Erasing the Past

Written by Daniah Ishtiaq  •  Features  •  May 2013 PDF Print E-mail

Despite the end of the civil war, a systematic pogrom of Tamils in Sri Lanka has raised serious concerns about the country’s future and its relationship with India.

In the 18th century, Tamils arrived in British Sri Lanka, a Buddhist Sinhalese majority area, as laborers for colonial plantations. Over time, this initial minority multiplied and constituted a strong 13% of the total population. Feeling threatened by a growing minority, the Sinhalese imposed their culture on the Tamil minorities; a move that isolated the Tamils and effectively made them second class citizens in Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese policy of exclusion eventually led to the formulation of both legitimate and illegitimate resistance movements by the Tamils, the most popular of which was the LTTE - Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (more famously known as the Tamil Tigers), in the 1970s.

Despite international efforts towards reconciliation, the struggle continued and took on a new life as President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government came to power in 2005 with a promise to crush the LTTE. The government initiated an unrelenting and extremely successful campaign to destroy the LTTE and, over a period of two years, a revitalized Sri Lankan military defeated the LTTE in umerous battles. The LTTE finally conceded defeat on May 17, 2009, ending 26 years of open conflict.

Despite the end of an era of overt warfare, allegations are rife regarding covert attempts to put the Tamils at a disadvantage. These include a lack of funds allocated to schools, hospitals and infrastructure in predominantly Tamil areas, the promotion of Sinhala settlements on Tamil land to economically hamper development and finally the deployment of army troops to intimidate native Tamils. Politicians and analysts argue that disturbing developments have taken place in recent times such as the renaming of Tamil villages, redefinition of village and town boundaries, demolishing of Hindu temples as well as lack of support and funding for internally displaced Tamil families point towards a systematic eradication of the once significant Tamil culture.

One can argue that cultural heritage is irreplaceable and its desecration is inexcusable, no matter how bloody or violent a history the country has had. The preservation of any culture demonstrates the necessity of protecting its past. To destroy temples or other forms of physical property, including art and architecture, of a minority that still lives and breathes on the same soil is a violent desecration of their heritage that not only belongs to the Tamil minority but also to the combined culture of what is present-day Sri Lanka. Furthermore, denying Tamils the right to freely practice their culture and religion hampers the intangible elements, which are the fundamentals that breathe life into the universal set of all the cultures that are a part of the country. However, such strategy serves the current government especially well as it will not allow the Tamils much opportunity to collectively rebel against the establishment again.

On the other hand, a case can be made that the ‘allegations’ are merely allegations and should not be taken at face value due to the tumultuous history of the region and hence there is more to the story than meets the eye. The Sri Lankan government can argue that this is not a planned squelching of Tamil culture but a natural order of things as society evolves, transforms and changes in continuity as it has in the past. There is nothing remotely stagnant about culture and it instead evolves with time. Each culture will always be separate and autonomous; merely changing a street name does not comprise an elaborate strategy aimed at sabotaging a culture.

However, given the history, the first scenario is most likely. DMK (a state political party in the states of Tamil Nadu and Paducherry India) President, M. Karunanidhi has voiced concern to both the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi in a letter where he has appealed for immediate action against what he calls ‘a systematic program of erasing the Tamil culture from Sri Lanka.’ He asserts that India has an undue moral obligation to get involved and put an end to the eradication of a culture and religion in its boundaries. Indeed, he has argued that Tamils in Sri Lanka are living in an oppressive environment.

The relationship between India and Sri Lanka is a multifaceted one with tremendous scope for significant expansion and rapid improvement in the coming years. Be it in trade or bilateral agreements, India and Sri Lanka will need to move off the thin ice they are on as issues of trust and cooperation remain. Having said this, a speedy reconciliation process in Sri Lanka (between the Tamils and Sinhalese) will have a salutary impact on further strengthening bilateral relations between India and Sri Lanka.

The US has already welcomed the passage of a resolution on Sri Lanka, sponsored by it at the UNHRC, saying the vote has sent a clear signal to Colombo that the international community is committed to promoting peace and stability in the country.  Unrest is, however, at a peak in Tamil Nadu, a community that demands firm Indian action against Colombo for alleged war crimes and subsequent human rights violations in the final phase of the Eelam war in 2009. 

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