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.
Sengodan. M / April 24, 2014
Very good analysis. The basic problem in Sri Lanka is the National Question continuing to remain unresolved. The only way it could be resolved is to recognise the right of self determination of the Eelam Tamils. Such recognition will entitle them to full autonomy with the right to secede. Having this right need not always lead to secession. It is simply like the right to divorce that a married couple has.
All Sinhala chauvinists in Sri Lanka know full well that the Eelam Tamils are a distinct people,comprising a nation. They will do all that they can to convert them into a national minority which they have done successfully to some extent in the East and now striving to do the same with the help of the military in the North.
Chandana Perera / April 24, 2014
I have seen in recent times many authors talk about self determination for tamils in Sri Lanka that will result in formation of an independent nation for tamils. Why not you start this from India, from Tamil Nadu.That is the easiest thing to do leaving Sri Lanka alone. But,India will never allow this to happen. I think all the tamils who demand a sepearate country in Sri Lanka should fight for a separate nation in India so that they can go there live peacefully.
Srihari / April 24, 2014
Why should people of Tamil Nadu need a seperate nation??? Sure India has hell lot of problems but there is no en-masse discimination like in SL. Sample this, PV Narasimha Rao(Telugu), Deva Gowda(Kannnada), Manmohan Singh(Sikh) had the fortune of leading the nation as Prime Ministers, there were others like Abdul Kalam who became President of India. Can you imagine a Tamil becoming PM in SL???Nuff said.
Hela / April 25, 2014
As Sengodan says recognition of a nation doesn’t mean separate state. Based on Dayan Jayatilleke’s argument TN Tamils may have the necessary critical mass to be counted as a nation and not a minority. Based on this article, Hindi domination is oppressing all other nations in India including Tamils. Therefore TN is better suited to test the case of nationhood and self determination for Tamils of the world.
So let’s try it in TN and leave all other countries where Tamils are a minority.
Srihari / April 25, 2014
I dont have to agree on the entire content of the article. Even assuming there is Hindi Centric chauvinist nationalism prevailing(which I think is not true)in India how can you explain linguistic minority people like a PV Narasimha Rao(Telugu), Deva Gowda(Kannadiga), Manmohan Singh(sikh)becoming Prime-Ministers(highest political office in India) and then there is Abdul Kalam(Tamil Muslim) who had the privilege of becoming President of India hell there was even a talk of a Tamil(Chidambaram) of being potential PM candidate and I very much doubt whether Tamils(& probably muslims) would be accomdated in SL army let alone occupying Presidency of SL. I bet even in gravest of crisis Indian Army will not undertake Aerial strikes against their own countrymen. In so far as critical mass is concerned as Usha S Sri-Skanda-Rajah pointed out in other article that in UK – the Northern Irish, the Welsh or the Scots are not called minorities(https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/tamil-perspective-dangerous-and-genocidal-dayange-chinthanaya/). Given these conditions in India I dont see a need for a seperate Tamil Nation in India but there is strong case for right to self-determination in SL.
Hela / April 26, 2014
The selectivity you demonstrate in your response is a clear suggestion that the concepts that are under discussion are an illusionary cover. It is a cover to achieve the separatist objective set by Tamil separatists well before independence in 1948.
As to your other contentions, many Tamil officers served in SL security forces and the Police with distinction. Number of them became IGPs, Bregadiers, Colonels and Majors and one became the navy commander. Many Muslim officers became part of folklore during the Eelam Wars due to the gallantry they displayed. They are an integral part of the Nation’s war heroes. It was the declaration of war by LTTE and their targeting of Tamils working with the government as collaborators that started the decline of Tamil representation in the security forces. Even now there is considerable opposition from Tamil separatists to attempts to recruit Tamil youth into various ranks of security forces.
In the political arena, the most recent example is Laxman Kadirgamar, who was a potential prime minister in waiting gunned down by LTTE as a traitor. It is being stated that JVP supported the candidacy of LK for the PM post. Then you can count many Tamil politicians who were murdered by LTTE, such as TULF leadership who were once the mentors of the ‘boys’ and many Tamil mayors of Jaffna starting from Alfred Duraiappah. They are all leaders at various levels of SL political system, with some of them having the potential of becoming truly national leaders.
The selective amnesia displayed by many in these columns is a major stumbling block in achieving peaceful existence for SL. citizens.
Easwaran / April 26, 2014
Hi Chandana Perera this argument of yours show your ignorance and non understanding of the Lankan history. Mostly all Sinhalese have had their brain washed and unable to think or rationalise. All stated with the myth that British favoured the Tamils, compounded with the Mahavamsa mythology. Tamils have been shadow boxing with out taking the bull’s horns and silencing these mythical concepts. How many of the Sinhalese in Srilanka are pure Sinhalese. mostly all assimilated groups from south Indians, Orisons and Bengalis. some Portuguese and Dutch. You have no proper history just interlopers in the Island of Lanka.
Don Quixote / April 24, 2014
Does this guy even understand what he has written ?
How long has he lived in Sri Lanka to make statements like we “deny the existence of Tamils ?”
Anpu / April 24, 2014
Athithan knows what he is talking about. Please read again and again then you will understand. If you need further reference http://tamilnation.co/selfdetermination/
Spring Koha / April 24, 2014
All the points that you make are valid but too much water has flowed under the bridge and the ground realities in our blessed land increasingly point to the minorities, including the Tamils, seeking a workable compromise with the beleaguered Sinhala majority, in spite of the increasingly rabid nationalist goons in yellow robes who make present day life in our land hell. Sadly, fate has always played a dirty trick on minorities wherever they find themselves; and this goes for Sinhalese too who have bite their lip and learn the language of wherever they would go to. The sad fact is that however much minorities assimilate and learn Sinhala etc. it wouldn’t matter one jot in present day Sri Lanka.
Anpu / April 24, 2014
Keep up the good work young man Athithan.
Athithan / April 24, 2014
Dear Anpu, thank you for your never failing support and encouraging words.
JimSofty / April 24, 2014
The easiest way to solve the Tamil problem is going back to their mother land South India.
Most Sri Lankan Tamils are malayalis and kallathonis who crossed the sea from Tamilnadu.
JimSofty / April 24, 2014
During the difficult times, many Tamils crossed to Tamilnadu. Why can not we argue in the same way thousands of Tamils crossed to the Sri Lankan side too because the life in Tamilnadu is difficult ?
Tamodaya / April 25, 2014
Tamils have no nation!