When I was doing field research recently in Musali South, a Muslim majority DS division in Mannar district in the Northern Province, an elderly Muslim man posed to me a couple of questions that indicated to me why one should be wary of Tamil nationalist politics even if it represents the aspirations of an oppressed community: “The government of Sri Lanka has banned us from using the forest resources in our village from which we have been benefitted over a long period of time. The land and the trees behind my house have been declared as belonging to a protected forest by the the forest authorities. Even to make a handle for the hoe that we use at home we now have to search for a tree that is not declared protected. A new Buddha statute has also sprung up in our village. We are also citizens of the Northern Province. But, why doesn’t your Chief Minister raise our problems? We cannot clap with one hand, right? Why can’t we all work together to solve our problems?”
When I first heard of the Ezhuka Thamil (Arise Tamil) processions and rally, an unmistakably Tamil-centric political event as the name itself reveals, I could not help but remember this political critique grounded in the everyday life of a Muslim man from a border village in the North who articulated it in a language so plain and devoid of jargon. Though some might say that Muslims consider themselves as a distinct political group or a nation or that Minister Rishad Bathiudeen is there to help the Muslims in the North, I refuse to buy these alibis which will never help us explore avenues for bettering Tamil-Muslim relations at the grassroots or forging, eventually, a common territorial movement of resistance as communities under oppression or communities that share the land, waterways and the environment in the region. As members of the Tamil community which constitutes 93% of the total population in the Northern Province, it is our responsibility to take the questions posed by this elderly Muslim man seriously and scrutinize our politics of resistance revolving around Tamil nationalism in all earnestness.
As my conversation with the Muslim man from Musali South indicates, deep-rooted structural problems like Buddhisization, militarization and land grab confront all the minority communities in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. To frame these issues through the lens of a narrow Tamil nationalism, as was done at the ‘Ezhuka Thamil’ rally, is misleading at best and dangerous at worst. Such attempts would never promote the much-needed goodwill and understanding among the minority communities but further their isolation from one another. Yesterday’s Ezhuka Thamil rally, where a large number of Tamils from across the Northern and Eastern Provinces gathered to articulate their political aspirations and channel their grievances to the South and the concerned international actors, seemed to me to be an event that sadly revealed the majoritarian sentiments of an oppressed minority. It did very little to bring out the multiple ways in which state oppression is experienced by multiple minority communities in the country or in the North-East.
Some of the demands put forward by the participants of yesterday’s rally were indeed fair. They included the release of Tamil political prisoners, putting an end to the Sinhala-Buddhisization of the Northern and Eastern Provinces by the state and the military, bringing out the truth about those who have been made to disappear, de-militarization and a political solution based on federalism. Yet, what was disappointing was that these demands were presented to the world from a Tamil nationalist point of view. The first person pronoun “our” which was included in many of the key demands referred to what Tamils consider as theirs: the land, the economy, the seas, etc. The slogans and the speeches failed to state that the Tamils share these resources with the other communities who inhabit the Northern and Eastern regions and how their shared existence limits their sovereign claims to the land and the resources.
Whether or not the other communities in the North or North-East are willing to work in conjunction with the Tamils, it is important that the Tamil leadership should act with an open-mind willing to embrace the other minority communities and their genuine political struggles. It is only such openness and willingness to join hands with other communities that can impart new life and vigor to the self-determination movement in the North-East. Had the Tamil leadership chosen to launch its resistance to the Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony in the name of a Tamil-Hindu nation, we would not have seen Hindu priests and Christian clergy standing shoulder to shoulder at the rally yesterday. Even this secular tradition of Tamil nationalism is now under threat by none other than some of the actors involved in organizing ‘Ezhuka Thamil’. Chief Minister Wigneswaran’s sole focus on the atrocities suffered by the Tamil Hindus during the civil war at a conference organized Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a Hindu organization known for its fascist agendas and violence against Dalits, Muslims, Chirstians and Adivasis in India, is a case in point. His speech at the conference failed to mention that the Tamil Christians too had fallen victim to the violence by the state. Some recent editorials that appeared in Valampurii, a local daily published from Jaffna, reveal the newspaper’s interest in fashioning a monolithic Tamil identity with Hinduism or Saivism at its heart to the exclusion of other faiths. An editorial of the paper written on the eve of the annual festival at Nallur Kandaswamy Temple states that God Kandaswamy of Nallur is the leader of all Tamils and that the annual festival for God Kandswamy is believed to be the reign of Tamils. He is one of the Conveners of the Tamil People’s Council that organized yesterday’s rally.
Unlike the few Kashmiri and Palestinian self-determination movements that strived to create a common, secular territorial identity in spite of the cultural and religious differences among the populations, ‘Ezhuka Thamil’ and some of the statements and manifestos released in the past by its chief architects including the Tamil People’s Council, Tamil National People’s Front and the Tamil Civil Society Forum show that the political imagination of those who lead the national liberation movement in the North-East of Sri Lanka today cannot see a future beyond creating non-contiguous Muslim majority and Tamil majority administrative regions in the North-East as remedy to the Tamil-Muslim conflict in the region. Partitioning territories along rigid ethnic lines would not bring communities close to one another; they would only result in the creation of ethnic enclaves. This is why some argue that it is better to have a separate Eastern Province where none of the three major communities constitutes more 40% of the total population, owing partly to state-sponsored colonization schemes that led to a sharp increase in the Sinhala population in the region, rather than a merged North-Eastern province. As the Kandy Forum note in their submission to the public consultations committee on constitutional reforms earlier this year, a separate Eastern Province may encourage the Tamil, Muslim and Sinhala populations in the region to evolve a non-divisive pluralism that would be a model for the co-habitation of ethnic communities in Sri Lanka.
Neither the speeches by the organizers nor the slogans raised at the rally yesterday questioned the caste exploitation or dominance of patriarchal forces within the Tamil community. There was no self-introspection into the past or the role of the LTTE in weakening the democratic structures of the community. Listening to the loud slogans of ‘Ezhuka Tamil’ on Youtube yesterday, I looked back into the past and felt the need to revisit the political vision of an inclusive self-determination movement that emerged in the North-East of Sri Lanka in the 1980s and was later weakened and snuffed out by the LTTE’s quest for supremacy. The Eelam People Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) founded by Pathmanabha was conscious in its activism not only of the internal caste, class and gender divisions within the Tamil community but also of the ethnic plurality of the North-East. In sharp contrast to the LTTE, TELO and PLOTE, the founding members of the EPRLF made a conscious decision to not include “Tamil” in the movement’s name so as to make their demand for self-determination an inclusive one. Many youngsters from the Muslim and Hill Country Tamil communities and even some Sinhalese joined the EPRLF. The political future the EPRLF envisioned for the people of the North-East and even the Hill Country Tamil community is radically different from the Tamil centrism that we saw at yesterday’s ‘Ezhuka Thamil.’ When the EPRLF was in power in the short-lived merged North-Eastern Provincial Council, it worked towards addressing the problems of all three communities. Though this movement had its own limitations and its collaboration with the Indian Peace Keeping Forces in human rights violations during the late 1980s needs to be critiqued, the political ideals that the it espoused in its early years can inspire us think about self-determination inclusive ways differing markedly from the empty slogans of Tamil nationalism that we often hear these days in the North.
*The writer is a member of the Collective for Economic Democratization in Sri Lanka