By Ahilan Kadirgamar –
The first time I spoke at the Faculty of Arts Seminar Series was in January 2008. It was at a very different moment, at the height of the civil war. My talk was titled “Third World Sovereignty, Conflicts and Democratisation” and was primarily a critique of law, particularly international law. At the time, I highlighted the importance of domestic political processes in seeking a viable political solution. I want to emphasise that four and a half years after the war, little progress has been made towards a political solution. Next, the debates on Sri Lanka, both within Sri Lanka and without, continue to focus on international law, sovereignty and the right to self-determination. I believe it is important to challenge the terms of such discourse, particularly given their currency in international and statist interventions. Furthermore, the limited politics circumscribed by law fall far short of the much need progressive politics of social justice and democratisation.
The Provincial Council elections in the Northern Province took place after twenty five years. The Government took over four years after the war ended to hold the NPC elections, losing valuable time, leading to further ethnic polarisation. The post-war North approaching the elections was characterised by militarisation, a polarising Tamil nationalist discourse on the ascendance, and a development programme that had failed the ordinary people. Indeed, the results of the elections were but an overwhelming protest vote against the Government’s post-war policies in the North. However, it is important to realise that the outcome of the elections and the NPC has created openings. These openings are fragile, but are perhaps the most significant for the North in the post-war years.
Political Economy of Openings
I begin by articulating two aspects of these openings, which are both in and of the North. First, in temporal terms, these openings are historical opportunities. Second, in spatial terms, these openings are about transforming the geography including the borders of the North. Furthermore, any understanding of these historical and geographical openings should contextualise them in relation to barriers that closed the North in the past. Militarisation, the market, financialisation, nationalist ideology and the reduction of politics to law are characteristic of such barriers.
What is then the political economic context of these historical and geographical openings? Opportunities for capital accumulation were limited in the North as production stagnated with production facilities far behind the rest of the country. This is also true of Jaffna despite having remained relatively unscathed by major battles during the last decade of war. The situation in the Vanni was dismal with the region being razed to the ground during the last phase of the war.
With the A-9 highway reconnecting Jaffna after the war, the North was flooded with goods from the South and the world market, undermining what little production that existed in the North. Indeed, the Government’s key dimensions of reconstruction and development in the North have been building infrastructure, particularly roads, leading to the expansion of the market, and promoting the proliferation of banks. Financialisation, characterised by bank loans, lease hire purchasing and pawning, also encouraged considerable consumption supporting further expansion of the market.
The dynamics of the market and finance, have led to both dispossession and indebtedness. In recent months, with debtors defaulting on loans, banks are beginning to tighten credit. And with many households having become dependent on debt for day-to-day consumption even as agricultural production has been devastated by crop failures, the situation is now dire with many families reduced to eating one meal a day. Sadly, it is this tragic situation with the Government’s economic policies failing that has created an opening for the NPC to intervene. The NPC is faced with two challenges: providing immediate relief from hunger and formulating an alternative economic programme.
A central shift with a working NPC will be the change from a military administration to a civil administration. Up till now, the North was closed off geographically by militarisation including surveillance of everyday life. A de facto military administration is in place run by ex-military personnel including the Governor of the Northern Province and the GA for Mannar District. The shift towards a civil administration is also an opening then to demilitarise the North.
Political vision in the North was also ideologically closed by Tamil nationalism and the reduction of politics to law. Political debates in the Tamil media and for that matter even the TNA’s election manifesto reduced politics to the limitations of the 13th Amendment or the discourse of right to internal self-determination and the Tamil nation. Since the election there is an opening to rebuild relations with the Muslim community and address progressive forces in the South. With the NPC, Tamil politics is beginning to engage a range of political economic questions and thinking about dismantling the barriers that had closed the North.
Engaging the North
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader R. Sampanthan has been forthright in articulating that the immediate priority is the war-affected population’s livelihoods, even as the longer-term challenge of a political solution remains. This is a welcome change for Tamil politics, a politics that has always been in the opposition and has never governed. This new approach, however, has come under some attack by narrow nationalist sections of the Jaffna elite and Tamil Diaspora. For decades previously, Tamil politics dwelled on ideological concerns about nationhood to the detriment of economic and social concerns. And now, the tension between economic life and ideological posturing has created an important shift in Tamil politics.
The openings are not just about a historical opportunity and what the TNA can do. It is also about the possible forms of solidarity between labour unions, cooperative societies and educational institutions that strengthen relations between the North and South. When it comes to the economy, intellectuals from both the North and the South, need to recognise the failure of economic policies in uplifting the war-torn population and come up with a credible economic programme for reconstruction with the participation of the local population. Not only is there a need for a critique of the market and finance impoverishing households, but also alternatives that strengthen collectives such as the variety of cooperatives and educational institutions which are the backbone of Northern society. And local production needs to be upgraded through investment in factories and workshops.
All this requires a strategy for the NPC, which some progressive quarters in Jaffna envision as an approach of cooperation with the Centre so that the less contentious powers of the NPC are activated to initiate its functioning. Drafting statutes for the NPC to govern and a strategy for financial devolution will also be important. Creating such momentum will be critical to negotiate the more contentious police and land powers, to make a major push towards demilitarisation and to work towards a longer-term political solution when the political climate is conducive in the South. For all of this to happen, scholars, intellectuals and broader sections of society must come together. The worry of course is that the NPC may be curtailed or even shut down by the President and his representative, the Governor.
University in a Democracy
I want to end with some comments about the role of universities. In 1967, when student movements were on the rise, German philosopher Jurgen Habermas gave a lecture titled, “The University in a Democracy – Democratisation of the University” in which he claimed:
“The link between our post-war democracy and the traditional university—a link that seems almost attractive—is coming to an end. Two tendencies are competing with each other. Either increasing productivity is the sole basis of reform that smoothly integrates the depoliticised university into the system of social labour and at the same time inconspicuously cuts its ties to the political, public realm. Or the university asserts itself within the democratic system. Today, however, this seems possible in only one way: although it has misleading implications, it can be called democratisation of the university. I should like to substantiate my vote for this second possibility by trying to demonstrate the affinity and inner relation of the enterprise of knowledge on the university level to the democratic form of decision-making.”
Keeping Habermas in mind, I would like to address three developments over the last year with respect to the university space and the North. First the FUTA struggle, which is perhaps the only national struggle in the post-war era. While the response from Jaffna University was at first lukewarm, it nevertheless politicised and connected some academics in the North to the rest of the country. The forging of this important alliance was possible with the opening created by the strike action.
Second, in late November last year, we saw the shutdown of Jaffna University by the military’s intervention to arrest students who had commemorated the LTTE’s Martyrs Day. While I disagree with the politics of that commemoration, state repression was not the way to deal with these students. Rather it requires intellectual engagement to challenge the exclusivist politics of Tamil nationalism, just as one should do with Sinhala Buddhist nationalism in the South.
Third, an encouraging development at the Jaffna University was a day long international seminar on the Palk Bay fishing conflict jointly organised by the Jaffna University and Ruhuna University in January this year. This initiative, which seeks to find a solution to the fishing communities of the North ravaged by Indian trawlers poaching the Northern seas, exemplifies the potential of a North – South partnership that may foster opportunities to uplift the livelihoods of the Northern fishing community.
Returning to Habermas then, his essay addresses the universities after the legacy of Nazi Germany and the Second World War. During the first couple decades after the war, the university communities and the student movements worked towards strengthening German democracy. However, by 1967, Habermas felt the universities were under considerable pressure to become institutions that impart technical expert knowledge to benefit economic production. This might also be true of the pressures on our national universities here in Sri Lanka today. And at those cross roads, Habermas not only saw the importance of the university in a democracy, but the democratisation of the universities.
The election and the inauguration of the NPC have created openings not only to address education but society more broadly. Not only is this an opening for democratisation of the North, it is also an opening for ensuring democracy in Sri Lanka, both of which are inextricably tied to a political solution.
*This article is based on a presentation made on 23rd October 2013 at the Faculty of Arts Seminar Series, University of Peradeniya.