By Izeth Hussain –
To solve a problem we must address that problem, not something else, and we must also understand that problem in all its dimensions. In this article I pose the question whether our Tamil ethnic problem is an Indian problem or a Sri Lankan one. Obviously it is a Sri Lankan problem and it will be perverse to deny that. But it will also be perverse to deny that it is at the same time an Indian problem, because no Government in Delhi will be able to ignore the fall-out in Tamil Nadu of what happens to the Tamils in Sri Lanka. Furthermore – I will argue – our ethnic problem will be a minor local affair, hardly a problem at all, with no international resonance whatever, if not for the Indian dimension of the problem. In that sense, our Tamil ethnic problem is more an Indian than a Sri Lankan one.
I have been motivated to write this article by statements made by President Rajapakse when he addressed Parliament in the course of the recent Budget debate. Those statements indicate that the Indian dimension of our ethnic problem is not fully comprehended by our Government. He invited Sampanthan and Wigneswaran to join hands with him for peace and national reconciliation: “All communities must come together … It is time we showed commitment to national reconciliation”. To that Sampanthan responded later that the TNA was ready for talks, but the Government must reciprocate with a “credible response”. He referred to earlier invitation to talks to which the TNA had responded by setting forth proposals for a political solution, but the Government had failed to make any response. He pointed out that meetings had been scheduled for 17, 18, and 19 January, 2012, for discussions on issues relating to the Parliamentary Select Committee, but the meetings had not taken place then or afterwards. The Government, he charged, not the TNA was solely responsible for keeping away from talks.
The President’s recent statement amounts – at least for the most part – to not much more than rhetoric which we cannot be expected to take quite seriously. But the following is of a different order: “Rather than look for a solution from another nation we can find our own solution which we can be proud of and present our example to others”. Here he is referring to the famous “home-grown solution” which has grown dreary through repetition, and which too cannot be taken too seriously. But he definitely breaks new ground with the following phrase: “Rather than look for a solution from another nation …”. He is of course referring to India, and he is proposing that we find a political solution leaving India out of our calculations altogether.
But would that be possible? Traditionally our Tamils did not have a close relationship with the Tamils of Tamil Nadu for the reason that through long centuries of habitation in Sri Lanka our Tamils came to have a distinct and separate identity. True, there were commonalities of race, religion, and language, but all the same the Sri Lankan Tamils regarded themselves as distinct. But after Independence, because of political compulsions, they started constructing a special relationship with Tamil Nadu, and they made a brilliant success of it. However, SL Tamil aspirations to a separate state found no favor at all with TN Tamils until after 1983, and relations between the two groups of Tamils went through a troubled phase after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. In the present phase – which can be taken as beginning in May 2009 – the TN Tamils seem solidly sympathetic to the SL Tamils. They would favor a political solution through devolution, and expect Delhi to exert pressure on Sri Lanka towards that end. In this situation, any hope that our Tamils will agree to negotiate a solution while ignoring India seems quite clearly chimerical.
Let us assume – for the purposes of my argument, which is that our ethnic problem is more an Indian than a Sri Lankan problem – that the Tamils in TN are totally indifferent to what happens to the SL Tamils. In that case the Government in Delhi also wouldn’t care two hoots what happens to the SL Tamils. It would not have provided weapons and training for the LTTE and other rebel groups, and it would not have allowed any part of Indian territory to be used as a hinterland – the hinterland which can be decisive for guerrilla struggle. Very probably it would have helped the SL Government suppress the rebellion in every way possible. The rest of the international community would have simply looked on.
In the hypothetical situation of Tamil Nadu’s total indifference to the fate of the SL Tamils, how would India have reacted after the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009? India and the rest of the international community would have thought more or less along the following lines. The Tamils may have been advantaged under the British, but they were also hard-working and enterprising, which led to their disproportionate share of positions in the state sector. The resultant imbalance was being corrected after 1956, and it was more than corrected by the first half of the ‘seventies because by that time the Tamils were in a disadvantaged position. The 1977 Government, instead of correcting the new imbalance, took to State terrorism which became genocidal in 1983. The Tamil side took to the gun, which was quite understandable given the circumstances, and fought what might be regarded as a just war. But after 1994 the LTTE spurned every offer of a political solution, and engaged in provocative action culminating in the closure of the Marvil Aru anicut, which compelled President MR to wage a full-scale war. It was a just war on the Sinhalese side, in the sense that there was no alternative, ending in the victory of 2009.
There was nothing in all that to provoke Indian intervention if Tamil Nadu had been indifferent. What about developments after 2009 if that indifference continued? The Government would have followed the same policies as during the last four years, but more blatantly and perhaps more brutally. A process of demographic shift would have been set in motion to see that the North and East became predominantly Sinhalese provinces. The armed forces presence in Tamil areas would have been even more blatant. Infrastructure projects would have been going on, aimed mainly at binding the country together rather than at meeting the economic needs of the Tamil people. Resettlement etc would have proceeded at a slower pace.
Again, there is nothing in those developments that could have provoked Indian or other international intervention. There are minority ethnic groups all over the world, except in four countries – according to some counts twelve – and perhaps more often than not they are subjected to discrimination, but most often of a bearable order. Arguably that discrimination is inherent in the logic of the nation state which tends to privilege the majority ethnic group. An important fact that has to be borne in mind is that Sri Lanka is an island, which means that its minorities are even less able to migrate than the ones in countries with land frontiers. I have got this idea after recently reading an essay by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams. He argued that all the victories of the English within the British Isles were only partial victories because the defeated – the Welsh and the others – could not make their getaway, and the logic of being an island meant that the English had to seek accommodation with the other ethnic groups. Something of the sort could occur here too, with the Tamils – an extraordinarily able people – coming to be satisfied with the delights of modernity offered by economic development. That has been the hope of the present Government – not, I think, an unreasonable one in the long run.
So, there is nothing inherent in the Sri Lankan ethnic situation that justifies the kind of international attention that we are getting. It is the external dimension of the ethnic problem, the Indian dimension, that leads to that attention. That dimension arises out of the fall-out in Tamil Nadu of what happens to the Tamils here. That fall-out can lead to restiveness in Tamil Nadu about that State’s relationship with the Centre, and that restiveness can go so far as to spawn separatist movements that threaten the very unity of India. Therefore the primordial interests of India are involved, not just interests that India can forget about, in what happens to the SL Tamils. It can be held that Sri Lanka’s Tamil ethnic problem is more an Indian problem than a Sri Lankan one.
What should be done? Obviously 13A, which arose out of an Agreement with India, must be implemented as fully as possible. The Government did well to set up the Northern Provincial Council after free and fair elections, but its subsequent behavior suggests that it is not serious about allowing it to function properly. It must show itself to be serious about that, and also explore the possibility – as an urgent task – of compromise on police and land powers. What I have in mind is that if our ethnic problem gets protracted indefinitely, with no sign whatever of a political solution on the horizon, something could happen that compels India to try to impose a Cyprus-style solution, as I have argued in earlier articles.
In that connection two things must be borne in mind. The first is that both guns and morality count in international relations. India is infinitely better equipped with the gun, meaning both soft power and hard power, than Sri Lanka. We have destroyed the guns of the LTTE but we haven’t destroyed the guns of New Delhi. As for morality, our Government’s endless prevarication over a peaceful solution must strike international observers as morally shabby behavior. What is the reason for the fierce resistance to implementing 13A, which allows no more than a modest amount of devolution? One reason that I can think of is that we have got accustomed to an utterly degraded notion of power: it is seen not as a sacred trust to be expended for the benefit of the people as a whole, but as a means of kicking people around, and the idea of Tamils kicking people around is unbearable to the Sinhalese racists. Another reason is that given the chance the Tamils will make a roaring success of the NPC with the help of money and expertise from the Tamil diaspora. Any Tamil success is anathema to the Sinhalese racists. Sri Lanka is very vulnerable at present both in terms of the gun and morality.
The other thing to be borne in mind is that the totally unexpected can suddenly impel India to intervene in Sri Lanka. The unexpected keeps happening more often than we notice. Who would have thought until the other day that Indo-US relations would be so seriously damaged because an Indian diplomatic officer allegedly underpaid her maid and allegedly lied about it in an application form? There are hazards in allowing our ethnic problem to drag on and on.