Liberal pluralism, Tamil People’s Council and the new Constitution

by Mahendran Thiruvarangan

More than six years after the war’s end, a particular line of thinking has come to the forefront in Tamil nationalists’ defence of their politics around national self-determination. I would broadly describe this philosophy as liberal pluralism. Predicating the politics around state re-formation primarily, if not solely, on ethnicity or culture, it tends to build a one-to-one relationship between cultural identities, territories and the state. It is not an entirely new phenomenon as far as Tamil politics in Sri Lanka is concerned. It has been the bedrock of political reforms proposed as solution to the national question by a wide variety of actors in the country and in the diaspora ranging from liberal intellectuals based in Colombo to sections of the Leninist left to the old Federal Party, sections of today’s Tamil National Alliance, the bi-nationalist Tamil National People’s Front, journalists and various militant groups and organizations like the Trans-national Government of Tamil Eelam and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the latter would not settle for anything less than a separate Tamil state in the north-east of the island.

What is comparatively new about this trend is that this ideology is deployed today in such a way that it places unwarranted limits on anyone outside a particular political community in shaping the trajectory that politics centering that community ought to take. It sometimes encourages communities to (mis)articulate their political existence as secluded political islands. An example of this political thinking appears in the policy document released by the Tamil Civil Society Forum (TCSF) in 2014, which states that the TCSF recognises the right of the Muslim and Up-Country Tamil communities to decide how they want to articulate their political identity as regards their relationship to the Sri Lankan state.

The document also notes that they are “equal but independent partners in a process that addresses their political rights”. It is easy to make such claims which, one would even say, demonstrate a genuine interest on the part of the TCSF to build an amiable political relationship with the other minority communities whose political aspirations were often subsumed in the past under the political identity called the ‘Tamil speaking people,’ an identification that overtly and by subterfuge offered a place of privilege to the Tamils of Ceylonese/Sri Lankan origin in the north-east and their political aspirations. But, nations and political communities do not exist in a vacuum. Their politics is often directed towards the territoriality of the state. The pluralist narrative hinging on the logic of cultural difference and cultural autonomy would not work beyond a point as a given territory is often home to and the homeland of multiple political communities. For instance, the north-east of Sri Lanka which Tamil nationalist narratives present as the traditional homelands of the Tamils was described as the traditional homelands of the Muslims in the north-east too in the Oluvil Declaration which was presented during the ceasefire agreement between the United National Front government and the LTTE in 2003 amidst heated debates on the de-merger of the merged North-Eastern Province. The TCSF statement does recognize the Muslims’ and Sinhalese’ claims to the land in the north-east. But it fails to stress the importance of collaboration (which is different from extending solidarity to one another’s struggle) among these three communities and the others in the north-eastand outside in charting the political future of the region. Its activism which primarily concerns the Tamils’ right to self-determination in the north-east which is inescapably limited by the ethnic diversity of the north-east, does not seek to include the Muslims and Sinhalese in the region and their political concerns as the movement has framed itself as a Tamil group.


Liberal pluralism may seem rosy as a concept, but before the stark reality of competing territorial claims it falls to pieces. When it is overstressed it will result in the creation of small ethnic enclaves. While narratives on ethnic-nations seek to keep communities apart or place them side by side, the shared identity of the territory reminds us that we live amidst and within one another and behooves us to work together, forge alliances and even speak on behalf of one another. My critique of cultural relativism does not intend to erase or trivialise the political significance of cultural/ethnic differences; rather, it seeks to open up a conversation, especially as the country embarks on the process of charting a new constitution, on how best we could address the specific concerns of our ethnic communities while imagining a shared future of peaceful ethnic coexistence all over the country. It is primarily and fundamentally about framing the sovereignties of our (national) communities as contingent (interdependent on one another) realities circumscribed by multiple territorial claims, only meaningful and effective within a larger collective of diverse smaller groupings, as opposed to unencumbered collective wills, and recognizing the specific nature of identities and ethnic concerns while envisioning a cosmopolitan, inter-nationalist future.


From a Leftist point of view, one could argue that the precursors to modern liberal pluralism appeared in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when the capitalist and imperialist classes in Europe began to manage cultural and linguistic differences among the laboring populations in places like the plantations in the Americas and their colonies in Asia and Africa. The oppressed classes and communities, for strategic reasons and sometimes in a chauvinistic manner, internalized and incorporated these divisions into their politics and organized themselves into racial, cultural and ethnic groups. Similar cultural alignments were promoted in the work of nationalist activists and writers (including anti-colonial nationalists) who supported the self-determination of national collectives. But, as an overstretched discourse, postmodern pluralism often becomes blind to the ways in which different collectivities crisscross and overlap and share territory, resources, nature and institutions with one another. This is why one has to bring the historically constituted porous totality within which differences and specificities present themselves back into the discussion. What we need is a critical approach to culture that views the tension between the specific/plural and the singular unity as reciprocal, productive and enabling. This is an approach that prioritizes neither the specific nor the cosmopolitan over the other.


Many contemporary proponents of Tamil nationalism assert that self-determination does not mean separatism. For me, separatism does not just mean the creation of a separate, sovereign state or a federal unit in a given territory; any political thought that assumes that a given population can act on its own and determine its political future in isolation of theother populations with whom it shares a territory and along with whom it belongs to a common political totality created by the forces of history needs to be seen as separatist. Pluralisms that fail to take into consideration the reciprocal relation between the specific constituents of a collective and the collective as a whole are separatist in character. They would only create narrow political enclaves and lead to anunimaginative institutionalization of cultural and ethnic differences on the structures of the state.


The TPC and Mono-ethnicism


The newly formed Tamil People’s Council (TPC) with the Chief Minister of the Northern Province as one of its co-chairs has raised the eyebrows of many. What kind of political vision is the newly-formed Tamil People’s Council trying to offer? Is there an attempt on the part of this group to part with the dry, debilitating pluralism that dominates the Tamil nationalist political landscape and offer an alternative that promotes inter-ethnic dialogue and action? The initial remarks made by the Chief Minister does not indicate a welcome shift in this regard. In his address at the second meeting of the TPC held on the 27th of December, Chief Minister Wigneswaran stated that since the last century, the Sinhalese people had tended to hold the view that allowing the Tamil people to prosper and progress on the island would be detrimental to their interests. Wigneswaran may be right. But, he has not paid attention to the ways in which social, political and economic forces and the ruling classes of the Sinhala community created anti-Tamil sentiments among sections of the Sinhala population. For instance, the Sinhala nationalist leadership of the 1950s created the impression among the Sinhalese that the Tamil community as a whole was a privileged class in colonial and post-colonial Ceylon by misrepresenting the prestigious public sector jobs held by an English-educated section of the Jaffna Tamils as indicators of the social and economic prosperity of the overall Tamil population.


This leadership concealed from the rural Sinhala communities the truth that thousands of oppressed caste Tamils and Tamils in the Vanni and the rural regions of the east were as marginalized as (or even more marginalized than) the poor Sinhala people who lived outside the urban areas of Colombo and Kandy. This is just one example of how the Sinhala nationalist leadership sow the seeds of racism in the South in the past.


Wigneswaran has also failed to note thatanti-Tamil/anti-minority views have always been challenged by progressive social movements and political actors in the south, although the latter were a few in number and not able to create a major shift in post-independence Sinhala politics that would favor devolution or federalism. Yet there have been optimistic examples that one cannot easily sweep under the rug. The electoral victories of former President Chandrika Kumaratunga in 1994 in the Sinhala heartland when she contested elections on a visibly pro-devolution platform prove that the Sinhala people did support political reforms that aimed at sharing more state power with the Tamil community. Of course, one needs to admit that the pro-devolution forces in the South could not sustain these victories in the long-run in the face of the opposition from the UNP to devolution and federalism.


The violence that the LTTE unleashed on the Sinhala people in the south and the border villages of the north-east in the 90s and 2000s alienated pro-devolutionary activists from the political mainstream in the south and shifted the discourse on federalism to the right. After the war victory in 2009, the Rajapaksa regime promoted anti-federal positions and furthered the ethnic divisions within the country by fanning the flames of communalism. On the other hand, the increased international involvement in ‘managing’ Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict by neo-liberal organizations and powerful Western states and the Tamil political leadership’s invitation and uncritical support to such external involvement gave chauvinistic politicians and ideologues disguising themselves as anti-imperialists many an opportunity to heighten their anti-Tamil rhetoric and scuttle dialogues between the communities. One needs to understand the Sinhala psyche, if at all there is one, in the larger social and political contexts in which it emerged and by identifying and analyzing the forces that nourished it. And it is only through self-introspection and a holistic socio-economic analysis that eschews ahistorical readings of ethnic hostility that Tamil leadership will be able to make any progress in winning the support of the Sinhalese and the other communities to their political struggle.


The TPC’s vision, as it appears in the statements made by the Chief Minister and its conveners, is primarily about building a mass-based movement that would include not just Tamil political parties but also civil groups, professionals, the educated classes, trade unions, women and marginalized sections within the Tamil community. All in all, it is a mono-ethnic Tamil movement for the Tamil people by the Tamil people. Those who are active within this new formation are yet to present their plans on initiating dialogues with the other communities in the north-east or the rest of the island on the national question. From what we have heard since its inception in December, the TPC appears to be liberal at best and enclavist and separatist at worst. This movement, unless it undertakes a course correction on the inward-looking nature of Tamil nationalism, would be mired in ethnic parochialism and never be able to encourage the other communities on the island to view the Tamils’ struggle for emancipation as their struggle as well. On the other hand, if the members of the movement think that they can build a pan-Tamil movement merely by accommodating women and marginalized sections without actively challenging the caste, class and gendered forms of oppression felt by the downtrodden groups within the Tamil community on a daily basis or by imagining themselves as custodians of Tamil culture without questioning its hegemonic underpinnings, it is hardly possible that the TPC will be able to bring about any social and economic transformations that would bring relief to the oppressed sections of the Tamil community. (To be continued tomorrow)


(The writer is a member of the Collective for Economic Democratization in Sri Lanka)

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