Rajasingham Narendran debates recent history with Ilaya Seran Seguttuwan

Courtesy of the Sri Lanka Guardian

Communal relations in independent Sri Lanka

I read with interest the response of Ilaya Seran Seguttuwan to my note titled, ‘A brief overview of post- independence history of communal relations in Sri Lanka’ (Sri Lanka Guardian of 19th Sept’2011). [article 01, article 02 ]  The criticism he directs at me is more valuable than the complements, in view of his erudition, experience and long involvement in Sri Lankan affairs. He has raised a couple of issues that require explanations from me.

1.“For reasons not clear, he is a strident critique of the TNA, the TULF and the Tamil leadership under Mr. Sambanthan and colleagues- bar a few instances he passes some complementary remarks on this grouping”.

 Yes, I am very critical, because throughout our post-independence history the Tamils have been led in a short sighted manner by their so-called leadership (I have used the pre-fix so-called to emphasize that leadership means something entirely different to me). This includes G.G.Ponnambalam’s Tamil Congress. Their politics has been emotive and reactive. They did not provide a practical vision as to how the Tamils, a minority, could have found a place commiserate with their numbers in an independentSri Lanka. Their efforts were directed towards maintaining the post-independence status quo at any cost. This was untenable, unreasonable and irrational. The alternatives they demanded from federalism to an independent Tamil Eelam were a red flag to the Sinhala politicians and people. The need for greater devolution of power to the periphery withinSri Lankawas a necessity. However, the whole concept was tainted by the sectarian nature of the demands made by the Tamil leadership. The attempt to involveIndiain the problems of independentSri Lankawas a further mistake. The traditional antipathy and fear ofIndia, which meant at one time the Tamil part ofIndia, among the Sinhalese, was not recognized by the Tamil leadership. The legitimate desire of the Sinhalese to play a greater role in the affairs of the newly independent nation and its legitimacy was not recognised by the Tamil leadership. The failure to keep their distance from the LTTE, when it went wrong, lost whatever creditability that was left with the Sinhala people. Their arm twisting politics were a failure. Their inability win the Sinhalese to their cause was calamitous. They have led the Tamils almost to a dead end, with the help of their alter ego, the LTTE. How can they continue to talk on behalf of Tamils, in these circumstances, especially from a debilitated position the Tamils are in after the war?

Coming to the post-war scenario, the TNA and most of the Tamil leadership have failed to acknowledge the enormity of the destruction in many spheres and the tragedy that had befallen the war-affected. They have been playing the role of vultures, in trying to feed on the misery of the war-affected Tamils. They have played a very negative role in the post-war recovery process. They have been critical where unwarranted. They have been untruthful in many instances. They have exaggerated incidents out of proportion to their relevance and importance. They have also failed to mobilize help and the goodwill needed to help the war-affected. They have failed enunciate a new vision for the Tamils and continue to talk in terms of a long lost past. Their priorities are not at all related to the needs of the people in the north and east. This annoys me more than anything else. They have failed to capitalize on the good will prevailing among the Sinhala people to forge a partnership with the government. Their decision to support Sarath Fonseka at the last presidential election was a tactical error, based on a wrong reading of political realities. They are yet engaging in the arm twisting politics that have failed us and alienated us from the national main stream. The TNA is an anachronism we are forced to live with. I am not prepared to accept them as the only alternative available. There has to be new leadership and this will take time to evolve. We can live with the present dispensation for some more time until this happens. I find the present dispensation much more acceptable than the alternative in the form of the TNA and its allies. The TNA and its allies, as presently constituted, would lead us to oblivion.

I have to end this answer with the question, what have the Federal party, the TULF and now the TNA, done for the Tamils in the past and are capable of doing in the future, compared to the achievements of Sir.P.Ramnathan and Saumyamoorthy Thondaman? At least the Tamil Congress got us the cement factory and the Paranthan Chemicals !

2.”He gives the impression of being more pro-government even in instances where this appears to be patently against Tamil interests. He makes very little effort to (not) leave the impression he is more inclined towards Pro-Douglas policies”.

Impressions are often misleading and definitely are in this instance. I am pro-Tamil and pro-Sri Lanka. My position is defined by the current realities and completely divorced from the past. I think there should be a complete break between pre- and post- 18th May’2009. I have witnessed what the government has done in the past two and a half years and am thankful for that. More needs to be done and these can be done only by the government and with the help of the government. I would rather work with the government or encourage the government to achieve what is urgently needed by the Tamils, rather than criticize it on the basis of what is not important for the Tamils now.

I am for a united Sri Lanka, where the north and east will continue to reflect their predominant ‘Tamilness’. I do not think any devolution of power will be useful for the Tamils, until they have recovered fully from the devastation of war and are on their feet as a proud people. I do not think that the north and east should be the exclusive preserves of the Tamils or Tamil-speaking people. While I do not condone state-aided colonization, I welcome Sinhala, Muslim and Plantation Tamil migrations to the north and east. We need this to bring about an economic transformation in these areas. I may sound pro-government because of these positions. I believe the whole ofSri Lankais ours to live and that the government should ensure our rights, safety and security, wherever we live. I have not hesitated to criticize the government on its approach to politics in the north and east, after the war.

Tamil interests to me at present mean survival, recovery, reconciliation, peace and security. All other considerations are secondary and distant. I am not supporting those seeking political power in the north and east by hook or by crook. Their interests are not the interest of the Tamils. As much as all the Tamils were not Tigers, the Tamil politicians visible at present are not the Tamils.

 I am not inclined towards pro-Douglas policies in any way. I am a vocal critic of his politics, antics and mischief, but have muted my criticism in the recent past, because my criticism had made no difference and likely will not make a difference. My silence is because of frustration at the status-quo.

 3. “Differing from Dr.R.N I make bold to suggest education did not benefit one section of the Jaffna Tamil society only. It benefitted all of them, arguably, some more than others”.

You are absolutely right. It benefitted some substantially more than others. This was my case.

You do not agree with my use of the words, “They were caught with their pants down”. I should have said instead they were caught without even their underwear.

Semantics aside, what I meant to say was that they were totally unprepared for the tragedy that befell them. It was no doubt a tragedy that could have been avoided if wisdom had prevailed among the Sinhala leadership of that time. It was an indictment also of the Tamil leadership which had failed to anticipate this outcome.

 4. “Let us hope the good influence NR (should be RN) is believed to enjoy with the Rajapakse brothers—-“.

Your belief and those of others who assume so, is absolutely wrong. I hope what I have said at meetings with the government and in my writings have some effect. Fortunately or unfortunately, I have no close contact with any of them beyond official contacts on a few occasions that followed my membership in a Diaspora delegation. I do not court them and they do not court me. This protects my independence, despite the perception that I am pro-government. I will of course not hesitate to contact them if the occasion warrants it.

To conclude, ISS, I am glad that you agree with much of what I have said. Coming from you it matters much to me. Your criticism has given me an opportunity to explain and I am sure these may not be acceptable to many Tamil readers, even if acceptable to you. I am also glad you are ready to engage me in a civilized debate.


Rajasingham Narendran’s previous eSsay, the one that drew ISS’s comments

A Brief Overview of Post-independence Politics — History of Communal Relations in Sri Lanka

The problems of a section of Jaffna Tamils in the post-independence years were portrayed by Tamil politicians (also from the same section) of the day , as those of all Tamils. This was a historical mistake of immense proportions. The Vaddukottai resolution was the outcome.

This was the result of the advantage they had by way of high quality schools, the propensity for hard work, the sacrifice their parents made in investing in education and the conditions inJaffna-over crowding and lack of opportunities- that had to be left behind.

The American missionaries who were directed toJaffna, by a suspicious British colonial administration paved the way for the development of an excellent school system inJaffna. This was an inadvertent advantage that became a problem for the dominating section of Jaffna Tamils in the post-independence period.

Other sections of the Tamils inJaffna, the Tamils in the Vanni and Mannar and the Tamils in the East, did not experience the same circumstances nor advantages. The plantation Tamils were virtual slaves, looked down upon by all so-called Sri Lankan Tamils. Basil Rajapakse calling Muthu Sivalingam a Para-demala, which is much referred to, was totally uncivilized. However, how we the Sri Lankan Tamils looked down upon and treated the plantation Tamil was also uncivilized and disgraceful. This class of Jaffna Tamils were also very much in the fore front of oppressing other Sri Lankan Tamils in the name of caste. The Jaffna Tamils, who had the advantage of a good education, also wielded an influence disproportionate to their numbers in national political affairs.

The affairs inSri Lankain the immediate post-independence period, were very much skewed in favour of a section of Jaffna Tamils. The Sinhala dominated governments had to correct this situation and empower the majority Sinhala community. This was natural and had to inevitably happen. the Tamils were no more intelligent than the Snhalese and no more capable either, although many Tamils thought they were. They enjoyed calling the Sinhalese ‘Modayas’- handicapped by their very identity!

How the Sri Lankan governments tried to correct this imbalance was wrong, short sighted and brutal. Instead of investing in education in the South and other disadvantaged Tamil areas and bringing in a time framed affirmative action program, the governments forced the pace through Sinhala only, dismantling of merit based selection processes and of course the standardization schemes for University admissions. The language used by the Sinhala politicians and some societal leaders to justify their actions were insulting, inflammatory and unwise These measures while advancing the cause of the Sinhalese, set back the country as a whole. The section of the Jaffna Tamils who had planned their entire life on following a particular path to education, employment and prosperity, were literally caught with their pants down!

These Jaffna Tamils who had the advantages in their favor and had come to consider their advantage a God-given right, reacted vehemently (and later violently)and tried to hang on to their inadvertent and disproportionate advantages, misled and egged on by their so-called leaders, who were also stupid not to comprehend that the times had changed. A clash was inevitable. The riots, the murder and mayhem became a way of life. Short sighted actions and equally short sighted reactions, orchestrated by the extremists on both sides led to the civil war and its aftermath. The advantaged section of Jaffna Tamils were in the vanguard of Tamil reactions and have exposed the other Sri Lankan Tamils to the outcome. The Governments inSri Lanka, failed to act rationally and in a far sighted manner to nip evolving and escalating problems in the bud.The governments became a part of the evolving problems.

The balance has been corrected in favour of the majority Sinhala population now. However, the tide has turned against all Sri Lankan Tamils. All Tamils from the north and east are a disadvantaged people now. There has to be affirmative action in their favour. The Plantation Tamils have progressed thanks to Saumyamoorthy Thondaman’s political acumen and vision.

This is where we stand now. How do we proceed into the future? Should there be a change in our approach- from both the Sinhala and Tamil sides?

A time for wisdom- based sober thought to prevail has come.

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  1. Pingback: Vale. In Memoriam. Dr. Rajasingham Narendran | Thuppahi's Blog

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