By Izeth Hussain –
When will you ever, Peace, wild wooddove, shy wings shut,
Your round me roaming end, and under be my boughs? – Gerard Manley Hopkins
Hopkins was of course speaking of an inner peace, since he like all great creative writers had the strange gift of tormenting himself, a gift that can also be seen as a “fertile lack of balance” in Roy Fuller’s phrase. But what he wrote was apposite to the kind of outward peace that we are looking for, struggling for, in Sri Lanka, an enduring peace that we hope will ensue from a definitive political solution of the ethnic problem. That peace is conventionally imaged as a vacuous creature with a twig in its mouth. It could be more appropriately imaged as the wild wooddove of Hopkins’ imagining. It is a wild creature that is not easily amenable to our wishes but one that we have to prove worthy of after a struggle.
The point I am getting at is that it would be mistaken to imagine that the political solution, reconciliation, and ethnic harmony that most Sri Lankans want can be secured just through Constitutional changes, legal enactments, and the setting up of certain institutions. All that provides only a framework for action, and what matters really is the action that follows: does it put into practice the Constitutional changes and the legal enactments, and does it conduce to reconciliation and ethnic harmony? If not, the framework would be pointless. But even if the action is of a positive order, it will take time before ethnic harmony is reached. It would be an organic process, something like the growth of a tree. The establishment of relations of trust and reciprocity that would signal a political solution on the ground cannot be accomplished overnight or in the short run. The reason is that that wild wooddove will not heed the diktats of the Constitution.
What we can do in the present phase is to make the right decisions, not the wrong ones that can lead to a compounding of the problem. I have argued in my last article and earlier ones that a very wide measure of devolution, going well beyond 13 A, can compound the problem and become a factor that countervails advance towards a definitive solution. I have drawn the conclusion therefore that the most effective factor in solving the problem would be a fully functioning democracy with adequate safeguards for the minorities as in the West. The Tamils seem to be allergic to this idea for the following reason. The kind of democracy that I am postulating could be a chimerical one in Sri Lanka. We may be able to achieve something like a fully functioning democracy – we are on the way it – but many Tamils would say that it is doubtful in the extreme that the Sinhalese would ever allow adequate safeguards for the minorities as in the West. Therefore the Tamils insist on as wide a measure of devolution as might be possible to secure their legitimate interests to the greatest extent that might be possible on their own without depending on the Sinhalese.
At this phase of my argument I will make an important point about democracy. It is that devolution can succeed only if there is a democratic culture, only if the majority is imbued with the democratic values that make it respect the rights of the minorities. So, a fully functioning democracy is a pre-requisite for successful devolution. I am not being fanciful here but severely pragmatic. We did have something close to a fully functioning democracy from `1948 to 1977, and we did have reasonably fair and equal treatment for the minorities from 1948 to 1956. There is no reason – given the fact that we have learnt some lessons from a quarter century of war – why we should not be able to improve on that earlier performance.
I argued in my last article that what we have on our hands is not a purely indigenous Tamil ethnic problem but an Indo-Tamil problem. India therefore has a moral responsibility to help sort out the problem, and also the ability to do so. It can persuade the Tamils that there is no reason why Sri Lanka should not match India’s performance in having something that can be fairly characterized as a fully functioning democracy and an acceptable degree of fair and equal treatment for the minorities. It can also persuade the Tamils that it is mistaken to make a shibboleth of devolution, insisting that a very wide measure of it is the essential pre-requisite for a political solution. The example of Belgium should show that devolution can aggravate the problem. India can also convince the Tamils that the international community does not accept the so-called right of self-determination. India won’t allow self-determination for Kashmir and it severely punished the Sikhs for striking out for Kalistan. Recently there was an article by the head of Sri Lanka’s Maoist Communist Party asserting categorically the right of self-determination. But China won’t allow self-determination for the Tibetans or its Muslim minority.
India can help, it has a moral obligation to help, and it could do so to a decisive extent. But that extent though decisive will be a limited one: not much more than persuading the Tamils to give up their intransigent positions. Thereafter it will be up to us to make the requisite Constitutional and other changes, and set up the appropriate institutions. But all that will amount only to the establishment of a framework for a solution, not the solution itself. For that we have to set in motion an organic process, comparable to the growth of a tree, which will lead to relations of trust and reciprocity. I believe that that will not be possible unless there are attitudinal changes among both the Sinhalese and the Tamils.
The question of making attitudinal changes is a huge and complex one which we have not even begun to address. Here I am doing no more than merely introducing the idea. Let me conclude by providing a few illustrations of what I have in mind. We can teach our children the history of Sri Lanka in a tendentious way that emphasizes the aspect of conflict between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. Alternatively we can teach it in a way that gives equal emphasis, or even greater emphasis, to the positive interaction between the two groups, which in many ways was a symbiotic relationship. We can teach our children that Dutugemunu saved this island which belongs to the Sinhalese from Elara and the invading Tamils. Alternatively we can teach them that it is mistaken to think of that war purely in terms of a conflict between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. We can omit or emphasize the facts that Dutugemunu designated Elara as the Just, and that generations of the Sinhalese people walked past Elara’s tomb – a practice that lasted until the ‘fifties of the last century. Obviously history can be taught in ways that could promote or hinder the organic process that could lead to relations of trust and reciprocity.
At the present juncture, when there seems to be a prospect of understanding between the Government and the TNA, it is important that both the Sinhalese and the Tamils give up their habit of demonizing the other side. The Tamils must give up their notion that there is such a thing as the Mahavamsa mindset which will forever prevent the Sinhalese giving fair and equal treatment to the minorities, and the Sinhalese must abandon the notion that the Tamils will never give up their dream of Eelam. Obviously there will be no advance towards an enduring solution if such mistaken and essentially racist beliefs persist. Changes in beliefs and attitudes, not just Constitutional and institutional changes, are required for the organic process to get going towards the relations of trust and reciprocity that will constitute a political solution on the ground. We have to struggle towards that consummation. Otherwise that wild wooddove, Peace, will never come to repose under our boughs.