Colombo Telegraph

Sri Lanka’s Indo-Tamil problem

By Izeth Hussain

Izeth Hussain

There is now an air of cautious optimism on the ethnic front because it seems that the Government and the TNA are at last moving towards a political solution. I will take this seriously only if the envisaged solution has the backing of India. My reason for saying this is that I have held for some time that Sri Lanka does not have a purely indigenous Tamil ethnic problem. There will be no such problem if not for the India factor, by which I mean this: no Government in Delhi can be expected to ignore the possible fall-out in Tamil Nadu of what is done to the Tamils in Sri Lanka. That is why the international community broadly sees Indian intervention over the Tamil ethnic problem as legitimate, not as amounting to interference.

Why do I say that if not for the India factor there would be no Tamil ethnic problem in Sri Lanka today? The LTTE was defeated militarily and no one in his right mind believes that Eelam can be established through further military struggle. We must bear in mind that the international community consists of nation states in which, with very rare exceptions, ethnic majorities are dominant over ethnic minorities. As a general rule, they cannot be expected to view minority separatist rebellions with too kindly an eye. In this case, the separatist rebellion has been defeated and the Government is offering 13 A without police and land powers, together with a fully functioning democracy which in the West meets the legitimate interests of the Tamil and other minorities. That would seem fair enough to the international community. But the problem is that the Tamils want more devolution and hopes that India will secure that for them. Consequently, what we have on our hands is not a purely indigenous Tamil ethnic problem but an Indo-Tamil problem.

There is no point in inveighing against India’s supposed hegemonic or imperialist drive. The point that we have to face up to is that India can harm us to a very terrible extent, even to the extent of breaking up this country – a very remote contingency certainly, but something that we will do well to always bear in mind. Those are stark facts, stark and unalterable geopolitical facts that won’t go away. But it is also a stark fact that India can help us to a great extent, including over the Indo-Tamil ethnic problem, and I believe that it has excellent reasons why it should want to do so.

One reason is that India covets the position of a permanent member of the Security Council, and will probably be prepared to do a great deal towards securing that end. A pre-requisite for that would be for India to have credibility as a peaceful nation and also as one that has the capacity to contribute meaningfully towards the establishment of an equitable new world order. But India has a rather horrible record of poor relations with practically all its neighbors, except that its relations with Sri Lanka have been for the most part excellent. It has had the image of an overbearing bully towards its neighbors, which may be unfair but such has been its image. Being really helpful in sorting out the Indo-Tamil ethnic problem could be very useful in correcting that image.

Another reason is that – as I have already argued – what we have on our hands is an Indo-Tamil problem, not a purely indigenous Tamil ethnic problem, a problem therefore over which India has an obligation to play a very positive role. A further reason is a historical one: if India had not intervened in 1987 to stop the Vaddamarachchi operation a decisive military victory would have been scored by the Government troops and the ethnic problem would probably have been solved long ago. Arguably therefore India becomes responsible for the prolongation of the war with all its very horrible consequences. I have already argued that case in a series of articles some time ago. Here I will merely state my conviction that Rajiv Gandhi acted with the best of intentions and with no imperialist intent at all. But he blundered badly because his experience as an airline pilot had not equipped him to pilot the Indian ship of state.

What really should India do to help towards a definitive solution of the Indo-Tamil problem? To answer that question we must first define what the problem is today because problems are not static entities but phenomena that keep changing over time. The Tamil ethnic problem today is not what it was in 1956 or in 1977. Today the problem at the core is this: the Tamils hold that they are not just another minority but a national minority because they are indigenous to a homeland in part of Sri Lankan territory, and therefore they have a right to self-determination inclusive of a right to set up a separate state. But they are willing to settle for a very wide measure of devolution falling short of Eelam. On the other hand the Sinhalese side believes that anything beyond a limited measure of devolution would lead ineluctably to Eelam. I believe that the way out of the dilemma could be along the following lines. Establish that today there is no such thing as a right to self-determination, and that a very wide measure of devolution will probably compound problems between the Centre and the Province and become a countervailing factor to a solution. The best prospect for a solution would be on the basis of a limited measure of devolution together with a fully functioning democracy with adequate safeguards for the minorities as in the West.

I have earlier argued the case that in the world of today there is no such thing as the right of self-determination. I will therefore here state no more than the bare essentials of my argument. The principle of the right of self-determination does appear in the UN Charter and UN Covenants; it does exist in the heads of academics and the political class everywhere; but it does not correspond to realities on the ground and should be regarded as no more than a notional right because what in practice has been acknowledged as the right of self-determination has applied only to colonized territories. Of course in the decolonized world dissatisfied minority ethnic groups struggle to establish separate states and sometimes succeed, but that happens because the majority ethnic group has been unable to prevent it or has decided for some reason to acquiesce in it. It has not happened because the rest of the world has acknowledged the right of self-determination for that breakaway minority ethnic group and the majority ethnic group has been compelled to abide by that principle. As for internal self-determination, meaning a supposed right to devolution, the world recognizes no such thing. Otherwise Sri Lanka would have been put in the dock in Geneva and elsewhere.

It might seem arguable that since identity politics are spreading in the world we are witnessing a struggle to establish the validity of the principle of the right of self-determination in the post-colonial context. But there can never be a satisfactory world order on the basis of that principle. If every ethnic group that can claim to be a national minority is entitled to its own state on the principle of the right of self-determination, there will have to be scores or hundreds of new states. That surely is not a practical proposition. And what about all the minorities, numbering by the hundred million, that cannot claim the status of being a national minority? They will have to live under a dispensation in which the majority ethnic group will be dominant over them – which can be a very horrible experience. I see no future for the so-called right of self-determination on practical or on moral grounds. India – which after all won’t allow self determination for Kashmir – should advise our Tamils that they should give up their dream of establishing Eelam on the basis of a non-existent right.

As for allowing a wide measure of devolution, I think our Tamils should be advised along the following lines. It would be wrong to think of devolution as a shibboleth, as something that is essential to satisfy the aspirations of national minorities. If devolution is to work smoothly, it requires flexibility, compromise, mutual accommodativeness, without which problems can be aggravated, not solved. The Sinhalese have produced their quota of racists, while the Tamils have produced even worse racists – as I have amply demonstrated in the Colombo Telegraph columns – so that accommodativeness can hardly be expected from either side. Consequently a wide measure of devolution will probably compound problems, not solve them, and become a countervailing factor to a political solution.

We can learn from the experience of other countries. In India devolution is working smoothly for the most part, but none of its states have fought a prolonged war and continue to insist that they have an inalienable right to set up a separate state. The appropriate analogy should be found in the troubled relationship between Delhi and Kashmir and those recalcitrant minorities in the North East. In the Philippines, it is evident that the Moros will be satisfied with nothing less than a very loose confederal arrangement. My Burmese colleagues have told me over the decades that the more devolution they allow to the minorities the more they want. Here, the Tamils hold that they have an inalienable right to strike out for independence if and when they can. In this situation, why not try out 13 A even in its presently truncated form together with a fully functioning democracy with safeguards for the minorities as in the West? My expectation is this: it will succeed, if we go about it earnestly.

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