N Sathiya Moorthy
For the (n+1)th time in post-Independence ethnic history of the nation, Tamil moderates are giving away political space to extremists, for no real immediate fault of the majority Sinhala community or the Sri Lankan State. The last time it happened in a much bigger way than the recent ‘Ezhuga Tamil’, or ‘Rise, Tamil’, or better still, ‘Tamil Spring’, the moderates had possibly hoped to arrest the emergence of youth militancy in the Seventies through the ‘Vaddukottai resolution’. It ended in the LTTE and the Tamil miseries that have since accompanied it.
“The campaign has three objectives, one is achieving a political solution for the problems faced by the people living in the North and the East, secondly stressing the need to merge the Northern and the Eastern Provinces and the third to bring about a stop to the Sinhalese colonisation and building of Buddhist temples in the North and the East,” Northern Province’s Tamil Chief Minister C. V. Wigneswaran said at the ‘Ezhuga Tamil’ rally at Jaffna.
Ahead of the rally, Wigneswaran, who has since emerged as the rallying-point for the not-so-moderate sections of the ruling Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which is also the recognised Opposition party in Parliament, In a message to Tamil-speaking Sri Lankans on the eve of the rally, said that the “government in Colombo made big promises to the international community, but it was yet to meaningfully devolve powers to the Provinces”. In this context, he told his Tamil brethren in a statement: “If we remain silent just because a new Constitution is being written, they will let us down,” he said.
The Jaffna rally on 24 September was organised by relatively young Tamil People’s Council (TPC), of which Wigneswaran is a co-patron. Ahead of the parliamentary polls in August last year, TPC, still an infant, as a grouping and Wigneswaran as a politician-cum-Chief Minister of two years’ standing, nearly called for a ‘conscious vote’ by the Tamils. Many of them were seen and known as being more sympathetic to the political and electoral cause of the radical Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF), headed by former parliamentarian, Gajendra Kumar Ponnambalam, grandson of yesteryear moderate Tamil political leader, the late C. G. Ponnambalam.
In its time, Ponnambalam-led Ceylon Tamil Congress (CTC) gave way to the ‘Ilankkai Tamil Arasu Katchi’ (ITAK), calling itself as the ‘Federal Party’ in English, which in turn was a ‘radical’ party of its time. In good time, the ITAK, founded by the late S. J. V. Chelvanayagam, or ‘Thanthai’ Selva, the ‘Tamil Gandhi’ of his time, lent leadership to what became a combined Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), a much stronger version of the party by the same name now, and radical than the present-day TNA.
Blame it on the ‘majority’ Sinhala polity and its divided-yet-divisive ‘majoritarian’ agenda with a ‘minority psyche’, or the political compulsions of the FP/TULF founders to prove a point from within the larger Tamil society, one thing led to another and even the strongly-worded ‘Vadukottai resolution’ could not stop Tamil youth on their track. Instead, all militant groups, ultimately culminating in the monolith LTTE, swore by the ‘Vaddukottai resolution’, which was a moderates’ way of obtaining ‘federal’ powers, but ended up using means and methods of their own – namely, militancy first, and catastrophic terrorism and targeted killing, the latter two of the LTTE kind.
It was a coincidence however that the birth of the Federal Party (FP) was followed soon by the founding of the left-radical ‘Sri Lanka Freedom Party’ (SLFP), from the Independence-vintage United National Party (UNP), until then the monolith political voice of the Sinhala majority in the country. But it was no coincidence that the SLFP and its other Leftist allies whole-heartedly formulated and forwarded the ‘Sinhala Only’ policy, soon after coming to power in 1956. The rest, as they say, is history.
There is a part of that history that is often overlooked, though not unknown. If the Tamil moderates ended up giving way to youth militancy in the Seventies and more so after the nation-wide ‘anti-Tamil’ pogrom of 1983, the reverse was true of the Sinhala polity and society. The inability of the left-leaning SLFP-led coalition to stick together and in power, to deliver on their poll and political promises to the Sinhala community, meant that their youth would rebel even faster.
The birth of the JVP and the emergence of Rohana Wijeweera was a decade ahead of Tamil youth militancy, against focussed mostly on bread-and-butter issues, like the left-leaning early Tamil militancy of the EROS kind. The SLFP combine had sought to expand its political and electoral base even at inception by co-opting unrepresented sections of the ‘Sinhala nationalist’ groups at the village-level.
It was thus that in the second phase of JVP militancy that Rohana and the JVP co-opted the guardian-less sections of the ‘Sinhala majoritarian’ groups, which had felt orphaned after the exit of SLFP founder, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, and also the weakening of the politico-electoral combine that he had left to the unexpected care of non-politician wife, Sirimavo B. The ‘second JVP insurgency’ of the ‘IPKF era’ (1987-89) was ‘Sinhala nationalist’ militancy in its core as against the ‘first insurgency’ of 1971, when it had still retained much of its left-leaning global mood and methods.
The Tamil militancy of the Seventies had a greater element of ‘Tamil nationalism’, but it had still retained elements that identified with the ‘Tamil left’, where socio-economic ideology and priorities too played their part, however limited. It was later on that ‘Tamil nationalism’ became the sole direction and vehicle of Tamil militancy, especially after the LTTE dominated the rest of them into submission, and more so annihilation.
It’s but a coincidence that the militant JVP was not known to have killed any Tamil leader or cadre. It may have something to do with their conclusion, based on ground realities that the Sri Lankan Tamils (SLT) did not matter in the Sri Lankan State structure. They killed, and many, but most of them were Sinhalas. Where they killed Tamils, they were either hapless Upcountry Tamils, where the competition was for the same jobs in the estate sector, or Tamil-speaking Muslim.
That cannot be said of the LTTE. They killed, and killed both Sinhalas and Tamils, alike. The LTTE targeted Sinhalas as they constituted the Sri Lankan State structure and also represented ‘majoritarian’ politics. They killed common Sinhala civilians, first to put them on the defensive, and later on as a terror-tactic to provoke the Sri Lankan State into counter-action against the Tamil society, and ensure the latter’s unfettered and unasked-for loyalty.
What is notable and noticeable is that throughout the pace and face of competitive Sinhala and Tamil militancy, neither the JVP, nor the LTTE killed each other’s cadres, or even targeted each other’s leaders. So much so, today, in their most moderate forms, post-militancy, the TNA and the JVP are working together in Parliament. It’s surprising to begin with, but due note has not been taken by other parties. Nor have they done anything to take forward what still remains mostly a sinecure arrangement, with little or no focus or even purpose.
The TNA, recognised as the official ‘Opposition party’ in the House and has octogenarian R. Sampanthan as the ‘Leader of the Opposition’, has readily given away the post of the Chief Opposition Whip, to the even more smaller JVP. They may not have worked in any great coordinated form or fashion, either inside the House or outside, but whatever remained at the level of ‘extremist ethnic cooperation’ from a forgettable past, may come under pressure after the ‘Ezhuga Tamil’ event.
Post-war, post-Polls-2015, the current developments in the Tamil polity has the potential to whip up counter-weight from within the majority Sinhala polity/society. From being seen as a moderate and erudite voice of the post-war Tamil community, as different from the then ‘discredited’ Tamil polity, CM Wigneswaran is now being seen as the face of the Tamil hard-liners, and brand-ambassador nearer home, especially of the pro-LTTE, pro-separatist kind.
From a position where he had the moral authority, the traditional respectability that wears comfortably on the shoulders of the Jaffna elite, and the legal acumen as a retired Judge of the nation’s Supreme Court, to challenge the Sinhala polity and the Sri Lankan State, to prove their sincerity and credibility in matters ethnic, he is now continuing on the road to having to prove himself – and with that, those of the larger Tamil community, if not of the TNA leadership.
As the past has proved, and could well the future, too, this is a sure recipe to feed ‘Sinhala majoritarianism’, again, as they say, with a ‘minority complex’, if that would help convince the ‘Ezhuga Tamil’ groups to re-think their priorities and strategies. Just now, the self-styled ‘Joint Opposition’ from within the otherwise ‘united’ Sinhala polity and identifying with war-time President Mahinda Rajapaksa, is waiting on the wings for an agenda that could help them expand the base and grow deeper than the ruling rivals are ready to acknowledge.
In a right mix of politics and personality, the JO has the potential to revive the imagery of Rohana’s JVP with the left and nationalist identify, but not the ‘militant’ tag and capabilities, now or ever.
Whether or not all the corruption charges against the Rajapaksas could keep them out of the nation’s political leadership, the vibrations in the Tamil polity and society, especially any possible vertical split in the TNA, sooner than later, could check against any stiff action against the war-time national leadership without greater/worse fall-out(s).
The first battle could still be for the leadership of the Tamil polity and society, if not of the TNA, per se. For now, the majority ITAK stake-holder in the TNA has continued to distance itself from the ‘Ezhuga Tamil’ group, with has a ring of LTTE-stamped ‘Pongu Tamil’ – again loosely translatable as ‘Tamil Spring’ – in its time.
The provocation is for the party to act against those that stray away from the accepted line, of acknowledged cooperation with the Government leadership of President Maithiripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, on matters ethnic and also solutions ethnic.
There already is a difference and differentiation between the TNA parliamentary party and the TNA provincial council group.
The two have stopped meeting, literally and ideologically, but continue with a cohabitation that is more uncomfortable than the Sirisena-Ranil duo at the head of the Government, and less durable than the other. Before the TPC, there was the post-war Tamil Civil Society Forum (TCSF), headed by the then, Catholic Bishop of Mannar, Rev Royappu Joseph. The TCSF contributed in no small way to the debacle of the Government-TNA peace talks during the post-war Rajapaksa era.
The TCSF has merged with the TPC since, but during its time, the former claimed ownership for any political solution that the TNA leadership would discuss with the Rajapaksa Government, and decide for an on behalf of the Tamil community.
The TPC seems to have taken over from the TCSF, but then the TNA is not on the same page as yet – but for how long is for the former to decide.
It’s also for the TNA to ensure that it has the community authority to speak for the Tamils, be it with the Government, or in the Constituent Assembly, or with the international community.
Having looked deeply into long-term strategies, the Tamil moderate political leadership has always ended up yielding to the short-term tactics of the hardliner groups – and thrown the baby with the bath-water!
In this, the Government leadership has to act more responsibly and transparently than even the Tamil moderates would desire – but not until after it had become too late for them to rescue the TNA from the Tamil hard-liners, or themselves from the Sinhala hard-liners, who are only waiting on the wings, to prove a point and much more.
(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi)