By Mahesan Niranjan –
If, like me, you were a Sri Lankan Tamil — in that order — the approach of the Eighteenth of May does to your system unpleasant things that you find difficult to deal with, or to even put in words. Those with excessive imagination use sophisticated language to describe the events leading up to that day: “Structured Genocide” and “Humanitarian Operation” are the two ends of the scale. Not in that league, my best summary of the Eighteenth of May is in the form of a question posed in an email from a friend that day, five years ago:
“I did not fight; nor did I support the fight. Yet I have lost. Why?”
But the Eighteenth of May is a distraction. The story I am about to tell you happened on the Fourteenth of April, the auspicious New Year day for both Sinhala and Tamil tribes of our country. It was a beautiful spring day in England. Sunshine and occasional showers were forecast. My drinking partner, the Sri Lankan Tamil fellow Sivapuranam Thevaram, his wife Manimekalai and little son Senguttu were driving from Bridgetown to London for a family visit. Thevaram was highly excited about it being the Sinhala-Tamil New Year, and had chosen a Sri Lankan T-shirt to wear that day. “Bought in Odel, no,” Senguttu teased, stretching the “no” with appropriate Sri Lankan intonation.
Temptation to go in a matching sarong had to be abandoned due to fear of the unpredictable British weather. “What if…” I ask, and leave the rest to your imagination.
To the little fellow’s disappointment, they did not play the usual “I spy with my little eye” type games during the car journey. Thevaram appeared totally distracted. Was he appreciating the beautiful fields of yellow rapeseed flowers along the motorway?
Was he thinking about his objections to Tamil nationalism as a political problem solving framework, his sceptical engagement with that notion in the bike sheds of Jaffna Hindu College in 1976, where he argued that the most predictable outcome of that as a political process was going to be the massacre at Mullivaikkaal?
Or was he thinking of an astute comment he had heard from Callum Macrae at a screening of the Channel Four film at King’s College London: “Behaviour now is what I take as proof of intent then.”?
Or was he thinking of the insincerity of present day Tamil political leadership in not explicitly articulating a clear distance between themselves and the horrors committed on the Tamil population, and beyond, by those who claimed to be fighting on behalf of the Tamil people?
Or was he thinking about what we read from modern analysts and activists these days, many of whom have re-visited a challenging question:
“Are Tamils a nation or a minority?”
Dictionary definition of a nation, of course, speaks simply of a common identity – culture, history or language, linking a people living in a particular area. Yet we refuse to recognize the Sri Lankan Tamil people as a nation for fear of the political baggage it comes with: self-determination, separation and then ganging up with cousins to beat us up. A fear that has been drilled into us in the history lessons we took as children amplified by the violent history of recent times.
Some fail to observe. Countries that have made arrangements that recognize the existence of different nations within themselves – Switzerland, Trento in Italy or, closer to home, India – have benefitted enormously from such accommodation. They have successfully attracted loyalty to the whole by trading in small amounts of local decision making to the constituent parts. It is that simple.
Some forget basics. I, for example, belong to multiple nations. I am Sri Lankan, having many things common with fellow Sri Lankans. I am Tamil, having many habits and values in common with fellow Tamils. And, mind you, I am also from the Karainagar nation – the island off the north coast of Sri Lanka.
Yes, the people of Karainagar are a nation. At the west end of the causeway, they have historic habits that are demonstrably distinct from those in the Peninsula. But even stronger, they attain their nationhood due to the behaviour of the mainlanders. Remember they expressed their aspirations in no uncertain terms by defeating Appapillai Amirthalingam in an election, returning instead the local schoolmaster to Parliament? If you don’t believe the claim, hire a social scientist to carefully measure the height to which eyebrows are raised when a Karainagar chap buys land in mainland Jaffna. Or study the reactions when a young man from that nation aspires to marry a beautiful young lady from the mainland. He has no chance, I can tell you, unless he can wield a certificate earned at HillTop University!
But we do know of an artful technique to dodge recognizing a group of people as a nation, particularly when you suffer from the manufactured fear of what that recognition might imply. The trick is to demonstrate they are a tiny minority, with the help of imaginative accounting. Remember the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, someone to whom all present day social difficulty in that country can be traced back? She was imaginative with numbers. To reduce unemployment, the Iron Lady changed the way you count them. She reduced it to a mere four percent!
During that drive to London, with Thevaram lost in such thought, conversations Manimekalai attempted to have with him did not go anywhere. She could not guess what was in his mind. She tried asking. Her questions did not get correct answers. He showed irritation. “Why are you asking so many counter-questions?” he snapped. When challenged about wrong answers, he claimed the answers were correct, and it was the questions that were wrong. At this point she knew what the problem really was. Every Tamil woman has the sixth sense to know it instantly in such situations. It has to be.
It has to be another woman!
It is a woman Thevaram has never met. Like him, we also know very little of her. We know she is from the Vanni. She had four children, three boys and a girl. The older two boys were killed in the war. Precisely how, we do not know, but they are dead. The third boy, we know, was forcibly recruited to fight in the war. A war in which the people of the Vanni were told “we are here to protect you,” by a fascist terror group, and “here we come to rescue you,” by its equally callous foe. Both achieved their stated goals by killing those helpless people.
She says her boy surrendered on the Eighteenth of May.
Even when numerous such young people — as many as the daffodils the poet saw at a glance — were rehabilitated and released, her son did not come home. She says he definitely was among those being rehabilitated, for she recognized him in a picture released of the rehabilitation in action. She and her fourth child – a daughter – have been searching for the missing son and brother they believe is alive. She has been searching since the Eighteenth of May, five years ago, protesting at meetings and complaining to whoever who she thought had any influence to intervene, and bring back the missing son home. That last remaining son – who the mother believes is alive.
Protesting and complaining are not allowed in our country. She has been warned not to do it. She was being watched to see if she does it.
Meanwhile, rebels have regrouped and appeared in the scene to terrorize the citizenry. Just like the “Grease Yakkas” of a few years ago, they appear and inject fear. They are chased away by timely actions, taken to protect our fellow citizens. In this particular case, the guy who was being chased scaled the walls of this woman’s home and hid in her kitchen cupboard. Being the idiot he was, he chooses the house of the most watched woman in our country to hide in.
Or being the idiots we are, we believe pieces of information given to us without challenging their accuracy or purpose.
You may want to calibrate such gullible belief systems. Have you seen the video of a Q and A session during Sumanthiran MP’s last visit to Toronto in which a woman confidently claimed that the Muslims in Jaffna were chased away for their own good? Hilarious, was it not?
Is the acceptance of this renewed Tiger story any different?
Obvious acts followed the killing of the fellow who ran into the woman’s house. The woman was taken into custody, the daughter separated and the mother sent to be locked away. Our laws allow for that. She can be held incommunicado. She cannot demand due process or representation, and she can, with non-zero probability, disappear.
“Terrorists,” as our senior-most interpreter of the Law has recently explained, “have no human rights.”
In the run-up to the Eighteenth of May, our collective guilt in the way we are organized to justify the locking up of this woman is difficult to hide. For when challenged, we run fast, run back in time and tell the world — as our High Commissioner did with admirable eloquence recently– of wonders our Kings did two thousand five hundred years ago.
And indeed wonders they were – of which we Sri Lankans should rightfully be proud — when, for example, a dethroned King stood next to the Kalavewa reservoir and claimed a handful of water from it as his only treasure.
But we have to run to that past, because we cannot face our present. The present in which we have won a victory, not just in a war against those who fought, but also over those who did not fight.
That is the story of the other woman who came between my friend Thevaram and his wife Manimekalai, along the motorway between London and Bridgetown on the Sinhala-Tamil New Year day of the Fourteenth of April.