Photography courtesy The Daily Beast

Tamils in Sri Lanka are having important conversations every day, in person and through social media and the blogosphere. In some instances, the impact is swift.

For example, on 25th January, the Arts Faculty of the University of Jaffna issued a circular indicating that, commencing the 26th, the Senate of the University would be enforcing a dress code for all its students and staff. Men were to be banned from wearing jeans or t-shirts into lecture halls and had to present themselves without beards, and women had to wear sarees every Friday. The pushback was immediate as outrage ensued on Tamil Facebook and the Tamil blogosphere. The circular was rescinded within 24 hours.

In an unrelated incident the very next day, a senior Tamil journalist was asked to apologize after making a casteist slur against a Tamil commentator from Tamil Nadu, India. Again, Tamil Facebook and bloggers called for a boycott and condemned the decision of IBC Tamil to felicitate the journalist with a lifetime achievement award.

Tamils are continuously having important conversations on caste, sexual violence, feminism, sexism, patriarchy, sexuality, accountability, enforced disappearances, psychosocial care for survivors, the legacy of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), other Tamil militant and paramilitary groups, the wider discourse on Tamil nationalism, the vital need for building solidarity with the Tamil diaspora, combating the prejudices and stereotypes perpetuated by the Tamil movie industry, the direction of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), political alternatives to the TNA, the need to move beyond electoral politics and build social movements, and so much more.

We are also building solidarity with Muslims and Upcountry Tamils on this island, Kurds, Palestinians, and our sisters and brothers from across the Palk Strait. For decades, Tamils in Sri Lanka have also counted on allies from among Periyar’s egalitarian, anti-caste Dravidian movements in Tamil Nadu. We continue to have crucial dialogues with them to this day.

Many of us Tamils in Sri Lanka are building solidarity with people who identify oppressive and racist State structures, people who’ve been violently subjugated by such structures and who actively battle these structures. We know our sisters and brothers in the Tamil diaspora too are engaging with like minded friends and allies. We realize these solidarities are different from those with friends in Sri Lanka who are privileged and who directly benefit from the privileges afforded to them by a hierarchical State. Our discourse cannot be centered anymore around the feelings or entitlement of those who directly benefit from a racist State and who unconsciously reinforce structural and systematic racism or the need to educate those privileged. Hence, this short missive to our Sinhala friends in Sri Lanka.

Dear Sinhalese allies,

We know it is painful to have this conversation, but we are not looking for saviours. Allow us to have these conversations amongst ourselves — in the democratic space you claim to have provided to us. Then again, how is it truly democratic when the privileged afford us space?

Most of you are privileged in Sri Lanka by virtue of your ethnicity and religion. Most of you are less likely to disappear or be subject to mass surveillance, less likely to have grown up in a war zone for three generations, and more likely to be saved by your privileges in this country. Acknowledge and understand your privileges every day. Use your privileges to amplify our voices rather than displace them with your own. Demonstrate why (rather than demand) we should trust you. Speak to us, listen to us, believe us; and do not speak over us.

Any ally to Tamils in Sri Lanka should understand why we do not trust the State. Do not regurgitate and churn out the narratives of a State that has had us under siege for decades. Do not tell us we should be happy that the country’s anthem was finally sung in Tamil. Do not expect us to celebrate a few token Tamils and Muslims in high office. Rather than tell us how we should feel, let us tell you how we feel about developments.

Do not hijack our conversations. Do not appropriate our contributions. Do not claim to know more about us or what is best for us than we do. That is just flaunting your privilege and perpetuating the narrative of the establishment. That will not gain our trust. That is not allyship.

Finally, for those who need clarification, our nationalism has always been secular in nature. As our true allies surely understand, we are a traumatized people. When more and more among us reluctantly embrace an ethno-religious identity, it is a flawed defence mechanism against a marauding State determined to silence any argument for Tamil self-determination. Even as we are speaking amongst ourselves of creeping Hindutva among Tamils in Sri Lanka and debating about flaunting of religious identities in Tamil nationalist discourse, most of you who claim to be allies look away from the rapid Army-led Sinhala–Buddhisization in the North-East.

Why do you have a different set of standards for yourselves, your representatives, your co-opted civil society, and your leaders? Why are you keen to make excuses for them but demand a perfect, infallible Tamil leadership? Now, ask yourself if you’re truly and honestly listening to us.

Our community is transphobic. It is patriarchal. It is sexist. It is misogynist. It is homophobic. It is racist. But many of us are fighting tooth and nail to push back, to revise the dominant narratives, and to create spaces of social resurgence. Are you fighting equally hard to question the narrative of the State too? Or are you too busy claiming to save us first from ourselves? Are you too busy imposing upon us the flags and identities you wish we would affirm? Your feminists love to preach to us on the oppression of our women, yet deem the Tamil women who are actually standing up to militarization and patriarchy as being ‘too political’. We are sorry: you cannot have it both ways.

Tamils are having important conversations and impacts without your input. For example, while many of you were busy attending a tone deaf, elitist international literary festival, a Tamil trans author, Nila, had her maiden book launch in the Vanni, before a large local community and a wide spectrum of civil society.

We do not need your saving. We only come to you with the hope of having our voices amplified by your privileges. We are now slowly and sadly cognizant of the fact that anything we say could be held against us when you decide we might not be the ‘good’ Tamils that you were looking for. It is not our responsibility to educate you on our conversations. Know that we are talking. Know that we are debating. Know our spaces. Know, also, that we do not all agree with each other. We are having vital conversations — conversations that you are missing because, playing the saviour, you will not hear them.

  • Louiqa Raschid

    Excellent article.

  • Sharni Jayawardena

    Excellent photograph too.

    • Full credit goes to Dinuka Liyanawatte from Reuters and the Daily Beast, but did take a very long time to select a photo appropriate for the article. Glad you like the selection!

    • Kailas Pillai

      Representative sample showing how hard the life of a typical mother is. There are nearly 85,000 war widows struggling to bring up children.

  • Concerned Citizen

    Sri Lanka’s history shows, Sinhala Buddhists were the under privileged and discriminated lot under the Colonial Powers. Regions like ‘Rathupasvila’ (earning the name ‘blood soaked land’) subjected to mass scale genocide of Sinhalese and applying a scorched earth policy; the notorious “Wastelands Act” , declaring Sinhala peasants farms as wastelands that could be grabbed free by the colonial regime, for tea estates etc and then populating them with imported Indian labour; the notorious ‘Thesawalam’ law introduced by the Colonial powers, which gave sole right of land ownership to Tamil settlers in the North, are only a few of the glaring examples that bear testimony to the atrocities committed against the Sinhalese.

    Quite in contrast to what the Sinhalese suffered, when the Muslims were hunted down by Portuguese invaders, the Sinhala rulers helped the Muslims to escape to the East coast; when the Catholics were persecuted by the British colonials, they were given protection by the Sinhala rulers; when 300,000+ Tamil hostages were hearded around by the LTTE terrorists, they were rescued by the armed forces and then the amazing speed at which the captured LTTE terrorists were rehabilitated and released to the community etc etc shows the Sinhalese attitude towards other human beings.
    What the Sinhalese are asking for is to live as equals and to help the Sinhalese to regain their lost freedoms and culture, rather than facing another round of genocide by separatist groups, distorting the history of the nation and misleading the international community on the conflict.
    Just study the hate and fabrications now being endorsed by the Northern Chief Minister. Is this the way forward? Certainly not!

    • puniselva

      ? ?? ……. ………….
      ………………………………..
      How many versions of SriLankan history are there please ???????
      I’ve read several versions in the comments of this website alone in the last 10yrs aone.

  • Policyminded

    This starts as an attempt at a dialogue but turns into an ‘us and them’, ‘talking at’ as opposed to attempting to talk to or with. Rather patronising and almost self defeating. Author expects the ‘Sinhala Ali’ to do all the work to understand their Tamil brethren, while recognising all the complexities in the Tamil community, dismisses complexities in the Sinhala community.

    • Indhiraa

      Hi

      “Our discourse cannot be centered anymore around the feelings or
      entitlement of those who directly benefit from a racist State and who
      unconsciously reinforce structural and systematic racism or the need to educate those privileged.”

  • Sheela

    this is the best articulation of tension, space, and reconciliation i’ve had the pleasure of reading. thank you

  • Kube

    Omg.. such a nice writing though and so true in almost every way and live. It’s also true that the fact of freedom of open speech about politics has been hijacked significantly after the post war period.

  • Real_Peace

    Groundviews/Indhiraa,

    Very thought-provoking article indeed!

    Many questions all communities in Sri Lanka need to answer truthfully if we want ‘Real Peace’.

  • Real_Peace

    Groundviews/Indhiraa,
    In the para:

    For example, while many of you were busy attending a tone deaf, elitist international literary festival, a Tamil trans author, Nila, had her maiden book launch in the Vanni, before a large local community and a wide spectrum of civil society.

    what is the name of book Nila wrote? is it avail online?
    BTW, are you referring to the Galle Literary Festival that was held recently?

    Thanks.

    • Believe the book is called the Third Gender. Don’t think it’s online – see this comment however from the Facebook page “Humans of Northern Sri Lanka”:

      “A young transgender woman called Eela Nila launched a book on the plight of the transgender community hereabouts yesterday.

      Transgenders are yet to be legally recognized in Sri Lanka, leading to many problems in their official recognition and identification – including for Identity Cards, passports and voter registrations. This young person, born a male, identifies completely as female – yet the lack of understanding among the community is such that, her identification draws much ridicule and little support.

      Her book written in Tamil titled ‘The Third Gender’ seeks to bring some understanding and awareness to the wider public, about those like her. To this day, many official forms in Sri Lanka have space for only two genders – the third gender does not officially exist – at least on paper in Sri Lanka.

      Though the book launch did not attract heavy crowds, it did hearteningly receive support from the writers / artistic community of Jaffna. The noted poet So. Pathmanathan chaired the book launch and felicitated the writer, noting that while transgenders were marginalized all over Sri Lanka, their plight appeared to be markedly worse off in the North and East rather than the South which needed to change.

      Ela Nila’s is a lonely fight despite a few key supporters and she is seeking to change it. All the best to her.”

      • Real_Peace

        Thanks very much, Groundviews.

  • Real_Peace

    One more factor to think about – Torture! And then the factor of ‘Sexual violence’ as a weapon? See Tweet from the UK based group:

    https://twitter.com/FreefromTorture/status/631864174918959104

  • Anon

    Quite a good piece. I do find it odd the way millennials always obsess over who has the right to speak as opposed to tackling what they are saying. Call me old fashioned but ive never understood how having fewer conversations eas supposed to help us understand each other better.

    That said our generation and previous generations were hopelessly blind to privilege so I suppose it is good that this genre of pieces exists. I do wish there was more of a class analysis though: there is surely no privilege more powerful, more insidious, more buffering and less examined than that of the well educated english speaking upper middle classes. Yes class rarely gets more than a cusory mention.

  • GF

    I can only say that this is a fairly well-thought out article that is written well. I do not agree that Tamils need to have their own space for dialogue and, that the Sinhalese should use their privileged (currently) positions to, as the author puts it patronizingly, ‘amplify’ our words.
    Having seen and continuing to see the same elitist mentality amongst my Tamil brothers and sisters,as well as in many other ethno-religious , cultural, national, linguistic and socio-economic ( by no stretch a comprehensive list) groups, I would argue that being elitist or thinking one is separate or ‘better’ from others is built into humans as a survival mechanism, as an evolutionary heuristic.
    Instead of trying to abolish this mindset, which is doomed to failure ( i Know many would take objection to this), it is better to accept this as a necessary fact and move on. Move on to establish links and bridges, that would be strong enough to minimize suspicion and hatred and speak of what we have in common, what makes us Sri Lankans . This would be nation building at its smartest.

  • RTI

    Brilliant article – thank you for these deeply insightful observations. The point about Tamil women was spot on and could just as well apply to what Palestinian women have to put up with from their well meaning American and Isreali counterparts.

  • Nelun

    Everyone must think Sri Lankan,educated people must help the educated -uneducated people THINK SRI LANKAN,BE SRI LANKAN AND AACT SRI LANKAN.this does NOT mean you give up the ethnic group you belong to you just enhance it by being a SRI LANKAN TAMIL,SRI LANKAN SINHALESE,SRI. LANKAN MUSLIM,SRI LANKAN BURGHER,SRI LANKAN MALAY AND LIKE ME JUST SRI LANKAN(Sinhala and Tamil).I am proud to have parents who brought out human values and never made ethnic differences and that is why as children my siblings and myself had no issues.Education in the correct manner helps,education in the wrong way can cause irreparable damage as is evident with what has happened in the History of our land.No one has clean hands.

  • Real_Peace

    Indhiraa,

    I really like this statement you wrote:

    Even as we are speaking amongst ourselves of creeping Hindutva among Tamils in Sri Lanka and debating about flaunting of religious identities in Tamil nationalist discourse, most of you who claim to be allies look away from the rapid Army-led Sinhala–Buddhisization in the North-East.

    Thank you!