Sunday, 17 March 2013

Porum Valiyum (War and Pain)

Porum Valiyum (War and Pain) - by Savitri Advithanandhan is a collection of short stories, based on real incidents happened during the Sri Lanka - LTTE war which had lasted for almost three decades.

The book's introduction is left blank awaiting completion from the late LTTE leader Prabhakaran. In the place of introduction there is a photo of Prabhakaran with a map of the Tamil Eelam in the background (Unlike the photo in this link, the book shows only the Eelam boundary) with a note 'munnurai ethirparpudan' (introduction expecting). The book also has a foreword with a quote from Kirupanandha Variyar on Prabhakaran and promises that Prabhakaran would resurface alive again like the way he did in 88/89 when there were reports that he was dead.

The book has been published in Tamil Nadu by Cheran - a prominent Tamil movie director. Apparently Cheran was so touched by reading these stories and wanted to publish the book himself, hence started a publishing house. This is the first publication from the house. It is a bit surprising that the book has been published in Tamil Nadu first and not in any of the European countries (where there is a significant Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora) in spite of the author herself being from London. Also surprisingly a book about Sri Lankan Tamils' pain and struggle carries no foreword from any of the Sri Lankan Tamils. Probably the book is targeted at Indian Tamils?

Each chapter in the book starts with a quote from world 'leaders' which includes some of the ruthless dictators like Che, Mao and Prabhakaran himself.  The quotes are of revolutionary theme and advocates struggle for freedom until death.

Though the book is titled as war and pain, it doesn't depict the horrors of the war from a neutral stand. The book is more about the sufferings of the Tamils and glorifies LTTE on every possible opportunity. No story goes without mentioning the sacrifices of the LTTE and their struggle for free Eelam. Even while writing on the July 23rd 1983 attack on the army patrol by LTTE, which eventually triggered a series of atrocities against Tamils, the author plays down LTTE's role by indicating that the attack was used only as an excuse to target Tamils.

In one of the stories, the author narrates emotionally how the Tamils were forced to vacate their homes within a short notice by the Sri Lankan Army, but fails to mention about the 70,000 odd Muslims expelled in a similar way by the LTTE from the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. Similarly other incidents like the massacre of Sri Lankan Police officers and the bombing of Central Bank by LTTE has no mention whatsoever. It appears that these events have been conveniently overlooked. Because of this selective story telling, one can't avoid the feeling that 'Porum Valiyum' is biased and doesn't give the full picture.

Though the stories depict the horrors of the war, a war's effect on civilians and how it has caused irreversible damage for generations to come, the one-sidedness of these stories and the explicit praise for the tigers could make a reader with a neutral stand uncomfortable. Also in every other story, either the protagonist or his/her family member is a LTTE cadre or related to LTTE. If this is indeed true, then it blurs the distinction between Tamil civilians and Tamil armed forces and makes it more difficult to empathize with them, especially when LTTE is proscribed as a terrorist organisation in 32 countries.1

These shortcomings in the stories could prevent the book from reaching a wider audience and limit itself to staunch LTTE supporters and those who are looking for another military solution. For the rest, who are hoping for a relatively peaceful political solution to end this conflict, the book will be only a disappointment.

1.LTTE - Wikipedia

Saturday, 2 March 2013

History in Schools

Recently there was a news in England about whether History should be taught in schools in a chronological order.

I think the real question is should history be taught in school at all? Especially in countries where there is little respect for freedom of speech and where educational institutions are funded, accredited by a government body.

When educational institutions or it's syllabus is controlled by a group of people i.e say a government body, then what is taught in these institutions could be more less become a government propaganda. For example, according to a wiki entry teaching evolution vs creation in schools is a long standing debate in many countries.1 It also cites how politicians and political parties in various countries had tried to influence the teaching of creation or evolution in educational institutions.

If this is the case for a subject that can be scientifically debated, it gets trickier when it comes to cultural studies like history. A quote from the movie Braveheart summarizes it - "...but history is written by those who have hanged heroes".2 It takes years together for historians to come up with a different take on the actual events happened. And if their version is different against the accepted version, then their work is subject to restriction and ban.

In countries where the academic institutions and its syllabus are controlled by a set of people, they more or less decide what students should learn from their past. Any part of history that is against what they believe in or that could damage the reputation of their beloved leaders is suppressed.

Besides suppressing the texts that are objectionable, control over cultural studies could also pave way to selectively choose a part of history to portray some one as a leader or traitor. LTTE's propaganda in schools for voluntary recruitment is one such example.

"LTTE cadres frequently go into schools to speak about the LTTE, sometimes showing films that show LTTE service in a positive light. For instance, according to the Trincomalee Senior Superintendent of Police, the LTTE in July 2004 provided area teachers and principals with exams on the history of the LTTE to give to their students. "They [LTTE] collect them afterwards. This is part of their propaganda work. The teachers and principals can't refuse because they need to survive. They have to carry out their instructions."3

There are similar examples in other war-ridden countries. In a more civilized country, similar propaganda is possible when the schools are funded by the government or requires accreditation from a government body. In fear of losing funding or accreditation, the schools could be limited to teach only what is allowed by the approving bodies.

 In India, Rohinton Mistry's 'Such a Long Journey' was withdrawn from the syllabus of Mumbai University because it had some derogatory remarks about Maharashtrians and Bal Thackeray.4 Similarly A.K. Ramanujan's 'Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translations' was removed from the University of Delhi syllabus as it contradicts the popular version of Ramayana.5  This shows how anything controversial could be possibly censored unless there exists a legitimate independent body that could monitor the contents of the syllabus and prevents censorship.

History is not one dimensional. History is best learnt only when one has access to its multiple perspectives. Access to the woes of India's partition tales would make one realize that the common notion of bloodless India's war of independence is very much a false propaganda. 
History taught in schools with its content enforced by a small group of powerful people makes it more or less one dimensional and a far-fetched reality.