By Sebastian Rasalingam, Toronto, Canada

(January 23, Toronto, Sri Lanka Guardian) I was astounded to read Roy Ratnavel's "true-to-form" article entitled "Tamil existentialism" appearing on-line in the "Sri Lanka Guardian", 22-Jan-2009:(Read). This came after my reading of Dr. Narapalasingham's article in the "" (January 03), where he takes issue with a writer who goes under the lias "Foxwatch". A number of other articles, by individuals like Mr.Sabaratnam, Mr Satheesan Kumaran, Arular Arudpragasam ("The agenda of resurgent Eros", January 11, Sri Lanka Guardian), all fall into the same mind-set which is most clearly and starkly set out in the article by Roy Ratnavel. I will rename "Roy Ratnavel" by the existentialist form "Roi Rainville" as that fits in with his "etre, elan et esprit".

How to recognize a Tamil

It is clear that Roi Rainville has no problem of recognizing a Tamil. A Tamil is someone who often flies in various Jets, and has quite strong views even on the seating arrangements used in airplane design. A Tamil is some one who Le Roi designates as "my people, as my fellow Canadians of Tamil decent (who) passionately articulated the plight of our loved and unlucky ones we left behind. And, Le Roi notes "some of the speeches eloquently, encyclopedically and exhaustively expressed the sentiments of Tamil self-determination". Le Roi Rainville reaches his "Tamil Nirvana" in the Hilton ballroom, basking in Tamil "Glory". People like me are too old, too simple, not up-to-class, and not racist at all to be involevd in these gatherings.

The article always talks of "my people". Did these "people" talk in Tamil, or English with a smattering of French? Why use Kalla-French, e.g., " Eelam pour fait", when there is Nalla-Thamil? The Tamil classics, the wisdom of the Munis, or the folk poetry of the modern "pure-dravida" movements - these do not come to the mind of Le Roi instinctively. They are foreign to him. Satre and Shakespeare, Racine and Rambeaud, or perhaps Atwood and Cohen are more resonant in the minds of these "faux-Tamoules". So is it surprising that it is Jean-Paul Satre's 1946 quote "Man is condemned to be free. Condemned because he did not create himself,..." that comes to his mind? Of course the Manu-Dharma and the practice in our villages even to modern times had enacted quite a different reality. Did Le Roi verify that all "his people" were also from his particular "first-class" segment of Tamil "varnas"? Does he not understand that everything he has written is purely racist? Does he not understand that this is exactly the kind of language found in the writings of Nazi intellectuals who hummed Wagner or misquoted Nietzsche to eulogize "the well-dressed, energetic men and women, young and seasoned (Siegfried like), professional and industrious Tamils who roamed around, worked the room ..." developing the idea of an exclusive Tamil Eelam, based on the "Tamil-nation mindset". The article reeks of smug hubris and self-satisfaction at one's own sterling quality.

But who is a Tamil? Is Roi Rainville a Tamil? Is, say, Wakeley Paul not a Tamil only in name and maternal mitochondira? Or is he just an existentialist Tamil rather than a "vrai Tamoule"? What was the concession to Tamil culture that was to be seen at this well-heeled gathering of Thimpu Tamils? Or may be the "mayonnaise" was made with "vin-aigre de Jaffna"?. These are men who call themselves Tamils, but have absolutely nothing to do with the ordinary Tamils who have been treated as the "servant class" of the Thimpu Tamils, the land-minders of the absentee Tamils (who are ready to make their Thesavalam claims when needed ), and finally consigned to perish as the cannon fodder and human shield of Prabhakaran.

When we go to Narapalasingham, Sabaratnam, Satheesan Kumaran, or the leaders of the "resurgent Eros", we read with consternation and pain that they are still proposing to "the Tamils", a future based on the failed politics that was dished out to them when they were young people.Thus we see that, even after Killinochchi's fall, even after three decades of an extra-parliamentary struggle which has reduced the Tamils to a minority group almost smaller than the Muslims, Dr. Narapalasingham is still quoting the LTTE leader and using one version of the bankrupt Chelvanayagam-Wilson aeteology of the so called "national question". Reading him, it would seem that he has started off, in one augenblick, with a strong endorsement of the militant approach of Prabhakaran and his supporters in the Diaspora. Although younger Tamils like Dr. Narapalasingham, growing up within the charged rhetoric of the 1950s and 1960s easily identify themselves as "Tamils" having the "Tamil-nation mindset", some of us from an older generation will never find it possible to accept racism even if it is presented as a means of "empowering a minority". Please permit me to explain this moral sensitivity which seems to be total non-existent among a certain class of Tamils belonging to the polarized generation powered by its own hubris- i.e., the Thimpu Tamils.

How does Dr.Narapalasingham define, or identify, a Tamil? Is he going to use the "Paalthi" (bucket) test that Ernest McIntyre, one of our playwrite-actors had constructed into a great English dramatic piece? Can a Tamil pronounce the Sinhala word (Baaldhi) for a "bucket"? Biology is no help, and that most Sinhalese and Tamils have lived together and changed ethnic identities many times over is well known. The pure Sinhalese and the pure Tamil exist only in their respective minds. This is why Monseigneur Roi Rainville has to seek an existentialist definition of a Tamil - a form of " l'etre et neante"?

The Sinhalese-racists also should ask "who is a Sinhalese?" Not so long ago the Kandyans claimed for themselves a separate ethnic group distinct from the low-country Sinhalese who had significant admixture of Kauvrava immigrants from India. The Kandyans even asked for a separate administration from Soulbury. But today the low-country versus Kandyan ethnic division has essentially disappeared. On the other hand,if Soulbury had granted a separate status to the Kandyans (as had been the case prior to the Donoughmore constitution), these regional differences would have been sealed into law and we would have had internecine battles between those two "ethnicities" as well.

Kandiyan Ethnicity and Caste Identity

During the time when the Kandyans claimed themselves to be a separate ethnic group (with its own traditions, own land, and several centuries of regal history), an attempt was made by Ponnambalam Ramanathan to inscribe into the law, a feature that the Tamil politicians regarded as fundamental to Hindu Culture and Hindu Society". Ramnathan led several delegations to the Colonial office in London asking the British to include the Caste System as an integral part of the law of the land. It was caste, and not ethnicity that dominated the politics of Ceylon prior to the rise of G.G.Ponnambalam. Earlier, Ponnambalam Arunachalam was elected by the Sinhalese to represent them in the old legislature because his pristine caste credentials were more important, even in the eyes of the Sinhalese, than his racial identity.

However, what if the British had followed the strident demands of virtually all the Tamil leaders of that era, and introduced an anglicized form of the "Law of Manu" into the constitution of Ceylon? The Tamil leaders were partly responsible for disenfranchising the estate workers by excluding them from the universal franchise (recommended by the Donoughmore constitution). They succeeded because they got the support of the Kandyan Sinhalese as well in forcing Governor Stanley to introduce an order in Council excluding the estate Tamils. To me, the efforts of the Thimpu Tamils of today to define ethnic enclaves in the name of "power devolution" appear exactly like the modern parallel of the narrow-minded machinations of the Tamil leaders of that era which has been analyzed in detail by the British historian Jane Russell. The Thimpu Tamils of today are the children and grand-children of the earlier leaders who felt that the caste system was a god-given necessity requiring legislative recognition.

The absurdity of the Eros program

Arular Arudpragasam, discussing the "agenda of the resurgent EROS", specifies a three-point program:

1. Recognition and establishment of the statehood of Tamil people within the frame work of a united Sri Lanka established over the North East Territory which the Tamil people claim as their homeland

2. Assuring the due share of Tamil people in the Central government

3. The grant of full compensation to the Tamil people so that they can
restart their life.

So we see that we are back to the usual fruitless constitutional haggling that has been the hallmark of Tamil politics since the 1930s. The Hill-country Tamils are as usual excluded from the "Homeland". These three points may be what the Thimpu Tamils want. These are their existentialist needs. However, most Tamils living in the North and the East, the poor Tamils of the hills, have needs which are basic "animal" needs and NOT these "existentialist" needs. Since the 1930s, the Tamil villager had needed jobs, houses, roads, good health, education, justice, and dignity. The Tamil leaders who represented us in Colombo worried about their existentialist needs, and ignored the basic needs.

They prevented the building of Causeways and roads as they did not want the villagers to become too "uppity". They prevented the upgrading of local government or land reform. The equivalent of the "Paddy Lands act" that transformed the south never touched us. We still have Thesavalam with the owners living in New Jersey, USA or Scarborough, Canada. The good side of Socialism that slowly but surely transformed Sinhalese society did not have any effect on us. The church played some role as a liberator, but only to clamp down its own version of oppression.

Let us consider the Blacks (Hispanics or Jews) of the USA and imagine that they had also begun a struggle for self-determination, following the formula of EROS.

1. Recognition and establishment of statehood in the southern USA

2.Assuring due share of Black people in the Federal government of the USA

3. Grant of full compensation to the Blacks for the oppression and exploitation they suffered.

Replace the blacks here with the Hispanics, and include California also into the Traditional homelands. Point out bitterly that California and the West have been colonized by the white Anglos, and demand a separate Hispanic state.

Is not such politics utterly stupid and bound to fail? Unfortunately, that is the divisive politics advocated by the Thimpu Tamils, the resurgent Eros, and the TNA to create a reality of this "Tamil-nation mindset". It is the same political stupidity which makes a minority to move its struggle out of parliament to an extra-parliamentary struggle.Such struggles are always heavily weighed in favour of the majority.and those who can claim that might is right. We as a minority have to do everything to strengthen the parliament.

Mahavamsa mindset and the Tamil-nation mindset

The attempt to counter the "Mahavamsa mindset" with the "Thimpu Tamil-nation mindset" can never work in Sri Lanka. The more basic unity of the economic and "animal" needs of humans have to come before these "existentialist" mindsets. If we can get rid of these "Tamil" power brokers, and "Sinhalese" power brokers, the country can go forward WITHOUT insisting on the "Tamilness" or the "Sinhalaness" as the important issue. It may seem impossible to do so at this moment, especially if you are a Thimpu Tamil. But history shows that we succeeded in getting rid of the all important caste issues of the 20th century, or the Kandyan/Low-country ethnicity of the pre-independence era. The Hill-country Tamils have found a firm niche in the social fabric of the country. Let the Thimpu Tamils stick to the Hilton ball room and discuss their "Tamil nation" in English, with a few French "bon mots:" thrown in. But let them LEAVE THE ISLAND NATION AND ITS INHABITANTS ALONE, They have to learn to put aside their Tamilness and their Sinhalaness. The "Tamilnation mindset" is already outdated even among the wealthy intellectuals, while it was never important to the poor Tamils and the Hill Tamils.

The only way poor Tamils can ensure that they would not be bossed by some local strong man (possibly with strong links to the Thimpu Tamils) is by insisting on a STRONG CENTRAL GOVERNMENT, with NO devolution of power that could end up in the hands of some oppressor. The All party representative committee (ARPC), which does not even include the main opposition, United National Party in its consultations, should best be retired to the Hilton ballroom in Canada to hold its discourses with Roi Rainville and other Bourbons of the wealthy Periya-Dorai clan.
- Sri Lanka Guardian