Intractability of the Tamil problem
Posted on January 23rd, 2020

Prof. N. A. de S. Amaratunga

To understand the nature of the Tamil problem and why it remains apparently unresolved one must examine its history and origin. It has its origin in Tamil separatism which dates back to 1930s. Tamil separatism is a Tamil construct. When independence for Ceylon was being considered by the British Raj as it was uneconomical to maintain their empire, the Tamil leaders petitioned the British Government requesting a separate state for the Tamils. A case had been prepared for this claim well in advance. Mudaliyar C. Rasanayagam in his book titled Ancient Jaffna” (1926) attempts to show that an independent kingdom existed in Jaffna before it was conquered by the Portuguese in 1619. This is a distortion of facts. Mudliyar Rasanayagam’s views on Tamil habitation in Sri Lanka have been proved to be baseless and less than a scholarly discourse of the matter by Prof.K.N.O.Dharmadasa (2007).  Prof.Indrapala Karthigesu’s research work had shown that there is no evidence of Tamil habitation in Sri Lanka before the 10th Century CE. If there were Tamil kings in Jaffna there should be inscriptions in Tamil but not a single has been found. On the contrary the earliest inscription found in Jaffna could be attributed to a Sinhala king, Parakramabahu II who ruled Jaffna from Polonnaruwa. 

The so called Tamil Kingdom was a creation of successive  invaders from South India and also Thailand and was for most of its existence a part of the Pandyan Empire in South India. This historical event was not any different from such other events in Sri Lanka caused by foreign invasions from South India and Europe. The so called Tamil Kingdom for long periods was part of a South Indian Dynasty. But so was the entire island of Sri Lanka when it was under British rule and considered part of the British Empire and perhaps also similarly part of Portuguese and Dutch Empires and also South Indian dynasties at different times in its history. Thus the so called Tamil Kingdom was only a result of foreign invasion and not a creation of ancient Tamil inhabitants. The so called Tamil Kingdom therefore does not qualify as a Kingdom of Tamils.

There had been thousands of such happenings in the history of the world but they do not lead to the the creation of a separate state or a nation.  There is no evidence of an ancient civilization built by ancient Tamils living in the North or anywhere else in the country. The kovils built by invaders cannot be considered as features of a civilization. Tamils have not built, nurtured and protected a civilization in Sri Lanka.  On the other hand there is evidence that Sinhalese built a civilization covering the entire Island including the North and the East. Unless a group of people occupying an area of land build, nurture and protect a civilization on that land they are not entitled to that land. This fact is of paramount importance when considering a solution to the so called Tamil problem.

In this context it is important to see how this issue is being pursued at present. Former Chief Minister Vigneshwaran has called for the creation of a Federal State for the Tamils and to substantiate his claim had made reference to the ancient Tamil Kingdom and he has said Mahawamsa is fiction.. TNA leader R Sampanthan speaking in the Parliament on the 8th January 2020 has drawn attention to the hitherto unresolved Tamil man’s problem (The Island, 10.01.2020). He has said 85% of Tamils have voted against Gotabaya Rajapakse which he says is an indication that their problem has not been addressed and that the Tamils have at every election repeatedly voiced the need for a solution to their problem. Since most of the economic, social, political and cultural needs of the Tamil community, in the Sri Lankan context, have been sorted out one wonders what other grievances could be bothering the Tamils. However, when one reads Sampanthan’s speech  one would understand that his problem is the nature of the state of Sri Lanka as defined  in the present constitution. What he wants obviously is to replace the word unitary” (Chapter 1 Clause 2) with the words united, undivided and indivisible”.  For in his speech he says Identity and security of the Tamil people needs to be addressed within the framework of a united, undivided and indivisible Sri Lanka”. He has pointedly avoided the word unitary” in his speech. United, undivided and indivisible” are the words that appear in the draft constitution presented to the parliament by the previous government. TNA leadership is believed to have played a big role in its drafting. These words place the single sovereignty concept in jeopardy.

The definition of the nature of the state is one of the more, if not the most, important clauses in a country’s constitution. The wording of the clause is of crucial importance for it will decide whether we are a single sovereign or of multiple sovereigns or whether there is freedom to secede or federate. The English word unitary” is not equivocal in this regard and so is the Sinhala word ekeeya”. On the other hand the word united” (eksath” in Sinhala”) could have a different connotation, it could mean several units have come together to form a whole eg. United States, United Kingdom which is not the case of Sri Lanka which had remained unitary in its long history. When ever its unitary state was disrupted due to internal strife or external invasion great kings had risen up to restore its sovereignty as one nation. Recently too in 2009 separatists were similarly defeated. Sinhala Buddhists have sacrificed their lives to preserve the country in its unitary state from very early times  and they will continue to do so when ever the need arises. For instance just before the presidential election Tamil parties proclaimed their demands which in effect was a recipe for federalism. In response Sinhala Buddhist consciousness came to the fore.  Sampanthan must understand the meaning of the phenomenon that more than 70% of Sinhala Buddhists voted to save the unitary state of the country to counter the 85% of his people’s votes caste against that sentiment. Thousands of people living abroad answered the nation’s call in its hour of need.

Sampanthan makes reference to statements ascribed to Mahinda Rajapakse to show that the latter was in agreement with the position taken up by the Tamil parties, India and the International Community. On the contrary what Rajapakse had said was that there could be maximum devolution without sacrificing the sovereignty”. In other words there has to be only one sovereign nation. This is not possible unless  the word unitary” is used to describe the nature of the state which denotes that sovereignty is reposed in a single elected institution. The attempt to manipulate the wording that defines the state is a dubious scheme to erode into the sovereignty of the nation.

What the Tamil leaders are interested in seems to be federalism, perhaps in different guise, based on ethnicity. Ethnic federalism or any other arrangement based on ethnicity that jeopardizes the unitary state or the single sovereign concept has not worked in countries where it has been tried. Failure is due to several reasons. Though the system is supposed to promote ethnic harmony it is found that very often the consciousness of ethnic identities hardens resulting in disharmony and conflict (Lovise Aaden 2009). Further the population distribution could be so complex that drawing boundaries on ethnic lines are difficult and often results in creating minorities within the demarcated area leading to further conflict (Mawdoni 2019). This is most likely to happen in Sri Lanka. In ethnic federal states everything is likely to be transformed into ethnic issues (Anderson, 2013). For example the appointment of officials in the police, the judiciary and other services would develop into ethnic issues. Moreover, ethnic federalism instead of promoting unity in diversity may encourage secession (Bergman 2011). Federation based on ethnicity has failed in several countries among which are; Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, East-African Federation, Ethiopia-Eritrea, Malaya-Singapore (Anderson 2013).

TNA must realize that when  85% of Tamils vote for  federalism  70% of Sinhalese will counter that. This divide is a Tamil construct originating from their separatism which as mentioned dates back to the time before independence.

This situation will not change as long as the Tamil leadership stick to their guns and relentlessly pursue a separatist agenda. Their thirteen demands put forward just before the election was a revelation of their intent. If they persist with their deceptive methods to achieve their end Sinhala consciousness also will harden and communal harmony would be a distant dream. If the Tamil leadership is genuine in wanting to work with the new president what they should do is not give their people unrealistic promises that are unfair by other communities but help him to develop their areas and improve their living standards. They must also give up their parochial politics and work for the whole country like the president. 

Prof. N. A. de S. Amaratunga

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