Jaffna Uni students’ killing: Two narratives

(Daily Mirror)

The tragic deaths of two Jaffna university students in an alleged police shooting raise disturbing questions. Police fired at the two when they were speeding away on a motorbike, allegedly ignoring orders to stop at a checkpoint.One was hit by a bullet, and lost the control of the bike, which crashed on to a wall. Police who admitted the students to hospital have now been accused of distorting evidence that they had met with an accident. The IGP was made to believe the same narrative, so was the President. It was only after the intervention by the neighbours, who claimed to have heard gunshots in the night and the fellow students who demanded justice and the intervention by Opposition Leader R. Sampanthan, that the police retracted the story. The President ordered an investigation, and the postmortem examination had revealed a gunshot injury on one of the students. Five police personnel were later interdicted. 

This is another example of how hard it is to clean up the rot in the state institutions, no matter who runs the government. It is easier to change governments, but not that easy to change the old habits of State institutions. Last week’s deaths could well have passed off as whatever the police wished, had it not been for the intervention by the President. However, the President having to intervene to secure justice to victims implies a major breakdown in the system.

It was not long ago that the police could tell with a straight face that handcuffed suspects jumped across a river or were shot when attempting to pull out a gun or knife from its hiding place while being blindfolded. The culture of impunity that was cultivated for decades, most blatantly under the former regime, would not wither away easily. And this is not a problem unique to Jaffna. Perhaps, had this happened in the South, and the victims were not university students, the government’s response would have been different. An ASP who was accused of pushing a youth to his death from a third floor of a building in Embilipitiya in January this year was later reinstated in service without much ado. If justice is delivered selectively and on the basis of political calculations, it would do little to invoke public confidence in the system. Also the use of torture to extract confessions is still widespread and legal remedies to counter that are complicated by the complicity of the JMOs. Preaching human rights to the cops would be useful, however, the most effective deterrence against such violations is increasing the cost of such actions by introducing enhanced punitive measures. That deterrence is eroded when the errant cops are reinstated in their posts after the public outcry dies out. Addressing those concerns would require concerted long-term efforts. In fact, even under the former regime, while its image was regularly blemished by the culpability in extra judicial killings, police managed to improve their relations among the people to some extent. However, like any other institutional building, this is a long haul process. If the government gets overwhelmed by security concerns as its predecessors had been, that process would be left unattended. That makes peace and stability in Jaffna vital for democratisation of the whole country.

Cartoon added by TW

In Jaffna, there are other existential factors that compound the situation. Residents there and their political representatives want it to be a normal City like any other town in the South. Jaffna nonetheless has been a normal city until the early 80s, when a nascent Tamil militancy took hold of it, partly exploiting lax security there at the time. Now the residual effects of the war and the continuation of the military infrastructures built there to fight terrorism hinder civil life and are a source of discontent. Local demands for the restoration of normality is perfectly justified, however they have been recently hijacked by an increasingly vocal and potentially dangerous minority within the Jaffna community. That group will do more harm to Tamils, than any good.

The immediate danger now is that the killings of two students, no matter their unresolved circumstances could be exploited by those groups for their extreme ends. If the recent history of Tamil nationalism is any guide, there are plenty of examples. The latest attempt of mass mobilization by Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran is attributed to his scheming to take the upper hand in a contest between him and parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran for the next generation of Tamil leadership. So far, Mr. Wigneswaran has been nice enough not to fish in troubled waters. He has been muted in his response to the two killings. However, forces he recently goaded through the mass rally Eluga Thamil (Rise Up Tamils) and other gimmicks may not exercise the same restraint.

That was the same lesson the TULF old guards who fostered the then nascent militancy learnt through the devastating consequences. Now the tragic loss of two lives provides these groups the perfect pretext to protest. However, if those sentiments are exploited to radicalize the youth, and to keep the Eelam pot boiling, long term repercussions for the Tamil community and the country at large would not be nice.

In the wake of the police shooting last week, two intelligence officers were attacked with swords in Jaffna on Sunday. It is naïve to rule out a link between the two incidents. Such attacks would only justify the continuation of military presence in the peninsula, which is not in the interest of the majority of people there or in the South.

Politics in Jaffna has been intrinsically linked to the health of democracy in the South. Extreme postures taken by the Tamil political leadership in the past and lately the Tamil militancy provoked a reaction which resulted in overall deterioration of democracy and civil liberties in the country. While two JVP insurrections were also instrumental in this overall decline, they were short lived, strains on the social fabric caused by them could have been repaired much easily if the country was not held hostage by the LTTE terrorism.
The same dynamics are at work today, though their impact is weakened largely due to the sanity that prevails in the current TULF leadership. Tamil people themselves are no longer romanticizing the Eelam struggle. However, Sri Lanka has a history of providing plentiful of willing foot soldiers to self-interested elites. Recent developments in Jaffna show the fragility in its peace. Those numerous political actors there and, especially those who are newly empowered, have a responsibility not to break that peace, because people in Jaffna will be the biggest losers if they ever do so.