By Izeth Hussain –
The term “ethnic” can be defined in a hundred ways without any one of them commanding unanimous assent. But there is broad agreement about what are the components that constitute ethnicity. One of them is language. Ethnic groups defined in terms of language – though with some exceptions – constitute the states that form the Indian union. Ethnic groups can also be defined in terms of religion. In the pre-1947 Indian sub-continent all Bengalis spoke the same language but they were divided by the religions of Hinduism and Islam. On the linguistic plane they were united to the extent of taking a common pride in having produced two great Bengali poets: Tagore, a Hindu, and Nazrul Islam, a Muslim. All the same the Bengalis were divided, lethally divided, by their religions. Bengal, along with the Punjab, was the site of the most lethal riots during the 1947 Partition.
At the time of Partition India inherited scores of millions of Muslims. How did Delhi cope with that problem? Kashmiri Muslims were allowed devolution because of historical circumstances, a unique exception because at that time the rest of India had states established on the basis of language, not religion. Since that time relations between Kashmir and Delhi have been troubled, in recent times very troubled, and it now seems that in refusing to allow self-determination for Kashmir India assumed a weight that it will have to carry over a long time. What about the rest of the Muslims who don’t have devolution on the basis of religion? The contrast with the plight of the Kashmiri Muslims is very striking indeed. There was the Babri Masjid horror, the demolition of the mosque at Ajodhya by the RSS Hindu fundamentalists, and there was the 2002 Gujarat massacre of Muslims. But apart from those horrors the relations between the Hindus and the Muslims over the seventy years since Partition have been by and large peaceful. What is the reason? The only reason the writer can think of is that India has had for seventy years – except for two years of the Indira Emergency – a fully functioning democracy under which the minorities have been given a reasonable degree of fair and equal treatment.
Next we must consider the rather special case of Kalistan. Hindus and Sikhs have different religions but there was never antagonism between them because of religion. The antagonism arose because of India’s appallingly poor economic performance and Sikh pride in having had a Sikh empire for over 150 years. That led to the demand for a Sikh state within the Indian union, which was given in the form of Haryana in the mid-sixties. It was an attempt to solve an ethnic problem through devolution but instead of a solution it led to an aggravation of the problem with the demand for the separate state of Kalistan. That produced Longowal and the more extreme Bindranwale, the sacking of the Golden Temple, and the assassination of Indira Gandhi followed by horrendous anti-Sikh rioting. But since around 2000 the demand for Kalistan has died out. What is the explanation? The writer believes that it is two-fold: India has made spectacular economic progress and under a fully functioning democracy the Sikhs have been given a reasonable degree of fair and equal treatment.
What conclusions can we draw from the data collated in this article? India has had three models for dealing with ethnicity, the most important of which is devolution on the basis of language. As stated in the first part of this article, inter-ethnic relations can be equable and co-operative or they can be agonistic and antagonistic. Inter-ethnic relations based on language have been of the first kind in India whereas they have been of the second kind in Sri Lanka. It is therefore very difficult to believe that the replication of that Indian model will succeed in Sri Lanka. It is more likely to compound the problem. The second Indian model is devolution based on factors other than language: religion in the case of Kashmir and Sikh identity in the case of the Sikhs. Religion in India notoriously led to horribly agonistic and antagonistic relations between Hindus and Muslims, so that it is not surprising that devolution in Kashmir has been a failure up to now. As for the Sikhs, devolution in the form of Haryana seriously compounded the Sikh problem for decades, as noted above. The third Indian model for dealing with ethnicity is democracy, which also as noted above has been a success for seventy years for over a hundred million Muslims. True, there was the Gujarat massacre of Muslims in 2002 but unlike over the 1983 holocaust in Sri Lanka there were investigations for years together with some amount of punitive action. That was democracy in action in Gujarat. The writer would add that even the Indian success of linguistic devolution had to have behind it a democratic culture, making possible the compromise and accommodativeness without which devolution cannot be operated successfully. So, what has succeeded in India in dealing with antagonistic inter-ethnic relations is democracy, not devolution.
Sri Lanka’s experience of devolution has been very instructive. The Eastern Provincial Council has been working smoothly enough, and its relationship with the Government in Colombo has been equable and cooperative. By contrast the Northern Provincial Council gives the impression that it is not working at all. What is the explanation for this stark contrast? In the Eastern Province all three Sri Lankan ethnic groups are represented while the Northern Province is predominantly Tamil. The contrast is between devolution on a multi-ethnic basis in the Eastern Province and on a mono-ethnic basis in the Northern Province. Therefore a Sinhalese-Tamil polarization takes place in the case of the Northern Province, the factor of antagonistic inter-ethnic relations comes into play, and the NPC is rendered virtually inoperative. The contrast suggests strongly that devolution on an ethnic basis cannot work smoothly in Sri Lanka.
Some, indeed many, would hold that the real problem in the NPC is a character defect of Chief Minister Wigneswaran: a judge who has strayed into politics, who furthermore has an injudicious gift for striking provocative belligerent postures. The present writer believes that the explanation is to be found rather in the problem of interpellation. The writer, at the risk of seeming to be intellectually pretentious, is invoking the theory of Louis Althusser, which should be given weight because he was the foremost Marxist philosopher of the last century. Here the present writer will spell out briefly the bare essentials of the theory, leaving it to the interested reader to turn to the internet which has much information about it.
When a police officer interpellates an individual Hey! You there! a relationship is established that transcends the two individuals. The one represents the State, the other is a citizen; one has power behind him, the other has no power; one is super-ordinate, the other is subordinate, and so on, implying the positions of the two individuals in a society. What is involved also is Foucault’s notion that where there is power there is also the contestation of power, explicit or implicit. So when an individual is interpellated as the member of an ethnic minority, certain reactions come into play. When there is devolution on an ethnic basis and inter-ethnic relations are already agonistic and antagonistic – as between the Sinhalese and the Tamils – the contestation of power has to be expected. The travails of the NPC have to be explained in such terms, not only in terms of the peculiarities to be expected of a judge turned politician. On the other hand, when an individual is interpellated as a citizen who in a democracy has equal rights irrespective of his ethnic identity, his ethnicity is transcended and the agonistic and the antagonistic in inter-ethnic relations are in abeyance. So, when inter-ethnic relations are not equable and cooperative, ethnic problems have a better chance of being resolved through democracy rather than through devolution on an ethnic basis.
The writer would advocate the jettisoning of 13 Amendment after reaching an understanding with India. We should attempt a solution through a fully functioning democracy with adequate safeguards for the rights and legitimate interests of the minorities as in the West. The Tamils are living quite happily under that dispensation in the West and elsewhere. Why not here? The familiar answer is that they are indigenous to Sri Lankan territory and are therefore entitled to self-determination here. It is a nonsensical claim, but they are at liberty to go on clamoring for it in Geneva and elsewhere while their problems get solved through democracy here. We must bear in mind that we did have a fully functioning democracy before 1956, and right now we are in the process of entrenching it. There should be no great problem about working out the laws and institutions to safeguard minority rights and interests. So, let’s try democracy as the solution, and as for devolution – Chuck it. (Concluded)