| by Laksiri Fernando

( April 12, 2014, Sydney, Sri Lanka Guardian) I didn’t see anything particularly disagreeable when the NPC Chief Minister, C. V. Wigneswaran, interpreted the national question in Sri Lanka as the ‘question of non-recognition of nations’ on an equal basis, I might add, in the country in his Bernard Soysa memorial lecture recently. If there was any major weakness that was in respect of the binary manner that it was raised in respect of the Sinhalese and the Tamils which can raise and has raised some eyebrows. After all the selection of the topic was not of his own but apparently given by ‘brother Tissa’ as he remarked. His actual topic that day was “Brother Bernard and the National Question.” 

Rajan Philips expressed the feeling that it would have been better if ‘Justice Wigneswaran’ avoided the ‘national question’ and focused more on reconciliation and the plight of the war affected ordinary Tamils in the North. It may be the case, but I don’t see anything wrong in addressing the question forthright, and after all the topic was given to him following the Marxist or the leftist tradition of the organizers of the event. Perhaps these are the last vestiges of ‘Marxism’ in what Kumar David usually characterize as the ‘dead left.’ 

By the way, I don’t address Wigneswaran as ‘Justice’ any longer as he has now become a politician. To me ‘Justice-Chief Minister’ is an anarchronism. This would be the same if I were to address Ven. Sobitha as ‘Ven. President Sobitha’ in the future. I do value the separation between the ‘judiciary and the executive’ and also the ‘state and religion.’

Be as it may, Dayan Jayatilleka, has taken a major umbrage at Wigneswaran’s presentation particularly on what Dayan has called the ‘two nations theory.’ In his opinion, this is “a basic political claim which escalates the political conflict and places or retains Sri Lankan Tamil politics on a road to a dead end.” This may be the case, sounding patronizing a bit, if the nations are to be defined necessarily as entities evolving into separate states or the Tami national politics is understood solely moving in that direction for separation. I do see a difference particularly between the former LTTE politics and the present TNA although there are on and off parallels or similarities. They may or must have emerged from the same socio-political contexts. After all are we not going to utilize the contradictions within Tamil politics or any politics for that matter for the purposes of dialectical development? As revealed by the credible attempts to revive the LTTE again, there is as a major need to win over the moderate Tamils for a rational solution. 

To the credit of Dayan, it should be mentioned that he prefaced his critique highlighting two alleged blunders, on the part of the government and tried to strike a balance between the two sides in his criticism. Perhaps I would have done differently, keeping quiet on the unknown security matter and being milder on Wigneswaran. His criticism or questioning of Wigneswaran, however, was mentioned as the ‘flip side’ and also admitted that he himself advocated “much the same” in late 1970s. 

The central question which arose however as a result of Dayan’s criticism is: how do we identify or define a nation in Sri Lanka or in any other country for that matter? His main argument was, unfortunately based on an erroneous population percentage, to refute or question Wigneswaran’s main proposition that the “Tamil speaking peoples of Sri Lanka constitute a nation from an objective standpoint and consider themselves to constitute a nation.” 

It may be the case that certain components or propositions within that statement or other statements could be considered inconsistent or even counterfactual but that is not a reason to refute or reject Tamils in Sri Lanka as a nation. These inconsistencies are common in identifying any ‘nation’ in the world today including the Sinhalese. It should be understood that what was published was a manuscript of a political speech and not a manifesto or a political discourse. It is important that Wigneswaran identified the language as the main objective criteria recognizing what we normally called ‘ethnicity.’ However, when ‘religion’ is taken into account the picture or the political chemistry differs. 

Dayan does not have any objection to identify Tamils as an ethnicity or ethnic community but his difficulty is about according the status of a ‘nation,’ yet based on a population criteria. In my opinion and according to studies what converts an ethnicity into a ‘nation’ is not primarily the size or the percentage of population but politics. The size or the percentage might become at issue when the recognition is concerned, national or international. In this respect, the percentage might be more inaccurate than the size of the population. Take the example of the Tibetans in China. They constitute only around 0.5 percent of the total population but if we disregard their national claims based on that percentage it might be a gross injustice. At the same time it is true that without a sizable population the conversion also might not be possible whatever the claims, historical or political. The Tibetans are around 6.5 million. 

It is not only one ethnicity that can create a nation. A nation can be composed of several ethnicities or ‘sub-nations’ if there is necessary threshold of political consensus. A shared heritage or common history, as in the case of Sri Lanka, also can be an added ingredient for different ethnicities to come together. Here we are talking about the term nation in two meanings. First is a ‘political or civic nation’ defined primarily by political criteria and second an ‘ethnic or cultural nation,’ defined primarily by sociological criteria. We sometimes get confused about the two. There are over 7,000 distinct ethnic communities in the world today but there are only 193 recognized political nations or nation states under the UN system.

The states or political nations that are primarily based on one ethnicity do not number more than a dozen. Even within them there are small minorities. Multi-ethnic or multi-national (in the ethnic sense) living is the reality. As a former Secretary General of the UN, Boutros Boutros-Ghali once emphasized (Agenda for Peace, 1992), if all the distinct cultural communities ask for separate states, the world would be unmanageable in terms of global security and peace. Since then, of course there have been new breakaways, even sanctioned by the UN, but those have not resolved the problems of ethnicity or ethnic conflicts in any tangible manner. The creation of separate states is not feasible in some cases, and quite unnecessary in most of the others. 

People obviously differ in identifying the ‘national question’ in Sri Lanka or elsewhere. That depends on one’s ideology or approach and also the context within which that identification or definition is explored. Talking about the ‘national question,’ the way that we have been discussing the problem in Sri Lanka, has been largely determined by the Marxian or more correctly Leninist lexicon. That is however not the only way to do so although it is very much better than the pure nationalist approaches on the question. 

As stated before, Wigneswaran defined the national question as the “question that has arisen on account of the non-recognition of nations in Sri Lanka.” That is obviously one way of defining it and there is nothing much to contradict it. When I was writing on the “Two Dimensions of the National Question” in June 2012, I characterized the second or the internal dimension of the national question as the “Tamil national question or the national question of the minorities particularly of the Tamils and the Muslims” and also stated that “as ethnic nations or national groups in society, they rightfully aspire for national equality in many spheres and denial of them has led, on the part of the Tamils, to demand ‘autonomy,’ ‘federalism’ (internal self-determination) and ‘separation’ (external self-determination).” There is nothing much difference between his definition and my definition, even if we take his argument about the ‘two nations’ also into consideration. 

But previously, I have interpreted the (internal) national question in Sri Lanka (see “Sri Lanka’s Predicament: Ethno Nationalism versus Civic Nationalism,” 2007) differently as the “failure of Sri Lanka to build a consensual political or a civic nation going beyond, while recognizing, the ethnic or cultural nations.” This definition may be more overarching and more acceptable than we define the problem narrowly in highlighting the negative aspects. In this broader definition, the responsibilities are highlighted both on the part of the majority as well as the minorities in resolving Sri Lanka’s national question. 

I do owe a reply, belatedly though, to Dayan to his more specific questioning of the feasibility of the recognition of ‘Tamils as a nation’ in Sri Lanka and also conceptualizing, in his opinion, how to resolve the national or the ethnic question. Let me first consider the most crucial question/s that he has posed. 

“Can any democratic political party in the island’s South, ranging from the UNP to the JVP, be convinced into recognizing the Sri Lankan Tamils of the North and East as a nation? If not, isn’t the Chief Minister’s very definition of the problem such that it precludes 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, however falling far short of recognizing the same equality for the Muslim community. One merit of Leninist approach to the national question at the beginning of the 20th century had been to take the ‘equality and the language’ question as central whatever the other rigidities in terms of linking a nation necessarily to a claim for a separate state or self-determination in that sense. 

I think we should take the national question in Sri Lanka in the same spirit, minus the rigidity or mechanical connection between the ‘nation and secession.’ Whatever the good norms that the UN has developed on minority rights, while I do appreciate and advocate them, they have not reached the ‘Leninist heights’ in terms of the political aspects of the minority question or the national question in general. By the way, Lenin was basing himself on ‘bourgeoisie’ experiences and particularly of Switzerland. We can do the same today. 

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. The notion of ‘cultural nations’ is not my own but I am borrowing from Hugh Seton-Watson (Nations and States) although I am not in a position to quote him at present. 

What is a cultural nation? In essence it is what we understand as Jati. Don’t we call Sinhalese, Tamils and also Muslims as Jati? We do. A cultural nation is a group of people based on language, tradition, culture or religion who consider themselves to be distinct and equal in dignity and rights to other cultural nations in a political nation. Equality here does not mean quantitative equality but qualitative equality. The recognition of cultural nations in Sri Lanka does not also negate the history of the country but instead it reinforces the healthy traditions of the past. 

The recognition of cultural nations resonate the traditions of South Asia. The Indo-Lanka Accord in fact went a long way in resurrecting that tradition but today it may require certain additions. It was Prithvi Narayan Shah, who united Nepal in the mid-19th century that characterized Nepal as a “flower garden of thirty two Jatis and four Varnas.” It is a similar harmonious ‘flower garden’ that Sri Lanka needs to grow with equal rights to each and every cultural nation. 

Whether this kind of a recognition of Tamils and Muslims along with the Sinhalese as ‘equal cultural nations’ will be acceptable by the democratic political parties in the South (SLFP, UNP and JVP) and whether this recognition is suffice to satisfy the aspirations of particularly the Tamils are yet to be seen. Recognition of equality is however a major task of democracy or democratization in Sri Lanka.


ARCHIVES FROM AUGUST 2007 TO JANUARY 2015