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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 25, June 14, 2014

India and Sri Lanka: Emerging Parallels

Saturday 14 June 2014, by Apratim Mukarji

As the dust over the 2014 Lok Sabha elections settles down and the stock-taking exercise comes to an end, a question that emerges is if for the first time in republican India the Muslim community accounting for as much as 14.6 per cent of the total population (2011 Census) has begun to lose its relevance to the core identity of the Indian polity.

It would be rash and inadvisable to accept this assessment within a few days of thepublication of the election results, constitution of the new Lok Sabha and installation of the newIndian Government. But liberty can be taken to say that sufficient ground has been created toexamine the proposition.

At the southern tip of India lies Sri Lanka where, however, little doubt exists that the Sri Lankan Tamils accounting for 11.2 per cent of the total population (2012 Census) have been rendered soundly and conclusively irrelevant in the context of the Sri Lankan polity.

The veneer of inclusive statecraft that President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government had meticulously endeavoured to maintain over the grim realities in the Northern Province has been blown away by the sharp and honest response of the elected provincial government to the invitation to join the presidential delegation to the May 26 inauguration of the Narendra Modi Government in New Delhi.

In keeping with its strategy of appearing to be benevolent to the Tamils in the Northern Province, Foreign Minister Prof G.L. Peiris invited the province’s Chief Minister C.V. Vigneswaran to join the presidential delegation to New Delhi. Rejecting the invitation, Vignes-waran wrote that accepting the invitation would make it appear that a strong, cooperative spirit prevailed between the Centre and the province when the situation was to the contrary.

Asserting that the people of the Northern Province were “engulfed” in fear over the heavy regime of militarisation imposed since the end of the civil war in May 2009, he wrote: “I would be guilty of facilitating tokenism were I to accept such an invitation.”

If anything, the situation in the Northern Province has been deteriorating rapidly and steadily. Peace has surely been prevailing in the province during the last five years but, at the same time, the cumulative unhappiness and concerns of the Tamils appear to have reached an unsupportable level. The unprecedented cover of militarisation ensures that the popular disquiet will never reach an outlet because the Sri Lankan state has successfully blocked all avenues of expression to the Tamils. Vignes-waran’s dignified response brings this reality out very tellingly indeed. In fact, his phrase “engulfed in fear” says it all.

Contrast Prof Peiris’ kindly worded invitation with what happened on May 18 in Jaffna when the Sri Lankan military surrounded the offices of the Uthayan newspaper. Meera Srinivasan of The Hindu reported that over 50 uniformed soldiers surrounded the newspaper premises and the situation thereafter was tense for a few hours. “Later, the ground commander asked me for assurance that there won’t be any violent incident,” she quoted Tamil parliamentarian and Managing Director of the newspaper E. Saravanapavan as saying.

It would be interesting to find out why the commander was insistent on getting such an assurance from the newspaper. Prior to the May 18 development, the newspaper was being attacked repeatedly by unidentified groups, which by itself was surprising because of the intensive security cover in the region. The only plausible explanation could be that it was the Army itself which was involved in the attacks. Anyone familiar with the conduct of the Sri Lankan security forces over the last few decades, beginning with the suppression of the two Maoist rebellions in the 1970s and 1980s, would not find this conclusion outlandish.

May 18, 2009 has been earmarked as the day when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was finally defeated, and the state celebrates this day as the ‘Victory Day’ every year. When one talks about the Tamils having been rendered irrelevant in the Sri Lankan context, one should begin with this day in mind because the celebration of the ‘Victory Day’ also acts as denying the other half of the truth, namely, that the political aspirations of the largest minority community in the country thereby lie buried.

As a matter of fact, tension had been building up steadily in the Northern Province over the last one month as the ‘Victory Day’ was approaching and the Tamil community had quite strongly expressed its desire to observe the day as a day of commemorating the deaths of hundreds of thousands of their kin during the Eelam War.

The Sri Lankan state had equally bluntly stated that no such commemoration would be allowed as under the cover of commemorating the dead the Tamils were actually conspiring to re-ignite the flame of revolt. Rajapaksa himself could not have been more blunt. “He said in his address to the ‘Victory Day’ celebration that he would not bow to pressure from foreign critics who were pushing him to investigate claims that tens of thousands of people died in the final stages of the conflict.” “We are not celebrating victory in a war; we are celebrating peace,” he said. “Irrespective of who opposes this or who stays away, we will always commemorate this day.” The Tamils have found no reason to participate in the victory celebration and have instead wished to observe the day as a day of mourning for and remembering their dead kin.

On May 16, the police stopped an event in Jaffna to observe a remembrance day for the dead Tamils. Tamil politicians had planned to observe the event at the local council offices but the police stopped them from doing so. A Jaffna University student was quoted saying: “When they (the government) can commemorate the day they won the war, why can’t we pay homage to the people we lost in the battle? It is not about the LTTE; we just want to remember our family members and friends.” The police explained that the event was not being allowed to take place because a government building was being used for the purpose. The Tamils were free to hold such events in private, they said.

Earlier, the government ordered the closure of the Jaffna University, including its hostels, between May 16 and 20 in order to block any move to hold commemoration for the Tamil dead, alleging that all such moves were nothing but attempts to revive the LTTE.

Ever since March, when the Sri Lankan state was fighting its annual skirmish with the United Nations Human Rights Commission over the alleged civilian deaths towards the fag end of the war, the government constantly alleged that efforts to revive the LTTE were very much on and that it was determined to prevent such an eventuality. It equated such alleged clandestine efforts with all moves by the Tamils to observe a commemoration day for their dead around May 18. The government’s radar was constantly focussed on the Jaffna University which was historically associated with the LTTE and all earlier Tamil popular movements.

In the midst of chilling military surveillance imposed on the entire Northern Province, the Jaffna University Science Teachers’ Association, a highly respected and totally apolitical body, came out with a sharply worded statement, entitled “In the shadow of war and peace on a war footing”, which reflects the realities in the north far more honestly than any other recent document.

Pointing out that some university professors and student leaders had been receiving death threats warning them against holding any commemoration for the dead, the statement said: “Why should Tamils speaking of the war be such an explosive issue five years after it ended, a war in which neither side owned a monopoly on terrorism? ...The Tamil people should have the freedom to mourn collectively the untimely death of a large number of members of their community whether or not the dead persons (were) members of their families. While the government wants to use the war for political deception, it is only to be expected that its obverse, in the wake of hopelessness and humiliation in being forced to accept the Sinhalisation of their lands and symbols, and the erasure of huge civilian suffering in the latter months of the war, might lead to latent nostalgia for the LTTE—despite the anger against its holding the civilians hostage in the last stages of the war.”

“The only way to deal with such nostalgia is to allow the people to express themselves freely and to ensure that the mechanisms of justice function to eradicate and not to instate impunity,” the statement said.

When one talks to the government, the story of the Northern Province is one of peace and reconstruction, of rebuilding a new life out of the rubble of the thirty-year-old war. When one listens to the main inhabitants of the province, the narration is so uncompromisingly different.

As India enters a period of development and economic recovery, will the story of the minorities suffering prejudices and injustice be submerged equally decisively?

Apratim Mukarji is an analyst of events in South and Central Asia.

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