A controversy over the legendary cricketer from Sri Lanka Muttiah Muralitharan erupted on October 8, when the actor Vijay Sethupathi, tweeted about the launch of ‘800’, a biopic on the cricketer.
Tamil nationalist sympathisers in the world of film and politics in Tamil Nadu publicly expressed their wish that Sethupathi should not act in the biopic as they believe Muralitharan, part of the minority Tamil community, was a traitor to the cause of Sri Lankan Tamils.
They questioned his conduct during the Sri Lankan civil war, which left lakhs of civilians dead, and ended with the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009.
In the wake of the uproar, Muralitharan issued a statement that he had asked the actor to withdraw from the project, and Sethupathi shared the statement on his Facebook page.
Anger stemmed from Muralitharan’s association with Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is now Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister, and his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is the President. In 2009, Mahinda Rajapaksa was the President and Gotabaya was the Defence Minister – and both were accused of gross human right violations in the final stages of the war.
What is the brief timeline of Tamil-Sinhala problems?
In 1956, eight years after the independence of Ceylon, the Sinhala Only Act was passed, making Sinhalese the language of governance. Tamil was not recognised as an official language.
In 1971, the standardisation policy was introduced, which set higher benchmarks for Tamil students to enter universities. In 1972, Ceylon was renamed as Sri Lanka, and Buddhism is given “foremost place” among religions.
In 1975, the 21-year-old Vellupillai Prabhakaran assassinated the mayor of Jaffna and a year later, set up the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
There were two anti-Tamil riots in 1958 and 1977, but the bloodiest anti-Tamil riot broke out in July 1983 after a Tiger ambush of an army convoy in Jaffna. Although numbers aren’t clear, up to 3,000 Tamils may have been killed. ‘Black July’ shoved the country into a civil war that lasted for 26 years, and killed 100,000 people or more.
In January 2009, the Sri Lankan army captured Killinochi, the Tigers’ capital, and in May, the government announced victory over the rebels on the same day as Prabhakaran was killed. Next year, Rajapaksa won re-election in the presidential election.
In 2011, the United Nations released a report accusing the Sri Lankan army of war crimes, and estimated that 40,000 civilians may have died in the final months of the civil war. 📣 Follow Express Explained on Telegram
What has Muralitharan said in response to the allegations?
The cricket legend issued a statement on October 19, which said: “There have been many allegations levelled against me that I supported genocide. For instance, when I made a statement in 2019 that 2009 was the best year of my life, it was misconstrued that I was celebrating the genocide of Eelam Tamils. As someone who has constantly spent his life in a conflict zone, the end of the war in 2009 was a welcome change. I was happy that there were no deaths on both sides in those ten years.
I have never supported genocide, and I never will. As a minority community living in Sinhalese-majority Sri Lanka, Tamils battled low self-esteem. My parents considered themselves as second-class citizens and it was only natural that I too followed suit. After I succeeded in cricket, I wanted fellow Tamils to develop self-confidence and come up in life.”
What did he exactly say about 2009 being the best year of his life?
He made that statement last September at the Viyathmaga Annual Convention 2019 for professionals. In a nearly hour-long freewheeling chat, he shared his life experiences, state of the civil society, and expectations from politicians.
“I am a Tamil. We lived in this country in fear… In 1977, my father was attacked by a sword, 12 inches, and I can still the scar on his back. Every relative, 80%, went to India. Because he was brave, my father said, ‘I am a Sri Lankan. I am going to stay here’. That belief he gave us; that belief and strong mind I got because of that.
“What I am saying is both parties are wrong. At that time, what the government did was wrong, LTTE was also wrong. They had choices; in ’87, ’88, during the peace accords, and everything. Both parties were wrong. At the end of the day, in between were all innocent people — not just Tamils but everyone.
“In ’97-’98, I lived in Colombo and would never take the Parliament road as I knew anytime a bomb can go for a politician. We used to go round everything. So even Colombo lived in fear. We as Tamils lived in fear.
“The greatest day I thought in my life was in 2009. I thought in this country we can go without any fear. We got another fear very recently. So most important in this election is who is going to give protection to people of this country to live without fear? So, that kind of a leader? A leader who wants to serve is the kind I need,” he said in that programme conducted by an organisation which purportedly supported Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
“Parties should be represented by a Sri Lankan, not by race or religion… We have to bring to our constitution that we should not have such parties. We are dividing with religion and race by parties — so already decided… You should not have Tamils-only parties, Muslims-only parties. I don’t encourage that.”
What’s Muralitharan take on the current Sri Lankan government?
Last December, Muralitharan had praised President Gotabaya Rajapaksa as an efficient administrator, and taken umbrage at Tamil Nadu politicians for interfering in the affairs of the Sri Lankan Tamils.
“Tell me, if there is a problem within your family, do your neighbours interfere? Tamil Nadu politicians do not understand the problems of Sri Lankans. They should allow our government to get on with governance…”
In an interview with Hindustan Times in December, he said, “I support President Rajapaksa because he is the right person to lead our country. Over the years before he came to power, there was no progress. The economy was down, nothing was moving. President Rajapaksa is an administrator, a former defence secretary and army man. He is a clever person who will carry out reforms, strike a different path, improve lives and do the right thing.”
What were the criticisms that came his way from Tamil Nadu?
Bharathiraja, a famous Tamil film director with Tamil nationalist sympathies, wrote an open letter to the actor Sethupathy, claiming that Muralitharan was a traitor of the Tamil race.
“Muralitharan had been the voice of his master (Mahinda) Rajapaksa. How will the Tamil people accept him?” senior AIADMK leader and Fisheries Minister D Jayakumar said.
The film’s producers clarified that the film would not show Eelam Tamils in a bad light, but that didn’t stop the criticisms from the likes of lyricist Vairamuthu and others.
Sethupathy found support from the actress Radhika Sarathkumar, who called the critics “jobless”, and pointed out that Muralitharan is the bowling coach of the Hyderabad franchise in the IPL which is owned by proprietors of Sun TV who have “political connections”.
Which Tamil community does Muralitharan belong to?
There are two kinds of Tamil people in Sri Lanka — and they are politically, socially, economically and to some extent, even linguistically, different from each other.
One kind (Sri Lankan Tamils) are settled in the north and east of Sri Lanka where the battle for Tamil Eelam was centered. The second group lives in the central hills of Sri Lanka. They are recent migrants to the island nation and are called ‘Up Country Tamils’, ‘Hill Country Tamils’, ‘Indian Origin Tamils’ (in Indian officialese). Recently, they have begun referring to themselves as ‘Malayaha Tamils’ (Hill Tamil). They were taken from three or four southern districts of Tamil Nadu by the British colonialists to work on the tea plantations.
Muralitharan belongs to this second group of Hill Tamils. The political leadership of this group has always worked with the government or party in power to improve living and working conditions on the tea plantations where the workforce remains almost entirely Tamil. They have close family links with Tamil Nadu. Muralitharan’s wife belongs to a prominent Chennai family.
According to the 2012 census, Sinhalese are 74.9 per cent, ‘Sri Lankan-Tamil’ are 11.2 per cent, ‘Indian-Tamils’ are 4.2 per cent of Sri Lanka’s population. In addition, there are ‘Sri Lankan Moors’ (9.2 per cent of the population) who predominantly follow Islam. A majority of them speak Tamil with a slight influence of Sinhala and Arabic, but they were not part of the Tamil nationalist movement.
When did Muralitharan’s family migrate to Sri Lanka?
Muralitharan’s paternal grandfather Periyasamy Sinasamy migrated in 1920 to work on tea plantations. He eventually returned to Tiruchirapalli in Tamil Nadu but his son Sinasamy Muttiah became a successful businessman after starting a biscuit factory in Kandy in the 1950s.
Was Muralitharan’s family hurt in the anti-Tamil riots?
Yes, in 1977, when he was just five, their factory and house were burnt down, his father was hacked on the back with a sword, but they were saved by Sinhalese neighbours, he has said.
“Our factory and our house were burnt down in 1977 and that was painful for a time. We were saved by Sinhalese. They came and stopped the crazy people before they killed us. We never forgot that. We rebuilt them and moved on. That was our family way. We are businessmen, not politicians. My father kept things as simple as possible,” Murali told The Sydney Morning Herald in 2010.
Has Muralitharan ever met the LTTE cadre?
In 2004, as an ambassador for the World Food Program, Muralitharan surveyed schools, clinics, farms in the LTTE-held areas of northern Sri Lanka. The poet and writer Tishani Doshi, who had accompanied Muralitharan on that visit, wrote that year in The Hindu about a surreal luncheon meeting with the deputy head of the political wing of the LTTE, Sudhamaster, in the jungle headquarters in Killinochi.
Over a five-course meal, with life-size pictures of Prabhakaran hanging in the hallways, the cricketer and the militant had a one-hour discussion.
Sudhamaster told Muralitharan the LTTE were “very happy that you are visiting these areas”. They talked about the LTTE’s demand for an interim self-governing authority (ISGA), the possibility of peace without violence, and the role of NGOs.
Muralitharan asks a lot of serious questions about the culpability for the civil war, and got detailed answers, Doshi reported.
Muralitharan asked Sudhamaster, “Are you interested in ‘real’ peace or are you just talking about it?”
In 2002, during the ceasefire period between the government and LTTE, Muralitharan was part of a Janashakthi team that played a friendly against Jaffna district association on September 1. He was mobbed by adoring crowds and pictures emerged of Tamil people kissing him on the field.
Has Muralitharan been consistent with his forgive-the-past-and-move-on philosophy?
Yes, in 2004, in an interview to the UK’s Channel 4, Muralitharan described his philosophy on this topic. “Why we dig the past and make more enemies? I am a Tamil, I got affected in the 1977 riot, I am not thinking about it. You forget, forgive and move on.”
Didn’t that interview also create more problems for him in the Tamil community?
Yes it did. He had said that the then England Prime Minister David Cameron had been “misled” about Northern grievances by women who had demonstrated during Cameron’s official visit around that time.
When the interviewer talked about meeting Tamil mothers who told him about their missing children, Muralitharan said, “Because 20-30 mothers came and cried to you, is that the truth? Because these people can also mislead. Truth is difficult to find… War is a two-sided battle. We don’t know the answers.”
Muralitharan later said that Channel 4 had edited a one-hour chat to just a few minutes, and taken his quotes out of context, but the damage was done. To date, that YouTube video of the interview draws ire in the comments sections from Tamils.
But the forgive-forget philosophy is something that Muralitharan does adhere to. In 2017, when the umpire Darrell Hair, the man who had no-balled him that threatened to derail his career, was caught stealing money in a liquor shop due to gambling problems, the world media tried to get his reaction.
All he would say was, “What happened with me and Darrell Hair is in the past. Whatever has happened now — that’s his own life.”
Has he helped the Tamil region and its people?
Yes, through a NGO, Foundation of Goodness, founded by his manager, Muralitharan helped build 1,024 houses in 24 villages (by 2008) in northern regions of the country affected by the tsunami.
He has canvassed the world’s attention and raised funds for redevelopment of the affected areas. When he accepted an award in 2017 for the Sri Lankan Icon of the year, he said, “The foundation helps close to 50,000 people a year. That is the biggest achievement for me rather than taking 800 wickets.”
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