I was in Trincomalee. It was August of 2011, two years after the end of the war when Mary, the woman who provided lunch for me burst in.
“I did not sleep a wink last night” she said, “No one in our village did. They have dropped 750 grease devils in this area to attack women. Our men roamed around with sticks whilst the women prayed all night”
“Grease devils”? I was incredulous.
“Grease devils are not quite human” Mary explained, “they are after women of childbearing age, they want the blood from the breast of these women”
In the days that followed the story assumed extraordinary dimensions, created a mass panic, was even debated in the British Parliment and drew the state of Sri Lanka in as a major player.
The need for blood was located in the person of the President. Rumors circulated that the President needed to make a blood offering in exchange of the lives taken in the war, he needed the blood for a special ritual to remain in power, he needed blood to claim the crown of King Dutugemunu. Blood, Power and sometimes Redemption wrapped the Sri Lankan State in a layer of the supernatural.
The English newspapers dismissed the grease devils as an irrational fear psychosis. The police gave conflicting statements, first that grease devils did not exist, second that these non-existent grease devils were arrested and third that the Special Task Force of the military was now deployed to apprehend any non-arrested, non-existent grease devils. Thus also began renewed militarization of the northeast in the name of the grease devils.
This phenomenon could be traced to a village in Ratnapura where many elderly women were murdered by a serial killer. It was in this village that the term grease devil was coined. Rumors and sightings of the grease devil lingered in the Uva province for a while, and then made a sudden appearance in the Tamil and Muslims regions, not only in the northeast but also in the Western Province of Puttalam. It was in these Tamil and Muslim regions that the grease devil phenomenon became mini rebellions against the State.
From Pottuvil, Vavuniya, Thirukovil, Kanniya, Urani, Jaffna and Puttalam come narratives that echo each other in structure. These communities clashed head on with the armed forces claiming grease devils were part of the military, were dropped off into their communities by these security forces, and disappeared back into military camps.
I explore such a confrontation between one Muslim community and the military. I have named this Muslim community Kohinoor. I illustrate that this moment of the grease devil was the “interruption” that provoked the community of Kohinoor into contestation, reflection and a transformation of a collective identity.
The first discursive act of the people in Kohinoor was to demystify the concept of the grease devil for me. When I spoke of grease devils the people of the area pointed out that they were not devils but mystery men, and all too human. They had carefully extricated the supernatural from the phenomenon. Whilst the English newspapers still used the term grease devils, thus giving a twist of fantasy to the phenomenon, the people prudently changed terms and concepts, situating the phenomenon firmly within humans and pointing to the armed forces whose training in different aspect of warfare enabled them to jump roofs, run faster, take hostages etc.
The confrontation in Kohinoor took place in the time of Nombu in August of 2011. A woman making her way to the mosque at nine in the night for the chanting suddenly saw two men dressed in black move out of the shadows, towards her. She cried out and her screams brought out the community gathered at the mosque. The men of Kohinoor began chasing the two men in black who, according to the crowd, had springs on their shoes, and escaped by jumping from roof to roof with the crowd following in hot pursuit on ground. The men were then spotted vanishing into the police station.
The community clamored at the gates of the police station demanding that the men be handed over to them. The police denied that anyone had run in and asked the crowd to disperse. The crowd convinced of what they saw, hid in the vicinity of the police station and watched. After a few hours the two men emerged and were driven away in a police vehicle.
Information spread fast and people gathered at the bridge that connected the village to the wider world. Surrounding the police vehicle they demanded that the men be handed to them. They overturned the vehicle, pulled out the two men and began beating them up. The accompanying officer had radioed for help in seeing the crowd, and in a few minutes the air force helicopter was circling overhead, with the Navy coming to the rescue of those who had been in the police vehicle.
Helicopters with searchlights flew over the village whilst the navy on the ground beat up and took into custody forty men, some of who had come to chant at the temple. The forty men were taken to a police station in a different area and were tortured and beaten. At dawn people began to gather together and agitate, requesting those in custody to be released. This resulted in another clash and the shooting of two unarmed civilians who would be paralyzed for life.
The next morning the people gathered at the office of the District Superintendent demanding the release of the forty men in custody. The Army, Navy and Air force commanders and the Muslim leaders met to negotiate. Outside, tanks surrounded the building. As the negotiations failed inside, the men outside began to challenge the army. Passions ran high. One man climbed up the tank and bared his chest whilst others lay down on the ground, demanding that the army run over them. Inside the situation deteriorated. The commanders were locked in a room by the Muslims, and Muslim minister Rauf Hakeen arrived in a helicopter to defuse the situation. The locked commanders were unlocked and the release of the forty detainees was negotiated.
In a highly performative process the Muslim community walked over the bridge that connected the village to the wider world to receive the detainees. The bridge had been built just after the war with funds from a government of the Middle East, and therefore was a symbol of Muslim Sinhalese cooperation. When the President had arrived to open the bridge two years ago he was welcomed with huge billboards proclaiming him as a savior of the people. These billboards were still on this bridge, and the Muslim community that had erected these billboards now tore them up in frenzy and threw them into the surrounding water. Thus the legitimacy given to the President was withdrawn in the same public space in which it has been affirmed and celebrated two years ago by the same community.
“We realized then,” said some of the villagers to me “that we are, and always will be a Tamil speaking minority, we are the new Tamils”.
It is not that the Muslims lost their sense of a Muslim identity, but they saw themselves as the State saw them, as a minority speaking Tamil, outside of the nation that was Sinhalese and Buddhist. In my interviews I did not seek to unpack one “truth” but rather used narrative accounts of the incident drawn from the villagers to understand their transformations of identity.
During the War The Muslims of Kohinoor and the Sinhala State had intersected through specific sets of practices that had been interrupted in the aftermath of the war. It was this moment of interruption, culminating in the grease devils which allowed for a new reflective possibility.
During the time of the LTTE the Muslims had been invited as home guards and policed the area with the Sinhala policeman, building friendships with the policeman, whilst also being in a position of power vis a vis the Tamils.
The LTTE were not active in the town of Kohinoor, but were active in the jungles around Kohinoor where firewood was collected and levied a tax on the fire wood sellers. Many of the men in these areas sold firewood for a living and therefore paid the LTTE their tax. After the demise of the LTTE the state took over the forests again. The tax that the fire wood collectors had to pay was three times that of the LTTE. They also had to bribe the officials. If they did not comply the officials would book them on unrelated charges. The permits were costly, not only in terms of money but in the time they were made to hang around government departments. On the other hand the home guards did not have the need to function anymore, therefore the everyday relationship with the state on this front was severed.
The simmering intersection between the state and the Muslims erupted into a new formation through the crisis of the grease devils, or mystery man. It provided the citizens of Kohinoor with a transition point and an awareness of their own powers of mobilization. The landscape of Kohinoor played a vital role in this transition. Whilst the mosque was a centripetal force of Muslim identity the bridge became a central symbol in the interstice between the state and the citizens of Kohinoor. It was on this bridge that the citizens granted not only legitimacy to the state. It was also on this very bridge that they performed a separation from the state, a withdrawal of the legitimacy once conferred. Emerging from the press of this collective action the people of Kohinoor were able to set themselves in the future of Sri Lanka, and see themselves through the eyes of the State, as the “other” Tamil Speaking Minority.
The LTTE with their vision of a homogenous Tamil society, atrocities towards, and the expulsion of Muslims had kept the State and the Muslims together, but in the absence of the LTTE, in the aftermath of the war, the State did not seek to shift the web of interrelationships to appropriate the new context.
Where the Muslims fit into an increasingly Sinhala Buddhist nation as the new Tamils, as a Tamil speaking minority, is a question that the next few years will answer, but one perhaps that the citizens of Kohinoor already had an answer to, when a ruptured past, contestation and reflection came together in that strangely Kafkaesque summer of the Grease Devils.
*Francesca Bremner (PhD Columbia University). The above article was an oral presentation at a The Tamil Studies Conference Organized by the University of Toronto and University of Windsor, Canada 2012.