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The absence of thinking in Tamil politics

S. Thondaman

Of course I do not mean that there is no thinking among Tamils as a community, still less that Tamils cannot think! Nor am I complaining that there is an absence of systematic ideas and ideologies in Tamil politics. That’s hardly a priority and could be a blessing. What I do mean is that there is no thinking through, in the sense of serious exercise of the faculties of intelligence and analysis, in Tamil politics. It may be said that the same is true if not truer of Sinhala politics, but then again, the Sinhalese need it less, thanks to demographic advantages and factor endowments, with the proof of the pudding being in the eating: the Tamil community is in far worse shape than the Sinhalese.

The absence of thinking is best evidenced in the refusal to accept reality and in the unreality of the attitudes and aims that manifest themselves in Tamil politics. This is true of the past as it is today. Examine the call for "balanced representation" or what is commonly referred to as fifty: fifty. How could anyone, including the British colonial power, accept a demand for reverse discrimination, wherein the combined minorities would have more representation than their numbers warranted, when it could not be demonstrated that the said minorities had suffered from a history of deprivation which is the sole justification for affirmative action?

Then let us take the refusal to accept anything less than the permanent merger of the Northern and eastern provinces as they are currently constituted, thereby ruling out either re-demarcation or referendum. This obduracy stymied a settlement in 1986 with Indian mediation. It made for an Accord with an Achilles heel, the merger subject to a referendum – while the opposition to a referendum opened up the giant loophole which the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Sarath N Silva, currently a supporter of the joint Opposition’s Presidential candidate, drove a cart and horses through, effecting a de-merger. The ridiculousness of the Tamil stand is best evidenced by the fact that the Good Friday agreement, which does NOT grant the Northern Irish Catholics the merger with the South they always wanted, is subject to interlocking referenda, including in the UK as a whole. Will any Tamil politician risk referenda in the Eastern province and all-island on the issue of the Northeast merger?

The LTTE and the TNA’s refusal to accept any version of President Kumaratunga’s quasi-federal political package and the Tigers boycott of the April 2003 Tokyo conference, just to mention two instances, betrayed a total absence of lucidity. The Diaspora’s decision to demonstrate under the Tiger flag in 2009, achieving visibility and nothing else, or rather, only a negative visibility which helped the GOSL case, contrasted with the diversity in the anti-Gaza War demonstrations world-wide, which achieved the severance of DPL ties between several Latin American nations and Israel. Most ludicrous was the strong sense among Tamils that India should intervene to stop Sri Lanka’s military operations and save the self-same Prabhakaran who had not even sought forgiveness for the murder of a former Prime minister of India who was the son of an illustrious Prime Minister and the grandson of an iconic world figure. As the kids say: "HELL-LO?!" Obviously the Tamil polity, especially in the Diaspora, just wasn’t thinking. That’s not because of a lack of brains but because fanaticism scrambles or aborts rational thought processes. It must be observed though, that we know since Wilhelm Reich, that it takes a certain kind of collective mind, of collective psyche, to be so susceptible to fanaticism for so long and in the face of such overwhelming evidence. Collective Tamil delusion is so strong that it has not been definitively punctured by the conclusive defeat at Nandikadal, which decorated war veteran John Kerry’s Report rightly observes, was "one of the few instances in modern history in which a terrorist group had been defeated militarily.

Most pertinent to the future of Sri Lanka’s Tamils and that of the island as a whole is the prism of delusion through which most – but not all – Tamils seem to regard the 13th amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution. The TULF rejected the 13th amendment. The EPRLF took office in the Northeast provincial council in late 1988, having stated that it didn’t suffice and pledging to re-open negotiations. What was not understood was the plain truth that was being written in blood on Southern streets, namely that there was a huge upsurge of social opinion against the amendment which also barely squeaked past the Supreme Court. Nothing more was possible, not only because of the confines of the Jayewardene Constitution but because of public opposition. The 13th amendment was as good as it could get and the South was in a state of civil war over it, with the finest of Sinhala progressives, Vijaya Kumaratunga having lost his life in its defense. With almost no exceptions, the Tamils didn’t get it. What they should have done was to support the Indian state in the effort to implement the 13th amendment, in a sustained triangular partnership with the Sri Lankan state and whichever the elected government in Colombo; not embarrass and delegitimize by attempting to force the pace, calling itself a "provincial government" instead of a "provincial council" or "provincial administration". The upshot of this adventurism was the dissolution of the Provincial council. In later years the de-merger took place, while the North has no functioning provincial administration to this day.

What the Tamil polity needs to realize are the following facts:

1. The 1978 Constitution of JR Jayewardene came into being when public opinion was far less ethnocentric than it is today. It is therefore far more modern and pluralist than any Constitution that is likely to be produced currently.

2. The 13th amendment was the maximum that resulted when the balance of forces was far more favorable to the Tamils than it is today:(i) July 83 had generated considerable legitimacy for the Tamil cause, (ii) Rajiv Gandhi had not been murdered by the main Tamil organization, (iii) India was more actively supportive of and sympathetic to the Tamil cause than it is today, (iv) there was a strongly pro-devolution progressive movement and supportive left-liberal intelligentsia in the South, and (v) the Tamil armed struggle had not been militarily crushed.

3. As the abject failure of external attempts to stop the war short of the decimation of the Tigers reveals, there is no factor or combination of factors that can compensate for and over-ride the balance of forces that prevails today, a balance which does not make for qualitatively more autonomy. Nothing can remotely compare with 70,000 Indian troops on Sri Lankan soil, and the 13th amendment was the best they could extract/push through.

4. It is highly probable that the current, postwar, post-military victory balance of forces could make for the rollback of reforms inscribed on the statute books during an earlier period. There are powerful chauvinist forces calling for such roll back, while those calling for the preservation or extension of autonomy are decidedly weaker than they were in 1987-8.

5. Any reopening of the question to the extent that it requires a plebiscitary process could doom the system of provincial autonomy, sweeping it away as the changed mood in Sinhala society, manifested in the higher judiciary, did the "merger".

The Absence ... from page 8

What would be the consequences then, of the refusal by mainstream Tamil nationalism, to refuse to accept the 13th amendment and strive to work it? "Compassion fatigue" for one: as the US Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations report demonstrates, a new ratio of strategic self-interest to human rights and humanitarian concerns will, in a multi-polar Asian environment, increasingly determine international policy towards Sri Lanka, especially post election.

There is a far more deleterious prospect, stemming from a grim reality: the realists (EPDP, PLOT, EPRLF, and EROS) within the Tamil political space are a minority, unlike in the case of the Palestinians, where the moderate Fatah dominated PLO heads the Palestinian Authority. In the Irish case too, it is the realist Sinn Fein rather than the fanatical IRA splinters that carried the day. Thus it would have been inexcusable for the UK Government to plead that it had no peace partner, and it is inexcusable for the Israelis to do so. In the Sri Lankan case though, if the South feels that realists like Devananda and Siddharthan have been marginalized and that Tamil politics hasn’t given up its maximalist mindset, then there would emerge a consensus that there is no viable Tamil partner with whom to build a durable, inclusionary peace. In turn, this would leave room for unilateralism.

That could please the Tamil extremists especially in the Diaspora who have absorbed a Zionist "next year in Tamil Eelam" attitude. This is a mindset of "the worse it gets the better it is", because "the world will see the reality and grant us Tamil Eelam someday". This is the same kind of atrocious miscalculation that has characterized Tamil politics from "balanced representation" to the ISGA. This thinking is unhistorical in the extreme. The Balfour declaration was possible because British colonialism controlled the relevant area in the aftermath of the defeat of the Ottoman Empire. Jewish migration would not have been possible in a sovereign Arab state with exclusive territorial control by its armed forces. The flood gates were opened, and there was international legitimacy for the setting up of a Jewish state after the Holocaust. None of these conditions obtain or are likely to. Sri Lanka is in Asia. The closest approximation—if one can be contrived for the sake of argument—of the trauma suffered by the Jews in Germany was in July 1983, and the Accord and the 13th amendment resulted. It doesn’t get any better than that. Therefore, the best counsel anyone can give the Tamil polity is "13th amendment: Use it or lose it!"

Marx defined ‘ideology’ as ‘false consciousness’ in which "man and his circumstances appear upside down, as if in a camera obscura". Except for a clutch of Tamil leftists linked to the Sinhala progressive stream and interacting with the state, the Tamils have seen themselves, the Sinhalese and their objective circumstances upside down as if in a camera obscura, therefore almost permanently formulating erroneous strategies and tactics. If the Sri Lankan tragedy is a tale of contending "false consciousnesses"of two constituent collectivities, the record of results and achievement shows that in relation to objective circumstances there is no "false consciousness" at work in this drama quite as false as the collective Tamil consciousness. ". Nowhere is a Truth Commission more imperative than within the Tamil community itself!

What then should the Tamils do? Roll over and play dead? Nope. They should shift modes and models, and take as example the smartest, most realistic and successful of the island’s Tamil politicians, S. Thondaman. A proud, upright leader who took no nonsense from any Sinhalese and was never trifled with by strong Presidents such as Jayewardene, Premadasa and Kumaratunga (all of whom treated him with respect), he managed to take his people out of the depths of disenfranchisement without losing a single life. He knew how to get the better of and the best out of the Sinhalese, not bring out the worst!

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