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The meaning of Eelam

By Michael Roberts
The title of this articie suggests that we are entering the realm of etymology. According to Orientalist authorities such as Peter Schalk, the term ila-m appears in Tamil inscriptions about the first century CE and refers to the whole island, that is, to a land that was also called lanka, Sihala and saimhala in proto-Sinhala as well as other scripts and languages. From this word, then, Tamil derivatives emerged, such as the term "llavan" used from the ninth century CE to refer to persons from llam.

The latter term, clearly, was not a reference to Tamil-speakers, but to the inhabitants of the island in general. When the version "Eelam" was thrust into the front reaches of Tamil politics in Ceylon (as it was then known) in the mid-twentieth century as a result of Suntharalingam’s agitation and the emergence of the Federal Party, it seems to have retained its earlier connotation. Tracing the various inflections attached to the word in both Tamil-speak and English-speak during the third quarter of the twentieth century will demand careful research work by a number of scholars. Such researches will therefore supplement the ongoing work on the etymology of the word in ancient, medieval and modern times.

I am not skilled in Tamil or in philology. Therefore the title of this essay is misleading. But I insist that the title is pertinent. Why? Because this article is an open letter to all those who consider themselves Tamil in its island-meanings and who reside in those areas that will not fall within the territorial unit destined to be the realm of an LTTE-dominated polity in the immediate future. These Tamils include those formerly designated "Indian Tamils," people who are now (incorrectly in some ways) called "Plantation Tamils," but who apparently prefer to describe themselves as ‘Malaihaya Tamils." Some categorical distinction is required. All the terms available are unsatisfactory in one way or another so I will make do with the distinction between "Older Tamils" and "Malaiyaha Tamils."

My article is addressed to the Older Tamils living to the south and west of the present North and Eastern Provinces. It asks them whether they have ever considered what their life-world would be like if a separate state of Eelam, as envisaged by the battle cry of their leaders since the Vaddukoddai resolution of May 1976, eventuates? If they have not confronted this question before, it asks them to seriously work out the ramifications of such an event NOW, immediately. "The Meaning of Eelam’’ is meant to highlight this issue for their situation today.

However, what is central to their existence must necessarily be of significance to the LTTE leadership and the diasporic Tamils as well because of the emotional links that exist between the three bodies of Tamils from Lanka. It goes beyond that, that is, it goes beyond the Tamils who dwell in Lanka. The meanings that are attributed to "Eelam" today necessarily impinge upon the life ways of Sinhalese, Muslims. Colombo Chetties, Malays, Burghers and other people who live within Sri Lanka or identify with its interests.

In brief then, I am not speaking about the history of the term Eelam or its adoption in the twentieth century by Tamils who had begun to conceive of themselves as a "nationality" (or "nation") and wanted to secure "self-determination" for themselves. My focus is on the situation NOW in 2002 after two decades of war within the framework of the MoU and what the Daily News has called the "Peace Quest."

"Eelam": Recent History

Within this framework, nevertheless, a brief historical review is required. In the modern world, following Seton Watson, a "nation" can be said to exist as a force whenever "an active and fairly numerous section of its members are convinced that it exists" Among the Older Tamils of Ceylon that moment dawned in their English-speak around ]949 with the formation of the Federal Party. The FP may not have been the principal Tamil association then, but it was not insignificant in its resource base and became central to Tamil interests from 1956 onwards. So, its proclamation in 1949-51 that the "Tamil-speaking people in Ceylon constitute a nation distinct from that of the Sinhalese by every fundamental test of nationhood" was a landmark in Tamil political history. Ironically, as I have shown elsewhere, facets of this vocabulary seem to have been made available to the Tamil leaders by the Communist Party of Ceylon (CCP). It was the CCP that, in October 1944, first defined the Older Tamils of Ceylon as a "nation’’ alongside the Sinhalese nation. In defining the nation concept, moreover, they faithfully reproduced Stalin’s original formulation and, with it, associated each and every nation with a "traditional homeland."

This summary history, of course, is incomplete. For one thing, it is restricted to Tamil outpourings in the English medium. Fuller understanding must not only scour the English sources comprehensively, but must also delve deeply into Tamilian representations in their mother tongue in from the 1900s onwards. Such research must also transcend and go beyond the overwhelming tendency among scholars who have surveyed this field to provide legitimisation of "defensive Tamil nationalism."

Within the limits of this restricted foundation of knowledge, I believe that the Federal Party worked initially within the framework of the existing nation state known as Ceylon. Eelam to Tamils of the 1950s and 1960s, therefore, did not carry the meaning that it now bears so powerfully and triumphantly. The nationalism of the Tamils supporting the FP was a "sectional nationalism," not a separatist phenomenons its selections had some affinities with the forms of Sinhalese sectionalist nationalism embodied in the SLFP and Philip Gunawardena’s MEP. Except that Sinhalese nationalism had captured the state machinery in 1956 and instituted a majorities hegemony in ways that enabled its activists to equate "Sinhalese" with "Ceylonese," thereby subsuming the latter

This configuration, as we know, nurtured the further transformation of Tamil collective consciousness. Tamil Sri Lankans were turned, initially in small numbers, but later in a flood, into Tamil Eelamists or Elevens. Tragedy begot more tragedy. Victimisation, lies, atrocities, and manipulative re-writings of history on both sides of the divide became (and remain) so many threads within the broader tale of a tragic and seemingly intractable conflict.

To militant Tamils from the 1970s, if not earlier, "Eelam" spelt a separatist state. Or so it seems looking at the situation from outside without access to Tamil literature and in the light of the limited literature available. The sought-after state of Eelam has generally been conceived as an entity that encompasses the provinces known today as the Northern and Eastern Provinces, though some LTTE maps make more extensive claims and the idea of "traditional homelands" is clarified sometimes in quite manipulative and dishonest ways.

Thus, over the last three decades "Eelam" has signified a separate state set up within Sri Lanka with all the juridical capacities of a sovereign nation. Such rights would, of course, include not only full accredited international status as a "nation," but also the capacity to defend its territorial space and thus to sustain its army, navy and air force. Yes, air force.

However, does "Eelam" necessarily mean that? Have the Tamil leaders of the recent past, and the LTTE specifically, thought of "Eelam" only in this form? I cannot answer this critical question. I do not have sufficient information in Tamil or in English to answer this question. What I can say is that the Sinhalese and others in Sri Lanka believe that Eelam has this connotation, and this meaning only, for the LTTE, its followers and most Older Tamils.

My article is an attempt to move away from these convictions and to suggest that the LTTE may be pragmatic enough to conceive of other understandings of Eelam. Can "Eelam’ mean something else, something less than a separate state? Or alternatively, can both sides, we, all parties to the conflict, begin to refashion the concept of "Eelam,’ to mean something other than a separate state? Can the Older Tamils, as the main engine of Eelam, rework the idea into what I shall call "Adequate Eelam’! as distinct from "Wholesale Eelam" That is to say, from the Tamil viewpoint can’t Adequate Eelam sustain their dignity and status as a nation? And thus cater to self determination in an adequate manner? Indeed, won’t Adequate Eelam enable the Older Tamils living and working in the south to have their cake and eat it in ways that Wholesale Eelam would out merely threaten? but make impossible? In short I suggest that in the present context, both within Sri Lanka and in the regional firmament, Adequate Eelam will be a more stable and sensible proposition than Wholesale Eelam.

"Eelam" Today

Let me reiterate my main question, a suggestion really, and one that is especially aimed at the Older Tamils living to the south and west of the north-eastern regions of the island. What would a new juridical unit vested with sovereignty the nation state of Eelam, mean for their lives in the immediate future? Would they become citizens of Eelam or would they assume citizenship within Rump Lanka if they are not, as so likely, allowed rights to dual citizenship, that is, if they cannot use a flag of convenience in Rump Lanka while their hearts are with the new state of Eelam?

‘To this difficulty one can add the problems faced by the government and populace of Eelam. From where would the people of the northern Vanni, Trincomalee district and some Eastern regions get their agricultural water? How much would they be ready to pay for such water supplies from their neighbouring state, Rump Lanka? And where would the state of Eelam draw its supplies of electricity and at what price?

To raise such issues is to mark some, and by no means all, of the knotty problems that confront the present ongoing process of peacemaking. But they also highlight the many flash points if Wholesale Eelam does eventuate. In other words, I am saying that Wholesale Eelam would carry the burden of highly flammable points of dispute, not least the "proper" borders between Eelam and Rump Lanka.

Such flashpoints make it likely that a new war would break out between two sovereign states. This will be a repetition of the tale of India and Pakistan, but with a greater intensity generated by the restricted territorial space within which the fighting and killing will occur. This war will be at a level of intensity that would make the recent past seem like kindergarten stuff. Many towns in the centre and south of the island will begin to resemble Chavakachcheri. In short, I raise these questions to spell out a possible doomsday scenario. The older Tamils in the south and west will be the hardest hit, but, of course, people from all the ethnic groupings will suffer severely.

Adequate Eelam

As distinct from Wholesale Eelam, Adequate Eelam will be a semi-autonomous polity that nestles within the state of Sri Lanka. The constitutional modulates of such a political system will necessarily be complex, but our ingenuity in this regard should not be underestimated. Pragmatics should be the mother of invention. That is, sheer necessity should encourage the Older Tamils living in the south and west besides all parties to help engineer such a framework.

If such a polity arises then, these Older Tamils of the south-and west would be able to have their cake and eat it. Even S. L. Gunasekera would he able to travel to the north or east of the island without requiring a visa. Out there he might wishfully see that faint traces of the writ exercised by the government located in Colombo.

What is more, the Older Tamils living in the south and west can exercise several options when they reach for a collective label to identify their collective sentiment. They could follow their brethren in the north and east and call themselves Eelam Lankans (or Ilavan Lankans). But they would also have the option of simply describing themselves as Lankans.

There are many precedents for this type of self-labelling that then creates a framework for the naming of Others. Italian migrants to Australia who are two or three generations deep sometimes opt for the label "Australian," but yet others choose to describe themselves as "Italian Australians." In short, if the world can recognisc German, Swiss, Italian Australian, Jamaican Brit and French Canadian, then there is space, too, for Ilavan Lankan as well as Sinhala Lankan, Muslim Lankan and Burgher Lankan (besides simple "Lankan").

The central question, therefore, is this are the forces and key players influencing the Sri Lankan firmament realistic enough — and skilful enough — to seize the moment? A workable deal ensuring Adequate Eelam is what we want. Otherwise these forces will be committing their children, and their children’s children, to a spiralling cycle of war.


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