DBS Jeyaraj’s Reflections on Sri Lanka’s Political History

DBS Jeyaraj, courtesy of his Facebook posting, 4 February 2016, where the title is “68 Years of Independence, Nation Building and the Future of Tamils in Sri Lanka”

DBSSri Lanka will celebrate its Sixty-eighth Anniversary of Independence from the United Kingdom this Thursday. The country then known as Ceylon obtained full freedom from the British on February 4th 1948.Independent Ceylon/Sri Lanka / has faced many challenges and problems in the past 68 years. We have had military coup attempts, communal riots, pogroms, armed revolts, external military intervention, assassinations of heads of state, terrorist violence and above all a long secessionist war that threatened to tear apart the country. What Sri Lanka can be proud of as Asia’s oldest democracy is the fact that despite many formidable challenges and crises the country continues to be democratic. Flawed but Democratic! On January 8th last year the Sri Lankan people did the nation proud by voting out the incumbent executive president and bringing about effective regime change through the ballot amidst extremely difficult circumstances

The separatist war waged by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was over in 2009 and the country was unified militarily but whether the nation has been united politically remains an unanswered question yet. A silver lining was visible in the 2015 presidential polls when voters cutting across racial and religious boundaries acted as one nation in electing their president.

Sunrise at Polhena, Matara, Sri Lanka. A place where we see both sunrise and sunset-Pic by: uditha wickramanayaka

It is however too early to state whether this act of unity can be the harbinger of hope for the future.

National Unity: Emphasising the National unity theme on Independence Day is a positive sign for the future. It is my hope and prayer that this effort is a good start for genuine reconciliation and inclusive nation building. As a Tamil of Sri Lankan origin, I fervently desire a situation where all the ethnicities in general and the Tamils in particular are integrated into one whole nation while retaining their distinctive identities.

For any people free of colonial bondage Independence Day would be a day of joy and happiness. But that has not been the case for the T amils of Sri Lanka for several decades. Even as the free nation geared up for celebrations in the past the Tamils were not part of this festivity emotionally and spiritually. They were disallowed even to sing the national anthem in Tamil at a national event. I do hope the national anthem would be sung in Tamil as stipulated by the Constitution at this year’s independence celebrations. It is time for the Tamils to come in from the cold and be welcomed back into the fold.

Due to a variety of reasons a large number of Tamils continue “to be in but not of” Sri Lanka. Notwithstanding optimistic assertions by those in power the stark reality today is that of the Sri Lankan Tamil people being greatly alienated from the State and vastly estranged from mainstream consciousness. The inclusion of DM Swaminathan and Vijayakala Maheswaran in this Govt does not alter this mindset just as the presence of Douglas Devananda and Vinayagamoorthy Muraleetharan had no impact during the previous Govt. The communities are polarised in many respects and the distance between the Sinhala and Tamil solitudes is yet to be bridged positively.

It is against this backdrop that this column intends to focus reflectively on the recent past of Post-Independence Sri Lanka and ponder over its future while drawing extensively from earlier writings of a similiar nature. Particular emphasis would be on the collective mindset of the Sri Lankan or “Ilankai Thamizh”people in post-independence Sri Lanka and their future in the Island

Jaffna Youth Congress: What is so sad about the present situation is the now forgotten pioneering role played by Tamils in the quest for Independence from the British. From Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam’s famous lecture on “our political needs” which laid the foundation for the national congress to the activities of the Jaffna Youth Congress, Tamil efforts have been commendable in this regard.

It was the Jaffna Youth Congress which called first for “poorana Swaraj” or complete self-rule from the British and rejected the limited reforms proposed by the Donoughmore commission. It was in Jaffna that the erstwhile Jaffna Kingdom’s “Nandhi” (crouched bull)flag of the was hoisted defiantly instead of the Union Jack on Empire day. It was Jaffna that boycotted the visit of the then Prince of Wales during colonial rule.

So praiseworthy was the impact of the Youth Congress that Philip Gunewardena , the “Father of Marxism” in Sri Lanka wrote glowingly in the “Searchlight” that Jaffna has given the lead and asked the Sinhalese to follow suit. Prof. Wiswa Warnapala reviewing the book written by Santhaseelan Kadirgamar on the Youth Congress expressed his admiration of the Jaffna youth congress openly. What then went wrong? Which was the serpent that entered this idyllic garden of Eden?

A number of reasons could be stated and as is the case in matters of this type the blame cannot be laid at one door alone. Fundamentally the crisis is due to the pathetic inability of “independent” Ceylon to re-define and re- structure nationhood after getting freedom. More specifically what went wrong initially was the notion entertained by dominant sections of the majority community that this country belonged to them alone and that other ethnicities were of second-class status. Sadly this majoritarian mindset prevails among dominant forces in the corridors of power notwithstanding pious platitudes to the contrary.

Majority Ethnicity: The powers that be were either unwilling or unable to appreciate the concerns, insecurity and sense of injustice felt by the minority communities. The dominant ideology seemed to be one of equating the majority ethnicity alone as the nation.This hegemonistic definition of nation and attempts by the Tamils to resist such imposition and counter it with a different definition have contributed greatly to the current situation.

Sri Lanka is a modern state with an ancient civilisation, but the attempt to define Sri Lanka as a modern nation state has led to conflict and strife. Power is concentrated with the majority ethnicity leaving other ethnicities out in the cold. It was a case of ‘Maha Jathiyata Kiri, Sulu Jathiwalata Kekiri’ (cream for the majority, bitterfruit for the minorities)

Paradoxical as it may seem, I have in the past often referred to Sri Lanka as both an Island nation and archipelago of communities. Given the raucous cacophony of strident cries of race and religion it does seem unlikely that these polyphony of voices can ever be blended into a harmonious symphony. The idea of a single Sri Lankan nation has been under severe threat. In reality, we are a divided nation today and military conquest and domination by itself is no answer.If we are to resolve these divisions and create a strong nation on the basis of equitable power-sharing, the structure of the state needs to be radically transformed. There is no consensus on how to go about it so far.

Meanwhile, political differences assumed proportions of a cruel, destructive war. The war was only a consequence resulting from political causes.The ethnic conflict cannot be resolved by military means alone and requires a settlement that would address those underlying causes. This political solution cannot be dictated or imposed upon through military might or numerical superiority alone.

“Divide and Rule”: The idea of Ceylon was a colonial construct. The British unified the country into a single administration to exploit cohesively but divided the population to govern easily. Sri Lanka was not the only one to suffer “divide and rule” by Britain in this respect. Most countries ruled by the British were their creations in a modern sense. Ethnic conflict and strife erupted in many countries after the British left. From the Indian sub-continent to Fiji Islands and from Nigeria to Malaysia, there are many instances of this.Sri Lanka too can be classified as an example of post-independence conflict in countries gaining freedom from the UK.

Some ex-colonies have reduced and managed ethnic tensions by evolving new forms of power sharing. They have reinvented themselves as ‘new’ nations on the basis of equality and forged a strong sense of common identity. In the final analysis, the unity and integrity of a nation does not depend on its military strength or structures of governance, but on the will of its people. The nation state is essentially a state of mind.

The tragedy of independent Sri Lanka was initially majoritarian hegemony. Majority rule is a democratic principle. Here it has been interpreted as the majority of the numerically largest ethnicity.The years after independence have seen the Sri Lankan Tamils resisting this injustice and imposition– at first through non-violent struggle and later through an armed struggle. A negative consequence of this resistance was the rise of violence and hardening of the Tamil psyche.

The Tamils first thought of themselves as a founding people of Sri Lanka on par with the Sinhalese. They later shed this majority concept and perceived themselves as the principal yet all-island minority.Tamils did not demand a separate state or even federalism from the British. What they wanted then was a scheme of balanced representation where the Sinhala majority weightage could be ‘balanced’ through enhanced representation for the minority communities.

This failed, and in a pragmatic approach, the dominant Tamil leadership opted for responsive cooperation after independence.The All Ceylon Tamil Congress joined the UNP Government.New forces however emerged.The birth and growth of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party(SLFP) under SWRD Bandaranaike saw the advent of majoritarian hegemonism dominating politics. As Sinhala majoritarianism assumed great stridency, Newton’s Third Law came into play. Tamil nationalism also grew. Both reinforced each other.

Under the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (Federal Party), the Tamils began perceiving themselves as a territorial minority. The Northern and Eastern Provinces were referred to as their traditional homelands.Initially there was non-violent agitation for a federal form of government. Compromises were made and pacts signed. These were observed in the breach by the prime ministers of the day. Satyagraha campaigns were suppressed through military force

Sundown in Batticaloa- pic by Doctorandus Sarajevo

Tamil Eelam: This led to the cry for Tamil Eelam. Secessionism brought forth violence and an armed struggle began. In the 1977 general elections, Tamils voted overwhelmingly for the TULF contesting on a separatist platform. Instead of redressing Tamil grievances and trying to accommodate legitimate aspirations, the Sinhala-dominated state came down heavily. It was thought that might could eradicate right. This was not to be so and Tamils resorted to armed resistance.With the passage of time the LTTE became the dominant military entity among Tamils and established control over a substantial portion of the north and east. The territorial integrity and sovereignty of the country was endangered and eroded.

The Tamil struggle for equality too underwent change. It lost its moral high ground and deteriorated drastically. Militarism ruled and authoritarianism reigned. The LTTE’s ‘Tigerism’ became a mirror image of Sinhala hegemonism. In this militaristic clash the LTTE has been defeated militarily on Sri Lankan soil but the overseas Tiger structures remain.

The decimation of the Tigers militarily has brought about an asymmetrical situation in the power equation. The Tamil people have been declining in almost every sphere since July 1983 but the LTTE had gradually set up a mighty military machine. As stated by this columnist in earlier articles the Tamils had descended horizontally as a people, but the LTTE had ascended vertically as an armed force. Now with the LTTE gone the powerless Tamils in Sri Lanka are in dire straits.

Had the LTTE transformed its military strength into political bargaining power at the appropriate time the Tamil people would certainly be in a better position. But this did not happen and today the Tamils as a people are in a precarious situation. Disempowered Tamils are unable to constructively influence Governments in Colombo. The LTTE by its actions has caused irredeemable harm to the Tamil people.

Hard as it may be for some Tamils to admit the Tamil people today are entirely at the mercy of the Sri Lankan state. Despite lip service paid by some, to the contrary the reality today is that there is no effective support internationally for the Tamil cause of “Tamil Eelam”. However there is support for limited autonomy within a united Sri Lanka. What is troubling in this situation is the inability and unwillingness of sections of the Tamil people to comprehend the ramifications of their predicament.

Vocal Warriors: The confrontational attitude of vocal warriors continues. Instead of trying to arrive at some form of political reconciliation and work for the upliftment of the shattered and battered people, an abrasive style of politics is still prevalent. The politics of confrontation is being followed in the name of “Thesiyam” or nationalism.

This in turn is souring the climate further. The Sinhala hawks with their project of turning Sri Lanka into a Sinhala supremacist state are strengthened. The moderate Sinhalese who want to live in peace and friendship with their Tamil counterparts are confused. The progressive Sinhalese who want to make Sri Lanka a plural nation and ensure equality to all her people are weakened.

In short, what we are witnessing today is the sad spectacle of a once proud Tamil people being reduced to deterioration, deprivation and resultant despair in their own land. There is a distinct disconnect between the travails and troubles of the Tamils living in areas comprising the “arena of war” and the chest-thumping rants and raves of sections of the Tamil Diaspora and Tamil Nadu polity.

What is unbearable about this tragedy is that it need not have happened. Unlike the Tsunami this could have been avoided but the mad dictates of militarism coupled with an irrational, unrealistic reading of the political, military and diplomatic situation has plunged the Tamils into a deep, deep morass.

Mere statistics or journalistic descriptions cannot convey the abject, forlorn situation facing hundreds of thousands of Tamils who suffered in this war. The families of disappeared, the families of detenues, the widows, the orphans, the single parent families, the broken households, the limbless, the bed-ridden, the poverty, the ruins and the graves form together this colossal tragedy. How will this war-affected, impoverished people rise up from the dust-heap or resurrect themselves from the ashes?

Tamil Predicament: What is extremely saddening and maddening is the blatant failure of certain elements of Tamil society to comprehend or realise the serious nature of the Tamil predicament today. Like the Bourbons of France these segments seem to have learnt or forgotten nothing. While the silent majority of Tamils remain passive these “active” sections are once again hogging the megaphone vociferously. Their boasts and demands would make angels weep! Their discourse is provocatively confrontational.As a western diplomat observed to this writer “These guys dont seem to realise that the LTTE lost the war and as a result all Tamils are in a difficult situation”.

The need of the hour is for Tamils to evolve a sensible and pragmatic approach to the situation they are in. What is necessary now is not confrontation but cooperation. Cooperation is not Submission. Conciliation is not surrender.

Those continuing the old politics of sabre-rattling must realise there is no sword or blade in the scabbard or sheath to “scare” the enemy. Instead these vocal warriors make laughing stocks of themselves without perhaps realising it.

This inability or unwillingness to recognize the tragic plight of the Tamil people and adopt a practical approach rather than continuing with an unrealistic confrontational mode is not something which evolved in a vacuum. There is a history behind this emotive content in Tamil politics. It has been prevalent ever since the Tamil polity began experiencing political anxiety over the perceived threat of Sinhala majoritarian hegemony.

The important point is to note that the eradication of the LTTE will not automatically result in the problem being resolved. The LTTE was only a virulent symptom of the malady. Getting rid of the LTTE is no durable remedy. What is required now is the creation of a just, egalitarian and plural society. There must be equitable power-sharing based on principles of devolution.

Three Schools of Thought

Broadly, three schools of thought have been clashing. The ideas at conflict are hegemonism, secessionism and pluralism.

The Sinhala hardliners want Sinhala-Buddhist domination. They see this country as theirs alone. Others are excluded or reduced to subservient status in this ‘Chinthana.’

The Tamil hardliners want a separate state for the north-east known as Tamil Eelam. Just as Sinhala hawks say Sri Lanka is for the Sinhalese, these Tamil hawks say Tamil Eelam is for the Tamils. A state for the dominant ethnicity within, excludes by definition, other ethnicities living within these real or imaginary borders. Both these ideas have brought about disunity, violence and destruction. The nation bled profusely and the country diminished drastically.

The third idea is that of establishing an egalitarian and plural society where all children of this country can live together in amity and fraternity. It incorporates a vision where no one will claim superior rights on the basis of belonging to the majority race/religion or claim exclusive rights to their historic habitat. Power will not be confined to Colombo but shared with the periphery. All people regardless of race, religion, caste or creed will have their say and a role to play. Sri Lanka will belong to its people from Paruthithurai to Devinuwara and Mannar to Mullaitheevu.

At present this ‘vision’ seems unrealistically impossible and Utopian! In spite of the adverse politico-military environment, this is the vision that I share.‘Visionaries’ of this nature are an endangered species. They are under attack by hawks on either side of the ethnic divide. They are dubbed derisively as ‘jokers’ and ‘traitors.’ It is however this vision that will ultimately salvage Sri Lanka. Hegemonic and secessionist dreams have turned into nightmares

Sound of Concord: The call for the third option between the hegemonistic one state and secessionist two-state schools of thought is a voice of sanity and sensibility. It is presently inaudible amidst the raucous battle-cries. I, however, firmly believe that it will be heard and heard effectively one day. Sri Lanka will then be alive with the sound of concord. In the clash of ideas, it is the superior one that will triumph. Dialogue and discussion, not bloodshed and destruction, will prove to be final arbiters of our destiny. The current situation is depressing but there is certainly a light at the end of the dark tunnel.

However estranged and alienated the Tamil people may feel at present, there is no denying the fact that we are an integral part of the Sri Lankan nation. The way in which large numbers of Sri Lankan Tamils exercised their franchise at the Jan 8th poll may prove to be a new beginning. Our destiny is inter-twined with those of others living on the Island. The future lies not in pursuing unrealistic exclusive goals but in struggling together with people seeking justice and peace to forge a brave, new, inclusive nation. At the same time it is up to right-thinking members of the majority community to extend their hand of friendship in a spirit of fraternal amity towards like-minded “others”.

NEW Nation: When India gained freedom at midnight, Jawarhalal Nehru spoke of its “tryst with destiny.” India’s southern neighbour has been awaiting its true destiny for 68 years.The Sri Lankan state needs to be restructured and the Sri Lankan nation reinvented for its inevitable tryst with destiny. Sri Lanka at 68 faces the unfinished yet challenging task of building a NEW Nation!

Let me conclude with excerpts from a favour poem of mine. It is by Rev. WS Senior. Walter Stanley Senior was a scholar, pastor, teacher and poet who served in Sri Lanka for many years as Vice-Principal of Trinity College, Kandy and Vicar at Christ Church, Galle Face. Inspired by the landscape and people of the Island then called Ceylon, W.S. Senior poetically envisaged a future Sri Lanka of unity and tranquility where the races had blended and marched to a single drum.

Here are three verses from his “Call to Lanka”

“But most shall he sing of Lanka
In the bright new days that come.
When the races all have blended
And the voice of strife is dumb
When we leap to a single bugle,
March to a single drum.

March to a mighty purpose,
One man from shore to shore;
The stranger, becomes a brother,
The task of the tutor o’er,
When the ruined city rises
And the palace gleams once more.

Hark! Bard of the fateful future,
Hark! Bard of the bright to be;
A voice on the verdant mountains,
A voice by the golden sea.

Rise, child of Lanka, and answer
Thy mother hath called to thee”

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