Jaffna, March 11: “Eventually India has to get involved,” insisted a highly-respected doctor in Jaffna as he tried to fit together the unwieldy pieces on a road-map to peace in Sri Lanka.
After the debacle of India’s peacekeeping operation and the LTTE’s complicity in the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, it seemed unlikely that New Delhi would come in, but it was curious that people who have suffered 20 years of a conflict militarised by India’s covert support should desire India to play a “balancing and democratising role” in the interest of a Tamil minority depleted by war and displacement.
However, in Colombo, the road-map to peace is being plotted by the German Berghof Foundation, Japan and western donor agencies and above all by the Norwegians as sections of the country’s tri-linguistic media ratchet up a xenophobic hysteria of a sell-out. India has refused to join the international consortiums to midwife the peace process.
But get on the A-9 Highway to Jaffna peninsula and as the view changes to one of blasted shells of homes, bombed-out craters and burnt stumps of endless fields of Palmyra, so does the perspective. Along the A-9, placenames have become the markers of battles. We pass Elephant Pass which fell to the LTTE in December 1998 and through the devastated tracts of the Sri Lankan army’s retreat from Chavakchcheri .
“They fled towards Jaffna,” my companion Visakha Dharmadasa, the mother of two soldiers, grimly remarked. Her son was one of them. Thousands of Sri Lankan soldiers were trapped in Jaffna. Colombo appealed to New Delhi for help. The LTTE held back from taking over Jaffna.
After the ceasefire agreement of December 2001, the A-9 opened, linking the north and the south. Initially, as the LTTE’s political wing opened its office in Jaffna and reached out to the people, there was enthusiasm about an imminent democratic moment.
T. Vigneshwaram, of the Council of NGOs working here, remarked that “the image of the LTTE was changing, it was being more accommodative towards dissent”. However, there were other professionals who observed that the space for dissent was actually shrinking, despite the opportunity of people from the north and south meeting.
“There is space only for a unitary voice. The LTTE is taking over all institutions, governmental and NGO,” a doctor said. Another, who had celebrated the LTTE’s entry into the city, noticed with dismay that a new hierarchy was taking shape.
“They ride the latest bikes, wear the best shirts and are privileging their own caste people in the jobs opening up. If they take over, I’ll leave,” she said. Was it upper-caste Jaffna society reacting' What lends credence to these anxieties is the spate of attacks on the offices of erstwhile rival, the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP), and the postponement of the opening of the historic Jaffna library because of LTTE threats to stage mass demonstrations. Members of the Jaffna Municipal Council included rivals Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) and the EPDP. The LTTE is afraid of the TULF’s election machine, a Jaffna resident said.
At issue is the LTTE claim to be the sole spokesperson for the Tamils. It explains the LTTE refusal to accept the government nominating a Tamil to the women’s committee. The LTTE’s five nominees are its own cadre-women. Could India be a factor in balancing Sinhala majoritarianism and democratising the unitary implications of the LTTE’s sole spokesperson stand'
In the Jaffna peninsula, a survey carried out by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) revealed an increase in opinion that Indian involvement in the peace process was essential, from 24 per cent in October to 30 per cent in December. The social indicators’ survey showed that while the majority was in favour of the peace talks, there is a nine point decline in faith in the process, from 91 per cent in October to 82 per cent in December. However, since July there is increasing belief that the ceasefire will last.
For the Jaffna peninsula the peace dividend is tangible in the form of the movement of goods, said Vigneshwaram. Truckloads of bananas and bulging sackfuls of brinjals on motorcycles can be seen racing to Colombo. However, four checkposts mean four unloadings of bananas and payment of “tax”.
In 1983, Jaffna accounted for 25 per cent of the island’s fish catch and 10 per cent of the produce of bananas, tobacco and onions. The high security zones and the Tiger’s tax regime, says economist M. Sarvanathan, inhibit people’s livelihood. The hope of peace enduring is evident in people protectively encircling saplings with barbed wire.