A few days ago, there was a clash between Tamil and Sinhala students at the Freshers’ Party, at the Science Faculty of the University of Jaffna. There has been an avalanche of responses to this event. Most have expressed self-righteous outrage, some are gloating in a kind of ‘we told you so – Tamil Tigers are alive and well’ way and a few (too few) have reflected on the seriousness of this event and what it means in terms of reconciliation and community relations.
Nationalisms of all shapes and sizes give rise to ugliness – not just in our society but everywhere. Should the Sinhala students have been allowed to include the Kandyan dancers in the staff procession? Of course, yes. Should the university authorities have made more attempts to anticipate such tensions and put in place mechanisms to build bridges? Also, yes. Let us not ignore the fact that the Jaffna University Science Faculty has 60% Sinhala students – living in a predominantly Tamil society just emerging from 30 years of violent conflict surrounded by constant reminders of being the ‘losers’ in the war; not least the many monuments celebrating war victory, continuing presence of the military and an ever increasing presence of symbols of Sinhala Buddhist culture.
While discussing this incident with friends and colleagues from Jaffna, I was struck by their frustration. Frustration that this incident was now being treated (predictably by some political groups) to claim that Tamil nationalism and therefore naturally, Tamil terrorism was alive and well. Frustration at being branded racists despite the years of quiet work that has gone into managing multiple difficult situations that have naturally arisen as a result of a sudden expansion of the student community at the university after years of isolation. Frustration that once again the Tamil community is expected in a sense to ‘prove’ that they are ‘good’, law abiding, patriotic citizens of this country, who have ‘learned the mistakes of the past’ and are prepared to move forward in a united and peaceful Sri Lanka. Frustration at the consternation at the realisation that moving forward and belonging is not easily achieved and that Tamil society may not even be ready for it at this moment in time and may indeed have their own views on how this should happen.
Of course, there is no doubt that Tamil nationalism is alive and well in the University of Jaffna. Of course it is disappointing that there isn’t more tolerance of difference and dissent within the university. I experienced this first hand when in 2014, I was at the University of Jaffna for the launch of Dr Rajan Hoole’s book, Palmyra Fallen and university administrators initially refused to allow the book launch to be held inside the university. But let’s not pretend that the excess of nationalism or the intolerance of difference and dissent is unique to Jaffna. It was hardly a week ago that students reacted angrily and yes, violently, to a play performed at the famous Sarathchandra Open Air Theatre at Peradeniya, because they apparently felt that the drama was culturally and morally inappropriate. In universities all over the country a dress code is imposed on first year students by their seniors as part of the ‘rag’ in what one assumes is an effort to teach students the importance of conformity to group values. Our universities have a long way to go in terms of becoming places of tolerance, sharing and freedom – and even maturity. Our society has a long way to go before we can claim such values. It wasn’t so long ago that there was huge outrage that the National Anthem had been sung (heaven forbid) in Tamil! It was not long ago that the BBS threatened a repeat of the Aluthgama riots. So let’s get a bit of perspective and tone down the sense of righteousness with which we are condemning the Jaffna university incident.
Nevertheless, this incident requires our serious attention: because it reminds us of how difficult the path of healing and reconciliation is. We are a society emerging from over 3 decades of war. Terrible things have happened in our communities. We have done unspeakable things to each other. These things are not easy to forget nor is it easy to simply move on. The previous government imagined that infrastructure development will lead to reconciliation and the current government seems to think that economic development will lead to reconciliation. Reconciliation is hard work. Neither is it all about celebrating our differences and sharing our commonalities. It involves looking deep within ourselves also at the things that we dislike about each other; the aspects of our communities and cultures that we find difficult to accept and yet agreeing to let and let live. It involves recognising that there may be layers of anger and resentment between communities. Reconciliation is not going to come easy; trust is not easily won.
So how we respond to this incident is actually quite crucial: this could be an important turning point in post-war ethnic relations. Are we simply (as groups are already doing) going to use it to reassert tired old slogans of terrorism, separation and betrayal or are we going to use it to reassess what we have actually been doing to heal the years of violence and war from which we emerged less than 10 years ago?
By Dr. Harini Amarasuriya