As I watched TV visuals of the death of V. Prabakaran, the head of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and read and heard accounts of the way his dead body was disfigured and rolled in dirt by the Sri Lankan Army, my mind went back to the years 1951-55 when I was a student of the Loyola College of Chennai, run by the Society of Jesus. Every class, including mine, had four or five Tamils from the Northern Province of Ceylon as Sri Lanka used to be known before 1972. Even in those days, they never considered themselves part of Ceylon. They would introduce themselves as Jaffna Tamils and not as Ceylonese Tamils .
Every middle class family in Jaffna would save whatever money it could and send its offspring to Tamil Nadu for higher education. The most popular colleges among the Jaffna Tamils was the Loyola and the Christian Colleges of Chennai and the St. Joseph's of Tiruchi. They were intelligent, hard-working and with a keen sense of humour. During off-class hours, they would keep to themselves and did not mix much with other students.
Every Jaffna Tamil, like a Tamil from Tamil Nadu, wanted to become a government servant. The other popular profession was as lawyers. When they went back to Ceylon after completing their college education in India, they would join the government service in Colombo. In the first few years after Ceylon became independent, the Jaffna Tamils dominated the Ceylonese bureaucracy.
They dominated the bureaucracy even in the then Malaya and Singapore. The British preferred employing the Jaffna Tamils as bureaucrats in many of their Asian colonies. Apart from their intelligence, command of the English language and capacity for hard work, the Jaffna Tamils also had a good reputation for their integrity and honesty.
The Wikipedia writes as follows of the Jaffna Tamil community in Malaya and Singapore:
"Ceylonese Tamils made up an overwhelming majority in the civil service of British Malaya and Singapore prior to independence...
"Many of the first Asian and non-white doctors and engineers in Malaya and Singapore were of Sri Lankan Tamil descent. The world's first Asian surgeon was Dr S.S. Thiruchelvam, a Malayan of Ceylonese Tamil origin.
"Former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew once said:
"In terms of numbers, the Ceylonese, like the Eurasians, are among the smallest of our various communities. Yet in terms of achievements and contributions to the growth and development of the modern Singapore and Malaysia they have done more than warranted by their numbers. In the early days of Malaysia's and Singapore's history the civil service and the professions were manned by a good number of Ceylonese. Even today the Ceylonese community continues to play a prominent role in these and other fields of civil life.
"For example in Singapore, today, the Speaker of Parliament is a Ceylonese. So is our High Commissioner in Great Britain. So is our Foreign Minister. In the Judiciary, in the civil service, in the university, in the medical Service and in the professions they continue to make substantial contributions out of all proportion to their numbers. They are there not because they are members of a minority community but on the basis of merit.
"The point is that the Ceylonese are holding their own in open competition with communities far larger than them. They have asked for no special favour or consideration as a minority. What they have asked for – and quite rightly – is that they should be judged on their merits and that they be allowed to compete with all other citizens fairly and without discrimination. This, as far as the Singapore Government is concerned, is what is best for all of us. I believe that the future belongs to that society which acknowledges and rewards ability, drive and high performance without regard to race, language or religion." "
He used the word Ceylonese, but he was actually talking of Tamils of Jaffna origin working in Singapore.
In my younger days, the Jaffna Tamils had a reputation for being meek and mild. We used to make fun of them by saying that if a policeman or a soldier pointed a gun at them they would tie their lungi above the knees and run. It is remarkable how Prabakaran made them shed their meek demeanour and stand up and fight for their rights. They fought ferociously because they felt degraded and humiliated by the Sinhalese majority after the British left Ceylon in 1948.
They put up with all the humiliation and indignity heaped upon them for 35 years. Then, they could no longer. They took to terrorism and insurgency to give vent to their anger. Their revolt against the Sinhalese might have been crushed by the Sri Lankan Army, but their anger remains-- in the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka itself as well as in the diaspora. Since the LTTE-led revolt broke out in 1983 nearly one million Sri Lankan Tamils are estimated to have fled abroad. You find them all over West Europe, North America and Australia.
In response to my articles on the LTTE and Sri Lanka, I get a large number of personal messages from the members of the diaspora. Some are angry, but polite. Some downright abusive and threatening. Some curse India for allegedly letting down the Tamils and pray to God to punish India and the Indians for not helping the Tamils. "Just because Prabakaran killed Rajeev, you are punishing the entire Tamil community," complains one message. "Your Prime Minister has not uttered a word of condemnation of the cruelties inflicted on the Tamil civilians by the SL Army. I pray to God that all of you must suffer one day the same way we are suffering."
The Tamil diaspora is yet to come to terms with the consequences of the death of Prabakaran to the future of their struggle for dignity and equality. They are studying how the Jewish diaspora conducted itself in its darkest days in the 1940s. The message that is being tom-tommed across the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora is: "Let us emulate the Jewish diaspora. We will prevail just as the Jewish people prevailed"
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.