Colombo Telegraph

Dilemma For The Sinhalese; Who Is A Tamil, Politically?

By Raj Gonsalkorale

Raj Gonsalkorale

Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Subramanian Swamy today urged Sri Lankan Tamil Community as well as its senior respected leaders like Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader R. Sampanthan to try for a working arrangement with Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa for the sake of Tamil issues – Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka, 1st November 2018

This is the season for horse trading. The constitutional issue, some say crisis, has precipitated many avenues for this. Some cynics say, not so cynically, that this is the time to have been a member of Parliament as one could have retired rich, set for life. The value of a vote has reportedly kept us with the devaluation of the rupee! Principles, values, traditions and what was sacred for older generations have been consigned to history and the younger generations are exposed to the new world where power and with it, money, have become the idols of worship. 

In this turbulent political and cultural climate, it is worth examining what some Tamil political parties and Tamil politicians maybe demanding for their vote. Ironically, it is also rumoured that elements of the Tamil Diaspora are pouring hard currency into the coffers of some political parties and to the pockets of some individuals seeking to keep one shade of political opinion in power.

Be that as it may, or may not, for many Sinhalese, there is some confusion as to who Tamils are, politically, and why all Tamils do not seem to be demanding identical, fundamental political rights, and if they are, why they are not doing so as a single Tamil community.

The Sinhalese have their own divisions, but they are primarily on caste basis, and this too has become less relevant and evident in politics over the years. Kandyan Sinhalese and low country Sinhalese were two divisions of importance to some at some point in time, but this too has faded in political importance. Division based on religion is probably of greater importance politically than division based on caste or regional bias, although this too is evident only in some parts of the country . In some sense, one could argue that there is a greater degree of egalitarianism within the Sinhala community than within the Tamil community, politically speaking.

It is said that caste divisions play a greater political role within the Tamil community, and regional bias too plays a greater role. The Tamil community comprises of Northern Tamils who seem to regard Eastern Tamils next in the pecking order, and Tamils of recent Indian origin way down in the pecking order in the eyes of Northern and Eastern Tamils. Hardly any Northern or Eastern Tamil political leader seems to promote and support and canvass issues that are specific for the Tamils of recent Indian origin who reside primarily in the plantation areas. There is no record of political leaders of the North or East visiting plantation areas and vice versa. Then there are the Tamils who live in other areas of the country besides the North, East and Central areas (plantation territory), who are a mix of all these sections of the Tamil community. Statistically, more Tamils live outside the North and the East of the country.

In this demographic and anthropological landscape, Sinhalese are in a quandary as to how “Tamil” political demands are to be viewed and how they are to be addressed. To them, and probably to the Tamil community itself, demands vary. 

The Northern and Eastern seem to base their demands on what they refer to as the historical Tamil home land. This is much debateable anthropologically, archeologically and demographically. 

This lobby however also seems to be saying that community inequalities and discrimination against the Tamil community could only be addressed if the North and the East is given an adequate degree of political autonomy.  This view does have a relationship to the traditional homeland theory. 

For the Sinhala community, there are two issues. Firstly, the debateable and contested historical homeland theory. All mainstream political parties of the “South” seems to be saying that this cannot be the basis for arriving at a consensus on a solution that addresses Tamil community issues as this belief (of a homeland theory) is not acceptable for the Sinhala community.

Secondly, the Sinhala community finds it difficult to accept that greater political devolution for the North and the East would address Tamil community issues considering that such an outcome would produce greater inequality amongst the Tamil community in the country given the current demographics. Some Tamils would be more equal than others they say paraphrasing George Orwell. In view of the demographics associated with the Tamil community as outlined earlier, there appears to be a justifiable basis for this concern.

Then there are the Tamils of recent Indian origin and their demands. They live within mixed communities in the plantation sector and they play a very significant role for the economy of the country. In fact some contend that the economy could collapse completely if the members of this community should down their tools for a month. This community however is one of the most disadvantaged and badly treated communities where servility from them had been taken to an extreme although no thanks to Northern/Eastern Tamil political leaders, their situation has improved compared to what it was some years ago. 

The wage rises and better living conditions demanded by this community is entirely justifiable considering the contribution they make to the economy of the country. Treatment as equals is a human right they must have and there cannot be any debate about that.

Finally, the Tamils living in other areas of the country. Many of them are either members of political parties in the “South” or they vote for candidates of these political parties. The Tamil community in these areas are far more entwined with other communities while maintaining their cultural identity, in other words they are better integrated.

The 13th Amendment, with whatever its flaws, provided avenues for greater participation of communities living in the provincial geographic areas in the politics of their areas, and to varying degrees, in political administrative matters and political policy issues within guidelines. If the premise for having provincial councils is to give people a better say in how they wish to be governed, which is what democracy is all about, the solution to address issues of inequality and discrimination should be a mix of central power sharing and devolution on the basis of the concept of provincial councils. Traditional homelands should not enter into a discussion and a solution has to be worked out from a contemporary outlook and not a historical outlook. This should apply to all communities and their singular outlook should be the future of the generations to come and less so, the demands of the present generation.

Perhaps Mr Subramanium Swamy, who is a good and steadfast friend of Sri Lanka, and not just of Mahinda Rajapaksa, could be the pivot that is needed initially to sit with all Tamil political leaders from all parts of the country and assist them to arrive at a consensus on a new mindset as to how best to work with the Sinhala and Muslim communities in the country which would usher in a climate where discussions could occur without being driven by valid and imagined fears of a division of the country, of Federalism, and secret agenda’s. 

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