Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran’s speech delivered at the Bernard Soysa Centenary Commemoration Meeting last Monday carries special significance for a number of reasons[i]. It is a speech that we need to read closely, carefully and critically. As a speech that has the national question at its heart and as a speech delivered by none other than the Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial council, many of us may want to read the ways in which the speech frames the (Tamil) nation or the (Tamil) national. Chief Minister Wigneswaran tries to address the national question by highlighting the failure of the post-independence Sri Lankan state to include the Tamil nation within its imagination. He underlines the astute, progressive positions the Left parties took in the past with regard to the national question, while highlighting rightly where and when the Left went wrong and how they contributed to deepen the majoritarian structures of the state. Wigneswaran recalls his decision to stop learning Sinhala, as an act of resistance, after the introduction of the discriminatory Sinhala-only act and bemoans that it has rendered him unable to explain to the Sinhala speaking people in the South the predicament of the Tamils under the hegemonic state. All in all, I read this speech as one that believes that engaging the South on the national question is imperative for the two communities on the island to co-exist with trust in one another. What prompted me to write this piece is the need to move beyond the nationalist paradigms of state formation that Wigneswaran presents in his speech and to address the national question without furthering the polarization of our communities.
Chief Minister Wigneswaran frames the Tamil nation as a pre-given, ontological entity, an argument on which his entire speech rests:
The Tamil speaking people of the North and East of Sri Lanka are a Nation without a State. They have a number of characteristics which qualify them to such a description – a long history in Sri Lanka which goes to pre-Buddhistic times, a language, probably the oldest living language, which binds them all and distinct cultural practices. The areas of residence of this group of people were delineated even from the time of the Dutch and the British, though certain tinkering was done after independence to change the demographic base of these areas of residence. And the tinkering continues up to date.
We need to unpack the crux of Wigneswaran’s speech in order to understand the national question in a more nuanced way. First of all, the Chief Minister of the Northern Province has chosen to describe the Tamil nation as a collective constituted by Tamil speaking people. In Sri Lanka, if I may run the risk of overgeneralization, the Tamils, the Muslims and the hill country Tamils speak Tamil as their first language. However, the economic, religious and cultural tensions and unevenness between these communities do not allow the creation of a unified, singular Tamil speaking community. Therefore, I wish to distinguish them as different political communities as much as I desire to see solidarity among them in challenging the majoritarian state. Political discussions on the national question should take into account the grievances and aspirations of these communities and the conflicts existing between them without simplifying them under the banner of Tamil speaking people or the Tamil nation.
Chief Minister Wigneswaran draws upon a theory that delineates what makes a community a nation: long history of existence within a territory, possession of an old language, distinct cultural practices and territorial boundaries. These criteria, for me, are arbitrary; however, fortunately for Wigneswaran and others who subscribe to this framework, the Tamil community satisfies these criteria, and thereby can constitute itself into a nation. By contrast, according to Dayan Jayatilleka’s theory which specifies a community’s numerical strength as the primary determinant of nationhood, Tamils are not eligible to be a nation, for their population is, according to Jayatilleka, only 4% of the total population of the island[ii]. As some have pointed out, the statistics provided by Dr. Jayatilleka are incorrect. As I do not believe that we can discuss the national question by setting numerical benchmarks, the debate over the statistics mentioned in Jayatilleka’s article is not relevant to my concerns in this piece. A major problem with these two theorizations of the nation is that they do not examine the character of the state vis-à-vis all of its fractured peoples. They do not take into consideration the ways in which majoritarian states, as in the case of Sri Lanka, alienate and systematically discriminate against cultural, religious and ethnic minorities who do not qualify to become nations. Coerced into accepting the hegemony of a (majoritarian) nationalism that enjoys the patronage of the state, these communities have to exist within states as subordinate groups. Though Wigneswaran states that the Tamils recognize the aspirations and identity of the Muslims, he does not say where the dominant narratives on the national question place the Muslims in a continuum that has the community and the nation on its two ends. His speech does not tell us how he situates the hill country Tamils and other ethnic communities in the island which include the Burghers and the Malays in relation to the national question. Wigneswaran’s speech confines the focus of the national question to communities that have already and unambiguously defined themselves as nations and leaves out the other oppressed, minority communities occupying the margins of the Sri Lankan state.
Underscoring the presence of Buddhists within the Tamil community in the past, Chief Minister Wigneswaran’s speech, to some extent, complicates the ethno-religious binarism that dominates the narratives on the national question in Sri Lanka. However, the notion of distinct cultural practices that Wigneswaran invokes as a criterion to decide whether a community can consider itself a nation contributes to an essentialist narrative on culture that deserves critical scrutiny. The Tamil culture associated with the Tamil nation is Jaffna-centric, class-marked, castist and patriarchal. Any claim to a unified Tamil culture masks these internal dimensions of cultural unevenness. Such a view, however, does not mean that culture should not be a consideration in our attempts to frame the national question. We should reflect on how we need to position culture and ethnicity vis-à-vis the majoritarianism of the state, but such a reflection should encourage us to move away from cultural essentialism. Is it necessary for us to foreground cultural distinctions between the Tamils and others when the task at hand is to constitute ourselves into a political community that works towards its emancipation along with other oppressed political communities on the island? Is it necessary for us to invoke narratives about cultural uniqueness when what is required on our part is to challenge the ways in which the majoritarian state uses culture as a site to establish its authority? What we need is an oppositional consciousness—a consciousness that can be shared even by people who do not share our cultures or speak our languages—that resists the attempts to ethnicize and culturalize state power with a view to establishing the hegemony of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. Definitions of Tamil culture or predicating the Tamil nation’s legitimacy on a ‘pristine’ Tamil culture will keep the communities in the country divided along cultural lines and pave the way for the culturally powerful groups within the Tamils to maintain the inequalities within the community along lines of caste, class, gender and region.
Tamil nationalist narratives often turn to colonialist historiography and cartography to justify their claim that historically the Tamils have lived within the island as a distinct nation. Wigneswaran does the same in his speech. The following account, a version of what Sir Hugh Cleghorn, British Colonial Secretary wrote about the island in 1799, is often cited by Tamil nationalist activists in their speeches and writings[iii]. The description of the demographic composition of colonial Ceylon in this account exemplifies the limitations of colonial historiography:
Two different nations from a very ancient period have divided between them the possession of the Island. First the Sinhalese, inhabiting the interior of the country in its Southern and Western parts, and secondly the Malabars who possess the Northern and Eastern Districts. These two nations differ entirely in their religion, language and manners.
What is interesting in Sir Hugh Cleghorn’s account is that it describes the community that lived in the Northern and Eastern regions as Malabars. Perhaps, the Colonial Secretary, for some reason, wanted to make connections between the people who inhabited the Northern and Eastern districts of colonial Ceylon and the people who lived in the South-Western coastal regions of India. This colonial historical narrative simplifies and dichotomizes the cultures of the two communities that inhabited the island and overlooks the cultural and religious connections that had existed between them historically.
Gayatri Spivak’s work on colonial historiography revolving around India argues that colonial administrators produced and promoted epistemologies about the hill districts in Northern India in order to territorialize cultures and communities in such a way that the rulers could divide the colonized into various racial groups and pit them against one another, and thereby easily and effectively exercise their control over them[iv]. Tamil nationalism embraces colonial historiography uncritically, without examining the imperialist agenda behind it. In post-colonial times, situating our political processes within frameworks of knowledge passed on to us by colonialism or allowing our politics to be overdetermined by colonialist territorializations of the colonized would give free reign to Euro-centric ideologies of colonialism to (mis)shape our understanding of ourselves, our communities and our shared histories. On the other hand, colonial historiography does not help us understand all of the hegemonic and non-hegemonic social changes that happened in our countries and how they have altered the make-up of our territories. There is no room within this historiography for the plantation Tamils to explain their relationship to the island. It does not support the struggles of the Tamils from the North and East who, in colonial and post-colonial times, moved to the other parts of the country, particularly to territories within the Sinhala nation in search of employment. This historiography denies these communities the national status that it accords the Tamils who live in the North and East regions. The reliance of a supposedly counter-hegemonic project like Tamil nationalism on exclusionary historical narratives produced by colonial powers weakens its potential to transform the state and society in radical ways.
Chief Minister Wigneswaran’s wish to name the 57th Street in Wellawatte as Tamil Sangam Lane strikes a discordant note with mainstream Tamil nationalist narratives which rigidly situate the Tamil nation within the Tamil homelands in Northern and Eastern parts of the country. Wigneswaran recalls his pre-teenage days in the mid part of the twentieth-century when he played cricket along with his friends in the in the venue where the Tamil Sangam has its building now. Stating that the majority of the people who live at 57th Street are Tamil speaking, the Chief Minister justifies his wish to see the street named as Tamil Sangam Lane. The colonial historiography that he draws upon to legitimize the existence of the Tamil nation does not state that Colombo 06 has been a part of the Tamil nation, albeit Tamils have lived there for a long period of time. This is an instance where we see the insufficiency of nationalist claims over territory in supporting the aspirations of a section of the Tamil community in the island. The Tamil people, who live outside the North and East regions, including the ones who recently migrated to Colombo from the Northern and Eastern provinces, do not have a secure status in either the Sinhala nation or the Tamil nation. Defining the Tamil nation within the territorial boundaries of the Northern and Eastern provinces has a dangerous corollary in that it gives recognition to the view that the rest of the island belongs to the Sinhala nation or other, non-Tamil nations. Tamil nationalist narratives fail to understand that the exercise of boundary-building that they promote would be detrimental to the Tamils living outside the Northern and Eastern provinces.
The Sinhala-Buddhist state does not allow the 57th Street in Wellawatte to have a Tamil name. On the other hand, for mainstream Tamil nationalism, it may not be an issue that concerns the core of its political activism. While Tamil nationalism protests against state sponsored Sinhalization and Buddhisization programs in the North and East, I cannot say for sure that its representatives will unswervingly demand the state to re-name the 57th Street as Tamil Sangam Lane, for Wellawatte does not exist within the Tamil national imagination. As Qadri Ismail puts it memorably, “[i]f the southern Tamil refuses to migrate [to the Tamil homelands], Tamil nationalism will stop worrying about her, write her off” (167)[v]. The Southern Tamil question hinted at in Wigneswaran’s speech produces a criticism of the state and the ruling elite; however, as a repressed subtext, it stops short of translating into a critique of the Tamil nation.
The territories linked to the nations in Sri Lanka that we discuss under the national question are internally uneven and always already transnational. Socio-economic inequalities within these territories and the movement of people, laboring people in particular, across the territorial boundaries of the Tamil and Sinhala nations compel us to move away from dichotomizing nationalist narratives that cling on to cultural essentialism and histories of territorialization handed down to us by colonialism and nationalist historians of the past. Liberating our understanding of the national question from orthodoxies promoted in the name of history and culture will help us re-imagine our struggles around the national question as part of our larger quest for justice and equality.
[iii] Sir Hugh Cleghorn’s quote appears differently in different books and articles. The quotes included in Asoka Bandara’s The Separatist Conflict in Sri Lanka: Terrorism, Ethnicity, Political Economy and K.M. de Silva’s Regional Powers and Small State Security: India and Sri Lanka, 1977-1990 have a section that describes the Sinhalese as the “earlier settlers.” Interestingly, a citation included in a paper titled “Tamil Eelam: Reversion of Sovereignty” presented by a Working Group of the International Federation of Tamils, at the London Seminar, Towards a Just Peace, February 1992 (found at http://tamilnation.co/selfdetermination/tamileelam/9202reversion.htm) does not have it.
[iv] “The Rani of Sirmur: An Essay in Reading the Archives.” History and Theory, Vol. 24, No. 3 (Oct., 1985), pp. 247-272.
[v] Abiding by Sri Lanka: On Peace, Place, and Postcoloniality. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 2005.