By Izeth Hussain –
I have been arguing against the notion that a political solution to the ethnic problem can be found through devolution on an ethnic basis. I have also been arguing that the only solution is through democracy, meaning a fully functioning democracy as in the West, with adequate safeguards for the legitimate interests of the ethnic minorities as in the West. I have since come to believe that those safeguards, such as the Race Relations Boards, may operate smoothly in the West but not necessarily in countries such as Sri Lanka. After enquiries I gather that even in the West such institutions are difficult to operate, which could mean that in countries such as Sri Lanka where ethnic relations have been deeply envenomed over many decades such institutions could well compound the ethnic problem. It might be best therefore to eschew anything that gives salience to ethnic identities and focus on entrenching a fully functioning democracy, seen as the matrix from which a political solution will emerge.
Am I being theoretical and fanciful, ignoring practical realities on the ground, in making the proposal in the preceding paragraph? Not at all, as I have in mind a concrete example to show the feasibility of what I am proposing. I refer to what should be regarded as the most spectacular of the success stories in the management of ethnic relations in the modern world, namely Hindu-Muslim relations in India after 1947. The Indian model of devolution has been extolled as worthy of our emulation. It is true that under that model, based on linguistic identity, various ethnic groups such as the Tamils, the Punjabis, the Bengalis, the Gujaratis and so on have been living together in peace, amity, and co-operation, except that there have sometimes been problems over the sharing of water resources. However, we must note that relations between those linguistically defined ethnic groups have never been hostile. It has been very different of course between the two groups identified by religion, the Hindus and the Muslims. I need not go into details about the horrors of Partition in 1947, nor into the violence between them in the pre-Partition years. Subsequently there have of course been the Gujarat riots of 2002. But by and large the more than one hundred and seventy five million Muslims in India have managed to live in a reasonable degree of peace, amity, and co-operation with the Hindus. The striking fact is that there has been no devolution for the Muslims on the basis of religion, except in the case of Kashmir due to very special historical circumstances. The success of Hindu-Muslim relations outside Kashmir is clearly due to the fact that since 1947 India has had a fully functioning democracy except for a couple of years under Indira Gandhi’s Emergency.
Why should that model of handling ethnic relations under a fully functioning democracy not succeed in Sri Lanka as well? I believe that the major reason is that the Eelam project is still on. There are obvious reasons why the LTTE would want to abort any attempt at a political solution that falls short of Eelam or a de facto Eelam in the form of a confederal arrangement. It began credibly as a national liberation movement and ended ignominiously by using three hundred and thirty thousand Tamils as human shields. By 2009 it had brought unparalleled disaster for the Tamil people. Also, it had arguably brought total disaster for itself: it had failed not only in its objective of national liberation; it also failed to establish the Tamil lower middle class as the dominant group among the Tamils. At this point I must explain that I am in disagreement with the Marxist notion that the only authentic revolutionary force in the modern world is the proletariat or the people. The facts show that since the seventeenth century the authentic revolutionary force in the world has been the middle class and then the lower middle class, with the people serving only to entrench those classes in power and never itself becoming dominant. Significantly among the Tamils the Vellalas have re-established their dominant position. It has been shown in Sri Lanka, through the failure of the JVP and LTTE rebellions, that the lower middle class and the people as a whole can best rise to power through the ballot, not the bullet.
So the LTTE has excellent reasons for wanting to abort any and every attempt towards a political solution, in the hope that is of redeeming itself by establishing Eelam or something close to it. Probably that is the explanation for what looks a schizophrenic split between Sampanthan and the TNA on the one hand and Wigneswaran and his group on the other. The former represent the kind of politics established by Chelvanayagam and Naganathan, and continued by Amirthalingam, Neelan Tiruchelvam and others. They are predominantly of the Vellala caste, upper class or solidly middle class, representatives of the Westernised Tamil elite. With them it should be possible to reach a political solution through a fully functioning democracy. But that is most unlikely with the forces represented by Wigneswaran – essentially the LTTE – unless there is compulsion by India. As Wigneswaran is a representative of the Westernised Tamil elite there is suspicion that he is acting under compulsion – that is under threat of assassination by the LTTE, which was the main reason why Sampanthan and others went along with it. Or perhaps he is comparable to SWRD the Sinhalese aristocrat who led the upsurge of the Sinhalese lower middle class. In any case there is a schizophrenic split between the accommodativeness shown by Sampanthan and the provocative belligerence shown by Wigneswaran – behind which one senses the force of the LTTE.
The question arises whether I am attributing far too much importance to the LTTE. After all, it is only a rump LTTE that is left after the devastating military defeat that it suffered in 2009, at the conclusion of which its entire leadership was eliminated. However its international institutional network has been left intact, it has plenty of financial power, and the assault on Ambassador Ansar at the Kuala Lumpur Airport showed spectacularly the kind of power that can be wielded by one of its clones. It was not so much the assault itself – savage though it was – as the impunity with which it was carried out, with the airport authorities playing the role of passive onlookers, that was disturbing. We must bear in mind also that although the LTTE is not identical with the Tamil diaspora, which is very extensive in the most powerful countries of the world, it can use that diaspora through front organizations and other means to promote its main purpose: Eelam.
The question that has now to be addressed is what should be done to counter the Eelam project, which will be the subject of the next part of this article. In concluding this part I will emphasize one point: the LTTE and the Tamil diaspora are able to influence electoral outcomes in several important and powerful countries. Those electorates consist not of automata or animals but of individuals who are among the most educated in the world and are therefore quite capable of thinking things out for themselves instead of being led by the nose by LTTE propaganda. I am assured that in France public opinion is solidly sympathetic to the Tamils who are seen as victims, and I suspect that that is the case all over the West and in Australia and New Zealand. That means that in a powerful segment of the international community the people as a whole could be sympathetic to the idea of Eelam under certain conditions. I believe therefore that we should urgently work out a sensible strategy to counter the Eelam project. The first step should be to jettison the absurd notion that the LTTE was no more than a terrorist group.
*To be continued..