By N Sathiya Moorthy
Though the so-called national media did not give it due coverage, the five-day Pothuvil-to-Polikandy multi-ethnic march of the Tamil-speaking people drew a decent crowd, recently. Equally important, it has quietly passed on the mantle of core Tamil politics from the well-entrenched older generation to the relatively younger ones, without anyone asking for it and anyone giving it. Yet, it did leave behind the North and East divide that the protest march was supposed to close as much as possible – and did do so at the level of the people, but not necessarily among the leaders.
In the forefront of the protest march were civil society organisations of the Tamil-speaking people, thus taking away at least some of the entrenched ego issues pertaining to various groups and individuals, especially from among the Northern ‘Jaffna Tamils’. History has conferred on Jaffna the self-styled title of being the ‘cultural capital’ of the Tamil-speaking people in the country. The Jaffna Vellars seem to have born with a chip on their shoulders – and that is what it took the protest march to challenge from within. It was not an issue, however, neither earlier, nor since, but it certainly was a message coming out of the march without anyone having to spell it out.
It was the first organised protest march of the kind, uniting the Tamil-speaking people of the North and the East, and traversing both regions/Provinces. The commencement-point Pothuvil is in the East, and the culmination-point Polikandy is a locality in the Northern Jaffna town. True to form, the protestors’ demands also highlighted issues affecting not only the Northern Tamils, or the larger Tamil community, but also those of the Muslims and Upcountry Tamils.
The memorandum did not stop with the usual war-induced demands like ‘disappearances’ and other war-crimes. It also included current issues of State high-handedness, including the continued deployment of the PTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act), which is a war era anachronism, and continuing ‘land-grabbing’ by the Sri Lankan State, but only of Tamil lands in the North, and none likewise from the Sinhala-Buddhist majority in the South, and so on.
For the first time ever, the protestors’ demands included the Muslim community’s call for freedom to bury their covid dead, which Sri Lanka alone has barred, citing localised health reports. Other nations, both Christian and Muslim, have allowed the burial of their dead. The all-important World Health Organisation (WHO), the UN affiliate, has approved of burial, after conducting detailed studies.
The memorandum had demands pertaining to the Upcountry Tamil estate labour, or ‘Tamils of recent Indian origin Tamils’, or simply ‘Indian Tamils’ or ‘Malayaha Tamils’. The Tamil term ‘Malayaham’ means ‘Upcountry’ or ‘Hill Country’. They have been demanding a higher wage for their labours for long, and the protestors’ memorandum demanded that they be paid LKR 1,000 as daily wages.
Initial success or what
The taste of the pudding is in eating, and some results flowing from the protests were visible – though they cannot be directly linked to the same. Of immediate interest is Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s declaration in Parliament that from now on Muslims in the country would be allowed to bury their dead. However, a day later, a junior minister under him, Sudarshini Fernandopulle, ‘clarified’ in Parliament that a final decision would be taken only after consulting Health officials. This in turn reflected a strain within the ruling Establishment, though it was unclear, at what level.
On the wage-rise for the estate Tamils, it was again Prime Minister Rajapaksa who facilitated a tripartite agreement between the management, labour unions and Government officials. It was a poll promise of his SLPP, both before the presidential elections in November 2019 and the parliamentary elections in August 2020. To the extent, the timing was just right, and the Tamil protestors’ demand seemingly included what possibly some of the organisers thought would be coming through, any time soon.
But the same cannot be said of the core Tamil demands, rather demands of the vocal Sri Lankan Tamil (SLT) community. Those demands are as old as the war and certainly the post-war period, now nearing 12 years. The P2P march as the Pottuvil-to-Polikandy protest has come to be dubbed, only underscored most of those long-pending demands. Successive Governments in Colombo have failed to make good their promises of their times. Those promises thus remain only as promises.
At the end of it all, the mainline Opposition SJB had extended support to the P2P protest, though it came after the success became known. Post-march, the JVP has said that the protest became necessary and its success became possible only because of the Government’s continued ‘high-handedness’ against the Tamil community / communities.
Unmindful of it all, the Government withdrew special security for TNA parliamentarian M A Sumanthiran, and replaced it with a lesser security-cover. Internal Security Minister, veteran naval officer, Rear Adm Sarath Weerasekara (retd), said in Parliament that he ordered withdrawal of top level security to Sumanthiran, as it was incongruous for those personnel to be protecting a politician who was protesting against the Government, they were sworn to stand by.
Show ahead of UNHRC
Minister Weerasekara said that the protest was aimed at the upcoming UNHRC session in Geneva, which was scheduled to take up the Sri Lanka ‘war crimes’ resolution for discussion, debate, vote – and thus further action. It indeed was one though the protest-organisers did not seek to highlight the same. To them, unifying the Tamil-speaking people seemed to have been the prime agenda – hence limited achievement.
Otherwise, the protestors demands, or at least those pertaining to the SLT community, has already been reiterated together by northern Tamil polity together, in their joint memorandum to the UNHRC, copies of which have been shared with foreign missions in Colombo. If the Tamils’ memorandum to the UNHRC was the first stage in which the otherwise eternally-divided Northern polity came together, the P2P march has become the logical next step. It involved the larger population – but did not stop with the Northern Tamil population, or the larger SLT population in the North and the East, thus skipping the interim step and fast-forwarding the integration process, as much.
Is it fast-forwarding, after all? Yes and no. The fact that the protest was organised by civil society organisations did not go unnoticed. The presence of individual leaders of the TNA especially and also of Gajendra Kumar Ponnambalam’s ACTC-TNPF apart, major Tamil and Muslim parties, as organisations, did not participate. It was good in a way, as it could well have stirred hidden institutional and individualistic egos. But that is not the issue.
The real issues is that the march did not seem to have had the whole-hearted blessings of the respective party leaderships, other than Gajan Ponnambalam’s ACTC-TNPF, or so it seems. Especially, Maavai Senathirajah, president of the mainstay ITAK leader of the three-party TNA, stayed away. It would have made a difference to the optics if he had at least issued a congratulatory message on the P2P march – but he did not.
Even on the question of the Government withdrawing Sumanthiran’s special security cover, his political mentor and TNA chair, R Sampanthan, alone seemed to have called the MP and expressed his concern. Or, that is what a section of the Tamil media has reported. So did PLOTE leader D Sithardhan. Others in the TNA hierarchy have maintained stoic silence, even as SJB and Muslim leaders have flagged the issue, both inside and outside Parliament. So much for SLT, rather TNA unity!
Where from here…
Whether they planned it or not, or wanted it or not, the P1P protest has thrown up the likes of TNA parliaemntarians Shanakiyan Rajamanickam, or ‘Shan’ for short, and Sumanthiran, by now the veteran international spokesperson of the TNA, with two terms in Parliament behind him, to the forefront than already. Both stood of in Parliament recently for taking up the ‘Muslim burial issue’, and so did Gajan Ponnambalam.
The three parliamentarians put the Muslim leadership to shame on this score, as the latter was found wanting, in their submissions in the House – and outside. It was this that brought droves of Muslim youth to the P2P protests, thus indicating their willingness to work with a credible next-generation SLT leadership, devoid of the blood stains of the past that the LTTE had inflicted on the community in 1990. The moderate Tamil leadership had looked the other way then – and since.
It did not stop there, though. There was a visible attack on Shanakyan’s vehicle in Jaffna. A section of the Diaspora social media has attributed it to Ponnambalam’s party men. Others have denied it. Another group on the social media had earlier charged Shan with attempting to hijack the protest from the commencement. He was shown carrying a banner, with his face and presence, in the protest. According to the critics, Tamil for long have used only the picture of ‘Thanthai’ Selva or slain Amirthalingam – rejecting all forms of self-promotion of every kind.
Other reports claimed that once the protests entered the North, Sumanthiran & Co, too, sought to literally push Shanakyan behind, denying him a place in the forefront of the protest march – and that much of additional photo op, for the whole world to see. This report, too, has been denied, and thankfully so – but not from Shan’s side, yet.
Yet, if the protest march has made news, it is for the simple reason that it happened. Then, it had the presence of not only Tamils from the East and the North, but also Muslims. No news report has identified the presence of any Upcountry Tamil leader of any rank, or even their members – though both the East and the Vanni area in the North have the community’s substantial presence, all the same.
As is not uncommon, Christian priests were shown participating in the march. So did some Muslim community leaders. From the Tamil side, Velan Swamigal has become the first religious face of the population, though in the past, the priestly Brahmin community has lent support and backing to the Tamil cause at one time, and the militant cause another – and the LTTE, as days went by. How and how far it is going to impact the larger Tamil unity is a question for which the answers will emerge only in due course.
(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)