Skip to main content

In times of War and Peace: Sri Lanka



When it comes to the people of a country, and I’m speaking as someone who doesn’t understand much about the subject, we must remember that it is culture, not war that cements our identity. Whether it was the Mughals or English or Dutch or Portuguese invading the Indian sub-continent, we have spent centuries killing each other. Today, we’ve (India) been at peace for nearly seventy years and no one realizes how amazing that is any more. Indeed, the very idea of a war again with a far flung foreign power provokes hilarity. Instead the enemy has now moved closer home. And for Sri Lanka it took a civil war to unite the people properly. After being at each other’s throats for three decades in fratricidal war, today the Tamils and the Sinhalese are now all culturally Sri Lankan.



Despite spending a fair portion of my childhood in Tamil Nadu, I knew little about the Sri Lankan civil war. Where 130,000 people perished (source: Wikipedia) one would assume that we’d have some concrete knowledge about the workings of the war. But the truth is, we know more about what happens in say, Pakistan or China than Tamil Nadu’s very own suburb - Sri Lanka. The state’s (TN) long-standing history of sympathising with the fierce LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam) didn’t stop news of the war to be reserved for the third or fourth page in the newspaper. You could say, that media did a fairly good job of hiding the truth (which if you really think about, isn’t so surprising). The first time we truly understood the extent of the massacre was when the UN admitted their failure in protecting the civilians caught in the crossfire, resulting in a mammoth 40,000 dying simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Today, after six years since the bitter ending of the war, the government is yet to undertake an inquiry into the allegations against the troops.

The seeds of the war

It is difficult to talk freely about the war with the locals. Like pulling the scabs around a healing wound, never knowing when I might draw blood. My usual ice-breaker was ‘kunju kunju Tamil teri’ (I know a little Tamil). In Colombo, the caretaker in my hostel was an old man who immediately warmed up to my broken Tamil with his faltering English. After dilly-dallying around local shopping and eateries, I finally approached the sticky subject. He explained that while ethnical and demographic rifts definitely contributed to the conflict, the final straw was in fact language.


The beginning goes back as far as our shared independence from the British rule. Much like in India, in Sri Lanka too, English continued to be used as the official business language after independence. However, the Sinhalese nationalist forces felt that a disproportionate number of Tamils held power in the government because of their proficiency in the language. The marginalised Sinhalese people elected Bandernaika as their Prime Minister with the sole promise to make the aboriginal tongue - Sinhala the official language. And suddenly all the important people who were considered above ranks found themselves without a job; without a future; without the stature that their education had granted them so far.

The rise of the resistance

Conflict is a part of human nature. While we would like to envision a state of everlasting peace, when push comes to shove, logic flies out the window and history repeats itself always in the form of conflict. Our own folklores – Mahabharata or Ramayana, are proof to this fact. One can argue that the moral of these stories entails the consequences of human folly, but the truth is even our gods didn’t know any better.


You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger ~ Buddha

Given our history of violence, at this point in Sri Lanka, war was inevitable. What is surprising is not how conflict broke out between two communities who so far had lived in (imperfect) harmony – rather how the government catalysed the whole process. Rumour has it that it was the Indian Secret Service that trained and supplied arms to the insurgents, but then desperate people will go to desperate measures. The rise of LTTE was imminent with or without our help.

There are no bystanders in a war

As my host in Passara (Uva Province) painted a grim picture of landmines, endless checkpoints, overcrowded prisons and the obsessive compulsive distrust; it struck me that in a war there’s no such thing as a neutral side.


Anything worth dying for is certainly worth living for. ~ Catch 22

It is a lot like religion. Many people who no longer go to the temple (of their respective religion) end up falling prey to superstition. And many who are non-practicing still carry around little saint cards in their wallets. It may not amount to much but if the whole country were to be persecuted on its beliefs, something as inane as a photograph can be the difference between sleeping on your bed or in the grave. And boy! Did the government clamp down on its people. Overnight non-conformist opinions became treason; talk of pacifism was compared to trafficking with the enemy; and the media became a medium to exploit the natural fear of difference. The whole propaganda reminded me of the totalitarian Newspeak from George Orwell’s 1984.

It’s not war that kills. It’s heroism

The cult of heroism is closely linked to the cult of death. It is why people join the army and also why people become terrorists. Because isn’t official heroism and martyrdom the same thing? Governments would have us believe that death is unpleasant, yet must be faced with dignity (hence the troops) whereas radicals are taught that death is a painful way towards a supernatural happiness (hence the terrorists/insurgents). As a result, we have entire generations of people sprinting towards death with a smile on their face. Such is war and so is life.

Everyone’s equal in death.

The receding ripple

The war has left many scars but to judge the severity of each gash, I believe a visit to the northern and eastern parts of the country is a must. Now considering I didn’t travel to either end of the compass, I would have to do a lot of reading on the internet to have a real opinion. But this blog isn’t about internet research and I’m not about to make this post an exception. Hopefully I will get a chance to go back – in the meantime I shall hold my tongue...

There was never a good war or a bad peace. ~ Augustine of Hippo

But from what I could gather - after the war, the people are no longer afraid to talk about what happened. There is a certain amount of palpable relief where locals openly talk about the atrocities of war crimes, corruption and the need to hold politicians and armed forces accountable for abuse of power. But here’s the thing and I don’t mean it as a criticism, the moment I travelled down south which has always been the Sinhala stronghold, I found my broken Tamil - instead of drawing people out was in fact provoking quite the opposite. They were simply indifferent. I found it best to just change the topic. Sadly this also meant I would learn nothing of the other side of the story (enlighten me, someone?) Tsssk.




------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------




The above article illustrates my personal opinions only and is possibly biased to the limits of my own knowledge. Please feel free to criticise - comment – vent – set me straight – or whatever catches your fancy.

Popular posts from this blog

Project Other Names: A Collection of Fictional Characters

An exercise to explore the different vibes of names used in a story and their relationship with the plot. Captured in a fleeting undefined moment. Here's a cute picture of my cat in case you reached here by accident.  The task of assigning names to characters in stories has always been a bit confusing for me. Either they are too eccentric or misplaced, misdirected or just feel like a mouthful.  Other Names is an exploration of what makes a character a character. Is it possible to bring them alive purely through their internal worlds. Or inversely through just one defining physical trait. What would that world even look like, is it real or fantastical, or can it be both?  I guess, we'll see :) Amuse yourself. #1 Ajay “Mutuality isn’t the least bit important in marriage, Ajay. It counts only in romance.” Ajay gave his pretty paramour a long look. Did she believe this stuff? Or was she playing some deep female game? He knew he would not marry her. He was proud

Beachbumming in Deobag

Every year the Indian Konkan Coast swells with tourists and travellers looking for fun in the sun and sand. In laidback Tarkarli and Deobag, however, it’s as much about what to do as it’s about who’s next door. Chances are that you’ll be by yourself, despite the peak seasons (fingers crossed).

A road-tripper’s recipe to beach-hopping: Sri Lanka south coast

Nay-sayers said it couldn’t be done. Well-wishers said it probably shouldn’t be done. The fact that the mercury would rise to its zenith high in the peak summer didn’t stop us from travelling to the southern coast of Sri Lanka last month. After a rickety eight hour bus-ride that saw us descending into the plains from the hill country, we reached the bustling sea-board town of Weligama. If you are travelling along the same route, keeping a day in hand for the Yala National Park would seem like the most obvious choice. However, short of money and time – my fiancé and I headed straight for the holy trinity of sun, sea and sand. It would be safe to say that any road trip involves the road (duh!), a pair of trusty-ish wheels and at least one companion (who you will most likely fall out with at least once a day. But regardless the offense these silly skirmishes that start with ‘let’s stop for a cola’ have a knack to smooth itself out soon enough). Like life, which’s about the journey and n

Other Names #6: Kaai

Unrelated picture from Berlin. #6 Kaai and I had been driving for ten hours straight from Udupi, threading our way through the NH66 which ran all along the western coast. It was a last minute plan put together in all of twenty minutes by Kaai during the tea break. We would drive 700km to the Osho Ashram in Pune to get our hands on the hip new Osho sandals before anyone else in class. It was a bit much but this was 2006 and Osho was all the rage. ‘A little adventure won’t hurt’, he said. Little did we imagine that for one of us, this trip would last a lifetime. I learned that Kaai was a very spiritual person. He hid that side of himself under rock band t-shirts, ripped jeans and the old bubblegum beret that he refused to part with even while he slept. It took me by surprise when he brought up ‘god’ literally in the middle of nowhere. We passed a little kid who was throwing stones at the cars on the road. “Think of it”, Kaai said. “One day he’s going to throw a stone that wi

Other Names #4 and #5: Ahana and Asha

Other Names #4 Ahana belonged to an aristocratic family. But as a rule, Bengalis think more of influential friends, than birth. Ahana was lucky to be esteemed and even loved by people of consequence in society, whose example was followed by others of lesser means. It seem hardly necessary to remark that her family worries and anxiety had little or no foundation, or that her imagination increased them to an absurd degree. But if you had a wart on your nose or forehead, you imagine the whole world is looking at it, sniggering behind your back. Because you can’t see past the puss-filled elephant sitting on your face. Doubtless, Ahana was considered ‘eccentric’ in society, but she was nonetheless esteemed; the pity was that she was ceasing to believe in that esteem. Other Names #5 “I’m going through a phase. And I’m awfully glad it’ll all be over in a couple of days”, Asha whispered to herself. For a fleeting moment the weight slid off her shoulders and she felt a breath of fresh

Other Names #8 and #9: Sahil and Mira

  It had been three years since Sahil had last seen Mira. A lot had changed (physically) for Sahil in that time. His jaw had hardened to an angular shape, he had lost that baby beard that everyone made fun of and the unruly curls had been tamed to a neat close crop. He had returned to civilisation - unrecognisable beyond repair, as his friends often remarked. So, it came as a surprise when Sahil found himself looking at Mira, untouched by the passage of time. She still had the look of an alert school girl. Head held high, a neat round chin, wide thin-lipped mouth, snub nose, bright eyes and a forehead that was often flushed with effort or appreciation. She was finishing her thesis in Sanskrit from Xavier’s when they were together. Sahil always marvelled at how much the professors delighted in her – as though they were grateful for anybody who still took up ancient languages, especially for someone so gifted – but they were always worried as well. The problem Mira used to say, was becau

Three salad dressings with a side of honesty

Salads. The healthy-and-mighty of all meals. The snooty accompaniment to a glass of rosé. The veritable rainbow on your plate. In Fran Lebowitz’s words, a salad is not a meal – it is a style. Well, as long as ‘style’ includes a fair amount of mud under one’s fingernails – I couldn’t agree more with Fran. Sure, it’s fashionable to eat a salad – but there’s a certain panache to going down on all fours in wet mud, rummaging through fresh lettuce pods every morning and wondering what you’re going to dress them in. While it’s far from the fashion statement that salad has come to symbolise, growing your own food definitely is a style of its own. There are many categories of salad snobs – the ingredient minimalist, the chop-it-right evangelists and the brigade of dressing-goes-first, but the only consensus between the salad factions is that you don’t actually need packaged dressing. A homemade vinaigrette made from basic ingredients lives just as happily on your refrigerator door, not to ment

Project Other Names #7: Dr. Prarthamesh Potty

  Professor Potty scratched these words on the blackboard, punching the period at the end for dramatic effect. He turned to face his class of forty. Forty miserable, clueless schmucks, most of whom didn’t know the difference between a period and an ellipsis. And yet they thought a minor in Creative Writing would be a piece of cake. An easy grade to brighten up their mark sheet. He had overheard on his way to class, some of the students casually joke, “Next class…” proceeding to clutch their tummy and ejecting a fart-like sound from their mouth. The joke lacked half-a-decent punchline but regardless, the junior year would pick it up from their seniors, giving new life to a lame old gag. Professor Potty did not have a sense of humour. At least, none when it came to his name. You would think after years of being tormented by friends, foes, colleagues, relatives, lovers and eventually his own children as well, the professor would at least pretend to smile and take the power out of the old

Windows between waves

Back in 2009, during my last year in college, my friends and I used to take a three-hour train ride to Gokarna over weekends. It was a small seaboard town with a penchant for attracting people who listened to Bob Marley and chain-smoked cheap cigarettes. But what I remember most distinctive of Gokarna was the sea. It was a beautiful sunny morning like any other and we had all woken up late. After a heavy breakfast of Nutella pancakes all of us headed out to the sea. It was calm and we all wore our sun shades into the waters, lying supine on our backs and floating with the sun in our eyes. Unlike other days, we had given up on playing pranks – no one went underwater to imitate a sea creature tickling a feet or neck, there were no sudden shrieks of friends splashing the salty sea water into each other’s eyes and mouth – we were pinpricks in the vast ocean drifting further and further away from the shore, blissfully unaware of how close to danger we lurked. At first, we thought we were be

When Joan Didion said, ‘we tell ourselves stories in order to live’, I think she meant - the stories we delude ourselves with.

I used to think that if I had a hammer, I’d hammer in the morning, I’d hammer through the noon and end it with a Thud! Whack! Clanggg! before I hit the sack. But once I had a hammer, I realised I wasn’t hammering as much I said I would.