By Namini Wijedasa –
An old man stood resolutely outside a house, facing a roaring, depraved mob. They had weapons. “You kill me,” the man said, in Sinhala, his language. “Then you can go in.”
S.C. Chandrahasan remembers that old man. Where many have chosen to dwell on the savageness and brutality of the 1983 anti-Tamil riots, he focuses on what he calls “some of the remarkable things that happened during bad days”. He witnessed that brave Sinhalese man defending the Tamil house. “What more do you need?” he asks, today. “Can you forget that incident? Like that, on both sides, people sacrificed their lives for the cause. So why are we not talking about those things?”
He is dressed in an impeccable white ‘verti’, the Tamil national dress. On his left is a cabinet stocked with law books. To his right, a row of shelves with sheaves of documents belonging to the Organization for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation (OfERR), a non-governmental group he started after the 1983 pogrom to support Sri Lankans who fled to India. It is registered in India and Sri Lanka. We are now seated in its modest Dehiwala office.
Chandrahasan, a lawyer, lives in Tamil Nadu but visits Sri Lanka regularly since the war’s end to coordinate the return of refugees. He caused ripples in political circles when an article in India’s ‘The Hindu’ newspaper earlier this year said he was “preparing for permanent return and has started renovating his ancestral house.” His associates received calls from various quarters, inquiring whether he would enter politics here.
This sort of interest, even anxiety, is not surprising. The 69-year-old Chandarahasan is the son of the late S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, a founder member of the Federal Party or Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi. ‘Thanthai Selva’ led the first Satyagraha against S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s Sinhala Only Act—and, as he sat cross-legged on Galle Face Green in 1956, he was joined by Sinhala people. Everyone got beaten up together.
The narratives of hate must stop, insists his son today. He maintains that problems in Sri Lanka are not divided along Sinhala-Tamil lines. Instead, they are divided on issues. “We have to be very keen and careful about that,” Chandrahasan explained. “There are people on both sides, they will take different views. You need to reduce the areas of dissension and increase the areas where we can cooperate and work. That will build confidence.”
When it comes to appreciating the good, Chandrahasan is magnanimous to the point of vexing the cynic in me. But when it comes to criticizing the bad—and he doesn’t dismiss that this side exists—he is cautious in an equal measure.
Chandrahasan’s message, therefore, is starkly different from the rhetoric of most opposition Tamil politicians here. “I’m an optimist,” he admits, “and I’m happy about it.” It is not difficult to talk of the bad things, he says: “But you really need to balance it because there have been so many good things happening on all sides. People from all communities have also risked their lives trying to prevent things from taking place.”
By his side, S. Sooriyakumari, OfERR Ceylon’s Sri Lanka-based president, nodded in agreement. After the 2004 tsunami, she said, it was people from the adjoining Sinhala village that gave the Tamils of Nilaveli their first drinks of water. “It was not the Tamils from town who went to give water to the coastal area people,” she said. “And it was the navy that saved even pregnant women.” She also says how, in 2008, army officers at the Omanthai checkpoint appealed to OfERR for assistance towards the battered Tamils stumbling out of war-torn Vanni.
I asked him directly whether he would enter politics in Sri Lanka. His reply was not as direct. “When I came (to Sri Lanka) in 2010, it coincided with the elections being called within a few days,” he related. “With all the stories getting around and the questions being asked, I went on saying that as a matter of right I had a role in politics. At any time I can go into politics without any difficulty. But I have chosen to be with the population of people with whom I have to walk along.”
Those people are the thousands of Tamil refugees, an estimated 100,000, who still live across Tamil Nadu as refugees. Having represented their interests for 28 years, Chandrahasan says he can’t leave them halfway. “As of now, let me walk along and support the political process from outside,” he asserts. “I’m quite happy to do that”.
Nevertheless, with his rich past in politics and social service—and given that he is keeping his options open—was he not a problem to some people? “I’m quite a problem for a lot of people who are in politics,” he said, smiling. “They do worry and every time I go somewhere they want to know whether I would be coming. But we are doing a much more difficult task. The challenge now is to build confidence and every one of us has a duty.”
Those brain-washed are a problem
Asked whether he felt there was a lack of leadership among the Tamil community, he lamented that Tamil politicians were not engaging with the government. “What little we are able to do, we do very happily,” he said, of his own organization. “There is so much room for them to engage. They are not doing it. They are finding fault all the time.”
“Put it this way,” Chandrahasan added. “Those who have been brainwashed by the LTTE are the problem.” The LTTE era, he emphasizes, has to be forgotten. “We have to dismantle that,” he said. “It is the mindset that is the problem. We have a major challenge because during that period you made everyone your enemy. You had to first finish off your enemy if you had to survive. That (approach) isn’t relevant to a country like ours where we have lived happily for so many generations.”
Commenting on the language policy, Chandrahasan said it has developed to a stage where both tongues are recognized. “That’s a big breakthrough,” he noted. “Implementation is a problem, that’s a different matter. But on principle the people of this country, both Sinhalese and Tamil, have got together and said we will use both languages.”
In July, Chandrahasan attended the launch of the Social Integration Policy Framework by the Ministry of National Languages and Social Integration. He felt it was an important effort towards building confidence among communities—particularly because a lack of confidence was preventing the bulk of Tamil refugees from returning to Sri Lanka. He also said he thought it would work.
Analyzing the function, Chandrahasan said he was encouraged by President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s speech. “The first part was in Sinhalese and he spoke directly to the Sinhala people, explaining the difficulties communities face,” he said. “That communication was wonderful. And he ended up speaking in Tamil. That certainly is a high-tide mark for us, when the president is able to speak in two languages. He’s getting the message across that we respect each other.”
He did laugh along with me when the undying skeptic in me found this funny—and when I said I wished I could think like him. And then he explained where he was coming from. “My father,” he said, “was someone who could think like that. Anytime there was an issue, he would look at the good first and then the negative point. When you are brought up that way, it’s a great asset. I think we should share it as much as possible.”
Chandrahasan went up to President Rajapaksa at the function. “He did something good,” he pointed out. “He deserved to get the credit. I complimented him and I said this is a moment in history and we should get ourselves photographed together. It was symbolic.”
It took the president a “minute or two” to get over the praise. But the least you can do, smiled Chandrahasan, is to compliment people when they are taking a step in the right direction.
Returning refugees: A valuable addition to Sri Lankan society
Since the end of the war in 2009, around 7,000 refugees have returned to Sri Lanka from neighbouring India. They fit into two categories: Those who had resources and came back on their own; and those who returned with assistance from the UNHCR.
The poorer among the returnees have challenges restoring their properties and regaining their livelihoods. Most houses are destroyed. OfERR is looking at how the return of refugees from Tamil Nadu to Sri Lanka can complement the process of reconciliation here. Chandrahasan said they were an “empowered group” that is educated and has undergone awareness building and personal development training. “A tremendous amount of work done on giving space for women,” he added. “Women, to some extent, say they are the finance ministers of this community!”
“All this will complement the areas they would be coming back to,” he stressed. “More important is that they have been fortunate in not having been through the worst of the war. Therefore, they are not bitter, or angry. They feel they were fortunate that they were living peacefully in India. They have improved their physical and mental capacities to help to rebuild the country. They consider it a duty to do so because they were fortunate they didn’t suffer the fate of the people back in the island.”
Tamils started fleeing to India after the pogrom of 1983. In 1987, there was a return of most of the refugees following the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord. But with the collapse of the peace process, 125,000 refugees got uprooted again and returned to India in 1990. “The caseload in India is fundamentally the people who got uprooted in 1983, came back, and had to go back in 1990,” Chandrahasan said. “Whenever there are peace processes, they come. When fighting starts, they leave. Many have crossed the seas more than twice. These people are fortunate that we organized a process by which they could take their lives into their own hands.”
The result was OfFERR, an organization formed by refugees, run by refugees for the benefit of refugees. Chandrahasan, the driving force behind OfERR, arrived in India in August 1983. His three children were educated, live and work in India.
Chandrahasan started working directly in Sri Lanka in February 2009. “I had to be extraordinarily careful,” he said. “I was being seen more as a problem by the LTE so I didn’t want to take the risk. When in 2003 we (OfERR) made a decision that we must start working in the island, the message very clearly came from the Tigers saying don’t blame us if something happens to you! Sooriyakumari had to make a choice to come.”
After the war ended in 2009, there has been facilitation of providing flight arrangements for people to come back. The Colombo-Tuticorin ferry service was also used before it was abandoned. Chandrahasan called for a restoration of the Talaimannar-Rameshwaran ferry service, saying it was cheap and convenient. He said that most refugees were now forced to sell everything and to return with 50kg of baggage. After coming with the barest minimum, they have to buy everything again—including pots and pans.
OfERR is proposing that containers be provided to returning refugees so that they could bring their belongings with them. This would be a vital buffer. Many have two-wheelers that would help them move around in areas where transport services are still weak. “A memorandum of understanding between the two governments is being encouraged and sponsored by us to facilitate some of these arrangements,” Chandrahasan said.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa has responded speedily and positively to any request made on humanitarian grounds, he continued. For instance, in a public administration circular dated November 2011, the government decreed that it was no longer necessary for any citizen of Sri Lanka to submit certificates confirming citizenship. An affidavit would do instead. This was important to refugees who did not have the required documents. The government also amended the Persons of Indian Origin Act to absorb 30,000 “stateless” persons who were living in Indian refugee camps.
“It’s a difficult situation and I think we can help,” Chandrahasan said, referring again to the integration of returning refugees with the rest of the community. “We lived in a country (India) which appreciates its plural nature and that a bigger advantage than being in a country where there are two communities with differences that are not sorted out. They could complement the people here by talking, counseling, and sharing experiences.”
At the time the refugees went into India, its economy was not doing well. “We had a quite a lot of difficulties in managing,” he recalled. “If we had to send a child to school, we had to give up one meal a day and manage with two. Happily it was done. We now have 100 per cent literacy among these refugees. Being organized, we didn’t ask for material things. We asked for human development because that’s what we can bring back to Sri Lanka.”
Not only can the refugees read and write there are several graduates among them. One of them is now a surgeon in Panadura, having also served in Vavuniya. These men and women could greatly contribute towards the teaching profession—and many other fields—having benefited from the high standards of education in India. Science and technology graduates are particularly up to date.
The return process is slow because there is no confidence-building process, Chandrahasan explained. “A lot of information that comes in the media relates to difficult situations and very little appears on good things that are being done,” he explained. “I would look at the time when I had to spend more than half a day to go from Batticaloa to Trincomalee, and how this time I did it in two-and-a-half hours. That’s a big improvement. Infrastructure development would help everyone.”
But even this eternal optimist admitted that “individual confidence of security”—of not being under any difficulty or danger—is taking time to develop. (Lakbima News)