Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Forget TN politicos. There’s a Sinhala-Tamil problem in Sri Lanka

Smart-alecky independent commentators have been making the cynical observation that the Dravidian parties – the DMK, AIADMK and MDMK – have no business to hold India’s foreign policy hostage to their partisan provincial political compulsions. They have been impatient with DMK pulling out of the UPA on the Sri Lankan Tamil issue. They are angry with the resolution the Tamil Nadu state assembly had passed on the question. There is of course enough irrational intensity in the rhetoric of the Dravidian parties and it does no good to anyone, either to themselves or to their fellow-Tamils in the island across the Palk Straits. It does not however justify the intellectual pusillanimity of the policy wonks to push the basic question with the issue of Sri Lankan Tamils under the carpet. In idealistic terms – yes, there has to be that bit of idealistic veneer in the most no-nonsense realistic appraisal of a situation – even if there is not a single Tamil speaker in the country, India has no moral alternative to speak out if the Tamils in Sri Lanka are being subjected to debilitating discrimination. To point fingers at the terrorism of LTTE and its bandit leader Prabhakaran is escapism of sorts. India had committed too many fatal blunders including that of allowing the LTTE to decimate the rival Sri Lankan militant Tamil organisations on the streets of Chennai in the 1980s, and in walking into the trap set up Jayewardene and Premadasa by sending in the Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF). The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi was the bloodiest price India had paid for its ill-conceived policy intervention. What we need today is an assessment of the Sri Lankan Tamil situation without reference to the rant of the Dravidian parties and to the question whether India has to exert any kind of moral pressure on president Mahinda Rajapaksa government. There is a disturbing trend of the dominance of the Rajapaksa family in Sri Lankan politics and the blatant intolerance displayed by the ruling clique, including the brothers of the president, towards critics and dissidents inside the country. The impeachment of chief justice Shirani Bandaranaike is a display of the tyranny of numbers. It will not be possible for the Indian government to speak out on these issues and that is as it should be. This should not inhibit an honest discussion in the public sphere. And this debate cannot be based on India-centric cost and benefit analysis. The Lankan situation has its historic baggage and it poses a democratic challenge in the present. The historic baggage cannot be wished away. The colonial divide-and-rule, whether it was deliberately diabolic or not, had driven a wedge between the minority Tamils and the majority Sinhalas, and let it be admitted that the Tamils gained economic and social advantage as a result of it. After independence, the Sinhala assertion, however ill-humoured, was an inevitable reaction. Unfortunately, the Sinhalas did not go beyond this initial response. There should have emerged a new equilibrium in the relations between the two major linguistic and ethnic groups. Many Indians have suggested that a federal polity of the Indian kind is an ideal solution to resolve the tussle between the Sinhalas and Tamils. The Sinhala politicians have not been too enthusiastic about the federal option. There is perhaps some justification in their sense of uneasiness because Sri Lanka has not been yet been able to develop a stronger national identity which includes all the groups. There is also the religious angle to the problem. The devolution package has been resisted most strongly by the reactionary Buddhist clergy and the politicians cannot ignore the sentiment of the saffron-robed bhikshus. The monks perhaps fear that if the Buddhist-Sinhala dominance were to be weakened in a pluralist polity, then Buddhism will fade away. It is an echo of historical memory of what happened to Buddhism in India more than two thousand years ago, and that they may even lose their linguistic identity as well. The Sri Lankan Tamils cannot pay the price of the sense of insecurity of either the Sinhala majority or of the Buddhist clergy. They need their political and cultural space. What is missing is the internal cultural and political debate in Sri Lanka. Before the civil war, the LTTE had polarised the situation. After the civil war, it is the triumphalist politics of Rajapaksa which is preventing democratic negotiation. The Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora has played a dangerous and negative role by funding the LTTE and others. The self-conscious members of the diaspora will have to learn the political game according to democratic norms and they should do that by returning to the country. The Tamils and the Sinhalas have to speak to each other to create a Sri Lankan polity. It has to happen internally. India cannot even be a facilitator.

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