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Sri Lanka’s national question; is it not time to move on?

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Raj Gonsalkorale

Sri Lanka has many “national questions”. Law and order issues, constitutional issues, political accountability issues and several others that could all be termed national issues although the issue that is commonly referred to as the national question is the ethnic issue associated with minority empowerment and granting of equal rights through the concept of self- determination, specifically for the Tamil community in the country.

While some may argue that it is time to move on and not dwell in history, others may equally justifiably argue that it is difficult to move on without a better and a shared understanding amongst the major communities in the country as to the nature and extent of the national question.

In order to understand the issue, which we may refer to as Tamil nationalism and how one might find ways and means for its expression within a multi ethnic secular unitary State, one has to retrace history as it is the events of the past that made it an issue. Rather than going into historical details, considering that this article is focussed on the future rather than the past, an attempt has been made to encapsulate a few milestone events that may have established Tamil nationalism as an issue.

Tamil nationalism, but initially Hindu Tamil nationalism, as a political issue appears to have raised the consciousness of some Tamils in Sri Lanka upon the arrival of Protestant missionaries on a large scale to Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon), beginning in 1814.

Arumuga Navalar (Tamil: ஆறுமுக நாவலர், āṟumuka nāvalar ?, December 18, 1822 – December 5, 1879) was one of the early revivalists of native Hindu Tamil traditions in Sri Lanka and India. He and others like him were responsible for reviving and reforming native traditions that had come under a long period of dormancy and decline during the previous 400 years of colonial rule by various European powers. A student of the Christian missionary school system who assisted in the translation of the King James Bible into Tamil, he was influential in creating a period of intense religious transformation amongst Tamils in India and Sri Lanka, preventing large-scale conversions to Protestantism.

He led a Hindu religious revivalist and reformist movement as a defensive response to the threat to their native culture posed by the British colonial and missionary activities. The activities of missionaries from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, Methodists and Anglican churches led to a revival among Tamils of the Hindu faith.

He translated literary works to encourage the use of the Tamil Language and spread Hindu Saiva principles. Navalar’s efforts to revive Hinduism, the predominant religion of the Sri Lankan Tamil people, influenced Tamils who built their own schools, temples, and societies, and who published literature to counter that of the missionaries. Thus, by 1925 nearly 50 schools, including the Batticotta Seminary, were fully functioning.

One is reminded here of similar revivalist work carried out by Anagarika Dharmapala to revive and reform Buddhism in India and Sri Lanka, and the efforts he made in India to restore the birth place of Buddha to Buddhists, something that had been denied to Buddhists at the time.

The success of Navalar’s efforts led the Tamils to think confidently of themselves as a community and prepared the way for their awareness of a common cultural, religious and linguistic kinship in the mid-nineteenth century. For these contributions to the Tamil people, Arumugam Navalar has been described as a leader who gave his community a distinct identity.

Although Tamil Nationalism in Sri Lanka and in India do have some common features, it appears that in Sri Lanka, it was a reaction to Protestant and other Christian faith expansion and the potential subjugation of Tamil culture and Hindu religion, while in India, it was of a somewhat different origin, and based on three ideologies. Namely, the dismantling of Brahmin hegemony; revitalization of the Pure Tamil Language, and social reform by abolition of existing caste systems, religious practices and recasting women’s equal position in the society.
It may be possible to describe the revival of Tamil nationalism in India as a phenomenon based on a more deeply rooted social conscience, rather than a more or less mono track reaction to Christian expansion in the North of Sri Lanka.

Of course the reaction amongst Tamils in the South of India to Brahmin supremacy and the Sanskrit language maybe compared to the emerging Christian supremacy in the North during Navalar’s time, and much later to notions of Sinhala and Buddhist supremacy in Sri Lanka, amongst the Northern Tamils of Sri Lanka.
Besides this, it is not very clear whether Tamil nationalism in South India had economic undertones as it did in Sri Lanka, where Tamils perceived that the Sinhala Buddhist majority was discriminatory against Tamils when it came to education and jobs.

As time advanced, and events unfolded with British colonisation of Sri Lanka, the equal position Tamils enjoyed along with the Sinhalese and the Burghers (not Muslims) in the legislative council that was created in 1833 to advice the British Governor, began changing. In 1919 with the arrival of British Governor William Manning, who actively encouraged the idea of “communal representation”, the elections to the reformed legislative council in 1921 returned thirteen Sinhalese and three Tamils, a significant loss in representation for the Tamils when compared to the previous council based on direct appointment by the Governor.

Because of this, the Tamils appear to have developed a more acute sense of communal consciousness at the time and to think of themselves as a minority community. They focused on communal representation in the council rather than national representation, and decided that their delegates should be leaders from their own community and not any other community.

This new sense of community identity changed the direction of Tamil nationalism. Starting in the mid-1920s, their developing national awareness transformed into a more active national consciousness, with a heightened determination to protect the interests of the Sri Lankan Tamil community. For them, the issue and the challenge would have been how they could find equality within inequality.

While the majority community, the Sinhalese, will no doubt argue that communal representation was more justifiable than equal representation in a country with a population of 70% Sinhalese, it could be argued that the action taken by Governor Manning perhaps was the pre cursor to eventual developments in the country.
Beginning with the birth of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress in 1944, to the advent of the LTTE and their eventual military defeat, one could say we could have done without some of these and other intervening events and developments that eventually have distanced the major communities primarily through the political manipulations of their leaders and parliamentary representatives.

This issue of power-sharing was used by the nationalists of both communities to create an escalating inter-ethnic rivalry which has been gaining momentum ever since.

Opportunities to overcome some of the core issues important for the Tamil community were lost due to the intransigence of a powerful section of the Sinhala Buddhist leadership, and equally, due to the intransigence and the positioning of some amongst the Tamil leadership.

Even today, statements such as Tamils in the North and East do not want any “outsiders” to intervene in how we run our provincial councils, (mentioned in two interviews given by the TNA Chief Ministerial candidate for the Northern Provincial Council, former Justice C V Vigneshwaran) do not help in closing the gap between the two communities. Neither does it help in attempts to rebuild mutual trust between the two communities that existed in the past, and which eroded over time due to the pitfalls in the long journey of upheavals.

The challenge for both communities and their leaders is whether they wish to continue travelling the path that has failed, and face more upheavals, or whether they should think outside the box and look for new ways to overcome Tamil and Sinhala fears and prejudices, and look for a solution that is acceptable to all parties.
To an objective, moderate minded Tamil or Sinhala person, who still wishes to call Sri Lanka home, there are probably two key issues that need to be addressed. Firstly, the imperativeness of building mutual trust between the two communities before embarking on any political solution through constitutional changes, and secondly, how one could provide a sense of assurance and security to the Tamil community that they will have equality within inequality.

The leadership on mutual trust building should be taken over by civil society and religious leaders as there is little confidence in the ability of political leaders to handle this critical issue. In order to engage in this exercise, religious and civil society leaders could perhaps have a summit meeting to identify some immediate, medium and long term measures that may be taken to commence the trust building process.

A better understanding of each community’s fears and prejudices through village level (and upwards) discussions may help in developing that better understanding. Such discussions could dispel falsehoods, recognise genuine issues that are still valid, and provide communities with information on contemporary positions on language policy, the anti- discriminatory laws and regulations that are in place and the constitutional position on equality.

It is the absence of discussions at grassroots levels that have allowed opportunistic political leaders to exploit the fears and prejudices amongst ordinary people in both communities, and perhaps magnified situations beyond what they really might be.

In regard to the second issue of finding equality from within inequality, there are several challenges. Firstly, there is a need for the Sinhala community to understand, appreciate and accept that the Tamil community is different to them although there are similarities as well. There cannot be an automatic Sri Lankanisation of a Tamil, unless and until, being a Sri Lankan offers them equality within inequality in a Sinhala majority Sri Lanka.

Secondly, Tamils have to understand, appreciate and accept that in contemporary Sri Lanka, the Tamil community is spread throughout the country, but mainly in the North, East, Central, Uva Sabaragamuwa and Western provinces. Current reality is that a majority of Tamils live outside the Northern and Eastern provinces. In this context, the Tamil community has to give thought to as how they could co- exist safely and securely, as equals, throughout the country, and not necessarily through a constitutional structural change that gives some of them greater equality in the North and East than Tamils elsewhere.

Thirdly, the entire country has to give thought to how through constitutional structural means, not just Tamils, but even Muslims could be assured that they are equal as all others, before the law, with education, economic and job opportunities and how the perception, if not the reality, concerning Sinhala majority dominance may be dispelled.

Finally, as mentioned earlier, the political leadership of the country has to undergo a change in order to regain a semblance of credibility and respectability that some of their predecessors in years gone by enjoyed in the country. Today, as admitted by the secretary of the SLFP himself during a recent speech, many politicians are of dubious character, and are in the business of politics to make money. Village thugs become town thugs and end up in positions of power and influence. They dictate terms to the hierarchy of their own parties, to the Police and at times even to the Justice system.

The despicable state of affairs that have been reported (see Daily Mirror of the 14th August 2013) in two villages in Deraniyagala, Malimbada and Noori, shows the depths to which civil society has been cowered in some places thanks to the thuggery, intimidation, rape and murder committed by thugs who appear to have enjoyed political patronage from high provincial authorities, and who appear to have been in collusion with the local Police in unleashing a reign of terror in the two villages. One can only hope that this situation is a localised one off, and not symptomatic of a more widespread affliction.

Tamils as well as Sinhalese and Muslims, not those who have connections to higher authorities, but who are very ordinary citizens without such connections, are looking for the restoration of law and order, justice, and expecting as a basic human right, their right to live in peace and with security, free from the clutches of thugs, be they village thugs, Police thugs or political thugs.

It is no wonder that some Tamils have expressed a desire to look after their own security in areas which they call their homeland, as they fear they will not have any high up who could come to their assistance in areas dominated by the Sinhalese considering that even some Sinhalese are not safe and secure in such areas.
Although this is not a long term solution, one cannot find fault with some Tamils who feel they will not be safe except in an area they manage and secure for themselves. It is for the Sinhala leadership to convince them otherwise.

Sri Lanka must move on but some underlying issues as mentioned here have to be addressed if that move is to be a long lasting one and if the new Sri Lanka is to be a safe, secure and equal home for all its citizens, and where law and order, decency and justice is assured irrespective of the connections one has or needs, in order to survive.

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