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Sri Lanka: What’s Left of the ‘National Question’?

Discussions of Sri Lanka’s political futures — in international media, policy think tanks, human rights groups – have been for some time now, cast in terms of an uncompromising, militaristic "Sinhala dominated regime" and a "marginalized Tamil minority," once authoritively represented by Tiger rebels, now routed militarily. Given this framework, a ‘political solution’ with ‘autonomous self rule’ for the Tamils, is urged.

Framing non-European societies as made-up of prescriptive communities, has been for several centuries now, a persuasive and authoritative way of knowing that certainly has some truth value but as Edward Said has shown, such an Orientalist orientation can also freeze our understandings, into a dichotomy of ‘west’ vs. an ethnicizied ‘rest,’ which is more about the authority of the knower, than the life worlds of the known. Those concerned with radical democracy and social justice would do well to think beyond such a framing.

First, it is nearly irrefutable that the island polity, complexly conflictual through the many centuries of its known history, could not be, until a century or so ago, rendered intelligible through a binary of Sinhala vs. Tamil. It is the British colonial project, first through a reconstructed ‘Kings and Battles’ history of "Sinhala," "Tamil" conflict – rather far from historiographic truth – that set the stage for this binarism. Then the enumerating of populations and configuring political representation through primordial prescription, during colonial rule, allowed these ways of being solidify. The reserved ‘communal’ seats of a colonial state council, are what in the postcolonial period bourgeois, nationalist ‘Sinhala,’ ‘Tamil’ and ‘Muslim’ political parties continue to battle each other for, in the name of their ‘community.’ Indeed, a series of British colonial violations have left ‘ethnic’/‘communal’ partitions or simmering, half-resolved resolutions in their wake: Ireland, India/Pakistan/Bangladesh, Israel/Palestine, Cyprus, Fiji, Singapore/Malaysia. These parallels need to be carefully drawn, but even quick comparisons are telling.

The tradition of the Sri Lankan left, especially when it was rooted in a militant working class, was organized on different lines —those of socio-economic inequality that cut across prescriptive community. And even through the 1950s and ‘60s, major parliamentary left parties stood for the all important parity of Sinhala and Tamil language, had important Tamil voices, such those of Kandiah and Karalasingham within them. While the parliamentary left drifted towards a Sinhalized social-democracy in the 1970s, many strands of independent leftist thought and activism continued, until the early 1980s, to argue and work for alliances that cut across the ‘communities’ of the nationalists. It was at this moment that significant left groups, some parliamentary, some extra-parliamentary, which had watched the back of urban trade unions broken by the right-wing Jayewardene regime, began to see the incipient movement of Tamil nationalist radicals as ‘progressive’ and able to mount a challenge to the state.

The CP went through major self-criticism after 1977, on the questions of minorities; between 1978-1982 a significant tendency of the JVP supported the ‘self determination’ of the Tamils. VLSSP, a breakaway parliamentary left party did so as well, and continued to do so for quite some time, as did Human Rights groups like MIRJE, very much rooted in the independent left. Several, small southern extra-parliamentary groups, that drew in the intellectual resources of the independent left, developed close links with Northern (non-LTTE) Tamil militant groups. Several trials for high treason ensured, so the State did take these small groups seriously. In left parlance then, what was hitherto seen as the colonial legacy of bourgeois Tamil nationalism, was recast as the ‘national question;’ ‘Tamil self-determination’ became a rallying cry for progressives.

In this framework, which made sense in the days before the collapse of the USSR, the resolution of the national question —the project of Tamil self determination— was never an end in itself; it was a necessary turning point on the way to capturing state power. This is the root of the alliance of a variety of radical, democratic, socialist, feminist groups in Sri Lanka, with both conservative and liberal and non-violent and violent Tamil nationalism. For the latter, of course, unlike the left, ‘self determination,’ ‘self-rule,’ or ‘separation’ was an end in itself – but alliances are made of different interests. The Kumaratunga peace initiative, which began in 1994, was a huge, people-based elaboration of this left orientation; her constitutional proposals were drafted in consultation with Tamil nationalists, it was the last popular gasp of this alliance. But it failed, even as she tried.

Tamil nationalism simply grew more brutal and xenophobic, never making common cause with the dispossessed in other communities. Most frighteningly, the assassination of liberal or even radical Tamil leaders was justified, even by those who weren’t advocating violence; the idea of the Tamil traitor, who wasn’t really ‘Tamil’ grew legitimate. This, unfortunately, was to be expected; like any other nationalism, Tamil nationalism seeks to erase diversity within is putative bounds, violently masking social inequality, diversity and dissent; and so the call for ‘self-determination’ for Tamils qua Tamils, remains within those bounds. The Wickremesinghe initiative, that began in 2002, which led to a fresh ceasefire, took the left’s formulation of Tamil ‘self-determination’ to a far more conservative terrain of ‘conflict resolution’ theory, which is based on the idea that any two parties can ‘get to yes’ through a process of give and take. But its major weakness was its inability to examine the basis of separatist nationalisms, both Sinhala and Tamil that had got us to the point of full scale war; its resulted in an unstated, uncritical acceptance of the idea of ‘self-determination’ as natural, coupled with an indifference to social inequality.

The independent left, now considerably weakened, does not lead these debates any longer; they seem to take their cue from a rather more right wing, conservative tradition of thought that does not have a critical orientation towards capitalism, that can not incorporate arguments about social inequality into its ‘Human Rights’ project.

My suggestion is that radical, democratic or liberal intellectuals and activists, both in the island and outside, should urgently rethink their relationship to nationalism(s). Undoubtedly, those I speak of here, are critical, and rightly, of violent Sinhala nationalism, and of course the excesses of the State, which are manifold. But should this violence excess be met by explicit or implicit support of Tamil nationalism? Surely nationalism, which operates through inherited colonial boxes, masks diversity and social inequality?

Where in a nationalist orientation is space for the rights of domestic workers, battered women, queer people and the pauperized? To think in terms of the rights of citizens, is also of course, to think in terms of language, religion, region and custom. These are group rights of course, as are the rights of plantation workers, or single mothers or journalists. Alliances across groups of citizens become inevitable, and those that are not blinkered by nationalism will see the power of such alliances, to make Sri Lanka a better home for all of us.


This piece was published in the Sunday Island (27/09/09); an earlier version, which was mistitlted by the editors, appeared the Guardian UK, on 01/09/09.

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Reader Comments (6)

Hi Pradeep,

Wonder if you would consider the older colonial practice and concept of setting up "protectorates" . If I understand this concept, it was set up by the Brits for those who need protection from themselves. Perhaps they found may tribes incapable or lacking the moral infrastructure and thus needed the protection from the Brits for their own benefit. The Tamil intelligentsia - through their support for the LTTE seem to have put the Tamil people in a similar condition, where they need to be protected from their nasty influence.

But generally, protectorates are setup by those who see themselves on higher moral grounds than those who need protection. This may be hard to come by in the post colonial situation in Sri Lanka.

Your thoughts on this please.
September 27, 2009 | Unregistered Commentersivam
:). You are still on the benefits of colonialism!
'indirect rule' didn't really help the 'natives' in my book. i think 'the tamils' need to look to a broad based radical democratic politics, not a narrow one.
September 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPradeep Jeganathan
I get what you are saying: that the Tamil cause should be one that is on a level with other group causes such as those concerning class, gender and sexuality oppressions; that it should be fought through inter-ethnic group alliances, which would presumably have the advantage of not polarising the nation into ethnic nationalisms. Personally, I would go with that. The idea of having ethnically-based autonomous territories or provinces seems to me a waste of human potential in seeking a more egalitarian (along various axes) and culturally dynamic society.

But yet, as SL history itself has shown, ethnic identifications, no doubt generated by the colonial regime, are stronger, have more extensive bases. As you say, the parliamentary left opted for a Sinhalized social democracy. The de-colonizing movement itself was based on ethnic identifications and on racial rights to the territory/land, where the Brits had to be thrown out as the racial 'other'. Given this, was it not inevitable that post-colonial politics would continue on that ethnic wave, leading to fractures? As your narrative itself shows, leftist non-ethnic based alliances with the Tamils could not disrupt militant Tamil nationalism nor hinder the formation of an overwhelming leftist Sinhalese-based movement. These leftist non-ethnic based groups were small. It's a question of numbers (the overwhelming size of the Sinhalese population) combined with the continued power of the colonial legacy of racialising. If now the Tamil cause were to be fought through inter-ethnic group alliances, as one cause among many, it would sink in a sea of Sinhalese triumphalism (as colonial memory returns again).

Is it not more urgent to take the sting out of the race card once and for all by acceding to Tamil rights--not necessarily through self-ruled autonomous territories, but by setting up political and social institutions/mechanisms that would guarantee Tamil access to economic, education opportunities, protect the group's rights. For instance, obviously, Tamils must be given sufficient parliamentary power to throw out legislation that goes against their interests (as in Sinhala-only language policy) without however having the means to autonomously legislate for their own interests. Displaced Tamils must also be allowed safe return to their homes, and some areas guaranteed occupation of up to 70 percent Tamils. I say this not for 'nationalist' reasons but because any community needs some areas of its own that possesses the critical mass required to preserve its own ethnic culture. With ethnic claims thus sorted out, the stage can then be set for other struggles for equality that can now include that cross-ethnic dimension.
October 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSharmala
Dear Pradeep,

You may perhaps recognize my nom-de-plume from a discussion on groundviews you participated in a short while back. Let me compliment you on another excellent article. I hope and believe that your writing will help to bridge this perilous ethnic divide, painstakingly made ever wider by the machinations of the violent nationalists on both sides of the divide. None of their kind of blinkered racial visions can bring about a just, egalitarian society in which all human beings concerned can live in dignity.

I hope you will continue to expand your writings on differing topics. In particular, I would like to hear your opinion on what an ideal Sri Lanka would look like, should all this ethnic nonsense magically vanish overnight, and how such an ideal society would accommodate Sinhala, Tamil and other concerns. In particular language concerns and power sharing concerns (if that's even necessary in such an ideal society). And then perhaps, another, more realistic piece on what we can expect given the stark realities which confront us.
October 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSomewhatDisgusted
thank you, and you are right that a the way ahead is dark, difficult and murky. i've tried to address some of the issues, you raise in my last interview with PACT; also available as blog entry here. But I will, in future, try address these matters more fully.
Thank you reading!
November 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPradeep Jeganathan
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March 31, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMamieBaker28

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