By Izeth Hussain
I wonder whether the Sri Lankan Tamils are in a unique position compared to other ethnic groups all over the world. They can be assured of the sympathy and support of their fellow Tamils in Tamil Nadu, though the extent of that sympathy and support can vary greatly over a period of time. That fact could mean that although the SL Tamils are a minority in the national context they are in a majority over the Sinhalese in the regional context. This is said to be one of the reasons why the Sinhalese are a majority with a minority complex and the Tamils a minority with a majority complex. This is regarded as one of the reasons why the SL Tamil ethnic problem has been so peculiarly recalcitrant to solution.
There are many ethnic groups in adjoining states that are divided, quite often by lines of demarcation that were drawn for the administrative and other convenience of colonial powers. Mutual sympathy and support between them would be quite normal. It has to be expected consequently that when one component of an ethnic group is perceived to be subjected to discriminatory treatment, the other across the border would try to do something to help. In the case of the SL Tamils their perceived ill-treatment causes a fall-out in Tamil Nadu, which then proceeds to exert pressure on New Delhi to take corrective action. There is nothing odd or objectionable about any of this. What makes the SL Tamil ethnic problem unique is a contextual factor: India like any other multiethnic, multi-religious, multi-lingual country can break up, and Tamil Nadu restiveness over perceived maltreatment of SL Tamils could spawn separatist movements there.
I can think of no other case where an ethnic problem in one country leads, not just to a serious fall-out in a neighbouring country, but carries the potential for its dismemberment. I would acknowledge that it does seem a most unlikely eventuality, and indeed at one time it could have seemed quite absurd. I refer to a time when the secularism of Nehru and the other founding fathers of modern India seemed to be ineradicably well-established, and democratic values ensuring fair and equal treatment for the minorities were firmly entrenched in the Indian political psyche. But in recent decades we have witnessed what looks like the triumphal march of the Hindutva ideology.
The power of that ideology is shown in many ways. It is only now, belatedly after several months, that Prime Minister Modi has spoken out against the violent intolerance shown towards the Christians. There is now a serious move to change the secular basis of the Indian state. And who could have imagined, just a few years ago, that there would ever be a serious move to build a temple in honor of Nathuram Vinayak Ghodse, the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi? In other words, the factors on which Indian unity has been forged are being seriously eroded. The theoretically possible break-up of India has of course to be regarded as a worst-case hypothesis, not as something that is around the corner. The important point is that any responsible Government has to bear in mind a worst-case hypothesis when it concerns so primordially important a matter as the unity of its country. India has therefore to give high priority to bringing about an equitable and lasting political solution to the Tamil ethnic problem. It is not something that it can ever afford to ignore.
Certain consequences follow from the argument that I have developed above. One is the sense in which we have to use the term “international community” in relation to the Tamil ethnic problem. The term is often used derisively to mean the rich and powerful countries which use the mechanisms of the UN to impose their will on poor and weak countries. It can also be used, quite legitimately, to signify the members of the UN who constitute a community in the sense that they have all agreed to abide by certain values and norms. But I would say that in relation to the Tamil ethnic problem “international community” has a very restricted meaning: it really refers to India and its ally the US, with others playing not much more than peripheral roles.
Another consequence of my argument is that if not for the Tamil Nadu factor and its impact on the Government in Delhi there would not be a major Tamil ethnic problem, not one that concerns the wider international community. It would be a domestic problem with the Tamils treated as a conquered people – that is to say like dirt – with hope of redress only in the long run. The stark fact is that the SL Tamils cannot by themselves hope to take on the Sri Lankan state militarily with any hope of success, not now and not in the future. That stark fact dictates another consequence: the SL Tamils have no alternative to accepting a tripartite understanding on a political solution reached between India, the SL Government, and the Tamils. The important point in that connection is that India would not want to go too far in agreeing to devolution as that would set a bad precedent for India itself. Another consequence flowing from the argument that I have developed above – specifically from the point that India’s own unity could come to be threatened – is that under certain circumstances India could want to impose a Cyprus-style solution in Sri Lanka. It too is a worst case hypothesis, not something that is around the corner. What we have to bear in mind is that it could be perilous for Sri Lanka to allow the ethnic problem to go unsolved into the indefinite future on the premise that the Tamils cannot by themselves successfully challenge Sri Lankan state power.
It is clear that after the Presidential elections we have come to a new juncture over our ethnic problem: there is now some hope of our moving towards a political solution whereas under President Rajapakse there was none. The international community has signaled this new juncture by the decision to postpone by six months the release of the UNHRC report on war crimes. The decision was announced by the UN human rights Chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, but obviously there were very powerful forces behind that decision, notably the US. According to Al Hussein the decision was made because of “the changing context in Sri Lanka and the possibility that important new information may emerge which will strengthen the report”. The latter reason makes no sense because surely even in September there will be the possibility of the emergence of further important new information. The “changing context” evidently refers to the Government’s decision to hold its own credible investigations into war crimes. But would it be possible to make much headway over that by September? Furthermore, can we really expect the Government to hold wholly credible investigations?
I will conclude this article by raising very briefly a question that seems to be of fundamental importance. Ever since the UN Secretary General moved to set up the Panel of Experts to investigate war crimes – resulting in the Darusman findings – I have supposed that the US and India were behind it in a benign conspiracy to use the war crimes allegations as an instrument to propel the Sri Lankan Government into really moving towards a political solution of the ethnic problem. But that proved to be impossible under President Rajapaksa and consequently the issue of war crimes has gathered a momentum of its own. It will therefore be difficult to jettison it even if the international community becomes convinced that the Sri Lanka Government is really in earnest about a political solution. The case for playing down, diluting, or wholly jettisoning the issue of war crimes seems to me to be very strong. The reason is that there is an incompatibility between moving towards a political solution and holding really credible investigations into war crimes. President Sirisena was Acting defence Minister while the worst war crimes were allegedly being perpetrated, and he and others such as General Sarath Fonseka could be arraigned as war criminals. The Sinhalese cannot be expected to be enthusiastic about people they regard as their heroes and saviors being arraigned in that way. The crucially important point is that really moving towards a political solution requires a climate of mutual accommodation between the Tamils and the Sinhalese, and that will be very difficult if alleged war crimes remain a live issue. A jettisoning of the issue will of course be seen by the Tamils as their being let down yet once more by the international community. But their own best interests demand that priority be given to moving towards a political solution above all else.