Tamil politics is taking a new direction- The Pottuvil to Polikandi pada yatra
by Dr Nirmala Chandrahasan
For some time now the Tamil political parties and the Tamil polity have been looking to the international community to settle their problems. Thus much reliance has been placed on the Human Rights Council’s resolutions and the Geneva processes. Although this is one avenue it is not the only one. The international processes are also dependant on geopolitics and the national interests of the states that are represented in these organizations and hence one cannot always expect a favourable outcome. On the other hand, when the issues facing the Tamil speaking people are taken up by the people themselves and their representatives at the ground level it could have a better outcome, as the majority community and the country at large are made aware of the grievances and issues which are agitating the Tamil speaking part of the country. This requires that the print and electronic media give adequate coverage to these events so that the Sinhala and English reading public are made aware. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The news coverage and dissemination of news within the country is as divided as the communities themselves, and no effort is made to bridge the gap. To give an example I did not see any coverage of the Pottuvil to Polikandy padayatra in the Sinhala or English news media, although it had unprecedented numbers of participants and evoked great enthusiasm in the northern and eastern provinces. It is in the interest of all communities if the Country’s problems are solved within it and not through external agencies. The need to turn to foreign agencies arises when a community feels they have no recourse to justice or solution to their grievances within their own political system. The recently held yatra or march from Pottuvil in the eastern province to Polikandy in the Jaffna district, from 3rd February to 7th February 2021, was a new approach which included the active participation of the Tamil speaking people of the northern and eastern provinces, ie Tamils and Muslims. Peaceful protest is a part of the democratic process and must be encouraged rather than stamped upon as it allows for the peoples’ voice to be heard.
The peaceful Ahimsa Yatra was conducted by the Civil society groups in the Northern and Eastern Provinces to highlight some of the current issues faced by the Tamil speaking people of Lanka. They included the Rs. 1000, wage demand of the Upcountry Tamil plantation workers who have long been denied what other workers in the country have been enjoying; the burial rights of the Muslim Community and the forced cremation of their Covid dead; and the land grabs and attack on the cultural and religious heritage of the villages and farming communities of the eastern and northern provinces, through the actions of the Archaeological Department and the recently constituted Task Force, together with the Mahaweli Authority and Wildlife Department. In the present regime, age-old Hindu Temples in the villages are under threat of being taken over or destroyed on the grounds that there is evidence of ruined sites of Buddhist Viharas and Stupas in or around them. Archaeological surveys are being conducted and boundary lines and fences put up taking over the lands of the farmers and cattle grazing grounds. Sinhala Buddhist settlers are to be settled in these enclaves. These actions have caused the Tamil speaking people of these areas to fear that they will be dispossed from their own traditional areas in which their ancestors have lived for centuries.
The composition of the Presidential Taskforce for archaeological sites in the East is illustrative of the statement in the recently published report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet where she says ..” Tamil and Muslim minorities are being increasingly marginalised and excluded from the national vision and government policy.” The Presidential Task Force is mainly comprised of military personnel and Buddhist clergy with a scattering of Archaeologists. When we consider that in a multi-ethnic province where the Tamil speaking people predominate there is not a single Tamil or Muslim Archaeologist or a linguist or any person at all to represent these communities, the High Commissioner’s words ring true. It must also be pointed out that a large number of stone inscriptions appertaining to these ruined structures are in ancient Tamil script, and form part of the Tamil Buddhist/Hindu heritage of the Tamil people of Sri Lanka who to cite the words of the Indo- Sri Lanka Peace Accord of July 1987, have been the historical inhabitants of the Northern and Eastern provinces. Already this task force is in the field claiming ownership of the sites of ancient Tamil Buddhist Viharas and Stupas, in many instances accompanied by police or army personnel. It is alleged that inscriptions in the ancient Tamil script and stone tablets containing such writings are being destroyed. Tamil farmers see their lands and cattle grazing common grounds being taken over. Statues of the Buddha are being installed at different sites accompanied by army personnel and Buddhist monks. The Buddha is venerated by Hindus and even worshipped as the avatar of the God Vishnu, but the manner and purpose behind such actions are causing disaffection. Sinhalese settlers are being brought in. Here again, what is at issue is not their ethnicity, but the purpose for which and manner in which they are being brought in by the State agencies. Hence this is now the pressure point.
The recent Yatra was inter alia (there were altogether ten issues) to voice the concerns of the people and show support to the villagers and farmers of the region who flocked to join the protest in great numbers. It must not be forgotten that it was the ancestors of the Tamil community who built the ruined Viharas and Stupas ( alleged according to some members of the Taskforce to be amounting to 2000 in number, which are now awaiting excavation,) at a period when they were largely Buddhists, as too was South India inclusive of Tamil Nadu in the early part of the Christian era until about the 8-9th centuries when there was a Hindu revival. Even in the event of these ruins being unearthed, it has to be kept in mind that many of these structures were bequeathed by the great Chola rulers from Tamil Nadu, the Emperors Raja Raja Chola and Rajendra Chola. The Cholas made Polonnaruwa their capital city and ruled Sri Lanka for almost a century from 993- 1070 AD. They were the patrons of both religions and built Hindu Temples and Buddhist Viharas and supported the maintenance of them as well, by grants of lands and villages.
In this connection, I reproduce a news item from the Hindu newspaper in India dated October 19th 2020, captioned ‘ Efforts on to bring back Chola Royal Charter, Preserved in the Netherlands it was a Sasana issued to a Buddhist Vihara’. “The Charter has two sections one in Sanskrit and another in Tamil, and the 21 copper plates are held together by a massive bronze ring bearing the regal seal of Rajendra Chola. It proclaims that 26 villages bordering Anaimangalam were donated for a Buddhist Vihara in Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu”. While this Charter is evidence of the patronage to Buddhism in Tamil Nadu even after the Hindu revival in South India, there is evidence of Chola patronage to Buddhist religious institutions in Sri Lanka too, as in the Vikkirama Calemekan Perum Palli in the Eastern province also known as the Velgam Vihare or Natanar Kovil by the present-day Tamils. The Tamil inscriptions at the shrine record donations made to the shrine and dated in the reign of the Chola king Raja Raja Chola. The late Dr Paranavithane, the well known Sri Lankan archaeologist has described it as an ancient Buddhist shrine of the Tamil people. In the Chakesadhatuvansa an ancient manuscript from Burma, which records the relics of the Buddha, the Tamils are mentioned as ” seafaring merchants who built a Stupa over the hair relic of the Buddha in a land which they visited for the purpose of trade”. Interestingly the Digavappi Stupa in the Amparai district is said to enclose a hair relic of the Buddha. The Tamil merchants sailing to Indonesia from Kaveripoompattinam the Port in Tamil Nadu during Chola times are said to have first sailed southward towards what is now Akkaraipattu town in the Amparai district, as it was believed that there was a current which took the ships across the Indian ocean speedily from this point to Indonesia. During the tsunami in 2004, this theory was proved correct as the tsunami stuck around the Akkaraipattu region first, coming directly from its source off the seas in Sumatra with great force. In an earlier article of mine, i have referred to the donations made to Buddhist shrines by Tamil merchant trading communities as evidenced in the various Tamil inscriptions in different parts of Sri Lanka. see “. Archaeological sites in the East and the Presidential Taskforce.” published in the island newspaper of 12th June 2020. Also Article by Dr D.Dayalan, Archaeological Survey of India “Role of Tamil Traders in promoting Buddhism”.
In fact, there is sufficient evidence to prove that most if not all the archaeological sites of Buddhist Viharas and Stupas in the East and the North are Tamil Buddhist sites and hence the custodianship of these sites should be with the Tamil communities/institutions of those localities, or at least with the participation of the same. The Tamil leadership should also take up the matter of Tamil and Muslim representation in the Taskforce and also the appointment of linguists who could read and decipher the ancient Tamil inscriptions found at these sites, as well as persons versed in the ancient Pali and Sinhalese scripts, as these structures largely represent the composite Hindu /Buddhist cultural heritage of both the Sinhalese and Tamil communities. Efforts should also be made to protect these ancient inscriptions from destruction.
As I have indicated above the attacks on their cultural and religious heritage as well as their lands are causing the Tamil speaking people of these provinces to fear that they will become a minority in the areas which they have traditionally occupied. The fact that the Provincial Council system is under threat by certain elements which are attempting to prevent the Provincial Council elections from being held and calling for the abolishment of the Councils is fuelling this fear. The Province as the unit of devolution gives the Tamil speaking people some devolved powers in areas where they constitute the majority. It should be kept in mind that the provincial councils are underwritten by the Indo –Sri Lanka Accord of 1987 and furthermore the Treaty specifically denotes the Northern and Eastern Provinces as being areas of ‘ Historical habitation of the Tamil speaking people’. A U.N panel of experts in a recent Conference has taken the view that cultural heritage is a human rights issue, as the destruction of cultural heritage harms a range of human rights. Hence the threat to the Tamil Hindu /Buddhist heritage can be regarded as impinging on the human rights of the Tamil people of these provinces. The 1954 Hague Convention protects the cultural property in times of war. The Statue of the International Criminal Court (ICC) makes the destruction of cultural heritage a war crime. In the 2016 judgement of the ICC namely Prosecutor v Al Mahdi, a Muslim jihadist was convicted for attacks against religious and historical monuments in Timbucktu, in the African state of Mali. Hence we can see that cultural identity is coming to be recognized as an important component of ethnic identity ,and any attempts to stamp it out or undermine it is tantamount to ethnic discrimination, and even akin to ethnic cleansing.
With respect to the analogy with Palestine I would like to refer to an article by Dr.Dayan Jayatilleke published in The Island on 28th May 2020 titled ‘Is it the end of Tamil political history.’ He states “the political prospects of the Tamil people are at the dimmest lowest and most challenging that I can remember.”He sees the problems the Tamils face in Sri Lanka as akin to what the Palestinians face in Israel “in that there is an ultra hawkish administration which has decidedly turned its back on the earlier consensus on the nature of the problem and the contours of the solution and is moving swiftly and unilaterally to shape a final geopolitical outcome of a zero sum character”. Further on he refers to the ‘far right bucket list’ which is to interalia “eliminate the problem root and branch and structurally lock down minority assertiveness ensuring an unassailable systemic hegemony of the Sinhalese Buddhist’. He cites the appointment of the Archaeological Task Force in the East as part of this project. There is no evidence that this policy is endorsed by the Sinhalese people ,and for that matter by the majority of the Parliamentarians, even those of the governing party, and that the Prime Minister and the Cabinet members would endorse it. However it could be the policy of a small coterie holding such views who make the policy decisions. The High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet too makes mention of this when she refers to “the present trajectory” in her upcoming report for the Council sessions in Geneva in February March this year. She says ……..” the High Commission is deeply concerned by the trends emerging over the past year which represent clear early warning signs of a detiorating human rights situation and a significantly heightened risk of future violations and calls for preventive action”…..
The civil war was fought already a decade and more ago , but the present threat to the habitat of the people and the14ir religious/cultural heritage is a presently continuing one. In the context of this existential threat, it is important that it be communicated to the majority community so as to gain their sympathy and support. Greater publicity to these matters in the English and Sinhala press should be pursued so that with the support of all the communities these issues can be resolved amicably, according to the Buddhist principles of right conduct and compassion.
It should be kept in mind that the guardian Deities of Sri Lanka are Hindu Gods and the entire country has a Buddhist /Hindu heritage. I note that the Ahimsa Yatra stopped on its way from Pottuvil to Polikandi to obtain the Blessings of Mary maadha at the sylvan Shrine of Madhu. In this shrine especially during the church festival large numbers of Sinhalese from the entire western coast of Sri Lanka and Tamils from the eastern and northern coasts and the Vanni, converge to venerate the Madhu Maadha, and the whole Church resonates with the sweet sounds of the Rosary being recited in Sinhala and Tamil. This seems like a confirmation that the country belongs equally to the Tamil and Sinhala speaking people and to all the religious groups. In the interests of all the communities in the island, it is necessary that the print and electronic media play their role in giving due publicity to the grievances of and protests taking place in the Tamil speaking part of the country rather than blackout this news, as in the case of the Pottuvil to Polikandi protest march while the foreign media takes it up. Peaceful protests if driven underground can take the form of violent and incendiary protests. Ultimately Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Burghers are children of Mother Lanka /Ilankai, and well intentioned members of the government and other political parties and the people of all communities must come together in an endeavour to reconcile and defuse the issues and grievances of the Tamil speaking people outlined above.