Book review: Tamil militancy in perspective

Title: Pathways of Dissent – Tamil Nationalism in Sri Lanka Published by SAGE Publications India Pvt Ltd, Edited by R. Cheran

By Lynn Ockersz

(October 28, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) At a time when public discourse in Sri Lanka on the ethnic conflict and the issues growing out of it is bristling with misconceptions, misperceptions, jaundiced judgments, and even down right lies, this book makes a welcome entry into our midst with the abundant capability of putting the record straight on a multiplicity of such heatedly-contested matters. Chief among these issues on which clarity and perspicacity is remarkably achieved is the nature of Tamil militancy.

‘Freedom fighters’ or ‘terrorists’?; this is probably one of the most contentious issues to be raised about the LTTE. On reading some of the learned papers in Pathways of Dissent, one soon begins to detect the highly simplistic, superficial nature of the thinking that underlies this poser, over which hairs have been needlessly split over the years in particularly Southern Sri Lanka. The truth which dawns is that Tamil militancy is far too complex a political phenomenon to be broached in these starkly blanket terms – ‘terrorist’ or ‘freedom fighter’?

The correct approach to understanding Tamil militancy of particularly the LTTE kind, is to place the phenomenon in the socio-political conditions within which it has had its origins and evolution. It goes without saying that the militancy of the LTTE eventually degenerated into unalloyed barbaric violence but it must be clearly comprehended that such ruthlessness arose in reaction to the repressive and equally virulent and destructive ethno-populist violence of sections of the Southern polity. The 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom in Sri Lanka is a case in point.

In his thought-provoking paper, Towards Understanding Militant Tamil Nationalism in Sri Lanka, Ravi Vaitheespara, Associate Professor of History at the University of Manitoba, Canada, says, in the course of making a case for the continuous use of analytical categories, such as, neo-colonialism, class and caste, to understand Tamil militancy, that it is the excesses committed by the Tigers that made the use of the term ‘terror’ to describe their activism, seem acceptable. He explains:

‘While this shift may be understandable to some extent in light of the level of violence and extremism of Tamil militancy, what is less understandable is the accompanying tendency to not highlight the relationship between state repression and the violence of Tamil militancy or to completely shift the source and focus of the "national problem" to Tamil militancy or "Tamil terrorism" – it is a tendency that has been amplified a great deal in the popular media in the South and abroad. It is hardly surprising that the post-9/11 discourse on terrorism has only helped this tendency.’

We are reminded by papers such as these of the abject failure of public discourse in this country on the ethnic issue, to strike any qualitative depth and of the fact that it has been continuously nourished by mainstream, superficial popular perceptions that fail to place Tamil militancy in particular in the correct perspective. In other words, the ‘alternative discourse’ on the National Question has failed to strike deep root in the local political culture or has been effectively drowned out by the propaganda of the South’s ethno-populist forces. This is a vital poser for those sections which are seeking to promote an informed public debate on the National Question.

Another ‘must read’ in this collection of eye-opening papers is the one titled Nationalism, Historiography and Archaeology in Sri Lanka by S.K. Sitrampalam, Emeritus Professor of the University of Jaffna. This could be considered a comprehensive overview of the issues in a multiplicity of disciplines which are essential for an insightful understanding of the ethnic conflict. Particularly illuminating are the writer’s findings in the course of his archaeological and historiographic studies, which lend credence to the notion of the Tamils’ separate nationhood. The following are just some of the more ‘quotable quotes’:

‘The study of Brahmi inscriptions datable to the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC shows that there were 269 pre-state chieftaincies throughout the island (Gunawardana 1982). The author of the Mahavamsa says that by killing 32 Damila kings Dutthagamani (in the 2nd century BC) became sovereign ruler of Sri Lanka (Geiger 1950).’

‘However, the colonization of the Tamil areas became an obsession of the Sinhalese politicians inspired by the concept of Sihaladipa. This is evident in the biography of D.S. Senanayake entitled Sri Lanka’s First Prime Minister, Don Stephen Senanayake (D.S.) written by H.A.J. Hulugalle (1975). He states how D.S. Senanayake followed the model of Jewish settlements planted in traditional Palestine territory in order to deprive the latter if their homeland.’

‘A new confederation of Kandyan leaders crystallized into a new political association in December 1925 as the Kandyan National Assembly. In 1929, the Kandyan National Assembly fostered the case for a type of federal system when its membership gave evidence to the Special Commission on the constitution of 1927 (Donoughmore Commission).’

V. Nithyanandam, Professor of Economics, Department of Commerce, Massey University, New Zealand, in his paper The Economics of Tamil Nationalism, Evolution and Challenges comprehensively sets out a relatively underemphasized dimension in the development of Tamil nationalism – the crippling economic conditions underlying Tamil grievances. Beginning from the earliest imperialistic infiltrations of Sri Lanka, and the policy measures that came in their wake, the writer gives us a detailed study of the increasing economic marginalization of the Tamil community. On reading this insightful analysis, one comes to understand why confrontation rather than continued accommodation, became an inevitable option for some sections of the Tamil community.

A very useful appendix by Santasilan Kadirgamar, former teacher of Modern History and International Politics, Universities of Jaffna and Colombo, titled Jaffna Youth Radicalism – The 1920s and 1930s, brings this ground-breaking collection of papers, by some of the leading minds of the Tamil community, edited and put together by R. Cheran, Assistant Professor, Dept. of Sociology, University of Windsor, Canada, to a close. On reading it one begins to perceive the promising, progressive directions in which Tamil politics would have developed at the beginning of the last century, if this salutary trend had not been thwarted by the virulent communalism in sections of the South.

All on all, Pathways of Dissent meets a long-felt but neglected need in Sri Lanka’s efforts to more fully understand what went wrong in the island’s post-independence political history, from the point of view of the articulate sections of the Tamil community. It helps greatly in coming to grips with the ‘other side of the story’.
-Sri Lanka Guardian
jean-pierre said...

Insterestingly enough, Cheran has got his LTTE buddies to write all the article. I don't call this scholarship. As a Tamil, I am ashamed of the blatantly negativist and false historiographic approach of these ``intellectuals". The upper class Tamils had a very strong postion economically and socially most of the time, while the lower caste Tamils were even prevented from having roads to their villages (bu preventing the building of causeways etc). But this book puts out a totally different, false picture.