The Tamil ideology of SEPARATE and EQUAL


by Neville Ladduwahetty

The International Community has repeatedly emphasized that a political solution is the cornerstone to serious reconciliation. The ongoing discussions between the Government and the TNA representing the Tamil community are intended to yield mutually acceptable solutions. However, the trajectories of the solutions pursued by the TNA are based on devolution with the 13th Amendment as the base. Their hope is to extend the scope of devolved powers beyond what currently exists in the 13th Amendment to the maximum. Whether the Government could accommodate the expectations of the TNA without losing their political base in the South is the challenge for the Government.

The underlying ideology in the approached pursued by the TNA for maximum devolution reflects the degree of isolation they seek from the governing processes at the center thereby rejecting inclusion and underscoring exclusion. This is manifested in their single minded focus for territorially based political power. For the Tamil community exclusion is what endorses their separateness and distinctiveness as a group that is different from the rest. To the Tamil community being part of a larger whole is perceived as diluting their separateness. Being separate from the rest in a defined territory is perceived as a symbol of equality with the Sinhalese who are the major component of the rest. The sense of equality comes from the political division of the territory of Sri Lanka between the two communities.

The establishment of a Provincial Council for the Northern Province for the very first time would be the beginning of the process of political division. This would result in territorially defined majority and minority regions. While the former would represent a region for all communities the latter would, in the main, be exclusively Tamil. Furthermore the geographic isolation of the minority region would discourage involvement in the affairs of the rest of the country except for those issues that would have an impact on them. A territorially based region with constitutionally assured political power for a minority would become a feature without precedent in the history of Sri Lanka except for brief periods of conquest. Therefore, the establishment of Provincial Council for the Northern Province is to politically acknowledge an arrangement that despite being limited in scope to what they hoped to achieve through armed conflict over three decades concretizes the ideology of a defined territory for a segment of a minority for the sole purpose of satisfying a desire to be separate from the rest. Such arrangements have lead to instability and eventual territorial disintegration as evidenced from the experiences in Kosovo, the breakup of former Yugoslavia, tensions in Catalonia and the Basque region, parts of Africa and instability in the Caucuses to name a few.


The ideology of isolation is to consolidate the notion of separate and equal. The difference between a Northern Province Provincial Council and the other Provincial Councils in the remaining 8 provinces is that while representatives of Muslim and Indian Tamil communities elected to Parliament from these 8 provinces participate in the affairs of the state, members of Parliament from the Northern Province have habitually been in the opposition. This has prevented representatives of the Tamil community to work with successive Governments to prevent or even mitigate the effects of adverse legislative and executive initiatives from the center. The consequence of none participation in the affairs of the state has been to charge the center of discrimination and marginalisation; a charge that is not levelled by other minority communities. Other communities have managed to address issues that are of interest to them because of their presence during the formulation of policy initiatives. Representatives of the Tamil community have not sought such opportunities because they have by choice opted to sit outside the processes of policy formulations. This is isolation by choice.

The consequence of isolation from the center is to seek arrangements and opportunities at the Provincial level to address issues that affect the Tamil community. The inability to meet most of what the Tamil community in the Northern Province aspires for would be presented as attempts to thwart their endeavours to seek fulfillment. The solutions sought to correct such situations would be to seek increased powers backed up with matching financial resources for the Northern Provincial Council. Meeting such demands would either entail granting asymmetrical power and disproportionate resources to the Northern Provincial Council or to grant similar claims to all Provincial Councils if asymmetrical devolution is to be avoided. If instead the outcome resolves itself into an asymmetrical arrangement in respect of political powers and resources for the Northern Provincial Council it would consolidate the ideology of separateness of the Tamil community from the rest.

The clamour for Land and Police powers for the Northern Provincial Council is a harbinger of would follow with other issues. Reluctance to devolve such powers would reverberate in Tamil Nadu and with their supporters in the West. Evidence of this influence was visible in Tamil Nadu even to the point of threats to secede from the Indian Union over concern for the plight of the Sri Lankan Tamils expressed as a demand for equal rights for the Tamils of Sri Lanka. The issue for the Government in Sri Lanka would then be how to contain and manage such pressures while retaining its political base in the South and ensuring that the integrity of the state is not threatened as a result of its political structure.


With the establishment of the Northern Provincial Council linkages are bound to develop between Sri Lanka’s North and Tamil Nadu. These linkages would not be limited to cultural issues. Instead, it has the potential to encompass a range of interests including business and commercial interests. Such developments may turn out to be so binding that with time it has the potential to affect national interests of both Colombo and Delhi. Notwithstanding the possibility for such imperatives, for Delhi to push for a political solution based on devolution despite the latter’s potential to undermine regional and geo-strategic interests, not to mention the potential of threats to its own territorial integrity (judging from recent pronouncements emerging from Tamil Nadu), reflects a level of simple minded unconcern that is surprising for a power seeking to be recognized as a global power. India’s aspirations require that the nation stays whole, even though historically India has never been territorially what it is today.


The challenge for the Government of Sri Lanka is how to maneouver its way through these conflicting interests. A political solution that would meet Tamil expectations would undermine the support of Sri Lanka’s South. Devolution to a degree that is manageable without threats to SriLanka’s national interests may satisfy the South, but has little appeal to the Tamil community. Devolution to the degree sought by the Tamil community that underpins notions of ‘separate and equal’ would threaten Sri Lanka’s and India’s territorial integrity; the potential for which appears to be beyond the realm of reality for the strategic planners of India. Therefore, it is in the mutual interests of both countries for Sri Lanka to discuss with the leadership of India what devolution entails for both countries. Additionally, the Government of Sri Lanka should make India aware of its moral obligation to seek the approval of the Sri Lankan people before finalizing a political solution based on devolution prior to the establishment of a Northern Provincial Council when the full impact of devolution has the potential to affect both countries. Failure to do so would make both Governments complicit in compelling the Peoples of Sri Lanka to be governed without seeking their consent thereby mocking the most fundamental of tenets of Democracy to which both countries have pledged.


The ideology of separate and equal is embodied in the Sri Lankan Tamil community’s quest for territorially based power sharing arrangements. Their perception has been that if they are to be equal with the Sinhala people they need to have political control over a part of the territory of Sri Lanka. Their original claim to make the Northern and Eastern Provinces part of such a territory justified on the claim of Tamil speaking people but controlled by the Tamil community would have mirrored the ethnic mix in the other 7 provinces, which incidentally late Mr. Chelvanayakam thought was ‘sufficient’ for the Sinhalese. The dissolution of the North-East Provincial Council following the unilateral declaration of independence prevented the concept of separate and equal from becoming a reality. However, the potential for the concept to be reset exists with the establishment of a Northern Provincial Council with constitutionally assured political power for one minority community; a happening that has no precedent in the annals of Sri Lanka’s history.

The ideology of equality and cultural separateness is not an issue. What is at issue is the pursuit of territorially based political separateness. The contours of the approaches pursued by the Tamil community are unacceptable to the rest because territorially based political separateness has the potential to threaten the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka with consequences to the integrity of India as well because of the nexus a Tamil dominated Northern Provincial Council would have with Tamil Nadu. Therefore, there is a need for the Government and the TNA to explore creative and imaginative solutions as suggested by the US Secretary of State. Such solutions should assure the security of all and provide opportunities for all to prosper. However, the commencement of such an exploratory process must start with first establishing whether the Peoples of Sri Lanka are for or against the 13th Amendment as the basis of future political arrangements through the mechanism of a Referendum for the simple reason that an opportunity for such expression has been denied to them ever since they were made to accept the concept under compulsion. Not to do so is a denial of their fundamental right, that being the right to choose how a Peoples are to be governed. It is expression of this right that the world is witnessing throughout the Middle East.

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