Conversations & Comparisons – reading between the lines

By Revd. BJA, UK

"Now tell me" queried a senior Church official, "if the peace process were to be derailed who gets to be blamed, the Sinlease or the Tameel Tigers?"

You actually mean, I emphasised, who is not to be blamed. The response to that I continued, is summed up in Stringfellow’s phrase, ‘the keeper’s of the word.’

One is reminded here of the Pulitzer Prize winning fiction (1961) written by American Novelist, Harper Lee. She was born in Alabama and studied at Alabama and Oxford Universities. Her first and only novel was To Kill a Mockingbird. The novel draws upon her life in a small town in the American South, and is the story of a black man unjustly charged and convicted of a crime in the 1930’s.

In Mockingbird, Lee writes:

Atticus said to Jem one day, ‘ I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.’

That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.

‘Your father is right,’ she said. ‘Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird’.

Spinning the Sin

Sin is a serious word. Without getting too technical, it’s sufficient to say that it’s a sin to murder an innocent life. Think; just for a moment, of all the innocent lives murdered and maimed in Ceylon since 1958. Encroaching and secretly colonising the Tamilian traditional homeland and denying ones birthright is nothing short of sin. Now, ask the question, who is not to be blamed?

We are hearing again the rumours of war between the Sri Lankan State and the Eelam Army. It certainly does disturb the community equilibrium. People are frightened and scared. The poor; the old; weak, feeble, and the disabled are all war weary. The young are alienated when the State begins torturing (mental/physical) for the "sin" of being a Tamil – synonymous in their mind to a potential Tiger.

Now, ask the question again who is not to be blamed?

Comparing Stories

At a Methodist Peacemakers Conference in 1988, Stanley Mogoba, a black South African shared some insights into the painful suffering of his people. He spoke of a White problem. The key to peace in South Africa, he argued, is in the hands of the Whites.  He explained further that it is the whites who have an identity crisis.

Stanley Mogoba

Do we not have a Tamil Question (or Quest) and a Sinhala problem? It is believed that the identity crisis of the Sinhalas that creates within them an unfounded phobia of their neighbourly Tamils. That psychotic fear is reflected in the following words of their distant relative Duttu Gemmunu: to the north are the hated Tamils, in the south is the great ocean, where am I to stretch my legs and sleep comfortably?

Voting: Mogoba spoke of the exclusion of the Blacks from the ‘excitement’ of taking part in the general elections. One’s recollection opens the wound of the disenfranchisement of the hill country Tamils. They literally slaved in the tea/rubber estates to bring foreign currency into the State coffers. I recall as a ten-year old, standing with my father at the Fort Railway Station in Colombo. The train to Thalai Mannar is about to pull out of the platform… Even now I can hear the guard’s shrieking whistle and the huffing and puffing of the steam engine. And above all that noise, the wailing of the Tamil people. Families were separated and they were deported back to India – an unknown land, as far as they were concerned! My father with a deep sigh would mutter these words: ‘Karrumum, this is will bring curse upon this country’. Sin: Paavam; Karrumum - these Tamils not only laboured as voteless people but also faced dehumanising expulsion as stateless people! That was the result of a structural sin.

Education: Education is a birthright, declared Mogoba. One of the greatest tragedies in South Africa was to politicize education. The racist policy in higher education in Sri Lanka, was another structural sin. "The Sinhala majority now tried affirmative discrimination," writes Ram, "through the ‘standardisation’ of marks to deprive the Tamils of the advantage they enjoyed, because on average they scored more marks than the Sinhalas."

Communication: The only way people communicate in the Black township is to throw stones. When they throw stones, expounded Mogoba, they are sending a message. That is their newspaper. That is a ‘Daily News’. When a few stones are thrown, Mogoba observed, that the buses understand, the taxi owners understand, everybody understands. On the one hand he said, "This is the communication". The problem is, Mogoba analysed, we are not even allowed to distribute handbills – the only safe handbill is a huge stone. On the other hand, he concluded, "We cannot communicate".

I remember vividly the days of distributing handbills in Batticaloa town. It was a very risky business indeed. We have witnessed the arrests of so many – just to name a few: Venu annan - Chair of the Maanavar Peravai, a lawyer by profession, spent number of years in prison; later brutally murdered by the Army. Maria Soosai - an upcountry Tamil who spent nearly five years in Bogombora prison for merely distributing handbills. Kasi Anandan - liberation poet in exile endured many years of torture and imprisonment. All of them were locked-up. Proper trials were a luxury nor were they given any definite date of release! When such democratic forms of communication were systematically curtailed for the Tamil youths, than of course, in desperation, rightly or wrongly, it was replaced by an emotive expression called "counter violence"- a language which all understood.

Drawing from the experience of Apartheid, Tutu weighed the merit of waging peace with an inherently racist State. He put it poignantly at a peace conference in Stockholm thus: ‘Non-violence as a means towards ending an unjust system, presupposes that the oppressors show a minimum level of morality; I doubt however, that such Gandhian campaign would have saved the Jews from the Nazi’s holocaust’.

Yet again, I would urge you to ponder the question as to who is not to be blamed?

To conclude…

A few years ago, we were holidaying in Kandy. The little hotel we were staying in was owned by a family-friend. He was incidentally a retired senior police officer, who had spent a better part of his working life in the NorthEast. He is a good Buddhist and an upright gentleman who had refused to see eye to eye with the current President! He kindly offered to take us to see the heavily guarded Dalada Maligawa – Tooth Relic Temple. In one of the worship halls, a mural caught my attention that almost swept me off my feet. It portrayed the Sinhalas as light-skinned, engaging in constant battle, (or shall we say, in a protectionist mode) against the dark-skinned Tamils! The aesthetic beauty of the mural was only skin deep and it subtly encapsulated a very ugly message. I was quite perturbed. Seeing my un-ease, our friend inadvertently jumped out of his skin. "It’s all because of that *******" he protested. "If we can have Prabu-haran’s head" frustratingly he whimpered, "than the whole problem is solved". Frustrating? Yes; perhaps from a position of privilege. Nonetheless, that was too simplistic view of the whole question. What has Prabaharan’s head got to do with an archaic mural? In essence, the Mural evokes the rival feelings against the Tamils as the traditional adversaries!

Under the roof of the temple, where the non-violent Buddha’s tooth is housed, I begged to differ, courteously of course, with our dear friend.

On the night before our departure from Kandy, we met for a friendly chat over Chinese at Queens Hotel. In a relaxed mood, jolted by a spark of inspiration, our friend ‘hit the nail on the head’. "What do they (Tamils) think?" he asked, "that we would give Eelung on a platter?" Wow! That gives out the whole attitudinal psychology of the conflict.

Now, returning to where we started. Who is going to derail the peace process? Good question.

In such situations, there is however a ‘tipping point’. There is an equal proximity to positive action and negative reaction. "Keeping the word" or "Taking the sword". The latter would only confirm the hegemonic defrauding of human rights while the first would express moral integrity and Statesmanship. The choice is simply either or.

In any event, the Ceylon Tamils, both the exilic Diaspora as well as in Eelam, must not forget to sing songs of freedom.

That’s precisely why it’s always a sin to kill a Mockingbird!











Posted August 10, 2004