A lost war

Published : Dec 03, 2010 00:00 IST

The book traces the history of the struggle for a Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka.

THE author of the book under review, Pavai Chandran, is a well-known writer and journalist in Tamil. At the request of the editor of the Tamil daily Dinamani, he had undertaken the task of writing the history of the struggle for a Tamil homeland (eelam) in Sri Lanka. The armed struggle ended with the death of V. Prabakaran, the supremo of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), on May 18, 2009.

The history was serialised in the daily in 178 instalments from June 1, 2009, to November 27, 2009, to cash in on the emotional impact of Prabakaran's death in Tamil Nadu. It has now been published as a book with 56 chapters in two volumes.

Pavai Chandran begins the story with the original inhabitants of the island and their life under the rule of Western powers the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British for about 450 years. Freedom came in 1948 soon after the British left India after a prolonged freedom struggle. At the point of freedom, the majority of people (about 75 per cent) in the island were Sinhalese.

The minorities consisted of Tamils, including Muslims, in the Northern and Eastern provinces. There were also the Tamils who had been brought by the British from India as indentured labour to work in their plantations. Also called upcountry Tamils, or Indian Tamils, they formed the backbone of the Sri Lankan economy. They were rendered stateless by the Sri Lankan government in 1948 itself the first attack on minorities in Sri Lanka. Subsequently, the Sirimavo Bandaranaike-Lal Bahadur Shastri pact in 1964 brought them some concessions, including citizenship. The author argues that the suppression of the minorities in matters of employment, education and land issues began soon after the country's independence. This led to protests by Tamils through their political parties and groups aligned with them.

Pavai Chandran has narrated in detail the peaceful protests and their suppression by the police and the armed forces with emergency laws and violence. Notable instances include the protest against the Sinhala Only Act (formally the Official Language Act) in 1956, the killings at the World Tamil Conference in Jaffna (1974) and the burning of the Jaffna public library (1981) with its collection of 90,000 rare books.

In May 1976, at the first National Convention of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), S.J.V. Chelvanayagam (who later came to be known as the father of the Tamil nation for his fight for a federal state for Tamils in a united Sri Lanka) moved the famous Vaddukoddai Resolution. The resolution asked for a separate state for Tamils, called Tamil Eelam, with the consent of the elected Tamil Members of Parliament. The President, J.R. Jayewardene, made attempts to pacify the MPs and the Tamil youth who took to militancy after being badly affected by unemployment and lack of access to higher education following the standardisation process for admission.

A turning point in the history of the struggle came about in July 1983 when Tamil militants attacked an army convoy and killed several soldiers. This sparked ethnic riots against Tamils all over the island. Several militant leaders held in prison in Colombo were killed. Those who survived were transported to the Batticaloa prison, from where they escaped to Tamil Nadu and emerged as the core of the militant groups that launched the armed struggle in Sri Lanka.

Pavai Chandran narrates in detail the Thimphu talks between Tamil parties and Sri Lankan government representatives. The talks failed, but they were significant because it brought all parties involved in the conflict to the table.

The author writes in detail about the Provincial Council Bill that the Sri Lankan Parliament passed despite protests from Opposition parties. The Bill was a part of the process of finding a solution to the ethnic conflict. The LTTE, which had by then emerged as the major militant party, was against such a settlement. The then Congress government in India, headed by Rajiv Gandhi, favoured it and was its prime mover.

In another chapter, the author speaks about, in about 21 pages, the organisational structure of the LTTE, its militant actions in the northern part of the island, its undisputed leader Prabakaran, its elimination of other militant groups, and Prabakaran's speech on every November 27, which the LTTE observed as Heroes' Day, when he made his policy statements.

In the second volume, there is a long report, in three sections, on the role of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka and its fight with the LTTE. When R. Premadasa became President, he arranged for talks with the LTTE and subsequently got the IPKF to withdraw from the island, something Rajiv Gandhi reluctantly agreed to do. The author states that Premadasa played a cunning game against India by aligning with Prabakaran to achieve the withdrawal of the IPKF. However, Premadasa was killed by the LTTE at a May Day rally in 1993.

The LTTE gained control of a major portion of the North East Province following the victory in the war at Elephant Pass. After the first provincial council elections in the North East Province, in 1988, Varatharaja Perumal became the Chief Minister.

Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who took over as the first woman President of Sri Lanka in November 1994, realised that it was futile to continue the war with the LTTE. At the initiative of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, a ceasefire was declared under the supervision of a peace-monitoring mission from Norway.

In the period that followed, the LTTE developed banking services and a police force and improved the fighting capacity of its forces by expanding the Sea Tigers. In April 2002, Prabakaran held a press conference in Kilinochchi for the international media.

When Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected to power in November 2005, peace prevailed for a short period until the Mavil Aaru dam and water-sharing issue took centre stage in July 2006. The Sri Lankan Supreme Court also declared illegal, in 2006, the merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces, and a demerger was effected in January 2007. Against this backdrop, Eelam War IV commenced with the violation of the ceasefire agreement by both parties and Norway's withdrawal of its peace-monitoring staff.

Pavai Chandran ends the narration with Prabakaran's Heroes' Day speech in November 2008 and the subsequent tragic events. The war ended with the killing of Prabakaran, along with other leaders of his group.

Pavai Chandran has narrated the struggle in about 910 pages, in a language and style that is journalistic yet readable like a historical novel. The book comprises about 40 pages of photographs and annexures of important Acts and agreements in Sri Lanka's history.

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