By Thulasi Muttulingam/The Sunday Morning
Every time someone outside the North reaches out to ask me about the ‘people’s protest’ in the North, I wonder why the information out there is so bad that a few of us working out of here have to work to set it straight. This misinformation is poisonous – poisonous especially to my own people who are suffering. The people here surely have much to protest about – but they certainly wouldn’t do it by organizing an economic hartal that would only shoot themselves in the foot.
So who organizes these hartals?
Those with the power to hijack the common people’s voices for their own agendas – those who certainly will not experience the economic privations of such hartals because they are eating cake at home, while they force the common masses of wage earners into token protests which will ensure they will go hungry that day without their meagre rations of rice.
It’s infuriating that this is happening at all with impunity – but it’s even more infuriating that the media just publishes the grandiose narratives put out via press releases by self serving Tamil Nationalists, thereby further exacerbating the matter. Isn’t it the media’s business to investigate rather than unquestioningly carry press releases from vested interests as news? The average wage earner here would see the news and feel themselves helplessly co-opted into a larger cause they had never asked for, while going hungry that day. They cannot identify personally with the news, yet they feel like a helpless scurrying ant in the scheme of things.
This is not people power. This is fascism imposed on the common people, who have had their voices and sense of agency effectively hijacked.
It’s not just local media, but even more worryingly, the international media who are irresponsibly broadcasting this misleading ‘news’ out of the North. I saw grandiloquent press releases masquerading as news even in major international outlets such as The Washington Post, which is a huge disservice to the people of the North here.
Remnants of Fascism
Let’s be very clear – the economic shutdown last Monday in the North was not voluntary – it was enforced. Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr bringing the country to a standstill to show the economic contributions of their populations, these imbecilic Tamil nationalist organisers are not. All they succeeded in doing was to bring the economy of their own population to a standstill, thereby affecting the well-being of only ourselves – along with the other populations of non-Tamils living here, who would have felt the repercussions too. The rest of the country neither felt any ill effects, nor cared.
The idea of civil disobedience is not new – but the way it is enforced around here sure is. This is what happens when people who are essentially fascists hijack well meaning principles. Hitlers hijacking Gandhi’s cause. You can imagine how that goes down.
Mahatma Gandhi and MLK jr effectively showed their authoritarian governments at the time how the resisting populations they represented could effectively bring down the country’s economy via such peaceful civil disobedience.
Thus it was that when India’s masses took to spinning their own cloth as espoused by Gandhi, or America’s blacks boycotted buses as espoused by MLK Jr, in the wake of Rosa Park’s arrest for refusing to give up her seat to a white person – those governments were forced to sit up and take notice – those boycotts were having a marked effect on their economy.
Us however? I have never understood the economic rationale in the North here for organising hartals – let me rephrase that – enforcing hartals. Every hartal I have seen since relocating to the North has been enforced on the common people, never something they rose up on their own with. Nor is it something that they enthusiastically take up due to a charismatic leader like Gandhi or MLK Jr, whose cause they identify with.
The ‘Eluga Tamil’ (Rise Tamil) organizers are certainly putting forward legitimate grievances of the Tamil people, regarding answers for the war-disappeared and dead, politically detained prisoners and so on – but the way they are enforcing the protests show that it is by no means a ‘people’s protest’. Hartals in the North have always been enforced – during the LTTE’s time they did it by militant force – because they needed the numbers at their rallies to show ‘mass protests’ by Tamil people to the government; not that that ever had any effect other than economic deprivations on the Tamil people themselves dependant on daily wage labour.
I am rather surprised that many people, despite being privately vociferous against it, still feel the need to shut down on their economic activity post the decimation of the military might of the LTTE. Their political and monetary might however, continues to operate, especially from abroad. They are continuing to pull strings over here, to our collective detriment.
There is still coercion in the way the hartal is enforced here, therefore. I spoke to private shop owners who said they would not be shutting down. They were extremely angry at the demand. Then on Monday, even though some opened their shops early in the morning, they closed their shutters again by mid morning – apparently groups of vigilantes had been going around threatening them as well as emotionally shaming them for not taking up the ‘Tamil cause’.
Whose cause again? Who are these people to collectively hijack our voices and call it a Tamil cause? And how exactly can this cause be carried forward by enforcing privations on the Tamil people themselves?
I reached out to political economist Ahilan Kadirgamar to better understand the economic rationale behind imposing the hartal in our own midst. He confirmed there was none. In his words, “The LTTE just needed to rouse up numbers for their mass protests so they forced the people to shut down economic activities. Then they forced them to attend the rallies and make them complicit in their totalitarian politics – there was no economic rationale for it other than being suicidal to the community which the LTTE openly was.
“The current organisers however lack the coercive mechanisms to force the people into attending their rally – the Eluga Tamil rally this time was a patent failure in that respect, only hundreds of people attended it – it’s mostly organized by the Jaffna political elites and state employed middle-class Tamil nationalists who won’t feel the pinch of losing a day’s labour wages, they will not lose out on their salaries despite taking leave that day – and so feel no compunction on enforcing economic privation on the wage earning masses. They enforced it mostly by emotive blackmail – so many people felt obliged to shut down on their economic activities in a couple of the Northern districts – but they couldn’t get the people to show their support by attending the rally.”
I was travelling by three wheeler near Jaffna town on the day before the hartal, when a convoy of vehicles with speakers attached on top went by, broadcasting in emotive, threatening language, exhortations to the people to shut down on all economic activities the next day. My elderly three wheel driver became agitated.
“These people will never let us live in peace” he hissed.
He had the right to be angry. His earnings would take a hit the next day. He had already suffered many privations through the war, lost his lands to the army (they are still in the hands of the army), and was even jailed for some years when someone settled a score with him by pointing him out as an LTTE sympathizer to the army – he was not, but this was a well-known way for people to settle scores with each other during war time. These are the common people who have suffered and lived to tell the tale, continuing to eke out an existence in the precarious Northern economy that these self serving Tamil nationalists keep sabotaging all the time – because the privations they enforce on these poor people do not affect them.
In the name of people such as this poor three wheel driver, what is the point of asking lands back from the military if he and his family are forced to go hungry by the economic shutdown of the hartal? Would the military care? Would the hartal impel them to release the prisoners, give back the land, leave the North altogether? Just who are we kidding?
The ‘Eluga Tamil’ rally is organized primarily by breakaway factions from the TNA, who seek political mileage with the people. Yet it’s a dead giveaway of how out of touch they are with the common people, that they would seek to impose privations the people heavily resent upon them, in order to achieve that mileage. In the end, they certainly didn’t achieve their intended political mileage. The people didn’t support them as the numbers at their rally show.
Yet by publishing grandiloquent press releases in the co-opted Tamil nationalist media and the lazy Sri Lankan and international media – the organizers have made the world at large believe that the ‘people rose up in protest.’ I call bullshit.
It’s excessively irritating because these self-serving Tamil nationalists, so out of touch with the needs of the common people, feel it incumbent upon themselves to not only hijack our voices but also ‘educate’ us as to why we need them. We need them like we need a hole in the head.
Apparently a Canadian diaspora organiser of the Eluga Tamil rally currently in Jaffna, had reached out to a women’s group I am a part of to ‘educate’ us on the Eluga Tamil cause. I did not attend but later heard from my women cohorts that the typical mansplaining diaspora male had exhorted them to join the cause to “show you are true Tamils.”
He had had no answers to the many questions the women put forward on what the cause was intended to achieve, and why it needed to be achieved at the cost of economic shutdown which would adversely affect many already suffering Tamil people.
“He had nothing to say to us really other than emotionally blackmailing us into thinking we would be traitors to the Tamil cause if we didn’t support the rally. After he repeatedly sidestepped our questions to exhort us to be ‘real Tamils’, we got fed up and told him it was not his business to come all the way from Canada to tell us how we had to be ‘real Tamils’ “, reported one woman who had attended the meeting.
“He kept telling us we all had to rise up as Tamil nationalists – he had no answer for us when we asked why we should fight Sinhala Buddhist nationalism with the same kind of supremacist ideology we are all suffering under, and do not identify with,” reported another.“I went to the Eluga Tamil rally not in support, but just to see what they were doing. They were highly disorganized, did not appear to know what they were doing even on the stage, and the few people who attended were just milling around confused; they shut our economy down that day for nothing,” reported another.
And that in a nutshell was all that Eluga Tamil was. A bunch of confused, grandiloquent people shooting us Tamils collectively in the foot for their own political mileage. They didn’t make us ‘Tamils rise’ as per their slogan, they plunged us collectively instead.
The media at large, please be responsible in how you report these things. Giving credence to fascist narratives hijacking the common people’s voices does not behove the media.