Originally Published 2013-08-17 13:01:48 Published on Aug 17, 2013
The moderate Tamil polity in Sri Lanka has been slow in delivering on the promises given to the Government side on the one hand, and to the international facilitator of any given time, on the other.
Sri Lanka: Tamils as 'masters of their destiny'
"Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent response to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa that India would work towards ensuring that the Tamils "masters of their own destiny within the framework of a united Sri Lanka" has to be seen in perspective. So should be his reiteration that India had for "long advocated the creation of an environment..." for "reconciliation and devolution of political powers in Sri Lanka".

At times over-used, and often clichéd, Prime Minister Singh’s reassurance that there was no change in Government of India’s position on the ethnic issue should come as a relief to the ’Sri Lankan Tamils’ in the island-nation, as also to moderate sections, if any, of the pan-Tamil political class nearer home in Tamil Nadu. Yet, there is more than meeting the eye when it comes to the Tamils in Sri Lanka being the ’masters of their own destiny’, over the short, medium and long-terms.

Much as moderate sections of the Tamil polity in Sri Lanka habitually opposed to the Sinhala-led political dispensation in Colombo would want us believe, there is no clarity as yet on who the ’masters’ of the Tamils’ destiny in the island would be (even) from within that community. The section that believes that it is the ’master’ does not believe in a ’united Sri Lanka’. Others, including moderate sections traditionally opposed to the Colombo Government at every turn but believe in a ’united Sri Lanka’, may not be the ’masters’ as otherwise believed and should have been.

Unless such a distinction is made, and the contours of the consequences understood and appreciated, there may be no use in talking in terminologies, whose only consequence will be effective misinterpretation at inopportune times. All past efforts at finding a political solution by India and other international players like Norway fell through mainly because of the tactic employed by the various stake-holders in Sri Lanka after a deed had been done. That started with the Sinhala polity in power, and outside, but did not leave out the Tamil moderate polity, inside and outside Parliament. The self-styled ’Tamil nationalists’ and their ’Sinhala nationalist’ counterparts were a class by themselves, divided in cause and methods but united by goals and results.

’Umbilical cord relations’ of a different kind

The less understood and lesser studied aspect of the Tamil decision-making hierarchy, revolves around self-styled ’Tamil nationalists’ outside the realm of identifiable political parties and groups in the country. The closest that they have come to is in identifying with certain Tamil civil society groups, now extendable to the Diaspora of their own making and parentage - literally and otherwise. While waxing eloquent otherwise, the moderate Tamil political leadership of all times have found it difficult to cut off the umbilical cord relationship with the ’Tamil nationalists’, whose fixated goal seems to be a ’separate State’.

This ’umbilical cord relations’ are entirely different from, and at variance with, what the Tamils in Tamil Nadu say that their Sri Lankan brethren have with them. It is another matter that Tamil Nadu’s sentiments have never ever been reciprocated to the same extent and without qualification, ever. The Tamils’ sentiments for Tamil Nadu, its contribution to the culture, literature and religion back home in Sri Lanka does not always reflect in their acceptance of the Tamils’ way of life and livelihood in Tamil Nadu. On the ’ethnic issue’ and/or ’separatist cause’, Tamil Nadu has its use and usefulness - nothing more, nothing less. It’s entirely different from the ’larger Tamil cause’ attending on the ’ethnic issue’ and limited to the same.

The closest that one can think in terms of the ’umbilical cord relations’ of the Sri Lankan Tamil polity to the self-styled ’Tamil nationalists’ nearer home in the Indian context is the ties between the BJP and the RSS parent. Not that either set of relations is bad in itself. Yet, the depth and width of the relationship needs to be understood and acknowledged in full if any headway has to be made using it as a

fulcrum. Bluntly put, the ’moderate Tamil polity’ in Sri Lanka does not have the same leverage on their ’Tamil nationalist’ parents in ideological terms, as the latter has on them in political terms.

On the electoral front, they have struck a balance, traditionally, with the moderate polity being the seeming beneficiary. Yet, at no point after a successful electoral victory in their shared stronghold has the polity exercised its will on the ’nationalists’. It has moderated its position only up to a point where the ’nationalists’ feel secure with their ideologies, policies and platforms - towards a ’separatist goal’ that has alternated between the medium and long terms.

Blame game

This has meant that the moderate Tamil polity in Sri Lanka has been slow in delivering on the promises given to the Government side on the one hand, and to the international facilitator of any given time, on the other. When the chips are down, they have often been seen as kick-starting a ’blame game’. The Government/Sinhala side happily joins the game. It serves the immediate purposes of the extremist groups in the two communities that the ’blame game’, often taken to illogical lengths, ends up thwarting the pace and purpose of any on-going reconciliation process. The pattern has remained unmistakable.

It has become easy for the moderate sections within the Sinhala polity, the Sri Lankan Government of the day and also the Tamil polity in the Opposition to revive this ’blame game’ without much provocation. It has been an easy way out of their inability to tame the radicals in their midst - or the extremists operating out of the periphery, and yet controlling their electoral, if not political conscience. Elections, including the historic presidential polls of 2005, have been won or lost on such a premise and practice.

It is now acknowledged that but for the motivated LTTE ban on the Tamils voting in the 2005, Candidate Mahinda Rajapaksa may have found it tougher still to become President Rajapaksa - and become its nemesis. Yet, the LTTE’s calculations at the time were based on the premise that Rajapaksa as President would succumb to the Sinhala-nationalist pressure from within and go out to war, as against UNP’s Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was considered a weak, peacenik. The LTTE, and the ’Tamil nationalists’ guiding it (and not the other way round) wanted war, not peace.

That is to say, LTTE was not looking for a peaceful solution, but war and war alone. They got it, and lost it. It is unclear as if the LTTE wanted the war to achieve their collective goal of ’separate Tamil State’, or war for the sake of war - and nothing more. The present situation of the ’Tamil nationalists’ is no different. They seem to be talking eloquently about the need for a ’separate State’ but with little understanding of such a possibility in the existing global circumstances.

Motives and methods

Post-war, the motives have remained, but the methods, changed. From weapons-centred war, the Tamil nationalists have confined their current tactics exclusively to a propaganda war. The Sri Lankan State and sections of the Sinhala nationalists in the polity of the majority community have ensured that they provided enough fodder for their fire. It may even have suited the politics of both within their respective communities to look at such short-term tactics, independent of each other in motives and methods but joined at the shared - and not a common goal - of thwarting the peace process on all occasions, and peace per se, otherwise.

It was the kind of tactic that pitted the militant JVP and the LTTE separately against moderates within the respective communities in the past - and against the Sri Lankan State, independent of each other -- but never against each other. It need not have been deliberate, or pre-discussed and decided upon. When an opportunity for the present showed up, they were not the ones to bypass it. In this, the ’Tamil nationalists’ still suffer from the preconceived notion that every such tactic of theirs was taking them closer to their (undefined) goal of a ’separate State’.

In this, the Tamil nationalists may have encouraged the LTTE in such a belief, and have refused to learn from the LTTE’s fate. Instead, they conveniently seemed to have concluded that the LTTE’s problems were with the methods, and not the motive of a ’separate State’. Post-war, too, they have not paused to ask if without war, violence and LTTE terrorism, the international community, starting with India, would have considered any political solution outside of a ’united Sri Lanka’, now or ever. At the end of the day, ’international recognition’ is that makes for the creation of a ’State’, not winning a war, or a UNHRC resolution by itself.

Creating a ’level-playing field’

Through the war years, international efforts at finding a negotiated settlement to Sri Lanka’s ’national problem’ aimed at creating a level-playing field for the stake-holders. At different stages in the decades-old war, it took different and entirely opposite perceptions, based on the prevalent global mood of the times. Norway as the peace-facilitator more recently openly advocated and facilitated that process as well. India, in the early days of its engagement, too may have honestly believed in the possible effectiveness of the ’field theory’, which too was in its infancy. In the early Eighties, India’s problems were even more immediate, in the aftermath of the ’refugee influx’ from Sri Lanka - particularly after the one from Bangladesh at creation only a decade or so ago.

The in-built irony of such a situation is that when the whole world binds the State player in any such scheme, holding it fully ’responsible’ and ’accountable’ to all decisions and actions, punishable through sanctions and the rest, there is no such clear or clean way to hold the non-State actor similarly obliged to stand by its commitment. Whenever the LTTE reneged on its commitments thus, the global community could only throw up its arms in sheer disgust. The consequent sympathy for, if not support to the Sri Lankan State was calibrated, and maybe rightly so. The responsibility and accountability are ’transferrable’ to a succession of governments coming to power in Sri Lanka in the future.

The unevenness of the game shows up when in the post-war period, the international community is holding the Sri Lankan State ’accountable’ to alleged war-crimes in forums such as the UNHRC (where incidentally, there is no ’veto’, unlike in the UN Security Council). In the post-war era, there is no LTTE around to be similarly held ’accountable’ and ’punishable’ for creating ’human shields’ and converting places of worship, schools and hospitals as its bunkers, which when targeted by retaliatory fire, has earned the wrath of the international community against the Sri Lankan State, leadership and the armed forces.

With the LTTE gone, the moderate Tamil polity (the TNA in this case) too cannot be held responsible or ’accountable’ to the perceived sins of the terror-outfit. The TNA can thus open on a clean-slate all over again, as if nothing had happened from the Tamil side to upset the non-existing apple-cart. Against this, the Sri Lankan Government or State alone has to carry the baggage from the past. Any reconciliation of the kind under the circumstances should have thus involved the remnant Tamil leadership post-war, moderate or otherwise, holding itself morally, if not legally, responsible to the sins of the LTTE, just as it wants to be accepted as the unchallenged leader of the Tamil polity and society. The TNA is yet to respond to the war-time charges against the LTTE, on ’human shields’, child-soldiers, bunkers, etc. Reconciliation however is a two-way street.

Reneging on commitments

Another caveat for the future flows from the past, when the moderate Tamil polity would renege on its commitments, either at the instance of the LTTE or otherwise. Thus, the moderate TULF reneged on the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord even before the ink had dried on the document. So did the LTTE. Separately, they were satisfied with their self-serving premise that giving up the demand for a ’separate State’ was the only concession that they could and would make. All other concessions should come from the Government side, and to their exclusive and entire satisfaction and acceptance. Even that proved a facade, particularly in the case of the LTTE as it unilaterally revived the war, and against the IPKF.

Later, when the LTTE signed the ’Oslo Accord’, facilitated by Norway, the leadership reneged on it. The version doing the rounds was that the LTTE chief negotiator Anton Balasingham might have signed the document without clearance from the ’Vanni leadership’ of Velupillai Prabhakaran. Against this, the Government was known to have reneged on its commitments under the B-C Pact and D-C Pact, decades ago. The Government’s decision to go back on the B-C Pact, for instance, followed the Federal Party’s loaded declaration that it was "only the first step" (to what, if was not made clear - though the ’Vaddukottai resolution’ would follow two full decades afterwards)!

Any international expectation/effort, including that by India, should be premised on the question of the guarantors for a settlement from the Tamils’ side. On the Sri Lankan side, as already argued, the State will be held responsible and also ’accountable’. This not only makes any pact of the anticipated kind one-sided and biased. It makes it ineffective from the start, if the past were any indicator. Both India and Norway, which in ways stood guarantors, could not enforce discipline on the Tamil leadership - though even decades later, the international community could call the Sri Lankan State to account.

What is worse than the obvious is the presence of a ’faceless’ Tamil nationalist leadership, with no responsibility or accountability to call its own. Unlike the LTTE and Prabhakaran, they are not in the jungles, cut off from civilisation and thinking sections of humanity. They are simply non-existent. Put differently, and more charitably, their presence could be felt as the ’conscience’ of the Tamils, touched and all. But when it comes to holding the accountable to the commitments of the larger community, often represented by the moderate political leadership of the TNA since, they are not there!

It is the kind of ’Indian rope-trick’ that India has to master before the moderate Tamils of Sri Lanka can hope to be the ’masters of their own destiny’, as Prime Minister Singh has promised Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, since. Otherwise, all efforts and consequent results would go only the way of earlier solutions, achieved through agreements or war -- in whose success the Sri Lankan Government seem to wallow, now and again, but without making much (sense) out of it!

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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