By N Sathiya Moorthy
It could not have been timed better or worse – as the perpetrators, or those really behind the perpetrators, had wanted. A day, or night, to be precise, after the three-day visit of India’s External Affairs Minister (EAM), Subramanyam Jaiishankar’s ‘successful’ Colombo visit, came the news of the overnight destruction of a Tamil war memorial on the Jaffna University campus in the North. Earlier episodes of the kind had stopped with desecration of a Tamil identity in the war-ravaged region, or the proclamation and promotion of the Sri Lankan State victory over LTTE terrorism – but flowing from a sense of Sinhala-Buddhist superciliousness, to anything and everything ‘minority’, as perceived only by them, and none else.
There is a problem of construct and deconstruct. Timing it to the Indian Minister’s visit may have been a thoughtless provocation viz, not only the norther neighbour but also the larger international community, friends and foes alike. They are all taking a closer look at the nation after the Rajapaksas returned to power in November 2019, and more so in the light of the upcoming UNHRC decision, where the votes of some of them count – and the influence of some others, like the US of A, may count even more. This is not to club India with the rest, but they will be keenly watching for elements that could make India uncomfortable in the company of Sri Lanka, at the UNHRC this March, and elsewhere too.
The economy is in a mess and the nation needs investments, big and proper – and de-coupled from the Hambantota kind of embarrassing, yet monumental self-goal, whose currency will live to remind future generations on what was wrong with their rulers in the preceding decades, close to a century back. Or, that is the life of the Hambantota territorial, debt-equity swap-deal, going to over the better part of the current century. No one has a crystal-glass to stare at the 22nd century to predict that the nation will be debt-free and ‘occupation-free’, occupation of the Hambantota kind, that is.
Or, will it be more of such ‘occupation’ and worse. If the economy goes down as it is, and friends of the ruling Rajapaksas from within the Government apparatus were to indulge in more of the Jaffna kind, and worse, then they can forget foreign investments in a politically troubled land – leaving China alone to hold hands and move, into Sri Lanka, even more than already. Like the rest of the investor-world, their Indian counterparts too will require a peaceful socio-political atmosphere, to put in the money where their mind has been all along.
The Rajapaksas’ proud claim on offering Hambantota to India is a pointer. No private Indian investor from India wanted a piece of the cake at the time because the civil war was on, and the LTTE’s Sea Tigers controlled a three to four-fifth of the Sri Lankan seas, destroying everything that was moving in the waters, or staying put, too.
If the assumption thus is that the Rajapaksas were not alive to the Black Friday night episode in Jaffna, then who was it that did it? It is not unlikely that like the over-zealous, and anti-Rajapaksa police officer who ordered a New Year Eve verification-raid on all Tamil homes in the national capital of Colombo in 2006 – rather, the night of 31 December 2005 – who is it that was behind the ‘mischief’ this time round? UGC Chairman has lost his case on this score as Jaffna University Vice-Chancellor, S Srisarkunarajah, a Tamil of the Rajapaksas’ choice, has since pointed fingers at higher-ups. ‘Defence intelligence, Education, everyone’, is how the Indian daily, The Hindu, has quoted Vice Srisarkunarajah, as saying.
If there is something that could call UGC Chairman Sampath Amaratunge’s bluff on this score, this was it, this was it. For he had sought to distance the VC’s higher-ups in Colombo from the decision, indicating that it was a unil
ateral decision of the VC. Then, there is the police too claiming that they rushed to the varsity only after hearing that students were gathering there past midnight, to protest, and thus only to maintain law and order.
It is inconceivable that in the nation’s context, especially in relation to the Tamil areas, that any authority would seek to start of something as controversial as this one, with built-in potential for ready provocation, that no one in authority had thought it necessary to invite police presence. Maybe, the police could argue that they were not involved in the demolition of the memorial, but nothing more would sell – unless convincingly proved otherwise. Or, that is the state of the nation, since the commencement of the war and the continuance in the post-war decade, too. It’s so, whoever was or is in power in the last ten years after the successful conclusion of the war and the elimination of the LTTE.
But to the larger question of the VC acting on its own, maybe, the UGC chief should now be called upon to prove his unilateral statement, as it also involves the credibility of his person and office viz those of the VC. This is more so because media reports have claimed that the VC had received ‘written instructions’ in the matter – and reminders, not necessary in writing, but definitely, the existence of the former could be proved.
If it is that the UGC chief was not involved in such communication, and was kept out of the loop, maybe, he should order an independent probe, to learn as to who were all involved in taking a sensitive decision as such, that too without informing his high office in the field of higher education in the country. If one mentioned the Shakespearean adage that ‘Caesar’s wife should be above suspicion’, the UGC chief should submit himself too to such a probe.
Chalk and cheese parallel
There is substance in the Tamil claim that the Jaffna memorial is being held apart from similar ones on the Sri Jayawardenapura University and Wayamba University elsewhere in the country, where ‘JVP memorials’ have been in existence for years now. Not only has no action taken against the existence of those memorials, as is often pointed out by Tamil youth and political parties, JVP remembrance day has been allowed to be observed for years now.
Destruction of memorials for the fallen has been an ancient idea, believing that by itself would be enough to erase memories from contemporary and future minds. The colonial rulers had done it all across the world, the US did so in the case of Osama bin-Laden, and hence is not qualified to criticise Sri Lanka on this count, now. The nation, then under the Rajapaksas, again, also disposed of the body of LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran, likewise, almost. They also destroyed sites associated with him in native Valvettithurai, or VVT for short, before allowing civilian movement from within and from outside of the war-zone in the North.
But memories remain not because of memorials but despite them. In cases such as this one, that too in an era of IT and social media advancements, such beliefs have no roots in science and technology. The contemporary generation is anyway going to leave behind digitalised records, both visual, oral and videos, for their future generations. Future Diaspora generations are going to update the technology whenever something shows up, and make it real for the future generations, in terms of what is obvious – and surreal, where a picture can be made to say more than a hundred thousand words for the future generation.
The irony of the current situation, is that beginning with the pronounced and rather personalised Tamil antipathy towards the Rajapaksas, as if there were no other ‘sinners’ in the Sinhala-Buddhist majority community and polity, has been receiving an equally personalised response, too. Never ever can the Tamils justify their preference for war-time army commander Sarath Fonseka over incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa in the post-war presidential polls of 2010, and all along since.
If this got reflected in Candidate Gotabaya deciding ‘not to waste his campaign time’ in the Tamil North, what is happening is not as much as a personalised political decision, the like of which his brother and incumbent Mahinda R did not practise in 2010 and 2015, precisely for the exactly opposite reason. That if and when elected, he would still be the President of all Sri Lanka and all Sri Lankans, including the Tamils who did not vote for him, Muslims and Upcountry Tamils who did not vote for him – and the Sinhalas, too, who did not vote for him.
Independently and collectively, the present will celebrate and the future will remember them, for not what they were and for what they were not – but for what they ought to have been, but were not. So, if the Rajapaksas were to alienate the Tamils as much as the latter have done for themselves – and not try to embrace them, future Sri Lankans, including their own Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarian constituency of the present, may remember them for the wrong reason, of they having planted the seed and seedling for a future insurgency, maybe of Tamils, maybe of Muslims, or maybe of all minorities gathered together.
The presumption is that the Sri Lankan State that had eliminated and exterminated the LTTE would always be able to do so, also in the future. Having acknowledged the possibility, they need to consider the possibility of a new left-leaning militant group, outside of the day’s neutralised and moderate JVP, taking shape in a bigger way than in the past, that too with all the 21st century possibilities that the ‘Easter blasts’ have encouraged the security agencies to weigh and consider. The present economic meltdown may be an occasion that a thinking leftist-militant mentor, outside of the generation to which Rohana Wijeweera belonged, would not want to pass by.
That way, Sri Lanka in general and the Rajapaksas in particular can count on China and Russia at UNHRC to an extent and on their veto-vote in the UNSC, but going beyond that, it will require the rest of the world even more for fighting another civil war, years or decades from now, as it needed them in neutralising the LTTE. With generations of Rajapaksas queuing up to take up the elected throne in their time, the world will remember what President ‘Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa’ had to tell his political opponents – and of the same Sinhala-Buddhist ethnic stock as his. That is not to wake up the sleeping ex-Defence Secretary in him. Amen!
(The writer is Distinguished Felllow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: [email protected])