By Dr Dayan Jayatilleka
There are new trends in Tamil politics and a quickening of activity in Tamil political society. The Tamil Political Parties Forum is one manifestation while the visit of the TNA to India is another.
The Tamil Parties Forum, an initiative of EPDP leader Douglas Devananda has succeeded in drawing together most of the old EPRLF and much of the ex-Eelam Left, with a few prominent civil society activists and the odd ultranationalist thrown in.
Its very existence is a quasi-miracle, given the fissiparous character of Tamil politics. The second type of activity has been the TNA’s interaction with the Government of India. There are efforts to call a meeting in Colombo or overseas of both tendencies, the TPF and the TNA. A successful ingathering too would be akin to a miracle, given the sectarianism that abounds.
What has brought about these centripetal efforts, reversing the twin phenomena of anarchic sectarianism and vicious monopoly that consumed Tamil politics and politicians for decades? Firstly the pressure from the Tamil people, as distinct from the Tamil Diaspora. The Tamil Diaspora derides these efforts that water down the commitment to self determination. The Tamil people of the North and East do not share this view or have different existential priorities, pushing several Tamil parties to get together.
This stems from the Tamil community’s collective sense of apprehension or perception of threat. The second factor making for convergence seems to be India. The Tamil parties having taken their case to India seem to have been informed that in the absence of a Tamil consensus, Delhi is unable to intercede. We may surmise that this has been an incentive in the tentative intra-Tamil dialogue.
The most reliable report of the TNA’s visit to Delhi is that of veteran journalist and Colombo hand Venkat Narayan who reports, significantly, that India has told the TNA that this is not the 1970s or 1980s, and that the TNA had better move on, engage with President Rajapaksa and that Delhi would help as best as it can in this regard.
The problem is that the TNA may not have got the message or all of it. Some elements still refuse to enter into a consensus building process with Douglas Devananda alleging that he does not accept the right of self determination and is also a member of the government. Now I am not privy to whether my old comrade and friend Douglas accepts the right of self-determination (and if so, with what qualifications if any) or has abandoned it, but I do know that he is smart enough a politician to understand that it is more than a non-starter – it is a conversation killer — as a slogan with the Government of Sri Lanka, under this or any conceivable administration and leadership.
As Delhi reminded the TNA, this is not the 1980s. There is no going back to the Thimpu Principles. Nobody is going to Thimpu either. As for Douglas being a member of the Government, what is the logic of the TNA wishing to talk to the Government of Sri Lanka but not wishing to enter a process with a Tamil member of that government? If it is on the basis of being sole representative of the Sri Lankan Tamils, that won’t fly either because the Tamil voters have shown that there is political space enough for at least two representative formations.
The demands and grievances that the TNA has presented in Delhi also shows that those politicians haven’t still caught up with the Tamil situation in the 21st century. No Sri Lankan administration is going to withdraw troops from the North and East. This is more so when we refer to areas which sustained a secessionist war for decades, and a part of the citizenry which supported and endorsed the hegemony of the most fascist of the Tamil nationalist armed alternatives in play. The Union armies stayed in the ex-secessionist southern states of the US for twelve years after the victory in the Civil War, while the Russian troops stayed for ten in Chechnya.
US troops have remained for decades in Germany and Japan, having gone in to defeat Hitler. The Sri Lankan forces are there to stay in the North and East. They will and must be a sufficiently strong permanent presence, pre-empting secessionist insurgency and safeguarding the island’s outermost ‘buffer province’ beyond which lies Tamil Nadu with its pro-secessionist groups.
While that is not up for negotiation, what is justifiably negotiable is the issue of demographic alteration due to the building of permanent housing for soldiers deployed in the North and East instead of being rotated back to their homes in the South. The role, function, deployment and visibility of those troops should also be the subject of negotiation with the democratically elected representatives of those areas.
Even more amazing is the report that the 13th amendment loomed large in the TNA’s Delhi discussions or in Delhi’s discussions with the TNA, but the latter was of the view that the 13th amendment was problematic within a unitary state form. The absurdity of that is the fact that the 13th amendment was precisely within a unitary framework and if that was good enough for Shri Rajiv Gandhi and his top negotiators, and it must be added, for Mr Amirthalingam at that time, it should be good enough for the TNA today.
A respected commentator T Sabaratnam, chronicler of Mr Amirthalingam’s life and career, recounted last week how Shrimati Indira Gandhi told the TULF to eschew separatism and get back to federalism, and that the Government of India would secure autonomy for the Tamils. He says that the TULF has done that now. If that is an attempt at humour it is a poor one. If the Tamil nationalist parliamentarians wanted federalism they should have endorsed Chandrika’s ‘union of regions’ package of 1995, but they didn’t. Now it is far too little a change and far too late. There are no Sinhala takers; not even on the far horizon.
The trouble with the TNA is that Delhi and their own Tamil voters are not the only voices they are listening to. There is the Tamil Diaspora, the ideologically dominant stream of which considers Delhi as part of the problem, not the solution. They do not want Delhi to mediate between the Tamils and the Sinhalese or Jaffna and Colombo; they want Delhi to come down on the Tamil side and carve out a separate state for them or join a Western led concert in punishing the Sri Lankan state. This Delhi didn’t do in the 1980s and just won’t do now with Colombo having a Beijing string to its bow. The TNA also hears the voices of the LTTE’s ghosts and their own ambitions.
So the TNA has an existential choice. It can continue to live the Diaspora’s delusion of self determination supported and secured by the West, or its own home grown fantasy of federalism. If so it can dwell forever as a symbolic entity and agency of agit-prop. Or it can heed the letter and spirit of what Delhi has counselled.
With last week’s fiasco of ‘the fastest fast’ in Asia, Colombo is slowly beginning to learn that Delhi is the critical and indispensable variable in its external relations. The Tamils are divided between those who understand that Tamil destiny cannot move outside the parametric constraints of what Delhi chooses to do, and those who think that Tamil destiny can be made by the West. They have to figure out that having lost a war so utterly, and having supported a militia that lost a war so utterly, the only real card they have is what Delhi secured for them in 1987 and is willing and able to secure for them now.
The only thing that Delhi has the soft power, including the moral right, to urge Colombo to do, is to activate the existing provisions of the Sri Lankan Constitution making for provincial autonomy, which was also an undertaking given at the highest level in bilateral talks. That is also the least fraught (because it does not require Constitutional changes) and contentious (it has the widest public acceptability). It is also the moderate demand that Colombo cannot be seen to reject out of hand.
Sinhala ultranationalists may object that the Accord and the 13th amendment were results of Indian coercive power and therefore unacceptable, but that is analogous to the Tamil ultranationalists refusing to accept the reality of the results of the war because it was an ‘imposition by the Sinhala army’. Historical reality must be recognised.
The State won the war decisively. However it did not win a war against the IPKF, though it did secure its withdrawal. The state also fought and won a war against the anti-devolution Southern insurgency. The sum total of these historical outcomes is that the Tamils cannot expect either self determination or federalism and the Sinhalese cannot expect to roll back, default on or dilute provincial autonomy.
The Southern ultra-nationalists also argue that provincial autonomy was meant as an incentive or trap for the Tamil Tigers, which failed and is in any case rendered irrelevant by the outright military victory. This of course is a distortion of fact. The idea of federalism or regional autonomy was proposed by Bandaranaike in 1925-6, the Ceylon Communist Party in 1944-60, and in the Bandaranaike –Chelvanayagam Pact of 1957, not as sop to the as yet unborn or infant Prabhakaran but as a method of inter-communal reconciliation and nation building in a multiethnic context. That problem still remains and therefore the solutions retain validity.
Tamil nationalism must recognise that certain ‘red lines’ are not drawn by the current Sinhala nationalist administration alone, while some are. The very long term ‘grand strategic’ red lines are that there will be no Sri Lankan troop withdrawal from the North and East; and no self determination, re-merger or ethno-federalism. Meanwhile the ‘red line’ that Colombo has to recognise is that Delhi will not permit a unilateral roll back of the results of 1987-8, already modified by de-merger.
What of the Tamil Diaspora strategy, that holding out for a solution based on self determination will work, because the current dispensation will be eroded by Western led international pressure, and therefore there is no urgent need to arrive at a pragmatic Tamil consensus and settle for something less, right now?
Firstly, this underestimates the irreversible demographic changes on the ground, that may have been effected as the months and years go by. The only counterweight to such changes would be a legitimately functioning provincial council.
Secondly it omits a lesson of political history and the defeat of the Tigers. Just as the Sinhala electorate threw up an administration capable of winning the war, it will eventually elect one capable of winning the peace, safeguarding the unitary state while prevailing in the international arena.
Therefore a Tamil consensus, embracing the Tamil Political Parties forum and the TNA, calling for the implementation of the existing provisions of the Constitution, is a call that can be backed by Delhi, and will prove irresistible for Colombo in the current climate of worsening relations with the West and the imperative of obtaining Indian, SAARC, Asian and NAM support.
Implementing such a deal is Colombo’s best chance of getting India solidly on board in the coming diplomatic confrontations.
Having an intermediate structure elected by the local populace and positioned between itself and the local populace, provides the Sri Lankan security forces with a social shock absorber and vital adjunct in preventive counter-insurgency.
It is a win-win scenario, but will the Tamil and Sinhala ultranationalists blow it, as they always have?