Colombo Telegraph

Two Dimensions Of The National Question

By Laksiri Fernando –

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

There have been two clearly discernible dimensions to the ‘national question’ in Sri Lanka in modern times. By modern times, I mean the period beginning with colonialism particularly under the British (1815) and the awakening of various ethnic communities into national consciousness under capitalism or print capitalism.

The first dimension of the national question signified or still signifies the independence from colonialism and after independence (1948), the freedom from post-colonialism or what is perceived as imperialism or outside interference, primarily from the Western hemisphere. This can be termed as the external dimension of the national question. The ‘independence,’ ‘sovereignty’ and ‘territorial integrity’ have been the main demands or slogans of this dimension of the national question while it also could invoke the ‘overall right of self-determination’ of the country. At times, India has also come into this equation as a challenge or a threatening power.

The second dimension of the national question has been the much vexed problem in the country for the last three decades or even before and the failure to resolve this problem peacefully has been the reason for the war, death and destruction. The second dimension of the national question means the ‘Tamil national question’ or the national question of the minorities particularly of the Tamils and the Muslims. This is the internal dimension of the national question. As ethnic nations or national groups in society, they rightfully aspire for national equality in many spheres and denial of them has led, on the part of the Tamils, to demand ‘autonomy,’ ‘federalism’ (internal self-determination) and ‘separation’ (external self-determination). The ‘self-determination’ has been their main slogan or demand in various forms.

In contrast to the peaceful resolution of the first or the external dimension of the national question or independence, the abysmal failure on the part of the political leaders to resolve the internal dimension or the second dimension of the national question is very much conspicuous. This article attempts to highlight the inverse relationship between these two dimensions of the national question with a brief outline of their origins and argues that a creative or a rational balance between the two might be the solution for the country’s present deadlock on reconciliation and other issues.

Realty and Exaggeration

National questions are always exaggerated matters, whether external and internal. Humans, unlike the other species of animals, appear to have an incorrigible tendency to ‘imagine’ and ‘exaggerate’ the perceived threats and kill each other on those grounds. Sri Lankans perhaps in this respect are par excellence. Then the ‘theoreticians’ like us come in and complicate matters to the greatest possible extent!

In the early fifties, it was the ‘communist threat’ under the influence of the American propaganda. I recollect, as a child, collecting pamphlets from the Colombo Plan Exhibition depicting the killings and atrocities of the communists in Tibet and in the Soviet Union. Then in the seventies it was the threat of American imperialism influenced by the Vietnam War. Even the Mahavelli project was considered a conspiracy. I remember myself writing a popular pamphlet on the subject by the name of Ranjith Peiris condemning American imperialism. Thereafter came the phobia of ‘Indian expansionism,’ which was utilized by the JVP to mobilize the cadres for the 1971 uprising.

None of the above was completely unreal but exaggerated. When Sri Lanka was a colony, the independence was a primary necessity and the struggle to achieve that was legitimate. Even after independence, there were colonial strings attached and the attempts to untie them were necessary. But to keep the country and the people under constant tension, often under the rubric of ‘patriotism,’ exaggerating the perceived external threats do more harm than good for the country and its future. The world is undoubtedly controlled by big powers or ‘imperialists’ no doubt, but there have been many legal and institutional changes under the UN that makes it possible for Sri Lanka to maintain its independence and necessary sovereignty intact. It is a matter of effective diplomacy.

There is no doubt that Sri Lanka is a country which has treated its minorities quite abysmally with or without the threat of separatism. But the first half of the twentieth century was an example for peaceful coexistence between the different ethnic communities, undoubtedly with frictions, or otherwise the country could not have achieved independence as one country. While there is the dominance of Sinhala (or Buddhist) fundamentalism on the one hand, it is equally true that Tamil nationalism also entertained something similar or at least exclusivist traits from the beginning. This is no surprise given the underdeveloped nature of the economy and the social formations where ethno-nationalism became predominant instead of civic nationalism. A major difference between the two, that needs to be taken into proper consideration, however, is that one is the majority (dominant) and the other is the minority.

Once a country has gone through a long period of ethno-nationalism, it is difficult to forge civic nationalism even if the economic conditions change in the favour of the latter like perhaps at present. The attempts to create ‘civic nationalism’ or integration by force would be a catastrophic failure with disastrous consequences. When it is attempted without the consent of the minority, the Tamils or the Muslims, it amounts to forceful assimilation. This is exactly what is attempted and happening today.

Inverse Relationship

In a country like Sri Lanka, compromises are necessary in ‘nation building,’ in addition to ensuring democracy and development. Bigotry or extremism will not work. A necessary compromise is in between the two dimensions of the national question, the external and the internal. There are opposite forces governing these two dimensions, centripetal and centrifugal. This is in addition as well as in conjunction with the extreme Sinhala nationalism and the extreme Tamil nationalism. A compromise, a balance or equilibrium is needed because the relations are opposite and inverse.

Sinhala nationalism or centripetal forces have been the determining forces in Sri Lanka particularly after independence until they came to a breaking point in the eighties resisted by Tamil nationalism with violence. Although there was some logic in respect of decolonization, the assertion of the external dimension was taken to an extreme end to the detriment of the internal dimension or the minority question. The Sinhala only official language policy and the 1972 Constitution are two major examples. Absolute ‘sovereignty,’ ‘unitary state’ and ‘territorial integrity’ were the main assertions while the outright rejection of autonomy, devolution or federalism for the minority communities was the major implication. What became revealed was the inherent inverse relationship between the two dimensions. When one is overtly asserted, the other is sweepingly undermined.

It was after the Indian (external) intervention that an uneasy compromise was built into the constitution in 1987 through the 13th Amendment. However this half-hearted compromise could not by now appease the separatist movement. Even the peace efforts by the external intervention could not rectify the situation thereafter. The Norwegian sponsored Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) in fact on the other hand undermined the external dimension of the national question of sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country. At least that is the way it was perceived. Apart from terrorism, this is one reason for the military onslaught against the LTTE in 2006-09.

Now after three years of the end of the war, the pendulum is swinging in the other direction, quite possibly reinventing the conflict cycle in at least in a different form without moving towards reconciliation; whatever the remaining talk about reconciliation is due to the international pressure.

Actors of Extremism

The actors of extremism are those who assert one dimension of the national question against the other, on both sides of the divide, without compromising for a balance between the two, quite detrimental to the country’s stability, democracy and development. Like the SLFP, the UNP has also been complicit at times of asserting the external dimension of the national question against the minority rights of the national question. Quite similarly, like the LTTE, the TNA has also been complicit at different times asserting the internal dimension of the national question quite detrimental to the external or the country dimension of the national question.

But in relative terms, the UNP and the TNA are moderate forces that can be relied upon in bringing a compromised solution to the country. Even within the SLFP, there were moderate forces that were willing to compromise on the national question prior to the advent of Mahinda Rajapaksa to the leadership. The ‘package’ and the 2000 August draft constitution were some examples. Even there is an opportunistic deviation between the initial Mahinda Chinthana (i.e. 13+) and the post-Mahinda Chinthana policy of Mahinda Rajapaksa. What can be seen is the hardening of the extremist stance of the Rajapaksa administration on the national question day by day.

Some of the broad contours for a compromise on the two dimensions of the national question could be a political system based on a united country, autonomy and devolved powers, enshrined human and minority rights, multi-culturalism both in theory and practice, and institutionalised power sharing both at the centre and the periphery as relevant.

There is a need to understand the other side of the coin on the part of all protagonists and more and more efforts at assessing and evaluating the issues beyond one’s own ethnicity or ethnic prism. Both academics and journalists (similar species) particularly need to see beyond their own ethnic affiliations.


Now one extreme to the political equation, the LTTE, is gone; the other still remains and that is the Rajapaksa administration. It is difficult to see a political resolution to the national question within this administration, although even after, the tasks might not be that smooth. At least a change might bring a manageable situation. There are so many other related and distinctly related matters why the Rajapaksa administration should go. Those are matters of democracy, good governance, imposed economic hardships, human rights, violence, corruption, and communalism, family-rule, rule of law or simple reasons of political decency. I have never seen a regime deteriorating into such low levels, like the present administration, within such a short pace of time.

What is necessary to bring about a political or a regime change is a broad collation of democratic forces both in the South and the North, at the begging marching separately and striking together, and eventually forging more understanding and alliances for a viable Political Front even drawing upon the liberal and leftist sections within the present government itself.

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