R. Sampanthan is the Leader of the Opposition. He is also the Senior-Most Citizen of Tamil Nationalism. Some might demand that the ‘Nationalism’ descriptive is incorrect, but let’s leave it at that. It’s a new year, after all. Let’s also leave aside track records. Mr. Sampanthan has made a statement, a gracious one in fact, and as such is richly deserving in reciprocated grace.
In his New Year message as the Leader of the Opposition, Mr. Sampanthan has made an appeal to all citizens to put aside differences and build a prosperous and peaceful country. He has also predicted that 2017 would be a crucial year in the history of the country if a permanent and lasting solution to the ‘national question’ is found. He believes that a new Constitution will deliver this.
It is an important and hopeful message. If we don’t read too much into it and delve into the subtext, as contextualized by Mr. Sampanthan’s past and the past of all the Tamil political organizations he has been in or supported, directly or indirectly, it can be read as a wholesome message that rises above tired ethnocentric narratives typical of Tamil nationalists.
Mr. Sampanthan, while acknowledging ‘diversity in (our) communities’ has appealed to all the people in the country to ‘strive hard to not to let such diversity become a barrier to building a prosperous and peaceful country for (our) future generations’.
The issue is that he has pinned all this to what he calls ‘the national question’.
So what IS this ‘national question’? Which description of this much used and even over-used term are we to take in our deliberations? Are we to take one of the many versions articulated by various strains of Tamil Nationalism, then invariably we get to the autonomy theme, which in its proposed concretization, is about devolution. That however, goes against the all-embracing, rising-above-communalism tone of Mr. Sampanthan’s statement. He cannot, for example, ask people to ensure that diversity is not a barrier to forging a better nation and then restrict relevant discussions to one that calls for all non-Tamil communities to accept the Tamil nationalist (we are being generous with the terminology here) frame of reference. We must hope that this is not what he is proposing.
So, if we were to take the generous interpretation, we have to first and foremost contend with definitions and of course the underlying assumptions, claims and relevant extrapolations towards the multiplicity of preferred outcomes.
Mr Sampanthan has issued a statement. He has made an appeal. He has, at least in statement, asked people not to be fixated about their identities and relevant politics. Instead of fixing a solution and politicking towards its realization, Mr. Sampanthan’s statement implicitly calls for a reconsideration of the terms and conditions. ‘Terms’ as in terminology and ‘conditions’ as in context, history, demography, economy rationalization and of course pragmatism which takes into account the kind of violence and destruction that mindless and racist-myth-modelling produced over the past few decades.
What is the reality that supports calls for a devolution-based solution to this ‘national question’ as described by Tamil nationalists? Not much. You can’t have autonomy when almost half the community lives outside the historical homelands, so-called. You can’t, in the first instance, even talk of history when all you have is a version that is thin on fact and heavily laden with chauvinistic historiography. The reality that needs to be acknowledged, discussed, debated and, where anomalies are established, resolved, comes under the subject-heading grievances. What are these grievances? They should be spelled out. They should be shed of myth and supported by fact. Once this is done, then and then alone must ‘devolution’ even be considered. And, if indeed ‘devolution’ makes sense, then the question of boundaries needs to be discussed, considering that the relevant lines are colonial constructs which ought to have been ‘un-made’ almost 60 years ago.
Mr. Sampanthan is calling for nothing less, nothing more, I like to believe. In the spirit of the new year, let me add. Let us all support him.
Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.