‘Those mothers and these mothers.’ That would be a caption for a two-part visual of two sets of mothers, Tamil and Sinhala, grieving over the deaths of their children. Those and these are words that are predicated on location in terms of place, ideological preference, political stand and of course identity. It’s about ‘ours’ and ‘theirs,’ relatedness and un-relatedness, proximity and distance.
Step back. Imagine you are neither here nor there, that you don’t belong to either and neither belongs to you. Just two mothers, say, grieving over their children who died/disappeared in battle or in crossfire or were simply abducted/arrested and summarily executed. Take away what lends to political manipulation pernicious or otherwise and you get expression of grief. Simple. Unadulterated.
Today there’s talk of inclusive nationalism. It is different from that grotesque and absolutely pernicious formulation prefaced by multi-ethnic-multi-religious claims. Let me first explain why I used the words grotesque and pernicious. First of all, there are no mono-ethnic, mono-religious polities. Second, it is cheap and sly to make such claims without talking numbers and percentages, leave alone history and heritage. It seems ‘inclusive’ but in fact is about inflating those who have hardly any heritage claims and are smaller in numbers while suppressing those communities rich in heritage and history and high on numbers. Inclusive nationalism can be different. It is about recognition and celebration with neither dilution nor exaggeration.
Obviously it’s open to much debate when it comes to post-war reconciliation in a country such as Sri Lanka. There have been, after all, wild and creative historiography about homelands. We’ve had grievances exaggerated and aspirations extrapolated from such exaggeration with absolutely no reference to historical narratives that can be substantiated or ground realities such as geography and demography. Creative cartography is about politics and politics is not necessarily about reconciliation. Still, it’s better to debate and better still that claimants to be called upon to substantiate. Better than demanding that which is silly to concede or impossible to deliver and then resort to arms because ‘demands articulated peacefully weren’t met.’
It’s best to start with fundamentals. Grief, to me, is fundamental.
When people die, especially in conflict, it is not uncommon for those who claim the dead to be their own to ‘monumentalize’. We have memorials and cemeteries for the particular collective. Politicians, in and out of uniform, will be political.
Abuse of grief is sad but often inevitable. The loved ones, whether in agreement or otherwise with the ‘sepulchralists’ often have no other physical memorial to grieve at.
What cuts across the politics is grief itself. The aggrieved may or may not have ideological or political preferences that coincide with monument-makers but even if they did such factors pale against the starkness of loss. A mother grieves a dead combatant, but it’s not the soldier nor the war that is important. Motherhood is what matters. Little else.
There are no cemeteries for those who perished in the bloody insurrection of 1971 nor the several times more bloody insurrection of 1988/89. There were several cemeteries for LTTE cadres who had died in the war (date-of-birth left out for obvious reasons), but they were bulldozed after the defeat of that organization.
Of course grief is personal and the argument can be made that a symbol is not necessary for a parent, child, spouse, lover, friend or comrade to recall the dead. Most tears are shed in private, this we know. And yet if cemeteries and memorials are inevitable then they should not be the preserve of any particular community.
Obviously inclusiveness in this sense will see politicians rushing to set up monuments that help further political agenda. So what would be the alternative?
How about a place, a monument, a moment that is open for non-exclusive grieving/remembrance? How about a space where this mother and that mother can at one and the same moment grieve a son or daughter who is gone forever? How about conditions that allow this mother and that mother and indeed anyone in the vicinity to recognize the commonality of grief, the sameness in the temperature of loss and the texture of cathartic release?
No, it won’t deliver reconciliation. It won’t rectify error. It won’t alleviate grievance nor deliver aspiration. It would however help people come to terms with the non-exclusive nature of loss. This mother would know there are other mothers as inconsolable. That lover would know of another lover left behind. This child would see that child also grieving a father, a protector, a hero. This brother and sister would notice that brother and sister remembering that which is common to all of them — the love of and for a sibling.
How can a nation that cannot grieve together, prosper together? How can nationalism be inclusive if some are forced to grieve in private because public grieving is frowned upon?
Let us be inclusive at the foundation of all things. The heart. Hearts. In love, loving and the heartache of separation that is beyond reconciliation. Let’s have inclusive grief.
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