By Izeth Hussain –
I will now apply the racism paradigm that I have sketched out above to what seem to me to be the essentials of the Tamil ethnic problem as it prevails today. I must clarify that when I use the term “Tamils” in the present context I am referring not to all Tamils but to their broadest segment as represented by the TNA. They insist that a political solution should be based on a very broad measure of devolution going well beyond 13A to federalism, and if possible even beyond that. They see that as following from their inalienable right to internal self-determination, which itself is a compromise on their full right to self-determination including the right to set up a separate state. They claim that their right to self-determination is sanctified by the UN Charter and by international law. This right flows from the fact that the Tamils are not just another minority but a national minority. This is because they are indigenous to Sri Lankan soil, and had a kingdom in their traditional homeland in the North East from the 14th to the 17th century.
As far as I am aware those claims have persisted since the time of Chelvanayakam and no counter-arguments have ever dented them. The counter-arguments could include the following. There are innumerable minorities all over the world who seem to be content without enjoying any devolution at all. This certainly applies to the Tamil diaspora in the Western countries and elsewhere. Therefore although devolution may be desirable for the Tamils it is not a necessary condition to enable them to live contented lives in Sri Lanka just as they do in the West and elsewhere. If devolution matters all that much to the Tamils, how is it that the majority of the Tamils live outside their traditional homeland in the North East? That fact suggests that they give priority to economic well-being over living together with their fellow Tamils. As for the right to self-determination, it is no more than a notional right. No Government has been made answerable in Geneva or at the Hague because it has not allowed a minority to set up a separate state, nor for that matter for refusing to allow devolution.
Those arguments seem to me very cogent, very powerful, indeed irrefutable. There seems to be no reason why the Tamils should not see their legitimate aspirations fulfilled with a modest degree of devolution plus a fully functioning democracy such as prevails in the West – as I have argued in earlier articles. But very probably only a small proportion of Tamils will accept that argument. Is it that the Tamils are a peculiarly mulish people, impervious to argument when they move outside the fields of maths, the sciences, and the professions? On the contrary I believe that there is a very powerful rationality at work behind the Tamil demand for as wide a degree of devolution as might be possible. That rationality can be understood only in terms of a paradigm of racism.
Those Tamils cannot believe that the Sinhalese are capable of giving them fair and equal treatment on an assured permanent basis. They may do so temporarily, but sooner or later the racist will to treat the Tamils as inferior, relegating them to a lower position in a hierarchical system, or to exclude them, for instance from the State sector, or even to subject them to genocide as in 1983, will reassert itself. Therefore the legitimate interests of the Tamils dictate that there be a Tamil enclave in this island, as large as might be possible, to which all Tamils can gravitate and try to prosper in spite of Sinhalese racism. That really is the rationale for the Tamil insistence on a very wide measure of devolution. The drives to treat the Tamils as inferior, to exclude them, or subject them to genocide, fit into the paradigm of racism that I have earlier sketched out, and so does the essentialist notion that Sinhalese racism will never change.
I cannot go into the reasons why racism is wrong, intellectually and morally and in every way. I will confine myself to a few brief remarks on the Mahawamsa mindset which many Sri Lankans, including the Sinhalese, believe is at the root of Sinhalese racism. It certainly had explanatory power in connection with the assertion of Buddhist supremacy after 1956. But it would be wrong to postulate a Mahawamsa mindset that permanently imprints the Sinhalese mind with racism. The remorseful Dutugemunu was consoled by the monks that he in reality had killed only one and a half human beings, one who was fully converted to Buddhism and the other only half converted. But how many Sinhalese Buddhists take that seriously? Probably none. But they do take seriously that Elara merited the appellation Just, and they did walk past not ride past Elara’s tomb until the ‘fifties of the last century, as enjoined by Dutugemunu. I don’t want to go into any more of the well-known details that show that Sinhalese/Tamil relations were not just antagonistic but that they were also co-operative and even symbiotic. The projection of the Sinhalese, indeed of any people, as essentially and unchangeably racist is an absurdity. There are enough traditions among both the Sinhalese and the Tamils to enable them to combat their greatest enemy: the racists within their own ranks. In both their cases the tiger is within the gates.
I will now apply the racism paradigm to the Sinhalese side. The Tamils want maximum devolution; the Sinhalese want to give only minimum devolution. That is the stark opposition that is at the core of the ethnic problem in its present phase. The Sinhalese have wanted to allow 13A only in a truncated form without police and land powers. The reason for the Sinhalese allergy to an extensive degree of devolution is the fear that it will lead ineluctably in a sort of linear progression to Eelam. If the Tamils have federalism – so the argument goes – they will at what seems a propitious moment resort to UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence) and the country will slide smoothly from federalism into a separate state. It is a nonsensical idea, as I have pointed out many times without provoking a rejoinder obviously because there can be no rejoinder that makes any sense. We have to approach this problem at a common sense level. A country can break up either because the majority ethnic group is willing to allow it or because it is coerced into allowing it. It means that no amount of devolution will lead by itself to a breakup. So the allergy to an extensive degree of devolution is thoroughly irrational.
But, just as in the Tamil case, what seems thoroughly irrational does make rational sense when it is seen in terms of the racism paradigm. First of all we must take count of the fact that the Tamils are not just a minority but a very special sort of minority: they are a minority internally but they are a majority in the regional context. It leads to a fear of the threatening Other, and therefore a fear about the possible implications of allowing extensive devolution. In terms of the racism paradigm there is also the drive to treat the Other as inferior, which means that the Tamils must be given no more than a modest measure of devolution without too much sharing of power. But I think that what is most important in the present phase of the ethnic problem is the essentializing habit of mind that goes with racism. It leads to the stereotype according to which practically all Tamils secretly want Eelam. It also leads to the notion that the drive for Eelam is of the very essence of being Tamil, which will never change however much devolution is allowed. So the core of the ethnic problem in its present phase is this: The Tamils believe that the Sinhalese will never give fair and equal treatment on an assured permanent basis; the Sinhalese believe that the Tamils will never give up the dream of Eelam. Both sides are in the grip of racism.
*To be continued
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