By Shahul Hasbullah –
An Issue about a non-Issue
This is a revised version of a paper of the same title presented at a small gathering of scholars and activists on May 27, 2015. Formally speaking, this is my first engagement in public on the hotly debated issue of Wilpattu land settlement and I hope, it will form a critical and informed engagement on this issue. I was at first reluctant to enter into any debate as I felt that it had become over ethnicized and politicized, leaving little from for constructive and politically informed, activist and academic input. But as the debate has taken a turn toward discrediting the right to return of those displaced in war, I feel the need to present my views. I have been working in the area of conflict driven displacement, return and resettlement of communities, land disputes that have arisen in the wake of return for two decades.
The urgency of the situation also demands that I take to task nationalistic forces acting under cover of legal expertise, environmentalism and other benign and legitimate concerns, which drawing upon certain facts and needs regarding the returnees into calculation have transformed the face of the returning figure into one of mass villainy. I have therefore undertaken to bring to light an understanding of the ground situation concerning the return of the people of Musali South (located in Musali DS Division of Mannar District of the Northern Province.)
Concerns raised and the issues focused in the presentation
At the seminar, geographers, environmentalist, rights activists and people with local knowledge presented their views on land and Wilpattu. I for one raised a fundamental question and that my driving motif in this paper. Why are we discussing Wilpattu and Land, now? Why has this become one of national significance at this precise moment? Whose agenda does this serve? Who benefits from it and how? More importantly, why are the concerns of the marginalized, the cardinal principle of existence and belonging, the RIGHT TO RETURN, shelved and not seen as important any more.
In my consideration, the dispute over Wilpattu is not what we have to focus on at the moment and that the disputed forest clearance has to be discussed in connection with the return of the displaced. The need of the hour is a national policy on return and in my view we need to discuss that first and foremost, as every other issue, including the Wilpattu land issue and attendant forest clearance issue arise from that. We need to address this concern at the national level.
The “forgotten people and their land”
Musali South is of historic significance. Even before the Christian era, pearl fishing had been an active trade in the area, connecting the region to the outside world. Greek, Roman and Arab traders had regularly visited the region to procure pearls found in the Gulf of Mannar, along the coast of Musali. Arab, South Indian and local divers mingled together. Pearl harvesting activities continued into Dutch and British rule along the same Musli coast of Sri Lanka. The Muslims and Tamils of Musali South are the descendants of these divers and panikars (elephant catchers), brought into the area by the British.
During and after the decline of pearl fishing, local Muslims and Tamils gradually turned to paddy cultivation, cattle farming, honey collection and other land base economy in Musali South. Evidence of the existence of those Muslims and Tamils and their villages such as Maruchchukaddy, Palaikuli, Mullikulam and Karadikuli for centuries are available. The first population census of Sri Lanka conducted in 1871 is the most recent reliable historical evidence of the existence of these people living permanently in the region and engaged in land related activities.
Muslims (80%) and Tamils are the dominant communities in the region while seasonally Sinhala fisher folk of Chilaw, Negombo and other had landing rights in the fish rich coastal belt. Traditionally, ethnic relationships were extremely cordial and people lived amicably in a spirit of coexistence for centuries.
Violence and Militancy
Tamil armed groups first started having camps and roamed around in the early 80s, bringing about disruption in the activities and lives of the people roaming around and disturbing the normal life of the local people in this area from the early Tamil militancy. In 1985, Sri
Lankan armed battalions crossing the Puttalam boundary and Modaragamaaru or Uppaaru, and began their activities to control the territory, resulting in a mass exodus of all communities that fled toward the north of Musali and other safer places. The suffering of the people intensified. The biggest blow was that in the third week of October 1990 LTTE which was the most dominant group ethnically cleansed the northern province of all Muslims, including Musali. In 2007, after recovering the east from the LTTE, armed forces entered this region, resulting in another exodus of Tamils and Muslims who lived in this area at that times. Until 2009 no civilian was allowed to return.
The plight of the displaced in Musali South
80% of the Muslims of this area evicted in 1990 are yet to return. They are living as displaced in overcrowded settlements in environmentally hazardous (flooding, swampy and sandy) areas; they wished to return and feel that a conducive environment has not yet been created in their places of origin. Tamils of this area continue to be displaced in their own region and elsewhere in Mannar and in India. Their plight, in general, is worse than many other displaced people and obviously they want to return home as soon as possible. In the meantime, Sinhala migrant fisher folk, had to unfortunately discontinue their seasonal visits resulting in the loss of their landing rights in the region.
The Issue: return of the people of Musali South
The return of all displaced must be recognized as a non-negotiable issue. The rights of expelled Muslims and their children, evicted Tamils of Mullikulam, the landing rights of Sinhala fisher folk have to be recognized and the situation rectified. Muslim-Tamil amity has to be strengthen in Musali South and the rest of North. The right to return should not be politicised and ethnicized.
Agendas of Nationalists
But the agendas of nationalists are of a different order. Securing and expanding ethnic boundaries is the national agenda that has also been achieved at the regional level: Territorializing marginal lands or border lands traditionally considered to be a part of other ethnic/religious communities; Using sentiments such as national heritage in a bid to claim ownership; Using political or military power to stake a claim through force and through laws, statues, regulations; Citing national security for purposes of expansion; Using terror, the language of insider/outsider and traitor; Using ethnicized sentiments.
The Issue: return of the people of Musali South
The return of all displaced must be recognized as a non-negotiable issue. The rights of expelled Muslims and their children, evicted Tamils of Mullikulam, the landing rights of Sinhala fisher folk have to be recognized and the situation rectified. Muslim-Tamil amity has to be strengthened in Musali South and the rest of North. The right to return should not be politicised and ethnicized.
We must all recognize and facilitate the return of ethnically cleansed Muslims; Allow Mullikulam Tamils to return home, and have the navy base relocated; Implement recommendations of LLRC recommendations which say that the returnee must be provided with land, house and livelihood; Revisit critically the application of laws concerning forest cover and wildlife area in areas where for three decades there had been no human habitation. Appoint a commission on issues of return and formulate a national policy on Return.
The pressing issue today is the recognition of the Right to return, a policy and mechanism to implement it. The issue of Wilpattu land settlement is a non-issue; we must act as reasonable people and engage in constructive debate in order to defeat the ulterior moves of nationalistic forces. There is an urgent need to create a conducive environment for the displaced to return home. We must resolve in our minds and show through our actions that we will not let ethnic cleansing and forcible eviction take place again. The ultimate task is to work for peace and justice to all.