Will The ‘Minorities’ Come Together, Then Stand Up For Their Collective Rights?

by N Sathiya Moorthy 

  • ‘Minorities’ in the country seeking equal rights would not want to give one another the same even among themselves
  • Though post-Independence, the common refrain of Sri Lankan Tamil (SLT) leaders is that the Sinhalas would not give equal rights
  • The Muslims and Upcountry Tamils, could co-exist within a larger minorities group, but on their terms 

Rohana Wijeweera and S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike

The irony of the Sri Lankan ethnic situation is that the ‘minorities’ in the country seeking equal rights would not want to give one another the same even among themselves. For the same reason, they would not want to come together and put up a collective face upfront, which alone could help their collective interests and combined rights.

Though post-Independence, the common refrain of Sri Lankan Tamil (SLT) leaders is that the Sinhalas would not give equal rights, they have always thought themselves to be the ‘first among unequals’. The rest, namely the Muslims and Upcountry Tamils, could co-exist within a larger minorities group, but on their terms. They would not offer any terms, nor would they accept any.

All three are Tamil-speaking, the ‘identity card’ that the SLT keep flashing all the time but would not grant equity, leave alone equality, to the other two. The other two too have learnt to cocoon themselves in their own comfort zones, but to no avail, to any and all of them. The discomfort among them is as palpable as their common self vis a vis the Sinhala majority.

In doing so, they have forgotten that numbers count in a democracy and they could have had more than the obvious if only they had stuck together. Again in a democracy, the numbers of a majority are a problem. In the absence of a proven challenge from the other side, they tend to divide – and find ideological justifications for remaining so.

It has happened in the Sinhala polity and society. To woo the voters in a democracy, the divided Sinhala polity has become mutually competitive with ‘Sinhala Buddhist nationalism’ as the calling card. Even the Left-leaning JVP could not do without it.

In his time, the one-time cosmopolitan S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike relied more on it, so did his traditional communist allies, to divide the Sinhala voters. Before SWRD founded the SLFP, the united UNP had feared the emergence of the communists as an alternative.

But SWRD and later on Rohana Wijeweera, the JVP founder, proved that the ‘problem’ lay within one layer after another. Rohana did not belong to the traditional Left, yes, but when others got either neutralised or diluted, one had to be made.

The traditional setting played out on the side of the minorities, too. Layers and layers united them, but the SLT used it to divide the common self until a Prabhakaran emerged out of near-nowhere. Today, there are more political factions within each of the minority communities than in the Sinhala counterpart. They cannot but suffer.


Social contract


Through all these, the Muslims and the Upcountry Tamils have fallen also for the ploy that they needed to stay together with the majority to ensure the community’s growth and development, and that fighting them (even politically) would help. In terms of a social contract it made a lot of sense.

The two communities were distributed alongside the majority Sinhalas in most localities across the country. It made even greater sense for the Muslims especially after the LTTE behaviour (?) of 1990, to look up to the Sinhala-dominated State for protection, going beyond the demographic, social reality.

The Upcountry Tamils may be in awe of the SLT, or afraid, or both. But they too are just not there. While the SLT and the Muslims can fight for their rights, the Upcountry Tamils are still fighting for survival, at the level of the individual and vis a vis the State structure.

Post-Independence, the SLT politicos joined the Sinhala majority to render fellow, Tamil-speaking Upcountry brethren State-less, vote-less and voice-less. Yes, later-day SLT supremo, S. J. V. Chelvanagayam, did call upon emerging Upcountry Tamil leader, the late Soumiyamurthy Thondaman, to work together and the latter declined.

It’s an interesting question that history, if SJV would have made the North-East merger a political slogan if he had won the first parliamentary elections against the traditional Jaffna elite, who ensured his defeat. Of, what if Thondaman, Sr, had joined hands with SJV or the LTTE had not marginalised the prosperous Muslims of the North and the East, the latter to a lesser extent.

There is the eternal fear of the Muslims and the Upcountry Tamils that the Sinhala polity and the Sri Lankan State would use the likes of administrative and electoral demarcation of ‘territory’ to marginalise them even more. The Dinesh Gunawardene Committee on constituency re-drawing attempted precisely that, whatever the motive and justification. Thankfully, it did not move forward.

The situation for the vocal SLT leadership of decades’ long expertise and experience is no different from that of the collective Sinhala political identity (or, whatever remains from the past, and whatever the mutually distrustful Sirisena-Ranil combo has been working for, on and against). The divisions are within. Only a common cause viz the Sinhala majority continues to give them the semblance of unity, which the LTTE alone had forcibly held despite the awe respect it had inspired.


Isolated, insulated


The SLT leadership, with its world-wide reach, has been busy fighting itself more than the Sinhala leadership of the Sri Lankan State structure since Independence. Call it ideological, approach-oriented or mere ego clash of circumstances, there are even more divisions with no ideological cloud among the Muslims and Upcountry Tamils.

It’s a ploy that the SLT leaderships have used successively and successfully to make themselves believe that they better not get entangled with the other two and weaken their own selves. The fact is also that each one of them is afraid that the other(s) might improve their stake and standing by co-opting the other two.  In doing so, they operate under the assumption that the SLT alone would be lending leadership to any alliance with other Tamil-speaking polity. The other two was either incapable of lending that leadership, or could be accepted, or both.

With the result, any distant alternative leadership to the SLT polity in the isolated/insulated Northern Province is anticipated from the UNP or even the SLFP, not from the Muslims or the Upcountry Tamils. The SLT is ready to countenance that, not accept the other. Some cause this, and leave aside any ‘common cause’.


Island mentality


If the outside world criticises the Sri Lankan State for its ‘island-mentality,’ it’s not just the Sinhala majority, but each of the individual communities that have developed one within the other and further and farther within. Among the minorities, the SLT feels emotionally secure and politically identifiable in the Jaffna peninsula – cut off from the rest, either naturally or by the LTTE.

Before seeking out the Sinhala majority to come out their shells, the SLT in particular should come out of its own, and take along the Muslims and the Upcountry brethren. The common Tamil identity may have something to lose among themselves and viz the Sinhala majority, but in terms of political negotiations, it makes better sense for the nation as a whole if the number of social negotiators remained identifiable and respectable.

Respect in a democracy comes from conduct and numbers. Neither conduct, nor numbers, would make sense if not going together. They need visionary leadership. It’s that each and every segment of the Sri Lanka society, leaving aside the majority and minority identities, have lacked almost from the start. The vision, if any, was selective, not collective, not even ‘collective’ enough to keep their short-sightedness focussed and relevant. Sri Lanka has lost in the end.


Real-life situations


The Tamil-speaking minorities, post-war, have already lost out their cause and occasion when one offered itself in the form of a new Constitution. They themselves certify the incumbent Government leadership to be relatively minority-friendly than the rival Rajapaksa camp, which they alone had helped defeat in the 2015 presidential polls.

Clearly, they were poor negotiators then, and are poor negotiators since. They are divided, worse, and have learnt only to convince themselves and the rest that the ‘other’ (the ‘Sinhala majority’ in this case). Ask any or all of them about intra-Tamil unity based on language than outsider-imposed ‘ethnicity,’ they would go back to the days of SJV, Thonda, Sr, and Ashraff, not wanting to face facts as they present themselves starkly at present.

Today, there is no future or futuristic leaders for any or all of the Tamil-speaking community whom the ‘Sinhala majority’ would acknowledge and accept even in a limited way. Post-Prabhakaran, they are not going to get another ‘warrior-leader’ (?) for a long time to come even though the Sinhala polity and even society could anticipate one, especially if the ‘linguistic minorities’ were to work together even if not live together as a common polity, based on the broader linguistic identity (and confined to their even larger Sri Lankan identity).

If the TNA, the SLT mascot, could accept the ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist’ Left in the present-day JVP, truncated as it is from its original self, as a partner in the political Opposition in Parliament at least, why cannot they accept their own fellow-Tamils? After all, TNA’s Leader of the Opposition, R Sampanthan, justifiably offered the Opposition Whip’s position to the JVP at the end of the parliamentary polls in August 2015.

The irony here again is if Sampanthan or the TNA commands a majority within the ‘political Opposition’ in Parliament, or even outside, if one were to take the country as a unit? It’s this kind of ironical situations that have ruled the Sri Lankan situation and contexts all the time, with non-acceptance of real-life situations, either by the majority, or the minority, or the rest, if anyone were left.

The real-life situation is that the minorities would continue to suffer if they acted, defended or fought from a feeling of weakness and eternal losers. They all should also learn from the LTTE’s mistakes of thinking for the other, those ‘others’ outside of Sri Lanka, too far and too long – with the result, they stopped thinking for the self and for their people. It was inevitable and was written into their intellectual script, as well.

For the majority Sinhala-Buddhists, their competitive politics from the post-Independence past has brought enough harm to their own people, and the nation that they want to believe is ‘theirs’ and theirs alone. It’s the story of the elephant and the ant. The ant cannot defeat the elephant, but can irritate it enough and yet not lose, leave alone get extinguished.

The elephant would not lose if the ant is allowed to have its own space, in ways that the ant feels confident and comfortable that it had nothing to fear the elephant – but possibly has a friend and protector, which none else can hope to have. But that sense is lacking in both. That has also been Sri Lanka’s problem, all along.


(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email: sathiyam54@gmail.com)

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