The ringing in of a new year is a time for reflection,re-appraisal and renewal. The year 2024 marks the 94th anniversary of universal franchise and the 76th anniversary of Independence from Britain for the Island nation. 2024 also marks the 15th anniversary of the end of its three decade long “civil” war.
The effects of this lengthy war were felt in all parts of the country and affected all of its people. While there is no denying that the war impacted on all the people of Sri Lanka it must be admitted that the Tamil people of the North and East bore the brunt of suffering . Also the Tamil inhabited regions of the North and East became in practice the theatre of war. The protracted nature of the conflict saw the north and east virtually turning into a “scorched earth”.
The hopelessly beleaguered Tamils have paid a heavy price for engaging in this uneven war. The Tamil people have undergone a war of lengthy duration that was in scale and scope excessively disproportionate to their numbers and capacity.The war may have ended but the consequences of prolonged conflict are yet being felt and will continue to be felt for a very long time.
It is against this backdrop that this column poses the question “Whither the Tamils of Sri Lanka?”. It stems from the latin phrase “Quo vadis?”meaning “where are you going?”.Quo vadis is translated in poetic form as “whither bound?” or “whither goest thou?”
The phrase has its origin in Christian tradition. It is supposedly the first words uttered by Jesus’s disciple Peter to the risen Christ. .Idiomatically this phrase calls upon individuals and groups to evaluate their sense of direction and purpose, entreating them to reflect on their goals and re- assess the consequences of their current actions or future choices.
Posing the question Whither the “Ilankai Thamizhar” (Lankan Tamils) of Sri Lanka? at the beginning of the year in the month of January is qute relevant and apt within the Tamil ethos too. “Thai Piranthaal Vazhi Pirakkum” is a popular saying in Tamil about the month of January or “Thai” in Tamil. It’s meaning in English would be something like this – “When January is born, a way will dawn”.
The birth of January in the Hindu Almanack is in mid-January according to the Western calendar. It generally co-incides with the Tamil harvest festival called “Pongal” or “Thaippongal”.It is usually a season of Thanksgiving and celebration.
Amidst the atmosphere of festive joy, it is also a time of individual and group reflection where the past is re-examined critically, present re-assessed pragmatically and future plans renewed optimistically.
It is in that context therefore that this column focuses on the past,present and future of Sri Lankan Tamils in this series of articles titled “Whither the “Ilankaith Thamizhar”of Sri Lanka?. The objective is to briefly examine the past with the wisdom of hindsight, analyse the present and present a prognosis of a potential future. The articles will be published intermittently and not consecutively.
This evaluation at this point of time is made necessary by the prevailing predicament of the Sri Lankan Tamils. It may not be an exaggeration to state that the Tamils of Sri Lanka are undergoing what is perhaps the worst phase in their post-Independence history.
After gaining Independence, the inability or unwillingness of Sinhala and Tamil politicians to resolve their differences and evolve an equitable model of power sharing resulted in much ethnic friction. This friction escalated into war. Initially it was a low –intensive guerrilla insurgency. Subsequently it developed into positional warfare .Ultimately it was a full-fledged war of a very brutal nature.
Decades of escalating war culminating in the military debacle of Mullivaaikkaal have resulted in the deaths of thousands of people – civilians, guerillas and security forces. The majority of civilian casualties are from the Tamil ethnicity.
Apart from the loss of life there has also been a large loss of limb. Thousands of people have been physically affected in various ways like aerial bombardment, artillery shelling, landmines, explosions, crossfire etc. A large number of those affected are physically impaired or disabled.
There has also been destruction of property and economic regression. Thousands of dwellings were destroyed or heavily damaged. Agriculture, fisheries, small industry etc have been severely curtailed. Educational, health ,transport facilities have eroded. Infra-structure has been demolished. Economic life has de-generated.
Social and cultural activity has diminished. Large –scale social and cultural events have decreased considerably. There has been limited scope for meaningful aesthetic and creative pursuits. In recent times however there are many temple festivals. Schools too engage in sports and cultural activities.
More importantly there has been a brutalisation of society and hardening of values. Much of the violence and criminal activity going on now in the north are symptomatic of a post-war society.
In that context one issue overlooked or ignored is the psychological trauma and stress undergone by the people during the years of war. There has been very little psychological counselling. The First World War was for four years. The Second World War was for six years. But this intensive war has gone on for decades and decades. Moreover it was confined to a limited space. The people have paid a huge price.
Mere statistics or journalistic descriptions cannot convey the abject ,forlorn situation facing Tamils who suffered in this war. The families of disappeared, the families of detenues, the widows, the orphans, the single parent families, the broken households, the limbless, the bed –ridden, the poverty ,the ruins and the graves form together this colossal tragedy. How will this war-affected, impoverished people rise up from the dust-heap pr resurrect themselves from the ashes?
Numerically the Sri Lankan Tamils are a depleted, decaying entity. Death, destruction and displacement have wrought havoc. The ravages of war leading to large-scale migration has resulted in more than a million Tamils relocating to various parts of the world.With their natural increase the Global Tamil Diaspora numbers over two million today. In recent times there has been a rapid increase in Tamils going abroad.
Other reasons such as late marriage due to Dowry problems and a comparatively lower birth rate among more educated Tamils have also contributed to this population drop.
The last nationwide official census conducted in 2011/12 estimated the Sri Lankan Tamil polulation to be 2,269,266. The Indian Tamil population was 839,504. According to the 2011/12 Census there are 3,113, 247 Tamils (Sri Lankan and Indian) living in Sri Lanka. Of these 1,611,036 Tamils are living in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Another 1,502,211 Tamils live outside the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Hence the North -Eastern Tamil population in Sri Lanka may have exceeded Three and a half million had not large scale migration taken place due to the war.
Apart from the decline in numbers , there has been a qualitative and quantitative change in demography too. The horrors of war and the destruction unleashed in the Northern and Eastern Provinces have resulted in thousands of Tamils moving out of these provinces and seeking new homes in other parts of the Country particularly Colombo and urban areas of the Western Province.
On the other hand there has been much displacement and relocation within the Northern and Eastern provinces too. Many people have moved out of Internally displaced camps but are yet to return to their original homes. They live with relatives and friends or eke out a miserable living as squatters.
There has also been a trend of families moving out of villages to semi –urban and urban areas. This in turn has transformed the demographics of these places. There are very few “original” inhabitants in some places and in many areas “new” communities of residents have evolved.
A profound result of the war has been the militarisation of the North and East. Before the war began, there were only a few army, navy and airforce installations in the North and East. Security personnel were essentially confined to barracks.
Today the situation is different. There is a pervasive security force presence in almost all areas of the North and East. The bitter reality is that there is little chance of this overwhelming military presence decreasing in the near future.
Actually there is every likelihood of a permanent military presence in certain strategic areas. After decades of fighting a separatist war no government can be expected to withdraw or reduce the military presence in a very short time particularly when “vocal warriors” continue to beat war drums in the Tamil Diaspora. Furthermore militarization is needed to alter the demographic composition of Tamil areas through state aided colonization.
In short, what we witness today is the sad spectacle of a proud people being reduced to deterioration, deprivation and resultant despair in their own land. There is a distinct disconnect between the travails and troubles of the Tamils living in areas comprising the “arena of war” and the chest –thumping rants and raves of sections of the Tamil Diaspora and Tamil Nadu polity.
What is saddening now is the blatant failure of certain elements of Tamil society to comprehend or realise the serious nature of the Tamil predicament today. Like the Bourbons of France these segments seem to have learnt or forgotten nothing.
While the silent majority of Tamils remain passive these “active” sections are once again hogging the megaphone vociferously. Their boasts and demands would make angels weep! Their discourse is provocatively confrontational. As a western diplomat observed to this writer “These guys dont seem to realise that the LTTE lost the war and as a result all Tamils are in a difficult situation”.
The decimation of the tigers militarily has brought about an asymmetrical situation in the power equation. The Tamil people have been declining in almost every sphere since July 1983 but the LTTE had gradually set up a mighty military machine. As stated by this columnist in earlier articles the Tamils had descended horizontally as a people but the LTTE had ascended vertically as an armed force. Now with the LTTE gone the powerless Tamils in Sri Lanka are in dire straits.
Had the LTTE transformed its military strength into political bargaining power at the appropriate time the Tamil people would certainly be in a better position. But this did not happen and today the Tamils as a people are in a difficult situation.
Hard as it may be for some Tamils to admit the Tamil people today are entirely at the mercy of the Sri Lankan state. Despite lip service paid to the contrary by some the reality today is that there is no effective support Internationally for the Tamil cause. There are Sinhala dominated government in Colombo and the disempowered Tamils have no effective means to influence it. The LTTE by its acts of omission and commission has caused irredeemable harm to the Tamil people
There is a deep sense of personal sorrow as I write this article reflecting on the past and pondering about the future. It is a sadness that will not go away in a hurry. It is a sadness compounded by the fact that I foresaw this evolving tragedy and cried out for a course correction to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE) publicly and privately. I urged the LTTE to convert their military muscle into bargaining power at the negotiating table and arrive at a federal or quasi-federal settlement without pursuing the secessionist war.
Not only was I one of the few Tamil voices in the wilderness but was also attacked viciously by LTTE minions as a traitor and lackey and sell-out for daring to speak truth to power. Today what I feared greatly has come to pass.
What is unbearable about this tragedy is that it need not have happened. Unlike the Tsunami this could have been avoided but the mad dictates of militarism coupled with an irrational, unrealistic reading of the political, military and diplomatic situation has plunged the Tamils into a deep, deep morass.
It is in this Situation that this column intends to try and seek answers to the question “Whither the Ilankai Thamilar of Sri Lanka? This would be done in forthcoming articles to be published intermittently. Tthe objective is to realistically assess the present plight of Sri Lankan Tamils and encourage the Tamil people to follow a pragmatic course of action that would enable the long suffering community to better their lot and regain their rightful position under the Sri Lankan sun.
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com
This article appears in the “DBS Jeyaraj Column”Of the “Daily Mirror”dated 6 January 2024.It can be accessed here –