A message from India to the Sri Lankan leadership on the controversial demolition of a memorial for war victims at the Jaffna University appears to have contributed to authorities’ decision to “rebuild” the structure on campus.
A day after news of the late-night destruction of the monument broke, Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka Gopal Baglay met Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. The meeting was kept under wraps, amid murmurs in Colombo of India intervening. “The Indian High Commissioner met the PM [last weekend] and they discussed the Jaffna University memorial matter,” PM Rajapaksa’s media secretary Rohan Welivita told The Hindu on Sunday.
It all began late evening on January 8, when Jaffna University authorities bulldozed a memorial erected two years ago, to commemorate the scores of civilians killed in the final phase of Sri Lanka’s civil war in Mullivaikkal, in 2009. The sudden, overnight removal of sculpture — of several hands held out of water – set off spontaneous student protests, and drew sharp criticism of the attempt to stifle Tamils’ right to remember their loved ones lost in war.
In a complete U-turn by early morning on Monday, the Vice University’s Vice-Chancelor, who had earlier given order for the demolition, met students on a hunger strike, and promised to “rebuild” a monument at the same spot, and even laid the foundation stone for the structure. The change in his stance raised questions, as other protests by Tamils in Sri Lanka’s post-war context — by students, by families of forcibly disappeared persons, or those trying to reclaim military-held land — rarely saw such a swift response from authorities.
VC S. Srisatkunarajah who earlier told The Hindu that his demolition order followed instructions from “defence, intelligence, Education Ministry, everyone”, later said authorities wanted him to “diffuse the situation”. Speaking of reactions abroad, he said “Tamil Nadu is boiling.”
Tamil Nadu leaders including Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami, DMK president M.K. Stalin and MDMK general secretary Vaiko had condemned the move. Pointing to the development a day after External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar concluded his visit to Sri Lanka – during which time he urged the Sri Lankan government to address Tamils’ concerns — Mr. Stalin urged PM Modi to “strongly condemn” the demolition. While New Delhi made no official comment on the development, diplomatic channels were activated, it appears.
Colombo-based weekend newspaper Sunday Times reported that High Commissioner Baglay told Premier Rajapaksa that the demolition “could lead to protests erupting in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.” “Premier Rajapaksa went into action promptly,” according to the newspaper’s political column on Sunday.
Prof. Srisatkunarajah has said the rebuilt monument would commemorate “peace” rather than war. “We have a constituted a committee, including student members, to look into erecting the structure,” he told The Hindu on Sunday.