Every time I go to Sri Lanka, my historical sensibility gets heightened. I still remember this huge hoarding of Mahinda Rajapaksa ‘lovingly’ holding an old woman, obviously Tamil as she was wearing a pottu. That woman could be one of the 2.5 lakh people who have lost their homes, belonging and land in the war. She could be part of the other lakhs who have lost all of this in the more than twenty-five years of war.
The day before yesterday, 26th January, was the first ‘free’ election ‘after the war’. During the months before the election, 700 incidents of violence were reported, leading to the death and injury of many. Yesterday, as the results rolled out, chaos hit the streets of Colombo. We don’t even have enough information about what happened in the rest of the country yesterday. Rumours were floating about. I shall not dwell on the rumours and provide them legitimacy, although I am tempted to, as some of them are shocking and could be true. Ethics come in the way.
Some information we know for sure:
- The opposition candidate to Mahinda Rajapakse, Gen. Fonseka was surrounded by close to 400 army personnel with the rest of his family, in a Colombo hotel.
- His bodyguards are under arrest. Some say they ‘surrendered’ to the army and others say they were arrested.
- At least one journalist who supported Fonseka is ‘missing’.
Where is Sri Lanka going? The country needs:
- Strong voices representing the various minority groups – northern Tamils, Tamil Muslims, plantation Tamils etc.
- Strong voices representing the interests of all the workers and farmers who have lost out on basic rights through the course of the war.
- A fair trial of Mahinda Rajapakse who has regularly engaged in human rights violations permanently affecting the rights of common Tamil people. he has also launched a campaign to bring common Sinhala persons together on the basis of hatred.
- A community of activists/lawyers/academics who can express their opinion freely without fearing for their physical safety and life.
- A media that is independent and free.
- Pressure from the region – primarily India and China – raising their voice against the Rajapakse rule, which is in effect a dictatorship and has been so from the very beginning.
What does Sri Lanka have:
- A Tamil community in camps, having lost all their property and many relatives and friends.
- A Sinhala community which has no space to address the real issues of the country, but have to support Rajapakse in his attempt to create a country that will be ‘ruled’ by him.
- A community of activists/lawyers/academics who try and do what they can while keeping their lives intact.
- A community of media persons who fear to speak freely as they have everything (including their lives) to lose if they do speak out.
- A large community of diasporic Sri Lankans of different social classes, among whom the poorer once traversed the ludicrous refugee policies and praxis the world over, while the richer fund and harbour the hatred as one way of keeping in touch with ‘home’.
- A large community of disaporic activists with differing political opinions trying to get their voices heard in the international arena.
What has india been doing so far:
- Practically running the war by providing weapons, surveillance mechanisms, and most importantly, complete political immunity for Rajapakse during and after the ‘war’.
- Acquiring many contracts for ‘development projects’ in Sri Lanka to make everything from roads to flyovers to energy plants – especially in those areas worst affected by the war, and on land sold to them by the Sri Lankan government for a pittance. This land belonged to the people of the region, some of which was taken away from them and made high security zones – and now is used for Indian power plants and SEZs.
What has the Indian government done:
- Maintained the economic benefits they acquire from the Sri Lankan market at all times, thus not antagonized Rajapaksa at every step.
- Competed with China on the playing field of supplying weapons and other war goodies.
- Never raised a voice against any violation during the war and in the camps right after.
- Supported the Sri Lankan government unequivocally in all international forums.
- Not addressed the issues concerning Sri Lankan refugees in India in any real sense since the 1980s.
What have activists in India done about this:
- The occasional voice of protest.
- Our colleagues in Tamil Nadu, in their zeal for the leader of the LTTE and the hypothetical ‘eezham’, have lost sight of not just Sri Lanka, but the very people who claim to be in solidarity with – the Tamils. The protesters in Tamil Nadu are a joke among most common Tamil people in Sri Lanka
- Not addressed the role of our country in this entire ordeal. Not made a rigorous analysis so as to be able to pressurize India to not participate in such violations. Not sent an adequate, effective message to Rajapaksa that the ‘big brother’ of South Asia will not sit back and watch.
My experience as an activist working both in Sri Lanka and India has brought to light how little we question the notion of nation and citizenship in this country among the ‘progressives’. It is so easy for us to ignore the havoc we are causing next door. We don’t take note of all the various things happening within the borders of this country either, but if we don’t care enough or know anything about north eastern India, we at least try to give an explanation of our choice. If we know nothing about Sri Lanka, there is not even a need to explain the same. But if we don’t even look beyond the borders, our work within them will always have a gaping hole, and will reassert the notion of borders and citizenships that we so often loathe. If we are truly critical of all of the values that a modern nation stands for, we need to look beyond our own nation.
It is not our place, as Indians or activists to instruct the Sri Lankans on what they need to do as we will never fully understand the context, given our citizenship. Even at best, we will always traverse that thin line of being an ‘outsider’ who is passionate about and enormously moved by all that happens in Sri Lanka and yet having to fight the conditioning of being a citizen of ‘big brother’ India. However, given the exact nature of the role India is playing in Sri Lanka, it seems obvious to me that opposing the indian state vis-a-vis Chattisgarh is in the same continuum as opposing the Indian state’s support to the Sri Lankan government.
We can also comment on the role India should be playing and refuses to. The Indian government needs to condemn the actions of Mahinda Rajapakse in no uncertain terms from our vantage point of a country that, at least officially, takes democracy seriously.
Why do we need to do this:
- Because that island is moving towards a dictatorship and fast. I doubt if there will be another election at the end of this six year term, unless we speak out now and attempt to intervene in this trajectory. We can’t ignore the uncanny similarities that Rajapaksa the person and the trajectory of his work so far have with dictatorships the world over. It is possible to see some positive things even in the grimmest of times. But we need to speak up now to retain some semblance of democracy in the country.
- We great Indians can build a million flyovers in the small town of Jaffna but the history of having played such a crucial part in spiralling this country towards a dictatorship will haunt us forever. We will, and already are, in some respects, the ‘America of South Asia,’ standing tall and pompous right next to our neighbour – China.
- We have the privilege of the safety of life and limb that many in Sri Lanka do not have. The least we can do is express our solidarity with those who seek democracy in Sri Lanka. We know how badly they do want a democracy, given that almost 75% of the country voted, in spite of all the violence.
- We can’t fully understand a war that we have not lived through. We can however acknowledge that we have run it from afar and soon we will be like all of those ‘progressive’ Americans during Bush’s rule who desperately voiced their protest against war in Afghanistan, knowing fully well that their own country had a part in training those very militants only a few decades ago, and is now trying to bring ‘democracy and freedom’ from the supermarkets run by Uncle Sam. It is easy to not see beyond our borders, but if we don’t now, we will be doing nothing towards stopping India from taking long brisk strides towards becoming an imperialist nation in this region and maybe even elsewhere.
In short, our reactions as Indians to Sri Lanka need to be different from the general ethico-political responses we might have to Israel-Palestine or any other such area of conflict. They will have to be a response to our own role in this history and not a charitable opposition to the ‘war’ or to ‘human rights violations’ in general terms. We need to tell our government to take responsibility as a powerful nation in this region and make a strong statement against the processes now underway in Sri Lanka.