By Arthagnani –
Once again the country is faced with a debate about the devolution of power to the Northern Provinces, which has a substantial Tamil speaking majority. Various objections have been raised about the means of doing this including the 13th amendment to the Constitution. One main objection, it appears, has been that the establishment of a Provincial Council will eventually lead to secession and the emergence of Eelam.
On its face, this may appear to be reasonable fear among the Sinhala nationalists according to one reading of the recent history of the island. The vigor and the ferocity with this project was pursued by the LTTE can justifiably lead to this conclusion. However, another reading of this history also is a plausible one. If one traces the history of the last 50 years or so one can see a different progression: there were successive attempts to give some measure of regional autonomy to the northern provinces by the central government: the BC pact, the Dudley-Chelva pact and so on. During this period the specter of a sovereign state for the Tamils did not arise. The only interest of the Tamil leadership was to create a relatively autonomous Tamil speaking region in a unitary state. Even then one must point out that G.G.Ponnambalam, often defined as the father of Tamil communalism, as well as the “uncrowned king of the Tamils,” was not too happy with this idea. He proclaimed in opposition to the Federal Party’s program, “the traditional homeland of the Tamils is Sri Lanka.” And not just the Northeast, In 1949, he even joined the Senanayake cabinet. He, in alliance with the UNP, went to the elections in 1952 , on an anti-federalist platform of national unity and soundly routed the Federal Party in all but one constituency in the peninsula.
These pacts and many other similar ones were repudiated as a result of protest by Sinhala nationalist forces. The Sinhala nationalist bandwagon moved on, from the Sinhala Only legislation and culminating in the Constitution of 1972. Even at that juncture the cry for a separate state was not raised except by C. Suntheralingam. He is a special case. He was like a disappointed and heartbroken lover who had been jilted by a trusted and much-loved woman — in this case the Sinhala dominated compradore- bourgeoisie led by the Senanayake clan! He had worked tirelessly for a united Sri Lankan nationalism and was a vigorous opponent of GGP and his “fifty-fifty” plan. He had indeed used his mathematical skills to create the pan -Sinhala ministry in order to teach GGP that his theory of “balanced representation” will not work in practice. In any case his proposal for Eylom , spelt with phonetic fidelity to Tamil, did not get any tracking and he was dismissed as a quack.
The separatist demand arose only after the various pacts creating limited autonomy were repudiated and various other repressive measures were undertaken both by the coalition government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike and that of the JRJ government. The escalation of Tamil demands followed the escalation of the repression of Tamil society, legislatively, administratively and violently. I think it is reasonable to claim that if the legislations aimed at delegitimizing the Tamils and undermining their rights as citizens, entitled to equality and the protection of their distinct identity as a separate culture, were not undertaken by the government–encouraged and goaded both by the intelligentsia of the country as well as by the religious hierarchies–the separatist cry would not havebeen heard.
It is now clear that the separatist movement is dead, for all practical purposes, once and for all, defeated both militarily and politically as can be seen in the speeches of the Tamil leadership. It is time for the Sinhala nationalists to pay more attention to the real history instead of constructing paranoid fantasies. Amirthalingam and his associates were assassinated by the real separatists because he and his party were ready to settle for regional autonomy. And once they were silenced by death, the others were intimidated into playing along with the ideology of Eelam. In assessing Tamil aspirations in the new era, one must discount the antics of the overseas Tamil community in London,Toronto and New York. The latter group may make a lot of speeches and statements, and wave flags, but their political effectiveness is extremely limited, if not nonexistent. Enlisting various political entities to vote against Sri Lanka in international forums is an utterly fruitless exercise as the Palestinians will tell you.
If therefore the elections are held in the North and the elected representatives, whoever they may be, are given reasonable powers and authority to manage the affairs of the northern Tamils, the separatist sentiments would be effectively stymied. Even then, if one or other separatist moves are made by the Northern Provincial Council, the newly strengthened and emboldened Sri Lankan army and navy and air force would be able to deal with them effectively, and no doubt with the necessary ruthlessness and dispatch. After all the government’s military establishment is going to be permanently and strategically garrisoned in the North for the foreseeable future. Indeed the Sri Lankan government and its military wings are, to all appearances, readying themselves for this eventuality. Besides the garrisoning of the Sri Lankan military in strategically located regions in the North they are also building roads–a surefire military instrument as the ancient Romans understood!!
Actions have reactions, actions of a particular kind have commensurate reactions. The sustained attack on Tamil interests and rights–I’m not talking of the pogroms — have resulted in certain reactions from the Tamil community. The change in the character of the actions will no doubt receive a commensurate reaction. If the government of Sri Lanka and its votaries take the necessary steps — legislative, administrative and practical and discursive — to incorporate the Tamils of Sri Lanka into the national polity the secessionist moves will be forever undermined. Insofar as successive waves of repression and violence, by mobs as well as the military in the early days of the conflict, led to the emergence of the separatist movement and the LTTE, it is possible that even a few statesman-like gestures and democratic moves towards equality and justice for the Tamils may starve the few tendrils of the separatist movement that continue to exist.
I cannot understand why the intelligentsia cannot see this. Some of them raise the issue of primordiality: the Sinhalese lived in Jaffna at one time and the Tamils have no right to live there and claim the territory as their own. One commentator even thinks that certain phonetic changes in the names of the various places in the North delegitimize the rights of the Tamils!! How trivial can one get?Another claims that the proximity of the North to Tamil Nadu poses great danger to the Sinhala state, once the Tamils acquire a measure of autonomy for the northern provinces. This is the fevered hallucination of those who have drunk too deeply of the potion dished out by the authors of the various chronicles and their latter day interpreters. I’m sure that Tamil Nadu is not capable of raising an army and invading northern Sri Lanka to create an autonomous Tamil state or create a state affiliated with South India. The Cholas and the Pandyas and the Kalingas are not going to rise again, though some of their descendents in TN may make a lot of noise, in chaste Tamil, to fulfill their local political aspirations, but they are merely verbal warriors.
Among the more idiotic objection to autonomy for the Northern Province is that the 13th amendment was “imposed” on Sri Lanka by India. Notice here the issue being raised is not whether it is just or unjust or whether it going to be effective or ineffective or even whether it is economically feasible, but that Rajiv Gandhi flew through the skies, like another famous visitor of old, and forced JRJ’s hand.
Again, how trivial can you get? This is truly an objection without any substance since the amendment is in its essential elements is no way different from those in the BC pact or the Dudley-Chelva pact. Furthermore, why should we object to things or ideas or people coming from India? Our people from Vijaya onwards came from India, our religions came from India, our languages came from India, our caste and kinship systems came from India and even some of military aid to defeat the LTTE came from India! The noble truths of Buddhism, the defining feature of Sinhala identity, we are told, were brought by another visitor from India too. Why should one then object to a comparatively trivial thing like the 13th amendment coming from India?
It is indeed very surprising that the learned intellectuals, undoubtedly learned in many disciplines, are continuing to act like modayas, eating the kavun of racism and tribalism with such gay abandon, while the country’s resources, intellectual and social and emotional , as well as our material treasure, are wasted in maintaining the state with a large disgruntled and terrorized community in their midst. Instead seeking to undermine the separatist movement they seem determined to feed and nourish it in both their discourses and the programs they propose. Indeed some members of the intelligentsia have become professional racists seeking every opportunity to demean the Tamils and undermine Tamil interests, all the while claiming to be good Buddhists. Oh Buddha what crimes are committed in thy name? It is time that these modayas realized that whatever historical reconstructions they can come up with, whether the Tamils are early immigrants or later immigrants, whether there are Sinhala place names in the Jaffna peninsula or not, whether there is Buddhist statuary in Kanderodai, and whatever archaeological artifacts may be produced to justify the politics of Sinhala Buddhist hegemony, and whatever casuistry they construct , the Tamils are going to be there in the Northeast in substantial numbers and the government of Sri Lanka, of whatever stripe, cannot hope to contain them and subdue them indefinitely. Moves and attempts to do this will certainly cost a great deal to the Tamils but it will also cost a great deal to the Sinhala Buddhists too.
The work of some members of the intelligentsia in Sri Lanka in fact constitutes a betrayal of their calling. Julien Benda argued a long time ago that the responsibility of the intellectuals was to “seek their joy in the practice of an art or science or a metaphysical speculation and to be committed to the value of reason”. He further argued that an intellectual should speak in a “transcendental manner”; that is, seek to transcend parochial loyalties and particularized identities and search for universal truths. Clearly many members of our intellectual community finds itself unable to even follow these precepts even in a minimal manner.
The lesson from the recent history of Sri Lanka is so very simple that even the least among the intelligentsia will be able to understand it: to repeat ,certain actions of the Sri Lankan state in the past led to the cry of separation; certain acts today may well destroy this demand, and depending on these actions, it may not be raised again in the foreseeable future. I may add that the last thing the Sri Lankan Tamils would want is to substitute domination by an impoverished South India for Sinhala domination, even though they speak the same language!
It is possible that President Rajapakse, unlike the small-minded and rather sadistic army of lawyers, economists, sociologists, engineers, journalists, historians and various political pundits, not to speak of the nuttier parliamentarians — understands this.