Last month, the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) of Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka’s only Tamil-led provincial council, passed a resolution accusing Sri Lanka of genocide against Tamils and requesting the United Nations to launch an investigation. The resolution is considered historically unprecedented in its language, locus and power. It ironically emerged from within the walls of an institution that was originally built to frustrate Tamil demands for self-determination. The NPC, founded in 1988 and ruled up until September 2013 from Colombo, has traditionally served to appease western and Indian demands for more devolution of power, and has provided the repressed ethnic group a nominal, powerless tool for representation. Meanwhile, the militarisation and colonisation of Tamil land continues, and justice for the region’s casualties of war—the dead, injured, displaced, imprisoned and disappeared—remains denied.
The resolution was passed at a time when Colombo is, at least on the surface, renegotiating its neocolonial policies towards Tamils to satisfy both internal dissenters and increasingly impatient western governments. But the NPC didn’t wait for the government to rearticulate its efforts of reconciliation. Indeed, they went even further, attacking the government and charging it with failure to provide truth, justice and accountability to Tamils. The NPC’s actions come at a crucial junction for the country. The United States has expressed its interest in welcoming Sri Lanka back into the so-called “international community,” and just days before the United Nations announced the postponement of the release of its own investigative report on mass atrocities in Sri Lanka.
The world body seems intent on not derailing the new government’s chances of taking a more liberal route to its right-wing predecessors. These developments are based, for the most part, on the policy rhetoric of Sri Lanka’s new government, very little of which has yet materialized in concrete action. This is especially true with regard to the country’s Tamil and Muslim-majority regions that, to date, have been promised change while seeing very little. These fast-track concessions, by Washington and the UN, which allow Sri Lanka more time to implement national reconciliation efforts, are also made irrespective of the fact that many of Sri Lanka’s current leaders, including the current president himself, were very much part of the old regime, its racist politics, and its racial violence.
Nonetheless, the new United National Party-led (UNP) Sri Lankan government is evidently thriving on a political momentum that follows the dethroning of Sri Lanka’s most authoritarian and violent presidency under Mahinda Rajapaksa. But the Colombo-based central government isn’t the only one to use this relatively new political climate and space to test out today’s social and political possibilities and limitations on the island. The NPC’s resolution can be seen in light of this post-Rajapaksa momentum. It also stands in relations to a chain of events that visually demonstrate the resurfacing of Tamil dissent in public. This is expressed in protests for the missing, the release of political prisoners, the call for an international investigation against Sri Lanka, ecological pollution and the return of seized and occupied land. In post-Rajapaksa Sri Lanka, these signs of popular resistance appear more frequently, and seem bolder than ever before.
A crucial part of these rebellions against the centres of power is the language and vocabulary used to frame the country’s violent past, and with it the country’s present.
The NPC's choice of words to define the violence experienced by Tamils brings us back to a heated and long-standing discussion amongst policy makers, academics, activists and survivors. Although the conceptualisation of anti-Tamil violence as genocide or இன அழிப்பு ·ina azhippu (lit.: racial destruction) in Tamil is today often construed by outsiders as a modern, post-war strategy employed primarily by diasporic political organisations to forward their secessionist agenda while acquitting the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) from allegations of war crimes, there is a much longer, complex, local and certainly under-researched history to the term’s usage amongst Tamils.
The term இனப்படுகொலை· ina padukolai (lit.: racial massacre) and இன அழிப்பு · ina azhippu, often used interchangeably to describe genocide, can be traced back to early years of Sri Lanka’s independence when the first wave of anti-Tamil legislation, riots, and pogroms shaped the Tamil people’s future in the Sinhala-dominated state. The latter is thought to directly lean on the Holocaust and the resulting 1948 UN Genocide Convention which legally defined the term genocide. While the evolution of the term genocide is often linked to the Jewish Holocaust, the Polish Jewish scholar who coined the term, Raphael Lemkin, was originally inspired and motivated by the Armenian massacres under the Ottoman Empire. So while genocide was translated into Tamil as ina azhippu and ina padukolai, terms connected to a specific violent event and experiences located in Europe and West Asia, the term lived on to take shape and develop further in a non-European context.
Soon after Ceylon’s independence in 1948, Tamil writers, journalists, politicians and activists started to the violence Tamils experienced as racially-motivated. By the late 1950s and 60s, the state’s oppression was already interpreted by some as intending to destroy the Tamil nation, particularly its cultural foundations. Over the next few years, the Tamil language of genocide (இனப்படுகொலை · ina padukolai [lit.: racial massacre] and இன அழிப்பு ·ina azhippu [lit.: racial destruction]), was further mainstreamed through Tamil political parties and organisations. For instance, the ITAK’s Tamil Arasu Kachchi’s (ITAK, commonly known in English as Federal Party) news bulletin, Suthantiran (Freedom), used the Tamil word ina azhippu and ina padukolai a number of times to draw attention to the intent behind anti-Tamil legislations, riots and pogroms that frequently visited the island from 1956 onwards. Later, the term was also adopted in the Tamil United Liberation Front’s (TULF) 1976 Vaddukoddai Resolution, which was published both in Tamil and English. This resolution was the first political document to include the charge of genocide (here cited as cultural genocide in English), and to formally articulate the aspiration for Tamil independence from Sri Lanka.
With the increase of anti-Tamil violence from 1983 onwards, the focus on cultural destruction by the state shifted further to the physical destruction of the Tamil people which eventually culminated in the bloodshed of 2009. Throughout the war, terms such as racial destruction and racial massacres were commonly used in Tamil to conceptualise the state’s violence. The intuitive usage of these terms, specifically racial massacres, underlines the widespread conviction amongst many Tamils that the intent of these crimes is the destruction of Tamils as a race/ethnicity and culture on the island. Though the language of racial violence became part of the Tamil vernacular, this hardly translated into English. Whereas the Tamil usage of terms as ina padukolai and ina azhippu became natural, almost normalised to define anti-Tamil violence and advocate against it, this wasn’t as much the case in English.
In European languages, the term genocide is more closely tied to its legal definition than a possible sociological oneand reduced to endless discussions to legally prove the intent to partially or completely annihilate a social group. The language of genocide in European languages is profoundly theoretical and since the Rwandan genocide in 1994 tied to the expectations of political and military intervention. Thus, the term is used by governments, NGOs and journalists with reluctance and hesitation as it demands a responsibility to act. In other words, the usage of the term genocide is highly strategized. The normalised usage of the term ina azhippu and ina padukolai in Tamil, however, suggests that for many among the victimised group, the systemic violence they experience as a community is seen as both racially-charged and designed to destroy them as a group. It also suggests that oppressed communities relate to such terms differently and feel less inhibited in using them. Their perception of the violence they face isn’t necessarily coloured by theoretical or judicial considerations. Instead, it serves as a practical tool for describing historic violence just as truthfully as it can describe contemporary violence.
Analysis of this sort is continually being contested by the Sinhala-dominated state that tries to frame Tamil victimhood as collateral damage, and liberals who tend to adopt the Holocaust and Rwanda as the paradigm of global genocides. This is not to say that the term genocide isn’t employed in English-language advocacy. Tamil protestors in 1975, for instance, used the word “decimation” of the Tamil people in leaflets distributed when protesting against the Sri Lankan cricket team’s appearance in London. Over the decades, analogies to Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg Laws were also made by Tamil politicians without directly referring to the fate of the Jewish people that followed such policies. The term genocide, with all its Eurocentric history, weight and meaning, was more commonly and explicitly used in English from the 1980’s onwards. But it was, for the most part, given a marginal role in the framing of the Tamil people’s fate as its usage produced controversy in the West, and the term was heavily policed by stakeholders on all sides.
Throughout 2008 and into 2009, the level of violence changed and the term was more widely and freely used by Tamils in English. Many Tamils were convinced that for violence to matter, for their advocacy to be strategized, the term needs to be translated, articulated and rendered visible in languages that matter. Tamil was not one of them. The term genocide was thus increasingly and freely employed in English, French, German, Norwegian, Italian and Danish to describe the violence by those futilely hoping to mobilise western states and India to intervene to stop the slaughter. It was eventually picked up by western news outlets, as well. Unsurprisingly, the term was highly disputed and often put in quotation marks when being reproduced in writing. When Tamil artist M.I.A.’s used the term to describe the anti-Tamil violence in her homeland, in an interview with CNN, the cable station chose to edit the “g word” out of the interview.
The mainstreaming of the term genocide amongst Tamils protesting across Europe and North America in white languages that are audible, understandable and translatable soon caught the attention of the expert industry: white, Indian and Sinhalese political commentators, scholars, writers, analysts and journalists, who framed the rhetoric as problematic, as a type of propaganda, as emotional and unwarranted. As can be seen, to speak in a language that matters, to become visible while using paradigms and vocabularies closely and intimately connected to specific western events and histories can also cause negative consequences. It can easily be seen as impudence by those geographically, socially, politically and emotionally-linked to the event that produced a particular terminology.
“Experts” similarly accused Tamil political organizations, especially those in exile, as having “suddenly” and “disingenuously” “adopted” the language of human rights and international law post-LTTE. This, despite the community’s long history of violence and resistance, and the vocabulary it produced to define the experience. The argument also ignores how the term “genocide” has evolved over the last few decades in conversations and considerations of modern war and conflict, and its increasing appearances in mainstream press accounts.
In conflicts, wars, riots or other violent and political events, the right to interpret and define this violence and possible responses to it is hardly ever left to those whose bodies are violated. It is instead monopolised by outsiders, benefactors, co-producers and accomplices of such violence. The dominant narrative derives from those in power, not from those who are oppressed. Therefore, it comes with little surprise that last month’s genocide resolution caused great controversy in Sri Lanka and beyond.
But there are also ways to alleviate such imbalances in power. The Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission established in Canada in 2008 to investigate and narrate the injustices committed against First Nations and indigenous peoples under the white settler-colony is a case in point. Tough the commission lacks in significant power to wield actual justice and is not accepted and collaborated with by all First Nations and indigenous groups, it enables affected groups to speak violence, to make their experiences narratable and give them a form and shape in languages words and emotions that are entirely theirs. It is indeed crucial to not just consider the voices of affected groups, but also the language and vocabulary they express their experiences with.
Much like in Canada, apart from the TRC, where First Nations voices are often silenced, attempts to narrate Tamil experiences of violence by Tamils in Sri Lanka and in the diaspora have always been met with a large amount of scrutiny and suspicion. Therefore, it comes as little surprise that last month’s genocide resolution caused great controversy in the country and beyond. Liberals of both Sinhalese and Tamil descent called the genocide resolution “extremist,” “counterproductive,” “impractical,” “legally meaningless,” “misleading,” and “inconvenient” with respect to timing. Inconvenient to whom and to what though?
Clearly, Sri Lankan’s notion of reconciliation was never genuinely tied to the idea of actual truth-seeking or granting victimised groups the sovereignty to make sense of their very own experiences and traumas. Instead, truth is a matter of compromises and calculations that serve to uphold the status quo, specifically in regards to the territorial sovereignty of the island-state. The truth about Sri Lanka’s violent past needs to be comfortable and divorced from the present because reconciliation was never meant to pave a pathway to (racial) justice and accountability.
Words are employed differently in different languages: their connotations aren’t universal and often don’t translate into different socio-political contexts. European terms, for instance, are closely linked to European experiences which provide them distinct tones, tastes and implications. The term genocide is therefore fundamentally and often tragically tied to European experiences, memories and connotations, different to, for example, the term ina azhipuu or ina padukolaiwhich, albeit etymologically-related, do not come with a similar historical and political baggage as they exist and develop outside of European paradigms. To be able to name your own human catastrophes in your own language without being forced to translate them to the outside is significant and meaningful for victimized groups as can be seen in the case of terms such as Shoah or Nakba. Both terms prove the importance to find, shape and coin your own vocabulary to exist independently of paradigms created by others. As emotions tied to specific violent experiences have a particular location, whether linguistic or geographic, theycan’t always be neatly reproduced in translation. Therefore, to exist without translation is a privilege not everyone holds.
While many Tamils at home and in exile understood the meaning of such a groundbreaking resolution from within the Tamil homeland, President Sirisena, a Sinhalese and so-called reformist, was quick to call the resolution “extremist” and to scold the NPC for overstretching its mandate and expertise. Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister, Ranil Wikramasinghe, also of Sinhalese-descent, even called the resolution “racist”. Days after its passing, a Tamil NPC councillor was called in for questioning by Sri Lanka’s anti-terror police, a tactic widely used to intimidate and stifle resistance. The chief minister of the north, CV Wigneswaran, who previously questioned the usefulness of the term genocide, stated that the resolution expresses Tamil people’s “thoughts and feelings.” These sentiments that CV Wigneswaran mentions live largely independent of Eurocentric experiences and meanings and could only develop and exist in a language and space that wasn’t completely controlled by the outside gaze and western readings.
Language matters in terms of how we perceive, understand, and speak about the world around us. The fact that the term genocide remains positioned differently depending on socio-political and historic context makes clear how our expressions can shift over time, space and language. To say ina azhippu doesn’t necessarily evoke the same emotions as when we say “genocide”—despite the fact that their meanings overlap. The outside world evidently matters in how comfortable and free we feel in framing ourselves as well as our experiences in a specific language while using a specific vocabulary.
Who, however, has the last word in interpreting and reading violence? Is it the victims, perpetrators or bystanders? In a telling episode, the current Sinhalese cabinet spokesperson and health minister, Rajitha Senaratne, said the NPC’s might be right to raise concerns over “war crimes” but they “cannot call it genocide.” That is, they cannot call it genocide in Tamil, English or any other language for that matter. Under the previous government, the term “war crimes” was considered a taboo, and “genocide” was completely out of question. This continues to be true today, under the so-called reformist Sirisena.
Violence is never just limited to physicality. It is also discursively manifested and lives on in our languages, speech and thoughts. Last month’s NPC resolution showed that the Tamil struggle for self-determination has never just been a struggle about ownership of land, justice and equality alone. It is equally a struggle over language, vocabulary and the act of framing and narrating one’s own past and with it, present independent of any outside paradigms and control.
Sinthujan Varatharajah is a doctoral student in Political Geography at University College London, University, He holds a Masters in Race, Ethnicity and Postcolonial Studies from the London School of Economics and Political Science and is the founder of Roots of Diaspora, a multimedia storytelling project on refugeehood and migration.