Eras­ing the Past

De­spite the end of the civil war, a sys­tem­atic pogrom of Tamils in Sri Lanka has raised se­ri­ous con­cerns about the coun­try’s fu­ture and its re­la­tion­ship with In­dia.

Southasia - - Con­tents - By Da­niah Ish­tiaq

Sri Lanka’s fu­ture and its re­la­tion­ship with In­dia grow un­cer­tain with in­creas­ing vi­o­lence against the Tamils.

In the 18th cen­tury, Tamils ar­rived in Bri­tish Sri Lanka, a Bud­dhist Sin­halese ma­jor­ity area, as la­bor­ers for colo­nial plan­ta­tions. Over time, this ini­tial mi­nor­ity mul­ti­plied and con­sti­tuted a strong 13% of the to­tal pop­u­la­tion. Feel­ing threat­ened by a grow­ing mi­nor­ity, the Sin­halese im­posed their cul­ture on the Tamil mi­nori­ties; a move that iso­lated the Tamils and ef­fec­tively made them sec­ond class ci­ti­zens in Sri Lanka. The Sin­halese pol­icy of ex­clu­sion even­tu­ally led to the for­mu­la­tion of both le­git­i­mate and il­le­git­i­mate re­sis­tance move­ments by the Tamils, the most pop­u­lar of which was the LTTE - Lib­er­a­tion Tigers of Tamil Ee­lam (more fa­mously known as the Tamil Tigers), in the 1970s.

De­spite in­ter­na­tional ef­forts to­wards rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, the strug­gle con­tin­ued and took on a new life as Pres­i­dent Mahinda Ra­japaksa’s gov­ern­ment came to power in 2005 with a prom­ise to crush the LTTE. The gov­ern­ment ini­ti­ated an un­re­lent­ing and ex­tremely suc­cess­ful cam­paign to de­stroy the LTTE and, over a pe­riod of two years, a re­vi­tal­ized Sri Lankan mil­i­tary de­feated the LTTE in nu­mer­ous bat­tles. The LTTE fi­nally con- ceded de­feat on May 17, 2009, end­ing 26 years of open con­flict.

De­spite the end of an era of overt war­fare, al­le­ga­tions are rife re­gard­ing covert at­tempts to put the Tamils at a dis­ad­van­tage. These in­clude a lack of funds al­lo­cated to schools, hos­pi­tals and in­fra­struc­ture in pre­dom­i­nantly Tamil ar­eas, the pro­mo­tion of Sin­hala set­tle­ments on Tamil land to eco­nom­i­cally ham­per de­vel­op­ment and fi­nally the de­ploy­ment of army troops to in- tim­i­date na­tive Tamils. Politi­cians and an­a­lysts ar­gue that dis­turb­ing de­vel­op­ments have taken place in re­cent times such as the re­nam­ing of Tamil vil­lages, re­def­i­ni­tion of vil­lage and town bound­aries, de­mol­ish­ing of Hindu tem­ples as well as lack of sup­port and fund­ing for in­ter­nally dis­placed Tamil fam­i­lies point to­wards a sys­tem­atic erad­i­ca­tion of the once sig­nif­i­cant Tamil cul­ture.

One can ar­gue that cul­tural her­itage is ir­re­place­able and its des­e­cra­tion is in­ex­cus­able, no mat­ter how bloody or vi­o­lent a his­tory the coun­try has had. The preser­va­tion of any cul­ture demon­strates the ne­ces­sity of pro­tect­ing its past. To de­stroy tem­ples or other forms of phys­i­cal prop­erty, in­clud­ing art and ar­chi­tec­ture, of a mi­nor­ity that still lives and breathes on the same soil is a vi­o­lent des­e­cra­tion of their her­itage that

not only be­longs to the Tamil mi­nor­ity but also to the com­bined cul­ture of what is present-day Sri Lanka. Fur­ther­more, deny­ing Tamils the right to freely prac­tice their cul­ture and religion ham­pers the in­tan­gi­ble el­e­ments, which are the fun­da­men­tals that breathe life into the univer­sal set of all the cul­tures that are a part of the coun­try. How­ever, such strat­egy serves the cur­rent gov­ern­ment es­pe­cially well as it will not al­low the Tamils much op­por­tu­nity to col­lec­tively rebel against the es­tab­lish­ment again.

On the other hand, a case can be made that the ‘al­le­ga­tions’ are merely al­le­ga­tions and should not be taken at face value due to the tu­mul­tuous his­tory of the re­gion and hence there is more to the story than meets the eye. The Sri Lankan gov­ern­ment can ar­gue that this is not a planned squelch­ing of Tamil cul­ture but a nat­u­ral order of things as so­ci­ety evolves, trans­forms and changes in con­ti­nu­ity as it has in the past. There is noth­ing re­motely stag­nant about cul­ture and it in­stead evolves with time. Each cul­ture will al­ways be sep­a­rate and au­ton­o­mous; merely chang­ing a street name does not com­prise an elab­o­rate strat­egy aimed at sab­o­tag­ing a cul­ture.

How­ever, given the his­tory, the first sce­nario is most likely. DMK (a state po­lit­i­cal party in the states of Tamil Nadu and Pa­ducherry In­dia) Pres­i­dent, M. Karunanidhi has voiced con­cern to both the In­dian Prime Min­is­ter Man­mo­han Singh and UPA chair­per­son So­nia Gandhi in a let­ter where he has ap­pealed for im­me­di­ate ac­tion against what he calls ‘a sys­tem­atic pro­gram of eras­ing the Tamil cul­ture from Sri Lanka.’ He as­serts that In­dia has an un­due moral obli­ga­tion to get in­volved and put an end to the erad­i­ca­tion of a cul­ture and religion in its bound­aries. In­deed, he has ar­gued that Tamils in Sri Lanka are liv­ing in an op­pres­sive en­vi­ron­ment.

The re­la­tion­ship be­tween In­dia and Sri Lanka is a mul­ti­fac­eted one with tremen­dous scope for sig­nif­i­cant ex­pan­sion and rapid im­prove­ment in the com­ing years. Be it in trade or bilateral agree­ments, In­dia and Sri Lanka will need to move off the thin ice they are

To de­stroy tem­ples or other forms of phys­i­cal prop­erty, in­clud­ing art and ar­chi­tec­ture, of a mi­nor­ity that still lives and breathes on the same soil is a vi­o­lent des­e­cra­tion of their her­itage that not only be­longs to the Tamil mi­nor­ity but also to the com­bined cul­ture of what is present­day Sri Lanka.

on as is­sues of trust and co­op­er­a­tion re­main. Hav­ing said this, a speedy rec­on­cil­i­a­tion process in Sri Lanka (be­tween the Tamils and Sin­halese) will have a salu­tary im­pact on fur­ther strength­en­ing bilateral re­la­tions be­tween In­dia and Sri Lanka.

The US has al­ready wel­comed the pas­sage of a res­o­lu­tion on Sri Lanka, spon­sored by it at the UNHRC, say­ing the vote has sent a clear sig­nal to Colombo that the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity is com­mit­ted to pro­mot­ing peace and sta­bil­ity in the coun­try. Un­rest is, how­ever, at a peak in Tamil Nadu, a com­mu­nity that de­mands firm In­dian ac­tion against Colombo for al­leged war crimes and sub­se­quent hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions in the fi­nal phase of the Ee­lam war in 2009.

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