The Jaffna I knew

By R Sundaralingam

I was in Colombo a few months ago for a wedding in the family. My wife and I were staying at Hotel Taj Samudra. The Tri-Series cricket matches that were scheduled at that time were a complete wash-out and that gave us all Taj residents of the day the opportunity to mingle with the cricket teams who were also billeted in the hotel.

There were a couple of traditional Jaffna Tamil Hindu weddings being held there and. I observed the new brides and grooms, all in their fresh wedding finery, catching up with the Sri Lankan cricket heroes and posing for keepsake photographs; their families scuttled for autographs and a general spirit of bonhomie and camaraderie pervaded the hotel lobby even while it was raining cats and dogs outside. Sanath Jayasuriya, Kumar Sangakara, Mahela Jayawardane were the most sought after for pictures.

Was this something from the past? I say this, because this personified the spirit of the erstwhile Sinhala-Tamil harmony of which I carry nostalgic memories, quite different from what prevails today. The very fact that Tamil couples and their families were scrambling to pose for pictures with Sinhala cricketers and seeking their autographs show that deep down, we are all Sri Lankan, proud of our icons, whatever their race or community. And that gave me so much pleasure remembering the flavour of what was a more spacious period now past. That was the context in which my mind harked back to the Jaffna I left in 1972 which is in no way near to the one I came back to in 2006.

In the background of the ethnic conflict that has been tearing the fabric of this country for the past so many decades now, I was immediately taken back to those bygone, not too distant days when such a situation would have been impossible to ever imagine. It would have been blasphemous to even think of. That was the golden era of Sinhala-Tamil harmony, when in the peaceful Jaffna town Tamils, Sinhala and Muslims excelled in different trading pursuits, all living in harmony. The Sri Lanka I remember, the Jaffna I knew, were vastly different from today’s.

I go back to the days when I served as Superintendent of Police, Northern Province, from 1966 to 1972 when there was just one senior SP in charge of each of the country’s nine provinces. My charge was what was then the single Northern Police Division, later separated into the Jaffna and Vavuniya divisions, through the days of the governments of Dudley Senanayake (1965-70) and Sirima Bandaranaike (1970- 77).

The national government of Dudley Senanayake led by the UNP came to power in 1965 on the support extended by the combined strength of the 20 elected Tamil MPs of S.J.V Chelvanayam’s Federal Party and G.G. Ponnambalam’s Tamil Congress. The Federal Party member M Tiruchelvan was named the Minister in the Cabinet responsible for Local Government. His job, clearly, was to formulate a workable proposition for devolution of power at the provincial and district levels.

This was the beginning of a conscious conjunction of interests, of a well defined political reconciliation between the Sinhala and the Tamil political parties. Senanayake’s government with its mandate for communal amity created tremendous goodwill in the North and the East. Politically, the biggest talking point of the day was the prime minister’s visit in 1967 to Jaffna to lay the foundation for the model market. It was an occasion that has been etched in the memory of everyone present on that occasion or remembers it from that time. The rousing welcome, the surging applause, the heartfelt reception that greeted the PM has been scarce repeated and never accorded to any political personality before. Even as the common man was effusive in his hospitality, leaders of rival Tamil political parties vied with each other to welcome a leader who was then the beacon of hope of Sinhala-Tamil harmony, who personified what all of us wanted for our country. This was the beginning. There followed a continuous flow of Sinhala politicians and ministers to Jaffna, something that had only been a trickle earlier. They came on one pretext or the other, visiting the Tamil areas as a matter of routine. The bond was palpable and the links continuous.

R. Premadasa who took over later from Tiruchelvam as Minister, Local Government immediately visited Jaffna and the rest of the province on assuming office. He initiated several development projects. He was accorded a welcome that was both warm and welcoming. Five hundred meters of red carpet was rolled out for him from the Pallaly airport where he landed to Tinnevelly on the Jaffna road. This trend continued even in Mrs. Bandaranaike’s time with ministers Dr. N M Perera, Dr. Colvin R de Silva, Felix Dias Bandaranaike, Mathirapala Senanayake, Pieter Keuneman and host of others all being frequent and regular visitors, planning projects in the North. The visits of the various ministers and Sinhala politicians created tremendous goodwill and promoted a close Sinhala-Tamil amity warmer than ever before. This was the Jaffna I left in 1972.

Law and order was at its very best in this period. The Jaffna man, then, was a peace loving, reticent personality and the Northern Province recorded the lowest crime rate in the country. The average homicide rate for the province was 32 a year and this was mainly over land disputes or domestic discord. Whatever disputes there were, were confined to minor pockets arising out of localized issues centred on caste based temple entry and related biases.

Eradication of caste discrimination

One of my accomplished missions during my posting as the chief of police in the Northern Province and something that gave me immense satisfaction, was the eradication of caste discrimination in the region – particularly in terms of temple entry, use of public wells, etc. Of course, it attracted the ire of the influential, well placed, high caste members of Jaffna society who misconstrued this process of emancipation.

I recall with pride that during this period there was little or no premeditated crime and the use of firearms was a rarity. Crime was largely petty and offences not serious. Interestingly, it was cycle thefts that predominated in a region where sometimes a family owned as many as three bicycles. The only crime necessitating a security forces counter, if at all, was smuggling.

This was again concentrated in Velvettithurai. There was a flourishing two-way smuggling across the Palk Straits with VVT as the hub. Spices and coconut oil was moved out of Sri Lanka while India provided textiles of a bewildering variety ranging from silks from Kanchipuram and, surprisingly, Manipur, as well as sarongs bearing the Chanku mark and Paalayakattu brand, joss sticks and perfumes, Tamil film magazines and song books etc. and worst of all, opium. Indian opium was one the most sought after commodities that was smuggled into Sri Lanka at that time. In fact, this has been an age-old practice with the exchange of coded messages like, ‘I am sending Meenakshi, you send Kamakashi.’

These smuggling rings were often broken on information received and then set up again and broken once more. The cycle went on with crests and troughs but smuggling was never completely eradicated. This has now taken a totally different avatar. There was otherwise no militancy, no insurgency, no organized crime. There were pockets of rebellious youth activity, particularly over the policy of standardization of marks for university admission that was introduced in 1970, but there was no widespread political agitation with violent and fissiparous elements in them. This is the Jaffna I left in 1972.

The police, nearly 1,000-strong, manned 24 police stations in the six districts of the Northern Province and was the main law enforcement agency. Though Pallaly camp was the military base, the army and navy played a very minor role in the region. The six army outposts comprised about 700 soldiers while the naval base in Karainagar had 100 personnel and two patrol boats that had little to do except occasionally patrol the shore to prevent illegal migration from Tamil Nadu and the rest of south India.

That is the irony of the situation today. Illicit immigration posts were set up along the coast of northern Sri Lanka in the 50s and the 60s to monitor and control the illegal people traffic from South India to Northern Sri Lanka. Now the tide has turned and the traffic is in the reverse direction.

There was a craze for Tamil films in the 60s and 70s to such an extent that the Tamil youth would take boats from Velvettithurai to Nagapattinam or Vedanaranyam on the Tamil Nadu coast to see the ‘first day first show’ of new Tamil film releases and get back the next dawn.

Sinhala Buddhist pilgrims flocked in thousands to Nagadeepa (Naina Tivu), in the Jaffna peninsula once a year during the Poson Festival in Anuradhapura. This was a regular and revered pilgrimage, akin to the visit to Bodh Gaya in India. Legend has it that Nagadeepa was one of the first places that Lord Buddha visited in the three trips that Sinhala Buddhist tradition has it that he made to Sri Lanka. The other two are Sri Pada and Kelaniya or Kalyani in the Gampaha district.

JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera

When the JVP uprising in the early 70s took place and the JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera was arrested in Amparai in 1971, the Security Council under Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike decided that he should be confined to the civilian Jaffna prison, within the Dutch Fort, under my direct custody. This was primarily for security reasons as the Northern Province was the safest, most trouble free place in the country then. Historically, the Dutch Fort was taken over by the Dutch from the Portuguese in 1658. It had only four principal buildings, the Jaffna prison, the Police Superintendent’s residence, King’s House (VIP residence meant mainly for the Governor and Supreme Court Judges doing the Jaffna assizes) and the Dutch Presbyterian Church. It’s unique layout, imposing ramparts and designed moat made it a major tourist attraction. Unfortunately, all that is gone today, having been razed to the ground.

The spin-off for me from the decision to send Wijeweera to Jaffna was that as the police chief of the Northern Province, I got to personally interact with him and this helped me understand the JVP thinking of that time. In fact, this brings to my mind the prescient prediction of Wijeweera that the Tamil youth will also one day rebel against authority. Apparently, he could read the writing on the wall, during his stay in Jaffna prison for over a year, intermingling with the Tamil prison guards and the Tamil speaking co-prisoners.

The JVP insurgency of 1971 was an eye-opener for the Tamil youth. It was the precursor of the expression and assertion of the Tamil identity. As I see it, perhaps, this is where the seeds of Tamil rebellion against the State were sown.

Education was the life blood of Jaffna. Schools spaced a mile apart literally spilled over each other. Satchel-carrying school children rushing for classes at early hours was a common sight. Ambitious adults drove their children to academic excellence and the rewards that would bring. This explains the attainment of Tamils in the professions and many other walks of life. All the MPs from the Northern Province were lawyers, upright and dedicated men of integrity and honesty, who never interfered with the administration of the police or other agencies of the government.

Tamil peasant

This was complemented by the hard working rural Tamil peasant who eked a hard living from the demanding soil. What they produced was an agricultural miracle, making their fields bloom in an arid climate. Their hard work produced a bounty of red onions, bananas, mangoes and much more trucked in lorries across Elephant Pass to markets in Colombo and elsewhere. The Jaffna farmer’s prosperity was hard earned and well deserved, a tribute to his spirit of wresting his living from a demanding soil under extremely dry conditions.

India and Sri Lanka have shared a long and cherished history of harmony and goodwill, with trade, culture, history, anthropology and religion all being part of the connection. The efflorescence of religious interactions in both Hinduism and Buddhism are a matter of everyday life and if Hinduism found an extended expression in the island, Buddhism came to its own in this land. The continued and sustained goodwill visits of Indian luminaries like V.V. Giri, Vijaylakshmi Pandit and Jayaprakash Narayan, with Jaffna part of their itinerary, nourished these ties.

Even as they visited Sri Lanka as guests of the government, they held aloft the flag of good neighbourly relations and the undeniable socio-cultural umbilical cord that binds the two countries together, and Jaffna in particular. The bonding was so strong that I distinctly recall Vijaylakshmi Pandit’s visit. It was pouring cats and dogs and there was a distinct possibility of the venue of the meeting that had been arranged having to be changed from the open air to a confined, closed venue. When the change was proposed, Mrs. Pandit matter-of-factly retorted, ‘When the Nehru family speaks, rain, thunder or storm, people flock to hear them.’ This proved true. Such was their magic.

Reminiscences can seldom end and I can go on and on. This is more so, in the context of the present day situation which is a stark study in contrast with conflict rife and discord the order of the day. My mind goes back to the days of not so long ago when harmony reigned and the issues were more esoteric and less existential. Maybe to bring back peace to Sri Lanka, for Sri Lanka to live up to the dream of being the ideal democracy, for the country to vindicate the promise of its independence and be a showpiece cradle of communal harmony, nourishing society and economic prosperity, there needs to be a more guided vision, a more motivated political will with no petty fogging on either side.

This is something waiting to happen and maybe from the prevailing chaos, reason will prevail. It sounds a pipe dream maybe and too idealistic. But given the education, the exposure, the opportunity, the right of choice and the right to exercise that choice by free will democracy will triumph. The Buddhist ideology of harmony, the Buddhist message of peace and the Buddhist tenet of dharma cannot but prevail in this land of the Buddha.

(The writer retired from the Sri Lanka Police as a Senior DIG and worked for many years at Interpol as a specialist in narcotics)

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