A section of Northern Muslims who were evicted by the LTTE in 1990
Over the last week, there were two events organised at Osmania College and St. John’s Church Parish Hall to remember the eviction of the Northern Muslims in October 1990. Muslim and Tamil activists committed to co-existence have been organising these annual events in Jaffna to narrate and learn from this tragic past, and to demand the right to return and secure the economic and social future of the Northern Muslims.
Return and resettlement
Soon after the war in late 2009, a number of us met at Osmania College, the well-known Muslim school in Jaffna to hear the concerns of the returning Muslim community. The school itself was functioning as a camp for returning Muslims, and at that moment there was tremendous hope for rebuilding the Muslim ward in Jaffna known as Moor Street. However, by 2012 the Muslim community was complaining of exclusion in resettlement efforts, including the housing grants for the war affected. One of the efforts of the Tamil-Muslim Relations Forum initiated in 2012 was to document and advocate for the housing needs of this returning Muslim community.
Insensitivity, and in many cases outright racism, of local Tamil officials were behind these various obstacles. The long-term displaced, and that too from an urban quarter, were asked for a minimum of seven perches of land for a housing grant. Furthermore, they were told to put up a hut and live in it to illustrate their intention to resettle. While such requirements were even harsh for the rural Tamil people displaced from their lands for shorter periods of time, this process was completely unacceptable for those displaced from their homes for decades.
When members of the Muslim community bought fallow lands close to Moor Street in Paracheriweli and started building houses, local agricultural officials initiated legal action stopping the construction claiming these were paddy lands, even though those fallow lands had not been cultivated for decades. It took years for the courts to provided permission to resume construction by these deprived families.
Currently, of the 8,000 Muslim families that originate from Jaffna about 2,000 registered their interest in returning to Jaffna soon after the war, but only about 600 of those families reside in Jaffna today. As for the entire Northern Province, researchers claim only 38% of the evicted Muslim families have returned.
Ethnic cleansing and pluralism
What does one call this horrendous eviction, where the entire Northern Muslim community was forced out by the LTTE? They were not allowed to take their money or their jewellery, and their houses and goods were looted and sold after their eviction. A few actors including parliamentarian M. A. Sumanthiran called this an act of ethnic cleansing at the 25th anniversary remembrance event in October 2015. A major debate ensued with sections of the Tamil nationalist propagandists and media slandering the Muslim community. This worrying debate illustrated the nascent anti-Muslim sentiments in the Tamil population akin to the anti-Muslim attacks in the South after the war.
More recently, the anti-Muslim backlash after the Easter Attacks in April 2019, was another moment of ethnic polarisation in Jaffna. Soon after the Easter Attacks, many members of the Tamil-Muslim Relations Forum in Jaffna, came together with others including religious leaders and social activists to form the Jaffna People’s Forum for Coexistence. The work of the Coexistence Forum sought to address the everyday problems of the Muslim population under increased surveillance, attacks in the media and harassment from resuming their informal sector livelihoods.
Last week, at the Osmania College remembrance event organised by the Jaffna-Kilinochchi Muslim Federation, a statement was issued calling for the unity of Tamil and Muslim people in the North. Reflecting perhaps a change in the Tamil public sphere, a prominent Jaffna-based newspaper published a prominent report two days later on November 1 titled, ‘Eviction of the Muslims Informed as Ethnic Cleansing’. For the Northern Muslim community excluded by the Tamil mainstream for decades, these are signs of welcome change reflecting the emergence of space for a plural and democratic North.
My late friend, Shahul Hasbullah, Professor of Geography belonging to the Northern Muslim community in Mannar, and who had struggled hard for the resettlement of his community, advocated in the months before his untimely passing last year, that the Moor Street area in Jaffna should be rebuilt as a heritage ward recovering its once architectural beauty and vibrancy. Rasaratnam Krishnakumar, chair of the Coexistence Forum event, said the strength and beauty of a place depends on its many colours, its many religions, its many ethnic communities, and that means its plural character.
Past to the future
It is fitting to end with a poem read at the event by Mahendran Thiruvarangan, a lecturer from the Jaffna University. The poem is by M. A. Nuhman, who was a Muslim from the East and taught at the Jaffna University for over decade, and retired as professor of Tamil from Peradeniya University, as he could not return to Jaffna after the eviction.
The poem written before the eviction reflects the sudden and drastic changes in Jaffna with the conflict. In reading the poem, we are pushed to reflect on how we might re-imagine a future drawing on the past before the war, the eviction and the horrendous events that have scarred the people.
Last Evening, This Morning
Last evening we were hereabouts.
Wheeling our bikes we wound our way
through the bustling street and the plying traffic.
We stopped at Poopal’s book store, leafed through the papers and mags.
We stood watching the press of people at the bus stand.
How many faces! How many colors!
We saw people coming and going getting into, getting off buses.
We sauntered past the market, Thiruvalluvar’s statue
and the post office junction for a breath of air at Pannai.
We sipped tea and smoked cigarettes at the tea shop next to the Regal Cinema.
We saw a film - Jack London’s Call of the Wild.
Mounting our bikes we cycled home the wind dishevelling our hair.
This morning dawns.
Khakied gun-slingers roam the streets we wandered in.
Bullets fly pierce the body guzzle the blood.
The bus stand is dead.
The town has lost the smell of humans.
Gutted shops puff smoke.
The old market is flattened like a blitzed building.
Charred tyres litter the streets.
This is the way Our life’s lost today
This is the way Our evening is lost.
(Last Evening, This Morning by M. A. Nuhman translated from Tamil by A. J. Canagaratna)