Contextualising ‘ethnicity’, revisiting ‘ethnic issue’

2 April 2012 05:59 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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It does not require an academic discourse to conclude that ‘ethnicity’ in the minority context does not stop with the ‘Sri Lankan Tamils’ (SLT). The voiceless Upcountry Tamils (UT) still feel marginalised at near-subsistence levels. At the turn of Independence when they needed the rights-conscious SLT the most, the latter joined hands with the ‘majoritarian Sinhala-Buddhist polity’ to render the UT Stateless and disenfranchised. Post-war, the subterranean restlessness of their youth is not matched by the imagination and reach of their divided political leadership.
The LTTE’s elimination of Tamil-speaking Muslims as part of the non-UT minority has left the community clueless, since. Post-war, the TNA, claiming near-sole representative status for the SLT, has not engaged the divided Muslim polity to revive the pre-’90 spirit. The UT polity is still out of bounds for them. In ethnic terms, it is a revulsion born out of social exclusion, not just marginalisation. For historic reasons, often confused with personal egos and primordial ambitions of individual leaders and factions, the UT and Muslims have sought to identify with the Sinhala party in power.
This has evolved into the Sri Lankan State’s duty to protect their interests. For this reason alone, ethnic discourse in present-day Sri Lanka has to be broad-based. Post-90, if the over-reaching Sri Lankan State protection is not available to them in their perception, the Muslims expect political preservation provisions in the Constitution similar to the offer to the Tamils. The Upcountry Tamils’ aspirations are still primary yet the execution mechanisms available to them in the light of the JVP-LTTE experience in the future should not be under-scored.
Census-2011, whose final figures should be known in a few months, has the potential to change the figures and patterns to the detriment of the SLT. So will be the number of elected SLT representatives, following consequent de-limitation. To facilitate SLT re-integration, their anticipation flowing from low figures caused by war and external migration over the years unrelated at times to the war needs to be satisfactorily addressed. The choice is between guaranteeing State protection and justifying any continuing challenge to the State.
Guaranteed State protection was perceived to have been lost when the First Republican Constitution removed Section 29 (2) (b) of the Soulbury formulation in 1972. The simultaneous adoption of a ‘unitary State model’ may have had more to do with the previous year’s ‘First JVP insurgency’ than the ‘ethnic issue’. In today’s world, the ‘standardisation scheme’ (1971) and possibly the ‘Sinhala Only’ law (1956) may have been acclaimed as ‘affirmative action’ to make the nation-State more inclusive. At the hands of the affected people, they became majoritarian tools. The accompanying anti-Tamil violence lent credence to the formulation.
In the post-war Tamil context, development substituting for devolution need not be majoritarian, either. The results may be contestable, but in political terms, it had worked in post-insurgency JVP heartland. The JVP losing its class-based identity after hijacking it from the traditional Left that in turn had diluted the cause in the Fifties, and upholding  a ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist’ agenda did not gel with the aspirations of the masses that had expected more from them. The disavowal of inclusive political participation by post-insurgency JVP, barring exceptions, has contributed to their marginalisation on both counts.
There was no justification for ‘Pogrom-83’. It flowed from the LTTE’s elimination of an army convoy that had had consequences of its own on the State. It suited everyone to pass it off as ‘majoritarian violence’. A top man behind the mobsters and the massacre was not a Buddhist, though a Sinhala. Condescending middle class mind-set of the entrenched SLT and competitive trade practices were other factors. The failure of the Sri Lankan Government to interfere in time and the Sri Lankan State to intercede effectively caused the problem to balloon further. 
It is no justification. Yet the ‘ethnic issue’ has thrived on the sense of insecurity of the Sri Lankan State structure. Only years after Pogrom-83, The State authorised the butchery of the Sinhala-JVP militants of either gender in their reproductive age-group and numbering 50,000-plus, almost at one-go (1987-89), by the Sri Lankan armed forces flowed from this insecurity. Competitive Sinhala politics than majoritarian Sinhala-Buddhist mind-set, Tamil ultra-nationalism, war and violence fed it, too. For reasons of fast identification with the past, post-insurgency JVP has not complained.
Personal equations of the times also propped it all. It was not always ethnic. Most times, it was personal. Acceptance of S W R D Bandaranaike as UNP Prime Minister (1951) and S J V Chelvanayagam as a part of the inner-core of dominant Jaffna Tamil polity  (1948-51) may have -- just may have -- re-written post-Independence history. JRJ had Sirimavo disenfranchised and Parliament’s term extended, to feel more secure and less vulnerable -- the right men at the wrong place or vice versa. Ethnicity, incidental to the discourse otherwise, became the bug-bear, the cover.
The TNA’s demand for Police and Land powers, among others, has universal appeal and relevance in contemporary Sri Lanka. They are the wrong people to argue the case. They will neither co-opt others, nor let others speak for them. It is politics again, but majoritarian-centric justification would be on offer. Post-war, the Sri Lankan State’s concerns on police powers too are real. Yet, the Government is meandering without being forthright for solutions to be found.
Ethnicity in Sri Lanka today is predicated by language (SLT), religion (Muslims), social status (UT), and dis-interest (Burghers). A lasting solution cannot be denomination-centric as has been attempted in the past. It has to be all-inclusive, with socio-economic development making common cause with power-devolution (as the forgotten JVP insurgencies would indicate). There is much more to it than SLT, and Police Powers -- and they are and unenforced part of the Constitution, on which a mandamus writ could still exist.
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