By Dr. Rajasingham Narendran
The onset of the Sinhala and Tamil New year, the narrative written by Rajes Bala titled ‘Strangers’ in the Asian Tribune (15/04/07) and the recent Doha debate on Palestinian refugees have provoked me to write of my people- the Tamils of Sri Lanka and their plight, once again.
The Tamil- Sinhala New Year which dawned on the 14th April, made me hark back to the days of my childhood in Badulla in the 1950s and what this day meant to us as children, individuals, families, a people and as Sinhalese and Tamils. It was a day we looked forward to with joy and much anticipation. Sweet meats were exchanged with neighbours, and it was a treat to receive freshly fried Kavung & Kokis, Kribath and Miris sambol from our Sinhala neighbours. Sweet Pongal, Vadai and other Tamilian sweets were also sent by us to our Sinhala neighbours. In the days following the New Year, Sinhalese who served us as the bread man, newspaper delivery man and vegetable vendor, former domestic helps and men who worked under my father would visit us along with their families and a sheaf of beetle leaves. They in the most touching and admirable tradition that yet survives among the Sinhalese would prostrate themselves with respect at my parents feet, to be entertained and honoured in turn. Even our Sinhala friends- boys and girls, in the neighbourhood, would do the same, when our parents visited them (unfortunately, we were not taught to do so in return!). The names and faces of Dr. Jayasundara (the Apothecary), his children- Lokku Acca, Punchi acca, Jayanthy, Palitha, Upali and Ungi, our neighbours and others linked to us like Saranelis, Piyadasa, Chandrawathy, Sudhu Banda, Vincent and Piyatilleka are yet etched in my memories. The Sinhala-Tamil divide was non-existent. Being the eldest child in my family I was always ‘Lokku Baby’ to some of them. I yet remember a large number of them seeking us out and visiting us, even after we left Badulla. Will such days and times ever return? Can we make this miracle happen?
[Photo By AselaSash]
Rajes Bala’s narrative of Chandran, Devaki and their son Kumaran is poignant and reflects the running battle between immigrant Tamil parents and their children. I have fought this battle all along and can say now that I have only partially succeeded. I can empathize with Chandran when he questions,” How many are like me, a refugee with no home, no land, no nation and no identity?” and says,” Hey you, the kids who come to London will pick up the language in no time but they will forget their own mother tongue unless at least you use it at home”. I can also understand the confusion in him when Kumaran, the son asks him,” Appa, was not my uncle killed in Sri Lanka?” and,” Was it not because he is a Tamil and spoke Tamil?” Senthil, the uncle, represents the relatives every Tamil family has lost in this unending war. This is one dimension of a cold war, being mainly fought by the fathers in defense of the Tamil language and culture. Most mothers, like Devaki, have probably because of their maternal protective instinct, been inclined more towards ensuring the safety and survival of their children, over that of preserving their language and culture, dictated of course by their bitter experiences. It is the biological imperative that males defend territory and the females protect their brood. The emotional price we are being made to pay for having been born Tamils has been too high and above tolerable thresholds. Should we continue to pay this price? For how long more should we pay this price, when we see no light at the end of the tunnel?
Although Rajes Bala’s narrative has invited some misguided adverse comments, because it painted the Sinhala soldiers in this instance as the only villains, the fact that the pain, injury, dispossession, displacement, dispersion and death experienced by a large number of Tamils, and comparatively smaller numbers of Muslims and Sinhalese, have left their mark on the affected people, especially the children, cannot be denied. I have myself experienced the cruelty of Sinhala thugs, kindness of Sinhala soldiers, inhumanity of the Tamil militants and the brutality of the Indian army. Other Tamils have been at the butt end of Sinhala soldier brutality and this is an undeniable fact as much as the brutality experienced by Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims at the hands of the LTTE. The underlying truth is that we have all been brutalized by the long running and meaningless civil war and in one way or other are paying a heavy price. The heaviest price is being paid by the Tamils, one aspect of which has been rather vividly portrayed by Rajes Bala. Almost two generations of children have been sacrificed at the alter of this war and have denied the Tamils a continuity into the future as a people with a beautiful and rich language and a vibrant culture, worth preserving. The world and Sri Lanka will be poorer for this loss.
[Photo By AselaSash]
While watching the monthly Doha debate on the right of return of Palestinian refugees chaired by Tim Sebastian on the BBC last night (15th April’07), I was touched by what a Palestinian journalist who has lived in a West Bank Refugee Camp for 40 years had to say. He said that the contentious issue of the right of return of Palestinian refugees presently living in other countries, and the dreams of these refugees to return to Palestine, has made the life of the Palestinians presently living in Palestine a nightmare. The pain in his voice and the emotions he experienced at the suffering of his people came across the screen to touch my heart. He reminded the Palestinians that they are in a hole and should not further deepen it. He wanted an immediate settlement with the Israelis, uncomplicated by discussions on issues such as right of return of refugees living in exile, to enable the Palestinians in Palestine, re-build their lives, bring up their children in an environment of peace and stability, and ensure the survival of the Palestinians as a people with a distinct identity in their own land. He underlined the fact that Palestinians did not have any dignity anymore and were on the verge of losing their identity. He was ready for peace with Israel at any cost to enable his people to survive, prosper and preserve their identity. His arguments were grounded on the misery and pain being lived by his people day in and day out in Palestine. He is a realist- a pragmatic man who feels deeply for his people. For him, the now had become more urgent than the dreams for tomorrow, the day after, the next month, next year or the distant future.
[Photo By HA]
Isn’t the situation worse for the Tamils in Sri Lanka, especially those living in her north and east? For the Tamils living in the north and east, the rights to life and sheer survival have become more important than the identity of being Tamils and defending their rights as Tamils. This desperation is palpable among all Tamils in Sri Lanka to varying degrees. The instinct to preserve life supersedes all other biological, cultural and social imperatives. Everything else in human life flows from being alive and having the where-with-all to keep on living.
Dr. Khalid Batarfi (Arab News 15/04/07), in an excellent article on the attempt by the Gulf States such as Dubai to build their countries on the Western model, wrote:
“Identity cannot be traded. Identity is who you are, what you are and why you exist. Identity is your today’s security and tomorrow’s warranty. If you lose your face and change your genes, you not only endanger the present, but forfeit your future too.”
“You can’t buy tomorrow, if you sell your yesterday and lose your today. Without a character to face the world with, you can’t face even yourself”
Very true indeed! This would be the rationale behind the argument of those on the Tamil side who favour the continuation of the armed struggle, as contemplated by the LTTE. However, such people forget that there is no identity to be secured, character to be defended, face to be saved or genes to be preserved, if a people are dead. We are a people on the verge of death. We are confronted with death day in and day out. Death has become a fact of day to day life for the unborn, new born, toddlers, children, teenagers, youth, middle-aged and the elderly. Death can come from pistol bullets, sub-machine gun rounds, long range artillery, road side bombs and suicide bombers, parcel bombs in public transport, land mines and aerial bombardment. Death is stalking us every where. It has become part of our shadow- sometimes it is at our backs, sometimes at the front, sometimes on the sides and at other times almost merged with us. Death is going in circles around us. We have to become philosophers, understanding the unavoidability of death even as toddlers. We can be killed by Tamils, Sinhalese or Muslims. We can kill Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims. Militants can kill us, soldiers can kill us, policeman can kill us and hired thugs and criminals can kill us. We cannot runaway from death. Death keeps pursuing us. It is relentless. It does not care who we are. A unitary Sri Lanka and an independent Tamil Ealam have become more important than our lives to the protagonists of the on-going and never-ending war. This war is being fought in our names- Sinhalese and Tamils. But we do not matter and our lives do not matter to those who fight. This war has developed dynamics of its own and only needs brief respites to re-invigorate it. Some people become popular because of this war. Some others gain power because of this war. Some others gain employment because of this war. Some others get elected because of this war. Yet others become rich because of this war. As long as this war caters to the interests of these people, it will remain a major industry in Sri Lanka. The cost in lives lost and misery generated do not matter to the architects of this war on both sides of the ethnic divide.
Considering these circumstances, are we Tamils making the hole we are in deeper, through the selfishness, foolishness, arrogance and short sightedness of our so-called leaders? The only leadership we have is the LTTE- though uncrowned, unelected and self imposed at present. Is the LTTE making the hole we are in bigger? The hole has been getting deeper and deeper with every passing year and we as Tamils are being sucked into a bottomless abyss. We are in a hole with respect to our right to life. We are in a hole with regard to every parameter- health (physical and mental), shelter, food, education and means to livelihood, that are of importance to a human being.
Airplanes modified to carry bombs, submarines, warships, suicide bombers, road side claymore mines and landmines, hand grenades, grenade launchers , long range artillery and multi-barrel artillery will not pull us out of the hole we are in. Victories or defeats in the battle front will not pull us out of this abyss. These are only making the hole deeper and deeper. Should the survival of the Tamils as a people become the only concern of the LTTE, at least now? The sacrifice in terms of lives, suffering and resources committed by the Tamils has not paid any dividends over the past three decades. Should the dreams of the Tamil Diaspora be permitted to become our nightmare? Should we continue on the same path? Our dream of an independent Tamil Ealam has been made into our worst nightmare by the ways of those who grabbed the mantle of our leadership. Isn’t it time for us to pause and ask questions? Should our only concern now be to ensure the survival of our people, regeneration of their lives and re-establishment of our culture and social structures? Are Tamil Ealam and the war to attain it, the only alternative we have as a people now? Are there other alternatives? What are these alternatives? Which is the most appropriate alternative? How are we going to pursue it?
[Photo By HA]
These are questions we should be asking ourselves now. Our so-called leaders must be made to listen to what we want. We have heard enough of what they want. We have been made to follow a path they have chosen for us. This has landed us in a hole that is getting deeper by the day. If our leaders can help us climb out of this hole, it will be well and good. If they are unwilling, we have to use our resources to climb out. Our demand to climb out of what is becoming a bottomless pit should be loud and clear. The louder it is the better. The more of us who vent this cry, the louder will it sound and the more effective it will be. We cannot be passive anymore. We cannot fear death anymore, since death is any way upon us, whether we resist or not. We have to take a stand in order to survive as a people. It is our right to live and not die at someone else’s whim. It is human to err, but it is divine to repent. It is time we repent for having lost control of the struggle for our rights and make our so-called leaders repent for having hijacked our struggle and destroyed it. Let us now fight to live and then work to regain our rights in a different way, at a different time and with a different leadership. We need to put an end to the war and all that it entails now. Let us recover our sanity as a people and calculate our bearings under the prevalent circumstances. We are lost. We need the time and space to take stock, understand our present needs and charter our future course. To do all this, we have to put an end to our armed struggle, the ensuing war and the accompanying spectre of violence and death now. It is time we took matters into our hands, as a people.
“ETHICS ARE RESPECT FOR LIFE- WHERE THAT RESPECT EXTENDS TO INFINITY”
“BEFORE I HARM A LIVING CREATURE, OF NO MATTER WHAT KIND, I MUST CAREFULLY EXAMINE WHETHER OR NOT MY ACTION IS INEVITABLE’