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Urging Colombo to rebuild railway to north evokes 143-year-old debate

[TamilNet, Tuesday, 21 February 2012 08:29 No Comment]

A group of politicians, academics and NGO workers in the South including some Tamils and Muslims of southern orientation, while urging implementation of several LLRC recommendations in consultation with the TNA, and at the same time urging demilitarisation and political solution based on devolution, concluded their signed statement on Friday, wondering it was “hard to understand delay in rebuilding the railway to the north – a one time artery of commerce and people movement.” The perception of the model of ‘integration’ with the Colombo-based system, evokes 143-year-old debate on ‘the tale of two cities’, started by the then British Government Agent in Jaffna, Sir William Twynham, whether the railway makes Jaffna independent or dependent of Colombo. Twynham in his time rather preferred to develop the external trade of the ports in Jaffna and land-link them with the rest of the island.

Further comments from an academic in Jaffna follow:

The railway has come to then British Ceylon in 1864.

The British colonial focus of the railway was linking their latest conquest in the island, Kandy, and the plantations in the hill country to facilitate the export of tea.

The immediate economic victim was Batticaloa, because until then the produce of the tea estates were largely exported through the Batticaloa port in the east of the country of Eezham Tamils.

But the British Government Agent Twynham in Jaffna was thinking in terms of the people of the land he was administering.

In 1869, Twynham built the Punnaalai causeway, linking the Kayts harbour with the rest of the island to improve the local economic independence and external trade that was at that time based on tobacco.

Long caravans of bullock carts starting from the Kayts harbour with commercial items coming in return from as far as Bengal, were taken to the south for trade.

Twynham, who loved the country and people he was administering, strongly argued with the British colonial office against linking Jaffna with Colombo by railway. Twynham retired in 1896, he chose to spend even his retirement life in Jaffna and died in Jaffna.

Twynham was proved right when the railway finally came to Jaffna with commodities coming from Colombo. The ports of Jaffna were closed and became ghost towns. The traders became subordinates by having their shops in the south – to be chased away after every pogrom and then to plead for their return, and not for their national rights. Others who continued with their ancient profession became ‘smugglers’.

The then leading politician of the north, who saw to it that a railway station was built at I’nuvil to facilitate his travels from Colombo, heralded a paradigm of ‘Colombo-Tamils’ deciding the polity of Eezham Tamils.

Now, we see a trend of Sinhala capital coming to the north with military protection and colonial enclaves for further subordination of the nation of Eezham Tamils. The diaspora is not allowed an independent entry to its land for investment. The forces of Colombo-centric thinking are keen in even luring the diaspora into the pattern. The railway, following its long colonial tradition, is now to enhance the agenda of the new colonial masters.

India could have helped the situation by swiftly opening the ports and trade in the north, by developing an appropriate communication through Naakappaddinam, Point Calimere and Athiraam-paddinam and by insisting on Colombo for the development of east coast link of Batticaloa and Trincomalee with Point Pedro. But New Delhi doesn’t want to do it, while its politicians in Tamil Nadu brag about the Thooththukkudi–Colombo ferry.

What is pricking to a Tamil mind is that the signatories of the statement who worry about “people movement” between Colombo and Jaffna have shown no concern at all about people movement within the nation of Eezham Tamils along the eastern and western coasts. Eezham Tamils are long deprived of this ‘people movement’ within their own nation, as Colombo has been deliberately sitting on it.

The formation of a civil society movement based on the grassroot organizations of the north and east has become a pricking problem for some of the Tamil minds seeking space but can’t conceive anything beyond the Colombo-centric life of subjugation, and have been conditioned to remain so, by forces inside and outside of the island. One could see that in the mushrooming Colombo-based Tamil signatories claiming ‘civil society’, but belonging to only certain families and esoteric groups.

Once a section of the elite and affluent of the Eezham Tamil nation bases its property, interests, professional opportunities and orientation of outlook in Colombo, its concern about the liberation of its nation is bound only to the extent of bringing in equilibrium to suit its interests, within the Colombo-centric system preserved at any cost. Eezham Tamils in the island and in the diaspora, as well as grassroot Tamil Nadu should carefully understand where the ultimate problems exist and what to do about them.

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