Tamils - a Trans State Nation..

"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home > Tamil National ForumSelected Writings - Karthigesu Sivathamby > Repudiating the Sense of Belonging

Tamil National Forum

Selected Writings - Karthigesu Sivathamby

Repudiating the Sense of Belonging
Northeastern Herald, 6 September 2002

Though one does not want to dwell on politics all the time, one cannot refute the fact that today, at least in the so-called third world countries, culture is politics. The Sri Lankan Tamil issue is not in any way different.

Both the president and the prime minister have gone on record stating that it were the accumulation of un-redressed grievances over the years that led to Tamils taking a militaristic position on the ethnic issue.

I recall LTTE’s Anton Balasingham once stating that the organisation’s demand for a separate country had arisen because the LTTE felt there was no chance for equal treatment for Tamils on the island. When questioned as to whether he would give up that position, he replied that if conditions changed the LTTE would be in a position to reconsider its demand. In a way, the LTTE’s decision to agree for talks is also to explore whether such equality of citizenship is possible for Sri Lankan Tamils in this country.

It is important when one treats a disease that he or she should not go to the mere symptoms of the disease, but also to its causes. Sri Lankan Tamil identity is something Sri Lankan Tamils value very highly. It is a combination of both Sri Lankan and Tamil, which distinguishes him from a Tamilnadu Tamil.If one takes the history of the development of Tamil consciousness, one would see that their early efforts to assert and emphasise their identity was not in relation to other Sri Lankans as much as it was to the Tamils of Tamilnadu.

The Sri Lankan Tamil dialect is distinctly different from the Indian Tamil dialect. Despite regional variations, one can identify a Sri Lankan Tamil dialect easily.

When it comes to religion – Hinduism – the religion of most Tamils, there has been a conscious effort ever since the time of Arumuga Navalar (1822 – 1879) to uphold Saivite traditions that highlight non-Brahminic Saiva Sitthanda approaches, in preference to the Brahminic Vedanta traditions. Even today, the Sri Lankan Tamil Hindus want to call their religion Saivism, and not Hinduism.

More importantly, in the field of literature, there have always been efforts to emphasise the Sri Lankaness of the Sri Lankan Tamils in Tamil literature – especially in terms of language and style. From the time Sri Lankan Tamils started developing a literary tradition of their own, they have been very careful to emphasise their contribution towards the development of Tamil as a whole. Even today, the Navalar – Ramadiya Swamigal debate looms large in the memories of some Sri Lankan Tamil scholars.

It is also important to note that in spite of the commonness Tamil performance tradition, the Sri Lankan ‘kootthu’ (traditional dramatic performances) are easily discernible from the ‘thrukootthu’ of Tamilnadu as it is performed today. The Vithiyandan and post-Vithiyandan theatre development have been to preserve the local ‘kootthu’ tradition and work on it for further enrichment.

The Sri Lankaness of Sri Lankan Tamil tradition is also seen in such basic day-to-day matters such as kinship relations and food habits.

The Sri Lankan Tamil, in spite of regional variations is very keen to maintain and foster this identity. Despite the fact he is a Tamil and in spite of the fact some of the holy places he wishes to visit during his lifetime are in Tamilnadu, he wishes to remain a Sri Lankan Tamil. It is this ethnic identity that has never been taken into account by the articulate Sinhala politicians. This has been so especially since independence, when discrimination on the basis of ethnic identity began to grow.

Only when this sense of belonging to Sri Lanka was shattered by consecutive actions was there a political fallback on the northeastern region, and the Tamil homeland demand. This could also be seen in the parity of status of languages being transformed into a demand for regional autonomy (federalism) and ultimately Thamileelam.

This sense of belonging has been shattered in many matters of vital concern to the Tamils. We could highlight a few of them here – religion, culture, literature and the arts.

One should not under-estimate the importance of religion in any traditional society, especially so in a developing society where religion and language have become identifying symbols. Since the early 1980s, the number of temples and cult centres that have been destroyed or made inaccessible are numerous. Even after eight months of the Ceasefire Agreement the average Jaffna person cannot go to the Keerimalai temple or the tank unescorted by army personnel.

It is important to highlight that when people started moving out from their villages in the north and east, they also took with them surrogate temples / cult centres from their areas of origin to the places which they had started occupying, so much so that that in the mid-1990s, many temples were celebrating festivals of temples abandoned in the north and east. I am personally aware of how a family from my village, which immigrated to France holds a 10-day festival in one of the temples in Paris, taking over the temple almost on contract for 10 days. Such is the importance of religion and belief.

In this matter there is no question of big temples and small temples. The question is whether your place of worship has been disturbed or not. There is a famous Tamil saying, “Do not live in the place where there are no temples.”

It has been the unfortunate record of successive governments, to repudiate the sense of belonging the Tamil people had to Sri Lanka by bombing and damaging their temples and cult centres, as well as making them camps for the security forces. Some of the most important cult centres of Batticaloa were denied to worshippers because of such ‘occupation.’

In fact the rise of so many temples and cult centres in the comparatively safe and peaceful Colombo municipal limits is an indication that many of the northeast refugees have created new centres of worship. These centres are also of some relevance to the faith of Sinhala-Buddhists and as such they are doing extremely well. So much so that traditional Hindu temples in Colombo, which are managed by South Indian merchants and some of the leading Colombo Tamil families, are not so much in the picture as these new cult centres are.

In the field of literature and the arts there has hardly been any attempt on the part of the state to encourage the development of a typically Sri Lankan literature either in Sinhala or Tamil, by encouraging such projects as translations. The work of the Indian Sahithiya Academy that publishes annually translations of that year’s creative writing from the major Indian languages is unimaginable here. It has therefore become fashionable for Tamil literati to seek recognition and acceptance in Tamilnadu, even though Sri Lankaness of local literature is very distinct.

It is true the cultural ministry has panels for Tamil literature, music etc., but a perusal of the comparative budgets of the Sinhala panels and Tamil panels will be a very interesting exercise.More eye-catching or ‘ear-catching’ is the role of the state media in Tamil. I would like to highlight what is happening in the Tamil media service of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC), especially the cuts that have come into operation recently.

SLBC’s National Service distinguishes itself from the Commercial Service on the basis of the programmes. The former is meant for the promotion and better practice of national cultural traditions. And programmes that cannot be broadcast over the Commercial Service because of their ‘elite’ label are very carefully produced and presented over the National Service. This is so both in the Sinhala and Tamil.

Tamil broadcasts from the 1980s have been very dismal and tragic. In the government’s attempts at broadcasting its viewpoint, it is over-careful of what is broadcast not only by way of news, but also in the songs and spoken-word programmes. Thus, both the national and commercial programmes are handled as one. The Tamil service is worst affected because it ceased to reflect the local cultures of the northeast except in the ritualistic broadcasts like the relay of temple car festivals.

It should be remembered the SLBC’s Tamil National Service, especially in the pre-1980s period, had a distinguished record for broadcasting in Tamil all over the world. Even the BBC had officials from Sri Lanka and Sri Lankan Tamil broadcasts, especially on drama, were highly appreciated in Tamilnadu. Besides, the Tamil National Service built up a wonderful library of records of eminent Tamil scholars and artists both from Sri Lanka and Tamilnadu.

Recently, SLBC authorities cut three hours of broadcast time from the Tamil National Service. Whereas earlier the broadcast began at 5.00 a.m., it now begins at 7.30 a.m. It should also be remembered that most of this is recorded music and news broadcasts. The midday broadcast from 12.00 noon to 2.00 p.m. has been completely taken away. This slot was an oasis for the discerning listener to hear both classical music – both vocal and instrumental – and certain intellectually appealing programmes, which the FM broadcasts were naturally unable to offer.

The unkindest cut is in the evening broadcast where the programme from 5.00 p.m. to 11.15 p.m. was cut to 5.00 –10.30 p.m. In the case of evening broadcasts, 8.00 p.m. to 9.00 p.m. goes for the Muslim programme, 9.00 – 9.30 p.m. for news and announcements and 9.45 – 10.15 p.m. for the BBC relay. Earlier, the 10.15 – 11.15 p.m. slot was used to broadcast tasteful music, but no more. In fact, given the current time schedules it is not possible to broadcast any serious, heavy or intellectually stimulating programmes.

The Tamil National Service has ceased to broadcast serious musical programmes. The tragedy is that right now in Nageswaram musical tradition it is Sri Lankan artistes who are doing extremely well, even in comparison with Nageswaram artistes from Tamilnadu. Under the present dispensation at the SLBC, it is not possible to broadcast really satisfying Nageswaram music programmes.

The damage done to literary programmes is far worse. No more the discussions that were very lively – now we only have the weekly review programme with its format changed very much. The education service however lives on, broadcasting pedagogic programmes in the afternoon.What is ironic is all this is happening as government ministers storm Jaffna, while army generals and the LTTE are meeting in Batticaloa.

Given the overall ethos of the times, one would have thought this would have been the most conducive time to open up the Tamil National Service more extensively to artistes from the northeast, than restricting it to those living in Colombo and imitating Batticaloa and Jaffna.

This is cultural alienation. This is repudiating the sense of belonging to this country and its results are more damaging than could be imagined. To the discerning listener, the only alternative is to turn to Trichy or Chennai, if he or she wants to listen to satisfying Tamil music. Does not cultural separatism begin at this point?

The biggest tragedy of all is the loss of archival Tamil cultural material that is stored in the SLBC’s records library. As already indicated, some of the best programmes belong to the pre-1980 era, which is technologically also a ‘pre-modern’ era. It is rumoured that almost all the valuable recordings done on disks in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s cannot be used now. Worse still, some of them are being purposely damaged. If this is true, it is cultural vandalism. It is the duty not merely of the SLBC, but the media ministry and the prime minister himself to order an impartial inquiry.

Let us make the Sri Lankan Tamil feel he is both a Sri Lankan and a Tamil.


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