8th  February, 2004 Volume 10, Issue 30

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ISSUES

Tamils and the taste of freedom

"Endru Thaniyum Intha Suthanthira Thagam? Endru Madiyum Engal Adimayin Mogam?

Endremathu Annai Kai Vilangugal Pogum? Endremathu Innalgal Theernthu Poyyaagum?"

Black Independence

(When will this thirst for freedom be quenched? When will this slavish infatuation cease? When will our mother's handcuffs vanish? When will our troubles end and become lies?)

- Subramania Bharathi

By D. B. S. Jeyaraj 

Sri Lanka celebrated its 56th year of freedom from the British in a lacklustre manner on February 4. The President and Prime Minister put on a camera friendly performance for the country at large via the media. Looking at the amiable interaction of both, few would have thought that these two personalities are in the thick of a bitter feud threatening to plunge the island into chaotic crisis. But then appearances are deceptive.

There was also this magnificent display of military might. Such an exhibition of armoured vehicles had not been put on show during Independence Day celebrations in recent times. News agencies hinted that this performance was for the benefit of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Apparently, this was part of the strategy of deterrence - the Tigers would be 'shellshocked' by this awesome display of military power and abandon all ideas of returning to war.

Low morale

If that was indeed the hope then one can only say, 'pathetic'. It was not very long ago that this awesome military might crumbled tragically in the wake of an LTTE military onslaught codenamed Operation Unceasing Waves. The greater part of the Wanni mainland and lower portions of the peninsula including strategic Elephant Pass were recaptured by the Tigers. Jaffna too was tottering and only international pressure on the LTTE prevented its fall. The long planned counteroffensive - Agni Kheela - was routed ignominiously by the LTTE.

The only thing the armed forces have to show as proof of military prowess in Jaffna is the bombed out Thenamaratchy division including its capital Chavakachcheri. This too was not done in fierce face to face combat. The destructive capacity of multi-barrel arsenals were turned on the area after the Tigers vacated it. The idea was to demonstrate the readiness on the part of the armed forces to destroy and 'scorch earth' places that they had supposedly liberated to protect.

Puerile exercise

The recent controversy over deep penetration squads and the glowing tributes paid to it indicate only one thing. The military morale has sunk so low that a bunch of glorified assassins are being hailed as a military instrument par excellence. Covert operations and killer squads are never acknowledged or praised by those in power because of the 'negativity' attached to those. It is still not clear as to whether these 'assassinations' are lawful or whether they are war crimes. Yet, the triumphant publicity generated by these killer squads only show the depths to which our morale has descended.

The reality is that the Sri Lankan armed forces as of now have reached their limits. They are unable to effectively retain and control extensive territory in the north-east. They are also unable to wrest back significant territory through ground operations. The large scale desertions show that despite all the political prattling those personnel who have actually seen combat are voting with their feet.

This being the actual situation, the display of military might at independence celebrations can only be described as a puerile exercise. The LTTE knows the full extent of military capability in the south. The world at large knows it. That's why the international community is trying hard to promote the peace process and contain the Tigers through negotiations.

Unless and until the international community including India is prepared to actively deploy troops and other military assets on the side of Colombo this military power balance is likely to remain the same. Hence the Manirasakulam camp affair gathering dust after generating all that heat.

All this prolonged pomp and pageantry would not have been possible if there was no ceasefire. The government would have had only had a "token" celebration and most probably the Presidential message to the nation may have been relayed from within the safety of President's House.

Even now the conducive climate for a lavish Independence Day celebration made possible through a ceasefire cannot blind us to the reality that the Sri Lankan state's writ has shrunk in more ways than one in the past decades. The Indo-Lanka accord of 1987 and "annexure" letters have restricted the sovereignty of the state considerably. This state of affairs could worsen if and when a defence pact is signed with India. In spite of being "independent," Sri Lanka cannot 'lease, sell or gift' the Trincomalee tank farm to any agency deemed hostile by India.

The phenomenon of directly and indirectly controlled territory by the LTTE in the north-east reduces state power further. Today, an international monitoring mission is present here demarcating lines of control, alien fisherfolk are infringing our territorial waters with impunity and destroying its marine resources. Against this backdrop of the state armed forces being unable to exercise full control over proclaimed territory the 'boru show' of military strength in Colombo makes a mockery of the word independence in its fullest meaning.

The struggle goes on

If this is the reality of independence from a national perspective there are other viewpoints too. The LTTE sponsored anti-freedom day demonstrations and black flag protests in the north-east revived memories of the '60s and '70s. The advent of the Federal Party and rise of Tamil nationalism saw the Tamil polity being asked to treat Freedom Day as a day of mourning. The rationale was that independence from British had only resulted in bondage under Sinhalese. There was only a change of masters. So Independence Day was nothing to celebrate about, but only to be observed as a black day.

These symbolic protests underwent a change after the Republican Constitution of 1972. Thereafter, May 22nd too was observed as a black day. February 4th lost a little of its significance. The symbolism of black flags on Independence Day however continued. In any event the sword bearing lion on the national flag seemed intent on tearing to shreds the stripes outside the square denoting minorities. The escalation of the conflict and resultant suffering made the very concept of independence meaningless to Tamils.

The Tamil political psyche too had changed over the decades. Tamils saw themselves as being on par with the Sinhalese as a founding race of this nation during the Ramanathan-Arunachalam era; the G. G. Ponnambalam period saw Tamils thinking of themselves as the premier all island minority; S. J. V. Chelvanayagam years saw the Tamils regarding themselves as a territorial minority of the north-east; the Amirthalingam years and the emergence of the TULF saw Tamils perceiving themselves as a distinct nationality with a separate homeland and the right of self-determination. Pirapaharan and other militant leaders led an armed struggle to liberate this homeland on the basis of the 1977 mandate for Tamil Eelam. That struggle, ceasefire notwithstanding continues still.

State of mind

Tamil Eelam is a 'state' of mind. Even though current freedom day protests are whipped up by the Tigers there is no denying that past years of oppression and suppression have inculcated among Tamils a feeling of alienation in the land of their forefathers.

The Jaffna kingdom lost its sovereignty on the battlefield to the Portugese in 1619. It was then ceded to the Dutch in 1658; the British took over from the Dutch in 1796. It was only in 1832 after the Colebrooke reforms that the Tamil territory was integrated into a unified Ceylon. Until then they were administered separately.

In 1948, the British transferred power to the Sinhala majority. It is the Tamil position that the 1947 dominion constitution, 1972 and 1978 constitutions, etc., were imposed on Tamils without the consent of the majority of their elected representatives. Tamil sovereignty therefore lies within the Tamil nation still and the Sinhala majority has no right to dominate. This position often stated on political platforms was argued brilliantly by Murugesu Tiruchelvam at the Amirthalingam trial at bar case of 1976.

The symbolism of black protests on Independence Day caused by post-independence problems should not blind us to the fact that a significant section of the Tamils was in the vanguard of a freedom struggle against the British. The south after the 1818 and 1848 rebellions was generally quiet during British rule. The dominant Sinhala political class preferred to cooperate rather than confront the British. As a result this nation never had an anti-colonial struggle as in India.

Hypocrisy

The nearest to an anti-British, pro-freedom struggle in the country came from the north. It emanated from the now forgotten Jaffna Youth Congress led by the likes of Handy Perinbanayagam, Orator Subramaniam, C. Ponnambalam, etc. Fired by the ideals espoused by Mahatma Gandhi the Youth Congress demanded "poorana Swaraj" (complete independence) and urged a boycott of the first State Council elections in support.

It is recorded that hundreds of Jaffna youths ran about the town streets shouting "Swaraj" after listening to a lecture by Kamaladevi Chatobadhyaya. The 1931 boycott was observed only in Jaffna. The rest of the country did not follow suit and the boycott ultimately ended in failure. British scholar Jane Russell compared the Jaffna boycott to parallel developments during the Indian freedom struggle and observed that it was like the turkey cock trying to imitate the dance of the peacock.

Later, southern historians tried to distort the boycott call and depicted it as a communal cry. That however was untrue. The Youth Congress boycott was inspired by nobler motives. That is why Philip Gunewardena then abroad wrote to the searchlight hailing the Jaffna Youth Congress move and urged the Sinhalese to follow suit.

The Youth Congress also conducted several meetings, sathyagrahas, etc, in support of freedom. Two noteworthy feats were the boycott of a visit to Jaffna by then Prince of Wales and the hoisting of the Nandhi (crouched bull) in place of the Union Jack on Empire Day. The nandhi was the standard of the Jaffna Kings.

So now political vicissitudes have compelled Tamils to demonstrate with black flags on Independence Day. The roots of this development and the emotive background to it is understandable. It is to be hoped that a satisfactory resolution of the Tamil national question would bring about a remarkable change in Tamil attitudes towards independence from the British in the future.

There is however a strong element of hypocrisy in the Tigers encouraging Tamils in the north-east to protest the denial of freedom symbolically. The harsh existential reality nowadays is that the LTTE too denies basic freedoms to the Tamils under their control. From conscription of minors to imposition of taxes, from elimination of political rivals to abductions and torture, the list of incidents where Tamils are being denied basic freedoms is endless.

Freedom from oppression

It appears that Tamils who agitated for independence against the British, Indians and Sinhalese are now under a domestic yoke of tyranny. Of course the LTTE and supporters will either deny these oppressive acts or seek to justify them as being necessary on the road to freedom. While it is true that the LTTE has been waging war on behalf of the Tamils and has dealt Sinhala supremacist hegemonism a crippling blow, that cannot be allowed to whitewash the internal suppression of Tamil rights.

Whatever the excuses, there is no denying that during this period of non-conflict the single largest entity denying fundamental freedoms to a significant number of Tamils is the LTTE! If there are regions in the country where inhabitants are deprived of genuine independence even after a ceasefire then those are the Tiger controlled areas!

Under these circumstances the Tigers trying to protest the symbolism of February 4, smacks of colossal double standards. The need of the hour is not to protest Independence Day, but to remove the controls and strictures imposed on the Tamil people through force by the Tigers.

When will Tamils achieve true and complete freedom from oppression of all types and from all quarters? Until then the immortal words about freedom by the greatest 20th century Tamil bard - Subramania Bharathi - will continue to echo in Tamil ears.

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