We the undersigned are aghast and anguished by the recent decision of the government of Tamil Nadu, acting on the Chief Minister’s orders, to send back two sports teams from Sri Lanka that were in Chennai to play matches against local school teams.
Two days after the Chief Minister issued her orders, members of a Tamil nationalist group, Naam Tamizhar Iyakkam protested against a group of pilgrims from Sri Lanka visiting a church near Thanjavur.
There have been similar protests in the past against visiting teams – by members of the Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam.
These protests, including the Chief Minister’s orders, have been justified on the argument that having Sri Lankans visit Tamil Nadu at a time when Sri Lankan Tamil lives and their political future are in crisis would hurt the feelings of Tamils in India.
The unstated assumption here is of course that all Sri Lankans who come to India are non-Tamils, and that all of them, irrespective of who or what they are, are equally responsible for the political failure of the Sri Lankan state to deliver justice to the Tamils. In the event it did not matter to protesters that the pilgrims were mostly Tamil speakers – it was as if they had to prove their ‘Tamil’ness come what may.
The Sri Lankan state has been justly criticized across the world for its impunity, for its war crimes and particularly so in Tamil Nadu. We have also rightly criticized – and continue to criticize – the government of India for its sustained military, economic and logisitical support to the Sri Lankan state when its armed forces were engaged in a killing spree against their fellow citizens; and now when Tamil rights to equal citizenship and dignity continue are being overlooked willfully and systematically.
Yet, it is neither right nor just to identify the people of Sri Lanka, including its Sinhala majority, with the Sri Lankan state. The people of Sri Lanka have a life and politics that, in all instances, are not to be identified with their state or with the religious zealotry that has goaded the state in the pursuit of its majoritarian goals.
Firstly, centuries of goodwill and exchange have made it possible for people from India to cross over into Sri Lanka – and vice versa – for trade, worship and for cultural reasons. These crossings have been mutually enriching.
Of course some of these crossings were state-inspired and resulted in war and annexation, but such periods were also followed by treaty-making and offers of peace. In short there is a history of mutual goodwill here that we ought not to abandon. If we do so, it could have the unfortunate consequence of strengthening xenophobic nationalisms in Sri Lanka and render the Tamil cause even more fraught.
Secondly, in the current political context it seems important to encourage dialogue and exchange of opinions between civil societies in Sri Lanka and India which alone can make for popular good will on both sides. After 30 years of war and violence, it is important that new conversations take place which help to build popular and broad based support for the Tamil cause in both Sri Lanka and India.
Overzealous nationalism of either the Sinhala or the Tamil kind is clearly not the way to do this, especially when either thrives on intolerance and prejudicial hatred. And today, when Sri Lankans as a whole have to engage with loss and death on a massive scale, and with the memory of terror, both by the state and the militants, a politics based on old certainties will not help the healing process; or create the context for something fresh and unexpectedly life-affirming to emerge.
Thirdly, today, we see open protests in the Lankan media against the growing authoritarianism of the Sri Lankan state. We see proactive human rights legal work – undertaken by lawyers of both Sinhala and Tamil origin – that seeks to protect the rights of Tamil political prisoners and aid their release. We once again are witness to organized protests by teachers, middle class dissidents against the growing impunity of their government.
We also see a younger generation, tired of prejudice, hatred and war, who would like a different politics and one where it is possible to talk across differences, of race, religion and language. It is important that we in Tamil Nadu are in touch with these developments and build bridges with democratic minded groups and individuals. For, it is through such means that we may secure their support for a fair and just resolution to the Tamil question.
In the past we have had progressive Sri Lankan journalists visit Tamil Nadu – the late lamented Lasantha Wickrematunge was here, for instance, and met many local journalists and shared his concerns about the deteriorating human rights situation in his country. We have had Sri Lankan left intellectuals take the stage with local Tamil nationalists to protest the civil war, and subsequently war crimes.
Likewise, we have had many Tamils and non-Tamil Indians visit Sri Lanka through the entire period of the civil war– and we continue to do so. We trade, have friends and families, we are concerned about cultural and political developments, we go on goodwill missions, to find out what happened after the war ended, we go as journalists, we attend literary and other conferences… We do not all go as emissaries of the governments of Tamil Nadu or India.
We go as free individuals, and in no way would we like to be seen as mere representatives of our states. And this is a courtesy and right that we cannot refuse to visiting civilians from Sri Lanka.
V. Geetha, writer;
A. Marx, Civil rights activist;
S. V. Rajadurai, writer and civil rights activist;
Sugumaran, Civil rights activist;
Prof. Kochadai, PUCL, Karaikudi;
Dr Sadiq, former Vice-Chancellor, University of Madras;
A. Mangai, theatre activist;
Veli Rangarajan, writer and playwright;
Prof. Kalvimani, Adivasi and Irulars Support Movement;
Madhumita Dutta-Campaign for Justice and Peace-Tamil Nadu;
Nityanand Jayaraman, writer;
Jeny Dolly, Theatre artist;
Dr Karen Coelho, Assistant Professor;
T Venkat, Scholar;
Chandrika Radhakrishnan, Software engineer;
Lakshmi Premkumar, Researcher;
Shreela Manohar, Researcher;
D W Karuna, Researcher;