules whereby the Sinhala establishment played, What draws individuals to others and to collectives is highly personal thing. It is described personal chemistry. Another celebrated instance where it is rumoured to have taken place is in the friendship that is said to have sprung up between the chief negotiators of the UNF government delegation, Professor G. L. Pieris, and the LTTE’s Dr. Anton Balasingham. It is said the latter saw more of his own personality reflected in the good professor than his brethren in the jungle fastness of the Wanni.

To return to Sivaram: while those from the south were willing to support his right to write and publish freely, they were only ready to accept what they found was acceptable, which meant when it did not fundamentally alter their own worldviews or thinking. Whatever elements they found incongruent with theirs, they ignored or denounced. Therefore, when they said there should have been no impediments placed against publishing his ideas, what they in essence said was that what he wrote could very well live in the realm of ideas, but it was not going to affect them.

Therefore, in condemning his murder, they basically were being self-congratulatory. There was the Sivaram with whom they could identify because they were one with him as a person, while the ideas that he stood for in Tamil politics they could cavalierly reject or denounce – all within the ambit of the freedom of expression. But on the other hand, his killers were different because their values placed them beyond the pale of the Sinhala establishment, which loved and cherished Sivaram.

To Sivram’s killers however, his ideas and his writing was not something they had the luxury of dismissing. It was not something they could read on the op-ed page on Wednesday morning and forget by the time they had come to the sports section, or use as a whetstone to reinforce their own worldviews, or craft their responses. Those who murdered Sivaram knew only too well they were not part of the club that feted him. On the contrary, what he wrote hit home so profoundly that they could not ignore it. And that is why they decided to kill him.

Sivaram, like his killers, took his ideas seriously. It was what made him tick. He believed he had contributed fundamentally towards shaping the thinking that drove (and drives) Tamil nationalism. He was not somebody who relished others treating his ideas in a take-it-or-leave-it manner. Which makes me wonder whose attitude Sivaram would have respected more: the southern establishment that is singing hosannas to him now, or those who killed him.

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