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How to Tell Tamils They Don't Belong in Sri Lanka

by M.R. Narayan Swamy, India E-News, June 8, 2007

On Thursday, the Sri Lankan police's high-handed action seemed to prove that the 'Tamil homeland' does exist and it does constitute precisely that region the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) wants to secede...

Sri Lankan army major who 'raided' the Colombo house of Indian journalist Nirupama Subramanian asked her, after viewing a photograph of her standing by a LTTE signboard in Batticaloa: 'So you have been to Tamil Eelam?' 'Sorry major,' she replied, 'we call it Batticaloa.'

Any government in any country can err. But some errors can turn out to be political blunders. Sri Lanka's startling move to throw out Tamils from numerous lodges in the capital Colombo falls in that category.

For too long it has been claimed by Sri Lanka's ruling elite that there cannot be a concept of 'Tamil homeland' because more Tamils now live outside of the war zone that is the northeastern province, which was once overwhelmingly Tamil.

Government leaders would point this out to outsiders gleefully.

On Thursday, the Sri Lankan police's high-handed action seemed to prove that the 'Tamil homeland' does exist and it does constitute precisely that region the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) wants to secede.

Citing security reasons, some 500 Tamils staying in the many small lodges in Colombo's predominantly Tamil areas were ordered to pack up their bags - never mind why they were in the city - and get into buses that took them to Vavuniya in Sri Lanka's north and Batticaloa in the east.

Vavuniya and Batticaloa are among the major towns in the island's northeast, which the Tamils describe as the 'Tamil homeland'.

In one stroke, Colombo appeared to prove right the LTTE argument that Sri Lanka is made up of two nations - the Sinhala nation and Tamil nation - and that these two nations can never co-exist.

No wonder, then, the mass expulsion ignited widespread condemnation, from within and outside Sri Lanka. Mercifully, the Supreme Court ordered a halt to it.

But the damage has been done - in the minds of ordinary Tamils at least.

The police argue there may be LTTE agents - even potential suicide bombers - among the Tamils in the lodges. That may well be true. But what is the guarantee that LTTE sleeper agents don't live elsewhere in Colombo, pretending to be normal law-abiding residents?

So will all Tamils be made to quit Colombo - as a precaution against terror attacks?

In the 1980s, as Tamil militancy took root in Jaffna, the authorities decided to ban cycling because Tamil guerrillas were using them to bump off unsuspecting security personnel and pedal away.

Saturday Review, the now-defunct outspoken Jaffna weekly, had asked: What will happen if the militants take to tri-cycles, will they too be banned?

And it went on: Should sex be banned because some cheat their spouses?

Those of us who have lived in Colombo for short and longer durations know that a deep though unfortunate Tamil-Sinhala divide very much exists.

Indian families who employ Tamils as domestic help intervene occasionally when these men and women get picked up from buses and streets on suspicion of being linked to Tigers and at times end up spending a night or two in police custody.

Tamil Hindu women are known to take off their 'bindi' when they step on to the streets so that it doesn't mark them out as Tamils.

I have travelled many times in three-wheeled autos in Colombo whose Tamil drivers would promptly switch off Tamil radios when they near police or military checkpoints. And they would whisper: 'If they ask who you are, don't say you are a Tamil. Say you are an Indian, from Delhi.'

A Sri Lankan army major who 'raided' the Colombo house of Indian journalist Nirupama Subramanian asked her, after viewing a photograph of her standing by a LTTE signboard in Batticaloa: 'So you have been to Tamil Eelam?' 'Sorry major,' she replied, 'we call it Batticaloa.'

Sri Lanka is no doubt fighting a very difficult war, and against a very determined and sophisticated enemy. But throwing out Tamils from Colombo lodges, even if the number is only 500, reflects poorly on a society and a government who are expected to prove wrong the LTTE ideology.

On Thursday, however, as they were forced out of Colombo, many of the Tamils may have asked if they were citizens of Sri Lanka or Tamil Eelam.