Attitudinal change, and not constitutional bickering, is what we need for ethnic harmony

by Sebastian Rasalingam

Please permit me to comment on the article published in your columns on 2 July 2012 by Mr. Hemantha Warnakulasuriya (HW), entitled “The systemic denial of Justice to Tamils in the judicial sphere”.

Mr HW recounts the harrowing story of 15 estate Tamils who had come to the capital in search of avenues of foreign employment, and hauled before the courts for lack of identifying documents on them.

This was a short time before February 2008, when an LTTE suicidee blew up the D. S. Senanayake schoolboy team at the Fort railway station. As I recount below, there were LTTE attacks on the capital virtually daily during that period.

Let me extract the gist of Mr HW’s account (full account-

“The three suspects who did not have Identity card and were trying to say something to the Court had left their ID cards with the Job Agent along with their Passport. This is what they were trying to explain.

The Magistrate … questioned every surety and … a few who did not stand up to the scrutiny … were remanded again. The men and women … from Welimada were howling and crying. The Police Sergeant promptly arrested them … charged with contempt of Court and fined.

I found that the main reason for this imbroglio was that no one understood what ..(they)..were trying to say, as there was no competent Mudaliyar. I was petrified by the horrendous justice imparted on those destitutes, who had come to Colombo in search of green pastures.”

Based on this event, Mr. HW pushes the point of view, expressed through the mouth of a “Tamil lawyer friend” that `there were many Tamils who were opposed to LTTE Terrorism and expected that with the implementation of the 13th Amendment, the problems of the Tamils could be solved to a great extent.

We believed that Rajiv Gandhi would ensure that JRJ would not renege on the undertaking given by him to India at the behest of the Sinhala Chauvinist’. His lawyer friend also seems to be a Tamil chauvinist as he claims that Tamils problems could be understood only by a Tamil — i.e., there is no point in talking further explaining all that to a Sinhalese. Far from “sinhala chauvinists” reneging anything, Premadasa even joined the LTTE against the Indian Force, and it was Premadasa who was reneged by the LTTE.

I believe that national reconciliation arises from the changing the attitudes of people, and not from constitutional arrangements. The 13th amendment, further compartmentalizing the Tamils into “Tamil speaking regions” etc., would make it even less conducive to each other learning their languages or cultures.

Even under the `13th plus’, Tamils who know no Sinhala would come to the capital for various needs and there is no guarantee that similar injustices, based on mutual suspicion would not arise.

In fact, the 13th plus compartmentalization would make such suspicion even more acute, and there would not even be a strong basis for providing any translation services what so ever. How can HW, a lawyer trained in analyzing the short-comings of a brief, make such unreasoned claims as he has done in his article?

I know estate Tamils and their problems very well. I married a ‘low-caste’ estate-Tamil woman from Hatton in the 1950s. I myself come from the so-called ‘lower caste strata’ of the Jaffna peninsula.

It is only when I and my wife moved to Colombo and began to live in the impoverished Malay street region that we at last understood the meaning of social justice; some degree of personal dignity was accorded to us by the Sinhalese people. Even in the 1950s, most “estate Tamils” knew enough Sinhalese to get by, while the Sinhalese and the Jaffna Tamils did not know each others language.

If the Tamils in court could not communicate with the police, why didn’t Mr HW, or his pro-Bono Junior lawyer help out? Could it be that neither of them, nor any one in their team knew Tamil? How can educated people be so unrespectful of the language and culture of their fellow citizens? If Sinhalese lawyers practicing in a city like Colombo with a vast population of Tamils and Muslims do not even know basic Tamil, is it surprising that Sinhalese policemen, coming from a lower level of education would be even less likely to know Tamil?

HW is implying that the Government should have ensured that there were enough cerrtfied translators every where.

I am sure Mr. HW knows that the LTTE threatened every Tamil police officer or public servant that they could get their hands on, demanding them to quit the service to enhance the LTTE claim of discrimination and the need for separation. In fact, in the early 1960s, the Ilanaki Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) launched court cases claiming that Tamil officers have no need to learn Sinhala.

Some of them went all the way up to the Privy council where they were thrown out. But all that, and the “Sathyagarahas” on the GalleFace Green set the stage for the ITAK to claim political blood in the hands of Sinhala hooligans who came out to manhandle them. They viewed such attacks with satisfaction. More recently, when the government sent police officers to be trained in Tamil Nadu, the TNA made representations and scuttled that effort. The lack of tamil services in the public service was largely engineered by the Tamil Eelamists themselves.

In fact, Mr. HW needs to understand that most Tamils living in Colombo in the 1960s WANTED to learn Sinhala and get on with it. I learned Sinhala in Colombo. Today, Tamil immigrants arriving in Poland or Norway learn those difficult languages in months and get employment.

In fact, Tamils can quite easily learn Sinhala, and indeed Sinhalese can learn Tamil equally easily too, as the two languages are very similar, and contain many common words derived from Sanskrit and other early languages. But there was tremendous political pressure launched by the ITAK that had already stated in 1949 that the `invaders’ (Moslems and Sinhalese) should be driven out of the `traditional homelands’.

It is this ‘exclusive-Tamil’ mindset that still prevents the TNA from doing what is best for the Tamil people. This is why they even object to the Sinhalese visiting the North, with Messers Sritharan and Sampanthan talking of Eelam being their final objective even today.

If the estate Tamils discussed by Mr HW could come to Colombo with their families, manage to get about in the city, get their work done at passport offices and at the job-agents offices, it would seem that they could cope with Sinhala? The period in question was when the Foreign Minister Kadirgamar had been assassinated some months previously.

The NGO leaders and the foreign powers made token codemnations but demanded ‘continued talks’ with the Tigers as if nothing had happened. On 3rd January 2008 the LTTE attacked a bus in Narahenpita. On the 8th January Claymore attcks killed Minister D. M.Dissanayake and his entrouge. On the 15th January the LTTE bombed the Buttala bound bus and killed 14 women, children and even some Tamils. On the 18th January the LTTE killed villagers in Tambalagamuwa.

On the 1st of February a time bomb exploded in the Dehiwala zoo. Thus there were attacks on a daily basis when this Estate-Tamil party of Mr. HW had encountered the harsh treatment in the hands of the police. And yet Mr. HW only mention the suicide attack at the Fort railway station on the 3rd of February, and failed to have registered the daily carnage that was going on.

Is it surprising that the police and the Magistrate were very suspicious? In the London underground (tube) suspicious people were simply shot at sight after 9/11 although nothing similar to what was happening in Colombo in 2008 occurred in London. In the USA and Canada people are detained indefinitely on a `security certificate’ under the national security act, with the reasons for detention not declared for `security reasons’.

What would have happened if a Muslim group had strayed into LTTE territory during that period? Their fate would not be a mere remand prison until suretees are found. They would have languished in the Puthukudiruppu LTTE prisons till May 2009.

I have watched with intense dismay, the deliberate destruction of our traditional humane values as will as the goodwill that existed in this country among the ethnic groups in the ‘old days’. I have written many articles, (mainly in English, a few in Tamil) explaining my understanding of how it all happened. I will not repeat them
again here. Briefly, the Sinahlese and Tamil upper classes used the most deprived sectors to keep themselves in power.

Finally, it became a battle between the two groups, leading up to the Arasu doctrine of 1949 Maradana Manefesto, and the re-affirmation of Arasu as Eelam in Vaddukkoddai, 1976.

The solution to the problem will NOT occur via any type of constitutional tinkering that would create regional bosses who would in all likelihood be the most corrupt of the regional politicians.

It will take one more generation, and more inter-mingling of the people of the South and the North to bring about attitudinal changes that are needed. Such inter-mingling would removed the caste-ism of Tamil society and also the current ethnic polarization of Lankan society. The biggest danger to that is the enthroning and re-entrenchment of politicians like Sampanthan and Sritharan in their own exclusive power-bases, complete with police and land powers, and coated in the innocuous name of then poison pill call the “13th plus” administered to Sri Lanka by a rookie politician, viz., Rajeeve-Gandhi, without realizing the patent folly of his medicament.