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 The circular was rescinded within 24 hours.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.