Warscapes in conversation with Shobasakthi
Shobasakthi: On July 25, 1983, the Sri Lankan government planned and killed thirty-five Tamil political prisoners at Welikade Prison, with eighteen other Tamil prisoners slaughtered a couple of days later. The prison authorities were thoroughly complicit in the massacre even though Sinhala prisoners carried out the murders. In fact, it was prison officers who distributed the weapons to the killers. Before the murders began, the Prison’s chief commissioner had been sent out of the country.
Kuttimani and Thangathurai, who were regarded as heroes in the Tamil community, were at Welikade Prison on death row. At their sentencing, words uttered by Kuttimani -- “After I am hung to death, donate my eyes to a blind Tamil. Through his eyes, I will witness the dawning of Tamil Eelam,” – and Thangathurai – “ We are not mentally ill patients in love with violence” – reverberated amidst the young and deeply affected all of us. Along with Kuttimani and Thangathurai, 53 prisoners were massacred.
The nineteen prisoners who escaped the slaughters were then transferred to the prison in Batticaloa [in the Eastern Tamil region of Sri Lanka]. That September, they made a spectacular prison break. I was fifteen at that time. Much later, some of those who had first hand experience of the Welikade terror and the later prison break became my close friends. It is their oral testimony that is the basis of my novel.
It is not only the real soldiers who participate in a liberation struggle. Anyway, in reality, is there such a thing as a real soldier? Therefore, I tried to critically interrogate in my novel those notions of courage and sacrifice that are so much a part of our understanding of liberation struggles.
BS: What is Black July? In what way were you involved?
Shobasakthi: In the years 1956, 1958, 1977 and 1983, Tamils in Sri Lanka were attacked violently. The 1983 ethic violence was the worst of the lot. Sri Lankan cabinet ministers planned and executed this pogrom. The then Sri Lankan President, J.R. Jayewardene, addressing the Tamils of his country, crowed, “ If there is war, then there is war; if there is peace, then there is peace.” More than 2000 Tamils were killed; Tamil property worth millions and millions was destroyed. The Tamils living in the south and west as well as in the central mountainous region of Sri Lanka were made refugees and chased to the north and east [the Tamil areas]. Angered by this violence, young Tamils willing to bear arms against the Sri Lankan government joined the liberation movement in hordes. I was one of them.
BS: With Traitor's flawed hero, Nirami who is damaged and cruel, you are trying to blur the gap between tortured and torturer, victim and victimizer. What is your reasoning behind this?
Shobasakthi: In this social system, when one is a victim, isn’t he at the same time a victimizer? Let’s take the Tamil Eelam liberation struggle for instance. The Tamil Tigers, who fought against the Sinhala ethnic violence, at the same time, thrust Tamil ethnicity onto minority Muslims. When the Muslim communities resisted, they killed them. Our caste system too works in the same way. Even as an oppressed caste suffers, it in turn represses those belonging to castes seen as lower. There is no Great Wall of China dividing the two states of being; the hero of my novel is able to take on both roles, interchangeably.
It is with this understating that I set out to write my novel – to explore the ways of identifying the victim and the victimizer and illustrating how one being could be both; my task is not to judge.
BS: Why was there so much in-fighting and discord between the Tamils themselves? What were these divisions about and in what way did they impact the overall struggle they were all fighting for?
Shobasakthi: I am not going to say that the in-fighting between the various Tamil groups was due to ideological differences between them because none of the Tamil movements had any kind of politico-philosophical outlook. Even if they mouthed off about socialism and Marxism, these were empty words for all of them lusted after armed struggle and based their actions on excitable feelings rather than reflection. In the middle years of the 1980’s there were some attempts made in trying to bring the various groups together but they didn’t succeed because there was nothing like a common political agenda to bring them all together. Each of the leaders of the movements functioned like Warlords.
The Indian government played a key role in the growth of these Tamil movements. At the beginning it was the Indian government that gave them funds, weapons and training. The Indian government intended to use these militant movements to pressure the Sri Lankan government to acquiesce to its political power. When the militant movements did pressure the Sri Lankan government and the Sri Lankan government bowed to the dictates of India, the militants were ordered by India to put down their arms and come to the table for negotiations. At the same time, the Indian secret service encouraged the quarrels between the various groups.
This infighting amongst the groups led to the ultimate defeat of the Eelam struggle. And the reason for this inability to find common ground between the warring groups was due to the lack of any kind of long-term political vision amongst them. The truth was, all the militant groups, including the Tigers, at various points in time, functioned as the extra flesh of either the Sri Lankan government or the Indian government. For instance, these groups did not analyze the Tamil Eelam struggle in the light of international capitalism and the changes in wrought in material apparatuses. They were unable to come up with a workable agenda that would take into account the differences between the various minority groups in Sri Lanka. They placed all their trust in guns; the same guns that led to their ultimate destruction.
BS: Recent reports say that ex-Tamil Tiger combatants returning home from rehabilitation find their lives still have excessive military presence and critics say, in general, Sri Lanka is more than ever, divided along ethnic lines. What would you say about this? How can one move forward?
Shobasakthi: In truth, I have seen not a single ray of light in terms of a positive change in the situation. The present Sri Lankan government, both politically and militaristically, is extraordinarily powerful. The majority Sinhala population celebrates the current President as a hero because he won the war. When there is an attempt internationally to question the Sri Lankan government for war crimes or human rights violations, most of the political parties and the people try to protect the government. The bitter truth is racism has metastasized into every level of the country.
Speaking of the Tamil Tigers who have been involved in armed struggle for so long, this organization has been completely wiped out. In the final days of the war, the Tigers by forcing children into the militancy and by holding three hundred thousand Tamils from leaving the war zone to use as a human shield, earned the hatred of the Tamil population. Sri Lankan history has seen the end of the Tigers; they are never coming back.
The percentage of Tamils in the Sri Lankan population has been reduced to a measly ten percent. Therefore, unlike in earlier times, the Tamils cannot be a powerful presence in the parliament now.
The Sri Lankan government is swiftly building Sinhala settlements on traditionally Tamil lands. The names of Tamil villages are being changed to Sinhala ones. This government secretly murdered the thousands of Tamil militants who surrendered in the last days of the war. The militants who have been released find that they are socially ostracized, as they are seen as dangerous to know. The government is not ready to give even the tiniest of concessions to Sri Lankan Tamils. Today’s Sri Lankan politics is filled with the wails and humiliation of the vanquished and the victor’s arrogance and cruel laughter. It may have been the tigers who were defeated in military terms in this war, but it is on us that the government has thrust the burden of carrying the weight of this defeat. It was the Tigers who fought but it is we Tamils who are being punished.
BS: What role do you think colonialism played in the way the ethnic divisions in Sri Lanka came about? I am asking because I believe that almost all countries that experienced colonialism ended up in civil violence situation. Does this idea resonate with you?
Shobasakthi: The colonialism in Sri Lanka always followed the policy of setting ethnic groups against each other. Even before independence in Sri Lanka, Sinhala nationalism and Tamil nationalism had been formed. At the time the British, the Sinhalese had the upper hand in terms of political power and the Tamils dominated the fields of education, bureaucracy, and commerce – a deeply unequal situation. I believe that it was this foundational inequality that was the starting point for the escalation of racism in Sri Lanka. The leaderships of both sides have failed to look at the contradictions carefully and find a way out.
At this point, it is important to mention neocolonialism too. India and other Western nations had the power to decide not only about the civil war itself but also its losses and victories. If these nations had wished, they could have stopped the terrible massacre that took place at Mullivaikal. They could have made Prabhakaran and Mahinda Rajapaksa stand as criminals at the International Court as war criminals like Milosevic. But it is not in the name of righteousness that these countries approach the problem of Sri Lanka; their actions are based upon their own political ends.
BS: At the heart of the violent and unjust treatment of Tamils lay a need to erase memory - with the burning of the Jaffna library in 1981, for example, a memoricide takes place. What can be done to reinstate this cultural and historical memory?
Shobasakthi: They say that in order to destroy a race, you destroy its culture first. The Sri Lankan government has continuously been engaged in this task. The national anthem used to be sung in both Sinhala and Tamil. Recently, the government tried to pass legislation to allow for the national anthem to be sung only in Sinhala. Truly, Tamil culture and traditions have fallen into the mouth of fire. We have no means to protect or rescue them.
BS: What does it mean to be a refugee? How do you navigate this particular identity now?
Shobasakthi: To be a refugee means to live without dignity. One need not go abroad for this. The thousands of Dalit who live in India and Sri Lanka live like refugees in their own country. Therefore to have a nation or not is only a legal issue.
Forget the refugee factor. Let’s speak of the horror of living as a black in Europe. Even if I become a French citizen tomorrow, I would still need to face racist discrimination. We are treated at airports, government offices, and other public places as if we are Columbus, come to exploit the resources of this country.
BS: We hear you are an auto-didact and a voracious reader. Tell us how that came about and who are your strongest influences and role models.
Shobasakthi: From childhood, I have been intensely involved in theater. If things had been fine in my country, I would have become an actor in Sri Lanka, a good one, I think. My reading was based upon my politics. You know that in Marxism, literature plays an important role. That was the route I took as I moved towards literature. The problem is not whether I am a talented writer or not. At one point, when there was hesitation in bringing up certain issues in literature, I boldly wrote about them. That made me a writer. My list of role models is very long. To put it precisely, my main teachers are: in political writing, it is Trotsky, in culture, it is E.V. Ramaswamy (Periyar), and in literature, Tolstoy.
BS: Do you like living in Paris? Has it begun to influence your future writing?
Shobasakthi: To live in Sri Lanka and write is until this day, a life-threatening activity. Even as we speak, right at this moment, the news that a journalist, Prageeth Ekneligoda had been murdered by the Sri Lankan government and his body had been thrown into the sea is being confirmed. My living in Paris allows me to write freely. Other than that, my Paris life has not helped my writing in any way. In fact, those I wish to write about – their sorrows, the injustices that they have endured, their desires – I am forced to live ten thousand kilometers away from them in Paris, a factor that effectively blunts my writing. Rather than being in Paris, I wish I could live in Sri Lanka. Do wish me that I would be given that chance.
The first Tamil novel by Shobasakthi, Gorilla, came out in 2001. Within the Tamil literary circle, Gorilla was celebrated as the first of its kind – a memoir by a former Sri Lankan Tamil liberation fighter. Shobasakthi’s second novel Hmm…(the sound made when passively listening to a story) came out in 2004 and was translated by Anushiya Ramaswamy as Traitor (Penguin 2010). Shobasakthi is a prolific writer – numerous short stories, essays, blogs, edited collections, and film screenplays – who is one of the foremost writers about the war in Sri Lanka.
Anushiya Ramaswamy is a Professor of English at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. She is also the Director of the Writing Program. She translated two of Shobasakthi’s novels, Gorilla and Traitor. Her latest work is a translation of the Tamil Dalit writer, N.D. Rajkumar’s poetry, Give Us This Day a Feast of Flesh.
Bhakti Shringarpure is an editor at Warscapes magazine.