Val Daniel’s Introduction of Ben Bavinck and Ben’s Diary over the Years of Conflict in Lanka

E. Valentine Daniel, August 2010

Modern warfare, by any measure, is a display of excess; but the excesses just before the end of wars—the excess of inhumanity, indiscriminate use of force, a frenzy of unmatched cruelty, wanton destruction and devastation, blind firepower, unworldly carnage followed by gratuitous torture as well as generalised infliction of pain—exceed everything that comes before. If this was true at the end of the American Civil War and at the end of the Second Battle of the Marne,  in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Dresden at the end of World War II,then it was also true in the far less infamous 27-year old war between the Sri Lankan state and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which ended on 18 May 2009.

Bavinck with Tiger ‘boys”  

The bang with which it ended on the streets of the capital city of Colombo was mightier than the bang with which it ended on the battlefield of Mullaitivu; while all the unwilling and frightened children whom the LTTE, at their final hour, had recruited with bravado, didn’t even have a chance to whimper. They were mowed down. It is worth noting that the OED finds that in American slang, in kinship with the Indian hemp, bhang, “bang”, also describes the effect of a hallucinogenic   drug, such as cocaine. Such was the victors’ jubilation on the streets of Colombo after the war had ended: other-worldly.

 This war was called a “civil war,” which is an oxymoron, a violence of language upon the common Latin root, civilis, from which have issued citizen, civic, civility, civilization. How paradoxical, obscene, wrong and insulting to both savage and beast that the “civilized” (and who would deny that Tamils and Sinhalese belong to a great and old civilization?) choose to qualify their own extreme indulgences in violence as “brutal” or “savage”. In fearsome symmetry, the end of the war resembled its beginning. Once we discount the hundreds of “first causes” of the civil war, hypostasised and hypothesised by hundreds of scholars, politicians, commentators and citizens, we may mark the beginning of the Sri Lankan civil war as the 23 July 1983, the day the display of hatred – a spectacle in its own right, a literal flaring up of violence, arson and mayhem, stoked by a government charged with protecting its citizens, which unleashed a pogrom against the Tamil-speaking minority – that swept through the South as an angel of death. The beginning was as grotesquely carnivalesque as the end. But if there was an excess of cruelty during these moments, there were also extreme acts of kindness. There are many accounts of Sinhalese soldiers refusing to shoot to kill, touched to the quick by the law of karma and the Buddhist concept of karunava. Many are the accounts of priests and nuns, at the risk of being fired at from behind, who secreted children, women and the feeble to freedom from the spit of land where they were trapped with the LTTE. Some LTTE cadres themselves, coming to terms with the odds they faced, protected the stealthily escaping trickles of civilians. Why is it so difficult to admit to one’s own enemy’s virtues? The balanced account of Ben Bavinck’s diary forces us to examine this selfcensure Tamils and Sinhalese impose on themselves.

 The near daily account we find in this diary covers the middle years of the war —1988 to 2004 —five years after the beginning and five years before the end. I shall not go so far as to say that violent acts during these middle years were deliberate, in the sense of being well-considered or carefully thought out, but they were certainly more thoughtful and even more considerate than actions at the two ends of the war. Fortunately, the responsibilityfor recording this period in its everydayness, fell, without purpose or plan, to one of the most sober, generous, reflective, fair, decent and deliberative individuals I have known: Ben Bavinck. In the hands of a lesser man, even these years could have been given to a selective recording of the vilest and the most hateful aspects of the period, a journal dedicated solely to the pornography of violence. It is not so with Ben Bavinck, who sees moments in the midst of war of acts of humanity and shared human concerns on both sides; and even when he witnessed the worst, he was capable of envisioning the possibility and promise of it being otherwise.

The picture the author paints in this diary is not Manichaen, of good versus evil or right versus wrong or enemy versus friend, but rather, a record of what he had seen and has now witnessed: an emotionally charged landscape that was at once both subtle and plain, complex and transparent, objective yet interpreted. This diary is a gift, not only to the historian and research scholar, but to every Tamil and Sinhalese citizen, whatever be the state with which he or she chooses to identify himself/herself with.

When Ben Bavinck came to Ceylon—as the recently independent nation-state was then called—he was only 30 years old. Freshly out of law school inHolland, he chose to serve as a missionaryteacher at Jaffna College. The year was 1954. It was a time when Ceylon was considered to be the most exemplarily democratised, stable and modernising nation among the newly independent states of South andSoutheast Asia. Lee Kwan Yew, the founding president of Singapore, would announce on his visit toCeylon two years later that his goal was to make Singapore the next Ceylon. What can one do except to laugh and cry at the same time at the hope that was and the possibilities that might have been. The Jaffna that Ben Bavinck arrived in was as different as night and day to theJaffna that would come into being post-1983. The former was traditional, politically conservative, religiously pious, the producer of a disproportionately high number of civil servants—loyal and upwardly mobile whom the colonizer labelled “hardworking” and “enterprising”. Law-abiding and hardworking they may have been, but they were not docile. If there was any corner of the island that was fast heading towards having a middle class in the majority of its population, it was the Jaffna Peninsula and towns of Trincomalee and Batticaloa of the east coast. It was a place where education was even more important than subsistence. In class terms we may say thatJaffna’s ethos was, in its own way, already “bourgeois.” Of course, there were no mercantile cities in the North or the East that resembled the early modern towns and cities of the Netherlands and England, where the bourgeoisie constituted the driving force of historical change. What I call the Jaffna bourgeoisie or middle class may not have constituted a numerical majority or even formed an identifiable social stratum as such, but the pervasive class ethos that prevailed, made its residents, as the bourgeoisie everywhere were wont to be, regardless of where they lived, law-abiding citizens with a yen for upward mobility through hard work, materialists tempered by thrift and a proudly nurtured manner of civility.

Jaffna College, the secondary school at which Ben Bavinck came to serve, was co-founded by American missionaries and the citizens of the village of Vaddukkodai and its environs, in 1823. Initially, this institution was named the Batticotta Seminary, with the anglicised version of the Tamil name of the village in which it was located. I wish to briefly digress in order to argue that the kind of Protestant Christianity to which Ben could trace his spiritual, ideological and natural genealogy—Calvinism—and that to which most of the American missionaries who served in Jaffna could trace theirs—American Congregationalism—had many beliefs and practices in common. By “belief” I am not referring to something directly doctrinal that is recited in a creed. Rather, following the founder of American Pragmatism, Charles Peirce, I define belief as the readiness to act upon principles, however vague, that one holds to be good and true. These beliefs may not be doctrinally driven as such but they do have deep religious roots that go a long way back in history. To the extent that they are rendered or made representable in discourse as good and true, they are “beliefs”. By “practice” I do not refer to something that is performed or demonstrated or done for the benefit of others who would emulate or envy the behaviour or action in question. Practice is neither the behavioural acting out of a set of rules nor actions that were deliberated upon. It is best characterised as something we do because the appropriateness and necessity of that action at a time and place goes without saying and comes without saying. They are sedimented cultural habits cultivated from childhood and lie in the arcane recesses of one’s being, ready to be summoned to action when apposite or articulated when timely. For example, when I was growing up, my father, who was a Hindu convert to Christianity, instilled in us the belief that a book, any book, was an icon of the goddess Saraswathi. We also grew up knowing that touching someone with your foot or shoe, even if unintentionally, was very disrespectful or “bad”. I don’t recall him laying this down as a rule or commandment. Nor do I recall this understanding being tested and hence, neither did I witness the consequences of such a test. He offered us no further explanation, though I am sure we ourselves surmised what the consequences might be and given the high esteem in which learning and education was held, we did not dare test it. This and other such “understandings” were already always there in the world into which we were born. After having lived in the United States for over 30 years, during a seminar I held at my house, the following incident happened. Since there were more people than chairs on that occasion, some of us sat on the floor. A guest, an American woman, meaning no insult or harm, gently pushed aside a small stack of books that were on the floor and in her way with her foot. Before I could even think what I was doing, I had slapped her foot with immoderate force. This act, whatever else one might call it, was a “belief and practice” or expression of a “deep cultural value”.

In Ben Bavinck’s account of his experience of transporting essential goods through the war zone’s thicket of watchful eyes of armed individuals, the food convoy is stopped by force of arms and some vulnerable person in his team is in danger. He goes up to the armed man and addresses him, with the confidence that reason will prevail because it is reasonable to assume that, as ahuman being, the soldier or the LTTE fighter, as the case may be, is also reasonable. This kind of intervention, whether we judge it to be naive or otherwise, risky or not, is executed because to do so is “second nature” to him, the expression of a deep cultural value that was always already there in his world, wherever on earth that world might be. Such values are embodied or imprisoned in action. In such value-laden actions we put into practice a predisposition to act in a way that is appropriate to that time and place. This kind of response in belief or practice is analogous, more to a catalysed property of an element or compound in chemistry, than to the acting out a script on stage.

Having grown up in the South of Sri Lanka among Tamils of remembered Indian origin and Kandyan Sinhalese, I was struckby certain palpable differences between us southerners and those northerners when I went toJaffnato attend high school. It was much later, after years of formal education in the west in anthropology, that I would come to label these differences as cultural. I also came to realize that some of these beliefs and practices, be they virtues or not, were attributes that were not only common to the Tamils of the North and East but also to be found among Calvinists and Congregationalists. This is not to deny the great differences between these Euro-American Christians and the predominantly Hindu citizens of Jaffna. To be sure, there are some beliefs and practices embedded in and embodied by these groups that are not only different but are starkly at odds with each other. Nor do I claim that these shared beliefs and practices— which I shall mention below—are characteristic of every Sri Lankan Tamil, Dutch Calvinist and American Congregationalist. It is undeniable that there are some attributes that are shared by Sri Lankan Tamils—be they Hindus or Christians—and the Euro-American Protestant missionaries who worked in Jaffna and belonged to these two Protestant denominations; to which I may also add Methodism, even though the latter differentiated itself much later from the establishmentarian Church of England, in the mid eighteenth-century, than the Congregationalists who were never part of the Church of England to begin with.

These shared attributes are independence, individualism, selfreliance, self-control, industriousness, thrift, privacy, modesty, plainness and the voluntary self-deprivation of needs and desires and/or their delayed gratification. The same values, to be sure, may be expressed differently in different contexts and in different ways, depending on whether the person expressing it is an American Congregationalist or a Vellalah from Mallakam, whether it is Ben, the Calvinist Dutchman, or his dear friend Mr. Rajasingam, a second-generation Christian Tamil and retired math teacher at Jaffna College. The Nallur temple is certainly going to be architecturally and iconographically richer than the New England congregational church or the many Dutch Reformed churches in Holland that still bear the scars of their simplification from their original, pre-reformation form: stain glass windows replaced by stone, elaborate altars reduced to a bare pulpit, no Bishops wearing mitres and crimson robes and so on. But compare the Jaffna Tamil’s wedding feast and that of an Indian Tamil of the same socio-economic class; the former will be on a less extravagant scale than the latter. Similarly, all rank indicators being equal, a middle-class home of an Indian Tamil in Chennai is likely to have been built with disproportionately greater attention paid to the exterior than the interior and the converse is likely to be true in the case of a Jaffna Tamil home. It is in this relative sense that there is an “elective affinity” between the members of the two Christian denominations in question and the typical Jaffna Tamil. Privacy, again, a value that has an inward rather than an outward orientation, is a value far more conspicuous and well guarded inJaffnathan inSouth India. The keen observer of South Indian and Jaffna etiquette will also be struck by the relative ease with which an Indian opens up the interior spaces of his or her house to a guest compared to a “typical” Tamil in Jaffna.

I shall not digress further to defend or describe in any detail what I mean by the concept “typical”, except to say that it pertains in this instance to the values and ways of life common among the numerically and culturally dominant Tamil Vellalahs of the North. But it is also true of a much wider range of castes among both Hindus and Christians in the region. “Elective affinity” is a notion that the great German sociologist Max Weber borrowed from Goethe. Weber used the expression to describe a mutual pull exerted by two sets of social facts, social mentalities or inner dispositions on each other; not in a causal way, but by their mutual compatibility or sympathy.

This brings me full circle, back to Ben Bavinck. He embodies all the values I have listed. I first came to know him in 1962 as a teacher and a guide when I joined the secondary school of Jaffna College as a student. Over the past 10 to 12 years, I have come to know him more closely and consider him, in addition to having been my teacher, also as my dear friend. As long as I have known him, he has been a fiercely independent person. While valuing individualism very highly in himself and encouraging it in others, he never nurtured individualism at the expense of caring for others. When it came to creature comforts, he was attentive to others’ comforts first and only then to his, if at all. This was true when he was a scout master, as it was true in the way he cared for the elderly in the elders’ home in Jaffna during the war, as it is true now in preparing this diary for publication. Not only has Ben been a self-reliant man, he taught every student that came his way the art of being self-reliant, and along with this, his students took in lessons of self-control, industriousness, thrift, privacy, modesty and plainness which resonated with their own beliefs and practices in the making.

He was an uncommon teacher. In fact, he was almost the opposite of the standard South Asian teacher. He was anything but didactic, something almost all our South Asian teachers have a hard time not being and almost all South Asian students expect them to be. He never taught us his beliefs and practices, he lived them and helped his students, friends and acquaintances discover these in themselves and make them their own. Apart from not being a teacher in the conventional sense, he always was and still is a student; but not a student who studies us, but one who studies with us and among us — a participant-observer-student-teacher.

Furthermore, Bavinck, unlike most other missionaries, had the distinct advantage of reading and speaking Tamil quite fluently. More importantly, he took a great delight in using the language at the slightest opportunity. This is what made those Sri Lankan Tamils who came to know him invest so much trust and confidence in his work, dedication and judgement. In my keynote address at a conference at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies in Colombo titled, “Who is a Tamil?”, I made either a passing assertion or posed a passing question that suggested that I considered Ben Bavinck to be a Tamil. He was not present that day, but almost everybody in the audience knew who he was. Nobody laughed or made any noises expressing disagreement or disapproval. In fact, it gave the audience pause. In one sense it gave them pause because I had redeployed the conference question into a wider context and they were forced to re-think the question. In another sense, they had to consider with all seriousness why it would be incorrect to dismiss out of hand the suggestion that Bavinck was every bit a Tamil as the members of the audience and I were. Several members of the audience came up to me after the talk to tell me that they really couldn’t come up with any satisfactory reason of any finitude that could dismiss the question as frivolous. “Yes,” one rhetorically asked, “why couldn’t he be a Tamil?” The dynamic of elective affinity made Tamils, especially those who knew him well, see him as one of them.

He retired from his mission work in 1972 when he was 48 years old. In 1988, at the age of 64, he was back in war-bereftJaffna, riding his bicycle 20 miles per day through the back roads and alleyways of Jaffna or in rigs loaded with supplies over war-torn roads between Colombo and Jaffna. In reading his diary, it is hard to fathom the heavy schedule of work and responsibility which Ben surrendered his body and soul to during these middle years of the war, mostly in the north and the east.

During the middle of the war years when Ben was labouring in Sri Lanka, he also began to learn Sinhala and do some work in the Sinhala areas of the island. The time he could spend in the southwest coast of the island, however, was too short. But I believe that had he spent enough time in the south to be able to master the language and culture of the south, it is even possible that the Sinhalese who would have come to know him well and accepted him as one of them. This, of course, raises a different but corollary question. If we define a Tamil or a Sinhalese or a Sri Lankan by the logic of exclusion rather than inclusion, the fissions will continue indefinitely.

The usual gambit is to phrase the question by qualifying the subject by the adjective“pure”? Today, only Sinhala speakers may be considered pure Sri Lankans. Tomorrow, only Sinhala-speaking Buddhists may qualify as pure Sri Lankans. The day after, only Sinhala-speaking Buddhists whose Sinhala-speaking Buddhist ancestors were so for at least five generations, may qualify as pure Sri Lankans. The day after day after tomorrow, only the Sinhala-speaking Buddhists who were at least Sinhala-speaking Buddhists for five generations and had names of South Asian origin only were pure Sri Lankans. No Fernandos, Pereras or Pierises would qualify. The day after that, only Kandyan Sinhalese who had all of the prior qualifications would be considered pure Sri Lankans. Where pray tell would the fissioning and excluding end?

Ben, the Calvinist missionary may have had a lot in common with the typical Congregational missionary and the typicalJaffna Tamil. But he was not typical of anything; least of all a typical missionary. A sign of his atypicality is the fact that, to this day, I am not sure that he is an ordained minister of any church. I have never seen him wear any religious vestments. I do know from my days at Jaffna College that he was not hell bent on converting anyone. I personally know of him discouraging a Hindu boy who wanted to become a Christian from converting from Hinduism. What I do know is that he lived a life such that anyone who knew the teaching of Christ would have no hesitation in pointing him out and saying, “there goes a good Christian”.

Ben’s preference for simplicity in all things may be best represented in his choice of dress. His partiality to simplicity restrained him from “dressing up”, which is something he rarelydid. He always seemed slightly uncomfortable “dressing up”, and most comfortable dressing down and roughing it out. Hewore a sarong at home. Made rice and curry his comfort food. He made transitions between mat and bed and back with equal ease. When he visits me inNew Yorkon his way to one meeting or another, he carries a small bag, which I doubt has room for more than two changes of clothes.

Is Ben an ordinary or an extraordinary man? Both and neither.

The same goes for his war diaries that follow. Read as a whole, one cannot miss the extraordinary events of those middle years of the war it records. But in reading it, one also finds the everydayness or the ordinariness of events, the people he meets and cares for, the subjects of conversation with friends. He records his encounter with old friends, whom he may even forget to introduce to the reader. But that is how life is inJaffna. One walks into a conversation that began before you were present and will continue after you have left. You take each individual you encounter for what he or she is: an ordinary human being who happens to live in an exceptional time but who has not forgotten what it is to be human, ordinarily. If one wants a daily dose of excitement, this diary will disappoint. You will meet characters so unexceptional that you may wonder why you need to read anything about this person or Ben’s conversation with him. Even Jaffna Tamils who may know some of these individuals might wonder, “So what?” He even has time to pause in the middle of danger to indulge in his life-long hobby of bird-watching. Pause with him. Recover the serenity of the ordinary that is so precious in such extraordinary times.

                   Valentine Daniel, Professor,Columbia University, August 2010


Filed under accountability, citizen journalism, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, liberation tigers of tamil eelam, life stories, LTTE, military strategy, prabhakaran, reconciliation, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, Tamil civilians, Tamil Tiger fighters, terrorism, unusual people, world events & processes