Meena Kandasamy is a poet, fiction writer and an activist. She plays a crucial role in building campaigns such as Tamil Solidarity and has been a strong voice against the murderous Sri Lankan regime.
1. Thank you for giving this interview to the Tamil Solidarity. According to Indian media, Prime minister Manmohan Singh will not take part in the commonwealth heads of government meeting (CHOGM). However rest of the Indian delegation will take part. Do you think Indian government is playing a ‘trick’ on us.
While it is clear that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s decision to not visit CHOGM in Sri Lanka is clearly a response to the protest movements in Tamil Nadu, and while it is also a decision made keeping in mind the elections early next year—we have to reiterate that this is not enough. India must press for an independent international inquiry, it must demand a demilitarisation of the North, it must ask for an end to the ongoing systematic repression against Tamils in Sri Lanka. In the abstract, we can discuss what India can and what India should do. However, the reality is that not only Sri Lanka’s closeness with Pakistan and China weigh heavily on India’s choices, but, India’s own multinational corporations will be exerting a different kind of pressure. Tata holds the entire bid for rebuilding Slave Island, and many Indian businesses are all involved in their exploitation. They will be lobbying for their own interests in the end, and they will be able to arm twist the government into doing what they want. After all, if there is anything the 1.76 lakh crore 2G scam revealed, it is that the Indian political system is nothing but a puppet in the hands of these corporates. And given how Rajapakse’s family runs the crucial businesses in Sri Lanka, this nexus will operate against the interest of the Tamils in every which way possible.
2. As a writer you have been relentless in your criticism of the Sri Lankan regime. More importantly you actively participated in many actions against the regime and against the on-going horror unleashed on Tamils. Please tell us a bit more about why you continue to do this and what other Indian writers can do on these issues.
Why do I do this? Because I’m informed of what’s going on the ground (in Sri Lanka) and because my anger would break me if I remained silent and helpless. Indian writers (especially those who are not Tamil) might not be fully aware of what is going on there, and sometimes, they become unwitting pawns of Sri Lanka’s PR machinery. When Indian writers visit literary festivals in Sri Lanka for instance, they legitimise Sri Lanka’s culture of repression of writers, journalists, cartoonists. I’ve always been pressing for a cultural boycott of Sri Lanka. South Africa under apartheid was boycotted, Israel is being boycotted, why should Sri Lanka be treated any differently?
3. TNA’s main propaganda in the last NPC election was that the Indian state will somehow help the Eelam Tamils. Similarly a number of Diaspora groups want to keep a friendly relationship with the Indian government. They argue that India is a regional power so Tamils cannot win anything without winning the Indian government to our side. But they appear blind to the treatment of oppressed people in India – and their resistance to the suffering at the hands of the Indian government. How can this lack of understanding be overcome? And how can we bridge the struggles of Eelam Tamils and Indians – particularly those struggling in Tamil Nadu.
I think the Indian state—that kills its adivasi people under Operation Greenhunt and through elaborate structural genocide, that denies Kashmiri and Manipuri people the right of self-determination, that has its own mass graves for Kashmiris—is not going to do some dramatic turn-around for geopolitical reasons and “help” the Eelam Tamils. We have to snap out of such idyllic daydreams and confront the reality of what the Indian state machinery is all about. Not only does India kill in its own national interests, but it has also become a mercenary state that sometimes wages war on its own people in defence of toxic corporates like Vedanta. Big businesses have a big say in India.
When I was in the UK, I was surprised by how many first-generation Eelam Tamils saw “hope” in Modi’s rise to power, and how they really believed that he would do good to them. They had no answer to the question: how is Modi different from Rajapakse? After all, the state-sponsored riots in Gujarat in 2002, saw the rapes and killings of thousands of Muslims. Their so-called strategy, that a non-Congress alternative will benefit the Tamils, is very short-sighted besides being extremely dangerous. Why should the people, who are victims of a genocidal-scale of killings, seek support from a man of Modi’s history? It is depressing. The BTF, GTF, TGTE have no embarrassment in shaking hands with Modi. The only progressive voice from the Tamil community was the Tamil solidarity campaign. When news of Modi’s proposed UK visit came, Keerthikan, your joint-national coordinator was actually suggesting that we greet him by throwing eggs! A Modi should be treated no differently from a Rajapakse!
I was disgusted when I saw Tamil media in the Diaspora play up the story of Anbumani Ramadoss making some presentation in the United Nations about Eelam Tamils. How could you forget Dharmapuri? After all, PMK, the party to which Ramadoss belongs, burnt 300 homes of dalit people in three villages. They gave death threats to Dalit men who marry caste-Hindu girls. They decried the idea of love. It is a first-rate casteist party that has no space in a democracy. Why was the Tamil Diaspora sucking up to the Ramadosses? These hate-mongers forfeited their rights to speak on any issue the minute they indulged in such ruthless violence. And yet, we allowed these filthy, reactionary politicians to represent us? How could we allow such a disgrace to take place?
4. In India, both central government and state governments appear to have mastered the art of supressing emerging struggles. Discrimination and attacks vary with regular atrocities perpetrated against those oppressed on the basis of nationality, caste, gender or class. Some argue that the focus of activists must be limited to one issue – ie national liberation, for example. We think this tactic will alienate the struggling oppressed caste activists and others. At the same time some argue that every other struggle against oppression stands in opposition to the national interest of the Tamils in general. How do you look at this.
I think this is a question that the Tamil society must ask itself: Do we need a liberated nation that still ingrains the idea of caste discrimination, patriarchal attitudes, religious hatred? I do not think any self-respecting Marxist will support reactionary nationalism. To simply join the chorus of these reactionary, casteist, feudal, patriarchal forces and to cry for a separate nation—without paying any attention to solving these problems—would be nothing but rank opportunism. We cannot turn a blind eye to these issues. We cannot become “patriots” merely because we oppose imperialist and state-terrorist forces, we need to encourage and stand alongside the progressive forces among the Tamil community. We do not have to become card-carrying supporters for bourgeois nationalism that seeks a nation for itself only so that it benefits the swindlers. If we agree on this basic principle, we can achieve a lot. The struggle of the Dalit people against caste, the struggle of women against violence and patriarchy, the struggle of the working people for their rights—these are in no way in any conflict with the national interest—they are only against casteist, patriarchal and exploitative capitalist interests. These movements do not sabotage the national cause, they do not approve of imperialism, they only dig the graves for centuries-old oppression. We must ensure that the Tamil struggle for self-determination is inclusive, and in fact, propelled by these movements. This is not something that we are dreaming about today. This is not something that has arisen now. There are several Tamil critics, who lose their cool whenever the question of caste or women’s rights crop up. Addressing caste for instance is as old as the Vaddukoddai Resolution. Did that manifesto not ask for the annihilation and eradication of caste? Why are the Tamil nationalists of today silent on this question? I think that instead of having sword-fights with these imaginary ghosts, the Tamil nationalists can get their act together and address the contradictions in society. If I say this I will be immediately labelled a Marxist and a feminist and as a traitor. No one believed in the Indian nation as much as Dr.Ambedkar, and no one fought the caste system as vigorously as him. If people are getting upset when the questions of caste, or the oppression of women arise, it only means that they are afraid of losing the privileges bestowed on them by caste system and patriarchy. In that case, all talk of nationalism is only a shield to protect their own elite interests.
4. A discussion has emerged recently on the best strategy to organise against CHOGM. As you know the fast unto death was used as a focal point but, in some ways hijacked by Dravidian parties. This appears to have effectively cut off the possibility of a strong movement emerging – can you tell us bit about this?
I think that we have to creatively reimagine our basic modes of protest. I believe that democracy subsists on a daily dose of drama—that’s why theatrical forms of protests—such as an indefinite fast are good tools to reach to the people. However, passive resistance is good if you are building a sustained campaign—like Irom Sharmila’s campaign against the atrocities of the armed forces in India’s North-East—but if you seek a clear-cut, short-term goal, I am not sure if such Gandhian-style protests serve their purpose. In this case, I personally felt that the DMK-Congress combine cleverly played into comrade Thiyagu’s fast, which started with the right motive and momentum. A line of assurance, which vaguely spoke about considering various sentiments, was enough to fold up the fast. Did the prime minister write to Thiyagu? Did the powers-that-be actually tell him that they see the reason for the fast? No, he was writing to Karunanidhi. In that pretentious letter, which said a lot, but meant absolutely nothing, there was no condemnation of the atrocities of the Sri Lanka regime, India did not distance itself from the Rajapakse regime, the Centre was merely placating the Tamil people and using the ruse of a letter to diffuse the anger on the ground. I also believe that fasts, or events centred around one individual, often do not give us leveraging power unless a mass students/youth/people’s movement grows around it, which in turn becomes the plank from which to place demands. Historically, we may be trying to recreate the atmosphere of what followed Thileepan’s fast, however, to succeed one has to embrace martyrdom like he did and wait long enough for the ruling powers to expose themselves.
We have also seen instances of how the “indefinite fast” (often misleadingly called fast-unto-death, though no one really entertains suicidal intentions) become a tool of the elites themselves who want to appear as if they are championing a cause, or who want to wear the mask of sacrifice for narrow electoral gains. How can people forget Karunanidhi’s fast during 2009, in the most intense period of war in Sri Lanka? Did Chidambaram not “assure” Karunanidhi to withdraw his fast on the basis of an assurance from Sri Lankan Government that they would continue their “humanitarian operation”, “stop using heavy artillery” and “follow a zero civilian casualty” policy? Why did Karunanidhi buy into that trap and withdraw his fast? Was the killing of close to a hundred thousand people any kind of humanitarian operation, is that how zero civilian casualty works? Clearly, what Karunanidhi was doing was just an eyewash. It was a brilliantly orchestrated drama—DMK, Chidambaram, Sri Lankan state, Rajapakse family—everyone had their vested interests in this absurd theatre.
On the other hand, I also think Tamil society has to rethink its approach to self-immolation. While it is certainly an act of sacrifice, it signals absolute desperation. It means we have resigned to fate that there is nothing we can do, and, that we no longer believe in our power as a collective. I think it is extremely self-defeating.