Sarath Fonseka and Nation

By Izeth Hussain

(January 15, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) About a couple of years ago I had a sudden moment of illumination while viewing Pontecorvo’s film The Battle of Algiers, now established as a classic and one of the best political films ever made. It brought back to me vividly my intense emotional and intellectual involvement with that struggle during my days in Paris in the first half of the ‘sixties, the period which saw de Gaulle exercise his superb manipulative skills to give Algeria its merited independence. It brought back also my generation’s intense involvement with the Vietnamese struggle for independence and that glorious moment in 1975 – glorious for the wretched of the earth – when that tank burst through the American Embassy gate, a bastion of the American evil empire, which has still to be given its comeuppance.

My sudden moment of illumination came in the form of a question. Why is it that my generation – call it the Bandung generation – was so deeply involved with the decolonization struggle, whereas it is largely indifferent to the independence struggles of oppressed minorities? There could be several reasons of course. We must note firstly that these struggles are conceptualized negatively, not as struggles for "independence" which is a very positive term, but as secessionist or separatist which are negative terms certainly. Part of the reason of course is that majorities don’t want minorities to break away, and since majorities are dominant all over the world their negative conceptualization prevails.

But there is more to it than a majoritarian explanation suggests. Someone who is quite sympathetic to legitimate minority aspirations, and may even believe that a separatist rebellion is justified, may yet want to support it as the very last resort only. A commonsense reason for it is that if all, or most, or many ethnic groups are allowed to form their own nation-states, the world will have hundreds or thousands more of nation-states. The sane mind, of course, boggles at the prospect. But I suspect that there is something deeper underlying the aversion to breakaway movements than the endless proliferation of nation-states to which they can lead. It is, I suspect, a deep human need for unity, a unity that transcends narrow ethnic and even national bounds. But people also want to belong to groups, and if the "imagined community" of the nation is too amorphous or for some other reason cannot satisfy the need to belong to groups, it is to be expected that they will come to give more importance to belonging to an ethnic or sub-ethnic group than to the nation. There may be nothing really wrong about that. The problem arises when the group becomes self-enclosed and is not open to what is outside it – when in other words the "tribe" prevails over the "nation".

I will give two examples of what I have in mind. The Chechnya rebellion in the Russian Federation should have been seen, beyond any dispute, as the struggle of a colonized people for independence because Chechnya had been absorbed into the Czarist Empire consequent to its expansion into the Caucasus and central Asia. The independence struggle waged by Shamil inspired Tolstoy’s novelette Hajji Murad, one of the heights achieved in world literature. However, the Chechen struggle roused no more than a perfunctory interest in the rest of the world, mostly in the Islamic world and there too it was not at the mass level. Certainly there was nothing like the mass anti-imperialist fervor roused by the Algerian and Vietnamese struggles for independence. The other example I have in mind is the LTTE rebellion. It tended to be seen, particularly in the West, at least to some extent as the struggle of an oppressed national minority for independence, but it roused nothing like the fervor shown over Algeria and Vietnam. A significant fact is the contrasting reactions of the public philosophers to the four conflicts. Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre were deeply and actively involved in supporting the Algerian and Vietnam rebellions. But the comparable public philosopher of today, Noam Chomsky declared some months ago that he had taken no interest in the Tamil ethnic problem and knew little about it.

I believe that the explanation for these contrasting reactions is that the Algerian and Vietnamese struggles were seen as "nationalist", and therefore as something very positive, while the Chechen and LTTE struggles were seen as "tribalist" – though the term does not have much currency – and therefore as something retrogressive and thoroughly negative. The term "nationalism" continues to have powerful positive connotations, evoking the ideals of the Enlightenment, liberty, equality, fraternity, seen not as Eurocentric but as having a universal application, promising the emancipation of the peoples of the world from the oppression of traditional orders, and promising further a wholesome world order based on the sovereignty of the nation state as understood at the time of the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648. On the other hand the Chechen rebellion was seen as something isolated, not as part of a universalist sweep towards a better world, and holding out not a promise but a threat of retrogression to the Dark Ages under the sway of political Islam. As for the LTTE struggle, it could lead at the best to the breakup both of Sri Lanka and India, with a tiger seated on the throne of a resurrected Cholan Empire. No mighty do-gooders of the order of Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, or Noam Chomsky, could have been expected to be very enthusiastic about either of those essentially tribalist struggles.

I come now to the problem facing nationalism in the contemporary world. I argued in my article Sarath Fonseka, India etc that what triumphed after the Second World War was not nationalism but tribalism, not the coming together of ethnic and other groups to constitute nations but their recoil from each other. After decolonization a great many nation-states were born, but often they were states with no nations inside them because they had nothing like the high degree of unity that is the most striking characteristic of the successful nation-states. I was reminded of the Italian statesman who after participating in the successful struggle for Italian unification proclaimed, "We have made Italy. We must now make Italians." The process of making nations in that sense has become more difficult because for complex reasons the world has been witnessing a recoil into ethnic and other particularities, so much so that since around 1990 it has become commonplace to say that the typical politics of our time are identity politics, meaning the kind of politics in which group interests tend to predominate over other interests, including the national interest. However, despite the tribal pull some countries have managed to forge a high degree of national unity, or managed to preserve an already forged unity against new tribal threats, while others such as notably the African countries have been failing dismally. India has been among the pre-eminent successes, Sri Lanka among the pre-eminent failures.

What should be of the utmost concern to small and comparatively weak states such as Sri Lanka are the implications of a lack of unity in relation to the new world order that is shaping up. It will be a multipolar world order which in its negative aspect will almost certainly be imperialist to some extent. It is certain that India will establish itself as the South Asian polar power, and that opens out the prospect that Sri Lanka could become its satellite, mainly because of our weak sense of national unity. In that connection, I pointed in my last article to the significance of Sarath Fonseka’s sudden visit to Delhi, which though deplored by the Government was quickly followed by the Government’s own delegation going to Delhi for high level talks. Everyone knew that those visits were about the 13th Amendment, and everyone understood that India could play a determinant role in the Presidential elections by getting the TNA, and perhaps other Tamil parties, to back one or the other of the two major contenders. Both of them had behaved as if Sri Lanka is a satellite of India, and yet – the significant point that has to be emphasized – there was no expression of public outrage.

I must make a clarification at this point. It might be thought that I am making too much of those visits even though thereby our two main Presidential contenders had put themselves in the position of supplicants. India after all does have a legitimate say in the 13th Amendment because it was an outcome of the Peace Accords, and those visits were only in that connection and nothing else. However, India was clearly seen as being in a position to influence the outcome of the Presidential elections. It vividly illustrates my point that as long as we are deeply divided as a nation, foreign powers can take control of our destiny.

I come now to two developments of the greatest importance. The first is Sarath Fonseka’s allegation that the Defense Secretary gave orders to kill surrendering LTTE men. I am not concerned in the least with the veracity or otherwise of the reports on what Fonseka is supposed to have stated. Nor am I concerned with whether he was right or wrong in making his allegation. I am concerned only with the public reactions to his reported allegation, and those reactions have been of the most enormous importance. At first the reaction was clearly one of widespread outrage, so much so that it was assumed that Fonseka had destroyed his Presidential prospect or that since he had no prospect of winning he merely wanted to besmirch his opponents vengefully. But after some time that reaction changed to one of indifference, and the assumption was that that allegation made no difference to election prospects. Clearly Fonseka was no longer seen as having gone outrageously against the national interest. I believe that the explanation is that we are so divided that there is hardly a nation worth speaking about in Sri Lanka, and consequently there is no consensually agreed national interest. Going against a notional national interest therefore does not lead to a sense of outrage of a lasting order.

The other development is the sudden and unexpected declaration of TNA support for Fonseka. It appears that it amounts to unconditional support because Fonseka has not committed himself to anything substantial. It is reasonable to suppose a secret understanding in the background. How is this to be explained? Various hypotheses are possible, but the one that seems most plausible to me is that India is backing a secret understanding. According to the well-established form of many decades both of our major parties can be expected to break promises and renege on commitments on the ethnic problem. But Fonseka is not a creature of the UNP; he has the backing of several parties, he is his own man, and his position seems to be comparable to that of de Gaulle in 1958. He is equipped therefore to go against the well-established practices and malpractices of many decades. Furthermore as a soldier, one undoubtedly of exceptional quality, he can be expected to have a sound grasp of the factor of the gun in ethnic problems. The fundamental fact is that our armed forces have destroyed the guns of the LTTE but not the guns that can be deployed against us by the Delhi Government. That Government can well orchestrate mass protests in Tamil Nadu if Fonseka reneges on commitments, and also orchestrate international sympathy for our Tamils – with the help of course of our richly-talented Tamil diaspora. The situation could become quite uncomfortable for Sri Lanka.

An alternative optimistic scenario is of course conceivable, one in which Fonseka fully implements the 13th Amendment which is the minimum condition on which India insists. That could lead to much bickering and serious dissent between the centre and the devolved units. But not necessarily so because an entirely novel factor has entered into the situation. It is that the Tamils are evidently giving up their negative, non-co-operative, intransigent politics of the past – something that we can reasonably deduce from the Fonseka-TNA understanding. We could therefore be moving – even if Rajapakse wins a second term – from Sri Lanka as a conglomeration of tribes to Sri Lanka as a nation. It is a transformation in which India can help us as part of the attempt to build a new world order. But of course we can continue with our deeply-cherished tribalism, in a Sri Lanka which has little or none of the unity that is the most important – indeed the defining – characteristic of the true nation-state. We will then, sooner or later, be brought under the obverse side of the new world order – the new world imperialism.