Route to Reconciliation is Not Devolution or Making Linguistic or Ethnic Partitions

Sebastian Rasalingam

Mr. R. M. B. Senanayake (RMB), writing in his article in The Island (of Nov. 26) talks of `devolution on a linguistic basis’. He presents the common but patently incorrect genesis of the conflict touted by the anglicized-Sinhalese journalists and Colombo Tamils who do not know Tamil. Here, I present another aspect of the tragedy of the Tamils then, and even now.

RMB’s diagnosis is that (a) when SWRD introduced the Sinhala Act, the Tamils in the North revolted. They, not knowing Sinhalese and unable to deal with the state, felt discriminated. (b) `These extremists later realized that the Tamils were entering … the Medical, Engineering and Accounting professions in … disproportionate … numbers, … introduced media-wise standardization for entry to the universities. (c) This was the last straw for the Tamil youth who took up arms to establish their own State where they could … control resources … serve their objectives of higher education’.

Surely, all the above applied to the Muslims (Tamil speaking) and to the estate Tamils (my wife is an estate-Tamil from Hatton). Their reaction was starkly different. The reason: the leaders of these two groups were not land-owning caste-based elites with objectives different from their own people.

Control by the elitIST masters

I grew up in the Jaffna peninsula, then in Mannar after World War II, and later in Hatton and Colombo. No Tamil I knew was concerned about the issue raised by RMB. Tamils were governed by aristocratic land-owning lawyers living in Colombo; they knew little Tamil. Their children went to Colombo schools, learnt French at the `Alliance Francaise’, German at the `Goethe Institute’, and had Sinhala private tutors. They knew just enough `inga-va’ Tamil to order their servants.

The poor Tamils worked in the properties and homes of the upper-caste Tamils. We could not go in buses or attend school. Our very presence was ‘polluting’. When the buses were nationalized by SWRD, the CTB allowed anyone to travel in them. THAT angered the Tamil leaders. It was the Church that grudgingly opened doors very slightly to the oppressed Tamils by allowing them to learn English and read the Bible. In my young days I sat on the class-room floor or carried a low stool from class to class, as only the high castes could sit on chairs. The teachers treated me and another child like me as excreta and punished us for daring to be there. But, I thought that was the law – each had his station in life.

When I moved to Hatton and later to Colombo, I found a very different world. It was a transforming experience for me and my wife to find that our workmates, mostly Sinhalese would actually sit with us and share a cup of tea. We found that we could go to night school and study without being threatened, beaten up, or go and borrow books, and do things that would bring swift retribution ‘back in the North’; our dwellings would have been torched and our women raped with impunity.

This was in the late 1950s, when, RMB claims, the Sinhala Bill was introduced to ‘hurt the Tamils’. There were far more horrendous things going on in Tamil society. Young Tamils knew nothing about the South and everything they knew was what they heard from their ruling masters and poisonous propagandists. We implicitly obeyed our Periya Dorays and the Tamil pamphlets told the ‘truth’ – the Cingala were our enemies.

Has RMB asked why almost ALL the Tamils who entered the university were from the Vellar caste with a sprinkling of the Karayiar caste? Why are all Tamil journalists from the upper castes? Even in the late 1970s the ‘Peking aligned’ communists challenged the TULF regarding low-caste children and ‘school admission’. But this was ignored. However, they organized children to protest against what RMB calls ‘language based’ discrimination at university entrance! That was a protest aimed at protecting the privileges of less than 0.5% percent of the Tamil population. Instead, it was against the discrimination at pre-schools, middle and high schools which denied education to the poor (low-caste) Tamils in violation of the rules of the ‘Colombo government’ that people should have protested.

ITAK and communal polarisation

A conflict based on the language issue and then on university admissions etc., was manipulated to whip up Tamil nationalism by making promises to recreate the glorious Chola Kingdom. Sinhala thugs who loved the mayhem made martyrs of them. The average Tamil, just like the Muslim or the estate Tamil, would have readily learnt Sinhala if necessary. In fact, most Tamils who live in the south—and today there are probably more Tamils in the South than in the North—already know and use Sinhala. Tamils have gone to countries like Norway or Poland and learnt those difficult languages in record time.

Language is NOT the reason why the Tamils of the North were USED by the Tamil leaders living in Colombo in their struggle. The land-owning, mostly non-Hindu, Anglicized, religiously-neutral or ultra-caste-conscious Tamils of a previous generation had much to lose. They wished to retain their land within the oppressive and profitable norms as in colonial times. The Donoughmore Reforms, with universal franchise was the first frightening volley loosening the power in their hands. The equal seating in the CTB after the bus nationalization in 1956 was an unbearable insult by SWRD. The tarring of the Sri signs on buses and cars was the swift reaction.

RMB should read the 1949 Maradana Resolutions of the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) published in the Tamil language to see that the 1976 Vaddukkodai Resolution for Eelam had already been formulated some seven years BEFORE the advent of the Sinhala Bill. The ITAK English publications with ‘federal’ proposals were for only for the consumption of the people of Colombo. But some Sinhalese knew Tamil; the Tamil nationalists did not like it either.

Prabhakaran and the TULF

The proposal for Eelam, and ‘devolution’ as the next best thing were valid objectives for the pre-Prabhakaran Tamil leaders. Tamil land owners could run ‘their’ land as they wished. But Prabhakaran had no use for the Colombo Tamil leaders and their dreams. So, he killed a few and the ‘leaders’ shamelessly gave in, ignoring the dead. The first informants against Prabhakaran were the socially disadvantaged Tamils. They were hung on lamp-posts as a lesson to ‘traitors’. The LTTE became the new Periya Dorays. RMB says, “The Tamil youth … took to arms to establish their own State where they could manage … their objectives of higher education”. This is sheer nonsense! Prabhakaran and his clique, or Sivakumaran, who was the first to commit suicide by swallowing cyanide, were not interested in education!

They had devolution before

The Tamils HAD devolution from colonial times when the Ramanathans and Ponnambalams ran the land as their private property, and treated us as their surfs. We glimpsed democracy from 1948 to 1980. Thereafter, devolution fell into the hands of Prabhakaran.

Minister Mervyn de Silva rules the Kelaniya area according to his whims and fancies and he is not even a chief minister. The 13th Amendment and devolution helped such men, be they Sinhalese or Tamils. The `Friday Forum’ says that the Rajapaksas have set up a national fiefdom. The Tamil-speaking areas that were under the LTTE are particularly prone to subjugation by the son-of-a-gun in the garb of a Chief Minister. So there is no need for the 13th Amendment in the Tamil areas. Let RMB move to the fiefdom of Mervyn de Silva and taste de facto devolution. The Tamils have suffered enough from devolution.

The language-based devolution units that RMB proposes are mono ethnic enclaves. How does a Sinhalese living in the Tamil areas or a Tamil living in the Sinhalese areas communicate with their governments without ‘suffering discrimination’ under RMB’s proposal ? He probably knows about some 20% Hispanics live in the US with some states like New Mexico and southern California having over 60% Spanish speakers. But the USA is English and any deviant politician would need CIA protection. France has some 10% Arabic speakers. But ask the French Ambassador in Colombo if they sing the Marseillaise in Arabic at official functions.

In Canada there are 52 % English as opposed to 42 % French speakers and so they

have crafted a bilingual policy. But, still, except for federal offices that put out a bilingual facade, there is no French in Toronto or Calgary. Meanwhile, even the tourist pamphlets in Quebec are often `en Francais seulement’! Neither bi-lingualism nor full devolution is a cure for separatism.

Minorities have a very important place in the cultural tapestry of a nation. This is achieved by building mutual trust and cooperation. The early Muslim Leaders like T. B. Jayah, ‘Sinhala Marikkar”, Bad-ud-deen Mohamed and others were Tamil speakers who were the very opposites of the Tamil-lawyer class who lived in the Cinnamon Gardens and ruled the North.

The route to reconciliation is NOT devolution or Eelam or making linguistic or ethnic partitions, but creating opportunities for full intermixing of the people. A vigorous programme of state encouragement for the Sinhalese to move to the North and Tamils to move to the South is needed. Scholarships to leading schools for children of parents making such moves, bank loans to businesses that open up branches with ethnic diversification, etc., are the right steps. These have to go with a land reform of the North where, even today, a few elite families hold much land while living in Boston or London.COURTESY:THE ISLAND