and the taste of freedom
Thaniyum Intha Suthanthira Thagam? Endru Madiyum Engal
Annai Kai Vilangugal Pogum? Endremathu Innalgal Theernthu
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?)
D. B. S. Jeyaraj
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
struggle goes on
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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!
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.
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.