Not By Ourselves Alone: A Critique of (Tamil) Self-Determination

Photo by LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES via The Star

Twenty eight years, four months and some days ago, the LTTE killed more than one hundred and thirty Sinhala civilians in what has become known as the Anuradhapura massacre. I phrase it thus because I wonder whether, a year and a half or so from now, anybody from our liberal-left will deem it fit to commemorate its thirtieth anniversary. Sinhala nationalism, however, has not forgotten. Invoking the event in Kampala in May, President Mahinda Rajapaksa contended that “no human rights organization objected to this at the time.” I do not know if his statement is literally accurate, that not a single human rights group anywhere in the world, including Sri Lanka, condemned the LTTE for the killings. I do remember, however, that neither Amnesty International nor Human Rights Watch did so then. (To their credit, these organizations have largely got their act together since.) Put differently, Rajapaksa has a good point. Even someone with a despicable politics and ethics could, occasionally, make one.

The same Rajapaksa who, just the other day, as Tisaranee Gunasekara astutely observes, justified the spate of Sinhala nationalist attacks on “minorities” on the grounds that a seven year old girl had been raped. (He did not say by whom, or provide any further details. The incompetent journalist from Al-Jazeera, who didn’t seem to know much about Sri Lanka apart from the Navi Pillai report, failed to ask.) By this logic, as Gunasekara points out, the alleged act of one individual invites, warrants retaliation upon an entire group. By this same logic, of course, the attacks on Tamil civilians by the Sri Lankan state/military, dating back at least to 1956, would justify the counter-attacks on Sinhala civilians by the LTTE (not to mention EROS and TELO, in the 1980s). But one does not get very far by detailing the contradictions of nationalism. The first lesson to learn from Rajapaksa’s statements, and to make by no means a novel argument: the concern of Sinhala nationalism extends exclusively to the self. It cannot hear the call of the other. (Not incidentally, Rajapaksa also concedes the lack of the rule of law in Sri Lanka: the proper response to a rape is not police and judicial investigation, as one might think, but mob action.)

Before getting to the rest of the lessons, a few details about the Anuradhapura and similar strikes from the 1980s that most Sri Lankan/ists may not be aware of. An ex-LTTE cadre told me later – I was a journalist at the time – that he operated the radio in southern India that kept the LTTE hierarchy in touch with their fighters in Anuradhapura during the killings. With him during the entirety of the operation were RAW agents. That is to say, the Indian state knew of the attack while it was going on. Subsequently, the leadership of TELO, EROS, EPRLF and PLOTE, at the highest levels, informed me that the Indian state had offered all the groups considerable sums of money to kill Sinhala civilians. TELO and EROS accepted the funds and did so; PLOTE and EPRLF refused.

Lesson number two: Rajapaksa’s statements reveal that, even though Sinhala nationalism cannot concede this, Sinhalaness in Sri Lanka defines itself in relation to the Tamil. Look what the Tamils have done to us, he laments. We are the victims here, of terrorism. We are what we are because of the Tamils. In poststructuralist – a word I prefer to the more common postmodern – terms: the self is not discrete; rather, always already marked by the other. A homonymous logic structures Tamil nationalism. Its claim to self-determination justifies itself, ultimately, on the grounds of Sinhala majoritarian oppression: we, not they, are the real victims here. We are what we are because of the Sinhalese. The one cannot think itself, produce its subjectivity, without the other. If you admit, or concede, that this argument has some validity, viability, it would have significant consequences for the conviction that any human group should enjoy the right to self-determination – whether Sri Lankan Tamil or, for that matter, Palestinian.

Keeping this in mind, let us turn to the TNA/ITAK’s manifesto for the NPC elections. It argues that “The Tamils are a distinct People…entitled to the right to self-determination”; and that such right should be exercised through a federal structure for the north and east of Sri Lanka “in a manner also acceptable to the Tamil Speaking Muslim People.” It wouldn’t take much effort to show that the concept “Tamil speaking people,” whether capitalized or not, is and certainly has been an attempt by Tamil nationalism to hegemonize – that is to say, subordinate – Muslims; but demonstrating such should be left for another occasion. The question could also be raised: how does one tell a Tamil from a non-Tamil, define the distinctiveness of this group? Would Sheila Shakespeare, born in Norway and not speaking a word of Tamil, whose grandfather was called Kanagasabapathy Sivaramakrishnan, be a Tamil? What about the child of a non-Tamil father and Tamil mother? Is there such a group, UpCountry Tamil, distinct from the Sri Lankan? How does one tell the difference? What about someone born a Tamil who converts to Islam? While analogous questions could be asked of Muslims and Sinhalese, too – as has been established, J. R. Jayawardena, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike and Cyril Matthew are all of relatively recent southern Indian origin – it would be easier to take the TNA’s claim seriously if it could actually, coherently, define a Tamil.

More immediately to the point: the TNA manifesto contends that Tamils must determine their own destiny; and then holds, in the very next breath as it were, that such determination be “acceptable” to non-Tamils. In this case, Muslims, granted an effective veto over the Tamil future. For, if Muslims find some aspect of Tamil self-determination unacceptable, the TNA could not, if they stand by their manifesto, proceed upon such a course of action.

Whatever else maybe going on here, and even if they are unaware of it, the TNA is not making an argument for exclusive Tamil self-determination but an alliance, a common future, however vaguely articulated, with Muslims. I am not, let me stress, a supporter of the TNA – or any identitarian political organization, including the SLMC. I find some of the recent statements made by TNA politicians, including the heroization of Velupillai Prabakharan,  reprehensible. But their manifesto, despite manifest shortcomings, represents a major advance in Sri Lankan politics. Unlike Sinhala nationalism in any incarnation, the TNA attenuates its Tamil nationalism when it states, better late than never: we hear the call of the other. Or, at least, of the Muslim. We cannot, should not do things by ourselves alone.

Even as one applauds this position – indeed, as a Muslim, I raise a glass of scotch to it – one must press the TNA further. Thus lesson number three: you cannot be selective in your commitment to human rights. Of course Rajapaksa – did I say he has a despicable politics and ethics – not only is so selective today, he has always been. His record as a human rights campaigner does not include any agitation on behalf of the Tamil. But should we follow his loathsome example? Earlier this year, TNA MP M. A. Sumanthiran courageously apologized, if twenty-three years after the fact, to the Muslims forcibly expelled from the north by the LTTE. (Which transformed them, as Sharika Thiranagama – now is she Tamil or Sinhala, by the way – points out, from Muslims like all other Sri Lankan Muslims to a special category, Northern Muslims.) Similarly, the TNA must, even though many of its backers in Sri Lanka and abroad would insist otherwise, come publicly to terms with the bloody record of the LTTE. The mass murdering, child-recruiting, dissent exterminating, Muslim evicting Prabakharan is no hero. We cannot have peace in Sri Lanka as long as a substantial section of opinion whitewashes the LTTE, explicitly or implicitly. And this includes not just political parties but many in our human rights community who only protest when Tamils are attacked.

But what, you may ask, about Sinhala nationalism? Am I letting it and its own bloody record off the hook? I should hope not. In the wake of the TNA victory, several commentators called upon Sinhala and Tamil nationalism to figure out a compromise based upon the “reality” of these two deep-rooted political forces. I do not see how this is possible, for the one directly contradicts the other; nor, for that matter, how it could be acceptable, ethical.

Bluntly put: there cannot be peace in Sri Lanka as long as Sinhala nationalism, including its belief that a “majority” enjoys special privileges, dominates our politics. At best, it seeks to subordinate those it deems minorities. (Strikingly, the TNA manifesto does not consider the Tamil or Muslim minor. It knows the consequences of majoritarianism and refuses to reproduce them.) At worst, exterminate them. Given such a “reality,” we have to work incessantly towards its marginalization, even demise. Not, let me stress, of the Sinhala people; just of their majoritarian ideology. But we cannot succeed if we don’t confront, admit our own mistakes. If we hold our politics, ethics to be superior to theirs, and I think they could be, then we don’t have a choice.

Which leads to the final lesson: the eurocentrism of human rights. A whole book, indeed more than one, could be written about this. But here, too, the despicable Rajapaksa, not to mention his Sinhala nationalist allies, has a point. Yes, one could oppose the JVP/JHU and still concede that, every now and then, they do make a good argument. Over the past decade or so, the United States of America, the country in which I live most of the year, has been by far the worst human rights offender in the world: it invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, killing thousands; its drones regularly, routinely bomb Pakistan and Yemen, killing dozens; its…I could go on, but  space constrains me. And yet our leftists and liberals turn to these same mass murdering United States for succor. In so doing, we provide it with an alibi, allow it to proclaim its fundamental goodness, whitewash its bloody record. (One could make an analogous claim about India.)

Many books should be written on the eurocentrism of human rights. One in particular would focus on the very concept of the human. We may take it for granted that we are all human beings, with reason, agency and so on. Such a conception of the human only emerged in the seventeenth century (or so). John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government is an exemplary text in this regard. As a close reading easily demonstrates, Locke produces the human as the hardworking, Protestant, heterosexual, civilized English man, in opposition to the lazy, savage “Indian” (we would now say Native American). This particular, superior human creates civil society, institutes the rights bearing subject, representative government and the rule of law. The savage other is doomed to live in an interminable, insecure, anarchic state of nature.

Now what, you  may wonder, does a three hundred and fifty year old book have to do with us? (You could ask the same question about much older religious texts.) Locke may produce a eurocentric subject; surely, we have moved on since then. Alas, that is not quite the case. We have moved; but not as much as desirable. I offer as example the International Crisis Group. In a recent post, its Sri Lanka project director, Alan Keenan, after detailing the offences of the Rajapaksa regime, concludes: “to be accepted as a full member of the community of nations, the government [of Sri Lanka] must face up to the past, reform its damaged public institutions, and work actively to rebuild peaceful relations between all communities.” On the face of it, a position I should agree with. But what is this “community of nations” Keenan speaks of, in which Sri Lanka has been denied full membership – like, dare I make the comparison, the savage, once denied full humanity?

He doesn’t say, but a glance at the ICG’s website reveals much. It attends to “crises” all over the world, including the “white” countries of the former Soviet Union and eastern bloc, but not the United States or Western Europe. As I write, the U.S. government has been shut down; many commentators find it dysfunctional. Its Congress has been unable to produce a budget in four years. Fifteen percent of its population live below the poverty line. Every now and then, one of its citizens grabs an automatic weapon – easier to purchase than medicine or an automobile – and goes on a killing spree. In its most populated city, New York, the police routinely stop and frisk non-whites on the street without reasonable cause. If any country requires external intervention to fix its system, the U.S. would qualify. But it does not fit the ICG’s definition of crisis. Over the past few years, the European Union has undoubtedly been in a more or less permanent state of (economic) crisis. But it does not fit the ICG’s definition of crisis. Unlike Locke, eurocentrism no longer deems those out there savage; however, it certainly makes a distinction between a superior us, inhabiting stable polities, and them, interminably in crisis. We, therefore, have the right to tell them how to behave.

Not being a nationalist, I do not hold that Sri Lankans must solve our problems by ourselves alone. However, we must select our allies with care.

Having criticized the U.S., let me conclude by turning to it for inspiration. (I live in this country because, despite its tremendous shortcomings, I like it. It makes Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald possible – even as it exiles Greenwald to Brazil.) The U.S. civil rights movement, which emerged in organizations like the NAACP in the first decade of the twentieth century, eventually succeeded, at least somewhat, because it worked relentlessly, non-violently, towards the demise of white racism, an ideology predicated on the superiority of white over black, us over them. Now a Tamil nationalist might respond: the Federal Party, and then the TULF, tried non-violent protest – and failed. Well, the LTTE did not work either, did it?

The LTTE failed, in large part, because of its nationalism, its belief in doing things by ourselves alone, a dogmatic conviction that led to ever narrower definitions of the self. It alienated the Indian state and other allies abroad; it turned Muslims, another potential ally, into adversaries; it called dissidents traitors – a favorite word, by the way, of that truly obnoxious creature, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa – and killed thousands of Tamils, including Rajani Thiranagama and K. Padmanabha; and it made no attempt to find allies amongst the Sinhalese. In my only encounter with Prabakharan, at a press conference after the 1987 Indo-Lanka agreement, I asked him towards its conclusion whether, now that it appeared the Tamils have made peace with the Sinhalese, he had any message for the Sinhala people. Till that point, all questions in English were translated and he replied in Tamil. Getting up to leave, he didn’t bother to wait for the translation. Replied with one short English word: no.

There cannot be peace in Sri Lanka until the Sinhalese come to terms with their bloody history, disavow majoritarianism. But we have to help them do so. For, despite the valiant efforts of an individual or two, they will not, as a group, even make the attempt by themselves alone.

  • Dr. N. Satchi

    Dear Sir / Madam,
    This is a really landmark article, thoughtful and provocative. I was one of those who was caught in the sectarian web after events of July 1983 in spite of the gracious and affectionate way we as a family were treated in Matara. Nationalism like religion can be the opium of the masses. All I can say this act of mine is not to harm my sinhalese brothers. I have been arguing with the Tamil polity for years to replace the word self determination with security concerns. I wish i could communicate with the author of this article.

    Dr. N. Satchi UK

  • mahinda

    I like to call myself a Sinhalese Nationalist but i also know that nationalism is a disease. It does good to no one in this time or after life. But i’m trying to find the middle way not becoming extremist. But i’m so glad i read this article. Normally i would not agree anything that disses Mahinda or Gotabhaya but this time i do, because of the thought provocative and appealing nature of this post. Once again i’m very happy Groundviews is here.

  • Dr. N. SAtchi

    Dear Mr. Quadri Ismail,
    My comment was written based on your first part of your article. I am surprised you have chosen to live in the USA and still accuse it. The USA has made many mistakes including the war on Iraq. What you have failed to mention is the responsibility it takes on behalf of the western world in order to maintain the thrust of freedom, and the liberties you enjoy. It is a pity the UN is not in a position to implement the R2P in states that take cover under the its sovereignty.

    Dr. N. Satchi UK
    ,

  • Nick Hart

    How do you define ‘majoritarianism’? The very notion of representative democratic government is based on the concept of majority rule. This is is particularly the case in the US and UK, where each side of the political divide represent widely diverging ideologies — Democrat v. Republican in the US and Labour v. Conservative in the UK — and each side when in power institutes policies which, if they accede to the constitutional demands of the majority, almost by definition discriminate against the minority.

    In the case of the Tamils, aided and abetted by India, a minority group sought to violently impose its separatist agenda on the majority. This led to a brutal and brutalizing 30-year civil war, from which the peace-seeking majority of the minority Tamil population were also subject to extraordinary suffering and abuse at the hands of their so-called would-be ‘liberators’.

    Is it not time for the Tamil diaspora, which is now seeking a continuation of the war by other means, to accept that the only way to bring about change is through reasoned argument and the ballot box, and that sniping and propagandizing from the safety of their foreign havens is not helping Sri Lanka move forward?