By Imtiyaz Razak –
Edited by Cheran, R. Pathways of Dissent: Tamil Nationalism in Sri Lanka. New Delhi, India.: Sage Publications, 2009. 283 pp.
Many scholarly studies on Sri Lanka explain the nature and the roots of the ethnic conflict between the Tamils and the Sinhalese, which eventually opened the way for the birth of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the separatist Tamil organization, commonly known as the LTTE, established in May 1976 and violently defeated in May 2009). However, very few studies on Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflicts focus on the Tamil perspectives and the complexities of their struggle or the dynamic evolution from the non-violent stage (1947-1976) to the violent phrase (1976-2010) of this historical chapter.Pathways of Dissent: Tamil Nationalism in Sri Lanka edited by Cheran fills that gap and offers profound insight to readers. The chapters provide a combination of narrative and analytical information, thus making the volume appealing to both the general readership and scholars who are well versed in Sri Lankan history.
Several essays in the early segment of the book concentrate primarily on the roots and nature of Tamil nationalism as well as the profound origin of the Tamil ethnic identity and its historical stages of transformation. As Cheran aptly points out, “nationalism involves and evolves from a fusion of several elements: language, territory and distinctions, from contiguous neighbors in ways which sustain a group’s sense of us and them” (p. XVI).
Ethnicity exists and affects the behaviors of members of different ethnic groups; however, ethnic identities alone do not cause tensions among them. Tensions and conflicts occur in divided societies between groups when political forces politicize the ethnic identities to win power. In Sri Lanka the Sinhala political class has made systematic efforts to politicize the ethnic relations by providing state concessions to the Sinhala ethnic nation. The concessions from the “Sinhala only” language policy in 1956 to the pro-Sinhala ethnic standardization education policies in 1972, and from the religious policy establishing state patronage of Buddhism in the 1972 Constitution to land policy which, as early as 1948, began state colonization of the Tamil land, all contributed to the growth of Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka. It is worth noting that the Tamils, who were victims of the Sinhala violence, mobilized politically without any violence under moderate parties such as the Federal Party (FP). However, Sinhalese chauvinism neglected the Tamil moderates. More tragically, the Tamils’ peaceful protests were met with Sinhalese ruling class’ violent responses. The aggressive Sinhala response to the moderate demands of Tamil nationalism encouraged some Tamils to seek violent alternatives to win justice and peace. This helps us to understand the socio-political conditions behind the birth of Tamil violent movements, particularly the LTTE in the 1979s (pp.34-37).
The LTTE claimed that it was the inevitable result of the Sinhala oppression and thus identified itself as the liberation movement. However, anti-LTTE critics argue that the LTTE’s anti-Sinhala and Muslim positions and actions have seriously compromised the LTTE’s claims. It is true that LTTE targeted innocent Sinhalese villagers. The Muslims, whose political leaders supported all the anti-Tamil legislations of the Sinhala regime since independence, have accused LTTE of confiscating Muslim wealth in the North- Eastern Province. In addition, LTTE did not tolerate liberal opposition of the Tamil polity and violently targeted Tamil politicians and activists who challenged its position in the Tamil political apparatus. However, it is also true that the LTTE’s anti-liberal policies in its 30 years’ struggle are characteristics similar of many other political/military movements in other third world countries. One of the key reasons for their radical nature is attributable to the fact that these movements are often the product of the postcolonial states that have, not uncommonly, resorted to the use of violence in cracking down oppositions.
The point is that, as Vaitheespara acknowledge, “despite its many mistakes and blunders, it was possible to convert the movement from a strictly nationalist organization into a more liberation organization” (P. 47). Also, the growth of the non-violent movements, particularly the LTTE, affected how the Tamil polity deals with the social issues from economy to caste and from family to feminism. The chapters in the book expressively and critically analyze these changes and their consequences.
The defeat of the LTTE in May 2009 came with the loss of an enormous number of innocent Tamil people. But the question remains: will Sri Lanka embrace ethnic peace in order to heal the historical wounds and minimize ethnic hatred? Historical experiences confirm that when political elites politicize ethnic symbols of a particular group to win power, it would put different groups at the risk of security crisis and war. Such developments increasingly weaken the prospect of peace when wars claim innocent civilian lives. Sri Lanka’s current dilemma in its efforts at constructing a precarious peace serves to reinforce this theory, a point that is made by several contributors.
This edited volume provides a unique insight into the Tamil perspectives of the ethnic conflict and, in doing so, it fulfills its stated purpose of addressing “the complexities and contours of Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka” (p. ix), thus adding an important dimension to the analytical framework of the Tamil-Sinhala ethnic struggle. It is an valuable source of information for all students of Sri Lanka history in general, and ethnic conflicts in particular.
*Dr. A. R. M. Imtiyaz’ research and teaching are mainly focused on ethnic politics. He has published widely in peer-reviewed international journals. He currently teaches at the Asian Studies/Department of Political Science, Temple University, Philadelphia, USA.