The quest and the redemption

A mosque in bombed-out Jaffna.
Image: Wikimedia Commons, CC license.

Before Sri Lanka’s war, there was a noteworthy Muslim presence in Chavakachcheri, a well-known town in the Jaffna peninsula that was completely destroyed in a major battle in 2000. The town’s name comes from the expression chaavaka cheari, meaning the camp of the Javanese, the people known today as Malay Muslims. Both at Chavakachcheri and Jaffna town, the Muslims lived for generations, working primarily as traders. In the Vanni region, the Muslims were also landowners, extensively involved in agriculture and fishing.

On the main street in Jaffna town there stood, among others, the famous tailor shop of Meeralabhai Sons, renowned for its service and patronised by Jaffna families for decades. These businessmen and their ancestors were long-time residents of Jaffna town. The Northern Tamils and Muslims related to one another, individually and collectively, without hostility or animosity. Throughout Jaffna’s history there was no Tamil-Muslim rioting or violence. 

Yet as the war progressed, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam started sending subtle message that Muslims were not welcome to live in LTTE-controlled territories. The LTTE came into existence in the 1970s, rejecting the non-violent forms of mass struggle favoured by Tamil political leaders since 1948. Initially an armed youth organisation committed to liberating the Tamils from discrimination by Lanka’s Sinhalese majority, the LTTE gained the support of many Tamils but degenerated into a narrowly nationalist and fascist outfit, liquidating all other Tamil political organisations and the Tamil democratic leadership. Having gained control of large chunks of territory in the northeast of the island, the LTTE continued fighting until total military defeat and the deaths of its supreme leader Prabhakaran and other leaders in May 2009.

The expulsion of the Northern Muslims, when it came, was a major shock. A recently published document, titled the Final Report of the Citizens’ Commission on the Expulsion of Muslims from the Northern Province by the LTTE in 1990, finally brings the full story of Lanka’s Northern Muslims to the public’s attention. In a chapter entitled ‘Expulsion Stories’, the report states:

October 1990 was a watershed for both Muslim identity and Tamil identity in the north due to the horror of the expulsion. … On the 25th October 1990, the Muslims of Moor Street (Sonaha Theru) in Jaffna were asked by the LTTE to gather at 8.00am at the Jinnah grounds that were part of Jaffna’s foremost Muslim school, Osmaniya College. At that meeting the LTTE leaders stated that the Muslims should leave the place within two hours. According to our testimonies, people were told to leave or stay and hand over their children to the LTTE – in other words to commit themselves to the struggle for [Tamil] Eelam.

Such scenes were repeated in the other northern districts such as Mannar, Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu.

In the context of this history, the report’s testimonials of Tamil-Muslim relations make for poignant reading:

There are some references that speak of the close everyday connections that existed between the communities … There were others of course who disputed this relationship and drew attention to the manner in which Muslims had always found it difficult to access government jobs in teaching and the administrative services and that Tamils were generally given preference … However, those that spoke of the good relations did so in very fervent terms.

The report’s main thrust, however, is on the fate of the Northern Muslims in the midst of Lanka’s multiple tragedies. The experience of this community’s loss can be equated to the devastation suffered during the ethnic riots of 1983, when Tamil homes were deliberately targeted by organised Sinhalese mobs, as well as to the destruction of property and community that took place as a result of the tsunami of December 2004. Unfortunately, for many people the destruction suffered by the north since then – the havoc wreaked by two decades of warfare – has eclipsed the tragedy of the Muslims. 

Between terrorism and war crimes
The report’s title is well chosen. This is ‘A Quest for Redemption’, not a quest for vengeance. Far too often, all we hear are one side’s triumphant cries of the defeat of ‘terrorism’, and the other side’s accusations of war crimes. The quest for peace, justice and true reconciliation is lost in this vindictive cacophony, and the victims of this atrocious war have been forgotten. The language used in the report, however, is moderate, without bitterness or rancour; it does not indulge in stirring up communal passion. It is a story of pain and anguish, the loss of a way of life and, above all, a yearning to return home. This ‘Quest for Redemption’ assumes tremendous significance as it reaffirms core human values.

Including its 11 chapters, appendices, recommendations, list of missing persons and additional material, the report runs to some 250 pages. It is well documented, with testimonies from nearly 400 people, all given in Tamil and translated into English. The report underlines the need to narrate these events from the victims’ perspectives – not from that of the ruling class, of any political dynasty, of the state or of some postulated ‘nation’. It also attempts to place events in the context of Sri Lanka’s unresolved ‘national question’ – how to manage relations between the Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, and other minorities while allowing for linguistic, religious and cultural differences and a degree of regional autonomy and self-government – and the resulting conflict, violence and displacement of populations in the country’s post-Independence history.

The report is a work of great scope and quality, for which Farzana Haniffa, who authored the report, and the reporting team deserve great credit. This is especially true since documenting the experiences of victims was not an easy task. Quoting the academic Sharika Thiranagama, the report states:

The eviction is an event that has clustered around it dense physical, economic, social and symbolic consequences … They told me that, if Northern Muslims did not tell these stories, no one else would. While there was undoubtedly reticence on the part of parents to express fully their feeling to their children and me, I found that there was not a house where the larger story of the Eviction as personal and social loss was not narrated.

In Sri Lanka, there is a certain prejudice and hostility against the concept of a ‘homeland’. For many, that concept has become associated with a disastrous and belligerent nationalism propagating a separate state. The explosive term ‘homeland’ does not appear in this report, but the document does repeatedly mention the lands lost by the displaced, lands that many had owned for generations, in Mannar, Mullaitivu and Killinochchi.

The report voices the pain and loss experienced when the Northern Muslims were evicted and forced to live instead in ghettoes and makeshift refugee camps in Puttalam. They not only lost their homes but also all their possessions, including tractors, vehicles, generators, water pumps, etc. Children were uprooted from their schools and their familiar environments. Most painful of all, perhaps, was the loss of a sense of security and dignity.

Inevitably, once entire communities were relocated to Puttalam, tensions between the locals and newcomers emerged in every aspect of social and economic life. The most disturbing of these surrounded education and culture, even as the displaced people were settled in predominantly Muslim areas. A displaced eight-year-old recalled: ‘We did not have peace of mind; they called us refugees. Some even called us refugee dogs.’ Such incidents were not exceptional. The Citizens’ Commission on the Expulsion of Muslims felt that it was essential to recognise the stigma that such children felt, that attached to the derogatory label ahadhi.


Northern people experienced a mixed culture in the North. They found it difficult to adjust themselves to the new culture in Puttalam, [where] 100 per cent Muslim culture is being practiced. People found it difficult to adapt to the new culture. As one of them put it, ‘We girls did not wear Hijab in the North. It is compulsory to wear Hijab in Puttalam when we go out.’ … Puttalam culture was quite restrictive/conservative compared to that of the North.

Referring to the four divisions in Puttalam where the refugees were settled, the report states:

The population of the area doubled and the resources of the area – already minimally sufficient for the population of the area – were stretched beyond their capacity … that period transformed the local economy and the landscape and the living standards of both the host and IDP [internally displaced person] population, sometimes to the disadvantage of the former. The local population lost lands, occupations and the freedom of their open spaces … relations between the host and IDP communities remain strained.

In the midst of such suffering and loss, the Northern Muslims continue to long for their lost homes:

People’s notion of home as a place of peace and plenty is poignant … ‘Our native place is green and prosperous. This [Puttalam] is a very dry place … [Back home,] there is a lake and a river … there is no other place in Sri Lanka comparable to our place in terms of happiness and peace … we had freedom, rivers and land to cultivate in our village… we had rice, curd, milk, cows and goats in our village.’ The report adds [that] the nostalgia for the place is palpable and the very stark difference between life in Puttalam and in Mullaitivu is clear in [the displaced people’s] everyday experience.

The Citizens’ Commission found that, today, the Northern Muslims want to maintain their links with the north. At the same time many said they did not want to go back unless they have adequate facilities. Many express fears that they will never be able to return, that their situations have been irreversibly changed – especially among the younger generation.

From our archive: Lankan Muslims

Ignoring two decades (February 2010)

The right of return to Jaffna (January 2008)

The wages of passivity (March 2007)

What happened to the Northern Muslims over the past two decades is a severe indictment of the Sri Lankan state, of politicians and parties of all hues and colours, and of Lankan society at large. The reality is that people think only of their own local interests, forgetting the larger sense of community that needs to prevail. In other words, Sri Lankan society has collectively failed in the pursuit of unity.

The case of the Northern Muslims reflects the very complex nature of Lankan society, its regionalism and diversity. The Northern Muslims had a distinct identity within the larger Lankan Muslim community, and within the much larger community of Tamil-speaking peoples. Yet they still affirm their sense of belonging to the northern society and territory. There is a tendency among some in Sri Lanka today to deny such diversity, and a built-in resilience to come to terms with it. Simplistic assertions that ‘we are one people, one nation’ deny this reality. Nation-building never actually got started in Sri Lanka. On the contrary, since 1948 Lankans have indulged in nation-destroying. All this talk of one Sri Lankan nation and identity is mere fantasy, completely divorced from the realities on the ground. Advocates of a single national identity, even those with the best of intentions, must recognise that the consolidation of a Sri Lankan identity and nation in the next few decades is very unlikely.

The Citizens’ Commission report reminds us how Sri Lankans, a fractured people, have to come to terms with their country’s diversity. Yet even the integration of peoples who share the same faith has been an uphill task. Sri Lanka’s history works against its peoples. There have been victims in the country since 1948, when Tamil plantation workers were deprived of their citizenship rights. Some two decades later, hundreds of thousands from this community were repatriated to South India.

This report is yet another story of victims, of one vital minority within a larger minority in Lankan society. Far too many crimes have been committed in the name of language, religion, identity and nationalism, and this has been the case for decades. Any attempt to resolve the problems of racism, discrimination and oppression in the name of nation or nationalism is likely to prove counter-productive. In the past, the atrocities committed in the course of such efforts have injured and victimised far too many people. The suffering of these victims has not been adequately documented; before we can move forward, their voices must be heard, and justice done to them.

Justice for all
What do we do now that the report is published? Few ethnic conflicts in the world have provoked publication on the scale that the Tamil conflict in Sri Lanka has. By the late 1980s, there were already thousands of books and documents on the subject worldwide, along with numerous archives. But a fundamental question needs to be confronted: What purpose did they serve?

These exercises must not become an opiate that lulls the senses. This cannot be the equivalent of going to churches, temples or mosques, saying our prayers, repeating the creed and then going back home fully satisfied. There is a need to convert such exercises into action. Conventional political action has failed. Resorting to armed struggle has proven disastrous. We need action on a Gandhian scale, a people’s movement that is multi-ethnic, mobilising peoples of all faiths and liberal ideologies in the pursuit of justice. This is easier said than done, perhaps, but it is nevertheless a challenge that Lankans must face.

Only by coming to terms with the facts of the country’s history from the perspective of the victims can Sri Lankans build a new Lanka, both unified and diverse. This can be a Lanka free of hatred and bitterness, a Lanka based on the humanistic values of our religious traditions. These are the building blocks on which today’s generations can pursue the quest for redemption – not only for the Northern Muslims, but for all the victims of the war. These victims include Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese, including the members of the security forces, the frontline soldiers and armed cadres of LTTE. Many of them were forced to fight a war that was thrust on them, conscripted or otherwise.

The names of these men and women who died, and of the many who disappeared, may not be recorded. Still others have lost their homes and livelihoods. We owe it to the families who suffered, especially those who lost loved ones, so that they may know that the sacrifices made by their family members have been acknowledged, not forgotten. Recording the story of the Northern Muslims is the first step down that road.

~ Santasilan Kadirgamar was a lecturer on modern history at the University of Sri Lanka. His work specifically addresses the national question and the leftist tradition in Lankan Tamil politics.

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