Sri Lanka will celebrate its sixty-fifth Anniversary of independence from the United Kingdom this Monday. The country then known as Ceylon obtained full freedom from the British on February 4th 1948.Completing 65 years is significant as it is the age denoting “Seniority” in most Western nations. By that yardstick Sri Lanka becomes a senior nation on independence day.
Independent Sri Lanka or Ceylon has faced many challenges and problems in the past 65 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!
The separatist war waged by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is now over and the country has been unified militarily but whether the nation has been united politically remains an unanswered question.
Sri Lanka – an island and an archipelago
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 this polyphony of voices can ever be blended into a harmonious symphony.
The vision and call of people like the British missionary Rev. W. S. Senior sounds in the present context as an unrealistic voice in the wilderness. 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”
Would it be a distant dream
Against the current nightmare of vocal warriors from sparring ethnicities in the Pearl of the Indian ocean, the Bard of Lanka’s yearning for a time when the voice of strife is dumb does seem a distant dream.
Notwithstanding optimistic assertions by those in power the stark reality today is that of the Sri Lankan Tamil people being alienated from the State and estranged from mainstream consciousness. Triumphalist euphoria on the one hand and embittered hostility on the other! The distance between the Sinhala and Tamil solitudes is widening.
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.
Independence Day is to be officially observed in Trincomalee this year. For any people free of colonial bondage this would be a day of joy and happiness. But that is not so for the Tamils of Sri Lanka right now. Even as the free nation gears up for celebrations the Tamils are not part of this festivity emotionally and spiritually. They are disallowed even to sing the national anthem in Tamil at a national event.
Many Tamil people whether in Sri Lanka or abroad are generally in a sullen, morose and gloomy mood. The future seems bleak and dreary. This despondency is not one which envelopes sympathisers and supporters of the LTTE alone. It is prevalent more widely, regardless of political affiliation.
The forgotten pioneers
What is so sad about this situation is the now forgotten pioneering role played by Tamils in the quest for Independence.
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 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 had 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.
Was it the majoritarian mindset?
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.
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 led 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 the others out in the cold. It is a case of ‘Maha Jathiyata Kiri, Sulu Jathiwalata Kekiri.’ (cream for the majority, bitterfruit for the minorities)
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 that 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.
Ceylon was a colonial creation
The idea of Ceylon was a colonial construct. The British unified the country into a single administration. Sri Lanka was not the only one 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 within pre-independence boundaries.
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 do 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 has been majoritarian hegemony. Majority rule is a democratic principle. Here it has been interpreted as the majority of the numerically largest ethnicity.
Resisting through struggles
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.
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 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 and referred to the Northern and Eastern Provinces 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.
Secessionism that resulted in violence
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 asymmetric power equation
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.
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. There is a powerful Sinhala dominated government in Colombo and the disempowered Tamils have no means to influence it. The LTTE by its actions has caused irredeemable harm to the Tamil people.
What is troubling in this situation is the inability and unwillingness of sections of the Tamil people to comprehend the ramifications of their predicament.
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.
The once proud Tamils of Lanka are now disconnected
In short, what we witness 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 the 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 and resurrect themselves from the ashes?
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”.
A sensible approach to the need of the hour
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 realisng it.
This inability or unwillingness to recognise 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.
A clashing of ideas
Broadly, three schools of thought have been clashing, namely hegemonism, secessionism and pluralism.
The Sinhala hardliners want Sinhala-Buddhist domination and see this country as theirs alone, excluding or reducing others 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.
The vision for a united Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka will belong to its people from Paruthithurai to Devinuwara and Mannar to Mullaithivu. 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.
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.
The Tamil people are destined to be part of this nation
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. Our destiny is inter-twined with those of others living on the Island. The future lies not in pursuing unrealistic separatist goals but in struggling together with people seeking justice and peace to forge a brave, new, inclusive nation.
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”.
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 65 years.
The Sri Lankan state needs to be restructured and the Sri Lankan nation reinvented for its inevitable tryst with destiny. Sri Lanka at 65 faces the unfinished yet challenging task of building a NEW nation!
Let me conclude with a poem that is one of my favourites. It is from “Gitanjali” by Rabindranath Tagore.
“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic wars;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action-
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake”.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org