Colombo Telegraph

In Praise Of Non-Violence – The Politics Of ITAK

By Shanthi  Sachithanandam

Shanthi Sachithanandam

The defeat of the armed struggle waged by the LTTE  seems to have now resurrected the debate about  the non- violence struggle amongst the Tamils. The Federal Party’s post 2009 trend of holding Thanthai Chelva memorial meetings annually and the eulogies given to non- violence in these meetings, attest to this development. Mr.R. Sambandan, leader of the Federal Party, in one of his speeches in the Parliament has alluded to the terrorism practiced by the LTTE as the reason for their annihilation, and has time and again stressed that his party  resolutely stands for a non- violent struggle to gain Tamil rights. This year also, at the Thanthai Chelva memorial meeting, he reiterated this stand and was very clearly supported by the main speaker Justice C.V.Wigneswaran. Notwithstanding the fact that the Federal Party has no choice but to tread the path of non – violence in the present context, it is useful to examine the role of violence and the relevance of a non- violent movement for the Tamils in Sri Lanka.

The intransigent nature of the Sinhala political leadership was referred to in both Mr. Sambandan’s speech and the speech of Justice Wigneswaran. “It is a trait in their (majority community) leadership to speak with forked tongues. I am puzzled by this fact, given that the Sinhalese with whom I have lived all my life, having been born, bred and educated in Colombo, are not given to this kind of duplicity..” says Justice Wigneswaran. Well, he need not puzzle over it at all, this problem is not about individuals but about their collective project of State building.  All the world over, every attempt at establishing a Nation-State was fraught with violence.  Human societies do not flourish on the basis of geographic territories. Historical imperatives that drove migration, cultural exchanges and military occupation all have led to the blossoming of innumerable communities and Nations which have distinct language, cultural traits and religious observances. A death knell to this wonderful diversity of the human race was the development of the modern Nation-State.  All Nation states seek to homogenize the population in order to consolidate their power. There are very few minority Nations in the world which are not in conflict with the State of their respective geographic territories.

However, the degree of intransigence demonstrated by each State in accommodating a multi ethnic polity  depends on various factors such as the level of industrialization and the development of an industrial elite, the culture of the practice of statecraft through the centuries, and the consequent  perceptions of the society of its own strengths. The Industrial class always  seeks to unify, because therein lies its market.  And, a self- confident Nation is less threatened by the expression of autonomy of  other communities and Nations. On the contrary, the modern Sri Lankan society is a super structure built on a feudal foundation. The inability of successive Sinhala leaders to be able to handle the office of the executive presidency  is one indication of this reality. Each one was one step ahead in fashioning  himself along the lines of ancient monarchs, J.R. Jayawardene  naming  the Sri Lankan Capital as Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte, Premadasa and his famous throne,  and now the Rajapakses’  family rule. The fact that still the Sinhalese speak about “ giving Tamils autonomy might lead to the establishment of a separate State” belies a deep sense of fear and  inadequacy on their part.

The conflict created by the nationalist aspirations of the Tamils spilled over in to an armed struggle. Professor Robert Pape  of the University of Chicago has recently done some path breaking studies specifically on what he calls suicide terrorism. For his book Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, Pape started with the bombings themselves – every documented case between 1980 and 2004 – and noticed some suggestive common threads. He has established that foreign occupation, and not religion or any other social aspect is the core motivating factor behind suicide terrorism. “From Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank to Sikhs in India, from the jihadists of 9/11 to the secular Marxist Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka – for all of these, it is ‘a nationalistic response.’” When  a community had been backed into a corner by a superior power and saw no better alternative, it resorted to terrorism generally and suicide terrorism in particular. His studies establish that the military occupation of a superior force always preceded the outburst of terrorist movements. In Sri Lanka also, sending the garrisons to the North East began the militant protests and armed violence.Thus, it becomes necessary to acknowledge the legitimacy of the armed struggle of the Tamil people, regardless of the disagreements one might have in the particular  methodology applied. Denying this past amounts to totally undermining the Tamil Nationalist Movement. It seems ITAK stands guilty of this grave error.

Now that the option of the armed struggle  has failed the Tamils for the present, we have turned to the doctrine of non violence to deliver us from this predicament. In that case, we need to study its logic and the consequent applications.  It must be realized that this philosophy as espoused by Mahatma Gandhi, also speaks with forked tongues.  Gandhi advocated non violence only to unarmed citizens and not to States which were actually armed to their teeth. It seems that in his scheme of things, it was legitimate for the States to engage in violence while only the citizens had to practice restraint and sacrifice. Or probably he thought that it was not possible to change the nature of the State. But gradually it is dawning on the world community that  there is a dire need to rein in the extraordinary powers amassed by most States. The doctrine of Responsibility to Protect is one indication of this trend. A future has to be envisioned where States are restructured so as to be ‘multi-national’ and totally accountable to each and every citizen. Without simultaneously working for this new world order, we cannot go far with merely the ‘non-violence’ as understood and practiced traditionally. Hence ITAK needs to engage with the larger democratic questions nationally and internationally, than just constantly talking about “Tamil Rights”.

So what about the non-violence practiced by Gandhi, King and others? Were they not successful? History shows that nowhere in the world a non-violent movement succeeded on its own. The Indian independence movement was propelled also by the formation of the Indian National Army by Nethaji Subash Chandrabose, and the violence unleashed by the various trade unions in their struggle for workers’ rights. It became simply untenable for the British to rule India. Similar interesting accounts are told also of the other countries’ experiences. These are not highlighted in popular literature and media, nor are the roles played by those individuals given due prominence. Since the ruling classes would not want the populace to effectively challenge the State through violent means, the history they helped to write obliterated these facts. For instance, what might happen to occupied Tibet if it continues to pursue the path of  rigorous non- violence is easy to guess, but not many speak about the failures of non violent movements.

This is not to say that there is no merit in practicing non-violence. However, the true practice of non violence pre-supposes many conditions. It is more about maintaining a righteous  frame of mind rather than about the action of  not using arms. That is why Justice Wigneswaran rightly describes in his speech the collective and multi dimensional approach that needs to be formulated, which does not name and target an enemy. Gandhi established Ashrams in various places to provide training to his Satyagarahis in practicing this Dharma. They had to maintain excellent personal conduct in order to retain the high moral ground which is so essential to change the hearts of the opposition. How is ITAK organized so as to be able to carry out intense educational work amongst the Tamils in order to practice non-violence? It is public knowledge that the ITAK leadership does not meet with even their party members and their own party councilors of the local governments outside of elections.  Leave alone  meeting with the masses regularly.  It is hilarious to listen to pompous statements issued by them on being “non violent”  which is basically saying that they are prepared to talk with the government, as they have been saying for the past 60 years. Conducting talks with the government is not practicing non violence by any stretch of our imagination.

Another common element of all the non violent movements around the world is that none of those leaders  were involved in electoral politics. Electoral politics is an entirely different game, that has to appeal to the irrational and emotional zeal of the masses. A Satyagrahi cannot be an election facing politician at the same time. At some point, obtaining votes and seats in the Parliament will inevitably become more important than mobilizing the masses for a war of Dharma. Very few seem to be asking the pertinent question that if the 1961 Satyagraha struggle in the North and East was so popular and successful as it is claimed, then why did not the ITAK continue with it? One discards only unsuccessful initiatives under any normal circumstances. Even after seeing the Tamils come out in their thousands to paralyze administration in the North and East for weeks, why did they revert back to making back room deals with Mr.Dudley Senanayake in the next round of elections, having learnt the lessons of the Banda-Chelva  pact? All mobilizing efforts of ITAK were halted almost immediately afterwards. This is the variety of  opportunistic politics played by our Tamil leaders all along the way.

Today the Tamils are caught in a situation devoid of any hope and are in danger of being annihilated as a Nation. There has arisen an urgent need to throw up mature and honest political leadership from amongst them. This is no time to be involving in the usual political maneuvers and power games. My fervent appeal is that ITAK and the other constituent Tamil parties of the TNA come forward with honesty of purpose and the willingness to change their entire approach  to political engagement with the government of Sri Lanka and the Sinhala people. In this mission, the Tamils here and abroad have a role to play. They cannot be blindly continuing the same path they had tread for years. Pro-actively they must seek a transformation of their own society and politics.

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