The barbarity and “unspeakable wrongness” of capital punishment — of “cutting a life short when it is in full tide” — has rarely been brought out as powerfully and as movingly as in George Orwell’s 2000-word essay, “A Hanging.” Published in 1931 in The Adelphi, a British literary magazine, this journalistic gem describes the execution of a criminal in Burma — where Eric Arthur Blair, which was Orwell’s real name, served in the British Imperial Police between 1922 and 1927. Republished in The Hindu OP-ED
I woke up on the 29th of August to the news of a woman having immolated herself. She had entered the Kanchipuram taluk collector’s office and set herself on fire the previous day, in the hope of preventing the hanging of three fellow Tamils and human beings. The Supreme Court has ordered Perarivalen, Murugan and Santhan to be executed on the 9th of September for their alleged roles in the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. Few outside Tamil Nadu (T.N) know the complexity of this case, along with the discrepancies between the Court verdict, the evidences presented through the CBI interrogation and the findings of the Jain commission. Later I came to know that her name was Senkodi, and she was a young but active member of the social movement Makkal Mandram (Peoples assembly/forum). Quite contrary to some English media’s presentation of the movement as Tamil chauvinistic, Makkal Mandram (and Senkodi) was involved in numerous struggles against slum eviction, caste and labor oppression and had a reputation for supporting oppressed peoples’ struggles. Such a simplistic approach is also seen in the national media, especially the mainstream English media, and there is little attempt to understand the complexities of the situation – Senkodi’s death, the protest against the executions and the T.N assembly’s unanimous resolution.
Murugan | Shanthan | Perarivalan
On 30th August, after days of massive state-wide protests by students, lawyers, social organizations, writers and movie persona, the Madras High court ordered an 8 week stay on the execution. The T.N assembly then passed a unanimous resolution on proposing clemency to the three on death row by reducing their ‘punishment’ to life. What is important to keep in mind is that there are many, rather compelling factors that caused the T.N assembly to act collectively on this case and that there is a social and political historical context for the Tamils to be infuriated over the central government’s dealing with Tamils in India and Sri Lanka. It is in such a context that one should understand the recent mass protests and activism in Tamil Nadu.
This approach to understand the agitation is very clearly non-existent among the mainstream national as well as English media. Whether this is out of ignorance or is consciously done remains to be answered. One thing which is clear is that these media’ attitudes only strengthen the notion that in the Hindi heartland and amongst Indian patriots there is an apathy towards the oppression and hardships of Tamils and a basic disrespect towards the peoples’ collective sentiments and grievances. The same day as the resolution was passed, NDTV aired a news report on the issue, which it arrogantly termed ‘Rajiv murder: Politics triumphs over Justice’. Barkha Dutt is seen rigorously emphasizing that justice on behalf of Rajiv is falling victim to emotionalism and politics in Tamil Nadu. Janata Party’s Subramanian Swamy strengthens this opinion and remarks that the T.N assembly action reflects cowardice. The previous day in the Tamil news channel Putihya Thalaimurai Subramanian Swami makes a similar remark and is seen referring to the protesters who oppose the executions as betrayers of the nation. D.R Kartikeyan and Ex-supreme court Justice Soli Sorabjee unashamedly say that the investigation, interrogation and the verdict was ‘water proof’ and that there is no point claiming the innocence of the three, and that if ever they should seek to escape the ropes they should profess that they feel guilt and remorseful for their crime.
There is thus no space for the viewer to scrutinize the claims of innocence and political imprisonment of the inmates. Ms. Dutt is also seen asking Congress spokesman Renuka Chaudry that if she put aside her diplomatic caution, as an Indian citizen, feel disturbed that a state Assembly can vote to give clemency to the murderers of the nation’s Prime minister.Twitter messages are seen on the screen stating that an example should be set by executing them, and Subramanian Swamy says if they are given clemency, what signals does it send then to aspiring Prime Minister assassins.
There is a complete absence of analysis, of what the deep-rooted causes are of the affair in T.N. There is also a complete lack of articulation of the actions of the IPKF in Sri Lanka during the late 1980s. Not stopping there the whole news report seemed to build a notion that the opposition to the execution in T.N is due to Tamil nationalism, as Swamy says ‘parochial sentiments’ and emotionalism. The movements of several thousands protesters, few hunger strikes, the death of Senkodi and various road blocks by students is simply reduced to as being fuelled by emotionalism and parochial sentiments. Such representation implies that there is no social and historical base for Tamils to be agonized or assert grievances towards the centre. Let me briefly introduce some of the main pillars of the sociopolitical and historical context for the mass protest against the execution and show the magnitude and astonishing continuity of the apathy displayed by the Centre.
The IPKF period, which Swamy simply calls a ‘policy’, is silenced from Indian history, text books and in the classrooms. When calling it a policy he unjustly absolves the IPKF of all responsibility for social actions that had severe consequences on the people of the north and east of Sri Lanka i.e. for Tamil speaking people of the island. During the period of 1987-1990, the Tamil traditional homeland saw severe destruction of lives, livelihood and environment. The ‘peace keeping force’ which at its peak numbered 100 000 men were pitched in a guerilla war with the LTTE numbering around 5000. The triggering of this war is complex, but the IPKF become notorious for committing grave human rights abuses, by deploying scorched earth tactics and collateral damage to the Tamil population. Till this day the Indian government denies any wrong doing and has indeed kept most of its population in dark of the ‘policy’.
The central Government’s response to and handling of the killings of T.N fishermen by the Sri Lankan Navy (SLN) over the past three decades is not only irresponsible but also shows an arrogant, uncaring but deliberate passiveness towards Tamils.Neither severe condemnation nor apprehensive actions is forthcomingfrom the Centre over the Sri Lankan authorities as result of these killings. Therefore an emboldened SLN indulges in arbitrary arrests, torture and murder of straying Tamil Nadu fishermen, and till date over 530 fishermen have suffered death as a consequence. In stark contrast to this is the Central Government’s response to the Pakistani Authorities when they apprehend and subsequently incarcerate Gujarati or Bombay fishermen. When these fishermen are arrested and brought to Karachi, the national media, the Hindi heartland and the Central government erupts with anger. National media covers the stories, Central government threatens the Pakistani government with severe punishment and protests commence in the Hindi heartland urging the governments to save their fellow countrymen. When T.N fishermen are mercilessly killed by SLN not a single voice emerges from the Central Government. The people of T.N are apparently not considered as equal countrymen nor worthy of using time on protesting their death. This contrast is by now well internalized by many Tamils in Tamil Nadu and it is reflected in many of the recent protest, unfortunately it seems like the Centre and mainstream National media is again oblivious to this historical base for pent-up anger against Centre.
Then there is the Genocidal war which happened in Sri Lanka from November 2008 till May 2009 and the Center and Mainstream national media’s responses to it. While the war ravaged the Tamil dominated north-eastern areas of the island, it was covered frequently in Tamil media and massive protests emerged in T.N, desperately urging the Centre, to stop the war ruthlessly conducted on their fellow Tamil speakers in Sri Lanka. National media, both Hindi and English, apparently missed out on the noisy happenings in their neighboring island state. The news which was reported during the war, presented it as a legitimate war on terror, where achievements of the progressing Sri Lankan army in terms of area captured or militants killed where illuminated and LTTE was solely held responsible for civilian deaths. The Central government and the Indian state were passive and content with issuing statements such as ‘…we urge both parts to show restraint for the sake of civilians…’. Allegations that India assists the Sri Lankan government against the LTTE and Tamil civilians started to circulate among Tamil media circles as the last war ravaged on, but only after the war’s end and especially when conformed with the release of the Wikileaks Indian cables in 2011 did the allegations gain substance among the hitherto cynical elements in India. Later it become clear through many sources that India had indeed been intricately connected in facilitating the war on behalf of the Sri Lankan Government. This was done through warding off international pressure, providing logistic information through unmanned aircraft Vehicles (UAV) and military hardware, weapon and ammunitions. Even the magnitude of human rights violations committed by the Sri Lankan state was not reported in the national media, only the atrocities committed by the LTTE were brought to light.
For two long years most people outside Tamil Nadu, and even the upper classes within T.N were in ignorance about the genocidal nature of the war. This was reflected in the English and national media reports. It was also evident that many in the upper classes in T.N mirrored the same apathy as the central and national media in relation to the genocidal war in Sri Lanka. The whole war as represented in mainstream Indian media unfortunately suited the interest of Colombo. Through presenting it as a final and successful war against the world’s most effective terrorist organization, the deliberate nature of the ‘impacts’ on the civilian population caught in between was left unaccounted for, the Sri Lankan armed forces aerial and artillery bombardment of Government proclaimed no-fire zones, hospitals and heavily concentrated human presence were left untold.
In contrast, social organization, students, activist, sections of the masses, and politicians (albeit in the interest of populism) in T.N were behind massive protests against the conduct of the war, firmly saying this was a genocidal war against the island Tamils, but their frustration and grievances were not responded to by the Central government. In mid January 2009, Muthukumar, a young and promising journalist, wrote of a long letter in Tamil stating his frustration over the inaction of the international community and the Indian government to stop the last war, and explained that he is to commit an act out of desperation since it is the only thing he thought would bring an attention and momentum to the protest against the war. On 29th of January 2011, Muthukumar immolated himself to death, but the international community and Indian government ignored his calls, and Indian mainstream media turned a blind eye. This event and the central govt. response to the protests during 2008-2009 have also reaffirmed the notion of apathy towards Tamils.
Senkodi the young social activist who immolated herself to death, stated she was in a similar state as Muthukumar in her letter, and hoped her death could bring some much-needed attention and scrutiny to the protesters and her demands. What astonishes me is in fact the continuity of the Central governments apathy towards Tamil agony, protests and demands and the mainstream national media’s’ inability to understand this. If one wants to avoid a further divide and alienation between the Indian state, the national media and the mainstream Hindi public who embrace the state-centric views on the one side and Tamils who are conscious of (the former) apathy from North on the other , one must fundamentally understand the demand and the grievances of the protesting Tamils and then from a national media perspective report the developments of the protest and dissatisfaction of Tamils in a just social and political context. The national media must step away from its state-centric stand, it’s out of place patriotism and resist reductionist approaches.
That nationalism can function as opium for the masses is in fact more applicable to nation-state centered nationalism and patriotism, such awareness should be present among national media. In this case, the Tamil’s grievances are well based in the regions social history. Strong emotions and sentiments are in fact part of the fuelling factor for the protests, but they are not of an imagined nature. It is ironic that the patriotism on part of the national media, very evident in questions posed by Mrs .Dutt which is irrational and causing harm, and it is emotionalism embedded in such attitudes that shrouds them from the will to genuinely understand the recent mass protest, the self-immolation of Senkodi and the T.N resolution.
- The fire lit by Senkodi by Prema Revathi translated from Tamil by Ponni Arasu (kafila.org)
 See: ”In the Name of Peace: IPKF Massacres of Tamils in Sri Lanka” a book complied and documented by the Northeast Secretariat on Human Rights (NESOHR) and was published by the Delhi Tamil Students Union in 2011, to get an idea of the destruction caused by IPKF.
 IPKF is conveniantly forgotten, left unanalysed or reduced to an paragraph in academic books on India as well as books on Indian history, e.g. see ”Reinvention of India:Liberalization, Hindu Nationalism and Popular Democracy” by S.Corbridge and J.Harriss or ”Modern south asian history: History, Culture and Political Economy” by J.Ayesha and S.Bose.
 See: http://www.savetnfisherman.org/ for documentations and links to news reports about the deaths and for demands of protesters in T.N see: http://save-tamils.org/component/content/article/4-protest/193-save-tamil-nadu-fishermen-from-sri-lankan-navy-it-professionals-hunger-strike.html
 India’s paranoia that China could utilize any alienation between New Delhi and Colombo is, even 2 years after the war, still directing the Central governments passive approach towards Colombo and its diplomatically ignoring of demands from T.N related to punitive actions against Colombo, see: http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/2623.
 The book ”Sri Lanka:From War to Peace” was authored by journalist Nitin Anant Gokhale in late 2009 and reveals information about how the Indian Government secretly abetted the Sri Lankan Govt in the war, but to my knowledge this was not circulated in national media at the time. see: http://news.rediff.com/slide-show/2009/aug/20/slide-show-1-how-india-helped-lanka-destroy-the-ltte.htm.
 For a report, Muthukumar’s death and a english translation of the letter see: http://www.tamilnet.com/art.html?catid=79&artid=28208