Tamilnet, the LTTE’s unofficial website has posed a question to the world at large. According to this Tamilnet editorial “the world has an obligation now to tell the Tamils whether its opposition is to what it has perceived as 'terrorism' or to Tamil nationalism.” In my view, this question assumes critical importance in light of the statement released by Selvarasa Pathmanathan, Head of LTTE’s International Relations Department since January 2009, after the LTTE Chief Velupillai Prabhakaran’s demise.
Selvarasa Pathmanathan, who is now the senior most among surviving LTTE leaders, has said that despite Prabhakaran’s death, “it is our undivided duty to keep the flame burning until the freedom for the Tamils are achieved.” Subsequently, Pathmanathan stated that “the Tigers would now use "non-violent" methods to fight for the rights of Tamils.”
If the LTTE and sections of Sri Lankan Tamils are to commence a non-violent movement for an independent Eelam, would they be justified? In other words, is there a case for an independent Eelam?
Just as the ends don’t justify the means, the means also don’t justify the end. Merely because the LTTE has decided to (or has been forced to) give up violence, its struggle for an independent Tamil Eelam in northern and north eastern Sri Lanka will not automatically be justified. It is imperative at this stage to objectively examine whether there is a case for such an independent Eelam. If a legitimate case for Eelam can be made out, the late and much lamented LTTE and the various atrocities which came in its wake (forcible recruitment of children, ethnic cleansing of Muslims etc.) should not be an excuse to prevent Sri Lankan Tamils from pursuing independence.
If it can be shown that an independent Eelam is justified, the world may even tolerate the use of force by Sri Lankan Tamils against military targets. There are numerous examples of insurgent groups which have enjoyed global support despite resorting to force. The East Timorese insurgents who fought a successful campaign against Indonesian forces come to mind. The LTTE itself used to enjoy a certain degree of support and respectability until they started to stoop too low. If a valid case is made for Eelam, the fact that India will find it difficult to accept an independent Tamil state to its south will be irrelevant.
On the other hand, if it is shown that Eelam is not justified, even a peaceful movement for independence should not enjoy any support or sympathy, though it may not be legally possible (or even correct) to stop or restrict such a movement.
Before I proceed any further, let me say that what I say henceforth are my very personal and very subjective views. A different person may, after examining the same facts, come to a very different conclusion.
It is a matter of dispute as to how long the Tamil and Sinhalese have lived in Sri Lanka and who arrived first. The Sinhalese are said to be migrants from eastern India who arrived over 2500 years ago. Tamil Kings led frequent incursions into Sri Lanka. At one point (during the 10th and 11th centuries), the Tamil speaking Cholas from South India had the whole island under their control. A large scale invasion of Sri Lanka by a King from eastern India in the early 13th century forced the Sinhalese to move to the west and south of Sri Lanka. There were independent Tamil kingdoms in the north of Sri Lanka when the Portuguese arrived in the early 16th century. The rest of the island was under the control of various Sinhalese Kings. The Dutch followed the Portuguese and the British arrived after that. The British followed a policy of divide and rule and favoured the Tamils over the Sinhalese. Tamils dominated the bureaucracy and business.
In 1948 when Sri Lanka got independence without a freedom movement, there was no demand from Sri Lankan Tamils for an independent state of their own. Nor did Sri Lankan Tamils identify with Indian Tamils, many of whom had been taken to the highlands in central Sri Lanka by the British to work in its tea plantations. From anecdotal evidence, I understand that Sri Lankan Tamils only had contempt for Indian Tamils, who were referred to as Indian ‘coolies.’ The movement for Tamil rights gathered steam slowly as the Sri Lankan government instituted various affirmative action measures meant to put the Sinhalese on par with the dominant Tamils. Sinhala was made the only official language of the country under the Sinhala Only Act of 1956. This legislation was partially reversed in 1958, just two years later.
The first call for Tamil independence and a separate Tamil state was raised only in 1973 by the great Sri Lankan Tamil leader Samuel James Veluppillai Chelvanayakam. Though this movement was peaceful, armed groups supported by India soon took over. One of the youths who took to violence was a shy young man named Thiruvenkadam Velupillai Prabhakaran who formed the Tamil National Tigers or TNT. The rest they say is history. You can read Prabhakaran’s life story in this excellent article by the inimitable DBS Jeyaraj.
The traditional view of a nation is one where a people are unified by a common language, customs, culture and territory to the exclusion of others. This principle was developed as various nation states in Europe come into their own at various stages starting from the Renaissance. If this theory is applied, Tamils can be said to be a nation, one of many in the Indian subcontinent. However, it is difficult to use this traditional theory in the case of Sri Lankan Tamils for various reasons. The main difficulty in applying this theory is that only around 5% of global Tamils live in Sri Lanka. With 60 million Tamils in India and around 3 million in Sri Lanka, it is not easy to say that Sri Lankan Tamils form a nation on their own.
What makes it even more difficult to apply this traditional test of a nation to Sri Lankan Tamils is that a large section of Sri Lanka’s Tamil speaking population do not consider themselves Tamil and do not form part of the ‘Sri Lankan Tamil nation’ that is seeking independence. Yes, I am referring to the Muslims of Sri Lanka who form 8% of Sri Lanka’s population. Of this, around 92% are Tamil speakers. Muslims form around 28% of Sri Lanka’s Tamil speaking community. You can find detailed statistics on Sri Lankan Muslims here.
Muslim Tamils in Sri Lanka prefer to be considered as Muslims rather than as Tamils, even though non-Tamil Muslims form only 8% of Sri Lanka’s Muslims. Not only are Tamil Muslims estranged from the other Tamils, in October 1990 the LTTE evicted over a hundred thousand Muslims from areas controlled by them in northern Sri Lanka. The Muslims forced out of their homes by the LTTE had only 48 hours to pack up and leave and they could only take with them three hundred Rupees each and some clothes. In 1972 when the infamous Idi Amin expelled the South Asian community from Uganda, he gave them more time (72 hours) to leave his fiefdom!
Even before resorting to ethnic cleansing of Muslims, the LTTE had massacred many hundreds of Muslims. Currently one finds many Tamil Muslims serving in the Sri Lankan army and intelligence services where their knowledge of Tamil is put to good use against the LTTE. This state of affairs further eats into the claim that Sri Lankan Tamils form a nation which is entitled to have a state of its own.
I found it interesting that a few renowned (now late) LTTE commanders appear to be Muslims because of their Islamic names. Names like Gaddafi and Lt. Col. Akbar come to mind. One of the most reputed LTTE fighting units was the Imran-Pandiyan Regiment, named after two of Prabhakaran’s bodyguards, namely Imran and Pandiyan. However, my research shows that Gaddafi’s real name was Amuthan and Akbar was the nom de guerre adopted by one Veerapathirar Pernibarasa. Like all other LTTE fighters, these two men had adopted different names after joining the LTTE. I do not know if Imran was a Muslim or just an alias. I’d be grateful if someone could enlighten me on this.
In my view, for reasons explained above, it is not possible to justify an independent Eelam by applying traditional notions of nationhood and statehood. The fact that at the time of independence from Britain, Sri Lankan Tamils did not demand a separate state of their own, only buttresses my view. If at all an independent Eelam can be justified, it can be only on the ground that Sri Lankan Tamils have been victimised by the majority Sinhalese and the Sri Lankan state and that the type and degree of discrimination and harassment faced by Tamils are at an unacceptable level and are unlikely to abate in the near future.
It cannot be denied that Sri Lankan Tamils have been discriminated against and subjected to state sponsored violence. As mentioned above, when the British vacated Sri Lanka, the Tamils dominated Sri Lanka’s economy and bureaucracy. Discrimination against Tamils stemmed from the apparent need for affirmative action that would propel the Sinhalese majority forward and place them on par with the relatively better educated and economically prosperous Tamils. Sri Lanka is not the only country to initiate affirmative action programmes. India has a number of such programmes at the central level and the state level. Interestingly, the Indian State of Tamil Nadu is one of those states which have aggressively implemented affirmative action programmes that have yielded good results with a certain degree of collateral damage. In fact, if one were to compare the affirmative action programme in Tamil Nadu with that in Sri Lanka, one finds many parallels.
At the time of India’s independence, the Tamil Brahmin community dominated Tamil Nadu. Most university posts, government jobs and other white collar positions were held by members of this community. A limited affirmative action programme had already been initiated prior to independence. However, in the 1960s, Dravidian parties like the DMK and AIADMK came to power and increased the tempo of affirmative action programmes. Total reservations soon went up to 69% and they still remain at this absurdly high level, the highest for any state in India. As a result of such an affirmative action policy, a large section of society belonging to lower castes and classes benefitted. I would say that social mobility in Tamil Nadu has been among the highest in India, on account of such policies.
Along with such an aggressive affirmative action policy, Tamil Nadu also took steps to promote the Tamil language. Not only did Tamils in Tamil Nadu successfully prevent the imposition of Hindi, they also elevated the Tamil language to the level of a deity and practically worshipped it. A Pure Tamil Movement was launched to purge words that had roots in Sanskrit from the Tamil language.
However, the impact of Tamil Nadu’s affirmative action policies on the Tamil Brahmin community was catastrophic. Many Brahmins were forced to migrate to other parts of India. Of the ones left behind, many were reduced to penury. On balance, I feel that the affirmative action programmes implemented in Tamil Nadu served their purpose, though the collateral damage was immense. What happened in Sri Lanka after its independence was not much different from the developments in Tamil Nadu. The minority Tamils were the Brahmins of Sri Lanka. The affirmative action policies promoted by the Sri Lankan government marginalised the Tamils and empowered the majority Sinhalese. I do wish that in both cases, the governments in power had paid some more attention to those at the receiving end. However, I cannot say that affirmative action is a bad idea in general.
Other than the collateral damage caused on account of affirmative action and the Sinhala only policy, the other major hurt inflicted on the Sri Lankan Tamil community was during the 1983 riots when around 3000 (the numbers are of course disputed) innocent Tamil civilians were killed. The riots followed an LTTE ambush of a military convoy in Jaffna which killed 13 soldiers. By all accounts, the pogrom was sponsored and supported by the Sri Lankan government and was in a sense very similar to the anti-Sikh riots that place in India after Indira Gandhi’s assassination.
What are the chances of the 1983 riots repeating themselves? The answer to this question can be found in a letter written by one Mohan Sekaram and published by DBS Jeyaraj on his website.
“In 1996 a raid on a Military camp in Mullaitivu by the Tigers, 1,500 soldiers were killed, yet there was no repeat of 1983, or for that matter since 1983 several thousand soldiers have lost their lives and we did not see a repeat of 1983.”
It must be remembered that Sri Lanka has seen a number of riots and insurgencies over the past 100 years, some of which didn’t involve the Tamils at all. Let me mention a few which I think are relevant.
In 1915, there were large scale riots by nationalist Sinhalese who targeted Sri Lankan Muslims who lived in coastal areas.
In 1971, the Marxist outfit Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna led by a Soviet trained youngster Rohana Wijeweera started an insurgency that sought to take over the Island. The government forces were caught napping. The Sri Lankan government was forced to seek India’s help. I quote from Wikipedia which says, “Indian frigates patrolled the coast and Indian troops guarded Bandaranaike International Airport at Katunayaka while Indian Air Force helicopters assisted the counteroffensive. Sri Lanka's all-volunteer army had no combat experience since World War II and no training in counterinsurgency warfare. Although the police were able to defend some areas unassisted, in many places the government deployed personnel from all three services in a ground force capacity. Royal Ceylon Air Force helicopters delivered relief supplies to beleaguered police stations while combined service patrols drove the insurgents out of urban areas and into the countryside. After two weeks of fighting, the government regained control of all but a few remote areas. In both human and political terms, the cost of the victory was high: an estimated 15,000 insurgents, many of them in their teens, died in the conflict, and the army was widely perceived to have used excessive force. In order to win over an alienated population and to prevent a prolonged conflict, Bandaranaike offered amnesties in May and June 1971, and only the top leaders were actually imprisoned. Wijeweera, who was already in detention at the time of the uprising, was given a twenty-year sentence and the JVP was proscribed.”
Between 1987 and 1989, the JVP repeated its previous attempt and launched another insurgency in the south of Sri Lanka. This was at a time when Indian peace keepers where fighting the LTTE in the north. The Sri Lankan government crushed the JVP by using extra-judicial methods, which included killing suspects with ‘necklaces’. It was at this time that a young human rights lawyer named Mahinda Rajapaksa started his political career in southern Sri Lanka by working with the Mother’s Front and fighting for the rights of poor Sinhalese who were arbitrarily arrested by the security forces, only to disappear forever.
The point I am making is that it is not only the Tamils who have led insurgencies in the Sri Lanka or been victims of state sponsored violence.
According to the 2001 census, Sri Lankan Tamils form 11.9% of Sri Lanka’s population and 11% of Colombo’s population.
If a Tamil Eelam were to be formed in the north of Sri Lanka, there would still be many hundred of thousands of Tamils living in other parts of Sri Lanka who would become an even smaller minority in Sri Lanka. Unless those Tamil civilians are willing to give up all their properties and move to the north, they will be stranded amongst a hostile Sinhalese population and will continue to face the same problems, on a larger scale.
It is clear to a neutral observer that Sri Lankan Tamils do face even now some element of discrimination and harassment at the hands of the Sinhalese majority. On the other hand, South Asian standards for human rights, non-discrimination and equality are not particularly high and Sri Lanka does not appear to be below the South Asian median. In any event, I don’t think the discrimination faced by the Sri Lankan Tamil community is widespread or acute enough to justify an independence movement (peaceful or otherwise).
The LTTE, in the last few months before its extinction, was responsible for the death of thousands of Tamil civilians it held hostage as it battled the Sri Lankan army. Around 20,000 Tamils may have died in the final battles as the Sri Lankan army juggernaut rolled over the LTTE. This figure has been disputed by B. Raman, who says the numbers are likely to be much lower. In any event, the LTTE is, in my opinion, much more responsible for these deaths than the Sri Lankan army. To put matters in perspective, do remember that 18,000 French civilians were killed during the Battle for Normandy after the D-Day Landings (the 65th anniversary of which is coming up shortly), even though they were not being held hostage by the Germans!
The Tamils living in Sri Lanka are unlikely to have a rosy picture of the LTTE any more, after what they have suffered on account of the LTTE. If only the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora in the West can be persuaded to not rekindle the dying embers of the insurgency, the Tamils living in Sri Lanka might be able to get on with their lives!