The Politics of Grief

V.V. Ganeshananthan has written an incredible essay for Granta Magazine on grieving the tens of thousands Tamil civilians killed at the end of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009. The loss of human life on such a scale can seem incomprehensible, but for Ganeshananthan, that loss resonates with visceral specificity: “My heart still seizes, becomes that calculator, in any sizable space designed to contain a certain number of people.”

The Sri Lankan government, of course, has denied that it knowingly shelled civilians who were pinned between army forces and the last of the rebel Tigers, who — as Ganeshananthan points out — also had a long, ugly history of violence against civilians and dissenters in their quest for a separate homeland.

Ganeshananthan notes that speaking her grief is a political act, a risk that opens her up to criticism from those who deny that these deaths occurred, or worse, deny that the deaths are worth grieving. She also discusses how she has viewed this conflict from afar, as an ethnic Tamil born and raised in the United States by her Tamil-Sri Lankan parents. I share some aspects of this identity: I, too, grew up with this far-away war, also born and raised in the U.S. I am ethnically Sinhalese, however, and this fact enabled me, for most of my life, to disassociate myself from the reality of Sri Lanka’s civil war. My family wouldn’t be considered extremely political — but seeing oneself as apolitical in a war like this one is a luxury — and delusion — of privilege.

In recent years, the brutality of the Rajapakse government in Sri Lanka has made it impossible for me to maintain this false neutrality, which I recognize now as complicity. As Ganeshananthan mentions, criticism of the Sri Lankan government has been, for too long and by too many, mislabeled as support for terrorism. And fear of being misidentified this way is no excuse for keeping silent about the horrors of the 2009 mass killings and the continued horrors of the IDP camps where hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians are currently detained.

I hope you’ll read V.V. Ganeshananthan’s essay. Also, you can find out more about the situation in Sri Lanka at Groundviews.org, a citizen journalism site focusing on humanitarian issues in SL. Another useful site is Lanka Solidarity, a North American, multi-ethnic organization focused on democracy and pluralism in Sri Lanka.

That’s all for now,

Kushlani

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