Groundviews

Tamil Nationalism and the Coming Constitution

Photo courtesy Tamil Guardian

Militarily demolished in May 2009, Tamil nationalism’s struggle has been a daunting one in post-war Sri Lanka. With the death of one of the most admired leaders within the Tamil community, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, the Tamil political representatives were pushed to shoulder the burden of promoting a different political agenda; of political autonomy within a united Sri Lanka, but in an essentially fragile political terrain. While the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has emerged, without question, the more dominant representative of Tamil nationalism, in an increasingly radicalizing context, theirs is not the only voice.

Political parties such as the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF), as well as other groups such as the Tamil Civil Society Forum (TCSF) and the more recently established Tamil People’s Council (TPC) are among those which have come to articulate a strong and committed Tamil nationalist position. With the initiation of a constitution making process by the new Sirisena-Wickremasinghe regime which came to power in 2015, the latter groups – the TCSF[i] and the TPC[ii] – have made their positions clear before the Public Representations Committee on Constitutional Reform. Mistakenly regarded as ‘extremist’ voices within the Tamil community, the political project of such groups represents only a logical conclusion of the very same political goals and principles adopted by the TNA-leadership.

My claim, at the very outset, is that groups such as the TCSF and TPC are bound to be disappointed with the coming constitution (if it ever comes). Their proposals, which seek a federal solution based on the inalienable right to self-determination of the Tamil people, don’t hold half a chance of success – largely because the defeat of the LTTE brought about a defeat of any political solution which seeks to provide extensive devolution of power based on the principle of self-determination of the Tamil people. Though that’s the grim reality, the submissions of TCSF and the TPC deserve engagement – not only because they constitute some of the most well-drafted proposals emanating from the Tamil nationalist camp in post war Sri Lanka, but also because they reflect a ‘puristic’ version of Tamil nationalism. While the TPC’s submissions contain a detailed blueprint of the desired political solution, the discussion below will only take up some of the key themes set out in the shorter set of submissions of the TCSF (which complement those of the TPC).

National Question

The TCSF understands the ‘national question’ to be,

“…the problem relating to the hierarchical nature of the Sri Lankan state at the helm of which is the Sinhala Buddhist nation. In this hierarchical state structure the other constituent nations and peoples of Sri Lanka are regarded subservient peoples and nations to the dominant (Sinhala Buddhist) nation… A solution to the National Question, will only come about through a radical and fundamental re-envisioning of the state on the basis of equality amongst the constituent nations and peoples of Sri Lanka.”

If the accusation, as the TCSF sets out, is so serious, why cannot the problem be resolved? A brief clarification is required.

The Sri Lankan ethnic conflict, or the national question, is often sought to be understood by critics as one arising from the inability of a majority (Sinhala-Buddhists) to share power with the minority communities in the country and/or the inability to recognize the multi-ethnic and multi-religious character of the Sri Lankan polity. Framed in this manner, the answer becomes a simple one too: recognize the multi-ethnic character of Sri Lanka, share more powers with minority groups.

Yet, such a framing of the problem (which, however, isn’t entirely how the TCSF does it) tends to simplify the inherent complexity of the conflict, while also making the demonization of Sinhala-Buddhists all too convenient. For there is a deeper historical reason for the rejection of power-sharing to the extent demanded by Tamil nationalists. That has to do with the belief that the Sinhala-Buddhists are the original and predominant inhabitants of this land, and that the Tamils – though having a very long history – constitute a minority community, which arrived from their original homeland in Southern India (especially in the form of invaders).

Now, the hierarchy and the dominance the TCSF refers to, emerges when the above understanding is sought to be imposed upon another community. Yet, in principle, it is not an unnatural claim for a people to make; and it is not abnormal to insist as the Sinhala-Buddhists do, that they are the original and main inhabitants of an island, or the main contributors to the historical making of the island, its overarching culture and civilization. After all, such understandings are central to the making of nation-states; and in reality, an ethnic group representing an overwhelming majority hardly thinks of itself as absolutely equal to the numerically smaller peoples or minority groups.

Furthermore, the Sinhala-Buddhists’ demand for recognition as the dominant ethnic and religious group in Sri Lanka is only an enlarged version of the Tamils’ demand to be recognized as the dominant community in the North-East (arising, however, for different reasons). In fact, the Sinhala-Buddhist claim to ownership is replicated in a similar claim to ownership of the entire island by the Tamils – a claim which is contained in Mr. CV Wigneswaran’s ruminations on the history of Sri Lanka, and one which has been more pronounced in the views of groups such as the All Ceylon Aboriginal Inhabitants (Tamil) Association, in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Precisely because the conflict or the national question is based upon a specific understanding of ownership and belonging which is by no means unnatural to human communities, the only attempt that could have a chance of success is one which tries to ensure that the natural and ineradicable dominance of the Sinhala-Buddhists does not result in the perpetration of a willful and targeted policy of discrimination of minority groups. As for the recognition of different nations, it’s not something that can be easily achieved given Sri Lanka’s own circumstances. Ironically, Sri Lanka’s ethnic composition, its history, and its proximity to India, indicate that the recognition of different nations in Sri Lanka (which, in turn, need to be recognized as equal nations) can only be something imposed upon a majority. It was only Indian intervention in 1987 that came close to doing so.

Merged North-East & the Tamil Homeland

The tensions referred to above spill over to another defining theme of Tamil nationalist thought: the merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces. The TCSF argues for the recognition of a merged North-East which, in the Tamil nationalist political imagination, constitutes the traditional homeland of the ‘Tamil-speaking’ people.

What is interesting and somewhat refreshing about the TCSF’s submissions here is the clarification it offers concerning this demand. It points out that while the traditional homeland-claim has been ridiculed as a misconceived historical myth by (Sinhalese) historians in the past, the Tamil insistence on a merged North-East as a traditional homeland is largely a political response to Sinhala hegemony. Thus:

“The Tamil homeland argument we submit is primarily a political claim that grew out of the dialectics of the ethnic conflict and is essentially a counter to the hegemonic claim to the entirety of Sri Lanka being Sinhala-Buddhist.”

A minor clarification that needs to be added here is that the claim to the entirety of Sri Lanka being Sinhala-Buddhist is not, in principle, a hegemonic claim; just as the claim to the North and East being exclusively Tamil-speaking is also not hegemonic, in principle. But in practice, such a claim takes on a hegemonic character in the context of contending minority groups, and when targeted discrimination is sought to be pursued. In fact, it is not wrong to argue that the strong assertion of these different and varied ‘homeland’ claims has resulted in promoting hegemony: not just by the Sinhala-Buddhists, but also by the Tamils (especially during the reign of the LTTE, directed at the smaller minorities in the North-East, especially the Muslims).

Apart from the above though, two key observations need to be made on the traditional-homeland claim as set out by the TCSF.

On the one hand, the historical debunking of the traditional-homeland argument as a myth makes no impact on the Tamil community, since nationalist politics has to be based on some such political myth. This is also why the historical narrative adduced by the Tamils, which proposes to show that Sri Lanka was divided into different ‘nations’ since time immemorial, will make no impact within the Sinhala majority community. Ultimately, more than historical veracity, these claims and stories are based on ‘faith’, which cannot be shattered through historical scholarship. Turned into an aspect of faith, historical narratives would produce causes for which hundreds if not thousands would sacrifice their lives.

Yet, the problem for Tamil nationalism lies in the fact that once raised as a “political claim” to counter majoritarian hegemony, the Tamil-homeland argument transforms into an essentially historical argument, given its obvious historical character. In other words, if the claim has an element of history involved, then it would need to be substantiated historically too (it is here, then, that the historical debunking of the traditional-homeland arguments proves useful for the Sinhalese). However, the ensuing debate then becomes one of historical contestation, wherein both sides would cite and quote different authors and historians to buttress their version of history. Unconverted, the two groups will continue to debate the matter. In such a context, it is the version of the community with the greater numbers that would ultimately succeed; and in an overwhelmingly Sinhala-Buddhist society, the demand for the merged North-East based on the traditional-homeland argument would have no serious chance of being recognized.

Apart from the above, the other practical challenge still confronting Tamil nationalism’s claim for a merged North-East appears to be the Muslim-factor. Though Tamil nationalists would recognize the distinct character of the Muslims or their unique and autonomous political existence, the Muslim community’s embrace of the claim for a merged North-East is essential in making it a more politically potent and challenging demand. The realistic prospect of that happening could be slim even in the near future; since it’s difficult to be part of the ruling establishment (as desired by the Muslim political community) if one has an unwavering commitment towards the project of realizing a merged North-East.

Devolution within a Unitary State

Another central problem for Tamil nationalist politics is the ‘unitary’ character of the Constitution. The TCSF correctly states:

“Unitary state in Sri Lanka has a very definitive socio-political meaning. It has nothing or very little to do with the idea of a united country. On the contrary it has everything to do with centralizing power in the majority Sinhala Buddhist nation. The unitary state structure is that which is used to institutionally enshrine Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism in the exercise of public power.”

Importantly, the TCSF raises the crucial and valid constitutional point:

“When the constitution identifies itself as unitary it provides the legal theoretical framework within which to interpret the devolution arrangements. The experience of the constitutional praxis of the 13th Amendment is that devolution arrangement will be interpreted by courts within a unitary culture to favour the central government.”

This leads the TCSF to argue that devolution within the unitary state will not resolve the national question; and as it has maintained, along with other groups such as the TNPF, that the 13th Amendment is not even a starting point of a discussion on the political solution.

Though I do not have an inflexible or doctrinaire attachment to any single form of political solution (though any such solution, as a bare minimum, should rest on a commitment to equality and the basic protection of liberties), the TCSF’s stand is an understandable one.

While the outright rejection of the 13th Amendment by Tamil nationalist groups can be utterly annoying for many, there is a simple reason why this happens. This could well be understood if one views this rejection from the perspective of Tamil nationalist political aspirations, which are essentially inspired and determined by the famous ‘Thimpu principles’ set out in 1985 – i.e. the call for the recognition of: Tamils of Sri Lanka as constituting a distinct nationality; an identifiable homeland and the guarantee of its territorial integrity; the inalienable right to self-determination of the Tamil nation; full citizenship and other rights of Tamils who look upon the Island (of Sri Lanka) as their country. In other words, Tamil nationalism is founded on the idea that the Tamils are a distinct nation having the right to self-determination (which essentially would include the right to secession, if required).

Yet, the 13th Amendment does something different. The 13th Amendment gives expression to an entirely different political logic and principle – wherein the centralized state devolves powers to the periphery, without recognizing the deeply nationalistic aspirations of minority groups and without recognizing the right to self-determination of the Tamils. Therefore, the ideology that guides Tamil nationalistic demands, and the ideology that undergirds the 13th Amendment, are different. If one subscribes to Tamil nationalism, then insistence on the 13th Amendment makes little sense. If one subscribes to a narrow version of the political philosophy behind the 13th Amendment, Tamil nationalist demands can begin to sound incorrigible.

This may also be why the demand made by those supporting devolution – to the effect that the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) should show, through practice, how or to what extent provincial devolution works (without engaging in the practice of just passing resolutions on this or that topic) – does not make much sense to Tamil nationalism. For a community which believes that it’s a distinct nation, the 13th Amendment is unworthy of any support. Making the 13th Amendment useful and practical may indeed be a problem for their larger political project and nationalist credentials.

At this stage, many would be tempted to promote a third way which argues that an incrementalist approach needs to be adopted, if the political objectives of Tamil nationalism amounting to a federal solution are to be realized. Such an approach, to be sure, has been thoroughly rejected by groups such as TCSF, TPC and the TNPF.

Again, while I don’t insist on any definitive federal solution like the TCSF does, my skepticism concerning the call for incrementalism lies elsewhere. The call for incrementalism is based on a humanist faith in progress (which I don’t subscribe to). It is the belief that slow, step-by-step progress, will ultimately, in the long run, result in the realization of the desired goal. Yet, the problem with this faith in progress is that it presupposes that the little that is achieved today will remain static when the next moment for instituting change arrives. But that’s not so: what is achieved today can very easily be overturned tomorrow (as one witnessed with the 17th and 18th Amendments, and the subsequent development of reverting to a slightly modified pre-18th Amendment position).

Instead of incrementalism, then, it would be fair to demand that Tamil politicians subscribe to a more realistic and pragmatic political agenda – of trying to achieve what can be achieved within the limited and constraining circumstances they are placed under. Yet, here again, an insistence on pragmatic and realistic politics cannot be based on the promise that this would ultimately help in the realization of the goals of Tamil nationalism. Rather, in my view, the demand for pragmatic and realistic politics could only be made on the more genuine basis that apart from what’s realistically possible, nothing more can be assured or guaranteed in the future. Yet politics based on the traditionally conservative notions such as the recognition of the uncertainties of political life and a modest view of human capabilities will be impossible, for any nationalist project.

Accountability & Political Solution

Finally, the TCSF highlights the relationship between the question of accountability and the political solution. The TCSF considers there to be “a direct link between the discourse for accountability and justice and the search for a political solution that recognises the Tamil people’s aspirations for self-determination.” Therefore, an approach that seeks to delay the search for accountability and justice on the basis that that search would complicate the more vital question of adopting a political solution (as has been requested by certain commentators), is rejected by the TCSF.

Though not an advocate of international accountability, I would agree with the TCSF and others who draw the essential link between the question of accountability and political solution – but perhaps for different reasons.

Firstly, the idea that the search for a political solution should be given prominence presupposes that the end result of that search will bring about a political solution which essentially meets the requirements of Tamil nationalism; for, without believing that such a result is possible, one cannot meaningfully ask the Tamil nationalists to be less serious about promoting accountability. The present political context, however, promises no such victory for Tamil nationalism. Thus, there would understandably be no great incentive for the Tamil nationalists to place hopes on one (political solution), while softening its approach on the other (accountability).

Secondly, an honest and realistic reading of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist politics would suggest that the rejection of federalism, does not arise due to the pressure that is felt by the insistence on accountability. Sinhala-Buddhists well realize that both the political solution and the issue of accountability are intertwined; and their opposition or critique of both is based on different other political and ideological reasons, some of which were briefly discussed above.

Thirdly, and most critically, a political solution which meets the requirements of Tamil nationalism requires a serious and radical rethinking about the state and its peoples. Such radical rethinking, however, cannot be carried out in a vacuum; and would need to involve a rethinking of the entire conflict, the war, its ultimate purposes and ends, etc. In other words, my argument is that if one can radically rethink and re-envision the state, this also has to essentially involve a radical rethinking about the question of accountability as well. Under such circumstances, then, there would be no need to worry about having to give prominence to one over the other.

Though necessary, such rethinking however remains difficult (for some of the reasons set out above) – and especially given the conclusive manner in which the LTTE was defeated. In any case, postponing the attempt to address accountability will never be a realistic development – though it would have been so, had the LTTE leadership survived, in which case the Tamil people would have desired some such postponement.

Conclusion

Committed to a grand ambition of separation for over three decades, one could understand the difficulties and dilemmas confronting the Tamil people when their only hope of realizing a cherished ambition was partially extinguished on the banks of Nandikadal in May 2009. The submissions of groups such as the TCSF and the TPC tend to reflect both an attempt to deal with the harrowing reality that emerges as a result of this loss, as well as an attempt (as made by any other Tamil nationalist group in the country) to make sense of what, to them, is at present a daunting political struggle. Tamil nationalist politics will continue to derive much ideological and political inspiration and sustenance from the political agendas which came to be shaped and strengthened during the non-violent and violent phases of Sri Lanka’s conflict. Yet, the fate which would befall the constitutional project of Tamil nationalism would not be promising; just as the absolute realization of the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist project is never a convenient one. Stuck in a world that is not to their liking, the Sinhalese and the Tamils would only find partial fulfillment of their political dreams and aspirations (Sinhalese, to a greater extent and the Tamils, to a lesser extent) in any constitutional framework adopted in the near future. Inevitably, a cold peace would prevail.

 

[i] TCSF-submissions are available at: https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/proposal-for-new-constitution-tamil-civil-society-forums-submission/

[ii] TPC-proposals are available at: http://www.tamilpeoplescouncil.org/Press%20Release(19-12-2015)/Final%20Proposals%20of%20TPC(10-Apr-2016).pdf