The election campaign of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) in the Tamil-majority regions in the Northern and Eastern provinces has re-animated the discussions on the political solution to the national question. While the major political parties in the south have rejected national self-determination and federalism, the solutions presented by the two major Tamil political groups are, for the most part, in line with the fundamental principles of Tamil nationalism put forward by the collective of Tamil groups during their peace negotiations with the Sri Lankan government in Bhutan’s capital Thimpu in 1985.
These fundamentals include the recognition of the Tamils as a nation, their right to self-determination and the merged northern and eastern regions of Sri Lanka as their homelands. The TNPF has stated that it seeks the people’s mandate for these principles in the upcoming elections. The election manifesto of the TNA includes a slight variation of these fundamentals. Instead of nation, the TNA manifesto describes the Tamils as “a distinct People with their own culture, civilization, language and heritage [who] from time immemorial have inhabited [the] island [of Sri Lanka] together with the Sinhalese People and others” or, as stated in the Tamil version of the manifesto, as a “Thesiya Inam” meaning nationality.
The polarization of communities that politics grounded on notions like ethnic self-determination and autonomy has brought about in Sri Lanka and elsewhere behooves us to place them under careful scrutiny. Framing self-determination in an ethnicized or national collective sense indeed generates an oppositional consciousness among oppressed communities at the receiving end of majoritarian, nationalistic states and strengthens them in their pursuit of emancipation.
But ethnic self-determination alone would not lead to the harmonious cohabitation of different communities in a shared territory.
This is why it is important for us to discuss the inadequacies of the Tamil nationalist constructions of identity and territory and Tamil nationalism’s skewed vision for ethnic cohabitation. Calling attention to the exclusivist predilections of Tamil nationalist politics, however, does not imply that all is well with the manner in which Sinhala-based political parties and social movements approach the national question.
The JVP’s indifference to ethnicity in Lankan politics and its outright rejection of federalism, for instance, deserve as much criticism as the narrow, ahistorical articulations of national self-determination by the TNA and the TNPF.
The Tamil identity that calls for its liberation in Sri Lanka is a product of the prolonged discrimination that the Sri Lankan state has directed at a section of its polity. The collective Tamil self that has emerged as a result of this history of oppression is political. This point is lost on Tamil nationalists when they frame Tamil as a pre-political identity or self that has its origins in the pre-colonial era.
State re-formation is a process and each phase of this process involves addressing the consequences of the current state. But (Tamil) nationalism attempts to form the state on a clean slate by re-framing an identity that has arisen as a consequence of the existing state as a pre-political identity. Nationalism selectively unearths historical narratives to legitimize the claims over territory that it makes on behalf of this re-invented collective self. When nationalism combines territories and pre-political (ethnic) identities in a one-to-one manner without attending to the multiple identities of and claims over land, the project of self-determination, which arose organically in response to hegemony, loses its radical edge.
Instead of challenging the ethnic binaries produced by the state and imagining an inclusive and shared future for everyone inhabiting its territory, nationalism merely demands the re-organization of those binaries territorially and institutionally in a divisive manner.
In Sri Lanka, post-colonial state building has been an exclusivist project spearheaded by Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. Various legislations, including the disenfranchisement of the Hill Country Tamils, the ‘Sinhala Only’ policy and the constitutional protection accorded to Buddhism, and state-sponsored violence against ethno-religious minorities or the state’s involvement in the ethnic re-engineering of the island’s north-east by settling Sinhala Buddhist populations in the region indicate the Sinhala-Buddhisization of the Sri Lankan state.
Tamil nationalism emerged as a movement of resistance when state-aided discrimination against the Tamils and the political aspirations of an educated Jaffna-based Tamil middle class with a strong sense of ethnic and cultural self-consciousness converged at one point.
The Tamil middle class’ conservative preoccupation with the history and identity of its community in the island to the exclusion and alienation of the other communities and the collective failure of the island’s people including the majority community to build common social movements to challenge the hegemony of the Sinhala-Buddhist state have contributed to a larger section of the Tamil community viewing ethnic self-determination within the merged north and east region of the island as the only viable solution to the national question.
Rather than initiating a politics that would bring the communities divided along ethnic and religious lines closer to one another, Tamil resistance focuses more on creating a unit of self-governance for its community in the contiguous territories in the north-east where the Tamils make up the majority of the total population. Structurally this unit was conceived as either a separate Tamil state or a federal administrative body where the Tamil nation would exercise its right to self-determination. As evident in the election campaign of the two major Tamil nationalist parties, Tamil nationalism, even today, views the separation, territorialization and constitutionalization of pre-political national identities as the sole pathway to counter the majoritarian nationalism of the state.
The TNPF proposes a binational state as the solution to the national question. The sovereignty of this binational federal (Sri Lankan) state, in the political imagination of the TNPF, is conceivable only if the separate sovereignties of the Sinhala and Tamil nations and their right to self-determination within delimited territories are recognized in equal terms in a political contract.
In advocating this line of political thinking, the TNPF and its allies overlook the polarizing nature of the Tamil national project and its sheer disregard for the political status of the large number of Tamils living outside the Northern and Eastern provinces. It is appropriate here to reflect on Hannah Arendt’s opposition to binationalism which recognizes the separate sovereignties of different nations. When a federated binational state was proposed by Judah Magnes and Martin Buber as solution to the Arab-Jewish conflict in Palestine, Hannah Arendt in 1943 opposed it on the grounds that their use of the term federation reproduced the nation-state in a different way.
Arendt had argued that in order to prevent member nations of the federation from being discriminatory like the nation-state, no member nation should have its own sovereign authority. Instead of distributing sovereignty among member nations, Arendt recommends the dispersion of sovereignty into a plurality that cannot be divided (territorially) into two different sovereign nations. The rationale behind Arendt’s opposition to national sovereignty is that national interests, unlike common interests, privilege one community over another.
Arendt argues that federation should be re-imagined as a political structure that “undoes the notion of sovereignty as unified and ultimate power” and makes it “impossible (for one) to conceive of a nation or its actions outside the context of plural and concerted action” (Judith Butler. Parting Ways (2012). Page: 146). Thus, Arendt viewed the Jewish community as a nation “only as long as that national status did not give them sovereign power to decide with whom to govern the state” (ibid). Arendt does not reject binationalism wholesale. But her critique of the binational federation proposed by Magnes and Buber underlines the importance of striving for racial equality and cohabitation at the local and regional levels of the state.
The binationalism of the TNPF in Sri Lanka is in many ways similar to the binationalism that Arendt critiques. A similar critique exposing the divisive nature of the TNPF’s version of binationalism is necessary to carve out a federation in Sri Lanka that ensures the protection of regional minorities inhabiting the territories of the Sinhala and Tamil member nations. Arendt’s critique of binationalism encourages us to pose the question of whether the major ethnic communities in Sri Lanka—the Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and Hill Country Tamils—that share territories in the different parts of the island with each other can present themselves as sovereign communities for purposes of state formation.
Discussions on regional self-rule and sovereignty in Sri Lanka should take into consideration the minority populations inhabiting the national homelands and the connections that communities have forged among themselves across national territorial boundaries through their various acts of mobility.
Sharika Thiranagama raises a pertinent question about homes and homelands with respect to state reforms in Sri Lanka: “What do we do when people have homes but no homeland? When the places they live in are not the places they are recognized to belong in?” (In My Mother’s House: Civil War in Sri Lanka (2011). Page 255). The movement of Tamil, Sinhala and Muslim laboring people across the national territories from precolonial and colonial times have produced economic communities that do not align neatly with the narratives of the Tamil nationalism. State-aided colonization schemes since Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948 have altered the ethnic make-up of the island’s territories.
Even as we unequivocally condemn the state’s attempt to settle Sinhala people in the Tamil majority areas in order to change the demography of the region in ways that would benefit its Sinhala-Buddhist project, and demand the resettlement of the evicted communities, we need to keep in mind that the settled Sinhalese populations, many of whom are in the throes of severe economic hardships, have now become a part of the polity of the north-east of the island and that they too have a place in the historical narrative of this region. Similarly, many Tamils and Muslims, who were displaced during the war from the Northern and Eastern provinces, now live in the Southern parts of the country in places like Wellawatte and Puttalam which according to the TNPF’s version of Tamil nationalism lie within the territory where the Sinhala nation would exercise its right to self-determination. Many of these displaced people may have no intention of returning to their ‘homelands’ in the Northern and Eastern provinces.
These minority populations, minority economic communities and migrant groups within the nations disrupt the project of national self-determination in Sri Lanka. The Tamil nationalist project constitutionally renders these groups minorities or secondary citizens in their present locations. The TNPF’s manifesto states that the party would recognize the right to self-determination of the Muslim and Hill Country Tamils if the two communities make such a demand when a political solution to the ethnic conflict is explored. Whether or not these communities articulate themselves as nations, we need to recognize that they too contribute to the ethnic plurality of the island, and as constituents of its polity, they are not subordinate to the Tamils or the Sinhalese.
Ethnic pluralism is an important consideration in state re-construction in a country like Sri Lanka where ethno-nationalist majoritarianism is felt by the minorities in their everyday lives. But in finding a political solution to the ethnic conflict, we have to pay attention to the complex ways in which ethnic identities are situated territorially. ‘Liminality’ is a useful concept to describe the relationship between territories and ethnic identities in Sri Lanka. Liminality denotes the state in which the identity of something is ambiguous, mobile and fluid, as opposed to being singular, fixed and static. There are many regions in Sri Lanka, including several areas of the north-east, whose identities are liminal due to ethnic diversity, people’s mobility, state-aided colonialization and globalization.
For a robust re-invention of Sri Lanka and the north-east of Sri Lanka as places of radical plurality where communities can co-exist with one another peacefully, debates on state-(re)formation need to foreground the liminality of the island’s territories. Liminality disallows the sovereignty of a territory to be predicated on an ethnic group exclusively while making it impossible for us to imagine it by excluding that group. The self/ves that constitute/s a new political order in such a context is both singular and plural simultaneously. As the state simultaneously pluralizes its citizens (Sri Lankans) as subjects (Tamils, Sinhalese, and Muslims) and singularizes its subjects as citizens, state re-construction needs to be seen as an unending revolution. Ethnic equality, which according to nationalists could be achieved via national self-determination, is in fact a state of existence that is always ‘to come’ and is always undermined by the hierarchies of class, caste and gender that the state produces when it (re)makes its citizens as subjects with multiple identities and vice versa.
Self-determination in ethnic or national terms may work when we emphasize our collectiveness in the face of discrimination. But the self/ves that seek/s to re-constitute itself/themselves as a new polity under a new political structure at the center and the peripheries cannot be the same as the self that struggles to liberate itself from the existing political system; because the ethnic plurality that we observe in the country is ungraspable by the territorial dualism that Tamil nationalism wants us to believe in.
The plurality of the island’s ethnic landscape, produced by the local minorities and displaced and settled populations, is a challenge to federalism in Sri Lanka. But we need to see it as a productive challenge because it compels us to situate our efforts to promote ethnic cohabitation as inseparable from our quest for a more egalitarian state.
Tamils in the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka may well demand a measure of self-governance in the north-east of Sri Lanka. But they would not be able to demand self-rule in the name of their ethnic identity or their nation alone because they share the north-east with Sinhalese and Muslims at present whether or not they like it.
In the run up to the August 17 polls, both the Tamil National Alliance and the Tamil National People’s Front would rehash the unimaginative slogans of Tamil nationalism- nation/nationality, self-determination and homelands- and glorify them as non-negotiable, revolutionary principles to attract voters. But the Tamil community in the north-east should be wary of the polarizing ideology of Tamil nationalism shrouded in emancipatory garbs and come forward, beyond the electoral battlefield, to chart an inclusive and connective political route for its liberation by building bridges with the other communities in the northern and eastern regions and the rest of the island.
*Mahendran Thiruvarangan is a graduate student in English at the Graduate Center, City University of New York and a member of the Collective for Economic Democratization in Sri Lanka