A response to Shenali Waduge: The Eelamist was not born to war, she was made to fight
Last week, Shenali Waduge had contributed to the Lounge a superficial and apolitical apology on behalf of the state, regarding the retarded rehabilitation programme in the Northern areas. Titled “What Sri Lanka has given Tamils but will not give the Eelamists” the letter, overall, attempts at dislocating LTTE activism and the feasibility of such activity; while underscoring the gusto with which the current head of state and the secretary of defence “proved to the world that terrorism needs to be defeated militarily if terrorism is to be defeated at all.”
Apolitical as the article is, if one is to address Shenali’s views from a virtual logical stance, the first moot point is as to who defines the “terrorist.” This vague and intrinsically meaningless word has since May 2009 – when the total demolition of the LTTE geo-political bastion was announced – took numerous guises in different local contexts. What we realize in recent times is that this word is used by the state to denote any agency that, in policy, is opposed to the state mandate. In recent times, we saw/heard how national university student bodies were readily deemed as “terrorists” when they launched a series of demonstrations to express dissent over issues and problems that were deeply felt by them. In the immediate aftermath of May 2009 – and in the run up to the January 2010 presidential polls – we saw how the “patriot” and the “non-patriot” were demarcated based on one’s partisanship to the state.
Being petty and narrow minded
The flexible conceptual hollow of “terrorist,” therefore, is currently being used by the state and its apologists to refer to a group or person that is radically opposed/alternative to the state’s puppetry. Shenali Waduge’s definition of “terrorist” is as follows: “terrorists are they…who know only to strike terror.” Going by Shenali’s definition, the heavy military presence in the Northern Province today, and the fear or anxiety such presence cause the destitute civilians – who, after three decades of being sandwiched between layers of “terror,” are trying to find their feet on the ground – too, is a form of “terrorism.” This exercise is to highlight the significance of us having to work outside these politically motivated twisters. For Shenali, the LTTE was a “terrorist organization” for she belongs to the victorious side of a prolonged armed conflict and because her politics end there. The terror struck in the hearts and minds of those who are immediately crippled by war – the IDPs, the permanently disabled, to those the war was a “home reality,” etc., do not come within Shenali’s purview because it was not Shenali’s war. The case studies of fear and anxiety, to Shenali, are easily located in the LTTE bomb attacks at a Southern public space or the uncertainty felt by passengers in buses, etc. The continuous barrage on civilian life in the North and Eastern fronts – the “routine” for those people for three decades – is innocuously deselected. We are, thus, being petty and narrow minded in viewing the complexity of a problem that is not of the Sinhala.
When you view conflict along these superficial, exclusive lines it is easy to make observations as to “who started first,” etc. Shenali, for instance, in a bid to prove the Eelamist wrong, makes references to how the LTTE killed the likes of Alfred Duraiappa and other “moderate” Tamil leaders. It is true that the LTTE’s arbitrary function cannot be justified along the logic of civilian conduct. But this alone does not necessarily refute the validity of a claim for a “homeland” as such either. If Shenali’s object is to sideline the separatist spirit as bestial and arrogant, it is flawed by the mainstream fog of attributing to contexts of upheaval the norms of civilian life. It is as if one is to say that the university students should not demonstrate and protest because these lines, when resorted to, break down the flow of the lecture programme, etc. The measures taken by the LTTE can be debated over, but the political climate of the day called for a radical shift in Northern Tamil politics, from the conventional moderate premises treaded by Chelvana- yakam, et al., for over four decades.
Shenali’s discussion is focused on numerous reaches of the “ethnic issue” – including the fact that the sharp caste divide in the North fed fire to the LTTE’s rise – but she crucially misses out on the tensions among the Tamil identity for political and cultural recognition in the immediate run up as well as in the aftermath of independence. Between 1948 and 1976 there were a continuous, dialogic efforts by “moderate” Tamil delegates to enhance (what at that time remained) their biggest political issue: language rights and the right to representation. The failure of these dialogues as well as a repetitive cycle of violence meted out against the Tamil identity as a whole prompts an armed insurrection to take shape in the 1970s. The landmark “Resolution of Vaddukodai” emerges against this backdrop. When Shenali argues that the “separatist logic” was initiated by “lower caste” Tamils of the North and that such “terrorism” won international and non-Tamil support only once it was fully developed, too, is a generalization. As much as the “lower caste” membership was pivotal, this can be motivated by numerous reasons and objectives. Similarly, the notion of “Eelam” and activism towards it has been promoted on theoretical grounds by many people of non-Tamil origin: Dr. Vickramabahu Karunaratne, who writes to this very paper and a distinguished former delegate to Geneva, a Sinhala national, was an active member of the EPRLF in the 1970s.
Unwillingness to learn
It is this unwillingness to learn from the past, and the arrogance of sidelining the tensions of the Northern consciousness that is most detrimental. The TNA – who Shenali discards as a “political puppet” of the LTTE – is in fact practically barricaded from undertaking developmental activities in the areas they represent. These are issues raised by the Northern delegates in parliament over and over again. We see that the Northern land mass is being “developed” but as a “conquered territory,” with little sensitivity to the emotions and the anxieties of the people. Shenali Waduge’s closing line is both “terrorizing” and childish. It, in fact, is the favourite nursery rhyme of any absolute dictate – “Sri Lankans will never allow any Eelamist demands in Sri Lanka!” Clearly, by “Sri Lankan” Shenali refers to the general populace minus the suffering millions in the North and the non-partisans of the regime.
Political activism is a consciousness and it is dynamic and fluid. At a given point it expresses itself in radical forms – revolution being just one. What the Tamil representation, right now demands is the mere emotional security of being allowed to settle down in their (own) homes. The critique of the regime argues that, two years after the war, even this bare minimum has been disallowed to the Northern Tamil within a framework of a civil society. It is not statements and bravado that will prevent dissent (for the Resolution at Vaddukodai was not engineered by the government); but committed and empathetic participation in resolving people’s issues can most certainly help.