Magazine

The shadow lines

Civilians stand behind the barbed-wire perimeter fence of the Manik Farm refugee camp located on the outskirts of the northern Sri Lankan town of Vavuniya on May 26, 2009.  

The anti-colonial movements in Asia and Africa that followed in the wake of India’s independence were often advanced by armed insurgents fighting bloody and protracted battles with imperial armies. The violence and bloodletting that marked the battles of Dien Bien Phu in Indo-China, Leopoldville in Belgian Congo, and Algiers in the French colony of Algeria are indelibly etched in our collective memory.

However, in many former colonies, such hard-won independence under the rubric of an overarching nationalism did not always result in a just and democratic society. In some, independence led to military dictatorships that often had the support of the imperial powers. Others were prone to internal conflicts between different ethnic communities competing for political and economic dominance. Armed insurgencies and secessionist movements erupted in many former colonies, whereby some ethno-linguistic communities, rendered newly sub-national, fought for freedom, dignity and the right to self-determination.

The first such conflict broke out in Nigeria between the Christian minority Igbo tribe in the south-east and the Emirs of the north. The Biafran War (1967-70) visited unspeakable horrors on the doughty Igbos, who were crushed by the West-backed Nigerian regime. Closer home, we had the conflict between West and East Pakistan. Martial law and repression unleashed by the Pakistani army was followed by genocide and the 1971 Bangladesh war. Angola and East Timor in 1975 went through similar upheavals and long-drawn-out conflicts.

In Sri Lanka, the ethnic conflict that began in the 1980s between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils originated from and followed a similar pattern. Fought chiefly by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the war ended in a decisive victory for the Sinhalese army in May 2009. Upwards of 40,000 Tamil civilians were reported killed on the final day alone.

It would seem that no “sub-national” ethno-linguistic community can hope to win a war against the armed might of the nation-state. Typically, their strategy would be to hurt the enemy grievously enough to force him to the negotiating table, where they could hope that the international community, responding to their just demand for basic human rights, would broker a peace settlement and a lasting political solution. Wherever these bets have gone wrong, as in the case of Sri Lanka, the human consequences for the community have been no less than calamitous. Since the end of the war in Sri Lanka, there have been a few poignant accounts of it by journalists. But insider accounts from within the liberation movement were non-existent until the publication of Oru Kuurvaalin Nizhalil (In the shadow of a sword), a memoir by Tamizhini, a former woman functionary of the LTTE.

Written with a sense of urgency after the author was diagnosed with cancer in 2013, and published a few months after her death in 2015, the memoir is unique in that her description of the LTTE’s chequered military campaign of 1992-2009 never loses sight of the disasters visited on the Tamil people at every turn. It also tracks the changing values of the movement and its progressive moral decline in the face of protracted conflict.

Born in 1972 into a farming family from a village near Killinochi, Tamizhini (whose real name was Sivakami) experienced the conflict first-hand during her schooldays, through random attacks by the Sinhalese army, the excesses of the Indian Peacekeeping Force, and the bravery of some students in her school who left to join the movement.

At 19, she ran away to join the LTTE, where she worked mostly in the political wing. Her duties included providing education and training to new recruits, communicating the movement’s ideology and position to the people to enlist their support, providing rehabilitation to the families of fighters killed in battle, taking part in international peace negotiations as a woman representative of the LTTE, and conferring with senior women officers of the LTTE’s combat wing. During her 19 years with the LTTE, she was never very far from a combat zone, passing messages, ferrying people and risking her life repeatedly under enemy fire.

At the decisive battle in Mullaithivu (May 16-18, 2009), Tamizhini was taken prisoner by the army and brought to Colombo for interrogation. After two years and nine months in prison, Tamizhini was released in June 2012, and assigned for a year to a rehabilitation camp for former LTTE members. She was handed over to her mother in June 2013, and in September, that year, she married a Sri Lankan Tamil living in exile. She was diagnosed with cancer in 2014 and died in October 2015, penning this memoir in the brief interim.

Throughout, Tamizhini remains steadfast to the cause of the Tamil people, even as she sees the LTTE, the main fighting force and hope of all Tamils in Sri Lanka, morph into a paranoid and totalitarian organisation that progressively becomes disconnected with the interests and well-being of the very people it is fighting for. Too often, we see people’s lives sacrificed in the pursuit of a narrow tactical advantage.

The “mistakes” made by the LTTE leadership are many and by now well-documented: persecution and trial of Colonel Mathaiah and his associates for “treason”; tactical assassinations of Kathirgamar and Neelan Thiruchelvan; sacking of Killinochi before the exit of a defeated LTTE; pursuit and killing of LTTE fighters in the eastern province for suspected disloyalty; recruitment of underage children into the steadily dwindling fighting force; and, finally, just before the final collapse, shooting their own people in the legs to prevent them from leaving Mullaithivu.

To read of these tragic events as recalled by someone like Tamizhini who staked her life and endured unspeakable pain and horror for the cause is a mind-numbing experience. In Tamizhini’s telling, this war of liberation, like all wars, is ugly and brutal.

Her intent is to help succeeding generations of Sri Lankan Tamils learn about the reality of the conflict and find their way to a life of peace and dignity. There is wisdom in the saying: “Never be quick to raise your sword against the enemy, for you will just as swiftly raise it against your own brother.” If this is true of all perpetrators of violence, it’s even more so when a disenfranchised and dispossessed community is engaged in an unequal, losing battle.

In a uni-polar world where the needs of global capital are to be met through increased repression rather than freedom, how should these communities repossess their freedom and dignity? Ashis Nandy has said that more people died during the 20th century in wars of nationalism than in religious wars. Given such a bloody history, sections of the world community who are neatly arranged under the dominant paradigm of the nation-state could be suffering a crisis without end. This would, of course, apply to communities in Kashmir and the Northeast as well. Oppressor or oppressed, we may all be living in the shadow of yet another sword, the certain degradation and destruction of humanity itself.

(Oru Kuurvaalin Nizhalil was published by Kalachuvadu Publications in February 2016.)

N. Kalyan Raman is a Chennai-based translator of contemporary Tamil fiction and poetry.

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Printable version | Jan 26, 2021 11:22:41 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/The-shadow-lines/article14331781.ece

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