| by N. Sathiya Moorthy
( December 23, 2012, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) As coincidence would have it, the TNA could not have chosen another day for protesting the alleged security forces’ excesses on the Jaffna University campus on the extinct LTTE’s “Heroes’ Day” observances on November 27. Friday, December 21, when the TNA observed a day-long protest at the foot of the late Tamil leader, S. J. V. Chelvanayagam, was the perceived ‘Doomsday’, purportedly under the Mayan Calendar. The world has lived through that day, nonetheless, as it has done with other ‘Doomsday’ predictions in the past. The Tamils still say their political salvation in a united Sri Lanka is not yet on call.
The role of the Tamil Diaspora in whipping up pan-Tamil sentiments in those that are left behind at home, post-war, violence and destruction, need not be under-estimated, either. Their first-generation comprised not only those that ran away from the country, post-‘Sinhala Only’ and post-‘Sinhala Only’ violence.
Close to a month after the controversial police action against an equally controversial “Heroes’ Day” observances, the students of Jaffna University in the North have refused to return to their classes. For a change, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s personal intervention seems to have failed in restoring normalcy on the campus. With sympathetic teachers standing by, the Tamil students are protesting ‘excessive police action’ when they were observing the memorial day for their fallen men through the four ‘Eelam Wars’, and the continued detention of three of their friends arrested in this connection.
The question is not if the police and the security forces acted under the law. Years after what the Government continue to tom-tom as the successful conclusion of the ‘Eelam Wars’ and the military elimination of the LTTE, both forces continue to come under the Defence Ministry. Through the war years, the police force, for logical reasons and otherwise, came under the unified command of the Defence Ministry. It has remained so even after the war.
In peace-time, their respective purpose and role, training and attitude are different. They have to be so. If anything, post-war, the police should have been restored to the Interior Ministry and retrained and reconditioned to undertake their traditional peacetime role. In peacetime situations anywhere in the world, the police often view the armed forces as an unnecessary intrusion in the discharge of their traditional duties – an added political burden, whose blames it would have to shoulder in the public perception. In post-war Sri Lanka, nothing has changed on this score, particularly in the Tamil areas.
Instead, the question should be asked if the police and the security forces, starting with their intelligence wing, overreacted to an emerging situation on the Jaffna University campus. Going by scarce media reports – that too confined to limited sections of the Tamil media from the North in a tri-lingual media scenario at the national-level – the students were planning to light lamps on the occasion, and also take out a procession, without prior permission.
The Gregorian calendar for the day coincided with the Tamil calendar month of ‘Karthigai’ where on the traditional star-day, also of ‘Karthigai’ – women light lamps, praying for the wellbeing of their brothers. It is thus likely that the Sinhala soldiers and police officers may have misunderstood the overlapping of the two. Yet, that does not justify the Tamils’ argument that the lighting of the traditional lamp on the day also denoted praying for the soul of departed male siblings.
Under the Hindu tradition, lighting of the lamp is common to all forms of ceremonies – auspicious and inauspicious – but a celebration of lamps is confined to joyous occasions, like praying for the wellbeing of brothers that are living, not dead. The ‘Karthigai deepam’ festival is a celebration with lamps, not of women mourning with a single lamp. Yet, decades after it all began, for the Government and the armed forces, ignorance of Tamil as a language and Tamil customs cannot be an excuse for overreaction.
Whether the situation demanded the security forces to allegedly enter the campus, beat up students on the campus and in their hostel rooms, destroy their furniture and books, and also extend some of the acts to the streets outside, are questions that only an impartial judicial inquiry can address. Such an inquiry would also help the Government to retrain its strategies for the post-war era, to delineate between the legitimate Tamil claims and consequent political actions, and not so legitimate overreaction.
The legitimate Tamil action is aimed at delineating the post-LTTE political action from the LTTE’s terrorist ways and militant methods. The coercive action of the security forces is supposed to be aimed at ensuring the non-return of the LTTE. Excesses of the kind in the past were the ones that took Tamil ethnic politics away from the moderate elders of the community, to the militant youth, who were frustrated by the methods of both.
Not a Tamils’ Memorial Day
Sections of the Tamil society and polity, the TNA in particular, seek to make out November 27 as martyrs’ day being observed by the community for souls that departed in the past for the Tamil cause. It is far from the truth. Anyone remotely familiar with the ethnic issue, war and violence in the country would recall November 27 only as “Heroes Day” of the LTTE. It was nothing more, nothing less.
There is a history to the choice of this day, and it needs no repetition. It was also on this day, LTTE supremo Prabhakaran used to present the annual report of the Tamil community and also upcoming action plans, for the whole world to take note of. What he said, and what he did not say would be dissected in global capitals and media analyses. When he did not speak, or appeared via pre-recorded videos, that itself made news for LTTE-watchers, starting with the Sri Lankan security forces and intelligence agencies, and their political masters.
Hence for the Tamil polity and society now to argue innocently that there was nothing illegal or illegitimate for their population to observe November 27, as martyrs’ day of the entire community is presumptuous and unconvincing. Politics cannot be but presumptuous in some ways, but it is also such irrational arguments that make the security agencies suspect the TNA to be the hidden arm of the LTTE, post-LTTE too.
Such presumptuousness and consequent assumptions have already recreated mutual suspicions all over again. The Jaffna university incident has revived forgotten memories of the pre-war past, which had accumulated to the levels of justifying the Tamil youth’s militant make-over in the eyes of their societal and family elders – and sections of the international community, at times with retrospective effect.
For the present-day parents and their wards in the Jaffna University and other educational institutions in the Tamil-majority North, it may end up signalling the arrival of the new and youthful generation all over again in the Tamil ethno-political arena, which is otherwise dominated by the frustrations of an old, tired generation. The failure of the TNA to create a moderate, political second-line since the conclusion of the war may create the kind of vacuum that had existed at the time the Tamil youth took to militancy.
The credibility of the older generation is also coming to be questioned by the younger generation, while their loyalty to the Sri Lankan nation remains suspect in the eyes of the Government and the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist forces. In the absence of clarity on where they were heading, or lead to by their otherwise respected polity, the confused youth of the previous generation took it upon themselves. They took to militancy.
The role of the Tamil Diaspora in whipping up pan-Tamil sentiments in those that are left behind at home, post-war, violence and destruction, need not be under-estimated, either. Their first-generation comprised not only those that ran away from the country, post-‘Sinhala Only’ and post-‘Sinhala Only’ violence. Among them were the Tamil militant youth of their generation, already angered by the Sri Lankan State and the Sinhala majoritarian mobs. They were also frustrated with the moderate Tamil political leadership even before it had all begun.
They were the ones who fed, financed and facilitated Palestine-type militant training to their second generation, often direct victims of majoritarian excesses and hunted down by the security agencies of the Government. There were then those that would disappear to the jungles, to join one militant group or the other, often without informing their parents, who would have none of it, whatever their ethno-political persuasion. For the next generation, the house searches were not for the Tamil youth, by the State agencies. To escape the LTTE’s hunt for child soldiers, the parents would often smuggle out their children elsewhere, to their own siblings and cousins, to grow up with. Not everyone was lucky enough.
If much of the Tamil Diaspora is perceived to be pro-LTTE, there is history to it. Yet, in the post-war, post-LTTE scenario, presumptions of their overreaching dominance of Tamil politics back home derives from perceptions of their visibility and role in influencing the international community at forums like the UNHRC, Geneva. It is here that moderates in the TNA get painted with the same brush by the authorities in Colombo. This is what has now descended to the Jaffna University campus – nothing more, nothing less.
The consequences are predictable. It is here that the TNA owes itself to the Tamil community. It is here that the Sri Lankan State, the Sinhala polity and moderate sections of the society owe to the nation. They would all have only themselves to blame in the written history of the future, taking them all away from the annals of war victory on the one hand, and balancing act of politico-ethnic moderation on the other. It did not serve any purpose in the past. It will serve none in the future, either.
(The writer is Director and Senior Fellow at the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: email@example.com)