Janani (Jan) Jananayagam is a British Tamil banking professional, activist and politician. She was an independent candidate for the London region in the 2009 European Parliamentary elections. Jan has been a human rights activist since 1995, when she co-founded HURT. She is a prolific writer, UK’s spokesperson for “Tamils Against Genocide”, an advocacy group that seeks to obtain convictions for genocide against high-ranking Sri Lankan officials and the state. She is also a Director of a Law Foundation that focuses on public and international humanitarian law.
My meeting with Jan recently has led to this short interview where Jan shares her thoughts on the IIFA event and the broad responsibility that we all share for exposing the human rights violations happening around us.
Q) You contested for the London region in the 2009 European Parliamentary elections. You did not win, however got record votes among all independent candidates. So how do you personally take the results.
Jan: I was happy with the results. The decision to stand was a spontaneous one that arose largely out of the need to highlight the genocide of the Tamil people taking place in Sri Lanka, which was being largely ignored by the main political parties here. I think the very act of participating on those terms in the European election has changed the dynamics of how politicians engage with the different Diaspora communities here in the UK.
It is a tribute to the British people that I was able to make this kind of impact on the European elections on what is, in our local politics, a niche issue.
But getting those 50 000 plus votes in London has also placed some responsibility on me going forward to continue to speak about those issues that were key to my European election campaign.
Q) What is your opinion about the upcoming Indian Film festival event (by IIFA) being held in Colombo, Sri Lanka? [Do you have any word for those who chose to participate?]
Jan: I think it is disappointing. I saw a quote today on twitter by Somalian Musician K’naan Warsame that really spoke to me. He said: “There is an intrinsic difference between entertainers & artists. Artists endure the pain of the world, entertainers dance around it”
I cannot help comparing the IIFA response to the murder of over 40 000 Tamil civilians in the first six months of 2009 with the response of artists like M.I.A who have abstracted the genocide issue (in for example the Born Free video) so as to communicate the essence of it to people who have no knowledge of specific places like Sri Lanka or Srebenica or Nazi Europe. The ability to capture the essence of things and to react to the world around us is a sign of true art.
Pretending these massacres did not happen, refusing to talk about it and partying on is also a message of disrespect to the fans and viewers because it implies the entertainers concerned think their fans are stupid or unethical or both.
And pretending that the IIFA cares for the IDPs is also cynical manipulation. If they cared for the IDPs these artists could have asked to visit the IDP camps. Why are the concerts and events being held in Colombo ? There are no IDP camps in Colombo while there are plenty of government officials who are accused of war crimes there to be entertained.
If the IIFA were interested in aid, they could at any time have set up an independently monitored body to provide that aid and monitor its distribution – they dont need to have a party in Colombo for that.
This criticism also applies to IIFA sponsors such as Reebok: that they are manipulating us by pretending that the genocide in Sri Lanka did not happen.
The facts about the massacre in the Vanni region of Sri Lanka are not all known because the Sri Lankan government tries to hide them. But enough is now known so that it is impossible to say later ‘I did not know’. People living in Germany in the time of the Nazis also tried to say later that they didn’t know. But 60 years later history catches up and we have documentation. The Nazi regime also had propagandist film makers and entertainers. And I am very confident that the history will document the Tamil holocaust also. What we know already today is captured in the reports of the International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch but this will prove to be a subset of the true extent of atrocities.
The International crisis group report that is available today documents for example that civilians were deliberately starved to death, killed by bombarding of hospitals, and food distribution centres, that they were forced into a small piece of land as a deliberate strategy of the government so that they could be more efficiently killed. It can be found here [http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/asia/south-asia/sri-lanka.aspx]. These acts meet the definition of genocide as it is understood by many academics and lawyers today.
Do I have any word for the film stars who are going to colombo to celebrate the events of 2009 ? No I do not. But I do have something to say to their fans: it is up to you to decide what kind of people you want as your film icons. Your choice of film stars that you are fans of also says something about India to the rest of the world. I think the Indian people and especially the people of Tamil Nadu who are emotionally closest to this issue should “put their money where their mouth is” and boycott films or products of anyone participating or sponsoring the IIFA event in Colombo.
Q) You attended the Tamil genocidal remembrance rally in Washington DC recently. How different this rally compared with previous years protest and boycott Sri Lankan products rally?
Jan: Yes, I recall you were covering that event as a journalist. The difference is very simply that this is a national memorial event. Every nation has one or more memorial days. Today for example in the United States it is memorial weekend. So it is not a protest as such. It is a part of our national memory. What is particularly poignant about the Tamil memorial days is that the community and the families of those who died are increasingly not able to have memorial structures in the original location because a very deliberate effort is being made to erase memory of the Tamil people and that includes the graveyards. In that sense the burning of the Jaffna library was also a form of erasing of memory because of the historical significance of the original manuscripts destroyed.
But we have to consider ourselves lucky in that the Tamil Diaspora is now far too widely spread out across the globe, for anyone to tell us what we may or may not remember. So any attempt to erase history will fail. And I also see the IIFA event as an attempt to erase memory – to write an alternative history and to party on, and to utilize these big name entertainers for this purpose of pretending that Sri Lanka is not stained with the blood of the Vanni civilians who were killed in their tens of thousands by the host government.