(This article was originally carried by the Daily Financial Times as a guest column.)
On the 16th of July, a clash happened between students at Jaffna University over the inclusion of Sinhalese cultural spectacles in the welcome event. Below is a brief of the events but a more in-depth report of the goings-on can be found on DBS Jeyaraj’s blog.[i]
The background to this skirmish is a freshers’ welcome at the Science Faculty today (16 July). The organizing student committee of the Science Students Union (SSU) had planned a march with traditional Tamil welcome drums and music, garlanding and escorting the Dean and Academic Staff from the Science Faculty gates for the event in the mathematics department hall.
Last evening however, the Sinhalese students put in a request for Kandyan dancers too to join the procession. The committee-meeting considering the request went on for long, refusing to accept a suggestion at the last minute. The matter then was passed on to the University Students’ Union dominated by the arts/management students who insisted it should be only the Tamil welcome form. [ii] (Colombo Telegraph)
In his coverage, Jeyaraj expands that the Union agreed to include the dances in next year’s procession, once preparations had been adequately arranged.
It would be easy to look at this event at face value and call the response disproportionate, or condemn the event and have faith in better resolution ‘next time’, or perhaps even dismiss it as symptomatic of over-politicized students. However, if we are supposed to work constructively towards real reconciliation, plurality, and tolerance, then the better approach is to understand the wider landscape of cultural politics in the country, particularly at the University and in the peninsula.
It was tragic irony that I heard about the fight at the same time that I was researching and writing about Jaffna University being a place for interethnic, interlingual mixing before the exodus of Sinhalese out of the peninsula in the 1980s. Intellectuals like Regi Siriwardena and Sucharitha Gamlath contributed regularly (the latter semi-permanently) to the intellectual landscape in the North, while Northern scholars K. Sivathambi and the older K Kailasapathy were deeply valued figures of the Southern multilingual intellectual landscape. Jaffna and its university have been important intellectual cultural hubs for Sri Lanka as a whole and to hear of violence between students – the romanticized future intellectuals – is thoroughly upsetting.
What is particularly disturbing about this sequence of events, though, is the discussion about ‘violence’ in this instance. Specifically, the condemnation of physical violence in this clash. I wholeheartedly agree that violence is not the answer – but what is our definition of violence? The problems at Jaffna University ended in physical violence but it began in cultural violence.
It seems an innocent, progressive act to include a marker of Sinhalese culture in the welcome ceremony at the University. In an area where these Sinhalese students are a minority, and in an age of reconciliation and mutual respect, there ought to be representations and inclusions of the various cultures of our country. In sum, one ought to support the inclusion of minority cultures in spaces where another community is the majority… right?
Except of course that logic does not seem to apply as a general, structural approach by cultural authorities in the country.
A cursory glance at the mandates of the former Ministry (now Department) of Culture demonstrates the weighted sponsorship and support available for cultural projects associated with Sinhalese or Buddhist cultures.[iii] There is an entire section dedicated to the compilation of the Mahavamsa, the chronicle of kings in Sri Lanka from a lineage associated with King Vijaya, and extensive work on Sinhala dictionaries (Sinhala-English, Sinhala-Sinhala, Sinhala for children). On the other hand, the ministry is working on a trilingual dictionary that is still pending publication. Contrast this with the fact that a full dictionary was independently compiled by linguistic academics Gamlath and Sivathambi, ready for publication as long ago as 2008. At the time, they could not find adequate finances to publish the dictionary and the project was stalled.[iv]
The Sri Lankan Tamil language has also been neglected systematically in other ways. A big (and belated) step for inclusivity and development happened at the 2016 Independence Day celebrations where the Tamil version of the national anthem was finally sung alongside the Sinhala one – the first time since 1949, counting over half a century of exclusion from public events.[v] Then, despite mandates for trilingual signage and communications in 2012, by 2014 there had been up to 218 problems with incorrect, even slanderous, translations into Tamil, such as in town names, inscriptions, even official documents.[vi]
These are, however, examples taken of exclusion from regions where people of Tamil linguistic or ethnic origin are in a minority – what then of areas where it is majority Tamil? Whether it’s parading a bo sapling to celebrate Buddhism in occupied land;[vii] or refusing to let fisher-families relocate to their ancestral lands, while it is being sold off to a company even though the new Buddhist monuments get to stay;[viii] or Kandyan dancers opening the ceremony for a Buddhist temple in Kilinochchi, where the inscription for the temple is only in Sinhala and the anthem was only sung in Sinhala[ix] – the cultural encounter in Tamil-majority areas has signified a systemic violence that people are expected to absorb passively, accept, and not react.
So what, then, is the real significance of adding a Sinhalese cultural display to a parade of ‘welcoming’ in an area where Sinhalese are a minority? Does it signify inclusion and mutual respect or rather entitlement to space and freedom of expression? The ethnic conflict and current political struggle are undeniably about the ownership of space: spaces to belong, be autonomous, express freely, move freely. The struggle did not begin as one for exclusionary ownership and we still have potential to work towards plurality in public spaces. There are many civil society groups and independent organizations that provide alternative institutional approaches to encouraging diversity and innovation in cultural production. To name a few that I know of scattered across the country, there is the Vibhavi Academy of Fine Arts and Trikone Cultural Centre in Colombo, the Theatre Action Group in Batticaloa and Jaffna, and the Sri Lanka Archive of Contemporary Art, Architecture and Design in Jaffna. There must be plenty more that have yet evaded my research. The point is that these diverse groups demonstrate our nation’s desire and ability to carve an inclusive, innovative cultural future in Sri Lanka.
Perhaps the events at Jaffna University could have been handled better by all parties involved. Yet the events remain as they are, as does the wider landscape of Jaffna, still pockmarked with cultural symbols the locals did not ask for. Steps need to be taken to ensure the cultural rights and integrity of all c
[ii] “Jaffna University Science Faculty Closed Following Ethnic Clash | Colombo Telegraph,” accessed July 21, 2016, https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/jaffna-university-science-faculty-closed-following-ethnic-clash/.
[iii] “Department of Cultural Affairs,” accessed July 21, 2016, http://www.cultural.gov.lk/web/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=68&Itemid=73&lang=en.
[iv] “BBC Sinhala – ශ්රී ලංකා – Sucharitha Gamlath: The Exodus of a Colossus,” accessed July 21, 2016, http://www.bbc.com/sinhala/mobile/sri_lanka/2013/04/130401_sucharitha_tribute.shtml.
[vi] “Trilingual Bus Signboards,” Groundviews, March 22, 2012, http://groundviews.org/2012/03/22/trilingual-bus-signboards/; LBO, “Sri Lanka Probes ‘dog’ Translation Slur on Public Signs – Lanka Business Online,” accessed July 21, 2016, http://www.lankabusinessonline.com/sri-lanka-probes-dog-translation-slur-on-public-signs/; B. B. C. News, “Sri Lanka Apology for Translation Blunders,” BBC News, accessed July 21, 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-26052894.
[vii] TamilNet, “Colombo Exploits Buddhism to Consecrate Genocide,” accessed July 21, 2016, https://www.tamilnet.com/art.html?catid=79&artid=33537.
[ix] “Gotabaya Opens Buddhist Vihara in Kilinochchi – MoD,” accessed July 21, 2016, http://www.tamilguardian.com/article.asp?articleid=5943.