My name is Thamil Venthan Ananthavinayagan. I was born in the midst of the Black July, the ignis fatalis for the civil war starting in 1983. My father, named by his comrades by his nom de guerre Vannai Ananthan, was one of the most prolific and charismatic speakers of the Tamil Youth movement.
The post-colonial history, the ethnic conflict, decades of hate and ignorance, shortly: the tragedy of this country -despite its beauty- became my invincible sibling. However, I would not say that the tragedy of Sri Lanka overshadowed my childhood and youth. It became a constant reminder for hope.
The imprisonment of my father, ‘appa’, for seven years in Welikade did not leave him without scars – visible and more worryingly, invisible scars. He was beaten up, tortured, spit at, cigarettes of prison guards were stubbed out on the skin of appa. And what was more distressful: he was denied the right to conduct the funeral of his mother, my grandmother, according to the Hindu rites, being the oldest son in a Hindu family. My grandmother died during his imprisonment. A woman that loved him so much; he was the first male child after three girls, my aunts. She and my grandfather had fasted and prayed to God that they will be given a son- given the unfortunate patriarchal perception. As he went to prison, my grandmother’s life came to an end, she was a walking dead. All she wanted was to see him once again before she died. But both, neither my appa nor my grandmother, were able to see each other ever again.
And yet, my appa never taught me to hate the Sinhala people. He taught me love those who humiliated him. He said: “Only because of one or two persons who carried so much hate in their hearts, I shall not hate the Sinhala people and scapegoat them. They have not done anything wrong. Neither should you. Forgive those who have acted wrongly towards you.”
A project in Maskelya
Appa was a civil engineer – his actual profession. He was dispatched to Maskeliya, back then a jungle in Sri Lanka. I am not sure if things have changed. He was assigned to construct bridges and pathways.
Appa was a heavy chain smoker and for that reason he went outside his provisional office to have a cigarette. He saw an older Sinhala lady with -presumably- her grandchild. She sat by the river and washed that child that was very loud and crying. She hit that child and said in Sinhala: “Demala aya vage, mata karadara karanna epa” – which is translated as: “Do not trouble me like the Tamils do!”
My appa told me this story. But not for the reason to hate the Sinhala. But to depict what we are teaching the next, growing generation, the future leaders of our country: hate and ignorance. This happens in Tamil as well as Sinhala communities, in Sri Lanka and abroad. Hate and ignorance were the key ingredients that deepened the division.
Our state of soul
We are confronted with a country of scattered lives, broken dreams, constructed identities and painful memories. The fog of war is still dense, the silent squalls of the dead drown out the melody of peace. While a country like Germany was divided by the wall during the Cold War, we are still confronted and separated by a wall of ignorance, apathy and despair. Willy Brandt, the famous German Chancellor said after the fall of the Wall: “What belongs together, grows together.” It was the fulfillment of his sincere hope he had kept for years after the end of the Second World War.
I also have the hope that Sri Lanka will not only grow in statu nascẹndi, but also together. As a nation, not as an assembly of indifferent communities. I am hoping for a nation as one coherent structure: that derives its strengths from its diversity; e pluribus unum: out of many, one.
The Sri Lankan history
The Sri Lankan history shall not be solely seen through the Sinhala narrative. It must be narrative that assembles all communities and interprets the past, present and the future together in the context of nation-building. Otherwise, we will be reduced to a continuing vacuum of the construction of identities. We need, instead, embrace the narrative of peace.
A common history is undisputedly an important element in forming a group out of individuals. Conceptions vary as to further relevant elements. One line of research suggests that the perception of common group membership is only possible with positive, emotional bonds: a “We” requires that people — pointedly — “like” each other. Socio-psychological research, however, attributes little importance to such bonds: the formation of a group and the corresponding identity depend on the perception of belonging to a single social category, not on an emotional disposition. The mental mechanisms of perception, not their positive evaluations, are the basis of group formation. Collective identity requires identification with one’s in-group and dissociation from out-groups.
Like an “I” needs and implies a “You,” a “We” needs a counterpart group. A group must be cognizant of its own peculiarity. This does not suggest that a group necessarily defines itself as opponent of other groups, much less as enemy, as Carl Schmitt influentially postulated in regard to political communities. Other groups are not “the Other” but are merely differentiated in certain respects. The untenability of the radical position is proven by successful cooperation among self-cognizant groups or by the regular functioning of multiple, social identities.
To be short: the value of one’s own diversity can be of benefit for the larger society.
A focal point for identification
The narrowness and animosity with which social identity keeps being defined and defended impairs efforts to imagine new possibilities. The Sinhala have been portrayed as a “majority with a minority complex,” seeing themselves as being threatened by the huge Tamil presence in the south of India.
For Dharmapala, the island was not only the dhammadipa but also the sihaladipa, in the ethonationalist meaning as the “island of (or for) the Sinhalayo”, excluding the Tamils and the colonials. In accordance with this concept, in 1908 Dharmapala stated “To these rulers nothing appeared more supreme than this religion . . . and was thus completely identified with the racial individuality of the people.”
However, the vision of an inclusive society is not the brainchild of the modern world, any more than Sinhala-Buddhist fundamentalism is a new entry within the past century. The generosity of spirit and open-mindedness, combined with pragmatic good sense, may be found in the 12th Rock Edict of the Emperor Ashoka in the mid-third century BCE. The words in that proclamation provide a deeply humane and Buddhist perspective and are in contrast to the sectarian position of Sinhala-Buddhist fundamentalism. This is what John Holt means when he talks of the “remarkable inclusivity and assimilations” which have been a part of Sinhala- Buddhist history.
Current state of affairs
Intense militarization and continuing rights violations, along with a lack of any meaningful participation in their political future, have the potential to create a fertile ground for militancy. In this context, the government has the dual responsibility of not only bringing truth, justice and reconciliation to all the communities in the country, but also ensuring that devolution of power to minorities is real – and meaningful. Empowerment at the local level means enforcing dignity and underscoring the belonging to the nation.
We must introduce compulsory bilingual exchange programs from the North to the South –and vice versa. It is compelling that minorities will be promoted to visible administrative positions. Furthermore, a genuine reconciliation commission needs to be established to reveal truth, as truth is the first victim of war. As a son of man that has committed all of his life to Sri Lanka, being aware of the suffering that was caused to him, I write these lines: I unclench my fist and offer my hand for cooperation and genuine will to restructure the country. All communities must be involved in the process of building the bridge of dialogue, brick by brick.
In 2012 I had the privilege to scatter the ashes of my father in Sri Lanka. He died in 2003 and his last wish before his departure was that his only child may bring his ashes to his home country.
Already during my time at high school he affirmed to me this wish and said: “I was born on that soil- I want to return to that soil. I want to return home. Only when I am back in Sri Lanka, I will be free, son.” We waited for the harrowing war to be over and kept his ashes in a cemetery in Germany. Bringing his ashes finally to Sri Lanka and to scatter them in Keerimalai was an act of liberation and catharsis. I brought him home. In the moment when I scattered the ashes -I am fully convinced- I have heard the breeze whisper: “I am finally free.” My consciousness was pure, his soul was free.
In his outstanding work, War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy writes: “(…) consciousness is a source of self-cognition completely separate from and independent of reason. Through reason a person observes himself; but he only knows himself through consciousness. (…).”
Humans believe themselves to be free in their choices and action until they are confronted with necessity that offers them neither choice nor action. It is at this moment when humans can come to the realization, which humans either can accept or reject, that their preconceptions of freedom are illusionary because of the insurmountable separation between consciousness and cognition. Freedom, therefore, is that moment of human acceptance or rejection of life’s infinite plentitude. History becomes nothing more than a narrative of this perpetual struggle between, on the one hand, consciousness and its belief of freedom, and, on the other hand, cognition and the recognition of necessity. It is this dynamic rather than a circular or eschatological one that drives history.
We are at the point of dynamics: our memories are vehicle for change. As Mahatma Gandhi said: “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.”
Let us begin to walk the way of peace.
*Thamil Venthan Ananthavinayagan, LLM. (Maastricht University) is a PhD researcher at the Irish Centre for Human Rights at the National University of Ireland, Galway and where his work focuses on the UN Human Rights Council.