By D.B.S. Jeyaraj
Sri Lanka celebrates sixty-one years of Independence from Britain today. The country known then as Ceylon, obtained full freedom on February 4th 1948.
For any people free of colonial bondage this would be a day of joy and happiness.
But that is not so for the Tamils of Sri Lanka right now.
Even as I sit penning my thoughts, two lines from an old Tamil film song keep throbbing. They are from the song “Unnaikkandu Naan Vaada” sung by AM Rajah in “Kalyanapparisu”.
“Oorengum Nadakkum, Aanantham Namakku, Kaanaatha Thooramada, Kaanaatha Thooramadaa”. (the festive joy in the village is at an unseeing distance, for us an unseeing distance)
[Sri Lankan army tanks roll along the sea-front promenade during the island nation’s 61st Independence Day celebrations in Colombo-pic via Yahoo! News -AFP/Ishara S. Kodikara]
In Colombo , President Mahinda Rajapakse addressed the nation in a restricted ceremony held amidst tight security. In the North and East, the lion flag was raised proudly in military installations.
Rajapakse spoke eloquently of concepts like “nation” and “motherland” and also emphasised that all communities of the Island-Sinhala,Tamil, Muslim, Burgher, Malay and others-were children of one single mother.
Elsewhere in the northern mainland known as the Wanni hundreds of thousands of civilians whose mother tongue was “Thamizh” fell victim to a cruel and horrible war unleashed on a tragically trapped people.
[A protestor demonstrates outside the European Headquarters of the United Nations to protest against Sri Lanka’s military offensive in areas held by the Tamil Tiger separatist group, in Geneva, Switzerland, Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2009.-AP Photo/Keystone, Martial Trezzini via Yahoo! News]
Embassies, High Commissions and Consulates of Sri Lanka abroad remained closed on account of Independence day. But this did not deter the thousands of Tamils who engaged in protest demonstrations outside those premises.
Triumphalist euphoria on the one hand and embittered hostility on the other! The distance between the two solitudes is widening.
Militarily the Island is being unified but whether the Country is uniting politically remains an unanswered question.
The Tamil people whether in Sri Lanka or abroad are generally in a sullen. Morose and gloomy mood . The future seems bleak and dreary.
This despondency is not one which envelopes sympathisers and supporters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) alone.It is prevalent more widely, regardless of political affiliation.
I would have expected President Rajapakse to have delivered a truly inspiring address that could have reached out to the estranged Tamil people in a meaningful and constructive manner.
Alas! That is something seemingly beyond the mindset of “apey Mahinda” who after all is one of the “Panashaye daruwo” (children of fifty-six).There is an apt saying in Tamil “Sattiyil iruppathu than ahappaiyil varum” (the ladle can scoop only what is there in the pot)
What is so sad about this situation is the now forgotten pioneering role played by Tamils in the quest for Independence.
From Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam’s famous lecture on “our political needs” which laid the foundation for the national congress to the activities of the Jaffna Youth Congress, Tamil efforts have been commendable.
[flag of “nandhi” (crouched bull)-file pic-by Dushiyanthini Kanagasabapathipillai]
It was the Jaffna Youth Congress which called first for “poorana Swaraj” or complete self-rule from the British and rejected the limited reforms proposed by the Donoughmore commission, It was in Jaffna that the “nandhi” (crouched bull) was hoisted defiantly instead of the Union Jack.; it was Jaffna that boycotted the visit of the then Prince of Wales.
So praiseworthy was the impact of the Youth Congress that Philip Gunewardena , the “father of Marxism” wrote glowingly in the “Searchlight” that Jaffna has given the lead and asked the Sinhalese to follow. Prof. Wiswa Warnapala reviewing the book written by Santhaseelan Kadirgamar on the Youth Congress expressed his admiration openly.
What then went wrong? Which was the serpent that entered this idyllic garden of Eden?
A number of reasons could be stated and as is the case in matters of this type the blame cannot be laid at one door alone.
Fundamentally the crisis is due to the pathetic inability of “independent” Ceylon to re-define and re- structure nationhood after getting freedom.
More specifically what went wrong was the notion entertained by dominant sections of the majority community that this country belonged to them alone and that other ethnicities were of second-class status.
President Rajapakse spoke of all being children of one mother but what do younger siblings do when the elder and biggest child thinks that it alone has an exclusive right to the mother and what is more relegates the others to inferior status?
Notwithstanding all the pious platitudes uttered by President Rajapakse there is little sign of this majoritarian mindset changing.
Look at the Army commander Sarath Fonseka saying that Sri Lanka belongs to the Sinhala majority and that the minorities must not make undue demands. Look at Cabinet minister Champika Ranawaka saying that the Sinhalese are organic to Sri Lanka and that Tamils and Muslims are mere visitors.
President Rajapakse, if he was indeed serious about Sri Lanka being an inclusive nation, should have reprimanded his military chief and environment minister and made them see the error of their assertion.
This would have alleviated the hurt felt to a very great extent, but he did not do it. In fact none from the Government did so. This glaring omission was very illuminating.
What this shows is that the powers that be are either unwilling or unable to appreciate the concerns, insecurity and sense of injustice felt by the minority communities.
The dominant ideology seems to be one of equating the majority ethnicity alone as the nation.This hegemonistic definition of nation and attempts by the Tamils to resist such imposition and counter it with a different definition have led to this situation.
Sri Lanka is a modern state with an ancient civilisation, but the attempt to define Sri Lanka as a modern nation state has led to conflict and strife.
Power is concentrated with the majority ethnicity leaving other ethnicities out in the cold. It is a case of ‘Maha Jathiyata Kiri, Sulu Jathiwalata Kekiri.’ (cream for the majority, bitterfruit for the minorities)
The idea of a single Sri Lankan nation has been under severe threat. In reality, we are a divided nation today and military conquest by itself is no answer.
If we are to resolve these divisions and create a strong nation on the basis of equitable power-sharing, the structure of the state needs to be radically transformed. There is no consensus on that so far.
Meanwhile, political differences have assumed proportions of a cruel, destructive war. The war is only a consequence resulting from political causes.
The conflict cannot be resolved by military means alone and requires a settlement that would address those underlying causes. This political solution cannot be dictated or imposed upon through military might alone.
In terms of political independence, we are yet a young nation at 61. The idea of Ceylon was a colonial construct. The British unified the country into a single administration.
Sri Lanka was not the only one in this respect. Most countries ruled by the British were their creations in a modern sense.
Ethnic conflict and strife erupted in many countries after the British left. From the Indian sub-continent to Fiji Islands and from Nigeria to Malaysia, there are many instances of this.
Sri Lanka too can be classified as an example of post-independence conflict within pre-independence boundaries.
Some ex-colonies have reduced and managed ethnic tensions by evolving new forms of power sharing. They have reinvented themselves as ‘new’ nations on the basis of equality and forged a strong sense of common identity.
Ultimately, the unity and integrity of a nation does not depend on its military strength or structures of governance but on the will of its people. The nation state is essentially a state of mind.
The tragedy of independent Sri Lanka has been majoritarian hegemony. Majority rule is a democratic principle. Here it has been interpreted as the majority of the numerically largest ethnicity.
The years after independence have seen the Sri Lankan Tamils resisting this injustice and imposition-At first through non-violent struggle and later through an armed struggle.
The Tamils first thought of themselves as a founding people of Sri Lanka on par with the Sinhalese. They later shed this majority concept and perceived themselves as the principal yet all-island minority.
Tamils did not demand a separate state or even federalism from the British. What they wanted then was a scheme of balanced representation where the Sinhala majority weightage could be ‘balanced’ through enhanced representation for the minority communities.
This failed, and in a pragmatic approach, the dominant Tamil leadership opted for responsive cooperation after independence.
The Tamil Congress joined the UNP Government. New forces emerged. As Sinhala hegemony assumed great stridency, Newton’s Third Law came into play. Tamil nationalism also grew. Both reinforced each other.
Under the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (Federal Party), the Tamils began perceiving themselves as a territorial minority. The Northern and Eastern Provinces were referred to as their traditional homelands.
Initially there was non-violent agitation for a federal form of government. Compromises were made and pacts signed. These were observed in the breach by the prime ministers of the day. Satyagraha campaigns were suppressed through military force.
This led to the cry for Tamil Eelam. Secessionism brought forth violence and an armed struggle began. In the 1977 general elections, Tamils voted overwhelmingly for the TULF contesting on a separatist platform.
Instead of redressing Tamil grievances and trying to accommodate legitimate aspirations, the Sinhala-dominated state came down heavily. It was thought that might could eradicate right.
This was not to be so and with the passage of time the LTTE established control over a substantial portion of the north and east. The territorial integrity and sovereignty of the country was endangered and eroded.
The Tamil struggle for equality too underwent change. It lost its moral high ground and deteriorated drastically. Militarism ruled and authoritarianism reigned.
The LTTE’s ‘Tigerism’ became a mirror image of Sinhala hegemonism. Fascism was in the air.
Currently the Rajapaksa regime has embarked on a military campaign to defeat the LTTE while paying lip service to the political solution concept.
The country at large is being assailed with propaganda that the LTTE is on the verge of defeat. Any contrary opinion is dismissed as anti-national and anti-patriotic.
It is a moot point as to whether the LTTE can be totally defeated or completely destroyed through a military campaign alone.
The important point is to note that the eradication of the LTTE will not automatically result in the problem being resolved. The LTTE is only a virulent symptom of the malady. Getting rid of the LTTE-even if possible-is no durable remedy.
What is required now is the creation of a just, egalitarian and plural society. There must be equitable power-sharing based on principles of the federal idea.
Broadly, three schools of thought have been clashing. The ideas at conflict are hegemonism, secessionism and pluralism.
The Sinhala hardliners want Sinhala-Buddhist domination. They see this country as theirs alone. Others are excluded in this ‘Chinthana.’
The Tamil hardliners want a separate state for the north-east known as Tamil Eelam. Just as Sinhala hawks say Sri Lanka is for the Sinhalese, these Tamil hawks say Tamil Eelam is for the Tamils.
A state for the dominant ethnicity within, excludes by definition, other ethnicities living within these real or imaginary borders. Both these ideas have brought about disunity, violence and destruction. The nation bleeds and the country diminishes.
The third idea is that of establishing an egalitarian and plural society where all children of this country can live together in amity and fraternity. It incorporates a vision where no one will claim superior rights on the basis of belonging to the majority race/religion or claim exclusive rights to their historic habitat.
Power will not be confined to Colombo but shared with the periphery. All people regardless of race, religion, caste or creed will have their say and a role to play.
Sri Lanka will belong to its people from Paruthithurai to Devinuwara and Mannar to Mullaitheevu. At present this ‘vision’ seems unrealistically impossible and Utopian!
In spite of the adverse politico-military environment, this is the vision that I share. ‘Visionaries’ of this nature are an endangered species. They are under attack by hawks on either side of the ethnic divide. They are dubbed derisively as ‘jokers’ and ‘traitors.’
It is this vision that will ultimately salvage Sri Lanka. Hegemonic and secessionist dreams are turning into nightmares.
The call for the third option between the hegemonistic one state and secessionist two-state schools of thought is a voice of sanity and sensibility. It is presently inaudible amidst the raucous battle-cries.
I, however, firmly believe that it will be heard and heard effectively one day. Sri Lanka will then be alive with the sound of concord.
In the clash of ideas, it is the superior one that will triumph. Dialogue and discussion, not bloodshed and destruction, will prove to be final arbiters of our destiny.
The current situation is depressing but there is certainly a light at the end of the dark tunnel.
However estranged and alienated the Tamil people may feel at present, there is no denying the fact that we are an integral part of the Sri Lankan nation. Our destiny is inter-twined with those of others living on the Island.
The future lies not in pursuing unrealistic separatist goals but in struggling together with people seeking justice and peace to forge a brave, new, inclusive nation.
At the same time it is up to right-thinking members of the majority community to extend their hand of friendship in a spirit of fraternal amity towards like-minded “others”.
When India gained freedom at midnight, Jawarhalal Nehru spoke of its “tryst with destiny.” India’s southern neighbour has been awaiting its true destiny for 61 years.
The Sri Lankan state needs to be restructured and the Sri Lankan nation reinvented for its inevitable tryst with destiny.
Sri Lanka at 61 faces the unfinished yet challenging task of building a NEW nation!
Let me conclude with a poem that is one of my favourites. It is from the “Gitanjali” by Rabindranath Tagore.
“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic wars;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action-
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake”.