Monday, February 04, 2008

Full Blown Conflict -III

Article written for The Post, Lahore

The previous sections dealt with the events as they have happened in Sri Lanka in the recent past. One would be clear that the situation in Sri Lanka is very much a civil war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) based in Kilinocchi in north east Sri Lanka and the central government in Colombo. The motivation for the conflict is the claim made by the LTTE that the Tamil population deserve an independent nation carved out of the northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government is quite clear that no carving out is possible and the united nationhood of the Sri Lankan island is not going to be compromised.

The question that would be asked first is why at all has this problem erupted between the ethnic communities in the country, even as these communities have been living together for centuries in the island? Clearly the disaffection of the Tamils with the national system has grown out of alienation and maltreatment ever since the formation of an independent Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon) from imperialist clutches. One has to understand the dynamics of ethnic troubles more thoroughly by studying both the colonial as well as the post-colonial period to answer the question of reasons for disaffection.

One thing is however clear – ethnic hatred between the communities is not a legacy of the ancient past as it is made out to be. The incompatibility of nationalism in countries with high concentrations of multiple ethnicity is a myth that has been a legacy of colonial understanding. That these myths have been used to buttress the idea of ethnic nationalism as the basis of nationhood today is a tragedy of post-colonial history. In fact, some of the biases and distinctions on ethnic basis were itself made by colonialists in Sri Lanka in the form of ethnic censuses that bracketed Tamils, Muslims and ethnic Sinhalese into boxes for bureaucratic purposes. Such a boxing in of myriad people within categories was a case in point in India too, where censuses were done on the basis of caste and religion.

It suited the colonial agenda to create these categories ostensibly to help the policy of ‘divide and rule’, as well as the fact that it reflected the imperialists’ understanding of their colonies and their people, that it was impossible for the colonised to rule themselves because of the myriad differentiations among them. Such thinking was prevalent even among the academicians. Prominent anthropologists for example maintain that primordial identity (caste, creed, religion or language) is a primary problem in the non-coalescing of a nation-state in countries such as India and obviously such logic applied to Sri Lanka as well. The fact that India has survived as a federal nation with its multiplicities of identities puts paid to such theories. The question remains why Sri Lanka has failed to emulate the Indian model effectively.

The ruling class in Sri Lanka (erstwhile Ceylon), just after the decline of the British empire, was represented by forces such as the United National Party, a right wing party leading the interests of the Lankan elite (landed gentry and business classes) that were satisfied with a dominion status under the British empire instead of complete independence. As these forces were pro-market and right wing, vast levels of disenchantment among labour (mostly plantation workers and agricultural labourers) was tried to be warded off by using means to pander to ethnic sentiments, particularly by fuelling the language divide. Widespread anger among the populace on the fact that plantations were still owned by British corporations and that there existed no national bourgeoisie representing the interests of the newly independent nation, was channelled into mobilisations on ethnic lines, due to skillful manipulation of this divide by the ruling elite. Since independence, essentially, the ruling classes pandered to Sinhala nationalism off and on, to exploit the disenchantment with the fact that the Tamils enjoyed a high share of urban government employment and had a high degree of literacy and education as compared to the much high numbers of unemployed among the ethnic Sinhalese.

The emergence of a centre-left, national bourgeois party, the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP) in the power centre did not change things drastically, as this party nurtured Sinhala nationalism even further. Under the leadership of SWRD Bandaranaike, a Sinhala Only Act was passed that laid the first seeds for the growth of a militant Tamil consolidation. This Act meant that many Tamils in the civil service, for example, were forced to quit their jobs owing to the Sinhala-only policy and ethnic lingual prejudice created a strident rift between the communities. As such therefore, the ruling parties, despite their commitment to varying economic ideologies, worked on ethnic fault lines to buttress their strengths. It is not as if there was no opposition to this opportunism. There existed a strong Leftist party, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), a Trotskyite party that envisaged equal rights for both the Tamils and the Sinhalese in a socialist Lankan republic. The party was successful in forcing the ruling elite to declare Sri Lanka as an independent republic and was able to get the foreign owned plantations nationalised. It was also involved in several trade union movements and struggles. However, the party, having compromised itself in deals with the ruling parties (particularly the SLFP) owing to the inevitable pulls of parliamentarism, gradually weakened, a process that was accentuated by the international split in the Left movement. The disenfranchisement of the Indian Tamil plantation workers was a major blow to the support base of the LSSP too.

In essence the weakening of the Left in Sri Lanka, the only major force to support a political system that accorded equal rights to the minorities, left the political arena to openly ethnic parties. The Janatha Vimuktha Peramuna, an adventurist Leftist party that tried many insurrections to get to power, also based itself on a strong Sinhala nationalism. The continuing Sinhala-only policy and the repeated incidences of extreme violence against Tamil groups saw the rapid militarisation of Tamil outfits and the birth of radical forces such as the LTTE. The deep-seated anger against such lopsided policies by the Lankan government resulted in the marginalisation of even moderate groups such as the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). The LTTE took to deadly attacks on the Sri Lankan military forces in an attempt to fuel support for the formation of a separate Tamil Eelam and these sporadic actions took the shape of a full-scale civil war since 1983. Organised pogroms in Tamil areas by the Sri Lankan government and guerrilla attacks by the LTTE marked the start of a prolonged conflict. Many Tamil militants also enjoyed support from covert agencies of the Indian government, as also from the political parties in Tamil Nadu, the south Indian state. The LTTE, through its policy of eliminating internal opposition among the various Tamil militant groups, emerged as the largest militant organisation, particularly in the Tamil dominated city in North Sri Lanka, Jaffna.

Indian intervention to broker peace between the warring sections in Sri Lanka only exacerbated the ethnic differences. While the nationalist elements in Sri Lanka were angered by the intrusion of Indian forces on Lankan soil, the Sri Lankan Tamils found the Indian interventionist action against the LTTE galling. The entire operation was thus a fiasco despite some initial gains and culminated eventually in the LTTE’s assassination of Indian leader Rajiv Gandhi, who had sent the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to Sri Lanka. The notorious assassination (just a few years after IPKF withdrawal) started the international isolation process of the LTTE.

Essentially, the story of conflict in Sri Lanka is a complex one, which involves the failure of the elite as well as the subaltern in evolving a consensual republic that based itself on respect to ethnic differences. The success of India to overcome such differences in comparison to the Lankans owe to the largely progressive character of the Indian national movement and the assertion of sovereignty fairly early after independence. Can such a consensus evolve in the future in Lanka, is the question to be answered in the next section.

(to be continued)

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