By Izeth Hussain –
The most cogent case for arguing that India bears the major responsibility for helping us to get out of the ethnic imbroglio consists of the developments that took place in 1987. I dealt with this case some time ago in a detailed article, so that I will do no more here than set out the essentials. According to the authoritative historian K.M. de Silva’s Sri Lanka and the defeat of the LTTE (2012) our troops led by Major General Cyril Ranatunge were well on the way to defeating the LTTE rebellion through the Vaddamarachi operation and its expected aftermath. That was prevented by the diktat of the Indian Government. It therefore undeniably bears part of the major responsibility for the continuation of the war for a further twenty two years, during which period 25,000 of our troops and 75,000 Tamils perished.
The other part of the major responsibility was borne by President Jayewardene who made himself the willing accomplice of the Indians. He virtually acquiesced in the lie that there were near-famine conditions in Jaffna and that death by starvation was imminent, whereas in fact there were severe food shortages which could have been easily corrected. There was no reason therefore to abandon the Vaddamarachi operation. He could have insisted that the continuation of that operation was possible without causing avoidable death and suffering, and that the SL Government was doing no more than carrying out its primordial duty in putting down an armed rebellion by force of arms. That argument would most certainly have been accepted by the international community and India would not have dared intervene. Instead he invited the IPKF to come in and the rest alas is history.
I am trying to establish two points at this juncture. I believe that Rajiv Gandhi acted with the best of intentions in intervening in Sri Lanka in 1987. In his political naivety he probably expected that the IPKF would quickly tame the Tigers, after which a political solution would follow without much difficulty, and then he would be praised by all sides for having avoided all the death and suffering that would have ensued from the Vaddamarachi operation. Instead, gory horror followed for twenty two years. He probably ignored the advice of his Foreign Office. I recall meeting the Indian Ambassador in Moscow after the LTTE broke the ceasefire on April 19, 1995. He had been the Foreign Office’s Advisor to Rajiv Gandhi, in which capacity he had headed five rounds of talks with Prabhakaran. He had become convinced that Prabhakaran was a psychopath, and that there could never be any political solution as long as the latter headed the LTTE. I recall also that RG’s former Foreign Secretary Venkateswaran observed about the Peace Accords, “They will bow up in our faces”. I believe that it was the political naivety of RG and his associates that led to the 1987 intervention, not a sinister neo-imperialist drive. If it had been the latter, India would not have agreed to the withdrawal of the IPKF forces with nothing to show for the 1,200 men who had been killed here.
The second point I want to establish is that the Peace Accords of 1987 had no moral legitimacy behind them. They were not backed by the people who were not consulted through their representatives. The most important determinant behind Parliamentary decisions, in any case, were the undated letters of resignation which could be used by President JR to compel Parliamentary votes just as he desired them, regardless of the wishes of the people. To this day the widest segment of the people regard the Peace Accords as something that was imposed on us by foreign powers, and the resultant Provincial Councils as not much more than a criminal waste of the people’s resources. The moral grounds for rejecting 13 A are very compelling.
What can India now do to help us surmount the ethnic imbroglio? The imbroglio takes the following concrete form: the Government and the TNA could come to terms over a modified form of 13 A but thereafter the Government may find it impossible to deliver on that. To help us out, India could jettison 13 A on two grounds. Firstly, 13 A has no moral legitimacy as I have argued above. Secondly, the international community does not recognize any right of self-determination outside a colonial context, neither a right to set up a separate state nor to a measure of devolution.
What would be the position of our Tamils if 13 A is set aside? Apart from the problems that have to be resolved consequent to the war, the position of the Tamils would be no different from that of our Muslims. As I have shown in the first part of this article, the problems confronting the Muslims are not of an intolerable order, not of an order that compels emigration. They are problems that can be resolved within a unitary state, without any devolution at all. My model for dealing with ethnic minorities is what has proved eminently successful in the West and elsewhere: a fully functioning democracy together with adequate safeguards for the legitimate interests of the ethnic minorities. Our Tamil expatriates are living quite happily under that dispensation, without any devolution at all, in several countries abroad. I see no reason why that should not be possible in Sri Lanka as well.
There are other arguments that can be adduced to show that Sri Lanka is peculiarly unsuited to devolution as the solution to its ethnic problem. It is surely wrong to think of devolution as the panacea for all ethnic ills, because it should be obvious enough that the devolution that may be successful in one place may prove to be disastrous elsewhere. In the case of Sri Lanka I have in mind what might be called a situational factor. We have the seeming anomaly of the conquered, the Tamils, demanding a wide measure of devolution from the conqueror, the Sinhalese. This anomaly is possible only because India has come to play a decisive role over our ethnic problem. Our Tamils are a minority in the Sri Lankan context but regionally – taking count of the seventy million Tamils in Tamil Nadu – they are in the majority, and behind that majority is the potential power of Delhi. That potential power can sometimes be deployed decisively in favor of the Tamils, as happened in the aftermath of the 1983 pogrom. Our Tamils could continue to hope that the huge asymmetry of power between the Tamils and the Sinhalese will count in their favor some day. It is a situation in which a wide measure of devolution could whet the appetite for more and more, until there is a confederal arrangement that would amount to a de facto Eelam.
Another reason why Sri Lanka seems to be peculiarly unsuited to devolution on an ethnic basis is that both of our major ethnic groups, the Sinhalese and the Tamils, seem to be peculiarly prone to racism. By racism I mean essentially the drive to treat the Other as inferior. Practically all ethnic groups can be expected to produce their quota of racists; they are usually a minority in numbers; and the majority in numbers in each ethnic group manages to contain and control them. The peculiarity in Sri Lanka is that the racists who seem to be no more than a lunatic fringe move to center stage at moments of ethnic crisis, and it is they who call the shots thereafter. It is a process by which every attempt at ethnic accommodation in Sri Lanka has been defeated over the decades. We might expect the same process to take over in forthcoming months. The way out is to move from ethno-democracy to citizen democracy in which the individual has an unmediated relationship with the State and the ethnic factor is downplayed. It is the model that has proved successful, by and large, in containing ethnic problems in the West. Very probably emphasizing ethnicity by allowing devolution on an ethnic basis will aggravate our ethnic problem, not solve it.
My essential argument in this article has been as follows. India bears the major moral responsibility for helping Sri Lanka move away from the ethnic imbroglio. This can only be done by jettisoning 13 A, and indeed the very idea of finding a political solution through devolution. The best way forward would be through the adoption of the Western model of a fully functioning democracy with adequate safeguards for the ethnic minorities. If, on the contrary, India insists on the full implementation of 13 A and even federalism, and the ethnic problem gets endlessly protracted, the question will arise whether India is acting in terms of a hidden agenda. Our ethnic problem will then have to be situated in the context of the fate of small nations in a new world order which could have as its obverse side a new imperialism. (Concluded).
Part I – The Case Against Devolution