Far From Colombo: The Tamil Fight to Reclaim Life, Justice, And Land



At the southern tip of the Subcontinent, a Tamil homeland stretches to reach another, in the North and East of Sri Lanka. In this text, Anushani Alagarajah argues that a 2018 Tamil women-led protest to take back the land of these shallow waters holds much more revolutionary potential than the recent massive protests that changed one Sinhala regime for another in Colombo. 

A tree hanging over a crowd of people, with a church in the background. Someone holding out their hands, filled with shells, as they stand on the beach.
(L) People of Iranaitheevu waiting in front of their church for the mass to start. (R) One of the elderly women, who were protesting for a year, with mussels she collected immediately after arriving on the island. Photos by Anushani Alagarajah (2018).

In April 2018, on one extremely hot day, in a coastal village called Iranaimatha Nagar, located in the Northern Province, the villagers, predominantly Tamil women, were preparing for a protest. A few days prior to their action, an activist friend and I visited the women who were staying in a small makeshift hut under a tree at the Iranaimatha Church. Five to six women, one of them almost 70 years old, patiently explained the history of the small island called Iranaitheevu, where they used to live. They described the boat massacre perpetrated by the Sri Lankan Navy in a neighboring island in 1985, and the violence that continued to be committed by the military that forced them into exile since 1992, and the pain of not being able to live on their own land which was just a twenty-minute boat ride away. They told us of their loss of livelihood and their determination to “take their lands back at any cost.” The women earned more money when they lived on the island than the men by doing multiple jobs, such as sorting fish, making dry fish, catching prawns, mussels, and sea cucumbers, as well as fixing damaged fishing nets, whereas the men mostly went to fish. The women had grown tired of being jobless and of relying on men to bring home money since they were forced to live on the mainland twenty-five years ago. Going back to their homes and their island did not mean only reclaiming their land, but also economic stability and a better quality of life.

On the day that marked one year of their protest to release the land from military control, most of the islanders—men and women of all ages, priests, lawyers, activists, and journalists—gathered at the Iranaimatha Church. Everyone there was given instructions to walk towards the ocean and sit in the temporary shacks that were set up by the shore—a protest format quite common across the North and the East. Tamil families of the disappeared, who are looking for their loved ones taken away by the Sri Lankan security forces, surrendered to the Sri Lankan security forces or unaccounted for during and after the war, started their continuous protest in January 2017. For days and nights, they stayed in small makeshift shacks by the roadside in several districts, prompting other groups, especially land release protesters, to follow the same format. From the church, a few hundred people, carrying placards, banners, and some even their children on their arms and backs, marched towards the ocean chanting “Emathu nilam emakku vendum” (“We want our land!”) and “Ranuvame veliyeru” (“Get out, military!”). As the crowd approached the protest shacks, most of the women marched straight towards the ocean and got into the boats that had been prepared to set sail with white flags attached.