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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2739

Are the Sri Lankan Tamils of recent Indian origin Tamils or some other ethnic group?

By Raj Gonsalkorale

A new Tamil political leadership that is not influenced and hindered by the shackles of past and who are willing to work with their more modern Sinhala and Muslim compatriots, can overcome issues of the past, and build a Nation for them and the generations to come.

The TNA Leader Mr R Sampanthan has said in an interview the Nation newspaper on Sunday that Sri Lanka is a multilingual, multiethnic, plural society, comprising of the Sinhalese people, the Tamil people, the Muslim people and others, and that there was a need to nurture the linguistic and cultural identity of all these peoples. He says the Indo - Lanka Accord of 1987 recognised this, and that the 13th Amendment should not be confused with the Indo - Lanka Accord. Mr Sampanthan states further that the Accord recognized the Northern and Eastern provinces as areas of historical habitation of the Tamil speaking people. In Mr Sampanthan’s entire interview, he did not mention the Sri Lankan Tamils of recent Indian origin even once.

The question that should have been posed to Mr Sampanthan by the Nation interviewer should have been “Do you consider Sri Tamils of recent Indian origin living mainly in the central part of the country, as Tamils or some other ethnic group that should not be confused with other Tamils in the country, and if they are to be regarded as Tamils as equals to those who lives, and used to live in the North and East, where and how do they fit in with the main stream Tamils and their quest for self determination?

This question is not posed to belittle Mr Sampanthan or question his love for his people or his country. It is posed as it is a major challenge that the likes of Mr Sampanthan and other Tamil politicians of his generation must come to terms with if the conflict in Sri Lankan is to be solved. The very fact that Sri Lanka is multilingual, multiethnic and plural makes it imperative that all Tamils are regarded as Tamils, and all Sinhala people are recognized as such and Muslims are regarded as such, unless we wish to recognize divisions within each community and consider them as separate entities.

Tamil elitism based on caste is one of the contributory reasons for this conflict, and the divisions that Mr Sampanthan likes to perpetuate can only create another conflict at another time. The argument that many Sinhala leaders and opinion makers have been making that a solution has to be found within a unitary status and without the creation of ethnic enclaves is based on fears of this anticipated development. Despite Mr Sampanthan’s view about the one ness of Tamils in the North and the East, the Eastern province has shown that they do not see it that way and they wish to look after their own affairs without linking with the Northern Province. Despite all attempts to link the Tamil problem with a combined Northern and Eastern governance unit, based on debatable historical basis, even the very historical and contemporary situations have shown that Tamils in these two geographic areas have never been “one” people as the likes of Mr Sampanthan likes to portray.

Tamils therefore have at least three distinct groupings within the country. The Northerners, the Easterners and the recent arrivals living mainly in the Central, Uva provinces, and in many other plantations. Quite a few of them, mainly the Northerners and Easterners also live outside the North and the East.

In trying to find a solution to the conflict, and no doubt one must, contemporary population demographic realities have to be considered, although in doing so, it may dissatisfy some Tamils like Mr Sampanthan, who belongs to an older generation of Tamil political leadership and whose life long quest for a degree of self determination for Tamils have been associated with a debatable historical connotation on the inhabitance of the North and the East by a homogeneous Tamil population, a denial of equality to Tamils of recent Indian origin, an elitist Tamil political leadership, and above all, a world so different to what it is today, although, thanks to the LTTE and politicians like Mr Sampanthan who are defacto supporters of the LTTE, Tamils in the North and the East still live in the world of 1970 or before.

In his interview, Mr Sampanthan rightly mentioned that the conflict cannot be solved by military means and that it needs a political solution. President Rajapaksa also says this. So there is no difference between the two about the need for a political solution.

The difference is how the two are setting about finding that political solution. Mr Sampanthan is wedded to concepts that have not been successful so far, and neither he nor his likes have thought it fit to explore other concepts that would fit in better with contemporary realities and which would still give Tamils, all Tamils in the country, a more equitable share of governance power and opportunities.

The President on the other hand is pursuing a strategy that recognizes contemporary realities, and he is trying to find a solution once the LTTE gun is lifted from the heads of all peace loving citizens, and the people of the North and the East are freed from the yolk of the LTTE military dictatorship and their savagery. He has achieved this in the East, had elections there and given the people an opportunity to elect their provincial leaders. His quest is to do the same in the North.

The President maybe faulted for many things, but he cannot be faulted for trying to disentangle the country from the mess that his predecessors and some of the old guard Tamil leadership had helped to create. He is trying to usher in an environment that would be more conducive to consider issues for what they are and work out a long term solution that addresses the Tamil problem. No doubt as the President of the country, he has to consider the problems of all Tamils, not just the one’s that Mr Sampanthan represents. He has to consider the Muslims and of course the Sinhalese. As an interim political measure, the President has offered to implement the 13th Amendment in full. Rather than rejecting the 13th Amendment, it would have helped the Tamil people if Mr Sampanthan agreed to try it and see the results, rather than rejecting it outright.

There are some of us who are of the view that the President could look objectively at the problems, the genuine problems that Tamils have faced and still face due specifically to their ethnicity and explore avenues to solve them in an equitable manner. Some of these solutions may not be implementable until the LTTE is militarily defeated and the entire country is back in the hands of the legally and democratically elected government of the country, and the Sri Lankan State functions as one State. It shouldn’t however prevent the President from looking at ethnic based problems faced by Tamils, and how they could participate more equitably in governing the country, where so far, a numerical majority has allowed governance to be dominated by the Sinhalese.

While Mr Sampanthan does not, either by conviction or fear or both, elaborate when asked for his views about government gains made against the LTTE, he does say the LTTE would not have come into being if the Sri Lankan State had not failed the Tamils. Mr Sampanthan of course conveniently omits to mention that the LTTE began as a protest movement against the elite Tamil political leadership at the time because they felt they had no hope of making their views heard because of the entrenched position of the Tamil leadership at the time. No doubt, the Sri Lankan State too should take some blame for what the LTTE has become since, but neither Mr Sampanthan nor other Tamil leaders at the time, probably many of them are no more, some murdered by the LTTE, should forget that they too must take some blame for creating monster. And of course one cannot and should not forget India………

Mr Sampanthan refers to the 13th Amendment and states that it is not even an interim solution and that it has not been a success in the provinces where it has been enacted. Mr Sampanthan is disingenuous here as the 13th Amendment has not been implemented in full in any province in Sri Lanka although it has been the law of the land for more than 20 years. No one therefore can be a judge as to whether it has been a success or a failure. The failure is that we have not been able to implement it even where it could have been implemented. With whatever imperfections and inadequacies it may have, a fully implemented 13th Amendment would be a good interim measure before one could look at further devolution proposals.

A point of view shared by virtually everyone is that a political solution is required to solve the conflict. The issue is too complex, and for one to offer a simplistic view as to what that solution should be, might be like downgrading this conflict to a village brawl. However, one could offer an opinion about the prisms through which the conflict could be viewed if one were to seek a solution. One can look at the extreme separatist prism of the LTTE, or that of political entities like Mr Sampanthan and the TNA who are not too far away from the LTTE prism. Then there is the more moderate prism of Mr Anandasangaree, who, at the risk to his life, has condemned the LTTE and their methods in no uncertain terms. However he too is wedded to a solution based on a Sri Lankan and a world situation that existed many years ago. He too leaves out the Tamils of recent Indian origin in his preferred solution.

Amongst the Sinhalese too there are groups that look at the issue through different prisms, some bordering on the extreme, while most are not. However, as stated earlier, Sinhala thinking has shifted more towards the right of the centre, and possibly alienated some moderate Tamils. If a genuine attempt is to be made to solve the conflict, Sinhala thinking too has to shift more towards the centre in that their thinking has to accommodate the view that Tamils as a distinct ethnic identity has to have a more effective means of political expression that translates into real shared power in governing the country. For reasons perceived and real, Tamils have had a feeling of alienation and being sidelined in important governance issues by the Sinhala majority.

However, it is also time that Tamils looked towards a new political leadership that is younger, more forward looking and in tune with the world of today rather than that of a bygone era. Many Tamils who have left the shores of the country, many of them due to the 1983 atrocity, have seen the world and the developments that are taking place in the world. Articulate and intelligent Tamils from younger generations are unfortunately following their parents or grandparents bidding and trying to live the past, while experiencing and enjoying what the present and the future has to offer. It is time that some of these younger Tamils broke away from the very damaging umbilical chord and looked towards opportunities they can all have a in a modern Sri Lanka.

They need to consider the contemporary situation of the country and the difficulty and impracticality of fighting for political reforms that their parents or grandparents did, not necessarily because they were wrong, but simply because they are out of date today and out of tune with what is happening in the world today. A new Tamil political leadership that is not influenced and hindered by the shackles of past and who are willing to work with their more modern Sinhala and Muslim compatriots, can overcome the issues of the past, and build a Nation for them and generations to come.

Today’s reforms should include some regional devolution commencing with the 13th Amendment, and also some central reforms that will make devolution more meaningful and real, and national governance more equitable and participatory. This is the challenge for all younger Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims. They can make this country as rich and economically powerful as Singapore if only they are willing to look towards the future rather than dwell on the past.

We need that Genie to give us new lamps for the old.

- Asian Tribune -

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