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The Shadow Lines: Review of Oru Kuurvaalin Nizhalil

N Kalyan Raman


Oru Kuurvaalin Nizhalil (In The Shadow of A Sword) by Tamizhini, Kalachuvadu Publications, 2016


The anti-colonial movements in Asia and Africa that followed in the wake of India’s independence were often advanced by armed insurgents engaged in bloody and protracted battles with imperial armies. The violence and bloodletting that marked the battles of Dien Bien Phu in Indo-China, Leopoldville in Belgian Congo, and Algiers in the then French colony of Algeria are indelibly etched in our collective memory. However, in many former colonies, such hard-won independence under the rubric of an overarching nationalism did not always result in a just and democratic society. In some countries, victory in the war of independence led naturally to military dictatorships that often had the support of the imperial powers. Other newly independent countries were prone to internal conflicts between different ethnic communities competing for political and economic dominance. Armed insurgencies and secessionist movements erupted in many former colonies, whereby some ethno-linguistic communities, rendered newly sub-national, fought for freedom, dignity and the right to self-determination.

The first such conflict broke out in Nigeria between the Christian minority Igbo tribe in the south-east and the Emirs of the north. The Biafran war (1967-70) visited unspeakable horrors on the doughty Igbos, who were crushed by the west-backed Nigerian regime. Closer home, we witnessed the conflict between West and East Pakistan. Martial law and repression unleashed by the Pakistani army was followed by genocide and the famous Bangladesh war of December 1971, fought and won by the Indian army with the support of Bangla militant outfits. The sudden collapse of the dictatorial regime in Portugal in 1975 resulted in an equally sudden decolonization of Angola, again in West Africa. It was followed by a protracted conflict involving three different militant armies, each backed by a set of foreign countries interested in political dominance and access to the country’s mineral wealth. Half a world away, East Timor, another Portuguese colony, was invaded by Indonesia during the same window of opportunity, and the end of that conflict did not occur till twenty-five years later, in 1999.

The ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils originated since 1948 originated in a similar history and followed a similar pattern as many former colonies. Fought in war-like conditions chiefly by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) since 1983, the war ended in a decisive victory for the Sinhalese army over the Tamils during May 16-18, 2009. In what is often termed a genocidal attack, upwards of 40,000 Tamil civilians were reported killed on the final day alone.

It would seem that no “sub-national” ethno-linguistic community can ever hope to win a war against the armed might of the nation-state it is a part of. Typically, their strategy would be to hurt the enemy grievously enough to force him to the negotiating table, where they would hope that the international community, responding to their just demand for basic human rights, would broker a peace settlement and help bring about a lasting political solution. Wherever these bets have gone wrong, as in the case of the Sri Lankan conflict, the human consequences for the community, not just for their fighters, is no less than calamitous.

Since the end of the war in Sri Lanka, there have been a few poignant accounts by journalists covering the final phase of the conflict and the post-war situation of the Tamils in the country. But insider accounts, from within the movement or the larger Tamil community, were non-existent until the publication of A Kuurvaalin Nizhalil (In The Shadow of A Sword), a personal memoir written by Tamizhini, a former woman functionary of the LTTE. Written with a sense of urgency after the author had been diagnosed with cancer in 2013 and published a few months after her death in 2015, the memoir is one of a kind in that her description of the LTTE’s chequered military campaign during 1992-2009 never loses sight of the disasters visited on the Tamil people at every turn. It also calls into question the values, ethos and the progressive moral decline of the movement while in pursuit of military objectives.

Born in 1972 into a farming family from a village near Killinochi town, Tamizhini (whose real name was Sivakami) experiences the conflict first-hand during her schooldays, through the random violence of attacks by the Sinhalese army, the excesses of the Indian Peacekeeping Force and the bravery of some students in her school who leave to join the movement. At 19, she runs away from home to join LTTE, where she works most of the time in the political wing. The range of her duties is comprehensive: from providing education and training to new recruits at special camps, communicating the movement’s ideology and position to the people and enlisting their support, and providing rehabilitation to the families of fighters killed in battle, to taking part in international peace negotiations as a woman representative of the political wing and confabulating frequently with senior women officers of the LTTE’s combat wing. During the 19 years she spent in LTTE, she was never very far from a combat zone, passing messages, ferrying people and risking her life repeatedly under enemy fire.

At the decisive battle in Mullaithivu during May 16-18, 2009 Tamizhini is taken prisoner by the army and brought to Colombo for interrogation. After a hard prison life of two years and nine months, Tamizhini is released in June 2012 and assigned to spend a year in a rehabilitation camp for former member of the LTTE. She is handed over to her mother in June 2013, gets married to a Sri Lankan Tamil living in exile abroad in September 2013. She is diagnosed with cancer in 2014 and expires in October 2015, penning this memoir in the short time available to her.

In the memoir, Tamizhini remains loyal to the cause of her people throughout, even as she begins to see the LTTE, main fighting force and hope of all Tamils in Eelam, morph into a paranoid and totalitarian organization that progressively becomes disconnected with the wellbeing of the very people it is fighting for. Too often, we see people’s lives sacrificed in the pursuit of narrow tactical advantage. The “mistakes” made by the LTTE leadership are many and by now well-documented: the persecution and trial of Colonel Mathaiah and his associates for “treason”; tactical assassinations of Kathirgamar and Neelan Thiruchelvan; sacking of Killinochi before the exit of a defeated LTTE; pursuit and fratricidal killing of LTTE fighters in the eastern province on the grounds of suspected disloyalty; recruitment of underage children from unwilling families to make up for the steadily dwindling numbers of the fighting force; and finally, just before the final collapse, shooting their own people in the legs to prevent them from leaving the Mullaithivu area. To read of these tragic events as recalled by someone like Tamizhini who had staked her whole life and endured unspeakable pain and horrors for the cause, is a mind-numbing experience. The leader’s preference for Rajapakse’s election as president which would bring the conflict to a decisive end seems tragically insane in hindsight. Even the essentially patriarchal and caste-ridden nature of Tamil society in Eelam and its impact on the fighting force comprising men and women from all sections of society does not escape Tamizhini’s sharp eye.

In Tamizhini’s telling, this war of liberation, like all wars, is ugly and brutal. It is her express intent that her memoir should help succeeding generations of Sri Lankan Tamils learn about the reality of the conflict and find their way to a life of peace and dignity. There is wisdom in the saying: “Never be quick to raise your sword against the enemy, for you will just as swiftly raise it against your own brother.” If this is true of all perpetrators of violence, it’s even more probable when a disenfranchised and dispossessed community is engaged in an unequal, losing battle. In a uni-polar world where the needs of global capital are to be met through increased repression rather than freedom, what are these communities to do in order to repossess their freedom and dignity? Prof Ashis Nandy has said that more people died during the twentieth century in wars of nationalism than in religious wars. Given such a bloody history, sections of the world community that are neatly arranged under the dominant paradigm of the nation-state could be suffering a crisis without end. This would of course apply the communities of Kashmir and India’s north-eastern states as well. Oppressor or oppressed, we may all be living in the shadow of yet another sword, the certain degradation and destruction of humanity itself.


Review published in The Hindu on May 21, 2016


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