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 Language & Literature > Eelam Tamil Literature > Cultural Guerrilla Warfare in Tamil Eelam: Aspects of Tamil Resistance Literature - V.Geetha

Cultural Guerrilla Warfare in Tamil Eelam
Aspects of Tamil Resistance Literature

(joint author of Towards A Non-Brahmin Millennium )
in Journal of Eelam Studies, 1989
edited by M.Maha Uthaman

[see also Tsunami & an Outpouring of Poems]

Acknowledgement - The idea of a `Resistance Literature' was first mooted to me by Barbara Harlow, the author of Resistance Literature (Metheun, 1987, New York & London). Sections I and II of this paper owe much to this text and to that well known classic, Fanon's "The Wretched of the Earth". Much of the Tamil Resistance poetry I have translated, somewhat freely, may be found in "Maranuthul Vazhvum" (We Live in Death), an anthology of Tamil Eelam resistance poetry edited by Cheran, Jesurasa and Padmanaba lyer. Solaikili's poems have been published, with an introduction by Nuhman, by Vyugam ("Ettavathu Naragam ' - Eighth Hell - Vyugam. 1988, Batticaloa). I am deeply thankful to S.V. Rajadurai, who encouraged me to write this piece and furnished me with a great deal of the reading material, shared his ideas on the Eelam struggle and helped me with the translations.


The Tamil National Liberation struggles for the establishment of a Tamil homeland (Eelam) are being waged in a political context where the Sri Lankan state (against whom the Tamil militants have been up in arms for more than a decade) has sanctioned and legitimised Sinhala violence against the language and culture of the Tamil-speaking people. The 1977 Constitution of Sri Lanka sought to wilfully retard, suppress, and silence the Tamil People's means of self-expression - their language - and thereby inaugurated a murderous process of cultural genocide.

The political destiny of the Tamils in Sri Lanka has been determined, to a great extent, by the fact of their linguistic-cultural difference. Tamil language and culture have been more-than-symbolic targets of attack from Sinhala chauvinists whose political hatred found expression (significantly enough) in the violent disruption of the 1974 World Tamil Conference and
the complete destruction and burning down of the famous Public Library, Jaffna in 1981 (which housed several rare Tamil Manuscripts and books).

It is important, therefore, that we take note of the ethno-political logic that has come to govern Sri Lankan polity and where configurations of race, language and ethnicity have come to over determine those of class. Anthropological and linguistic studies have indicated to us that language is a constituent feature of `human reality' and that, throughout history, a people have constituted themselves as a society in and through language. Language bears the marks of a people's history and culture and remains a shifting site of struggle amongst classes, tribes, races... It is for this reason that conquerors and colonisers who have sought to rule for profit, glory and in God's name and in the name of a `Higher Civilisation' have also sought to manipulate, distort and silence a people's many voices. It is also for this reason that resistance to alien domination often shatters, explodes and transforms `native' language and culture.

However the question of the relationship between politics and culture, especially the politics of revolutionary and national liberation movements and culture has always remained a vexed one.

A beleaguered ethnicity causes the conventional distance between politics and culture to reduce and, instead, institutes a culture of political resistance. This culture of resistance indulges in defiant expressions of self consciousness, in unbridled romanticism and accomplishes astonishing mutations of habit and custom.

Culture and politics begin to refer to each other in their defences of ethnicity and the `aesthetic', the specific realm of cultural practice all but disappears. For the struggle now is over the preservation of Language, which as Elias Khouri, the Palestinian critic and writer has noted is "the repository of the collective memory... the basic national value that must be preserved".

The culture of resistance in Sri Lanka that grew out of the Tamil People's struggles for their traditional homeland of Eelam sought to respond to the genocidal assault on Tamil language and culture through various strategies of defiance and subversion. The cultural realm was thoroughly transformed in the process and soon, a `'iterary and aesthetic guerrilla warfare' came to be, whose instances of protest and resistance may be regarded as the articulations of a Resistance Literature.

It is this Resistance Literature that will be the object of my understanding here. At this moment in history, when the Tamils of Sri Lanka are, fast, becoming a dispossessed people, clutching at the cruel and intangible fact of homelessness in diaspora, it seems important and urgent that we seek to remember and commemorate our immediate shared past. For the anxieties of history require this of us and so in anticipation of Tamil Eelam...



Forgive me for having helped you understand
You're not made of words alone
- Roque Dalton

And later I will forge simple words
Which even the children can understand
- Jorge Rebelo

The concept of a 'Resistance Literature' was invoked originally by the famous Palestinian poet and critic Ghassan Kanafani. He used it to refer to the literature that had grown out of the speech and language of struggling and oppressed nationalities such as the Palestinians who had to resist being named victim, terrorist, and alien and who had to speak compulsively to be heard. A colonised nation, noted Kanafani has to, therefore, endure and survive various attempts that seek to render it historically invisible and it has to break through an oppressive culture of silence imposed by centuries of subordination and trauma.

As such, the term `Resistance Literature' refers to a literature-in-process, a literature that persists obstinately in the face of colonialist violence, a literature that grows out of a deep and abiding relationship of the oppressed people to their land and, finally, a literature that addresses itself to the imperatives of history. Kanafani was especially concerned that Resistance Literature might be considered an 'aesthetic' deflection of political concerns and hence he insisted that this literature. had its own politics and its own aesthetics, neither of which could be understood by referring to conventional notions regarding the relationship of politics to aesthetics.

Kanafani's concerns have been voiced by several other writers, poets, soldiers, and leaders engaged in anti-imperialist struggles. The Kenyan writer and critic, Ngugi Wa' thiongo, for instance, has indicated in several of his writings the need for a new aesthetic: an aesthetic of resistance as against an aesthetic of oppression. Ngugi has, further, pointed out that the "European Mania" for "Man without History" had emptied art, literature and culture in general of their political content. A new aesthetic would have to, therefore, restore to art and literature their sociological and historical weight and seek to understand whether art and literature participate in practices of hegemony or revert to tactics of subversion.

For my purposes here, I take Resistance Literature to mean the diverse and plural modes of signification by which a people seek to remember, chronicle and celebrate their sense of themselves as a nation. This process involves, among other things, coming to terms with the embattled present, in all its contradictions, making forays into the past and staging a series of imaginative leaps into the future.

Tamil resistance in Sri Lanka has, in the manner of most movements for national liberation, attempted to write, define and theorise its political and historical selfhood through a variety of means. Tamils in diaspora and the Tamils of neighbouring India, inspired and moved to solidarity by the struggles for Tamil Eelam, have added their own to the corpus of Tamil Resistance Literature: expressions of sympathy and support at public forums, denunciations of Sinhala violence and, later, Indian imperialism in print, passionate pamphleteering for the Tamil cause - these have constituted what might be termed a pan-Tamil response to the Sinhala violation of Tamil ethnicity and culture.

Memories of a past all Tamils possess and share through the fact of a common language have served to rally Tamils together in the present moment of critical need.

Poems, plays, posters, pamphlets, broadsheets, sombre political treatises, fictional narratives, newspapers and magazines that have emerged through the baptismal experience of national ferment - all manner of texts that seek to keep the memory of the struggle alive and communicate its history and record its moments of euphoria and anguish are fit to be considered Resistance narratives.


Tamil Resistance Literature came into being in a context of ethnic violence that destroyed families and communities and caused a whole host of economic, social and cultural contradictions within Tamil society to come to the fore. Painful inequalities of gender, caste and class had to be acknowledged and problematised even as History imposed the necessity of constructing an all-Tamil identity, cutting across, precisely, these divisions.

The texts of Tamil resistance reflect these contradictions and, sometimes, attempt to resolve, at least, some of them. More-often-thannot, however, these texts are records of the immense violence of the Sinhala state, of Tamil bravery and helplessness and, always, of the indomitable will of the Tamils, militants and civilians, to carve out an independent political destiny in their traditional homeland of Tamil Eelam.

Tamil Resistance Literature comprises a mosaic of texts ranging from volumes of poetry to diverse prose narratives. Cheran, in his introduction to a volume of resistance poems, `We Live in Death', notes that Tamil poetry had always sought to participate in the struggles against Sinhala oppression. Even in the initial phases of the struggle, notes Cheran, when verbal defiance was largely rhetorical and self-consciously Tamil in its orientation, poetry had its moments of glory when it displayed rare moments of authentic courage. Cheran further observes that when the battle lines between Tamil and Sinhala crystallised into impenetrable offensive positions, these moments of authenticity came into their own.

As with the literatures of struggling nationalities all over the world, Tamil Literature, including Tamil poetry, soon acquired a double edge: on the one hand, it drew inspiration from the traditions and cultures of its origin, while, on the other hand it turned visibly `modern' and set about its adventurous search for forms of expression adequate to its historical moment of chauvinism and violence. Public readings of poetry became common and were transformed into moments of defiance. These "happenings" served to draw people at large into the acts of creation. Tamil poetry necessarily dwells and broods on the phenomenon of death, destruction, the shattering of familial bonds, the pain of separation but most of all on the insidious politics of race. But it has its liberative moments as well, its moments of celebration of community and a brave new world to come, its moments of surprise when silenced voices, especially women's voices begin to emerge.

Tamil prose narratives in the context of the struggle for Eelam range from fiction to posters for public display. Political theory, feminist texts, translations of the resistance Literature of other struggling nationalities, declarations of various sorts, urgent and responsive to particular moments of crisis, journalistic initiatives, humanitarian appeals on behalf of Tamil prisoners of conscience - prose narratives combine myth, fact, history and fiction. Contradictions of gender, class, and caste figure in various ways in prose narratives, that are, more suited, perhaps, than poetry to offer a sociological and historical analysis of the circumstances of Sinhala oppression and Tamil nationalism. Prose narratives, in this sense, possess a measure of reflexivity and self-criticism. Poetry attempts to achieve this reflexivity as well but its strategies of irony are more-often-than-not balanced out and exceeded by the sobriety and intensity of the poetic `mood'.

Tamil Resistance literature, it must be recognised, owes its existence to the politics and heroic practices of Tamil militancy. The nature of the linkages here between Tamil civil society and the militant groups need to be analysed and it is hoped this study will commence such an analysis.


Poetry of the Tamil Resistance

Death - violent death - is the overarching context that informs a great deal of Tamil poetry that grew out of the experience of resistance. The phenomenon of arbitrary killings, the sheer hatred of the Sinhala chauvinists that expends itself in gruesome rituals of dismemberment, the pain of death, the separation from loved ones, the lonely vigil in unnamed forests, waiting and watching for Sinhala army attacks and the snatching at life - with companions in a guerilla camp or in the comfort of a loved one's arms in the face of imminent death: these seem to be the persistent and obsessive themes of Tamil resistance poetry.

A great many of the poems exhibit a painful awareness of their near impossible, and, therefore, near miraculous existence. Hence the urgent imprecations, the simplicity of utterance, the directness of the appeal to our political and moral sensibilities, the precision of the poetic word and image as language pares away at experience and memory, seeking to redress death and loss by its healing powers.

Consider this poem of Nuhuman's for instance:

Buddha was shot dead in my dream
last night
State Police in civilian dress Killed him.
His corpse lay in a pool of blood against the steps of Jaffna library.

In the dark of night the Ministers came
They were angry:
`We had not marked him out
Why then this murder?

`No mistakes, Sir
We couldn't get at a fly, even
without shooting him first Hence...

`Oh well,
Bury the corpse at once'.
The Ministers left.

The men in civilian dress
dragged the corpse
covered it with 90,000 books
Burnt the Sikalokavada sutra.
Buddha's corpse turned to ashes
So did the Dhammapada.

The occasion for poetry here is the senseless and uncontrolled violence of the Sinhala state, specifically, its singularly barbaric act of burning down the Tamil library at Jaffna. The poem exists as a dream, as if the events of these times could not be imagined, much less expressed, except in a dream. The poem's appeal lies in its masterful evocation of horror: nothing is stated here, nothing said, yet we are made aware of the savage ironies implicit in the repressive history of Sinhala chauvinism that sought to create a Buddhist state through most violent deeds. The poem's dream narrative is subtle and nuanced and the image of the Buddha slowly burning to death within the precincts of the Tamil library is suggestive of the painful fact that fateful and symbiotic ties link Sinhala-Buddhist selfhood and Tamil identity Thus the poem seems to he saying that the wilful destruction of the latter might well undermine the former from within. The poem also seems to be saying that the forced Sinhalasation of Sri Lanka can, ultimately, mean only (tic betrayal of Buddhism.

Nuhman's poem achieves its desired effects by a successful deployment of gentle, though, firm irony and by its immediacy of tone. Irony, here, shapes the narrative and attempts to decipher history while the easy and familiar language helps to draw the reader into the world of the poem, where unique meanings await her or him. Ironic reversal, where the unexpected happens and is absorbed as if it were the most natural thing in the world is characteristic of many Tamil poems of the resistance. A son is taken away in the middle of the night, a woman waiting for her lover finds the peace of night shattered as the Army thunders at the door and demands that she give him up. A familiar landscape lies blasted, a comrade of many years seeks exile... The past decade has been witness to many such happenings. When everyday existence turns into a nightmare, new modes of coping are required. For the poets this has meant rendering the horrific casual and familiar and, likewise, endowing even the most routine of tasks with a symbolic significance.

Effects of familiarity are achieved by invoking an addressee who shares and participates in the general context that implicates, both, poet and reader. Thus a number of poems are letters addressed to friends, spouses, lovers, mothers, friends ... . This allows the poet to narrate her or his tale unimpeded by aesthetic self-consciousness. A fine case in point is Cheran's "Lettters from an Army Camp". The poem chronicles the rites of passage in the life of a young Sinhala cadet; from innocence to indifferent sinning and its matter-of fact naivet´┐Ż and deceptively simple tone point to deeper ironies within. The engaging tone of the cadet's letters home contrasts vividly to the events which he is witness and in which, he, subsequently, participates:

These nights are terrible
As moonlight scatters
Moving shadows and
Sudden screeches or nameless birds
It is hellish until dawn.


Our division, that sought immediate transfer
Stepped out into the streets ....
No one really knows
how many were shot dead Fifty, may be sixty ....
- says the major.

Dear Nanda ...
It is all over now.
I am to be transferred tomorrow.
Thank God.
Today, for the last time
I went into town.
It did not seem all that fearful.
Shops, streets, as before ....
as before
people do not look at us.

There are several such ingenuous, open poetic texts that frame and render their horrific content, the more terrible by contrast. Thus vivid images flash through the measured rhythms of poetic syntax: of bodies dumped into a pristine pure lake, of the Buddha hung to death, utterly innocent and utterly naked, of a pregnant Sinhala woman dashing out of a burning house hugging a cradle to her already overburdened stomach, of a Tamil mother who waits to feed her children but has to watch them being, slaughtered, of nights that lovers long for and of sunshine and birdsong that prisoners dream of.... and all the time the language persists in its simplicity, in its fanatic devotion to the concrete and the sensuous, striving to create transcendence within poetry and yet still remaining within history.

In this dialectic between an existential present and an imminent future in the poetic hereafter emerge a variety of poetic moods: from the desolate to the carnivalesque as the poems sing of death, taunting it, daring Time to forget. An outstanding corpus of poems in this respect, is that of Solakili, a young poet from Kalmunai in Eastern Sri Lanka. Solaikili's work evokes a landscape that has been traumatised and 'beaten into a hypnotic spell', an 'innocent' that bears the 'dirty marks of' humankind's trampling feet. But it is also a work that remembers, that treasures memories of past lovers, of earth smell and bird song, of trees and flowers. Solaikili characterises this human and mortal world as the Eighth Hell, a space that lies beyond the pale of the seven hells of Islamic cosmology; for here unlike in the seven hells `there will be no. forgiveness' and here we are doomed to think and fear and expect no reprieve. For this is a world that slowly burns, a sterile land that `writhes in fire':

Certainly there is no joy here
The heat thickens
a sort of stifling
Where ever you turn, a land hates

Further these are times when infants in battle fatigue 'leap out of wombs', `knife at their sides/moustachioed'. The very earth bleeds and `coconut trees might well bear clusters of bullets'. But the poet resists the cynicism that comes easily in times of human suffering: 'I am a poet who bursts into tears at the touch of a hand'. This is no mere poetic sentiment:

You are human
Like you
I scratch at the earth
With my nail
And suck my thumb
When it hurts
We are human.

Besides the poet has known love, a love that even the birds had approved of:

Guileless bird that
spews out the seed it eats
The very life of our Love.
My heart bums to think of it
A love blesscd by
Even the red eyed sparrow

Why did they destroy it,
separating seed from fruit?

Solaikili's poetic rhythms derive from the earth accents and metaphors of Eastern speech and his poetic voice is almost always choric and communal, even as it sounds a strong individual note in its rejection of poeticisms, and its refusal of the all-too-easy rhetorical flourishes of false sentiment and facile cynicism. Solaikili's work is a celebration of solidarity and community and it endows the acts of every day existence, acts of routine love, piety and understanding with an ironic significance, since  these alone may redeem us in this hour of crisis and loss of identity.

There are other acts of solidarity such as those that come about through fighting together and working together and many a poem recognises and celebrates this fact. These are liberative moments in Tamil poetry since these moments anticipate the future and transcend the present, momentarily, at least. In Ramalingam's poem, Raising the flag, for instance, unearthing and
re-building a temple -whose holy idol had been desecrated by Lanka's former Portuguese rulers--is seen as an act of historical penitence. The present moment of oppression, thus, comes to terms with not only its immediate history but with a faraway colonial past as well:

As warships burn and sink
And warplanes crash and lie shattered
As cannon bursts and ricochets
The temple's spire reaches
High on high
And will proudly flaunt its flag.

Moments of transcendence in Tamil poetry are also symbolised by the Buddha figure. We have seen, earlier, how Nuhman invokes the Buddha ideal to underscore not only Sinhala violence but also the symbiotic links that exist between the spirit of Buddhism and the liberation of Tamil Eelam. Likewise other poets have made the Buddha story the site of a remarkable poetic reversal, wherein the Buddha comes to symbolise the righteousness of the Tamil cause.

In Vilvaratham's poem, The Meaning of the Buddha's silence, the Buddha renounces his `Sinhala-Buddhist' identity and seeks his home with the poor and the oppressed. He is possessed of a silence that fills his soul with the 'weight of a storm' and this silence, we realise, like his other famed silences in history, is but the prelude to a future wisdom and one that will come to be with the restoration of the Tamil homeland to the Tamil speaking people of Lanka.

But moments of poetic transcendence cannot remain indefinitely suspended over and above the historical present and the poet has to face the challenges of history, symbolised most of all in the Sinhala soldier who tramples and desecrates Tamil soil and in the simple geographical fact of Eelam - a homeland whose time has not yet come. Imagining the Enemy is always difficult since the Enemy has also been, in this instance, a neighbour, sometimes a friend and even, perhaps, a lover.

Besides, any attempt to characterise the Enemy as more than human, a monster, or a demon will not only imply a suppression of history, which the Tamil poet cannot afford, but will also mean a lapse of one's own humanity. Tamil poets seem well aware of this dilemma and the Enemy figures in the poetry of the resistance variously as a monster, an `asura' out of Lanka's mythical past, as an unnatural creature, a deformity of nature, no less, as a faceless Sinhala Soldier, the rigid and stubborn Sinhala state, and more importantly, as a former lover, an estranged friend and, finally as a victim of history whose tragic dimensions clearly lie beyond his grasp.

Thus while the poems register the presence of an Enemy who is relentless and arbitrary in his destruction, they do not hate: there is bitterness, yes, but no rancour. The poets recognise that history is, in essence, an enormous human tragedy and its actors and victims need to be pitied rather than scorned. Imagining Eelam is more difficult. More often than not it figures as a home, loved and familiar earth, site of memory, desire and hope, a land that is being denied its name and identity. But Eelam as a political reality, as a fact of Sri Lankan geography is a concept that Tamil poetry leaves to the imaginings and inventions of Prose.

What the poetry does achieve, then, is a simultaneity of vision, one that fuses past and present, love and anger and sorrow and jubilation. Resistance poetry presumes a culture that has its hoary history but participates in this history as a relative newcomer, in that it seeks to fashion a potent weapon of struggle out of language. Thus it takes courage from its past but transcends it.

Women's Poetry of the Resistance

Women's poetry of the Resistance exists as a well-defined, though, limited corpus within the larger body of Tamil Resistance poetry. National Liberation movements across the world have been accompanied by defiant expressions of female anger and anguish at the injustices of patriarchy. National resistance struggles possess a reforming ardour, aimed at various social oppressions and this desire to rejuvenate native culture and society has, in general, tended to focus on the aspect of gender oppression.

The status of women is perceived to be an index of a culture's glory and the loss of nationhood is often felt to be due to a decline in the status of women. In Sri Lanka the gender question has received a fair amount of attention, both, due to he militant;' utopian zeal for transforming existing social relations as well as due to the efforts of women themselves, efforts that sought to break centuries of female silence and place the women's agenda for equality at the centre of the national liberation struggles. Women participated in the resistance in any number of ways.

As victims, who were subjected to assault, rape, torture, interrogation; as mothers, wives and lovers who bravely saw their men folk off to do battle with the Sri Lankan army and stayed behind to hold the family together; as combatants in their own right, as conscious feminists ever vigilant to the practices of patriarchy at home; as human rights activists upholding the dignity of human life in the face of excesses of both the oppressors and militants.... One could, thus, endlessly list the various fronts on which women have struggled against Sinhala hegemony and terror.

These varied experiences, have, naturally sought and found expressions through a variety of means and poetry has proved to be a site of feminist, more generally womanist expressions of the resistance experience. Women's poetry of the resistance shares the general premises and assumptions of resistance poetry but its sensuousness and modes of utterance challenge habitual male use of language and interpret afresh the quotidian aspects of existence. The poems contained in the very first anthology of women poets from Eelam, Untold Tales, present a range of moods and emotions. The general context of these poems is strife-torn Lanka but these poems have as much to do with domestic interiors as with their hapless homeland. The women in these poems complain and rage against the drudgeries of domesticity, reflect ironically on their status as bound wives, express their desire to speak and be heard, question custom that has kept women subjugated to unnamed fears, taboos, quarrel with their lovers, celebrate sisterhood... and as in the poem of Urvashi's declare their rights to a history that has, until now, remained a male preserve.

Yet, there is something
Something important
I want to write about...
I am not as fragile
Or ignorant as before
Things that happen now
do not forebode any good.
It is certain
our separation will persist
Why, then, must I continue to stay at home
Do you understand?

The world of war is present in these poems as well: in a mother's agony, in a lover's lament and in her determination to fight back, in a women's discovery of her own strength and, most of all, in the anguish over violence, whether of the Sinhala man or the Tamil male. Women's poems are, essentially, poems of love, poems that invoke a human universe held together by bonds that survive and resist destruction. In Life and Death, Shankari grieves the death of an unknown and unnamed young man. She acknowledges that he might have been just another student, not particularly interested in or drawn to politics, one she might have seen a hundred times, perhaps, everyday, yet his death, of which she comes to know through an announcement posted on the walls of the college library, troubles her:

Young man
your face
your name
Which I knew only today
have continued to
wring my heart
the entire day

It is this sense of empathy and sensitivity to the nameless tragedies that have been the lot of the Eelam Tamils that pervades these poems; so much so that even female anger at the oppressive structures of patriarchy within Tamil society is, somewhat, mitigated by a general sense of solidarity with men who were, themselves, victims of the larger violence that was fast destroying man, woman, children and the very earth.

To quote Rajani Tiranagama, women who, in the midst of war, pleaded and argued with the militants for their families and the whole nation ..."have (also) braved the guns and sat in a fast to save others in Batticaloa". Women's resistance poetry, then, records a female response to violence and this response indicts several kinds of violence; not just rape by Sinhala or Tamil men, but the violence inherent in various acts of female piety, subservience to patriarchal custom and, finally, of course, the destructive and irreversible violence of war.

Prose of the Tamil resistance

Poetry, necessarily, focuses on certain persistent themes - death and violence, redemption and liberation, loss, separation, solidarity.... Its memories are personal and its attempts to imagine Tamil Eelam almost always utopian. Prose texts, on the other hand are strikingly disparate: they seek to communicate with civil society at large, disseminate information, provoke responses, initiate dialogue and, hence, they exist in diverse forms. A great many discourses may be seen to be at work here: discourses of militancy, the discourses of realpolitik, discourses that aim at a self-critical and theoretical comprehension of the current historical conjuncture, discourses that proliferate in the public sphere, so to speak, - posters, pamphlets, newspapers, magazines - and finally, discourses that prevail in the twilight zone where personal and public worlds meet: letters, memoirs, diaries.

Prose narratives of the resistance must be regarded as a varied corpus of intersecting texts. Politics, history and sociology coexist with resistance hagiography liberation myths and self-conscious polemic Posters, broadsheets and pamphlets respond to local events and to immediate history while longer and sustained narratives on politics and history attempt to evaluate the current moment in terms of larger economic and geopolitical imperatives. Newspapers and magazines help in the constitution of a public sphere of ideas and draw attention to the everyday instances of oppression and resistance. They also help in keeping interest in aspects of culture and art alive and indicate the directions in which society and culture are likely to move. In other words they simulate civil society in a context where the various constituents of civic life are being pulled apart.

A newspaper like "Thisai" (Direction') does just this: it carries incisive comments on current events, attempts to accommodate as many opinions and views as possible and devotes a fair amount of space to issues of culture. Book reviews, profiles of writers, vigorous debates on the nature and function of art in these troubled times, poems, short .stories, issues of religious and ethical import - Thisai's pages contain a varied fare; more important, those pages devoted to culture are well used to make political observations that might, otherwise, come under the tight yoke of the IPKF backed government censor. Thisai serves as a fine instance of courageous resistance to state terrorism and has avoided sounding partisan as well.

In these troubled times fictional narratives acquire a new shape as fiction effortlessly mingles with fact and documentary evidence. Fiction, in this sense, comes to exist. as the underside of a history that threatens to turn monolithic in the face of impending destruction. We have known such fiction in other national contexts where a people's history exists in constant fear of erasure: in countries such as pre-glasnost Poland and Czechoslovakia, where official versions of history proclaim their sole right to truth and ceaselessly invent their texts to prevent their disruption by 'Other' plural text. In Eelam, too, faced with a different kind of monolithic history, which exists or at any rate attempts to exist as a coherent narrative defying Sinhala destruction (in the various militant versions of history, for instance), fiction constructs its own world of ambient meanings and uses 'fact' to counter resistance rhetoric.

This is what the novel `Puthiyathor Ulagam' (New World) attempts - and succeeds. A choric novel, constructed out of many voices, the novel plays off the ideals of militancy against its practices. It does not establish a simple contradiction between the two. Instead, it raises questions such as, what constitutes a nation, ethnicity; what are the limits to counter-violence; what should be the relationship between militancy and civic life; and finally of what is history made of? The action exists on two simultaneous levels in the novel, in Eelam and in India and we follow the course of recent Tamil history through the fortunes of two protagonists, Nathan and Shankar. The narration is punctuated by discourses on Marxism, on revolutionary ethics feminism, the problematics of caste, of party building, of the nature of love, friendship, solidarity...

The novel manages to contextualise too, all the time. These various discourses exist over and against a historical perspective that is keenly aware of the global dimensions of the struggle and the ethical implications of its politics. Thus India's role in the Eelam resistance, as Big Brother, is explored and described here.

The siege psychology of militancy that leads to a complete brutalisation of' the guerrilla and die tendency of militant groups to turn viciously authoritarian and intolerant are revealed with a wealth of detail The novel constantly insists on the ethical dimension to national liberation struggles and points out how a guerrilla freedom fighter, if he or she suffers a lapse of ethics, may well turn into a senseless murderer.

There are moments of genuine poetry in this multilayered text - invocations of the natural world, of rural existence, of the smells and sights of Eelam and these lend a poignancy to the historical and human tragedies that unfold through the evolution of the narrative, The two protagonists of the novel are not heroic, in the usual sense of the word. Neither are they modernist and -heroes. They exist in the world of the novel, as reference points, at best, to an action that spreads over a wide canvas including within its sweep, memories and echoes of other struggles, other histories. Polyvocality here points to the necessarily plural structures within which we try to make our various histories. But we never lost sight of the objective historical context within which these various voices crisscross and which indicates the limits to our diverse endeavours. As the dissidents break out of the militant group (that is the subject of this narrative) we realise that their journey is not into a realm of freedom but is, in fact, governed by the general direction and historical imperatives of the struggle:

He consoled himself, certain that he would meet them again in happier circumstances. Yet somehow, somewhere in his heart he was constantly troubled.

For a moment he was lost in that silent thought. Then as if something had struck him, suddenly, he turned behind.

The men behind him were confused. What could he be so avidly searching for? He was trying to locate his never-failing favourite star.

But the boat continued to drift southward, inexorably.

However most prose narratives must be seen as engaged in the task of piecing together the fragments of history and the attempts at deconstructing it are few and far between. Other rare instances of deconstruction are indirect indictments of the control of history resorted to by militant groups. Such critiques rightly consider the now ceaseless internecine warfare that has come to prevail amongst the various militant organisations as an index of an underlying desire (which must be seen to reside in the hearts of all groups) to totalise their particular experiences of resistance and channelise the historical process towards their own partisan ends. These critiques are never directly made and may be found in general appeals for humanitarian conduct among resistance fighters, in pleas for mutual recognition and respect for human rights. But the point is made, nevertheless, as with these courageous words of Rajani Tiranagama that Sinhala hegemony and travesty of history cannot be combatted by practices of counter-hegemony by Tamil combatants. Instead, what is required is an openness, a commitment to working with diversity and an acceptance of the right of many voices to make themselves heard:

To be objective or analytical seems to be a major effort like trying to do something physical in the midst of a debilitating illness... It is important for us to arrive at a synthesis in analysis, seek for an understanding, find space to organise, revitalise a community sinking into a state of resignation. Objectivity, the pursuit of truth and... of critical and honest positions was crucial to community but it was a view which could cost many of us our lives.

To return to the question of inventing and constructing history: Self-consciously theoretical texts do this. For instance, two disparate texts such as Indian Ocean Politics and the Sri Lankan Ethnic question and The Indo-Sri Lankan Accord: An American Conspiracy both attempt to rewrite history and thereby construct it on their own terms. But the former exists as a serious inquiry into the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean zone while the latter is obviously polemical. But the intention is theoretical in both cases, only we have to take note of the politics of theory as well.

For theory is not innocent and its versions of history are always partisan. One has only to take such extant works of feminist theory that have come into being in the context of resistance: A text such as Shanthi Satchithanandam's In the Footsteps of Women, clearly a derivation from the well known feminist classic which it claims as its inspiration is an embarrasingly naive and dated work. Yet its appearance at this moment in our history and the fact that it is one of the few Tamil "feminist" texts that have been written makes its publication an important political event. In this instance the politics of theory are very evident and we may rightly claim that theoretical texts, in their own right, are insurrectionary responses to the current situation.

There are, of course other ways of chronicling and writing history. Earlier I had indicated how newspapers and magazines do this. Now I would like to consider particular strategies of constituting a public sphere. While it is important to remain vigilant against particular and dogmatic appropriation: of history, one cannot, on that account, consider the labours of constituting coherent historical narratives any less important. In fact, as the experience o the Palestinians have shown, rescuing history from the oppressors is a very important facet of national liberation struggles and Edward Said's Blaming the Victims: Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question presents a fin( instance of the practice of anti-imperialist historiography. The boo] demonstrates that in this war of words much more than scholarship is at stake For imagining one's homeland in historical time and space is only one step away from regaining it.

The militants' strategies of history writing have been various. In their efforts to keep in touch with civil society and communicate to it and through it their endeavours, the Tamil militants have used posters and pamphlets very effect Lively. Posters have announced victories, mourned the dead, warned against political betrayal, and have always sought to reassure the public at large that the struggles for Eelam will not be in vain.

Likewise, pamphlets help to disseminate information, dispel prejudices and often present a point of view in a context where everything seems arbitrary and hopeless. Then there are news dailies that are published under the auspices of particular groups, for instance the LTTE's Eela Murasu and Murasoli. (Significantly enough the offices of one of these papers were reduced to rubble by the IPKF.) The militants have also managed to establish a fairly widespread network of communication with the Tamil populations in exile and in diaspora through international pan-Tamil Journals such as Tamil Eelam and Tamil Voice International. These journals help to assemble otherwise scattered information for an audience who are themselves dispersed far and wide. All these efforts at communication, both, locally and globally are galvanised towards making the Tamil point of view known.

To this extent they inscribe within their limits a public history of the Tamil crisis. This history is admittedly partisan, but, here, the attempts to secure a hegemonic space must be viewed as absolutely necessary for the constitution of a Tamil history, which exists in fragments and makes itself known only through its silences. Of course on many an occasion this historiography has claimed sole rights to expression resulting in bloodshed. But a history in process seldom establishes, with any degree of firmness, limits to its own counter-violence and often tends to mistake instrumental reason for historical logic; hence the attempts to annihilate other militant groups, to censor news in the interest of the particular group in question, and the insistence on a monolithic point of view.

The militants' strategies of myth making and morale building however have to be differentiated from their purely calculative strategies of rhetorical overstatement and political doublespeak. These strategies of myth making etc., may be found in texts such as Deaths before Dawn a touching account of a raid on a Sinhala camp. Here we are presented with a roll-call of the dead, cameos of individual guerrillas, with instances of guerrilla solidarity, and, finally, with several instances of guerilla daring, courage and resilience. Equally inspiring and sentimental are militant march songs. The Tigers have produced their own audio and video material in this respect. This has been a clandestine mode of chronicling events in the wake of the IPKF offensive on the Tigers and Tamil civilian population. The militants, sense of history is clearly of History as Event or Happening and they see themselves as actors in and shapers of this history.

Tamils in exile and in diaspora and the Tamils of Tamilnadu have access to this History as witnesses rather than as participants. Their strategies of remembering and chronicling are, therefore, noticeably different. There exist a fair number of Tamil publications in the countries of the Tamil diaspora, especially in Western Europe. Puthumai and Thoondil are both published from West Germany and may be considered symptomalic of diasporic publications. The carry synopses of news from Eelam, editorial comments on current events, poems, short stories and, most important, reviews of Tamil culture and society in diaspora.

There are other such efforts: Parvai and Thedal from Canada; Suvadu from Norway and Manitham from Switzerland to mention a few. The Tamils in diaspora thus attempt to reproduce the lost space of home and their political understanding is often premised on the fact of their distance from Eelam and, hence, tend to be at once abstract (the long political essays in Thoondil for example) and personal. (the disarming naivete of diasporic literature for instance). These magazines also carry news of national liberation struggles that are in progress in other parts of the world and thus seek to insert the struggle of the Eelam Tamils within these other already legitimised struggles.

In recent limes the Journal of Eelam Studies from London has sought to publish scholarly and serious theoretical- inquiries on various aspects of the Eelam question. Unlike the other diasporic publications this one like the Tamil Voice International referred to earlier is in English and is obviously addressed to a non-Tamil audience as well. Most of the diasporic publications are in Tamil since their objective is to provide a forum for Tamil perceptions and sensibilities, for their expression and survival, cut off as these are from the context that could best nourish them.

The role of the Tamils in Tamilnadu in the constitution of a legitimate political space for militancy is a very important instance of pan-Tamil solidarity and has to be considered as a significant component of the `political guerilla warfare' that the Tamils have been waging to the accompaniment of the gunfire of their militant bretheren in the jungles. Not only have the public of Tamilnadu placed the Eelam issue on the political agenda of India, but many a Tamil intellectual and politician has been sensitive to the factor of Indian influence in the larger geo-political equations that are constantly being constructed and dismantled.

Thus the Rosa Luxemburg Study Circle in Madras immediately responded to the IPKF induction into Sri Lanka and published a few short but pithy pamphlets on the politics of Indian intervention. One of these pamphlets dealt with the question of the Indian Left's stance on the Eelam issue, especially the Left's betrayal of the aspirations of the Eelam resistance fighters. The publications of this study circle sought to explain to the Tamil public at large the nature and extent as well as the contradictions of Indian involvement in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka. This exhibition of solidarity, defying the national chauvinism which the Indian state was quick to project, ostensibly, with its national interests in mind, granted the Eelam fighters a legitimacy that immediate history seemed unwilling to give.

As long as Tamil history continues to exist as a site of multiple interpretations and contradictory events, its narratives are bound to proliferate. The fact of a Tamil diaspora in unknown lands has added another poignant dimension to the struggles for Eelam and fragmented identities searching out for authentic political activities will further extend and amplify the limits of Tamil historiography.


Sinhala violence and chauvinism could never overcome the determined resistance of the Tamils who responded to their grave crisis in a great many ingenious ways. Besides Sinhala violence could never really close itself within a hermetic circle. Its strategies of destruction were bound to be thwarted not only by Tamil resistance but by the persistence of humanitarian sympathies within Sinhala society. The Sinhala Left has dealt with the Eelam issue most shabbily but independent and courageous Sinhala progressives have never failed to raise cries of protest and anger at their state's misdeeds. The journal Ravaya deserves to be remembered in this context for its fearlessness in publishing opinions directly critical of the state and for its consistent crusade against the horror of civil war. Ravaya, during the short course of its publications, managed to remain fairly non-partisan (though critical of the demand for a separate Eelam) and devoted a fair amount of space for appraisals of Tamil aspirations, militant ideology and the Tamil leadership.

Then there are the poets: exhausted and horrified by what they could clearly perceive as a fratricidal war in which there would be much death but no actual winners, they have pleaded for peace, for mutual co-existence and their poems attempt a Tamil-Sinhala solidarity at least within language. One poet wonders where famed love that knits together has gone:

Softly, groans of pain
arose to shatter the peace of night and torment the world
Yellow light, spilling out in all directions
lost to advancing night.
Love, that our poets sing of
Is this a world of love that I see...

Another poet is keenly aware of self-destructive hatred and its effects:

A coconut tree
Leant against its neighbour the palm
and fell - the palm's neck snapped,
`And I have wrung his neck'
Arrogantly the coconut tree tossed its head back
Only to discover it had been pulled up
by the roots.

Sinhala poetry thus joins the multi-voiced chorus of the Tamil resistance to sing out against hatred and violence and this humanitarian gesture - simple, yet, immensely lofty in its appeal to love and forgiveness has to be noted and acknowledged.


This is by no means an exhaustive study of the culture of Tamil resistance. This is a commemoration of numerous lost lives and `slit lips' that `shall sing no more'. All that has been attempted here is a drawing of the bare contours of a landscape - a sketch of Eelam. The details need to be filled in, the colours added and it is history that will complete the picture with its definitive last stroke.

Only a few names have been remembered here but they are random personal choices and do not indicate the range and nuances of voices that have been left out. Much of what has been discussed here already belongs to the early history of the struggle. Much has happened since, especially with the intervention of the Indian State, and the changes in cultural consciousness that have occurred have not been chronicled here.

The violence has worsened, if anything, and internecine war has become an everyday reality. Tamils continue to leave Eelam and the brutalisation of everyday life threatens to destroy and cut at human bonds. Soon culture could be dehumanised as well and resistance literature might well become fashionable and an all-too-easy means of coping with History. In this juncture it is good to remember the past - its sacrifices, its hopes - and think through its relentless logic. At any rate there is not much to lose and Eelam lives in its people.


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