Living Indian in Sri Lanka

Jaffna Music Festival 25-27 March 2011



As a Tamil from India, living in Sri Lanka is a curious experience,

one that tends to make you question your ideas about how allegiances

work and how your identity can distort the way you are perceived.


In the north, reactions from Sri Lankan Tamils are complex. The bond

of language — which, after all, has driven Tamil nationalism through

the last 40 years — is still strong, and speaking in Tamil can create

an automatic warmth. But this then gets muddled. Tamils who have

suffered at the hands of the LTTE blame India — blame, in particular,

Tamil Nadu’s politicians — for training the Tigers, funding them,

stoking their cause. Tamils who have sympathised with — or even

fought with — the LTTE blame India for betraying the cause in the

final months of the war. This is, I soon realised, a no-win situation.


Relations become further complicated when the question of India’s

continuing role comes up. Many Sri Lankan Tamils realise that India is

still potentially their only powerful international ally, but they are

wary of India’s backslapping cordiality with Mahinda Rajapakse and his

government. This was assuaged, in some part, when India voted against

Sri Lanka in the UN’s Human Rights Council earlier this year, but

caution — born, no doubt, out of the grisly months of 2009 — still

persists. To trust or not to trust?


In Colombo and further south, in casual conversations about the war,

assumptions are made quickly: If you have a Tamil name, you must be

sympathetic to the Tigers’ cause. Fortunately, this no longer stirs up

any animosity, but even the fact that the assumption is made speaks

volumes about the divide between the Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri

Lanka. India is viewed, as it is in the north, with a mixture of love

and hate: love, for its staunch support in 2009; hate, for its

inconsistent foreign policy, and more recently, for its vote in the



Another Indian friend living in Colombo went to her longtime

neighbourhood doctor the day the vote was announced, only to be

subjected to a volley of abuse. “Why did your country vote against

us?” the doctor shouted. “What is wrong with your country?”  She hasn’t

gone back to that doctor since.


Identity is inescapable, as Sri Lanka’s history has taught us. An

individual is clothed in layers of identity — linguistic,

nationalist, ethnic, religious — which are difficult to doff. But

doff them we must, if we are to begin relating to each other as

individuals, and not as symbols of the nations we happen to belong to.




  1. Gillian Sathanandan says:

    Our identities are so multifaceted and so individual that there are no two exactley alike. If we all realised this, then perhaps the world might become a safer place in which to live.

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