Cricket bridges ethnic divide in Lanka

Updated on Mar 24, 2007 02:29 PM IST
Cricket has shown, time and again, that an all-embracing, multi-ethnic Sri Lankan identity does exist, writes PK Balachandran from Colombo.
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None | ByPK Balachandran, Colombo

With an armed conflict on for the last two decades, Sri Lankans may seem to be irreconcilably divided on ethnic lines. But Sri Lankan cricket has shown, time and again, that an all-embracing, multi-ethnic Sri Lankan identity does exist, and is a force to reckon with.

This was strikingly evident when Team Lanka took on Team India and gave the latter a drubbing in the World Cup match on Friday.

Tamils, whether of cosmopolitan Colombo or the war-battered Tamil-dominated North-East, whether indigenous or of Indian origin, rooted for Team Lanka, almost to a man.

Some of them were pro-LTTE politicians!

The across-the-ethnic board support for Team Lanka buried the insidious but popular myth that the frustrated Tamil minority roots for India in a Sri Lanka-India cricket match.

To set the record straight, the Tamils' attachment to Team Lanka is not because it has in it, Muthiah Muralitharan, a Tamil.

Quite unexpectedly, nobody mentioned that he or she was supporting Sri Lanka because Murali was playing for it.

"With all the differences, when it comes to the national cricket team, Sri Lankans, irrespective of ethnicity, feel very much part of the larger Sri Lankan family.

This was amply evident when Muralitharan, along with some Sinhalese cricketers, went to Jaffna.

They were mobbed," said A Kandappah, a Colombo-based Tamil businessman of Indian origin.

Sukumar Rockwood, who had worked for the Red Cross and is very familiar with the conditions in the war zone, said: "I am a Jaffna man, a Tamil, a Christian, and of Indian origin, but I am very loyal to Sri Lanka.

In my view, this land and its people are beautiful. I guess it is the politicians who spoil things."

"We are not Indians to support India," retorted Shamini, Sukumar's wife, who is a Hindu Tamil.

"In these matters the country is the thing," she said.

S Kishore, an MP of the pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and a human rights activist, said unhesitatingly: "I have always supported Sri Lanka, because I am a Sri Lankan."

This sentiment was echoed by Sashi Kumar, a Tamil journalist in the eastern district of Trincomalee, who is covering the war in the North-East.

"Even the LTTE feels that sports should be viewed differently from politics," said N Vithiatharan, a Tamil from Trincomalee, who edits the Tamil daily Sudar Oli.

"In 1996, during the finals which Sri Lanka won, the LTTE had set up TV sets in its camps, and the cadres were cheering the Sri Lankan team!

All this in the midst of war and the exodus of Tamils from Jaffna," he recalled.

According to Vithiatharan, sports bodies in the North East are active participants in the affairs of the Sri Lankan Cricket Board, even determining who will be president!

But doubtless, there are India supporters. A resident of Jaffna said: "The younger generation here supports Sri Lanka, but the older generations have a soft corner for India!"

"Bad experience with the Sri Lankan state and the long war are reasons for many North-Eastern Tamils feeling alienated," explained a pro-government Tamil politician.

Currently, the mood in the LTTE stronghold of Kilinochchi is probably anti-Sri Lanka, given the intensity of the military confrontation with the Sri Lankan forces.

A cadre who answered the phone in the LTTE's media unit said: "I support India like other people here."

Some Tamil families are divided. "I am an India supporter, but my wife supports Sri Lanka. She taunts me by calling me a traitor!" said a Tamil professional in Colombo.

Summing up, the head of the Confederation of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA) Jeevan Thiagarajah, a Jaffna Tamil, said: "Bluntly put, there is no ethnic conflict as such among the common people of Sri Lanka.

The ethnic conflict here is brewed by a small group and is kept going by the same group. At the ground level the Sri Lankan identity is intact."

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