Sunday, February 18, 2018

Vivid threat of things to die for


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The Emancipation Support Committee was last week moved to worry aloud that a hunger strike could change Trinidad and Tobago for the worse.

Not only, the committee said, could Wayne Kublalsingh die, but his 15-day fast had also already "taken the society into uncharted territory at a psychological level".

It is not just my interpretation that the committee judges T&T  "psychologically" unready to deal with the suspense drama playing live in St Clair and amplified by media coverage. Its statement on Thursday referred to "the newness of having to absorb a potential tragedy for which our recent experience has not prepared us".

Khafra Kambon, who signed the statement, has been around for at least as long as I have been. So it's curious that he is now profiling a T&T that's less robustly resilient than the one I know.

The Committee statement didn't define how recent is "recent experience". But Dr Kublalsingh's fast-unto-whatever triggers thoughts of times from the 1960s.

It was then I first heard of "self-immolation", to describe Buddhist monks in Vietnam setting themselves ablaze as an act of protest. Self-immolation became known as a decisive determination to take one's life for a cause. Life ended in a relative flash, with a gust of gasoline-fed flame, creating an image covered by international media as a memorable example of extreme protest.  

By contrast, Dr Kublalsingh's is a slow burn; a gradual consumption of vital organs, of which the outward sign is a spectacularly shrivelled upper body receiving constant ministrations of attendants. The message of readiness to die for a cause is thus being sent and received in a T&T way, to witness a recurring miracle of mortal survival. In one respect, this is a measure of how much gruesomeness has become part of everyday media fare—with no end in sight.

 The diminished body is thus one that even closest relatives can bear to watch and watch again. Presently, a shrine is defined to welcome pilgrimages.

Such a dramatisation of suffering renders whomever portrayed as the opposing side as uncaring and evil and, should they voice sympathy, hypocritical. Here is an extension of the campaign by the Re-Route partisans which, until now, had called more attention to their tactics than to their cause.

The routine in St Clair includes daily expert updates on the systematic devastation of Dr Kublalsingh's body. But the bigger picture entails the making vivid of a threat that whatever studies, or meetings, or concessions being demanded by the Re-Routers are things demonstrably to die for.  

It's not just perversity that leads my thought triggers to light up recollections from July 1990. When the Muslimeen jihadists struck, the ostensible purpose was a coup. But the fundamental aim was to execute an armed propaganda against the then government.

Surrounded and outgunned by T&T Regiment troops, the jihadists were soon seeking an amnesty. But the message successfully delivered had been that of bringing low the NAR government. The Prime Minister and the National Security Minister had been kneecapped by handgun fire at point-blank range. Honourable Ministers and Honourable MPs had been tortured, flung trussed-up onto the Parliament floor, and left to wallow in their own wastes.

The mighty had been brought low. Collateral damage—loss of lives, looting and property destruction—had been large. For a moment, T&T appeared thrust into a hideous new reality.

Shortly, however, T&T got the message. It had all been about destruction of the long-demonised NAR administration. Much of the commentariat and organised opinion (including that of trade unions) argued that the Muslimeen, moved initially by their own unsatisfied land claims, had been well-intentioned, if overzealous, and that, at worst, the blame for all that had happened should be shared with the ruling administration.

After all, it was rationalised, the jihadists, acting in the name of the people, had made the "ultimate sacrifice". And in suing for peace by way of an amnesty, they had actually "saved the day".

The amnesty was upheld as valid in the High and the Appeal Courts. Other judges ruled that the Muslimeen were entitled to compensation for the ravaging actions against their property by the armed forces.

So T&T has endured trauma more intense than that entailed in the serialised images of a man going down for a cause.  This is a country that has become used to extremist expression, first, in rhetoric, then in action, including the live-fire prosecution of warlike aims.

One new factor today is the presence of the woman prime minister who must be concerned to show herself, at a time of challenge, no less macho than predecessors. She will thus not be seen to shrink from the sight of blood, and to retreat from upholding settled policy, whatever it is.

Moreover, the woman-to-woman reproaches may bear their own prospect of effectiveness. "I would never have believed that our first woman Prime Minister would have been so dishonourable," said Sylvia Moodie-Kublalsingh in a "prayer".

Prayers are being uttered on all sides. And in this, too, T&T can hardly be entering the "uncharted waters" feared by the Emancipation Committee. Prayers, as always, are destined on the way up surely to meet counter-prayers.