Tamil nationalism’s refusal to take responsibility

When in the individual sphere there is a long continuity of failure, a rational human being re-examines his/her life, while an irrational one blames everyone else. The latter condition usually requires professional assistance to overcome. The empirically evident track record of Tamil nationalist politics in Sri Lanka is that of repeated failure capped by defeat. However the dominant tendency in Sri Lankan Tamil nationalist politics, including in this postwar moment, has been quite other than one of self scrutiny. The hallmark of –and the trouble with— Tamil nationalist politics in Sri Lanka and therefore the underlying Northern Tamil social consciousness, is the combination of the utter unwillingness to recognize reality (dealt with in my recent articles) with the utter unwillingness to take responsibility. The Tamil responses to my pair of recent articles on Tamil politics reveal the same old narrative of blaming the Tamils’ travails entirely or mainly on the Sinhalese, the Indians, the international community, i.e. anyone but themselves, their attitudes, their political aims and their leadership. Self awareness and self criticism seem alien to the Lankan Tamil temper.

The "best and brightest" of the Tamil Diaspora are not immune from these flaws of intellectual and ethical character. I refer to the latest report of the UTHR Jaffna ( "Let Them Speak", Dec 13, 2009), which blithely concludes that "…the key to military dominance lay not in brilliant strategies, but in an utter disregard for the lives of civilians and combatants alike, driven by their leaders’ single-minded pursuit of personal power". The subtext through which the pathetic racist myth of Tamil superiority is perpetuated is that "the key" to the Tigers defeat was not "brilliant strategies"— instead the Southern side won because it was the more bloodthirsty and barbaric! Unfortunately for the UTHR-J (and its family of Sinhala fellow travelers), not a single military commentator with credentials anywhere in the world has said this or is likely to, whatever doubts they have about a " Sri Lankan model" which can be applied elsewhere and the criticisms they may have of the Lankan armed forces’ heavy-handed tactics. The UTHR-J report’s own survivor testimonies prove that whenever the Tigers mounted or attempted a counter attack and breakthrough, they found themselves drastically short of ordnance, of ammunition, unlike in earlier campaigns. Now in the UTHR-J’s absurd mental universe this may be due to "an utter disregard for the lives of civilians and combatants alike, driven by their leaders’ single-minded pursuit of personal power", but every sane analyst knows it was by means of a brilliant strategy which deployed Sri Lankan naval assets in unprecedented blue water operations, interdicting and destroying the LTTE’s much vaunted logistical chain, consisting of its unparalleled (for a non-state actor) shipping network and guarded by Soosai’s dreaded Sea Tigers.

Secondly, the UTHR-J asks the Lankan people and the world community to believe that the Sri Lankan armed forces were more bloody-mindedly barbaric than Velupillai Prabhakaran and the Tamil Tigers. Thirdly it ignores the great number of states whose far better armed militaries would have as little or less compunction in using massive force against terrorists, especially separatists, but haven’t yet succeeded in eliminating them militarily. Fourthly it ignores the actual ongoing use of firepower with a ghastly rate of collateral damage by some of the world’s superpower/major power militaries (98% civilian casualties in drone strikes), without achieving anything like the success of the Sri Lankan security forces.

The UTHR-J report also argues that after the liberation of Kilinochchi, the Sri Lankan state should have resorted to a political solution. This begs the question of what political solution short of immediate, unconditional and total surrender, would have been acceptable to any state and any military in that situation, and which state would not press home its advantage and militarily destroy an enemy as fanatical as the Tigers after thirty years of war punctuated by peace talks wrecked by the foe.

The misplaced arrogance of Tamil nationalism is also manifest in a philippic in the Sunday papers (Sunday Island Dec 27, 09) and comments on websites concerning my advocacy of S Thondaman as a role model and my underscoring of his success. The remarks attribute Thondaman’s success – unsurprisingly – to the Northern Tamil struggle and depict it as a by-product of that struggle. This smug self congratulatory interpretation, once again confirmatory of inflated self regard, begs the question of how S Thondaman was able to achieve something out of the Northern Tamil struggle while the Northern Tamil leadership was not! For instance, Ceylon’s independence was a by-product of the giant struggle of the Indian masses for Independence, but that latter goal was achieved, and it was not the case that Ceylon, the by-product, succeeded, while the main struggle, that of India, collapsed. In Sri Lanka, the hill-country Tamils succeeded in regaining citizenship while the Northern Tamil nationalists could not achieve a single one of their demands, however justifiable or not, starting with "fifty: fifty" and (a bit) later, federalism, and winding up with Tamil Eelam, confederation and the ISGA! What they have achieved thanks to India — a measure of provincial autonomy— they are not willing to settle for or accept!

The Tamil responses to my remarks on Thondaman also focus on the continued poverty of the hill country Tamils. What these arrogant observations obscure is that S Thondaman did not lead a comfortably-off ethnic community to totalitarian and then military rule and IDP status, as did the nationalist Northern Tamil leadership. He did not lead a community from functioning households into shellfire devastated and mine-ridden neighborhoods without the compensation of even an honorable truce. He led a community that was disenfranchised and in semi-serf conditions, to full political citizenship while Northern Tamil nationalism led an enfranchised community to conditions of quasi-occupation.

Contrast the chronic refusal of critical self scrutiny within Tamil society and social consciousness, with the behavior in the South, within the Sinhala social formation, in my lifetime. After the uprising of April 1971 and its brutal yet inevitable suppression, the intelligentsia went into a mode of self searching, ranging from LSSP’s theoretician Leslie Gunawardene in the Daily News to Leel Gunasekara’s short stories, originating in his experience as a public servant involved in rehabilitation. No area, from literature and theatre to temple, church and public policy was insulated from this self critical gaze.

Then again after the anti-Tamil attacks of 1958, 1977, 1979 and July 83, enlightened responses from among the Sinhalese ranged from and were reflected by Tarzie Vittachi’s Emergency ‘58, MIRJE, the SSA’s volume on ethnicity, Gananath Obeysekara’s ‘The Institutionalization of Political Violence’ and his reflections on ‘Dutugemunu’s Conscience’, the seminal debate on Jatika Chinthanaya in the newspapers, to the huge volume of material published mainly in the Lanka Guardian, and contained in Dr Kumar Rupesinghe’s two volume bibliography. Wilhelm Reich was mandatory reading for any discussion of the behavior of the Sinhala mob. Mervyn de Silva kept critiquing and satirizing "the Sinhala psyche" and the "Mahavamsa mindset". Latter day explorations into role and function of Sinhala Buddhism include the path-breaking The Work of Kings by Prof HL Seneviratne of the University of Virginia.

To provide one last example, the hideous carnage practiced by (and later, on) the JVP’s during its second insurrection, led to excavations of violence in the Sinhala heritage. While University of London based Australian Bruce Kapferer’s was the most sophisticated of the genre, a young Sinhalese radical, CA Chandraprema got there first with a racy polemic that picked up on the sadistic scenes of Yama in Buddhist temple art. (Chandraprema’s immediately following book on the Sinhala South was both precursor of and an indispensable background reading for the understanding of the Southern resurgence in its Rajapakse-ist and now Fonsekan variants).

Where are the Sri Lankan Tamil equivalents? Where are the critical explorations, revaluations and deconstructions of Tamil politics, culture and the collective Tamil psyche that have honestly confronted and analytically explained the justifications of the massacre of old men and women worshipping the Sacred Bo tree in Anuradhapura, the burning of TELO youth on the streets of Jaffna, the social marginalization of the Eelam Left which sought links with the Sinhala south, the cult of Prabhakaran and the suicide bombers, the reviling of the IPKF and the cheering on of Tigers’ war against it, the excuses made for every escalation of demands, shift of goalposts and unilateral walkout from negotiations, the subordination and subservience to tyranny, the arrogant dismissal of the murdered Tamil leaders and learned victims of Tiger violence — such as, but not only Amirthalingam, Tiruchelvam, Yogeswaran, Kadirgamar, Dr Rajani Thiranagama, Mrs Sarojini Yogeswaran, K Pathmanabha and L. Ketheeshwaran?

Throughout the war, Tamil nationalism displayed two alternating mentalities: one of pretensions to superiority or over-lordship and the other of perennial victimhood. This manifests itself in two modes: inventing and venting. "Over-lordship" manifested itself in the Tigers’ conduct during the anti-IPKF war, the lethal transgressions of the CFA, the demand for the ISGA, the themes of the Pongu Tamil demonstrations, and the demand (voiced in Tamil Nadu itself) that India intervene to stop the war notwithstanding the unapologetic stance of pro-Tiger Tamils regarding the murder on Indian soil, of Rajiv Gandhi. "Perennial Victimhood" manifested itself even after the brusque sequestering of the Sri Lankan armed forces in the North and East by the Indian peacekeeping force in pursuance of the Indo-Lanka accord which empowered the Tamil people of that area. It continues shrilly in the truth-varnishing of Vany Kumar (Damilvany Gnanakumar, to be precise), the demonstrations against the Kerry-Lugar report and in everyday mainstream Lankan Tamil nationalist discourse: all failures and defeats are the fault of obdurate Sinhalese, those who supported them and those who have failed to support the Tamils sufficiently (as if India didn’t pay the price in Perumpudur, for such support and trust, with most Tamils justifying the war against the IPKF and the Rajiv assassination itself).

In the dominant Tamil discourse, no minority is as oppressed, self sacrificial and deserving as it is. While any politically literate person would remember Bloody Sunday, mass internment without trial and the "dirty protest" death fasts of Bobby Sands and his comrades in Northern Ireland, for most Tamils, a Good Friday type settlement which is good enough for Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority (devolution within a unitary state) somehow wasn’t and isn’t good enough for them.

Northern Ireland’s Catholic church and its priests condemned the terrorist use of violence (violence against noncombatants and unarmed civilians) by the Provisional IRA, but Sri Lanka’s Catholic and Protestant Churches (and priests and nuns) in the North never went on the record unambiguously doing the equivalent. Instead, the admirable postulates of liberation theology were distorted to justify terrorism and opt for Barabbas. As a Christian, I trust that the moral failure of collective Tamil nationalism in worshipping evil, not in the form of the Golden Calf but of the Black Tiger, is understood to have resulted in a classically Old Testament outcome in Nandikadal.

Here’s my bottom line: why can’t the Tamil nationalists adopt the progressive perspective concerning Sri Lanka’s politics and the Tamils of Lanka, advocated by politically sophisticated, successful Tamil friends and well wishers such as N Ram, Malini Parthasarthy and The Hindu? What does this unwillingness or inability indicate?

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