Colombo, Human Rights, Jaffna, Media and Communications, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

Identity in Jaffna and Jewish Badge in Germany

Tamil residents in Jaffna are reportedly being forced to carry a special document of identification issued by security forces, in addition to the national identity card provided by the Emigration and Immigration Department. In other words, these Tamils have been ignominiously reduced, in the eyes of government authorities, to the status of non-nationals of their own country.

Not only that, in order to get this security clearance, as reported in a weekend newspaper, one is obliged to disclose his/her political affiliations too.

About 20 years ago, the visa application form of the USA in their Paris diplomatic mission contained a rather impolite question like this: “Have you ever been a member of a political party affiliated with Marxism?”

It is possible that the USA has a right to pore over all outsiders wishing to enter their territory, though it may be queried as to its political correctness in a world where one’s right to hold any political opinion is inalienably guaranteed in a democracy of which the USA claims to be the world’s leading guardian. In our case, the person involved is not a foreigner but a citizen of the same country whose political opinion is demanded to be divulged by security personnel. A precedent of more vicious variety can be traced to a catastrophe that swept Europe, some 68 years back.

The country of initiation was Germany under Adolf Hitler. He legalized a system, not only in his country but also in the countries he consequently subjugated, to identify a segment of the population for the initial purpose of discriminatory administrative measures, and to facilitate the process of human selection for the Holocaust named ‘Final Solution” to the Jewish Question, at a later stage. Under this law, all Jews over 10 years of age had to wear a yellow badge in the shape of the six pointed Star of David inscribed with the word “Jude”, on the upper left hand side of the dress.

The history of Jewish people being derogatively identified as second-class citizens of wherever they happened to live goes back to a period earlier than the Middle Ages. As recorded history abundantly testifies, Jews have been condemned from time to time in various societies to live with a social stigma, characterized by external symbols like badges, most often the Star of David worn on the chest or bands of different colors wrapped over the head. However, this practice had gone into oblivion by the beginning of the 20th century.

In 1935, two years after coming to power in Germany Hitler took it upon himself to deprive all Jews of their citizenship thereby making a sizable segment of the German population a People sans state. In 1939, he legalized the Jewish badge, which was to be worn by every Jew over 10.

Some ethnic groups can be identified by countenance. ‘He looks like a Tamil”, we have heard many Sinhalese uttering in referring to people of dark complexion. Nowadays, as revealed in the media and in some court cases, our police officers manning road blocks seem to be going by these characteristics, if not to apprehend suspects of terrorism, at least to maltreat innocent Tamils. Jews too, though not scientifically proven, are believed to be having certain features like a long nose different from that of other ethnic groups. However, their way of dressing certainly marks them out as Jews, to which they have no objection at all. On the contrary, they have all along been proud to be identified as Jews and preferred to be distinct from others in every respect. It is like a traditional Sinhalese with an Ariya Sinhala national dress wishing to be identified, not without some sense of pride, as a true Sinhalese.

Yet, if a certain government with the intention of humiliating or persecuting a section of its own population, especially on racial or religious grounds, endeavors to enact discriminatory criteria the ethnic and religious sensibilities of those people would definitely be hurt.

With the beginning of the Second World War, Hitler’s “Final Solution” that paved way for the Holocaust in Europe needed an efficient mechanism to single out Jews. The result was the adoption of the Jewish badge. A political commentator who witnessed this new phenomenon on its first day of implementation has noted thus; “Yesterday I saw people on the streets. Today I see Jewish people and non-Jewish people.”

This new arrangement caused so much of pain to Jews that most of them curtailing their outings consigned themselves to be indoors, a virtual voluntary house arrest. If it were necessary go out they carried something like a book so that they could hide the badge being shown, by way of holding the book over the badge. If caught not wearing the badge due to sheer reluctance in some cases or mere forgetting with many elders, one earned the wrath of the authorities resulting in being thrown into prison with no clemency. Therefore, the trauma instilled in the mind of the affected was such that people resorted to a habit of getting a hand written notice displayed on the interior side of their house doors as a precaution against probable absentmindedness. “Is the badge OK?” “Don’t forget the badge” “Where is your badge?’ are the common reminders.

The resemblance between hometown and homeland that existed in Sri Lanka was decisively undermined during the last 30-40 years with homeland gaining a refined political significance. There was a time when a Sinhalese villager referring to his place of birth as “I am from Matara” was not at all different from a Tamil referring to his birthplace as “I am from Jaffna”. But while the Sinhalese retained the same connotation of cultural root regarding his birthplace, the Tamil was forced by circumstances not of his making to redefine the same statement with an added political weight, thereby wedging a permanent cleavage between the two terms. Now for the Tamil nationalist, Jaffna is not just the backwater he was born into, but also a territory his ethnic spirit claims adherence to. This paradigmatic semiological shift with crucial political underpinnings was making headway in the war weary psyche in the northeast region in proportion to the degree in which the Tamil was relegated to the status of a second-class citizen. The responsibility squarely lies with the Sinhala rulers.

Even after shifting from the hometown to the concept of homeland I believe the Tamil people are still largely capable of resigning themelves to live in a united Sri Lanka with their Sinhala brethren. May be that is their sincere wish too. But one cannot live by wishful aspirations alone. They might keep on clinging to the inclination of co-existence as long as they manage to perceive themselves as equals with Sinhala-Buddhists. But having to carry the national identity card in one hand and a military attestation in the other hand to prove your worthiness as a resident of a particular region would push you to run an extra mile in claiming a separate state where you won’t be an outcast anymore.

Sometimes I wonder whether while we have been habitually misreading our history, Tamils have been writing the history for us. Those who sympathize with the terror unleashed by the JVP as a “youth uprising” in the south, do not hesitate to brand the LTTE as a terrorist outfit. Those who still curse the ruthless state suppression in the 80’s cheer the same when meted out on the north.

Self-deception is fascinatingly soothing, of course. We have to believe that we are winning the war, in the first place. We have to believe that Prabhakaran’s last birthday has passed, once and for all. The day we hoist our patriotic lion flag in Kilinochi is “in the sight”, for sure!

Therefore, let us keep “Waiting for Godot”.

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