Samanth Subramanian talks about his new book, This Divided Island that chronicles Sri Lanka's brutal past and uncertain present.
This Divided Island; Stories From The Sri Lankan War
What was the impetus to write this book?
In part, it was a sort of proximity I felt to the war. I am not from Sri Lanka, but I grew up in Madras and am Tamil, and so the war always felt very near, like a permanent presence in that state’s political atmosphere. So we in Tamil Nadu perhaps followed it more closely than most. In part, though, it was also simple journalistic curiosity, a quest for stories. Here’s this war, stretching over three decades, of which we know little, given how hard the practice of journalism in Sri Lanka was during those decades. So when the war ended — in fact, the very day the war ended — I thought to myself that an opportunity had opened up for journalists to go in search of the personal stories that were earlier inaccessible. I wanted to know how people got on with the business of living during the war, what the war did to the texture of their lives, and what Sri Lanka was like in the aftermath of the war.
Sri Lanka’s triumphalism has been challenged by human rights lobbies, the BBC’s reportage and by UN officials. Early on, your book says ‘the peace was curdling into something sour and unhealthy’. Explain.
Well, much of that is in the book itself — the details about how a huge opportunity for reconciliation, in the wake of the war, was missed, and about how a very straightforward majoritarianism set in. The state’s idea of maintaining the peace was to staff the island still more thickly with soldiers. The state’s idea of mending relations was to create a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, half-heartedly record testimonies, and then ignore the progressive ideas that the Commission’s report threw out.
The BJP government seems to have a friendly relationship with the Rajapaksa government. Given the conditions of uncertainty, what should be the way forward?
This is always a tricky question to answer. Morally, the right thing to do for India would be to use its enormous influence with Sri Lanka to persuade the government there to be serious about its reconciliation efforts and to cooperate with the UN investigation into war crimes. But the ‘right thing’ is very different from the ‘practical thing’, especially given the complexity of state-centre politics in India. I do think India should figure out what its goals in Sri Lanka are; for too long, policy thinking has been muddled about this, confusing short term benefit for long term vision. But beyond that, I’m not sure. It’s not a question my book seeks to answer.
A BJP delegate visited Sri Lanka to say that there are ‘more sandbags and police pickets in south Delhi than in Jaffna town’. Really?
In a word: No. The army presence is very strong and palpable. Do note also the distinction between ‘police’ and ‘army,’ which our BJP delegate clearly chose to elide over. An army being posted in force in a district is serious business. Our BJP delegate would have conniptions if the Indian Army similarly occupied his/her district.
Will the divide between Tamils and Sinhalese be breached?
The divide within society is clearly a deep and historical one, so there’s no reason to think that it will not persist into the significant future, especially given that there are no comforting signs that the state is trying to mend the divide. Has the war alienated the Tamils from the world around them? No, I don’t think so. I think societies outside Sri Lanka are capable of drawing a distinction between the Tigers and the civilians they claimed to represent.
What were your lasting impressions of the Tamils in the island?
They clearly form a community that feels insecure about its past and its future in its own country, which is a sad state of affairs. There was a massive chance to knit them back into the fabric of the country, politically and otherwise, after the war ended. That chance was squandered — crushed, in fact.
Why do you close the book on a grim note?
Well, the book closes on a grim note because Sri Lanka can be a grim place at the moment. I’m always reluctant to forecast hope or the lack of it. Such situations can turn on a dime, depending on who comes to power or what those in power desire. And the island’s people themselves are so buoyant and unfailingly generous that certainly we can see Sri Lanka’s intrinsic nature as a sign of hope. But equally, Sri Lanka’s institutions have proven easy to manipulate, which is not promising at all. Hence my reluctance to prophesise: the country — ANY country — is full of contradictory signs and forces, and the landscape is always complicated and tangled.