Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka

Despite geographical proximity Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism had an autonomous momentum of its own

Published: 08th August 2013 07:25 AM  |   Last Updated: 08th August 2013 07:26 AM   |  A+A-

The Pakistani political leader Khan Abdul Wali Khan (son of Khan Abdul Ghafar Khan) was asked few years ago by a journalist: “Are you a Pakistani, a Muslim or a Pathan?” Wali Khan replied that he combined all three. The journalist persisted and asked Wali Khan what his primary identity was. Khan responded, “I am a Pakistani for 30 years, a Muslim for 1400 years and a Pathan for 5000 years”. The multiple identities of South Asians, an intrinsic feature of the socio-cultural profile of the region, have made the study of nation-building an exciting and fascinating exercise.

Political scientists use the term state and nation as synonymous and this semantic confusion has caused incalculable harm. The contemporary world consists of states, not nation states. A study of the world’s 132 states in 1971 found that only 12 (9 per cent) could justifiably be called nation states in the sense that the territorial limits were coterminous with the distribution of a particular national group. The comment made by Massimo d’ Azeglio, with special reference to Italy after unification, holds true of most of the South Asian and Southeast Asian countries, “We have made Italy, now we must make Italians.”

Two initial propositions are in order. They can be considered yardsticks for the success of nation-building in multi-ethnic societies. First, the political system should provide sufficient space for minorities to preserve, foster and promote their distinct identities while being an integral part of a united country. Second, a federal polity with entrenched provisions for sharing powers between the Centre and states can lead to softening of secessionist demands.

Two illustrations, one a success story from India and second a tragic narrative from Sri Lanka, both relating to Tamil minority groups, hold important lessons. What is interesting to note are differing political developments and contrasting responses on the questions of ethnicity and nation-building.

Scholars working on the Dravidian movement are unanimous in highlighting critical milestones in its growth — the formation of the Justice Party and non-Brahmin movement; Periyar E V Ramaswamy Naicker’s self-respect movement and anti-Hindi agitation; the formation of the Dravida Kazhagam in the mid-40s and the advocacy of the separate state of Dravida Nadu; the formation of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) under C N Annadurai in 1949; coming to power of the DMK in 1967 elections; and the domination of the DMK and its offshoot All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), founded in 1972, in the politics of Tamil Nadu.

The DMK gradually got domesticated because the Indian political system is resilient and provides sufficient space within which Tamil identity and regional autonomy could be protected and fostered. The change in DMK’s outlook was evident even before Annadurai formally renounced secessionism after the Sino-Indian conflict and the promulgation of the 16th Amendment that proscribed secessionism and required all candidates to uphold the constitution and unity of the country. The DMK/AIADMK stakes in India’s unity were further strengthened when the two regional parties started sharing power in the Centre. A vivid illustration of this political transformation is the spectacle when political leaders, who not so long ago used to burn the national flag and the constitution at every conceivable opportunity, do not have any qualms of conscience while formally unfurling the national flag on Independence and Republic Days.

The Sri Lankan scene presents an interesting contrast. An overview of Sri Lankan Tamil politics makes it evident that Tamil sub-nationalism had a momentum of its own and, in many ways, took a different trajectory from that of Tamil Nadu. Sri Lankan Tamils were reluctant secessionists. The Tamil political leaders in the early years of Independence never thought of a separate state. Their aspirations centred round internal, not external, self-determination. Federalism was their slogan. What is more interesting, all candidates who contested elections on the slogan of a separate state were decisively defeated till the mid-1970s.

When Tamil aspirations were ignored by Sinhala majority governments, frustration began to creep in and demands became more radical. The politics of Tamil opposition started with the demand for balanced representation and responsive co-operation which spanned the period from 1948 to 1956. The demand progressed to a federal state and non-cooperation during 1956-1972, escalated to separatist slogans during 1973-1976 and culminated in the demand for separate state in 1976. While in the earlier years the agitation was peaceful, both parliamentary and non-parliamentary, gradually it took a violent turn and began to spread like wildfire after the communal holocaust in July 1983. The growth of militancy was facilitated by the fact that moderate leaders like Amirthalingam, Sivasithamparam and Sambandan preferred to remain in Chennai. It resulted in a political vacuum in the Tamil areas, filled by the Tigers. The state repression was more than matched by the violence of Tamil guerrillas. Sri Lanka became one of the most notorious killing fields of the world.

Many Sinhalese leaders believe that the Eelam struggle was fanned and fuelled by the Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu. The well-known Sri Lankan historian Prof K M De Silva has written: “The DMK, effectively checked from pursuing its separatist goal in India, took vicarious pleasure in giving encouragement and support to separatist tendencies among the Tamils in Sri Lanka.” As I have stated above De Silva’s explanation is an oversimplification of a complex issue. Despite geographical proximity and close cultural linkages Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism had an autonomous momentum of its own.

The greatness of a nation, Mahatma Gandhi said, depends upon how secure the minorities feel in that country. Twelve days before his assassination, Gandhiji wrote in the Harijan: “All Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Parsees, Christians and Jews, who people the vast subcontinent and have adopted it as their dear motherland, have an equal right to it. No one has the right to say that it belongs to the majority community only and that the minority communities can only remain there as an underdog.” In the present moment of triumphalism, will president Mahinda Rajapaksa and his colleagues ponder over the implications of the Mahatma’s statement?

The writer is former senior professor, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras.



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