Darkness at Noon on the Ethnic Front


By Izeth Hussain

In my article Re-thinking the Ethnic Imbroglio in the Island of January 25, I pointed out that the prospects for a political solution of the ethnic problem "are nil, or almost nil". With the definitive military defeat of the LTTE in May 2009 we expected that, sooner rather than later, there would be a political solution and there would ensue noon-tide glory in the resplendent isle of Sri Lanka. Instead, what we see looks much more like darkness at noon. I argued that what we need in this situation is a re-thinking of the fundamentals of the ethnic imbroglio. In this article I will continue my own rethinking on the fundamentals, and point out that just now the most important desideratum – the desired but missing thing – is a paradigm shift in our thinking on the imbroglio: we must give primacy to attitudinal change over Constitutional and institutional change.

My sense of darkness deepened when I read the headline news in the Island of January 29 that the Ministry of Defense will carry out investigations into the nexus between the TNA and the LTTE in the past. There is, of course, everything to be said for such investigations because a healthy society should place a high value on truth, which means that it is imperative to establish the truth about what happened in the past. But is this the time for it? We must take certain inescapable facts into account. The Defense Ministry is not just another Ministry but the most powerful one, and its Secretary Gotabaya R is second in power only to the President. His power derives not from the sibling nexus but from his credentials as one of the authentic saviours of the nation. Furthermore the Defense Ministry is regarded as having a nexus with the Sangha, and together they constitute the most powerful force in the country, which can countermand the will of the people because of the nexus between the Sangha and the Buddhist majority. It is also an inescapable fact that a system of devolution is usually difficult to operate. Considering all these facts, the conclusion becomes inescapable that if the investigations really get going the successful operation of 13A will be jeopardized. Its successful operation will really be impossible without flexibility and trust between the Government and the TNA, and that will become impossible with the investigations. We are forced to the conclusion that the Government is not in earnest about 13A or is thoroughly ambivalent about it.

As for the TNA, it has no enthusiasm for 13A, as I pointed out in my last article. I must flesh that out a bit as there is a contrary view on the TNA’s position on 13A. Chief Minister Wigneswaran’s Budget speech in December was subjected to a brilliant critique by Dayan Jayatilleka in Groundviews, in the course of which he quoted the following: "It should be understood by all clearly that the present Provincial Council cannot be a vehicle of change for the betterment of the Tamil speaking people of the North and East". That was a categorical statement, and it was not made under LTTE duress. He also declared that the Tamils had wanted devolution for the North East only and not as part of a system applicable to the whole island. I find that idea depressing for reasons that I need not go into here. It remains that the TNA eschews separatism and violence, and is willing to make a try at making the NPC successful. The TNA position on moving towards a political solution is therefore slightly more positive than that of the Government, and that is why the prospects for a political solution are "almost nil", not nil.

But it has to be expected that the TNA will not really commit itself to 13A, if at all, until the Indian General elections and its aftermath. I have argued in my last article that India is not ancillary to but an integral part of our ethnic problem, for which reason the Indian elections could be of crucial importance. The expectation is that the BJP will form the next Government together with its like-minded allies and some other parties. The new Government could turn out to be quasi democratic and quasi neo-Fascist just like the one in Colombo, and a tougher line on the ethnic problem is quite possible. The omens at the moment are not good at all. Jayalalithaa is talking about doing away with the maritime boundary between the two countries, which on the face of it could seem to be a fair-minded proposal for equitable sharing of maritime resources. But it has dangerous implications because without the boundary the Indian Ocean can come to be seen not as separating but bringing together Tamil Nadu and our North-East. That could lead eventually to a Tamil Nadu irredentist claim on our North-East. We have got accustomed to belligerent noises on Kachchaitivu, which we must now take seriously. As the Agreement on Kachchaitivu was never ratified by the Indian Parliament, it is not valid under international law, and it is possible that a BJP Government may wrest it away from us.

The kind of negative developments indicated in the preceding paragraph pale into insignificance compared to what is threatened in the following statement by Yaswant Sinha, the shadow BJP Foreign Minister: "The BJP during the NDA rule advocated political settlement for the Tamils within a united Sri Lanka, but that position is different now. Eelam is a distinct possibility. Bangladesh, North and South Sudan are all independent countries today". He might mean that the Tamils could fight again, this time with Indian and other foreign support, and establish Eelam. But that seems a messy and very uncertain process. He probably means therefore that India might impose a Cyprus-style solution: Indian troops invade Sri Lanka, establish Eelam, after which the Indian troops hold the frontier, in a process comparable to what happened in Cyprus. I wrote two articles on that possibility, neither of which seemed to make any impact on the public. But H.L. de Silva wrote, some months before he passed away, that he had originally thought that I was being "fanciful" but later – describing me as "an Ambassador of experience" – took my argument seriously.

It seems serious that a prospective Indian Foreign Minister says "Eelam is a distinct possibility" but probably our Government will explain it away as arising out of the BJP’s need for Tamil Nadu votes. But the senior Vice-Chairman of the UNP, Lakshman Kiriella, who recently cited Yaswant Sinha’s statement quoted above (Island of January 28), raised a question in Parliament as far back as last April about a BJP threat to carve out Eelam. Therefore the recent statement of Yaswant Sinha should not be dismissed as arising out of electoral compulsions. The Government’s reply to Kiriella was that no Indian Government would agree to the break-up of Sri Lanka. I wrote a letter to the Island making certain clarifications. At one time the orthodoxy prevailing in Sri Lanka was that India was determined to break up Sri Lanka. Later the orthodoxy was that no Government in India would ever agree to the break-up of Sri Lanka. It is true that India would not like to see separatist movements succeed in neighboring countries as that could set a bad example for India. But the break-up of Pakistan in 1971, under Indian aegis, was seen as an accretion of strength for India. That is something that we should always bear in mind.

What should we do? As neither the Government nor the TNA is really in earnest about 13A, for the time being it’s darkness at noon on the ethnic front. But this situation could change, and change very radically, in the second half of this year consequent to the Indian elections. If it’s not a hung Parliament, and a fairly stable BJP Government is installed in power, and it turns out to be tough and even threatening, the Sri Lankan Government and the TNA could conceivably become earnest about 13A. I recall Dr. Johnson’s remark that nothing so wonderfully concentrates the mind as the prospect of being hanged on the morrow.

However, I wonder whether Constitutional and institutional changes, without attitudinal changes, will suffice to bring about an effective political solution and authentic ethnic reonciliation. Human beings are not automata, they are thinking beings, and they act in terms of how they think. That means that even if we have an excellent Constitution and excellent institutions, they will not amount to much if we are still full of hatred and distrust towards each other. I concluded my last article with three suggestions that could bring about crucially important attitudinal changes. It may be that if we give primacy to bringing about attitudinal change, what is at present darkness at noon could turn into dusk.. I have in mind Hegel’s observation that it is only at dusk when the shades of night are falling that the bird of Minerva – the owl symbolizing wisdom – spreads its wings and takes flight.


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