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
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
And with the inevitable protest increasing, slowly but surely the
trend of using the security forces to quell these, was developed.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.