NAVATKULI (JAFFNA): Supported by the Sri Lankan government machinery, Sinhala nationalist outfits and Buddhist monks from Colombo, a group of 57 Sinhalese families from South Lanka have settled in Navatkuli in the Tamil-majority North Lankan district of Jaffna in a determined bid to reclaim their rights there in the teeth of opposition from the Tamil political parties.
It was in late 2009, following the end of Eelam War IV, that the then government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa took the decision to aggressively push for Sinhalese resettlement in the North to nullify the Tamil militants’ policy of fashioning a mono-ethnic Northern province as a prelude to the creation of an independent Tamil Eelam. But the Tamils opposed Sinhalese settlements in the North on the grounds that they were planned, politically motivated, colonization programs meant to alter the ethnic ratio there.
Initially, 60 Sinhalese families from various parts of South Lanka were brought in buses and dumped at the disused railway station at Navatkuli, near Jaffna town. As the migrants were promised land and houses, 135 other families also made a beeline to Navatkuli.
“It took three months for us to move out of the railway station and it was only a year later that we were given plots of land. But we readily bore the inconvenience of living in squalor in a crumbling railway station and makeshift accommodation because this was our mann (land), our rightful heritage,” said Malkanthi Wickremesinghe, the leader of the group.
Middle aged Malkanthi was the natural leader of the group. Big made, bold and bilingual,, she also came from a family which had lived for eight generations in Jaffna.
“Our family had roots in Maniyamthottam and Kankesanthurai and I knew Jaffna district like the back of my hand,” she told Express at her house in the Sinhala Colony which now boasts of an impressive Buddhist temple.
Malkanthi’s family, along with several hundreds of other Sinhalese families, was driven out by the Tamil militants in 1984, in the first of two major acts of ethnic cleansing, the second being in 1990.
“At that time there was a fairly large Sinhalese community in Jaffna. The Jaffna Sinhala Vidhyalaya had 250 students. Life was pleasant with the Tamils and Sinhalese getting along like family,” she recalled.
But the thought of going back to Jaffna never left the Sinhalese.
“We were forever yearning to breathe the air of Jaffna and drink its water. We were people of this soil. We could never abandon it. I remember when I returned after the war, I burst out crying!” Malkanthi said.
Tamil Leaders Oppose
But soon, local Tamil politicians S.Sritharan and Suresh Premachandran dubbed the return of the Sinhalese as government-sponsored Sinhala colonization aimed at making the Tamils a minority in the North. Demonstrations were organized against the settlers. Malkanthi took them on, but her plea that the settlers were not aliens but former residents of Jaffna, fell on deaf ears.
The Tamils‘ anger stemmed from the fact that President Rajapaksa had begun re-settling the Sinhalese even as 300,000 Tamils were still languishing as refugees in camps. The government was still holding on to their lands seized during the war. As many as 12,000 acres of Tamils’ lands in the North and East had been seized by the military.
But in Malkanthi’s view, only the Tamil politicians had objected to their resettlement. The people did not.
“There are 500 Tamil families around us. They were happy that we were back. Some of them had been family friends earlier. When we were living in the railway station, even the Hindu Kovil Iyer priest used to send us food parcels,” she said.
Malkanthi is the interface between the Sinhalese returnees and the local Tamil community.
“I am an active participant in community activities. I share the local Tamils’ joys and sorrows. In turn, they look after me as if I am their own,” she said pointing to Mohanan, a young Tamil who drops in frequently from Jaffna town to inquire about her welfare. Mohanan’s mother and Malkanthi were neighbors and best friends 30 years ago.
Since Northern Province Chief Minister C.V.Wigneswaran kept harping on “planned Sinhalese colonization”, Malkanthi decided to confront him.
“I barged into his study and insisted that he hear me out. He relented and when I finished, he admitted that he had been misled and promised not to raise the issue again” she claimed.
Sure enough, over time, opposition to the Sinhalese’s presence at Navatkuli has faded. This is probably because the Maithripala Sirisena government started to give back lands seized from the Tamils in 2015. Out of the 12,000 acres seized by the military, 3,300 acres have been returned, till date.
The other reason is that the number of Sinhalese living in Navatkuli has dwindled. Out of the 57 families which were allotted plots in Navatkuli, only 23 families actually live there permanently.
“There is a water shortage which discourages permanent settlement,” Malkanthi said.