By Mahesan Niranjan –
On some occasions, my friend and regular drinking partner, the Sri Lankan Tamil fellow Sivapuranam Thevaram, puts on his Tamil hat and sees issues from that angle. It gives a view of a people put in a position of not being part of our country, feeling cheated by the political process since independence. Though the frequency of these occasions is in proportion to the number of pints of Peroni we down, his thoughts are instructive. Yesterday was a special occasion for this. Not only were we in a two for the price of one happy hour in our Bridgetown joint, we were also talking about the Scottish independence referendum.
Now why would some members of one tribe in Sri Lanka feel they do not belong? Why would they think of themselves as a separate `nation,’ with the implication of a right to self-determination, to which the other tribe would readily express profound objections?
Let us review the political process a little.
Members of the Southern political class often accept – either yielding to internal or external pressure, or due to goodness of the heart — that the Northerners face problems in the way governance of our country is set up. They agree that some form of devolution of power to regions – be it province, district council, town or village – allowing local decision making is a good idea. They recognize such arrangements have worked well elsewhere. “Let us devolve power in X, Y and Z to regions instead of an entirely centralized structure,” they suggest in pacts, proposals and commission reports.
When they sit down to work out the details however, the proverbial Devil raises its ugly head.
“We cannot give Y,” they discover, “because you will gang up with your diaspora cousins and push us into the sea.”
“We cannot give Z,” they discover, “because you will gang up with your friends in NGOs and push us into the sea.”
This entrenched fear of being pushed into the sea has its roots in ancient mythology, reinforced via recent history and election speeches. It is a good vote winner.
None of X, Y or Z being feasible, a sort of embarrassment sets in, and is dealt with in an ingenious way: denial. The abuse of the mathematical technique of proof by contradiction helps. “I have a friend from the North. He has no problem. So what problems are you talking about?”
“QED,” said Thevaram, mocking the proof, and taking another long sip of his Peroni.
“Quod Erat Demonstrandum?” I expanded the acronym, showing off a bit of Latin.
“Quite Easily Done,” he says, wiping off the froth from his lower lips.
“But what is the Lothian connection, machan (buddy/mate)?” I asked, bringing him back to the hot topic of the day. “Do you see a parallel between the aspirations of the Northerners in the British Isles and the Northerners in our country?”
After all, the Scots, with a clear identity as a nation, linked by long history and admirable values they hold, are exercising their right of self-determination enshrined in International Law. If the North of the British Isles can be mature enough to choose their political destiny, why not the North of Sri Lanka? Why is objection to that so emphatic?
“The similarity of the Scots to the North of Sri Lanka is not what matters, machan,” Thevaram explained, “what matters is the difference in maturity in the South!”
“Look at examples of partition in our parts of the world,” he continued, broadening out a little. “What happened when India and Pakistan split? The Hindus and Muslims immediately assumed the right response was to carryout mass murder, didn’t they?” “Yeah, I have read about such large scale killings over the partitions of Sudan, and in the separation of Bangladesh from Pakistan,” I agreed. “That is the point machan, you hold a referendum in the North of Sri Lanka, the Mahaweli will turn red with blood,” he paraphrased from the `Rivers of Blood’ speech of Enoch Powell from a few decades ago.
This was said in a forceful way, reminding me of similar sentiments expressed and executed by Junius Richard Jayawardane in 1977 and 1983. Thevaram knew precisely what buttons to press to win in arguments with me.
“But why is that not happening in the British Isles?” I queried. “The Southerners seem just OK with the Northerners going their way. “If they want to go, good luck to them,” being the popular attitude.”
“That is the political maturity I am talking about, machan,” Thevaram said. “Around the time of the formation of the Union, their tribes were also good at massacring each other, just like ours. The formation of the Union was followed by cruel suppression including the banning of language, dress and music. Their behaviour then was far worse than ours now.”
“But just see what happened in the three hundred years since. They prospered economically and matured in the exercise of democracy,” said Thevaram, neglecting for the sake of his argument much of the evils committed in far-away lands to achieve that economic prosperity. “And you have to remember that the Northerners made enormous contributions to that advancement machan,” and went on to list several examples.
“Think of their economist Adam Smith, who defined the fundamental principles of markets. Or their engineer James Watt who made efficient steam engines. Or the scientist James Clarke Maxwell, whose work forms the foundations of radio wave propagation. Or the philosopher David Hume from whose analysis we understand bits about the basis of human nature. Or the mathematician John Napier, whose discovery of the logarithmic scale transformed multiplication into addition. Or the sportsman Andy Murray, cheered on by everyone in the Island – Northerners and Southerners with equal enthusiasm.
“And let me give you a recent example,” he continued energetically, “when the war criminal Tony Blair chose to invade Iraq after deceiving Parliament with lies, who walked out of his cabinet?” “Of course,” I agreed, remembering Robin Cook, then British Foreign Secretary, who, with a broad mind and competence at applied statistics, declared that the national dish of Great Britain had to be the Tandoori Chicken.
“Over the centuries, the Scots engaged fully with the Union, playing a full part in its success, while Scottish nationalism took a back-seat.”
“The respect they earned by contributing to the whole, they are now cashing in as local decision making power for the parts,” Thevaram concluded, “It is an asset worth investing in.”
“So you see, throughout these three hundred years, the Island as a whole, particularly the South, matured in its approach to democratic governance. And, mind you, though what you hear in headlines is about their central government, their governance has substantial devolution to the regions,” he claimed. “Policing, schools, hospitals, garbage collection and filling pot holes in roads are all done locally and partly paid by local taxation. Funds to enhance trade and industrial development are devolved to regional offices whose prioritization rules take into account local opportunities. Their universities are autonomous and suffer very little direct interference from central government. Even more, land usage and planning permissions for buildings are local decisions.”
It was quite a long list. I had not noticed that so much local governance was happening around me. Perhaps he is right that the political maturity in the South comes from a governance structure that already includes local decision making as a feature people have developed the maturity to accept.
Contrast that with the heavily centralized governance we are used to back in our country. I had indeed observed that in my youth at HillTop University. A professor there is usually reluctant to make decisions. “What will the Head of Department say?” The Head of Department is equally shy. “What would the Dean say?” The Dean is not going to make decisions. “What might he Vice Chancellor say?” And the chain can go on and on, right up to that single point of failure.
We have not evolved ways to devolve power, set up rules within which officials and rule-makers of local government can operate in an autonomous manner. Instead, we believe that any local decision making can only lead to one thing: ganging up with Hanuman, NGOs and cousins to push us into the sea.
Some here might have been energetic enough to read Mavai Senathirajah’s green speech at the recent ITAK meeting. “Green?” you ask. Yes, much of it is recycled from the Seventies. Patience is needed to wade through it. (The speech was so boring that he himself got tired halfway and had to get someone else to read it.) Yet, one piece of information in it stands out: that even within the local governance arrangement we have in our country – enshrined in Law, as our President recently pointed out — four fifths of the budget allocated to the Northern Province is controlled from the Ministry for Economic Development. Such total reversal of any sense of devolving is what the Divineguma bill did — something over which our Chief Justice was thrown out of her job.
Back in the Bridgetown pub, “so, what lessons should we learn from the Scottish referendum, machan? I asked Thevaram.
“Look, after thirty years of suffering a war, or twice that long of cheating by the political class, whichever you prefer to put emphasis on, the Tamils of Sri Lanka need a better deal. But that deal can only come about as a side effect of a better deal for everyone in the Island,” he said.
“Come on,” I challenged, “You mean the Tamils of Sri Lanka should now work towards the betterment of the whole of Sri Lanka – also with the help of Hanuman, diaspora and NGOs? And are you suggesting they should wait three hundred years for a better deal?”“Oh no, not three hundred, it is a much faster world today, machan,” he said about the timescales.
“And besides,” Thevaram said in a firm voice, “all other options have been explored – unsuccessfully.”
“QED, machan” he said, thumping the table with his empty Peroni glass.
“Quod Erat Demonstrandum?”
“Quite Easily Done!”