For the progressive forces in the country, the night of 21st September would have evoked a mixture of contradictory feelings. The UPFA’s success, despite the slight decline in its vote share in the Central Province, in the elections that take place in the South is worrisome. It underscores how Sinhala Buddhist nationalism obscures the economic woes of the downtrodden people. For many, what happened in the North may appear phenomenally subversive, and therefore deserves praise and celebration. The TNA’s victory in the North is, beyond doubt, a clarion call for demilitarization, resettlement, an end to state sponsored discrimination in the Tamil speaking areas and finally for political liberation. I would also interpret it as a vote for devolution and de-centralization of powers and a clear indication that the voters in the North have rejected the government’s strategy of supplanting the political rights of the Tamils with large-scale development programs. It is a verdict for freedom, justice and self-respect and the writing on the wall is that the Tamils do not want to be treated as second class citizens in Sri Lanka.
The Northern Provincial Council will be the only non-UPFA provincial council in the months to come. We can hope that there will be more pressure on the center from the periphery, from the margins of the nation. Let’s also hope that the new provincial council will offer an alternative to the undemocratic political culture that the Rajapaksha regime has created all over the country. Yet, the TNA’s victory is troubling at the same time. I do not want to get carried away in the nationalist euphoria sweeping across the Tamil media or the liberal discourses circulating on the social media at present. We witness different forms of discrimination (caste, class and gender) in our everyday lives in Northern Sri Lanka. But we do not always see political forces struggling against those forms of oppression contesting or winning elections. To tell the truth, with the rise of Tamil nationalism, many of these mundane forms of discrimination and exploitation within the Tamil community in the North have hardly been electoral issues. In such a political context, the TNA owes its victory partly to the easily mobilizable character of ethnicity-oriented electoral politics within a contiguous territory where a particular ethnicity is the majority. Being reflexive about the majoritarian factor undergirding the TNA’s ascension to power would help Tamils build healthy relations with the Muslims and Sinhalese in the Northern Province who are going to be governed by the TNA-led provincial government (Read Dharisha Bastian’s recent article “Mannar’s holy wars” focusing on the complex ethno-religious tensions between Muslims, Catholic Tamils, Hindu Tamils and Sinhalese in Mannar and the manner in which the numerical strength of the different ethnic and religious communities impinge on their socio-economic processes).
My frustrations with the Northern Provincial Council elections began while the TNA was preparing its list of candidates. The TNA’s failure to nominate Gnanasakthi Sritharan as one of its candidates for the Northern Provincial Council elections shows us the irreconcilable gap between nationalism and social justice in Tamil politics in Sri Lanka. Hence my take on the 2013 elections, particularly the elections for the Northern Provincial Council, begins with the story of Gnanasakthi Sritharan. A more detailed version of what I write below is found in DBS Jeyaraj’s recent piece “Gnanasakthi Sritharan: From EPRLF Comrade to UPFA Candidate.
Gnanasakthi Sritharan is a member of the EPRLF (Pathmanaba Wing). She was a member of the merged North and East Provincial Council when Varadarajaperumal was elected as its Chief Minister. Unlike Suresh Premachandran’s EPRLF, Pathmanaba Wing rejected the LTTE’s claim that the latter was the sole representatives of the Tamil people. The EPRLF (Pathnamaba Wing) joined the TNA post-2009, after the defeat of the LTTE in Mullivaikal, with a view to building a unified, larger Tamil political front. Gnanaskathi has been, for many years, a political worker committed to struggling against all forms of social oppression including class, caste and gender. She has had experience in working with grassroot-level women’s movements. The non-ostentatious manner in which she conducted her election campaign in the last few months drew the attention of many of us. She would organize small-scale meetings with women in areas in Jaffna where oppressed caste communities live. She would sit down on the mud floor and talk to the people to understand their grievances. We have hardly seen this form of political activism centered on the grass roots in recent times in Jaffna. The most important aspect of her politics is that she understood the dynamics between different forms of oppression and that they all should be battled against. There was a move to nominate Gnanasakthi on the TNA’s list of candidates for Jaffna district. According to DBS Jeyaraj, many within the TNA were willing accommodate her. However, Suresh Premachandran prevented them from nominating her. The EPRLF (Pathmanaba Wing) decided to contest the elections under the UPFA’s betel leaf symbol. Gnanasakthi was offered a slot by the UPFA, but she did not win the election.
The scholarly work of Sivamohan Sumathy, Sitralega Maunaguru, Nimanthi Perera-Rajasingam and Radhika Coomaraswamy has provided some insightful analyses of the manner in which Tamil nationalism overtly and covertly represents the interests of the middle class, upper-caste (Vellala), patriarchal forces within the Tamil community. What happened to Gnanasakthi Sritharan in the run up to the provincial council elections attests to this view. Besides Suresh Premachandran’s steadfast opposition to EPRLF (Naba Wing), it stems from the TNA’s lack of interest in attending to the serious internal contradictions within the Tamils. One cannot alternatively support the UPFA which overlooked the Tamil community’s political aspirations and obscured its discriminatory politics through a flashy rhetoric of development. While we may be reluctant to back Gnanasakthi as a candidate of the UPFA, we should note that the TNA’s failure to have her on their list is disappointing.
Symptomatic of the TNA’s ethnicity-centered politics, the gender asymmetry in the party’s lists of candidates was appalling. The party nominated only three female candidates for the entire province. The TNA fielded 20 candidates in the Jaffna district. Ananthi Sasitharan was the TNA’s lone female candidate in Jaffna. Ananthi Sasitharan is the wife of an LTTE chief. Her husband surrendered to the military in May 2009, but she has not received any credible information about him since then. She received threats several times during the election campaign. Her house was attacked two nights before the election allegedly by the military. It is remarkable that she withstood all forms of pressure and threats and became 2nd in the preferential votes in Jaffna district. During the campaign, Ananthi presented herself as a voice of war-affected women and women who are searching for their family members who have disappeared or have been abducted and detained by the state and its agents. The thirty-year war has produced new identities within the Tamil community in Sri Lanka: the internally displaced Tamils, the ones who have lost their land, Tamils whose family members have disappeared, to name a few. The aspirations and expectations of these Tamils are, in crucial ways, different from the rest of the Tamils within the North. These new identities speak about state-sponsored discrimination against Tamils in concrete and material terms and deserve our special attention. Even though many attempted to project Ananthi as an LTTE chief’s husband in order to garner more votes for the TNA, I see her as representing one of these new Tamil identities that tries to find a space for itself in the larger political spectrum. Her victory is significant in this respect.
While the TNA was heading for a victory by a ¾ majority in the early hours of Saturday, social media spaces were swarmed by messages from the North, South and diaspora expressing jubilation. For many, the TNA’s victory meant a total blow to the ruling regime and its false claims about successful reconciliation post-Mullivaikal. Some described it as a new dawn. Uthayan newspaper called it the blossoming of the Tamil People’s Arasu (‘Arasu’ is used in Tamil to denote both ‘state’ and ‘government’). We could also see some commentators describing the TNA victory as Tamil revenge and others celebrating it as Tamil pride. Some even posted meaningless statements like “In life and life history, the victory is always for Tamils.” Some of these statements are patently problematic. On the other hand, in our haste to celebrate this successful enactment of our political defiance, we make statements that might appear innocuous and politically unproblematic. It is only when we reflexively looking at our pronouncements that we notice that they carry a disgusting undertone of triumphalism that does not augur well for our future. There is a process of ‘Othering’ happening consciously and discreetly in these utterances. The key question is how and why we want to deploy this victory in our conversations – Is it a marker of pride and revenge? Contrastingly, could we enunciate it a milestone in our democratic quest for justice, equality and liberation? We need to ensure that this victory does not alienate Tamils from the other communities in the island. To allow narrow-minded identity politics to conquer this victory will indubitably prove disastrous. Triumphalism is regressive and divisive. We sadly witnessed how one part of the nation celebrated the military victory in 2009 while thousands of people were being displaced from the Vanni. Living in the South during this time, I felt alienated and cornered. A group of young men celebrating the military victory in the Wanni shouted derisively (I can remember the word “Demala” in what they said) and waved the lion flag at us from a trailer truck, while some of us, undergraduates at the University of Peradeniya, were standing near an eatery. I do not suggest that what is happening in the social media now is comparable to the victory parades held in the South in 2009 or later. Stories coming from the North inform that voters are celebrating the victory silently. However, the undertone of some of the utterances circulating in the social media is a cause for concern, for triumphalism involves the denigration of the ‘Other’ and could lead to a political culture of disengagement, while what is required now is dialogue and discussion.
Crudely put, in the recently concluded elections, Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims have overwhelmingly voted for ethnicity-based political parties that represent the interests of the respective communities. As some of the comments that I saw yesterday, the liberal South may want to celebrate the TNA’s spectacular electoral performance as a victory for group rights and multiculturalism. Yes, we do not have a third force that represents a progressive and connective ideology. The Left, both the new and the old, have failed us. In the absence of a strong alternative force that accommodates multiple struggles in its political program, we have got caught in a web of representational identity politics. Yet, we can be reflexive about it. We need to think about the ways in which the diverse ethnic populations in the country could collectively build an alternative political force and understand and engage with each other’s concerns. We need to keep the flame of solidarity alive, however feeble and flickering it may appear now before the polarizing storms of identitarianism and nationalism.
The historical connections between the different communities on the island, their territorial overlaps and the mobile nature of their identifications and cultures are important realities that we need to reckon with. This does not, however, mean that all the communities in the country face the same problems in the same manner. In the context of state-sponsored discrimination against the minorities, ethnicity has emerged as a key player in Sri Lankan politics. I do not say that we transcend it; but we need to address it constructively and courageously. There are other forces such as class, caste and gender that complicate the political picture further. The progressive character and content of democracy rely on how best we address these interlocking discourses without furthering the divisions and fragmentations that have crippled our communities. Circumventing the traps laid by concepts like group rights and ideologies of multiculturalism and nationalism, we need to navigate our political processes carefully. The concept of group rights often homogenizes communities where power inequalities produce significant social, cultural and economic differences internally. Group rights can also confine us to stifling cultural, political and geographic territories. Nationalisms can reinforce each other and pave the way for destruction. Celebrating our own communities uncritically and non-reflexively for resoundingly supporting a political party that represents, in obvious ways, our ethnic group alone is narcissistic and self-congratulatory; it prevents us from envisioning creative ways of moving forward. Triumphing triumphalism is as important as invoking this victory to speak about people’s passion for bringing about socio-political transformation in times of crisis and despair.
 (a) Coomaraswamy, Radhika & Nimanthi Perera-Rajasingham. “Being Tamil in a Different Way: A Feminist Critique of the Tamil Nation.” Pathways of Dissent: Tamil Nationalism in Sri Lanka. Ed. R. Cheran. Los Angeles: Sage, 2009. pp. 107-138.
(b) Maunaguru, Sitralega. “Gendering Tamil Nationalism: The Construction of ‘Woman’ in Projects of Protest and Control.” Unmaking the Nation: The Politics of Identityand History in Modern Sri Lanka. Eds. Pradeep Jeganathan & Qadri Ismail. Colombo: Social Scientists’ Association, 1995.
(c) Sumathy, S. “The Rise of Militant Tamil Nationalism, its Assumptions and the Cultural Production of Tamil Women.” Sri Lankan Society in an Era of Globalization: Struggling toCreate a New Social Order. Eds. S.H. Hasbullah & Barrie M. Morrison. New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2004.
(d) Sumathy, S.Militants, Militarism and the Crisis of (Tamil) Nationalism. Colombo: Marga, 2001.
*Mahendran Thiruvarangan is a graduate student in English at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.