The Future of the Tamils of Sri Lanka

“The “embryonic armed struggle” materialized into the Eelam wars, and many Tamils, living outside the war zone were very happy about it, especially because of successive alienation and anger arsing from successive race riots, putting Tamil lives at risk. So they ended up financing a war conducted by an immoral gang which had eliminated the more urbane Tamil leadership.”

Guest Column by Sebastian Rasalingam

(August 26, London, Sri Lanka Guardian)
Some of us who have managed to escape to Canada could afford the luxury of listening to Ratnajeevan Hoole who tells us the impossibility of Eelam and what fine opportunities we Tamils lost . We negated the Indo-Sri Lanka accord of 1987, scuttled Chandrika Bandaranaike’s peace efforts, and pulled the carpet from under Ranil Wickremasinghe. Hoole was holding forth only a few weeks after the “celebrations” of Black July, where our Tamil community seems to almost relish that dark event and wish for another round of mortification.

I learn that there was no attempt at inter-communal bridge building, or even a token invitation to any Sinhalese or Muslim expatriates at either of these events. Clearly, we Tamils have achieved excellent ethnic cleansing at our public events.

Mean while, we read in the Sri Lanka Guardian, an article by a Mr. J. T. Janani arguing that “most Tamils want Eelam, and support Eelam”. I hope he does not imply that most Tamils are willing to go along with child recruitment as well as forcing civilians to fight, as long as the end is Eelam. However, in a society where children are routinely used as house-hold servants, and in a society where large segments of the society were designated to caste-stipulated servitude, the occurrence of such attitudes is easy to understand. Jananai ‘s claim also implies that “moderate Tamils”, or the likes of Ratnajeevan Hoole are an inconvenient invention of the international community , irrelevant to the Tamils as such.Of course, moderate is a relative term, and I am going to claim that Jeevan Hoole is really just another extrimist carrying the old baggage of Chelvanayagam.

An even more interesting phenomenon in the horizen of Tamil politics has come into being. A Bruce Fein, an American lobbyist who is well known to argue any case, true or false, as long as he is paid the fee, is found to write articles in support of Tamil causes tinged by the hue of the LTTE. Surely, the Tamils have produces many distinguished lawyers. Indeed, some like Wakely Paul are like Bruce Fein in not having even a Tamil name. Clearly, then, why are we not using them? Clearly the Tamils have no true voice, but just a cacophony of paid hirelings, propagandist web sites, coerced journalists and politicians afraid of their very lives because of LTTE assassins or white vans.

Who are the Tamils in the context of Sri Lanka?

Tamils are people whose culture and language identify them as Tamils. There is no distinction between a Sinhalese and a Tamil, except in this veneer of culture. Culturally, the Tamils and the Sinhalese are very close, just like the Jews and the Arabs, the Valoons and the Flems, the Georgians and the Ossetians, the Sufis and Sunnis, etc. Of course, the racist writers on both sides wish to emphasize the differences between the two communities, and insist that we are dealing with totally irreconcilable, starkly different cultures. However, even the grammar and vocabulary of the Tamils and the Sinhalese are so close that you can take a Tamil sentence, and convert it to Sinhala with almost the same word order, and with many common words. A Tamil can go to a Buddhist Temple and often find his own Gods, though not the caste strictures placed upon some of us by our own Hindu Temples. According to the Yalpana Vaibasha Kaumudi of Mr Velu Pillai, according to Swami Gnanaprakasar, and Fr. Rasanayagam, the so called “Traditional Homelands” of the Tamils have in ancient times had Sinhala place names showing that Sinhalese too had lived there. In the south too, we have shrines like Kathirkamam (Katharagama) and Thevanthurai (Devundara) where Tamils have lived from time immemorial. But then, the Senanayake-Ponnambalam citizenship act of 1948 conferred citizenship to any Tamil who had resided here for over seven years. Thus there is no need to say “we too were here since the common era”. In fact, those who insist on “traditional homelands” have all the hill-country Tamils excluded by it. Ironically, Chelvanayagam’s Tamil Arasu Kadchchi formula of 1948, and the Vadukoddai formula of 1976, where the doctrine of “Traditional Home lands” was brought in, is less helpful than D. S. Senanayake’s citizenship act.

I developed this discussion to point out to you that the Tamils have had a truly great leader in Mr. Thondaman Sr., who guided a depressed and deprived people to build up a community which is today a proud component of Sri Lanka’s multi-ethnic fabric. I know the hill-country Tamils very well, having lived and made family in Hatton, Sri Lanka. I believe that the rest of the Tamils in Sri Lanka came to its present sorry impasse due to the arrogance and zealotry of the Colombo-Tamil leadership. It is their kith and kin who among the expatriates form the vanguard of the forces of unreason and war.

The hill-country Tamils are not the only group of Tamils who have been deprived and denied their right of dignity and well being. Every Tamil knows that Tamil society is a hierarchical society. Every westerner living in Colombo will tell you that Tamils make good servants and house boys. But these westerners do not know that those "good Tamils" are the “low-caste” Tamils. The upper class Tamils are a pain even to themselves, conspiring against each other for power and supremacy, and making little cabals to take advantage of everything including even the ambiguous position of the Christian Church which is at once an invader, an oppressor and a liberator. In fact, it is interesting to note that the Ponnambalams, Chelvanayagams, Naganathans, Thiruchelvams, Eliezers, the Anton Balasinghams and even the Ratnajeevan Hooles are not Hindus. Those who left the Tamils and joined the British imperialists were the first to become Christians, and they were empowered by the British. Among the Sinhalese too, The Mahamudiyars like Bandaranaikes and Obesekeras defected from their people to become good Christians. When the British began to leave, the battle for the spoils opened up between these two groups, i.e., the Tamil Christians and the Sinhala Christians. Unlike the hierarchical Tamil society where the masses didn’t mean much, the power-hungry Sinhala leaders had to identify themselves with the Buddhist masses. So we have these Anglican-Sinhala leaders changing their religions, their dress and their mannerisms. The Tamil leaders did not have to change their religion, as Ponnambalam had already found that Tamil Nationalism, directed against the Sinhalese was an adequate force. However, he listened to Soulbury and moderated his politics for cooperation with the Sinhalese. This was enough for Chelvanayagam to denounce Ponnambalam and turn Tamil Nationalism into the powerful racist dream of a separate nation powered by the the Tamils, for the Tamils, already in 1956, almost a decade before "Sinhala Only".

How extremist Tamils became mainstream Tamils.

Mr.J. T. Janani's ideas embody the net result of that movement where Tamil racism is regarded as the moderate norm. When S.J.V. Chelvanayagam started his campaigns in 1948, he was regarded as a hopeless, rather harmless extremist. But he built on the legacy of Ponnambalam where Tamil Nationalism had already become good currency in the upper-class salons of Cinnamon Gardens. From the Sinhala side, Bandaranaike gave S. J. V. the opportunity to bank-roll his extremism and make it main-stream politics. The extremely advantageous position enjoyed by the Tamil community in the areas of commerce, the professions etc., were gradually forfeited for an elusive search for a “Traditional Homeland” which would be run by Tamils living in Colombo.

Mr. Janani and many others like him have argued that the 1977 electoral success of the TULF proves that the “Tamils have voted for separation”. As is usual for most Tamil writers, he forgets that the Hill-country Tamils were NOT a party to the Vadukoddai resolution. He forgets that a point of view expressed in a state of national frenzy has no validity. He forgets that if a mandate had been given by the Tamils to Mr. Amrithlingam and others, then that mandate was negated by a group which assasinated that TULF leadership and usurped power. So, what ever electoral legitimacy existed in the policies of 1977 or Thimpu, they have been negated by the new, self-appointed Tamil leadership embodied in the LTTE. It was the political failure of the TULF in unleashing a militancy that it could not control, that the vote should have brought the Tamils to such an impasse. After all, the vast majority of Germans, many Spaniards, Italians and Vichy France solidly supported Nazism because Hitler had sold them heady nationalism. But this type of political support for extreme agendas does NOT provide a sanction to mono-ethnic racism which is the essential basis of Eelam. Democratic processes have no meaning in pathological situations. Younger Tamils are too caught up in the frenzy of all this to understand the cul-de-sac of no return contained in Vadukkoddai 1976 and the electrons of 1977. Thondaman was the great Tamil leader who had the experience and the sagacity to recognize the dangerous whirl pool of Vadukkodai and he steered his people away from it.

Why Fedaralism and the Federal party failed.

Dr. Ratnajeevan Hoole thinks that Federalism would have solved the country’s problems, and that perhaps the Banda-Chelva pact should have saved the country. I have attended political meetings of the era in Jaffna, conducted in Tamil, and I know that there were two faces to the campaigns of the so called Federal Party, which became a strongly sovereignist party in its Tamil language publications. Even if S. J. V. had some Federalist inclinations, he was too much of a fanatic to stay there. He believed in the ineluctable “re-conquest” of the “Traditional Homelands occupied” by the Sinhalese. In this he was driven by a false history of the “Tamil” people where he made no allowance for the fact that these two cultural groups were kindred groups who have inter-mingled their identities many times over. After all, the Sinhalese and Tamils have both lived in the North and East, as testified by the hundreds of inscriptions and historical evidence found there. Thus the Sinhala nationalists and even the moderate Tamils of the era did not trust Chlevanayagam. SJV was one of the first to label his opponents as “Traitors”, but he did not proceed to kill them. That came later, in the hands of his political progeny. I append here a picture of Chelvanayagam posing with Sivakumaran, the Tamil militant who later committed suicide biting cyanide after a botched bank heist. This picture shows that although S. J. V. donned the “saintly” mantle of Gandhi he had no compunction against encouraging the embryonic “armed struggle”. The TULF then went on to declare that it was ready for ”state terror”, and we have had plenty of it since then. If Federalism was Chelava’s aim, he would have attempted to build bridges with the Sinhalese, instead of picking a fight from day one in 1948 or distributing symbolic wooden pistols and Eelam stamps at Satyagrahas. You cannot have Fedaralism without building fraternity.

The Eelam War

The “embryonic armed struggle” materialized into the Eelam wars, and many Tamils, living outside the war zone were very happy about it, especially because of successive alienation and anger arsing from successive race riots, putting Tamil lives at risk. So they ended up financing a war conducted by an immoral gang which had eliminated the more urbane Tamil leadership. If violence is tolerated even once, the rest is a free fall, and we have supported a war that converted the children of the less-fortunate Tamils into cannon fodder, and silenced all discussion under the cry of "Eelam". Today we have Satheesan Kumaran and other LTTE propagandists, ever reminding us that the government bombed an orphanage in Chencholei, while ignoring what the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) have written about the blood-curdling suicide-worrier songs which are used as a part of the training of these children at this orphanage. As Ranajeevan Hoole points out, this double-speak by the Tamil writers has made them into liars in front of world opinion. They have now got to hire Bruce Fein and other lobbyists of doubtful shade as their spokesmen. If children and civilians could be used for war, then inevitably, they will become cannon fodder and we cannot turn around and say that civilians and children are being bombed. The guilt falls squarely on the blood-thirsty Terrorist leader who has usurped the nationalist program of the Tamils. It falls equally strongly on men like Sampanthan , Senathirajah, Sivalingam and others who continue to give some sort of political support to a modern-day Tamilized Nazi movement. If Sampanthan and others have even a trace of civility, then they should denounce the assassins of Amirthlingam, Canagaratnam, Thiruchelvam etc.,at least in the name of animal justice as they were murdered in cold blood. Sampanthan and others should realize that even if the Eelam war were won, it will simply lead to ever- lasting war with the Sinhala south, and continual subjugation to south India.

The government claims that its bombings are very accurate. They are perhaps accurate once every ten times. Even the Americans and the Isrealis, with their vastly superior technology, end up bombing hundreds of civilians. I call upon His Excellency the President to carry on the war against the LTTE, but withour air attacks which have little effect on well-bunkered LTTE cadre, but hurt the vast majorty of ordinary people who are themselves victims of the LTTE.

What options do the Tamils have?

Dr. Hoole in his speech claims that the Tamils have to either face the unacceptable option of “assimilation”, or coax India to intervene. He is even naïve enough to think that India will impose a “just settlement”. Electrical engineers are not expected to be knowlegable in history or human affairs, but Hoole is no longer a technician; he is trying to claim a position as a political comentator. Unfortunately, our Tamil leaders and intellectuals have always run to India in the hope of Justice, and betrayed their surrogate status. Not so long ago our Karuvakkaadu lawyers pleaded everything before the Privy council or the House of Lords in England. I am afraid Dr. Hoole has missed the boat when he thinks that today we can go to India and get the problems of the Tamils sorted out. In fact, even if we get a measure of regional independence, given this kneel-to-India mentality, we would never be independent. In ancient times the Kings of Jaffna were either subservient to the King of Kandy or the Chola kings, depending on whose power was waxing or vaning. The Colombo Tamils and their expatriate-support base too would try to run any regional Tamil adminstration and undermine the local leaders. The local leaders would also be forever under the mercy of the Tamil Nadu and Indian-Center conflicts. Our own local Tamil interests would be ignored, just as the people of the Vanni were sacrificed for the sake of the battles engineered by the TULF-led Colombo Tamils.

What then is the future of the Sri Lankan Tamils?

The future of the Tamils of Sri Lanka lies firmly in the hands of the Hill-country Tamils, the Eastern Tamils, and the Tamils living in the suburbs of Colombo. These are practical Tamils. These are not anglicized arrogant lawyers who are more at home in New Jersy or in the Middle Temple, London. The Tamils living in the suburbs of Colombo and other urban centers of the south are trying to rebuild the mercantile and financial leadership that were eroded from them due to the unfavorable political activities of the Tamil Leadership. The future of the Tamils lies not in Indian hands, but in our own hands, in our ability to build bridges between the various communities, and forge working relations based on fundamental human values which are independent of racial and caste considerations. This will always need the freshness of one new generation, as the old wounds of war have to heal. But anyone who has read the history of Europe or even Sri Lanka should know that there will always be grievances, and there will always be battles for space, land and resources. But such battles can be conducted in a non-confrontational way. We Tamils can take a leaf from other minority groups in other countries. The Jews are a small minority in the United States. Unlike the Zionists who wanted an Eelam-like state of their own, the US Jews remained in the USA. They have retained their culture and their position in society, without assimilation. They have succeeded in this precisely BECAUSE they did not attempt to capture overt political power by confronting the American establsihment. The Tamils of Sri Lanka too can maintain their culture and their dignity. Any one settling down in a predominantly Tamil district would be required to be proficient in Tamil up to, say , “Junior level”, as it was called in my school days during the British Era. Similarly, any Tamil hoping to work and settle down in, say, Wellawatta should be required to be proficient in Sinhala to the same level. Of course, this type of law should only apply to people under 21, as one cannot expect old dogs to learn new tricks. But in time, each region would have its own linguistic character preserved to a significant extent. It should not be forgotten that Sri Lanka will continue to be replenished by interactions with Tamil Nadu, a large trading partner and a strong cultural influence. Thus I think Dr. Hoole and others who are ready to kneel in front of India are merely exposing in public the poverty of their thinking. They only have a pessimistic, tunnel-view of things and fail to see the larger canvas.

One should remember that Language is NOT the cause of the conflict. It was USED by the power hungry leaders as the bone of contention. Even countries having the same language have fought civil wars worse than our own. The English, the Americans, the North and South Koreans, the North and South Vietnamese, the Spanish, all these peoples had the same language but had engaged in debilitating war. The men who saw the carnage of two world wars understood that the economic and political union in Europe, as well as the extinction of nationalism define the basic bastions of a peaceful future. The same holds for Sri Lanka. Once it has put its own house in order, it would be time to look for a closer economic union with India from a position of strength. However, before that, we need to get our own house in order, and in this, I salute Mr. Devananda and Mr.Karuna for collaborating with the present government to build up a unitary nation. This does not of course mean that I codone the elements of viloence contained in the political methods of both these individuals.

This transformation of post-LTTE Sri Lankan Tamil politics does not require big devolution of power or political action. A system of modern roads – public transport that is, would be enough to make Jaffna a mere suburb of Colombo. Thus wise leadership which emphasizes economic action rather than constitutional tinkering is what is needed. If the Diaspora could pore billions to buy arms to feed a killing machine, that same Diaspora should atone its sins by funding a development bank which would make venture capital easily available to our would be entrepreneurs. It could support Tamil culture and education without having to grmble that the state has not done this or that. Now that the political progeny of the Chelvanayagams, Naganathans, Ponnambalams etc., have (thank God!) been eliminated from the political arena by Prabakraan, and since Prabakaran too would also get eliminated some day by the State machinery or International action (unlikely), the stage would be set for a new set of leaders to come to the fore. Twentieth century Sri Lanka had two great leaders, viz., D. S. Senanayaka and S. Thondaman. I hope that future new leaders would take a leaf from Senanayaka and Thondaman, and attempt to forge good relationships with all communities as the first step to giving a new political chance to the Tamils of Sri Lanka. Let the Tamils think of themselves as some type of new, unbigoted, enterprise-oriented “Jews” of Sri Lanka and prosper. If we make the money, and do things honestly and honourably, culture and coronation will be ours.
- Sri Lanka Guardian