Musings On The Mullivaikkal Memorial At Jaffna University
“Here was clear proof that Hitler had directly intervened to transform not only the physical landscape of Europe but the landscape of memory itself.” ~ Despina Stratigakos, Architectural historian (“The Invasion of Memory……”, Architect journal, 06 Nov.2019 )
Demolition of the Mullivaikkal memorial at the Jaffna University campus carried out under cover of darkness on 8th January 2021 at the behest of Vice-Chancellor Prof. S. Srisatkunarajah had unleashed fire and fury, culminating in a death fast commenced by nine students. Reportedly, the VC had acted on the orders of Rajapaksas’ apparatchiks: “VC S. Srisatkunarajah, who earlier told the Hindu that his demolition order followed instructions from “defence, intelligence, Education Ministry, everyone”, later said authorities wanted him to “defuse the situation” (The Hindu, 17 Jan. 2021)
State of suspended animation
Much to the relief of the families and friends of Jaffna University campus community as well as the Tamil fraternity across the globe and the liberal sections of Sri Lankan citizenry, the lethal stand-off between the students and the agent provocateurs of the Rajapaksas’ regime had, for the time being, come to an end. A potentially explosive situation at the campus had been diffused – may be, much to the disappointment of the trigger-happy police/military men present in combat readiness at the scene of the confrontation and to the dismay of sections of the sanctimonious media. Apparently, an amalgam of several factors and India’s subtle use of soft power strategy had helped to temporarily resolve the crisis. Now that the VC has undertaken to rebuild the memorial and has also laid a foundation stone for the restoration, why say “temporarily”?
Although the incendiary mood of the students has now become a muted matter, the crisis is in a state of suspended animation. It has left a trail of bad blood in its wake which has the potential to generate eruptive activities. Education Minister G.L. Peiris had earlier defended the demolition saying that “unauthorised constructions cannot be permitted within university premises” (The Island, 12 Jan. 2021). Sinhala-Buddhist (SB) warriors, may not take the affront lying down.
Distorting the narrative
Shamindra Ferdinando of ‘The Island’ has a penchant for writing stories couched in jingoistic jargons, rousing rabid racist frenzy among the SB lynch mob. Deliberately distorting the narrative, he chose to call the monument, an “LTTE memorial ” and had thus set the tone for fomenting further trouble: “Controversy over LTTE memorial–In spite of the Education Ministry reiterating illegal structures couldn’t be allowed in Universities, the Jaffna University administration succumbed to heavy pressure. The four-party Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi led Tamil National Alliance (TNA) demanded the restoration of the monument.” (The Island, ibid.) University Grants Commission (UGC) Chairman Prof. Sampath Amaratunge said that the memorial was a threat to national unity in Sinhalese majority Sri Lanka. The pugnacious Public Security Minister Sarath Weerasekera said that “no one will and should be allowed to commemorate dead terrorists“. (BBC, 11 Jan.2021). Minister Weerawansa had condemned the Vice-Chancellor for laying of a foundation stone for a new memorial. These antagonists have formidable firepower politically, to stir up trouble and create tensions at the time of baptizing the rebuilt memorial.
Reflecting the Colombo mandarin’s mindset, the VC has already struck a discordant note: Mr Srisatkunarajah told the BBC that a new “peace monument” would be erected in the same location. The VC’s version resonates with the thinking of UGC Chairman Prof. Amaratunge, who, commenting on the demolition, said: “I think it’s a timely decision. What we need is memorials of peace, not war.” But, what the students demanded was the restoration of status quo ante – a War Memorial to commemorate the tens of thousands of Tamils who perished in the war. True to their traits, the tribal media has sought to snarl up the situation. In effect, the ‘Daily Mirror’ construed it as a ‘Tiger Memorial’ and wants the architecture be done according to specifications of the government: “And while doing so the state authorities need to intervene in a way that old wounds from the war are not cut open. People must take note that scores of armed soldiers died with the same suffering as those tiger rebels who perished in the line of firing…..” (Daily Mirror, 15 Jan. 2021 – Editorial)
These nasty newsmen from the mainstream media had shouted ‘hallelujah’ and sang hosannas when hundreds of Victory Monuments were constructed and ceremonially unveiled by Rajapaksas, glorifying the war victory – victory over fellow citizens. Scores of such state-sponsored monuments dotting the landscape in the North-East, including locales where tens of thousands of Tamil civilians perished during the final stages of the war, stir up grim memories of the recent past – gory scenes of deaths and destruction and devastation- and keep reminding the Tamil citizenry that they are a conquered people. In the same breath, many burial sites and cemeteries of LTTE cadres killed in combat, and memorial headstones have been bulldozed and destroyed by the ‘Rana Viruwo’. Far from seeking to heal the wounds of war, the ‘patriotic’ media, exhibiting their tribalistic sentiments teamed up with the triumphalists and treated the Tamils as vermin to be left to languish and die of their festering emotional wounds.
Miniature Auschwitz memorial !
Mullivaikkal memorial is anathema to Rajapakses’ apparatchiks. Why? Maybe that they fear that memory initiatives may also contribute to the Tamil progeny’s / historians’ understanding of past abuses, atrocities and war crimes perpetrated by the vainglorious victors. “History is written by victors.” (Quote, attributed to Sir Winston Churchill). The genuine history of the events leading to Mullivaikkal may sound heresy to the Rajapaksas. The Holocaust was a state secret in Nazi Germany. Holocaust denial and distortion generally claim that the Holocaust was invented or exaggerated by Jews. The ruling class may, in its paranoia, imagine that a Mullivaikkal memorial at Jaffna campus could evolve into a miniature Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial of the Tamils.
News reports on the demolition of the Mullivaikkal Memorial in Jaffna gained a rapid momentum briefly dominating the mediascape in India, not only in the South but in the North as well. Eminent media outlets from Chennai (The Hindu), New Delhi (Hindustan Times), Mumbai (Times of India, Indian Express etc.), Bangalore (Deccan Herald) and such other hubs had picked up the story and splashed them across the front/eye-catching pages with snappy headlines as if carrying a scoop: E.g. “Outrage after war memorial for Tamils in University of Jaffna gets destroyed” (New Indian Express, 9 Jan.2021); “Tamil memorial at
Jaffna University destroyed in Sri Lanka; Indian leaders express shock” (Deccan Herald, 9 Jan. 2021); “Sri Lanka’s Jaffna University war memorial removed, Tamil Nadu CM condemns move”(Hindustan Times, 10 Jan. 2021); “Tamil Nadu leaders condemn demolition of Jaffna University war memorial.” (Punjab Tribune, 10 Jan. 2021).
“When Paris sneezes, the whole of Europe catches a cold” (Metternich, the Austrian politician/diplomat, 1773-1989). It is an allusion to successive insurrections in Paris which inspired the liberals in Europe to rise in rebellion against their authoritarian rulers. Not mere inspiration, but strong emotional bonds provided the impetus for protests by the Tamil fraternity in India and other Tamil habitats across the globe, condemning the destruction of the memorial in Jaffna. Despite inclement weather, there were organized demonstrations in Canada and the European capitals. Tamil Nadu (TN) leaders, cutting across party
lines, joined the protest including the State Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami (ADMK), Opposition Leader M.K. Stalin (DMK), Thol. Thirumavalavan M.P. (VCK), Vaiko M.P.(MDMK), Communist Party leaders and cine-star Kamalhaasan (MNM). They also staged a protest outside Sri Lankan Deputy High Commission, Chennai.
Indian Prime Minister Modi’s ruling BJP has an urgent interest in soothing the nerves of the Eelam Tamils – not entirely for any altruistic purpose, but primarily to placate the TN Tamils. In April-May 2021 State Elections are due in Assam, West Bengal, Kerala and the Tamil Nadu States and the Tamil-speaking Puduchery Union Territory (a single M.P. constituency). In an electoral-political sense, Kerala and the Tamil Nadu States remain the Achilles heel of the BJP juggernaut. BJP did not succeed in its previous attempts to gain a foothold in TN. The Hindutva camp is now determined to penetrate the Dravidian terrain at the forthcoming Elections.
“Diplomatic channels activated”
The media blitz in India surrounding the demolition of Mullivaikkal memorial at Jaffna campus had caught the South Block in New Delhi off guard, even as the mandarins at the External Affairs Ministry (EAM) were savouring the success of Minister Jaishankar’s brief visit to Colombo. Also, the local BJP leaders in Chennai were trying to market the story highlighting Jaishankar’s talks on addressing Tamil grievances and implementing 13A. Coming on the heels of Jaishankar’s visit, the demolition issue had caused a lot of discomfiture to New Delhi and the BJP leaders in TN. Excerpts from The Hindu may elucidate the evolving scenario:
“While New Delhi made no official comment on the development, diplomatic channels were activated, it appears.” “A day after news of the late-night destruction of the monument broke, Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka Gopal Baglay met Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. The meeting was kept under wraps, amid murmurs in Colombo of India intervening. ‘The Indian High Commissioner met the PM [last weekend] and they discussed the Jaffna University memorial matter ’, PM Rajapaksa’s media secretary Rohan Welivita told The Hindu……” (The Hindu, 17 Jan. 2021 – “India ‘intervened’ on Jaffna University memorial issue”)
The Hindu has raised a valid query: Since “ other protests by Tamils in Sri Lanka’s post-war context — by students, by families of forcibly disappeared persons, or those trying to reclaim military-held land — rarely saw such a swift response from authorities”, why a ready response now, agreeing to rebuild the memorial ?.
Besides Rajapaksas’ dire need and desire to keep India on their side at the oncoming Geneva Sessions, there are also other potent factors which may have impelled the rulers to go soft on the Memorial issue:
*On the eve of the Geneva Sessionsand in the face of the UNHRC Chief Michelle Bachelet’s damning report on Sri Lanka, Rajapaksas may have chosen to show moderation and to avoid aggressive postures;
*The alignment of Tamil parties and the Muslim parties – Rauff Hakeem’s SLMC and Rishad Bathiudeen’s ACMC – on the Jaffna Memorial issue and the successful Hartal in the North-East with the participation of Muslims would have sounded an alarm to the ruling class. Concordance between the two minority communities is not palatable to the majoritarian supremacists. ‘Neutralize the issue which constituted the raison d’être for their alignment’, the rulers might have mused.
*Vocal protests/tweets by political personages in the West criticizing the wanton destruction of the war memorial in Jaffna must have roiled the ruling cabal. On the eve of Geneva sessions, the bad publicity was more than a mere distraction.
Canada Minister François-Philippe Champagne has tweeted: “Heartbroken to hear of the destruction of the monument at Jaffna University to Tamil civilians who died at Mullivaikkal in 2009. Remembrance is crucial to understanding and moving toward reconciliation in SriLanka.” The message on Twitter by Lord (Tariq) Ahmad, British Minister for South Asia and the C’wealth read: “Deeply saddened by the scenes at Jaffna University. It’s important that people are able to remember all the tragic victims of Sri Lanka’s conflict which help to heal the wounds of the past and support reconciliation.” Ms Siobhain McDonagh, Labour MP, has raised the ‘memorial demolition’ issue in the House of Commons and pressed the government to incorporate the matter into the resolution on Sri Lanka at the oncoming UNHRC sessions. It seems that the crisis surrounding the war memorial at the Jaffna campus has caught global attention.
Tamil diaspora has responded ‘constructively’ to Sri Lanka rulers’ negative stance vis-à-vis Tamil memorials – thus spurring the construction of more memorials.
“Brampton mayor vows to build Tamil monument to honour lives lost in Sri Lankan civil war – Destruction of the Mullivaikkal memorial in Sri Lanka sparked outrage from Canada’s Tamil community………..” (CBC News, 24 Jan. 2021)
Memorial in Tamil Nadu
In this context, it is relevant to mention about the war memorial in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, christened “Mullivaikkal Ninaivu Mutram”. It was elaborately built and inaugurated on 6th Nov. 2013 on the initiative of veteran Tamil leader P. Nedumaran and others. Referring to its genesis, Wikipedia has said:
“The Mullivaikal memorial was originally intended as merely a memorial pillar, but owing to increasing desecration of the Tamil memorials in Sri Lanka, a larger construction was chosen to memorialize the bloody civil strife that had killed so many Tamils in Sri Lanka throughout history…..”
Balancing act by the VC
The VC, Prof. Srisatkunarajah was in an unenviable position. During the critical period commencing Saturday, 9 Jan. 2021, he had been trying to do a balancing act between the two antagonistic forces, without jeopardizing his own job. Going by the Sunday Times (17 Jan. 2021- Political Column) account, police personnel from four neighbouring stations were deployed outside the campus together with the STF and army troops from Kondavil camp. Probably, senior police/army officers inside the campus were calling the shots. In a video clip, the VC was seen meekly explaining his every move to the police/army officers and also trying to shield a student from a police officer’s attack.
As observed by BBC, “It is as yet unclear whether formal permission has been granted by the central government or the UGC to build the new monument, but the ‘Tamil Guardian’ reported the vice-chancellor saying the rebuilding was taking place on the government’s orders.” (BBC News, 11 Jan.2021). Tamil Guardian is an online news site, based in London, UK. There is scepticism over the promises to restore the memorial. Even the Sunday Times story (ibid) claimed the foundation stone laid by the VC was a ‘symbolic’ gesture. The VC himself had spoken of erecting “a peace monument”- a fake version proposed by the UGC. It is likely that the Rajapaksa junta will bounce back from the Geneva imbroglio and revisit the memorial issue. God forbid! The awful spectre of a confrontation looms large.