Making Tigers from Tamils: Long-Distance Nationalism and Sri Lankan Tamils in Toronto



This article discusses the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora in Toronto and its relationship to the Tamil separatist group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Taking the case of the Sri Lankan Tamils, oft-cited as the example par excellence of long-distance nationalism, I argue against naturalizing diasporic ethnonationalism to investigate instead how diasporas are fashioned into specific kinds of actors. I examine tensions that emerged as an earlier elite Tamil movement gave way to the contemporary migration of much larger class-and caste-fractured communities, while a cultural imaginary of migration as a form of mobility persisted. I suggest that concomitant status anxieties have propelled culturalist imaginations of a unified Tamil community in Toronto who, through the actions of LTTE-affiliated organizations, have condensed the Tigers and their imagined homeland, Tamil Eelam, into representing Tamil community life. While most Tamils may not have explicitly espoused LTTE ideology, as a result of the LTTE becoming the backbone of community life, Tamils became complicit with and reaffirmed the LTTE project of defending “Tamilness” militarily in Sri Lanka and culturally in Toronto. I suggest that the self-presentation of diasporic communities should be analyzed within specific histories, contemporary conflicts and fractures, and active mobilizing structures.


Discuto aquí la diáspora de los esrilanqueses de origen tamil en Toronto y su relación con el grupo separatista tamil, Liberación de los Tigres de Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Tomando el caso de los tamiles de Sri Lanka, frecuentemente citado como el ejemplo por excelencia del nacionalismo a larga distancia, argumento en contra de una naturalización del etnonacionalismo diaspórico para investigar cómo las diásporas moldean específicas clases de actores. Examino las tensiones que emergieron en la medida en que el movimiento élite tamil cedió el paso a la expansión contemporánea de migración a comunidades tamiles con fracturas mucho mayores de clase y casta—mientras un imaginario cultural de migración como una forma de movilidad persistió. Sugiero que ansiedades concomitantes de estatus han impulsado imaginaciones culturalistas de una comunidad tamil unificada en Toronto quien, a través de acciones de afiliadas organizaciones al LTTE-, han condensado los Tigres y su imaginada tierra natal, Tamil Eelam, representando la vida de la comunidad tamil. Mientras la mayoría de tamiles pueden no haber explícitamente apoyado la ideología de los LTTE, porque los LTTE llegaron a ser la columna vertebral de la vida de la comunidad, la gente se convirtió en cómplice y reafirmó el proyecto de los LTTE defendiendo la “Tamilinidad” militarmente en Sri Lanka y culturalmente en Toronto. Sugiero que la auto-presentación de las comunidades diaspóricas debe ser analizado dentro de historias específicas, conflictos y fracturas contemporáneas, y estructuras activas movilizantes.

In July 2003, I began fieldwork in a high-rise building dominated by Sri Lankans and nicknamed “Little Jaffna” in downtown Toronto (Canada). Northern Jaffna was one of the disputed territories in the civil war (concluded in 2009) between the Sri Lankan state and the separatist guerillas, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the LTTE), also known as “the Tigers.” Jaffna Tamils form a clear majority among the nearly one million Sri Lankan Tamils living abroad. One afternoon when I was sitting with some elderly Jaffna women, a young man approached to ask his grandmother Nesaratnam who I was and what we were talking about. Nesaratnam told him that we were talking about Jaffna, and the other women added that we were talking about our ur (home). He rejoindered, “Why are you separating Batticaloa (eastern Tamil) people from us?” Valliamma, another woman, said, as if to pacify him, “If we talk about Sri Lanka, then there is no trouble.” He snapped, “No, you must not call it Sri Lanka if you are Tamil! You must say Tamil Eelam if you are Tamil!” (conversation with author, August 2013). Tamil Eelam is the name of the promised Tamil-only homeland in Sri Lanka and was the center of the LTTE's war. Nesaratnam acquiesced, “Tamil Eelam includes everything.” When he walked away, one woman said, “Anyway, we can talk about Jaffna.” Another agreed, “When we get together, we sit and talk about our home that we know about, that is Jaffna.” There was no more mention of Tamil Eelam. I was startled. I had just come from a year of fieldwork in Sri Lanka with internally displaced northern Sri Lankan Tamils and Sri Lankan Muslims. In Sri Lanka, Tamil Eelam was a political name that described an allegiance to the LTTE. In Toronto, I found young people using Tamil Eelam as a proper name for a seemingly known geography—a mono-ethnic term that was supposed to refer to the multiethnic and deeply fractured areas from which I had just come. Few young Toronto Tamils I met were aware what they called Tamil Eelam was also home to sizeable Muslim minorities.

The centrality of LTTE ideology in Canadian Tamil life came back to me in the final phases of the civil war between January to May of 2009. These months saw a standoff with 330,000 Tamil civilians trapped between the Sri Lankan Army and the LTTE. By May, around 40,000 civilians had died, and the LTTE had been eliminated after both sides had committed gross violations (UN 2011). The Sri Lankan state still stands accused of crimes against humanity (UN 2011). In these months, the Tamil diaspora emerged on the global stage. Thousands demonstrated almost daily in Paris, London, Toronto, and Melbourne, displaying pictures of trapped relatives and demanding a halt to bombardments (Pathirana 2009). However, the protesters did this while brandishing Tiger flags and slogans and arguing that Western governments should recognize the LTTE as the “sole” representative of the Tamil people. Despite considerable ambivalence about the ruthlessness of the LTTE among Tamils in Sri Lanka (Thiranagama 2011), it appeared as if for thousands of diasporic Tamils the LTTE was the only answer. The international community did not rally to stop the Sri Lankan state's use of heavy weaponry. Today, the Sri Lankan state continues to discriminate against Tamils and propel postwar expansion of the army, citing as one of its reasons precisely the LTTE-ness of the diaspora.

Why did the LTTE become synonymous with being Sri Lankan Tamil in diasporic communities? Is it inevitable that transnational communities will support nationalist organizations? This is the commonsense assumption in much literature on long-distance nationalism: distance from home in time and space coupled with marginalization within host countries can lead to nostalgia and reification of homelands. In this article, though, I seek to go beyond this seeming inevitability of diasporic ethnonationalism to investigate how diasporas are actively fashioned into specific kinds of actors. Here I investigate how the LTTE was able to shape the ways in which Tamilness was experienced and shared away from the “homeland” and, thus, how the LTTE came to stand for the Tamil diaspora.


The term diaspora is commonly applied to those with a “triadic relationship” between “(1) a collectively self-identified ethnic group in one particular setting, (2) the people's co-ethnics in other parts of the world, and (3) the homeland states or local contexts whence they or their forebears came” (Vertovec 1997:279). Tamils epitomize this characterization better than most. One in four Sri Lankan Tamils live outside the island, and Tamils are one of the largest asylum-seeking groups in the world (McDowell 1996; Sriskandarajah 2004). As a paradigmatic case, they are mentioned in passing in most writing on long-distance nationalism. Tamils have become a common case study in work on migration and trauma (Gronsreth 2010), asylum law (Good 2003), conflict resolution (Orjuela 2008), and as sponsors of “terrorism” (Wayland 2004).

However, the usefulness of diaspora as a description is questionable. The proliferation of scholarly and lay usage of the term diaspora has limited its analytic purchase (Brubaker 2005; Vertovec 1997). Diasporic consciousness is now routinely attributed to multiple migrant communities. Much of this literature presents the necessity of examining diaspora and transnationalism—which are often conflated—in two ways (Brubaker 2005:7–10): as an empirical phenomena prompted by current seemingly unprecedented global flows of people and capital and newly porous borders (e.g., Glick Schiller et al. 1992) or as initiating a new postnational and hybrid perspective on older paradigms of integration and the nation-state (e.g., Appadurai 1996). Moreover, diasporic consciousness as fluid and hybrid has become valorized as a contemporary social condition of modernity (Vertovec 1997:281–282). Claims of exceptionality stand on difficult empirical ground. While there has been recent mass arrival of formerly colonial subject populations into formerly colonial “metropoles,” nonetheless there has always been large-scale global movement. There is no evidence that contemporary borders are more porous given that state surveillance of borders is ever increasing. Nor can we argue that older migrant communities were not equally dispersed and as attached to their previous homes as are current migrants (Foner 1997). The most distinct difference is the technology that fashions and enables more intense transnational relationships (Anderson 1994). This expansion of the scope and phenomena of diaspora has led to two unresolved questions. First, there is little clarity about why some groups are more transnational than others (Vertovec 1997). Second, there is a tendency to understand diasporas as actors in themselves by virtue of their empirical movement as opposed to their own crafting of themselves as actors (Brubaker 2005:12). In this article, I attempt to tackle both questions. I deal with the question of historical depth here, while the second half of this article will discuss the LTTE's fashioning of the Tamil diaspora as a unitary actor in Toronto, Canada.

First, while some communities have only embarked on international migration more recently, many have long histories of movement throughout the 19th century that shape their experiences of contemporary migration. Benedict Anderson (1994) proposes that, rather than exiled identities challenging the nation-state, it is the sensation of being exiled and dislocated that is a precondition for nationalism.1 For Anderson, the causes of exile are multivalent: industrial capitalism transformed and thus exiled people from familiar landscapes, and forced mass movement. These created new categories that were relational even as they were seen as absolute (e.g., creole, native, colonial). Along with this came the new self-consciousness of belonging imparted through new mass education systems standardizing and transforming vernacular languages into national ones. It is not surprising that the two groups Anderson particularly focuses on as prime examples of long-distance nationalism, Sikhs and Sri Lankan Tamils, have been historically some of the most mobile populations within the British Empire (though he does not make this link). Ideas about a Tamil homeland were not predominantly created in the diaspora, as has been intimated for the Sikh Khalistani movement (Axel 2001)—the impetus and the histories of Tamil nationalism clearly come from Sri Lanka. However, it is significant to our understanding of the “Tamil Diaspora” that northern Tamils’ social aspirations had already been imaginatively fashioned around migration. It is through the aspirations that migration conjures up that a critical tension emerges, examined in the first half of this article, between a cultural memory of elite transnational migration as social mobility and the contemporary migration of more class- and caste-fractured (as well as often deeply traumatized) Tamil communities.


The Sri Lankan conflict was the longest running conflict in South Asia. While historically ethnic identities have been fluid in Sri Lanka, from the 19th-century colonial regime onward a bipartite divide has emerged between a majority Sinhalese-speaking community (74 percent) and multiple minority communities, most of them Tamil-speaking (Spencer 1990). The conflict centered on the relationship between the majority and the largest Tamil-speaking minority, Sri Lankan Tamils. The two other Tamil-speaking minorities involved in the conflict, though not officially acknowledged to be so, are Sri Lankan Muslims, also resident in the disputed north and east (Thiranagama 2011), and Malaiyaha Tamils, descendants of 19th-century Indian plantation workers brought by the British (Daniel 1996).

State discrimination against Tamil minorities and the failure of Tamil parliamentary parties to address discrimination gave rise to multiple militant groups in the 1970s calling for a separate Tamil homeland, Tamil Eelam, that would encompass the Tamil majority areas in the northern and eastern provinces (Tambiah 1986). Popular support for militancy increased as a series of anti-Tamil riots in 1956, 1958, 1971, 1977, and, most fatefully, in 1983 pushed Tamil minorities to an impasse (Tambiah 1986). The aftermath of the 1983 riots saw the first major flow of refugees out of Sri Lanka. As civil war dramatically escalated, hundreds of thousands of Tamils continued to flee abroad.

The LTTE (the Tigers) began as a small militant organization amid many others (Thiranagama 2011:185–189). By 1986 the Tigers had emerged as the dominant Tamil militant combatant in the war by eliminating or absorbing other militant groups (Krishna 1999; Thiranagama 2011:201–211). The LTTE's primary features were a pyramidal structure focused on their leader Prabhakaran; a disciplined and militarized cadre; the use of suicide bombings and cyanide capsules; an extensive intelligence network; and, generally, a reliance on fear and intimidation to control Tamil politics. The group had a conventional land army, navy, intelligence wing, and a rudimentary air force. These were divided into elite corps, female and male battalions, and the infamous child “baby brigades.” These were buttressed by international shipping and smuggling networks.

By 1990, the LTTE began to build up a quasi-state structure, first in northern Jaffna and then in 1995 in northwestern Vanni after being dislodged from Jaffna by the Sri Lankan army. Recruitment became formalized: the Tigers demanded that families in areas under their control supply at least one member to fight. They had a militarized administrative structure focused on punitive taxation and policing with their own police force, judiciary, and prison system. In addition, they taxed all businesses and monopolized commercial functions, controlling most cooperatives, running their own bus service, and so on. Relationships with the LTTE were essential for any organization, business, or individual to survive in LTTE-controlled areas. By the late 1990s, the LTTE began to ritualize itself, building vast cemeteries for cadres and holding an annual “Martyrs’/Heroes’ Day Celebration” where thousands came to mourn deaths of loved ones (Schalk 1997). Until their defeat in 2009, the Tigers’ political and economic dominance was uncontested, although many Tamils chafed at the rigidity of their control (Thiranagama 2011). The acceptance of the LTTE was partly because the Sri Lankan state and army, with its routinized arrest, torture, execution, and surveillance of Tamils, did not present Tamils with a viable democratic alternative (Thiranagama 2011). Between a rock and a hard place, many Tamils would tell me, at least the LTTE were “our boys.”

Some have claimed (e.g., Fair 2005) that the LTTE success partly stemmed from its relationship to the Tamil diaspora. The LTTE reputedly maintained offices in 40 different countries. It was most visible through various civil organizations that staged cultural events, provided services, acted as political lobby groups, and channeled funds to the LTTE. In Canada, the umbrella groups Federation of Associations of Canadian Tamils (FACT), World Tamil Movement (WTM) in Toronto, and the NGO Tamil Rehabilitation Organization (TRO) presented the public face of the LTTE. It was this face of the LTTE that I encountered in Toronto.

The backdrop for this article is my larger research on the long Sri Lankan civil war, particularly on internally displaced northern Tamils and Muslims in the capital Colombo and refugee camps in northwestern Puttalam (Thiranagama 2011). I had already conducted a year of intensive fieldwork (2002–03) in Sri Lanka when I arrived in Toronto in 2003 for three months of fieldwork.2 In Toronto, I concentrated on interviewing different generations within Tamil families: children, parents, and grandparents. This article draws upon long interviews with six (though at times more) middle-aged and elderly women who I met for three- to four-hour group interviews weekly for three months. I had met them through the Senior Women's Association in a “Sri Lankan” downtown neighborhood. This is supplemented with interviews from women I met through another group for victims of domestic abuse. Some material comes from a return trip to Toronto in 2005, where, through fieldwork with ex-militants, I interviewed people about LTTE intimidation in the diaspora (Thiranagama 2010).


The largest Tamil population outside of Sri Lanka is in Canada—around 200–300,000 individuals (International Crisis Group 2010:2), most arriving from 1990 onward (Aruliah 1994). Canada's generous immigration policies and its sympathy toward Tamils led to a high degree of asylum acceptance. Furthermore, Canada's practice of including those outside the nuclear family in family reunion policies meant that refugees could send for family very soon after being established. Many Tamils thus saw Canada as the ultimate desired location. Most of these Tamils live in Toronto.

Toronto consists of almost 50 percent recent migrants, with 47 percent said to be “racialized” minorities (Social Planning Toronto 2009:11–12). While there are large, long-standing South Asian communities all across Toronto (predominantly Hindu and Sikh Punjabis, and Pakistanis), Sri Lankan Tamils are categorized as wartime refugees, with corresponding high school drop-out rates and residence in low-income areas (Ornstein 2006:iv) in inner-city Toronto and the suburb of Scarborough. Despite low socioeconomic status generally, many Sri Lankan Tamils had indeed become very successful, moving from unskilled shift jobs upon arrival to stable 9-to-5 jobs and investing heavily in their children's education. Most (though not all) Tamils lived in “high rise” low-income housing, though most aspired toward the semidetached houses that marked migrant success. The dilapidated high rises shaped new types of sociability—resembling microcosmic neighborhoods, providing support as well as community surveillance. Family members were often spread across several floors, and homes were imagined vertically across floors, children playing between elevators and stairs. Apartments spilled over with things and people, the overcrowding that is symptomatic of Toronto immigrant life. Yet many middle-aged people matched their complaints about conditions in the high rises with attestations of love for Canada.

One of my first visits to “Little Jaffna” coincided with a large debate organized by the Senior Women's Association. I was ushered into a packed room to meet around 50 women. The debate was on which was better—“Canada Annai” (Mother Canada) or “Thaynatu” (Motherland—Sri Lanka). Saroja, speaking up for Canada Annai, put across her argument forcefully: in Canada they had everything they could have at home, but here there was no war and they could talk with and see each other all the time, so they should be grateful to Canada Annai. Besides, she concluded, almost everyone from home was in Toronto. Rosa, speaking for Sri Lanka, pursued a different strategy, describing the bewildering nature of Canadian society and the transformation of Tamils: “When you organized a marriage for your daughter from Sri Lanka for a Toronto boy, everyone tells you that he is a nice traditional boy who wears kadukan (traditional earrings) in his ears … then you come here and find out that all this kadukan stuff is rubbish, and he is running around with girls and all kinds of things” (field notes, August 2003). In the break, I sat and discussed this further with the women. Many told me that Canadian society was bewildering for them; their grandchildren dressed and spoke like aliens. Some described their feelings of entrapment living in apartments on the 20th and 30th floors. Yet, the same women also told me how in Toronto they were reunited with family and former villagers as whole communities had moved from the north and east to Toronto. For them, Toronto was fast becoming a Tamil place. At the end of the debate, Thaynatu won only by a few votes, as quite a few of the old women cast their votes for Canada without hesitation. Canada could indeed be a place where the Tamil community found itself, albeit transfigured.

However, Tamils did not always recognize the position in which they found themselves within this world. At the time of my Canada research, a series of violent Canadian Tamil gang conflicts were extensively covered in the local press (Jayawardhana n.d.). For my Canadian non–Sri Lankan friends, it was gangs that formed the dominant stereotype of Sri Lankan Tamils. Tamils were deeply troubled by this characterization, given their attempts to project themselves as a respectable community. Young Tamils told me of constant discrimination at schools, where they were stereotyped as gang members. Most young Tamils I interviewed discussed gang membership in terms one can find in many places, some citing boredom, the fun of camaraderie and sociality with their peers, freedom from adult supervision as their parents often worked two jobs, clashes with their parents’ “traditional values,” disillusionment with school, and the limited capacities for advancement in the high rises. Some middle-aged adults blamed gang membership on lax parental values and Westernization, suggesting it was a “Canadian habit” inimical to Tamil culture despite the fact that most of those middle-aged Tamils had engaged in some militant activity in their pasts (Thiranagama 2011). Others wondered uneasily about parallels to the violence in Sri Lanka from which they had so recently fled. On a walk we took together, Valliamma told me,

Our children grew up in war and they learnt all of this. They solve fights by hitting each other … it is difficult for our children here, especially those who came paying great debts who have to work all the time and send home money … they don't have anything else to do, they are depressed and they end up getting stuck in this. People look at us when we say Sri Lankan because of the gangs. [conversation with author, October 2003]

My encounters with gang members were limited and never formed part of my research. Instead, I introduce these snippets here because these conversations reflected how reports of Tamil gang membership and deprivation pressed the Tamil community into a category in which they did not recognize themselves: the urban poor. This was at odds with a much deeper cultural myth of migration among Tamils, specifically Jaffna Tamils, a historically mobile group for whom geographical migration previously had been seen as the premier route toward upward mobility.

Migration as Class Mobility

I first came across the name “Little Jaffna” (Sinna-Yalpannam) in archival research on Jaffnese migration to Malaysia; Sinna-Yalpannam was a 1920s Jaffna Tamil enclave in Kuala Lumpur. The transition between these two places, Kuala Lumpur to Toronto, is central to our story here about contemporary Tamil migrant experiences. The moniker “Little Jaffna” is indicative of two factors: first that most migration out of Sri Lanka to Europe and North America has been from the northern Jaffna peninsula, although war migration has been from many regions, and second that there are many “little Jaffnas” for this historically migratory community.

The Jaffna peninsula had high rates of outmigration throughout the colonial and postcolonial period. Peripheral to emerging plantation economies, Jaffna's missionary schools and the riskiness of its cash crops, land scarcity, and overpopulation led in the 19th century to its premier asset: education (Bastin 1997). Educated Jaffna Tamils travelled all around the island and in the British colonial territories as civil servants and overseers becoming “a nation of pen pushers” when “there was a great demand for pen-pushers all over the British Empire” (Arasaratnam 1986:40).3

This was particularly evident in British Malaya and Singapore, where Jaffna Tamils arrived from 1870s onward. British civil servants transferred to work there brought their Ceylonese (mainly Jaffna Tamil) staff with them. For example, when C. E. Spooner of the Ceylon Public Works Department became the state engineer in Selangor's public works department, he brought with him experienced Ceylonese office workers, overseers, clerks, and engineers (Rajasingam 1968:38–39). Upon becoming the general manager of the Federated Malay States Railways, Spooner continued employing Ceylonese Tamils. T. A. Cook, the railway traffic manager, even made a deal in 1917 to recruit youths straight from St. Johns College, Jaffna (Rajasingam 1968:38–39).

These Jaffna Tamils first came as single men. However, soon they began to bring their families, setting up enclaves (Rajasingam 1968:125, 173). Nondominant castes (such as Dhobis, etc.) also followed when regular settlements and temples were built (Rajasingam 1968:125, 173). However, this migration remained that of upper-caste educated professionals. Ceylonese predominated in the junior ranks of the Malay government in railways, public works, surveys, posts and telegraphs, rubber estates, and firms (Nagaratnam 1962). In 1899 the Selangor State railways were 90 percent staffed by Ceylonese—and these were mostly Jaffna Tamils (Rajasingam 1968:179). This dominance continued. Reporting on the Ceylonese in Malaya for the Ceylonese government, V. Coomaraswamy (1946) wrote that, in the 1920s, more than 50 percent of the junior officers in government services were Ceylon Tamils. As E. B. Denham concluded, “Jaffnese do not emigrate as pioneers, cultivators, settlers, but as passed candidates and examination successes” (Denham 1912:69).

The impact of this migration within Jaffna was well remembered by elderly Jaffna Tamils with whom I talked. The migrant Malayans visited Jaffna regularly for village temple festivals and to find girls to marry, the marriage of female Jaffna “substance” with male enterprise. Migrants invested their savings from their overseas enterprises into buying Jaffna land as dowry for their daughters, with whole streets in particular upper-caste areas of Jaffna being the proceeds of waged labor in Singapore or Malaysia. The three Tamil and English-language Jaffnese newspapers Jaffna Catholic Guardian, the Hindu Organ, and the Morning Star all had separate sections on news from the Federated Malay States and the Straits Settlements.4 Thambapillai Adigar of Jaffna Town could thus write of the peninsula,

The price of land has more than doubled in Jaffna during the past decade. This, as well as other signs of general prosperity among the people, is due not to any improvements in local industries and trade, but to the very large number of the sons of Jaffna who are employed in various capacities outside Jaffna … There is not a village in the Jaffna district which is not benefited by the employment of its inhabitants abroad. [Denham 1912:69]

This constant reinvestment in Jaffna showed how it continued to be the cultural heart for Jaffna Tamils even after migration. After World War II, most of these migrants, having lost almost everything under Japanese occupation, came home to Sri Lanka. However, this period represents the deep cultural memory of migration as upward mobility and a remittance-led economy in which migrants were considered representative of Jaffna character rather than people rendered inauthentic by their departure. By the 20th century, “a spirit of migration mostly by middleclass Tamils, became built into Tamil cultural aspirations” (McDowell 1996:69).

Migration as an Underclass

During the civil war, Tamil migration exponentially increased. While the Sri Lankan government argues that Tamils are economic migrants and have nothing to fear at home, this is clearly untrue given continual discrimination, arrest, and torture of Tamils in Sri Lanka (see University Teachers for Human Rights [Jaffna] 2009; Malik 2012a, 2012b). The Sri Lankan civil war has enhanced the cultural ideology of migration as class mobility by increasing the perception that Tamil life in Sri Lanka is under threat and can only be re-created elsewhere. In addition, through asylum procedures that privilege victims of political violence, migration has become accessible—however traumatically—to a much wider range of people than previously was the case.

Historically, the upper-caste Vellalas dominated migration. By the 1970s, Vellalas had become a “mega-caste,” comprising nearly 70 percent of the Jaffna population, internally divided into “big” and “small” Vellalas (Pfaffenberger 1982). While as Delon Madavan (2011) shows the mass exodus from the Jaffna peninsula has been from the Vellala caste, most of the new migrants were the “small vellalas,” not the professionals of the 1930–60s (Daniel and Thangaraj 1995:143). Furthermore, while the majority of migrants in Toronto are Vellala, they are not exclusively so. There has been increasing migration from other castes, and much larger numbers of Eastern Tamils since the late 1990s and the expansion of the warzone. Furthermore, those migrating were not part of an educated English-speaking elite. Thirty years of political turmoil, school closures, and militancy had dramatically reduced educational possibility in the Jaffna peninsula (Thiranagama 2011:41–77). In Michael Ornstein's (2006) survey of ethnoracial groups in Toronto, his categories “Sri Lankan” and “Tamil” have some of the lowest university graduate populations among the East and South Asian groups in Toronto, and the proportion of persons between 25 and 34 who have not completed high school is more than 30 percent. These figures reflect the experiences of those communities who came as young non-English speakers to Canada (Ornstein 2006:iv) and often as refugees (2006:16). Ornstein's figures show that the younger age ranges (the Canadian born) have educational achievement levels closer to the general population range (2006:16), reflecting the investment by all the Tamils that I encountered in Toronto in their children's education, no matter what their own levels of education were.

Since the late 1980s, Tamils—especially Jaffna Tamils—have been engaging in migration wherein they enter into host countries not as overseers, clerks, and students, as is the myth of good migration in Jaffna, but as refugees, petrol-shed workers, minicab drivers, security guards, and so forth. Many told me about their first experiences with racism and their realization that they might be stuck in their low-paid, low-status jobs rather than moving on to subsequent white-collar work. In my interviews, the elderly women expressed profound sympathy for their children. As one woman explained, many of their children were working two jobs or awkward shifts. Life was a struggle, she said, and one could understand that their children did not have the time to teach them how to cope with life in Canada. Nesaratnam's story of her arrival was typical:

I came in the snow time … My son came and picked me up and then they [son and wife] told me all the things I needed to know. I shouldn't just use the phone whenever I want, even if it is relatives. I shouldn't trouble people in the night just ringing on the telephone. They would have come from work, and they need to sleep. I need to turn the lights out if I am not using them. I must not just watch TV all day. My son goes to work in the morning. Sometimes his friends will come and take me out for things. There was another friend in the building so she will come and talk. He cooks when he comes home, and my daughter-in law will also cook and leave things for me before she works.

My son had gone to Paris at 17 on his own and slept in parks and things and sent money home to us. Now here he is working hard, and he called me over. He sponsored me. I didn't even bring a woman for him. Everyone scolded me. He had done so much for us, and I hadn't brought a wife for him. And I had arranged a marriage for my daughter in Denmark! Then I did a marriage for him, a good one with a girl with a BA. He left home at 17 without a home, and he is such a good child. He was the one who sent all the money and got everyone married, all his sisters. [conversation with author, November 2003]

As Nesaratnam and some of the other women corroborated, many of them before arriving in Canada had little idea of the difficult circumstances in which their children lived, as they had previously registered the flow of remittances home to them as a sign of prosperity and well-being. However, Nesaratnam also illustrates the high value of migrant husbands—her own preference was to send her daughter who had a dowry (provided by her brother) to Denmark, and a girl with a B.A. was considered a good bride for her son even though he had little, if any, higher education.

In short, while the Malayan migration bears many of the hallmarks of “transnationalism” (attachment to home, frequent travel, communication, marriage, and trade), there are crucial differences between this earlier movement and the large-scale contemporary phenomenon of Tamil movement I address here. The contemporary Tamil diaspora are war refugees, not educated workers. The reality of such migration in the 1980s and 1990s to Europe and North America was to inhabit an underclass. Thus, migration since the 1980s has become (while still valorized) increasingly more plebian in composition, and while people are mobile in relation to those left behind in Sri Lanka, in status terms they have experienced little upward mobility in daily experience. These class tensions underwrite the complex Tamil diaspora in Toronto and, I would argue, inform the kinds of desire for Tamil dignity and for a unified Tamil culture that the Tigers mobilize and shape.


Raji had slaved to send her daughter to Canada to get married. However, when Raji and her husband arrived, their son-in-law kicked them out. A lively small woman with a constant flow of witty remarks often about her husband and his many incapacities, her stories of Sri Lanka were dominated by stories of bombing, fear, violence, and the constant desperate hope to send her daughter abroad to free her. She represented the large majority of those I met in Toronto, who although talking of their difficulties in Canada nonetheless believed that Tamils could only prosper after leaving Sri Lanka. Her lack of ability to speak English meant that Raji's life was in almost exclusively Tamil-speaking domains. Raji embraced my research, bringing me Tamil books to read from her personal collection. These were, like all the books and leaflets that she had encountered since her arrival, LTTE pamphlets and books distributed at community events and on sale in most Tamil stores. Raji was, like most I met, casually shaped by an LTTE circulation that had become politically neutral by becoming what most knew as “Tamil.”

The few studies of the Tamil diaspora in Toronto are roughly of two kinds. The first follows a security studies style, describing the comprehensive LTTE network but disconnecting this from any account of the larger community (e.g., Fair 2005; Wayland 2004). The other trend is to describe the Tamil community in Toronto but largely erase the LTTE in favor of neutral descriptions of the village societies, Tamil banking practices, and social organizations (e.g., Cheran 2003, 2007). Rudramoorthy Cheran, for example, has done valuable work in documenting migrant life but argues that the Tamil diaspora should be considered a single actor and should be more powerful in representing Sri Lankan Tamils (Vimalarajah and Cheran 2010) while conspicuously omitting the role of the LTTE in actually being that single actor.

Fundamentally, the presumption that the Tamil diaspora could be considered in the singular is problematic. Rogers Brubaker argues that the simultaneous use of diaspora as a descriptive term and a stance on the world, the “diasporic perspective,” falls prey to “groupism”—treating “various categories of people as if they were internally homogenous, externally bounded groups, even unitary collective actors with common purposes” (Brubaker 2005:28). Instead, diaspora should be understood as a “category of practice” that is “used to make claims, to articulate projects, to formulate expectations, to mobilize energies, to appeal to loyalties” (Brubaker 2005:12). This means, as Martin Sokefeld points out,

if we assume that the discursive imagination of community is not a direct and necessary outcome of migration movements, the crucial question becomes why and how a diaspora discourse arises among a certain group of people and how people are made to accept a certain discourse and to participate in it. The formation of diaspora is therefore an issue of social mobilization. [2006:268]

Drawing from Sokefeld's (2006:269) suggested prescriptions, I propose to see the LTTE as a “mobilizing structure” that has managed to construct a common interpretive “frame” for a heterogeneous and diverse set of migrant experiences. To do so, I combine the approaches to the Tamil diaspora outlined above, bringing together studies of community practice and LTTE networks.


In Sri Lanka, the LTTE could not be divorced from its armed cadres and the constant threat of violence (Thiranagama 2011:41–77, 127–144, 195–227). I had thought this would be different in Toronto in the absence of military coercion. However, wherever I went, I saw LTTE paraphernalia, flags, calendars, and so on. Tamil grocery shops had pictures of Prabhakaran next to their pictures of Hindu gods. There was coercion: independent Tamil media outlets and individuals were repeatedly attacked (Nallainathan 2007). But it was also true that almost all large Tamil community gatherings in Toronto were LTTE-organized events. Thousands of Tamils attend the Heroes Days celebration in Toronto without military coercion. The recently established festival “Pongu Tamil,” which draws thousands in various diasporic locations, was couched as a cultural revival with shows of traditional Tamil dance and drama. While “Pongu Tamil” is not billed as an LTTE event, participants and performers are bedecked with flags and costumes in the LTTE red and yellow, showing how the LTTE was framing Tamil culture as a whole rather than appearing as a segment of Tamil cultural expression. The LTTE was moving from being a political organization to being a cultural background. Pictures published in national Canadian newspapers of stalls outside some Hindu temples with pictures of Prabhakaran, LTTE collecting cans, and miniature LTTE flags, which were greeted with outrage in the larger press, were a normal feature of cultural events when I was in Toronto (Bell 2012).

Was this evidence of, as Anderson describes, “Tigers in Jaffna [stiffening] in their violent struggles by Tamil communities in Toronto, London and elsewhere, all linked on the computer by Tamilnet” so “that same metropole which marginalizes and stigmatizes him [the diasporic] simultaneously enables him to play, in a flash, on the other side of the planet, national hero” (Anderson 1994:327)? One could easily find evidence that the LTTE provided a marginalized community with a sense of dignity, pride, and importance on the global stage and allowed them to play national politics in Sri Lanka without having to be accountable for the risks of LTTE involvement. Their children were free from the Sri Lankan Army and from being commandeered by the LTTE. This is Anderson's “politics without accountability” (1994:326). But this didn't explain Raji to me. How had so many ordinary people (that is, noncombatants and non-LTTE activists)—who often had come very recently from Sri Lanka and with complex experiences of the war—become co-opted into a particular understanding of Tamil suffering and Tamil community? As I demonstrate below, one way to understand this is to look at how the LTTE made its activities the public space of a community, thus constructing a unified community with common spaces and common networks that otherwise would be segregated by caste, class, and religion.

Stine Bruland states in her work in Norway that “before LTTE's defeat, the decision to engage or not in the LTTE supportive activities was … the most important decision in Norwegian Tamils’ everyday life” (2012:3). Bruland suggests that such a choice has come to supersede other differentiations of caste, migration pattern, and class (2012:3).5 Her work builds upon Øivind Fuglerud's (1999, 2001) insightful studies of Norwegian Tamils, which document in detail the enormous class and caste tensions between earlier migrants and the “asylum seekers” and highlights how the “activities of the LTTE”-sponsored organizations have been central “in upholding a sense of common identity in exile” (Fuglerud 2001:198). Fuglerud argues that there are two competing visions of Tamilness in exile. The first is a “conservative–traditional” vision based on reinstating hierarchies of age, gender, and caste in exile (2001:199). The second, a “revolutionary” perspective espoused by former militants, constantly relates exile life to Sri Lanka, particularly to the notion of Tamil Eelam, and imagines overturning existing hierarchies (Fuglerud 2001:205–206). While I agree with Fuglerud's larger conclusions, this particular distinction does not help us understand why ordinary people get involved in a LTTE-framed world; even Fuglerud acknowledges that these cultural models are more applicable for LTTE activists than for the majority of the exile population negotiating them (2001:207). In fact, I would argue that seeing the LTTE from a diaspora perspective (that is, without witnessing them as an armed organization on the ground) can lead to two mistaken assumptions: first, that the LTTE model of behavior for LTTE cadres is what the LTTE ideology prescribes for ordinary Tamil people and, second, that it is interested in overturning hierarchies in exile life.

Despite its forced recruitment of children (and thus radicalization of Tamil families) and its mobilization of women and oppressed caste communities as cadres, the LTTE continued to emphasize cultural purity and conservative values for Tamil civilians (Thiranagama 2011:216–217). For example, female cadres were armed and uniformed while the Tigers repeatedly decreed that civilian women should wear traditional saris and modest dress (Maunaguru 1995:169). Thus, what Fuglerud describes as behavior that was not “uncommon” but “contradictory”—that is, “supporting the LTTE's ideological project while working hard to raise dowries for their sisters, or denounce the violent strategy of the LTTE while attending their meetings” (Fuglerud 2001:207)—is in fact the norm for most Tamils I encountered. LTTE ideology presented people with the deferment of radical action to its cadres while maintaining the status quo.

In Toronto, it was LTTE affiliates that actively encouraged the pursuit of “traditional” Tamil cultural values for diasporics. There were multiple classes to teach the high “culture” (kalacharam) pursuits of Tamil dance, ritual, religion, and poetry.6 Most children I met were sent to such Tamil weekend schools. One boy I met recited a long Tamil poem and then to my amusement asked me to translate it for him in English. “I have no idea what it means,” he said. Kalacharam also denoted the Tamil values of modesty, respectability, and obedience to parents, which seemingly marked the distinction between Tamils and white Canadians. These “Tamil values” attempted to punctuate how one was marked as a “visible minority” in larger Canadian life. Thus, the LTTE could guard Tamil life against “Sinhalese genocide” and against “Western culture” simultaneously. Young people's danger of “moral corruption” by Canadian society was constantly touted (as many teenagers complained to me), and they were exhorted to “keep their culture.” What was offered as the gateway to that culture was paradoxical, given that parents complaining of their children's involvement in gang violence saw no contradiction in taking them to LTTE rallies that valorized death and the militarization of young people as the necessary solution to anti-Tamil discrimination. One young man I met who had been involved in gang violence had been “rehabilitated” through becoming pressed into community activities and getting to “know his culture.” As he enthusiastically told me about one exhibition about Tamil culture in which he has been involved, I realized that he was repeating to me almost verbatim an LTTE version of Tamil history in Sri Lanka, one that omitted all kinds of ambiguous historical details, such as evidence of Muslim and Tamil co-existence, and presented a natural path toward an LTTE-controlled Tamil Eelam. For many young people, with few alternative views of Tamilness available, to go against LTTE ideologies about Sri Lanka and Tamil Eelam had become tantamount to rejecting one's own community in the midst of fighting already exhausting battles about personal freedom.

Alongside services provided for teaching proper Tamilness, the LTTE organizations also functioned in Toronto as civil networks that also managed the interface between larger Canadian society and institutions and Tamils. Those who went with parents to schools as translators, ran help centers, gave legal advice, and assisted with housing and immigration applications were “soft” Tiger community activists. I met numerous activists embedded within every community organization, particularly the ones that mediated between state and city service provisions and the community. The first day I began interviews in the Senior Women's Association, a middle-aged Tamil man sitting in the office without any obvious role in the organization called me to meet him. Inquiring into my purpose, he then summoned me to come for a further meeting. As my inquiries about him immediately established later, he was a known LTTE-affiliated activist. Whether one espoused LTTE politics or not, many Tamils needed the services that these organizations provided. The LTTE thus came to constitute the social space of the community as it actively brought such a community together. This enabled the LTTE to provide a seeming welfarist face in Toronto that was largely absent in Sri Lanka, where in actuality they were a highly militarized state (Uyangoda 2007:39–41). These practices only became controversial in Canada after a change of government from Liberal to Conservative in 2006 led to the official designation of the LTTE as a terrorist organization and subsequent investigations in 2008 into organizations such as the World Tamil Movement and civic and religious institutions for sending money for charitable enterprises to LTTE organizations. Indeed, the most successful LTTE mobilization was around remittances and the transformation of individual migrant remittances into the large-scale public politics of LTTE nationalism.

Remitting Home, Remitting to the LTTE

The major flow of monies is that of remittances sent by individuals to their families back in Jaffna. Another, more segmented set of remittances are sent through multiple associations, whereby Tamils send money back to their former villages and or old schools for building and other projects (Cheran 2003:11). Such a remittance economy has dominated Jaffna Tamil life since the 1910s (Bastin 1997), and its continuance in Toronto is consonant with older cultural expectations of the gains and purpose of migration, as is the case with most migrant communities.

However, in contemporary remittance economies, even as monies flowed home, the focus and purpose of reinvestment has transferred from “home” to abroad. Remittances in the 1930s were frequently aimed at acquiring dowry land in Jaffna; many “Malayan pensioners” did retire home after all. Status was measured in relation to valued goods back home. Contemporary remittances are sent home to sustain families and to help them get out and migrate. Because war has made displacement a fact of life and land a highly insecure good, dowry among Tamils has become dominated not by the high-status land but by low-status and yet magically liquid cash. Most dowries are now cash aimed at attracting overseas husbands. Notably these trends have affected the status of women in marriage: women are now sent abroad to live with their husband and often his family (the reverse is true in Jaffna), and while dowry land continued to be women's property after marriage, cash goes straight to the groom and his family. The wife's family often compromises to keep bad marriages together to protect the investment they have made in dowry and to preserve the overseas path for future migration. Now it is overseas where status may be accrued, with Jaffna as the poor partner.

The other major transformation is the enormous amounts of monies flowing from migrants to the LTTE. Human Rights Watch (2006) suggests that between 80 and 90 percent of the LTTE's budget came from overseas sources, including diaspora contributions, investments, and businesses, and that in the late 1990s between CAN$1 and 12 million per year came from the Canadian diaspora. Part of the LTTE's funds did come from its business ventures, from distribution networks to its bought businesses with proxy owners (Fair 2005). However, it also very significantly transformed everyday Tamil community life into a network of contributions, collections, and taxes. On one hand, the LTTE played upon well-established genres. Community events, birthdays, weddings, and fundraisers all required immediate and extravagant shows of generosity, which Tamils highly prize in contrast to the also-espoused frugality of individual families (Mines 1994). LTTE events—from rallies to dance shows—also relied upon donations and public shows of commitment, this time to the community and poor suffering Tamils in Sri Lanka who required the help of their better-off brethren.

Furthermore, collections in public events were supplemented by LTTE “door-stepping.” LTTE activists routinely visited Tamil families, demanding from them monthly donations. I heard about this from many families, who, though struggling to make ends meet, nonetheless were so frightened of the LTTE that they would give the required pledge for however many dollars per month. Threats used against families were customarily about the safety of their families in Sri Lanka or refusals for permission to visit LTTE-controlled areas in Sri Lanka.

Increasingly, the LTTE had switched over from cash donations to monthly direct debits (Human Rights Watch 2006). This was such a widespread practice that Human Rights Watch in 2006 compiled a report on LTTE extortion that interviewed hundreds and documented the routine collection of bank and passport details and the very ordinary way in which the LTTE financial structure came to encompass most Tamil families in Toronto and to some extent in London. The launch of the HRW report in 2006 in a public meeting in Toronto was enormously controversial. As one organizer told me, guest speakers were heckled and abused by LTTE activists who came with cameras. Afterward, photographs of the Tamils who had attended the meeting were published in Tamil newspapers under the caption of “Traitors” with warnings of reprisal. Significantly, though few Tamils attended the meeting, one of the translators of the report into Tamil told me that the Tamil translation was downloaded from the HRW website thousands of times in the following weeks.

Aside from this coercion, the LTTE also tapped successfully into feelings of guilt and obligation that migrants felt toward the home they left behind. Many Tamils, despite the hardships of migrant life, felt that they were better off in Toronto. Toronto did seem to provide the means for Tamil community life to flourish unlike in Sri Lanka, where Tamil community life was seen as struggling under war and repression by the Sri Lankan state. Images and representations of Sri Lanka, especially to young Toronto Tamils who had never lived in Sri Lanka, were images of poverty—the blank look of children pasted on the collecting tins in every Tamil shop. Toronto Tamils talked of how lucky they were to live in peace and sent their children to Tamil classes and put on classical Tamil dance shows. Through this process, Jaffna, formerly the site of investment, instead became that which must be left behind to survive as a Tamil. Jaffna was seen as a place of authentic suffering, and Toronto the site of Tamil revival.

Framing Memories

The embeddedness of Tiger networks within civic structures and financial flows in the Tamil community was critical to the ways in which the LTTE equally fashioned an imaginative public for diasporic Tamils. I realized how LTTE ideology, as I argued above, had moved from political ideology to cultural identity particularly through seeing how LTTE understandings created a particular moral geography of suffering that made some memories public and some memories private. This was most evident in my conversations with women in the Senior Women's Association about their memories of wartime suffering. My argument is not dissimilar to Brian Axel's argument regarding the centrality of images of tortured Sikh bodies in articulating the Sikh diaspora around the promised Khalistan (2002:414–416), with one crucial difference—Axel is surprisingly vague on what agencies are at work in forging this discursive scaffolding (2002:421–425).

The centrality of war and anti-Tamil discrimination in shaping the biographies of the elderly women I interviewed was clear when I asked them to talk about their lives in Toronto. Saroja immediately said to general assent that they would talk of “stories of the war … what else is there!” (conversation with author, September 2003). The prevalence of this understanding of war experiences as Tamil suffering was emphasized to me when Chella (from another group), an elderly victim of domestic abuse whose final separation from her husband had led to her ostracization by other Tamils, began our conversation by counterposing public and private suffering: “The war … everyone suffered under the war, but if you want to know my real suffering, it started the day that I married that man” (conversation with author, November 2003).

My interviews with the “seniors” were extensive, and the stories easily emerged, requiring little prompting from me. All the stories narrated the profound disillusionments of being a Tamil minority in Sri Lanka; all of them had been caught up in anti-Tamil riots in southern Sri Lanka or were part of families that received riot victims. They retold emotional experiences of the constant aerial bombardments, displacement, and the fear they had for their children as the Sri Lankan army and then the Indian peacekeeping forces constantly arrested young Tamils on suspicion of being LTTE (Hoole et al. 1990; Thiranagama 2011). Their lives were entangled with militancy. Raji related with pride how the LTTE girls would come to her house to eat. Saroja had a more ambivalent twist: “When they come after fighting and ask us, ‘Amma make us a coffee please,’ then you have to do it. What can you do…? They were always coming to our house and asking us to hide them. We were frightened because of the army” (conversation with author, August 14, 2003). These war stories thus retold the horrific experiences that had come to define the discrimination and fear for Tamils in Sri Lanka. They were, however, notably silent about LTTE coercion against Tamils, from the targeted assassinations to the forced remittances. One event changed this and revealed for me the ways in which the LTTE had come to frame what narratives bound the community together and what divided them.

In one interview, through their persistent interrogation, the women had figured out finally who I was. My mother, Rajani Thiranagama, a Tamil doctor, university professor, and human rights activist, was one of the authors of the book The Broken Palmyra (Hoole et al. 1990), which had impartially documented atrocities by the Sri Lankan state, the Indian Peace Keeping Forces, and the LTTE. She was assassinated by the LTTE outside our home in Jaffna in September 1989. In Sri Lanka, levels of fear among Tamils meant that I always went through introductions so everyone was aware of who I was. In fact, this impartial position where I was clearly opposed to both the LTTE and the state opened doors for me. In Toronto, doing fieldwork, I found myself on new ground. Like everybody else I could reinvent myself—or could I? The week after I became aware that the women had realized who I was, I returned to the Senior Women's Association, suddenly nervous about walking into a place notorious for being an LTTE stronghold. News had spread fast. As I approached the community offices, one old man came out to welcome me and send his regards to my grandfather, his former schoolteacher. Resigned to the destruction of my anonymity, I walked in. More than my normal numbers of women were waiting for me. They asked me to turn on my recorder. One by one, each woman told me what they had thought when they heard about the LTTE murder of my mother. One said, “Because of what your mother did for us, you will always have a mother in this community” (conversation with author, August 14, 2003). Then another said, “Now, let's talk about the boys [the LTTE].” For two hours, for the first time, the women talked about the LTTE, their recruitment practices, the fear and control under which they had lived in Jaffna, and the culture of violence they felt was growing within the community. After that day, they never talked about “the boys” again.

I do not choose this one episode as “true memory” and “the real story,” submerged knowledge underneath an official story of suffering. For the women, it was only part of the many stories and memories they had. The stories of alienation, of discrimination, and of fear of the Sri Lankan army and Indian forces were not made up. However, the frames by which suffering was narrativized and solidified as “cultural fact” served to marginalize some stories and highlight others. Stories about Sri Lankan army and Indian army actions were no less true or genuinely felt than stories about the LTTE. But some memories were suffused with effects of publicity and served to bind the community together, while others had become more private and more divisive.

In one session, I asked the women, “Do you tell your grandchildren born here these stories?” (conversation with author, October 2003). Their replies illustrated the overdetermination of authorizing frames for personal memories.

Raji: They don't understand us at all. They won't understand our stories. First they have language problems. Their Tamil is not that good. And also they don't want to understand us that much.

Shanthi: My grandson is a big Tiger supporter. Because of his parents, my children. They put LTTE stickers on their van, and they go to all their events. For the children, it's fun, you hold the flag and sing the songs. They don't know anything about the fights. [All agree.] They don't have any interest in what actually happened to Tamil people. They can talk like it, but really they don't understand the fighting. And my daughter doesn't try to make them understand it either. She just wants to be like everyone else. The children take it from their parents. And my children, they grew up mainly in Colombo so they don't really remember that well either.

Raji: We are also forgetting the situation. We are forgetting our stories. Our old memories are going.

Shanthi: All the things that happened to us. All the events. We need to scatter them outside. It sometimes feels like we have forgotten them.

Valliamma: See, then how will we even make our grandchildren know if we are forgetting them?

Shanthi: In Canada, everyone has their own stories of the troubles. In the park, we old people sit, and after a while we start talking. Now not so much after we have been here a while.

Shanthi: […] It is not as easy for us as they think at home. We struggle here too. [conversation with author, October 2003]7

Criticism of the LTTE and talking openly about its atrocities against Tamils could not be aired in the same way within the community as those against the already well-demarcated and external other: the Sri Lankan state. These stories allow people to express grief, brutal war experiences, and the discrimination they felt in Sri Lanka—the primary reasons that people left. However, the narrative of collective victimization mobilized them behind the LTTE rhetoric of perpetual victims, because the stories they find public space for turn on violence perpetrated by outsiders rather than insiders—“the boys.” Even while war stories of communal suffering create a community that becomes united and tangible, the mobilization of these stories around the LTTE also makes them disappear from view. The narrative of collective suffering evocated in Toronto was already determined by the organizing narrative propagated by the LTTE media and activists that clearly demarcated which suffering could be narrated and celebrated in public and which was to remain within homes and individuals.


Let me now return to the young man who told his grandmother that we should refer to Tamil areas in northern and eastern Sri Lanka not by their actual geographical names (Jaffna, Batticaloa, Vanni, etc.), nor by their personalized relationship as ur (home), but rather as Tamil Eelam, the LTTE's projected homeland. This anecdote highlights the major arguments of this article. First, I have argued that the expansion and plebianization of migration is the fundamental anxiety that haunts western Tamil diasporic communities. These migrants cling in the midst of downward mobility to a cultural myth of respectability and dignity, which, as I argue, the LTTE imaginatively and practically enables. Status anxieties have propelled culturalist imaginations of new communities in Toronto, who, through the actions of LTTE-affiliated organizations, have condensed the Tigers and their imagined homeland, Tamil Eelam, into standing for Tamil community life in general. LTTE celebrations and the civic network of LTTE activism unites different fragments into a cohesive actor—“the Tamil Diaspora”—toward which all can donate and become part of a privileged authentic Tamil culture as opposed to the needy, suffering Tamils in Sri Lanka. While most Tamils did not explicitly espouse LTTE ideology, inasmuch as the LTTE came to be the backbone of community life, people came to be complicit with and reaffirm the LTTE project of defending “Tamilness” militarily in Sri Lanka and culturally in Toronto. Thus, the diasporic protests in 2009 that brandished LTTE flags and slogans were not only about Tamils stranded in Sri Lanka; they also expressed the uniting force and frame of Tamil life in Toronto. The impossibility of Tamil Eelam enables the possibility of life in Toronto. It is in this sense that when we grapple with diasporic communities, rather than assume a nostalgic innocuous and inevitable embrace of ethnonationalist homelands, we should place them within specific histories, contemporary conflicts and fractures, and active mobilizing structures.

A final note: the elimination of the LTTE in 2009 has had significant effects for my interlocutors. The feeling that I describe in this article—that diasporic Tamils were better able to and should represent Tamils in Sri Lanka—was epitomized by elections held across diasporic locations (U.K., Canada, Norway, France, etc.) in May of 2010 to elect a “Provisional Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam” (Jeyaraj 2010). However, this Translation Goverment of Tamil Eelam (TGTE) is clearly identified with the LTTE and many of its most doctrinaire middle-aged activists and is spoken about as such. The subtleties by which the LTTE came to represent Tamilness are no longer possible. Young people I met in 2011 in Toronto had already begun to poke fun at some figures and their predictably LTTE line. The era I document has ended for Tamil Canadians; the study of a new era with this legacy lies ahead.


Acknowledgments. I would like to thank both editors and all anonymous reviewers at American Anthropologist who commented on various drafts of this article. Your comments have made the piece what it is. I am grateful to Beth Drexler who encouraged me to write this and to all those who talked to me in Toronto.

  1. 1

    See Anthias 1998 for how contemporary iterations of diaspora as hybridity rests on territorialized notions.

  2. 2

    This was followed by shorter stints in Sri Lanka (2004, 2006, 2011).

  3. 3

    This makes them distinct from the formerly indentured diasporic communities in the Caribbean, Africa, Pacific Islands, and Mauritius, who are working class and come from a plurality of languages and Hindu and Muslim backgrounds (Eisenlohr 2006; Khan 2004).

  4. 4

    Accessed via the Sri Lankan National Archives, Colombo.

  5. 5

    Bruland's sample is one family.

  6. 6

    LTTE-affiliated organizations were also prominent in Tamil language and arts children's programming in Norway (Fuglerud 2001:198).

  7. 7

    All names used in this article are pseudonyms.