Interview with Elam Tamil writer V.I.S. Jayapalan

"I strongly stood for the self-determination of the Eelam Tamils, and in opposing the national oppression and the massacres levied out to the Tamils by the state."

V.I.S Jayapalan was born in 1944, in the town of Uduville in the northern province of Sri Lanka, which is the Tamil homeland, known as Eelam. 

During the 1960s he was associated with radical anti-caste movements and with the Communist Party of Ceylon. He was also a prolific poet, and his poems and short stories have earned him to be considered amongst the finest Eelam Tamil poets of the modern era. He was the first student union president of Jaffna University in the late 1970s, during the early phases of the rising militancy among the Eelam Tamil youth against the national oppression and structural genocide levied by the unitary state. He was also associated with Eelam Tamil militancy, and his literary works reflected some of the dynamics wrought upon the Tamil people and homeland by the decades of national oppression and war. 

Could you tell us about the environment of your early life, and what influenced you into writing and social activism?

My mother was a teacher and was interested in academic pursuits. She was quite attached to Tamil and English poetry, as well as a reader of biblical and religious literature.

My father was a business man, who wanted accumulate land and wealth, and he eventually become a notable land owner.  He started out by humble means as a salesman on bicycle in the Sinhala south during the 1930s, where he was involved in the distribution of cigars. He also became an ardent supporter of the Federal Party (The Tamil political party which advocated federalism as a solution to the national question of Eelam Tamils) during the 1950s.

My father surprisingly was very fond of Tamil classical poetry, as well as modern poets such as Bharatiyar, as well as Sinhala poetry.

When I was young I saw many poems cut out from magazine and newspapers, my mother had the habit of copying such poems and collating them in a big exercise book.  Despite my parents’ different orientations, literature is what united them. This created an encouraging climate despite all the fights between my mother and father, and the love and hate relationship I had, troublesome as it was, with my father.  The poetry made my turbulent home more sober and provide a space for me.

When I was five years old, our father compelled us to move from Uduville to the islet of Nedunthivu (Delft), which was the island of our ancestors. There I came to mingle with the peasants and ordinary working people, who sang folksongs and whose speech was rich in poetical proverbs. When people spoke, they spoke in picturesque language and also with many allegories filled with images. This astonished me, and it can be said that my poetry begins with influences from both my home and my environment around the people. I began my early poetry with words of the village folk of my father’s island.  By the age of twenty I had written a lot of poetry and epical literature.

By my mid-20s I started to dislike my writings, due to the fact that all my writings had obvious influences from early modern Tamil writers such as Bharatiyar (a revolutionary Tamil writer associated with the Indian independence struggle in colonial India), other modern Tamil poets, as well as Omar Khayyam and some English poems my mother used to read.

So at this point I abandoned all my previous work, and started to read and study Tamil classical poetry and the ancient literatures of Sangam (a body of literary works in Tamil written between 300 BCE to 200 A.D.).

Bharatiyar is a powerful modern Tamil poet, but he has his limitations as his acquaintance of the language begins from medieval Tamil literature and poetry- not the ancient classical Sangam tradition. He starts from the medieval siddhas as well as Kamban, Sanskrit classical literature, and English poetry.

The vesture of Tamil classical knowledge and poetry is Sangam, and I was very much influenced by reading it.

Bharatiyar imagined India as a united entity and Tamil Nadu (The Tamil state within the Indian union and located in the southern reaches of Indian subcontinent) as being part of it, and describe generalized aspects of the Pan-Indian idea and land filled with contradictions. Hence he displayed a structural limitation in immersing himself with the sentiments of the popular masses of the Tamils and the particular images and symbols they sport.

Our classical poetry speaks about the particular landscape, or the social landscape of the Tamil speaking world and the connection between nature and man. (12.15) They make images and allegories from nature – human relationships. They also classified the Tamil speaking world as constitute by five socio-geographic entities, called tinais.  That is the invention of the Sangam poetry, and one is shocked to see the depth of the social understanding of human and nature extolled by these ancient poets.

Neytal is the sea and coastal land, and the people who live and interact with that landscape (fishermen, salt producers, traders in the region). Mullai is jungle and pasture lands adjoined to the jungle and the people who live in these lands (cow and goat herders).

Kurunji, is the mountainous territory, where hill tribes are associated.

Marutam, are the agricultural lands and the associated irrigated landscape, associated with farmers.  The poets say the Marutam is created by man, while Mullai and Neytal land is manipulated and engineered by humans.

Palai, is the dry zone covered with dry forest and bushes, open plains and arid land, the poets narrated that the people living here are hunters, bandits, as well as fierce warriors. The communities are presented as seasonal settlers who migrate to other tinais for work during the dry seasons. Many of the poems set in Palai, are themes on young men migrating for work outside, and the longing between his lover and he.

Question: You were associated with peasant based struggles and the anti-caste militant struggle of the 1960s and early 1970s, then you were the first student union leader of Jaffna university. You were also associated with the revolutionary armed phase of the Tamil liberation struggle.

Could please tell us about the relationship between your engagements and your literary output?

So the second phase of my literary activity was influenced by Sangam literature, and at this time I also became a well-known militant in the Vanni areas. My first poem during this period, is ‘Palai aru naraguthu’ (The Pali river moves) which touches upon the legacy of the Tamil chieftain Vanni Pandara Vanniyan. In the early 1800s the Vanni area was ruled by Pandara Vanniyan who fought the British imperialists. It describes the contemporary sequences involving the river and the local Tamil communities. I describe women bathing in the river as it flows and scenes from the history of the river revolving around Pandara Vaanniyan during his resistance against British colonial rule. It also touches upon the socio-economic setting in the villages dependent on the river with scenes of ploughing taking place in the paddy fields. I end the poem like this: ‘I believe the footprint of Pandara Vanniyan still exists in the sands of the riverbed of Paali. This is a land where he dwelt, and where he has drunk water with his hands from these very rivers, these are carried on today as practices which still are in existence. “

I was here saying indirectly that the Tamil peoples national spirit of resistance still exist in the Vanni, I wrote this in 1969, before the national liberation struggle commenced in Eelam (in the 1970s).

Many business elements within the Tamil community supported the federal Party. I was influenced by their federal ideas when I was young. But later during the anti-caste struggle (1968) I was influenced by the Communist Party. The Communist Party had a deep contradiction, as they did not stand for the national rights of the Tamils. At that time China and USSR were close to the Sri Lankan government, headed by Srimavo Bandaranaike and the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP), hence they instructed the Communist Parties not to oppose the Sri Lankan Government. Due to the geo-political considerations of the Chinese and USSR, the Communist Party was forced to accommodate and accept the Sinhala Chauvinist parties and policies as progressive forces. Even though they (the Communist Party of Sri Lanka, both Peking and Moscow wing) were fighting for the workers in the South (Sinhala areas) and the oppressed caste people in Tamil areas, they failed to recognize the national oppression and the democratic aspirations of the Eelam Tamil people for self-determination. Moreover, they started ridiculing the Federalist Party and their Federal solution. They raised the issue that there was lack of involvement in the struggle against caste oppression in the Tamil homeland. This was partly polemics to cover up their failures in regards to the Tamil national question. 

Despite the Federal Party’s official line lacking a consistent programme against the caste question, there were many progressives also within the Federal Party. The Federal Party for in instance, organized the ‘equal dining movement’, in which the party facilitated collective meals where all members of Tamil society were to dine together in equal seating in an effort to break the inhuman practices of caste of discrimination (discrimination in the practice of seating and in the utensils delivered to individuals for food based on the so-called caste system). I supported the Communist party in respect of the rights of the labourers, peasants and the oppressed castes, but I insisted upon the federal solution within the communist party and I supported the federal parties. The Vanni was a remote region then, and neither the communist parties nor the Federal Party had any significant social base in the Vanni. Hence all the parties, despite their rivalry, worked along with me in this region.  As I advocated federalism then, I also worked with the progressive elements within the Federal Party. In this sense I worked with rivalling factions to achieve a common goal. I desired for the Tamil federal party to further incorporate the caste question and the Communist Party to recognize the Tamil national question.

This began when I was 16, and I became very active in the struggle for farmers rights and those of the oppressed castes. Compared to other communists, I differed as I stood with the Tamil national question, advocating a federal and progressive solution for Tamils.

When I was writing my first poem, ‘The Pali river moves’, I was identified as a leftist militant who was employing violence in the anti-caste and peasant struggles.. I was identified as a peasant rebel working in the Vanni. I also fought against caste discrimination in employment and the civil service in the Vanni. Many police departments, in particular the superintendents of Mannar, Vauvuniya, and Killinochi were looking for opportunities to silence me, and made several failed attempts. There were many police reports against me based on that me inciting the peasantry to fight against the system and the fact that I was behind violent attacks on caste oppressive civil servants in the Vanni. On April 3rd  1971 the Sinhala youth insurrection commenced. During the state counter-insurgency against the JVP in 1971, the state massacred the poor rural Sinhala youth in their thousands.  As a reaching out to the rebellious youth of the South, I penned an poem dedicated to them in this period.

A year before it began in 1970 I met with the JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera as he was hospitalized in Colombo at that time. I told him that I could mobilize Tamils for the struggle of the JVP, on the condition that the JVP acceptd federalism regarding the Tamil national question. He disappointedly did not want to answer, and told me to meet with another JVP leader, S.U. Bandara.  Rohan Wijeweera said if communism was achieved we will create communes and that will be the solution for Tamils, refusing to accept the Tamil national question. Because of their refusal to accept federalism, and to not recognize the oppression faced by Tamils at the hands of the state, I refused to work with the JVP.  From here starts also my work with the Tamil militancy which was at this time in its incipient phase.

Also during my work with the Tamil liberation movements, I always took an stand with the grievances of the oppressed castes and advocated the need to address the Muslim Tamil question.

The came the years of university…

I entered Jaffna University in 1976. Before that many civil servants and the magistrate influential in Jaffna conspired to send me to prison for five years, because I had assaulted a doctor who had committed violence against Dalit labourers on casteist grounds. So the authorities tried to frame a case in the court against me, and the doctor used his influence through his caste association to pressure the verdict against me. S.P. Subramaniam, one of the Communist Party leaders, a leader of the anti-caste struggle, and a dear friend of mine intervened on behalf me. His support for me in the case as well as help from the Federal Party, and the fact that none of the people would witness against me, resulted in them being unable to arrest me.  However, during one of the court trials, a judge sympathising with my radical views but who disagreed with my militant methods, encouraged me to enter university.

So I entered university as a mature student, I was 26. It was the period when Tamil militant movements emerged. During this period, due to an environment of national oppression by the Sinhala state and national resistance by the Eelam Tamils, enmities emerged in Jaffna University which then had a number of Sinhala students. I was working amongst both the Tamil and Sinhala students, in the foreground to the upcoming election to the first student council of the Jaffna University. I advocated that as much as I support Eelam Tamil independence, I want our struggle to be waged on a humanitarian and a non-communal manner, our fight is against the state, not the Sinhalese students. I encouraged the students on both sides to confer a common candidate.  The Tamils did not concede. I then asked the Sinhalese to give up a separate candidate list, if I organized the Tamil list which, also included some Sinhalese students for the student council. I worked for the inclusion of students from the oppressed Tamil castes, the Eastern Province and the Tamil speaking Muslims and a reasonable seat number for the minority Sinhalese student. In the end, I was asked to stand for the student union president candidate, and subsequently was elected as the first president of the student council at the Jaffna University in 1978.

I strongly stood for the self-determination of the Eelam Tamils, and in opposing the national oppression and the massacres levied out to the Tamils by the state.  My writings also reflected my efforts of linking the caste struggle and the peasant struggle with the Tamil national freedom struggle. I also worked to get the support of the progressive elements in the Sinhala south. I have also been a voice who advocated within the Tamil national liberation struggle the plights of the Tamil speaking Muslim people and encouraged venues for them to work together politically. Hence my literary work reflected some of these desires and motives.