“Collective fear stimulates herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd.” -Bertrand Russell
In pursuit of a solution to Sri Lanka’s nagging problem, the Tamil Question, most of our leaders chose to ignore the obvious and dug deep into the respective distorted histories of the two ethnic communities; they inhabited in a comfort zone of historical superiorities, cultural dominances and vituperative politics of the times. They lacked empathy; they lacked understanding and they sadly lacked spine to tell their own supporters that there is another way but a difficult one, a more realistic one and a more honest one.
When leadership fails, the whole campaign fails; when leadership slips, the supporting crews go astray and when leadership deliberately misleads, the followers swallow the sweeter pill and disregard the more unpalatable truth.
On both sides, Sinhalese and Tamil are plastered with this ugly signature of chauvinism, which is mistaken for patriotism.
In a haze of inscrutably vicious landscape, Kadiresan in the North and Hearth in the arid, dry zone in the North Central province, till their land and harvest their crop, bathe in the fresh waters of the Mahaweli or off the Aandi well (Aandi Linda), clothe their young children before they set off to school with the same intense, selfless love and hope.
They have immense faith in their religion, whether, Hinduism or Buddhism. They, with all their superstitions and unbending loyalty to their clergy, hold human values as dear and all-enriching; their moral compass has been set at their childhood by their parents and elders, all-unifying and all-encompassing.
When they have an issue with the deed of their land and property, they trek to the closest government office, Kachcheri or a Divisional Secretariat, they hope to transact their problems in their own language and if it had to be referred to a court of law, they need to understand the language in which the court is transacting their business.
Among the fundamental demands of the Tamil population has been the language in which our courts conducted their cases.
If the language is not understood by the litigants or the accused, as in the case of Silindu in Leonard Wolfe’s ‘Village in the Jungle’, an obvious denial of Fundamental Rights has taken place and the majority Sinhalese, the ethnic group from which our Herath and our successive political leadership hail, are, if not guilty of deliberate suppression of those rights of the Tamils, are guilty of gross negligence in applying the rule of law due to ignorance.
The crux of the Tamil Question is language and land. These two elements remain the centre of gravity for each and every ethnic group, every race and every nation. ‘The Land the Race and the Faith’ (Rata, Deya, Samaya), according to Professor Jeyaratnam Wilson, the then lecturer at the University of Ceylon and later University of New Brunswick, who also happened to be the son-in-law of S. J. V. Chelvanayagam, the leader of Illankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) commonly known as the Federal Party, was the proud badge of the majority Sinhalese Buddhists.
It was so then and it is certainly so now. But where has it taken the majority? A majority living with a ‘minority’ mindset because every argument for and against a true reconciliation with a minority that is tormented by its own history, a minority that is cooped up in a world of celluloid heroes and fairytale-cocoons, a minority who has been more sinned against than sinning, yet has committed more killings in the name of a criminal leader such as Prabhakaran than in the name of their proud Tamil heritage are all what the current impasse this troublesome issue is confronted with.
From the early part of the 20th century, the harassing questions the Tamil community had to face thrown at them by the Sinhala-dominated national leadership, despite the undeniable support they received from the leaders of the Tamil community in the likes of Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, still remain unchanged and unresolved.
After hundreds of their militant cadres were sacrificed at the altar of Elam, the ‘Tamil Question’ is now being addressed in a totally different context. The context has shifted from one of Tamil militancy to ‘Tamil support’ for the election of a friendly Executive President and an empathetic Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. In politics it is the context that matters. When the context changes, the resultant setting of circumstances begin to dictate the path each party to the issue takes. If and when the parties start seeing the changed circumstances and shifted paradigm, there might be a ray of hope.
If, on the contrary, the parties revert back to the old failed formula of bickering one-upmanship, the wound only will get more grave and its stench more insufferable. Yet politics is all timing. The Tamil leaders must realize one major reality. Never in their wildest dreams would they have got a friendlier regime to deal with than the one they have got at present. Both President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minster Ranil Wickremesinghe owe them a load of gratitude for their being in power.
The overwhelming Tamil vote was one of the three blocs of votes that helped Maithripala Sirisena’s election- the other two being the Muslim and 100% of the UNP vote. President Sirisena simply cannot look the other way when the legitimate issues and legitimate solutions are staring him in the face.
Then we have to face the other context- the ‘Rajapaksa phenomenon’. The lengths and breadths the Rajapaksas have attempted to drive the majority Sinhala-Buddhist community with the vocal as well as material support of the various Bala Kayas and Sènas- led by the notorious Galagoda Atte Gnanasara et al- cannot be disregarded as ‘good-for-nothing’.
Nor would an overwhelming majority of Sinhalese Buddhists forget the ‘war-victory’ against the brutal massacres of Sinhalese Buddhists by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LLTE) and its leader Prabhakaran. The wages of war are very high and sometimes come back to hurt you at the most unexpected times.
History has shown us that those who disregard the past events, their development through a tough and unfriendly terrain and the unambiguous triumphs those events have led to, have suffered irreversible defeat at the political front.
Within that context of ‘war-victory’, the Rajapaksas still holds a great advantage and it is that advantage that they are using now to galvanise people who have been taught and nurtured and nourished from their school days.
We all have learned our national history; it abounds with stories of bravery, uniqueness and patriotism. The awe-inspiring saga of King Dutu Gamunu, subliminal tales of the advent of Buddhism during King Devanam Piyatissa, monumental edifices of Kashyapa’s Sigiri, King Parakrama Bahu’s stupendous construction of massive tanks, King Dathusena’s Kala Wewa and Aukana Buddha Statue and Samadhi Buddha Statue, the magnificent rock statues of Gal Vihare, Isurumuniya lovers and other numerous accomplishments are not only used by power-hungry politicians of the level of the Rajapaksas, they have endured to inspire a nation for more than two thousand five hundred years.
When the Tamil leadership sits at the table opposite to their Sinhalese equivalents, that shimmering glorious history is also at the table as an invisible counterpart. The Rajapaksas are aware of it.
Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe should be aware of it. Now can you see the context? It has changed and it will continue to haunt many generations of Tamils to come.
Pondering on the reality of a separate state for Tamils in Sri Lanka, Professor A J Wilson in the preface to ‘The Break-up of Sri Lanka’ writes thus:
“At present this is a state of mind; for it to become a territorial reality is a question of time. Patchwork compromises, even if underwritten by New Delhi, are passing phenomena. The fact of the matter is that under various guises the Sinhalese elites have refused to share power with the principal ethnic minority, the Tamils. The transfer of power by Britain to the Sinhalese ethnic majority in 1948 brought in its wake an unfortunate train of events, which can best be described as a loss of perspective on the part of the Sinhalese political elites. Their anxiety for power led to the abandonment of principle”.
When Wilson wrote this, the context of the ‘Tamil Question’ was quite different. The militancy of a rising Tamil movement was getting stronger by the day; open alliance with the Tamil Nadu Government led by M. G. Ramachandran (MGR) and covert assistance of the Indian Centre led by Indira Gandhi contributed to a fictional reality of a separate state. The year 2009 changed all that and more.
Today, when they sit opposite to each other, the two communities are not equal anymore; one is a defeated enemy, the other a representative of a triumphant community. Yet, the Sri Lankan Constitution guarantees equality to all people, irrespective of caste, creed, color and religion, among others. The Sinhalese are facing equal men and women at a roundtable forum, but in an unequal context. The solution needs to be one of unmitigated fairness and justice. There are no heroes; there are no traitors; only men and women trying to live with each other. The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org