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"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."

- Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Violence & Human Rights

Reggie Siriwardena, 
19 June 1989

K..Kanthasamy, lawyer, relief and rehabilitation worker and human rights activist, was abducted in Jaffna on 19 June 1988 and is presumed to have been killed. Reggie Siriwardena's lecture on Violence and Human Rights was delivered at Colombo on 19 June 1989 to mark the first anniversary of the abduction, and the release of the book - An Untimely Death - A Commemoration of K.Kanthasamy [see also Kanthasamy: the Karma Yogi - Nadesan Satyendra]

"Show us not the aim without the way.
For ends and means on earth are so entangled
That changing one, you change the other too.
Each different path brings other ends in view."
Ferdinand Lassalle


I should like to begin by referring to the fact that the Kanthasamy Commemoration Committee has included at the end of its memorial volume my poem "Waiting for the Soldier". The reason for its inclusion apparently is that a friend sent it to him in Jaffna shortly before his tragic end. 

The poem was written towards the end of 1987 at a time when the hopes of peace kindled by the Indo - Sri Lankan Accord were glittering low as violence swept the country again. What the poem expresses is a sense of impotence to influence the public world - a feeling that one could only withdraw into one's intellectual interests, while being aware that one's private life might at any moment be overwhelmed by the disorder and violence outside, 

Why I refer to the subject of the poem here is that Kanthasamy's life offered an example of a very different response to the dark time through which we are living. Here was a man to whom it was open to devote his outstanding talents and abundant energies wholly to his professional vocation, and to enjoy the satisfaction and success to be derived from it. 

He chose instead to dedicate himself to the cause of fighting injustice and succouring the victims, of tirelessly striving against the erosion of humanity and reason in our society: and for that dedication he paid with his life. No. The only thing that Kanthasamy's death has in common with that of Archimedes is the triumph of brute force over the civilised virtues, and "Waiting for the Soldier" therefore can't really be an epitaph for him. Perhaps I may offer instead these lines of the English poet W.H.Auden as an expression of my own feelings about his life and death. The modest arid muted tones of Auden's lines seem to me appropriate to this man who did so much quietly and unassumingly and shunned heroics and rhetoric:

When there are so many we shall have to mourn, 
when grief has been made so public, and exposed 
to the critique of a whole epoch
the frailty of our conscience and anguish,
of whom shall we speak? For every day they die 
among us, those who were doing us some good, 
who knew it was never enough but 
hoped to improve a little by living.

When I had the honour of being invited by the Kanthasamy Commemoration Committee to deliver this lecture, I chose "Violence and Human Rights" as my subject. I selected it as being best fitted to commemorate a man who lived to protect the rights of his fellow human beings and who died by violence in doing so. But I chose it also because no subject can be of more pressing concern to us at a time when the most fundamental of human rights - the right to exist - is violated each day in our country. The form of this lecture is determined by the very nature of the situation we confront.

Human rights are violated today by the agents of the State in the name of democracy or of the protection of the security and integrity of the county. They are violated also by militant groups in the name of national or social liberation. It would be evasive and dishonest to deal with one and not with the other. My lecture therefore will fall naturally into two parts. in which I discuss first State violence, and secondly, militant violence. But before I proceed to deal with this dual nature of the violence in our society, there are some preliminary considerations I wish to present.

It is possible, in looking at the phenomenon of violence in Sri Lanka. to examine its larger social causes - to analyse the struggle of different ethnic groups and economic classes for distribution of power and resources, for social mobility and for control of the State. I don't question either the validity or the necessity for such analyses. But this is not my way in which I shall be looking at the phenomenon of violence. The underlying social causes making for division and conflict in our society are very real. But there is no fatality about the way in which these conditions, and the issues arising out of them, translate themselves into widespread and continuing violence. 

The transition from conflict to violence of that nature is dependent on decisions made by the choice and will of leaders - of the in control of the apparatus of the State as well as those contending against it. it is dependent on judgments made by the former about what is legitimate in maintaining the security of the State and by the latter about what is justified in opposing or in subverting it Often the decisions in this respect by one of these forces evoke a countervailing reaction from the other, as we have seen in the cycles of State violence and anti-State violence in recent times. It is this area where conscious decisions, which can raise or reduce the level of violence in our society, are made by political actors that I am concerned with in this lecture.

When I say 'conscious decisions". I am not claiming that the decisive agent - the head of a government, the leader of a militant group. or any other - is always aware of the ultimate consequences of his actions. His decisions are often motivated by considerations of immediate expediency. But it is all the more important. therefore, to bring into focus the wider and long term consequences of such decisions.

Let us consider, for instance, the fateful day in 1956, when the Official Language Act was introduced in Parliament. The adoption of the Sinhala only policy was itself one of those momentous decisions that have changed the course of Sri Lanka's history. 

Some of us may wish that S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike had possessed the courage and consistency of his liberal principles that Jawaharlal Nehru showed when he desisted from imposing Hindi on the South. But it isn't this aspect of the events of 1956 I want to discuss but another which has a more direct bearing on the question of violence. 

On that same day when the Bill was introduced Tamil opponents of the Bill staged a peaceful satyagraha on Galle Face green, and were assaulted by thugs who had been transported there. The head of the government not only permitted this to happen but ordered the police away when of their own volition they had arrived to keep the peace. This was the first of a series of occasions in the fifties and sixties when peaceful protest by Tamil political groups would be met with violence. The long term consequences of this response would become apparent in the seventies and eighties when a younger and more militant Tamil generation emerged to pursue their struggle by other means.

Let me compare these events with others which took place in the area not of ethnic but of socio-economic conflict. In 1978 and 1979 there were several cases where striking and picketing workers and demonstrating students on the university campuses were attacked by thugs, sometimes with extreme brutality. The right to picket and the right peacefully to demonstrate had until then been regarded as normal democratic rights. They were now met with violence.

What was the thinking behind those in power when they dealt in this manner with minority satyagrahis, workers and students? Perhaps they said to themselves, "We'll teach them a lesson they won't forget!" But the lesson learnt was was different from the one intended. The leadership of the Tamil political movement and of the working class and student movements had been drawn from parties and organisations which worked within the constitutional and democratic framework. The effect of the violence used against them was to undermine their credibility. By crushing democratic and peaceful opposition. it promoted the belief that the only effective weapon against a State ready to resort to violence was counter-violence. 

The notorious referendum of 1982, with the widespread violence unleashed on the Government side, extended this conviction into a far-reaching scepticsm about the main mechanism of democracy - the electoral process itself. Thus, in both North and South. State violence actually promoted extremism and strengthened those whose methods of dissent were the AK-47 and the T-56.

Once the State was faced with armed insurgency, a different rationale was adopted to justify the resort to unrestrained violence. The very survival of the State was threatened: therefore all methods were permissible against those who sought to subvert it. "There are no rules in war": one often heard this self-justifying maxim from those who held the power of life and death over the people. On this basis, torture, arbitrary killings, use of terror against non-combatants, could all be legitimised as necessary when the State had to fight for its existence.

There is in fact a deadly symmetry between this logic of ruling powers and the logic of militant groups engaged in mortal combat with them. Both believe that the end justifies the means. In the one case. it is the end of preserving democracy. restoring law and order, protecting national integrity: in the other case, it is the end of national liberation or social liberation. In either case, the lives of individual human beings are considered to be a small price to exact for the cherished end.

What makes this logic unacceptable are not just humane considerations, which some people will dismiss as sentimental moral squeamishness. It is the fact that the means you use determine the end you reach. As the German socialist Lasalle wrote in the last century:

Show us not the aim without the way.
For ends and means on earth are so entangled
That changing one, you change the other too.
Each different path brings other ends in view.

I shall deal later with the practice of militant groups, but first, the insane logic of preserving democracy by undemocratic methods and upholding law and order by breaking the law must be questioned. An elected government has certainly the right to defend itself against attempts to overthrow it by force. But a democratic state cannot use illegitimate methods even in fighting terrorism and insurgency without becoming indistinguishable from what it is fighting. Consequently. in resorting to such methods it alienates the sympathy and co-operation of those whom it claims to be defending. 

Civil wars are won not merely by guns but by the support of the people. In that political battle every victim of torture, every person arbitrarily executed, every village terrorised, is (whatever the short-term effects) a gain for the other side in the long run. That was fully demonstrated in the North and East: it has since been confirmed in other parts of the country.

I must now confront the logic of militant groups whose chosen method of political struggle is violence. The issues which arise here are different, in certain important respects, from those which relate to State violence. Governments which are elected within the parliamentary democratic framework claim to adhere to political principles that exclude arbitrary violence. When they resort to illegal terror, one may argue with them on the basis of their professed principles. But militant groups make no secret of the fact that violence is their means, and that they hold this to be the necessary way of changing society.

Militant groups in fact present themselves in the aura of a historical tradition of revolution as an act of liberation. Next month, France and the world will commemorate the bi-centenary of a great revolution, and the Russian and Chinese Revolutions, and yet others after them, all make the same appeal to our faith in the right of people to overthrow unjust and oppressive rulers. 

Whether everything that happened in those revolutions was desirable can be questioned. But, with whatever qualifications, the liberating character of the great revolutions has to be recognised - not least, in their capacity to reassert and regenerate themselves after periods of reaction. How then can we take the position that violence in all forms and in all circumstances is to be condemned? Or must we, on the other hand, concede the claim of militant groups that whenever violence is committed in the name of liberation, it has to be accepted as justified?

I am not one of those who regard Marxist theory as a body of sacred scriptures whose canonical authority can't be questioned. In fact, I don't like today even to hang a label round my neck and call myself a "Marxist". But on this specific question of violence, I think there is a great deal that is valid and useful in the thinking of the classical Marxists, and that can guide us in making a judgment about the violence of militant groups today.

The classical Marxists made a clear distinction between popular revolutions in which the broad masses intervene to overthrow the existing state, and all forms of coups, putsches and conspiracies in which an organised minority acts to take control of the state into its own hands. 

They also distinguished between the methods used in one and the other form of overthrowing the state. Mass agitation. demonstrations and other actions involving popular participation, the mass uprising, are revolutionary forms: terrorist acts, such as explosions of bombs in public places, sabotage and assassination of individuals, are the work of groups seeking to substitute themselves for the people as the agents of change. 

This doesn't mean that in popular revolutions people acted with pure spontaneity: they were always organised and led. But people in the mass don't rise unless it is clear to them that they have no other means of changing their condition. This is the moral justification of the violence of a popular revolution when it occurs: that the masses. by their action, have shown that they have no other way out.

But when a minority, determined and ruthless as it may be, seeks by its own terror and violence to change society, with the people as onlookers, then we must ask not only, "Does the end justify the means?" but also, in terms of Lassalle's question, "Do the means lead to the end? 

If the end is liberation - which if anything must signify a freer, more just and humane society - can this be achieved by planting bombs regardless of whom they may kill, by massacring defenceless and innocent civilians because they speak a different language, or by eliminating those who are in a different political camp, and even wiping out their families? 

The practice of this indiscriminate and unrestrained violence coarsens and brutalises those who participate in it, those who order it and those who carry it out, and if they come to power, it will leave its stamp on the society they create. What kind of society can that be except a regimented one, run by a political leadership freed of popular control in which all dissent will be ruthlessly stamped out? To call that "liberation" is possible only in accordance with the linguistic practice of Lewis Carrolls Humpty-Dumpty for whom words meant just what he chose to make them mean.

I should like to dwell a little on the subject of individual assassinations because it is relevant to the fate of the man we are commemorating today. I think everything we have gone through in the last decade confirms the wisdom of those who ruled out assassination as a legitimate method of pursuing liberation of any kind. 

You may start by killing unpopular politicians or oppressive agents of the State, and claim that their killing is just retribution for their crimes, and perhaps few people will shed tears for the victims. But once you have started on this slippery slope. there is no possibility of stopping anywhere. You will go on to eliminating police informants and feel justified again. 

But you won't stop there because you have already convinced yourself that the sacred end of liberation justifies the killing of anybody who is an obstacle in the way. And you are also certain that you and your group possess the only right formula for achieving liberation. 

The combination of complete certainty of your infallibility and total ruthlessness with regard to your means is a terrifying thing. So, armed with this logic, you will go on to kill even members of other parties or groups who claim to be working for the same ends but are doing so (according to you) by the wrong methods. But you won't stop there either. Because by the same logic, even those who disagree with you in your own group are traitors to the cause and must therefore be eliminated. And there is no reason to suppose that this process will end with the seizure of power. What it prepares the way for is a society of permanent purges, torture chambers and execution camps.

In this light we can see why Kandiah Kanthasamy had to die. He believed in the freedom of the individual conscience and judgment, arid was not prepared to subordinate it to any political group or leader. In reading the memorial volume, I have been particularly struck by some passages from his own hand, which I could not have read earlier, and which state precisely and forthrightly his commitment to independent and unfettered thought and activity. One is his admirable memorandum arid project proposal for the founding of Saturday Review. In the course of it he wrote:

This is not intended to be a political paper, nor a partisan one. it will be a forum for all opinions so far as they concern Tamil rights and race relations In this country, but yet not parochial In content...While the style of Journalism will be individualistic, the approach will be liberal and catholic.

Later he said in a letter:

We should take extreme care to preserve the freedom of the press which is achieved more by publishing conflicting views rather than suppressing any.

And three weeks before his abduction, already facing threats to his life, he wrote regarding the TRRO:

If we cannot carry on as a free organisation, we should close it down.

It isn't difficult to see that the very existence of such a man was a challenge to any group which was seeking to enforce a coerced uniformity of opinion. Kanthasamy can rightly be honoured as a martyr in a cause which too few people are prepared to defend today in this country.

 
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