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An eviction in Sri Lanka, this day, that age

As societies overwhelmed by the novel coronavirus pandemic witness heightening fear, economic deprivation and a persisting curtailment of public events, remembering the past to chart a progressive future has become a casualty.

On October 30, 1990, the northern Muslims of Sri Lanka, a population of 75,000, were abruptly evicted by the LTTE that sought to reign supreme as the “sole representative” of the Tamils and their “homeland”. The families were forced to leave with just a shopping bag and a few 100 rupees in hand. For the 30th anniversary of the inhuman expulsion, there will not be any public events of remembrance, unfortunately.

Also read | 30 years since the eviction of Muslims by LTTE

Over the last decade since the end of the war, remembering this act of ethnic cleansing at gun point (which displaced generations to live in refugee camps) was a way of mobilising support for resettling this long suffering community, and in doing so, rebuilding fraught relations between Muslims and Tamils, fellow minorities in Sri Lanka.

The tragic predicament of the Northern Muslim community, distraught by an unwelcoming Tamil nationalist political landscape and in fear of being attacked by Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarian forces, is but a symptom of polarisation that gravely threatens Sri Lanka’s chances for a plural and democratic post-war future.

A polarisation

After the end of the war in 2009, the Muslim community began returning to the North gradually, but the state had no coherent plan for their resettlement. Of the approximately 8,000 families who originate from Jaffna, about 2,000 registered with the local authorities to return; now only about 700 families have been able to return as residents. The displaced families have faced social and economic challenges, including bureaucratic hurdles to gain housing grants for the war affected, contested claims over land after their displacement and the abject lack of support for livelihoods. While there has been some progress with respect to their housing needs, the changing political context in the backdrop of attacks on Muslims in the south, particularly by chauvinist goon squads since 2012, to the vilification of Muslims after the Easter Sunday 2019 bombings, has cornered the community even in places like Jaffna.

Also read | Exodus and eviction in Sri Lanka's civil war

Constituting about 10% of Sri Lanka’s population, Muslims have proved ready targets in the past even if they are geographically spread over and are mainly Tamil-speaking but with a distinct ethnic identity. The extreme nationalists among the Sinhalese and Tamils, seem to be objective allies when it comes to the Muslims as they draw from the global and South Asian discourses of Islamophobia. The “war on terror” spearheaded by the United States in 2001 continues to resonate with the militarised Sri Lankan state; the anti-Muslim assertions of Hindutva in neighbouring India are also being emulated by chauvinist actors in Sri Lanka.

In a country fast coming under the grip of majoritarianism and authoritarian populism, the everyday lives of minorities are eclipsed by fear. And the dynamics of such polarising politics at the national level inevitably manifests itself regionally as well. Indeed, the current context does not bode well for Tamil-Muslim relations in the remotest villages in the island’s north and east. For, when polarisation is the dominant game in politics, suspicion and fear of treachery prevail.

Also read | The perils of being a woman and a Muslim in Sri Lanka

Competing for resources

During the nearly 30 years of the civil war, massacres and counter massacres by the LTTE, the military and Muslim militias in the Eastern Province led to the redrawing of ethnic enclaves that to this day are being fiercely contested. In the post-war decade, it is claims over resources (from land to fishing landing sites) that have aggravated inter-ethnic relations not only in the deeply divided east, but also in the north where the Muslim community is smaller and weaker.

In many parts of the rural north today, the novel coronavirus pandemic has pushed people to redouble their efforts to cultivate land in order to survive. As income streams grind to a halt in many urban livelihoods, more people are turning to agriculture, betting on the upcoming monsoon. Regular farmers are increasing their acreage and irregular farmers are cultivating any small plots they can access, through renting and sharecropping, with a view towards subsistence.

As Sri Lanka turns to the rural economy and agriculture for survival in a pandemic-struck economy, families are putting more of their own labour into agriculture, while clearing fallow lands for cultivation. In this context, issues around ownership of land and access to state lands by displaced Tamil and Muslim communities can create ethnic tensions. Across the country, such contestations over land become fertile ground for ethno-nationalist mobilisation of social bases by the polarising political elite.

Also read | The abaya and the tensions in Sri Lanka's east

Plural north

Muslims who have resided in the north for centuries, had historically good relations with the Tamils. They added much to the colour and culture of the northern towns with their distinct architecture (as evident in urban Jaffna) and with businesses, such as tailoring and trading. In the rural north, Muslim families and villages, like those of the Tamils, were involved in agriculture and fisheries.

Since the 1990 eviction, the north has become increasingly insular under the sway of bankrupt Tamil nationalist politics holding on to the legacy of the LTTE. In this context, the sustained return of the Muslims to the north is crucial for its plural future.

As the pandemic-triggered economic depression reshapes the political economy of Sri Lanka, and an authoritarian and militarised regime is seen as the panacea for national problems, what would become of the future of the Northern Muslims? How will their voice emerge as existential fears of the pandemic and repression take hold?

Also read | A new fault line in post-war Sri Lanka

Those on the peripheries

Sri Lanka has a history of failing to learn from its past and a tendency to step on its minorities. And in referring to minorities, we should not limit it to the vocal elite in Jaffna, but must include those on the peripheries. They are the hill country Tamils toiling in the plantations and rural masses oppressed along caste lines, and minorities within minorities, such as the Northern Muslims. Addressing the concerns of such minorities will require focusing on their freedoms as much on the resources for their economic rejuvenation, particularly during these times of a great social and economic upheaval. Remembering the tragic past of the northern Muslims and giving their plight the national attention it deserves is just one strand of the collective conscience needed to forge a plural and democratic country.

Ahilan Kadirgamar is Senior Lecturer, University of Jaffna and a member of the Jaffna People’s Forum for Coexistence

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Printable version | Nov 27, 2020 12:18:19 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/an-eviction-in-sri-lanka-this-day-that-age/article32975953.ece

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