27 September 2014

The reasonable use of Tamil

I am all for identity assertion.  I do not think that submerging culture associated with language, custom, faith etc in an overall mishmash that is even more amorphous is necessarily good or better.  Make no mistake, I am not against anyone wanting to be Sri Lankan and feeling that his/her overall national identity (Sri Lankan) overrides other identities (Sinhala, Tamil, Moor or Burgher; Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, Catholic etc); but I sense that if we are not Sinhala or Tamil in the first instance, for example, our being Sri Lankan becomes less meaningful. 

I consider myself a Sinhala-Buddhist Nationalist and I am aware that my reluctance to shed ‘Sinhala’ and ‘Buddhist’ in favour of a meaningless Sri Lankan monolith has earned me tags such as ‘chauvinist’, ‘extremist’, ‘racist’ etc., by people who think they are above identity (when they are not).  That’s ok.  Just as much as I assert the Sinhala and Buddhist elements of my overall identity, I would and have championed the rights of Tamils, for example, to assert theirs.  Asserting identity is one thing, riding roughshod on other communities, including the orchestration of land-theft (as in the Eelam project) or violent cultural invasion (as in the colonial project), is another.  I would and have opposed the latter. 

There are ways to assert identity, the best of course being living that identity.  There is however a thing called ‘limits’.  Where my assertion encroaches on another’s cultural space, there can be and usually is conflict.  Invariably, in these situations, there is at least one aggressor or at least a perceived aggressor.  And once the spark is lit, everyone borrows from the fire and we get people torching one another.    

My attention to identity issues was drawn from a different kind of identity-assertion, though.  I read a news story in the Sunday Island (September 27, 2009) titled ‘Sri Lankan Tamil sentenced by Dutch court for human smuggling’.  The story had been picked from the Daily Herald.

We know that news stories are about who, what, where, when, why etc., and that reporters try to get in as much information as possible.  On the other hand, the degree of identity-profiling tends to be selective.  In Sri Lanka, we see news stories about crime where the suspected criminal’s ethnic identity, religious faith etc are mentioned and this is typically done if he/she is not a Sinhalese or Buddhist. 

‘Muslim trader charged for selling goods past the expiry dates’ is ‘ok’, for instance.  ‘Tamil lodger arrested for selling heroin’ is also ‘ok’.  We don’t see often headlines such as ‘Sinhala man rapes school-girl’.  Or ‘Buddhist woman arrested for running brothel’. 

If the identity of an alleged wrongdoer is so important, why don’t reporters go the whole hog, mentioning the person’s ethnicity, religion, age, location, sexual preference, gender, political affiliation if any and other such markers?  Will there ever be a headline, ‘Sinhala-Christian heterosexual school-dropout teenage male from Ragama who is a member of the UNP and comes from a broken family and aspires to be an astronaut arrested for piddling in public’? 

I am sure there are Tamils who saw in Velupillai Prabhakaran a hero and that other are ashamed for tarnishing the image of the Tamil people.  I am ashamed, as a Sri Lankan, that this country produced such a monster, just as I am ashamed by other monsters, Sinhalese included, produced by this country. 

I am sure that many Tamils are proud of Muttiah Muralidharan and I am sure that many of them are proud of the fact that this country produced such an exceptional cricketer.  I recognize that Murali is a Tamil and I am proud that he represents Sri Lanka in the cricketing world. 

I was particularly happy to read of the exploits of Anusha Dhanabalasingham (Vavuniya Saivapragasa Ladies College) in the Discus Throw and of Sunukarasha Thanuja of Arunothaya College, Jaffna in the Pole Vault at the National School Games recently.  That had less to do with the fact that they are Tamils but that they are from areas that have been right in the heart of the conflict zone for several decades. It is the triumph of the human spirit that I find most appealing in these two athletes, more so than the fact that they are Tamils or Sri Lankans.

Language is political and we all know this.  Identity issues are sensitive.  Profiling has a place in all societies but there is always an ‘appropriate’ involved and consequently an ‘inappropriate’ as well.  There is no rule book in this regard of course, but I believe we lose nothing by being sensitive and alert to all this. 

In previous articles I have used the term ‘sudda’ for example.  I have been accused of using a racist term.  I am not sure I have, but I am planning to revisit the term shortly. When I do, the ‘reasonable use of Tamil’ as per appropriate/inappropriate use of the term as qualifier would be useful, I am convinced.   

*First published in the 'Daily News,' September 28, 2009.

Malinda Seneviratne is the Editor-in-Chief of 'The Nation' and can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com



sajic said...

A very good piece. Strange indeed that Sri Lankans abroad and at home are identified by ethnicity. An Indian abroad, who's newsworthy, is identified as an Indian-not as a Gujerati or a Parsi or a Tamil. Whatever their differences at home they proudly identify themselves as Indian. The national psyche has been damaged. Perhaps discrimination after Independence is part of the reason?

Sylvia Haik said...

Sadly, religion and race is at the root of all our conflicts. During our own conflict, I have seen how appallingly visitors with a Tamil name were treated at Customs. I personally witnessed the plight of a Tamil man (identified by his accent) reporting his wallet was stolen at a police station in Pettah. The policeman was more interested in how he got there and what he was doing there.

Malinda Seneviratne said...

and i, a sinhala man, had all belongings stolen at a police station, on top of being regularly beaten up for close to three weeks.

sajic said...

Yes, Malinda. So we are back where we started. Is there something wrong with the national psyche? A whisper of a striking match and a fire roars.
I wish someone could explain why we are what we are!