Exposing the yarns of the Deputy Editor of The Island – NATION-BUILDING CANNOT BE DONE ON FIBS AND DISTORTIONS
Posted on November 5th, 2009

H. L. D. Mahindapala

Broadly speaking, the people who vent their opinions publicly can be divided into two categories: 1. those who know their subject and 2. those who think they know their subject.

Let the readers decide into which category Lynn Ockersz, the Deputy Editor of The Island, belongs after reading this response to his punditry about “nation-building”.(See his latest comments on “nation-building” in The Island “”…”November 5, 2009)  

In it he moans: “Sri Lanka has failed abjectly in the all-important undertaking of nation-building or of evolving an equal polity where the communities of the country could coexist peacefully. The latter is what nation-building is all about.” The first thing to note is that there is nothing original about his accusations of blaming only the Sinhala leadership. He is merely repeating the usual “litany of complaints” (Radhika Coomaraswamy) of the Jaffna Tamils without taking into consideration the complex north-south forces that interacted and exacerbated the community relations. If his skills of analyzing the primary peninsular forces that aggravated north-south relations were as great as skills in parroting the same old yarns of mono-ethnic extremism spun by the Jaffna jingoists there would have been chance of him being rated as a reliable pundit. His tiresome accusations indicate that the propaganda pills popped into his mouth are coming out of ears.

Consider his outlandish statement on the minorities. He blandly utters the falsehood that the “minorities” (plural) could not co-exist peacefully with the majority. But the fact remains that only one community (singular) “”…” namely the Jaffna jingoists — refused to co-exist peacefully and took up arms to establish a separate state. No other Tamil-speaking community joined them for the simple reason that their political goals and their self-interests did not coincide with that of the mono-ethnic extremists of the north. Even the Batticoloa Tamils who joined the Jaffna-led war declared in the Vadukoddai Resolution broke away and fought against them saying that the Jaffna hegemonists were discriminating against them. The Batticoloa Tamils have come back to the mainstream, showing a willingness to co-exist with the other communities despite the differences with the centre. Ockersz’s tendency to talk of minorities in the plural when only one minority community has deviated into violence is, no doubt, similar to that of the proverbial Sinhala ant who thinks that a trickle of urine is greater than Mahaveli flooding the sea.

Besides, those who know Sri Lankan history will concede that all the other Tamil-speaking communities decided to co-exist sharing the land within the democratic framework however imperfect it may be. Sadly, Ockersz’s distorts the truth by lumping all the Tamil-speaking communities in his fictitious ethnic basket to exaggerate his claim that all the Tamil-speaking communities have ganged up against the majority. The reality is different. If the minorities (plural) joined with the Jaffna jingoists the state would not have had a chance of combating the common front of the Tamil-speaking minorities. It is because the Tamil-speaking Muslims and the Tamil-speaking Indians refused to join in (1) the separatist claim and (2) the military solution pursued by the Jaffna jingoists that the state was able to defeat “the deadliest terrorists in the world”. (FBI report). 

Then he proceeds to blame the leadership of Sri Lanka for not producing “a Mahatma Gandhi or a Jawaharlal Nehru so far.” It is rather difficult to locate on which side of Rip Van Winkle’s bed he was sleeping when India was divided into two under the Gandhi-Nehruvian regime. And even after Gandhi and Nehru agreed to divide India on religious grounds the separatist tendencies continue to threaten India’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. The fact that the Gandhi-Nehruvian combination united India against the British imperialists does not mean that their image and leadership was valid in post-independence India. In any case, India was eventually forged into one geographical unit by the force of the Indian army invading Goa and Hydrebad and not on the non-violence of Gandhi. Besides, some Indian analysts blame Nehru for his romantic obsession with Kashmir as being the primary cause of instability on the north-west frontier. So how can Ockersz justify his spurious claim that the rebellions and the secessionist wars were due to the absence of Gandhis and Nehrus in Sri Lanka?

Ockersz then launches another broadside against the Sinhala leadership obviously because the Jaffna jingoists had made it a popular cry for likes of him to repeat it. He says, following the Vadukoddai vendors, the crushing of “the 30-year (??) LTTE-led separatist revolt “¦”¦ (was) proof that nation-building never got off the ground in Sri Lanka.”

Going by his weird logic Indian nation-building too has not got off the ground because the Maoists are now presenting the greatest threat to India, as acknowledged by the Indian Prime Minister. The numerous uprisings in post-independence India, on ethnic, religious, political, linguistic, regional divisions must be because India has failed at nation-building, according to Ockersz. Perhaps, when he gets his balance right (hopefully in this birth!) he will realize that the greatest strength of the Indian democracy is the ability of its centre to hold the parts together sometimes with concessions and at other times with sheer force.

Let us skip his other punditry and consider what he considers to be one of his astoundingly original statements about “discriminatory legislation”. Blaming the parliamentary system he pontificates: “”¦”¦.it essentially enabled the majority community to almost single-handedly manoeuvre the levers of state power and thereby stifle efforts at evolving the Lankan state in the direction of sufficiently empowering the country’s minorities. Besides, it was under the Parliamentary system that discriminatory legislation, such as the notorious Citizenship Acts of 1948 and the “ƒ”¹…”Sinhala only’ Act of the mid fifties, were passed, for instance, which played a substantial role in precipitating the conflict.”

Briefly, let us take (1) “the notorious Citizenship Acts of 1948″ and (2) the “Sinhala Only Act of mid fifties” which, he says, “played a substantial role in precipitating the conflict.”

Re.1: a) “The notorious Citizenship Act” was passed with the consent of the leader of the Jaffna Tamils, G. G. Ponnambalam, who was a Minister in the D. S. Senanayake Cabinet. So why blame the Sinhala majority? If it was okay for the then leadership of the Jaffna Tamils why shouldn’t it be okay for the rest? (b) Every independent nation (including India) exercised its right to define who its citizens were going to be in the post-colonial era and, according to Ockersz, Ceylon (as it was known then) should not have exercised that right to build the nation. (c) In contrast, in Uganda the Indians were beaten and kicked out by Idi Amin. In Sri Lanka they were eventually absorbed into the body politic. (d) In the Srima-Shastri Pact India accepted those who did not get citizenship under the Citizenship Act were Indian citizens. So what is the rationale for Ceylon to accept Indian citizens? (e) The Act did not deny citizenship to all Indian workers. Those Indians who could provide proof of being second generation Indians were entitled to citizenship. S. Thondaman, the leader of the Indian estate workers, campaigned to prevent these Indians from registering for citizenship and, when he realized his folly, he made a last-minute dash to apply for registration which was too late. But Ockersz believes that it was an act of the  majority discriminating against a minority, despite c and d and later JR’s decision to absorb all Indians as citizens.

Like all misguided pundits in the NGO circuit he conforms blindly to the myth that only the minority has rights and not the majority. The only duty, right and responsibility of the majority is to give in to the demands of a minority (e.g. the mono-ethnic extremists of Jaffna) at the expense of all other communities.

This becomes abundantly clear in 2: — the Sinhala Only Act of 1956 which, according to Ockersz, should not have been introduced because it “played a substantial role in precipitating the conflict.” Once again he is exhibiting his skills in mimicking the parrots of Jaffna. The underlying argument is that the ruling English language (known only to 6% of the population) should not have been replaced with the language of the people. Obviously, he is not aware that S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, father of Tamil separatism, “precipitated the conflict” first when he launched the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Kachchi (the Tamil State Party) in December 1949 “”…” just one year after independence. He didn’t need the Sinhala Only Act to drive peninsular politics further into mono-ethnic extremism.

The language, though it was whipped up as an ethno-linguistic issue only by the Jaffna jingoists, it was primarily an issue shared commonly by the English-educated middle class in all communities. For instance, the Tamils that monopolized the jewelry business in Sea Street and the thousands of small shopkeepers in the Sinhala-dominated areas had no problem with the Sinhala language. At the non-professional lower levels and among the masses who lived with the Sinhalese in the south language was not an issue. It was an issue with the Jaffna middle class who were in the professions and those mainly in public service “”…” the biggest growth industry at the time.

Ockersz who is wringing his hands about the state democracy in Sri Lanka should ask: How democratic was it to rule 94% of the population in an alien language? Didn’t the people of Sri Lanka have a right to be ruled in their own language? Is England ruled in Welsh? Is France ruled in English? In fact, in France the 13 million Occitanians are denied their language rights? In America the states are passing laws to make English the official language fearing the invasions of the Hispanics. 

Besides, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, one of the great Sinhala democratic liberals, passed the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act in 1959. He also declared that the status quo (English) will be preserved till December 1960.

In Parliament Prime Minister Bandaranaike, explained: “After December 1960 how will we deal with it? That is the question which has been often asked. Any Tamil gentleman must have the right to correspond in the Tamil language but the position of Sinhalese as the official language must be preserved. He can be sent a reply in the official language but for the convenience of the Tamil gentleman who may not know Sinhalese a copy of a Tamil translation or the substance of the reply will be attached to such letter. But as Sinhalese is also taught in Tamil schools we might quietly be able to drop the Tamil copy. What on earth is wrong with that? I cannot understand whether anything is wrong with that?”  — (Hansard August 5, 1956; Vol 31 col. 1971)

How much more liberal, fair and just can the Sinhalese be to the Tamils? Is this a denial of the rights of the Tamils? The irony, however, is that even to this day (53 years after the Sinhala Only Act), Sri Lanka is governed in English with a bit of Sinhala and Tamil thrown in. The legislature, the executive and the judiciary are still run at the highest levels in English. Perhaps, it’s time for Lynne to go back and study his recent history. He may then learn that it was the Sinhala youth who first took up arms on this issue of “kaduwa” (a weapon of the ruling class) long before the Tamils. Language was, therefore, not an ethnic issue but a class issue. Even the Westernized Sinhala middle class opposed and ridiculed Bandaranaike as an “opportunist” for granting their democratic and legal right to communicate in their mother tongue. They bitterly opposed the dethroning of English “”…” their tool for hanging on to colonial powers and privileges.

The Marxists who initially opposed the Sinhala Only Act admitted later that it was introduced not to deny the Tamils their rights but to overthrow the ruling class armed with the English language. This is reason why the other Tamil-speaking communities did not agitate on the language issue because neither Indian workers in the estates nor the Muslim farmers and shopkeepers in the east and elsewhere were affected by it. It affected mainly the Sinhala and Tamil middle class in public service and professions.

It is a waste of time dealing with Ockersz’s other concoctions and inanities. The way forward for peaceful co-existence is to dispel the deliberate distortions peddled by the likes of Lynne Ockersz who can’t get their basic fact right.


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