Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Book Review: This Divided Island – Stories from the Sri Lankan War, by Samanth Subramanian

At the Kangu Garage in post-war Jaffna, a few mechanics are hard at work. They don’t talk much to each other. All of them are in their 60s and 70s, as are almost all cabbies in Jaffna since most young Tamil men living in the North have been devoured by the cruel war. Chief Mechanic Nirmaladevan focuses on his work with such concentration that he is oblivious to his surroundings and to journalist Samanth Subramanian who stands nearby watching the men work. Samanth has made many visits to Kangu Garage and spent many hours waiting, hoping to strike up a conversation with Nirmaladevan and get him to talk about life during the war. Samanth has turned up in the morning before the mechanics arrive, during their lunch break and other odd hours, but Nirmaladevan has always managef to fob him off, pleading work pressure, focusing on his work with ferocious concentration in the placid calm of Jaffna where nothing really seems to be urgent. The only bit of information which Samanth manages to pry out of Nirmaladevan is that in 1995 they were forced to close down Kangu Garage when the Tigers, on the verge of ceding control of Jaffna to the Sri Lankan army, tried to persuade all civilians in Jaffna to follow them into Vanni wilderness. Unlike in 2009 when they successfully managed to force a few hundred thousand civilians to follow them to their final redoubt in Puthukkudiyiruppu, they were unsuccessful in 1995 and men like Nirmaladevan merely went to their villages around Jaffna and returned in six months. Is Nirmaladevan really busy or is it that he hates talking of his experiences during the civil war?

Samanth has an almost similar experience with Chelliah Thurairaja, a retired Major General in the Sri Lankan army. Thurairaja continues to work even after retirement, just as he continues to play golf with his fellow army officers. What makes him tick? Samanth wonders. How did he survive the Sri Lankan government’s “Sinhala Only, Tamil Also” policy which made it mandatory for serving civil servants and soldiers to learn Sinhala to get further promotions? Samanth has better luck with Thurairaja (than with Nirmaladevan), who opens up a bit, though he is very guarded in what he says. Not learning Sinhala was a way of penalizing onself, Thurairaja had reasoned to himself. If in France, one would learn French just as one would learn German in Germany. Samanth never fully figures out how in his own country, Thurairaja was able to put himself in the shoes of a foreigner who opts to learn the most widely spoken tongue in order to get by. Thurairaja does put him on to Sivagnanam, another army officer who used to be a radiographer in the army and had migrated to Canada, someone who could possibly speak more freely. Samanth goes to Toronto, but never get to meet Sivagnanam. However, he does talk to Ravi Paramanathan, a retired army major, who never supported the Tigers or even the idea of Eelam, but feels betrayed by the Sri Lankan government’s treatment of Tamils.

In his quest to tell his readers about the events which led to the demand for Eelam, the creation of the LTTE, its defeat at the hands of a marauding Sri Lankan army and the continued victimization of Sri Lanka’s Tamil community, Samanth does not restrict himself to Sri Lankan Tamils who served in the Sri Lankan army. Over a few years starting from just after the Sri Lankan army killed Prabhakaran on the banks of Mullivaikal, Samanth made a number of trips to Sri Lanka, each trip lasting over many weeks, travelled all over the island and met all sorts of people ranging from Tamils who continue to long for the LTTE and the possibility of Prabhakaran returning to lead the struggle once again, Hindu Tamils who work for and promote the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, Sinhala Buddhist leaders such as the liberal, left-wing Samitha who thinks that the Tamils of Sri Lanka have honest grievances, the chauvinist, right-wing Omalpe Sobitha, Sri Lankan Muslims, journalists, bloggers, Sinhalese soldiers, Sinhalese politicians, LTTE war widows etc.

If I have given you the impression that Penn State/Columbia educated Samanth Subramanian toured the island with machine like efficiency, working non-stop, pestering people to part with their secrets, please forgive me. No, during his Sri Lankan sojourns, Samanth seems to have spent a fair of time drinking beer, arrack, whiskey or whatnot and talking shop with like-minded liberal journalists and falling seriously ill at least once. However, from Samanth’s rambling travels and meetings comes out a very incisive and coherent discourse on Sri Lanka’s past and the current state of affairs in the emerald paradise. Most importantly This Divided Island is unbiased, despite Samanth obvious sympathy for Tamil grievances and their current state of utter despair. All of this in very elegant prose, which is also simple and easy to read.

Samanth is a reporter and he keeps his analysis and opinions to a minimum even when detailing the most horrible atrocity or violation. I had known that the Tamil civilians who were herded together into a small strip of land at Puthukkudiyiruppu during the Tigers’ death throes had a horrible time as the Sri Lankan army shelled and rocketed them without regard for human life, in a desperate bid to crush the Tigers. However, Samanth’s detailing of those days, final days for many thousands of human pawns, left me breathless with shock and anger. Granted that many of those civilians were Tiger sympathizers and even relatives, what right did the Sri Lankan army have to shell no-fire zones, including hospitals, with such wanton frequency, which can only be interpreted to denote an intention to kill as many as possible, without any consideration of age or gender or non-combatant status? However, it was not only the Sri Lankan army which resorted to such inhuman behavior. In those last days, the LTTE which had never been shy of forcible conscription, went out of its way to snatch young boys and girls from families, forcing them to take part in a fight in which death was almost certain. Families pleaded in tears as their teenagers were taken away, never to return. As Samanth details how the Tigers used Tamil civilians as human shields, one scene from those final days at Puthukkudiyiruppu sticks in my mind. A man in his fifties tells a young Tiger in a calm voice that they ought to let the people go at least then. The Tiger whips out a pistol and shoots the man dead.

Samanth tells us that the LTTE had always been cruel, right from its inception. Even when the LTTE numbered just around 400 men, they were all yes men, as spies reported on spies and dissent was stamped out. Apparently Prabhakaran often asked new joiners if they would be willing to kill a brother who joined a rival Tamil outfit.

Many Sinhalese have a genuine fear of an “Ekanta Demala Rajya”, a Greater Tamil Nation stretching from Tamil Nadu to Malaysia. The Sri Lankan government has played on this fear and used it to suppress the Tamil community. The Mahavamsa, a purported history of the Sinhalese race since their arrival in Sri Lanka from Bengal and the growth of Buddhism in the Island, celebrates the story of Dutugemunu, a prince who fought Elara, a Chola king who invaded Sri Lanka. Mahavamsa says that Elara was actually a fair King who did not oppress Buddhism, but despite that Dutugemunu battled Elara’s forces for 13 years and finally killed him. Thousands of Tamils were massacred. Later when Dutugemunu suffered from the pangs of conscience, Buddhist monks comforted him by saying that the “Tamils were heretical and evil and died as though they were animals.” Both the Mahavamsa and Dutugemunu are celebrated in Sri Lanka and a famous Sri Lankan army regiment, the Gemunu Watch, is named after King Dutugemunu, not exactly actions which would inspire the Tamil minority to show confidence in the government and the majority community.

Respected Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge who often spoke out against the government’s human rights violations was shot dead by government-backed assassins a few months before the civil war was over. After the Sri Lankan government won the war, its actions akin to doctors excoriating a tumor, destroying the last suspicious cell with heavy chemotherapy, the harsh treatment of minorities has continued. With the Tamils totally crushed, organizations like the Bodu Bala Sena have started to target Tamil speaking Muslims, at times destroying their places of worship.

Why is it that Sri Lanka’s Tamil speaking Muslim community has never identified itself with Sri Lanka’s Hindu and Christian Tamils? Samanth tells us that the LTTE had, throughout the 1980s, made attempts to recruit from Sri Lankan Muslims, but it came to nought and later in October 1990 the LTTE ruthlessly expelled around 24,000 Muslims from Jaffna, forcing them to be refugees in their own land. If Sri Lanka’s Hindu and Christian Tamils can unify on the basis of their mother tongue, why can’t Sri Lanka’s Muslims do the same? There seems to have been no history of Muslims placing their Tamil identity over their religion, though almost all Sri Lankan Muslims are Tamil speakers. I wish Samanth had addressed this issue.

Sarath Fonseka” is another topic I wish Samanth had bothered to tell stories about. Why and how did the hero of Sri Lanka’s victory become estranged from the Rajapaksa brothers and end up in jail? There is a stray reference to Fonseka’s portraits in a Buddhist viharaya built next to a Tamil Hindu temple on Katys, and their subsequent replacement with Rajapaksa’s and that’s all that there is on the former army chief who, after the victory, aspired for political power.

On the whole, This Divided Island is an excellent book, a must-read for anyone interested in knowing more about Sri Lanka.

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