There can be a military victory over a military challenge but there cannot be a purely military victory over a political challenge. An enemy army can and must be defeated, an armed opponent can be killed, but a political challenge requires a political response and an idea can be defeated only by another idea. – Dayan Jayatilleka
This is old. I would say it is basic to political science. However, like all things that stand the test of time, it is profound. Dayan is absolutely right. He is erroneous however in the application of this principle (see his piece in The Island of July 9, 2009 titled ‘The 13th Amendment and the international system’).
What is his reference?
Let me quote:
"One of the basic errors of Malinda and his co-thinkers is the conclusion that Tamil ethnic politics died on the banks of the Nandikadal. The idea of Tamil Eelam can be defeated only by the counter-idea of reformed and restructured Sri Lankan state which may remain unitary but contains an irreducible autonomous political space for the Tamil people of the North and East. It cannot be defeated by the idea of Sri Lanka shorn of even the 13th amendment. Armed Tamil secessionism can and has been defeated, but the politics of collective Tamil identity cannot be militarily defeated or suppressed; it can only be politically addressed."
Dayan’s defense of the 13th Amendment and his plea for its implementation is predicated on the validity of the Tamil (chauvinist) demands, or, to put it another way, the erroneous and mischievous assertion of the equation that equates ‘grievance’ + ‘aspiration’ to ‘legitimate demand’. More on this later.
He defends the hurried and coercively introduced 13th Amendment as a (necessary?) ‘Caesarean surgical intervention to bring forth a power sharing solution thwarted from 1957’ and pats himself on the back for having predicted the same. He attributes that ’ to extra-parliamentary lobbying: ‘none of the proposals for moderate power-sharing were voted down democratically’. Lobbying, Dayan knows, is part of democratic process. India dropping parippu and a lot more besides is not.
Dayan enumerates the advantages of going with the 13th, painting a happily-ever-after picture of internal stability, international backing and communal harmony with an equally ‘happy’ division of the Tamil Diaspora (that’s a racist wish, I believe), a bridging of the North-South gap and a downing of the anti-Sri Lanka global campaign. These are ‘strategic benefits’ which Dayan believes will accrue automatically if we implemented the 13th. He implies that pandering to Eelamist mythology and burning defensible historical transcript is a small price to pay for all these goodies.
First of all, I don’t think that the goodies are there for the taking. There are no ‘friends’ or ‘enemies’ in the international, just entities playing cards as per self-interest. There is a give and take and there’s a lot of arm-twisting too. Dayan knows this and Dayan knows that India is not the do-gooder that India likes us to believe she is. Yes, there is a ‘World System’, I acknowledge. That is however not an entity that was god-made and meant to be immobile from Day One to Day Last. Things change. To accept current realities as overarching forces best met with acquiescence is a legitimate option, but honour, dignity and intellectual honesty demand that error in perception be resisted. That however, is not an important entry in the diary of a politician. I believe it was one of the First Nations in the Americas that predicated policy decision on a consideration of impact on the seventh generation down the line. Resolving for aspirations that infringe on the rights of other communities and for grievances that can be addressed in other ways may appease ‘international pals’ in the here-and-now but will amount to little more than shoving a bunch of garbage under the carpet.
Dayan, so adept at meeting, countering and triumphing over Western mischief-making with respect to Sri Lanka, is surprisingly meek when it comes to Eelamist posturing regarding history.
Perhaps this is because he is fascinated with the notion of ‘autonomous political space’ for the Tamil people in the North and East. I will go with ‘political space’ but there is nothing to support ‘autonomy’ as per defined territory. The provincial boundaries were arbitrarily drawn, to begin with. The Eastern Province is demographically divided roughly into three equal parts, and in terms of territory, ‘Sinhala’ areas far outweigh Tamil and Muslim areas put together. As for legitimacy of claim following historical evidence, it is at best paltry. The archaeological record does not support the thesis. We could of course set the take-off point closer to the present, but then again, we do know that Chelvanayagam was not a Ceylonese, that Ponnambalam Ramanathan’s grandfather did not have an address in this country and we have to make note of the fact that the results of the first census were surreptitiously ‘disappeared’. Oh yes, Tamil chauvinism has a long history and one that pre-dates the horrendous disenfranchisement of Tamils in the estates and Bandaranaike’s swabasha adventure.
Dayan points out that our so-called ‘friends’ in the international community want the 13th implemented, citing statements made. Even if we were generous and grant that all these statements were/are made in good faith, the fact remains that they are based on their perceptions of our problem, something that is largely influenced by three factors: a) strong and sustained propaganda by the Eelam lobby, b) an ‘intellectual’ community (mostly of Marxist-Leninist leanings) that was and still is quite quiescent, and c) governments and political leaders who were operating throughout in the here-and-now mode.
Bandaranaike cowed down to ‘extra-parliamentary pressure’, yes. But it was not a matter of going through with the Chelva-Banda pact or dumping it unceremoniously. There was a compelling argument for a instituting a reason-privileging exercise in considering ‘Tamil grievances’. He could have instituted a historical audit into claims and thereafter addressed that which was legitimate and ignore that which was not. His successors could have too. That they did not is a pity, and does not in any way make a case for Caesarian section or the sanitization of belligerent bullying on the part of India. Or anyone else.
I agree with Dayan that the Sri Lanka state needs structural reform. There can be structural reform without compromising its centralized form. Devolution of power is not only antithetical to current global trends (for those who are fascinated by the ‘Global’ with a capital G) it is not a necessary precondition for reconciliation of Sinhala and Tamil communities. That is like saying that the United States should devolve power to the African Americans, Hispanics and Asians in clearly demarcated pieces of land in order to obtain reconciliation.
There is nothing wrong in any community wanting legitimate political space, in wanting equal rights as citizens, but autonomous political space is another matter altogether. That can be an aspiration, sure, but not delivering that aspiration is not a crime against humanity and not necessarily undemocratic.
All communities should have ‘political space’ to air grievances, assert identity and obtain relief where infringement occurs. This requires an overall democratization of our institutions. This is where my argument for the 17th Amendment is not the apple against the 13th Amendment orange as per Dayan’s characterization makes sense. The 1978 constitution is anti-citizen, first and foremost and this is the structural anomaly that needs to be addressed most urgently. It diminishes the citizen. The 17th, flawed though it is and inadequate to boot, as Dayan correctly observes, is the only step taken in the direction of addressing this problem.
Dayan says, ‘The 17th amendment only tangentially impacts upon the crucial problem of power-sharing between centre and periphery and is therefore no substitute for the implementation of the 13th amendment.’ True. The 17th does not really impact power-sharing between centre and periphery. However, ‘power sharing between centre and periphery’ is not the ‘problem’ Dayan believes it is. There has to be more decentralization of administrative functions, a greater degree of say for citizen in decision-making etc., but the answer is not devolution as per the 13th, which, we know is essentially a mechanism for pampering local thugs and a huge burden on the public. A District Council would be far more effective, democratic and yielding ‘self-determination’ to the ordinary citizen. What the 17th, or rather a 17th Plus formulation, would do is to insulate all people from the excesses of politicians.
Reconciliation is not about pandering to ahistorical claim. Aspiration clothed as right may excite those who like masquerades and cross-dressing of course, but a nation can do better than to go overboard with such things. This is why we need to get to the basics, i.e. a historical audit of Tamil claims. If not we will condemn our children to deal with chauvinism and the violence it tends to spawn. We cannot afford, especially not after suffering immense costs in eliminating the military avatar of Eelamist posturing, to concede constitutionally the rudimentary structures that can later be the basis for a renewed journey towards Prabhakaran’s objective. Reconciliation, rather, is about coming to terms with realities, of privileging respect, affirming equal rights for all citizens and providing the necessary space for celebrating identity.
It is beholden on us then to set the record state with respect to all misconceptions about Sri Lanka and her history. I will concede that mine is ‘version’. Dayan too will have to concede that his is ‘version’ too. I am ready to support a historical audit so that the root of the demand (for ‘autonomous political space for Tamils’) can be obtained. We can’t gloss over this. We have, for too long, and have had to pay a massive price for our collective sloth as a people. We need a new embrace in this country, a citizens’ embrace. This is not the time to embrace a wasteful, ineffective and grotesque historical misadventure just so that we win some accolades from ‘friends’ abroad for a few feel-good moments.
I firmly believe that the Sinhala and Tamil people are more than ready for a reconciliation that is not bastardised by formulations promoted and established by third-rate politicians and I believe that such reconciliation (which necessitates a re-hauling of the constitution; most certainly a worthy cause to espouse) alone would win us long-term and sustainable friendships internationally.
The 13th Amendment is, in short, a ‘bad idea’ and worse, ‘an erroneous idea’. It has to be defeated.
Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.