Imagining A Muslim Eelam, As An Election Buffer?

By N Sathiya Moorthy

dummies2The recent demand of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) for a separate administrative unit comprising the community-majority areas may have been lost in the combined Opposition cacophony over the abolition of the Executive Presidency for one more time. Yet, the subsequent parliamentary reference to the Muslim demand may be as mischievous in intent as it could be substantial in content and contribution to the fate of the presidential polls, whenever held.

The Muslim demand, shared by some other sections of the divided community polity, is not new. It’s as much political in nature as any other, particularly in election time. In election-time, it’s a talking-point for the competitive political leaderships of the community. The recent Bodu Bala Sena’s (BBS) attacks on the Muslims physically, politically and ideologically have added a new dimension that the community’s social and political leaderships are trying to grabble with.  It’s here the parliamentary mention makes a difference, an addition.

That a relatively liberal member of the nation’s most liberal of the majority Sinhala-Buddhist political parties should cause a debate on the Muslim demands cannot be overlooked. UNP member Wijedasa Rajapakshe comparing the SLMC demand to the separatist Tamil Eelam demand, over which the nation ended up going to war with itself, should be a much greater cause for concern.

By endorsing a political rival’s views on the subject, ruling SLFP-UPFA Prime Minister D M Jayaratne may have only made things that much more difficult. Was it also a reflection on the existing and re-emerging post-war Sinhala-Buddhist majority political view as possibly different from a majoritarian Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist view for other ethnicities and communities to subsume their identities and aspirations social, economic and political in that of the majority community and its divided polity?

 

Impetus, catalyst

The emergence of the left-leaning SLFP in the early Fifties out of the nation’s umbrella-like Independence era GoP in the UNP was inevitable. So may have been the ease with which the SLFP absorbed the nation’s traditional left with a combination of socialist economic ideologies without having to scratch the surface of the social segmentation and stratification in the Sinhala majority.

The forced Statelessness of the Upcountry Tamil community/ethnicity of relatively recent Indian origin may have provided an impetus in one way to the SLFP process. The quickening of the process in turn proved to be the catalyst for further political stratification, this time based on socio-economic stratification of the majority Sinhala-Buddhist community.

It was thus that the birth the JVP was again an inevitable product of this possibly unintended yet carefully cultured social non-stratification. The accompanying militancy became the only tool by which the majority and majoritarian sections of the Sinhala-Buddhist elite class/castes could be made to hear the rot from the bottom.

In all this, the inherent Sinhala-Buddhist distinctions got dovetailed in the upper caste Govigamas making up a majority of the community. It was/is unique in the South Asian context of socio-political structure and stratification. It has remained so, and gets often reiterated, through elections at all levels.

The post-war presidential polls of 2010 were no different. That way, the emergence of pan-Tamil politics and the inevitable separation of Muslims from the shared leaderships of the Tamil-speaking people and the breaking up of the artificiality of the North-East Tamil cohesion and collaboration too were all written into the scripts.

If SVJ, Prabhakaran, Karuna among the SLT Tamils, and Ashraff, Rauff Hakeem and Rishad Baithudeen were not born in their times, they would have been invented. So would it have been in the case of SWRD and JRJ, Ranasinghe Premadasa and Mahinda Rajapaksa, Rohana Wijeweera and now Gnanasara Thero from among the Sinhala-Buddhist polity.

 

Timely deflection

Tamil militancy and terrorism of the LTTE kind targeting the Sinhala-Buddhist community and their symbols as much as the Sri Lankan State and its institutions may have provided the much-needed and even more timely deflection from the internal combustion that the Sinhala-Buddhist society and polity was subjecting itself to. It would have to happen in a head-count based western democratic inheritance.

The ethnic issue, war and violence checked against the further socio-economic stratification of the Sinhala-Buddhist majority. If anything, it even reversed the trend. So much so, Sinhala nationalism came to be equated with Sri Lankan nationalism. Both together regained the ground lost to State-driven socio-economic initiatives that the post-Independence State had initiated in an each-one-vote-one democratic process.

With the social structure of the Big Two political parties of the majority Sinhala-Buddhist community remaining unchanged and the respective leaderships too ensuring as much the ethnic issue could not have but become competitive. That includes the alternate Tamil-friendly posturing of the UNP and the SLFP when out of power, and their overly pro-Sinhala nationalist positions while back in elected office.

The first move was to try and capture power, with the Sri Lanka Tamil (SLT), the Muslim and the Upcountry Tamil communities/ethnicities expected to provide the victory margin after the Big Two had divided the majority Sinhala vote half-way mark. The 2005 presidential polls might have proved the point though only up to a point. The subsequent 2010 proved it too, but differently.

 

Guided democracy

Whatever that be, the ideologically-driven JVP could not side-step the Sinhala-Buddhist national-cum-nationalist agenda of sorts, nurtured (if not wantonly set) by the Big Two. That way, Sri Lanka has remained a two-party, guided democracy in the theoretical western mode, but without the constantly modified and moderated western format.

Nearer home instead, more of religious nationalism and less of economic idealism meant that the likes of Jathika Hela Uramaya (JHU) could not but be born and flourish – at least up to the point where they got absorbed into the mainstream, in ways dictated by the rest than the self. The birth and prominence now attaching to the BBS is an inevitable corollary, naturally following the war’s end.

In a way, the BBS is the centre-right counterpart of the centre-left JVP in the latter’s pre-mainstreaming avtars. The question is whether the BBS’ current threat that it would contest the presidential polls on its own would fructify should worry the mainline Sinhala-Buddhist polity, now including the mainstreamed JVP and more so, the JHU.

The JHU may be the BBS’ natural politico-electoral competitor and threat. But the rest of them all cannot risk the BBS contesting the polls, either. Five full years after the victorious end to LTTE terrorism, war and violence, there is no knowing which way would the Sinhala-Buddhist electoral wind blow, now and possibly from now on.

 

Game-changers

The revived, pre-poll discourse on the abolition of Executive Presidency has its pluses and minuses. Independent of the issues involved, it has the potential to bring together different parties with diversified socio-political ideologies on the same plane. On the minus side, it continues to appeal to the urban middle class, who are status quoists as far as their political loyalties go and not game-changers any more.

The game-changers live in the periphery, both in geographical and political terms. But they matter, and they alone matter after a time. While the abolition of Executive Presidency as an election issue may still have some appeal for the SLT, Upcountry Tamil and Muslim political leaderships, it does not address the core concerns of individual communities, for the respective polities to hang onto.

Economy as an electoral agenda particularly in terms of price-rise, inflation, and corruption as a cause for them both is appealing to the voter. But it has the power only to divide the political Opposition, not unite it. The UNP and the JVP cannot be seen as working together. So possibly could Sarath Fonseka’s Democratic Alliance and the UNP. The Opposition’s hopes of wooing the traditional Left and possibly sections of the old SLFP too could suffer for the same reason.

Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism as the electoral issue instead has the inherent potential to divide the majority community’s votes. He or she who needs to win the presidential polls, whenever held, on the strength of a collective Opposition and a common agenda based on the abolition of Executive Presidency, would still need his or her share of the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist votes.

 

Not one vote more

It’s not without reason. In post-war 2010, TNA-led majority section the SLT voters gave Sarath Fonseka, the common Opposition candidate, nearly double the number of votes in the presidential election than they gave the party’s Tamil nominees the parliamentary polls only three months later. Yet, Fonseka could not win.

Fonseka’s Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist credentials as the victorious army commander from the conclusive Eelam War IV did not bring in one vote more than the sum of the total number of committed voters of the parties supporting him. There is nothing to assume that things may be different, if the election issue moves away from Executive Presidency to Sinhala nationalism, equated with the larger Sri Lankan nationalism.

Muslims may now be the target, yes, and so could be their legitimate aspirations and consequent demands. But they need to clarify. Having sought a seat alongside the LTTE – the latter having been acknowledged as the sole representative of the SLT community and polity and obtained it too, in the war-time negotiations with the Government, the Muslims’ current global confusion is being exploited by friends and critics alike.

 

Chicken-and-egg question

In the immediate Sri Lankan context, they need to define what they mean by demanding a separate administrative unit. Having started off on India’s Pondicherry model of enclave-based provincial set-up spread across the country, they have also been talking about a separate revenue district, from time to time. It’s a chicken and egg situation in the eyes of suspects in the Sinhala-Buddhist polity and the Sri Lankan State.

Having now pointed out how the entire administration of Muslim-majority Ampara district is being run by Sinhalese, who do not know the local lingua, namely, Tamil, the community leadership should now clarify if they would be satisfied with the appointment of Tamil-speaking officials, instead (whether it’s Sinhala, SLT, Upcountry or Muslim). For the incorrigible critics of the community and its polity, and also sections of the Sri Lankan State, it could be akin to the SLT demand for police powers.

In the case of police powers, the legitimate needs of the larger population would have been met by the appointment of Tamil-speaking policemen of any of the four ethnicities but would not satisfy the Tamil nationalist polity. That even that’s not being done as promised from time to time, especially after the war’s end, is another point that keeps hurting and deepening the wound!

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the mutli-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email: sathiyam54@gmail.com)