By Dayan Jayatilleka –
I never knew him personally but Weerasooriya of Uhumiya was my batch-mate as a first year arts student at Peradeniya. I was on campus early that morning in November 1976 when the shots, the gun smoke and the tear gas wafted through the green hills of Peradeniya. Years later when I taught at Colombo University, a student was shot dead before my eyes, outside the hostel at Havelock road. I have been both a university student activist and a university teacher. I am therefore doubly appalled by the killing of two students at Jaffna University and am heartened that university students all over Sri Lanka are demonstrating in protest against the killings and in solidarity with their counterparts.
This is an opportunity to cut across ethnic barriers and build North-South solidarity which can evolve into a common identity as Sri Lankans. This is something I have fought for, made sacrifices and taken risks for, since my early twenties. But this will not happen until all forms of racism, North and South are criticized, condemned and resisted. This includes both the BBS type racism in the South and the Northern racism that hospitalized Sinhala students of Jaffna University some months ago. I wish the Inter-University Students Federation had demonstrated against that as well but it didn’t.
The building of North-South solidarity is also contingent on dropping secessionist, pro-terrorist symbolism and practices such as the commemoration on Jaffna campus of the LTTE and the display of the Tamil Eelam map on May 18-19th this year. The current agitation also calls for foreign observers at an independent inquiry into the shootings. This is unacceptable as the North isn’t occupied Palestinian territory. The IUSF must make that clear to their Northern counterparts, who cannot have their cake (Southern solidarity) and eat it too (separatism, anti-Sinhala racism).
The FSP and IUSF are attempting what the VK (Vikalpa Kandayama) and ISU (Independent Students Union) tried in the 1980s, though in the ’80s, the decade of the civil wars– North and South– it was at a higher level of political literacy and a much higher price (state repression, clandestinity, abduction, detention, torture, violent death).
If the IUSF does not stand against regressive, neo-separatist Northern phenomena while they correctly stand with the Jaffna students against police brutality, it is they who will become a large ghetto among the broader southern masses.
An earlier (1980s) generation of Southern radical leftists including the Vikalpa Kandayama and the Independent Students Union, found this out the hard way, as Tamil ultra-nationalism marginalized and also swallowed up progressivism in Tamil politics.
A hallmark of North-South interaction in Sri Lankan politics is that Southern leftists are more internationalist than nationalist while northern Leftists are or become more (Tamil) nationalists than internationalists. In response, either the Southern leftists are eclipsed by the Southern nationalists or join them or become them. And the cycle repeats.
There is only one way out. Anti-racism and North-South solidarity are a two way street.