Karthiaai Vilakkeedu, Maaveerar Naal
and the Lighting of Lamps in Jaffna
M. A. Sumanthiran , MP
Hundreds of thousands of Tamils
filled camps for people internally
displaced by the brutality of the final five months of Sri Lanka’s
civil war in 2009. Although the fighting has ended, the
government’s repressive reaction to Karthiaai Vilakkeedu
and Maaveerar Naal on Nov. 27 has made reconciliation
between the Tamil and Sinhalese people more elusive.
Nov. 27, 2012, was a busy day for the government of
Sri Lanka. Government agents prohibited routine rituals in temples
across the North and East, attacked and arrested peacefully assembled
university students, invaded a female hostel, beat a newspaper editor,
vandalized the vehicle of a member of Parliament, abused political
prisoners in captivity, injured a journalist and several university
media students, patrolled a cemetery and found time to scout private
properties so as to extinguish lamps lighted for the Hindu Festival of
What could spark such drastic measures? On Nov. 27, 2012, all it took
was a lamp.
This year the religious holiday and the Tamil remembrance day Maaveerar
Naal both fell on Nov. 27. Both occasions are traditionally commemorated
by the lighting of lamps. The Karthiaai (Karthikai) lamps symbolize
peace and harmony and mark the full moon culmination of the Festival of
The Maaveerar Naal lamps pay homage to those Tamils who died in the war
and symbolically mark the day of the first Tamil causality. Both annual
activities are non-violent. This year both activities were forcibly or
violently suppressed, however.
Both holidays were deemed guilty by association—Karthiaai Vilakkeedu for
its association with lamps and Maaveerar Naal for its association with
the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Under those pretenses, the
government determined that the activities of the day—namely, the
lighting of lamps—were unacceptable.
The Law of the Land
The Constitution enshrines the fundamental right of all Sri Lankans to
freedom of thought, conscience and religion (Article 10) and the freedom
of speech, assembly, association and movement, specifically the
“freedom, either by himself or in association with others, and either in
public or in private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship,
observance, practice or teaching (Article 14[e]).” Thus, to ban an
ancient Tamil Hindu tradition demands a higher standard than
symbolophobia. To ban the ancient Tamil Hindu tradition of lighting
lamps for Karthiaai Vilakkeedu requires a constitutional rewrite.
The government’s attempt to legally justify their actions on Nov. 27
relies on a perverse hermeneutic. The government relies on the provided
restrictions on the fundamental rights of speech, peaceful assembly and
association described in Article 15, specifically that these rights can
be restricted by law in the interests of racial and religious harmony.
On its face, it is apparent that this restriction cannot be used to
limit a non-exclusive, non-violent and non-adversarial religious
practice. One cannot protect religious harmony by inhibiting religion.
The fully realized right to peacefully exercise religion is religious
harmony’s most basic sine qua non. In fact, Article 14(1)(e), which
protects the right to manifest one’s religion, is not specifically
subject to the restrictions as pertaining to law in the interests of
racial and religious harmony. Instead, this article is subject per
citation to the more general restrictions of Article 15(7), which
include the priority “interests of national security, public order and
the protection of public health or morality or for the purpose of
securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of
others or of meeting the just requirements of the general welfare of a
democratic society.” Of these conditions, the government appeals to the
broad interpretation of the general welfare clause to justify their
The same articles that vindicate the religious practice of lighting
lamps also vindicate it as a cultural practice and the same
aforementioned restrictions need not apply. Article 14(1)(e) guarantees
each citizen “the freedom by himself or in association with others to
enjoy and promote his own culture and to use his own language.” In
similar fashion, racial harmony is impossible to achieve if people are
prohibited on racial or ethnic grounds from commemorating the loss of
their loved ones. Even so far as these fallen family members were
soldiers in a separatist movement, their enduring posthumous identity
remains primarily ethnic and familial.
It is important to remember that the conflict itself was drawn along
similar demographic lines. The cultural practice of honoring the dead by
lighting lamps cannot be legitimately described as a threat to national
security, and the government must appeal to the same general welfare
clause found in Article 15(7) to which Article 14(1)(e) regarding
cultural expression is, indeed, subject.
Suppression as Self-destruction
The crux of the matter, both legally and otherwise, is whether the
lighting of lamps in the tradition of these two holidays meet “the just
requirements of the general welfare of a democratic society.” (Because
Karthiaai Vilakkeedu was condemned soley by an association to lamps, the
real issue is as applied to Maaveerar Naal.)
This question can be answered theoretically and demonstrated
practically. Absent the “Thought Police” of an Orwellian dystopia, every
person enjoys a de facto right to remember what they want. An organic
extension of that memory is the memorial. If a community or culture
possesses collective memories, it will be reflected in their desire to
express these memories collectively. This expression can threaten those
who are insecure about the past and the effect those memories might have
on the future.
In the modern Sri Lankan context, certain memories are suppressed out of
fear that these memories will rally people to a previously suppressed
cause. The tragic irony is that the act of suppression removes the
painful memory from the past and places it firmly in the present. We
will never forget our past, but suppression insures that we will also
never escape it.
The suppression of memories and memorials is similar to commanding
someone not to think about a particular thing. The command, and every
reiteration of it, generate the very thoughts the command seeks to
preclude! Similarly, every time the memories of past political realities
are suppressed they are only displaced from the public to the private
imagination where they can be neither checked nor measured but only
Furthermore, if violence is used as a means of suppressing memories of
violence, then not only does that memory get internalized, it gets
updated. It is no longer confined to the past. In this manner, whenever
the government uses violence inappropriately, as it did on Nov. 27,
2012, it is replacing scars with fresh wounds.
The government constructed a war memorial in Pudumattalaan in 2008. Its
purported design is similar to Maaveerar Naal in that it seeks to
commemorate fallen soldiers, albeit through a more imposing and
persistent method. The immense government fixture features a soldier in
uniform hoisting a gun in his right hand and the Sri Lankan flag in his
left. As an enduring symbol of civil conflict, this image is troubling.
Open conflict may be over, but the current battle for national identity
cannot be won with a gun in one hand and flag in the other.
If Sri Lanka bought peace with violence—only to sustain it with more
violence—then perhaps what Sri Lanka purchased wasn’t peace but a mere
pit stop. The government is at a crossroads. If Sri Lanka is to realize
something better than what we all remember, the government must take
their finger off the trigger and leave their gun hand empty, open and
No matter who we are, we cannot disown our dead. We should not forget
their mistakes, grievances, victories, defeats and sacrifices. Instead,
we should hope for ourselves what they hoped for us: that Sri Lanka will
realize something better and brighter.
* M. A. Sumanthiran is a Tamil human rights lawyer who became a
member of Parliament, or MP, from the Tamil National Alliance’s (TNA)
national list in Sri Lanka’s parliamentary election of April 2010.