Liberation trouble

" Post-war, the cleavages our society has produced as a result of the unresolved conflict lay bare and open in everyone’s sights. The wounds of more than 30 years of disruptions and concussions Tamil society had to endure confront our views. Rifts that are visible to those who are brave enough to identify them without embellishing them and reasoning them with colors of justifications."
by Sinthujan V

(July 01, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Today the world is caught watching the Arab people in an uprising against its often Western backed dictators. People who for generations have been subject to paternalism and extreme forms of repressions suddenly started to stand up against those, they were told to believe to be invincible and eternal in their rule. Told by their leaders, their state apparatus, their informants, their collaborators, their fearful families, their traumatized friend and the alienated Western world. Generations grew up in the belief the status quo to be their path of life. The legacy of their blood. The heteronomy they were unwillingly aligned to. The epitome of being Arab.

Their fates even seemed to be written down decades before their feet touched the soil of this earth. But change was on its way. The heritable was to be removed from their supposed to be “DNA sequencing“. Forces that crushed people’s sentiments for freedom and hopes for lives in dignity were suddenly reduced to be at the mercy of the very people it seemed to be inherited to subjugate and abuse. Systems that were imposed by rulers were thrown below the feet of the Arab people. Rulers that lived lives of divine avatars were abruptly sent to an eternal coma generations of Arabs prayed them to be seized with decades ago. Whilst some still fight for the battles of their lives and die for the liberty they have been denied for, others have already successfully overthrown the systems of corruption and inhumanity they have been afflicted with since post-colonial history. The virus infested hardware that composed the systems they lived under suddenly finds itself being deleted and reinstalled in manners that were impossible to believe only few weeks ago. With it, the impossible was made possible. Although freedom from dictatorship was achieved in Tunisia and in Egypt, freedom proved to have its limits even in supposedly liberty. A liberty, which essentially remains bound to social constraints. Social constraints that remain un-detachable from their context: their socio-cultural realities.

Decades have passed since Tamils started to rise up against their state of oppression and denial. In contrast to the recent Arab revolution however, decades of violent revolution were never met with popular foreign support against the tyranny and inhumanity Tamils have been subjugated to since independence. Subsequently, two years have gone by since our very own uprising was crushed in a ruthless bloodshed. Hundreds of thousands were sacrificed on its failed path. Millions of hopes were shattered along the way. Similarly to Arabs, Tamils did demand to be free from tyranny. Equally, Tamils also did wish to be ruled by the people. In the Sri Lankan case however, the people (Tamils) were not fighting undemocratic forces, but chauvinistic ones parceled in a democratic setup. The people wanted to be freed from the people. The other people. Their ethnocracy. Their hegemonial nation-state. A nation-state that sought benefits in the Tamil’s disempowerment and decimation. Two years after the militant revolution was crushed we were pushed into a reality most would prefer to live in denial of. Two years post-war. Two years post-defeat. Two years post-downfall. Two years post-trauma. Post-failed revolution, decades past the first uprising, we may have the rare chance though to observe and analyze the evolution of our society as a whole in the wake of countless of troubling events of violence in the island. A chance many of us might prefer to not take, but maybe should be told and forced to do so.

Post-war, the cleavages our society has produced as a result of the unresolved conflict lay bare and open in everyone’s sights. The wounds of more than 30 years of disruptions and concussions Tamil society had to endure confront our views. Rifts that are visible to those who are brave enough to identify them without embellishing them and reasoning them with colors of justifications. The result of this endless conflict is a torn social fabric in the broadest sense – or so we are told to believe. Many might argue the conflict to have forced Tamil society into circumstances that obliged society to adapt to the realities it was confronted with. The conservative social fabric was effectively hollowed out in the process of war. Accordingly, traditions that were ritualized for centuries and have become the trademarks of our social interactions had to be altered in the name of fighting the threat Tamils faced in the shape of the elimination of Tamils as a distinct nation and people.

Consequently, the majority of our ancestors stood up in the name of liberation from the outer oppressor. The visible oppressor. The antagonist. The enemy, whose language, customs, religions and ideology never matched ours. At least to a certain a degree. The imbalance of power in our struggle for liberation and their struggle for hegemony left us with no options, but to break with traditions. Suddenly, we were told to have found ourselves in a reality where ancient caste and gender differences were said to have become secondary parameters of social behaviourism. In times of war, a social truce was said to have been signed. A pact that transcends the boundaries of our hereditary lines of interactions. A contract, which in its essence is believed to have been an impossiblility if the outer threat did not constraint us in our range of choices. Our society is believed from thereon to have effectively changed: caste to have been successfully rendered to the margins of society and effectively brought down to its knees by the Tigers. Arguably also by the Sri Lankan state, which forced people to cross boundaries of social interactions when shells were dictating the social habitat and often leading to displacement and uprootment. Ancient rules to have become irrelevant in times of warfare. Women to have been given their due share of respect and dignity in society with the Tiger’s policy of empowerment of women in the struggle.

In the Tamil case I’d however argue that our dreams of liberation were merely a wish for external liberation, which conveniently always excluded opportunities for intra-social liberation. A liberation from the chains of what is popularly described as religion, culture, rituals, traditions, ancient ideas and concepts. At least in the eyes of the common people, those who to date compose the larger share of our society and thus also dominate the pathway our community walks as a whole. Post-war the realities of the lack of social progress within our societies becomes an inevitable reality we as a people need to firstly confront ourselves with and accept in order to find ways to modify what remains to be changed for the betterment of our community and its individual members.

One of the major issues we have for long avoided to confront ourselves is gender based injustice and violence. At home or in the Diaspora, Tamil women continue to face unnecessary hardship in the name of an internal oppressor – Tamil men. Whether in the form of actual physical violence or mental violence, limitation of rights and choices or the reflection of mere paternalism of a patriarch society towards its female counterpart – all compose only few of many manifestations of the everyday injustices that our grandmothers, mothers, aunties, sisters and nieces face as being part of our society. Injustices that translate into physical and non-physical violence against Tamil women by an oppressive force. Articulating this everyday violence is considered by many to be extreme, if not blasphemous towards the “liberation cause”. Many venture out to far-fetched embellishments of our Tamil reality by contextualizing us to our geographic neighbouring societies, which many of us consider to be worse off in its social and gender parameters. Others relativize our everyday injustice against women by constantly referring to the violence perpetrated against Tamil women by external forces such as Sinhalese soldiers and Sri Lankan Government backed Tamil paramilitary groups. Both are relevant and real concerns, but Tamils of both gender tragically use both realities to deflect from the dysfunctional legacy of gender relationships in our very own society. Looking as an outsider on our own society will however open eyes on how unsurprisingly similar we are to all of our geographically and culturally closer societies. Despite being isolated and narrowed to the island of Sri Lanka, being Tamil, South Asian and at large a Hindu based society comes with a baggage that could not entirely be dispossessed off when migrating over Palk Strait. Effectively also continuing to live in the vacuum of a vast range of ancient regional customs and traditions we proudly consider to be inherited with as Tamils. Paternalism and gender violence could therefore also be considered by some to be part of our “proud Tamil tradition”.

Neither forms of violence can be excused to be rooted in outer aggression, but origins in core areas of what we popularly call culture – Tamil culture. Each form of violence that is perpetrated against Tamil women in the name of our patriarch society is related and similar to the oppression women face in many other South Asian societies. Nonetheless, many of us look in shock and often disgust at female injustice in South Asian Muslim societies, but comfortably look away when it comes to similar inequalities, which women face in our very own society. Violence takes of course shape in various forms and degrees in each culture, but remains to be rooted in male dominance, which remains a reality in most South Asian societies – whether predominately Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist or Christian. One could argue that Tamil women are even worse off than others as our forms of violence have been silenced and normativized to an extent, which renders it to notion of private bedroom talk. Talk, which should not be voiced outside our own four walls. Violence, which never reflects general society, but always remains to be reduced to a singular family issue (which of course will be reasoned through family origin, i.e. caste). Consequently, violence and injustice against women has rarely been looked as important and widespread enough to be publically debated about by Tamils themselves or those who conduct social anthropological studies about Tamils. However, patterns of gender violence (which includes injustices) are far more endemic in our society. Contrary to the belief of many, it’s not only a singular family issue, but a large concern that afflicts the pillars of our entire society by having befallen many, if not most Tamil families to one degree another.

As so often, women have been brainwashed enough by men to consider their inequality and male superiority to be the wheel that keeps society in place and going. Injustice and inequality have been normativized in our society to such a degree that even women have become clouded enough to excuse many of the fundamental wrongs that we continue to practice in the name of religion, culture and tradition to be needed and right . We have ritualized what some consider inhumane and proudly look away when violence is perpetrated against our own women by our very own men in the name of culture and tradition. Neither the LTTE nor any social progressive movement could successfully implement its plans of reforming Tamil society. In the post-LTTE environment it becomes visible that many progressive items of their rule did never reflect the realities of the mental state of mind of the larger share of members of our patriarch society. Tamil women live as precarious lives as ever in their everyday relationships with Tamil men. Whether it’s the fear of unavailability of choices, restrictions of movement, questions of sexuality, marriage et. al. Prime example: Tamil women who took up arms to defend Tamil society on the battlefront from the threats it continues to face (and were equally often mentioned as the epitome of the perceived social progress of the LTTE and equally also Tamil society in its acceptance of women to hold such positions) find themselves reduced to their former unequal positions of women in Tamil society. After having fought in the same frontlines and positions as Tamil men, the survivors of the proudly conversed about LTTE female combatants have fallen victim to our very own Tamil tradition by being ripped off their combatant equality and thrown back into the reality of what it means to be a Tamil woman. As part of it, the stigma of these women to have taken up arms and broken rules of the gender contract and tradition as women of our Tamil society has rendered them to social pariah, whose crime has ironically been to contradict social conventions by standing up for external liberation – whilst internal liberation was not achieved.

Which brings us to another case of social pariah-hood, namely that of the victims of inter-communal caste discrimination. Caste in the case of Sri Lankan Tamils has been reduced to the issue of the other. The issue of our greater neighbor Mata Bharat, or also known as India, whose womb seems to (according to many) be exclusively infested by this disease of mental corruption of caste segregation and discrimination. Caste has therefore always been artificially pushed off our shores in the public discourse by rendering it to the notion of being a non native issue. Although caste identity is an accepted norm amongst Eelam Tamils, caste discrimination has widely been rejected to be common amongst Tamils of the island. The dichotomy raises important questions, which need to be verified in order to complete an overlook on the conditions of social sanity amongst us. As many argue, caste discrimination and violence has never taken the level of our northern neighbours. But caste discrimination has nonetheless continued to pose a reality in post-war Sri Lanka and the Diaspora. Comparing the levels of violence and injustice perpetrated in the name of caste against low caste individuals to that of India serves in this case as a moral deflection from our own culpability in the injustice committed against Eelam Tamil low caste communities. The question of whether one perpetrator is worse than the other never answers the demands for justice and equality of the victims. Neither pain nor suffering can be quantified and put in comparison on their level of relevance and destruction caused. Nor should they be. Perpetrators of such social crimes however easily seek refuge from their culpability by pointing out to the more obvious culpable parties, which they try to find in our culturally and religiously related Indian counterpart. For Eelam Tamil low caste members however, caste discrimination has been a tangible reality, which for long has dictated their lives and for many continues to do so to one degree or another. Indian victims of caste discrimination or others are believed to alleviate the pain and suffering of those from the island by rendering their grievances insignificant in the larger discourse. Accordingly, the social taboos of interactions have rendered their narrative marginal and almost irrelevant in the overall upper-caste narrative on Eelam Tamil social and political history. Whether through rare cases of actual physical violence or the more common psychological violence, caste discrimination and segregation has however remained a vivid challenge of our own Tamil society. Even if war has effectively challenged many of the frontiers of caste segregation in our social habitat through displacement and forced conditions of living uprooted from our carefully drawn lines of caste divisions, the mental corruption of caste identity and segregation continues to live amongst a large part of Tamils. The LTTE has been an important actor in the narration of caste in the Sri Lankan Tamil context. As having been partly a creation of caste inequality, the LTTE posed a severe challenge to the prevailing caste system amongst Tamils in the island. Though caste division and grievances were commonly known amongst many of its founding members, the social weight of caste has always been acknowledged as an undeniable reality of Tamil society. Thus, the LTTE tried to negotiate its way around caste by accepting certain caste conventions for what they are – a reality. Hence, the LTTE bowed down to the system of caste amongst Eelam Tamils by making it a reality through acceptance of caste norms and mentalities. Therefore, the LTTE became a victim of the mental disease we call modus operandi in our social interactions. With the demise of the LTTE, caste will most likely continue to live on in the various parts of Tamil society in the island and cause further suffering and pain amongst low-caste groups.

In the Diaspora on the other hand, many feel a level of satisfaction and complacency by having convinced themselves that caste is no more as prevalent in our society as it used to be at home. This however seems to be a great distortion of the reality of the Diaspora Tamil society. Just as in the case of the former migration process from India to Sri Lanka, caste wasn’t wiped out or forgotten in our flight abroad. In contrary, caste mentality and reality crossed the boundaries of our social habitat in our attempts to flee the civil war by transferring our social modus operandi to our world in exile in order to keep alive what we have lost – our land and traditional social habitat. Consequently, we have transferred and opened our baggage of social injustice and discrimination in a different geographic and social context and provided space to adapt towards the new reality Tamils in exile were living in. As so often, upper caste members who compose a large share of the exiled community remain - deliberately or not - ignorant towards the continuance of caste as a social criteria of our community. Those who live in denial are often the greatest adherents of caste mentality and caste norms, which are manifested in e.g. who we associate with, who we work with, who we marry and who we disassociate ourselves with and avoid. Socio-economic, but also criteria of former places of origin and communal connections (which were traditionally based on caste) are often used to cover up the reality of caste thinking behind such realities. For those, who have not become victims of caste injustice by merely being “lucky” enough to have been born into a relatively caste trouble - free environment, i.e. upper caste, caste issues remain a far off unheard reality in exile. This resembles the experience of racism against marginalized groups in Europe and elsewhere. Accordingly, a European could never sense the entire extent of racism leveled against visible minorities in Europe due to the lack of perspective and experience by simply not sharing the denominate which sets the marginalized group apart from the majority. Similarly, upper caste members are hardly unaware of the hardship faced by low caste members in their social interactions within the exiled Tamil community by simply being unable and also often unwilling to see actions perpetrated against them in the name of caste. As the upper caste dominates the discourse of the exile experience of Tamils, the lower caste is hardly provided the chances to articulate their continued grievances in exile. Thus, their experience becomes outweighed, almost irrelevant in what we perceive to be our social reality.

Both, gender and caste violence and injustice remain important parameters of our society and the sanity we’d like to ascribe it with. In neither case, the uprooting of Tamils and the later settlement in exile in the Diaspora has brought fundamental large scale changes of attitude amongst Tamil men and women towards gender and caste. In neither cases, the experience of war has fundamentally changed any of the prevailing attitudes towards gender and caste. Today, Tamil’s struggle for liberation from the external oppressor has failed in its militant path. Various factors have played an important role in the outcome we have faced as a community. Hardly however have we ever confronted ourselves with the contradiction we pose in our external demands, which rarely ever reflected our demands for inner reformation. Considering the points made, the question should be asked how a society can be successfully freed from its chains of oppression and tyranny when it’s incapable of freeing itself from its inner chains of ancient traditions and mentalities?

Similar to Egypt, where gender violence and sectarian violence continue to pose a threat to post-revolution social harmony, Tamil society remains to be infected with the disease of gender bias and caste bias, which were at no parts of history successfully overcome. Whilst trying to free ourselves from the external oppressor, the internal oppressor of our society remains intact and in rule of large parts of our society and its traditions of social interactions. As our intra-communal deficiencies were called an internal matter that should not be linked to the external threat we face, the question should be raised whether one does not necessarily connect to the other. One’s success might lead to the other’s success. Equally, the former’s failure might lead to the latter’s failure. The linkage of our failure to overcome our own social shortcomings might have arguably had a large impact on the outcome we have faced on May 18th 2009. Accordingly, a survivor of the Black July 1983 pogroms stated after having experienced continuous caste discrimination and segregation on the cargo ships transporting Tamils from the South to Jaffna that maybe Tamil society deserves what it has received from the external oppressor by being an oppressor from within. An oppressor of women and lower caste group members, whose voices to date remain marginalized and often rendered insignificant in the discourse of who we are, what we are and where we should be led and how we should be led there. The convenience of blaming the outer oppressor leads us to forget the dominant internal oppressor. Neither caste nor gender violence can be limited to an internal issue, which has no impact on our external drive for liberation. Unity based upon social harmony can only be achieved through social justice and equality. Neither has been successfully achieved nor implemented amongst Tamils at home or in exile.

The liberation of Arab societies in the Middle East will most likely remain an incomplete liberation based upon the incapability of detaching Arab society from its social, cultural and religious constraints. Similarly, Tamil liberation will always remain an incomplete liberation without the liberation of society from gender and caste violence and bias as the most prevalent social constraints of Tamil society. The lack of empathy and humanity from within our community for the victims of intra-social discrimination, violence and injustice is a criterion, which should alert us to call for social progress from within. A progress that should have been put in place long before challenging the external oppressor by eliminating factors of social disunity created by the internal oppressor. Tamils seem to sadly prove right the idea of victimized groups running danger of becoming the victimizer of an increasingly more vulnerable part of society. As in the case of other oppressed people, oppression from within against weaker social groups seems to be tagged in the inner social discourse with a label of irrelevance in face of the external oppression. As so often, internal oppression and injustice seems to be excused and covered up in order to not expose the contradiction it poses towards the greater demands for external liberation from oppression. Our calls for liberation will hence always remain rather a farce than a sincere social demand, unless we do not only (as previously done) call for the liberation from within, but also aid to implement it with any given means - by departing from the common social complacency based upon the position of Tamil victimhood in the inter-ethnic conflict. Social justice and equality for Tamils in the framework of the Sri Lankan state (and beyond) cannot not be detached from the question of the lack of social justice and equality that prevails in Tamil society at home and abroad. Only an internally social sound society can in the long run live up to the notion from being freed from the most prevalent forms of oppression it has been subjugated with. If Tamils will not learn to confront themselves with their social reality and rectify the wrongs of our past and present (!), social progress and liberation from oppression seems to hardly be achievable, nor sustainable.

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