What Sri Lanka can learn from India

Federalism would not lead to disintegration of existing states but rather pave the way for the establishment of a state where multiple identities can coexist harmoniously.
For representational purposes (Express Illustrations| Amit Bandre)
For representational purposes (Express Illustrations| Amit Bandre)

In an earlier article, I pointed out a significant omission in the report that Sri Lankan envoy to India Milinda Moragoda had prepared for improving bilateral relations (Sep 20). There was no mention of how Sri Lanka proposes to solve the problem of nation building. It implied that it was entirely an internal problem and India had absolutely no role.

Moragoda's sphinx-like silence on nation building has been criticised by perceptive Sri Lanka watchers across the world, including India's Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla who visited Colombo this month. Ambassador Moragoda had to revise his views and in an interaction with the media, declared that India and Sri Lanka "can learn a lot from each other". Is it a genuine change of heart? Or will Colombo once again go back on the assurances it had solemnly given several times that it would not only implement the 13th Amendment but also go beyond it.  

One significant contribution made by India needs to be highlighted. In the Mannar Convention in July 1983, the Tamil United Liberation Front resolved that it would not enter into any negotiations with Colombo and the only solution to the ethnic problem was the carving out of a separate state. After the genocidal attack on the Tamils in July 1983, the TULF participated in the All Party Conference - thanks to Indian diplomacy - to discuss Annexure C that provided only for strengthening of the District Development Councils. It was silent on the issue of the merger of the north and east.

The chauvinists, both among the Sinhalese and the Tamils (two sides of the same coin), assert that the two communities were at war with one another for several centuries. They ignore the reality that despite diversities in language and religion, the people developed a composite culture. The Tamils and the Sinhalese need to be reminded that the efflorescence of the Theravada form of Buddhism in Sri Lanka was due to benign interaction with Buddhist centres of learning in South India. There were devout Buddhists among the Sri Lankan Tamils. The tendentious arguments remind me of the famous statement of Voltaire: "If you believe in absurdities, you will commit atrocities". It is my submission that the ethnic conflict is an offshoot of the nation-building experiment, when the majority Sinhalese decided to build the nation on the basis of Sinhalese language and Buddhist religion to the exclusion of all minority claims.

Sri Lankans, including Ambassador Moragoda, can learn the right lessons if they introspect and undertake a comparative study of nation-building experiments in Sri Lanka and India. In Ceylon, the first Prime Minister DS Senanayake had the tacit support of many educated Sri Lankan Tamils. In fact, sections of Sri Lankan Tamils supported the government when it rendered the Indian Tamils voteless and stateless. The parting of the ways began in 1956 when the Sinhala Only Act was passed. With the introduction of standardisation for university admissions and the conferment of special position on Buddhist religion, the discontent further strengthened. Even then, the opposition mainly consisted of non-violent struggles and the demand for a federal state. When brute force was used to suppress the non-violent agitation, militancy began to creep in. To the Tamil youth, the majoritarian democracy represented the dictatorial rule of the Sinhala majority. They began to articulate that their salvation consisted in establishing a separate state by force. Thus an overview of post-Independence Tamil politics reveals that the struggle passed through various stages - cooperative, consensual, consociational, competitive, conflictual and conflagrational. More tragic, after the war was over, the government went back on its assurances and was determined to establish a majoritarian state.

India provides an interesting contrast. Along with the growth of the Indian National Congress, Madras Presidency witnessed the rise of the Dravidian movement, founded by EV Ramasamy Naicker. EVR fought Brahmin domination and advocated self-respect; later, he also demanded a separate state of Dravida Nadu. When India attained Independence on 15 August 1947, EVR characterised it as North Indian domination and asked his followers to hoist black flags as a mark of protest. Among his ardent followers at that time was M Karunanidhi. Gradually, leaders like CN Annadurai believed that despite limitations, the Constitution of India provided scope for regional parties to come to power through the ballot box. In other words, in Tamil Nadu, if you are voted to power, you can develop and foster Tamil culture, while at the same time, you can be a loyal Indian citizen. Thus, multiple identities can coexist; you can be a Tamil and an Indian at the same time. In 1962, the DMK renounced its slogan of a separate state. With the formation of coalition governments in New Delhi, another big change took place. The regional parties could influence national politics while at the same time, national needs led to the domestication of regional parties. In other words, those who not so long ago burned the Constitution and the national flag have no qualms today in unfurling the tricolour on Independence Day and swearing by the Constitution. The end result was when the Fourth Eelam War degenerated into a savage assault on the Sri Lankan Tamils, Karunanidhi, who was chief minister at that time, did not pressure the Central government to intervene. To change the optics, he resorted to political gimmicks like hunger strikes - which started after breakfast and concluded before lunch - to retain his image as a champion of overseas Tamils.

The message is clear for those who want to draw the right lessons from the Indian experiment. Federalism would not lead to disintegration of existing states; it would pave the way for the establishment of a state where multiple identities can coexist harmoniously.

(The writer is senior professor (retd), Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras and can be reached at suryageeth@gmail.com)

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