Colombo, Identity, Jaffna, Language, Peace and Conflict

“Oya Sinhalade? Demalade?” – Questioning a question in post-war Sri Lanka

“Oya Sinhalade? Demalade?”

I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve had that question asked from me over the years. Ironically enough, in these days of ‘peace’ I’ve had it asked of me more and more frequently. Firstly in Colombo and now in Jaffna too. Jaffna – a town where 99% of the resident community is Tamil, the question is still asked. But why? What can one possibly gauge/assess by the response to that response? If both Sinhalese and Tamils are meted out the same treatment at a check point (or anywhere else this question is asked) what possible need is there to ask this question, unless our post-war land of ‘no minorities’ is a complete and utter falsehood?

A cynic you say? Making a mountain out of a mole hill? Alright. If that be the case, can anyone answer why this question is still asked of us? Nobody I’ve spoken to, to date, has been able to give a meaningful response. If not to discriminate, then what? Let’s assume military personnel have been instructed to ask this question of every single person that passes their checkpoint, as a matter of protocol. Could it possibly be for the sake of curiosity perhaps? Or perhaps the Military and the Government are running a secret survey as to how many Sinhalese and how many Tamils pass by a certain area, on a daily basis. Then what becomes of the Muslims and Burghers? Or do they not fall into such surveys?

Let’s take a quick inward glance, shall we? How many times have we gone to a check point, been asked this question and quite gleefully responded “api Sinhala” even when we’ve had Tamil friends or family in the vehicle, purely for convenience sake? At time, our Tamil friends may have encouraged us to do this too, to substantially reduce the hassle of dealing with security personnel, but this alone says much doesn’t it?

I was travelling to Keerimalai a few days back with a Tamil friend who was going to show me around, when we were stopped at a check point just outside the HSZ. I stayed silent until she nudged me and whispered “speak to them in Sinhala!” Even as I spoke to them, I felt sick in my gut at the fact that my friend who was showing me around ‘her’ hometown, somehow felt it would be ‘safer’ and ‘hassle-free’ if I spoke in Sinhala to get through the formalities. If by some chance we’ve not realized it as yet, it’s best we know now that by taking the more ‘convenient’ route, we’ve also, inadvertently, encouraged and endorsed this culture of discrimination, simply by way of acknowledging it to be the norm.

A Tamil friend of mine, who obviously speaks Sinhala quite convincingly, was stopped at a check point without his ID once. Having explained that he’d accidentally left it at home, he’d been told, “ape ekkenek ne malli, ithin kamak neha. Habai ena para ID eka gedara thiyala enna epa harida malli?” (Because you’re one of us it’s okay this time, but don’t leave it at home and come next time okay?) My friend for obvious reasons didn’t try to clarify his ethnicity. He’d simply nodded and walked off. But, how does this sort of action translate to a citizen who is not ‘ape ekkenek’? It’s been taken for granted now that Tamils are for the most part guilty until proven innocent. We’ve all accepted it, both Sinhalese and Tamils alike, by our unquestioning acceptance of this exceptional culture. A Tamil not speaking out against this sort of discrimination is justifiable. What excuse do the rest of us have?

Another, bolder Tamil friend of mine from an urban background, who also speaks Sinhala fluently, usually responds to this question saying “I’m Sri Lankan” followed by an innocent smile. How many other Tamils would risk doing that though?

And is that the ideal response to this question or should it not be asked at all?