A Response to Profs Kumar David & Laksiri Fernando

| by Dr Dayan Jayatilleka

“The multitude of workers and peasants...cannot allow the dismemberment of the nation...”
- Antonio Gramsci (1919)
“Gramsci’s strategy follows from his concept—quite original in Marxism, of the working class as part of the nation”
- Eric Hobsbawm (‘Gramsci and Political Theory’)

( April 13, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Intervening in the debate on Tamil nationhood and self-determination Prof Kumar David accuses me of abandoning my youthful Leninism (‘Self-Determination as a 21-C Concept-Justice Wigneswaran and Dr Jayatilleka use outdated categories’, Kumar David, Sunday Island, April 13th 2014). I debated Prof Kumar David on the same question exactly three and a half decades ago in the Lanka Guardian. I was twenty two. In the latter half of my fifties I am far too old, and the Sri Lankan crisis has gone on for far too long, at the cost of at least one blighted generation, to permit myself the indulgence of existential experiments and adventures with ideological prisms, tattered maps and rusted weapons. To me, ideology, Leninist or otherwise, has little to do with my practice as a political scientist, analyst and ‘public intellectual’. I try my poor best to get at the fundamentals, the essence and the real dynamics of things. Lenin matters as a political thinker and practitioner of genius. To me, as a political scientist working in the 21st century and in the global south, Gramsci matters even more.

Sri Lanka’s abiding problem and the driving force of its decades-long crisis which antedated, produced and survived the war, is the relationship between the two major communities that share the island, one located almost entirely in its Southern two thirds, the other in its North-East. That’s a polite way of putting it. There is another.

The story—the long narrative— of this place is one of the coexistence and contention of two tribes striving to share this island. It is the story of the complex and shifting relations of power between these two collectives with their distinctive identities.

One may flip it around. The story of the island is that of the relationship that the two communities have tried to establish with this place and each other.

Who wields power over the island? Is there or should there be irreducible political leadership for one and irreducible political space for the other? How many power centres should or can the island contain and should these be equal or in a hierarchy?

What is the relationship between the island and the rest of the world, beginning with its neighbourhood? What is the relationship between the main communities on the island and the rest of the world?

What should be the character of the state, which mediates all these relationships— those between the constituent components of the island’s populace as well as between them and the world?

Those are the real questions.

Prof Kumar David has deleted the term and concept ‘minority’ from his lexicon. He has also deleted the term ‘nationality’. National minorities and minority nationalities do not seem to exist, in his rendition. The implication is that all ethnic groups are at equal stages of development wherever they are and whichever the society they are in. There are no minorities or nationalities which have not yet evolved and perhaps never will evolve to the stage of nationhood. For him, it is sufficient for whatever ethnic group of whichever size and proportion, to perceive itself as a nation, for it to possess the right of self determination up to and including the right of secession. Of course Prof David leaves to the discretion of this or that ethnic group or political leadership to actually exercise that right up to the point of secession. What he does insist on is that the right be recognised.

To apply this to the Tamils of Sri Lanka and to say that Justice Wigneswaran’s Two Nations claim is almost impeccably Leninist, is a travesty— because Lenin did not and could not deal with the issue of the national question as it emerges at the periphery of the world system, especially, but not exclusively in the post-colonial world. Lenin dealt superbly with the National and Colonial Questions, i.e. those questions of ethnicity within the imperialist states such as Tsarist Russia, as well as those of nations fighting to emerge as such against colonial and semi-colonial oppression. Sri Lanka is not an imperialist formation nor is it an autocracy. Thus it is not in the least similar to Tzarist Russia. It is a postcolonial state, a constitutional republic and a (barely) functioning democracy. The problem of ethnicity and collective identities in Sri Lanka and the independent states of the global South is a post-Leninist problem.

For his part, Prof Laksiri Fernando (who shares an ideological affinity with Prof Kumar David in that they were/are Trotskyists) presents the following as a solution:

“Although I cannot read the mind of the Chief Minister, as far as I can understand, he raises a valid question of equality between the ethnic communities...One way of resolving the national question and ending the confrontation is to recognize the Sinhalese, the Tamils and the Muslims as equal ‘cultural nations’ constituting the democratic ‘political nation’ of Sri Lanka. There is no question that the formulations in the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord are useful principles in bridging the understanding between the communities if they are properly acted upon. However, they are not enough...Equality here does not mean quantitative equality but qualitative equality.” (‘Recognition of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims as Equal Cultural Nations Might Be A Solution’, Laksiri Fernando, Colombo Telegraph, April 12, 2014)

There is a case to be made for devolution and a sustainable measure of autonomy, but Profs David and Fernando are not making it. Indeed the claims of Tamil nationhood, equal (cultural) nations, and the right of self-determination work in precisely the opposite direction.

The communities that inhabit the island are not equal in size. One of them amount to almost three fourths of the population. The other by definition, doesn’t come anywhere close. That is a reality. The one that is much smaller has a huge community of co-ethnics across a narrow strip of water. That is also a reality.

While all citizens of Sri Lanka must be equal (which they are not, while the constitution embeds hierarchy) and all citizens and communities must be free from discrimination as individuals and collectives, it is neither desirable nor possible to render majorities and minorities equal, in conceptual or legal terms. Demographic realities mirrored by electoral democracy reinforce the unevenness that prevails in any society. This unevenness cannot be ignored or flattened. The original sin of Tamil nationalism has been to reject the inevitable unevenness that electoral democracy reflects, and to insist on an unattainable and artificial equality. Thus the slogan of ‘50:50’ which is on a continuum with that of the claim of nationhood equal to that of the Sinhalese, quite irrespective of the demographic and thus the electoral realities. While the Sinhalese must not be permitted to oppress the Tamils or the Muslims, and all such oppression should be resisted; while all citizens of the country must possess equality of rights irrespective of identity, it is quite another thing to insist on the equation of the communities as collectives, in terms of political power—which is the hub of the call for 50:50 or the claim of Two Nations enjoying the right of self-determination.

By insisting on the equal status of that which cannot be equalised, Profs Kumar David and Laksiri Fernando transpose to the realm of inter-ethnic relations, the error denounced by Engels as “vulgar, petty bourgeois egalitarianism”.

Of course the matter does not end there, as it would if one’s unit of analysis were to be the nation and nothing else. But if we shift to the larger unit of analysis, the world system, the landscape and the considerations undergo change. The strategy of Tamil nationalism is to harness the external — the demographic weight and spread of the Tamils outside the island—to redress the balance or, as is increasingly the case, to seek political exit.

It would seem from Tamil political behaviour, that embedded in the Tamil psyche is the notion that if the Tamils of the North and East cannot live as politically equal with the Sinhalese on the island —-they would prefer to live in a separate and independent political formation. To this intent and purpose, they supported and sustained a cruel war waged by a barbaric militia, and they now seek to attain the same aim through appeals to and manipulation of external institutions and powers. This striving is quite distinct from a struggle for equality in a civic sense, which can be perfectly satisfied by a combination of the electoral and the legal, using the discourse of minority rights (rather than national self determination) and a combination of the strategies of the Civil Rights Movement of the US and the Catholics of Northern Ireland.

Which is the more important reality — the internal or the external—and which will prove the more important reality in the future? That remains to be seen and will depend not only on military power but political and economic power. The Sri Lankan political elite does have political will, which is why it won the war. However, it is blinkered, obtuse and inept in the realms of world politics, strategy and grand strategy. Therefore having won the military contestation, which both leveraged and tilted the balance in favour of the island’s internal realities, it is losing the political, diplomatic, ideological and legal contestation. The outcome of this defeat will shift the balance in the direction of determination by external realities.

To return to Prof Laksiri Fernando’s urging of the recognition of equal cultural nations, I find Godfrey Gunatilleke’s formulations of 15 years ago far more convincing if far less ‘politically correct’. He writes: “In the modern Sri Lankan context the conditions have to be such that each ethnic and cultural identity will find its proportional weight and presence in our society. Each will need to recognise and accept this configuration...The modus vivendi that is implied here redefines equality within a framework which recognises the reality of collective identities and the difference in the relative weight and presence of these identities when they enter into any partnership.”

This is from the concluding segment of the finest single piece of writing I have read on the ethnic issue and Sri Lankan politics: Godfrey Goonetilleke’s ‘The Ideologies and Realities of the Ethnic Conflict— A Postface’ (in ‘Sri Lanka: Collective Identities Revisited Vol II’ ed. Michael Roberts, Marga Institute, 1998, pp.363-429). The essay’s Conclusion, pertinently entitled ‘Equality, Proportionality and Equity in a Multiethnic Society’, anticipates and answers the very problems raised by Wigneswaran, Kumar David, Laksiri Fernando and myself.


[Dr Dayan Jayatilleka’s latest book ‘The Fall of Global Socialism: A Counter-narrative from the South’ has been published this month by Palgrave Macmillan, UK]