By H. L. D. Mahindapala –
There are two narratives, with two interpretations, to the North-South events that convulsed Sri Lanka in the post-independent period. The conventional narrative that has gained popularity is the mono-causal interpretation which blames only the Sinhala-Buddhists of the south for the worsening of the inter-ethnic relations. According to this theory events eventually spiraled down to a bloody confrontation because of the intransigence of the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists who failed to accommodate the demands of the Tamils.
This argument was based on the assumption that the Tamils had not only a right to demand whatever there was on their political agenda, irrespective of the consequences to other communities, or the nation, but also because they were politically correct in making their demands – even if the demands came from the extreme end of the political spectrum — and the only right that the Sinhalese had was to give in, whether they were reasonable or not. Leaving aside the plethora of complex theories and ideological constructions that were thrown in to bolster this mono-causal interpretation of events, there is no historical evidence to justify the accusation that the North-South conflict originated primarily from Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism that was hostile to the minorities.
This argument ignores and denies that there were autochthonous forces driving the north into mono-ethnic extreme. A closer look at the grass root forces in the North will confirm that it is the internal forces of the Jaffna peninsula that locked them into an ethnic corner from which they could not get out except through violence. Eventually the North decided to step out of the multi-cultural, democratic mainstream to carve out a mono-ethnic enclave through violent means. S. J. V. Chelvanayakam was the father of this separatist ideology which he first launched on December 18, 1949 and later, in a more violent form on May 14, 1976 when the Tamil leadership passed the Vadukoddai Resolution declaring war on the rest.
The violent conflict between the two communities ran for 33 years. It began officially from May 14, 1976 when the legitimized violence of the Vadukoddai Resolution gathered a momentum of its own and fell into the hands of the deified Velupillai Prabhakaran. It ended on May 19, 2009 when the Tamil Tigers were vanquished on the banks of Nandikadal. The international media classified it as the “Longest running War in Asia”.
At each stage of the events exacerbating North-South relations the Tamil leadership withdrew into a cocoon of their own refusing to either examine their failures critically or to engage in mid-course corrections. They took comfort in consistently diverting attention to the Sinhala-Buddhist South to cover-up their failures and blame everything on the Sinhala-Buddhists. For instance, they never asked : Was the Vadukoddai violence that ran all the way to Nandikadal necessary for the survival or the progress of the Jaffna Tamils? What purpose did it serve? If the Vadukoddai War was endorsed, launched, financed, propagated, directed and internationalized by the Tamil leadership, embracing it as the work of their “boys” and turning a blind eye to the forcible recruitment of children to wage a futile war, who is responsible for the prolonged conflict that engulfed the nation for 33 years? Who is responsible for the rejection of the peace agreements (plural!) that came with international guarantees? To believe that only the Sinhala-Buddhist south is responsible for the holocaust will be something akin to the belief in the sound of a clap with one hand.
There is, no doubt, that the Sinhala majority misjudged, mishandled and reacted with counter-violence to contain the growing menace of Tamil extremism aiming to divide the nation. But down each step of the way, from Ponnambalam’s Nawalapitiya incident in the late thirties, to Chelvanayakam’s 1949 Maradana speech and later in the Vadukoddai declaration of war in 1976 the Tamil leadership, overestimated their strength, and resorted to confrontational politics unlike the other two communities which distanced themselves from Vadukoddian violence. Their provocative politics roused the historical fears, antagonisms and defensive counter-violence of the South. The extremism of the Northern politics pushed Southern politics also into extremism.
The historical sequence of events, where one event determined the next, with one exacerbating the other, the geographical location where historical events exploded and impacted on both sides of the divide, and the over-determining mono-ethnic ideologies and the interactions of the political actors that manufactured and manipulated the separatist movement — a movement that threw the nation into a holocaust of unprecedented proportions — must be arranged in the natural order of the evolving events to grasp the meaning of our time.
But the mono-causal theorists skip the evolving stages of the escalating demands of the North from colonial times and jump straight into 1956 to blame S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, as if history and inter-ethnic relations began with Bandaranaike. Consequently, in popular political folklore, the common perception begins by blaming the Sinhala-Buddhist wave that swept the nation in the post-1956 era. Invariably, the mono-causal theorists begin their narrative of contemporary times on page one of their opening chapter by accusing Bandaranaike. The mono-causal theory bred one-eyed academics who blithely popularized their mono-causal myth without taking into consideration the preceding factors that were generated by the mono-ethnic political culture of the North. Long before Bandaranaike became a force of his own in 1956 Northern Vellahla elite had escalated, step by step, over the colonial and post-colonial decades mono-ethnic politics to the nearest point of the ultimate extreme.
Even at this late stage it is not too late to question this mono-causal theory that blames the majority Sinhala-Buddhists. How valid is this accusation? There are three major minorities in Sri Lanka – i.e., the indigenous Tamils of the North, the Muslims mainly of the east, and Indians of central hills all whom speak Tamil. Despite differences which are common factors in any majority-minority relationship, the Sri Lankan state resolved differences with the Muslims and the Indians non-violently, within the democratic framework. So why did the Sri Lanka state fail only with the Northern Tamils? What went wrong only with the Tamils of the North? Was it because only the Tamils of the North stepped out of the democratic mainstream and resorted to violence? Was it because of any failure of the majority community which had successfully resolved differences with the other two communities? Or was it because the extremist nature of the Tamil demands, together with intransigence, blocked all possibilities of resolving differences for peaceful co-existence between the North and the South?
If Sinhala-Buddhism is that evil, as described in the mono-causal theory, how come they compromised with the other two minority communities and paved the path for non-violent co-existence? Besides, it is on record that the Tamils achieved a great deal whenever they cooperated with the Sinhalese. Prof. Wilson hailed the Chelvanayakam-Dudley ‘Senanayake Coalition government from 1965 – 1970 as “the golden years of Sinhala-Tamil reconciliation” (p.111 — S. J. V. Chelvanayakam and the Crisis of Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism, 1947 b- 1977, A Political Biography, A. J. Wilson.). S. M. Rasamanickam, in his presidential address to the annual Federal Party convention of 1969, spoke glowingly of the rewarding relationship that prevailed among the two communities when the Federal Party formed the National Government with Dudley Senanayake. He said: “During the last four years were able to gain some rights, if not all of what we expected, through the method of cooperation” (Ibid). Clearly, the possibilities were there for peaceful resolution of differences within the democratic framework whenever the minorities worked together with the centre.
What stood in the way of North-South relations is not the demands – and there were plenty of it from all three minorities — but the specific nature of the separatist demand that threatened the unity and territorial integrity of the nation. As seen in the evolution of the inter-ethnic relations between the majority Sinhalese and Muslim and the Indian minorities it was possible to resolve the reasonable demands non-violently with the majority within the democratic framework. Peaceful co-existence failed only with the Northern Tamils. Why?
The Northern Tamils not only stepped out of the non-violent democratic mainstream, but were also determined to step out of the overall framework of the state demanding a separate state. Separatism and violence are inseparable. It was Tamil extremism that pushed the Tamils into the violent Vadukoddai corner from which they could not get out. No compromise was possible with intransigent separatists. Take, for instance, three constructive, progressive and meaningful settlements worked with cast-iron guarantees : – 1. the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement with Indian guarantees; 2. the Ceasefire Agreement signed by Velupillai Prabhakaran and Norway with the backing of India and international community and 3. the P-TOMs which handed over on a platter the control of the North and the East to Prabhakaran without an election for ten years. All three were rejected and scuppered by Prabhakaran. And whom do the mono-causal theorists blame : the Sinhala-Buddhists, accusing them of not compromising and giving into the demands of the Tamils?
In 1949 when S. J. V. Chelvanayakam launched his first speech for separatism Northern politics had reached its penultimate state of mono-ethnic extremism. It began in the 20s when the English-educated Vellahala Tamil elite – all politics in Jaffna originated from the English-educated Saivite Vellahla elite — asked for one extra seat in the Western Province, consisting mainly of the Sinhalese, in addition to the seats allotted to them in the North. In the thirties the Tamil leadership, led by G. G. Ponnambalam, jumped from one extra seat to 50 -50 – i.e.. 50% for the 12 % Tamils and 50% for the 75% Sinhalese. Though this 50 – 50 claim was disguised as coming from all the minorities – Jaffna Tamils, Muslims and Indians – neither the Muslims nor the Indian Tamils wanted it, nor backed it.
In the forties the Tamil leadership dropped the disproportionate politics of percentages and asked for disproportionate share of territory based on ethnic demography. It was disguised as federalism, though in reality they were aiming at separatism, based on “the little now and more later” policy of Chelvanayakam. (p.128 – Ibid). In 1949 they had neared the end of the mono-ethnic spectrum, advancing from one seat in the Western Province to dividing the nation into two. There was nowhere to go beyond the extremity of a separate state. It is at this point that Chelvanayakam took the center stage and declared his separatist ideology at the GSCU Hall on Dec. 18, 1949. By this time the momentum of mono-ethnic extremism had become an irreversible force within the peninsula. In other words, Bandaranaike had nothing to do with the rise of Tamil extremism, including separatism. After Chelvanayakam’s Maradana speech on December 18, 1949 it was speeding downhill, all the way to Nandikadal.
The divisive politics of Jaffna spilled over from the cadjan-curtained borders of the peninsula and entered the mainstream politics specifically in 1949. Consequently, it is necessary to revisit 1949 when Chelvanayakam launched his first separatist speech at the GCSU Hall in Maradana to get a historical perspective of the mono-ethnic extremism that escalated, inch by inch, into violent politics. In hindsight the political path taken by Chelvanayakam to deviate from the democratic mainstream and resort to separatist violence confirms the foolishness of the Tamil leadership that misled the Tamil people. Nandikadal confirms that there was nothing to gain from separatism. . Nandikadal exposes the folly of both Tamil extremism and the short-sighted Tamil leadership that believed, on the one hand, on the self-inflicted wounds of victimhood and, on the other, their misperceived belief that they constitute a race with a history far superior to that of the Sinhalese, the Muslims and the Indians.
The conventional wisdom that blames only the Sinhala-Buddhists cannot carry the Tamils into the future. It is a slogan that has passed its use-by-date. Contemporary history did not begin with Bandaranaike or his Sinhala Only Act. He and his policies did add fuel to the fires that were already raging in the North. But the fires were certainly not lit by Bandaranaike. Jaffna was already burning with the hate politics that targeted the south. Chelvanayakam brought the communal fires of the North to the south in 1949 when he delivered his separatist ideology at the GCSU Hall in Maradana.
The manner in which the hate politics of the north exploded in the hands of Prabhakaran, the first born child of the Vadukoddai Resolution, is the acid test that exonerates the Sinhala-Buddhists of being the primary cause of Tamil violence. As stated earlier, Tamil politics is obsessed with victimhood. The logic that followed this perception was devastating to the Tamils. They were made to believe that could enter their political heaven only by eliminating the Sinhala-Buddhists and grabbing all possible territory exclusively for themselves. This exclusivity, rejecting multi-cultural co-existence – an ingrained historical trend recorded even in Yalpana Vaipa Malai – led them to the violent Vadukoddai Resolution. It contained not only the hate politics of the North but also their misperceived superiority of Jaffna culture which, in fact, doesn’t exist.
On the contrary, the Pol Potist rule of Prabhakaran confirms that it is an inescapable manifestation of the intolerant, intransigent and fascist culture of Jaffna. He did not come out of nothing, or the Sinhala South. He is an indigenous product of the Vellahla fascism that oppressed, suppressed and persecuted the people of Jaffna during feudal and colonial times. He is merely an extension of that culture. Unable to justify his subhuman politics the Tamils blamed the Sinhala for his actions. It is the Sinhalese who created Prabhakaran, they said. Well, if the Sinhalese created Prabhakaran why did he kill the Muslims? What did they do to him or to the Tamils? If the Sinhalese created Prabhakaran why did he kill Tiruchelvam, Laxman Kadirgamar and the entire Tamil leadership, including those who legitimized his violence in the Vadukoddai Resolution? What did the Tamils do to him to kill Tamils?
It is the intolerant, arrogant, fascist political culture that ruled Jaffna throughout its history that resurfaced in Prabhakaran. The religio-casteist fascism of the Vellahlas was replaced by political fascism which manifested itself in the ruthless personality cult of Prabhakaran. Chelvanayakam’s Maradana speech paved the path to take Jaffna back to its fascist feudal roots. His separatist ideology was the only available strategy for the ruling Vellahla elite to retain the feudalistic casteist power and privileges without yielding to the intrusive external influences undermining their political grip in the peninsula. Separatism was a movement of the Vellahlas, by the Vellahlas for the Vellahlas. It inflamed and fostered the most vicious form of fascist racism which surfaced in the deified cult of Prabhakaran.
However, it is possible for the new generation to write off Chelvanayakam’s Maradana speech that ran down to Nandikadal as bad memories of an unwanted historical nightmare. The choice before Jaffna now is very clear: do they want to go down the same path that took their children to Nandikadal? Or do they prefer to drop their arrogant counter-productive and misperceived politics and return to peaceful co-existence?