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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2675

Sri Lanka Conflict: Is the Tamil homeland cry the real barrier to a peaceful solution?

By Raj Gonsalkorale

Although much has been written about the Tamil claims to a homeland in the North and East of Sri Lanka, and the claim hotly opposed by the Sinhalese and Muslim people, it maybe appropriate to revisit this issue, as well as that of State colonisation and claims of discrimination in education opportunities against the Tamils, in order for readers to engage in a discussion and add to an informed debate on these subjects.

The article is not meant to be racist in any way, and if some of these claims are contested, the purpose has been to try and isolate fact from fiction so that contributors could contribute to this debate and make the wider readership more informed on these issues.

Timeliness of revisiting this issue is due to many changes that have occurred in the demographics of the country, and challenges to long held views amongst sections of the population and the reality of the contemporary world as compared to the world during which this issue, especially the homeland concept was championed by the Tamil lobby as the only way to their salvation.

In the first instance, it is the authors understanding that the Tamil homeland concept (for the North and the East of the country) was promoted on the basis of this area being a predominantly Tamil linguistic area, rather than a Tamil ethnic area. This arose very likely because the Eastern province had a substantial, even a majority population (in the province) of Muslims who were Tamil speaking people and the Tamil ethnic leadership of the North and the East sought to elicit their support for self governance, as fellow citizens of the country who were allegedly disadvantaged and discriminated by the majority Sinhala population. Leaving this aside for the moment, let us examine some historical facts relating to the Tamil ethnic homeland concept. The following points are relevant to this discussion. References are cited from renowned Sri Lankan historian, Professor K M de Silva's book “Separate Ideology in Sri Lanka: A Historical Appraisal”.

1. A Tamil kingdom was established for the first time in Sri Lanka in the thirteenth century in the Jaffna Peninsula and its immediate environments. Dr Kathiragesu Indrapala, a Tamil Professor of History at the University of Jaffna in his PhD dissertation, the essence of which was published in 1969 in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (Ceylon Branch) under the theme “Early Settlements in Ceylon", stated thus “On the Tamil side the chronicles that are extent are those written nearly three centuries after the foundation of the Tamil Kingdom in the island in the thirteenth century. The sections of these works dealing with the period prior to the thirteenth century, i.e. the period during which the earliest Tamil settlements were established - are full of legendry material and are wholly unreliable. The Tamil works of South India have no notable allusions to the activities of the Tamils in Ceylon”

It is also interesting to note Dr Indrapala's comments that initial settlements of Tamil people began in about the tenth century after the Cola conquest of Anuradhapura kingdom in the late tenth century. He further states that Tamil settlements at this stage were still outside today’s Jaffna district and of the present day TamiI areas, only the upper half of the Eastern Province and parts of the Western coasts had Tamil settlers in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and the invasion of Magha (of Kalinga) with the help of Tamil and Kerala mercenaries had been far more violent than earlier invasions. Its chief importance lies in the fact that it resulted in the dislodgment of Sinhalese power from the North Ceylon, the confiscation of lands and properties belonging to the Sinhalese by the Tamil and Kerala mercenaries. Dr Indrapala’s comments clearly indicate that the Northern Sri Lankan area (including today’s Jaffna district) in fact had been a Sinhala area prior to the Magha invasion and violent action of Tamil and Kerala mercenaries.

Reference to Dr Indrapala's work cited from Professor K M de Silva's book Separate Ideology in Sri Lanka: A Historical Appraisal, is made in order to establish the beginnings of Tamil settlements around the tenth and eleventh centuries and the first Tamil kingdom in Sri Lanka in the thirteenth century.

Beginning in the thirteenth century and until the advent of the Portuguese there is mention of a Jaffna kingdom occupying sections of the present day Northern Province with shifting boundaries depending on the power of Sinhala kings who ruled the rest of the country from time to time.

There is however no similar evidence in regard to a Tamil kingdom occupying the present day Eastern province contrary to claims made by sections of the Tamil community to this effect. While there is mention of the southern boundaries of the Jaffna kingdom extending to areas north of Trincomalee (North eastern port city) for a brief period during the hey day of the kingdom, there is no mention of any other part of the present day Eastern province being under the suzerainty of the Jaffna kingdom at any point of time in the history of Sri Lanka and neither is there any evidence of an independent Tamil kingdom in the Eastern province at any point of time. The Eastern province therefore had no evidence of an ethnic Tamil kingdom or even a principality throughout history. Small settlements, yes, but never a major presence of an ethnic Tamil population from a historical perspective, whereas there is evidence that the East was under the suzerainty of the Kings of Kandy and Kotte at different points of time in history of the country, as much as today’s Jaffna district in fact was inhabited by Sinhala people prior to the Magha invasion.

2. The Cleghorn Minute

A historical claim that has been made by the Tamil community and used extensively in their propaganda to bolster their claim for a homeland in the North and East is a document generally referred to as the "Cleghorn Minute". Hugh Cleghorn, a British academic, who had been in the island in the very early years of British rule, was the islands first colonial secretary. He produced a document for the British titled" Notes from Mr Cleghorn's Minute dated 1st June 1799,on the Administration of Justice and of Revenue under the Dutch Government'.

One extract from the Minute read as follows “Two different nations, from a very ancient period, have divided between them the possession of the island. First the Cingalese[sic] inhabiting the interior of the country, in its southern and western parts, from the river Wallouve[Walawe] to that of Chilaw[sic], and secondly the Malabars[Tamils], who possess the northern and eastern districts. These two nations differ entirely in their religion, language and manners. The former, who are allowed to be earlier settlers, derive their origin from Siam, professing the ancient religion of that country”.

Cleghorns Minute has been much studied, discussed and argued by scholars. This presentation would not be sufficient or appropriate to discuss it in detail. However, its use and misuse by proponents of the homeland concept to further their claim requires a response. In a summarised form,

1. Reference to the Siam (Thai) origin of the Sinhalese casts doubts on Cleghorns knowledge of history and this in turn raises doubts whether he had any knowledge, contemporary or historical, relating to his statement on the existence of two distinct nations in the North and East.

2. Another Tamil historian, Professor T Nadarajah, is of the opinion that the Minute was not a composition of Cleghorn but sourced from material supplied to him by officials of the Dutch East India Company who were supplying him material for the document he was preparing on the administration of justice and revenue under the Dutch. The question arises how much of Sri Lankan history was known to the Dutch when their interests in the country were generally confined to the coastal regions of the country. The fact that some coastal regions in the east, as a result of Portuguese action, and the Jaffna peninsula, which were by this time occupied by Tamil speaking people may have been sufficient for the Dutch to generalise and assume a larger presence of Tamils in the entirety of the North and the East. Other historical evidence does not support such a generalisation and as detailed earlier a Tamil kingdom had never existed in the Eastern province of the country. A relevant fact, important for the argument and cited by Professor K M De Silva in his book, is the presence of a large number of Muslims who were Tamil speaking, in the coastal regions of the Eastern province in port settlements like Trincomalee and Batticaloa, people who were given safe haven there by the King of Kandy during the time they were persecuted by the Portuguese in the Western and Southern Province.

3. Colonisation of the Eastern Province

According to historians and scholars, some Tamils and some Sinhalese, the settlement of Tamil speaking people in the coastal regions of the Eastern province, mainly in Trincomalee and Batticaloa had been instigated by colonial powers beginning with the Portuguese after the year 1500 and consequent to the signing of treaties between the colonial powers and the Kings of Kotte and Kandy who until that point of time had suzerainty over the Eastern province, including its coastal regions. There is mention of local chieftains or "Vanniars" who had small principalities in some parts of the Eastern province, both Tamil and Sinhala Vanniars, who pledged loyalty to the King of Kandy or the Tamil King in Jaffna depending on the power and influence of the King at a given point of time.

Most of the “Tamil” Vanniars, although Tamil speaking, have nothing else in common with the Tamil people. Their religion is Islam and they are of Arabic origin with a culture quite distinct from the Tamils. Even today they have a substantial presence in the Eastern province accounting for about 35% of the total population in the province and they have categorically rejected the claim of a Tamil homeland in the Eastern province.

To sum up the assertion that the homeland claimed by sections of the Tamil community is a misinterpretation of history, Professor K M De Silva says" A Tamil kingdom did exist from the 13th century to the early part of the 17th, but except during the brief hey day of its power it seldom controlled anything more than the Jaffna peninsula, and some adjacent regions on the coast and some parts of the interior. Set against a history stretching over 2500 years the independent existence of this kingdom covered a brief period and even during that brief period its influence varied so dramatically..."

Contrary to the propaganda and claims that the Tamil kingdom was located in the North and East at the time of the arrival of the Portuguese, it was, as claimed by several renowned historians, both Sinhala and Tamil, restricted to the Jaffna peninsula and its periphery. It is possible that others may quote from other historians and try to substantiate Tamil claims to a traditional homeland in today’s North and East of the country. However, at the end of the day, what we are left with will be claims and counter claims and challenges amongst historians and others who attempt to cite selective aspects of history to suit their arguments.

Realities of Today and a Solution based on Reality

What then should be the basis for a settlement of this conflict? As many have argued, contemporary reality, and not debatable historical fact or fiction should form the basis for a settlement that is just and fair by all communities and is sustainable in the longer term.

If the basis for a political settlement is the historical Tamil homeland concept, then it has very little chance of success because it is not based on fact. If the basis for argument is shifted to the realities of today which need not be subject to anybody's interpretation, then there is a strong possibility for a successful political solution to the conflict.

What are some of these contemporary realities? Firstly, the fact that a majority of Tamils in the country live outside the North and East, and that a solution addressing Tamil issues should be available to all Tamils irrespective of where they live. Some have pointed out that many Tamils displaced from the conflict areas will return to those areas once a solution is found, and the current demographic balance will change as a result. This is speculation as it is unlikely that most Tamils who are living overseas will return to Sri Lanka and gravitate to the North and the East, It is conceivable that they may live in the West (Colombo and the environments) rather than in the North and the East. Equally, it could also be argued that Sinhala people and Muslim people would wish to move to the North and the East once those areas have peace and prosperity, as much as some Tamils living in other areas in Sri Lanka may move to the North and the East. After all, Sri Lanka belongs to everyone and they all have the right to move anywhere they wish.

Secondly, if the basis for a Tamil homeland are linguistic rather than ethnic, a stand taken even by such Tamil luminaries like late Mr S J V Chelvanayakam when he ultimately advocated a separate State for Tamils in the North and the East, one is duty bound in a democracy to ask the Tamil speaking Muslim population of the East, who are the linguistic links persons like Mr Chelvanayakam alluded to, whether they wish to join hands with the Tamils of the East as well as the North in a separate or Federal State. From all accounts, the Muslim population in the East will have none of that, and in fact they have been clamouring for a Muslim ethnic enclave independent of the Federal State that some Tamils have been arguing for.

Thirdly, there is the issue of whether Northern and Eastern Tamils wish to join together in a separate or a Federal State. TMVP Leader Karuna certainly does not think so. Again, in a democracy, it is nothing but right to ask that question from the Tamils in the East, rather than making assumptions about their preferences.

Finally, there is the often ignored (by advocates of a Federal solution) issue of whether the rest of the country would agree to a Federal arrangement in a merged North/East province. Surely they too have a right to express their opinion and be heard?

While one cannot deny the fallacy of the Tamil traditional homeland concept, especially the notion that it included the Eastern province, it also cannot be denied that independent Sri Lanka did not treat all ethnic communities in equal measure, and neither can it be denied that the British colonial powers practised positive discrimination favouring the Tamils over the Sinhalese and that the governments since 1956 practised positive discrimination favouring the Sinhalese over the Tamils, claiming that all they were doing was righting a wrong committed by the British.

Whether the British did it or the Sri Lankan governments did it, advantaging or disadvantaging one ethnic group over another simply because of their ethnicity is wrong. Failure of the State law enforcement authorities to protect people who were being subject to violence simply because of their ethnicity is also wrong. The solution to this conflict rests in the ability of the Sri Lankan State to address these two very fundamental issues and to have measures in place to ensure they do not happen again. This is where radical constitutional changes are needed at the centre to make sure no government, on account of a numerical majority they may have in the national Parliament, is able to pass legislation that advantages or disadvantages one ethnic group over another. While devolution of political power is also part of a possible solution, devolution should be considered for the entire country, and not just for the North and the East of the country, as a means of greater empowerment of the people living in regional areas.

In conclusion, a reference is made about the often claimed discrimination in education that Tamil people had to suffer under Sinhala administrations since 1956. While the Sinhala only language policy for government servants, the standardisation policy of the 1970’s were discriminatory, and therefore wrong, paradoxically, these policies, especially the standardisation policy does not appear to have made serious inroads into university education opportunities for Tamils at least up until 1981, just prior to the violence of 1983 against the Tamils which followed the LTTE attack against the Army that killed 13 soldiers, and the hardening of attitudes on both sides of the divide. Department of Census and Statistics data for 1981 show the following.

Number of Tamil students admitted to science faculties in Sri Lankan universities.

Medicine 25.1%, Dentistry, 40.0%, Vet Science 23.3%, Agriculture, 27.0%, Bio Science 28.9%, Engineering 30.4%, Architecture, 23.9%, Physical Science 38. 0%, Commerce, 34.2%.

One can only hypothesise whether some of the discriminatory measures (positive discrimination favouring the Sinhalese) would have had a major effect on education and job opportunities for Tamils, had the LTTE not been there and the Tamil politicians, as a collective, had continued to pursue peaceful and democratic means to remove all discriminatory measures and also negotiated greater political autonomy for them in the country.

The Sinhala politicians should wonder whether 1983 should have been allowed to happen as firstly it was a disgrace against all that is human, and secondly, as it was a political suicide act. In the end, it is the violence perpetrated against the Tamils in 1983 that tilted the balance in favour of an armed separatist agenda, and those politicians who had a hand in it, implicitly or explicitly, and the State law enforcement authorities who failed to safeguard the lives and property of Tamil people, could well be identified as the traitors who helped to create a mountain out of molehill, and made the LTTE what it became, the most violent terrorist organisation in the world for a long time. It is this single act of 1983 that made a political solution almost impossible despite the efforts of many.

Today, a solution seems far more probable as the world has finally woken up to the fact that the LTTE is an insult to genuine freedom fighter organisations and that they have never been interested in any type of solution to this conflict. This change of attitude has made it possible for moderate Tamils to express their views and seek a solution through non violent, democratic means.

The issue before such Tamil moderates is to differentiate fact from fiction, identify their genuine problems, consider contemporary realities and examine ways and means of arriving at a solution that is acceptable to all communities. The opportunity is also there for the Sinhala and Muslim people to reach out to such moderates and work with them to seek that solution. One can only hope that the New Year will usher in new partnerships and there will be a genuine desire on the part of all communities to reach a political agreement that is just and fair, and is sustainable in the years to come.

- Asian Tribune -

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