By Irfan Husain/Dawn
The distance from Colombo to Jaffna cannot be measured just in kilometers (around 450), or time (about seven hours by road), but in terms of the difference in attitudes.
While the Sri Lankan capital is a thriving city experiencing a construction boom, very few new buildings are going up in Jaffna which has none of Colombo’s sleek cars, glitzy shopping malls and snazzy restaurants. The much smaller northern city seems dirty and depressed by comparison.
Even after 10 years since the end of a vicious civil war that lasted a quarter of a century, Jaffna still hasn’t recovered from the crushing defeat suffered by the separatist LTTE. Hundreds of houses are either crumbling, or reduced to rubble. Their owners fled abroad, or to Colombo, to escape the violence.
Mostly, those who escaped were educated, upper-caste Vallalar who had the money to make their lives either in the Tamil diaspora, or in Colombo. Many have done very well. But more than the Sri Lankan army, these successful émigrés feared the Tamil Tigers who imposed heavy taxes on them, apart from demanding that they hand over a son or a daughter to the cause of Tamil independence.
“When Sinhala leaders imagined that … from the 1940s to the 1980s, they had been negotiating with the Tamils, it was to the Vellalar class … that they had been talking, whereas the underclass who comprised 65 per cent of the Tamil populace were never stakeholders in those negotiations. It was that underclass that, post-1983 [the year the civil war began], accelerated the ethnic conflict and raised its intensity by several notches.”
For centuries, the Vellalar had dominated the lower castes, and had imposed a stifling set of restrictions on them. This forced the non-Vellalar to remain locked into menial professions, categorised into 151 sub-castes ranging from sanitary workers to gravediggers. They could not enter temples where the Vellalar congregated, nor could they draw water from wells used by the upper caste. These restrictions went against the Sri Lankan constitution, but successive governments feared a Vellalar backlash, and failed to protect the lower caste.
The Tamil struggle had two separate strands: the Vellalar negotiated for an end to their marginalisation under the Sinhala Only policy of 1956, and used secession as a bluff. But when they failed to achieve success, Prabhakaran, the founder of the LTTE, took over the Tamil leadership, violently eliminating many opposition groups, and began to fight the state for a separate homeland in the north and east of the island.
One reason the fighting was so savage was that there was a long history of conflict between the two communities. There is evidence of a Tamil presence in the north of Sri Lanka since at least the third century BC, and in the following years, the Cholas, a South Indian dynasty, made inroads into the country’s hinterland, establishing kingdoms that endured for centuries. They destroyed Buddhist temples and, in many wars, created havoc among the Sinhalese population.
So clearly, there was a deeply embedded suspicion and resentment that had taken root among the majority Sinhalese population; these sentiments were reignited by the savage acts of terrorism carried out by the LTTE. K.M. de Silva writes in his magisterial A History of Sri Lanka:
“… In Sinhala, the words for nation, race and people are practically synonymous and a multiracial or multi-communal nation is incomprehensible to the popular mind. The emphasis on the sense of uniqueness of the Sinhalese past and the focus on Sri Lanka as the land of the Sinhalese and the country in which Buddhism stood forth in its purest form, compared with which a multiracial polity was a meaningless abstraction.”
Thus the air of despondency that hangs heavy over Jaffna has a long history behind it. Even before the war began, Tamils were resentful of outsiders; now, a decade after its end, few Sinhalese businessmen have invested in the deprived province. My Sri Lankan friends tell me that even Tamil expatriates who have returned are not welcomed and are accused of abandoning their people in their hour of need.
In their heyday, the LTTE was a fearsome organization, having pioneered the use of suicide jackets, and having assassinated major leaders, including Rajiv Gandhi. Even now, its cause has been taken up by a well-organized Tamil diaspora of around a million.
The danger is that if somehow, the Tamils are not incorporated into the mainstream, the next generation might take up arms again.
(The featured picture at the top is that of Colombo, lit up for Christmas. Photo by Tang Lu)