By Athithan Jayapalan –
A nation as a concept is grounded on the basis of denoting people who foremost share a common language, a common and contiguous territory, historical processes, an overarching ethnic identity and distinct collective socio-cultural traits. This is not to deny the forms of differentiation within a nation based on caste, class, locality and gender which can generate internal oppression and intersection in experience and identities. Despite the internal differentiation the nation is, in Benedict Anderson’s words, a commune of people who imagine as being part of a collective nation. Although it is in essence imagined or rather a cognitive condition, it manifests itself as lived experience and material reality for those concerned. The collective existence of a people is constituted upon the consciousness of being a nation, belonging to a collective.
The nation being a historically constituted and sustained community of people on the basis of national characteristics as mentioned above is still dependent on socio-political processes to engender national consciousness and action. Such is often materialized through the political mobilization of a people under the banner of a nation. Beside its historical preconditions, the nation is dependent on conscious and sustained efforts to exercise national mobilization.
Throughout the world, national mobilization has become integral in the struggle for self-determination and political rights for oppressed people as well as in regard to state projects of nationalism. Without such political activity the nation as a platform for collective social action will be ephemeral and insignificant. It is the dynamics between the two forms which are of concern in this article.
The Nation-state and National oppression
Throughout the South Asian region, the established nation-state often represents a particular ethnic group and nation: the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka, the Punjabis in Pakistan, the Bamars in Burma and the Hindi speaking people in India. This character of the post-independent states ensured the consolidation of an ethno chauvinist nation state through national mobilization which rested upon the national oppression of others within the designated state boundaries. The consolidation of the Sri Lankan state caused the national oppression of Eelam Tamils, while that of the Pakistani state ensured the national oppression of the Baloch and Sindhis. The perpetuation of the Burmese state by the Bamars and other related Buddhist peoples engender the national oppression of Kachin, Karen and Rohingyas. Furthermore in India a Hindi centric chauvinist nationalism fostered a state which presided upon the national oppression of the Kashmiris, Manipuris, Mizoris, Nagas, the Assamese, alongside other North Eastern and indigenous nations. It becomes evident that the relation between national oppression and the structures of contemporary nation states is not coincidental. The particular national mobilization promoted by these nation states was in fact instigated through the workings of chauvinist nationalism which sanctioned national oppression.
In such contexts, the oppressed nation is compelled into political mobilization to safeguard the foundation of its national existence. The continued consolidation of Sri Lanka into an oppressive Sinhala Buddhist nation state ensured a protracted national oppression in the form of structural genocide. The Sri Lankan state had since its formation during colonial times, been designed to enact a genocidal violence to eradicate the national characteristics of Tamils by primarily denying them national existence and self determination. Such intent was evident as the state coordinated processes of colonization, nationalist education, anti Tamil pogroms, discriminatory laws and brutal counter insurgency from the 1970s onwards. With the commencement of coordinated counter insurgency efforts a clear genocidal character becomes discernible in the state violence which targeted the Tamils.
The denial of nationhood and self-determination
In Sri Lanka, there is a long political tradition of denying the national existence of Tamils and to delegitimize or criminalize their national mobilization. On the forefront of such an epistemological and political process of silencing oppressed peoples’ self-determination are the state centric discourses which blatantly deny their national existence and the genocidal violence perpetuated against them. In these discourses there is a convenient omission of the fact that it is the nation state’s bolster of ethnic chauvinism and national oppression which enhances as well as necessitates the national mobilization of the oppressed. Moreover the quintessence of self-determination is obscured by these discourses as they tend to dictate to the oppressed nation how to exercise their political rights and collective existence. Here is when the usage of minority enters the rhetoric propagated. In conceptualizing the oppressed nation as a minority the discourse effectively silences the demographic composition of the oppressed within their traditional homeland. In the island of Sri Lanka, the Eelam Tamils constitute a clear majority with contiguity within the Tamil homeland to the north-east. The framing of Tamils as being a minority contains their political rights and national consciousness within the unitary state of Sri Lanka.
Thus it is an absurd practice, when the state and the oppressor nation attempt to determine on behalf of the oppressed nation how to formulate even the experiences of national oppression and strategies for national resistance.
The Sri Lankan state and its ideologues are relentless in their denial of and efforts to deconstruct the Tamil nation. Recently on Colombotelegraph, a chief architect of state centric discourse, Dayan Jayatilleka elucidated that the Tamils are not sufficient in numbers to constitute a nation through the citation of false statistics obtained in the CIA World fact book. He writes
“There would be chaos if every country were to accord the status of nationhood to every ethnic group which is 4% and above, not least because the status of nationhood brings with it the claim of the inalienable right of self determination up to and including political independence” (1).
Clearly not concerned about his mandate, Jayatileke propagates a logic based on math and Sinhala chauvinism to deny the Eelam Tamils nationhood:
“There is no Tamil nation in Sri Lanka, but there is a Tamil minority in Sri Lanka. There is however a Sinhala nation in Sri Lanka. That is the only ethnic community on the island which can claim the status of a nation as such. Though they do have a just claim to autonomy and devolution, the Tamils of Sri Lanka do not have the right of national self-determination, be it external or internal.” (2).
Countering such philistine state propaganda, others involved themselves in the discourse on Colombotelegraph. Even liberals who critiqued Jayatileka in sum debated whether the Tamils were a nation or not by citing internal differentiation or the inability to incorporate other Tamil speaking peoples to the south. The liberal critique although nominally critical of the Sri Lankan state discourse, deems the Eelam Tamil nationhood as unwarranted and thus in effect reiterates the established unitary state structure, which is the source of the concerned national oppression. What the debate evidently lacked was the contextualization of the national mobilization of the Eelam Tamils. To fruitfully grasp the nationhood of Eelam Tamils, one has to assess the dynamics between it and the state enforced national oppression. An articulation or attempt at the deconstruction of the Eelam Tamil nation without incorporating the agency of the nation state, would easily fail to grasp the omnipresent national oppression which the state presides over. It is in the face of aggressive national oppression that the Eelam Tamils consolidated their national mobilization and struggle for nationhood. To leave the state out of the equation in an attempt to investigate the Eelam Tamil nation often tends to result in delegitimizing such a collective existence. This is ensured through the pursuit of only illuminating internal contradictions and differentiation within the oppressed nation without contextualizing it to the unifying effect upon the oppressed people of state enacted national oppression.
The Right to Self Determination
Despite the internal differences the Tamils were targeted as a collective by the state on the basis of their nationality. The state discrimination and violence against Tamils did not differentiate based on the internal differences existing within the Tamils; they were targeted on the basis of sharing an ethnic identity, belonging to certain localities and speaking a particular language.
Thereby the denial of the Tamil people’s right to self determination or the deconstruction of their nationhood within a context of a structural genocide serves only to legitimize the unfettered national oppression perpetuated by the state, as it neither adequately nor critically assesses the state.
Jayatilleka’s polemics in denying Tamil nationhood is amusing as it does not concern facts nor does it comprehend the very essence of self-determination. A century back, in 1914 V.I. Lenin brilliantly illuminated the spirit of self-determination when he wrote on the national question of Poland and Norway in his classical work The Right of Nations to Self-determination (3). He rightfully elaborated that the future of the Polish nation is not to be decided in Moscow but in Warsaw. Refuting critic from Semkovsky and Rosa Luxenborg who attempted to deny Polish self determination citing it as a bourgeoisie project, Lenin replied that the right to self determination is not to be decided at the seat of power of the oppressor nation ‘..but in the Parliament, the national assembly of the minority which secede or by a referendum among this minority’.
Lenin continues “If, in our political agitation, we fail to advance and advocate the slogan of the right to secession, we shall play into the hands, not only of the bourgeoisie, but also of the feudal landlords and the absolutism of the oppressor nation. …When, in her anxiety not to “assist” the nationalist bourgeoisie of Poland, Rosa Luxemburg rejects the right to secession in the programme of the Marxists in Russia, she is in fact assisting the Great-Russian Black Hundreds. She is in fact assisting opportunist tolerance of the privileges (and worse than privileges) of the Great Russians.”
In a similar vein Lenin articulates how for an oppressed nation a bourgeoisie revolution is necessitated due to its democratic potentials before a social revolution is achievable. In this spirit the Swedish proletariat correctly grasped the national question of the Norwegians in 1905. When the Swedish bourgeois and clergy decided to enforce their union on Norway and annex it by force, Lenin illuminates that the Swedish proletariat denounced such an intention and struggled to assist the Norwegian demand for self determination by pushing for a referendum to be held among the Norwegian people.
Likewise, in the spirit of Lenin’s words, the self determination and the nationhood of Eelam Tamils, is neither to be debated by Colombo centric individuals nor to be decided in Colombo. It is a right which resides upon the collective will of the Eelam Tamil people to the North-East. To ascertain such a collective will, there is the historical need to hold a referendum among the Tamils. The 1977 landslide electoral victory of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) was based on the Vaddukoddai resolution of 1976 which demanded the establishment of an independent socialist secular state of Tamil Eelam. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) triumphed in the 2013 Northern Provincial election through an election manifesto grounded on the demand for the recognition of Tamil nationhood, self-determination and an arrest of the genocidal processes. Both historical events are indicative of the continuity in the national will of the Eelam Tamils in rejecting Colombo’s sovereignty and in embracing their inalienable right to self determination. Only a referendum conducted under the supervision of the UN could enable the Tamil people to reaffirm their national aspirations.
3) V.I Lenin. 1914 “The Right of Nations to Self-Determination” in Lenin’s Collected Works: Progress Publishers 1972, Moscow: Volume 20. Pp. 293-454.