By Savithra Jayasekara –
It is said that when Vijaya – the mythical founder of Lanka’s Sinhalese – decided to abandon his native queen – Kuveni – in favor of new queens from the Tamil kingdoms of South India, the native queen in her righteous anger placed a curse on the island such that no one would ever ‘own’ Lanka, or that no one people would ever rule the island. Indeed, centuries of intermittent war since then have seen the island’s rule tilt back and forth between the Sinhalese and Tamils, not to mention the centuries Lanka was under Portuguese, Dutch, and British occupation. This back-and-forth rule between the Sinhalese and South Indian Tamils prevented the coalescing of the island’s peoples into a homogenous society. As a result, the North and East is home to Tamils who identify strongly with the notion of Tamilakam, despite there also being a significant number who continue to intermarry with the Sinhalese to this day. On the other hand, exist Lankan Muslims who have contributed greatly to the island’s prosperity and security in the east ever since being driven from the west of Lanka by the Portuguese. Recent and historical grievances aired by the Lankan Tamil and Muslim communities have meant that a need has always existed for their interests to be represented in a more meaningful way on the island. The events of Black July, however, continue to divide Sri Lankan society on the best way to make such representations a reality and for the nation to move forward.
Black July is easily the biggest tragedy faced by the island even to this day. It was a tragedy that led to the destruction of thousands upon thousands of Sri Lankan Tamil, Muslim and Sinhala lives. As a further consequence, the island not only lost decades and billions worth of economic development, but it also gained lasting enemies in the Tamil (both Lankan and Indian), diaspora even though in reality, centuries of inter-ethnic relations have meant that Tamil blood has always run deep in the veins of the Sinhalese. Despite the stark reality that Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese continue to intermarry, attend school together and live amongst one another peacefully and enjoyably, the stigma of Black July has meant that there remains a strong movement that goes out of its way to ignore the existence of such relations and press upon the world stage that non-Sinhalese are continuously disenfranchised. The existence of such harmonious relations – covering Raja Rata, Maya and Ruhuna alike – are why this author feels that the vast majority of Sinhalese feel that there is no need for a separate ‘anything’ in the island based on the notion of race or religion.
With the interplay, however, of the North and East being considered Tamil homelands on the one hand, as well the island itself being considered as the Sinhala homeland on the other, what options does Sri Lanka as a state have in alleviating the Black July curse? For some, an option would be to allow for the creation of the new nation of Eelam, but that would likely be opposed by the Sinhala majority, Muslims as well as Tamils who were targeted by the LTTE. The next option would be to go for a federal option wherein a ‘Tamil’ portion would operate as a separate entity to a ‘Sinhala’ portion. This, however, would likely be opposed by those in the majority as well as certain sections of minorities on the basis that this too, would be akin to ‘dividing’ or creating a ‘secede-able’ portion of the nation.
What option then is available wherein bastions of Lankan-Tamil and Lankan-Ummah excellence can exist within an undivided and indivisible Sri Lanka? Before the island’s colonization by European powers, there existed the three administrative regions of Raja Rata, Maya and Ruhuna. The author believes that reverting to these administrative regions as new provinces, would go far in allaying any fears amongst the Sinhala-Buddhist majority that the creation of ethno-districts would lead to secession. At the same time, the creation of a northern ethno-district for Lankan Tamils, along with an eastern ethno-district for the Lankan Ummah would allow for the three major Lankan ethnicities to move forward as one people.
These ethno-districts would encompass the northern part of a reestablished Raja Rata province, as well as the eastern part of a reestablished Ruhuna province. The former would serve as a permanent stronghold of Lankan-Tamil might, a ‘Dravida-Hela’ if you will, whereas the latter would serve as a ‘Mohammedian-Hela’. The reason for the reestablishment of the ancient provinces would be for there to be historical continuity for the island’s Sinhala population. The establishment of ethno-districts within those provinces would also ensure historical continuity of the island’s Tamil and Moorish citizens.
Would this, however, solve the aspirations of the island’s faith-based communities of Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians? The author feels that so long as there is strong reason for the center to exist (such as retaining security functions for the island), as well as there being dedicated, historically relevant ethno-districts for the island’s large and small minorities to retain their faith and culture based on constitutionally protected and guaranteed lands, then we would have quite a workable solution to the national question.
Peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka would ideally guarantee the return of Lankan-Tamils to their island. It would also be important to note that the reestablished provinces would see the return of the respective Sinhalese and Muslim populations evicted by Cankili in the 1500s and by the LTTE in the 1990s. This would ensure the historical continuity of the diversity of those areas.
In terms of language, Sinhalese, English and Tamil would continue to be the official languages. Indeed, even the so-called ‘Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam’ – the remnant of the LTTE celebrated by Tamil diaspora – mentions that Sinhala would also be an official language in any Tamil Eelam.
At the end of the day, Lanka must serve as a nation where all peoples (majority and minorities alike), can thrive on the island without feeling that they need a separate area of land to preserve their culture, faith, and language. However, given the circumstances of there being (a) a lack of accountability and reconciliation vis-a-vis LTTE and government atrocities, (b) a powerful Tamilakam movement that stymies Lankan development abroad, and (c) minorities being targeted by past governments, the necessity of preserving the historical continuity of Lanka’s major minorities has arisen. For the Sinhala-Buddhist majority to be able to save face – given the occurrence of Black July – and for the nation to move forward, the establishment of ethno-districts without violating the island’s sovereignty and territorial integrity seems a small price to pay.