By Izeth Hussain –
This article is really in continuation of my article ‘After the Modi visit‘. That article was written hurriedly while I was still convalescent and in a state of alarm. Since then I have had time to consider some important feedbacks that I have received and to study in detail an important policy statement of Prime Minister Modi. I have come to two firm conclusions. One is that seen in the perspective of promoting a political solution to the Tamil ethnic problem the Modi visit was a total unmitigated disaster. Wittingly or otherwise it strengthened the hands of the Tamil racists who have been working, stealthily and steadfastly, towards Eelam or a confederal arrangement close to it. My other firm conclusion is that Sri Lanka can come through unscathed only by occupying the moral high ground. In concrete terms that can best be done by implementing 13A minus – that is 13A without police and land powers.
To understand the significance of what transpired during the Modi visit we must set it in the perspective of developments since the Presidential elections of January 8. The outcome of those elections has been interpreted in different ways. The most significant fact about those elections was that the minorities voted solidly in favor of the Sinhalese candidate Maithripala Sirisena, which was an exhilarating display of our ability to transcend the ethnic divide. The minorities came together with a substantial proportion of the Sinhalese in favor of democracy and an end to our two ethnic problems, which had clearly become impossible under the former President Rajapaksa. The situation clearly demanded that anything that might obstruct ethnic accommodation should be removed. The international community responded accordingly by postponing the presentation of the war crimes report by six months.
It seemed to be, at long last, halcyon weather on the ethnic front. But it was at that moment that our Wiggie – Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council, Wigneswaran – chose to detonate his thunderbolt in the form of a demand that the international community investigate charges of genocide against the Tamils perpetrated since 1948. The timing seemed truly bizarre. The question that shot into my mind was this: Is that man mad? If so, his bizarre behavior could be dismissed as the kind of thing that somehow happens every now and then. But his behavior seemed to me symptomatic of the kind of Tamil who is ostensibly moderate but continues to hanker after Eelam or something close to it. He can be expected to sabotage anything that might lead to ethnic accommodation. However, we can afford to laugh off our Wiggie’s bizarre antics, but not those of Prime Minister Modi. He came, he saw, and conquered us with a superb display of Indian soft power, and has gone smothered in laurel. But he has left two thunder clouds that could again bode stormy weather on the ethnic front.
One Modi thunder cloud takes the form of his recommendation that we go beyond 13A. It has been reported that at that point Wimal Weerawansa staged a walk-out. I regret that many more did not join him, for that recommendation has to be regarded as nothing less than outrageous. In my last article I pointed out that that recommendation was objectionable for being open-ended: it could be interpreted as meaning that the Tamil side would be justified in asking even for a confederal arrangement by way of devolution. Of course Modi did not mean anything like that, but he ought to have been circumspect bearing in mind that the Tamil side has in the past shown a penchant for striking out for maximalist positions. His recommendation was therefore made in an irresponsible manner. But I have in mind a much more fundamental objection: it is that since 1987 no Sri Lankan Government has committed itself to going beyond 13A. True, former President Rajapaksa used to jabber and blabber about 13A+, but that was just a form of Orwellian duckspeak, a form of speech in which the larynx goes into action without the higher brain centers coming into operation at all. His statements on 13A+ did not have the sanction of the Government behind it, and was not much more meaningful than the inane quacking of ducks. Considering the Peace Accords and commitments made thereafter, it would have been legitimate for Prime Minister Modi to request the full implementation of 13A. But in going beyond that he was perilously close to interfering in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka.
The second Modi thunder cloud took the form of his encomium on what he called “cooperative federalism”. I have studied the full text of his speech to Parliament in which that encomium occurs. He was not making a policy prescription for Sri Lanka to follow, and he explicitly acknowledged that a single model of devolution would not fit all countries. He was speaking of his experience as Chief Minister for thirteen years and as Prime Minister for a brief period, on which basis he clearly thought that a very wide measure of devolution, even to the extent of cooperative federalism would be best for India. But are we to suppose that Modi was merely engaging in personal reminiscences which had no relevance to Sri Lanka at all? Surely, he clearly meant that Sri Lanka too should try out a very wide measure of devolution going well beyond 13A.
The two thunder clouds left behind by Modi – going beyond 13A and cooperative federalism – can be expected to lead to stormy weather on the ethnic front because they can encourage the taking of maximalist positions by the Tamil side. We must not forget that there used to be a time when the LTTE insisted that negotiations should be preceded by the Government acknowledging that the Tamils had a right to self-determination inclusive of the right to set up a separate state. Could arrogant stupidity have gone further? But the situation today is very different because the LTTE has been defeated and the TNA is led by seasoned moderate politicians. It is worth mentioning that the Global Tamil Forum did not want any demonstrations against President Sirisena during his London visit. I would like to believe that the Modi line may not necessarily prevail. But I cannot ignore this from Chief Minister Wigneswaran: “The thirteenth Amendment can never be the final solution. No wonder you referred to your firm belief in cooperative federalism yesterday in Parliament. ………. We need the services of a guarantor and it is our considered view that the Government of India under your stewardship is best suited for this role”. It is to be noted that he was not speaking in the first person singular but in the plural, using the terms “we” and “our’ to indicate that he was speaking for the Tamils as a whole. So, we can take it that Modi’s advocacy of a very wide measure of devolution will encourage the Tamil side to strike out for maximalist positions, making the problem of ethnic accommodation even more difficult than in the past. The Modi visit has therefore to be regarded as a total unmitigated disaster.
At this point we must however consider a possible counter-argument. The military defeat of the LTTE shows that the Sri Lankan Tamils cannot by themselves establish Eelam. Therefore even a very wide measure of devolution, including federalism, will not pose any threat to the political unity and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. In fact the failure to find a political solution, on the basis of wide devolution or any other basis, is precisely what might lead some other power, namely India, to help the Tamils establish Eelam. I myself have advanced this argument several times and have never found anything by way of a cogent reply. The truth is that there cannot be a cogent reply at the logical level. But I would concede that I have been arguing at an abstract level without taking into account hard realities in the realm of practical politics. The hard reality is that because of the historical experience of many invasions from South India, as well as from the West, the Sinhalese have an acute sense of Sri Lanka’s vulnerability and the dread that a wide measure of devolution would lead ineluctably to Eelam. It is an unreasonable dread, but a very real one all the same. A political solution on the basis of a very wide measure of devolution is not in the realm of practical politics in Sri Lanka.
I have to be terse in conclusion. I suggest that the Government undertake a two-pronged program. It is a fact that there are innumerable minorities all over the world who are living in reasonable accommodation with dominant majorities without any devolution at all. Our Tamils are very happy to settle down in the West where there is no devolution for the Tamils. Why insist on a wide measure of devolution only in Sri Lanka? Part of the reason is that the Tamils have an essentially racist projection about the Sinhalese, the so-called Mahawamsa mind-set which will forever prevent the Sinhalese giving the minorities fair and equal treatment, and that means that the Tamils can be happy in Sri Lanka only within a Tamil enclave. The Government should undertake a campaign to spread the view that the Mahawamsa mindset is tosh, and that Sinhalese-Tamil relations have for the most part been, not antagonistic, but symbiotic.
The second prong of the program I have in mind is that the Government earnestly try to make a success of the Northern Provincial Council. The implementation of 13A-, without land and police powers, backed by a fully functioning democracy, should go a long way towards solving the ethnic problem. If the Government is earnest about implementing 13A-, it will be occupying the moral high ground which is the only way Sri Lanka can come through when challenged by powerful countries. But are we capable of producing such a Government? I don’t know, but we had better try, bearing in mind that Narendra Modi is not just any leader but a devotee of the Hindutva ideology, an essentially Fascist ideology, and that he is not an Oxbridge product.