History from the LTTE

Print edition : February 13, 2004

HISTORY was in a sense rewritten in ethnically divided Sri Lanka when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) decided to distribute history textbooks, commissioned by its education wing, to schoolchildren in government-controlled areas of the Tamil-majority northern Jaffna peninsula.

Contested history, which has for decades been an aspect of the island's ethnic discord, has now re-emerged - although fleetingly and restrictively - as a talking point. If the issue has not gained centre stage yet, it is only because the island is at battle with itself over the larger questions of cohabitation, emerging political alliances, the term of the Executive President and the consequences of the alliance between the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).

Moreover, with the peace talks stalled, the focus on the activities of the LTTE in the rebel-held areas, as well as in the government-held parts of the northern and eastern provinces, has diminished. At this juncture comes news of the LTTE's move to incorporate its history textbooks into the academic curricula in the northern parts of Sri Lanka that are outside its control.

For several years now, history textbooks commissioned by the LTTE have served as "supplementary" reading material for Tamil schoolchildren in the rebel-controlled Wanni region. With the LTTE's move to introduce its version of "corrected history" in government-held areas as well, particularly in the Jaffna peninsula, the issue entered the mainstream media debate.

Reports that the LTTE had distributed its own history textbooks in the northern region were followed by newspaper editorials calling upon the "educational authorities to obtain full details" and "take swift action to stop the attempted invasion of young minds by the LTTE". The LTTE, the editorials said, was attempting to "indoctrinate" the children.

The LTTE's education wing leader Ilankumaran told Frontline that its history textbooks were aimed "at increasing popular interest in the subject" and that "the mainstream curriculum is followed for the national and school leaving examinations", so that Tamil students appearing for the public examinations were not at a disadvantage.

The "Sinhala-Buddhist bias" in the history taught in the mainstream syllabus, the Tigers say, has resulted in Tamil students losing interest in the subject. According to the LTTE, only 65 Tamil students appeared for the examination in history in 1998, compared to 5,335 Sinhalese students. The rebel group maintains that the books prepared by the national board have "errors". Moreover, as Tamil translations of history textbooks prescribed in the mainstream curriculum, such as the one by the Indian historian Nilakanta Shastri, "are not available", the Education Department "circulates copies among schoolteachers".

The slender volumes titled "Social Sciences and History", prepared by the LTTE's "social studies group", are meant for Classes VI to VIII and are accompanied by a teacher's guide.

The common theme running across the books is the foreword that explains the reasons for the publication. "The history textbooks by the Sri Lankan government that are taught in the schools are not based on true history, but have exaggerated the Sinhalese community, concealed the greatness of the Tamils and has been twisted in a manner to demean the Tamils... . By teaching Tamil translations of Sinhala works, written by and for the Sinhalese, the Tamil students are taught Sinhalese history, which says that this Sinhala-Buddhist country is only for them and that their history is the history of Eelam."

The LTTE says the Sinhala leadership has systematically deprived Tamils of opportunities to learn their history and ridiculed them saying that `your nation is one that occupied this land; perpetrated injustices; came as illegal immigrants (kalla-thoni) and is an enslaved nation'. As a result, the foreword notes, Tamil students had lost their "self-confidence". The series of books, according to the foreword, is aimed at guiding the students and imparting social studies.

The book for Class VI opens with a chapter "National anthem, national flag and national insignia". The red and yellow LTTE flag, with the emblem of the roaring tiger but without the name of the organisation, "was announced as the national flag by the Tamil national leader, Prabakaran, in 1990", the book says. The four-stanza "national anthem", with a chorus, sings the praise of the "national flag" and the "fallen heroes". While there is no specific mention of the "national insignia", the textbook says that "once a Tamil Eelam government is formed, we will need a Tamil Eelam insignia".

The next chapter, on "Tamil Eelam and the freedom struggle", places the extent of "Tamil Eelam" at about 20,000 sq km, spread across "the Sri Lankan island's north, east and central districts", with a total population of "more than 25 lakhs". The chapter, more introductory in nature, outlines the history since A.D. 1505. The subsequent chapters are on "the first inhabitants of Sri Lanka", the "Emperor Ellala" and "Sri Lanka-South India political relations". The 20-page book, like the rest in the series, includes worksheets at the end of each chapter.

The book for Class VII starts with "Tamil Eelam soil and their characteristics" and lists 10 types of soil, the regions where they are found and a map showing their locations. This is followed by a chapter on "Water resources of Tamil Eelam". Subsequent lessons in the 34-page book deal with "Tamil rule in the island of Sri Lanka" and the "Tamil government of Jaffna" (Yaazhpaana Tamil Arasu), and list rulers of Jaffna between A.D. 1268 and 1619.

The Class VIII textbook includes "Homeland of Eelam Tamils", with maps and population tables. The chapter deals with the characteristics of the districts in the region, "colonisation" and "the war for reclamation". Two other chapters deal with the Mahawamsa as a source of history and with the advent of the Portuguese in Sri Lanka.

These chapters deal at length with two contentious issues that have been debated widely in post-Independence Sri Lanka. With the reported moves to distribute these books across government-held Sri Lanka, the public debate on the conflict resolution process, which has remained stuck since April, is only likely to get more vocal in the months ahead.

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