The P2P march and beyond, re-imagining resistance amidst ethnic polarisation
By Mahendran Thiruvarangan
From 3 February 2021, to 7 February 2021, Tamils and Muslims from the Northern and Eastern Provinces took to the streets in significant numbers, demanding an end to a set of oppressive, majoritarian governance practices of the Sri Lankan State. The march, which began in Pottuvil in the Ampara District and culminated in Polikandy in the Jaffna District, went through all eight Districts of the two Provinces.
It highlighted 10 key issues, including the continuing militarisation of the two Provinces, the ongoing Sinhala Buddhist projects to change the demography and cultural identities of the two regions, the ban on burying the Covid-19 infected remains of Muslims, the pay hike for the Malaiyaha Tamil workers in the plantation sector, the bans on the memorialisation processes of the Tamils, justice for the families of the disappeared, and the continuing detention of Tamil political prisoners.
The P2P (Pottuvil to Polikandy) march was an important political mobilisation for a number of reasons. Organised in a context of escalating militarisation, state authoritarianism, and majoritarianism, the rally sent a strong message to the powers that be that the minority communities cannot be cowed into silence and submission by the might of the State. The organisers and participants defied Court orders and continued their march as planned, until they reached Polikandy.
The defiance and insubordination shown by the protestors, and the coming together of the Tamil and Muslim communities on a shared, visible platform of resistance in large numbers for the first time in many years, were remarkable aspects of this march. Instead of addressing the issues raised by the protestors, the Government has already started to vilify them in the media, and some who participated in the march are facing intimidation and reprisals.
While the P2P march has enthused many who are trying to chart pathways of resistance and building multi-ethnic alliances to face the authoritarianism of the present regime, there are also reasons for one to be wary of the way the march was planned, and the content of the declaration read out at the end of the march. Critical comments shedding light upon the exclusions that the march produced have already surfaced in the public domain.
Just because this protest brought together Tamils and Muslims, or braved the repressive arms of the State, one cannot be euphoric and go home blissfully. It is only by reflecting upon the processes that led to the mobilisation and the ideologies and assumptions that shaped this march, that one could build on the solidarities that have emerged and re-imagine resistance in more inclusive terms.
Except for some of the discussions that took place in Batticaloa prior to the march, the Muslims from the North-East were not readily invited to the meetings held in Jaffna where the rally was planned. The civil society groups based in the North-East that called for the march appear to be largely Tamil groups and bodies representing Christian and Hindu Tamils.
Activists from both communities have spoken about the lack of interest among the organisers to create a space where the Muslims could join the deliberations about the march as equal partners. In such a context, sadly, the two important demands specific to the Muslim and Malaiyaha Tamil communities appear as mere tokenisms.
The insertion of Tamil nationalist proclamations at the end of the rally indicate that the march did deviate from its original agenda, and that a section of the organisers were even unconcerned about the ramifications of pushing a problematic nationalist agenda in the last minute to building alliances with the Muslim community.
What all this points to is that there is much discussion, analysis, and groundwork that needs to go into the processes of building well-meaning political alliances between Tamils and Muslims in the future. I am deeply sceptical that a Tamil nationalist imagination about the territoriality of the North and East will be helpful to such processes.
The Tamils and Muslims were able to come together in the face of increased State oppression. However, there are thorny issues that continue to divide them, such as the merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces, and the competing claims the two communities make over land, jobs, environment, and state institutions, and the past violence done in their name by various armed groups.
While self-introspection and wider discussions are necessary to resolve these conflicts, groups like the Inter-Religious Forum in Batticaloa and the Jaffna People’s Forum for Co-existence have already started some groundwork in these areas.
Beyond the North-East
The problems that threaten the Tamil speaking communities in Sri Lanka today cut across regional boundaries. The ban against the burial of the remains of Muslims who die of Covid-19 is an issue that affects all Muslims in the country, regardless of where they live. State apparatuses were used for altering the cultural identities of religious sites associated with the minority communities located in places outside the North-East as well.
The Tamils and Muslims who live outside the North-East have faced ethnic violence since the middle decades of the last Century. During the civil war, many Tamil women in the South could not live out their identities due to the fear of being apprehended as “terrorists”.
While the State’s agenda to Sinhalise and Buddhisise the North-East with the intention of weakening the consolidated oppositional consciousness emerging from the Tamil and Muslim communities in the region needs to be countered, any North-East based movement of resistance that foregrounds ethnic oppression in Sri Lanka, cannot be indifferent to the everyday struggles of the Tamils, Muslims and Malaiyaha Tamil communities under Sinhala-Buddhist governance in the Sinhala-majority Districts where they live as minorities.
The hurdles these communities face in using Tamil for official purposes in State-run institutions including universities, in educating their children in Tamil, and the networks of surveillance that are used to police and control the activities of the Muslims in these areas today, are just a few instances of systemic discrimination.
A Tamil nationalist vision of the North-East which discursively (and sometimes even overtly) inscribes the rest of the island as the Sinhala nation can only add to the miseries of the minorities who live in the other seven Provinces of the country.
Many socially marginalised communities in the North-East face severe economic problems today. The farmers and fishing communities are in the throes of a serious economic crisis. Rural indebtedness is high in the region. Even though ethnically discriminatory state policies and regulations in the areas of fishing, cattle farming, land distribution, and agriculture have weakened, the Tamil-speaking agrarian and fishing communities the North-East and the entrenched hierarchies of caste, class and gender in the two Provinces, are also responsible for the economic and social inequalities within the region.
These inequalities cannot be subsumed under an over-determining ethnic umbrella. Any people’s movement should be cognisant of these social realities and the points where ethnicity and majoritarianism intersect with these structures in complicating and compounding the hardships of the poor, working class populations, the oppressed caste communities, and women in the region.
Some of the economic and environmental problems resulting from neoliberal economic policies cut across ethnic and regional boundaries. Insufficient Government spending on public education and public healthcare, the moves to privatise essential services, the corporatisation of the environment, and the dispossession of livelihood resources, are problems that affect all communities that inhabit the island.
There is a need for all the marginalised communities to come together and engage in a collective struggle to put an end to such exploitative economic policies and programmes. Even as the P2P march was underway in the North-East, there was a farmers’ protest in Suriyawewa in Hambantota highlighting how thoughtless development initiatives in the region have ruined the habitat of elephants, and how stray elephants are now causing damage to cultivation.
Progressive forces committed to cultural pluralism and economic justice have to work towards promoting dialogue between different struggles. Considering the prevalence of ethnic animosities across class divisions, and within civil society groups, this is indeed a formidable challenge; but this is also a challenge that we cannot turn away from. Addressing this challenge forms a major part of our struggle for co-existence today.
Justice and change
The communiqué seeking support for the P2P march, which included as its audience the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Member States of the UN Human Rights Council, and the timing of the march, make it obvious that the organisers planned this event in such a way that it coincided with the preparations and lobbying underway in Geneva, Switzerland, to draw the attention of the international human rights community to the ongoing and past human rights violations committed by the Sri Lankan State.
Mobilisations like the P2P, the struggles led by the mothers of the disappeared, and the Tamils who demand accountability for war crimes, often turn towards international actors for justice, following the failures on the part of the State. Between 2015 and 2019, even under the “Good Governance” regime, no significant progress was made in these areas, or in arriving at a meaningful solution to the ethnic question.
While those who demand accountability cannot be expected to circumscribe their quests for justice within local processes, especially in a context where local systems have repeatedly failed the oppressed communities, our struggles for truth and justice cannot be overly confident about international justice mechanisms either. If history has any lessons to offer us, international actors and powerful countries not only failed to stop the violence we suffered in the past, but have also taken advantage of internal contradictions within countries like Sri Lanka, to advance their neo-imperial agendas and strike economic deals with the local regimes.
While a radical skepticism of transnational justice mechanisms need to inform our struggles, we should also nurture a radical hope in our conversations about mobilising people across the ethnic divide to challenge the local structures and systems that have failed to deliver justice. Justice is important and indispensable but, it should be acknowledged that justice without social and attitudinal transformation has its limits.
The violations that we faced in the past should also lead us into reflecting upon the structures that produced them. The Ugandan Mahmood Mamdani in his latest book, Neither Settler Nor Native, argues persuasively that the nation-state and nation-state-like structures and discourses, which the former colonies of Europe inherited from their oppressors in an uncritical manner, and are responsible for exclusionary violence in the post-Independence era, can never be the paradigms for political and structural changes that value equality across ethnicities and cultures.
Those who perpetrated and supported violence against minorities and the communities that fell prey to such violence, need to recognise that the quest for justice goes beyond accountability and punishments. More importantly, it should offer a new vision that nourishes the co-existence of ethnicities and cultures in ways that eschew ethno-nationalist imaginaries about territory and essentialist notions about community.
Our focus needs to shift from singular identities towards what it means to share territories, resources and institutions with one another. This is why I am sceptical about even the more tolerant and inclusive versions of Tamil nationalism. This is why some within the Tamil and Muslim communities feel disappointed at the way the P2P march ended in Polikandy.
The inadequacies of the P2P march underline the need for a more inclusive vision of coexistence and justice in carving out our resistance. Such an outlook can be cultivated only through the careful analyses of the relevance of the frameworks and ideologies that we work with to our shared existence, meaningful dialogue between different communities and critical self-interrogation of the violent past we have traversed as communities.
(The writer, who is attached to the Department of Linguistics and English at the University of Jaffna, is greatly indebted to the insights shared by the members of the Malaiyaha Tamil, Muslim, and Tamil communities at two online discussions on the P2P march organised by the Jaffna People’s Forum for Co-existence.)
(The views expressed in the article are of those of the author)
PHOTO © Kumanan Kana