By Ameer Ali –
Today’s tumultuous ethnic relations that bedevil Sri Lanka’s political and social tranquillity is the end product of decades of political miscalculations and misunderstandings by each community about the others, and the overall mismanagement of the country’s pluralism by post-independence rulers. In this saga of miscalculations, misunderstanding and mismanagement certain historical landmarks stand out prominently. Before outlining these and interpreting how they shaped our journey to an ethnic morass it is important to remember two contrasting episodes from Sri Lanka’s pre-independence history.
The first episode relates to the successive Dravidian invasions from South India dating back to 230 BCE according to one source, and the destructions they inflicted upon Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, the seats of Buddhist royalty. These acts of aggression, conquest and destruction, the memory of which has been kept alive by partisan historians and story tellers, have ingrained in the Sinhala Buddhist psyche over centuries that Tamils are a domineering community. In the modern era, the state of Tamil Nadu across the Palk Strait and the concentration of Tamils in the north and east of the island with another 19th century addition in the central highlands added to the Sinhala Buddhist psychological fear that similar invasions from Tamil Nadu, perhaps on the invitation of their local brethren, cannot be discounted. This fear almost translated into reality in 1987 when the Indian Air Force forcibly entered Sri Lankan air space and dropped what India called “Mercy Aid” to Tamil victims during the civil war. No wonder Sri Lanka condemned it as an act of “naked aggression” and President Jayewardene called it an “invasion”.
The second episode relates to the advent of Muslims to the country. Nowhere in Asia or for that matter in any part of the world was a Muslim minority treated with such great magnanimity and respect as in Sri Lanka during the reign of the medieval Buddhist kings. The hospitality that these monarchs extended to the early Arab and Persian Muslim immigrants is unparalleled in the annals of history. Even when the Muslims were chased out of Sitawaka during the Portuguese rule in the 16th century it was a Buddhist king, Senerath, who gave the victims refuge in his Kandyan Kingdom. This historical fact is a living memory in Muslims psyche.
On top pf these two contrasting historical episodes and their equally antithetic impact on the Sinhalese and Muslim psyches respectively other developments in the modern era added to the prevailing inter-ethnic mistrust and miscalculations. These developments are the landmarks that contributed to the current tumult.
During the British rule in the 1880s, at a time when an opportunity arose for Muslims to gain representation in the Legislative Council, the then Tamil leader and Legislative Councillor Sir Ponnampalam Ramanathan argued in the council, and authored a paper, which was published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, that the Muslims were Tamils by origin but the follow the religion of Islam, implying thereby that there was no need for a separate representation for them. This diabolical blunder by Ramanathan, not so much because of the substance of his arguments but because of the timing of it, sowed the seeds of mistrust between the Tamil and Muslim communities. A permanent legacy of this unfortunate episode is that from that time onwards the Muslims of Sri Lanka began to call themselves Moors, a disparaging epithet bestowed upon all Arabs and Muslims by the Portuguese. This mistrust however, got further deepened after the 1915 Sinhalese-Muslim riots when the same gentleman led a delegation to London to plead before the court for the release of the Sinhalese leaders who were arrested by the colonial government on charges of aiding and abetting the rioters. Later in the 1930s and 1940s the mistrust deepened again when the Tamils supported the Indian Congress and Muslims the Muslim League in the struggle for Pakistan.
After independence, S. W. R. D Bandaranaike, an Oxford University educated orator in impeccable English with little command over his mother tongue, Sinhalese, becomes the champion of the Sinhala language and Sinhala nationalism. (It was he when addressing the Jaffna Youth Congress in 1931 first proposed a Federal Constitution for Ceylon). After winning the 1956 elections, as the Prime Minister of a coalition government made up of similar minded nationalists, he got passed the Sinhala Only Bill in the parliament and plunged the country into the first Sinhalese-Tamil ethnic riots (I am not sure whether there were any island wide riots between these two communities before 1957). Before he could take control of the damage he had caused to Sinhalese-Tamil relations by co-authoring the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact he was assassinated by a Buddhist monk.
The wedge driven into Sinhalese-Tamil ethnic relations by the language bill, the first-pass-post method of electing parliamentary representatives under the Westminster model and the ubiquity of Muslim settlements in the country provided a golden opportunity for Muslims to take advantage of the growing inter-party and inter-communal rivalry to strengthen their own representation in the parliament without forming a separate political party of their own. The historical memory of Buddhist hospitality to early Muslim immigrants and the widening cleavage between the other two communities showed to business minded Muslim leaders that they could make political capital out of the emerging instability. The bitter memories that these leaders carried about their community’s losses in the 1915 riots were forgotten and they decided to ally with the Sinhalese permanently and make gains at the expense of the Tamils. “Let they be divided we can swim; let them be united we will sink” said one Muslim leader.
In the 1970s Prime Minister Srimavo Bandaranike’s so called socialist coalition government introduced the University Standardization scheme, ostensibly to redress the imbalance that hitherto existed between the urban and rural students so that more of the latter could enter the universities in future, but in reality the scheme ended up in reducing the number of Tamil students entering universities from prestigious colleges in Jaffna and Colombo and opting to study professional courses such as medicine and engineering.
One of the reasons, which is usually downplayed by Sinhalese politicians, for the introduction of the Sinhala Only Bill by the SWRD government followed by its decision to make Swabasha as the medium of instruction in schools and universities was to provide more employment opportunities for Sinhalese medium students and graduates in the public service. This measure did not however reduce the dominance of Tamils in professional services until the standardization scheme began to have its impact. In this context, it should also be mentioned that the scheme provided a boon to Muslims whose access to r professional education was highly restricted because of the absence of schools teaching the hard subjects. Over all, the fact that the standard of university education has suffered because of this scheme was no concern to policy makers of the time. They were singularly consumed by their Sinhala nationalistic fervour.
In 1977, President J. R. Jayewardene, through his Gaullist constitution, did away with the Westminster model and introduced the principle of proportional representation in electing representatives to the legislature. This he did deliberately in order to reduce the disproportionate representation, he thought, that ethnic minorities like the Moors and political minorities like the socialists were able to achieve under the previous model. This constitution with its executive presidency saw the culmination of the process of removing all constitutional safeguards to minorities, a process started already by the Colvin constitution under the previous socialist regime.
Before that decade was over a new generation of Tamil youth, many of whom were the direct victims of Srimavo’s standardization scheme, in frustration of the failure of their senior Tamil leadership and its dialogical approach with Sinhalese leaders to find solutions to Tamil grievances, decided to change course and resorted to an armed struggle. The ambivalence of the Federal Party which talked about Federalism in English and Tamil Arasu in Tamil disappeared overnight with the proclamation of Tamil Eelam by the rebels. This critical decision reinforced the psychological fear of the Sinhalese community as explained at the beginning. Among the several Tamil factions that appeared on the scene at that time the LTTE under the megalomaniac leadership of Veluppillai Prabakaran eventually emerged as the predominant voice of Tamil Eelam.
The fact that their warriors were trained by the Indira Ghandi government in India and particularly in Tamil Nadu, and the fact that the Tamil Nadu politicians particularly during their election campaigns were competitively vocalising their support to the cause of Tamil Eelam gave a false impression to LTTE that there would definitely be Indian material support if in case a military confrontation breaks out between its warriors and government forces. Just as Indira Gandhi intervened to protect Bangladesh from Pakistan so also LTTE expected her to intervene to save Tamil Eelam. The “Mercy Aid” air drop mentioned earlier reinforced this impression. This proved to be a grave miscalculation at the end. The different geopolitical implications involved between India’s intervention in Bangladesh and it’s would be intervention in Sri Lanka never entered the calculations of LTTE strategists.
In the 1900s, a new generation of Muslims mostly from the Eastern Province tried with success to overcome Jayewardene’s proportional representation obstacle, by forming a separate Muslim political party, called the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC). The political strategy behind the formation of this party was to rally the support of the entire voting Muslim population on the basis of a united umma, an Islamic religious concept, maximise the number of Muslim seats in the parliament and use that strength as a bargaining chip to win favours from whatever government that comes to power. The fact that the SLMC was always willing to exploit the religious feelings of Muslims for the party’s political advantage was a dangerous ploy especially at a time when LTTE was trying to win sympathy and recruit warriors from the Muslim community. SLMC, in trying to unite the Muslim voters succeeded in separating them from the Tamils.
This did not mean that it won the sympathy of the Sinhalese either. What made the Sinhalese suspicious of SLMC’s rise was something beyond the party’s control. This was the phenomenon of Islamic religious fundamentalism that originated in the Middle East and was spreading to other parts of the world after that 1980s with the aid of petrodollars and Gulf employment. Sri Lanka, which by the 1980s had already become a preeminent centre for the Tabligh Jamaat – a peaceful missionary movement dedicated to make Muslims better devotees, soon turned out to be an oasis for the growth of Islamic fundamentalism. Once the SLMC started exploiting the religious feelings of Muslims then it became inevitable that it had to open its doors to allow fundamentalism to colour the party’s image. The cry “Allahu Akbar” reverberated throughout SLMC’s political campaigns. It is not without its religious significance that SLMC’s founder president M.H.M. Ashraf was the first Muslim to appear in the Sri Lankan House of Representatives wearing a white cap, part of the changing religious attire of Muslims, instead of the traditional fez worn by leaders like Sir Razik Fareed and H.S. Ismail. The upshot of all this political manoeuvre by the SLMC was that the Muslim community apart from deepening its division with the Tamils also for the first time began to be mistrusted by Sinhalese nationalists.
In 2009, LTTE’s armed struggle for Eelam reached its anticlimax and ended in a bitter and tragic defeat in the hands of the Sinhalese army. This inglorious finale to an almost three-quarter-century mismanagement of pluralism by Sri Lanka’s state-holders led to three momentous consequences. Firstly, although LTTE was defeated militarily it’s demand for a Tamil Eelam has become a transnational thirst and the Tamil diaspora, like the Jewish diaspora before 1948, is trying to achieve it through international pressure. Whether it will achieve its objective as long as Tamil Nadu with is sixty-eight million Tamils remains part of the Indian federation is questionable. Secondly, the fear that the Sinhalese psyche carried for centuries about a potential invasion from South India evaporated overnight after witnessing the last minute betrayal of Tamil Nadu leadership to come to the aid of LTTE. This betrayal would haunt the memories of Sri Lankan Tamils for generations to come. However, from the Sinhalese point of view that betrayal demonstrated that it was the relations with Delhi that should matter to the Sri Lankan government and not those with Tamil Nadu. Finally, the decisive victory by the Sinhalese army freed the political terrain for Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism to reign supreme.
It is the aggressive nature of this nationalism that poses the biggest existential challenge for the Tamil and Muslim minorities and continuing to deepen the island’s ethnic morass. To get out of this quagmire new strategies from an enlightened leadership is needed from all communities. It appears that this is in short supply at the moment.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business and Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia