By H. L. D. Mahindapala –
Chandrika Kumaratunga’s memorial lecture on S. J. V. Chelvanayakam (April 25th, 2015) should be taken seriously not because she claims to be “a political scientist” (she did so in her first TV interview after she succeeded in her plot to overthrow of the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime) but because it is loaded with a political message on the critical issue of majority/ minority relations – the most infectious and inflammatory issue exploding in diverse parts of the globe threatening peace and stability. The majority vs. minority issues can vary from the sexual orientation of gays, to wearing the hijab in France, to Sunni vs. Shite in the Middle East, to xenophobic attacks on migrants in S. Africa, to majorities demanding conformity from minorities, to minorities demanding special privileges on top of what is available in common with others, the plight of the Sephardic Jews dominated by Euro-centric Ashkenazis in Israel, the persecution of Afro-Americans even after Abraham Lincoln passed the Emancipation Act in 1863, (111 were killed by the white Police in America in March 2015 alone) etc. In broad outline, the underlying issues boils down to violent explosions that threaten the peaceful co-existence of the two demographics.
Sri Lanka too is stuck in this majority vs. minority issue and it is necessary to sit up and take notice of Kumaratunga’s talk because she promises to “focus on the possible causes of these (Sri Lankan) problems and the options we have for its resolution.” She also emphasizes the need “to comprehend and accept the root causes of (the) conflict and to seek solutions to them.” Comprehending the contested root causes and seeking solutions are two huge undertakings. Above all, her talk deserves minute scrutiny as she raises the ghost of federalism as her solution.
This proposal to go for federalism may be a part of the secret pre-election agreement with the TNA which was not revealed to the public at the time. However, if federalism is going to be the base on which the “My-3 regime” proposes to negotiate with TNA then Sri Lankans should gird itself for the looming political battles which will destabilize the “My-3 regime” and, of course, the nation. The public, of course, has given her their verdict by hooting her out of public platforms. But her voice seem to carry some weight in the ruling circles and how far the “My-3” regime will go along with her will determine the coming events.
That apart, what are the promising features of her talk that would give hope and confidence to the Sri Lankan polity of her ability to find solutions? After several failures earlier, including her partner in the “democratic junta”, Ranil Wickremesinghe, burning her proposals in Parliament and Velupillai Prabhakaran shooting holes in her P-TOMS, has she got it right this time? Has she at least comprehended and analyzed the historical causes of the conflict without going down the routine track of repeating, ad nauseam, the Tamil accusations of the majority oppressing the minority? Is this one-sided mono-causal theory the fundamental reason why the numerous solutions ended up in the wastepaper basket? Have we failed to arrive at a lasting solution because we have not comprehended and analyzed the North-South conflict in all its multifarious dimensions that bedeviled the nation from dying days of the British Raj? Can a solution be found and implemented by blaming only one side? Can a crisis of the Sri Lankan magnitude — it is, after all, a microcosm of the macrocosmic conditions of the majority vs. minority issues that plague the world — be comprehended and analyzed on a single mono-causal theory? Even in this new post-war phase, when new opportunities are available, should we not think out of the circumscribed Jaffna circle that has closed our mind to the hard realities and the uncomfortable truths that blinded us and obstructed a passage to peace and reconciliation?
With all her first-hand experiences, particularly in her failures to resolve the issue when she had the power, Kumaratunga has a responsibility to rethink where she went wrong and consider constructively what new strategies should be introduced to find a way out of the North-South quagmire. Unfortunately, there is no new thinking in her speech either to throw new light on the past or the way forward. What is most striking in her talk is the uninhibited ease with which she blames the majority (Sinhalese) and exonerates the minority (Tamils). She opens her speech by pouring all her sympathy on S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, his cause and the Federal Party “engaged in a long and difficult struggle to win the Tamil peoples’ rights”.
Her talk is a tribute to Chelvanayakam and his struggle to win the Tamil people’s right. This is in stark contrast to her attitude towards her own father, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike. Her effusive outpouring of sympathy for Chelvanayakam has not been matched by a similar defence to balance the political equation with a commensurate evaluation of her father’s contribution to the making of the nation. As one of the primary beneficiaries of her father’s political legacy, she, more than anyone else, should have been in the forefront to defend her father’s lone struggle against the entire Westernized, anti-Sinhala-Buddhist elite of all communities, including the “kalu-suddhas” in the Sinhala community.
Bandaranaike surged to power in 1956 to fulfill a historical necessity which has been gathering momentum, as an undercurrent, from the fine de siècle phase of the nineteenth century. One of his missions was to redress the imbalances of colonial history and restore the rights of the Sinhala people who alone fought throughout the five centuries of colonial domination to regain their lost rights. Restoring the fundamental rights of the historical people was the primary mission of all post-colonial leaders and Bandaranaike did what Nehru, Nkrumah, Nasser etc., did in leading their people to the new independent era.
She has never identified herself with “1956” or hailed it as victory of the Sinhala people who were denied their fundamental rights and oppressed for centuries under colonial rule. For the first time (to my knowledge) she has made a one line concession in her latest speech on the Sinhala Only Act and that too with caveats. I have never read any of her speeches/statements/interviews where she has ever given due credit – leave aside sympathy – for her pioneering father, and his “long and difficult struggle to win the (Sinhala) peoples’ rights”. Like most partisan pundits she has assumed that there was no need to address the grievances the of the Sinhala people because they were in the majority and the only duty of the majority was to give into what her father called the “outrageous” demands of Ponnambalamian extremism, insisting on 50% of power for 12% of the Tamils of the North. This 50% claim was wrapped in the myth that it was for all minority communities but the Muslims and the Indians did not join Ponnambalam in the 50-50 cry. It was essentially a demand of Jaffna Tamils to retain their privileged position gained under colonial patronage.
In the tilted judgment of the “political scientists” plugging mono-ethnic extremism of Jaffna, the assumption is that adjusting historical imbalances and injustices that subjugated and denied the traditional inhabitants of the land their birth rights under colonialism was a crime against the minorities. Their argument was tantamount to saying that the minority had the right to retain and perpetuate the dominant positions they held as a privileged community even though it was at the expense of all other communities. Overall there is no dispute that the Jaffna Tamils were the most privileged community in Sri Lanka. But by stridently propagating their political agenda they managed to propagate the myth that they were discriminated from the 30s when the British were still ruling Sri Lanka.
The fact is that the Tamils of the North had no substantial evidence to prove this accusation. For instance, the cry of discrimination, raised exclusively by the Tamils of Jaffna from the 1930s, was dismissed as accusations without substance by the Soulbury Commission which investigated their complaints lodged by Ponnambalam. In fact, the Soulbury Commission concluded that the Tamils of the North held a disproportionate share of the coveted government jobs which was the only growth industry at the time. It was a time when the Jaffna Tamils had emerged as the most privileged community at the end of the British Raj. Besides, Ponnambalam raised the cry of discrimination in the thirties and forties, long before Bandaranaike launched his Sinhala Only Act in 1956. Their complaints were based on the fears of losing the privileged position they held under the colonial masters, both in the political and administrative power centers. And any attempt to adjust the historical imbalances was propagandized as “discrimination” against the Jaffna Tamils.
Kumaratunga concedes that the Tamils were the most privileged community under colonial patronage. But she does not go beyond that to consider the victims marginalized by the privileges and positions given to the Tamils of the North by the colonial masters. She skips conveniently the plight of the victims of the historical imbalances caused by colonial patronage. Privileging one community over the other was a common practice of the divide-and-rule policies of colonial masters. The primary task of the post-colonial leaders was to restore a balance and Bandaranaike place in history is in fulfilling this task. This naturally meant restoring the rights lost by the majority because the divide-and-rule policy favoured a selected minority as a counterweight to the power of the majority.
Her failure to grasp the basics of the North-South dynamics confirms her own conclusion: “It is truly sad that people of some intelligence and knowledge adopt such attitudes knowing full well how dangerous and destructive they can be to the Nation’s progress.”
*To be continued