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Home > Library > Eelam Section > The Broken Palmyra - The Tamil Crisis in Sri Lanka
TAMIL NATION LIBRARY: Eelam
The Broken Palmyra, authored by four dons from the University of Jaffna, is an inside account of the Tamil crisis in Sri Lanka, which also touches on the general Sri Lankan predicament to which this crisis is inextricably linked. The bulk of the book was written in the immediate aftermath of the October 1987 Indian offensive, and makes available in a frank and impartial manner the inside developments that have not been available in print before.
Unlike most books which concentrate on moves by and exchanges between the powerful, this book exposes the agony of the Tamil people, the cynicism of the Indian and Sri Lankan states and the hypocrisy of the Tamil leadership, both past and present.
This book is divided into two parts, Volumes I and II. Volume I gives the historical background to the present crisis, concentrating specifically on the 1980s. It deals with the anatomy of the Tamil militant movements and ends with an inside account of how the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of July 1987 fell apart. The second part, Volume II, gives an account of the Indian military operation of October 1987, the conduct of the Indian army as seen from inside and ends with a series of analytical chapters presenting the ongoing crisis in a Sri Lankan as well as a wider sub-continental setting.
This book presents for the first time the gruesome events at Jaffna hospital during the Indian assault to capture Jaffna. The chapter on the medical aspects of stress and suffering under conditions of war, makes a contribution to studies spurred by the malignant effects of twentieth century warfare.
One chapter deals specifically with women's issues. Another sets Sri Lankan and Tamil politics in the context of economic and ideological developments. Non-violence is looked at in another chapter,which argues that apart from moral considerations, non-violence would have been cost effective as a means.
The Epilogue looks at general developments in Sri Lanka and India concludes that the way forward for the people of Sri Lanka lies in both Tamils and Sinhalese joining hands to create movements and institutions so that universal human values will be upheld and the politics of narrow nationalism, now ascendent on both sides, will be marginalised. The Postscript sketches out the developments over 1988 and 1989 and places them in the context of those dealt with in the main book. Appendix I gives an impressionistic sketch of the fates of the various actors in the ongoing drama.
The book shows how an oppressed minority responding by eschewing principles and universal values, for opportunism and brutality, finished up in a state of utter weakness and hopelessness. For doing what she felt was right by the community, one of the authors, Dr.Rajani Thiranagama paid the ultimate price of being murdered.
The book would make highly recommended reading to scholars who wish to hear an account of Sri Lanka that comes from the heart, as much as to Sri Lankans who may wish to explore a new and refreshing description of developments there.
There is a story, probably apocryphal, about the successful mission of Swami Vivekananda to Chicago in 1893. One American industrialist invited Swami to visit his newly built meat-processing plant. The massive plant had been designed with a huge inlet with a diameter of 15 ft on one extreme and four smaller outlets with a diameter of 2 ft on the other extreme.
The industrialist boasted to Swami: "We push live cattle into the inlet at this end and in 10 minutes, we get clean meat, bones, hide and waste material separately in the four outlets from that end. What do you think of this production line?"
Without missing a beat, the great Swami delivered the kicker: "That’s fine. But, if you send back the clean meat, bones, hide and the waste material from that end, can you retrieve the live cattle at this end?"
The overall theme of the book, Broken Palmyra, reflects the concern Swami Vivekananda had for the live cattle in this story. In essence, "What went wrong? Had we been led by a casual acceptance of violence as a tool to disregard the value of all life?" (p.184).
One can also equate the symbolism of the meat-processing plant of the Chicago industrialist to the lives of youth who happened to be in the Jaffna peninsula in the 1980s decade. All had been pushed into the meat-processing plant (equated to the Eelam struggle) and the products which were delivered in the outlets seem to be of diverse categories; some meat, some bones, some hide and some waste material.
In the preface, while acknowledging that they "are not professional writers or historians" authors note that their main purpose of writing the book was to "face the truth in all its nakedness, both about ourselves and about all those who purported to be our saviours".
The book consists of a total of 16 chapters, excluding the concluding sections entitled, ‘epilogue’ and `postscript’. The first nine chapters consisting the volume 1 of the book provide a historical background to the current Tamil ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka. Of these, coverage of the political events of the post-1983 period is the major contribution of this book. These include the birth and growth of the Tamil militancy, the excesses of Sinhalese military on Tamil civilians, the Vadamarachchy Campaign of 1987, Rajiv- Jayewardene Peace Accord and Indian army’s entry into Eelam.
The six chapters in the volume 2 section covers the Indo LTTE war and its consequences, The penultimate chapter is entitled, `A perspective on Non-violence’. The text is supplemented with six useful appendices. Thumb-nail character sketches of the LTTE Leaders, scattered in the book makes some revelational reading;
1) Pirabaharan: "Using unpromising material his will forged together a force, the LTTE, which made the world sit up. A government in Colombo which treated the Tamil problem with derision in 1978 and savagery in 1983 was shaken to its foundations. In time, New Delhi too became unsure. Washington took a keen interest. Where lesser mortals would have chosen to call it off, Pirabaharan persisted..’’
2) Mahattaya: He "had a childhood steeped in want. He is very much a loner and is not much of a public man...Those who befriended him in old times can perhaps claim a hint of loyalty that did not quite approach friendship."
3) Kittu: "He had dispatched tens of (foreign) agents in his time, without giving it any more thought that he would in deciding to have a cup of tea... Amongst his men, there were those who resented his flamboyance. But in battle, they trusted his leadership as few others was trusted".
4) Anton Balasingam "a former British High Commission employee, who later wrote a doctoral thesis on Hegel, was a teacher of Political science at a British polytechnic. He could also converse ably on philosophical subjects. After July 1983 he moved to Madras with his Australian wife Adele to be full-time spokesman for the LTTE.".
Since the book is a collective endeavour of four academics (who held positions in the Departments of Anatomy, Psychiatry and Mathematics of the University of Jaffna), an uneven flow of the narration in the text could be easily noticed. It is a mixture of chronological summary of events and lecture notes in psychiatry, interspersed with "sermonizing to the sinners".
Also, one could perceive a subtle sarcastic tone by the authors about the use (and interpreted abuse) of Hindu religious symbols by the LTTE militants in Jaffna. It is my opinion that this sarcastic tone emanates from the "You are all sinners" attitude taken by one author, who "subscribes to the view that the ills of society come from a loss of moral commitment or a failure to obey the voice of God".
In the search for their "truth in all its nakedness", authors point accusing fingers on everyone for creating "the tragic mess" in Sri Lanka; Tamil political leadership from S.J.V. Chelvanayakam to A. Amirthalingam, Tamil militants (all the groups which originally identified with the Eelam movement, including the LTTE), expatriate Tamils, Tamil intelligentsia, Sinhalese power-brokers, Sri Lankan (Sinhalese) army, Indian politicians, Indian army, Research and Analysis Wing (the Indian Intelligence Service) and last but not the least, the Tamil society as a whole.
This is like giving equal punishment to the mass murderer, rapist, petty thief, con artist and the victim! Regarding the intellectual drought currently experienced in Sri Lanka, authors state in one sentence; "Where the use of English has declined and wholesome alternative reading in the local languages is hard to come by, opportunities abound for charlatans within and without the universities who can throw around some big words and big names from the West" (p.390).
I wonder whether the authors themselves stand accused of "throwing around some big words and big names from the West". The book is splattered with lengthy quotes from western intellectuals such as Lenin, Arnold Toynbee, Sigmund Freud, Eric Fromm, T.S. Elliot, Gene Sharp and Martin Luther King Jr.
Authors also agonise about the inability of many Tamil militant groups to unite under one leadership. This is a valid point and all the peace-loving Eelam Tamils also ponder about this disunity. But one should also ask whether only Tamils suffer from this malady.
In reality, many factions exist in the PLO and in-fighting does occur between the camps of Nelson Mandela and Inkatha chief Buthelezi. Even the great Mahatma Gandhi could not bring all the freedom-fighters in India under one wing. Once he lamented; "If we Indians could only spit in unison, we would form a puddle big enough to drown 300,000 Englishmen". And some like Jinnah and Subhas Chandra Bose did refuse to `spit in unison’ with Gandhi.
This being the case, I feel that the authors have been too harsh in their criticism on the disunity among the Tamil rebels. In one of their conclusions, authors also infer: "Non violence would have been far less costly, if the Tamils had been voluntarily prepared to suffer even a little of what they underwent during the war. More importantly we would have come out a united and strengthened community" (p.384).
This inference reveals the ignorance or amnesia of the authors to the historical realities of the freedom movement in India (see Gandhi’s ‘spitting in unison’ quote mentioned above) and the non-violent campaigns led by S.J.V. Chelvanayakam for two decades between 1956 and 1976. Even when Chelvanayakam led the non-violence movement, the Tamil community could not come out "united". Why?
Furthermore, Mahatma Gandhi himself had explained that violence does have a place in Society. In the Young India of Nov.4, 1926, Gandhi wrote, "Taking life may be a duty. We do destroy as much life as we think necessary for sustaining our body. Thus for food we take life, vegetable and other, and for health we destroy mosquitoes and the like by the use of disinfectants, etc,, and we do not think that we are guilty of irreligion in doing so... for the benefit of the species, we kill carnivorous beasts... Even man-slaughter may be necessary in certain cases. Suppose a man run amuck and goes furiously about, sword in hand, and killing anyone that comes in his way and no one dares to capture him alive. Anyone who despatches this lunatic will earn the gratitude of the community and be regarded as a benevolent man".
On how many occasions, not even a man but the whole army had "run amuck...and killing anyone that comes its way" in Eelam? It seems that the authors have tried their best not to logically explain that the emergence of the LTTE among Tamils after two decades of support to non-violent campaigns by Chelvanayakam was due to an adversary’s army "running amuck and killing anyone that comes its way"
Overall, I do applaud the authors for providing an excellent chronological synopsis of events which happened in the Jaffna peninsula from 1983 to 1989. This is the most notable contribution of this book to the history of Eelam Tamils. However, I find it difficult to agree with their sociological and psychological interpretations relating to the development of the Liberation Tigers.