The Majoritarian Making of a Nation

Why India should avoid being on the wrong side of history in Sri Lanka

Mahinda Rajapaksa and General Sarath Fonseka speak the same language, and that is a crude form of Sinhalese majoritarianism. {{name}}
01 February, 2010

LAST MONTH WHEN I WAS IN WAYANAD, Kerala, I drove through a Sri Lankan Tamil settlement in the middle of a tea estate near Mananthavady. Since 1964—that is several years before the LTTE, Prabhakaran, the Indian Peace Keeping Force, all that we recollect when we hear ‘Sri Lankan Civil War’ —300,000 Sri Lankan Tamils have been living in the tea plantations in Nilgiri, Coimbatore and Wayanad districts in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. They came riding the Shastri-Sirimavo Pact of 1964 and the Indira-Sirimavo Pact of 1974. (Who said India didn’t do anything when Tamils in Lanka were reduced to second-hand citizenry by the Sinhalese?)

For decades, the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in India have been dreaming of going back to a Tamil Eelam, which they believed Prabhakaran would get them. With that hope, they spoke the same Tamil they brought with them, and refused to integrate with the Nilgiri Tamils and the Wayanad Malayalees.  Now Prabhakaran is no more. And they will probably never go back to Visuamadu, Dambatene or Kilinochi as Eelam citizens. When I drove through the gloomy Tamil settlements in Mananthavady, Sri Lanka had moved on with their presidential campaign where their two ‘heroes,’ the current President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and the former army chief, General Sarath Fonseka, were fighting over who would get the credit for having eliminated the Tigers, in a grotesque war which used phosphorous munitions and heavy artillery, killing 7,000 civilians and wounding 10,000 (UN figures) in a matter of few days in early 2009.

And now if you put yourself in the shoes of one of those 400,000 Tamils displaced in northern and eastern Sri Lanka or in those of someone interested in Sri Lanka from the point of view of human rights and justice, you will instantly know that the outcome of the Sri Lankan election will have very little impact.

Mahinda Rajapaksa and General Fonseka share more similarities than differences. So, it is only natural that both of them speak the same language, and that is a crude form of Sinhalese majoritarianism. “There are no minorities in Sri Lanka,” says Rajapaksa. “I don’t think there is any injustice in Sri Lanka,” says Fonseka.

If you follow the presidential and post-war debates more closely you will find Sinhalese nationalism getting aggressive to the extent of a) denying, or rather celebrating, the massive casualties that the Tamils had to suffer in 2009; b) dismissing the past and present proposals for provincial autonomy; and c) getting intolerant to the extent of not admitting the presence of linguistic and religious minorities such as Tamils, Hindus and Muslims. And this is dangerous.

If the patterns are read well, the majoritarian Sinhalese leadership is showing the kind of political arrogance that we have been seeing in Than Shwe’s Myanmar or Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. This was evident when Sri Lanka misled the United Nations over the use of heavy weapons (a fact now admitted by Lalith Weeratunga, the current Permanent Secretary to President Rajapaksa). Sri Lanka also treats the international calls for peace and justice with utter disregard.

And India, the only force that Colombo thinks they would have to worry about due to its proximity and size, did very little to stop the massive civilian casualties in 2009, and now that the LTTE is gone, India should stop parking itself on the wrong side of history. It is time for the Indian government to be stern and assertive with Colombo at least for humanity’s sake.

To begin with, India should pick up the pieces of the Sri Lankan Constitutional amendment that it worked out with Colombo in 1987.

As per this amendment (13th) Sri Lanka would initiate devolution of power for its people. But both stakeholders then had maintained their ‘politically correct’ positions—the Sinhalese nationalists considered it as dividing the country on ethnic lines, and the LTTE considered provincialism to be too little, too late. Now, post-LTTE, some middle ground should be possible. But the military victory has only made the Sinhalese more aggressive. They wouldn’t approve if the Tamils are given a unified federal status, or any affirmative actions to balance out the lopsided representation.

If this continues, we will have a Sri Lanka where the administration, judiciary, schools, armed forces, the cricket team, will all be essentially Sinhalese, with very little Tamil representation. Even the liberal Sinhalese warn you the time ahead could well be a repetition of 1948-76, when Colombo passed legislations, one after another, saying there was only one language (Sinhala) and one religion (Buddhism), and acknowledged only a single historiography: that of Sinhala-Buddhist exclusiveness. If the Sinhalese politicians think the military victory over LTTE validates their political and cultural supremacy over other people, the forthcoming election and the following events would end up being a step towards Sinhalese nation making. Not a Sri Lankan nation making.

Children in Zakhir Nagar look outward on a city from which they often feel excluded. OMAR SHARIF & MADAN GEHLOT

And the danger of such a majoritarian making of a country may be the birth of another Prabhakaran or another LTTE one day. Like the Tamils always said, it was only when their non-violent protests between 1948-76 failed that Prabhakaran emerged, and the narrative for the remaining 30 years centred around his violent resistance. So who will tell Sri Lanka that it is bound by universal declarations of rights, and will have to constitutionally recognise the rights of other people in order to have any lasting peace?

China and Pakistan intervene when India leaves the ground vacant on matters in South Asia. That is what has happened in Sri Lanka for some time now. If India is not positioning itself clearly and sternly on the issues of rights, rule of law, justice, then we will speak and act vaguely and that will only help China and Pakistan increase their influence on Colombo. That would do no one any good.

In the recent past, the Indian military involvement in the Tamil regions (1987-90), Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination (1991), the subsequent economic and political blockades on the Sri Lankan Tamils, and India’s silence in early 2009 when it knew about the humanitarian crisis of Rajapaksa’s war, waged with the attitude of ‘burning the house to kill a few rats,’ all took away any clarity New Delhi had on the Tamil question in Lanka. In the post-LTTE world at least, India should bat affirmatively for the post-war reconstruction of the Tamil land, and minds.

Also, if India doesn’t make sure the Tamils in Sri Lanka are well settled and if things get tough for them, you may well wait for another influx of refugees in a decade or two. Who knows, if the Nilgiri and Wayanad Tamils of Sri Lankan origin can’t go home, perhaps their dear and near ones can join them in India. The Sinhalese would certainly be happy with a repetition of 1964 and 1974. The Chinese and Pakistanis would be happy too. But the Indians may not.