Groundviews

Whither the Sri Lankan Tamils?

Photo courtesy The Guardian (Rafiq Maqbool/AP)

I attended the Thanthai Chelvanayakam Memorial lecture entitled “Whither the Sri Lankan Tamils?” given by Justice C. V. Wigneswaran to mark the 36th death anniversary of Mr. S. J. V. Chelvanayakam Q.C., as sponsored by the Ilankai Tamil ArasuKatchi (I.T.A.K.), Colombo District branch on Friday 26th April at the New Kathiresan Hall, Bambalapitiya.  I must admit I came away with a faint sense of déjà vu.

If we claim to be a nation-in-waiting we must think in territorial and historical terms.  The Ilankai Tamil claim to statehood is sui generis.  For those interested in learning about the founding of the Tamil state in 1215 AD, I would recommend reading webpage “The Kingdom of Jaffna” on www.google.com which is accompanied by a formidable bibliography plus maps, illustrations of historical monuments, geneologies etc.

To me what is of importance however, is that the Tamil state founded in  1215 was conquered by the Portuguese in 1619 under Philip De Oliveira.  It was territorially delimited and administered as an independent Captain Generalship with Jaffna as capital.  It is significant that King Philip III of Spain, as King of Portugal, entered into the Nallur Convention of 1619 with the chiefs of the Tamil state, similar to the Malvana Convention of 1598, and the Kandyan Convention of 1815.  The Dutch East India Co. conquered the Tamil state from the Portuguese in 1658 and continued the practice of administering it as an independent entity.  The British did the same when in 1802 the Dutch possessions in the Island passed to the British crown by the Treaty of Amiens between Britain and Napoleonic France.

However, in 1832 the Colebrooke Commission for the first time amalgamated the administration of the island into one unit with government exclusively centered in Colombo.  This was, in a sense, administratively decreed by the conquest of the Kingdom of Kandy in 1815, bringing the territories of all three states Kotte, Kandy and Jaffna into territorial contiguity.  The more cogent imperative for this unification, however, was the need for a single administrative unit that would cater to the entrepot,  tea and rubber, import-export, mercantile, capitalist economy that the British colonial government planned to install in the country.

When self-government began to be mooted at the turn of the century by the educated classes, both Sinhalese and Tamil, the Sinhala ruling elite whose memories of statehood were yet fresh, as its desuetude had lasted less than a century, had no difficulty in articulating their claim for a measure of self rule in terms of a state that replicated the Kandyan Kingdom and invoking it to elevate Sinhala consciousness of nationality to its appropriate political fulfillment in a Sinhala nation state.  This is symbolized by Mr. D. S. Senanayake’s insistence that the national flag of the independent state in 1947 be the King of Kandy’s personal standard.    In the case of the Tamil ruling class there was no similar historical nostalgia, as 1619 had passed into oblivion.  It was a grave mistake and oversight on the part of the Tamil leadership of that day to have failed to demand from the British government at the critical juncture of the termination of British colonial rule in 1947, the restoration of the Tamil statehood that had been forcibly taken away by the Portuguese in 1619. That was the stage to have put forward a free and fair proposal for federation with Colombo, as in thecase of the Federated States of Malaysia,(with which the British were familiar) utilizing our prerogative, and thereby attaining a degree of self-rule, without the trauma and travails associated with the demand for Federalism, later on

The British state had not conquered the Tamil state.  It had taken custody of a claim of sovereignty, over the Tamil state, passed on to it by the Dutch East India Co. by the Treaty of Armiens in 1802.  The Dutch in turn had not conquered the Tamil state.  It had taken possession of a claim to sovereignty to the Tamil state from the Portuguese crown, by conquest over the Portuguese forces in 1658.  The British government transferred the sovereignty of the Tamil state, which it had never actually taken possession of by force, but simply received  by way of diplomacy through the universal peace settlement between Britain and Napoleonic France in 1803,  to the Colebrooke Commission-unified state of Ceylon in 1947, without retro-actively restoring that sovereignty to the people of the state from whom it had been taken by force in 1619, and which course of action  the Tamil leadership should strenuously have canvassed.. The short-sightedness of the Tamil leadership of the day is incredible when you consider that not even the historic cry for a Pakistan  at the Muslim Congress Conference in Lucknow in 1937 opened their  eyes to the analogous situation in this country. Instead we had the Fifty-Fifty farce floated by the A.C.T.C. which was perhaps as ludicrous as the present 13th Amendment syndrome, which is a red herring in the path of our rightful, goal of Self-determination.   The case for a Tamil state, therefore, went by default in 1947.

Since then under successive leaderships the Tamils have been negotiating with the Colombo governments of the day or protesting against them for a restoration of some measure of the statehood they lost in 1619.  The story is too well known.  The B.C. Pact, the Dudley-Chelvanayakam Pact, the satyagraha campaigns,.  Eventually, under the LTTE, resort was had to armed struggle.  Both strategies have failed and Tamil political fortunes have reached a nadir.  Now, as Justice Vigneswaran has asked, “Whither the Sri Lankan Tamil?”

As a historian I should like to field a reply.  My point of reference is the Risorgimento movement for Italian Unification. (1815-70). The greatest European of his day, the Austrian Chancellor, Prince Metternich, once said, “Italy is only a geographical expression”.  However, the ‘Fathers of the Fatherland’, as they are known today, King Victor Emmanuel of Sardinia, Count Cavour his Prime Minister, Guiseppe Mazzini, the Reformer, the “Beating Heart of Italy” as he is known today, and Guiseppe Garibaldi, the Liberator, the “Hero of Two Worlds”, as he is known today, became of his military exploits in Brazil, Uruguay and Europe, made history in proving Metternich wrong.

The first problem was to get the Austrians out of the Lombardo-Venetian kingdom in north Italy.  The other problems of the cluster of Hapsburg-Bourbon rulerships in central Italy, the Bourbon kingdom of Naples and Sicily in the south, and the obstructionist Papacy in the Papal states would find an automatic solution, once this obstacle was overcome.  The Sardinian army was no match for the Austrian. Hence, a military solution was out of the question.  But a diplomatic-cum-military solution was a possibility well worth exploring.  Towards this end the Sardinian government bent its energies.  The Sardinians needed a heavy weight ally who could take on the Austrians.  They found it in France under Napoleon III (1848-70). Like Bismarck with reference to German unification and Cavourto Italian unification, we too must think real politik in terms of power modalities. Like Sardinia, we are weak We need a trusty ally. For reasons which I am prepared to spell out if asked,  I propose as premier ally for the Tamils in their own Risorgimento, the United States.  In second place I propose Canada, Australia, the U.K. and New Zealand, and all those countries which have been supportive of us at all the U.N.H.R.C. sessions, where our plight has been raised. The USA would be a counterweight to China whom the Colombo government has enlisted as its ally.  Let’s not waste any more time talking to the Colombo government.  Let every effort be made to canvass the support of the US government and the American people.

This is a big task but not an impossible one.  Both money and time need to be spent and the best human resources deployed.  It will take time.  However, those engaged in this enterprise should display professionalism and historical imagination.  They should have that endearing quality and cosmopolitan outlook necessary for diplomatic dealings.  I once requested the WTO to send representatives to the Spanish archives in Coimbra, the Dutch archives in the Hague, and the British archives in London to study and copy the protocols of the Nallur Convention of 1619, between the Portuguese Crown and the Tamil Chiefs, the protocols pertaining to the cession of the Tamil State by the Portuguese crown, to the Dutch East India Co. of 1658, and the protocols of the relevant annexes to the Treaty of Amiens of 1602 certifying the transfer of the Tamil state by the Dutch East India Co. to the British crown.  The reply was that it would serve little purpose as these documents and plans thereto could describe a territorial extent that could be prejudice the proposal for a combined North-East provincial council.

The WTO may have been impressed by the recent maps of the historical Tamil state that show a westerly orientation to Puttalam.  Ibn Batuta records a meeting with the ruler Pararajasingham, who discoursed with him in fluent Persian, in Puttalam in 1344. Remember the tri-lingual inscription in Galle of the same period recording the Chinese admiral Cheng Ho’s visit, which is in Tamil, Persian and Chinese. The WTO may have also been impressed by the budgets of the Portuguese government in the island which show larger land tax receipts from the Tamil parts than from Colombo or Galle, which would imply a large territorial extent.  But the WTO missed the point that independent recognition of the historical fact of a separate Tamil state by three such reputed international authorities as the Portuguese and British governments and the Dutch East India Co. directorate provides sufficient validity in international law for the advancement of a claim for the recognition of that state today.

But why seek an alliance with another strong state?  Unlike in the case of the Italians we are not expecting an ally to liberate us.  No.  Our sole purpose would be simply for enlisting our ally’s sponsorship and active support for causing a UN administered plebiscite to be held in the Tamil areas to ascertain the free and democratic wishes of the Tamil peoples regarding their future political status, thereby facilitating their historical claim to recovery of the sovereignty lost in 1619. Our demand would be ethically and legally acceptable and our ally should have no moral hesitation in supporting us.  One may ask why not seek an ally in India rather than in the US.  My answer is the negative attitude shown by Delhi from 1947 to the Tamil demand for state rights.  This is due, as everyone knows, to India’s own Achilles heel in denying the Kashmiri people’s demand for a plebiscite to determine their future. The 13th Amendment, which Delhi and Colombo have jointly foisted on us is a Trojan Horse. It needlessly and uselessly distracts us from our primary goal , which is recovery of our lost statehood. So we need not waste any time with Delhi

But we should warmly welcome and respond to the fund of goodwill and support existing in Chennai for our cause.  The TNA or other representative Tamil political body should appoint a permanent mission in Tamil Nadu.  Its purpose would be to canvass support at every level, political, economic, social, and cultural for holding a UN administered plebiscite in the country on the Tamil question.  The plebiscite should be the main item in any representative Tamil political body’s manifesto.  “Sarvajanavaakeduppu”, “Plebiscite” should be the rallying cry of every kind of political discourse in the Tamil areas as was ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ in the palmy days of the Muslim Congress’ struggle for a Muslim homeland in India.  All classes, categories and ages of Tamils should take up the cry.  All Tamil opinion should favour the Sethusamudaram scheme that will restore the Tamil ports to their pristine glory before all maritime and commercial activities were centered in Colombo following the Colebrooke Commission Report.  Tamil media should protest the Colombo government’s grant of oil exploration rights in the Tamil offshore.  A strong bond should be forged between the Tamil leadership and people and those of Tamil Nadu.  This will impress our “allies” the US, Canada, Australia, the UK and New Zealand and strengthen their resolve for supporting us in our demand for a UN plebiscite.

The above two courses of action are not difficult of achievement and are commended to the Tamil people and their leadership. We should not expect any justice or fair play in the matter of self-government, let alone self-determination, from the Colombo governments.  Whatever their hue, UNP or SLFP, they have bitten us badly in the past. The one took away our citizenship rights from some of use, the other took away our language rights from all of us. One wonders whether there is any point in participating in parliamentary business either.  We are like fish out of water there.  In any case it has itself been rendered impotent by Executive action of late.  Let us carve out our destinies anew and cast our barge on the waters of history, with faith in God, as our cause is just.