Thursday, February 28, 2008

Tamils must ask for what is reasonable and accept their role in the conflict

An answer to Satheesan Kumaran
by S. Rasalingam

One of the important, and valid messages contained in Satheesan Kumaran's message, published in the Midweek review if The Island of 20th February is that we need bridge-building among the different communities. But he observes it in the breach.

Hurling accusations does not help. He claims, "The ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka between the Sinhalese and Tamil-speaking has been a creation by the Sinhala leaders". Then Kumaran proceeds to attack Theravada Buddhism, and gives advice to Buddhist monks. He says "Irresponsible words of politicians in Colombo will only add fuel to the flames of destruction engulfing Sri Lanka politically, economically, militarily, culturally and socially, rather than educate communities on the importance of co-existence." He goes onto claim "what Sri Lankan politicians really want is to create a society of voiceless citizens remote-controlled by a bunch of politicians."

Surely, such voiceless citizens already live in the Vanni and how did that come about? We Tamils have not understood how we dug our own graves.

Kumaran says, "A national consensus can only be achieved when the Sinhalese embrace the minorities and win their hearts and minds". Here again it seems that only the Sinhalese have to act. Don't we Tamils have to also act to reassure the majority?

As an aging Tamil who has observed Tamil-Sinhala politics since the 1940s, I cringe to see the continued repetition of simplified and historically incorrect hurling of accusation, even by a man who recognizes the need for building bridges between communities. People of Kumaran's generation do not know that politicians like D. S. Senanayake (DS) tried to create a "Ceylonese" nation.

Much false propaganda has been generated and good men like DS have been besmirched. People like Ponnambalam Ramanathan, in collusion with Governor Maitland introduced the principle of "communal representation" in the legislative process. Some Sinhala leaders rejected this ("Ramanathan's deception"), and then came the Donoughmore commission which proposed Universal Franchise.

Surely, it was a defining moment when the Colombo Tamil leaders decided that their dominant position would be threatened, unless they separated themselves from the Sinhalese, and call for a separate identity. G. G. Ponnambalam (GGP) in the State Council in 1934 declared that he was "a proud Dravidian" and rejected the "Ceylonese" concept of a polity of a single people. Natesan and others followed suit, as a reading of the political history of the times will reveal. Ponnambalam lent his voice to a movement which began to attack Sinhala Buddhists, and the Mahavamsa, their famed historical chronicle. Should I remind Mr. Kumaran that the first Sinhala-Tamil Riot occurred in 1939, in Navalapitiya, and spread to Passara, Maskeliya and to many other towns, when the Colonial government stepped in and stamped it out?

The riot was sparked by the inflammatory racist speech of GGP in Navalapitiya, attacking the Sinhala Buddhists and the Mahavamsa (see The Hindu Organ, June 1, 1939 and other newspapers of the time). It was then that S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike (SWRD) saw an opportunity, and went to every one of the cities touched by the riots, and established branches of the Sinhala Maha Sabha (see The Hindu Organ, June 19, 1939). It was in this extremely heated atmosphere that GGP developed his fifty-fifty solution as a means of safeguarding the dominant position of the Tamils. Far from bridging the gap between the communities, every action of GGP was designed to drive this "difference" between the Tamils - descendants of the Dravidians, and the Sinhalese, a "hybrid mongrel race split of from the aboriginal Tamils and mixed with Aryan invaders" (as stated by GGP in Navalapitiya in 1939).

The racism of the GGP et al was matched by the SWRD group. It would seem that SWRD the feudal aristocrat, and GGP the caste-conscious Catholic lawyer, were both power-hungry manipulators of the people for further their own interests. The elder statesmen of the times, i.e., Baron Jayatilleke, D. S. Senanayake (DS), Mahadeva etc. charted a reasonably non-communalist line.

DS in particular realized that public confrontations would be a grave obstacles to independence and bridge-building between the communities. When the Soulbury commission arrived, Senanayake managed to get the "Young Turks" like SWRD and others not to appear before Soulbury, and imposed a formal boycott while making room for informal contacts. GGP however appeared before the Soulbury commission and whenever possible for three months, claiming that the Tamils were being discriminated against in jobs, education, health, colonization settlements, etc. He even objected to the declaration of Anuradhapura as an archaeological conservation area as an act of discrimination. The Soulbury Commissioners rejected virtually all of GGP's claims as being without foundation. It rejected the 50-50 demand, i.e., equal number of seats to the 12% Tamils and 75% Sinhalese as an attempt to subvert democracy.

The Sinhala leaders refrained from public confrontation with GGP during the Soulbury period, and this led to a sense of healing between the communities. The state council approved the Soulbury proposals overwhelmingly. GGP leading the Tamil Congress(TC), as well as SWRD and other Sinhala nationalists joined the DS cabinet which believed in the "ceylonese" concept (see Senanayake's Acceptance Speech in the Hansard 1947).

Meanwhile, dark clouds were gathering. The ultra-nationalist Tamil wing led by S. J. V. Chelvanayakam (SJV) was not happy. They grumbled about GGP's approach, and proposed that instead of 50-50, the Tamils must pursue the "Two-Nation" concept, where the Tamils are equal to, and distinct from the Sinhalese. SJV said that Tamils should pursue their separate destiny. The opportunity to break from GGP arose with the Indian Citizenship Act. Most Ceylonese leaders and the Colonial government had become worried that the Indian Tamil workers and the Estate sector would fall into the hands of the Marxists who had began militant agitations. The new citizenship act required that only persons with seven years of residency could become citizens and vote in elections, thus eliminating transients. GGP and most other Tamils voted for it. But SJV declared that GGP was a "traitor" to the Tamil cause and used the moment to create the Tamil Arasu Kachchi. SJV contended that the Citizenship Act violated minority rights, and challenged it, and the government, in the courts, and in the Privy Council in London. The unequivocal judgments were that there has been no discrimination before or after the Act, and that the citizenship requirements were as reasonable as in the most liberal European states at the time.

Nevertheless, the Arasu Kachchi kept on agitating, determined to drive a wedge between the two communities, i.e., even among the anglicized Colombo citizens. I have attended meetings in Jaffna where the Arasu Kachchi talked of a separate Tamil nation, while in Colombo they sounded moderate and talked of federalism. A golden opportunity for the Arasu Kachchi arrived with the election of SWRD as PM. SWRD was a politician who recognized the rights of minorities, and an accommodation could have been easily reached with him. But the Arasu Kachchi's public position in Jaffna was well known to the Sinhala nationalists who had deep distrust of SJV, E.M.V. Naganathan and others. If there is no trust, there can be no political Pact.

It is easy to blame the "Buddhist monks" for the failure of the Banda- Chelva Pact. But what did this Banda-Chelva Pact ask for? It asked for Tamil administrative regions in the North and East. At that time, just as today, the East involved Muslims and Sinhalese and Tamils. The Muslims opposed the Banda-Chelva Pact. The Sinhalese in the East opposed the B-C pact. The Arasu Kachchi had done NOTHING to build bridges between the two communities and win their confidence. Instead, they used every opportunity to confront the Singhalese. Ponnambalam and the TC also opposed the B-C Pact.

The B-C pact was NOT based on discrimination. It was based on the "Homeland Concept". It asked for the same 2/3 coastal area and land area as a "homeland" for the Tamils (12% of the population) that the LTTE today is asking for. If the Arasu Kachchi had only asked for the Northern province and if its leaders had reassured the Sinhalese and Muslims, the B-C Pact would have had some chance of survival.

If the proposed B-C pact had actually got enacted, the Sinhala nationalists would have demanded the Tamils living in Weallawatai and Kottachenai to leave. The 1983 Black July would have happened decades earlier.

I have began from the Donoughmore Era and reviewed the history to indicate to young people like Satheesan Kumaran that the story is not black and white, with the Sinhalese doing all the bad things and "creating the ethnic divide", while the Tamils meekly performed "satyagraha" to win their rights both sides have been at fault.

The Tamils in the Vanni and other areas are not like their caste conscious counterparts in, whose only desire has been to retain their political power, and rule the North as absent landlords. The Vanni Tamils ("Malabars" in the language of the 1815 Kandyan Treaty, and also in Cleghorn's report to the Colonial office), like the Singhalese, have a lot in common as our religion, social organization and language are very similar to that of the Sinhalese people. Although GGP and SJV attempted to emphasize differences, these are the same stock of people with mere superficial differences.

The LTTE is a creation of the elitist Colombo Tamils who decided to use the lower caste "boys" in far-flung areas to promote their misguided political struggle making our children mere cannon fodder. Meanwhile, their children, kith and kin have gone abroad and continue to finance a psychopath who has eliminated out teachers, our kurukals, writers, journalists, political leaders and thinkers, so as to create a subservient society toeing his line with no questions asked, in the name of Eelam.

So, Kumaran what is there to be negotiated?

Kumaran is proposing conflict resolution via negotiations. As Anton Balasingham once stated, "Only the borders remain to be negotiated". It should not be forgotten that the Arasu Kachchi, while talking of Gandhian methods, secretly supported the creation of young militant groups. SJV personally met and worked with Sivakumaran, who was the first to commit suicide by swallowing cyanide.

I am sorry to say that the Tamil leaders of the 1930s, and then the ultra-nationalist activism of the SJV platform have been largely responsible for the plight of the Tamils today. Blaming the Sinhalese for all our ills won’t do. We need to soften our acrimonious uncompromising stand.


  1. I do not see, how this article help to bridge the gaps in our community.

    We have travelled too far apart to bridge any gap. This is the fact and current reality.

  2. The article wasn't meant to bridge gaps. It was merely giving us a lesson in history. Bridging gaps this far along in to the conflict requires selfless compromise. Moderate Tamils have been murdered by the thug in Wanni, and moderate Singhalese have been silenced by the thug at temple trees. Who is going to save this nation and it's people? We need a binding force to bring us all together. A benevolent dictator, perhaps?