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Ruminations of a Sri Lankan Tamil

By Romesh Jayaratnam

(February 17, Kandy, Sri Lanka , Sri Lanka Guardian) When an individual repeatedly fails to achieve his aims in life, it is only natural that he look inwards and analyze the reasons for his failure. The same principle would apply to a people. The Sri Lankan Tamils had fared well before independence. I attribute this to its vibrant Tamil Hindu political, religious and intellectual leadership. Arumuka Navalar, Muttu Coomaraswamy, Ponnambalam Arunachalam, Ponnambalam Ramanathan, Waithialingam Duraiswamy, Swami Vipulananda, Kandiah Vaithianathan, Yoga Swamikal, Ananda Coomaraswamy and Arunachalam Mahadeva stand out as pre-eminent visionaries. Unfortunately, Sri Lankan Tamils have had a track record of failure since 1956. Part of this can be attributed to the refusal of the Sinhalese Buddhist to accept that the Tamils have lived and intermittently ruled in Sri Lanka for the past 2,200 years. This led to a policy of discrimination against the Ceylon Tamils in land alienation, employment in the state sector, university admissions and language policy.

However, the purpose of this article is to look inwards at those contributory factors internal to Sri Lankan Tamil society. Although the current Sinhalese polity is dysfunctional as witnessed in the high handedness of the Rajapakse administration, this should not detract the Tamil community from its own introspection. We need to review the legacy of post-1956 Tamil politics in a detached manner. The politics of barren confrontation has failed to deliver the goods. The inheritance of Samuel James Chelvanayakam and his Federal Party, now the Tamil National Alliance, achieved little for the Tamil community since that year. It only triggered riots, bombs, displacement, refugee camps and the destruction of Tamil villages and homes. It provided the opening for Sinhalese belligerence. We are now a people largely displaced and bereft of confidence.

There are three Tamil speaking groups in Sri Lanka. The indigeneous 'Sri Lankan Tamils' are one. Sri Lankan historical chronicles describe the first Tamil invasions of the island in the 2nd century BC. Three Tamil kings stand out in the pre-Christian era i.e. Senan, Guttikan and Ellalan. The colonial-era Tamils of Indian origin, also known as the 'Estate Tamils,' are a second category. The Tamil-speaking 'Sri Lankan Moors' are a third. The Moors define themselves by the Muslim religion, not by language. The Tamil language has not been a sufficient glue to unite the three census categories. The indigenous 'Sri Lankan Tamils' have disproportionately suffered since the 1990s. Let me focus on them at this point.

The Sri Lankan Tamils are divided by religion. The Hindus constitute 85% of the Tamil community. A well organized and well funded Tamil Christian minority also exists. The Sri Lankan Tamils are likewise divided by geography with those in the East refusing to accept the leadership of the North. The East never owed allegiance to the pre-colonial Kingdom of Jaffna. The regional divisions as epitomized by the more recent Prabhakaran-Karuna conflict helped the Sri Lankan military defeat the LTTE. Sri Lankan Tamil politics has had no achievement since 1956. The Tamils have only faced defeat, destruction and mayhem due to their own lack of political common sense.

Tamil Christians played a disproportionate role in this myopic self-defeating post-1956 secular Tamil secessionism. Samuel James Chelvanayakam jettisoned the pre-independence Tamil Hindu caution and practical good sense in favour of a strident Tamil nationalist politics. The objective was to appeal to a broader pan-Tamil separatism, encourage Tamil secessionist politics in Tamil Nadu and facilitate the conversion of Tamil Hindus to Christianity. It was Chelvanayakam who first spoke of a Dravida Nadu that would straddle either side of the Palk Straits. The Federal Party's appeal to a transnational Tamil identity succeeded when the DMK assumed power in Tamil Nadu in 1967. Fortunately for India, the economic integration of that country pre-empted the Tamil secessionist impulse.

The defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 2009 likewise weakened this brand of Tamil nationalism within Sri Lanka. This version of Tamil nationalism is now kept alive in North America and Europe. Segments of the 400,000 strong Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora try hard to keep the fires burning. Let us not forget however that most overseas Sri Lankan Tamils are devout Hindus. It is they, not the Indians, who built most Hindu temples in Australia, Canada, Europe and New Zealand. This said, the Tamil Christian diaspora controls the English-language ethno-Tamil internet , as epitomized by websites such as Tamil Net and Tamil Canadian. These on-line journals exert a lopsided influence.

TamilNet had a feature article today on the settlement of Sinhalese villagers in Tamil areas. It highlighted efforts to change the demographic character of what it called the predominantly 'Tamil Muslim' (an oxymoron in the Sri Lankan context) and 'Tamil Christian' district of Mannar. Muslims in Sri Lanka, quite aptly, refuse to define themselves as ethnic Tamils. Further, they had been subject to what had been in the eyes of some a Tamil Christian-sponsored ethnic cleansing in the Mannar district in 1990. What Tamil Net in reality laments is the movement of Buddhists into a Christian neighborhood! It appears eager to retain the Christian character of that district which had been achieved in 1990 with the eviction of the Muslims. While it is quick to flag Tamil Christian interests, it refuses to use the word Hindu on its website. It views it ok to use the word Christian but never to use the word Hindu! Tamil Net went on to condemn the political role of Buddhists monks in Sri Lanka taking pride in the alleged fact that Tamil nationalism would never permit Hindu priests to play a similar role. And yet, it has repeatedly supported a highly political Roman Catholic clergy. It is ironic that Tamil Net is purportedly dedicated to a people, four fifths of whom are Hindu!

The Toronto-based Tamil Canadian website likewise is quick to reproduce feature articles on the Sri Lankan conflict that appear in a multitude of Roman Catholic on-line journals. It rarely provides space to Hindu websites. I would add, however, that it is unfortunate that most Hindu websites rarely include Sri Lankan Tamil perspectives.

A belligerent Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism is intended to facilitate evangelization. The war-related destruction assists conversions to Christianity as witnessed in East Timor in 1975 which had until then been predominantly animist, in southern Sudan, the Biafran conflict in Nigeria that resulted in the conversion of the Igbo tribe, the Karen revolt in Myanmar, the Naga rebellion in India and in the Korean civil war which facilitated subsequent Christian missionary outreach.

The Tamils need to avoid this catastrophe. The time has come for a change in Tamil self-definition in Sri Lanka. Hinduism defined the Tamil identity in Sri Lankan history. The Tamil Buddhists in early and medieval Sri Lankan history assimilated into the Sinhalese population. The once Tamil speaking Roman Catholics living in Sinhalese areas similarly merged with the Sinhalese speaking Christians. They now speak Sinhalese and not Tamil. I refer here to the Christian residents of Negombo, of Chilaw, the Bharatas and the Colombo Chetties. The Tamil speaking Muslims in Sri Lanka never considered themselves ethnic Tamils to begin with. Many Muslim students now learn Sinhalese in lieu of Tamil. 70% of the students in Zahira College, Sri Lanka's pre-eminent center of Muslim education, study in the Sinhalese language. It was the Saivite Hindu alone who kept the Tamil identity and language alive in the context of pre-colonial and colonial Sri Lankan history.

Let us emphasize our Tamil Hindu roots in Sri Lanka. Let us mobilize our people on Hindu religious grounds to invest in development, re-integrate the refugees, educate the poor and increase employment opportunity for the rural hinterland. Let Hinduism be leveraged to develop our areas. Let us emphasize the rights of the under-privileged and marginalized. Let us strengthen the Young Men's Hindu Association, the Young Women's Hindu Association and other grass roots Hindu social service outfits in Sri Lanka. We need to revive the Hindu Board of Education to administer Government-run Hindu schools in the North and in the East. Let us start Hindu Chambers of Commerce to invest in our villages. Let us restart the Jaffna-based Hindu Organ that once provided a media commentary on current affairs. We need Hindu professional networks. Let us revive our pre-independence legacy and work towards the Loka Kalyana or the weal of all. The time has come for an enlightened political Hinduism to replace that destructive Tamil secessionism. Are we ready to rise up to that challenge?

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