Do Minorities Count?

By N Sathiya Moorthy

Now that the presidential election is here, the two main contenders seem to be on a denial mode as far as the 25 per cent minority votes are concerned yet wanting them to come his exclusive way, without being seen by their majority Sinhala-Buddhist brethren as asking for the same, or cutting a deal and the corners, for the purpose.

Between the two, President Mahinda Rajapaksa is slightly better-placed, not because he may have them all till the polling day. Instead, the vociferous Sri Lankan Tamil (SLT) community has to be seen as being against him, as in 2010. Even a minor share of their votes, and an abstention by a substantial segment, would be a tactical-cum-strategic victory for him. He could not have asked for more, in electoral terms.

The situation is different in the case of the common Opposition candidate, Maithripala Sirisena. His choice itself is based on his purported ability to slice a part of the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists’ votes that had gone to President Rajapaksa in 2010 and Candidate Rajapaksa in 2005. Implied in this is also the fact that the Sirisena camp whether through self, CBK or Ranil W  could be seen as compromising with the TNA and the Tamils on perceptions on national sovereignty, territorial integrity and internal security as applicable to post-war, contemporary Sri Lanka.

At a meeting with media heads and editors, Sirisena is reported to have said that he would not strike any deal with the TNA or any other party, other than the ones he has already signed. He has also clarified that he had not signed separate MoUs with the UNP and the JHU, and there was only one and others derived from the same, whatever that would mean.

MR_3RDBBS and Muslims

After the SLT come the Muslims. The BBS attacks on the socially dynamic and economically upwardly mobile Muslim community have embarrassed all political parties representing them, no end. All those parties are since partners in President Rajapaksa’s Government, and are facing rumblings within, too.  The question is if the Muslim parties, particularly the numerically-strong SLMC, would stick with President Rajapaksa in the elections, or would cross over, or would stay neutral, or even call for an abstention or boycott. Unlike in the case of the TNA and the larger SLT population supporting the party, the SLMC and other Muslim political outfits do not really have the last two options of staying neutral, or abstention/boycott.

Either the SLMC is with President Rajapaksa or Candidate Sirisena. It also flows from the inherent characteristic of the non-SLT minority politics in the country. It’s thus parties identified with the Muslims and the Upcountry Tamils the third denomination among the acknowledged ethnic minorities have made cohabitation with the Sinhala-victor in individual elections a fine-art.

The expectation and the result of such an arrangement is an acknowledgement of the real politick that minorities in the country have to live with the majority community, and hence their divided polity. Rather, parties representing the Muslims and the Upcountry Tamils have made with the reality of their circumstances, and have used their relative electoral presence to get short, medium and long-term benefits for their respective communities. Or, so is the belief and expectations not all of which have been fulfilled or even pressed at times.

Whither upcountry Tamils?

 As always, this time too, ahead of the (presidential) polls, poaching from the Upcountry Tamil groups has begun. Most, if not all, have been with the incumbent government until the other day, but anticipated cracks have already appeared. The exit of Deputy Ministers P Digambaram and V S Radhakrishnan, representing different parties, from the Rajapaksa Government to back Sirisena maybe flawed only in details, and not wholly unexpected in terms of Upcountry Tamil politics.

The real weight still behind the Upcountry Tamil parties is exercised by the CWC, headed by Arumugan Thondaman. In the 2005 presidential poll, the CWC backed Opposition candidate Ranil W. The results showed that the otherwise victorious Candidate Rajapaksa had lost Nuwara Eliya district. With two of his ruling UPFA parliamentarians having already crossed over to the Sirisena camp, Team Rajapaksa would be looking at signals from Thonda and the CWC in the coming days and weeks. For now however there does not seem to be any signal to the contrary.


Language unites, but

The problem with minority politics in the country is two-fold. One relates to the treatment that they get individually and collectively from the majority/majoritarian Sinhala polity, and from the Sri Lankan State as an institution. Having founded political parties to serve the cause of these three individual communities whose social moorings and cultural values are different they have also allowed the respective parent parties to rot and split, particularly after the exit of the founder(s).

Yet, common to all three ethnic groups is the common language, Tamil. Despite the deep-seated language-based political movement, militancy and terrorism, the SLT leadership has carefully and successfully kept the other two, away. It owes more to the social moorings and priorities, though other reasons and justification(s) have been found to explain away individual cases.

Despite the three-decade long ethnic war purportedly levelling the walls of social separation and ready acceptance, there still lies within the SLT, caste-based divisions, whose scars are found even more among the Diaspora groups that seek to control events and developments on the ground. Variously, this has extended to distance/alienate the Upcountry Tamils even more. The Muslims, who were part of the pan-Tamil politics and protests up to a point, felt similarly alienated from the mainstream SLT community and polity, owing to the sustained efforts of the latter, which became all the more visible after the time.

Today, embers of Tamil nationalism and the remains of the ethnic war whose memories have kept further divisions from creeping in back to SLT politics, and very openly. Yet, as the Norway-facilitated CFA (2002-06) showed, divisions within the coerced unity of the Tamil-speaking communities in the North and the East came out in the open, in the form of the Karuna rebellion, which was unexpected but should have been anticipated.

By pushing deep differences of the kind under the blood-soaked carpet of Tamil nationalism, and branding non-mainstream leaders and their parties as traitors to the cause, the champions of the cause may have found only an intermediary respite. The likes of Douglas Devananda, Karuna, Pillaiyan and KP, the one-time LTTE arm-procurer, all fall into the slot. The SLT social and political leaderships, jointly or severally, have not addressed these real issues, basking for a time in the glory of what has not been achieved.



Be it the SLT, Muslim or the Upcountry Tamil community, the problems within them are rather personality-driven and ego-centric. Be it in intra-community politics or inter-community politics among them, a succession of reigning leaderships has ensured that there is no place for dissent or unlimited political aspirations for those hoping and seeking to upset the status quo.

For the same reason, they are individually and collectively incapable of accommodation either wanting one, or yielding one. Hence, for the SLT leaderships, social and political, to expect greater accommodation from the majority Sinhala-Buddhist community and polity is farcical at best.  Suffice is to point out that the SLT leadership(s) have neither sought to approach the Sinhala-Buddhist population over the head of their polity. Nor has it offered anything different from what the one-time self-styled sole representative of the SLT community in the LTTE was not willing to offer the Muslims, who were forcibly and forcefully alienated and dispossessed. It’s not about driving divisions and deriving social, political and/or electoral benefits from them. Instead, it’s about acknowledging those divisions, and working with and on them not against them. In its time, the LTTE did precisely that, just as they had blamed the Sri Lankan State and the Sinhala polity for. Post-war, post-LTTE, the Tamil political leadership has not done anything about it.


Ethnic prism

At the end of the day, minority issues in the country are about different things to different ethnic groups. The common denominator that the Sri Lankan State and the divided yet majority Sinhala polity has found is to accommodate them in the Government and offer piecemeal solutions to their piecemeal issues much of them remain as promises without wanting to address them as three faces of an ethnic prism of the minorities kind. Just now, the Muslims want physical protection of self, property and businesses, and also the restoration of a sense of security and belonging, which they were made to alienate at the hands of the LTTE in the Nineties. Even decades after Independence, livelihood concerns and a life of decency and dignity have been denied to the Upcountry Tamils, to whichever political denomination. In this, their political identity includes the Sinhala-majority SLFP and the UNP, which have alternated in power at the Centre.

The SLT community’s has been the worst and ironical story of them all. The Upcountry Tamils could not be blamed at all for their current plight starting with the post-Independence statelessness status and consequent denial of State benefits. Today, even on purely administrative matters, the poorest and the least exposed and educated of the nation’s population, the Upcountry Tamils have to travel longer distances through the hilly terrain to obtain State benefits or certificates compared to the rest of the population. The less said about their living conditions, the better.

In comparison, the SLT’s contribution to their current situation cannot be denied though they have as always been on a denial mode. Even while charging the Sri Lankan State with war crimes, they have been less than honest in the LTTE’s contribution to the same, in terms of physical annihilation till the very last day in Mullivaikkal, feeding hundreds of thousands of them as human shields and cannon-fodder or sacrificial lambs on the altar of Tamil nationalism for three long decades without even a tinge of guilt or conscience, forced child recruitment and a host of other inhuman crimes and behaviour.

The  continued inability and  unwillingness of the SLT community and polity to acknowledge the LTTE’s failings as vociferous as their criticism of the Government and the armed forces on accountability issues, for instance, has made them suspect still in the eyes of the Sri Lankan State and Sinhala polity. Hence also the reason why the mainline Sinhala polity is unable to and unwilling to be seen in their community, even while wanting their votes, all the same.


Coparceners or cohabitants?

 To date, the Sinhala majority and the SLT minority in particular and also the Muslims and the Upcountry Tamils are unable to address the basic question if they are coparceners or cohabitants to the State and territory known to the world as Sri Lanka. They are coparceners indeed, having acquired the right of being a Sri Lankan under the Constitution and customs at birth whether they are Sinhalese, or whatever Tamil background to which they may belong.  The Sinhala-Buddhist majority forces would have them only as cohabitants or long-term tenants on an open-ended lease. They also want the treatment meted out to the Muslims, too, and the changing demography too may have been a factor in all this. Needless to recall that earlier generations of majoritarian nationalists’ have shown the Upcountry Tamils that they are not even unwelcome cohabitants overstaying their tenancy but are outright squatters.

The irony of the SLT situation since the eruption of ethnic politics and issue is that their Tamil nationalism at its core too would want it only that way. They want recognition not as part of the Sri Lankan being, but as a separate nation sharing geographical space, which could not be helped, but choosing their political space and being. They continue to want to negotiate that political space from that position which from the LTTE past is separatist in intent and content as for as the Sri Lankan State and the majority Sinhala community are concerned.  The question about the shared political space has arisen once again, what with the formal launch of a Tamil Civil Society Forum (TCSF), with the Catholic Bishop of Mannar Rev Rayappu Joseph as Convenor.

They seem wanting to put their unsuccessful previous year’s campaign against the unitary State model on the Tamil election agenda all over again.

Such a line is also against the grain of the TNA’s committed position of negotiating within a united Sri Lanka, which the civil society group could not dislodge ahead of the all-important Northern Provincial Council elections later last year. How far they would go, both in their campaign remains to be seen, but its success or failure could also contribute to the SLT voting-pattern, independent of the TNA’s position, on policies, politics or the election or the papal visit to the country and more particularly His Holiness saying a Grand Mass at the northern Madhu church, which was at the cross-fire of the ethnic war, almost till the concluding weeks.

(The writer is Director, Chennai chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email:

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