India, Sri Lanka and the Minority Question

Spontaneous street parties broke out, fireworks crackled in the air and strangers offered flowers to  soldiers to celebrate the news in Colombo – Asia’s Idi Amin was no more! One of the Indian subcontinent’s longest wars was at an end. The day before, street parties in New Delhi had celebrated the victory of the Congress Party in the elections that marked the maturing of Indian democracy and the fact that the Tamil Nadu electorate had a sophisticated view of the situation in Sri Lanka. It is, hence, to be hoped that India, the regional superpower, will play an effective role to ensure peace with justice for the minorities in Sri Lanka.

The victory of the Congress Party was a victory for the whole of India and marks the deepening and strengthening of the roots of democracy as well as dynastic politics. Above all, the victory of the Congress Party was a vote for communal harmony and peaceful co-existence among the diverse religious, ethnic and caste communities in India. The victory of the Congress Party has also ushered in a younger generation with fresh thinking, with Rahul Gandhi as the embodiment of this change.

The victory of the Sri Lankan government, on the other hand, appears to be a Pyrrhic victory. It has come at great human cost in lives lost and maimed, damage to the international reputation of the country, and the erosion of the island’s centuries old history of multiculturalism and co-existence among diverse ethnic and religious communities, as well as, damage to its democratic values and institutions.

The leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), listed as one of the world’s deadliest terrorist organisations, Velupillai Prabhakaran, and his right hand man, Intelligence Chief, Pottu Amman, were shot dead by security forces in the morning of 18 May 2009 while trying to flee northeast Sri Lanka. They did not commit suicide or flee the country before the final dénouement, as had been predicted. Earlier, thousands of civilians, held as a human shield by the LTTE in the face of the final onslaught by the armed forces, were released and the organisation “silenced its guns” in the face of imminent defeat.  Prabakaran’s son, Charles Anthony, who headed the air wing of the LTTE, and the head of its Peace Secretariat, Pullithevan, a familiar face from the days of the abortive Norwegian-brokered peace process, were killed hours earlier.

The deaths of Prabakaran, his son and LTTE’s highest commanders mark the end of an era – the bloodiest quarter century in Sri Lanka’s modern history. The LTTE set the bar on violence very high in Lanka, the land pledged to protect the Buddhist Theravadha doctrine. The state followed its example, having transformed the conflict into a form of dharma yudhaya (holy war) that legitimised great violence and Sinahla nationalism. While there were spontaneous street parties in Colombo to celebrate the demise of the LTTE, the Tamil-speaking minorities in Sri Lanka will certainly not share the triumph. The violence unleashed by the LTTE has left them more marginalised and traumatised than when the armed conflict began.

The Tamil minority at this time is depleted, scarred and factionalised, having been destroyed from within by the LTTE and without by the fury of the armed forces and the Sri Lanka state. The organization assasinated Tamil moderates and used child soldiers and women to wage violence To be sure, the government has tried to distinguish between the Tamil civilians and the LTTE but, all too often in the heat of the battle, they were reduced to the same thing and the Tamils in southern Sri Lanka are constantly racially profiled and, more often than not, have been treated as second class citizens. However, the LTTE was a symptom of a problem that morphed into a greater problem, the marginalization of the Tamils and Tamil-speaking Muslim minorities by the Sinhala  majority state. Sustainable peace in the land of the Buddha will require addressing the root causes of the conflict which is the marginalisation and alienation of the minorities by an ethnic majoritarian developmental state trying to balance competing electoral demands. Devoluton of power to the north and eastern regions will be essentail to ensure sustainable peace.

It is in this context that the resounding victory of the Congress Party in India may mark a new chapter in relations between the two countries and a new beginning that puts the past behind. As South Asia’s regional superpower, India has significant leverage over Sri Lanka. It is a major trading partner and has had a long history of engagement with the Tamil question in Sri Lanka. In the early days, India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) funded and trained the LTTE in line with central government policy and, later in 1987, India sent peace-keeping troops to the island.

A post-conflict political solution in Sri Lanka would require India’s involvement. The United States and Britain have condemned the humanitarian catastrophe unleashed by the Sri Lanka armed forces against civilian caught in the war against the Tamil Tiger separatists and have warned that Sri Lanka’s leaders, as would have been the LTTE, must be held accountable for the those caught in the violence of the past days. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Justice Navanethem Pillay, has called for a special council to investigate “war crimes” in Sri Lanka.  India and many of Sri Lanka’s Asian donors have remained largely silent.

The Gandhi dynasty had an intimate connection with the conflict in Sri Lanka. It was Indira Gandhi’s rule that saw the RAW set up and trained the LTTE and other Tamil militant groups. In turn, her son, Rajiv Gandhi, was assassinated in an LTTE suicide attack in Tamil Nadu at an election rally in a classic story of a blowback. It is, thus, the hope of the moderate Tamils in Sri Lanka that Rahul Gandhi’s generation would put the past behind and steer the Sri Lanka government to seek a sustainable peace in the island. It is to be hoped that a strong and stable Congress Party government will ensure that the defeat of the LTTE by the Sri Lanka government forces translates into sustainable peace with justice for the minorities in the island.

The Sri Lankan issue turned out to be irrelevant to the outcome of India’s election  – the Tamil regional parties that played up the plight of their Sri Lankan kin fared poorly in the polls. The world will be watching India and its role in enabling the Sri Lanka government to address the root causes of the conflict and win the peace in Lanka.

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Dr Darini Rajasingham Senanayake is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, an autonomous research institute within the National University of Singapore. She can be reached at [email protected]

  • George Gunasekera

    Sri Lanka would always try to maintain cordial relations with India. It is India’s interest also to help Sri Lanka to pursue its goals to develop the country make the economy stable,improve the living standards of all its citizens and strengthen the defence powers.It should be noted that Sri Lanka was stable and its citizens were living amicably until India decided to destabilize the country by training a terrorist group, arming ,financing and encouraging to it to ruin the country for reasons best kown to India. It may be through divine intervention that Sri Lanka was able to overcome this deadly blow delt by India before being ruined beyond redemption. Against this sordid background it is prudent that India keep a distant from meddling with sensitive internal affairs of Sri Lanka. Now that the main hindrance for peace in Sri Lanka has been eliminated there is very little for Sri Lanka to do to achieve complete peace among its citizens.The President of Sri Lanka has the knowledge,understanding and the wisdom to bring complete peace,tranquility and harmony to Sri Lanka provided all outsiders does not interfere but only help genuinely.

  • punitham

    ”bar on violence very high”
    There is an accepted bar on physical violence?
    If only there is a bar on structural violence of states, we may avoid reaching the bar on the physical violence of rebels in many states.
    Perhaps that is the idea of R2P. But then Sri lanka does not accept it. neither do many other similar states as yet.
    Tens of thousands of killings by state forces and disappearances in state custody by draconian laws is at a lower level than the brutality of non-state rebels?????? ????? ??? ?

  • punitham

    A state barring journalists for years from a region highly infested with its forces enjoying immunity is not violence to infinity????? Economic embargo on people by their own state is not violence to infinity????????

  • Pragmatist

    An excellent article! Let me expand on why peace loving Tamils now living in Sri Lanka, outside the previously Tiger held areas, are still so vulnerable. There are still many Tamils living in all parts of Sri Lanka that never wanted to live in a separate ethnic ghetto in the north and east. They have lived among the sinhalese and adapted to their environment well, in some cases marrying them too – like in my parents case. Most of the educated Jaffna and Batti tamils get their education and access to jobs in Colombo, Kandy etc. Even today this holds true. The terrorism (I will not call it a war) started by Tigers was heavily supported by the Tamil diaspora. Both the Tigers and the diaspora profited greatly from this conflict. For the diaspora it was now easy to get their kith and kin refugee visas to emigrate to Canada Australia etc. – to “escape” from state discrimination. The kindness of these countries were exploited cleverly. This created a vicious circle. Diapora money to Tigers created hell in Sri Lanka, this in turn led to escalated violence in SL and more stories to support refugee visas etc etc. As a result UK, Canada, Australia are now full of thousands of under-educated unskilled misfit Tamil refugees, whereas earlier most emigrants were skilled. The terrorism sustained by the diaspora has created an impression in most non-Tamil Sri Lankans that ALL TAMILS ARE NOT TO BE TRUSTED. This thinking can be better understood if you look at it as a defensive measure and based on self-preservation coming out of living in fear of terror for years and years. Tigers terrorized the entire population of SL for 25 years, and it is no wonder that people react this way. Did we not see acts of inhumane discrimination in the US soon after 9/11? In any case, this is the current situation. Even my family members (on the sinhala side) while acknowledging that not all Tamils are terrorists, would not trust Tamil colleagues at work they have known for years. It will take many years for Sri Lanka for recover from the wounds of this terrible terrible national trauma that lasted 25-years. In my personal view, the entire population needs psychological counseling of some form. I hope the religious leaders should step in to this void and create harmony, reconciliation and national healing. This can ONLY happen if the Tamil diaspora and certain international agencies (nations, media and INGOs) would allow the healing to take place in Sri Lanka, and stop their meddling to sustain their business and other personal motives.

  • punitham

    ”This can ONLY happen if the Tamil diaspora and certain international agencies (nations, media and INGOs) would allow the healing to take place in Sri Lanka, and stop their meddling to sustain their business and other personal motives.”

    What about the UNCEASING destruction of socio-economic-environmental fabric of Northeast(=state terroism) of the last sixty one years.

    What Pragmatist says reflects the ignorance of those in the South(including some Sinhalese and some Tamils) about what has actually been happening in the last sixty one years. ”Peace talks” and Prabhakaran come and go, but there has been absolutely no change in the state terrorism of government institutions:

    http://www.ahrchk.net/statements/mainfile.php/2009statements/2038/
    ” …. The test of civilisation in modern times is the nature of the political and legal institutions within which people live and not their so called traditional cultures. If the situation of Sri Lanka is such that no such civilised political and legal systems exists, the actors for the state and those citizens who have taken to violence must be judged within the framework of this total situation. ….”

    I am being more and more convinced that the Tamils needn’t have done satyagraha or armed resistance – they simply had to give those in the South free bus tours to the Northeast beginning in 1950.

  • punitham

    I wonder what happened to the group of Sinhalese teachers who came to see Jaffna schools in mid-70s and got shocked and shamed.

  • punitham

    I see a glimmer of hope in the Parliamentarians Network for Conflict Prevention and Human Security launched last October. (The UN has not been able to do much in the last six decades because human rights-violating countries have been vetoing many proposals brought by the others).

    Meanwhile will the pragmatic Southern Sri Lanka find ways and means of finishing the job(which is a very tiny fraction of what needs to be done) left undone by the IIGEP?

  • punitham

    When the Sixth Amendment was implemented we should have known this was coming:
    what was done with machetes in the 50s by hired thugs would be done by technologically advanced bombing and shelling by state forces in 80s/90s/2000s by the expenditure of billions of dollars and the connivance of human rights-violating allies.

  • Heshan

    “There are still many Tamils living in all parts of Sri Lanka that never wanted to live in a separate ethnic ghetto in the north and east. They have lived among the sinhalese and adapted to their environment well, in some cases marrying them too – like in my parents case. Most of the educated Jaffna and Batti tamils get their education and access to jobs in Colombo, Kandy etc.”

    As far as the above goes… it is my experience that Sri Lanka does not offer many economic opportunities outside of Colombo and Kandy. Once upon a time, Jaffna too offered opportunities… however, due to the extremely heavy military presence in Jaffna, in addition to virtually hundreds of human rights violations that go unreported, there has been a mass migration out of Jaffna. Not just to “Colombo” and “Kandy”, but all over the world. So for Pragmatist to imply that Jaffna Tamils moved to Colombo/Kandy just to “intermingle” with the majority is a very silly argument. Did the Tamils who moved to Australia/Canada/Europe etc. do so out of an inclination to “intermingle” with Europeans?

    “For the diaspora it was now easy to get their kith and kin refugee visas to emigrate to Canada Australia etc. – to “escape” from state discrimination.”

    The problem with this argument is that not only the Tamils left Sri Lanka in vast numbers; so too did millions of Sinhalese. Both groups left for similar reasons, in light of which Pragmatists visa swindling argument falls to pieces. Also keep in mind that many educated well-to-do Tamil professionals could have left the island at any time and settled anywhere without seeking any form of “refugee status.” I have no idea about the number of Tamils who actually sought asylum overseas, at least officially (I highly doubt that “Pragmatist” possesses such statistics either) therefore I cannot comment further.

    “As a result UK, Canada, Australia are now full of thousands of under-educated unskilled misfit Tamil refugees”

    Mr. Pragmatist should keep in mind that the Middle East is full of Sri Lankan housemaids (mostly of Sinhalese origin). The vast majority of individuals, regardless of ethnicity, go overseas for greater economic opportunities…

    “The terrorism sustained by the diaspora has created an impression in most non-Tamil Sri Lankans that ALL TAMILS ARE NOT TO BE TRUSTED.”

    This is indeed the mentality of many extremists in Southern Sri Lanka. It is more than likely the product of decades of media censorship. In a normal society, a free press and the like will create a healthy amount of debate such that the issues of the day are debated from different angles. The net effect, of course, will not be that every member of the society agrees with 1 particular viewpoint. The net effect will be that dissent is tolerated, within comfortable levels to the extant that a mutual understanding of the other fellows point of view emerges, and no one feels a compulsion to turn on his next door neighbor with an axe. Unfortunately, the Southern Sri Lankan approach has been to demonize the LTTE to no end, and categorize any dissent as pro-LTTE. Given that some of the LTTE’s grievances overlap with those of ordinary Tamils, Tamils who voice personal concerns are viewed with extreme suspicion. The net effect has been that the Tamils simply keep silent, and everyone blindly follows the pro-Government line. What is also interesting here is that the Government uses many of the same methods to crush Sinhalese dissent, that it uses against Tamils. In other words, as long as the society tolerates inhibition of moderate Tamil voices, it is also tolerating the stifling of moderate voices from the majority community.

    “Did we not see acts of inhumane discrimination in the US soon after 9/11?”

    Did we see any American politicians claiming that the USA belongs to Caucasian Americans? Did we see any American politicians assault media outlets which published 9/11 conspiracy theories?

    “Even my family members (on the sinhala side) while acknowledging that not all Tamils are terrorists, would not trust Tamil colleagues at work they have known for years.”

    Looks like in your case, the racism is rather deeply rooted. Pathological indeed!

  • Pragmatist

    Heshan;
    I was merely stating facts about how the sinhalese people mistrust tamils right now. In fact I disagree vocally with my relatives on this attitude. But I cannot get into their shoes and relive the 25 years of terror in Sri Lanka. Fortunately or not, I mostly lived outside of Sri Lanka during this period. What the people from non-Tiger held areas have gone through cannot be erased overnight. To expect miraculous changes in attitude in normal people would be very foolish.
    Please don’t write poppycock about the aftermath of 9/11in the US. You had to live in the US to know what went on there – I did. People there were extremely paranoid – a sikh gas station attendant was shot dead because he was wearing a turban – misunderstood for an afghan terrorist because mainstream US media portrayed such images. If one such attack on 9/11 can create such mayhem in a well established modern country, what do you expect from 25 years of butchery by a gang of thugs backed by a many other gangs in tamil ghettos overseas?
    You have still not answered my simple question related to the origin of this tamil-sinhala problem, why cannot the tamils learn sinhala in a majority sinhalese country? — my friends from Peradeniya days who were moors, burghers, even chinese had no problem with that. These same complaining tamils are now in foreign ghettos happily speaking many different languages. If tamils learned sinhala there would have been better communications between the two groups and none of this would have come to pass. We see the same problem in India where tamils in Tamil Nadu refuse to learn or speak in hindi. That is why the rest of india truly does not like people of Tamil Nadu (ask any non-tamil Indian you meet) – they just tolerate them.

  • Heshan

    “People there were extremely paranoid – a sikh gas station attendant was shot dead because he was wearing a turban – misunderstood for an afghan terrorist because mainstream US media portrayed such images. If one such attack on 9/11 can create such mayhem in a well established modern country,”

    Of course there were isolated incidents against Sikhs and Muslims. But it was not at the level of mayhem you speak of. Mayhem = riots, for example with Rodney King and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. This was not even the first time that the WTC was attacked, it was the third. So whats your point?

    “why cannot the tamils learn sinhala in a majority sinhalese country?”

    I have already this question. If you have reading difficulties, I recommend “Hooked on Phonics.” As I stated earlier, Tamils have been discriminated against for 60 years. They should not now have to learn the language of the majority group. Secondly, Sinhala has no value outside of Sri Lanka. Comprende?

    “These same complaining tamils are now in foreign ghettos happily speaking many different languages. ”

    What ghetto’s are you speaking of exactly. Ghetto’s imply low-income wages… why don’t you provide labor statistics to back up your claim that the vast majority of Tamils are employed in low-end jobs? Also, for the record, just because someone is classified as a refugee does not make them ineligible for citizenship rights later on. Once they are citizens, they enjoy as many rights as any native-born.

    <>

    You seriously need to move around a bit…. ever heard of Quebec? Scotland? Northern Ireland? Federalism works… if Sri Lanka had adapted federalism in 1948, all would have gone well. Instead it chose the path of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism.

    There is no problem with Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu is one of the 4 richest states in India. Tamil Nadu is not the only state that refuses to learn Hindi. No state in South India bothers with Hindi…. so again I ask you, whats your point?

    what do you expect from 25 years of butchery by a gang of thugs backed by a many other gangs in tamil ghettos overseas?