For those in Jaffna who have, for long, felt the need for a space that allows dialogue and discussion, this weekend has been promising.
The 41st edition of ‘Ilakkiya Sandippu’ (literary meet), which began here on Saturday, saw people from varied fields articulate their views on topics ranging from omissions in history and caste politics to gender biases and educational needs. This is the first time that the event, organised by Sri Lankan Tamils living abroad, is being held in Sri Lanka.
It took over two decades for the literary meeting to travel all the way from Europe to the northern province of Sri Lanka, which will soon have its first ever provincial council election.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a section of the Tamils in northern Sri Lanka felt that the LTTE, which dominated this part of the country, was intolerant of any position that did not endorse theirs.
Those with alternative points of view did not have any platform to air their opinion. They did not attempt pushing the limits for fear of their lives. The prolonged conflict forced many of them to leave the country and a section of the Tamil diaspora felt it was high time that a forum for dialogue and discussion was set up. Soon, Ilakkiya Sandippu was born and became a regular feature in different parts of Europe.
The event, one of the participants said, was an opportunity for the Tamil diaspora — said to be actively involved in issues of the north in terms of funding and decision making — to have a better understanding from locals. “Otherwise, there is a sense of alienation,” the activist, who preferred not be named, said.
A narrow lane, not very far from the famous Nallur temple in Jaffna, turns into Euroville Hall, which was packed Saturday morning.
Participants were not just people from Jaffna but also many from eastern and central parts of the island. A few have flown down from Canada, Europe and the U.K. just for this event. Nearly 200 people were there, braving strong criticism from a section of diaspora as well as local politicians.
Some members of the diaspora have been arguing that holding the event in Jaffna would give out signals that “all is well” here — something totally contrary to their understanding of the current situation.
However, the northern province of the island nation, which was shattered during the war, is still battling huge challenges pertaining to resettlement. Though the people of the north acknowledge that it was President Mahinda Rajapaksa who brought the war to an end, they are rather critical of his regime, saying reconciliation and resettlement work is far from adequate.
Organisers said they did not believe everything was fine in the north. ”But that does not mean we should not have any discussion, isn’t it? We want to utilise whatever democratic space is available at the moment and try to expand it gradually,” said Jaffna-based Vasuki Rajasingham, one of the organising committee members.
The event, which seemed like a low-key affair, had strong opposition from certain local politicians with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) as well , who put out statements that the event did not endorse their Tamil nationalist agenda, and said the organisers were supporters of the ruling government in Colombo.
One of the organisers said: “Unfortunately, some people think that if you are not a Tamil nationalist, you have to necessarily be a supporter of the government. But aren’t there many shades in between?”
The event not only sought to accommodate different issues and ideological positions, but also tried to strike a regional and gender balance in themes and participation. Colombo-based photojournalist and blogger Dushiyanthini Kanagasabapathipillai said the participation of people from Jaffna made the event more meaningful.
“While critics may attribute motives, we can’t deny that such an event enables dialogue. Importantly, we get a change to listen to people from here speak on issues they face,” she said.
The discussions, many participants said, were stimulating. “The level is fantastic at a theoretical and intellectual level, and there are so many things to learn from discussions here,” said Nirmala Rajasingham, a democracy activist who came for the event from the United Kingdom.
Somesasundari Krishna Kumar, senior lecturer of history at Jaffna University said: “Many people think that‘Jaffna culture’ is unidimensional. But there is a lot of diversity within the society and we have to acknowledge that and this forum is an opportunity to reflect on that in the current situation.”