Colombo Telegraph

Who Is A Tamil?

By S. I. Keethaponcalan

Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan

A few days ago, my review of Laksiri Fernando’s new book entitled Issues of New Constitution Making in Sri Lanka: Towards Ethnic Reconciliation appeared in the Colombo Telegraph. Soma, presumably a pseudonymed CT reader asked, what do you mean by Tamil (people). He/she argued that it is important to clearly define the “Tamil” people in order to proceed with the discussion on the devolution of power. Perhaps, Soma is correct in saying that a precise definition is important, because, often, Tamil analysts use the term loosely and take the definition for granted. I thought that it is an important question and decided to reflect. The opinions expressed are mine and I do not claim that all or most Tamils share my views on this topic.

Who is a Tamil? Soma’s question is restricted to Sri Lanka. However, let us start the discussion with a global perspective. Tamil is an ethnic category, which has been defined mainly by language, although Tamils share many cultural traits. Hence, any person who considers Tamil as his or her mother tongue may be defined as a Tamil. Tamils live all around the world. Since, a distinction needs to be made among these Tamils who live in different parts of the world, sub-ethnic categories have been created. Indian Tamils, Sri Lankan Tamils, and Malaysian Tamils are some of these sub-ethnic categories. Tamils are native to India and Sri Lanka. Hence, in many of these countries often distinctions are made between Indian and Sri Lankan Tamils despite the reality that they may operate as a unified entity. For example, in many host nations Thamil Sangams are formed to bring Tamils from different countries together.

Sri Lankan Muslims

In Sri Lanka the definition remains largely blurred due to socio-political realities and political reasons. The discussion could quickly move to the question whether Muslims in Sri Lanka are Tamils. This issue remains controversial and a cause of contention because opinion greatly differs between (most) Tamils and Muslims on the definition. Many Tamils consider Muslims as Tamils because traditionally a vast majority of Muslims spoke Tamil. Since, they are religiously different from the Hindu Tamils, they are called Islamiyath Thamilar (Muslim Tamils) by some Tamils even today.

Ponnampalam Ramanathan famously argued that Muslims are Islamiyath Thamilar. This notion created serious rift between the two communities. Muslims believed that Tamils have political motives to label them as Tamils. Many Muslims who write about Muslim-Tamil issues often start their analysis from Ramanathan. The label, Islamiyath Thamilar makes the Muslims a subcategory of Tamil. Hence, the resistance.

The Muslims consider themselves as a distinct and independent community different from the Tamils notwithstanding the fact that many of them still speak Tamil. However, they do not treat Tamil as their mother tongue, but a convenient tool used at home. Of course, there may be exceptions to this general rule. The notion that Tamil speaking Muslims are not Tamils may create some conceptual issues because Tamil ethnicity is defined by language. When it comes to the rights of a group of people, concepts are less significant.

Therefore, I subscribe to the idea that Muslims are not Tamils. They are an independent social group defined by religion. Every social group has the right to define it’s identify as it deems fit. The Muslims have the right to define who they are. Tamils trying to define the Muslims identity may make them hegemonic. Therefore, Tamil people, do not include the Muslims. The recognition that Muslims are an independent group has the potential to promote Muslim-Tamil reconciliation.

Another category often used in Sri Lanka is “Tamil speaking people.” This label could also be problematic for two reasons. One, it creates a division within the Muslim community because Muslims now speak Sinhala, Tamil, and English. Two, there is hardly any solidarity between Tamil speaking Muslims and Tamils. It could become a useful category if the Muslims are enthusiastic about it. At this point in time, there is hardly any evidence to suggest that Muslims are enthusiastic about working with the Tamils. The trend could change if the attacks on the Muslims community continue or escalate.

Up-country Tamils

In Sri Lanka, a distinction is also made between Indian (or plantation or up-country) Tamils and Sri Lankan Tamils. This distinction is important for two reasons.

One, there are historical differences between the two groups. Sri Lankan Tamils have a very long history in the country. They are native to Sri Lanka. Hence, they are often called indigenous Tamils. If I remember correctly, K.M. de Silva called Sri Lankan Tamils the “Indigenous Tamils.” Some nationalist Sinhalese believe that Sri Lankan Tamils were of recent origin, hence not native to the country. Nevertheless, Indian Tamils were mostly, but not exclusively, brought to work in the plantations during the colonial era.

Two, the issues and concerns of the Indian Tamils or Up-country Tamils are different from the Sri Lankan Tamils. Their problems are mostly social welfare related and could be resolved through administrative means, including administrative decentralization. They do not ask for a separate state and have worked closely with Sri Lankan governments. The Sri Lankan Tamils on the other hand, believe that the North-East Provinces are their “homeland” and they fought for a separate state.

Hence, lumping Indian Tamils and Sri Lankan Tamils together under the label “Tamil” would certainly undermine the Indian Tamil’s socio-political welfare. Their issues would become less significant. Therefore, in terms of political discourse, it is important to make a distinction between the Indian Tamils and Sri Lankan Tamils. It seems that the Indian Tamils have been increasingly adopting the label Up-country Tamils.

Hence, in view of the devolution debate in general and devolution to the North-East Provinces in particular, the term “Tamil” means “Sri Lankan Tamils,” who live or have roots in the North-East Provinces. However, many analysts often do not include the term “Sri Lankan” when they denote Sri Lankan Tamils, partly, in order to avoid repetition of the term “Sri Lankan.” They (or we) also assume that it is given.

*Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is Chair of the Conflict Resolution Department, Salisbury University, Maryland.

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