Recently, the iconic Mullivaikkal War Memorial in Jaffna University was taken down; a step taken by the vice-chancellor who endured tremendous backlash in Sri Lanka as well as in India, despite the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu condemning the removal of the same. The vice-chancellor’s views on the structure were illegal and installed without authorities’ permission.
Built in 2018, the memorial was constructed in memory of those who died in the Mullivaikkal War in 2009. This war transpired between the Tamil extremist group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and the Sri Lanka government forces. During this time, tens of thousands had gathered on the narrow strip of land between the sea and a lagoon after the Sri Lankan army declared it a “ no-fire zone.” According to the United Nations, this battle led to approximately 40,000 deaths. Moreover, the site led to prolonged disputes among university officials because students wanted to locate the Mullivaikkal memorial next to the already existing monument of Mahaveer or martyrs. However, in May 2019, the Mullivaikkal memorial came up overnight next to the Mahaveer memorial. It was later discovered that students had sculpted it. Jaffna University insiders assert it was designed by a student who was witness to the massacre at Mullaivaikkal.
As memorialization is ambiguous, India has had its own experiences in regards to the demolishing of statues and memorials. Likewise, it has also been a sensitive and contentious issue in Sri Lanka, with several occasions of the state preventing families from remembering their loved ones. While preventing families who are mourning in the name of their loved ones, some within the Tamil community, along with university academics, have in the past questioned the “politicisation” of memorial events. The demolishing of monuments commemorating thousands of people who died during the last phase of war cannot be justified under any circumstances. What makes matters worse is that individuals who hold close-knit attachments to it are uninformed of its removal. For citizens, this is a rather disturbing act after a relatively peaceful period. It triggers agony, especially among youth out of whom countless students were 9-11 years old when the war ended. Roughly 1500 Sinhala students, approximately 600 to 700 Tamil students, especially from North and East, are studying in universities in the south. Unfortunately, their race or religion, Tamil, Sinhala, or Muslim were all disregarded.
The matter took to Twitter where the CM of Tamil Nadu, Edappadi K Palaniswami, tweeted “the news that a monument erected at the Jaffna University campus in memory of university students and the general public who were mercilessly killed in the final phase of the war in Mullivailkkal, Sri Lanka, has been demolished overnight is shocking.” Similarly, countless people tweeted in-favour of the memorial. As the Jaffna area holds a majority of the ethnic Tamil population, the area witnessed a brutal civil war between the LTTE and Sri Lankan forces, which led to the loss of thousands of lives. Moreover, the vice-chancellor of Jaffna University, Professor Srisatkunarajah, is a scientist in Sri Lanka, and he is an excellent administrator. Considering the memorial statue, his views are that it does not accommodate the present or the future, so he wanted the statue to be removed from university premises. Additionally, students requested anonymity, but their entry was banned from campuses when they gathered to protest. They used heavy vehicles to destroy the memorial. However, they could not complete the demolition because of the protest and further took the local police’s help to threaten the students on the premises. The reason behind this can be blamed on the act of racism as it furthers the sentiment of Tamils while fighting for justice for the people who were viciously massacred in the Eelam War.
The memorial should not have been demolished because it symbolizes unity between students of different religions and regions belonging to Tamil Nadu. Co-faculty members did not want this to happen owing to the sentiments of the students. The students were arrested due to protests and were further unable to intervene with the demolition due to pandemic laws. Yet, on the contrary, multiple people carried out hunger strikes outside the university as well. If it were considered illegal, it would not have been demolished without making people aware. This led to the death of two students, with four other students being falsely arrested for throwing bombs. Secondly, acts such as harassment that took place within the university by a person in mufti, instead of tackling a political question and putting an end to it, more followed. The result of what transpired caused a considerable amount of fear, anxiety and trauma among students which is harmful to the academic character of the university, and dragging down students who were not involved in any of this and taking them to police stations and police cells, as happened in the 1970s and 1980s is frightening. All in all, where there should be trust and co-operation there is fear and bitterness.