- 21 AUGUST 2012
- BY SINTHUJAN VARATHARAJAH
A rosy sky appearance rocked this year’s Nallur festival when a Sri Lankan Army helicopter appeared in the cloudy sky of Yaalpaanam (Jaffna) above tens of thousands of devotees who gathered to celebrate this year’s Nallur Thiruvila (chariot festival). Infamous for its engagement in spraying bullets and dropping shells on citizens, constructed as enemies and enemies constructed as terrorists, the Sri Lankan Air Force’s performance during the festival prophesied nothing but fear and terror in the minds of local and distant viewers of this very spectacle. The mere sight of Sri Lankan military power flying above a defenseless crowd of Tamils returned countless memories of buildings and humans that turned into unidentifiable piles of charcoal and ash by a military force that captured people, land, water and sky.
Instead of dropping bombs, the Sri Lankan Army helicopter released rose petals on the masses of Tamil Hindu devotees who came to celebrate this festival’s holy day. What seemingly can, and most likely will be interpreted by some, including many Tamils, as an act of positive engagement, a proof of reaching out to the ethnic group and an illustration of the Sri Lankan Government led ‘politics of reconciliation’ (that of course begs to be commended) urges us to look behind this facade to discover what things really are, and versus what they seem to be. Yaalpanam (Jaffna) today is and what it shares as communality with all of the traditional Tamil regions of the island is their state of occupation. Whether during or after this year’s Nallur Thirivula, Yaalpanam remains to be a peninsula under occupation; a people under siege.
Occupation comes in many forms and features: it can be overt and covert, visible and invisible as well as physical and psychological. What occupation, however, always remains to be no matter what its nature is violent. Physical or structural, violence is the crucial component that enables occupation by imposing structures of dominance and subordinance. Such hierarchies translate into dichotomous embodiments of superiority and inferiority; whose presence is wanted and required, undesired and under constant suspicion and threat. To preserve such structures of violence and maintain this system of inequality and injustice, the most overt forms of violence need to be rendered invisible to the eyes of the beholder – the eyes of the occupied (whether local or global).
The question remains how such overt forms of collective and individual infringement of rights can be hidden?
Pacifying guns and civilizing violence
The answer lies in attempts of civilizing violence and institutionalizing the presence of perpetrators of such – namely the military apparatus. To normalize occupation, as well as socialize a siege on the living and the dead, then, there is a need for a selective re-narrativization of a violent past, by both the occupiers and the occupied.
In Sri Lanka’s post-war scenario, the redefinition of the range of tasks of the Sri Lankan Armed Forces within the occupied lands of Tamils aids to reinvent the role of the brigades and soldiers that have invaded the land and intimacy of a people to that of carriers, protectors and preserves of civil society. Thus, the violence that is symbolized by boots, uniforms and weapons of the occupier is pacified through tactics of re-employment and outsourcing of the military apparatus into sectors, such as agriculture and merchant trading. So it would appear, that what is made to look trivial follows a dangerous pattern of redefining the very structures and images of the carriers of violence.
By opening the floodgates to unrestricted employment and engagement of the military in various, if not all, spheres of life within the traditional Tamil regions, the state intents to construct a fatale relationship of dependency and control with its Tamil citizenry. Whilst dependency rises and independence, in the form of self-determination and self-sustenance proportionally declines, such developments further help to naturalize the presence of the soldiers within occupied land by portraying them as productive and well-intentioned members of the social fabric of the regions.
For occupation to succeed, the minds of the people under siege need to be equally occupied and made to believe that the presence of the authority in charge is not only normal, but also quintessential for the safety, integrity and survival of the land and people. By renegotiating the presence of soldiers within the land, the military is constructed as an integral actor who is no more an obstacle to development, rights and equality, but a contributor towards the upliftment of a people under siege.
One result of the reinterpretation of the perpetrator of violence as a friend and helper of the very people he/she oppresses is the steady augmentation of the state of psychological occupation of Tamils. The presence of the very symbol of oppression and violation in the midst of life and the living in addition to their current expansion into formerly untouched spheres of life pose severe psychological obstacles to the occupied and traumatized population.
In order to accommodate the army’s change of mandate and its subsequent reconstitution, a massive shift of Tamil’s already troubled relation to the army is required. From the image of the murderer, rapist, torturer, abductor and oppressor to that of an ordinary grocery salesman et al. takes, however, more than just a simple re-imagination, rebranding and redefinition, but is dependent on complete repression and denial of the violence subjugated to the body, mind and soul. A denial that forces one to confront and deliberately re-engage with the same source of that pain, day in day out.
Not only is the violence symbolized by the military being ejected from this discourse, but also the innocence ascribed to this new relationship is that it ought to remain unquestioned and un-critiqued. The impotence expressed in conjunction with the little means left for the local Tamil population to resist the omnipresent state and its executive is hidden in this new discourse that aims to cover the structural violence by concealing the state of occupation and asymmetric power relation that has become normative for land and people.
Gods, temples and the nation
The annual Nallur Thiruvila hereby plays a central role: as the largest and arguably also most important festival amongst the predominantly Hindu population, the Nallur Thiruvila is a central stage in expressions and performances of religious and ethnic identities. By representing a continuity of Tamil Hindu culture in the island and connecting an ancient past to that of a threatened present, the symbolic nature of this festival as a manifestation and pillar of a rich history and culture is paramount. Accordingly, images of the temple serve to define popular imaginations and concepts of the Tamil nation by equally reinforcing differences that set it apart from that of the dominant Sinhala nation.
The kovil’s role is however not just reduced to that of an identity-marker and preserver, but also to that of a sacred and intimate space of devotion and worship. The temple’s main god, Lord Murugan, is seen as the protector of Tamil land and people. Hence, the Nallur kovil and the festivals affiliated with it, occupy various spaces, both immanent and transcendent. For the devotees, then, this space is significant in the formation of identity that is jeopardized grotesquely in times of occupation, due to the relationships and confrontations with the Sri Lankan war machinery that holds the area and its inhabitants captive.
Whilst the temple’s significance as the largest Hindu kovil in the island and the focal point for pilgrimages and rituals for Tamil Hindus from all corners of the state and beyond cannot be underestimated, the premises of the temple also appear as historically sacred and highly symbolic space. With its overall dominant role as a representative and pillar of Tamil cultural autonomy, the kovil henceforward provides new ample opportunities to be used as a geopolitical focal point to apply micro policies and doctrines that set macro examples with wide reaching psychological repercussions for the larger Tamil populous, in the post-war era.
Furthermore, Nallur kovil’s symbolic nature also transcends the local via the internationally displaced and dispersed Tamil population whose memories of home are often tightly knit with images of the temple and its famous chariot festival. For these displaced communities of Tamils, psychological and spiritual ties to Nallur Kovil is maintained in diaspora, as they nostalgically replicate and honor the cosmological and ritual significances of Nallur Kovil and its legacy in transnational contexts.
Moving bodies that have crossed landmasses and oceans have thus transformed and reinterpreted Nallur to a symbol of melancholy, resistance and resilience which holds the ability to capture, move and mobilize the emotions of an entire community of refugees and migrants. To such an extent that it even evokes religious celebrations thousands of miles away in commemoration of the auspicious period celebrated in the homeland. Hence, Nallur Thiruvila binds together communities divided by countless borders and seas who share rituals and memories of home.
Ceremonies of possession
In light of these facts, the seemingly ‘unproblematic’ appearance of the Sri Lankan Army’s helicopter in the sky above the Nallur kovil needs to be analyzed and ascribed with various meanings.
Part of the religious procession during the festive activities and the general Hindu poosais is the offering of flowers and petals to the god, Murugan. As a devotional act, devotees express their worship and praise to god by throwing and offering flowers.
How can the Sri Lankan Army’s engagement in such practices now be understood?
By mimicking traditional Hindu rites of throwing flowers, the Sinhalese soldiers emerge as masked participants in the chariot procession dedicated to Lord Murugan, the protector of Tamil land and people. In an attempt to intrude the space of worship and intimacy, the forces of occupation emerge as fictitious adherents in rituals that aid to carve and maintain a religious but also specifically ethnic identity. Thereby, the occupying forces invade an ethno-cultural space that remained throughout conflict and war resilient towards majority cultural assimilation and minority subordination by masking its violent presence with the imagined to be depoliticized role of ‘co-citizens’ and ‘co-worshippers’. The helicopter thereby appears as a symbol of superiority that enables the soldiers to float above the Tamil devotees and intrude their sacred space, rituals and traditions by upholding a safe distance, and a dominant and strategic position to the armless mass of racialized people.
In other words, the government does not only force its version of ‘political reconciliation’ upon its Tamil citizenry, but it also equally imposes its participation through religious ritual acts upon the besieged people. Thereby, the interruption of life and its ceremonies needs to be understood as an interruption into the fabrics of society and an invasion, occupation and colonization of the privacy of the individual and the collective. The highly ceremonial part played by the Sri Lankan Army helicopter in this story serves as an example of ceremonial participation of an overtly powerful and aggressive authority in the cultural and religious traditions of people with the aim of redefining difference and challenging autonomy. Sri Lankan ethnic Sinhalese soldier’s participation in Tamil Hindu events thus emerges as a ceremony of power and possession of land, people and culture. Simultaneously, it appears to be a political mockery of the devoted and devotee.
By doing so, the ethnocentric Sri Lankan state attempts to re-negotiate geopolitical space by targeting historically sacred and symbolic spaces across the island as methods of forced reconciliation. Such ideologies aim to foster Sinhala-Buddhist policies of enforcing and creating ‘shared places of worship’ with – but more importantly at the cost of ethnic Tamils and their distinct cultural rights. Similar polices have already successfully been introduced in relation to the Madhu church, the most sacred space of Catholic worship on the island located within the traditional majority Tamil regions.
As a result, expressions of majority dominance and minority subordinance increasingly invade even the most sacred and intimate spheres and spaces of articulations of minority cultural autonomy and distinctness. In conjunction with the latter, the ethnic and religious identities that are maintained through such ritual practices are further put in increasing tension in respect to state and majority society. Such ceremonial performances and intrusions should therefore be seen as ceremonies of possession that indicate to the state of sociopolitical, socioeconomic and sociocultural occupation, colonization and oppression of Tamil land and people.
Islands of repression, resistance and resignation
Military participation in civil life during occupation is as argued before an expression of violence, power and authority over a people and their rights to, and denial of freedom. It further serves as a means to consolidate occupation and colonization by forcing the presence and participations of the oppressing forces upon occupied people and their daily lives. From dropping bombs to dropping rose petals, the Sri Lankan military involvement is constantly being renegotiated and redefined in a post-war scenario where the disproportional presence of the military regime in an officially declared to be war-free country needs to find constant justification and validation.
By redeploying the military and reinventing its raison d’être, the Sri Lankan Government aims to veil its continuance of military rule instead of undoing the state of emergency and exception that continues to prevail since decades in the Tamil regions of the country.
With the images and sounds of this year’s Nallur Thiruvila transmitted via transnational TV and radio broadcasters to the television screens, computers and radios of the dispersed Tamil diaspora and global Tamil audience, the state of military intrusion and perpetual violence that continues to affect the Tamil community in the post-war have found a wider, global audience that could potentially translate the images into outrage and acts of resistance. Despite the depth and immediacy of the issue, neither of the two have however really occurred on the many platforms of expressions of Tamil dissent.
What can be concluded from this tragic apathy and state of unconsciousness that affects the majority of people is that occupation can be rendered under certain circumstances invisible, normative and successful. This appears to be true in states of trance, joy, hope and melancholy that temporarily replace the mental islands of resignation and hopelessness that violated communities have fled to – such as those of Tamils in Sri Lanka.
Whilst civilian life continues in the war-torn and occupied Tamil lands, escaping the Sri Lankan military seems almost impossible. Interruptions by the latter into civilian spheres of life have taken over all aspects of the private and the public by rendering the former non-existent/irrelevant and the latter universal.
In times as these, not even the most festive and holy periods of a people seem to preserve the privilege and right to remain untouched and un-desecrated by state driven policies of make-appear, make-seem and make-believe. So as rosy petals gently float through the clear skies from a Sri Lankan army helicopter above the Nallur kovil, the petals themselves have become a newly refined weapon of choice that hauntingly embodies far more to the Tamil devotees, who continue to pray full of hope: to forget yesterday´s violence and today´s silent forms of oppression.
Sinthujan Varatharajah is a MSc. Candidate in Race, Ethnicity and Postcolonial Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Photo courtesy: www.defence.lk