By Rev. S.J. Emmanuel –
1. Tamils steadfast in preserving their identity
Just as the Singhalese have a claim of historical origin on this island, the Tamils too have such a claim. No historian has dared to prove that there were no Tamils on this island before two thousand years. Historically there were Tamils inhabiting the North and East of the island for many centuries and there were Tamil Kings too ruling up to colonial times.
The vast opening to the sea enabled all living on the coastal areas to take to fishing as their livelihood. Those inhabiting the interior, though handicapped by the absence of any river and less rainfall than the South, were industrious farmers – landlords and labourers. Hinduism as the religion of the people influenced social and cultural life. Caste system of social degradation was strengthened by the religious belief of Karma and rebirth as well as by the economic dependence of the less fortunate on the more fortunate landowners. Social structure and governance was pyramidal with the royalty and the rich at the apex and the others down at the base.
With the advent of colonialism social and religious life also underwent some changes. The Portuguese made converts to Roman Catholicism while the Dutch, who came later converted Hindus and Catholics to their Dutch Reformed Church. Both the Portuguese and the Dutch did not make any meaningful changes with regard to the structures of governance. Even the British attempted their major change in the form of governance only after conquering the last Kingdom of Kandy (1815) and bringing the whole country under one centralised administration in Colombo.
During the British administration, some Tamils of the arid zones of the Northeast moved to the South, especially to the capital Colombo, in search of employment. A few Singhalese moved to the Northeast to establish some businesses. Although Sinhala and Tamil elites and businessmen lived adjacently for many years in Colombo and its environs, there was hardly any ethnic or cultural fusion between them. Each racial group kept strictly to its religious cultural and social identities. Only the Christians who were either Singhalese or Tamils mixed a little more at religious and social functions. This distinction is destined to stay as observed by a British historian who said „even after thousands of years, these two races kept up their racial and cultural identities“.
2. G. G. Ponnambalam, Father of Tamil Consciousness
On the eve of Independence from the British there were genuine fears among the Tamil leaders about a Sinhala domination of the minorities within a single nation. Mr. G. G. Ponnambalam, founder-president of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress, fought single-handed and very courageously with the British to safeguard the interests of the Tamils against Sinhala domination. Tamils cannot forget his historic contribution to raising the Tamil consciousness. Prof. A. J. Wilson, a son-in-law of Mr. S. J. V. Chelvanayagam, sums it up by saying: “He raised the consciousness of the Tamils to the point where they abandoned their sense of national awareness within an all-island polity and began thinking of themselves as having an altogether separate national identity..“ (Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism,p.80).
The Sinhala leaders appealed to the Tamil leaders not to make difficulties for the hand over of power from the colonials. They promised to the Tamil leaders that their rights will be safeguarded. And the British who knew well the deep differences between the two peoples made their historic “Blunder“ of leaving the minorities at the mercies of the majority. And the Sinhala majoritarian democracy, without any qualm of conscience, took away in 1972 even the one and only article 29a in the constitution that was safeguarding the rights of the minorities.
3. A short-lived Tamil hope for a multi-ethnic nation
In spite of initial fears there was still hope on the Tamil side that with self-rule the country would prosper and all Singhalese, Tamils and Muslims could live happily as equal citizens and partners in building up a united island of peace and prosperity. The first post-Independence Government enjoyed “the responsive cooperation“ of the Tamils. Most of the colleges in Jaffna had Sinhala taught as a second language, in order to facilitate inter-ethnic relations. But that hope of a united nation was only short-lived.
4. Sinhala Nationalism pushes Tamils to Separatism
The post-colonial policies of the Colombo Governments pushed the Tamils more and more to look back in the direction of a safe and secure land to safeguard their rights, their profession, development and even to security of life and limb. This led to a gradual but steady conscientisation of the Tamils that living as one Sri Lankan multi-ethnic, multi-religious people was no more possible and that their safety and future development depend on re-claiming their pre-colonial and traditional habitation as their homelands.
The resurgence of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism inaugurated by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in 1956 capitalized on the exclusivist nationalism nurtured by the Mahavamsa mentality. In order to come to power, he whipped up at the grass-root level a popular but dangerous nationalism that claimed Sinhala Buddhists as the genuine proprietors of the whole island and custodians of Buddhism. This excluded the other ethnic and religious groups. He realised that the language “ we people” could be used emotionally to climb to power over the UNP which had ruled the country up to that time.
His victory in the parliamentary elections of 1956, spelt doom for Sinhala-Tamil relations and soon the Sinhala majority resorted to anti-Tamil mob-terror. What remained as part of a hidden agenda in the disenfranchising of the Tamils of Indian origin and State-aided Sinhala colonization of the first post-colonial government, now became an open policy of the government. Thus the arrogant policy of exclusivism on the Sinhala side pushed the Tamils gradually along the path of separatism.
5. S. J. V. Chelvanayagam, Father of Tamil Nationalism
When the first post-colonial Government of Sri Lanka took the first step already in 1949 towards the exclusive Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism by depriving almost a million Tamils of Indian origin of their civic rights, S.J.V.Chelvanayakam, the Father of modern Tamil Nationalism, was able to foresee many dangers which will threaten their Tamil national consciousness. With prophetic vision he mapped out a path for the Tamils to safeguard their identity and dignity as a people. On the basis of the inalienable right of self determination, the Tamils are to seek maximum autonomy for self rule!
Accordingly the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi, which he founded in 1949 soon after the denial of Citizenship to Tamils of Indian origin, was with foresight called Federal Party in English. Why? He did not opt for an entirely Tamil separate state, but a Tamil government (arasu), whereby the Tamils, as a distinct nation or people, will rule themselves at home with maximum autonomy and still remain within the one state of the island. In other words he proposed a self rule in the Northeast and a shared rule at the centre in Colombo. That was the Federal structure he proposed and campaigned for.This was evident in the declaration of the first national convention of the Party held in Trincomalee in 1951;
“In as much as it is the inalienable right of every nation to enjoy full political freedom without which its spiritual, cultural and moral stature must degenerate and inasmuch as the Tamil speaking people in Ceylon constitute a nation distinct from that of the Singhalese by every fundamental test of nationhood, firstly that of a historical past in this island (which is) at least as ancient and as glorious as that of the Singhalese, secondly by the fact of their being a linguistic entity different from that of the Singhalese, with unsurpassed classical heritage and a development fully adequate for all present day needs, and finally, by reason of their territorial habitation of definite areas which constitute over one third of this island, this first national conference of ITAK demands for the Tamil speaking nation in Ceylon their inalienable right to political autonomy and calls for a plebiscite to determine the boundaries of the linguistic states in consonance with the fundamental and unchallengeable principles of self-determination.“
His self-rule for the Tamils (Thamil Arasu) and shared rule of Sri Lanka (Ilankai) was mischievously interpreted by the chauvinistic and extremist politicians of the South as a blueprint for a separate Tamil Kingdom of the Tamils. Thereby the word Federal was interpreted to mean a division of one country into two. What was intended as a regional autonomy for the Tamils and a federal structure for the country was mischievously twisted to set the Sinhala masses against the Tamils.
The objective of the Tamils to live as two nations in one island within a federal structure of Government thus became anathema to Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism which was forging ahead with its steam-roller majoritarian-race democracy to legalise anti-Tamil discriminations in language, culture, education, employment and development. Every Tamil effort to protest democratically and non-violently was met with Sinhala mob and state terror. Every effort to explain the Tamil vision for a united country was heckled even within the parliament. Thus the Tamils were deprived even the right of peaceful democratic non-violent protests. Not even in the heartland of the Tamils -Jaffna town – could they have a non-violent satyagraha without getting beaten up by the Sinhala army(Dec.1961). Hence Tamil Nationalism was forced to move to the next phase of demanding a separate state for survival and security based on its right of self-determination.
The Sinhala media were very chauvinistic and the word “Federal“ was anathema to the Singhalese. The English media which had the strategy of reaching out to both sides of the divide, were in the hands of the Sinhala elite and toed the line with the UNP or the SLFP political parties. Unfortunately the Tamil leaders did not make serious attempts to reach the majority of the country at least with an English Newspaper. „Suthanthiran“, the official organ of the Federal Party was published only in Tamil. Hence the lack of effective communication between the Singhalese and the Tamils further aggravated the situation
6. Democratic campaigns for a Separate State
The Tamil United Liberation Front in its first national convention in Vaddukoddai on 14 May 1976 under the presidency of S.J.V.Chelvanayakam resolved thus:
“The First National Convention of the Tamil Liberation Front, meeting at Pannakam (Vaddukkoddai) on the 14th day of May 1976, hereby declares that the Tamils of Ceylon (Tamils did not accept the Constitution of 1972 in which of the name of the island was changed from Ceylon to Sri Lanka) by virtue of their great language, their religions, their separate culture and heritage, their history for several centuries till they were conquered by the armed might of the European invaders, and above all by their will to exist as a separate entity ruling themselves in their own territory, are a nation distinct and apart from the Singhalese and their constitution, announces to the world that the Republican Constitution of 1972 has made the Tamils a slave nation ruled by the new colonial masters, the Singhalese, who are using the power they have wrongly usurped to deprive the Tamil nation of its territory, language, citizenship, economic life, opportunities of employment and education and thereby destroying all the attributes of nationhood of the Tamil people.
And therefore, while taking note of the reservations in relation to its commitment to the setting up of a separate state of Tamil Eelam expressed by the Ceylon Workers Congress as a Trade Union of plantation workers, the majority of whom live and work outside the Northern and Eastern areas, this convention resolves that the restoration and reconstitution of the Free, Sovereign, Secular Socialist State of Tamil Eelam based on the right of self determination inherent in every nation and has become inevitable in order to safeguard the very existence of the Tamil nation in this country.“
At the Parliamentary elections of 1977, the Tamil United Liberation Front campaigned for the Vaddukkoddai Resolution for a separate state of Thamil Eelam and the Tamils gave a resounding approval with over 70% electoral support.
Infuriarated by the overwhelming verdict of the Tamils for a separate state, the UNP Government of J.R. Jayewardene who came to power with a simple majority of 51% soon brought in the infamous 6th Amendment to the Constitution obliging all elected Tamil parliamentarians to make an oath of allegiance to the unitary state and forbidding all talks of separatism as contrary to the constitution. This in effect closed the doors of the supreme democratic institution of the country to the voice of the democratically elected Tamil Members of Parliament. Thus the Sinhala majority closing the doors of democracy to the Tamils opened the way for a militant path of the Tamil youth.
7. Militant campaigns for a separate state
While the elected Tamil MPs still had faith in the democratic institutions of the island in protecting the Tamils and were pleading, if not begging, the government of the day to protect the civilian life of the Tamils, those in power took the high road of Sinhala oppression resulting in further denials of the basics for Tamil life.
Tamil youths most of whom witnessed the horrors of Sinhala mob and state terrorism along with the denials of basic rights and facilities to the Tamils in education and employment, realized that they themselves were being pushed against the wall without any hope of a future under Sinhala Governments. They had no faith that their elder Tamil politicians who were elected in the 1977 parliamentary elections could ever democratically and peacefully win the rights of the Tamil people. It is in this context that they took the only logical step to face the enemy – the government and its Forces in their own terms – militancy.
During the initial period there were many Tamil groups fighting the oppressive acts of the Sinhala army with their counter-terrorism. Although up to the Thimpu conference they expressed unanimity with regard to the nationhood, homeland and right of self determination of the Tamils, many of them later joined the Sri Lankan government and even served the Armed forces in betraying the Tamil cause.
8. LTTE committed to a Liberative Nationalism
It was left to the LTTE to face courageously the oppressive force of the Sinhala government as well as fostering the Nationalism of Thamil Eelam as affirmed by the parliamentary verdict in 1977. The 20 years of war that followed the 1983 Holocaust of Tamils demanded more and more heroic sacrifices of life from the militants and from civilians. These brought them all into one struggle. What was earlier identified as a militant group of armed youth soon became a peoples’ movement for liberation. The anti-Tamil forces in the South tried their best to divide the people and the few elected parliamentarians from the militant leadership of the LTTE. They tried in many under-hand ways to tarnish or bypass the militant leadership and strike a deal with the so called „moderate“ and paid-parliamentarians, but failed miserably.
The broader Tamil nationalism as envisaged by Thanthai Chelvanayakam in 1951 in Trincomalee and in 1976 in Vaddukoddai, now became strengthened by the prolonged sufferings of death and destruction caused to the Tamil people by the government. The people knew as to who protected and defended them from the atrocities of war as well as who carried the noble ideals of Tamil Nationalism without bartering for personal benefits from the Singhalese. Thus in the period 1976 – 2004, the Tamil people increasingly affirmed the unique politico-military leadership of the LTTE as well as moved firmly under their leadership towards some non-negotiable aspects of Tamil Nationalism.
9. The non-negotiables of Tamil Nationalism
What was prophesied by Mr.S.J.V. Chelvanayagam, the father of Tamil nationalism, gained conviction not only among his party members but also throughout the entire Tamil community in and out of Sri Lanka. Three fundamental truths emerged crystal clear to the people and became the corner stones of a liberative Tamil Nationalism:
a) Tamils living in Sri Lanka are a distinct people with their own history, culture and heritage and not a mere linguistic minority as made out by the Sinhala majority in order to justify their domination. It was sheer arrogance and mischief to refer to a people who have lived their rich heritage so long and have had their kings and kingdoms as a mere linguistic minority.
b) The UN Charter of Human Rights recognizes the right of self determination of such a people, at least in its internal dimension. Failing to realise this internal self-determination, the people have the right to secede into a separate state.
c) The Northeast of the island has been the traditional region of habitation for the Tamils for many centuries. Hence the Northeast is claimed as the Homeland of the Tamils. This does not exclude others from living there, but the Tamils must have sufficient autonomy to determine the development of this region.
These three issues which were agreed by all the Tamil parties in Thimpu were again taken up in Oslo in the talks between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Government. An agreement was reached to consider an alternative to the Tamil demand for a separate state and this was hailed as a breakthrough. It was mutually agreed to seek a federal type of solution within a united Sri Lanka based on the understanding that Northeast are areas of historical habitation of the Tamil speaking people and on the principle of internal self-determination of the Tamils. However accepting the Northeast as traditional homelands of the Tamils still find opposition and misunderstanding among the Sinhala majority despite the ground realities.
The Tamil claim for a Homeland is not so much based on nostalgic arguments of historical origins, nor on any arrogance of superiority with regard to race or religion, as it appears in the case of Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism, but more on the argument for a secure home in the face of tragic conditions created by the Singhalese during the last 50 years. Let me mention briefly three such factors:-
a) Tamils fleeing anti-Tamil Riots sought security in the North East
The slightest protest of Tamils in the capital Colombo against discriminations gave rise to a series of mob and state terror against all Tamils living in the south of the island. The Tamils, who were harmed and whose property were looted, were forced into huge refugee camps for safety or forced to run for their lives to the North and East of the island. In 1958 some ships had to be hurriedly organized to transport the thousands of victims fleeing the riots from Colombo to Kankesanturai (Jaffna). In all the major anti-Tamil riots let loose in the South (1956, 1958, 1962, 1977, 1983), Tamils, even those from the hill country, fled to the North and East for refuge.
b) Open discrimination or neglect in developing the Northeast
From 1948, the Northeast was not part of any major development plan of Sinhala governments. Foreign funds flowing into the country were diverted to the South under the pretext of the Northeast being infected with terrorism. Millions were spent on Mahaweli Project, Electricity schemes, building of roads and reawakening of villages (Gamudawa). The long drawn out neglect of the Northeast without any development, with only a harsh step-motherly treatment from centralised governments and their bureaucrats convinced the Tamils that they themselves have to take control of their welfare and develop their own land.
c) 20 years of inhuman war and restrictions imposed on the Northeast
The 20 years war against the people of the Northeast was waged not only with weapons and bombs but also with emergency restrictions, economic embargoes, rapes and mass murders, even inside state-prisons and rehabilitation centres( Welikade, Kalutara, Bindunuwa). While claiming the Northeast to be part of the whole island which the Singhalese claimed to own, the governments handled the Tamil people as slaves on their knees, devoid of all communications and kept behind closed doors.
All these three factors have snowballed into a firm conviction that Tamils have to recover their traditional homeland, primarily to survive and to live in safety and security, to live in dignity and to develop their region as their own, without fear and without depending on the Singhalese of the South.
10. Tamil Nationalism differs from Sinhala Nationalism
There is a radical difference between the Sinhala claim of the whole island as theirs and the Tamil claim of a region as their homeland for their security. The former claim makes the Singhalese believe they are the proud proprietors of the island who can by their majority decide and discriminatingly exclude northeast region (as they have done for over 50 years). The others – Tamils and Muslims – they say, can live anywhere in the island, but as „tenants“ and „creepers“ under the majority Singhalese. Thus theirs is a concept of homeland that subordinates non-Singhalese and exclude them from self-respect, proprietorship and self-development. The Tamil concept of a homeland, on the contrary, is not exclusive nor it subordinates other people. It is a land whose development and growth will be in the hands of the Tamils, for whom it has been a traditional homeland and a secure homeland. Non-Tamils will be free to settle down and enjoy all the benefits as others.
What the LTTE has been loudly proclaiming as their political thirst is a cry for a self-governed homeland. It is a conviction that has grown slowly and steadily, and got approved by the people in the last parliamentary elections of 2004. It will never die out from the heart of the Tamils. Whether the Northeast is tomorrow to be a federal state under Colombo or an entirely separate State is to be decided by future political events. But the name of the Northeast region will be Thamil Eelam for ever and Tamils will have the will and the strength to rule it as their own.
11. Tamil Nationalism offers a Peace-Plan through the ISGA
It is in this light that the demand of the Tamils for an Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA) to rehabilitate and reconstruct their war-zone should be understood. What has been reduced to ashes during the long discrimination, criminal acts of destruction and neglect, must be made a living (livable!) zone for the people. Even after the Cease Fire and Memorandum of Understanding and Talks for over two years, promises about normalising living conditions in the Northeast have been unfulfilled. Many thousands are still suffering in refugee camps because of the vast High Security Zones of the occupied forces. The dividends of peace are not at all felt by most of the Tamils. Except for a few international NGOs who attend to the basic minimum in the army-controlled areas, no significant reconstruction and rehabilitation work has been undertaken .Hence an interim administration for reconstruction and rehabilitation under the Tamil leadership was agreed and proposals for the setting up of it were made by the UNP led government and the LTTE respectively.
Taking into consideration the ground realities and the already available infrastructure put up by the Tamil leadership, serious proposals with the help of international experts have been submitted. These have been made within the agreements already reached in Oslo about the framework of a permanent solution as well as in the direction and spirit of a peaceful settlement. But unfortunately, Sinhala extremists are opposing the proposal as a stepping stone to a separate state. In spite of the Tamils agreeing to consider the federal alternative to a separate state and working out a way towards that federal autonomy, the Singhalese seem to have still their traditional fear of seeing a terrorist behind every Tamil and a separate state behind every proposal. Their desire seems to be to use the “Tamil-problem“ indefinitely and get all the foreign financial aid, while keeping the Tamils for ever under their domination. May the Buddha save us Tamils from the Buddhists!