"A tense situation erupted last Friday when the authorities demolished a monument built within the Jaffna university premises in memory of those, who were killed in the war"
The previous fortnight saw three incidents involving commemoration of those killed in the struggle for their rights. First, a tense situation erupted last Friday when the authorities demolished a monument built within the Jaffna university premises in memory of those, who were killed in the war.
In a second incident representatives of plantation workers held a commemoration event for those who died in struggles in plantation areas. The event was held in Pathana, Thalawakelle on January 10. It is on January 10, 1940 that the first plantation worker, Govindan was killed by police during agitations for a wage hike, at Mul Oya estate in Hewaheta, according to the organisers of the event.
The third incident was also a commemoration event held in Jaffna on January 10 to pay tribute to the nine people who were killed by the police during the fourth International Tamil Research Conference held in the same city on January 10 in 1974, two years before the Tamil Eelam struggle was formally announced.
The Jaffna University monument that was demolished last Friday is to be rebuilt, by the Jaffna University, Vice Chancellor Professor S. Srisatkunarajah has announced. If the monument is to be rebuilt, why did the authorities demolish it, unnecessarily creating a tense situation not only in the university, but across the Northern and Eastern Provinces, at least for two days?
"The Jaffna University monument that was demolished last Friday is to be rebuilt, by the Jaffna University"
Prof. S. Srisatkunarajah who was earlier accused by the university students for giving instructions for the demolition of the structure has laid the foundation stone on Monday at the same spot to rebuild it. The monument was originally built in 2018 in memory of the people killed especially in Mullivaikkal during the last lap of the war and was generally called Mullivakkal Monument.
Protesting against the demolition of the structure several undergraduates of the university staged a hunger strike at the university premises on Saturday and Sunday. After laying the foundation stone, the Vice Chancellor visited the fasting students and offered them porridge urging them to call off their strike, which they obliged to do. The students had also called for a 12-hour hartal in the Northern and Eastern Provinces on Sunday against the highhanded act by the authorities with the Tamil media claiming it was successful.
The whole episode is perplexing, as the authorities were giving conflicting versions on the matter. University Grants Commission (UGC) Chairman Professor Sampath Amaratunga had told that the decision to demolish the monument was taken by the Jaffna University Vice-Chancellor and justified it by saying that the structure could be an obstacle to peace between the North and South. He had also stated, “we do not want war memorials, but peace memorials.” However, the Vice Chancellor had on Monday told the media that he ordered the demolition as he had received instructions to that effect. He had further stated that he informed the University Grant Commission (UGC) that the Government wanted him to rebuild the monument. He did not reveal who instructed him to demolish the structure or rebuild it.
"The Vice Chancellor had told the media that he ordered the demolition on the instructions to do so and had informed the UGC that the Government wanted him to rebuild the monument"
This is another incident that shows how deeply Sri Lankan society is polarized. While many in the South were rejoicing over the tearing down of the monument the Tamil community including those supportive of the government was in a rude shock. Minister Wimal Weerawansa had told that the construction of monuments in the name of the LTTE should not be allowed. Education Minister G.L. Peiris speaking on the legality of the structure said it had been erected without the permission of the UGC.
However, Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) MP and Deputy Chairman of Committees of Parliament, Angajan Ramanathan had told media that had he known about the incident beforehand, he would have stopped it, as it has sentimental values for the people of Jaffna. Leaders of Tamil Nadu and the Tamil diaspora had condemned the destruction of the structure. The degree of concern by the Tamils around the world over the incident was well manifested by the significance given to it by the Tamil newspapers including those published by the pro-government media houses. They had given wide coverage even with pictorials of the fast by the students, the hartal as well as the views of Tamil and Muslin leaders.
In a way, the incident has brought the Tamils and the Muslims closer in action against the government. Generally, Muslims in the North and East do not join protests, organized by Tamil leaders, especially those sensitive ones such as commemorations. However, the fact that the Tamil leaders had recently voiced their opposition to the government’s refusal to allow the burial of bodies of those who died of COVID-19 – a decision that extremely hurt the Muslims -- gave impetus for Muslims to join hands with Tamils. TNA Parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran had appeared for Muslims in the case against the cremation of COVID-19 victims and another parliamentarian of the same party Sanakkiyan Rasamanikkam strongly argued in parliament in support of the Muslims demand for burial.
Thus Muslim leaders too had requested their supporters to join the hartal. General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), Nizam Kariappar and All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) leader Rishard Bathiudeen had requested Muslims to join the protest.
There are several remembrance days observed by various groups in Sri Lanka in memory of people killed. The JVP has two days - April 5 and November 13 - signifying their two insurrections. Tamils in the North and East observe two days, one - November 27, the “Maveerar Day” designated by the LTTE and the other the “Mullivaikkal Day” that signifies the end of the war that had claimed tens of thousands of lives and also coincides with LTTE leader V. Prabhakaran’s death anniversary. During the heyday of the LTTE, June 5 was observed as the “Black Tigers Day” in the North and the East.
It is the Northern commemorations that are always contentious. Tamils claim that they pay tribute on those days to the people killed in the war while majority of people and politicians in the South accuse that they commemorate the LTTE in the guise of paying tributes to their family members. Tamil politicians question the rationale behind the government’s opposition to those Northern events, while allowing the JVP to hold their remembrance events in the name of the people killed in insurrections against the State.
It goes without saying that this is a tricky issue even for the most moderate person in the country. One cannot object to a person or a group paying only tribute to a dead person, his sacrifices or heroism he displayed in a struggle. But this might inevitably be coupled with the ideals and most importantly with the aims and cause of the person or group that is being remembered.
Unlike in the case with the JVP which has already renounced violence several times publicly, the cause of the LTTE was nothing but for a separate State. Besides, the JVP’s cause has always been socialism which cannot be rejected by the government of a “Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.” The authorities seem to fear that the cause – the separate State with violent means - would be promoted with the glorification of sacrifices and heroism displayed by the leaders and the cadres of the LTTE. Also doing something against the Tamil and Muslim politicians would be an opportunity for the Southern politicians to earn brownie points from their audience.
The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission appointed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa proposed a common remembrance day for all who died in the war. However, it is an ideal, which none could even imagine would ever materialize.