Report on V. Geetha's Talk on the Sri Lankan Situation

V. Geetha, well known Tamil feminist, activist in the Dalit rights movement and author of several books, was in Calcutta as a visiting faculty at the Department of Comparative Literature, Jadavpur University. At the invitation of Nari Nirjatan Pratirodh Mancha, she delivered a talk on the Sri Lankan Situation and Women on 27th October, 2009.

About 21 people were present at the talk, including members of the NNPM, other women’s rights activists, students of Jadavpur University, activists from various left wing organisations and people involved in alternative media.

The programme began with a song, led by Ruchira Goswami. This was followed by a self-introduction session.

Geetha in her speech began with a very short presentation of the history of Tamils as a minority in Sri Lanka, and how the nation-building project by the Sri Lankan elite had systematically sought to exclude the Tamils, beginning with the disenfranchisement of the large numbers of so-called Indian Tamils. She noted how the rise of the LTTE took place, and identified the Indian Peace Keeping Force and its brutalities, including rape and sexual assault of women, as a crucial turning point. The failure of peaceful nationalist oppositions as well as the ideological collapse of the multi-national (Sinhala and Tamil) Left, like the LSSP, resulted in the LTTE emerging as an attractive option. That it degenerated subsequently does not take away the reality of its role at a certain juncture of history.

She explained how the LTTE had lost its ideology a long time back, and had become a militaristic organisation, semi-fascist in its structure and function, and argued that what nevertheless propelled many people towards it was the violence and utter hostility of the Sri Lankan elite. Her talk also examined the role of women inside the LTTE structures, and the issue of how far they had autonomy.

Another complexity of Sri Lankan society that Geetha mentioned was the identity and role of Muslims. They were also Tamil speaking, but had an uneasy relationship with a purely Tamil identity. The LTTE at one stage compelled Muslims to leave Jaffna with an 8-hour notice, and this certainly embittered many of them. In the Eastern province, where Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalas live close to each other, the Muslims are aware of being a minority within the minority, and tend to negotiate with both the Tamil and the State leadership.

Another dimension of her talk was the dispersal of Tamils over the years. 45 % of the Tamils now live in Diasporas, with major concentrations in France and Canada, especially Toronto. LTTE penetration of the Diasporas had been crucial for its fund raising and arms collecting. But she also argued that the Diaspora contained many voices, and even the supporters of the LTTE were not homogenous. For many the LTTE provided a link with home, while others supported it out of guilt, as they had left home, while others, yet, accepted it out of fear.

In the period after the defeat and destruction of the LTTE, Geetha argued, the Sri Lankan regime has not taken any steps towards reconciliation. Instead, a Zionist-type solution of permanent camps cannot be ruled out. There are currently about 430,000 people in the camps – 190,000 held over the last 15 years and 240000 held in 2009. Families have been torn apart. Camp life is terribly wretched. And along with a consciously stoked up inter-ethnic hostility, used by the Buddhist clergy and the ruling class to mobilize the Sinhala people, there is another dimension. Areas have been declared as high security zones, from which people have been evicted, in the name of combating the LTTE. But now, such areas are being turned over for making SEZs. The Government of India has been complicit in all this. Indian naval assurance that the LTTE would not be allowed to escape was crucial in the final offensive. And India’s own National Thermal Power Corporation wants its finger in the SEZ pie. Geetha suggested that this was not too far off from what is being done in a large number of places from Chhattisgarh to West Bengal.

In the camps, women face tremendous hardship. And unless they are removed soon, once the monsoon comes, their position will become worse. Given India’s engagement, she felt there should be a huge campaign to put pressure on the Government of India.

A spirited discussion followed her talk, and the meeting went on for nearly three hours. Questions were raised about how far a semi-fascist organization could talk of autonomy for women, what kind of reflection of the situation we find in literature, what role the rights groups and civil society organizations are playing in the current situation, and whether one can equate state-violence with non-state violence? A substantial discussion took place over the polarities created on one hand by pro-LTTE activists and on the other hand by forces like the Sri Lanka Democratic Forum, with the former talking in terms of either traitors or martyrs, while the latter insisted that till the LTTE was destroyed there could be no talk of reacting strongly to state violence.