Saturday, February 09, 2008

Full Blown Conflict -IV

Final part of the Series on Sri Lanka from The Post

Civil wars, especially those arising cantankerously from ethnic divides, create impasses from which the process of extricating peace is the most difficult. The Sri Lankan problem involving the ethnic Sinhalese and minority Tamils is not a one-off case without precedent or parallel in the world. Kurds spread across Turkey and Iraq have fought for an independent Kurdistan; Basques in Spain speaking Euskadi have demanded a separate Basque state carved out of Spain and France; the Portuguese speaking East Timorese achieved independence after a protracted and bloody phase in a fight for independence; and the intra-tribal rivalries that has engulfed Africa are legion.

The formation of a nation is to be determined not merely on the basis of simple identity demarcation, but through the lens of imagination of the constituent masses. In other words, the question to be asked is whether the Sri Lankan Tamils and the Sinhalese have a common imagination of their histories and shared interests within a geographical limit. The presence of substantial intermingling among these communities despite linguistic differences and shared common interests in the form of common professions mean that there indeed is a shared history for the ethnic Sinhalese and the ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka. It is definitely true that there are regions where ethnicities predominate in their numbers; as in the East and the North that are dominated by the Tamils and the inner parts of the island as well as the south that are constituted mainly of the Sinhalese. But there is also a wide scattering of other minorities as well as the intermingling of either community.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) claims a separate nation out of the north and the east on the basis of the incompatibility of the Tamils in a Sri Lankan nation dominated by the Sinhalese. LTTE chief Prabhakaran makes this evocative statement to his followers often that a homeland for the Tamils, which co-exists with a Sinhala state, is due. Central to the argument is that the LTTE imagines a Tamil nation distinct culturally and ethnically from that of the existing Sri Lankan state. The behaviour of the LTTE in negotiations over the past few years has tended to emphasise that they are the sole representatives of not just the Tamil community, but a de facto Tamil state, dealing with the Sri Lankan government. Tamil nationalism for the LTTE is no longer about ‘sharing the Sri Lankan state pie’, but carving a new pie for the community. The LTTE envisages the Eelam to be the homeland of Sri Lankan Tamils in the island and demarcates the geography to cover the north and the east parts of the country. These areas are also home to Muslims who are uncomfortable with the narrow Tamil nationalism and who have been at the receiving end of governance in areas controlled by the LTTE.

Therefore, as such there exists three forms of nationalism in the conflict: Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim. The substantial Muslim population in the east and the north have been lukewarm to the separatist struggle of the Tamils and this lack of enthusiasm has even gone on to take the form of hostility, particularly towards the LTTE. Essentially, the LTTE project of a separate territorial nation-state for the Tamils is hindered by this emphasis on a narrow linguistic nationalism that does not accord the space to minorities such as the Muslims. More or less, this nationalism suffers from the same majoritarian impulses that created enough grievances for the Tamil community to estrange itself substantially from the Sinhala-dominated Sri Lankan political system.

Added to this is the question of how would the Tamil plantation workers (migrants from India in the 20th century) fit within the scheme of Eelam. These workers, based in interior and mainland Sri Lanka, have won political and economic rights after years of trade union struggle represented by the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) whose deceased leader S. Thondaman is regarded as one of the strongest working class leaders in the country. This section of the Tamils has participated in the political processes of the Sri Lankan state and has not acceded to the principle of separatism for all Sri Lankan Tamils. Again this means that the narrow Tamil nationalism project envisaged by the likes of the LTTE for an Eelam would not include the Tamils of recent Indian origin, thereby complicating the claims for statehood for all Tamils in Sri Lanka.

Again, it is essentially clear that basing the idea of a new Tamil nation merely on ‘ethnic nationalism’ obscures the real problem in Sri Lanka: the absence of a legitimate civic nationalism that accords a sharing principle to all minorities and is not tied to the interests of the majority. Added to this problem is the fact that there exists a federal state for the Tamils in India in the north. Despite initial demands for an independent ‘Dravida-nadu’ in the early 1950s, the integration of Tamils within India under the principle of linguistic reorganisation of units (states) in a federal union is complete. The Tamilian identity is sufficiently subsumed and integrated within a civic Indian identity. The Tamilians have been successful in instituting their native tongue as one of the nationally official languages and the federal system of governance has ensured that Tamils have equal rights as much as any other linguistic group within the nation. The Indian government is very chary, therefore, about the prospect of an independent Eelam carved out of Sri Lanka based on linguistic ethnic nationalism.

In essence, this author repudiates the fact that the Tamils in Sri Lanka are better off with their own nation-state. The very basis of this nation-state is the same rationale that drove the ethnic conflict in the first place: chauvinist nationalism that was and is still being espoused by many sections of the Sinhala majority. It is, therefore, imperative that the political centre in Sri Lanka makes all efforts to ensure federal rights for the minority Tamils and provide them with large doses of autonomy in several aspects of governance to assure a “shared political future” (as analyst Jayadeva Uyangoda points out). In other words, the plurality of the Sri Lankan state must not only be token, but be real, vibrant and inclusive.

The trouble is to incorporate this rationale in the current political miasma that Sri Lanka is in. As seen in the preceding sections, both the sides in the conflict have now taken intractable positions and hardened military stances ruling out the possibility of reasoned opinion pointing toward a solution to the conflict on the lines argued above. The civil war that has re-erupted with increased hostilities (bombings by the government, guerrilla attacks by the LTTE) has dashed all hopes for a protracted political solution. The government is being naïve in assuming that the LTTE can be destroyed militarily and then peace can be established followed by a political settlement, without considering the psychological impact on the Tamils of the military process. With the absence of a realisation of an inclusive nationalism that does not peter down to a ‘unitary’ state among the Sinhala polity, it is impossible to create an environment for a lasting settlement, even if the LTTE is demolished completely.

The LTTE on the other hand holds on quixotically to a one-point agenda of complete secession, trying to rely upon eventual international sympathy to their project. The political praxis adopted by the LTTE (suicide bombings, terror attacks, political assassinations) is not going to allot it any legitimacy in an increasingly terror-weary international political order. This organisation must give up its irrational emphasis on a one-point agenda and return to talks and ceasefire and agree to a political settlement by involving other sections of the Tamil polity as well. The LTTE can use the internal differences among the Sinhala polity to argue for a civic, shared and integrated nationhood as a first priority and it could take a leaf from the book of the political methods used of late in Nepal by the ex-insurgent Maoists.

To the extent of pushing the Lankan government to stop the military attacks and assure a federal settlement, convincing the Tamil representatives to eschew rebel violence, the international community, especially India can play a pressure group/facilitating role. For the sake of humanity in Sri Lanka and in South Asia, one hopes that such a culmination takes place sooner rather than later.


1 comment:

Prakash said...

Dear senior ,

Am now in a process of writing the series of incidents happened in lanka which led to this cantankerous ethnic divide , am going to give my entire work to you first . It will take days , but please do give your response.