Remembering the past, its struggles and the actors and agents who advanced those struggles as a community is a key political act inextricably linked to our political journeys in the present. The past and the memories associated with it speak about our historical progress into the present, and therefore we tend to preserve the past in the form in which the past and its agents presented the past to us in the past. On other occasions, the voids of disillusionment and defeat into which the past leaves us often invoke romantic and illusory pictures of the past. As a result, we often desire to see the present to mirror the past without change or contamination. Our unceasing idealization of the past is not going to be a productive political practice in the long run. By keeping us within a circumscribed narrative of glorification, the past that we want to preserve and eulogize slowly weakens our critical eye. The present, as a consequence, finds itself crippled by obsolete forces. And the future appears as a blurred space in our visionless eyes. Whether we like it or not, there is a point where we need to break this self-destructive continuity that binds the past and the present in our thoughts, and rescue the present with a view to initiating political processes that would lead to transformation instead of stagnation.
My thoughts on the LTTE Martyrs’ Day event observed by the students at the University of Jaffna, despite the threats and gruesome violence they faced from the Sri Lankan Army and the Police, stem from this understanding of the interplay between the past and the present. The purpose of this opinion-piece is not to pass judgment on the rightness of commemorating the LTTE Martyr’s Day event at the University of Jaffna. I share in the students’ admiration of the idealism that characterized the lives of the LTTE cardres. I remember the LTTE cardres’ moral courage to sacrifice their education and the prime of their youth and to keep aside their responsibilities towards their families for a greater cause that had the larger community at its heart. I also condemn the brutal violence used by the Sri Lankan state against these unarmed students and the state’s unrelenting opposition to commemorating the slain LTTE cardres. But, I want to distance myself from patriotic narratives that use these martyrs to demonize those who democratically questioned the LTTE’s ideology and politics, and therefore want to think about what else a critical reflection of the past requires us to do when we remember the LTTE Martyrs in the post-militancy period.
Like many other liberation movements, the LTTE started off as an organization that struggled for the freedom of a community from an oppressive state. The sense of idealism this organization embodied drew towards itself many young people from the different parts of the country. Militancy in the Tamil context emerged as a fractured, diverse body in the 1970s and produced multiple militant groups. However, the militant movements in their initial years provided the Tamil community with a critical platform to gauge the political processes of the mainstream Tamil parties and to identify their weaknesses and failures. The rise of militancy does not re-produce a romantic picture of the previous decades of Tamil politics. It was extremely critical of the past. It did not restrict its criticism to the state. Movements like the EPRLF radically questioned the hegemonic foundations of the Saiva-Vellala, patriarchal Tamil culture. The radicality of the early days of militancy in many senses rested on the new future that militancy promised the Tamils and the discontinuity that it wanted to bring about between the past and the present.
I am not interested in re-telling a story that has been told multiple times about how the militancy turned into a hegemonic project in the mid-1980s and the rampant internecine violence that shook the psyche of the Tamil community from the middle years of the 1980s into the early years of the 1990s. This is a period when militants, especially the LTTE, heavily borrowed and disseminated problematic labels like patriot and traitor from mainstream Tamil politics and fell prey to nationalistic jingoism. And this politics continued till May 2009, though there was no formidable internal opposition to the LTTE in the North and East regions after 1990. Even though I do not consider the LTTE as the one and only force responsible for the political predicament of the Tamil community at present, its role in the tragedy that befell the Tamils needs to be scrutinized by the Tamil community, if they want to move forward in a new political path that emphasizes the importance of creating a democratic political culture. As of now, this process does not seem to be happening within the Tamil community and the excuse being “this is not the right time, as we are facing more serious problems from the state.” To resolve the conflict between the Tamils and the Sri Lankan state might take many years given the deadlock we are facing right now. Therefore our alibis for deferring our critical engagement with the past are never going to be fruitful. They only encourage us from abdicating ourselves from a responsibility that history has left us with and undermine our potential to re-configure Tamil politics in a progressive spirit. Perhaps, the end of the war and the continuous failure on the part of the state to address the political grievances of the Tamil community, continuing militarization and land grabbing by the state in the Northern and Eastern provinces and the hardships of the IDPs who have not been resettled in their own villages as they were promised by the state make us conceive our past in a positive light. But such a perception of the past is deceptive and it covers over the unsettled internal contradictions within the Tamil community.
The question I would like to raise about the Martyr’s Day revolves around an unresolved discourse left behind by the LTTE. The LTTE ruthlessly persecuted the members of other militant movements like PLOTE, TELO, EPRLF, etc. Militants representing these organizations died at the hands of the LTTE earning the ignominious title of traitor. The LTTE insisted that the community stop having any contact or association with the members of these organizations. The label ‘traitor’ in a way created a new discourse of caste and untouchability in the Tamil heartland and called for the ex-communication of those who defied the LTTE’s dictates. The LTTE assassinated human rights activists who outspokenly voiced their criticism of the LTTE. While the LTTE members who died for the cause of Tamil nationalism were honored and glorified as martyrs, these militants, writers, critics and activists who stood for democracy and justice were branded as traitors. When I condemn the Sri Lankan government for unleashing violence on the students for commemorating the Martyrs’ Day, I want to register the harsh truth that the LTTE, in its heyday, did not allow the Tamils to commemorate in public the dead cardres of other militant groups or its critics.
The memories of all the dissident Tamils do not allow one to think about the Martyrs’ Day without critically reflecting on the notion of traitors. In the LTTE’s patriotic narrative, the martyr and the traitor functioned as antithetical images, the former desirable and the latter abominable for a Tamil. The Tamil community willingly or unwillingly accepted these labels and naturalized them in the course of its relationship with the LTTE. Now, after the demise of the LTTE, these discourses and labels remain unquestioned and sometimes, especially during the election period, rival Tamil nationalist candidates invoke these labels to sling mud at each other. As a Tamil, I find it difficult to commemorate the LTTE cardres who died during the war without scrutinizing these unsavory labels and without being critical of the political culture that thrives on an empty rhetoric of Tamil patriotism.
During the early years of militancy, the Tamils collectively reflected on their past and were willing to evaluate their own actions. A similar process does not seem to happen in the early years of the post-militancy period. Mainstream Tamil politics has not resolved important questions about the LTTE, its ideology and its political strategies. Instead, Tamil political leaders want to prop-up their image by glorifying the LTTE and demonizing its critics. Post-militancy period does not seem to liberate itself from the problematic ideological realms that dominated LTTE-led militancy till May 2009. We are walking endlessly inside a narrow circle built by the past without having the ability to break it open.
This year’s Martyrs’ Day event, however, has generated a ray of hope after many years. This hope comes from the South, from the undergraduates at the University of Peradeniya and University of Ruhuna who protested against the attacks on the students who commemorated the LTTE Martyrs’ Day at the University of Jaffna. One cannot help but admire these students’ ability to transcend the long-standing ethnic divide in rendering their support to the Tamil students protesting in Jaffna. I see their protest as a critique of a government that relies on their support for electoral victory. Their act of protest, despite the fact that the attack on the students protesting at the University of Jaffna was not given much coverage by the mainstream Sinhala and English media in the South, indicates that they seem to be thinking about preventing themselves from succumbing to the vicious government propaganda efforts which continue to demonize the LTTE for its own survival in the South.
I can remember viewing the portraits and photographs of slain JVP cardres displayed at the WUS wala on a November evening when I was an undergraduate at the University of Peradeniya. These youth were killed during the JVP insurgencies. If the state does not have any issues with undergraduates at the University of Peradeniya commemorating the JVP cardres, why should it threaten the Tamil students who want to commemorate the LTTE martyrs at the University of Jaffna using violence? This is a question the student protestors in the South need to raise. Those who challenge the state for unleashing violence against the students or for its failure to uphold democracy should also critique the manner in which Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism entrenched in the state and its structures discriminates against other ethnic groups in the country, Tamil and Muslim among others. We need to persistently question the narrow divisions that meaningless patriotic and nationalistic rhetoric creates within a community and between different communities. The birth of a progressive future urgently requires such a critique.
*Mahendran Thiruvarangan is a graduate student in English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.