Izeth Hussain’s Reflections on Sri Lankan Politics

I. Re-thinking the Ethnic Imbroglio   Island,  24 January 2014

It is always difficult to see things as they are. Somerset Maugham, a shrewd observer of human frailty in his best work, claimed that the transcendental geniuses such as Shakespeare and Dostoevsky – I am not sure of the names he actually used – could see through a brick wall, whereas he himself, unlike average humanity, could clearly see what was directly under his nose. Wyndham Lewis was even more scathing about the limitations of average humanity: he wrote that only a few people of very exceptional intelligence can see that the cow is in the field. Many readers will write all that off as misanthropic hyperbole. But most will agree that in general we are usually reluctant to see things as they are when they are unpleasant.


An example is provided by the question of the prospects for a political solution of the ethnic problem. The prospects are nil, or almost nil. The realistic prospect is that the ethnic imbroglio will continue indefinitely into the future. Such is the situation after 25 years of war and four years of peace. Our expectation that peace would lead, sooner rather than later, to noon-tide glory in the resplendent isle, has led instead to what looks like darkness at noon. This is the situation, the horribly unpleasant situation, which most of us, including myself, have been unwilling to face. What this situation demands, above all, is that we rethink the fundamentals of the ethnic imbroglio. It is a process that could lead to our posing the right questions which could lead eventually to the right answers.

What is the problem? It is not just a Sri Lankan ethnic problem, but an Indo-Sri Lankan ethnic problem, as I have argued in an earlier article. The fall-out in Tamil Nadu of what happens to the Tamils in Sri Lanka can never be ignored by the Delhi Government because that fall-out can take the form of restiveness and even a rebelliousness that spawns separatist movements that under certain unforeseeable contingencies could even threaten the very unity of India. It seems to be a unique problem because I can think of no parallel case where an ethnic problem in one country can threaten the unity of another. If Turkey had not intervened in Cyprus and there had been a blood-bath of the Cypriot Muslims, the Turkish Government would have fallen, but there would have been no threat to the unity of Turkey. We must face up to the unpleasant fact that no Government in Delhi can remain uninvolved in what happens to the Tamils here. The external Indian dimension of our ethnic problem is not of an ancillary order but is integral to our ethnic problem. And that fact is not going to change because of unalterable geographical propinquity and the common ethnicity of the two groups of Tamils. General Zia-ul Huq of Pakistan, one of the most sympathetic friends of Sri Lanka, was quite right in advising us repeatedly – not in his exact words: “If you try to solve your ethnic problem regardless of the wishes of India, you will sink into a bottomless pit”.

However – an unpleasant fact that our Tamils have to bear in mind – what I have written above is not meant to imply that our Tamils can rest assured of Delhi’s support no matter what. I must have been the first to try to assess systematically the Tamil Nadu factor in our ethnic problem, in a paper that I presented at a seminar in the late ‘eighties. My argument was that there is an ethnic commonality between the SL and the TN Tamils, but the two groups are not identical, and that fact will weigh in the political realm. My late friend Professor Sivatamby – articulating the views of the other Tamils present – argued that what I was saying was true at an anthropological level but that I was underestimating the importance of the ethnic commonality between the two groups. My argument received substantiation after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi when Delhi and Tamil Nadu to a large extent turned against the LTTE. Later Delhi supported the Sri Lankan Government in the war against the LTTE, probably to a far greater extent than is known to the public at present. At present SL and TN Tamil fisherman are virtually at war against each other. It seems to me that Tamil Nadu and Delhi will support our Tamils only to the extent that their demands are reasonable and fair-minded according to international standards. The Eelam project has no traction in India – though, I acknowledge, the time for that may yet come given the colossal racist stupidity that has always been rampant among a segment of the Sinhalese power elite.

I come now to the present unpleasant situation. Neither the TNA nor the Government wants 13A, and there is nothing else on offer to enable us to start moving towards a political solution. However, there is a difference between the two in that the TNA is willing to give 13A a try – which is why I wrote in the second paragraph above that the prospects for a political solution are nil “or almost nil”. But I cannot envisage the TNA really being in earnest about 13A until after the Indian General elections. If Narendra Modi and the BJP get a clear majority the Indian Government may go in an authoritarian neo-Fascist and racist direction. The new Government could become much tougher with the SL Government than the Congress one. There could be very serious developments over the problems of marauding Indian fishermen and Kachchaitivu. For such reasons we cannot expect the TNA to be really enthusiastic about 13A, unless it comes under serious Indian Government pressure. But we cannot see that happening either. As for the SL Government no one expects it to agree to the full implementation of 13A – inclusive that is of police and land powers – while the Indian Government wants no less than that.

The unpleasant reality is that it is darkness at noon. What do we do? In this article, which is aimed at a rethinking of the fundamentals of the ethnic imbroglio, I have argued that our Tamil ethnic problem is not just a Sri Lankan problem but an Indian one as well, and furthermore, that India is not ancillary but integral to the problem. There are therefore four actors in our ethnic problem: the SL Government, the SL Tamils, Tamil Nadu, and the Delhi Government. In terms of the argument that I have been developing, the concurrence of all four actors is required for a lasting political solution. The two Governments in Colombo and Delhi have to work towards that end.

The suggestion that I am making might seem humiliating and most offensive to our national pride. Why, it might be asked, should two outsiders, namely Tamil Nadu and Delhi, be regarded as integral to our purely internal ethnic problem? The answer to that is that it was not they but we who gave an external dimension to what should have been a purely internal problem. It was the anti-Tamil genocidal State-backed pogrom of 1983 that gave the external dimension to the problem, by shocking and outraging the rest of the world and making it impossible for Tamil Nadu and Delhi to ignore what was going on inside the blood-drenched paradise isle of Sri Lanka.

Is there a way out? More specifically, is there a way of making the ethnic problem once again an internal one and getting the foreigners off our backs? I don’t know but we have to try and we must try. Perhaps the starting point should be for both sides, the Sinhalese and the Tamils, to stop demonizing each other and acknowledge their own shortcomings and errors. The Tamils must acknowledge that the LTTE and the TNA put themselves completely in the wrong by rejecting every proposal for devolution from 1994 to 2000, by making a farce of the peace process, and finally by compelling the Sinhalese to fight the war to its conclusion. They must acknowledge that the Sinhalese side fought a just war in the sense that they had no alternative whatsoever. Both sides must acknowledge that they fought a savage war with no prisoners taken.

The Sinhalese side must acknowledge that the discrimination against the Tamils went to grotesque extremes from 1970 to 1977, and that that was followed by the State terrorism of JRJ which rose to a genocidal apogee in 1983 when the Tamils were treated as worse than pariah dogs. I mean that literally: from British times the pariah dogs were rounded up but they were never burnt alive whereas Tamils were burnt alive in the streets of Colombo and elsewhere with total impunity. Thereafter there was a silence, a criminal silence, from the civil society and the dignitaries of the four great world religions until Anne Abeyesekera broke the criminal silence by writing a letter which was surprisingly published by the disgusting racist paper The Sun. She has conveyed to me that there was also a letter written from a Buddhist perspective by Mahinda Palihawadana. The Sinhalese must recognize that the Tamils had the following alternatives: either be reduced to worse than pariah dog status, or fight. They must acknowledge that the LTTE fought a just war from around April 1994 onwards until the just war shifted to the other side.

It is time for the Sinhalese to recognize that it is ridiculous to regard the LTTE as a terrorist group and nothing more than that. Over the decades I have refused to use the term “terrorist” to characterize the LTTE, and I have written at least two articles on the subject, and must do so again. There are over a hundred definitions of the word “terrorism”, but the consensus about its core is this: the indiscriminate killing of innocent non-combatant civilians. The LTTE was guilty of that through the Pettah bomb, the Maradana bomb, the Sacred Bo Tree bomb etc, but JRJ killed far more through his State terrorism from 1977 to 1983. The accolade of Sri Lanka’s greatest terrorist should go to JRJ and not to Prabhakaran. The latter led a nationalist movement, but most unfortunately for the Tamils his was a regressive tribalist neo-Fascist nationalism, similar to that of the JVP and what the nationalism of the present Government is threatening to become. All the same, it is time for the Sinhalese side to acknowledge the capacity for self-sacrifice, the valour, the fighting prowess of the LTTE cadres. I want the Sinhalese people to rise to the greatness of the ancient Chinese who inscribed on the tombs of their fallen enemies, in recognition of their valour: “May you be born among us in your next birth”.

II. Darkness at Noon on the Ethnic Front – Island, 1 February 2014

WIIGY oathsIn my article Re-thinking the Ethnic Imbroglio in the Island of January 25, I pointed out that the prospects for a political solution of the ethnic problem “are nil, or almost nil”. With the definitive military defeat of the LTTE in May 2009 we expected that, sooner rather than later, there would be a political solution and there would ensue noon-tide glory in the resplendent isle of Sri Lanka. Instead, what we see looks much more like darkness at noon. I argued that what we need in this situation is a re-thinking of the fundamentals of the ethnic imbroglio. In this article I will continue my own rethinking on the fundamentals, and point out that just now the most important desideratum – the desired but missing thing – is a paradigm shift in our thinking on the imbroglio: we must give primacy to attitudinal change over Constitutional and institutional change.

MR at Nallur April 2010-AP

My sense of darkness deepened when I read the headline news in the Island of January 29 that the Ministry of Defense will carry out investigations into the nexus between the TNA and the LTTE in the past. There is, of course, everything to be said for such investigations because a healthy society should place a high value on truth, which means that it is imperative to establish the truth about what happened in the past. But is this the time for it? We must take certain inescapable facts into account. The Defense Ministry is not just another Ministry but the most powerful one, and its Secretary Gotabaya R is second in power only to the President. His power derives not from the sibling nexus but from his credentials as one of the authentic saviours of the nation. Furthermore the Defence Ministry is regarded as having a nexus with the Sangha, and together they constitute the most powerful force in the country, which can countermand the will of the people because of the nexus between the Sangha and the Buddhist majority. It is also an inescapable fact that a system of devolution is usually difficult to operate. Considering all these facts, the conclusion becomes inescapable that if the investigations really get going the successful operation of 13A will be jeopardized. Its successful operation will really be impossible without flexibility and trust between the Government and the TNA, and that will become impossible with the investigations. We are forced to the conclusion that the Government is not in earnest about 13A or is thoroughly ambivalent about it.

As for the TNA, it has no enthusiasm for 13A, as I pointed out in my last article. I must flesh that out a bit as there is a contrary view on the TNA’s position on 13A. Chief Minister Wigneswaran’s Budget speech in December was subjected to a brilliant critique by Dayan Jayatilleka in Groundviews, in the course of which he quoted the following: “It should be understood by all clearly that the present Provincial Council cannot be a vehicle of change for the betterment of the Tamil speaking people of the North and East”. That was a categorical statement, and it was not made under LTTE duress. He also declared that the Tamils had wanted devolution for the North East only and not as part of a system applicable to the whole island. I find that idea depressing for reasons that I need not go into here. It remains that the TNA eschews separatism and violence, and is willing to make a try at making the NPC successful. The TNA position on moving towards a political solution is therefore slightly more positive than that of the Government, and that is why the prospects for a political solution are “almost nil”, not nil.

But it has to be expected that the TNA will not really commit itself to 13A, if at all, until the Indian General elections and its aftermath. I have argued in my last article that India is not ancillary to but an integral part of our ethnic problem, for which reason the Indian elections could be of crucial importance. The expectation is that the BJP will form the next Government together with its like-minded allies and some other parties. The new Government could turn out to be quasi democratic and quasi neo-Fascist just like the one in Colombo, and a tougher line on the ethnic problem is quite possible. The omens at the moment are not good at all. Jayalalithaa is talking about doing away with the maritime boundary between the two countries, which on the face of it could seem to be a fair-minded proposal for equitable sharing of maritime resources. But it has dangerous implications because without the boundary the Indian Ocean can come to be seen not as separating but bringing together Tamil Nadu and our North-East. That could lead eventually to a Tamil Nadu irredentist claim on our North-East. We have got accustomed to belligerent noises on Kachchaitivu, which we must now take seriously. As the Agreement on Kachchaitivu was never ratified by the Indian Parliament, it is not valid under international law, and it is possible that a BJP Government may wrest it away from us.

The kind of negative developments indicated in the preceding paragraph pale into insignificance compared to what is threatened in the following statement by Yaswant Sinha, the shadow BJP Foreign Minister: “The BJP during the NDA rule advocated political settlement for the Tamils within a united Sri Lanka, but that position is different now. Eelam is a distinct possibility. Bangladesh, North and South Sudan are all independent countries today”. He might mean that the Tamils could fight again, this time with Indian and other foreign support, and establish Eelam. But that seems a messy and very uncertain process. He probably means therefore that India might impose a Cyprus-style solution: Indian troops invade Sri Lanka, establish Eelam, after which the Indian troops hold the frontier, in a process comparable to what happened in Cyprus. I wrote two articles on that possibility, neither of which seemed to make any impact on the public. But H.L. de Silva wrote, some months before he passed away, that he had originally thought that I was being “fanciful” but later – describing me as “an Ambassador of experience” – took my argument seriously.

It seems serious that a prospective Indian Foreign Minister says “Eelam is a distinct possibility” but probably our Government will explain it away as arising out of the BJP’s need for Tamil Nadu votes. But the senior Vice-Chairman of the UNP, Lakshman Kiriella, who recently cited Yaswant Sinha’s statement quoted above (Island of January 28), raised a question in Parliament as far back as last April about a BJP threat to carve out Eelam. Therefore the recent statement of Yaswant Sinha should not be dismissed as arising out of electoral compulsions. The Government’s reply to Kiriella was that no Indian Government would agree to the break-up of Sri Lanka. I wrote a letter to the Island making certain clarifications. At one time the orthodoxy prevailing in Sri Lanka was that India was determined to break up Sri Lanka. Later the orthodoxy was that no Government in India would ever agree to the break-up of Sri Lanka. It is true that India would not like to see separatist movements succeed in neighbouring countries as that could set a bad example for India. But the break-up of Pakistan in 1971, under Indian aegis, was seen as an accretion of strength for India. That is something that we should always bear in mind.

What should we do? As neither the Government nor the TNA is really in earnest about 13A, for the time being it’s darkness at noon on the ethnic front. But this situation could change, and change very radically, in the second half of this year consequent to the Indian elections. If it’s not a hung Parliament, and a fairly stable BJP Government is installed in power, and it turns out to be tough and even threatening, the Sri Lankan Government and the TNA could conceivably become earnest about 13A. I recall Dr. Johnson’s remark that nothing so wonderfully concentrates the mind as the prospect of being hanged on the morrow.

However, I wonder whether Constitutional and institutional changes, without attitudinal changes, will suffice to bring about an effective political solution and authentic ethnic reonciliation. Human beings are not automata, they are thinking beings, and they act in terms of how they think. That means that even if we have an excellent Constitution and excellent institutions, they will not amount to much if we are still full of hatred and distrust towards each other. I concluded my last article with three suggestions that could bring about crucially important attitudinal changes. It may be that if we give primacy to bringing about attitudinal change, what is at present darkness at noon could turn into dusk.. I have in mind Hegel’s observation that it is only at dusk when the shades of night are falling that the bird of Minerva – the owl symbolizing wisdom – spreads its wings and takes flight.



Filed under accountability, authoritarian regimes, democratic measures, economic processes, historical interpretation, indian armed forces, Indian Ocean politics, law of armed conflict, politIcal discourse, population, power politics, Rajapaksa regime, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, TNA, truth as casualty of war, world events & processes

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