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Waiting for the Jaffna train

When I visited Jaffna recently, like all those returning home after years away I too sensed feelings of nostalgia welling up inside. This was my first visit in six years, and almost 25 since I had last lived in Jaffna, as an 11-year-old. The opening lines are by A. E. Manoharan, the Tamil pop star and baila singer who took Jaffna by storm in the 1970s – a time when, in my mind, Manoharan was more popular than the youthful leaders of the militant movements who would emerge soon enough. I have vague memories of going to an open-air Manoharan concert, sitting on the bicycle bar as one of my relatives rode us to where we could hear the loudspeakers. Incidentally, Manoharan composed "Ilangai enpathu", with its reference to the palmyra fruit, two decades before rights activist Rajani Thiranagama and her colleagues would write The Broken Palmyra, for which she would be murdered.

By chance, a few weeks after my recent visit to Jaffna, I was sitting next to Manoharan himself on a flight from Madras to Colombo. The great singer was on his way to Jaffna for his first concert in the peninsula after the war, to celebrate Pongal. Manoharan, now 65 years old, like so many others returning home spoke of his anxiety at what Jaffna might look like – who would be left, who might have died, the suffering people have endured, what people might tell him, and what memories would return. During the flight, Manoharan spoke in eloquent, poetic language on a range of issues. He remembered how his first concert at the large Veerasingham Hall in Jaffna had been a flop, as only 60 people turned up. His manager cursed him, but, three months later he had the hall packed. As the plane jerked and landed, I asked him for a message that I could write about. In a sentimental tone, he replied, "Now I am going back to my land with happiness and peace of mind."

I had travelled to Jaffna by road days after the A9 Highway, connecting Jaffna to the south, opened after many years. The end of the war in May 2009 did not open the road, but rather the campaigning for the presidential elections finally allowed private traffic back on this critical road link. The subsequent journey over the A9 – today washed away in parts by the rains, and rocky with potholes – became all the more sad as we travelled through the Vanni, where we were confronted by the destruction on both sides of the road and as far as we could see into the shrub. Almost every building had been destroyed by the tremendous fire power used during the fighting. Huts and shacks were peppered between military posts, with the long-suffering war-displaced civilians now slowly attempting to resettle and restart their lives. Our van moved past checkpoints with little checking. And as we drove past Elephant Pass, the causeway connecting Jaffna where thousands of lives were lost in fighting during the war, civilian life in Jaffna became much more active. An hour later, we were in the heart of Jaffna town, moving onto the crowded Hospital Road.

Struggling normalcy

As with others returning to the place of one’s childhood, the streets, places, ponds and most everything else suddenly seemed smaller than in memory. But perhaps what was most striking about Jaffna was that, at one level, little had changed. The war and the economic stasis over decades had frozen Jaffna architecturally, and after two and a half decades I could still remember landmarks and buildings – those that had kept well in some places and others that were in utter ruin. This physical and economic stagnation confuses one’s sense of the past and its relationship to the present.

In the few days that I spent in Jaffna, a borrowed bicycle took me easily from one end of the town to the other, as well as in and out of the neighbouring villages. Sleeping in my childhood room, being woken up to the annoying loudspeaker of the local temple at 4 am for the weeks-long festival that was underway, and the increased number of mosquitoes and illness that my relatives complained of due to the uncleared garbage in the town – these reminded me that some things about Jaffna’s public space had indeed changed, even if it all looked the same.

As for the people of Jaffna, during my short visits over the last decade I have always been amazed at their resilience, the ability to continue amidst the destruction and suffering. During this trip, I noticed a clear sense of relief and normalcy, perhaps augmented by the similar relief and space that had emerged with the elections in the rest of the country. Relatives and friends, as with much of the people, seemed to have finally returned to the daily concerns of people elsewhere, with economic matters topmost in their minds. Today, half of Jaffna’s estimated 600,000 people have relatives abroad, and foreign remittances are what have kept life going. But for the other half, poverty has been a way of life, and this continues to stare down at them. Local academics estimate that some 80,000 recently war-displaced people have come to Jaffna in recent months, in order to leave the government-overseen camps; but their economic lives remain on hold. A clear vision for resettling all those displaced, both from recent and earlier times, is widely mentioned as a priority issue.

The relaxation on freedom of movement has been encouraging but the locals want more. Access to land is a vocal demand – including the dismantling of the high-security zones, land taken by the military as early as 20 years ago on claims of security concerns, some of it in fertile agricultural areas. While the government claimed many months ago that the entire coastline was open, in Jaffna people are complaining that only some of the seaside was actually open for fishing. The opening of the road to the south is likewise much-discussed today, but for many local people the full opening of Jaffna will only come about when the railway is back in service.

The rail tracks to Jaffna, laid close to a century ago, were over the last two decades systematically dismantled – particularly by the LTTE to build bunkers. Today, one can see the barren lanes of what used to be rail tracks, with the station buildings along the way in ruins. Earlier, the railroad had been a critical channel for economic life, as people and goods travelled to the south for employment and trade. Some of my most exciting childhood days were those when I boarded the train to Colombo; today, some children of Jaffna have not even seen a train. The coming of the railways is much awaited, as it would symbolise, again, the peninsula’s connection to the rest of the country.

War politics

While there has been much talk in recent government statements about major programmes of reconstruction and development, there seems to be little movement on the ground. True, the economic situation has improved with regard to a steady reduction in the price of goods; but many people in Jaffna remain sceptical about the genuine introduction of major development or reconstruction efforts, and in any event feel they may not be part of such efforts. Such scepticism also reflects a worrying lack of serious outreach on the part of the government regarding issues of reconstruction and development, as well as the lack of capacity in Jaffna to challenge the government and engage it on such issues.

While community leaders are highlighting normalisation and economic issues as immediate priorities, most ordinary people are also clear that there needs to be a political solution to open up political life – to give the ‘genius of the people’ the power and means to overcome the devastation that they had suffered. But there seems to be little serious thinking about taking forward the demand for a political solution. A particularly worrying element in the public sphere in Jaffna is the prevalence of a reactionary discourse, noticeably in reading the two popular local Tamil newspapers, Uthayan and Valampuri. Despite the decades of war and the destructive direction in which the LTTE took Tamil politics – assassinating Tamil politicians and dissenters, recruiting children to be used as cannon fodder, and consciously putting civilians in harm’s way – there seems to be little self-criticism and reflection going on in the public sphere today. The Jaffna Tamil community seems to be politically stagnating in melancholy. Those who had, for opportunistic or other reasons, justified reactionary politics in the past are incredibly continuing to do so – to the detriment of the peninsula’s larger population.

Such reactionary politics has undertones that are both caste-ist and anti-Muslim. Indeed, the other story about the ubiquitous palmyra is one of caste oppression in Jaffna, where an oppressed caste was condemned to climb the tall trees in order to make a living – signifying the economic and social domination by the Vellalah castes that had always been quite severe in Jaffna. As to whether the issues of caste oppression and the social inequalities that were repressed by Tamil nationalist mobilisation over the last few decades will now find expression, is yet to be seen. Such oppression and inequality presents a major challenge for the progressive social and political activists who survived the war in Jaffna. Meanwhile, with the end of the war has come the issue of the return of tens of thousands of Jaffna Muslims expelled by the LTTE in 1990. There are already worrying signs of tensions and anti-Muslim feelings as the Jaffna Tamils face the claims on land and the restarting of economic life by the Muslims. Tamil and Muslim intellectuals, writers and activists have the challenge of reaching out to each other’s communities to begin the process of rebuilding Tamil-Muslim relations.

Of course, this political stagnation and reactionary mindset is related to the fact that President Rajapakse’s government has yet to initiate a credible process of political reconciliation. Instead, the regime’s approach to the country’s minorities has been to entrench its power by reinforcing patronage networks. As such, the political stagnation in Jaffna seems to be directly related to the poisonous political environment in the rest of the country, where even fundamental issues such as freedom of movement and the abominable practice of internment justified in the name of security are reversed at the whim of the government once elections are announced. This is the sad predicament of the Tamil community in the north. But regardless of the potential for positive political evolution in the south, there needs to be a process of self-criticism and rethinking within the Tamil community. It is only through such a process that the Tamil community can move forward – both to democratise the Tamil community and to begin challenging the Colombo-centred state towards reform.

The new generation

For such rethinking there are a few impediments. For instance, there continues to be a negative relationship between Jaffna and the narrow nationalist sections in the diaspora. Indeed, many in Jaffna are economically dependent on the diaspora, and are reluctant to publicly criticise the destructive role played by large sections of overseas Lankan Tamils in the past – though many are scathing in private, holding these elements responsible for supporting the LTTE’s suicidal politics. Another issue is the lack of experience in political engagement over the last few decades, where any form of democratic politics was suppressed, including on the matter of a political settlement. And now, in the aftermath of the war, the Jaffna Tamil leaders cannot seem to articulate their demands and engage the south and other communities; instead, they merely repeat the mantra of the international community delivering a ‘solution’. Finally, the civil-society institutions in Jaffna – such as the university, the chambers of commerce, agricultural and fisher unions, and the religious institutions – have to be rebuilt and revitalised in order to begin to perform a progressive role.

The political parties in Jaffna and the north and east are, for the most part, groups of individuals with little in the form of a political base and lacking a second-rung leadership. As such, Tamil politics is going to have to wait for a younger generation of Tamils to emerge to fill the political vacuum. These would be the children of 1983, youth who have grown up solely during the time of war and have understood politics only as war politics. Now, in post-war Jaffna, will they be able to participate in social movements? And how will they collectively understand their past and envision their future? Every family has suffered loss of life, limb or psyche of some of its members; there are deep emotional wounds, and trauma will continue to be an issue for years.

Today, the abuses of the war era and the human-rights concerns are not forgotten. But the challenges of eking out a livelihood, the fear and the defeated mentality, seem to have silenced the people. During the years of war, disappearances, extrajudicial killings and torture were rampant in Jaffna; but there is no serious movement now to challenge that past. Jaffna society is far from gaining the confidence to challenge the climate of fear and impunity. It remains to be seen whether human-rights concerns relating to the conflict will be linked with other issues, such as caste and women’s rights – and whether new forms of mobilisation will produce a new generation of progressive leaders. The same could be said of research and development work, as to whether a younger and politically conscious generation of academics and professionals will eventually emerge. For all of this, an openness not only towards the rest of the country and other communities but also greater linkages with Southasia as a region would strengthen Jaffna as it struggles to emerge from the ravages of war.

Starting over

With regard to the song quote at the beginning of this piece, on the plane Manoharan told me that he composed "Ilangai enpathu" in 1970. At that time, Ceylon and Jaffna – or, for that matter, the various places in the country he sings about in the song – were in a very different state. As I think about that year, the year before I was born, I think too of what came after it. That was before the Republican Constitution of 1972, which gave Buddhism a privileged place in the country’s set-up, promulgated a unitary constitution undermining the aspirations of minorities, enshrined the problematic name of ‘Sri’ Lanka and continued the legacy of the ‘Sinhala Only’ language policies of 1956.

That was also a time just before the first Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) uprising of 1971, when violent insurrection first began in the South. This was before the authoritarian executive presidency of J R Jayewardene and the changes that came with the open economy after the state orchestrated communal violence and elections of 1977. It was before the country would descend into decades of emergency rule, and the state would promulgate the repressive Prevention of Terrorism Act of 1979. It was before the burning of the Jaffna Library in 1981, and before the 1983 riots and the mushrooming of Tamil militancy. It was before the Tamil militant movements began to devour the Tamil community with internecine killings, before the years of LTTE’s fascist rule of Jaffna silenced the people. And it was before the large military presence in Jaffna – larger now in Jaffna than the entire size of the army, navy and air force in the country back in 1970.

Would the people of Jaffna and Lanka dare to imagine another future? That would be a path not of militarisation, but one that would have addressed the political problems – including those of language, land, powers of the state, ethnic and minority communities, caste and class, and women and workers. When I hear the songs of the past, I don’t want to just remember the past. I want to dream about the future, where Jaffna and Lanka and all its peoples are linked by music, politics and the railroad. (HIMAL)


Work with what you have: Jaffna residents, back at the market

Illangai enpatthu nam thai thiru naadu

elil mihuntha iyerkai valam niraitha nal naadu

maanikka muthuhalum maanburu katchihalum manathai kavarthuvudum naadu

yaalpaanam entru sonnal then suvai oorum

panai palamum puhai ilaiyum ondraha valarum

Ceylon/Lanka is our respected motherland

A good land endowed with environmental benefits

A Land where precious gemstones and beautiful sceneries cover our minds

When we pronounce the word Jaffna the taste of honey oozes

Jaffna, where the palmyra fruit and the tobacco leaves grow together

– Translation (by writer) of the opening lines of Tamil song, "Ilangai enpathu"

by A. E. Manoharan

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