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Reflecting on Umakanthan’s Legacy

Ahilan Kadirgamar

Ahilan Kadirgamar is a co-editor of lines magazine: www.lines-magazine.org

On September 28th, 2004 T. Umakanthan, a leading Tamil democracy activist passed away in Paris. Umakanthan’s activism in France, spanning over a quarter century, paralleled the rise and decay of Tamil militancy. An important actor in the internationalization of the Tamil struggle, Umakanthan eventually became disillusioned as the struggles of the youth of his generation for the rights of Tamils deteriorated into internecine fighting and the progressive elimination of dissent.

In confronting the Sri Lankan state and its repression, Umakanthan had supported Tamil militancy whole-heartedly and became a member of the Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF). From the late seventies into the mid-eighties he and other expatriate activists mobilized support and resources to fight the increasingly repressive Sri Lankan State. With the decimation of political pluralism within the Tamil community, Umakanthan and a dissenting community helped preserve Tamil dissent, through numerous journals of varying political persuasions, ‘Illakiya Chandippu’ (literary meetings) and various other fora, even as the Tamil public sphere came under the hegemony of the LTTE. Yet that vibrant dissenting Tamil community in Paris was almost silenced when Umakanthan’s friend and fellow activist Sabalingam was gunned down by an LTTE assassin in broad day light on May Day 1994. The risks of Tamil dissenters indeed suddenly revealed themselves as shockingly real even in the West.

It was Umakanthan’s solidarity with struggles in Lanka for Tamil rights and the right to Tamil dissent that was his notable contribution to the Tamil community. And in such endeavors his internationalist orientation influenced his views as he learned from struggles in Nicaragua to those closer to home in Europe, always thinking critically about the experiences of struggles around the world and interpreting them for an activist Tamil audience. Through his prolific writings in various dissenting journals, his efforts to sustain ‘Illakiya Chandippu’ and other cultural fora, he exemplified a politics that made cultural production the venue of engagement. This contribution was crucial when other means became less viable in the face of Tamil on Tamil violence. An intellectual commitment to truth and honesty guided his activism and was his strength when numerous other Tamil intellectuals became crippled by fear, or slid down the path of opportunism and intellectual dishonesty.

In twenty-five years of work in the West, he helped numerous individuals to find a foothold in the West and to remain politically engaged. The younger generation of Tamil expatriate activists owe a great deal to Umakanthan. His life exemplified the best of solidarity activism. I met Umakanthan exactly two years ago in Paris, as I went to learn more about such activism in Europe and about the life and work of Sabalingam. I found him physically exhausted, but still intellectually vibrant as he battled with intellectual loneliness on the one hand and illness on the other, a combination that has eaten away some of Lanka’s best activist intellectuals. I am reminded of Newton Gunasinghe, whom I have never met, but through his writings and conversations with others have come to admire.

It was to such a physically deteriorating Umakanthan two years ago that I posed the question about the future of Tamil nationalism in the Tamil expatriate world. Would not the ease of travel to Lanka with the cease-fire, awaken the Tamil community out of this narrow and rabid exile nationalism? Will not the opening of communication to the North and East, awaken the expatriate masses to the plight of the people in their villages and towns of their origin? Umakanthan in his characteristic style responded with a cultural analogy. In the various temples that have sprung up in Paris, at the periodic temple festivals, the Tamil community in Paris comes out and drags the chariot around the temple. While we may think that they are dragging the chariot with reverence, those that are dragging the chariot think little about the chariot or even the god inside the chariot. They are more concerned about how they themselves are dressed, whether their friends are watching them and so on. So it is with politics of the expatriates, unless there are alternative social and political spaces for people to participate in, they will continue to drag the chariot of LTTE and the god of Tamil nationalism.

Umakanthan’s work then was to produce such an alternative social and political space, to preserve a space for Tamil dissent while demanding recognition of Tamil aspirations, and to promote pluralism and radical democracy. He was committed to a praxis of solidarity and action, enlightened by the social movements from around the world and struggles from his exiled land. In this sphere he has left behind a valuable legacy, and so will live through a generation of younger activists.


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