A teardrop in the Indian Ocean

Print edition : October 07, 2005

Sri Lanka - Voices from a War Zone by Nirupama Subramanian; Penguin/Viking; pages 230; Rs.350.

THE rapidly changing geometry of global geopolitics over the past few years has redrawn many coordinates on Cartesian maps. Many flashpoints on these maps have emerged out of decades of conflict to reassert a new dynamic of political resolution. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) has laid down arms after almost 40 years of intense bitterness. The 30-year-old Free Aceh Movement in Indonesia has called it a day after enormous sacrifices. The fractious and decades-long liberation movement in East Timor has won not only freedom for its people but a few Nobel Peace Prizes for its leadership. Even the settlers occupying the Gaza Strip are being evicted in an unprecedented move to settle the over-five-decades-old dispute.

It is seemingly only in Sri Lanka that the six-decades-old nationality question of the Tamil minority is stretched out like a piece of chewing gum. The more it changes, the more febrile it gets. Most journalists in the region who have spent a decade or so covering the Tamil-Sinhala conflict experience a depressing sense of deja vu at the regularity with which violence repeats and escalates after intervals of lull - intervals that go by various names like ceasefire, peace talks, international accords, and so on.

A respected Sri Lankan Tamil writer and former editor and director of the Tamil Information and Research Unit (TIRU), S. Sivanayagam, told me years ago, after the failure of two rounds of talks brokered by India at Thimphu, that finding a solution to the deepening crisis was turning increasingly futile. "It is like trying to cure old headaches by changing to new pillows," he muttered laconically.

Nirupama Subramanian's book gives us a pretty good idea of why, despite rapid movement on the theatrics, the plot continues to transmit a sense of ennui. Nirupama first reached Colombo in April 1995, a day after the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or Tamil Tigers) had just signalled the end of a tense ceasefire by daringly blasting two Sri Lankan naval ships in the Colombo harbour. Expecting a Sinhala retaliation, the LTTE also instigated a massive exodus of Tamils from the Jaffna peninsula and triggered a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented proportions whose ripple-effects continue to this day in the Tamil psyche.

This new and bloodiest war was to last all of six years. Just before she returned to India in 2002 after a seven-year stint as a correspondent there (first for The Indian Express and then for The Hindu), the newly elected government had signed a fresh ceasefire with the Tamil Tigers and, a few months later, peace talks between the two sides, supervised by Norway, began. The six rounds of talks, between September 2002 and April 2003, ended in a stalemate with no specific `solution' emerging. Luckily, the two sides did not return to hostilities. The December 2004 tsunami, which wreaked disaster in Sri Lanka and other parts of South and South East Asia, seemed to bring the two antagonistic sides together again to implement the P-TOMS, the post-tsunami joint relief operations.

Yet, within a month of the release this July of Nirupama's book, which she concludes prophetically with an insight on LTTE chief V. Prabakaran being a "prisoner for life, confined to a cage of his own making, one that he never dare leave", the LTTE had taken the extreme step of assassinating Sri Lanka's Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar and taking the peace phase perilously close to collapse. It seemed all back to square one.

The first 30 years since it gained independence in 1948 until the new Constitution was introduced by J.R. Jayawardene in 1978, giving himself full powers under a new executive presidency, Sri Lanka witnessed the passing of a series of policies conceived in bad faith, which progressively disenfranchised over a million plantation labourers of Indian origin, lowered the status of the Tamil language, made Tamils second-class citizens, declared Buddhism the state religion and ruthlessly beat back the leftist challenge of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), pushing it steadily towards a particularly repugnant variety of revanchist nationalism.

However, the subsequent 25 years, since Jayawardene's hijacking of the nation towards a free-market economy, Sri Lanka has been an unabashed example of an extremely authoritarian, high-surveillance, fascist state, aspiring to be an Israel of the east. The Sri Lankan state apparatus is known to have flirted both with SAS, the South African secret service, and with Mossad, its Israeli counterpart. In the late 1980s, the LTTE had even managed to capture some foreign operatives working in the front line of the Lankan Army and parade them before the press. The Sri Lankan state has condoned exceptional atrocities by its forces, while successfully gagging the press from talking about it.

As a result, the past 25 years have also witnessed a massive escalation of hostilities between the Sinhala state and the Tamil resistance, transiting progressively from an `ethnic conflict' to a `sub-nationality' struggle to a `nationality question' and, thence, to full-fledged war. Over 60,000 lives have been sacrificed in the process. Both Tamil and Sinhala areas are dotted with mass graves that stretch to the horizon, keeping alive the agony of the violence in the minds of those left behind. While most of these graves create an identity for the dead, there is also the vacuum space inhabited by several thousands who can claim no grave, for they belong to that modern category called the `disappeared', products of prolonged internal wars and state brutalities within countries. The number of the `disappeared' in Sri Lanka matches the numbers in Argentina, Chile and Guatemala of the 1970s.

The other factor is that, over the years, it has stopped being a mere Tamil-Sinhala conflict. There is also the anguish of the soap opera deteriorating into a series of sub-plots of Tamil-Tamil, Sinhala-Sinhala and Tamil-Muslim conflicts. The legendary South African freedom fighter Steve Biko said: "The most powerful tool in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed." This has proved accurate in the context of the war in Sri Lanka, where every opposition to the state has, in turn, fashioned itself in the image of the brute state.

On the one hand, the LTTE has emerged as one of the most feared rebel outfits in the world, with a viciousness, savagery and guerilla precision unmatched in modern times. Its cyanide-pill-touting cadre (men, women and children) are known to swear total loyalty to their unquestioned supremo Prabakaran and are ready to be part of the most suicidal of operations. The many scalps they have claimed include those of Sri Lankan President (R. Premadasa) and a former Indian Prime Minister (Rajiv Gandhi). They also successfully took out a series of senior Sri Lankan politicians, Army top brass and mediators from Gamini Dissenayake to Neelan Thiruchelvan to Lakshman Kadirgamar. The present President, Chandrika Kumaratunga, narrowly escaped an attempt on her life. They successfully put the Indian Army on retreat from the Jaffna peninsula after one of the bloodiest of engagements, which caused severe damage to the Indian forces and consolidated the LTTE's reputation as the deadliest user, since the First World War, of the proscribed Claymore mines. And of course, in their nefarious internal putsch-like strikes, the LTTE systematically eliminated the top leadership and cadre of other Tamil resistance groups such as the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), the People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO) and the Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF). To make it clear that the LTTE brooked absolutely no internal dissent, it even purged Prabakaran's close lieutenants such as Mahatthaya, among hundreds of others, besides snuffing out all intellectual critics - whether it was the Nithyananthans or Thiranagamas or Thambimuttus or Sivanandans. Sustained, compulsive assassinations and suicides have become the core strategy of the LTTE.

Interestingly, the LTTE has never targeted anyone from its mirror image on the Sinhala side, the JVP. The JVP, similarly, has grown into a lawless outfit mainly terrorising its own population, indulging in extortion, sending out lynch squads and fanning chauvinist and racist sentiments. It was the JVP's opposition in 1988 to the presence of Indian troops on Sri Lankan soil that brought it into direct confrontation with the Sri Lankan Army, leading to the detention and `disappearance' of thousands of Sinhala youth. The JVP too has never taken on the LTTE directly.

THE unending blood-lust has played itself out tirelessly over the past two decades. Most scribes from India and other parts of the world who have `covered' the conflict have perforce used expressions such as Island of Blood (Anita Pratap, Viking, 2001) or Night of the Devil-Bird (Rita Sebastian, Colombo, 1990) or Island of Terror (Thornton and Nithyananthan, ERO, 1984). The long-time AFP (Agence France Presse) correspondent M.R. Narayan Swamy has written perceptively on the deep indoctrination within the LTTE in his Tigers of Lanka: From Boys to Guerillas (Konark, 1994). He has also attempted to enter the paranoid mind of the LTTE's Prabakaran, who seems to have exiled himself into some strange cuckoo-land - and barricaded himself - to which no visas are issued.

However, Nirupama Subramanian's book belongs to a different genre of narrative, conspicuous in recent times, that bypasses the principal characters and parties of the conflict to focus on the bystanders, the collateral victims - the mothers. Rohini Hensman's Playing Lions & Tigers (Earthworm Books, 2004) is a fictionalised account of the interlocking stories of 14 such persons of all ethnic shades who the war affects in similar ways. Just a few weeks ago too, we saw a poignant 80-minutes-long film Lanka - The Other Side of War and Peace by the Delhi-based filmmaker of Kashmiri origin Iffat Fatima which, very much like Nirupama's book, goes closer to the stories of people trying to live and cope with the cycles of violence, memory and reconciliation.

Nirupama's lucidly written and extremely well-paced narrative evokes the personal stories of some 40 persons of diverse ethnicity and calling who occupy not the highways but the bylanes of the war. What is significant is her photographic visual memory and eye for detail, besides her devastatingly understated irony. Once in Jaffna, she is disturbed by an overpowering stench and, upon enquiry, is told it is from the bodies of 38 LTTE fighters killed by the Army in the Chavakachcheri fighting. "The Army had found the bodies when they went into Chavakachcheri. They had handed them over to the International Red Cross, which in turn was to give them to the Tigers - a routine Geneva Convention procedure that is supposed to make war a civilised affair." There are ample instances like this through the book that make clear Nirupama's repugnance at the war.

One of the most revealing chapters of the book is about Razeek, the `Tiger-trapper'. It is an extraordinary story of how Muthulingam Ganesh Kumar from Karaithivu joins the EPRLF in 1983, adopts the nom de guerre `Razeek', gets trained by the Indian intelligence agencies in the Gharwal hills, fights the Sinhala Army and later turns to it for protection when the EPRLF leadership is decimated by the Tigers. Soon he turns a `Tiger spotter' for the Indian Army's Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) operations in Sri Lanka, comes back as a refugee to India when the IPKF withdraws and, in 1995, returns once again to Sri Lanka, this time as a mercenary counter-insurgency specialist. He soon becomes notorious as a serial human rights offender indulging in extortion and torture in the name of hunting and gunning down Tiger cadres and is eventually murdered by the LTTE. There have always been whispered stories about such rogue cadres of the `demobilised' armed Tamil groups who indulge in private vendettas and a little money-making on the side. It is only in Nirupama's book that the story gets fleshed out in all its ramifications. The angle of deep official Indian complicity in this sorry state of affairs cannot be so easily brushed aside.

Some of the most evocative portions of the book deal with the plight of women from either side of the ethnic divide. There is one lot that seeks to rebuild a future for their families by opting out of the conflict zone to seek employment as maids and domestic labour in countries abroad. These women, almost a million in number in the year 2000, while displaying fortitude, also happen to be among the most vulnerable victims of the prolonged conflict. The other set of women are, of course, the mothers who perennially await the return of the `disappeared' son. These are stories that render all tall and macho claims of `victories' gained by either side sound hollow and pointless.

Nirupama's sharply journalistic eye picks out anomalies like the `travel pass' regimen in Vavuniya, the `Jayaratne Funeral Parlour' in Colombo which supplied more accurate figures of the dead than the Army handouts, and the annual Royal-Thomian cricket match between the blue-blooded schoolboys of Royal College and St. Thomas in Colombo, which was a regular feature through all tensions and contributed to endorsing the Sri Lankan elite's pretensions to `normality'. Nirupama also makes the telling point that Sri Lanka, embroiled in a full-scale conflict since 1983, and "holding the dubious distinction for the highest number of suicides in the world in the mid-1990s, had only thirty qualified psychiatrists and eight trained clinical psychologists." Of these, only one, Daya Somasundaram, worked in Jaffna. He authored a significant book in 1998, Scarred Minds - The Psychological Impact of War on Sri Lankan Tamils, which looks with empathy at the shattered minds of his community.

THE exhumation of the alleged `mass grave' at Chemmani, off the Jaffna-Kandy A-9 highway, too is narrated in vivid detail and ringside authenticity. The tone of crisp, dry, matter-of-fact reportage masks the author's deep revulsion for the blase attitudes of the official machinery, which has yet to indict anyone for these crimes against humanity. The rape and murder of the 15-year-old Tamil schoolgirl, Krishanthy Krishnaswamy, by Sri Lankan soldiers in 1998 remains unpunished.

A society and a polity trapped in schizoid violence, paranoia and repeated waves of trauma, Sri Lanka emerges from Nirupama's narrative as an island doomed to live out its form as a tear-drop in the Indian Ocean. While her condemnation of the LTTE for bringing affairs to such a pass is unequivocal, she seems to pull her punches and falls short of blaming the fascist Sri Lankan state with equal vehemence. This might be the sole limitation of the book, besides certain expected repetitions of the 1995 episodes and the inexplicable lack of an index at the end. However, it can be explained.

As a Chennai correspondent for the Mumbai-based The Sunday Observer, I myself began writing on Sri Lanka in 1983, consequent upon the anti-Tamil riots that swept the island-state, and continued writing regularly on the Tamil nationality movement in Sri Lanka until about 15 years ago, a few months before the gory assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. Nirupama herself began reporting Sri Lanka some five years later, in 1995, and continues to date. There is clearly a distinct pre-1990s and post-1990s aspect to the story. There is also a distinct shade to the story when narrated by those who were based in Colombo and those who were based, say, in Chennai. Both need to be weighed and balanced equally to gain a sharper picture, which will reveal all the grains.

Towards the end of her book, while talking of the attempts she makes to get an interview with Prabakaran across the battle lines, Nirupama writes: "I remained unconvinced that the story at the other end outweighed the personal risks of a clandestine journey across military lines and minefields. Call me an undedicated journalist if you like." She goes on to describe the fate of a woman journalist for a British paper who, in 2001, sneaked across the military lines into the Vanni, got caught in the crossfire and lost an eye. Writes Nirupama with customary deadpan: "I was not a war reporter and had neither the stomach nor the ambition for such risk."

However, for me, Nirupama's book represents the best form of writing in from the `frontiers', where the `frontiers' are not in the front line of actual military engagement but in the front lines of the mind, the psyche, which often constructs an `enemy' as a memorial hegemonic narrative and finds it impossible to disengage from the conflict. Anyone with a brash attitude and a brass hat can reach the front and report exchanges of fire. Unless you are a George Orwell or a photographer like Robert Capa or a filmmaker like Glauber Rocha, there is pretty little emotion you can get involved with there. But it takes a different kind of courage and commitment to handle the emotional load of getting close to ordinary people trapped in the irrationalities of history and in the tragedy of someone else's war.

Nirupama's book is important because it is ultimately a plea against the insanity of war. As Dayani, a Sinhala woman whose husband was probably killed in 1996 by the LTTE in Mullaithivu, says in condemnation of her own government, "Supporting the war is a luxury enjoyed only by those not affected by it."

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