By Swapan Dasgupta
From the late-1980s till the end of the long civil war in 2009, travelling to Colombo was both a joyous and deeply depressing experience. The happiness came from the warmth and generous hospitality of the Sri Lankans, particularly the residents of Colombo-7 who opened their doors to a Bengali. Legend has it that that Vijaya, the first king of the Sinhalese, came by sea from Bengal.
But this welcome was always tempered by sadness. Many of those with whom I had struck an instant rapport were dead—killed by an assassin’s bullet or a bomb explosion. Their faces still haunt me: Lalith Athulathmudali, one of the most erudite and clever politicians I have encountered; Ranjan Wijeratne, the fiercely outspoken ex-planter; the soft-spoken Tamil constitutional lawyer Neelam Tiruchelvam; and the genial TULF leader A. Amirthalingam whose blood-splattered residence I visited just an hour after he was gunned down. Although Lalith’s murder remains an enduring mystery, the others were all killed by the most vicious terrorist organisations ever created: the LTTE.
Those who haven’t experienced Sri Lanka of those days will never fully comprehend the colossal tragedy of an idyllic island being transformed into the killing fields. Nor will they gauge the horrifying extent to which the LTTE transformed large numbers of a hitherto docile, industrious and peaceable community of Tamils into carbon copies of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. Under the one-party state envisaged by LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran, Tamils of the Northern and Eastern provinces had two choices: acquiescence or death. The LTTE didn’t merely kill prominent Sinhalas and Rajiv Gandhi: it eliminated almost every Tamil opposed to it and hounded the Tamil middle classes out of its barbaric Eelam and, indeed, out of Sri Lanka.
Life in South Asia is said to be cheap. The LTTE made it worthless in Sri Lanka. By the middle of the civil war, brutalisation had become the norm in the island that once symbolised serendipity. Tamils killed Tamils, Sinhalas killed Sinhalas, and they both killed each other with a staggering degree of recklessness. When the civil war erupted the Sri Lankan army was essentially a ceremonial force. By the time it dispensed with Prabhakaran’s Tigers in 2009, it had become a redoubtable fighting force.
Of course there was spectacular brutality in the last days of the civil war and civilian casualties were staggeringly high. But ask any IPKF veteran and you will know that the LTTE never distinguished between its fighters and ordinary women and children. Indeed, many of those women and children in civilian clothes turned out to be hardened LTTE fighters. The suicide bomber was the creation of the LTTE well before the Al Qaeda had become a global menace and so was the human shield behind which the Tigers operated.
This is not to justify the trigger-happiness of the Sri Lankan in the last days of the civil when a reported 40,000 civilians were killed. It is merely to indicate that there was a context to the viciousness of the war—as vicious as the last months of the war against Germany during World War II. The human rights lobby that secured the condemnation of Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Commission debate last Thursday cited civilised niceties and international law to pour scorn on a small country. They didn’t take into account that what happened in the summer of 2009 wasn’t military action against unarmed civilian demonstrators—as happened during the initial stages of the Syrian uprising—but an ugly war.
What is particularly galling is India’s effrontery in voting against Sri Lanka. If any country was secretly delighted and relieved that Colombo had finally put an end to the LTTE menace, it was India. India, after all, had nurtured the LTTE—one of Indira Gandhi’s most short-sighted and cynical moves—before realising that it had created a monster that was potentially capable of infecting Tamil Nadu with its poison. Yet, for the sake of his government’s survival, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh meekly acquiesced in the condemnation of a country that had preserved itself against overwhelming odds.
Sunday Times of India, March 25, 2012