By Rajan Hoole –
Sri Lanka: A Haunted Nation – The Social Underpinnings Of Communal Violence– Part 7
The political significance of the Tamil Homeland question has been similarly ob- scured by a spectrum of Southerners minutely dissecting Tamil nationalist claims and arguing that they are very unreasonable. The po- litical content of Tamil claims that was not ad- dressed was the demand for security and the right to preserve their identity. The history of state inspired communal attacks in 1956, 1981 and 1983 are ample demonstration of that need. Tamil nationalist claims are again a reaction to a very partial history sponsored by the State and taught through school textbooks. This official history makes claims to the effect that the Sin- halese were the first civilised inhabitants of this land having moreover an ‘Aryan’ origin. The ‘Dravidian’ Tamils are said to have come later as invaders and destroyers.
Any attempt to question this – and many Sin- halese scholars have done so (e.g. R.A.L.H. Gunawardene and more recently, Sudharshan Seneviratne) – would be met by a host of articles in the Press, often by established scholars, bordering on abuse. Once Sinhalese nationalism became the state ideology, counter ideologies and counter myths from those who felt threatened were inevitable and became the most powerful tools for mobilisation around a nationalist cause. It is pointless to treat this in isolation of the larger context of myth-making. We are always in dan- ger of chasing after red herrings.
The Sansoni Commission, which was man- dated to go into the causes of the 1977 violence and suggest remedies, was guilty of it. By placing the main cause of the anti-Tamil violence on the Eelam (Separate State) cry, the Government of the day was largely let off the hook. Sansoni approvingly quoted Fr. Tissa Balasuriya of the Centre for Society and Religion, and later, also of the Citizens’ Committee for National Har- mony:
“The area of Eelam is about a third of the island surface… and in 1971 it was occupied by only about two million persons, or less than one-sixth of the entire population; it will have a coastline of about three-fifths of the entire coastline and about 85% of the entire popula- tion will be cramped into two-thirds of the entire surface.”
This is an unfortunate misrepresentation. The core Tamil demand has been against state-sponsored colonisation of the North-East aimed at demographic transformation. There was never objection to a gradual movement of Sinhalese to ply a trade, and many had done so and had blended into Jaffna life, lending colour to it. Like their counterparts in the South, TULF politicians too made grandiose nationalist speeches at elec- tion time, but then settled down to reality. Im- mediately after the 1977 elections Amirthalingam (the TULF leader) had tried to establish a close relationship with the UNP Government and kept on asking them through the 80s for ‘an adequate alternative to Tamil Eelam which they could place before the people’. Mr. Ronnie de Mel, then finance minister, testified in his Amirthalingam memorial address at the BMICH in 1993, that Amirthalingam’s approach to ne- gotiations had always been practical and con- structive (see also T. Sabaratnam’s The Murder of a Moderate). Ultimately, the TULF had been in 1981, even willing to try out District Development Councils as an ‘alternative to Eelam’.
Another red herring is the comparison of population with land area without taking into account carrying capacity. The North-East is in the dry zone and was before the middle of the 20th century, extremely unhealthy. Tamils living in that region comprised about 18% of the Island’s population in the British Administration’s census of 1824. By the 1901 census, they had progressively declined to14.5%, allowing for emigration from the North-East and the increase of the Island’s population resulting from the import of Indian Tamils into the plan- tations. This was mainly the result of a higher death rate in the dry-zone. Going by the ten year period covered by the 1921 census, although birth rates were fairly uniform, the annual natu- ral increase was typically 14 per 1000 in the largely Sinhalese wet-zone and 6 to 7 per 1000 among Tamils in the dry-zone. Only a few (rev- enue) divisions comprising the prosperous parts of the Jaffna peninsula had lower death rates similar to the wet-zone. Among the Tamils of the Mannar and Trincomalee districts and among Hill Country labour, death rates tended to equal birth rates or were higher. The high death rates for Sinhalese in the dry zone (i.e. Lower Uva) were similar to those for Tamils in corresponding areas. Population density is there- fore, an isolated and misleading concept in as- sessing the claims of a people to land.
With the advent of the Mahaveli River diversion scheme, there was a new argument (i.e. see Gunaratne’s For a Sovereign State) that with the North-East getting additional water resources from a huge state investment, the people of those areas cannot claim an exclusive right to settle- ment in newly irrigated lands. By 1983, as we have seen, the Ministry of Mahaveli and Lands was getting set for a huge push to establish Sin- halese settlements in the North-East. But the reality was that the Mahaveli Plan was largely a sales document. Apart from the North Central Province, it shows several areas in the north- west, north-east and east as potential beneficia- ries – thus making it look attractive to donors.
However, all schemes in this country have run short of water, leaving tail-enders in the lurch. Water is lost by dams silting up, changes in rainfall and by the water demands of politically influential encroachers. Leaders of the DUNF which broke away from the UNP, including Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali, had discussions with the TULF before the latter’s death in April 1993. On the question of colonisation, they assured the TULF leaders that it was no longer an issue. There was no water for the Mahaveli scheme to go much further than it had. Had Gunaratne and his friends settled a large number of Sinhalese in the Yan Oya basin, there was no prospect of their farming with Mahaveli water. They would have been given shot guns and paid to do home guard duty, protecting the local army camp. This was the fate of settlers in System L – Weli Oya (see 14.3).
To be continued..