Lanka: Where to cut the Gordian knot
Sometimes the obvious is the most difficult to see; and then when discerned in a flash of blinding light it does indeed seem so obvious. Lanka will never, never ever, settle its national question, or its ethnic conflict if you prefer this terminology, within its own parameters. That is the inescapable lesson of 60 years of post-independence history. Superficially one can point to the SLFP, the UNP, the LTTE, Bandaranaike, Jayawardena, Prabaharan and so on, but these are merely phenomenological manifestations of things more fundamental. If after the six decades from the disenfranchisement of plantation Tamils, through Sinhala Only legislation, communal riots and carnage, a bloody 25 year long civil war and heinous terrorism, anybody still thinks Lanka can solve this problem within itself, well though loath to quote the Bible, I have no option but to say “None are so blind as those who have eyes but cannot see”.
Sinhala-Buddhists are 70% of the population and for reasons reaching rather further back in history than I can recount here except in a sentence or two, the popular belief system of this community has evolved a certain ideology, a short name for which is Mahavamsa consciousness. It is about Lanka being the pristine land of the Sinhalese race, and the repository in which Buddhism was nurtured and salvaged when it was in recess in India and this country ravaged by South Indian invaders followed by four and a half centuries of colonial oppression. Modernists can think what they like of this deep-seated system of beliefs, they can call it the makings of a modern mythology founded on historical truths; no matter, it is the stuff of popular consciousness in this the land of Sinhala-Buddhism. It is learnt in school and temple, it is the substance of common lore and flavoured into mother’s milk. “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living”.
What has any of this to do with today’s national question? Simple, this ideology of the Sinhala people is a near insurmountable obstacle to any constitutional dispensation such as a federal system, autonomy for Tamil areas, or substantial devolution and the sharing of power. It is hard for anyone sincerely steeped in Mahavamsa consciousness to reconcile with a Lanka that is not a unitary Sinhala-Buddhist land. Governments, regimes or leaders who toyed with far less dangerous precedents than federalism or autonomy (the B-C Pact of 1957, the Dudley-Chelva Agreement of 1965, the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord and the 13th Constitutional Amendment, Chandrika’s Draft Constitution in year 2000, the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement and the PTOMS proposals) have all been shown the door. We must learn from this history.
In modern times the evocation of this ideology was the vehicle for the execution of new tasks. The signal phenomenon of the last epoch in Lanka is the emergence of the petty-bourgeoisie to a place of prominence in the post-colonial political constellation. “Thus the awakening of the dead serves the purpose of glorifying new struggles, not of parodying the old but of magnifying the given task in the imagination, not recoiling from its solution in reality but finding once more the spirit for new struggles, not making a ghost walk again”. The purpose of celebrating the Mahavamsa ideology for modern class actors, to whatever degree they deluded themselves in their own imagination, was to execute the historic tasks of the moment. Let me explain.
In the decade after independence thanks to a progressive education system and welfare policies, good prices for one of the countries main exports, rubber, and a moderately efficient and relatively uncorrupted public service, prosperity seeped down into the rural areas. A large petty-bourgeois class of small businessmen, schoolteachers, traders and small landowners became more influential and began to play a powerful role in both rural and semi-urban politics. The privileges of the English educated Colombo elite and the entrenched position of the Tamils in government employment and the professions was an obstacle to the social mobility and economic advancement of the rising Sinhala petty-bourgeoisie. A strong Sinhala nationalist movement grew and is identified with the 1956 SLFP election victory, Sinhala Only legislation and Buddhism. The Sinhala Only Act declared the Sinhala language be the only official language of the country – the other option, both Sinhala and Tamil, was championed by the left parties but roundly defeated as a mood of race based antagonism poisoned the country.
What has this to do with today’s national question? The rise of the Sinhala petty-bourgeoisie to a place in the sun, because of the specific historical conjunctures and ethnic modalities that mediated what was in essence a class process, nevertheless evolved, in the political landscape, into a manifestly ethnic confrontation.
Indian readers need to appreciate that though similar processes of petty-bourgeoisie ascent hand in hand with a cultural renaissance did occur in many parts of India, nowhere did it inflate to become the spectacular hegemonic process that it did in Lanka.
The aforesaid ideological roots and ethno-class processes, magnified by pogroms, riots and military brutality, aggravated by the armed militant Tamil youth groups emerging in reaction, complicated by Indian intervention in different phases (arming and training Tamil militants in the 1970s and 1980s, providing military intelligence and arms to the Lankan state at present), and convoluted by constitutional impasses and economic shifts (especially the post-1977 neo-liberal policies), have mediated a certain process and outcome. To borrow an Althusserian term, society and politics in Lanka, that is the social whole, is now overdetermined by the ethnic instance.
The responses of Tamil politics have reinforced this overdetermination. The annulment of the citizenship of Tamil plantation workers and the Sinhala Only Act constitute the root of the ethnic imbroglio. From about 1972 passive Tamil resistance, protest marches and sit-ins were broken up by brutal police countermeasures and Tamil youth were horrified to see respectable and staid old gentlemen, their uncles and elders, beaten and degraded on the streets. These experiences were the first events that hardened attitudes and laid the foundations of militant youth politics; but it was the 1983 race riots (Black July) which is the watershed transforming a half-hearted Thamil Eelam cry into a slogan with substantial support.
In the absence of free and fair elections in the Tamil areas for many years, and without a democratic referendum explicitly asking the question, it is impossible to say with any certainty, whether at that time, or any other time, or at the present time, a majority of Tamils desire secession and the establishing of a separate Tamil state. But this is beside the point; does Thamil Eelam have any chance in pluperfect heaven of ever coming to pass? My answer is a resounding “no” and not for indigenous but for international reasons. Kosovo is irrelevant, America and Europe wanted it, and wanted to tear Yugoslavia to shreds; India does not and likely will never want a separate Tamil state in northern Lanka, so QED. When the LTTE sent Rajiv Gandhi to his funeral pyre it placed another corpse beside him; Thamil Eelam forever died in the blast that dispatched Rajiv.Â
There are reasons other than the absence of international support why Thamil Eelam is a non-starter (and it is amazing that an outfit of the LTTE’s ability and sophistication does not have one other country as an ally because of its own international diplomatic incompetence). The ethnic cleansing of Muslims from the Northern Province in 1991 is a galling act of Tamil chauvinism. Just as Israel, after its creation, is embroiled in the appalling fate of Palestinian refugees, so Thamil Eelam, even prior to its birth, faces the conundrum of the Muslims that the LTTE drove out of their homes, businesses and lands; a challenge the LTTE has proved incapable of redressing for 17 years.
The reader may be wondering what the purpose of this rather lengthy introduction in two sections is. It was unavoidable because the point I am attempting to drive home is not a familiar one; the travellers on the road to Damascus are still few and far between. There is no way out for Lanka within its own borders and parameters, that’s what I am trying to establish. The Sinhala-Buddhist unitary state of Sri Lanka is at a dead end, Thamil Eelam is a hopeless dream. If you are with me up to here, then we are making progress. When I say Lanka cannot solve its national question within its own parameters, I do, of course, factor-in the familiar types of international involvement, interaction, pressure and mediation as ordinary parameters.
Abolishing mental barriers
If Lanka’s economy is to go anywhere, it must abolish its fences; we have missed the homemade bus, so we need to catch another bus; but more on this anon. It is not only our physical barriers but also our mental limitations that we need to overcome. We will make no progress if we continue to play ball in our own backyard; we need to go out and play ball in a much bigger playing field were we will forget the parochial pettiness of our ethnic teacup. Moving into a larger common market, interacting within a much larger and more diverse culture and the gestalt shift that becoming, albeit gradually, a part of a subcontinent will engender, this is the cathartic experience that will purge the Lankan psyche of its blinkers. There is no other sword with which to cut the Gordian knot. Lanka does not have an influential intellectual class, or a left political leadership, or progressive mass movements, proportionately comparable with India.
The most promising precedent is the successful integration of South India into the Indian national economy and hence the national psyche. The Thamilnadu of Periyaar and Annathurai, communist Kerala, Karnataka the home of IT famed Bangalore, and Andhra Pradesh, have all overcome an obsession with Dravidian schism to become front runners in the Indian market and beneficiaries of Indian intervention in the world market. Maharashtra, Gujerat and West Bengal too are players in the Indian market and its international extensions. The material basis for the physical unity of the Indian Republic, whatever the eventual fate of Kashmir, has been firmly laid and Marx would chuckle with some satisfaction at this validation of his thesis of historical materialism, albeit on a capitalist basis.
Our epiphany won’t happen overnight, the backward-looking nationalists who hegemonise Lanka’s ideology and sway its social classes – especially significant sections of the petty bourgeois and plebeian mass – is profoundly antithetical to this thinking. Therefore a start will have to be made in the economic domain, without narrow nationalism comprehending what is really afoot in the ethnic domain.
Abolishing physical barriers
The eventual objective will have to be integration into a sub-continental market and economy and a start has to be made by developing a closer alliance with the Indian capitalist market. I have not shrunk from saying integration instead of pussyfooting with euphemisms like ‘participation’ and ‘, and I frankly concede, that for the time being, involvement will have to accept the reality of capitalist domination. I have no particular model of long-term alignment to canvass; economic treaties, common market, confederation or eventual union, history will look after that. There will be investment, but this should mean neither a wholesale takeover by Indian investment, nor the predatory extraction of natural resources because a more mutually beneficial transition is possible. The early attractions should include employment in the IT sector for our youth, better education, good universities and modern technology. For a start we can relearn English, which thanks to our ultras we have all but forgotten; forgive the exaggeration but the havoc wrecked by the ultra nationalists makes for some irritation. And of course Lanka needs infrastructure development (railways, airlines, electricity, telecommunications and roads) and Indian capital has a role to play. Lanka’s motto should be “If Tamil Nadu could do it and reap such gains, heck we can do it better”. Sure there is room for other international players; international players are deeply engaged within India already, aren’t they? But Lanka needs to make India a special policy focus, a focus on growing an alignment with Indian markets, investment and technology within a reasonable period of time.
There is a fundamental difference between the stage of capitalist development at which India and Lanka are at this time. Indian capitalism has achieved what Walt Rostow called ‘the take of stage’, that is structural change that can support sustained development (obviously on a capitalist basis). The definition he proposed was: “The old blocks and resistances to steady growth are overcome; the forces making for economic progress expand and come to dominate society; self-sustained growth becomes its normal condition”. A report prepared by four economists from an American investment bank (India: Everything to Play for: John Lewellyn, Robert Subbaraman, Alastair Newton and Sonal Varma; Lehman Brothers, October 2007) summarise these structural changes as; high levels of saving and investment, the maturity of the manufacturing sector, substantial productivity gains, strong and healthy international trade, enhanced education and English language skills, deepening of capital markets and internationalisation of the financial sector.
The point is not merely that Lankan capitalism has failed to achieve these structural advances; no what is fundamental is that we have missed the boat altogether. Global developments have passed us by and it is too late to make a revolutionary leap now. If we want to climb out of the failed state syndrome that we have sunk into, Lanka has no choice but to hitch its wagon to another star.
From the frying pan into the fire?
One does read the newspapers and the Internet and watch TV. The following from the BBC of 26th June comes as no surprise. “Nearly 7,500 people have died in official custody in India over the past five years, according to a report by a human rights group. The report by Delhi-based Asian Centre for Human Rights says many of these people were tortured in custody. It says the Indian government is in a state of denial about torture. Even when action is taken against officials who are accused of wrongdoing the system tries to cover up any crimes. Nearly all the deaths were the result of torture. But the government routinely attributes deaths in custody to illness, attempted escape, suicide and accidents”. The repression of tribal groups is no secret; the number of districts in India that are under emergency rule is cause for dismay; the shootings in West Bengal and the massacre in Gujerat are revolting. I am well aware of the rising crescendo of threats to secularism. It is only too well known that neo-liberalism is widening income gaps and engendering increasing inequity in India and elsewhere.
However, I could not by any stretch arrived at my conclusions without factoring in these concerns. This background, this reality, does not vitiate the conclusion. Someone commented: “Be careful what you wish for; mother India is still in the embrace of Kali”, but so is mother Lanka and so are many other places, Asian democracies and one party states alike. My argument for integration is not predicated on some imagined Indian utopia.
Having aid this, nevertheless one must add that there is indeed substantial formal democracy in India; the courts are more independent than Lanka, public opinion a great deal more sophisticated and influential, and the press hugely more free. On balance, neither the curbs on democracy and human rights in India, nor the increasing inequity between the social classes, are to my mind, sufficient disincentive to defeat the case for integration. From frying pan into fire is a false idiom in this instance. Most important for Lanka is that the ethos of pluralism is much stronger in India, and it is spreading beyond the kaleidoscope of languages, religions and cultures, to caste liberation and reordering of caste-based political power in many cow-belt states, notwithstanding the grand larceny of the Mayawathi and Yadev types.
Some curious criticisms of the thesis in this paper come from an unexpected quarter, the politically correct soft left. Some ask, would not the case advanced here be grist to the mill of Indian corporate capitalism. Others fear it could be misunderstood in the context of the onward march of diehard Hindutva politics. These are false objections; my case has been systematically built from Lankan perspectives and imperatives, the aspirations of Indian corporate capitalism and Hindutva politics are marginal to the argument. Concerns voiced for reasons of Indian political correctness are beside the point; one must have the intellectual stamina to follow through the line of thought relating to Lanka’s way out of this conundrum to its inexorable logical conclusion.
The time domain as a concept
The fate and foibles of the Congress Party, or the BJP, the Rajapakse Brotherhood, and other transient entities called national governments, are ephemeral elements in the framework of the temporal conceptualisation that motivates this paper. They come and they go, the characterisation of any particular one does not much change the argument, because time in the conceptualisation of the future of nation states that permeates this thesis is another kind of dimension. Sure, governments are the immediate vehicles that transport the more enduring and bulky entity called society and the nation state from terminus to terminus, but they can only slow down, accelerate or distort the motion from time to time. True the mode of transport at any time also colours that enduring hulk that it bears, but there is also something that goes on, if not forever, at least for the longer duration than a nation state and its ethos survives. In this dimension of historical temporality the integration of Lanka into a greater subcontinental entity will be in fealty to a dynamic so powerful it will be akin to the drive of an elemental force, fortified by materialist advantage and political logic.
Kumar David, an electrical engineering professor has worked in Sri Lanka, USA, Sweden and Zimbabwe andÂ was Dean of Engineering in Hong Kong. He has been with the Samasamaja tradition for over 50 years and is currently an ExCo member of the Democratic Left Front. He has published extensively, profesionally, andÂ on the national question and socio-economics.