For Whom the Bell Tolls

Not a Hemingway novel.

What arrested my attention, while going through the web version of The Nation, was to find the photo of a couple who are in the process of signing some marriage documents. This photo (, we are told is of Shakthivel Illangeshwaran – a “convicted LTTE carder”, currently serving a twenty year jail term in Welikada – and of Gunasena Sudharshani: a “Sinhala damsel” with whom Illangeshwaran has fallen in love, even as he served the LTTE as an activist. Both are told to be from Vavuniya, while the “marriage” has been arranged for them as per the directive of the Prisons Superintendent. The photo is taken by Rukshan Abeywansha.

The photo is of interest, for Illangeshwaran and Sudharshani have one thing missing which you generally associate with an ordinary wedding snap – a smile. This, perhaps, is because the wedding takes place under “extraordinary circumstances” and one cannot be too Malthusian in such a context. What ails Illangeshwaran and Sudharshani, that they appear all pensive and solemn? Is it to do with Illangeshwaran’s 20 year ban – a sentence that would do no good to consummated love on a processed document? Or, is this just an iconic melancholy of a type of dismembered social membership: the LTTE carder in Welikada / Kalutara / Boossa / etc and their annexed associate?

In reality, Illangeshwaran and Sudharshani are no important to the state and its uncritical media than two monkeys are to a trampoline. In fact, these two are being served no better, and perhaps the pensiveness is caused by this realization that their lives are tied by the sharp knots of political chess. The name of the game, now, is “the humanitarian drip”. The recently injected Seline of “humanitarianism” is of a different order than the “humanitarian mission” to redeem a hitherto debated number of civilians, then, held back ruthlessly by the merciless LTTE as a human shield. The altruistic concern remains at no lesser degree as Illangeshwaran signs the document to Abeywansha’s flash.

Love, at times, is picture perfect

Since when were national news papers interested in the weddings of “convicts”? But, no – Illangeshwaran is specifically highlighted as being “LTTE” and Sudharshani, too, is no ordinary bride; but, a “Sinhala damsel”. The ethno-political definitions are crucial in this match, that one would believe that all politically advantageous couplings are done in heaven. This photograph, transmitted internationally, is the white dove of peace and reconciliation. In its diplomatic circulation what three years of embassy lobbying and diplomatic reasoning failed is expected to be set right. But, behind the media parade there lies the ugly truth of 1000s of youth prisoned and held without destiny or end for unlimited time periods.

20 year sentence – the heavier sentence is that they, for worse or better, are now married. Are Illangeshwaran and Sudharshani to have any “ordinary family life”? Are they to be parents? Supposing the couple are in their mid 20s, what future are they to map out when Illangeshwaran is to be released in his mid 40s? These are vital questions that impede the current case at hand. In reality, this marriage is an “official moment” by which the state, aided by its syndicate media, seeks mileage and credibility along the muddy grounds of reconciliation. The semiotics of the photograph – including its front page display – are closely maneuvered political and editorial chess; though it is done in a way that one would feel that the editor has not played the game since the late 1980s.

Tamil Political representatives have often lobbied for the release of LTTE carders, held behind iron for minor offenses and for ground level involvement with the Eelamist cause. A popular argument that has repeatedly been tabled by the mainstream Tamil representation is that all carder youth had known no rule in the North and the East than that of LTTE hegemony; that, from their childhoods itself, through growing years, they had been naturalized into the LTTE regime – surely, this is not to be considered a fault or as abnormal. In the same way, consent for military activity – in many cases – have not been obtained voluntarily; but, coercion and compulsion have always been an inevitable truth intermingled with the lives of war-torn youth. The option and the freedom of choice, for youth of Illangeshwaran’s caliber, are not the same as our choice to enlist with the UPFA, the SSP or the NUA.

Prof Sivathamby

In a recent collection of essays by the late Karthigesu Sivathamby – Being a Tamil and a Sri Lankan, published in 2006 – the articles repeatedly visit the same premise: the need in our intervention for reconciliation and “allowance” at a genuine, humanitarian level. I am reminded of one reference Sivathamby makes, with regard to the reopening of the Jaffna Library. On the day of the ceremonial reopening, Sivathamby argues, what was “unveiled” was the plaque to a half built library. He points out how the “politicians’ necessity” to excite / mislead the world overlooks the need for sustainability. In his essay he points out how some sections of the premises, A/C facilities, books and even the surrounding vicinity were not completed. But, the “political mileage” of this iconic resurrection is what the state requires in her bid to stay afloat.

The marriage of Illangeshwaran and Sudharshani – front page news –, therefore, is the right notes being touched by a media-driven, hunted regime. The sheriff of Nottingham sends Sir Guy to get the peasants to “polish up” when the King arrives in the county with all his might. The subjected peasant, too, plays a tune or signs a document. But, these are frivolous analogies – one has to accept bread when it is given; and be rest assured.

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