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Being 'Tamil'

A recent conference on Tamil studies provided a context to relook issues of history, culture, identity and nation. For Sri Lankan Tamils engaging with history or even with immediate anxieties, more often than not, it is the political context that overwhelms all else and constitutes the very horizons of thought and action. But the conference demonstrated that matters of past and present, of identity and culture and freedom could be debated freely and argumentatively.

Being ‘Tamil’

Proceedings of a Conference

A recent conference on Tamil studies provided a context to relook issues of history, culture, identity and nation. For Sri Lankan Tamils engaging with history or even with immediate anxieties, more often than not, it is the political context that overwhelms all else and constitutes the very horizons of thought and action. But the conference demonstrated that matters of past and present, of identity and culture and freedom could be debated freely and argumentatively.


n international conference of Tamil studies was held in Toronto in May 2006 (May 11-14). The conference theme was ‘Tropes, Territories, Competing Realities’ and it attracted a variety of scholars from India, Sri Lanka and North America. The range of topics was impressive: from pre-colonial history in the Tamil country and Sri Lanka to diaspora studies; subtle textual discussions on ancient and medieval Tamil literature to provocative arguments on caste, gender and contemporary Tamil fiction. The Sri Lankan Tamil present too was the subject of a panel that debated issues of the nation, identity, class politics and displacement.

An art exhibition had been organised as part of the conference, featuring work by two Toronto-based Tamil artists, Karuna and Nanda Kandasamy. Grim in their references to the violence of war and distress, their art also exuded great expressive energy – bold strokes, dense reds and blues made the horror of their subject matter come alive and vividly.

This though was not the only unique feature of the conference: the audience comprised not only researchers and students but also a large section of the Tamil community. Toronto is home to nearly 90,000 Sri Lankan Tamils and they showed up in impressively large numbers for almost all the panels. The organisers of the conference that included Chelva Kanakanaygam, University of Tornoto, Cheran of the University of Windsor and Darshan Ambalavanar, doctoral candidate, Harvard University had obviously worked long and hard to get the word out and the result was that an academic exchange became transformed into a community event.

This was hugely significant and for several interrelated reasons. The Sri Lankan Tamil migrant community in Toronto is at least two decades old. Hardworking and inventive, its members contribute a great deal to metropolitan life. A substantial number of them are part of Canada’s large

– and non-unionised – working class. Some are in the service sector, others are professionals in the fields of medicine and engineering and many others run modest businesses, including small restaurant chains. Tamil cooks appear to be very popular and in demand and are found in almost every sort of kitchen, from those that cook a Thai meal to those that prepare kosher food. Sri Lankan Tamils have built their own civic institutions which address problems unique to diasporic urban communities – language learning, coping with a sense of loss and nostalgia, paranoid about losing “culture”, issues of adjustment, homelessness, poverty, domestic violence, youth gangs, and so on. Literary and cultural forums abound and young Tamils, both men and women, write voluble blogs in both English and Tamil, which make for fascinating reading.

Revisiting ‘Tamilness’

For this community, then the conference provided a context to relook issues of history, identity, culture and nation. Often, these are matters that are debated and spoken of in the excitement and anger of a distinct political moment and inevitably end up as vigorous polemic. Further, in the Sri Lankan Tamil context, the moment is always fraught, hemmed in by the war, by a fragile peace and by the overwhelming presence of the LTTE – as warriors and saviours, law-givers and executioners, civic actors and censors, their hope and their scourge. In this, the LTTE is not too unlike other vanguardist groups and movements, and even their so-called politics of revenge is not without precedents in the history of clandestine political movements that possess and proclaim millenarian ideals. But for the Tamils of Lanka, the Tigers appear an existential force as well, holding out perhaps the last line of defence against a chauvisint Sinhala state and its depredations.

In any case, for the Sri Lankan Tamils, engaging with history, or with the anxieties of the hour, the political context overwhelms all else and constitutes the very horizons of thought and action. This was why the Toronto conference was different: it demonstrated that matters of the past and present, of identity and culture and freedom could be spoken of in less beleaguered ways. It suggested to an eager and young audience that it is, indeed,

Economic and Political Weekly July 22, 2006

possible to establish different protocols for debate and disagreement, and that political correctness and acrimony need not always dictate the terms of an argument. For young Tamils who came to Toronto when they were very young, this was obviously a novel way of “doing Tamilness”.

For many of them, Tamilness, mediated through familial sentiment and an array of material practices, meant these: cultural truisms about the glory of the Tamil past and culture, a zealous love for the Tamil language, everyday practices of faith and a tacit culture of control in matters of clothes and friends, and so on. Some associated Tamilness with romantic nationalism and a fervent faith in the LTTE, whereas others felt that it was best to put all of that behind and become “good Tamils”, by integrating with the society in which they found themselves. For all of them, the conference proved exciting because, as one of them put it, it allowed them to look at their own culture and society critically, not in a carping but in an enabling sense.

If the conference spoke to the community, the latter too addressed the scholars in ways that are quite unusual in the North American academic context. Scholars doing Tamil studies but who were not Tamils had to speak to an audience whose members possessed their own terms of reference and understanding. There were thus two registers present at the conference: that of the scholar and the publicist and they appeared unused to speaking to each other. In the world of the university, speaking to a lay audience is not accorded priority (or rewarded) and scholars defend their hermetic existence as necessary to pursue intellectual inquiry for its own sake. On the other hand, the lay intellectual is all too prone to disdain careful and meticulous research and instead relies on the demagogue’s rhetoric. In the Tamil intellectual world, this overlapping of contexts is a given, and the Toronto conference brought this issue to the fore and made all those who were part of it confront the question of relevance and the labour required to achieve the latter.

Sri Lanka: Tamil Politics

For those of us from India who participated in the conference, it provided an occasion to travel in the community and relook issues to do with Sri Lankan Tamil politics, struggle and existence. And the views that we gained falsified several political – and commonsensical – truisms.

In India, we prefer to see Sri Lankan Tamils as either refugees or terrorists; abject victims or desperate gunmen. These representations repeated over the decades and almost transformed into narrative tropes, disallow us from engaging with the complexity of life and struggle, as Tamils experience and express them, both in Sri Lanka and in their diverse diasporic contexts. Thus, on the one hand, we assent to a global consensus – to whose making Indian news media in English has contributed liberally – that the LTTE is inherently fascist and deserves neither reasoned critique nor understanding. It is another matter that this consensus seldom wishes to train its critical sights on the frighteningly chauvinist record of the Sri Lankan state. On the other hand, there is the other consensus, which we have allowed to bind us to it: that the LTTE exhausts all representations of the Tamil people, who cannot be imagined outside of their military and political existence. The LTTE itself sometimes asserts this – as it plays out its messianic role to a tune of solemn and very real sacrifice.

But there are several things that complicate this starkly drawn reality (as we found out): the LTTE has its interlocutors and not all of them have been killed or silenced. There are many who disagree with them on several key matters, including the expulsion of Tamil Muslims from the north, their arbitrary acts of violence in the east, their intolerant unease with criticism and dissent. Feminists working in the north and east have risked their lives to hold their own ground and successfully confronted them; poets and writers who have had to wait for months to be able to pronounce independent opinions have ultimately done so; arch-political critics who are fundamentally antagonistic to their politics have dramatised their dissent in fiction and argument and made their points of view known.

But, not all critics, we realised, are lovers of democracy, and nor do all of them speak in a more reasonable and critical register. Many, in fact, mirror what they revile: they too have recourse to an all-or-nothing rhetoric of blame and hatred. Consider, for instance, the manner in which some of them responded to the ban against the LTTE in North America. For one, these critics have endorsed the ban. To them the issue really is getting at the Tigers one way or the other, and it does not appear to matter to them that ultimately it is the Tamil migrant population in these countries that would have to live with the consequences of the ban. Their attitude seems to be: “so, let the Tamil people suffer, that will teach them to support the Tigers”. Clearly, these critics appear oblivious, are perhaps, indifferent to the grave implications of a ban such as this one, which would allow governments in North America to target and even racially profile the Tamil people. Other critics of the LTTE have done worse: they have played into the hands of the Sri Lankan army and state, whether out of desperation or choice, or because of a perverse will to power, and so have succeeded in adding substance to the LTTE’s anger against those it considers traitors to the cause.

As the LTTE’s supporters and detractors trade charges and counter-charges, other voices are drowned out, and complex political responses that exist and have been articulated seldom elicit popular or even critical attention. The point also is that for many Tamils, in these fraught and unhappy times, simplified political positions appear attractive: clearly drawn battle lines and pitched polemical battles – in the diasporic media and on the internet – offer a lucidity that no one quite wants to surrender. It is as if ambiguity and dissonance would mar an achieved clarity.

In Toronto, having registered several dissonant voices, we realised how important it was to bring another mirror to the conflict and one that would demur from either calling the LTTE fascist or praising its messianic power. Clearly, the Tigers are as much a product of the failure of the political imagination in Sri Lanka, both Tamil and Sinhala, as they are of their own culture of militarism, martyrdom and revenge. This failure has to be reckoned with and its basis examined. Further, the LTTE is not its leadership merely: it comprises other lives and struggles, of everyday combatants and supporters – those men and women, who fight in the forests and those who uphold its cause in the world at large, often living a semi-clandestine existence, in apprehension and desperate hope, willing to risk death and imprisonment, and who act in the good faith that the ideal of Tamil Eelam redeems their fragmented lives. What moves lives such as these? What ideologies animate them? What is their sense of the world? Those who have had the chance to read the South African writer Breytan Breytanbach’s True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, issued nearly two decades ago, would recognise the poignancy that underlies violence and

Economic and Political Weekly July 22, 2006 combat, the underlying sense of loss that never gets articulated.

There are other voices that need to be heeded, especially of those who refuse an easy clarity and would rather court political and moral ambiguity. Amongst them are those who are harshly critical of the LTTE but would not therefore peddle an argument that would render them complicit in the Sri Lankan state’s racialist politics. They are not neutral, though, but walk the uneasy edge of a politics, which they wish to endorse for historical reasons but whose ethics they cannot countenance without distress and anger. (Theirs is a position akin to one chosen by the late Edward Said who never let his angry criticisms of first, the Oslo Accord, and later Yasser Arafat, detract from his more fundamental and devastating critique of Zionism and American imperialism.) Then there are those who would go with the LTTE in some of its political and civic initiatives, but not in others, and who wish to and do retain a measure of critical autonomy.

There are yet others who wish to push their levels of critical and civic engagement to another level altogether: they claim that they do not wish to embed their sense of what Tamil politics ought to be saying and doing within the discursive terms that exist at present. Rather, they would work at opening up other critical and political spaces in Tamil society – where one could examine other issues, of caste and class, gender and faith, for instance, or the dilemmas of diasporic existence. By doing so they hope to enable a younger generation to re-engage on more productive terms with a society the latter have only known through war, displacement and in the diaspora. They also hope that in the process, a productive critical culture that goes beyond a politics of blame and hatred, would emerge, which, in time, could elicit more democratic responses from the LTTE. The idea seems to be to go beyond locked political positions and identify more open forums for a civil politics, and one that could engage with dissent without rancour and name-calling.

Given the complexity of the Sri Lankan Tamil present, the certainties that weigh heavily on the opinions pronounced by Indian news-makers appear anachronistic. Media common sense with respect to the Tamil cause in Sri Lanka clearly needs to be unpacked and its comforting conceits deconstructed.



Economic and Political Weekly July 22, 2006

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