Bavinck as a “Lord of Life” in a land of conflict and death

Charles Sarvan [Ponnadurai], courtesy of the author –with title being the Web Editor’s imposition …… This is a review of Ben Bavinck, Of Tamils and Tigers: a journey through Sri Lanka’s war yearsVijitha Yapa Publications, Colombo, 2011.                                                                                              

“The moving finger writes”, and having written, it moves on.  Neither virtue nor intelligence can erase half a line, and tears cannot “wash out” even one word. (Adapted from ‘The Ruba’iyat’)
 Bavinck, missionary-teacher, born in 1924 to Dutch missionary parents, came toCeylonat the age of thirty; lived, worked on, and for, the island for about thirty years. He died in 2011, age 97, having helped in the publication of this Diary, Volume 1, covering the years 1988-94. The brutal occupation of Holland by the Nazis left a deep mark on him, strengthening moral commitment and deepening humanitarian resolve. At the outset, one should try to understand what being a missionary-teacher meant to Bavinck. To the best of my recollection, neither the word “Jesus” nor “Christ” appears in the Diary. Bavinck does not attempt to seduce with the joys of heaven nor frighten with the torment of hell. Some Christian sects may see “speaking in tongues” (p. 273) as the distinguishing mark of spiritual salvation but for Bavinck what marks a true Christian is a life of quiet, but active, commitment to other human beings. (1992 finds him in Baddegama, attempting to learn the Sinhala “tongue”, so as to better understand, and work for, the Sinhalese poor.) He felt that the missionary today shouldn’t primarily preach doctrine but be, in his person and action, “a messenger and a symbol of solidarity” (p. 126) with the unfortunate. There was for Bavinck a “connection” (p. 249) between the suffering of “the Lord and the concrete liberation of the suffering poor and oppressed” of this world. The messengers of Christian peace (p. 279) should directly share in “the bloody reality faced by the ordinary people”. As I have written elsewhere, prayer must be prelude and preparation – and not an easy substitute – for action. (Here, Bavinck reminds me of Fr Paul Caspersz of Satyodaya.) For Bavinck, to be religious meant, above all, a life of care for others. The Introduction suggests that some Protestant Christian groups had an affinity with Tamils because of certain shared characteristics: independence, individualism, industriousness, thrift, privacy, plainness “and the voluntary self-deprivation of needs and desires and / or their delayed gratification” (p. 16).The Diary is a record written during brutal conflict-times in Sri Lanka, and I found it difficult to read more than a few pages at a time. Like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, I felt I had eaten too full of horror and tragedy. The title, “of Tamils and Tigers” perhaps is a borrowing from Robert Burns’ poem which observes that the most carefully laid, and good-intentioned plans, of mice, as of human beings, are often rudely and summarily destroyed. Writing on Jean Arasanayagam’s ‘The Garden Party’ (Sarvan, ‘Sri Lanka: Literary Essays & Sketches’), I suggested that the diary is a speaking aloud. More precisely, the diary form is a silent speaking, a talking with oneself, than with another. There’s a tension between contradictory impulses: to express, and yet not be heard. (Bavinck wrote his diary in Dutch, a language incomprehensible to most Sri Lankans.) It is fortunate for Sri Lankan history that the author was persuaded to change his mind. Bavinck was there; saw, heard and listened; shared and experienced. He travelled on foot, bicycle, motor cycle (sometimes, riding with one hand, while the other held a torch), bus (standing all the way), train, lorry, tractor and boat. Journeys were long, arduous and uncertain. A breakdown of vehicle or plan meant he slept out in the open or found space on the floor or ground. He waded waist-deep, sometimes up to his neck, in mud; often at night, to avoid attack by jet plane and helicopter. Yet nowhere does he dramatise mortal danger or dwell on extreme physical strain and discomfort.

The Diary is not “recollected in tranquillity” (Wordsworth) but written, as it were, on-the-spot, often in snatches. The advantage is a sense of immediacy which enables us to the re-enter what was then present reality, and now is the past. His understanding may be seen by some as incomplete, even faulty, but none can doubt his sincerity and the effort to arrive at something like impartial truth. The present is the product of the past, and what was then thought to be the impossible may now be seen as the inevitable. Sometimes, the entry is tellingly bald: “InJaffna, killings continue. In the south, murders and counter-murders” (December 1988).The defeat of the Congress Party inIndia (January 1989) has encouraged the Tigers. The observation is followed by one word that encapsulates consequence and Bavinck’s attitude to it:  “Alas!” Tiger “boys” with guns meddle in everything without really understanding anything, even laying down the law to doctors in hospitals. Tamil culture of the young showing respect to their elders has been completely overturned (p. 72). Outside an army camp in Baddegama, “a corpse has been hung in a crucified position with a large nail in its head” (October 1989), and children compete over who has seen more bodies. Violence having become commonplace, it doesn’t elicit shock, outrage and public protest.

That the Diary was originally self-addressed is borne out by questions Bavinck asks himself, though unable then to pause. Does society as a whole give in too easily to violence? Murders by the LTTE continue: “Where are the Tamil people heading?” (That question, in its context, seems to be more an exclamation.) When will Tamils “stand united and openly condemn” violence by Tamil groups? He adds: I must express myself more clearly on this. What does it mean for a foreigner to live in a conflict-plagued country lifeSri Lanka? “What should one’s attitude be? Can one continue just to be an observer or is some kind of action necessary? What action? I think a lot about this (p. 73). A number of youth have been beheaded inKandy (1989), and their heads displayed with a sign reading, “Coconuts for sale” (p. 79). “What has gone wrong?” How is it possible that these things happen in a country where Buddhism, a religion of peace and non-violence, is supposed to dominate life? Are all “liberation movements” worthy of support, simply because they are liberation movements, irrespective of their lack of principle and their practice? Encountering, again and again, “gruesome deeds” (p. 153), makes Bavinck wonder: We, human beings, who are we? One notes that, rather than distancing himself morally, Bavinck uses the self-including, implicating and inculpating “we”: his was not a “holier-than-thou” attitude. Elsewhere, we see a rare quality, the willingness to re-think an earlier attitude. He was honest and “big enough” to be able to admit that he was wrong.

 When teaching in theMiddle East, I was spoken to by Asians, not only of the middle class but by workers and servants, male and female. Europeans spoke freely with me because I was neither Arab nor Muslim; and the locals, because I wasn’t a Westerner. So it must have been with Bavinck inSri Lanka, both in group and class terms. Not belonging to any Sri Lankan group; an outsider inside, he was trusted (liked and admired). It must be added that, though an outsider, he was more humanely concerned and active than many who, being born Sri Lankan, are automatically regarded as “insiders”. What we encounter in the Diary is not “up down” History; not the record of the doings of political leaders and generals, the great and the powerful, but of ordinary people, and those working at the grassroots-level with them. They do not make History, but are at the receiving end of it, and are overlooked. At best they serve as material for statistics, to be used in argument, genuine or specious and self-serving.

Where the LTTE is concerned, Bavinck is too “sophisticated” to adopt the simple and extreme categories of total evil and total good. Power, like alcohol, is intoxicating, and comes to be seen as right: might is right. Tiger boys of twelve and fourteen order and humiliate (p. 206) people senior in age, including those who hold positions of social respect, such as teachers. (Bavinck too has to “endure being lectured to by 14-year old brats”.) The contempt of the Tigers for “the common people they are supposed to be liberating is truly appalling” (p. 65). Tiger control is total – including thought and expression (p. 97). In the South, one hears oppositional voices but “inJaffnathere is nothing but death. Every critical voice is being smothered” (p. 186). Bavinck notes there cannot be real political expression under occupation — a comment applicable today as well. By attacking other Tamil militant groups, the Tigers drive them to seek protection from the army. In return, they collaborate with the army against the Tigers: all this, at great cost to the innocent, civilian, population, plunged into a “swamp” of suffering (p. 108).  The Muslims, “good friends of the Tamils” (p. 114), have been alienated. The murder of Rajiv Gandhi by a suicide bomber amounted to the suicide of the Tamil cause. Tiger political gatherings, with their songs and chants, slogans and cheers, are as intense and mindless as certain Christian “revival meetings”, with Prabhakaran and the cult of Prabhakaran playing the central, semi-divine, role.  A “prosperous” looking Prabhakaran smiles as he explains how he developed “the idea of the cyanide capsule” which sent so many, even children, to their death (p. 211). Whether Prabhakaran was the leader of choice of the Tamils cannot be judged since he had eliminated any and all competition, real or imagined. Like many another despot, he made the mistake of believing in the image of himself he had cultivated. Self-deluded, he became a victim of his own propaganda.

If Prabhakaran ever read The Art of War by Sun-tzu, also known as Master Sun, written well over two thousand years ago, he did not profit by it. War means death and destruction: it is not something to be enjoyed. “To see beauty in victory is to rejoice in the killing of others.”  To kill one man is both a sin and a crime: how much worse is it to kill hundreds and thousands? The greatest military victory is that which is won without fighting, for example, through persuasion and compromise; using the “weapons” of psychology; weakening the enemy’s alliance, while gaining support, etc. In contrast, the LTTE is not “bothered” about the opinion of others, and “coolly” works through their hit-list (p. 97). Tamils tell Bavinck, “We have become outcasts and the whole world has turned against us” (p. 181). The Tigers have “taken the road leading to self-destruction”, willy-nilly dragging the Tamils along with them. A ruse suggested by Master Sun is to publicly and outrageously insult the enemy leader, hoping that, infuriated, the man would react in ways that led to defeat. There was no need to do this with Prabhakaran: he was “prone to avenge every disdainful or disparaging word” (p. 181). The murders he ordered were not based on cool, careful, long-term, political calculation. Rigid and adamant, he didn’t realize that to be fixed is to be temporary; to change, to adapt, is to endure (Master Sen).  If weaker, try to escape:  “A small force, obstinately fighting, will be captured by a larger force” (Master Sun).  All in all, a decade before it happened, Bavinck saw the inevitable, the “final military reckoning”.                            

Not that the Tigers were always the perpetrators: members of the LTTE “are executed by the EPRLF with the connivance of the Indian army” (October 1988). Within Tiger-controlled territory, women and girls move freely, even at night, because of their strict Puritan code. Many of the Tigers are “idealistic” and willingly sacrifice themselves. A young man asks for a cross because, as Jesus sacrificed Himself for others, so do they, the Tigers: the comparison shows “a tragic misunderstanding” but also “the sincere sense of commitment in this boy” (p. 201). The goal has been perverted, and ultimately betrayed, by the means and methods adopted.

The Tigers provoke violence on civilians because it helps recruitment to their ranks. In this, they are helped by the indiscriminate and disproportionate reaction of the army. Two or three soldiers are killed (June 1991). In response, “every shred of self-discipline” is discarded and “an orgy of slaughter” begins in which 150 civilians are killed, girls raped and hundreds of houses in three villages set on fire. “How can the army maintain that they are only fighting against the Tigers when they burn and destroy the whole area which they pass through” (p. 191)? If the war is against terrorism and not the Tamils, why are Tamil areas “laid waste without any qualms” (p. 192) when this kind of “scorched earth policy” was never practised in Sinhalese areas during the JVP uprising? Human excrement is dropped by helicopter overJaffnavillages and towns (128 & 136), once close to Bishop’s House.

Tamils are caught between two extremely cruel forces (the army and the LTTE), trapped between Scylla and Charybdis. Some Tamils feel criticism and correction of the LTTE can be made afterwards: don’t “rock the boat” that is already in deep trouble. Other Tamils, if forced to choose, would opt for the Tigers in preference to “the Sinhalese army” (p. 174). Indiscriminate bombing and shelling leave Tamils with no place to which to flee: one is reminded of (Palestinian) Edward Said’s, After the Last Sky. There is neither principle nor “a grain of empathy” with the Tamils (p. 130). “In most of the government offices one cannot use Tamil and be helped” (17 September 1993). Tamils moving South, on an individual or familial basis, is quite different from state-sponsored colonisation (p. 182). The “Tamil cry for a homeland is essentially a cry for security, a place where they can be safe after all the cruel eruptions of violence” (p. 307).

People are quick to react when something affects them personally but “are not seriously disturbed about violations of moral principles like human rights” (p. 156) – particularly when it concerns members of another group. Some Sinhalese don’t want to hear and know (p. 153); wish not to know what is being done in their name, and remain in a state of denial. (In psychology, “denial” is an unconscious defence mechanism, characterized by the refusal to acknowledge an aspect of reality that is very unpleasant.)  We, human beings, have “mechanisms” (p. 192) which enable us to close our eyes, ears and hearts to what the other says. Denial or “They exaggerate” (ibid), results in a world of mutual incomprehension (p. 302) where the Sinhalese see Tamils as “crafty and efficient” (p. 306), and the latter see the former as a “wildly vindictive and cruel” folk to whom Tamil civilians are legitimate targets. It is, to use the title of Nadine Gordimer’s novel set in apartheid South Africa, A World of Strangers. Seeing the Tigers as a “nightmare” justifies their eradication by any means – even at the cost of humanity, compassion and morality. Some “really suffer from paranoia with regard to the Tigers” (July, 1991). “Blessed” with a sense of humour, Bavinck recounts entering a house in Colombo, and accidentally addressing the dog in Tamil which, promptly, bites him. In such an atmosphere, humanitarian work comes to be seen, and reacted to, as political support. However, the attitude to the Tigers was different when they took on the Indian Peace Keeping Force: “One of the most amazing and incomprehensible developments is the total reversal in Sinhalese opinion about the Tigers” (p. 66). President Premadasa appealed to the IPKF not to attack the Tigers. At a meeting of Bavinck’s Rehabilitation Committee, a Sinhalese member said, “The Indians must stop killing our boys”. “Our boys! Who are these boys? They are the Tigers! Really unbelievable!” 

Given the nature of his work, Bavinck encountered at first-hand violence and its tragic impact on human beings. Consequently, though reality is multi-faceted, other aspects of life find little space in the Diary. He grieves over “the general brutalisation” of the Island. The Island newspaper estimates that, during 1987 – 1990, forty thousand were killed in the South, 17,000 by the JVP, and 23,000 by the armed forces (p. 99). There isn’t a deep enough “sense of morality” (ibid): symptomatically, phrases from cricket are used: “The match is over,” or “The stumps have been pulled”. Cruelty is treated casually (p. 87). Most Buddhist monks simply cannot accept “the concept of a pluralistic society” (p. 91) and, on the contrary, continue to stoke the paranoia that the Sinhala nation is in great and imminent danger. “If one then observes the reality inSri Lanka, where the Sinhalese in nearly every respect are being privileged, one is amazed” (25 January 1992). Places of religious respect and worship remain (and new ones assiduously constructed) but the “gods” are gone, that is, the core and essence of religious teaching. The state permits, licenses and encourages violence. Soldiers involved in the large-scale massacre of civilians inJaffna during ‘Operation Liberation’ (May 1987) are recognised and rewarded by President Jayawardene: “It is really unbelievable” (p. 40). The state and its organs are “equally culpable of terrorism”. “People who commit cruel misdeeds are never punished. Is there, then, a deliberate policy of carrying out these “atrocities” (p. 165)? Seeing corpses “dried out and shrivelled” by the blazing sun and strong wind, he imagines them as they were: young, with body and movement – alive, and in life. A mother caresses the decapitated head of her only son (p. 85): perpetrators of cruelty may repent or forget; may rationalise, excuse themselves and move on – the past is past – but to the victims and those closest to them, it is permanent, life-long. Statistics do not convey  human loss, pain and tragedy.

There are many things which saved Bavinck, and helped him to keep going into old age, and long after many another would have retired – not only from work but from care and concern for others. Chief of his supports must have been his religious conviction, a belief which, as I have suggested, was not separate from morality and ethics; one whose chief expression, he seems to have felt, should be through work to alleviate human suffering. Humour and a sense of irony never left him. Loud speakers, particularly at night, are a “terrorist attack on our peace of mind”. He is concerned because the Tigers have a great “appetite” for vehicles, particularly new vans, such as the one he’s driving. Even in the most dangerous and “ugly” of situations, his eye for, and response to, beauty remained: thick jungle, with tall green shrubs forming hedges covered with little purple flowers, and the air full of white butterflies (p. 284). He saw beauty even in frogs: sleek, light-brown in colour, and with large eyes. One recalls lines from ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’:  “O happy living things! no tongue / Their beauty might declare:/ A spring of love gushed from my heart,/ And I blessed them unaware.”   Nor did Bavinck fail to appreciate other pleasures, such as a meal of “delightful fried fish”.

Walter Benjamin, who committed suicide rather than fall into the hands of the Nazis, in his essay, ‘On the Concept of History’, describes a copper etching by Klee depicting an angel who, while being propelled forward, looks backward: time neither pauses nor stops, and we cannot go back and rectify the past. (The moving finger, having written, moves on.) The storm drives the Angel of History irresistibly into the future (to which his back is turned, unseeing) while behind him he sees growing, sky-high, the rubble-heap of the past. So-called “progress” is this storm (Benjamin). Hope, sometimes, is facile and conventional. We hope because we are told we must, should, hope. (The title of one of Studs Terkel’s works is ‘Hope Dies Last: Making a Difference in an Indifferent World’.) In religious terms, to lose hope is a sin because it casts doubt on God’s benevolence and power to intervene. Bavinck never lost hope because he saw gleams of light: “positive forces […], thank God, also exist” (p. 214). A Buddhist monk teaches at Kilinochchi “Tamil children who had come from the tea estates”. The Tigers halt a bus and give the chance to the only Tamil on it, one Rajakulendran, to get down and save himself. He refuses, and is the first to be killed. In another incident, Tamil passengers had “put the typical Tamil mark called poddu on the forehead” of Muslim women, taken the children in the arms, and so saved them all (p. 260). In Thirukkovil, a Sinhalese officer in the Special Task Force teaches music in the local school. The courage and principled stand of the small Left parties win Bavinck’s respect.

I left Ceylon in 1963; never met Bavinck, and so missed a chance to encounter one of the lords of life – to borrow a phrase from D H Lawrence. (Lawrence meant “lords of life” in a sense opposite to that of political power and worldly success: as Lawrence commented with contempt, “success” of that kind is but a bitch-goddess, trailed by greedy, ambitious, dogs with salivating tongue.) While “a good person” may be so judged by his or her conduct in private life, the expression “a good human being” suggests that the person’s merit was on the basis of behaviour towards others. Bavinck was both a good person and a good human being. He remained humane in inhumane times. Indeed, the more the inhumanity, the greater was his humanity. Nothing, but nothing – not “race”, religion or ideology – justifies the jettisoning of public morality and humane conduct. One wonders what Bavinck will have to say (Volume 2) about how the war ended, and post-warSri Lanka. I quote from the Introduction (p.9): History is being repeated; the injustices meted out to minorities are being denied, and there is an unwillingness to address root causes. The demand for democracy and accountability are “brushed aside by an arrogant authoritarian state”.  

The Rajani Thiranagama Memorial Committee is owed a debt of thanks for saving this valuable historical and human document form oblivion, and Vijitha Yapa Publishers for making it available to a wider readership.

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Filed under atrocities, life stories, LTTE, power politics, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, Tamil civilians, welfare & philanthophy

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