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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Tamil National Forum

Selected Writings - Karthigesu Sivathamby

Has the thaw started? A note on the meeting of artistes and writers in Jaffna
Northeastern Herald, 8 November 2002

It looks as though the polarisation and solidification that was characteristic of the Sinhala and Tamil positions during the ethnic conflict is beginning to thaw and at least from the point of view of the Tamils, spearheaded by the LTTE there is now the beginning of a determined attempt to explain to the Sinhalese, if possible in their own terms, the difficulties Sri Lankan Tamils face. Perhaps, the politics of ‘talks’ has a cause and effect relationship to this.

The theme at the conference-seminar held at the Veerasingham Hall, Jaffna was Towards the Horizons of Humanity: The Eelam Tamils’ Struggle for the Rights - the role of art literature and media. The manner in which it was phrased in Tamil made clear the point that the Tamils’ struggle, which had been considered a war was and really is a struggle to get their rights as a group with human dignity.

The grievance therefore is that when the political demand for rights as equal citizens was made, the response was one of oppression that took away the human dignity of the Tamils. Formulating the Tamil problem as a search for the retrieval of their human dignity raises a question of political chronology. When did the state respond to Tamils’ demands become an oppressive denial of their existence as human beings?

Looking back at the Tamil problem we see an interesting evolution. The Tamil demands in political terms is traced to the 1920s. Neither the activities of the Jaffna Youth Congress (JYC) nor the post Youth Congress politics had to face a Sinhala opposition. The imperial state too did not bother to react. In fact there was Sinhala-Tamil amity in the JYC demands.

It is really with independence that the problem of defining the status of the Tamils in this country starts. Be it the 50-50 demand or the citizenship acts, which denied the plantation Tamils their franchise it is clear the problem of defining the role of the Tamils within the Sri Lankan polity had started. Eight years after independence, with the promulgation of Sinhala as the only official language - a democratic action in itself - the problem of the language rights of the non-Sinhala speaking citizens was left wide open.

And with the inevitable protest increasing, slowly but surely the trend of using the security forces to quell these, was developed. The Satyagraha of 1961 was a major point in this escalation and by early 1970s the deploying of security forces against democratic Tamils protests has become a part of standard state response.

Early seventies mark a turning, if not a maturation point. In 1972 the legal position of the Tamil as constituting a distinct part this country’s polity was undermined. To add to that there were administrative measures barring entry to Tamil youth to national professional life.

The reigning ideology on the Tamil side was without doubt drawn from, the DMK politics of Tamil Nadu, emphasising the cultural heritage of the Tamils. The increasing role of the security forces and the beginnings of youth movement become intertwined. The more the latter surfaced the more the severity with which they were oppressed. It is at this time that the word Tamil assumes a political connotation for every Sri Lankan Tamil, irrespective of caste and regional differences.

It is equally interesting to observe retrospectively that the concept of liberation, a concept associated with anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles in other parts of the world, came to be used within the nomenclature of all Tamil political parties in the Northeast, the Federal Party along with the All Ceylon Tamil Congress, metamorphosed into the Tamil United ‘Liberation’ Front - thanks to M. Thiruchelvam who insisted at the time on the prefix ‘Liberation’. All Tamil militant group which came thereafter used the word Liberation.

Sri Lankan Tamil Literature with a very active role in opposing social oppression among Tamils, especially in the late fifties and sixties now began to speak of the more comprehensive oppression by the state. The dividing line comes in 1981. Within an interval of five to six hours, the DDC elections were rigged and the Jaffna Public Library was burnt. The flames that went up, in the words of Cheran, a poet who marks the beginning of a new literary sensibility, “had written their message on the clouds”. He was castigating the onlookers and the bystanders. “With arms folded behind your backs, for whom are you waiting?” he asks the Tamil youth.

A new literary idiom was born. Almost 23 years later, the poetry that has been written, the short stories that have been penned, the paintings that have been done, the plays that have been staged and the music composed reveal the human agony that underpinned the suffering of the Tamils, irrespective of age, religion and region.

It is a well-known fact of art and literary history that chauvinistic movement do not produce either endearing or enduring literature. Hitler and Mussolini with all their might could not produce a Goethe or a Dante. The translations of the creative writings of this period now show to the world how intense the suffering was. ‘Lute Song and Lament’ (edited by Chelva Kanaganayagam Canada 2001) brings out the human pathos of Tamil life in this period of oppression. A recent Kannada translation of some of these poems was received with unbelievable rapture in Bangalore. It’s a pity that most of these writings have not been translated into Sinhala.

But some like M. A Nuhuman’s ‘Tears of the Buddha’ (on seeing the burning of the Jaffna library), the short fiction of Ranjakumar, Uma Varatharajan and Thirukkovil Kaviyuvan demand a separate analysis of how they bring out in unforgettable, moving and artistically powerful images of the ravages of war and the sufferings of men, women, youth and children.

The meeting at Veersingham Hall dealt with these creative efforts with the unhidden call to view them as a part of the struggle Tamil people had to undertake to live as human beings. This literature has never faltered in its stand for humanism. Writings critical of certain actions by certain groups are also part of this heritage. One should not fail to mention here the literary response of the eastern province Muslims to some of the problems they faced during this period. In fact Solaikili, the Muslim poet who brought out the dilemma and turmoil of the Muslim in surrealistic language, is as important in the post 1981 Tamil literary history as Shanmugam Sivalingam and Cheran.

Puthuvai Rathinathurai has brought out the condition of human life, especially the lack and the loss of it,, not only in poems but also in tape recorded hit songs. The theatre of Kulanthai Shanmugalingam and K. Sithamparanathan transformed Tamil theatre. It is a pity that their major plays have not been shown in Colombo yet. Sarachchandra and Dhamma Jagoda would have been the happiest persons to see how what they inspired in the fifties had gained a logical fruition. The paintings of Sanathanan today decorate the houses and offices of at least some of those who jeered at what was happening in Jaffna in the eighties and nineties. It was the aim of the conference that this creative agony of the Tamils be understood properly.

While on this, it would be useful to think more deeply into the transformations of some of the ideological structures we had created during the days of colonialism and how in the post-colonial situation we turned, robot-like, threatening the very essence of our existence. Religo-nationalisms, which were very essential during colonial times to resist de-culturisation and assimilation, have in post-colonial situations tended to destroy the very fabric that they had once saved. It is important to review our history in these terms too for out post-colonial history show that we have not been able to get out of our colonial imaginations. Not only that we had to pay a very high human cost.

The response of the Sinhala artistes and writers at the conference was stupendous. Having walked through the ruins and the debris of the war and read in translation some of the post 1981 writings, they called for a human understanding of the Tamil problem at the level of the Sinhala people. The war, as all wars do has taken many twists and turns.

The motivation being mobilisation of the larger support. But after the war there must be a time for rethinking and reconsideration of why and how the war had been fought and how best not to repeat it.

This was the message of the conference. Personally I feel that there is now some space for reopening the closed gates and to start thinking seriously at Sinhala and Tamil levels to live together, respecting each other and wanting each other.


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