By Vishwamithra1984 –
“So far as the government is concerned, there is only one holy book, which is the constitution of India. My government will not tolerate or accept any discrimination based on caste, creed and religion.” ~Narendra Modi
Indian Express on February 10, 2017 reported thus: ‘The Chief Minister of the Tamil-majority Northern Province of Sri Lanka, C.V. Wigneswaran, has admitted that “some unfortunate incidents” of the past had inflicted wounds on the Muslims which are yet to heal. He said this while addressing the Ezhuga Tamil (Arise Tamil) rally at Batticaloa in the Eastern Province on Friday’.
The same report says that ‘Batticaloa town and district have a substantial Muslim population. One may remember that it was in a mosque in Kattankudy in Batticaloa district on August 3, 1990, that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) butchered 143 Muslims while they were set in prayer. Later the same year, the LTTE banished nearly one hundred thousand Muslims from the Northern Province with merely one day’s notification’.
These two incidents had the same effect that was created in the minds and hearts of Sinhalese Buddhists when nearly forty Buddhist monks, most of whom were Saamaneras (novice monks), were slaughtered on June 2, 1987 in Arantalawa in the Ampara District of Eastern Province.
Wigneswaran has not deviated from the fundamental premise of all Tamil leaders since the demise of the Ponnambalam brothers, Ramanathan and Arunachalam. Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan and Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam were clearly and most prominently identified with the national agenda of the country. Although the Ponnambalam brothers were very much involved in the Tamil politics at the time, their national recognition and overall stature was no second to any leading Sinhalese leader of the time. Their pedigree was impeccable; their education was matchless and their social standing immaculate. Hobnobbing with both the Colonial rulers and the Sinhalese, Muslim and Burger elites at the time, the opinion of the Ponnambalam brothers were frequently sought and regularly rendered.
The Sinhalese leadership had to depend on Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan for an eloquent and forceful advocacy of the innocence of the then Sinhalese leaders, D S Senanayake and F R Senanayake and others who were accused of involvement in the Muslim riots in 1915. The speech Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan made in the Legislative Council remains one of the best ever made in the well of the House of our Legislative Bodies.
As a matter of fact, caste dimensions were more protruding than those of race and faith. It was most unambiguously illustrated when the election of educated Ceylonese came about in 1911. According to the biography of J R Jayewardene of Sri Lanka, written by Professor K M de Silva, most of the prominent Sinhalese leaders at the time, such as D S Senanayake and Justice E W Jayewardene KC (J R Jayewardene’s father) persuaded Sir Ponnambalam who had retired from all public life to stand for election. The prime concern of the Ceylonese national leaders was caste and these so-called leaders of the Sinhalese masses were pressed to do this when Dr. Marcus Fernando, an eminent medical doctor who happened to be married to the daughter of Sir Charles de Soysa, the wealthiest Ceylonese of the second half of the nineteenth century, tendered his nomination. The disqualification in terms of the then Sinhalese leaders was caste. Sir Marcus belonged to Karava caste, considered to be lower than Govigama caste from which most of the Sinhalese leaders claimed to have hailed. Ponnambalam Ramanathan (later Sir) was elected with 1,645 votes with Dr. H Marcus Fernando, receiving 981 votes. The Sinhalese leaders at the time chose caste over race and a great number of Sinhalese voters too opted to vote for a Tamil rather than an established personality from amongst the Sinhalese elite.
One must realize one dominant element when negotiating with political, ethnic or whatever opponent. A personal relationship between the parties that negotiate would go a long way, a very long way indeed. The relationships between the Sinhalese and Tamil leaderships were not ideal or optimal at that time in the early years of the twentieth century, yet much stronger than now. Defection of Arunachalam, Ramanathan’s brother, scattered the seeds of disharmony and distrust, seeds of lack of genuine and sincere trust between the two ethnic groups at the highest level of respective leaderships. The Tamil leadership that assumed national recognition and power thereafter belonged to the other Ponnambalam, G G and the Chelvanayagams and Amirthalingams, now Sampanthan and Sumanthiran and Wignesvaran.
What Prabhakaran and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) did was to undo all the ‘good’ work done by his ‘predecessors’. Though at no given time Prabhakaran was the acknowledged leader of the Tamil community in Sri Lanka, by sheer force of his guns, suicide bombers and intimidation he was, for more than two decades, the virtual leader and those moderate leaders too accepted his leadership, dreaming of a never-achievable Elam.
Recently this writer had the rare privilege of visiting the Bank maintained by the LTTE and also the reception hall that was almost adjacent to the Bank where Prabhakaran entertained the would-be suicide bombers for their last meal of rice, vegetables and chicken curry. This complex is located in Kilinochchi, Prabhakaran’s ‘capital city’ of the dreamland Elam. It was an impressive piece of architecture whose primary feature was simplicity and functionality. But the final defeat of his dreaded murderous army, Prabhakaran brought upon himself and his cause a terrible setback ending with his shameful end.
With the end of the war, the Tamil community suffered a psychological defeat and it was not limited to the LTTE and its leader. The Rajapaksas and their cohorts made a futile attempt to own the victory despite the fact that it belonged to the exemplary leadership provided to the security forces by General Sarath Fonseka. And after Fonseka decided to contest the Rajapaksa clan at the Presidential Election in 2009, the war hero became a ‘traitor’ overnight. The unleashing of ‘thugs and hooligans in saffron’ as patriotic forces achieved its desired results for a short time but the personal lifestyles and utterly disgusting manner in which these ‘hooligans in saffron’, invalidly pretending to be Buddhist Monks, behaved in public totally destroyed them. And the untold damage and mutilation they brought upon the pious members of the Maha Sanga is enormous and might take a long time to erase.
But the Tamil community and its present leadership manned by Sampanthan and Wignesvaran have to come to terms with reality. They must realize that their involvement and engagement in national issues, which may not necessarily be Tamil-centered, would go a long way in re-establishing the cordiality and honesty between two ethnic groups whose common destiny is invariably intertwined, not only in the present context but also in the last two millennia.
And it is in that complex context that the Northern Province Chief Minister’s utterances look harmful and damaging to a harmonious and peaceful reconciliation between the two communities. While Sampanthan, the leader of the Tamil National Alliance has chosen to tread a more cautious and steady path, Wignesvaran has opted to travel a more belligerent and argumentative road. Wignesvaran’s discipline in advocacy and in the Law may have had more than an influential bearing on what he says and does, but at the same time one would expect that his one-time occupancy in the highest seat of the Law, the Supreme Court, should have tempered his intensity and aggressiveness.
As I have written in my earlier columns, today we are blessed with a President, although a direct product of the ‘Bandaranaike transformation in 1956’, whose disposition and general attitude towards the ‘Tamil Question’ is novel in approach and candid in content. On the other hand, Ranil Wickremasinghe, our Prime Minister too is well disposed towards the Tamil cause and its final determination. Any reconciliation, rhetoric apart, between the two communities dwells in the hazy region of accommodation and compromise. In this regard it is almost criminal not to make use of some of the best brains that Sri Lanka still has. For instance, the likes of Dr. Wickrema Weerasooria and Jayantha Dhanapala who understand the intricate relationship between negotiation and reality should not be allowed to rot away in the wilderness. They understand the administrative structures within which a lasting compromise could be reached; they could relate to the Tamil leadership as well as to the international community whose engagement is essential if we are earnest in our pursuit of a just and fair settlement of the numerous issues that have defined and shaped the relationship between the two communities.
If the present Constitution is not sufficiently providing for a just and fair settlement, if the Thirteenth Amendment is not adequately delivering the legal and administrative wherewithal, then the necessary amendments and further modifications, subject of course to the solicited agreement of the majority Sinhalese and other ethnic groups such as Muslims and Burgers, must be brought in that direction. James Baldwin, African-American Author and Civil Rights Activist, says: “It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child to hate.”
Such resilience, especially among the Sinhalese majority, needs to manifest itself today.
*The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org