The complex realities of the Ilankai (Sri Lankan) Tamil community and our histories of struggle are not a part of the collective imagination of South Asian America. Our erasure has even been used to justify worsening injustices in the United States. In 2020, the dismissal of our collective trauma and history was legitimated by the United States Supreme Court, who ruled against a Tamil asylum seeker and by extension dismantled the right to due process for all U.S. asylum seekers.

Throughout the 20th century, several visions were put forth for how the Ilankai Tamil community could achieve liberation from persecution by the Sri Lankan state and the policing of our bodies around the world. However, during the Sri Lankan Civil War, political discourse was obliterated by armed actors on various sides of the conflict who ostracized and assassinated dissenters. This culture of silencing dissent persists in the Tamil community today. Now in the postwar era, where Tamil militancy was violently destroyed while our oppressions persist, Tamil politics is due for reclamation.

Among us, despite life threatening circumstances, there has existed and continues to exist a powerful legacy of intergenerational Tamil feminist dissent. In the decades of war, many Tamil dissidents fled into hiding or were assassinated by either the Sri Lankan government or Tamil militants for being perceived as threats by warring factions. Yet elements of the legacy of feminist dissidence, while violently marginalized, have found their way to the United States. These stories of dissent provide blueprints for what was and what still could be paths toward a collective struggle for liberation that is intersectional, internationalist, and healing.

Why feminism? Tamil feminism can mean many things, but the common thread that links all of the interviewees for this project - across genders, sexualities, and political positions - is an ethic of solidarity, care, and coalition, even at personal cost. The Tamil feminism that emerges is an unflinching practice of solidarity within and beyond our community, creating ecosystems of care that hold conflicting truths and differences we have often killed each other over. Through these ecosystems of care, new ways of being can emerge as definitions of liberation expand.

This collection of oral histories provides an archive of Tamil feminist dissenters’ lives and their relationship to memories of home and migration. The purpose of this project is multi-faceted. It aims to inspire current and future generations of Tamils yearning for a connection to struggles that we so often don’t see ourselves or feel safe within. It aims to resituate Ilankai Tamil stories as a central part of South Asian America. And on the 40th anniversary of the burning of the Jaffna Library and its archive of Tamil history by the Sri Lankan state, it aims to reclaim the archive, and by extension ourselves.

Aanjali Allegakoen

“I understand the importance of one’s identity, but I don’t think it should get in the way of collaboration and coalition, which in the American context has been the story of every marginalized group. When coalition is possible is when government intervenes [to stop it]. Now that we’re outside of a [Sri Lankan] government-controlled context, coalition should be on everyone’s mind. That should be where we focus because what we have in common is a love for Tamil people.”

V.V. ('Sugi') Ganeshananthan

“ . . . [B]eing told I should hue to a certain party line by people who made it seem that I owed them something, or who seemed like they were entitled to my loyalty, did not go over super well. And the people who I knew who were more nuanced were direct but also gentle. . . . I was lucky to have those people around me.”

Sumangala ('Sumi') Kailasapathy

“Just putting evil in the other camp and absolving ourselves of every wrongdoing is not going to take our community any further.”

Maya McCoy

“One of the most powerful things about having a space like [Tamil feminist collective] Maynmai is that we don’t all come to the work with the same initial set of politics. Where the polarization doesn’t make us more ingrained in what we believed before, but helps us to grow and understand how we can live out our politics better day to day.”


“The absence of relationships can really inform how rigid our embodiment might be. The more relationships we have with people who are dissimilar to us in certain ways, or the more genuine relationships we have with people who might embody a value differently, gives us space to explore what our authentic embodiment might actually be.”


“I will never not be anything but a Sri Lankan . . . I had seen so many people go the other way: put in the blue contacts and all of that. . . . In my bones I could not do that. But I found a community with the Black and Native American communities . . . They taught me how to be unapologetically Sri Lankan, by them being Black and by them being Native American. . . . I just always made sure I surrounded myself with people who made sure I could deal with who I was in an uncommon place.”

Nirmala Rajasingam (with Maithreyi Rajeshkumar)

“I said, ‘I will always be on the side of the people, I will never work for the state when I return [from attending college in Massachusetts]. You can trust my word.’ And I tore off a piece of my notebook and I wrote it. And I said, ‘I want you to keep this with you, so one day you will see that I am with my people and not with the Sri Lankan state that oppresses my people.’”

Mahendran Thiruvarangan ('Thiru')

“There are people with whom I wouldn’t agree theoretically or ideologically, but they also thought that their theory [or] their ideology was the right one. And then they fought for that ideology and made sacrifices. I don’t want to say that their lives don’t matter to me.”


“Our community is small. We know the person who killed this aunty’s husband. We know the people who have been on polar opposite animosity and enmity with each other, and they have sometimes been within our own families and have been our own blood. And part of the Tamil feminine that I was raised within - and that I’m also open for people to challenge - was that we feed them all.”

This project was coordinated by Kartik Amarnath, a cisgender, heterosexual, mixed caste, Ilankai Tamil and Indo-Malaysian U.S. citizen. It goes without saying that these identities may cause pause, as the project lead does not have direct experiences living with the marginalized identities typically situated at the foreground of feminist politics. When this project was envisioned prior to its selection as part of the SAADA Archival Creators Fellowship, it was done so collectively. Through collaborative discussions, the focus on Tamil feminist dissent was based on a community need for these histories to be preserved. The project lead was identified based on capacity and background with feminist political contexts. Additionally, as is revealed in the collection of oral histories, this project approaches feminism as a political identity that is inclusive of all genders and sexualities. While providing this context is important, it has been clear to those involved that having a project lead who holds privileged identities comes with limitations. It is the hope that this project is one of many to come, and that limitations are made up for by the contributions of the interviewees, which speak for themselves.

PROJECT FELLOW: Kartik Amarnath

INTERVIEWERS: Kartik Amarnath & Maithreyi Rajeshkumar


ADVISORY COMMITTEE: Aanjali Allegakoen | Mahendran Thiruvarangan | Sharika Thiranagama | YaliniDream

Kartik Amarnath (he/him) is based in Brooklyn, NY and works remotely as PUSH Buffalo's Policy Specialist. He has professional and academic backgrounds in environmental justice and critical urban studies. His fellowship project documents the multigenerational legacy of Ilankai Tamil feminism in the United States, providing an alternative to dominant narratives that simultaneously stereotype the Tamil diaspora as model minorities and as ethnonationalists on the 'wrong side' of the War on Terror. The Archival Creators Fellowship Program is made possible with a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Read Kartik's writings about his fellowship project in TIDES:
• One Archive Destroyed, Another Reclaimed