By N Sathiya Moorthy
One of Sri Lanka’s all-time cricketing greats, Muttiah Muralitharan, is caught in the cross-fire of ethnic politics that has traversed the Palk Straits into the south Indian State of Tamil Nadu – and for no fault of his whatsoever, other than being born, other than being a bowling legend with a record 800 wickets in Test criket. That Tamil Nadu is also from where his forebears in the Upcountry Tamils hailed. In his time, Tamil Nadu is also where Murali’s in-laws hail.
It all began with a Tamil film-maker in Chennai wanting to make a biopic of the great bowler, as if to inspire cricket-loving youth as much and even more as the Bollywood story on India’s very own cricketing great, M S Dhoni, did a couple of years back. It has been in the news off and on through these Covid months. Trouble started more recently when the production team released what in contemporary filmi parlance is known as the ’first-look poster’ on the social media. It showed the by-now established Kollywood star, Vijay Sethupathi, in Murali’s ‘get-up’. The film was aptly titled, ’800’.
Trouble started for Vijay Sethupathi and the production team, though only through advice and open criticism – not of them, but of Murali. Some pan-Tamil groups overnight saw Murali as siding with the ruling Rajapaksas in Sri Lanka, and thus attesting to their alleged anti-Tamil initiatives, war and violence. So, they did not want Vijay Sethupathi (as different from Tamil cinema’s reigning super-star, Vijay). Soon, pan-Tamil film-makers like the legendary Bharatirajaa joined the chorus.
Suffice is to say that sooner than later, the decibel-levels cross the Palk Strait in the opposite direction, forcing Murali to issue a detailed, two-page statement, explaining how he was not an enemy to the island’s Tamil population. As he points out, the Upcountry Tamils were the worst hit during the ethnic war – though he did not say that they had always been victims of bigotry from all sides.
“When the production house approached me for the film, I was first reluctant to give my nod,” Murali’s statement said. “I then thought that the film would highlight the struggle of my parents, the contribution of my coaches and teachers and everyone who have been part of my journey.”
Like over 99 per cent of the Upcountry Tamil family of indentured estate labour with their wretched lives of the past nearly two centuries, Murali’s “family had its humble beginnings in a tea estate in Sri Lanka. The most affected in the 30-year long civil war were the Upcountry Tamils.” As he points out, “our life began in a conflict zone.” And that should say it all, for those that know how the estate labour in Sri Lanka live a life on the wrong side of living.
The film ‘800’ talks about how “I overcame all these hurdles and managed to succeed in cricket,” says Murali in the statement, and asks the pertinent question: “Is it my fault that I was born a Sri Lankan Tamil? If I was born in India, I would have definitely tried to be part of the Indian team. Since I am part of the Sri Lankan team, I have always been misunderstood. An unnecessary controversy has erupted saying that I am against Tamils, thus giving the film, a political colour.”
Deep pockets, but…
Commercially-speaking, the current controversy has given the film a lot of free publicity, pre-release, pre-production. But going by the fate of such politically-controversial films, the film-makers now have to make peace with a multitude of protesting groups, whose numbers could increase by the day, between now and the time it hits the screens. It depends on their grit, determination and negotiations skills, apart from the question how deep their pockets – to sit out a crisis and talk their way out of it.
But the issue is not about the film or its production, but about the larger issues of politicising filmi creations, and stalling or at least delaying them on their tracks. Tamil film great Kamalahassan has had his brush with trouble at least with two of his very successful films, ‘Virumandi’ (2004) and ‘Vishwaroopam’ (2013). The protest against the former for from a section of southern Tamil Nadu’s Dalit community while for the latter, it was from local Muslim outfits.
As for as the Sri Lankan ethnic angle is concerned, Tamil cinema’s eternal super-star Rajinikanth had to cancel his Jaffna visit ahead of the release of his magnum opus, ‘2.0’, a 2017 sequel to his 2010 super-duper sci-fi, ‘Enthiran’ (Robot, 2010) for similar reasons. The original producer of the movie was a Sri Lankan Tamil, whom anti-Rajapaksa protestors in Tamil Nadu branded as on the Rajapaksas’ side.
Lyca Productions’ Gnanam Foundation had built free houses for SLT war victims and had invited Rajini to hand over the houses to the beneficiaries at a Jaffna function. When political leaders like Vaiko and Thol Thirumavalavan appealed to Rajini, to stay away, he obliged.
The altruism, neither of the film production house in building those houses in the war-torn areas of Sri Lanka, nor those of the Tamil politicos in India could be questioned. “They placed before me various political reasons and kindly asked me not to participate in the programme,” Rajinikanth said on the occasion. “Although I could not wholeheartedly accept what they said, I avoid attending the function heeding their request,” he added.
It is not as if Tamil films and film stars have become targets of political groups, over the Sri Lankan ethnic issue. Before Rajinikanth, and now Vijay Sethupathi-Murali duo, world-renown agro-economist, Dr M S Swaminathan, and India’s IT industry icon, N R Narayanamurthy, were similarly targeted for accepting then President Mahinda Rajapaksa (now Prime Minister under brother and President Gotabaya R), to help revive the war-ravaged nation’s economy, post-war.
There is absolutely no understanding of the plight of the Sri Lankan Tamil population, and as much as of the Upcountry Tamil people, in native Tamil Nadu. For instance, the efforts of Swaminathan and Narayanamurthy would have helped the war-affected Tamil families more than anyone else in the island-nation, through better farm practices and IT-related ancillary jobs or whatever.
Light at the end of tunnel
Whether it is Murali now, or Rajini, Swaminathan and Narayanamurthy earlier, no recognised Tamil political party or group in Sri Lanka has called them to stay away. Unfortunately, they are also not inclined to issue any clarification whenever such attempts are made to revive the interest of iconic Tamils in India, in the ethnic issue and the war-affected people.
Once in the past though, as Northern Province’s TNA Chief Minister, C V Wigneswaran told a Tamil Nadu interviewer that the State’s people should stay away from the ethnic issue “as you people don’t understand it” and it can only add to their troubles on the island. It owes mainly to their perception that some time in the undecided future they would require the sympathy and support of these pan-Tamil groups in Tamil Nadu, to ‘pressure’ the Indian Government, to their specific causes and demands.
It is another matter that many members from among these protesting groups in Tamil Nadu do not know much about the worse-off conditions of a thin ray of hope at the end of a long tunnel. Murali is an inspiration for those youth, who too would like to branch off from the lives their forebears had lived (?) in the estate’s line-houses, and take up alternate careers, not only in cricket but as doctors, engineers, lawyers and teachers.
These pan-Tamil groups either do not know, or do not want to acknowledge that the Sri Lankan Tamil community had not always been as cultured as they claimed to be in their appreciation of things Tamil on the other side of the Palk Strait, be it the literature, culture, or cuisine, or whatever. Worse still, nearer home, they had sided with the post-Independence Sinhala-Buddhist majority/majoritarian Government to dis-enfranchise the Upcountry Tamils and also render them State-less, after they had all made Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, their home generations earlier.
Even through the war years, barring very few Upcountry Tamil political leaders, none was approached, nor did they open-heartedly side with the cause and methods of the LTTE. Theirs was a fight for a living while that of the LTTE was for rights. They could not have asked their youth against the might of the Sri Lankan State. Yet, in the final war, very many displaced Upcountry inhabitants of those areas in the northern Vanni, too, died, but unacknowledged by anyone.
Ignorance or arrogance?
Worse is the case of Sinhala-Buddhist hardliners in the country, especially their immediate views on Tamil Nadu and the politics of the South Indian States. Either they do no know and cover up their lack of knowledge and exposure by dropping the names of some politicians in Tamil Nadu, which they have wantonly made familiar for their constituency to recognise and respond in ways they want it.
Unfortunately for them, Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa are not around anymore for this section to place at least a part of their own blame on Tamil Nadu politicians. But others remain, and in the upcoming weeks and months ahead of the State Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu, there will be more of the shriller voices from both sides. Worse still, the May elections will be preceded by the crucial March session of the UNHRC.
Tamil Nadu’s electoral records show that there is no strong pan-Tamil constituency as there is a hard-core Sinhala-Buddhist constituency in Sri Lanka. At best 3-4 per cent of the State’s voters may cast their lot, based on pan-Tamil concerns, the Sri Lankan ethnic issue, included. Suffice is to point out that in the nation’s parliamentary polls of 2009, held at the height of the ethnic war reaching a climax in Sri Lanka, Vaiko, who was the chief LTTE mouth-piece in Tamil Nadu at the time, lost his seat and by a huge margin – despite the MDMK party that he is leading was in a strong alliance.
That’s also when the UN body will be takin gup the tactically postponed Sri Lankan war crimes probe and resolutions for detailed discussions and vote. Already, President Gotabaya has declared his Government’s intention to stay away, and has also withdrawn the Sri Lankan State’s consent under the predecessor regime co-authoring the probe resolution. That’s also when Diaspora Tamils will be kicking up dust in Tamil Nadu, too, through their acolytes, to pressure India.
There is a section within the Sinhala-Buddhist camp, which actually believes that they could get the SLT community ejected out of the island-nation, as they had sought to do with the Upcountry Tamils, post-Independence but did not wholly succeed, no thanks to India’s acceptance on the one hand and persuasive power, on the other. It was their attitude, apart from anti-Tamil ‘Pogrom-83’, coupled with India’s own experience with the Bangladesh War refugees that forced New Delhi to take some of the controversial decisions they took, in the early years.
Learning the lessons
By then, India had learnt from its political and diplomatic experience in the handling of the Upcountry Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka and the Burmese Indian refugees, including many Tamils. New Delhi while acknowledging ‘Mother India’s’ acceptance of its children and their children in principle, would not have neighbourhood nations using its grace and generosity to dispossess their own people of their worth and whatever they possessed that was worthy – starting with their honour and pride as a community.
In this is past lesson that the likes of Minister of State, retired Navy Admiral Sarath Weerasekara have to go back and read all about. It is one thing for Adm Weerasekara to argue the Sri Lankan State / Sinhala-Buddhist majority’s case before the international community and on the streets of Geneva ahead of bi-annual UNHRC sessions, against all the stories that the Tamil Diaspora have been weaving and spreading at the very same venue. It is another for them to either misunderstand or definitely mis-represent the reality of the situation in neighbouring Tamil Nadu.
Suffice is to point out that the Weerasekaras of the fifties and sixties and even later went about declaring, “We have only Sri Lanka to ourselves. The Tamils have India and all those countries where (Upcountry) Tamils (from India) are settled from the days of their ancestors’ days as indentured labour under the common British rule. That only gave the LTTE ideas, and they had their arms procurement from as far away as South Africa, with cousins of Sri Lanka’s Upcountry Tamils settled for generations!
(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: firstname.lastname@example.org)