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Sunday, March 08, 2009

A reply to the deaf and blind

Published: Sunday Island, Colombo, 8 March 2009.

They ask: "What ails the Tamils?"

Kumar David

Last Sunday a correspondent in the Island, N. A. de S Amaratunga, pointedly directed a question at me: "At least now at this critical juncture can KD tell us in clear terms what he and his ilk (sic) refer to as the Tamil problem, Ethnic Problem, or lack of democracy for Tamils in Sri Lanka" (‘Sinhala Nationalism – A reply to Kumar David’). My first reaction was to ignore this person again because of his vitriolic tenor; it seems that I had taken no notice of a previous challenge (5 October 2008) to "prove with facts and figures that Tamils are discriminated against in Sri Lanka". Inexplicably, he refers to "KD’s dream of partition" and implies several times that I am a separatist, which I am not - though for the record I must state that separatists have a perfect moral and democratic right to further their aims by democratic means – and the piece is so replete with puerile distortions that, methinks, is he worth the ink and paper? However, a friend persuaded me otherwise, saying, "Though we see this query often in print the educated classes (both Sinhalese and Tamils) dismiss it because we know that intelligent Sinhalese, that is, all except the loony fringe, recognise that there is a serious problem of accumulated discrimination to address". But, added my friend, "this is the proper time to put some of it down again, not for the sake of the fringe, but as a reminder".

Sinhala nationalism’s triumphal moment The ethnicchasm by Kumar David

One corner of the story

I really refuse to use up the few valuable column inches that my Editor permits me going through a whole litany of woes. It is not my job to educate the deaf and the blind about systematic discrimination in employment and promotion in the public sector and university admissions in the post Sinhala Only decades. Nor am I in the mood to write a treatise on difficulties Tamils face in dealing with government departments and state corporations, and in cringing before an unhelpful and obstreperous police force - otherwise why is DEW rushing around with Tamil language training crash courses in the public service? Nor do I have space today to write about the denial of self-administration in Tamil areas, the sabotage of a few efforts to grant some devolution, and the disenfranchisement and forced repatriation of Upcountry Tamils to India.

Rather, my topic today is a different corner of the problem, physical security, because it is not often explicitly dealt with in the Colombo seminar circuit, or in media discussions, or in scholarly texts. But it is one of the central issues that defines the Tamil psyche, not only in the diaspora - and that is important enough given that the centre of gravity of Tamil nationalism will and has moved in that direction after the defeat of the LTTE - but it has also never ceased to occupy a central place in the attention of Tamils in Lanka.

Beginning 1958 the issue of violence and physical security has come to sway Tamil concerns and consequently shape politics. The Tamils, even the apolitical and regardless where they are domiciled in the island, are conscious of the possibility of violence directed at them as a community. Initially they saw in violence the work of politically-driven mobs, but in the last thirty years they have come to see violence as emanating from the state and its institutions. In the interim period they experienced and recognized an important change in the state and its police and armed forces (the emergence of the Sinhala State) and in their attitude and behaviour towards Tamils. Thus they see themselves as victims of a unilinear history of racially-motivated violence.

A personal and a recorded anecdote

Jeyan Anketell, whose mother is English and father Tamil, was in school with me, a classmate for several years, until he migrated to England and I entered university here in 1959. He is now an Anglican priest in the UK and wrote as follows in the Guardian (17 January 2009).

"The systematic physical abuse, including murder, of Tamil civilians (began) in 1956, while I was still resident in Sri Lanka. In 1956 supporters of Sinhalese political parties forming the coalition government attacked peaceful demonstrators calling for use of the Tamil language to be allowed in civil and other proceedings. The situation was aggravated by the then prime minister, and a number of Tamils living in the south of the country were attacked, beaten up and even killed, and houses were burned down. I can remember my English mother’s anxiety regarding my Tamil father’s insistence on driving the seven miles to work during these four or five days. The violence was all committed by Sinhalese thugs in the Sinhalese south - but the government sent the army into the Tamil north, in order to "keep the peace", where peace already existed. Similar Sinhalese-on-Tamil violence erupted again on an even uglier scale in 1958. Just a few hundred yards from my home, a Tamil man was set upon, doused with paraffin, set on fire and burned to death for no other reason than being a Tamil in a Sinhalese area. There was no Tamil-on-Sinhalese brutality during this time. From that time on Tamils lived with the terror of having a Tamil name or being identified as Tamil".

These are facts that Amerasekara seems not to know. I guess he is also unfamiliar with Tarzie Vittachi’s Emergency ’58. A little something then to tickle his memory buds.

"Young Annesly Mendis of Moratuwa and a friend of his, both employed as Technical Assistants in the Irrigation Department at Polonnaruwa, decided to flee the district with their families… As they were about to set out a youth called Leo Fernando — who had changed his name discreetly from the Tamil Fernandopulle after the Gal Oya riots — was offered a lift…. The Ford limped into Diyabaduma and was promptly surrounded by 200 terrorists. The leaders greeted them with a hostile question: ‘Aren’t you Tamil?’ They protested that they were Sinhalese. Mendis was forced out of the car and asked to recite a gatha — a Buddhist stanza in Pali. Being a Methodist he knew no gathas. He had also a bad stammer and fear made it worse so that he could not explain himself".

"The mob began to beat him up. Bleeding from his head and ears Mendis ran down the street. They shot him in the back. Insatiable, they then dragged Leo Fernando out of the car and hacked him to death without any palaver. In the confusion the other occupants of the car escaped into the jungle and reached Colombo two days later. Mendis’s body was carried, tied to a pole like a shot animal, to the far side of the bazaar. The goondas poured petrol over the mutilated bodies. Within minutes Mendis and Fernando were two hideous heaps of charcoal".

Wonder what the aforementioned Amarasekara makes of these "facts" and countless more such stories counting up quite some imposing "figures." And all this was long before 1977 and 1983 when things got really very ugly.

The Tamil and Non-Tamil narratives

I am not the best person to write this section; I am no nationalist and far from Tamil-typical in my attitudes, culture and lifestyle. But perhaps the political detachment that comes when a Marxist internationalist makes a point about "the Tamil problem, ethnic problem, or lack of democracy for Tamils" has its advantages since it is a more universal moral outrage, not an ethnic passion, that drives the interlocutor.

One seminal strand in ethnic relations over the last thirty years has been state inflicted violence. To the Tamils of those decades, and now to their children and grandchildren, this has become the Tamil Narrative. This Tamil Narrative has been complemented by the development of a non-Tamil Narrative, (the ‘NAdeS narrative’) one that denies the fundamentals of the Tamil Narrative. And it is the parallel existence of these two narratives which are in complete contradiction to each other that is critical because it is these opposed perceptions, or narratives of events that has ripped Lanka apart and left it bleeding with a bitter civil war in which no prisoners are taken.

To Tamils their narrative does not speak of events of a past that has ended. The experiences of 1956 and 1958 continued after 1977, especially in and since 1983, and now the humanitarian catastrophe in the Wanni. The attitude of non Tamils (including India and the international community) towards Tamils trapped in the Wanni, where tens if not hundreds of thousands are subjected to aerial bombardment, artillery shells and rocket fire, in an ever shrinking area, has angered and embittered Tamils and reinforced their narrative. One sees this even among Tamils who are openly anti-LTTE or largely apolitical; cosmopolitan, middle class Tamils. This narrative has taken deep roots in the Tamil psyche, but as they watched the violence against them was denied in the non-Tamil Narrative. In and after 1983 the architects of the then non-Tamil Narrative (forerunner of the N.AdeS narrative), the Jayewardene Regime and its successors, put their energy into denying this violence.

While Tamils are aware of the non-Tamil Narrative, they are also aware that a proclivity to denial prevents the converse, that is, an awareness of the Tamil Narrative and the fears and forebodings it evokes, not only by Amerasekara and the chauvinists, but also among many Sinhalese who are free from bigotry. This state of denial is why the question is repeatedly asked by some in all innocence: "What is the problem that the Tamils face?"


This piece has focussed on the issue of violence as a cardinal element in the ethnic conundrum. It is not implied that discrimination in the more ordinary sense, or that political-constitutional alienation, are less significant. Furthermore, this article must not be read to imply that the Tamils, as a people, did not make serious political blunders in the post independence decades, or as a whitewash of Tamil leaders, from Ponnampalam through Chelvanayagam to Prabaharan. I have written on these matters before and will return to these themes from time to time; but rest assured that my critique will be diagonally contrarian to the Amerasekara narrative and standpoint.

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