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There Aren’t Two Equal Nations (Or More) In Sri Lanka

Rejoinder to Prof. Laksiri Fernando

| by Dayan Jayatilleka

( April 15, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Laksiri feigns surprise that I sought to place Kumar David and him in the same category and rebut them in the same polemic. The reason should be obvious: they both defend Chief Minister Wigneswaran’s claim of Tamil nationhood and make the same claim themselves with some modifications. I reject it.

Let me put it as bluntly as I can.

There is no Tamil nation in Sri Lanka, but there is a Tamil minority in Sri Lanka. There is however a Sinhala nation in Sri Lanka. That is the only ethnic community on the island which can claim the status of a nation as such. Though they do have a just claim to autonomy and devolution, the Tamils of Sri Lanka do not have the right of national self-determination, be it external or internal.

An overarching Sri Lankan nation will contain only one ethnic nation within it-- the Sinhalese; the other communities are either minority nationalities or national minorities, which should have all the rights accorded to such communities by the UN. They should also be free of any discrimination, in compliance with the UN’s Durban declaration.

It is trickery for Laksiri to equate even by implication, the reference in the Preamble of the UN Charter to ‘nations’-- which clearly pertains to UN member states-- with ethnic or cultural communities within a member state. One does not follow from the other.

Laksiri's point that the Tamils may be a numerical minority in Sri Lanka but are not so outside of Sri Lanka has significance only as an important strategic problem for the Sri Lankan state. It has no significance in terms of status or conceptual definition. How for instance, does the fact of 70 million Tamils in Tamil Nadu give the Tamils of Sri Lanka the status of a nation? How can citizens of another country have rights as a community or lay claim to enhanced status for an existing ethnic community within Sri Lanka?

There are no ‘equal cultural nations’ in Sri Lanka as suggested by Laksiri. The Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims are not equal cultural nations and there is no basis to recognise them as such. There cannot be equal cultural nations in a country in which one community is 74%. One cannot make equal that which is not. Culture will evolve by osmosis or transmission.

What on earth does Laksiri mean by ‘qualitatively equal’? It is striking that he has avoided reference to Godfrey Goonetilleke’s lucid formulation on the subject of ‘equality, proportionality and equity’. I suggest that Laksiri study his entire essay. Since Laksiri obviously needs it to sink in, let me repeat the point Godfrey made, which sums up my perspective far better than I can express it:

“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.” (My emphases-DJ)

I didn't say that Prof Fernando and David belonged to the same party; I said that they were both Trotskyists and as far I know still are or seem to be. Certainly they are co-thinkers, and fellow travellers of Tamil nationalism. They certainly didn’t support the war to defeat the fascist-secessionist Tigers.

According to Prof Fernando, Marx, Engels and Gramsci were wrong on the national question. Well, I'd rather be wrong with them than right with Laksiri (or Ephraim Nimni). I might add that I disagree entirely with Nimni’s (quasi-Trotskyist) critique (what a coincidence!) of Gramsci on the national question. I am entirely in agreement with Gramsci’s stress on the project of national and state unification, and his positive reappraisal of Machiavelli also on that score.

Laksiri Fernando and Kumar David should ask themselves why no ruling party which professes to be Communist or guided by Marxism-Leninism, shares their interpretation on nations and self determination, and all of them support the Sri Lankan state in Geneva and elsewhere. Laksiri’s and Kumar David’s views on Sri Lanka’s Tamil Question are more congruent with those of the AIADMK of Jayalalitha than with the Communist parties of Cuba, China and Vietnam. Some progressives!

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