By Izeth Hussain –
My recent probing into the question of the problem of the casteist racism that afflicts both the Sinhalese and the Tamils – the Tamils to a much much deeper extent – leads me to ask whether a solution to the ethnic problem can be found through devolution. My expectation is that the Sinhalese might conceivably make a success of it because their casteist racism is much less than that of the Tamils. On the other hand, I expect that if more and more devolution is allowed to the Tamils the ethnic problem will become more and more difficult to solve, contrary to what might be expected at a theoretical level.
I will first of all approach this problem at an empirical level, setting aside for the time being the question of the connection between devolution and casteist racism. When the Northern Provincial Council was set up and Wigneswaran was made Chief Minister there were sanguine expectations on a fairly widespread scale that we were set on a course that would lead at long last to a pragmatic solution of the ethnic problem. The assumption was that improvements on 13A, if not its full implementation, would suffice to meet the Tamil demand for devolution. But it was not long before Wigneswaran started striking, quite unexpectedly, belligerent postures that declared him an extremist. Then came Prime Minister Modi’s visit with its Hindutva affirmation of solidarity with the Sri Lankan Hindus and encouragement to ask for a federal solution. Recently the NPC refunded eighty per cent of the unspent budget allocated to it, and there has been controversy over the building of six hundred houses for the Tamil displaced. Considering all that could be done with 13 A even in its presently truncated form, the performance of the NPC has been dismal. The moral might be drawn that devolution isn’t working.
And now comes a thunderbolt in the form of the Resolution adopted by the NPC last month, embodying what are understood to be the TNA’s proposals for Constitutional change. As there have been several media commentaries on the proposals I will not go into details about them. I will focus on the one point that seems to be of overwhelming importance: the States (meaning in this context a State in the North East) shall be “supreme in their respective spheres”, meaning in the spheres that are not under the control of the Centre. Professor Laksiri Fernando comments, “This is about a ‘separate state’ within a loose federation, with ‘supremacy for that state ‘in its own sphere” (Colombo Telegraph of May 1). In other words the TNA is demanding a confederal arrangement that could go some way towards a de facto Eelam.
How are we to interpret that demand? It could be that the TNA is making a maximalist demand, in reality expecting something well short of it. It could be just a ploy in an ongoing political game and we would be over-reacting if we get het up about it. But it can also be interpreted as revealing an enduring Tamil mind-set: the Tamils believe that they have the right to self-determination inclusive of a right to set up a separate state, a right that is an absolute entitlement, something that inheres in their very being, something therefore that they can never renounce, and consequently they can never be satisfied with anything less than a de facto Eelam, or at the very least a confederal arrangement that goes a good distance towards it. A commonsensical question arises: how on earth is it possible for the Tamils to entertain so bizarre an expectation, bizarre considering that the LTTE was militarily defeated and no one in his right mind believes that the Tamils on their own can enforce Eelam or even a confederal arrangement on the Sinhalese? The answer of course is to be found in the India factor. If not for that factor there will be no Tamil ethnic problem today, and it is only India that can make the Tamils change that enduring mind-set.
How will that mind-set impact on the problem of devolution? It seems reasonable to think that if 13 A is implemented fully with devolution of police and land powers the Tamils could still want to assert as much power as possible on the ground, independent of the control of the Centre, and that could cause serious problems. Successful devolution requires a mutual accommodativeness that can hardly be expected from the Sinhalese, and still less from the Tamils, beyond a modest measure of devolution. Examples of successful devolution elsewhere may not apply here: the relevant example here may be the troubled relationship between Delhi and Kashmir. What might succeed here is limited devolution, not the very extensive devolution that the Tamils keep demanding, together with a fully functioning democracy inclusive of safeguards for the minorities as in the West. We cannot evade the following question: are the Tamils in particular psychologically fit for devolution beyond a very limited range?
I will now make a novel point that as far as I know has never been made before. That is an astonishing fact as will soon become apparent. I will make my point not in the form of a question but in the form of a categorical assertion about which there can be no argument on rational grounds. The point is this: the Tamils have no moral right, none whatever, to have devolution in the Northern Province. The Tamil rationale for devolution has always been that it is an absolute requisite to secure the legitimate interests of the minorities, meaning of course the interests of all members of a minority, not just some segments of it. But there has been grotesque discrimination against members of the upcountry Tamils who have settled in the North and other non-Vellala caste members. The rationale for devolution to the North therefore disappears.
My argument is based on what has been revealed recently (Island of April 29) by Murugesu Chandrakumar, former MP and Deputy Chairman of Committees in Parliament, who recently quit the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) of which he had been a founder member. He has declared that social injustice is evident in the discrimination against the non-Vellala depressed castes in almost all fields including education, employment, agricultural extension, and other fields providing opportunities for economic mobility. According to Chandrakumar the depressed castes comprise 65 per cent of the Northern Province’s population of 1.5 million.
The upcountry Tamils were given shelter and land in the Northern Province after the 1977 and 1983 riots but they were treated as servants by the local upper caste Tamils. Chandrakumar is quoted as saying, “This would be apparent if one visits Kilinochchi district. While the Eastern side of the A9 Highway is green, the Western side is parched. While the Iranamadu irrigation tank serves villages East of A 9, Western villages have no irrigation facilities. And it is on the Western side of A 9 that there are settlements of plantation Tamils. There was only one school on the Western side till the end of the war in 2009. After the war, the EPDP put up three schools.”
Chandrakumar alleged that there is political discrimination too. In the Northern Provincial Council there is only member from the depressed castes. In the Sri Lankan Parliament there is not a single member from a depressed caste. There was caste discrimination in Tamil society even when the LTTE was in power, but Prabhakaran would not allow it in a brazen form. In fact the LTTE recruited lower caste members and gave them responsible positions. But the moment the LTTE was eliminated, caste discrimination raised its ugly head again. I will not add anything to the facts presented here as they speak eloquently enough to establish the point that those Tamils in the North have no moral right, none whatever, to devolution.