Photograph courtesy Al Jazeera

Today the desire for justice is multitudinous. This is to say that struggles against injustice, struggles for survival, for self-respect, for human rights, should never be considered merely in terms of their immediate demands, their organisations, or their historical consequences. They cannot be reduced to ‘movements’. A movement describes a mass of people collectively moving towards a definite goal, which they achieve or fail to achieve. Yet such a description ignores, or does not take into account, the countless personal choices, encounters, illuminations, sacrifices, new desires, griefs and, finally, memories, which the movement brought about, but which are, in the strict sense, incidental to that movement. John Berger[1]

The dominant discourse of post-independence Lanka is that of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism, with a counter-narrative of Tamil nationalism. This debilitating scenario has blotted out a multitude of other narratives – narratives of economic injustice and its attendant consequences in heightening the class and caste differences between and across communities. It also obscures the obvious fact that Lanka is a multi-religious and multicultural country that is as diverse as the Island’s sublime flora and fauna. Periodically through the thickets of prejudice, green shoots of dissent poke their heads out – vines of hope and mercy. Sharika Thirangama’s book is such a green shoot.[2]  The author elegantly and movingly elicits stories from the survivors of the country’s long civil war (in particular women). In doing so it offers a glimpse of those voices that have been silenced by the larger narrative and offers a much more complex picture of what it is to be a Tamil and a Tamil-speaking Muslim than anything offered by elites on either side of the cultural divide. These stories were gathered between the start of the peace agreement between the government and the Tamil Tigers in 2002 and the start of the last phase of the civil war in 2007.

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Colombo is on the one hand representative of the country as a whole in its ethnic diversity and yet so different in its pace of life, the size of its population, its architectural diversity and the fact that it is the hub of the country’s economic development. It is also a city of immigrants: people coming from the countryside to get work; people fleeing the horrors of the civil war; and those so outside the national narrative that they seem like ghosts of imperialism and Lanka’s ancient past – Veddas, people of African descent, Borahs, gypsies, amongst others.

One of the anomalies that strikes a visitor to Colombo is that a significant proportion of the population speak Tamil. In 2001 it was ascertained that 58.64 percent of those living in the area of the Colombo Municipal Council were not from the Sinhala community. 54.95 percent could claim Tamil as their mother tongue (Thiranagama, p. 231). For most of the 20th century, Colombo was a trilingual city – English, Sinhalese and Tamil.

Tamils are evident in the bustling market suburbs of Pettah and Wellawatte – the former has more up-country Tamils, the latter more (for want of a better term) indigenous Tamils. Strolling in the lungs of the city – Galle Face Green – you can hear the conversation of adults and the chatter of children, many of whom are speaking Tamil. They can be seen in the many lodges and guest houses that accommodated Tamils fleeing the war or trying to get jobs; they have to cope with the touts who charge exorbitant rents and the police who harass them regularly for their papers and seek bribes. It used to be said that the Tamils living in Colombo are mainly from the middle class and live in the better suburbs that are close to the city centre. Whether that was once a fact is a moot point; what has been noticeable since the 1990s is the growth of a transient population fleeing the war. These people reside in satellite suburbs around the city centre.

Many Tamils live with a sense of unease, remembering the riots against the Tamils in Colombo in 1958 and 1977 and the pogrom of 1983. A conservative estimate of the deaths in 1983 pogrom is around 2,000 with around 80,000 to 100,000 fleeing. As Thiranagama says, these stories ‘remained sedimented in Colombo’s landscape for Tamils, a secret history of violence that marked the whole city and passed on to those who never experienced them directly’ (Thiranagama, p. 240).

Many Tamils returned to Colombo in the 1990s to escape the barbarity of the security forces and the Tamil Tigers. Several of the returnees rebuilt their homes on the ashes of their old homes. Thiranagama sketches an instance in which one of her interviewees has to deal with their Singhalese neighbour, with whom they had been on friendly terms. He had participated in the deaths of their loved ones and the burning and the looting of their home – making their return problematic. Nobody has yet been charged for their role in the 1983 pogrom. This fraught relationship with the majority community and the rebuilding of the returnees’ lives are skilfully sketched by Thiranagama. She also describes intergenerational conflicts within extended families, how property is controlled and inherited, the psychological damage caused to victims of conflict and their need to provide for their children (Thiranagama, pp. 77-105).

Tamils also suffered under the terror attacks launched by the Tamil Tigers in the city, doubly so as they also became targets for the security forces and the state. Thiranagama also uncovered what she terms the ‘shadow diaspora’ – those who want to flee the Island, but cannot. They are shadows because they cannot get steady jobs, they live in substandard hostels, are harassed regularly by the police and live on remittances sent by their relatives from aboard. Maybe that is why for many Tamils, one of the most attractive features of Colombo that it has the country’s international airport.

One of the least researched and understood narratives is the plight of Tamil-speaking Muslims in the north and the east, who were caught in a vicious war between the Lankan state and the Tamil Tigers. Their plight has been eclipsed by the competing nationalisms of the Tamils and Sinhalese. The Muslims defined their identity not by ethnicity but religion.

The east of the country has a substantial population of Muslims – around 26 per cent of the total population (Thiranagama, p. 121). They lived in separate villages and towns; their relations with their Tamil neighbours were cordial and there was a certain amount of cultural exchange between the two communites. As Muslims began to create their own political parties, violent incidents occurred, and these were exploited by the Lankan military, who encouraged and armed certain sections of the Muslim populace. The most notorious incident occurred in the village of Karaitivu in 1985 where armed Muslim youths, with the support of the security forces, went on a rampage, killing several people and burning hundreds of homes.[3] Perhaps in reaction to this or because of the Muslims’ numerical strength in the east, an agreement was brokered in 1986 in Chennai.[4] The agreement stated that the Muslims in the east and the north were a distinct ethnic group, that it was their homeland and that they had a right to political representation and land (Thiranagama, pp. 124-125).

This détente did not last.  For reasons never articulated, the Tamil Tigers began a systematic cleansing of Muslims in the east, resulted in over 1,000 deaths. Though in no way justifiable: it could have been partly in reaction to the Lankan armed forces creating para-military groups amongst Tamil speaking Muslims to infiltrate and destroy Tamil militants. These attacks took place in the midst of a brutal war in which countless thousands of Tamil civilians were killed: what was new was the ferocity and deliberate, planned nature of the attacks by the Tamil Tigers.  These attacks continued under the aegis of the Lankan government, perpetrated by the Karuna faction that had defected from the Tamil Tigers. Land was also confiscated from Muslims by the government and the security forces (‘Sri Lanka’s Muslims’ 2007: pp. 6-9 and pp. 15-21).

The treatment of the 70,000 to 80,000 Muslims in the north by the Tamil Tigers is even more bewildering, as there had been no history of animosity between the communities, even during the early stages of the civil war and the futile and violent intervention by the Indian military to keep the peace. Unlike in the east, Muslims lived with the Tamil community in the villages and towns. They also shared similar kingship patterns and inheritance customs. The Tamil Tigers announced (with no reasons given) that the Muslims had 48 hours to leave LTTE controlled areas in the north. This became known as the Eviction. They were allowed only a limited amount of possessions; the rest was confiscated, including titles for land. These were then auctioned off by the LTTE (Thiranagama, pp. 106-182). The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has made statements expressing sorrow and stating that they are committed to the return of local Muslims. But this is only a start. Muslims must be a key partner in any concrete attempts at reconciliation and resettlement, the reduction of the military presence in the north and the east and the return of land.

The rise of Tamil militancy in the north and east in the 1970s was influenced by the rising militancy of Sinhalese youth in the south, in the form of the 1971 insurrection (which was brutally supressed by the state). Fuelling this militancy was a world-wide revolutionary ardour amongst the young in the sixties and the early seventies – the creation of Bangladesh in 1972 and the Vietnam War were two inspirational examples. Fuelling this were local factors: lack of jobs and development in Tamil dominated areas, the public service (a huge generator of jobs) becoming overwhelmingly Sinhalese, entry levels for Tamil students to tertiary education being made higher than for any other community and the impotence of the Federal Party in getting any concessions for Tamils. This made certain social obligations difficult, especially for young Tamil men. Without work they could not accumulate money for their sisters’ dowries (a central form of capital accumulation and transfer in the preservation of the status quo). Women also began to question their role in Tamil society and did not feel their influence should be limited to the domestic sphere. Many activists not from the dominant Vellalar caste also began to agitate against the unfairness of the whole caste system.

In Thiranagama’s words, ‘ideas about household, caste and marriage, rather than being pre-existent and stable foundation of non-political “cultural life” were in fact the very subject of potential political transformation, part of the struggle for this generation to produce a new sense of Tamilness’ (p. 184).

It is estimated that the Tamil activists of the 1970s and 1980s numbered around 44,800 – around 2.8 per cent of the population in the north and the east (Thiranagama p.188). They joined a plethora of parties including the LTTE (who were not the largest). This radical movement was either destroyed or driven underground by the brutal actions of the security forces and the Indian peace-keeping forces, bad political decisions and the ruthlessness of the LTTE in their quest to be the sole Tamil voice. With the LTTE at the helm, history, culture and political praxis were subordinated to the metanarrative of the national question, leaving issues of caste, the role of women and dowry as they had been (Thiranagama, pp. 183-227).

Sharika Thiranagama’s book is not without faults. It is marred by her need to enclose her findings within the armour of social theory. Too often Thiranagama interrupts the narrative and subordinates the voice of her subjects to the dictates of some social theorist.

Also, she does not adequately explain the political, economic and cultural context for the individual stories. She assumes her readership is aware of the overarching Sinhala–Buddhist hegemony which furnished the context of neo-liberal economic policies that enriched a few and impoverished many. From this arose an authoritarian form of democracy that viewed dissent as something to be suppressed. Thiranagama’s subjects have lived in, and reacted against, this environment. This helps to explain their political praxis and that of the movements they joined. The consequences were tragic: two bloody insurrections of young Sinhalese in the south,  periodic riots and a pogrom in 1983 against the Tamils, and a civil war that started in earnest after the pogrom and ended only in 2009. A chapter discussing these would have been helpful.

Notwithstanding these criticisms, Thiranagama’s book eloquently and sometimes movingly tells the stories of the silenced; those whose lives and search for justice are not reflected in the dominant discourse of the nation. There are surely many other such stories to be unearthed in the south. To do this it is essential that the culture of impunity and obfuscation in the guise of nationalism is challenged much more forcefully. One of the tragedies of the Island’s post-war history is that it was unable to develop a truly national and inclusive narrative and political culture. Sharika Thiranagama’s fine book reminds us that it is not only a possibility, but also essential.

Such is life.

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[1] Berger, John (2007) Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance, Verso p. 2

[2] Thiranagama, Sharika (2011) In My Mother’s House: Civil War in Sri Lanka, University of Pennsylvania Press.

[3] Sri Lanka’s Muslims: Caught in the Crossfire – Asia Report No: 134 – International Crisis Group. Retrieved: https://d2071andvipOwj.cloudfront.net/134-sri-lankas-muslims-caught-in-the-crossfire.pdf, p. 6

[4] The agreement was brokered by Dr Baddiuddin Mahmud a high ranking Muslim politician of the day and signed by Kittu on behalf of the LTTE. He was the political commander of Jaffna; and M.I.M. Mohideen of the Muslim Liberation Front (MULF) (Thiranagama: p. 125).

  • Nalliah Suriyakumaran

    I had not read the book but the review inspires me to buy the book. Michael had teased out some interesting political elements from that book. The elements such as The Tamil civil rights and self determination struggle contained movements that contested casteism , dowry and had attempted to create a new Tamilness , The horror that the Tamil muslims encountered at the hands of LTTE and almost complete invisibility of that tragedy to the wider Tamil community, The transient tamil population living in the outer suburb harassed by police , Many Tamils living in colombo with some unease and their stories sedimented in colombo’s landscape.

  • sach

    It seems the review is done by a person who does not have that much knowledge on SL issues and the ground reality. This is just the narrative the west wants to hear after having an ear full of tiger propaganda

    After having read what Dayapala Thiranagama says, it is no wonder his own daughter is not much knowledgeable on the issue and understand the ground reality.