While the players were walking back to the dressing room in Dambulla, Sri Lanka, on August 30, Ahmed Shehzad was caught on camera telling Tillakaratne Dilshan, ‘If you are a non-Muslim and you turn Muslim, no matter whatever you do in your life, straight to heaven.’
The ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka has a history spanning more than 100 years. It began when Sri Lanka was under the British colonial rule, as resentment was created when the Tamil minority was privileged over the Sinhalese for jobs and educational opportunities. The reversed happened when Sri Lanka became independent in 1948, as the Sri Lankan government passed the Ceylon Citizenship Act and the ‘Sinhala Only’ Official Language Act, making life increasingly difficult for the Tamils.
Ethnic violence errupted during the 1950s and 1960s as a result of the perceived unfair treatment. Further unhappiness was caused with the introduction of new and more stringent university admission criteria for Tamils after 1970 to limit their enrolment in university, as well as the resettlement policy implemented during the 1950s, when Sinhalese peasants, Buddhist monks and even the Sri Lankan Army moved in and took over areas occupied by Tamils. The unjust treatment of Tamils was the impetus for the formation of the Tamil United Liberation Front, a new political party created to fight for Tamil rights.
Out of this arose the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE aka Tamil Tigers), a youth militant group who adopted violence as a means to achieve their goal - to have a separate and independent Tamil state.
It is time New Delhi thought of something intelligent to say on the issue, because it goes far deeper than India’s interests in Sri Lanka. Instead, the issue is enmeshed with how India fought the wars it believed were necessary to survive as a nation — and how it will fight the wars it is fighting today, and the ones yet to come.
Making sense of the killing that unfolded in Sri Lanka in the last days of the Eelam War isn’t easy: we don’t know how many lives it claimed or, indeed, whether a genocide took place at all. Estimates for civilian fatalities, produced by the United Nations and human rights groups, range all the way from 20,000 to 1,47,000. There is no expert consensus on whether civilians were targeted on purpose, and, if so, when. There are indeed several well-documented cases of extrajudicial executions, but these are not the same as a genocide.
Dead men talking
Reporting on Lanka’s blood-soaked years, I watched names disappear from my notebook.
This is one box nobody would like to check on his CV. Not even the most battle-hardened hack. But, early in September of 1989, I found myself in the wrongest place at the wrongest time. And witnessed my first, and hopefully only, live (apologies for that horrible malapropism, but we are all brainwashed by news TV now) execution ever. This was in the middle of Galle Road, Colombo’s shopping and pleasure strip, studded with clubs and malls.
For just a moment, it had even seemed that the gunshot roar had come as a relief. There was a mild groan, and silence again. And as I reported then, in what you may call the first draft of this story (‘Sri Lanka: Falling Apart’, India Today, September 30, 1989), when a man is shot in the head with an M-16 rifle at 30 metres, he just drops dead. Soldiers jumped past streams of blood and poked the body with gun barrels. “Anyone who tries to take a picture will join this body in the ambulance,” warned the officer. Since all of us had just seen him carry out the execution, nobody would even think about that. This was the Sri Lanka of 1989.
The victim had been clutching a bag. Soldiers suspected it contained a bomb and challenged him. He just sat down in fright as snipers took positions and a crowd of hundreds gathered, as if around a street performer. The man, obviously frozen in terror, just continued sitting quietly. It is a horrible comparison if you saw that film, but years later, as I watched Kevin Spacey, on his knees, his face a portrait of meditative peace, waiting for Brad Pitt to shoot him in David Fincher’s disturbing dark thriller, Seven, this execution came back to me. Unlike Spacey’s evil John Doe, this was a totally innocent man. It’s just that you somehow saw calm, not fear, on his face.
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