“The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it”.
-Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
Before we examine the action and events originated by the Tamil leadership of Sri Lanka that defined and shaped the current socio-political milieu, let us look at the Sinhalese leadership have been engaged in since the turn of the Twentieth Century. Many accomplished historians such as Professors K M de Silva, G C Mendis and Jeyaratnam Wilson and social scientists of the calibre of Michael Roberts, Jayadeva Uyangoda and Dr. Dayan Jayatilleke and many others, have written books and essays and delivered talks on this subject.
The political background at the dawn of the Twentieth Century was greatly different from the one that encompasses today’s polity. Under the aegis of the British colonial powers, Ceylon and her political leadership at the time, though well-educated unlike most of those who enter politics today, was quite alien to the nuanced underpinnings of the Colonial Office of the United Kingdom Government. The emergence of eminent Tamil leaders such as the Ponnambalam brothers and later G G Ponnambalam during the Legislative and State Council era and their ready cohabitation with the leaders of the Sinhalese majority at the time and considering the prevalent socio-econo-political conditions, an exchange of ideas and policy-stances by both parties assumed more of a sophisticated and nuanced shade rather than real-life experiences of the proletariat and the middle-class of the Sinhalese and Tamils. What is even more ironic is that up to the early nineteen sixties, it was the Indian Tamil-component that comprised the largest group of minorities in Sri Lanka and not ‘Ceylon Tamils’.
On the other hand, when the whole nation was ostensibly engaged in a ‘freedom struggle’ against the governing British Raj, issues dividing the two ethnic groups took a secondary seating, so to speak. Yet, one cannot forget that the Tamil leadership at the time, especially in the last two decades of the Nineteenth Century and the first thirty years of the next Century, lent their unequivocal support to the national leadership of the country through the offices of the National Congress, the main political entity at the time. Sinhala Maha Sabha of S W R D Bandaranaike, even then carried out a mutually exclusive political campaign in that while being the first politician, even before the Tamils of the North, to propose a Federal System of government carried out a campaign of nationalistic veneer. This difference between the rhetoric and actual policies, blemished his political life and ultimately paid by his life for the dangerous game he chose to play. That is why the Tamil leadership never trusted Bandaranaike throughout his political career. The same could be said about J R Jayewardene too. While J R introduced the Sinhala only as a medium of instruction in government-owned schools, he also led the famous Kandy March against the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact in 1957. The greatest irony is that most of the chapters and clauses, the implementation of which in the Bandaranaike- Chelvanayagam Pact J R campaigned against, he himself had to concede when he signed the Jayewardene–Gandhi Agreement in 1987. Our recent history abounds in such political ironies and we lived with them in that half century or so.
Nevertheless, the response emanating from the Tamils during the last century, particularly in relation to the ‘Tamil Question’ as Kumar Ponnambalam, G G’s son termed it, was both strategic as well as tactical. Their strategic response, during the Chelvanayagam-period was slow and steady, non-violent and ‘democratic’ approach based on deal-making with successive governments. They opted to join or lend support in Parliament to whoever was in power. But, when Bandaranaike’s widow, Sirimavo Bandaranaike introduced the university quota system- the Sri Lankan version of affirmative action in reverse- the Tamil youth thought enough is enough.
The pros and cons of the university quota system were debated among academics, politicians and intelligentsia and now it’s a dead issue. But one must not be so careless to ignore the long-term ill-effects of this atrocious scheme as it paved the way for the arming of the Tamil youth and also gave them a ‘legitimate’ cause to fight the successive national governments dominated and led by the representatives of the Sinhalese majority. The thirty-year war with the Tamil terrorist groups led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) was the zenith of this struggle. The results were painful and devastating to the Tamils as the Army retreated leaving behind a distressed civil population and the wounds and scars are still fresh. The Sinhalese leadership at that time, the Rajapaksa-led Government and their cohorts, while engaging in an orgy of triumphalism and victory, completely forgot the root causes of this festering issue.
What was termed by A J Wilson in his book, ‘The Breakup of Sri Lanka’ as the concept of ‘the land, the race and the faith’ took over the psyche of the majority of Sinhalese Buddhists and what was practiced throughout our storied history between the two major ethnic groups gained legitimacy. However, that is all history. The cycle which was from Fifty-Fifty to Federalism to Eelam is now repeating. The latest call from Tamil National Alliance (TNA), as expressed the other day by its spokesperson M. A. Sumanthiran, MP that ‘a resolution seeking the re-merger of the Eastern Province with the Northern Province adopted by the TNA-led Northern Provincial Council (NPC) on Friday (April 22) could be considered by the government as well as all other political parties represented in Parliament’. He went further to say that the TNA always stood for the amalgamation of the two provinces.
The same old cycle is turning again. The TNA leadership cannot be blamed for lack of intelligent strategy; nor could they be branded as naïve and uneducated. Yet, when they come out with a demand for Federalism and re-merger of the North and the East, it looks to be bordering on an ill-timed [act of] desperation. And, considering the Tamil diaspora which did not exist at the very early times of the Tamil struggle, but buttressed by some Western governments and India now, the case gets further reinforced.
It appears that the TNA too has chosen to keep on playing the same isolationist drama. The latest version of calling for Federalism is not only ill-timed, it’s ill-thought. Thinking outside the box does not seem to appeal to our Tamil brethren. Sampanthan, the Leader of the Opposition as well as Vigneswaran, the Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council seem to be entrenched in traditional and conventional way of achieving their political objectives. Without any effort being made to combine their macro objectives for the country with those of the majority Sinhalese, nothing tangible can be achieved.
The numbers are real and in the modern world they matter. The Tamil leadership should realise that they are overwhelmed by greater numbers of the Sinhalese and hence the strength and muscle of the Sinhalese majority. That is a fact that the Tamils seem to be disregarding. By doing so, they are only prolonging the agony of their own people and strengthening the will of the Sinhalese. A strategically wiser mindset is the need of the hour.
The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org