By Daya Gamage –
There is a tendency among academics and others commenting on the separatist war in Sri Lanka to see Tamil nationalism as largely a function of inter-ethnic relations and majoritarian politics within the confines of the island. In this view, a Tamil ethno-political identity was engendered and amplified in the post-colonial era by discrimination and persecution by the majority community, which is commonly depicted as being driven by a domineering, exclusivist nationalism.
Scholar Neil DeVotta in his “Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist Ideology: Implications for Politics and Conflict Resolution in Sri Lanka,” explained in 2007, during the brutal end-game of the war, the roots of the conflict lay in a supremacist ideology based on an ethnic identity that is inextricably fused with Buddhism :
“. . . Political Buddhism and Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism have created the nationalist ideology currently prevalent in government and in the predominantly Sinhalese Buddhist society. Adherents to this nationalist ideology insist on expanding and perpetuating Sinhalese-Buddhist supremacy within a unitary state; creating rules, laws, and structures that institutionalize such supremacy; and attacking those who disagree with this agenda. For those who have bought into it, this ideology is sacrosanct and hence nonnegotiable. . . Although such dogmatism may promote political participation, . . . it undermines civil society and fosters illiberalism.”
One problem with this line of analysis is that it often veers into a kind of reductionism that seeks the roots of nationalism and exclusivist aggression within the history and doctrines of religion rather than in social structure, competing economic and political interests, and the architecture of the state.
Tamil writers in particular tend to blame Tamil rejection of a unified Sri Lankan state on “Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism.” As the respected Tamil academic Ratnajeevan Hoole has expressed it, “The focus on minorities as the agents of secession is . . . misplaced. The principal threat to the unity of the nation is the chauvinism of the majority.” One does not have to defend Sinhalese nationalism to understand that it is a product, at least in part, of the historic memory of centuries of existential threats from larger and more powerful Hindu polities from just across the Palk Strait. Some recent writers have been critical of Sinhalese nationalism for vaunting Sri Lankan sovereignty and unity, but many nations would consider these to be fundamental and legitimate pillars of patriotism. Other scholars recognize that both Hindu and Buddhist nationalisms have been reactive, i.e., both developed as defensive shields against perceived threats from the other.
This more aggressive interpretation of Buddhist doctrine is not shared by most Sri Lankan Buddhists. By way of comparison, the Sri Lankan government does not enforce institutionalized systems of discrimination and human rights abuses against any of its ethnic minorities the way the Israeli government does toward its Arab citizens, especially in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. Despite decades of ethnic conflict, there have been no calls in Sri Lanka for the kind of ethnic cleansing of Tamil-majority areas that has been carried out by Buddhist-majority Bhutan against Nepali ethnics and Myanmar against Muslim Rohingyas. Nor has the Sinhala-majority state subjected its Tamil-majority provinces to the kind of military occupation and repression that India has instituted in Muslim-majority Kashmir. In Pakistan, security forces have been free for years to use kidnapping, torture and extrajudicial killing to suppress defenders, real or imagined, of the rights of the Baloch people. And, despite centuries of Tamil-Sinhalese co-existence in Sri Lanka, Tamils there have not suffered the long-term pressures for cultural assimilation that the government of Thailand has applied to its minority hill tribes, ethnic language communities and Muslims.
Nearly 50 percent of Sri Lanka’s Tamils live in Sinhalese-majority districts in the south, where they own property and carry out their occupations peacefully. Statistics show that Sri Lankan Tamils constitute 29 percent of residents in the Colombo Municipal Area, where they enjoy all the facilities and advantages of urban dwellers. In the greater Colombo area both Sri Lankan and Indian Tamils own some three-quarters of the retail shops and small businesses, and have nearly controlling interests in the import-export trades. Tamils of Indian Origin constitute around 2 percent of the capital area, and Muslims nearly 24 percent. After the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom, when blood banks appealed for blood donations—mostly to treat Tamil victims—close to 90 percent of those who volunteered to donate were Sinhalese. During the war the Sinhalese community as a whole was almost unbelievably restrained, not reacting vindictively when LTTE terrorists penetrated the South, murdered Buddhist monks and villagers, massacred 146 pilgrims, and attacked several bus loads of school children and the most sacred Buddhist shrine in the country, the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy. Although not often mentioned, it is remarkable that there have been no anti-Tamil riots since 1983. And despite the anti-minority rhetoric of Sinhalese hardliners, Sri Lanka has not suffered from the kind of institutionalized racism that in the United States led to the attempted genocide of indigenous Americans, the murder of Hispanic immigrants, and centuries of violent enslavement, segregation and disenfranchisement of African Americans. Sri Lankan police do not shoot Tamil civilians to death with the same regularity that U.S. police shoot unarmed American Blacks.
The Sinhalese population as a whole did not feel threatened even when the fighting in the North and East led to an exodus of Tamils (now numbering 50 percent of the total community) into southern Sinhalese-majority districts. Because of this religious self-confidence among Buddhists, radical Sinhalese nationalists, who inveigh against alleged threats from Hindus, Christians and Muslims, have not achieved wide political traction in Sri Lanka.
Post-colonial Sinhalese politicians did much to shake Tamil confidence in the fairness of the democratic system, but Tamil nationalists were predisposed even before independence to abandon a unified Sri Lankan state in favor of separation and even merger with their co-ethnics in India. A leading Tamil legislator, S.J.V. Chelvanayakam declared in the first parliament in September 1947 (some five months before independence) that “If Ceylon is fighting to secede from the British Empire, why should not the Tamil people if they feel like it, secede from the rest of the country,” documented in 111 Hansard, Official Parliamentary Record, November 26, 1947, column 232. This represented the beginning of the vicious cycle of action and over-reaction that has bedeviled ethnic relations and Sri Lankan national politics since independence. Tamil elites, unwilling to accept a diminution of the advantages they enjoyed under the British, rejected the compromises of party politics to demand devolution of power that would permit them to preserve their status and influence, at least among the Tamils. Sinhalese leaders, on the other hand, unwilling to forego the political advantages of majoritarian politics, bridled at Tamil threats of secession and refused to compromise on power sharing.
S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, rejected attempts by the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) to work with the Sinhalese parties. Chelvanayakam, impressed by the Islamic separatist and Dravidisthan movements in India, declared that Sri Lanka’s Tamils “could not wait one moment without fighting for the creation of the Tamil state.” Spurning inter-ethnic cooperation and the “loaves of office” in a Sinhala-led government, Chelvanayakam led a group of dissidents out of the ACTC in 1949 and founded the Sri Lanka Tamil State Party (Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi), or ITAK in its Tamil acronym. Significantly, Chelvanayakam’s party gave itself the moderate-sounding English language name of Federal Party, which suggested that it sought only Tamil self-governance within a federal system. G.G. Ponnambalam accused Chelvanayakam of “attempting to foist on the Tamil people a party whose very name shows that it was formed to deceive and mislead the people and that the terms [it uses for a Tamil homeland] connote an entity clothed with the absolute attributes of sovereignty.” While ITAK leaders denied any such deceptive intent, the founding principle of the ITAK in 1949 made it clear that the freedom and self-respect of the “Tamil nation” could be guaranteed only through their having their “own autonomous state [with] self-government and self-determination.” This use of ambiguous language, especially in English, to define their political goals became a standard feature of Tamil separatists’ campaigns to win international support, and persisted through the last days of the LTTE.
Two respected scholars who have done field research in Sri Lanka have described this dynamic. British historian Jane Russell, writing about the Jaffna Vellalars and their rejection of democratic politics within a unified Sri Lanka, opined that “as they were unwilling or unable to recognize the democratic rights of certain [lower-caste] members of their own linguistic-religious community, their inability to recognize the legal sanction of a democratic majority was therefore not wholly unjustified.” (Jane Russell, Communal Politics under the Donoughmore Constitution, 1931-1947, Colombo: Tissara Publishers, 1982). American anthropologist Brian Pfaffenberger has written about the “ancient patterns of caste and regional discrimination favoring the powerful and conservative Vellalar caste of Jaffna” and how they motivated secessionism. “While Tamil separatists by no means aim to renew the ancient forms of Vellalar predominance, it is nonetheless true that the cultural conservatism that helps to justify the separatist drive is insidiously tied to the legacy of Vellalar domination.” (Brian Pfaffenberger, The Sri Lankan Tamils: Ethnicity and Identity. Boulder: Westview Press, 1994).
It is indicative of the extent to which the activism of elite Tamils was driven more by caste privilege than inter-religious tensions that Chelvanayakam was raised and identified as a Protestant Christian.
The general election in Sri Lanka in August 2020 was an overwhelming display of majority power. An SLPP-led coalition won 145 of the 225 seats in parliament. The older of two parties representing Tamil interests, the Tamil National Alliance, won 10 seats. The Sinhalese-dominated UNP, the longest established party in the country, suffered a split over leadership and won only a single seat. This outcome appeared to be the in-built Sinhalese Nationalism among the majority Sinhalese used in a democratic fashion rather than engaged in a pogrom. The absence of anti-Tamil pogrom since 1983 was clearly reflected in the two nationwide elections in 2019 and 2020 in a different manner. The electoral results appear to have been driven by the enhancement of nationalist feeling among the Sinhalese to a long advocacy of devolution, federalism and separatism, at some stage peaceful and other times brutal. It is true that Gotabaya Rajapaksa is credited with leading the defeat of the LTTE, but landslide Sinhalese support for his candidacy was a vote for that Sinhalese Nationalism rather than a show of force against the Tamils.
What has changed fundamentally in the national landscape of Sinhalese-Tamil relations is that the divisive issue of secession has been eliminated for all practical purposes. Sri Lanka’s Tamils in the North want to reconstruct their lives rather than press for independence, and the Sinhalese do not have secessionism to fear as a minority rallying cry.