By Izeth Hussain –
Should the Government come to an agreement with the TNA over a modified version of 13 A, we would have come to an important new phase in our decades long struggle to find a political solution for the ethnic problem. However that agreement, reached at an elite political level, would mean nothing at all if it finds no acceptance among the mass of the Sinhalese people who have a deep ingrained allergy to any substantial measure of devolution because of their conviction that it will lead ineluctably to Eelam sooner or later. Is the alternative a less substantial measure of devolution? But that would not be acceptable to the Tamil people who also have a deep ingrained conviction: they have the inalienable right of self-determination, inclusive of the right to set up the separate state of Eelam, in lieu of which they can accept nothing less than a very wide measure of devolution. Those alternative convictions have been at the root of the ethnic imbroglio that has been dragging on for decade after decade after decade.
What options would be left to us if the Government finds itself unable to deliver on an agreement reached with the TNA? I believe that the only option would be to jettison devolution altogether, consigning 13 A to the place where it properly belongs: the wpb (the waste paper basket). The position of the Tamils would then be more or less identical with that of the Muslims. Some Muslims have prospered mightily, others have done well enough to lead reasonably contented lives, while a very substantial proportion have to reconcile themselves to leading lives of quiet desperation in more or less indigent misery. That is the consequence not of Sinhalese wrongdoing but of the limitations of contemporary capitalism as established by Thomas Picketty and others. Many Muslims enjoy the immeasurable benefit of fluency in English – a benefit conferred on them by the Sinhalese political masters. Certainly there has been discrimination against the Muslims – the discrimination against me under the 1977 Government was grotesque by international standards, much worse than against my Tamil colleagues. But on the whole anti-Muslim discrimination has been tolerable, not of the intolerable order that compels emigration. Last year there was the BBS Islamophobic campaign, with huge foreign funding and enthusiastic though covert State backing, but it failed to ignite another 1983 pogrom. We must note that the largely Sinhalese civil society was admirably active in combating that racist idiocy. Today the Muslims have to confront what looks like a dangerously rising propensity to regard the Muslims as the scapegoats for the many ills afflicting Sri Lanka. Many Tamils in particular – as can be seen from the Colombo Telegraph columns – seem to be relishing the prospect of getting together with the Sinhalese and mercilessly whacking the Muslims.
So there are pluses and minuses in the relationship between the Muslim minority and the Sinhalese majority. Very probably the problems confronting the SL Muslims are not much different from the problems confronting a great many ethnic minorities all over the world. The sensible pragmatic solution for their problems should be through the Western model which is successfully integrating immigrant ethnic minorities in the West, inclusive of the Muslim minorities contrary to what is made out in idiotic Islamophobic propaganda. The model is that of a fully functioning democracy together with adequate safeguards for the legitimate interests of the ethnic minorities. There is nothing unrealistically utopian about what I am proposing. We did have a fully functioning democracy at one time; presently we are well on the way to establishing it again and entrenching it in a new Constitution; and as for ethnic harmony we Sri Lankans were famous for it while India was being rent apart by ethnic riots. But our Tamils won’t agree, at present, to anything other than an attempted political solution through a wide measure of devolution, which may not be acceptable to the majority of the Sinhalese people.
How do we get out of this imbroglio? I believe that the only way is by persuading India to abandon 13 A, and indeed the very notion of finding a political solution through devolution. We cannot do this – I mean “persuading” India – by putting it in the dock and charging it with a neo-imperialist drive which created the ethnic problem and has kept it going because of a secret objective of establishing Eelam or reducing Sri Lanka to total satellite status. That would be sheer nonsense. Instead, we must acknowledge our own responsibility for contributing to the ethnic problem, meaning by “we” all three of our politically important ethnic groups. The Sinhalese created the problem in its militant form by grotesque discrimination against the Tamils and State terrorism from 1977 to 1983. The Muslims aided and abetted the creation of the problem by siding enthusiastically with the Sinhalese in every bit of racist idiocy perpetrated against the Tamils. The Tamils kept the problem going after 1994 by rejecting every offer of a political solution because of their conviction that they could establish Eelam through force of arms. We must begin, therefore, not by putting India in the dock but by acknowledging that we ourselves have been our own executioners.
Next we must make a just and fair-minded assessment of the contribution made by India and the rest of the international community to the ethnic problem. We must first of all acknowledge that Norway and other countries that were involved in the peace process were actuated by the noblest motives without any ulterior motives or secret agenda behind them. But they made a grievously wrong assessment of the LTTE. First of all they believed in and fostered the myth of the military invincibility of the LTTE. Secondly they failed to recognize that because of that myth the LTTE would accept nothing less as a political solution than a very loose confederal arrangement amounting to a de facto Eelam. That was something on which no Government in Colombo could be expected to deliver. It seems plausible to hold that by those mistaken assessments Norway and the others contributed in no small measure to the prolongation of the war. It becomes arguable that Norway and the others now how a moral responsibility to help Sri Lanka find a way out of its ethnic imbroglio. They can do this by persuading India to accept a political solution other than by devolution.
Finally, and most importantly, we must make a fair assessment of India’s role in the ethnic imbroglio. In terms of international law, it most certainly put itself in the wrong by training and arming the Tamil militants in the aftermath of the 1983 pogrom. That amounted to outrageous interference in the internal affairs of a small and powerless neighbor. But in its own eyes, and very probably in the eyes of most of the rest of the international community, it had a moral justification for what it did: Delhi could not have ignored the fall-out in Tamil Nadu of the horror perpetrated against the SL Tamils without alienating Tamil Nadu, and perhaps even the entirety of the Dravidian South, from the Aryan North. To understand this we have to take count of the full horror of the 1983 pogrom. Tamils were burnt alive in the streets of Colombo with total impunity, a demonstration that they could be treated as subhuman, as worse even than pariah dogs. There was no reaction from the civil society, nor from the political Opposition, worth speaking about. A bestialized racist Jay Gang was seen to ride supreme over the Island. In India the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and the Gujarat riots of 2002 led to official enquiries and judicial action, while there has been nothing of the sort in Sri Lanka over the 1983 pogrom. It is arguable therefore that there was a moral justification for India training and arming the Tamil militants. It remains however, irrespective of whether or not there was a moral justification, that India bears the major responsibility for enabling the start of a war that lasted for a quarter century and cost a hundred thousand deaths. Consequently India also has the major responsibility for enabling us to find a way out of the ethnic imbroglio. The way out has to be – as I will argue in the next part of my article – on the basis that the Tamils have no case, none whatever, for even the slightest degree of devolution.