By Raj Gonsalkorale –
Professor Ratnajeevan Hoole in an article appearing in the Colombo Telegraph on the 1st of March, poses the question “Tamils’ hopes fading: Every village is Sinhalese? Raghavan sacked?” Firstly, it will be useful and important for the good Professor to clarify for all of us who he means when he refers to “Tamil hopes are fading”. The Tamil population demographics and its composition is very complex and Professor Hoole should inform readers whether he is referring to all Tamils living in the country or whether he is referring to a specific group of Tamils. There are Northern Province Tamils, Eastern Province Tamils, Plantation or “up country Tamils”, Tamils living in areas outside the above areas who are from all of the above areas, Tamil speaking non Tamils (Islamiyath Thamilar or Tamil Muslims) and so on.
Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan, Chair of the Conflict Resolution Department, Salisbury University, Maryland in an article titled “Who Is A Tamil?” published in the Colombo Telegraph in December 2016, states that in view of the devolution debate in general and devolution to the North-East Provinces in particular, the term “Tamil” means “Sri Lankan Tamils,” who live or have roots in the North-East Provinces. He also says that “The Sri Lankan Tamils on the other hand, believe that the North-East Provinces are their “homeland” and they fought for a separate state”.
One is also entitled to ask Professor Hoole whether he too agrees with Dr Keethaponcalan’s point of view that when he refers to “Tamil hopes are fading”, whether in fact he is referring only to the hopes of “Sri Lankan Tamils,” who live or have roots in the North-East Provinces and who believe the North and East is their homeland. This clarification is important as one needs to know the wants, needs and objectives of the group of Tamils referred to as Sri Lankan Tamils by Dr Keethaponcalan’
Dr Keethaponcalan goes on to say that in Sri Lanka, a distinction is made between Indian (or plantation or up-country) Tamils and Sri Lankan Tamils and that this distinction is important for two reasons.
One, because there are historical differences between the two groups. Sri Lankan Tamils have a very long history in the country. They are native to Sri Lanka. Hence, they are often called indigenous Tamils. He says If he remembers correctly, historian K.M. de Silva called Sri Lankan Tamils the “Indigenous Tamils.” Some nationalist Sinhalese believe that Sri Lankan Tamils were of recent origin, hence not native to the country. Nevertheless, Indian Tamils were mostly, but not exclusively, brought to work in the plantations during the colonial era.
Two, the issues and concerns of the Indian Tamils or Up-country Tamils are different from the Sri Lankan Tamils. Their problems are mostly social welfare related and could be resolved through administrative means, including administrative decentralization. They do not ask for a separate state and have worked closely with Sri Lankan governments. The Sri Lankan Tamils on the other hand, believe that the North-East Provinces are their “homeland” and they fought for a separate state. Hence, lumping Indian Tamils and Sri Lankan Tamils together under the label “Tamil” would certainly undermine the Indian Tamil’s socio-political welfare.
Their issues would become less significant. Therefore, in terms of political discourse, it is important to make a distinction between the Indian Tamils and Sri Lankan Tamils. It seems that the Indian Tamils have been increasingly adopting the label Up-country Tamils.
He also states that he subscribes to the idea that Muslims are not Tamils. They are an independent social group defined by religion. Every social group has the right to define it’s identify as it deems fit. The Muslims have the right to define who they are. Tamils trying to define the Muslims identity may make them hegemonic. Therefore, Tamil people, do not include the Muslims. The recognition that Muslims are an independent group has the potential to promote Muslim-Tamil reconciliation.
Dr Keethaponcalan mentions that Sir Ponnampalam Ramanathan had famously argued that Muslims are Islamiyath Thamilar. This notion created serious rift between the two communities. Muslims believed that Tamils have political motives to label them as Tamils. Many Muslims who write about Muslim-Tamil issues often start their analysis from Ramanathan. The label, Islamiyath Thamilar makes the Muslims a subcategory of Tamil. Hence, the resistance
The complexity of the composition of Tamils from a Sinhala perspective and how Tamils themselves define their composition is a barrier that has created difficulties in finding a solution to what is generally referred to as the “Tamil” issue.
The writer, in an article published in the Daily FT “New Constitution: Reinforcing the Tamil homeland theory or solving the “Tamil” issue?”, pointed out that in contemporary Sri Lanka, only two provinces have a Tamil majority. The Northern Province, which has a Tamil population of 93.8% and the Eastern Province, a Tamil population of 39.2%. The statistics quoted in this article are from the Census conducted by the Department of Census and Statistics in 2012. Nationally, 51.5% of all Tamils in the country live in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, while 48.5% live outside these two provinces. In reality, 48.5% of the Tamil population lives as minorities in seven of the nine provinces in the country. In the Eastern Province, the Tamil population is a minority if the Sinhala and Muslim population is combined.
The writer also pointed out that if the intention of a new Constitution, whenever it is formulated, is to devolve power, or some powers, to the provinces and make them more independent (of the centre), and provide avenues for greater self-determination, from a Tamil perspective, their minority status in the seven provinces and in the Eastern Province (when the Sinhala and Muslim populations are combined) will not provide the freedom and the flexibility their brethren will have in the Northern Province. So, in this sense, a class of Tamils who are more equal than others (in the rest of the country) will be created.
If the “Tamil” issue arose on account of domination and discrimination by the Sinhala majority, then, a new Constitution will change nothing except in the Northern province as the status quo in regard to the majority position will remain elsewhere irrespective of constitutional provisions that prohibit discrimination by race, religion, gender, disability, etc. as already enshrined in the current Constitution.
In respect of the “Tamil” issue, granting greater devolution of powers to provinces will benefit the Tamils in the Northern Province and to a lesser extent the Tamils in the Eastern Province. Other Tamils will have to work out how best they could share power with the Sinhala community and other communities and work for the betterment of all communities. The question that springs to mind is whether this is in fact what a constitution model should be for the entire country, and what kind of constitutional structure would provide the foundation for a society which accepts and respects the diversity of the country.
The ”Sinhalisation” or introducing a deliberate strategy to make villages in the Northern, and to a lesser extent in the Eastern province, “Sinhala Buddhist” villages, as alluded to by Professor Hoole is not right and it is counter-productive to ethnic harmony and reconciliation. If one forgets history for a moment and looks only at the contemporary situation, the Northern province is nearly 94% Tamil. If the Sinhala community wishes to establish some villages in that province as “Sinhala Buddhist” villages to prove a historical point, then they should also be willing to accept the Sri Lankan Tamil point of view that villages in the Eastern province were also historically Tamil villages.
The Northern province is essentially a Tamil province going by contemporary, recorded, population statistics whatever “historical” debates one might have. Similarly, the Eastern province is a province where the Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim populations are there in equal numbers. Other provinces have Tamils as minority communities.
Professor Hoole should make it clear to all Sri Lankans who he is writing about when he says “Tamil hopes are dashed”. He should also clarify whether the dashed hopes are more to do with a deep rooted political issue rather than an issue faced by Tamils throughout the country where Sinhala/Buddhist domination had made Tamils, all Tamils, feel they were discriminated by the majority community.
If it is to do with a political issue, which is substantially, the Tamil homeland issue, it is a highly debatable issue and it is one without any solution as it has no contemporary bearing and only circumstantial information. If Professor Hoole is arguing for such a solution, and says Tamil hopes have been dashed, there will not be any hope for the Tamils he is referring to. The question of provincial devolution, both administrative and political, is something that can and should be visited, but, there has to be clarity on the ultimate objective/s and desires of the different groups of Tamils in Sri Lanka. Classifying only some Tamils as Sri Lankan Tamils does not appear to facilitate such a clarification especially to others who are not “Sri Lankan Tamils” and also to the majority Sinhala community.