By Dayan Jayatilleka –
If an ethnic group which accounts for 4% -10% of the populace is defined as a nation, just how small does an ethnic group have to be, to be recognised as a national minority or minority nationality? Are there no such entities as minorities, in the Chief Minister’s scheme of things?
The basic points I am making here do not change even if one were to prefer the higher figure of roughly 10% for the Sri Lankan Tamils which is found in certain source material. The UN Chairperson of the Working Group on Minorities, Prof Asbjorn Eide of Norway, clearly stated on a working visit to Sri Lanka during the CFA years, that going by international, and chiefly UN criteria, Sri Lankan Tamils are not a nation enjoying the right of self determination but a national minority deserving of equal rights and enjoying, arguably, the right to autonomy.
Chief Minister Wigneswaran’s “two nations” theory is the same concept that underlay the British-inspired partition of India and Pakistan.
It is not merely the Sinhalese who do not accept the Tamils of Sri Lanka as a nation without a state. No country does. Most importantly, the Two Nations thesis is rejected by India and goes against the most enlightened definition of Sri Lanka, namely that contained in the Preamble of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord.
The dangerous upshot of the Two Nations theory that it lends credence to the cautioning of the defence hawks that there is a latent secessionism or a secessionist project by incrementalism, aimed at establishing a state for “a nation without a state”. Therefore, say the hawks, devolution should be denied or delayed.
Can any democratic political party in the island’s South, ranging from the UNP to the JVP, be convinced into recognizing the Sri Lankan Tamils of the North and East as a nation? If not, isn’t the Chief Minister’s very definition of the problem such that it precludes a solution? In the alternative, doesn’t the Chief Minister’s definition of the problem, which precludes domestic support from the South, leave an externally propelled partition as the only ‘solution’? Was that the problem from the very start?
Perhaps still more negative is the other consequence of Chief Minister Wigneswaran’s thesis. By classifying the Tamils of Sri Lanka as “a nation without a state” rather than a minority without autonomy or equal rights, he deflects the struggle for the achievable goals of minority rights and more equitable inter-ethnic relations, devolution of power and anti-discrimination, pre-empts a civil rights movement and locks the Sinhala and Tamil communities into the protracted zero-sum game of a struggle over nationhood — an eternal tribal conflict— on this small island.
Is there an alternative? Yes there is and is internationally recognised. Thus it is still more significant that Justice Wigneswaran chooses to ignore it. He deliberately sets up a model in which there are only two contending discourses and trajectories. His alternatives are the acceptance of a two nation theory or submission to Sinhala Buddhist domination and a variety of internal colonialism as it were.
The third discourse, which he conspicuously ignores, is the same one that all Sinhala chauvinists in and outside the Government and state also shun. In this regard, Chief Minister Wigneswaran and his southern opponents are at one. The absent discourse is that of the Indo-Sri Lanka accord of 1987 and its definition of Sri Lanka, which was subscribed to and fought for, weapons in hand, by the most enlightened and modernist elements in Sri Lankan society and politics at the time, supported politically and strategically by the most advanced polity in the South Asian region. What does the Accord say?
“Acknowledging that Sri Lanka is a ‘multi-ethnic and a multi-lingual plural society” consisting, inter alia, of Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims (Moors) and Burghers;
Recognising that each ethnic group has a distinct cultural and linguistic identity which has to be carefully nurtured;
Also recognising that the Northern and the Eastern Provinces have been areas of historical habitation of Sri Lankan Tamil speaking peoples, who have at all times hitherto lived together in this territory with other ethnic groups;
Conscious of the necessity of strengthening the forces contributing to the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka, and preserving its character as a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi- religious plural society , in which all citizens can live in equality, safety and harmony, and prosper and fulfil their aspirations…”
This is the truly pluralist vision of Sri Lanka; a vision of a multiethnic, multilingual, multi-religious society in which each ethnic group has a distinct identity. It is not a definition of a vision of ‘two nations’ or of the domination of one peoples over the other.
Brother Bernard And The National Question by C.V. Wigneswaran
Wigneswaran’s ‘Two Nations’ & The State’s Two Blunders by Dayan Jayatilleka
Reading Against The Grain: Notes On Wigneswaran’s Speech On The National Question by Mahendran Thiruvarangan