By Izeth Hussain –
We Sri Lankans have hitherto tended to view the ethnic problem in terms of a stark dichotomy between the Sinhalese and the Tamils: the Sinhalese according to Tamil perceptions are stuck with an enduring Mahavamsa mindset that will never allow them to give fair and equal treatment to the Tamils; the Tamils according to Sinhalese perceptions want Eelam and will be satisfied with nothing less than a wide measure of devolution that will lead ineluctably to Eelam. Of course in the familiar Sri Lankan discourse on the ethnic problem other factors also figure, such as the Tamil Nadu and Delhi factors, but they figure as ancillaries not as factors that are integral to the problem. I hold that this is the main reason why we have failed up to now to find a way out of the ethnic imbroglio.
What is now required is that we should contextualize the stark dichotomy between Tamil and Sinhalese perceptions – seen as the core factor constituting the ethnic problem – to which I have pointed above. We have to do this by taking count of several other factors some of which can clearly be seen as integral parts of the problem. I list the following: the Tamil Nadu and Delhi factors; self-determination; ethno-nationalism; racism; and the new world order/new imperialism. The reader can substitute for that his own list of seemingly relevant factors without denting my argument because some of them will clearly be seen as integral, not ancillary, to the problem. I will be brief in dealing with my list of factors because in this article I am not doing much more than drawing conclusions from arguments developed in my earlier articles.
It would certainly be mistaken to give too much importance to the Tamil Nadu factor. The plight of the SL Tamils had no traction at the recent Tamil Nadu elections, nor had it traction at earlier Indian elections. But it would be perverse to deny that it could be of crucial importance. It was the problem of the fall-out in Tamil Nadu of the 1983 pogrom that incited Delhi to train and arm the Tamil militants, thereby starting the Eelam war. It was the Tamil Nadu factor that made Delhi insist on a political solution based on devolution, in duplication of the Indian model, leading to the imbroglio that has proved insurmountable up to now. If not for the insistence on devolution the SL Tamils would be in the same position as the Muslims whose problems can clearly be solved within a unitary state. We have on our hands therefore not a purely indigenous Tamil ethnic problem but an Indo-Sri Lanka problem. I am emphasizing this argument – which I have advanced before – because it is of crucial importance for what I will have to say later about the new world order/ new imperialism.
I have argued the case against the so-called right of self-determination in several articles, pointing out that the international community recognizes no such right outside a colonial context. It may be that the notion of that so-called right is too deeply ingrained in the Tamil political psyche for my argument to make much of an impact with most Tamils. It could help to shift the argument from a theoretical level to a practical one. The Tamil diasporas wield much political influence in several Western and other countries. They will certainly include many brilliant men some of whom are well qualified in international law. The LTTE has plenty of funds to promote Tamil interests. Nothing therefore precludes the Tamils waging a massive campaign to get at least one UN member state to promote a Resolution at Geneva or elsewhere asking the Sri Lanka Government to allow self-determination for the Tamils, inclusive of a right to set up a separate state or to have a wide measure of devolution. The Tamils will fail to find even one state that is willing to oblige. It seems pointless for the Tamils to insist on devolution on the basis of a non-existent right of self-determination. It makes better sense to opt for a solution without any devolution at all.
Why are the Tamils so insistent on a solution through a wide measure of devolution, amounting at least to federalism? I don’t think it is just cussedness on their part. At least part of the reason could be that they want to establish a nationalist claim to part of Sri Lankan territory in anticipation of the possibility that the huge asymmetry of power between the Tamils and the Sinhalese at the regional level will count in favor of Eelam someday. The Tamil aspiration to Eelam should be seen in the global perspective of the recent vogue of ethnonationalism. There are broadly speaking two kinds of nationalism. One is ethnonationalism in which the indigenous majority ethnic group is seen as entitled to a dominant position over the other ethnic groups. The other might be called citizen democracy in which all are seen as equal by virtue of being citizens of the same country. It is the second kind of democracy that has been behind the tremendous achievements of the West in recent centuries. But suddenly, rather unexpectedly, ethnonationalism has been coming into vogue even in the West, as shown by the nationalist drive in Scotland and elsewhere. There are complex reasons for this phenomenon which cannot be addressed here. What is important is that we should take count of what I have called the “situational factor”. The ethnonationalist drive among our Tamils demands if not Eelam at the least a wide measure of devolution. But allowing the latter would mean that our Tamils experience the strong gravitational pull of Tamil Nadu and of India as a whole, a gravitational pull that is going to become stronger as the process of globalization becomes stronger. That is not something that the Sinhalese majority should be expected to contemplate with equanimity.
That is one reason why a political solution on the basis of devolution should be regarded as anathema in Sri Lanka. Another is the intense racism that afflicts substantial proportions of both the Sinhalese and the Tamils. That ugly fact dictates that we should look for a political solution that downplays ethnicity, not one that emphasizes it: not devolution on the basis of ethnicity but the Western model in which the individual has a direct unmediated relationship with the State. We can learn from the example set by Lee Kwan Yew, the greatest genius of the last century in the field of pragmatic politics. He compelled the Chinese and the Malays to live side by side in Singapore housing estates, not in separate enclaves. The moral is that to counter racism you have to bring people together – so that they can interact on the basis of a recognized common humanity – not hold them apart.
The important point that we must recognize about devolution is that it may not prove to be successful everywhere. I am convinced that because of the intense racism on both sides of the ethnic fence in Sri Lanka any wide measure of devolution will prove to be disastrous. We should consider why devolution has been so successful in Switzerland. The gravitational pull of Germany and France among the German-speaking and the French-speaking Swiss during the Second World War did not lead to the disintegration of that country. Doubtless there were complex reasons behind that success story. Perhaps the most important was that the Swiss had nothing like the racism that is rampant in Sri Lanka. I think it rather comic that our Tamils – who have been busily producing some of the world’s worst racists – should have over several decades extolled Swiss federalism. They should accept that federalism or any wide measure of devolution is not suitable for racists.
The above is a brief sketch to show what is meant by a holistic approach to the ethnic problem. I believe that it has to be agreed, on any fair-minded reading, that the Tamil Nadu and Delhi factors are not of an ancillary order but an integral part of the problem. If not for those factors the position of our Tamils would be no different from that of the Muslims whose problems can be solved within a strictly unitary framework. We have to acknowledge that Delhi has a legitimate interest in the fate of the SL Tamils because of the fall-out factor in Tamil Nadu. But has Delhi a legitimate interest in how we solve the problem – whether it is through devolution or through the Western model? We have to ask what will India loose if 13 A is jettisoned and we try to solve the problem through the Western model. Such questions lead to the conclusion that Sri Lanka’s ethnic problem should be seen in terms of the problem of the new world order/ new imperialism.