I have two Tamil friends. Their names are SriLankan Tamil and Tamil Sri Lankan. “Aren’t they the same?” you ask. No, the order in which the identifiers appear is significant, and is crucial for the rest of my story.
My friend SriLankan Tamil (SLT for short) has the following take on the politics of Sri Lanka. History started on 4 February 1948, the day the suddhas (white folk) left the island after 500 years of colonial rule, leaving us to run our own business. Our independence was not won in a fight. The struggle in India, the weakened state of Britain after the war, and the discovery that to have a flow of wealth from the poor to the rich, you need not physically control them, were elements that made the suddhas leave. SLT is saddened by the decline since 1948. “Have we built a single yard of railway line on our own?” he often asks. “Have we developed the capacity to build and maintain clean toilets?” he often laments.
My friend Tamil Sri Lankan (TSL for short) has a different view of history. He starts further back in time and claims that we were different nations (the Tamils and Sinhalese, that is) before the suddhas arrived. And now that they are gone, we should get back to where we were and go our separate ways. “Otherwise, the majority will simply destroy the minority,” he fears. And his fears are not without foundation.
Nationalism articulated by TSL has two causes that eminent scholars of social and political sciences find hard to disentangle. One is the realization by Sinhala politicians that manufactured racism is a big vote winner, and in recent years they have developed it to perfection. Second is a superiority complex entrenched among Tamils they must necessarily be clever because the suddhas chose them to run post offices. Had you lived in Jaffna in 1976, when the Vaddukkoddai resolution calling for separation was passed and in 1977 when the TULF won a landslide victory with that resolution as mandate, you would have noticed how one type of racism served both as trigger and cover for the other.
SLT thinks that the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution can give a workable level of devolution to the provinces. Its implementation will be a framework in which Tamils, in parts of our country where they have lived for generations, can be empowered to make their own decisions in terms of preserving their cultural heritage and identity. That is no threat to the majority. Nor is it in any way a challenge to the territorial integrity of the Sri Lankan state. The autonomous region of Trento in Italy, the federal governance structures in India and Switzerland are all examples that a small amount of local decision making power actually makes the global state stronger, not weaker.
TSL disagrees. He thinks that the 13th Amendment is a non-starter. He has studied its provisions with a microscope. An example of something hilarious he has found is this: there is asymmetry in how the centrally appointed governor and the elected Provincial Council are supposed to share power. The Governor has discretionary control over certain things which over-rides powers of the elected local body. Now, who decides the topics in which the Governor exercises discretion? It is the Governor himself! Funny, don’t you agree?
We can also understand the differences between my friends from their professional training. SLT happens to be a statistician. As such, his interest lies in average-case analysis. If life for his people can improve on average, he is rather pleased. He is aware that in situations that are polarised – bimodal distributions, the technical term for it — averages can be misleading, but usually ignores this important fact. TSL, on the other hand, is trained in law. As a lawyer, he is interested in worst-case analysis. He concerns himself with each and every potential scenario in which things can go wrong, for it is when things go wrong he gets to earn a living.
In Tamil politics, my two friends never manage to reach agreement by discussion. Their exchanges on facebook, for example, have very short time constants. It goes like this. One of them copies an article favourable to his particular point of view and clicks “like”. The other makes a comment critical of it. And next we see are blows below the belt. “Oh, you sound just like VP,” SLT would say, to shut TSL up. “But that is just what MR is also saying,” TSL would say. They then part company, agreeing that facebook wall is not the place to have a political discussion — and repeat the same in a few months. That my two friends are not in a position to exploit the opportunity of post-war Sri Lanka to develop a consensus in understanding is, to me, a regrettable aspect of the project known as uthuru wasanthaya or vadakkin vasantham).
Enter Hon. Mathiaparanan Abraham Sumanthiran, Member of Parliament.
Terminology from consumer electronics helps to understand Sumanthiran MP. First, we had the radio, converting electromagnetic waves to sound. Then there was the tape recorder which played back recorded material. Remember, these were being sold separately during the Sixties until someone figured out you can package the two in a single box? A Two-In-One it used to be called, and served as a prize gift from a friend returning from a trip overseas. MP Sumanthiran is the two-in-one of Tamil politics. He has both my friends, Sri Lankan Tamil and Tamil Sri Lankan, integrated in one.
Sumanthiran is appointed to parliament by the Tamil National Alliance. These guardians of Tamil Nationalism claim that, post-war, their call for separatism has ended. To show this to the world, they ditched from membership a gang of three, perceived to be closest to the LTTE. But whether they have indeed distanced themselves far enough from the evils that were committed in my name without my consent, is not entirely clear to me. This is particularly hard to judge because the TNA are exceptionally talented at saying different things at different times to different people, and though Sumanthiran’s discomfort in that setting sometimes shows, his appointment by the TNA puts him in good company of my friend, the Tamil Sri Lankan.
In parliament, Sumanthiran has delivered some admirable speeches, playing a one-man-band of an opposition. His contribution when the 18th amendment to the constitution was passed, removing the last remaining rusty bolts holding Sri Lanka’s democracy together, was excellent. I found it to be of similar quality to the speech by P. Kandiah, former MP for Point-Pedro, in the debate on the Official Languages Act of 1956. When our hopes were further dashed by the removal from office of our country’s Chief Justice, Shirani Bandaranayake, Sumanthiran rose in Parliament to make another remarkable speech. These make him the perfect Sri Lankan Tamil.
Thus, the coin that we see rolling along has two sides: the Sri Lankan Tamil and the Tamil Sri Lankan. But we know that every such rolling coin will sooner or later have to reach its more stable state of lying on one side. So, how do we wish this man to go forward? More to the point, how do we see in the choices he can make, the future of our country? Here is one suggestion I have in the form of two mutually dependent challenges.
My challenge to Sumanthiran: Leave the TNA.
Recognize that the Tamil Nationalist politics has not made the lives of the Tamil people any better than in 1948. The way our nationalism was articulated has not won us any friends in the world. Promises made to the people, from “vote for us, we know how to get federalism” to “accept us as sole representatives, we will carve out a separate state in which milk and honey will flow” have been miserable failures. It is time to think outside the box than sing from the same old hymn sheet.
My challenge to the electorate in the South: Elect Sumanthiran to Parliament.
Recognize that there are issues, serious issues, we Sri Lankans have to address, and they have to be analysed and vocalized. In economic development, in good governance, in education, in irrigation and drainage, in electricity pricing, in running better railways, in building clean public toilets, in making appointments of Vice Chancellors, and in maintaining law and order — just to mention a few — we have much to develop. This man is highly talented and can speak on behalf of us all. Recognize also that speaking of the issues specific to the Tamil community — and believe me, there are such issues — is not separatism, for the Tamil people are also Sri Lankan.
If Sumanthiran and the southern electorate — the first time voters of the facebook generation in particular — can rise up to this coupled pair of challenges, and he is returned to parliament on a non-ethnic vote, that would be the desperately needed ray of light at the end of the long dark tunnel our country has travelled through in the last 60 years.
That also will be the beginning of the reconciliation we so urgently need, in memory of the thousands of Sri Lankans we have massacred – some whose skeletons we are discovering in orderly deep graves in Matale and others that we are refusing to discover in chaotic shallow bunkers of Mullivaikkaal. After all, we do not wish these graves to be our only achievement since the suddhas left us to mind our own business, do we?