By Dayan Jayatilleka –
“Sinhala communalism fed on Tamil communalism and vice versa…” – N. Sanmugathasan (1972)
SWRD Bandaranaike famously used Mathew Arnold’s phrase “a time of transition” which he said contained “a problem within a problem”. SWRD defined this “problem within a problem” as “transforming a colonial economy to a national economy against the backdrop of a changing world”.
Since that brilliant definition, Sri Lanka/Ceylon has experienced not merely a problem within a problem, but has been living a tragedy within a tragedy. What is that twin tragedy and what lies at its root?
45 years ago, a Ceylonese Communist and trained historian of Tamil ethnic origin, the only Ceylonese to have shared the podium at Tiananmen Square as a guest of Chairman Mao, wrote this from jail, as a political prisoner of Madam Bandaranaike’s regime:
“Sinhala communalism fed on Tamil communalism and vice versa…The names of GG Ponnambalam and his later day disciple SJV Chelvanayakam, would go down in history as two men who misled the Tamils into political wilderness where they are still groping. This is not to absolve the communal leaders among the Sinhalese. But being a minority, and having more to lose, the Tamil leadership should have been more responsible and far-seeing.” (N. Sanmugathasan, A Marxist Looks At the History of Ceylon, 1972, pp. 49-51)
The TNA leaders in parliament and worse still the Northern Provincial Council politicians led by C.V. Wigneswaran and his allies outside it, Gajan Ponnambalam and Suresh Premachandran, are following in the disastrous footsteps of G.G. Ponnambalam and S.J.V. Chelvanayakam. In the case of Wigneswaran, Gajan and my old comrade Suresh, there’s a bit of Prabhakaran and Balasingham in the mix.
Let’s start with the ‘moderate’ TNA in parliament. What the TNA leaders actually said in the extended debate of the Constitutional Assembly on the Steering Committee’s Interim Report was that they were willing to live in a ‘united, undivided, indivisible’ country. That’s the oh-so-generous and gracious acceptance of “one country” and the renunciation of a separate state, having been fellow-travelers of a militia that fought for separation and was crushed, and with the Sri Lankan military and Mahinda Rajapaksa having removed separatist option from the agenda! It is NOT the acceptance of the unitary character of the Sri Lankan state; NOT the acceptance of Sri Lanka as a unitary state—contrary to the Government’s dishonest, deceitful claim in the august Assembly itself. That explicit acceptance is the existential Sinhala bottom-line and red line.
That is why the political and sociocultural representatives of the majority of the island are bringing irresistible pressure on the Members of Parliament to stop the Constitutional process from reaching a point that requires a referendum. It is unlikely that President Sirisena will cross that public opinion redline, especially since he had pledged not to do so in his winning Presidential election manifesto of January 2015 (which was repeatedly quoted by his wing of the SLFP during the ongoing Constitutional Assembly debate).
Sadly but inevitably, in Sri Lanka, Populism, which in all cases worldwide, is majoritarian, degenerates into a darker Ethno-populism. One must recall that those ghastly legislative and policy measures, Sinhala Only in 1956 and District-wise and Media-wise Standardization in 1970-72 were majoritarian populist backlashes against the founding of the Federal Party/ITAK on the basis of Tamil national self-determination in 1949-51, and the UNP-Federal Party-Tamil Congress axis of the 1965-1970 ‘Hath Havula’. And it is happening again, as we speak.
Even so, it was of no little value and consequence that Mahinda Rajapaksa who is leading from the front, the battle against the new Constitution, commended Dr. Sarath Amunugama’s speech on the 13th amendment and 13 Plus. The former President did not, even in his hard-hitting majoritarian-populist speech to the Constitutional Assembly, back away from what he had said on the record after the victory in 2009. What does the record show?
The cable from US Charge d’Affairs, Colombo, to Washington DC, reporting on Ambassador Robert Blake’s farewell call on President Rajapaksa, May 26th 2009 read, inter alia:
“The President [Rajapaksa] said the basis of his devolution plan would be the “13th amendment plus 1”– meaning implementation of the existing constitutional provisions for provincial councils, but adding an upper house to Parliament, modeled on the U.S. Senate…The President thought that giving police powers to the provinces, as the TNA and others were demanding, would cause problems.” (Source: WikiLeaks).
Anyone with experience in successful diplomatic negotiations would read between the lines and see ex-President Rajapaksa’s reference to the Amunugama speech for what it is: a subtle signal, and a slight opening.
The question is, will the allegedly moderate Tamil political mainstream use this narrow window of opportunity which is itself closing in slow motion?
Such realism would go against the grain of Tamil nationalist politics. Sanmugathasan, writing about the unravelling of the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam pact in 1957, noted that:
“Instead of coming to his [Bandaranaike’s] help, the leaders of the Federal Party chose this very moment to launch the silly anti-Sri campaign. The Pact was torn up. The anti-Sri campaign of the Federal Party was countered by the tar brush campaign led by Sinhala ‘warrior’ KMP Rajaratna in the south, in the course of which Tamil words on public places were all obliterated by a liberal application of tar. Tension mounted on both sides, till it led to the worst communal blood bath in Ceylon’s history…” (A Marxist looks at the History of Ceylon, 1972, p 77)
So if there are any Sri Lankan (Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, Burgher, Malay; men and women; clergy and laity) liberals, pluralists and progressives who genuinely strive for reconciliation, equality and autonomy, they must not waste their time targeting Mahinda Rajapaksa and the JO as hate symbols, but must instead focus their efforts on persuading the TNA in parliament, Wigneswaran and the NPC outside it, and Gajan and Suresh in the Tamil “street”, not to do to through dogmatic demands and Satyagraha campaigns, international agitation etc., to President Sirisena, that which their forefathers did to SWRD Bandaranaike in 1957, sixty years ago, with tragic consequences for Tamils and Sinhalese.
But who is the onus on? If I may be pardoned for repeating the words of N. Sanmugathasan, “This is not to absolve the communal leaders among the Sinhalese. But being a minority, and having more to lose, the Tamil leadership should have been more responsible and far-seeing.”
One hopes that the historian was not also a prophet, and that his diagnostic conclusion will not prove to be the unsurpassable last word on the Tamil tragedy at the heart of the larger Sri Lankan tragedy.