M. A. Nuhman

MA Nuhman, a retired professor of Tamil, University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka is a well known scholar, poet, literary critic, linguist and a creative translator in Tamil. He taught linguistics, Tamil language and literature at several universities in Sri Lanka and abroad. As an author, editor and translator he has published 35 books in Tamil and authored three collections of poems in English. He also has four collections of poems in translation to his credit.

Abstract of the paper


The Role of Poetry in a Time of Ethnic Conflict, War and Reconciliation:

Reflections on Contemporary Sri Lankan Tamil Poetry




Ethnic conflict, a legacy of colonialism, has been an acute socio-political problem in post-colonial Sri Lanka where more than a hundred thousand people were killed and nearly a million people were displaced internally and externally during the last three decades due to the ethnic conflict and separatist war.

The ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka has had a direct impact on literary production in Tamil, comparatively greater than in the case of Sinhala, the language of majority in the country. This is largely due to the fact that it has been the Tamil-speaking communities who were most directly and severely affected by the ethnic conflict throughout the postcolonial period.

The Tamil language is shared by three distinct ethnic communities in Sri Lanka, namely the Sri Lankan Tamils, the Muslims and the Hill Country Tamils, with their own dialect variations. This linguistic pluralism and the associated ethnic distinctions reflect in literary production too. Hence, when we speak of Tamil literature or Tamil poetry in ethnically divided contemporary Sri Lanka, the term encompasses a multi-ethnic socio-political context and reality.

This paper briefly discusses the historical and socio-political background of ethnic conflict and war in Sri Lanka during the last three decades that was ended tragically in 2009 and focuses on the emergence and development of a new genre of poetry of political protest in Sri Lankan Tamil literature from the late 1970s. A large number of poets of the younger generation, males and females, including poets from the militant movements emerged and the literary landscape changed drastically during this period.

Ethnicity and nationalism are ideological constructions that exclude the other and construct the other as enemy whenever a socio-political conflict arises with the other. These ideological constructions divide people, imposing different identities upon them, promoting hatred towards each other and degrading human values.

Poetry in a time of ethnic conflict plays two different and opposing roles. On the one hand it promotes the ideologies of ethnicity, nationalism and violence, directly or indirectly. On the other hand it exposes the ugly nature of these ideologies and calls for the meaningful reconstruction of human values, unity and reconciliation. This paper substantiates this position with the examples of poems from different poets. This paper concludes that if we want to meaningfully resolve the ethnic problems and conflicts, to neutralize the tension among the ethnic communities and to create harmony and peaceful coexistence, equality of ethnic communities must be guaranteed. That is the only way to cross the borders towards unity and reconciliation.