Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Sri Lanka: A Masterful Account of the Tamil Struggle & After

Elephant Complex: By John Gimlette
Publisher: Quercus/Hachette
Pages: 518+ix
Price: Rs. 650/-

Sri Lanka is an ancient civilization with a recorded history of over 3000 years and pre-historic remains dating back to several millennia (some, arguably, as old as 1,50,000 years). It is a multi-ethnic society having diverse languages and religions. Although Gimlette does not find any ethnic difference between Sinhalas and Tamils, both these major communities have been intensely proud of their respective cultural and linguistic identities. Other ethnic groups like Moors, Malays, Burghers etc too have a presence in this tiny island. While Buddhism and Hinduism are the island’s major religions, Islam and Christianity too have sizeable following. This plurality has enriched Sri Lanka’s culture but also created political fault-lines that have kept widening after the British left in 1948.

Tamils had a privileged status under the British, which began to wilt during the colonial rule’s last years and ended with the island nation’s freedom. With the advent of independence ethnicity based politics began to gather strength and momentum, although there were leftist rebellions by the likes of JVP. However, the LTTE led insurrection proved the costliest and bloodiest of all civil wars. It lasted almost thirty years, starting in 1983 and ending in 2009 with complete annihilation of the LTTE. 

Gimlette begins the narrative with a trip to Tooting, London, where Sri Lankan Tamil expatriates live. It is essentially a ghetto, which has its own rules and laws governing Tamils living there. And yes, they have their own criminal gangs and crime syndicates/mafias too. He learns of various political aspects of the Tamil Eelam movement, and meets some ex-LTTE cadres too.

In his accounts, Sri Lanka comes across as a society divided essentially on class lines, and dominated by ‘Brown Brits’ whose snobbery is as breathtaking as their disconnect from the masses. They live in the world of their own with a firm belief in their (divine?) right to rule. When he talks of political dynasties of Sri Lanka, viz., Senanayakes, Jayawardenes, Bandaranaikes and Rajapaksas (please note, all of these are Sinhala and none Tamil), we in India are reminded of our political dynasties viz., Nehru-Gandhis, Badals, Yadavs of Bihar and UP, Patnaiks of Orissa, the DMK Parivar in Tamil Nadu, and the umpteen Chavans, Pawars et al of Maharashtra. However, there is a difference. While none of the Indian dynasts is a diehard ‘Brown Brit’ most of the Sri Lankan dynasts are.

But Gimlette does not confine himself to these ‘elite’ classes. He interacts with a wide spectrum of the populace that comprises Buddhist Monks, Muslims, Christian padres, former Tamil Tigers, farmers, slum dwellers, politicians, generals and Vedda forest dwellers among others.

You love to accompany Gimlette as he delves into the isle’s mythology and history, marvels at its magnificent past as exemplified by Anuradhapura, lingers while taking in the scenic beauty and the lure of its wildlife. You are confused when told of the Sri Lankan Tamils' high-nosed attitude towards ‘Indian Tamils’ who have been living there for long enough to be considered naturalised Sri Lankans. But it is the ugliness of violence, the destruction wrought by it that leaves you pained and stunned. You learn of the Tamil ingenuity in fashioning mini-submarines, improvised bombs and booby traps, their daring suicide bombers (prototypes for the Jihadi suicide bombers who followed their example in later years). But there were internecine wars among various Tamil groups that ended in Prabhakaran alias Thambi led LTTE emerging as the strongest of all the insurgent groups. The LTTE’s cruelties perpetrated on fellow Tamils are matched by the Sri Lankan military’s unspeakable atrocities and compounded by the IPKF’s follies as well as mindless violence and greed. Consequently, women and children were the greatest sufferers. As if this suffering was not enough. The tsunami wrought further havoc on the hapless in 2004, sweeping away scores of villages and killing hundreds. 

In this masterful account of an eminently avoidable tragedy the Tamil insurgency proved to be, Gimlette dwells on the various shades of post-insurgency Sri Lanka with sensitivity and humour. A humour that appears to be tinged with the average Sri Lankan’s ability to take the tragedies in their stride, even get philosophically indifferent towards them.

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