The Indian Government has repeatedly intervened in the domestic affairs of Sri Lanka based on the assumption that the policies of the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) needs correction by Big Brother, using the cane if necessary. This interventionist policy continues to prevail even though the overall India experience as a regional power has proved that it is not the best policy for building trust and easing tensions and confrontations among neighbours.
In the latest summit between the two heads of state Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa the usual interventionist exhortations were reiterated with neither party shifting from their standard positions, or benefiting from it.
It is now a predictable ritual at Indo-Sri Lanka meetings for India to chant the usual mantra in which India calls on the GOSL “to address the aspirations of the Tamil people for equality, justice, peace and respect ……”
Pushing the political claims of Tamils of the North has been primarily India’s entry point to intervene in the domestic politics of Sri Lanka. In a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society where there are rival claims of competing communities, India has taken only the side of the Tamils of the North. For instance, India has not backed the claims of the Muslims stated in the Oluvil Declaration of January 29, 2003. It has, however, backed the Vadukoddai Resolution (May 14, 1976) and actively intervened to extract concessions from the Sri Lankan government to consolidate the mono-ethnic extremism of the Northern Tamils.
Bone of contention
This intervention on behalf of the Tamils of the North alone, which, of course, can come only at the expense of other communities, happens to be the main bone of contention. The rationale for the intervention too is based on the litany of complaints listed in the Vadukoddai Resolution. Exhorting the GOSL “to address the aspirations of the Tamil people for equality, justice, peace and respect ……” comes directly from the political agenda of the Vadukoddai Resolution.
It is this premise that gives the leverage India needs to intervene, assuming the role of the highly moral Big Brother ever willing to bring the little brother into line. Whether the blaming of only the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) (aka ‘the Sinhala state’) in the inevitable clashes of multi-factorial socio-economic forces competing in rival fields of multi-ethnic conditions is valid or not has not been examined critically, either to understand the problem in all its dimensions or to work out a viable solution.
In hindsight, it can be argued that it is the blind-sided acceptance of a mono-causal theory, blaming only the Sinhala-Buddhists in a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and, hence, multi-dimensional political environment, that distorted the rational perspectives necessary to generate conditions for peaceful coexistence.
Particularly in the post-Donoughmore period when the Tamil Vellala elite that dominated Jaffna politics realised that they were losing their dominance in the entrenched colonial administrative and legislative seats, they laboured incessantly to manufacture a history to boost their claim to be the founders and the masters of the nation from ‘the dawn of time.’ (Vadukoddai Resolution). Their tactic was to rewrite yesterday’s history to fill in the yawning gaps to boost today’s politics. Above all, in the absence of a substantial history, they felt the need to pose as a superior breed, standing heads and shoulders above the rest, including the regional and Tamil-speaking Muslims. It is the self-serving conclusions derived from distorted historical realities that led to the worsening of North-South relations – a tragic logic that ran all the way to Nandikadal.
The Tamil Vellala elite had nothing to offer by way of a political program except their claim to be superior human beings because (1) they speak Tamil, one of the oldest languages in the world (2) they were in Sri Lanka from ‘the dawn of time’ and (3) they are the God-anointed caste, in the absence of the Brahmins in Jaffna, chosen to rule Jaffna, as defined by Saivite casteist guru, Arumuka Navalar (1822 – 1879 ).
It is Arumuka Navalar who played the decisive role defining the superior status of the Vellalas. He is a most revered religious guru of Jaffna mainly because he has been the patron saint of the Vellalas, the dominant majority in the peninsula. It was his revisionist Hinduism that elevated the Vellalas to the highest caste in Jaffna hierarchy. Though he attained the status of a demi-God in the eyes of Vellalas the low-caste stoned his statue when it was taken round Jaffna by V. Navaratnam in the sixties. The ‘Sinhala state’ had to send Police from the South to protect the right of the Vellalas to honour their guru.
The arrogant sense of Vellala supremacy was taken to extreme ends. They went to the obnoxious extreme of restricting the membership of the Tamil community only to the Vellalas. They denied the low-caste Nalavar and Pallar slaves as being Tamils. They were excluded from the Tamil community.
Prof. Bryan Pfaffenberger, a leading authority on the Jaffna caste system, wrote: “To maintain the social boundary between Vellalars and untouchables, Vellalas employ ritual to sustain a belief that Minority Tamils (low-castes) are a non-Tamilian, ‘aboriginal’ people of a despicably low status…. According to extreme Vellalar thinking, this stigma denies minority Tamils full membership in the Tamil community. The Nalavars’ and Pallars’ recent historical origins in Dutch-sponsored immigrations from South India and their putatively darker skin serve to deepen the Vellala sense that the Minority Tamils are a people apart from the mainstream….
“If Vellalas deny that Nalavars and Pallalars are Tamils, as some indeed did in the early 1970s, where are the grounds for unifying the Tamil community? The minority Tamils have long laid claim to full membership in the Tamil community, but in a way that could not fail to alarm the Vellalas and stimulate a defensive reaction. As Kenneth David has noted, the Pallars of Jaffna expressly conceive themselves to be descended from one of two Vellala brothers; after the older brother’s death, the widow-a ‘bad woman’, according to the tale, made the younger one into a landless slave (David 1976: 189-90). Thus, Minority Tamils’ claim to full membership in the Tamil community is also a claim to Vellala status-which is precisely why Vellalas have fought their mobility campaigns with such vehemence.” (Bryan Pfaffenberger: Political Construction of Defensive Nationalism: The 1968 Temple-Entry Crisis in Northern Sri Lanka).
Religion, casteism intertwined inextricably with religion, and the Tamil language borrowed from S. India, were the three main strands that were rolled into one ideology– three inter-meshing forces that went to make the Tamil identity in the twentieth century. The identity politics of Jaffna was based primarily on this ideology. In the 20th century when the Vellalas were turning into a class from being dominant caste in feudal and colonial times they had no progressive ideology – liberalism, socialism, democratic pluralism etc — to justify their supremacy. Every one of those ideologies would have undermined their casteist supremacy. So the Vellalas manufactured Tamil identitarian politics as vital for their own survival.
Their initial struggle to preserve their supremacy was based on casteist Saivism of Arumuka Navalar which they did with extra-legal force against the low-castes when necessary. But invading market forces, democratisation of the political system and modernity were undermining their casteist supremacy. It was when the outdated Vellala feudal fortress was crumbling that they took to the Tamil identitarian politics to unite Jaffna fragmented on casteist faultlines. It was also the last defence available to them to retain their supremacy. Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan’s last mission to the Colonial Secretary in the late twenties was to persuade the colonial masters on the necessity of maintaining the caste system for the preservation of law and order. Every aspect of Jaffna society, everything from the womb to the tomb, was determined and enforced by the Vellala norms, ranks and gangs.
Any threat to the universe of the Vellala supremacists was seen as chaos. To maintain their supremacy they did not hesitate to reduce the low-caste slaves to subhuman conditions.
“In Jaffna,” wrote Pfaffenberger, “in the 1940s and 1950s, for instance, minority Tamils were forbidden to enter or live near temples; to draw water from the wells of high-caste families; to enter laundries, barber shops, cafes, or taxis; to keep women in seclusion and protect them by enacting domestic rituals; to wear shoes; to sit on bus seats; to register their names properly so that social benefits could be obtained; to attend school; to cover the upper part of the body; to wear gold earrings; if male, to cut their hair; to use umbrellas; to own bicycles or cars; to cremate the dead; or to convert to Christianity or Buddhism (Holmes1980:232-34). To enforce these restrictions extra-legally, the Vellalas have fielded gangs of thugs to punish the upwardly mobile Pallars or Nalavars.
These gangs pollute untouchable wells with dead dogs, fecal matter, or garbage; burn down untouchable fences or houses; physically assault and beat Minority Tamils, and sometimes kill them. Preceding the Maviddapuram crisis there had been several altercations in which Minority Tamils died (Times of Ceylon, Feb. 17, 1968, p. 1).” (Ibid).
One more critical issue that reveals the inhuman way in which the Tamil leadership treated their own people down the ages. It was demonstrated in 1968 when the low-castes staged a non-violent protest at the Maviddipuram Temple to gain admittance. Here’s the description of the events that followed by Prof. Pfaffenberger: “After days of tense but peaceful confrontation, the demonstration turned violent as dozens of self-styled ‘Defenders of Saivism,’ Hindus of high-caste rank (Vellalas and their domestic servants, the Koviyars), beat back the Minority Tamils with iron rods and sand-filled bottles. Feelings ran very high throughout the peninsula, and there were many incidents of violence, some lethal.” (Ibid).
The obscene record of Tamils massacring Tamils, of Tamil oppressing Tamils, of Tamils dehumanising Tamils is the darkest chapter in Sri Lankan history. No other community was treated with utter contempt by their leaders as the Tamils. No other community was persecuted, tortured, oppressed and reduced to subhuman slaves as the Tamils of Jaffna. It was a haven for the Vellala supremacists who ran Jaffna with an iron-fist. It was also a glorious regime for the Tamil Tigers who turned the peninsula into a fascist gulag. But to the victims of these fascist leaders it was a hell-hole.
It is against this background that the accusation of blaming ‘the Sinhala state’ should be judged. Any judgement or accusation levelled against the GOSL must be compared with the treatment meted out to the Tamils by the Tamil leaders. Before pointing the accusing finger at the ‘Sinhala state’ isn’t it only fair that there should be a fair and objective assessment of the manner in which the Tamil leaders treated the Tamils? After all, ‘the Sinhala state’ had been there only for the last 72 years. The Tamils of the North were ruled by their Tamil leaders during the feudal and colonial periods.
Besides, the Tamils also came under the rule of a Tamil leader from around 1976, after the Declaration of War by the Tamil leaders at Vadukoddai, when the North and the East were occupied by the de facto state run by the Tamil Tigers. What kind of treatment did the Tamils get under Velupillai Prabhakaran, their Surya Devan? How does the treatment meted out to the Tamils by the Tamil leaders compare with the treatment they received under the Sinhala state?
So, when the Indian panjandrums pressure Sri Lanka to ‘address the aspirations of the Tamil people for equality, justice, peace and respect ……’ have they ever paused to ask what degree of equality, justice, peace and respect was given to the Tamils by the Tamil regimes / leaders throughout their history? In comparison, the historical record proves that the Tamils never had it so good as under ‘the Sinhala states.’ For instance, no Tamil residing in other parts of the world, including India, their one and only homeland, has had the privilege of being represented in the national flag – the highest symbol of recognition and respect given to any community. The Tamils fly high among the 193 flags at the UN because ‘the Sinhala state’ has given them their due respect and place. Their language and their equal status have been recognised and honoured in the currency, the stamps and all official records of ‘the Sinhala state.’ No Tamil regime in the past or in contemporary times have delivered justice, however, flawed it may be, as ‘the Sinhala state.’ In fact, the best of Tamil lawyers practised law in the courts of ‘the Sinhala state’ and not in the Tamil courts of the de facto state of Prabhakaran. What justice was given to the low-caste Tamils protesting non-violently at the Maviddipuram Temple by the Vellalas? What equality did the Vellalas grant to the Tamil protestors when they cracked their heads with iron rod and bottles filled with sand merely because they asked for permission to pray to the same God/s in the same temple?
It is the Vellala leadership which dehumanised their fellow-Tamils and treated them as outcasts. It is the same leadership that is going behind India to put pressure on the GOSL to ‘address the aspirations of the Tamil people for equality, justice, peace and respect.’ The Tamil community will agree, if they are honest enough, that the record of their leaders treating their fellow-Tamils stinks to high heaven. Again, they will agree, if they are honest enough, that on balance ‘the Sinhala state’ has applied the principles of equality, justice and peace in dealing with all communities. There are, of course, instances of deviating from this norm. But any judgment on a historical scale will confirm that the ‘Sinhala state’ has been far fairer and just to the Tamils than the Tamils have been to the Tamils.
Tamil leaders of Jaffna
So, where does this leave the Indians who are asking ‘the Sinhala state’ to address ‘the aspirations of the Tamil people for equality, justice, peace and respect’? What justification is there for India to lecture to GOSL in dealing with only the Tamil minority who, tragically, has been the perennial victims of their fascist leaders? The GOSL which has been in search of peaceful coexistence has gone a long distance to ameliorate the conditions of the Tamils. For instance, the first ever legal step to dismantle the fascist caste structure was taken by S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike who passed the Prevention of Social Disabilities Act of 1957. In 2009 it was Mahinda Rajapaksa who liberated the Tamils from the fascist tyranny of the Tamil Pol Pot.
The Tamil leaders of Jaffna, of course, have been shedding crocodile tears for the oppressed Tamils. Their humbuggery in blaming ‘the Sinhala state’ for their failure to deliver their people from the systemic evils of casteism is unforgiveable. Jaffna political class has survived by passing the buck to the Sinhala state. They never took responsibility for the consequences of the decadent and evil caste system that enslaved the Tamil people from the Dutch period to modern times. What is worse is the Indian morality that goes along with the Tamil humbuggery. They know what is happening under their noses. And yet they opt to go along with Tamil humbuggery.
Tamil leaders of Jaffna are the last whingers who are entitled to complain about the denial of ‘“equality, justice, peace and respect’ to the Tamil people. Would Prabhakaran ever have invited R. Sampanthan to be his leader of the Opposition? Would India have allowed Muthiah Muralitharan to step into any part of Indian territory if he was throwing hand grenades at Prabhakaran? Wasn’t it because Murali was given respect and treated equally that he became a famous Tamilian? India, on the contrary, trained Prabhakaran to throw hand grenades in Sirumalai, near Madurai and paid for it dearly.
So, when India accepts the humbuggery of the Tamil oppressors and lectures to GOSL on how to deal with its most privileged minority it degrades its claim to be a moral leader. It deviates from the Gandhi-Nehruvian morality that made it a shining star, pointing the way to peace and security in a troubled world. Following the Tamil accusations blindly has given India a moral veneer in the past to (1) violate international law (air space), (2) train Tamil terrorists to subvert and destabilise a democratically elected neighbour, (3) send its military forces in the guise of disarming the Tamil terrorists it trained, financed and exported to Sri Lanka and (4) generally twist the arm of GOSL to thrust the 13th Amendment down the throat of Sri Lanka devolving power to the Tamils – its main objective – and (5) leave Sri Lanka achieving nothing to resolve the problem after beating Sri Lanka with its Big Brother stick.
Indian Big Brother
After throwing in all its resources, after mobilising all its diplomatic, military and economic power India is still stuck in the place where it began. Besides, Sri Lanka too has gone the distance it could to accommodate the Indian ‘solution.’ Sri Lanka even opened its gates and invited the Indian forces to come and fix the problem. It accepted the Indian political formula it imposed in the form of the 13th Amendment. Sri Lanka has been bending over backwards not to offend India. And yet, after going along with India’s ‘solutions’ as far as it could, India is refusing to take any responsibility for the failure of its interventionist policy. It is still exhorting Sri Lanka to ‘address equality, justice, peace and respect’ as claimed by the Tamils of the North. Didn’t India come in to do that job saying that Indian Big Brother can do what Sri Lankan younger brother can’t do? So why is India pointing a finger at Sri Lanka after failing in its mission?
The fourth largest army in the world couldn’t even disarm, as promised in the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement, the terrorists it trained in Indian soil. Indian meddling in Sri Lanka has not brought a satisfactory solution to the Tamils, the Sri Lankans and, least of all, to the Indians. The issue continues to simmer with the Tamil tail twisting the Indian head in Delhi. Consequently, isn’t it India’s duty to revisit the problem and examine critically where it went wrong and ask: why has India gone nowhere so far? Could it be that India has got its fundamentals wrong? Isn’t it clear that India has failed, even after exhausting all its options, because it has not come to grips with the historical and political realities that fuelled the North-South crisis? Can India provide a solution if it can’t get its basics right?
With all its accumulated experience that adds up to a failure so far, it is obvious that India must go for a mid-course correction. If so from where should India begin? The most appropriate place would be to test the Indian premise on which India has acted so far to intervene in Sri Lankan affairs. Accepting the usual litany of complaints made by the Tamils of the North as its official line for intervention questions India’s judgemental capacity to evaluate critical issues relevant to its national and regional interests. So where should India begin since it has failed in achieving a solution by follow slavishly the political line sold by the Tamils to India.?
It is common knowledge that if you begin with the wrong premise you end up with the wrong conclusions. No logical, rational or acceptable solution can come if you start from a wrong premise. For instance, if a new critical analysis establishes that it is the Tamil leadership that has been guilty of denying the oppressed Tamils their rights and their due place in the sun will not the conclusion lead to different solutions? Why did the Tamil leadership fail to redeem their own people who were suffering under the yoke of Vellala casteism? Why did they go along with Prabhakaranist fascism and blame GOSL for not giving into his demands? Why did they pass the buck to the Sinhala bogeyman and still continue to mislead the world with their self-serving narrative?
Since India has adopted the usual litany of complaints made by the Tamils of the North as its official line for intervention it is imperative that India should, even at this late stage, revisit its premise and evaluate how far it can go down the failed path with the Tamils. The success of foreign policies depends on objective and critical analysis, particularly if it is stuck in a rut. No foreign policy can survive for long on myths and fiction.
BY H.L.D. MAHINDAPALA