By Mahesan Niranjan –
For our story today, we travel back in time and space. It is the year 1976 and we are in the bicycle shed of Jaffna Hindu College, Sri Lanka, where a handsome young Sri Lankan Tamil man in his late teens was debating with his classmates. Participation was uneven. He was alone and there were five opponents. But the five being highly emotional while the young fellow maintained his cool compensated for the numerical advantage they had. Those were “the best of times and the worst of times,” as was famously said, for that young chap.
On the one hand, there was high quality secondary schooling to stretch his intellect, a thriving chess club and plenty of cinemas to sing along and temporarily forget the world. The real icing on the cake, however, was the well-stocked public library in Jaffna.
In 1976, the library had not been burnt yet.
On the other hand, the years leading up to 1976 saw the fastest rise in Tamil Nationalism — the introduction of ethnic and district quotas in university admissions serving as spark – and the thought that an armed rebellion might be the solution to problems faced by the youth of the region. Armed robbery of a bank and the subsequent suicide by Sivakumaran was widely perceived as setting the right example. The hero status held by film stars M. G. Ramachandran and Sivaji Ganeshan in the impressionable minds of Tamil youth was beginning to get replaced by a pistol-wielding Sivakumaran. In 1976, the local political party – the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) – formally declared that the way forward was to carve out a separate country in the North and East of Sri Lanka.
On stage, having mastered the art of telling lies, the TULF claimed separation was to be achieved by peaceful means, but lacked the honesty to say (a charitable view would be they lacked the capacity to see) that they were laying the foundations for an armed rebellion whose trajectory was a slow thirty-year march to the massacre at Mullivaikkaal in May 2009.
As images of Rajendra Chozan (the 12th century Tamil king in South India) and Clint Eastwood started filling the minds of young Tamils, the bike sheds of Jaffna Hindu College became serious debating chambers for our young fellow, where he tried to persuade friends that an armed struggle was, to put it bluntly, a stupid idea.
Adopting for the sake of argument an “us” and “them” metaphor, he would make his case based on simple numbers: “Machan (buddy),” he would say, “they are 80% of the population and we are under 20%, what chance do we have?”
That might seem simple logic to us now, and to the young fellow then, but when nationalism is on the rise, logic takes a backseat and suicidal tendencies take over.
First came the argument of our superiority, a particular hallmark of nationalism. “We may be 20%, but we are cleverer, aren’t we?” his debating opponents would counter, “just look at the island-wide secondary school public exam grades, they very clearly show that we are smarter and if we correct for that, 20% can easily defeat the 80%.”
The young fellow was skilled at countering this line of thinking. He knew that Hindu College being a selective school would not admit anyone who couldn’t see that this claim was idiotic. He would simply say “really, machan?” and pause a little. That would do the trick and his opponents would recognise that this was not a winning argument. What they were actually good at was memorising answers to a whole load of questions at Jaffna’s industrial scale tuition centres, and spitting them out in an exam hall. This, they knew.
“Do you know about Bangladesh?” the nationalist who took Geography as a subject would ask authoritatively. “If we start a war, there will be refugees. All it takes is 100,000 refugees to swim across the Palk Strait into India and the Indian army would come in and create a separate country for us.”
That argument, too, is easily demolished. Intervening to create a separate state in Sri Lanka for some 2.5M Tamils when India itself had a Tamil population twenty times that was not going to happen. And India’s relationship with Pakistan, which had a touch of grabbing the chance to “teach them a lesson,” was very different from its relationship with Sri Lanka. And despite the proximity to the sea and some excellent beeches, Jaffna people were generally not good at swimming.
So we come to the third argument – the trump — of the nationalist schoolboys in the bike shed: “What then is your solution?”
“There is a problem. We are advancing a solution. You are criticizing us, telling us our solution won’t work. But then you yourself have no solution. You have no right to criticize us.”
The young man recognized that this is the last argument in the toolbox of the nationalists. It is a point he was not prepared to challenge. For back in mid Seventies, even though lamp post killings were yet to be introduced, should the nationalist lose the “so, what is your solution?” argument, the next step would have been a fist fight. And our young friend knew he was never going to win a fight in the bike shed. So he made a tactical withdrawal, shrugging his shoulders politely and saying “maybe you have a point.”
The young fellow left the college bike shed with a touch of frustration and anger. He could predict where his friends were heading and where they were going to drag the community. He had to document his thoughts.
So, he sent a text message excusing himself from the afternoon’s chess game and sat for an hour or so in the Jaffna public library and wrote a story: a story of a potato farmer, his daughter and a ferocious bear.
He could write that because the library had not been burnt yet.
We fast forward some four and a half decades.
The community has been decimated by the war. Some 100,000 have perished and about five times that number emigrated. The ability to pass exams is confined to a tiny fraction of the population. The winner who defeated the armed rebellion celebrated victory over the community sending a strong message that they do not belong in our country. The political class has no interest in thinking through the causes of youth rebellions – both North and South. Nepotism, corruption and incompetence, firmly imprinted in the epi-genome of the political class, can be seen anywhere one looks. And that, too, both in the North and the South.
Up North in Jaffna, in 2012, a visitor to the University asked a dozen undergraduates what use the newly refurbished library was, and discovered all of them had taken selfies from the outside.
The main political party in the North is the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). We should not be fooled by what they call themselves. Their belief in Tamil Nationalism is no more plausible than the belief in God of an average priest chanting in Sanskrit. And the “alliance” part is far weaker than the weakest of arranged marriages in the community. At present they have a peculiar mode of operation in the Sri Lankan parliament. They sit in opposition, but don’t particularly oppose anything. They are cooperating with the Government in writing a new Constitution for Sri Lanka, one which is supposed to minimize the probability of conflict ad infinitum.
TNA’s spokesperson is M. A. Sumanthiran MP, an accomplished lawyer and an eloquent speaker. Since taking up politics, he appears to have taken efforts at improving his ability to speak in Sinhala. This could be confirmed by comparing his speeches in Sinhala in 2009 and in 2018 and counting the numbers of “ah”, “eh”, “E kiyanne” “ethakota” etc., which are fillers thrown in to the acoustic space to give the brain some time to recall the right technical term that would not be misunderstood. He seems to be making an effort at explaining to the Sinhala people the need for, and the harmlessness of, some simple changes to the way our country is governed. Trading a tiny bit of operational power and responsibility to local government can buy immense satisfaction and a sense of belonging to the whole. There is nothing new in this. Such arrangements can be seen to work successfully in India, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the semi-autonomous region of Trento in northern Italy.
But a recent speech made by Sumanthiran in Galle caused a lot of stir. It upset the residual Tamil nationalists back in Jaffna and he came under fire, mercifully verbal. His utterances were carefully scrutinized: Did he say “partitioned” or “federal”? Did he say “united” or “unitary”? Did he say different things in Sinhala, Tamil and in English? Or does the same word mean different things in each of these languages? Airwaves and cyberspace were filled with such analyses.
Sumanthiran was fairly clear. We should not be held hostage by technical terms and the historical connotations they attract. What matters is the substance. But that message was drowned out in cyberspace.
A few days later, speaking at a memorial event for a young rebel who lost his life by being put on a fast to death adventure during the occupation of Jaffna by the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) – the acronym still remembered as Innocent People Killing Force by the local population — Sumanthiran retorted approximately as follows:
“There is a problem. We are trying to advance a solution. You are criticizing us saying our solution won’t work. But you yourself have no solution.”
And he rubbed the salt in. “Are those of you criticizing us going to recommend another armed rebellion to our people?” he asked. “With huge fighting capacity of their own army, navy and even an air force, the Tamil Tiger rebels could not achieve what they promised. “Are you going to do better than them?
“Those of you who are criticizing us have no solution.”
Readers would by now have guessed that the handsome young fellow of 1976 in the Jaffna Hindu College bicycle shed is none other than my regular drinking partner in the famous Bridgetown pub – the Sri Lankan Tamil fellow, Sivapuranam Thevaram.
Yesterday in the pub, after describing to me his bike shed debating experience, story written in the library and the logic that came bake to bite at Tamil nationalism, Thevaram took a long sip of his Peroni and said with a touch of vengeance he did not attempt to hide in his intonation:
“I had to wait four decades, machan (buddy), for the buggers to get a taste of their own medicine.”