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Five Miscalculations (Part 05)

The Appapillai Amirthalingam Eightieth Birth-anniversary Memorial Lecture ',A Time for Tamil Introspection and Reassessment in the midst of Myth and Propaganda '; delivered by Prof. S, Ratnajeevan Hoole on London, 26 August, 2007

4. Believing Tamil histories to be right and Sinhalese histories to be propaganda

The fourth myth among us Tamils, overlapping with the first, is that our Tamil histories are right and Sinhalese histories are all propaganda. That Sri Lankan histories are full of distortions upholding the Sinhalese image of themselves is without doubt true. I have laboured this point at length in my talk at my Amnesty International—University of Toronto Lecture this past April. I do not need to tell a mainly Tamil audience that and waste valuable talk time. We have suffered under these Sinhalese myths – most of all the myth that we are invaders in Sri Lanka not entitled to the same rights as they. I will focus on Tamil myths because many of you may not be aware of these. We believe there was no Tamil violence in the several riots but I can personally testify that school boys picked up biscuits off Hospital Road when City Bakery was smashed up. Those who look at the Sansoni Commission evidence taken down in Kilinochchi will see records of Sinhalese migrant workers having been raped. Although Tamil violence was of a much smaller order and even reactive, we must be mindful of the full perspective. We believe that Alfred was a traitor deserving of death but if he was a traitor then that third of Jaffna that backed him also must be deemed deserving of death. In Toronto I pointed out histories attempting to make false claims belittling Christian Tamil contributions with respect to C.W. Thamotherampillai and Navalar’s role in Bible translation.

How we work is best illustrated by the story of a Far Eastern Monk who used to go about Jaffna in the late 1980s beating a drum for peace. One day he was shot by one of our groups. An FP activist came home and told me, “They say he was shot by our boys on mere suspicion. But there is also a story that when questioned by our boys he took out a radio and a pistol and launched a karate attack that necessitated his killing. When you go back tell your contacts the latter story because it is in our favour.” The problem is when we believe our own lies.

The Tamil nationalist Juggernaut makes very good propaganda. Take for example my good friend Urumpirai Sivakumaran. The website TamilNation.Org says that he studied at Urumpirai Hindu College up to the G.C.E. Advanced Level (AL), majoring in Chemistry …[and that] he had worked for the success [of the 1974 Tamil Research Conference]. It adds that “On June 5, 1974, Sivakumaran was trapped by the police.... He was 17 years of age and knowing about police torture if he were caught, he used to carry a cyanide pill. On that day he swallowed it without so much as an afterthought and died almost instantly. ” TamilNation has knocked 7 years off his age to make him a schoolboy. And he did not die instantly but much later at the hospital, after his stomach was washed out. I was in Jaffna that day. A girls’ school principal told me on the day he died based on what she had been told: “Sivakumaran rejected his seat at the university to fight for Tamil rights”. But the fact is that he did not enter the university and I understand that he did not pass his A.Levels if at all he sat the exam. He was 2 years my senior and had dropped out earlier. And indeed there is no majoring in chemistry at the A.Levels. Again let us see what the website of the LTTE Peace Secretariat says: “[I]n 1974, Sivakumaran inspired his fellow students by taking his life to avoid capture by the Sri Lankan military. …. In that year of 1974 during the World Tamil Research Conference in Jaffna, nine Tamils were shot and killed by the police without provocation. The police hunted Sivakumaran on suspicion that he is planning to take action against the police for this atrocity. But what are the facts? Fact 1: By 1974 Sivakumaran was a 24 year old dropout and was not a student for us to speak of his fellow students. You see the concerted attempt by different propaganda agencies to make him a young schoolboy. Fact 2: The police did fire but into the air. There was no deliberate attempt to kill. I was in Jaffna and later listened to the O.L. de Kretser Commission proceedings on the matter at Palm Court in their entirety. The police beat up people with all manner of things all over the town. They did not shoot at the people and no one died of gunshot that terrible day. Their warning shots, perhaps threatening shots, into the air brought down a power line that fell on the pipe railings that were there to direct the crowd and electrocuted those in contact. Nearly 8 died of electrocution. Fact 3: Sivakumaran was hunted following attempts on the Mayor’s life and a failed Bank Robbery and not because they feared his reaction to the atrocities at the Tamil conference.

I deliberately chose this preceding example because it brings out why propaganda is so difficult to counter. When I give these details, it appears that I lack grace for the memory of a young man whom many of us liked and is no more with us. It seems to put me on the side of the police in saying they did not shoot. We therefore choose not to contradict these claims. This reminds me of my experience with Tamil Voice, the magazine of the New York Ilanagaith Thamil Changam. When my sister was arrested in Colombo in 1995 and thrown into jail. I described the incident very carefully in The Island. Tamil Voice repeated it, doubling my sister’s period of incarceration and claiming that she was naked in the presence of policemen. I protested to one of the four editors then saying that exaggeration would allow the state to undermine the indictment against it and make it easy for them to claim it was all cooked up – unfaithful in small things, unfaithful in big things goes the old adage. The furious editor told me that if I wanted he would issue a correction stating that the family denies the story and claims she was treated well by the police! I do not mean to say the police were nice to those attending the conference. They were indeed horrid. But the claim that those who died (including my dear mathematics teacher Mr. Sigmaringam who died of a heart attack after running home from the conference) died by police shooting is easily contradicted and belittles their deaths.

05.Presuming Tamils to be a Monolithic Community

The fourth myth on propaganda naturally dovetails into the fifth myth – that we Ceylon Tamils are a monolithic entity. We never were and I doubt that we will ever be. For that is the nature of the state of human affairs.

Consider the Sinhalese. They rule Sri Lanka and determine outcomes in almost every matter of importance. As we are all aware, the Sinhalese think that all is well with our relationships. “Tamils have everything. What are they fighting for?” they ask in utter amazement. In turn it never ceases to amaze me how many Sinhalese intellectuals can claim for example, that Tamils never had a problem until the LTTE came into being. They are so full of their magnanimity to Tamils and their dispensation as good rulers, that it never occurs to them that we have problems, very serious problems. Likewise, South African Whites believed that Blacks were well looked after by them. The British believed that those over whom they ruled were privileged to be under them, learning to be civilized.

Is it then possible – perhaps even remotely possible – that the Tamil ruling classes are equally unaware that their yoke is heavy on those whose lives they run?

I strongly suggest – indeed I put it to you – that Tamil society is controlled by a Mafia-like Vellahla elite. The LTTE may not be Vellahla but its intellectual base very much is. At one time the Vellahla Ilangaith Thamil Changam proudly declared in of one its articles that Roman Catholics and coastal people are low caste. Now one can see this same intellectual base trying to give the people of Valvettithurai a high royal caste status through new writings on the same website. The caste ethos demands that Valvettithurai be elevated before its leadership has acceptability – much like Thamotherampillai needs to be made a born-Hindu to make his contributions to the Tamil language legitimate and the Bible’s translation attributed to Navalar before its quality can be extolled. The late Anton Balasingam’s Maamanithan status also needs some conformity with the ideal that good things come only from the high caste. These flip-flops in Eelam rhetoric come from Vellahlas who articulate theory from safety while the others do the dying in the battle-field. Almost everyone in leadership in Kilinochchi I presume is the non-Vellahla other. It is true that many non-Vellahlas have risen to power within the LTTE. But so long as their power status needs to be justified through a higher caste status, the caste ethos will continue. In a couple of generations they will become Vellahla or even Kshatriya. We see this in TamilNet, presumably from Vellahlas abroad, making the claim this Aug. 6 that the Paraiyar, are “prestigious ancestors of the Tamil social formation.” Yet, I doubt that TamilNet’s editors would be happy to be called Paraiyer, given the hypocrisy of the ruling Vellahla classes. Instead of attacking caste as the fiction it is, we try to make token elevations of those who cannot be kept down, so that the system is preserved and, with it, the status of the Vellahla. “If you cannot keep them down, invite them selectively to our ranks!” We see ongoing the same process whereby the conquering nomadic Caucasian races sweeping into India selectively allowed some South Indians into the Brahmin fold and thereby strengthened their hand and preserved their status .

The caste domination of the Vellahla and the boredom of the newly wealthy in the West have combined to spawn a new industry. If one pays a tidy sum to some of these new professional genealogists, they would oblige by giving you your family tree tracing you back to the ancient kings without any evidence. I am aware of those who show little culture in their personal lives going about with these family trees claiming high Tamil culture. Even as the Vellahla Ilangaith Thamil Changam has put down the Roman Catholics as low caste, another overseas Tamil family with Roman Catholic background has re-established the Ariya Chakravarty line, proclaiming “His Royal Highness Prince Remigius Kanagarajah” as the “Head of The Royal House of Jaffna”

How foolish the Tamil community is made to look when its affairs are handled by these out-of-touch – even virulent – sections of overseas Tamils! It undermines the credibility of us Tamils as a whole and our cause.

At the same time look at the advisors and “struggling” activists of the LTTE in Europe and North America. Almost everyone is Vellahla. Those who are not will hide that fact. And look at those legal advisors who went for the talks to tell the non-Vellahla others what to do – one-time collaborators and not just from Vellahla families, but from families that make it well known that they are Vellahlas. They claim to be the oldest true Vellahla stratum before the rest of us jumped on board and claimed to be Vellahla. Such is the human condition.

Again, on another aspect of our homogeneity, look at the leadership of the Tamils. Is it perhaps possible that Jaffna folk really dominate over the rest while Jaffna folk like the Sinhalese just cannot understand why our benign leadership is rejected by the others? Trincomalee once openly boasted a Yarl Ahattruch Changam (Get-rid-of-Jaffna Society). I have seen serious difficulties at Eastern University among intellectuals that convince me that there is a huge problem. Col. Karuna could not have lasted this long without substantial support from the Tamil people of the East. We must take note and cannot continue ostrich-like till we vanish as a people from Sri Lanka

I am convinced that what we see going on in Sri Lanka is a lot more than the struggle of the Tamil people to be free. It cannot be just that when Tamil Vellahla intellectuals are for the most part abroad worrying about buying their second house and a fancier car, while “struggling for Eelam” with toasts with the highest grades of liquor.

What is going on is the separate struggles of different groups of the Tamil people in many forms – of all the Tamil peoples to be free of Sinhalese oppression and expansionism, of the people of the East to be free of Jaffna domination, of the people of the lower castes to be free of Vellahla tyranny, of the Tamil speaking Muslims to maneuver between the Tamils and Sinhalese among whom they live to carve out a dignified niche for themselves in Sri Lanka; and of the Tamil Protestant Christian community which has reacted to the new order by running away to Australia, the UK and Canada. And of course it is also the struggle of the Tamil nouveau riche in the West to assert their status in light of their deprivations in Sri Lanka.

Our propagandist attitude is very clear when we look at the Muslims. They were part of “the Tamil speaking peoples” when we wanted to claim a 27% Tamil population and Sir Pon. Ramanathan argued strongly that they were Tamils against Sir Razeek Fareed and the Muslim leadership’s desire not to be called Tamils. The FP bridged the gap successfully for a while by getting a substantial Muslim vote. But all that was brought to naught when they were deemed not good enough to live with us in the North-East – a strategic move, goes the justification from the Vellahla Ilangaith Thamil Changam. This is another instance where we want to talk about only one half of the problem of “the Tamil speaking people,” and as a result no outsider takes us seriously.

Also remember the 1970s when we encouraged upcountry Tamils to settle in the Vanni and be a buffer between Jaffna and the Sinhalese? But when upcountry beggars displaced from the plantations came into Jaffna town, our true brotherly feelings became very evident.

In this rough firmament the larger struggle of the Tamil speaking peoples – yes, peoples – against Sinhalese-Buddhist hegemony is eviscerated. For us Tamils, survival as a people in Sri Lanka, necessitates recognizing first the aspirations of minorities in our midst.

Read Previous Parts

Part 04

Part 03

Part 02

Parts 01

To be continued …….

About Lecture, S. Ratnajeevan Hoole, Scholar Rescue Fund Fellow, Institute of International Education, New York, NY Drexel University, Philadelphia and former Vice Chancellor in University of Jaffna, Sri Lanka

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