Date: Sunday 17 July 2016
This morning, we wake up to bad news from northern Sri Lanka. According to news circulating in social media (especially in Sinhala), I gathered that ‘Sinhala’ students at the University of Jaffna have been assaulted by Tamil students, over a disagreement in organising a cultural event. The first thought that came to mind was ‘what on earth is going on?’ Really, has a 30-year war not taught everyone – academic staff in universities, students of all ethnic groups and politicians with responsibility over higher ed. – a thing or two about communal violence??? The majority of reactions I’ve read so far on Sinhala language social media clearly point the finger at the Tamil students, accusing them of racism. This argument narrows the issue down to a one-way street, and risks deviating our attention from broader policy issues involved in this case.
Firstly, an impartial investigation needs to take place on the incident, within the university and in collaboration with law enforcement.
Secondly, and more importantly, it is very important to ask the following question: What is the standard guideline on organising cultural events in the University of Jaffna? Indeed, we are all well aware of what happened to the Jaffna library in 1981. Incidents of this nature, which amount to acts of cultural genocide, are still fresh in the minds of Tamil people. Only seven years have passed since May 2009, and those years have passed in the absence of a sincere, consistent and coherent programme for reconciliation, or to facilitate social cohesion and gender justice. Tamil society in northern and eastern Sri Lanka today, in this sense, is a deeply fractured one. A Sinhalese person reading this could turn around and ask, “how can you say that? The TNA leads the parliamentary opposition and holds power in the NPC!”. That, precisely, is the problem.
Photo via twitter twitter.com/uthayashalin
TNA as part of the problem?
The TNA is the quintessential problem, if not the elephant in the room. Even more than the raw brand of Sinhala chauvinism, the TNA is an impediment to heal the deep-cut wounds inflicted into Tamil society. To understand the reasons for this, suffice to take a good look at the TNA’s top-notch composition. The party is manned and managed by a cohort of near-geriatric, Vellalar men. It is an essentially cis-hetero-patriarchal entity run by influential Vellalar men, and consequently, it is a party that cares ONLY about the political interests of influential Vellalar cis men. Take the TNA’s electoral lists at the last elections, and it won’t take long to notice that non-Vellalar folk and women have no place in that party.
How on earth can such a party facilitate gender justice? Or social justice? Or reconciliation? Especially in a context in which the majority of the most adversely affected victims are from the lower echelons of a draconian caste structure? Beyond pursuing their power-political agenda, the TNA has no vision whatsoever for reconciliation and addressing pressing social, political, psychological and cultural challenges facing the Tamil community, especially among young men and women. Unfortunately, there’s no alternative, and all the political parties in the country have dramatically lost the plot on addressing the pressing issues of the Tamil community in post-bellum Sri Lanka.
Lack of adequate Equality and Diversity guidelines
Coming back to the Jaffna University incident, I would squarely point the finger at the university administration and to the national-level students’ unions. Especially in Jaffna and indeed in all other universities, it is very important to have specific guidelines clearly in place on equality and diversity, laying down, in crystal-clear terms, guidelines for ‘best practice’. Hence the need for clear guidelines, making students understand that it is compulsory for them to ‘co-exist’ and ‘co-habit’, and not ‘collide’. If a Dravidian-themed festival takes place, put in place a Sinhalese-themed festival subsequently (or vice-versa), and most importantly, pursue a ‘live and let live’ approach, fully allowing students to express themselves. In a place like Jaffna where competing nationalisms are especially palpable, this is extremely important.
The importance of recognizing ‘competing’ nationalisms
By ‘competing nationalisms’, I refer to the basic reality that Sinhalese and Tamil people have very different perspectives on the 30-year war, the post-war situation, and ethno-national politics. Sinhalese should understand that Tamil nationalism is a real thing, that it exists, and that that it is a sentiment that cannot be eradicated from people’s minds by force. Similarly, Tamils need to understand that Sinhala nationalism is very much a real thing, strengthened by a military victory and in today’s context, by the tactlessness of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe joint government. Hence the vital importance of the aforementioned ‘live and let live’ approach, providing, especially in university contexts, students the full freedom to express themselves. It is crucial to enable students (both Sinhala and [given wartime and post-war repression of their voices, especially] Tamil) read, write, perform, and express their political opinions. Indeed, there is no need whatsoever for universal agreement. Debate, of course, can take place within a decent level of civility, avoiding xenophobia, racism and sexism.
Freedom live and let live: no impediment to national sovereignty (as opposed to Sinhala nationalist rhetoric…)
Providing such freedom to express competing views openly is not a threat to national sovereignty or to national security. Even the TNA has now affirmed their commitment to a single-republic concept (within which they are calling for decentralizing and devolution – which is another debate altogether). Moreover, given the regional geo-political dynamics involved, Tamil nationalism has had the time to understand the total absence of regional and international support to fundamentally change the unitary configuration of the Sri Lankan state. In this context, the only available path forward for Tamil nationalism one of mutual coexistence, with Sinhala nationalism.
A political establishment thoroughly ‘unfit’ to manage post-war Sri Lanka?
This writer’s take is that neither the Central Government in Colombo nor the Northern provincial government, nor the Jaffna university administration, have adequately taken stock of what the concept of’ mutual coexistence’ in post-war Sri Lanka actually means. This is unsurprising, as the central government is entangled in its own power politics and sheer incompetence (a grama sevaka as Head of State, a namesake lawyer – a quintessential brief-less barrister who owes his entire political career to his privileged background, and whose entire career is a hallmark of incompetence and failure – as Prime Minister, an ex-fashion designer as External Affairs Minister, and the list goes on). At the northern regional governmental level, the TNA, as I noted above, is all but a Vellalar men’s club, and is only interested in the political stakes of the Vellalar men in positions of power within it. Chief Minister Wigneswaran may look like a staunch Tamil nationalist who takes the welfare of his people to the heart, but in reality, he is only interested in his personal political agenda. The TNA politicos are the last lot to give a damn about non-Vellalar Tamil folk and women.
Mutual coexistence: prime lesson waiting to be taught?
In the end, the kids involved in the attack have been left to fight and kill each other, as their interests are completely irrelevant to the political class. Someone really needs to make these kids realise this reality, and guide them on how to coexist, with each side expressing themselves and ‘living’ their identities, while not necessarily agreeing with each other on everything all the time.
*Dr Chaminda Weerawardhana (@fremancourt) is a Visiting Research Fellow at Queen’s University Belfast.