Reconciliation is a two-way street

(Courtesy of Ceylon Today)

BY SHIVANTHI RANASINGHE

The focus of the West, UN, civil rights groups and like-minded politicians, is to engineer reconciliation in Sri Lanka. Their agenda is to reconcile the Sinhalese with the Tamils. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily a move to bring the Sinhalese and the Tamils together, but rather for the Sinhalese to be more accommodative to Tamil demands. It is their expert view that the 30 years of terrorism is the cumulative result of deep divisions between the two communities. These divisions, according to them, were caused by the majority community, the Sinhala Buddhists asserting its dominance over the minority communities. Hence the time has come to rectify the resulting injustices to the Tamil community so as to pave way for reconciliation.

Former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, present chairperson of the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) explained this position very clearly during her speech at the S.J.V. Chelvanayakam memorial two years ago.

“Problems began to arise between the three major communities… after de-colonization in 1948,” she states. “The majority community in Sri Lanka established itself within the political power structures, claiming their rights in the economical, social and cultural spheres, setting up laws, institutions and practices to guarantee their privileges to the exclusion of the ‘other’ that are the minorities. The ruling elite, comprised mainly of the majority community, arrogated an unequal share of opportunities to themselves, while excluding the others.

A misleading viewpoint

“The consistent rejection by the State of the demand of the Tamil movements for language parity, led to increased demands for power sharing through Federalism, and finally the demand for a separate State… The rise of the Sinhala majority with successive Governments apportioning the best and most of the public benefits to the Sinhalese majority led to the frustration and anger among the minority communities who had, during colonial administration, enjoyed many privileges.

This explanation is not comprehensive and thereby fails to be truthful. The issues that beset our country did not arise after de-colonization, but rather with the colonization. When she says that during colonization, the minority communities enjoyed many privileges, she fails to mention a very important fact.

That is, these privileges she refers to were only enjoyed by an extremely small group of our nation. This group collaborated with the invaders for personal benefits. They became part and parcel of the system that worked for the interest of the ruling country than their own country or community. In the meantime, the majority, meaning not only the Sinhalese, but also the Tamils and the Muslims, were penalized and marginalized for speaking the ‘wrong’ language, and for following the ‘wrong’ faith with the ‘wrong’ cultural practices. The much whipped language issue she refers to is a classic case in point.

At the time Sinhala was made the official language in 1956, over 95pc of the population were fluent with the language. English that was the prevailing official language was understood by less than five percent. According to the 1953 census, the Sinhalese made up 69.36pc of the population whilst Sri Lankan Tamils were 10.93pc, Sri Lankan Moors 5.73pc, Indian Tamils 12.03pc, Sri Lankan Malays 0.31pc, Burghers 0.57pc, Indian Moors 0.59pc and others 0.49pc.

With the Sinhalese making up nearly three quarters of the population, all the other communities naturally had to know the language the Sinhalese functioned. Even for basic, everyday dealings, not just matters of the court or administration, Sinhala was the language everyone communicated with each other. Therefore, it was not only the Sinhalese who benefitted from Sinhala being made the official language, but all communities.

Yet, this Act, that brought all communities to the forefront, giving them an equal opportunity to be part of the system, than out of it as English did, was depicted as discriminatory. Perhaps in theory, one could argue given that for nearly 31pc as Sinhala is not their mother tongue, Sinhala alone should not have been the official language, but also the next popular language, which is Tamil.

If the community were to be thus divided as Sinhala speaking and Tamil speaking, the question arises as to how would these two groups communicate with each other.

CBK gives the answer, “the mistake made maybe said to be that the language of the other two major minorities was not given its due place at the same time and that a third language was not brought in as a link language, as was done in India.”

That third language she refers to is English. Thereby, English again resumes its place of importance. In turn, Sinhala and Tamil only become token languages. This is indeed what has happened over the years as well, despite both Sinhala and Tamil being official languages. Though Sinhala has been the official language since 1956 and Tamil since 1987, neither language alone is sufficient for Sri Lankan citizens to progress in their careers – irrespective whether one works for the government or the private sector.

Thus, making either or both languages official has not helped our people, if they do not know English. The fault being that neither of these two languages has had a proper revival or an honest recognition of its value. Science, technology, communication and a host of other subjects are fast developing in today’s world. However, these two languages have not been able to keep abreast with this fast pace. Thus, there is hardly any supportive literature and other materials for one to follow the world’s progress without knowing English. Even if one were to have a solid knowledge of his subject, but without a good command of English, it unfortunately becomes the overriding factor. Sanath Jayasuriya is a good case in point (example).

Every Sri Lankan is deeply conscious of this fact. For that reason, we have a deep desire to showcase our western fluency than our nationalism. Even the Tamil National Alliance, who makes such a raucous over their Tamil identity, which they insist must not be disturbed from their so-called traditional homeland, automatically gets out of their traditional ‘vetti’ and into the western three-piece suit when, meeting western delegations.

The other inaccuracy in CBK’s speech is that her assertion, “The Tamil political leaders at the time were all committed to democratic policies. They made innumerable efforts to negotiate with successive Governments to obtain equal rights for the Tamil citizens. The continuous denial of this led to the mobilization of armed militias, violence and even terrorism.”

Though Chelvanayakam liked to portray himself as the trousered Gandhi, he was a realist. He was aware that Gandhi’s policies worked in India because Gandhi moved a majority (Indians) against a minority (invaders). In Sri Lanka, Chelvanayakam initiated Federal Party, was a minority community within a minority, living with a superiority complex.

Tamils – deeply fragmented by caste

Though the outside world, including the other communities in Sri Lanka, perceives that Tamils here are a homogenous community, it is not. It is deeply divided. Tamils in Sri Lanka are first divided according to their roots. Thus, we have the Sri Lankan Tamils and the Indian Tamils – also known as the Estate Tamils or Hill country Tamils. Sri Lankan Tamils are further divided as the Jaffna Tamil and the Tamils from the East. The Jaffna Tamil especially is further divided according to a very strict caste system.

Ultimately, more than ethnicity, religion or language, caste has proven to be the more important factor to the Tamils – especially to the Jaffna Tamils. It is that distinction that has made the Jaffna Tamil totally reject the hill country Tamil, who are derided as (Kallathoni) low castes from South India.

Upcountry Tamils exceeded Tamils in the North

When the Donoughmore Constitution granted universal franchise to all, only the hill country Tamils were excluded, largely because of the opposition from the cast-conscious Jaffna Tamil. At the time of the official language Act, the census shows that the hill country Tamils were larger in number than the Tamils in the North. Yet, the two communities remained distinct and separate, each exerting pressure on successive governments to achieve their own, different demands.

For a very short span of five years, the Ceylon Workers’ Congress that represented the voice of the hill country Tamils joined forces with the Tamil United Front in 1970. However, when the TUF began their struggle for a separate state, CWC quickly disassociated itself from it and never overtly supported it. In politics, for a party to stay committed thus, without wavering in its stance when there is a seemingly self-serving benefit is indeed a very rare phenomenon.

Instead, the separatists preferred to consider Muslims to pump up their meagre numbers to boost their arguments. Of course, when the Muslims did not abide, the backlash was terrible. However, the point here is, that their preference of Muslims over their fellow, albeit so-called low-caste Tamils, is very telling just how much intolerance there exists within the Tamil community.

Most Tamils are Hindu. For a Hindu, the cow is sacred, whereas for a Muslim, the cow is food. Furthermore, a Muslim must kill the animal following their religious doctrines, which is slow and torturous. How the Tamil and Muslim communities reconcile this difference would have been interesting, but so far, it has not become an issue.

When high caste Tamils especially in the North realized that terrorism that was rearing its head will not go away easily, their reaction was interesting. They packed their bags and quickly moved to Colombo. Thus, since 1981, the Tamil population in Colombo suddenly swelled up and included nearly 97,000 new residents. Wellawatta today is a highly concentrated Tamil neighbourhood.

If indeed, we endured 30 years of terrorism because of Sinhala Buddhist dominance over the minorities, then it is questionable as to why Tamils sought sanctuary in the Sinhala dominated areas from their own fellow Tamils. This is a question those who insist on reconciliation at any cost must seriously answer.

Reasons for Karuna Amman’s defection from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam too point to these deep divisions. He explained that though the LTTE fighting cadre was made up mostly by the Tamils in the East, they were not given any positions of leadership or due recognition for their efforts.

One could argue that the fallout was the result of a leadership tussle between Prabhakaran and Karuna. However, the studious manner in which Prabhakaran’s brother-in-law M.K. Shivagilingam is been ignored by Trincomalee-based R. Sambandan speaks otherwise.

Democracy depends on convincing the larger community. Chelvanayakam-led FP knew that democracy could never deliver their impossible demands to exert their dominance. That is why, the popular Jaffna mayor, Alfred Duraiappah, whilst in CBK’s mother’s government, ensuring good prices for the northern farmers’ produce and fishermen’s catch was labelled a traitor and assassinated. CBK’s own foreign minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, who stood up to the LTTE, was similarly assassinated.

Even those Tamil politicians who stood with the terrorists were not spared by the LTTE. This fact alone should give a hint to those calling for reconciliation, that the problem is not with the Sinhala Buddhists and it is much more complex than their simplistic understanding

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