Note: Interacting with Willie Senanayake, Lionel Bopage and other moderates in Australia I found them composing a “Handbook of Answers” to typical objections against devolution presented within the Sinhala speech community. This can be an useful exercise. But then one is facing one’s debating opponents on terrain of their choosing. I propose rather to create a different landscape. This is the product.Inevitably it overlaps with SPLIT ASUNDER. I have responded briefly to brief comments under that topic; but this new essay will hopefully spark further commentary. Note, however, that the Vitharana Committee’s proposals will perhaps overwhelm our thinking when they appear soon.
ADDRESSING THE NATIONS OF SRI LANKA
14 January 2008
The ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka has been locked in an impasse for decades, with severe consequences of affliction and economic impoverishment across the board on all sides of the warring groups. Any effort today to work out a viable modus vivendi [as distinct from the utopian notion of "solution"] must begin with fundamentals. Let me set out my position in point form.
A. From circa 1789 a nation in the sense of a political community with internationally recognized, state-like, juridical entitlements could be said to exist when an articulate and politically significant segment of a population say “we are a nation” (following Seton-Watson here). In brief, a nation is a state of mind within a body of people who have developed a sense of oneness (community) on the basis of a variety of factors working over time, a body of people who then capped this communitarian sense with a political claim to self-determination.
B. The state of mind and attendant loyalties known as “Ceylonese” developed in the 19th and 20th centuries as a result of anti-colonial sentiments developing out of the administrative unification of the island and the Western intellectual currents that entered the island – sometimes via the political currents in India. Within the larger category “Ceylonese”, the category “Sinhalese” reposed as a nation-within-nation – sometimes in implicitly hegemonic ways (e.g. in Anagarika Dharmapala’s thinking). So too did the SL Tamils, Malays (ja), Mohammedan Moors (marakkala), Colombo Chetties, Bharatha and Burghers repose within this larger Ceylonese category as “communities.” The position of the Indian Tamils in the 1920s to 1940s was rather more ambiguous so, here, they are bracketed apart for this period.
C. Thus, in the period 1900-1960s the SL Tamils were both “SL Tamil” and Ceylonese (Sri Lankan). When “Ceylon” played the Madras Cricket Association, (soon renamed Tamilnadu) for the Gopalan Trophy in cricket, the SL Tamils cheered Ceylon to a man (and also provided a number of key players, all bar one educated in Colombo).
D. However, the Sinhala Only programme initiated in 1956, the unilateral abrogation of the BC Pact and the mini-pogrom of 1958 had raised some doubts in some Tamil minds. Their federal platform, devised as a protective programme for communitarian rights, took a sharper, more strident edge in the 1960s. In short, denial of federal decentralization exacerbated Tamil demands. In the mid-late 1960s a few extremists emerged to express thoughts of Eelam. A series of events between 1967 and 1972 [too complex to summarize in one sentence] transformed this tiny minority voice to that of a majority among Tamil activists in the Federal Party. The Federal Party then transmuted into the TULF by 1976. “Eelam” became their nationalist cry.
E. Thus, where the Tamils of the 1940s-60s could be deemed a sectionalist nation [a nation within a nation because of their relationally-sustained and distinct sense of community], by the time of the Vadukoddai Resolution of May 1976 they had become a separatist nation in sentiment.
F. This, then, is the tragedy within the story of Sri Lanka: how a deeply Sri Lankan people shed their Sri Lankan-ness and proclaimed the centrality of one element in the dual identity they had carried up to then. Tamil-ness was seen to be under critical threat and assumed primacy as a result. As a proviso, let me note that my emphasis on this thread of political development does not deny other parallel processes in the period 1948-1970s, but I insist that this was one of THE major developments within that span of time. One could say that the Tamil nation was partly forged on the anvil of political pressure-cum-discrimination exerted by Sinhala hegemons and powermongers. The current of populist, indigenist Sinhala rhetoric that was so central to the 1956 electoral results was a major force in the processes alienating some/many Tamils.
G. The sentiments of Tamil peoples of Sri Lanka formulated by 1976 as a TamilÄ«lam nation were subsequently consolidated by (1) the mini-pogrom of August 1977; (b) the pogrom of July 1983; (c) the underground guerilla warfare of various Eelamist revolutionaries from 1975-1987; (4) the hegemonic dominance secured by the LTTE in the Tamil-majority areas by 1987 and the authoritarian leadership they have exercised over these people as well as some Tamil elements residing in the south-central regions of SL – (5) a dominance secured by their success in warfare against the IPKF and GOSL.
H. Since 1990, if not earlier, therefore the Tamils (mostly SL Tamils but also including Indian Tamils driven into the NP and EP in the 1970s) have had a de facto state under the vice-like grip of the LTTE. Some of these Tamils (or even many?) may have reservations about the LTTE, but they are caught between a rock and a hard place. If driven to choose between the GOSL and the LTTE, it is likely that many will choose the LTTE – hardly surprising given the history that I have summarized above. In their minds, I conjecture, the LTTE are admired for the manner in which they have stood up for Tamil rights in the face of Sinhala oppression. No more are they worms to be squashed: they have stood firm and proven their organizational capacities in outstanding fashion (however atrocious some of the methods).
I. Though many Tamils in Tigerland seek to migrate out and though new generations of Tamils have settled in Colombo district and secured jobs, that does not mean that they have abandoned their Tamil-ness (let alone sympathies for the cause of Eelam). It is an issue of economic survival and/or betterment, not a shedding of nationalist loyalties.
J. There are thousands of Tamil dead who are the victims of the LTTE and the results are seen sometimes in the alliance forged between some Tamil factions and the armed forces of GOSL. But there also over 20,000 Tamil dead who have died fighting for their Eelam nation. These dead are mourned by their kith and kin. These memories of “sacrifice” – as the Tamils see them — remain etched in their minds. As such, these memories are a force in the consolidation of nationhood, the sharpening of Tamilness in the sense Eelam (and with, let me stress, no connection of major consequence with Tamilnadu, no depth of bonding with substantial sections of the Tamilnadu people).
K. These trends require qualification. Overarching Tamil-ness in Sri Lanka has always been qualified by internal differentiation constituted by caste, regional and class distinctions (much like the Sinhalese). The distaste for Tamils from the JP among the Tamils of Batticaloa District eventually generated a major fracture within the LTTE led by General Karuna – even after and maybe because EP Tamils had provided a large proportion of the cannon-fodder for the Eelam battles. Thus, a long-standing ‘structural distinction’ crystallized as a major political fracture. Because of this major split one can argue, now, that the merger of the eastern littoral and the NP is no longer a viable concept.
L. The Karuna/Batti split does not erase the continued existence today of a Tamil nation of the mind, one distinct from the Sinhala nation and/or Sri Lanka nation and one sustained by memories of conflict inclusive of its atrocities, such as that at Kokkadichchai in Batticaloa District in 1991, committed against the Tamils by acts of “state terrorism”. A Tamil friend of moderate disposition recently told me that on one occasion the top level LTTE leader, Kittu, was asked where the boundaries of TamilÄ«lam were and he promptly replied: “wherever the SL army and air force have dropped bombs or fired shells — there is tamil eelam.” We do not need to take this aphorism literally, but it contains an insight in keeping with common sense as well as analytical sense.
M. Given this history and their deeply-inscribed memories of conflict, atrocity, suffering and sacrifice, how can the Tamils of the northern parts of SL be “liberated” by military force deployed against the LTTE, a force whose bombs inflict civilian casualties as collateral damage, a force that is seen to be occupying the western half of JP and a force that by necessity operates in Tamil majority areas much like the Israeli Army in Palestine?
N. In other words, can one erase Tamilness by government fiat and military power? Can one beat the Tamils into submission? What does kapana-kotana-gahana do to the sentiments of the Tamils?
O. Indeed, what does this use of killing-beating force do to the killer/beater? What does it do to the carriers of TheravÄda Buddhism and their cycle of rebirth? Has the psyche of Sinhala Buddhists descended to the levels of virulent animal politics and suffering depicted at the lower levels along so many temple walls? Has the militarization of society created a veritable kalpa yugaya in the contemporary state of Sri Lanka?
P. The logic of this argument is that the Tamils of Sri Lanka - embracing now the remaining generations of former “Indian Tamils” - must receive dignity of treatment as a nation with stakes in the wider nation of Sri Lanka. They cannot be treated as worms and must have access to opportunities of advancement. They must have a degree of voice within the central government, however qualified this is by the exigencies of the immediate past. It is only then that we can win back the sentiments of their activists so that they become one pillar, the SL Tamil nation, within the Sri Lankan nation.
Q. As a corollary the Sinhala activists and spokespersons must abandon the insidious and powerful manner in which “Sinhala” is considered the equivalent of “LÄnkika.” They must develop the idea that “we are a Sinhala people/nation within Sri Lankan nation” (api lÄnkika jÄtiya thulin radhÄ pavitana sÄ«hala jÄtiyaki). Let me underline this argument by analogy: for over 350 years many English people used “English” as synonymous with “British” in ways that made the English into hegemons within the state known as Great Britain. It is only in recent decades that this state of majoritarian mind is being jettisoned under pressure from the Welsh, Scots and remaining Irish. A similar process is required in Lanka for the Sinhala = Lankan equation. Without a major shift in political conceptualization at the grass roots level, any constitutional scheme presented as a modus viviendi will be working on shifting sand.