How do you efface memories of the fact that at least 40,000 civilians (Tamils) were killed in the final phase of a genocidal war in Sri Lanka, the majority of them by the Sri Lankan army’s shelling of hospitals and “safe zones”? How do you move on when 3,00,000 Sri Lankan Tamils were internally displaced—and continue to be treated as suspects by a chauvinist Sinhala regime? You encourage tourism, pilgrimages, music and dance performances, literary festivals, football friendlies and, of course, cricket tournaments. Once these vital signs of normality are in place, you look the other way as Sri Lankan Air Force personnel train at the Indian Air Force station in Tambaram, near Chennai, or are shifted out of the state when Tamil Nadu’s politicians file their obligatory grumbling.
What’s unfolded in TN in the past week is a vulgar charade of competitive righteousness on the part of all players, including the media. So when the Sri Lankan government sends handpicked, vetted tourists—mostly Sinhalese Christians, but a handful of Tamils too—to visit the Velankanni church in TN, it paints itself as a mature state honouring the sentiments of its minority population. Earlier this August, the governments of both nations got Carnatic musicians T.M. Krishna and Unnikrishnan, and Bharatanatyam dancer Alarmel Valli to perform at a three-day festival held in Jaffna’s Nallur Kandaswamy temple, marketed as the first such event in 30 years. Lost a limb to a bomb? Ayyo! Here, Kannamma, this Subramanya Bharathi song will be a balm! The media’s abetment in this manufacture of normality has been crucial. So The Hindu—ever-eager and Rajapaksa-doting—obliged with a slew of reports that certified this festival as a sure sign that the region was ‘limping back to normalcy’. Neither Krishna, Valli nor The Hindu may have cared to notice the 28 new Buddha statues that have sprung along the A9 Highway that leads to Jaffna, especially near Vavuniya, a Tamil area where hardly any Buddhists live. After all, The Hindu’s former editor N. Ram had said within two weeks of the end of the war: “Justice has not been done to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government for its astonishing feat of rescuing by military means close to 275,000 civilians.” And later, a Sri Lankan minister picked up on the perverse cue and described the war as “one of the greatest humanitarian operations in modern times”.
What we don’t read is how more than one person disappears every five days in post-war Sri Lanka. On August 30, the International Day of the Disappeared, over 500 families of abducted persons gathered in Vavuniya demanding justice and the whereabouts of their loved ones. India, with its own army’s brazen record of making more people (8,000) disappear in Kashmir, can teach some statecraft to Sri Lanka.
Tamil Nadu’s political class, having failed to do much when Tamils were slaughtered in 2009 when the general election was under way, now has to make the mandatory noise. They have to play their part in a script perfected over decades; but Tamil Nadu’s politicians have been as insincere as the Sri Lankan and Indian states. And should they cut some slack when Rajapaksa is mounting such a diplomatic charm offensive, they will look like fools. More worrisome is the apathy of India’s writers and intellectuals. The Rajapaksa regime has more blood on its hands than Narendra Modi’s in Gujarat, and yet writers of a liberal-secularist persuasion in India, such as Githa Hariharan who spearheads the Indian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (INCABI) and had rightly campaigned against Amitav Ghosh accepting the Dan David prize from Israeli president Shimon Peres in 2010, have no qualms about participating in the Galle Literary Festival. She’d happily hold a workshop about “writing conflict” on a trip sponsored by the India-Sri Lanka Foundation (established by an MoU between the two governments in 1998; whose mandate now is also to send two Sri Lankan writers to the Jaipur Litfest in exchange for two Indian writers delegated to Galle). The embers of the 2009 war hadn’t even cooled when historian Mukul Kesavan, after a year-end holiday in Serendip, wrote in January 2011 about the “civility and courtesy that marked my transactions as a tourist”, “the non-stop prettiness” of the landscapes; he praised Sri Lanka’s achievements on the human development index front, and gushed over the “welfare state”, saying it “isn’t an aspiration, it actually exists”. In The Telegraph, not some tourism ministry brochure.
All this is a run-up to Sri Lanka hosting the CHOGM in 2013, when 54 heads of nations will gather—an exercise that is expected to condone the well-documented war crimes. In the interim, let’s sit back and be entertained by the T20 World Cup to unfold in Sri Lanka. The recipe for forgetting the wounds of war is clearly a mixture of tourism, sport, music, dance and literature and occasional military training from a “friendly” neighbour.