Para Paheer’s “The Power of Good People” as a Narrative of State Terror.

For a student interested in how decisively mass sentiment and the public psyche can be pushed from one extreme to another, the shifts that appeared in the mainstream opinion of the Lanka Sinhala-dominated South between 2004 and 2008 provides an informative case study. Following the General Election victory by the Ranil Wickramasinghe-led United National Front in 2001 and its subsequent efforts at dialoguing for a peace solution, Lanka was steered into a ceasefire – an unstable, often interrupted secession of hostilities violated at will by both the LTTE and the government troops – within which both the Sinhala and Tamil communities were courted by illusions of peace for which their respective leaders were not wholeheartedly committed. In the years to come, the Sri Lankan government would blame the LTTE for not being genuine in their efforts at achieving peace through dialogue, while the LTTE saw in the government’s efforts a dead wall and little progress beyond.

Paheertharan Pararasasingam

However, between 2001 and 2004, the optimistic among the masses saw peace as a viable and achievable option. For the first time, governmental ministers from the South were proactive in taking part in Northern events and festivals in a show of goodwill at the risk of their names being branded by Sinhala extremist hardliners as ‘Tigers’. A name that comes to mind is the late Jayalath Jayawardena – UNP frontliner, minister and MP for Ja-ela – who frequented Pongu Thamil festivals organized by the Northern community which was partly a protest for peace and stability while celebrating the culture and society of the Tamils. In her Oru Koorvalin Nizalil – a supposed autobiography written in military custody – former LTTE political wing leader Thamalini expresses her disillusionment when the efforts and investments done during the uneasy peace of 2002-2005 began to tumble and the community was pushed towards a war. She insinuates that that was an initiative which was lost for a dignified and honourable solution for both war-mongering parties involved was possible had there been sincere commitment.

In the 2001-2005 period, Paheertharan Pararasasingam – the narrator and co-author of The Power of Good People (2017) – is located in the heart of Jaffna student politics as a front-cog of the university’s student union of which he was later the President. It is Pararasasingam’s frontline activism at this level which later qualifies him to be persecuted by state troops and paramilitary formations operating with the government military. As a student leader of Jaffna University Pararasasingam had had to negotiate with the military installments there while maintaining contact with the LTTE. Drawn into this equation were groups from other pro-governmental political groups such as the Devananda-led Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) with whom Para gets into a clash which he describes in the book. However, as a representative of the mass aspirations of the North the students whom Para leads are committed to the peace of their homeland in their call for non-occupation by state troops. The following extract from a union-released leaflet to coincide with the 2003 Pongu Thamil event is informative in understanding their anxiety:

It’s more than sixteen months since the signing of the memorandum of understanding. But normalcy has not been restored yet. The negotiations have been suspended. The clouds of war have once again appeared on the horizon, though no fault of ours. We wish to change this situation. With this objective in view, Tamils have gathered here from all parts of the peninsula… to freely participate in this Pongu Tamil celebration. (107)

The leaflet goes on to highlight their key demands on this vibrant occasion (these demands are not new in the course of the ‘struggle for liberation’ and are merely a reiteration of established demands): a demand for normality and civil freedom, an establishment of an interim government with an LTTE-base, withdrawal of state troops, recognition of a distinct Tamil nation, recognition of a ‘Tamil homeland’ and the Tamils’ right to self-determination (107-108). In all, one might read this list as a pro-LTTE demand-sheet at a time where polarized powers from the North and the South were caught in a deadlock for ideological and territorial control.

the-power-of-good-people_front-cover_28jul17-e1515047341886Para belongs to that generation of Jaffna youth who were born into the war and of whose young lives military violence was an ugly and omnipresent fact. Growing up in a challenged atmosphere, militancy enters his life when he is barely five years old. In the mid-1980s, still a pre-adolescent, Para witnesses the emergence of the LTTE as a dominant military outfit overcoming and decimating its counterparts in the Jaffna peninsula as the “sole representative” of the Tamil cause. When he attends his first Maarveerar celebrations in 1991 Para is yet a young cub of thirteen (44). His village is at the receiving end of an attack by a Sri Lanka air force supersonic jet attack in 1992. This was the first time the village had been attacked by a bomber that beat the speed of sound: “we could not hear them coming, we just suddenly heard and felt the enormous blasts.  Mum screamed to me, Grandma and my sister, and we ran away from our house through the paddy fields to the Hindu temple – we thought it would be the safest place” (49).

From a young age, Para had witnessed how a people sandwiched between two warring factions sought the refuge of temples and churches. Whenever an ambush or an attack took place on a military unit, an attack on the nearby habitats would be anticipated as a part of retaliatory revenge and the people would then evacuate their homes and seek the sanctuary of temples. This was no different in the South during the years of terror between 1987 and 1990, as disclosed in many narratives that refer to military violence and state terrorism in the South. However, as the war progressed, even temples and churches were inadequate in guaranteeing safety to people running away from military wrath. Following is an incident from 1995:

Operation Leap Forward [Idiri Pimma] was intended to strike down the LTTE and clear them out from the North. Thousands of innocent civilians lived in the area, and they were advised by the Sri Lankan government to seek shelter from the intense fighting in temples and churches, which were generally avoided during attacks, and so were thought to be safe. When the Sri Lankan army dropped millions of leaflets telling people to move quickly, hundreds of men, women and children ran to seek sanctuary in the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Navali, near Jaffna town, which was thought to be a safe distance away from the battle lines… Sadly, their confidence was misplaced. On 9 July, 1995, the Sri Lankan Air Force bombed the packed church and school, killing more than a hundred and twenty people, predominantly women and children, and injuring many more (57).

This disturbing pattern of advising the masses into a designated point declared as a ‘safe zone’ and attacking the same focus has been a burden the Sri Lankan military has had to carry over the years. Their attacks on non-traditional targets such as schools, hospitals and places of worship have been recorded widely and to the horror of many. N. Malathy records in detail Air Force targeting ‘homes’ such as Senccholai and Araviccholai in her A Fleeting Moment In My Country: The Last Years of the LTTE De-facto State (2012) which provides an analyzed example of this controversial trend. Similar examples can be found in the witness accounts given by the likes of journalist A. Lokeesan (featured in Beate Arnestad’s film Silenced Voices, 2012), Rohini Mohan’s The Seasons of Trouble (2014) and in Gordon Weiss’ The Cage (2011). Mohan’s book references a witness narrative that testifies to the use of cluster bombs in the closing stages of the war in 2009, while Lokeesan suggests the use of chemical weaponry by the state military as he relates to persons with burn injuries “unlike what anyone had seen before”.

Para also relates an incident on June 15th 2006 as the people of Pesalai were gathered at the local church after a “violent confrontation between the police and the LTTE” (129). This confrontation had been followed by an engagement between the LTTE Sea Tigers and the Navy which had left thirty sailors dead (129):

The fishermen who witnessed the battle returned with the news. Around two or three thousand frightened villagers – some of whom had lost their homes following earlier incidents – again took shelter in the church.

A group of armed and angry men in navy uniforms arrived and walked up and down the road, firing indiscriminately into homes. More men on motorbikes arrived in the church, their faces covered to mask their identities. They set a gun on a stand and fired at the church for ten minutes or so, then threw a grenade through a window, killing one elderly woman and injuring many more.

…. The attackers then moved to the beach… four fishermen were lined up and shot through the mouth, as they kneeled on the ground… the assailants set about burning the fishing boats and the wadiyas.

By the end of the day, forty seven people in the church were injured, with one person killed; five fishermen were killed and one was seriously injured; thirty nine boats and forty five wadiyas were destroyed (129-130).

As the ceasefire deteriorates, killings and abductions become more frequent. In fact, they had never ceased even during the secession of hostilities, but the numbers begin to reach dangerous proportions in 2005: “From January to March 2005, eighty-seven Tamils were kidnapped and two hundred and thirty went missing in Jaffna alone” (119). By this time, the powerful and much respected Eastern leader of the LTTE Vinayagamurthi Muralitharan alias Karuna Amman had defected from the movement and his loyalists had joined the cause of the government. The complexion of the conflict had just changed decisively – a blow from which the LTTE was never to recover till its last stand off in May 2009.

geneva talks - 12006
Smiling faces of another sinking boat

Following his university education, Para works briefly for the Sanasa Bank as a field officer. However, in the longer run he – along with his wife Jayantha – take up jobs as teachers and obtain postings in the Mannar district. For the first time, Para is abducted by the Sri Lankan military during this brief stay in Mannar. Though he is released with the intervention of the local priest and bishop who pleads on Para’s and Jayantha’s behalf to the commandant of the camp an unprecedented anxiety and uncertainty enter their lives. His second abduction and detainment is of graver consequences, after he is rounded up in Dehiwala during a search operation of that area following a bomb blast in 2007. Though tortured and assaulted on both occasions the injuries sustained during the latter arrest – along with the bestial nature of torture received – is harrowing and disturbing. These assaults and degrading treatment complement and confirm many other reports of similar mistreatment of men taken in by the state militia both in and outside conflict-related scenarios.

During the Mannar arrest, Para is bundled into a white van in the middle of the night after his house had been surrounded by a contingent of military men. He is taken to Thalladi army camp (141) where he is beaten up and kicked (144) while the bishop and priest negotiate with the camp commandant for his release. He is eventually dragged out of his dungeon, thrown into the back of the van that had originally brought him to the camp and is taken away:

They threw me in the back of the van again and climbed in beside me. My blood was mixing with the dried blood on the floor of the van. I had no idea where we were going. I knew the high-security prison was away to the left all the way down in Colombo, more than eight hours’ drive away. We had all heard terrible stories of torture in that place – I didn’t want to be taken there. The bridge home was to the right…

…. The van stopped, the soldiers leaned over me and untied the knots then pulled off the blindfold. The doors opened and they kicked and pushed me with their boots until I fell onto the road. I thought, Okay, this is really it. I expected a bullet in the back of my head, so I curled up in a small ball and held my hands over my ears.

Nothing happened. The doors slammed shut and the van roared off… (145-146).

In October 2007, Para is abducted from his rented Dehiwala home and systematically tortured and humiliated in custody. He is ordered to remove his clothes and beaten with metal bars and wires while being suspended against a wall (171). Burning chilies are applied on his face and he is detained in a cage too small for a human to fit into (171).

Pararasasingam documents in detail the torture that is meted out on his person in a section that exceeds four pages, summarizing a pattern of violence that corresponds with similar victim accounts and narratives that converse with such testimony. The questioning Para is put through has to do with connections and contacts the military deemed their captive to have had with the LTTE.

I told them again and again that I had to co-operate with the LTTE when I was the president – it was a part of the job and one of my responsibilities. People were not given a choice – if you did not co-operate with them, they would shoot you. At the same time, I had co-operated with the army – that was the role of the president. But once my time as president was over, that was it, I graduated from university and I did not have anything more to do with any of them.

This did not pacify them. The shouting became louder and louder. They were screaming at me and hitting me with that huge stick. I kept falling to the floor but my hands were tied to the wall so I was just hanging there, and they just kept beating me. They were sweating and cursing me, then one of them yelled “If you don’t confess to working with the LTTE we will kill you tonight!” (173).

Pararasasingam’s torture complements with other established patterns of extracting forced confessions under duress. In Visakesa Chandrasekaram’s Tigers Don’t Confess (2011) the writer engages in an illustration of how fabricated evidence is used to table desired and doctored confessions that help the military causes as a young Tamil undergraduate is detained and held by the Terrorism Investigation Team. This young man, Kumaran Mylvaganam, is pressed with charges for being a member of the Tigers’ pistol squad and is produced in court with a confession attributed to the suspect. The story develops to reveal the said confession to be a dishonest document of military-authorship to which the suspected youth’s signature had been obtained.  Meanwhile, Kumaran had been subjected to torture and assault of a varying range and degree over a period of many months while being held captive by the Terrorist Investigation Team.

University of Jaffna

Pararasasingam’s torture over a month reaches a disturbing high when an iron rod is introduced into him through his anus (174) which causes him to lose consciousness: a harrowing experience that has left him traumatized for words (174) even eight years after that incident. Stories of such extreme torture – which Para refers to as “the treatment” – is carved into the narratives of state violence and part of the oral lore of “terror stories” which relate to both the Civil War and the Insurgency of 87-90. Coming from a Southern context my familiarity with such narratives are more to do with the degrading and inhuman treatment of prisoners and detainees of the Sinhala South by the Police and military: a motif that is readily passed down by concerned mothers and fathers of the post-1987 generation to discourage their sons and daughters from taking up radical politics. But, there is no reason to believe that such violence was delivered in any less dilution to prisoners and abductees of a Northern background.

Para’s release is sought with the help of his Switzerland-resident cousin who “arrange[s] the payments that were required to enable [Para] to receive a fair court hearing” (176). It is no secret that as a byproduct of war a thriving industry of embezzlement and ransom – a culture of distortion and manipulation – by preying on the helplessness of the Tamil had emerged as a form of structural violence. In fact, in Sri Lanka, the due process of justice has deteriorated to be a breeding ground for much vermin and pests that occupy strategic positions from Police, prison-guards, officials of the courts to judges themselves. In a recent expose, lawyers Nagananda Kodithuwakku and Sugandhika Fernando stirred a hornet’s nest by publicizing some of the irregularities they have experienced in the courthouses of the highest level – which includes alcoholic judges, corrupt-tendencies within courthouses that tamper with the due process, corrupt officials and so on. This is just a niche of a widespread chain of malpractices that extends to the heart of prison culture and other trenches of the law establishment authorities. While those who could satisfy the corrupt officialdom found a flimsy yet fortunate passage through their dilemmas, others who had no means were abandoned in the dark hole of prison life without an end:

Many of the Prisoners had no one to help them, so I had to be careful nobody suspected that I had friends who were trying to get me out in case they became jealous and made up something about me to try to influence the guards… They kept telling me that I would be “disappeared” if I didn’t get out in twenty-eight days, but I didn’t dare to tell anyone I was hoping to be released, because it was impossible to know who was trustworthy and who was a spy (177).

Intriguingly (and to prove the ground-level reality of the linguistic displacement of the Tamil within the official spaces of the country) all the documentation as well as the court hearings that relate to Para’s case take place in Sinhala (177-178). Perhaps, Para is under the misconception that Sinhala Only – the superimposition of Sinhala as the official language that takes effect from 1958, a vital rupture point of Sinhala-Tamil relations – is still in operation in the present time; though, through an amendment which came too late Tamil has since been upgraded to official status, even though that has largely remained a nominal face-saving gesture. However, public offices including the law enforcement spaces continue to operate in Sinhala only as Para himself experiences during the hearings of his sensitive case.

The Power of Good People is a thought-provoking and insightful addition to the growing corpus of post-war literature. In addition to its protestant and investigative energy which challenges the dominance of the state’s narrative of the war it also amplifies the fragility and helplessness of victimhood in that deep trench which come in between the warring sides in Sri Lanka. His narrative energizes the pool of evidence and testimony against militarism while encouraging skeptics and non-believers to take a more comparative view of state violence against Tamils and persecutions of minorities in the country.

Para Paheer’s “The Power of Good People”: On Survival, Exile and Retrospection.

Paheertharan Pararasasingam’s The Power of Good People (2017) – a retrospective memoir on growing up in war-torn Jaffna, of the implications of being politically active in the early-2000s, of incarceration, torture of the most bestial kind and unwarranted detention, and of exile and a precarious boat-journey in search of uncertain refuge – is a powerful document that reinvestigates the Civil War fought between the separatist Tamil Tigers (LTTE) and the troops of the Sri Lankan government; and an attempt to characterize the grey shadow of militancy as it devastated the lives and the land of the Tamil districts in Northern Sri Lanka.

the-power-of-good-people_front-cover_28jul17-e1515047341886Pararasasingam writes from Australia where – following a lengthy detention of many years – he is now citizen, after being forced into exile from the land of his birth where he had to struggle for survival and basic subsistence against the worst odds for the first thirty years of his life. He writes as Para Paheer – a shortening of his own polysyllabic name – with the assistance of Alison Corke, who is the linchpin of getting Pararasasingam released from refugee-detention; and in providing the foundation for a new life to this escapee from state violence in Lanka. The book is dedicated to “people everywhere who have been affected by war, and to those good people who are helping them to find a peaceful place in this world.”

As such, the book is not entirely a retrospective document at tabling a personal woe. It is an effort that is equally dedicated at providing the world – specially, the readers who are not acquainted with the ground situation of growing up in the North of Lanka clouded, and later afflicted, by military occupation and rebel militancy – a picture of the complexities and hardships of a sieged community, a witness narrative of military atrocities which include denigrating and undignified treatment of the Tamil masses, the fielding of a voice from within the Northern community to speak on its behalf, and in revealing to the world circumstances that provoke mass-scale refugee-seekers from the former combat zone to risk their lives in search of safer pastures in faraway lands.

Pararasasingam’s is also a narrative that adds to an emergent corpus of literature from the Northern districts which is made available for the consumption of the non-Tamil reader, either in English or Sinhala. The emergence of such literature is crucial for the undermining of the dominant discourse of the war – specially, regarding how it was fought and how it was ended – which is monopolized by state agents. When the war was brought to a military close in May 2009 with more deaths than what should have actually taken place, the Sinhala-majority South of the country – already massaged with a rare anointment of extreme chauvinistic militarism – was charged by a euphoria that was not receptive to the losses of the North. In physical terms, the government at the time cordoned off the war-zone and shielded its own activism – which, in the years to come would spark international controversy – from the world. The tragedy which was written by the state was no mean Sophoclean feat. Other than what narratives and footage which survived the three ‘No Fire Zones’, extra-judicial killings and oppression (by the state) of other forms, the story of the North by the North was stamped on and buried by a heavy jack-boot.

Para with Alison Corke

Pararasasingam’s narrative is one that emerges from such brutalized terrain. As such, its significance is immense in recasting for a broadminded reader – a critically-conscious re-reader of marginalized history – the atmosphere that prevailed through the 80s, the 90s and 2000s in a community sandwiched between a polarized tug of war for territorial and ideological control in the North as well as in understanding the extremity of violence and terror that enveloped the lives of the Tamil community at all times: in a word, the issues of being Tamil. In more recent times, an enlarging corpus is being made available in Sinhala and English which includes internationally circulated texts such as N. Malathy’s A Fleeting Moment in My Country (2012), Malathy’s translation of Malaravan’s Por Ula (1992) as War Journey (2015), Rajan Hoole’s Palmyrah Fallen (2015) and literature by the likes of Ka.Ve. Balakumaran, Karunaharan and so on, now available for a Southern readership in Sinhala. Though I personally do not accept the widely circulated ‘autobiography’ of Thamalini Jeyakumaran as anything more than a work ‘produced under duress’ (a confession signed under a sharp sword) an intelligent reading of Thamalini can still help the reader to understand the North, the early-LTTE and the conditions that fostered a determined movement for a sovereign Tamil Homeland.

Pararasasingam’s affidavit cannot be simply cast aside as a ‘pro-LTTE’ narrative as his hardline extremist critics may be tempted to do. In fact, there is little justification or heroism of the LTTE militancy; and on several occasions Para highlights the killings and violence of the LTTE against the very community it deemed to protect: his presentation of militarism is in that way three-dimensional. But, he does insist on the benevolence and the welfare-attitude of individual cadres of the LTTE such as Kannan (80-81) who helps young Para – who is afflicted by the worst form of poverty – to find a pair of shoes to wear to school. But, Kannan’s help doesn’t come without a receipt; as much later Para finds out that his arrival is notified to pro-LTTE students in the university by Kannan when he arrives in Jaffna to undertake his tertiary studies. Para’s introduction to politicized students and active sympathizers of the LTTE cause facilitate his induction into student politics: a setup which blossoms young Para into a community leader who later gets promoted as the President of the Jaffna Students’ Union. It is these active years that would boomerang on Para who – in spite of giving up politics upon graduation – is hounded for the rest of his years in Lanka by the military and soldiers of the Karuna faction.

After years of displacement, Para reunited with his family

Pararasasingam’s criticism of the Sri Lankan army is very well articulated and powerfully tabled. Based on experiences seen, heard and shared from an economically-challenged childhood to a politically-motivated youth and his days setting up a family with wife Jayantha and son Abhilash while Lanka was being directed to the worst military excesses of our time and age, Para does little to polish the “ranaviru” badge so confidently bestowed on the shirt-pocket of the militia by Southern hardliners. References to random executions of persons at will (scenes that reminisce one of Amon Goth on his balcony taking shots at Jews working in the site below his quarters in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List) by the militia, kidnappings and forced removals of Tamils which end up in their bodies being found decomposing, kidnappings after which the abducted persons simply disappear, rape and sexual assault, incarceration, torture and degrading treatment of prisoners, intimidation and threats to free movement and peace of mind are repeatedly found throughout the text.

These references include two instances where Para was abducted or arrested: once in Mannar and then, while living in Dehiwala. It is referenced that in order to get Para released in the latter instance a bribe had to be paid in order to get a “favourable court verdict”. Though Para does not go into detail his narrative hints at a vicious cycle of corruption that had sent its tentacles deep into the law enforcement process which preyed and thrived on the plight and helplessness of the Tamil community. These are subsequently revealed / partly revealed structural maladies which include ‘ransom-seeking gangs’ operating under the leadership of military personnel engaged in kidnappings for heavy ransoms. Even as this is being written, a notorious case pertaining to a former naval top-brass and his squad of naval goons is being tried in court for the alleged kidnapping and killing (after receiving ransom) of at least 11 young men.

The allegations Pararasasingam makes of military excess in the North and his complication of the Northern politico-military situation through the 90s and 2000s will be dealt with in a further submission I hope to make to this space. But, the current essay will be brought to a close with a reference to the word “nanri” which Para uses throughout the narrative. Nanri – or, thank you – speaks of gratefulness and appreciation. Throughout the text, Para is grateful to so many who selflessly gave him a chance to survive and make it through. This includes his early teachers such as Muthuligam and Subramaniyam Iyar – who at various stages recognizes the poverty-stricken but eager boy’s enthusiasm and backs him in many ways – and even the two girls Saila and Komala who help him with food and by sharing their bicycle with him. Para says “nanri” to some of his own relatives such as his aunt Thankamma, uncles Ganesh and Veliah, and his siblings and cousins who later pool in the necessary funds to bail Para out and effect his departure from Lanka, first to India and then to Australia. In his “nanri”  are included the bogeyman who doesn’t betray Para during the round up in Mannar, the Sinhala family in Dehiwala (whom he identifies as Kumara and Nilu) who were his anchor during the time spent in Colombo, and Alison Corke and family who provided him a foundation and foster home in Australia. In that way, Pararasasingam’s book is also about looking beyond conflict and in acknowledging and paying homage to a diverse collective of men and women who contribute to each other’s survival and sustenance through the worst of times. It is in that way a deep reflection of one’s past and the crucial roles — even in their own small way — played by others for the sake of suffering humanity.



Jacques Audiard’s “Dheepan”: Of Resurrecting Identity Behind a Cordoned-Off Zone.

imagesThe storyline of Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan, though claimed to have been co-written by Audiard, Thomas Bidegain and Noe Dbre, echoes strongly with Shobhasakthi’s (avatar of Dheepan’s lead actor Anthonythasan Jesuthasan) Gorilla (2001) and Traitor (2010). In fact, before we come to know him as Anthonythasan Jesuthasan, we know him as Shobhasakthi, through his powerful prose which readers like myself, uneducated in the Tamil, would later read in translation. The echoes between the texts referred to, and the overall atmosphere energized by the film are unmistakable, and in one of the post-screening interview Shobhasakthi / Anthonythasan gives he, in his shy-off-screen way, modestly claims that the ratio between his own biographical input and fictionalization is 50:50.

The storyline of Dheepan is set in the immediate aftermath of Sri Lanka’s military crushing of the LTTE in 2009, bringing to close thereby its two and a half decade long civil war, with many questions being asked than answers given. The closure of the war comes after a fierce attack on retreating LTTE combatants, along with thousands of unarmed civilians who were moving alongside the rebels. Between October 2008 and May 2009, these civilian zones come under heavy artillery by the Sri Lankan military, and the exact numbers of lives lost in the closing stages of the war – that is, between January and May 2009 alone – is not known exactly, though a minimum number of 15,000 is often quoted in reports. The number, invariably, has to be higher than that.

In the immediate aftermath of the military victory, developments for which answers are still being sought by the international community as well as the progressive quarters of Sri Lanka’s own citizenry begin to occur. These include the deaths of LTTE carder who were known to have surrendered to the Sri Lankan military, forced disappearances from refugee camps, rape and sexual slavery, subhuman treatment of Tamil civilians and torture and incarceration of various forms of which evidence has since been submitted  to the highest platforms in human rights protection.

f07b8161-4f88-4185-b6f0-1378adcebca1_714xWhen Audiard produces Dheepan in 2015, the war has already been over for 6 years, but, the post-war context in Sri Lanka was in a quagmire of an unprecedented kind. In the South of the country, in its Sinhala-dominant areas, a different kind of post-war nationalism was being encouraged by the state, hinged on chauvinistic Sinhala-Buddhist militarist overtones, while in incidents that were covertly blessed by powerful members of the regime, systematic attacks on the country’s Muslim community was being stoked. The Darga Town Incident in Aluthgama, in 2012, was what caught the international limelight, though this was just a headline-maker of a series of strategized attacks aimed at the Muslim minority, from as early as 2011.

In 2015, the then regime led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksha had already sullied its international image regarding post-war reconciliation. It had no clear response nor a clear idea when confronted by questions of disappearances and extra-judicial conduct in the North. In fact, the North was cordoned off, and kept under an iron curtain of military presence. The military-to-citizen ratio in Jaffna alone was said to be 1:5. The incidents that would later slowly, but gradually, permeate into the mainstream as evidence of people abused, humiliated, tortured, killed, raped, and erased off the face of the earth were developing behind this curtain, as the State denied criminality while the world looked on in passive disbelief.

Dheepan, in a purely symbolic way, powerfully addresses the cynic and the alien, presenting a violent string of incredible possibilities a community that is the fugitive of basic human situations is capable of, in the name of survival. Audiard has dramatized these possibilities, condensing them in the built-in framework of an action-thriller blockbuster; but, as a showcasing of the plight that has been the burden of the Sri Lankan Northern and Eastern Tamil community for over two decades, and more so, in the immediate run up and aftermath of the war, the signal given by Audiard’s film cannot be ignored.

This signal, however, is one more empathically understood by those who have some interest in the war in question. For example, most reviewers who have analyzed the film for the Northern and Western mainstream have missed out on the subjectivities and semiotics of the film, when referred from a Sri Lankan point of entry. For instance, The Guardian, in one of its reviews of the film muses on how the film does not help the issue of immigration; which, I felt, was laughable, given so many other mitigating factors on which self-exile in places like Sri Lanka is hinged.


For me, Dheepan’s or Yali’s illicit board to France has a historical parallel with the lives of those who surrendered to the Sri Lankan military in the aftermath of the war. As this is written today, there are ongoing peaceful demonstrations in Sri Lanka by parents and families of those whose loved ones were surrendered (by themselves) to the Lankan military, heeding a request by the latter, in the second half of 2009. To this day, these families are to hear of their son, husband or their relative, who has, since then, simply “vanished” or been “vapourized”. In Dheepan we see families violently torn up, and others who are forced by circumstances to be families ad hoc, forging identities and faking loyalties for survival. The violent physical, cultural and psychological upheaval that follows conflict often manifests in the rude abnormality of the kind reflected in the lives of Dheepan and Yali. We hear narratives from refugee camps where girls as young as 13 or 14 are quickly forced into marriage, in the hope that they will be then spared by would-be sexual predation. We hear of families adopting children orphaned by the war, now with no direction to go; and of young widows and widowers foregoing considerations of region, religion and caste – variables that would have mattered to them in a different stage of their lives – to re-assume a degree of normality in the immediate post-war aftermath.

Dheepan’s critics often take a shot at Anthonythasan – or, Shobhasakthi – as he is seen as one who has marketed his ex-combatant, refugee status for a step in the ladder. Those who saw in him a powerful protestant in his writing theorize of a retrogressive sidestep in his advent into cinema, seeing it as a betrayal of a Struggle with which he, too, was identified at one point, by going “right” into action-thriller film unveiled on red-carpeted Cannes. This, of course, is a debate I wish not to engage in, as the circumstances from which artistes like Shobhasakthi have emerged and the kind of gauntlet they have had to run barely to survive and live another day cannot be encapsulated on the whole by simple formulas of cost-benefit, or armchair politics. But, in symbolic terms, the struggle continues with Dheepan – be it in Sri Lanka or in France, as the struggle continues in Sri Lanka; fresh as it began just the other day.

The Complexity of Loyalty and the Contradiction of Betrayal: Shobasakthi’s “Traitor”.

The Kafkesque ending of Shobasakthi’s Traitor with its reference to an old man seen wandering about the mountains carrying the burden of a corpse offsets the realistic mode which it had used till that moment. This corpse which he introduces to the narrative is one the said old man uses on different occasions to entertain, disgust and to even drive people away; a corpse which he sometimes uses for his own sustenance. At a point, this old man encounters a carter traveling uphill with its horse caught in a spot from where it wouldn’t budge. The carter whispers in the horse’s ear, beats it mildly with its whip and – all failing – thrashes the beast with all his strength. The corpse-carrying old man, who is seated nearby, is visibly moved by this cruelty and intervenes with the thrashing. This abstract visualization with which the novel ends, to me, is a surrealistic but suggestive summing up that symbolizes the fate of the Eelamist struggle and its various stakeholders.

shoba-sakthiAlike the case of the corpse and the man, the ‘Eelam struggle’ for its many stakeholders has its appeal and attraction, while it is simultaneously derisive, abominable, harrowing and shocking, depending where you position your allegiance in different situations. The struggle, for some, is also a form of sustenance, while it is no less a burden to carry in the name of freedom and the search for sovereignty. The story of Nesakumaran Earnest, the principle character of Traitor, and the assortment of central and marginal characters we meet in the weave entail the very synthesis of the ‘corpse’ as a political and socio-cultural statement. The novel is consistently and in an overwhelming frequency punctuated by violence and various forms of torture, bloodshed and death. Pitted against this persistent hammer of violence we see the ‘glorious struggle’ of a complex fabric – committed and confounded youth who are circumstantially drawn in and other civilians and stakeholders of different faiths, walks and occupations – ramming itself against the crude machine of a blunt state and its ultra-violent military and judicial structures.

Under the narrative’s wide umbrella of violence we have the Government agents, the Tamil Tigers and other militant bodies vying for control over the decomposing bodies of ‘activists’ and ‘believers’ (and, one might say, ‘non-believers’) who are caught in the line of cross-fire. Of the many that die different but equally harrowing deaths the most poignant, perhaps, is the brutal end of Pakkiri: the man who was arrested the “day his organization was formed” and who returns free after prolonged imprisonment on the day the organization is banned from operations by the Tigers. Pakkiri spends most of his activist years behind bars, survives death at Welikada during the Prison Massacre of 1983, recovers from the injuries caused to his arms upon his second capture (by the Police who breaks both arms), only to return to Jaffna upon release to be captured and detained by the Tigers. He is then killed while in Tiger imprisonment: his mouth is smashed by a gun butt and he is beaten to death as a response to a bomb being thrown at a Tiger leader by one of the members of the organization to which Pakkiri (technically) belonged.

41xQZ076qRL._SX318_BO1,204,203,200_Pakkiri is also portrayed as an intelligent and ideologically-nuanced, politically-informed socialist who is both a believer and an activist. Even among the prisoners Pakkiri is seen to teach then, empowering them in both political vision as well as day-to-day aspects useful in life while being imprisoned at Batticaloa. The few hours he and Nesakumaran spend in the Colombo eatery where they spend a night upon release Pakkiri is, again, seen to speak to the working class youth of the establishment. In this capacity, Pakkiri can be suggested to represent the the desirable Left activist-militant the North would come to lose in 1986 as the ‘struggle’ corrodes into an anarchic one-party melee without ideology or guiding principle.

The multiple forms of violence presented in Traitor is a challenging read. Being channeled through the cynical, detached, yet calm-and-casual voice of Shobasakthi’s writing makes it even more memorably intensifying. Within this violent world, the erosion of known human principles such as loyalty, courtesy, gratitude and trust – an erosion that is necessitated by survival, but which gradually takes root as a ‘natural’ requirement – are seen to be justifiable while they are replaced by a twisted and warped value structure. Within this discussion Shobasakthi’s focus is equally trained on how the social and political margins are compelled to be caught and entrenched in this twisted power game.

A case at point is that of Ernest Teacher, Nesakumaran’s father. In his old fashioned caste-centric ways, Earnest Teacher has his own drawbacks. His nepotistic favouration of Martha and Maria at the school’s general knowledge quiz, his aversion of the Kadayar Srikanthamalar on the grounds of caste and his treatment of Rajendran – a lad whom he brings from Hatton to work in his house – hint at a typical, privileged middle class mentality that has its own class-based prejudices and insecurities. But, with the politics of the North undergoing a shift towards the bloodier and the crueler we see in Earnest Teacher a manipulator who would still feed on the changing system to further his own ends. In the crack of this new era he becomes vocally Eelamist and claims Rajendran to be his “son” when he hopes to get Nesakumaran released from Tiger imprisonment. Earnest – in all earnestness – is a character that embodies how the compulsion of necessity, with time, becomes a more naturalized, internalized programme within you: a circuit which you adopt for survival under the most testing of times, where ethics and conscience (of the civilized world, in general) no longer can be applied or entertained.

The larger shell within which Nesakumaran’s story is couched has to do with the pregnancy of his daughter Nirami and the notions of ‘betrayal’ and ‘loyalty’ as they relate to this singular situation. Nesakumaran – who, throughout his life is a willing and unwilling ‘betrayer’ (of, among others, those who were at different points closer to him such as Kalaichelvan, Srikanthimalar, Pakkiri) – is safeguarded by Nirami’s ‘silence’, as she refrains from naming her assailant. Shobasakthi, who can be pleasurably ambiguous at times, does not explicitly outline the circumstances of Nirami’s pregnancy, nor does he give us sufficient detail that it is a result of ‘an act of violence’. The pregnancy caused by her own father Nesakumaran may even be supposed to have been a consensual act, as – during the last farewell from the daughter – what Nesakumaran sees in Nirami’s eyes is “the purest love” (185). Here, then, is an act of ‘pure love’, which, within the accepted codes of the world is an ‘act of violence’. It is equally a personal commitment – an act of passion – not unlike ‘rebellion’ and ‘revolution’ (an act against the set illogical boundaries of a preconceived ‘nation’ with which you cannot connect): a futile enterprise, which, once again, meets with a tragic, condemnatory end. Incidentally, even in the case of Nirami’s pregnancy, it is Nesakumaran who ‘betrays’ himself; a betrayal out of love – perhaps, the only such selfless betrayal of his unenviable career.

Whatever the ethical and moral preoccupations of such a pregnancy may be, the more relevant question is as to whether the Nirami-Nesakumaran union should be problematized as an ‘issue’ at all, given the life-redefining processes Nesakumaran – as a person (and as an icon of the Tamil Nation) – has gone through; and as to whether the assignments of the hypocritically ‘civilized’ community are potent enough to gauge Nesakumaran’s personality which was honed on his unique experiences of a lifetime. As a result of society and its inadequate norm – norms that are inadequate in their ability to fulfill the promise of the individual – Nesakumaran is divided from the one person for whom his loyalty seemed to be unwavering in its pledge: one whom he persistently seeks; in which process he succumbs to death after being attacked by the ‘defenders of society’.

Shobasakthi’s “Gorilla”: Forging Identities and Inconveniencing the State.

In the wake of the controversy surrounding the State militia’s abduction of political activist Kumar Guneratnam in 2012, a powerful ministerial secretary who is alleged to have been closely connected with the said extra-judicial white vanning incident on national television thrashed the idea of ‘enforced disappearances’ of persons. In a flippant statement that categorically denied the operation of extra-judiciary abductions, this ministerial secretary suggested that some people who want to relocate to the West often ‘self-disappear’ and ‘re-appear’ in foreign soil under new ‘assumed’ identities. As an extension of that argument, it was suggested that for this very reason ‘disappearances’ cannot always be accounted for, for the simple reason that they, in the process of ‘going missing’ shed one identity and pick up another.

In the context in which the above was generalized the kind of trivialization it stamped on a discourse which, even by 2012, was already controversially marred by State-related fingerprints was too harsh by any standard. This is in a situation where the very act of ‘going underground’ or resorting to ‘self-exile’ are often mechanisms of self-defense in the face of a life threat; a threat which often came by the way of a rival political / military organization, which in the case of persons such as Guneratnam (and a thousand others) were operating under State aegis. The second half of Shobasakthi’s Gorilla brings us to close contact with this debacle of assumed identities and reappearances of sorts in Western lands.

Cast member Jesuthasan Antonythasan poses during a photocall for the film "Dheepan" in competition at the 68th Cannes Film Festival in CannesThe second half of Gorilla takes us to diasporic France, where the narrative seams through the displaced lives and fortunes of a host of Tamil persons who had migrated to Paris at different points of the struggle for Eelam from different political and social convictions. These are entrants to the French territory with illegal statuses, in friction with (or with such claims) one government and are not accepted by the other; with unclear pasts, shady, fugitive presents and hazy futures. The forging of identity which is tied up with the nature of the struggle and which gets established in the first section of the novel is externalized in the France-based passage of play except that here, in illegitimate terrain, the individual is clamped of all levels of movement including physical mobility. The overcrowded ill-structured houses in which refugees and fugitives are deviously hidden away and the way in which these shelters are selectively made invisible are tabled as a nuanced allegory for the ambiguity with which Europe handles the crisis of refugees and the self-exiled in war. The novel ends with the main protagonists of the second section – Thaniyanayagam, Anthony and the narrator – being detained by the French Police. The immediate cause of arrest is where Anthony, working in a restaurant by using Thaniyanayagam’s identification details, is rounded up as an extension of an earlier arrest of Thaniyanayagam himself for killing his wife.

Anthony’s resolve breaks as, in the final passages of the novel, he is about to be subjected to a lie detection test. Up to that point of the narrative, the reader as well as those with whom Anthony shared sanctuary had no doubt regarding his identity. His desperate cries to the narrator with which the novel ends, however, are self-destructive as they, for the first time, casts serious shadows of doubt regarding the integrity of Anthony’s identity, as that cry “tell them I am Gorilla” (the name by which Rocky Raj was known) destabilizes the whole body of the narrative.

dheepanIn 2015, nearly a decade and a half after Gorilla, Shobasakthi, too, recasts himself in the world of literature and the arts when he stars in Dheepan, a film by French director Jacques Audiard, which was partly focal of the refugee crisis that is resulted by wars such as the Sri Lankan Conflict. Shobasakthi plays the lead role of Dheepan, a Sri Lankan militant of LTTE linkage who tries to escape Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the war by smuggling himself to France. He becomes one of three – including another woman, Yalini, and an orphaned child, Ilayal – to form an ad hoc family in order to enforce their entry to France. Dheepan had a successful run, winning a Palm d’Or along the way and managed to bring some attention to the refugee issue in Sri Lanka at a crucial point in time. Though the script is documented as being written by Audiard, Thomas Bidegain and Noe Debre, the echo of Gorilla (as it haunts Dheepan) is unmistakably felt. Shobasakthi, the avatar cocoon that shelled the man, is torn and Jesuthasan Anthonythasan emerges out on to the silver screen.

As a final note to this essay, I wish to return to Kumar Gunaratnam whose abduction in 2012 by the State’s militia I earlier made reference to. Days after this extra-judicial kidnapping, Gunaratnam was set free in the face of political pressure from both within the country and from the international lobby. However, Kumar Gunaratnam is taken into custody a second time in 2015 under the charge of violating VISA regulations in visiting Sri Lanka. The charge that was brought against him in 2012, that of masquerading under the forged name of Noyel Mudalige, is tied up to the second arrest as well, even though Gunaratnam was in the process of resolving the crisis surrounding his identity. After a prolonged detention at the Kegalle Remand Prison in a hearing that gained much public and political interest, he was released in December, 2016.

An Asia photo of Kumar Gunaretnam

In responding to the media upon his release, Gunaratnam has repeatedly emphasized on the circumstances under which he had had to forge an identity to convenience his movements in situations that were far from normal. The alias, in his words, was not a choice, but a compulsion to guarantee safety and the freedom of movement in a situation where the State itself is his aggressor. This is a resolution that is by no means new or amusing to the Left movement, or other out-of-mainstream socio-political forces. The fluidity of face, name and identity is a camouflage the military organ of the State uses under the blessing of the highest in power. But, to their commonsense it is uncanny that other forms of activism may resort to similar maneuvers, if at all to facilitate survival in cases where you are a booked name surrounded by the State.