“Every prospect pleases, but only man is vile” goes the racist, colonial refrain, which is still the dominant ‘international’ framing of ‘news’ of the coveted pearl that seems to hang from India’s ear. In this colonial story a ‘model colony’ become a ‘troubled paradise’ after the British left it kindly and quietly. In the hands of the natives, a pearl is but a frozen tear.
An anti-colonial narrative sees the not so hidden hand of identify, classify, divide and rule, in the making and managing ‘community,’ little different from a series of British colonial violations that have left ‘ethnic’/‘communal’ partitions or simmering, half-resolved resolutions in their wake. Ireland, India/Pakistan/Bangladesh, Israel/Palestine, Cyprus, Fiji, Singapore/Malaysia. It’s a long list; differences apart, the heritage of colonial identify and divide is shared.
“Ceylon” was fractured as it was born in the early nineteenth century. Beginning in the 1830s, and with growing intensity throughout the nineteenth century, colonial orientalism reconstructed an ancient, multi-millennia deep, a ‘kings and battles’ history of “Ceylon,” of “Sinhala” glory and South Indian/“Tamil” invasions, and inscribed it on the island with archaeological excavations. At the same time, pauperized south Indian labor, lured with false promises, dragged in chains, to toil on massively profitable colonial plantations, were constructed as latter day successors of previous “Tamil” invading hordes. The terrain of elite politics was constructed through competing “communities” with the logic of token representation of the colonial legislature being “Sinhala,” “Tamil and “Moor;” one strand of subaltern politics was only a creative mimesis of militant missionary Christianity, producing a separatist militant Buddhism.
But another, secular strand of subaltern politics was as important. A strong, militant, organized working class struggled for their rights, shattering these colonial boxes through the early part of the twentieth century. Plantations workers were at its vanguard and it was no surprise that the bourgeoisie, united across other ‘communal’ divides, disenfranchised them at ‘independence.’ The King of England, sovereign over his dominion of ‘Ceylon’ did not object. Militant unions didn’t help the profits of tea plantations, still largely owned by British companies.
The Left, its base shattered, slowly but surely crept back into the colonial, communal boxes that had now become electoral vote banks. Three bourgeois parties, led by anglicized capitalists emerged. The two Sinhala dominated parties, fought each other to keep the Tamil bourgeois party away from the milk rice cake made by the labor of plantation workers. Language came first, ‘Sinhala Only’ was endorsed at the polls, and implemented viciously. University admissions came next, quotas were designed to keep Tamil admissions in check; and throughout it all ‘development’ from irrigation schemes to factories were about strengthening Sinhala vote banks.
Despite all this, there continued to be glimmers of a new, non-parliamentary, non racist, anti-colonial Left. It’s often forgotten that in the late 1960s Rohana Wijeweera, who later led the racist JVP in two violent insurrections, was part of a Maoist Communist party, led by a Tamil, Shanmuganathan, which was struggling against Hindu caste oppression in Jaffna, in the north, at the time. In the late 1960s, militancy, Sinhala and Tamil, south and north, had the same roots in radical youth movements that spat time and time again at the averted face of the promise of modernity. But the pull of colonially constructed, now bourgeois driven communal identities proved too strong, and militancy diverged.
Northern Tamil militancy, small, chauvinist, narrow, feeding off the cries of separatist nationalism by vote bank seeking Tamil politicians, grew after brutal army repression, and a series of unprecedented anti-Tamil atrocities in the early 1980s – the burning of the Jaffna library, and repeated pogroms culminating in the massive one of ‘July ’83’—facilitated by President J. R. Jayewardene’s regime (1977-1989). Yet, even against that darkening sky, there were attempts by some northern militant groups to forge links with Sinhala militants in the south. The southern Left, re-thought the ‘national question,’ and for the first time in its history, sided with Lenin. But the single minded nationalist chauvinism of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) would have none of that.
The dramatic rise of the LTTE, in opposition to radical democratic struggles cannot really be understood without stepping back into the cold war context of the early 1980s. India’s alliance with the Soviets was set off by the ill-considered alliance of Jayewardene with the US and Israel. As Shinbet and Mossad were added to Jayewardene’s game, together with a British mercenary outfit, torture and innumerable civilian massacres became routine. Indian intelligence agencies, in turn, provided the large number of young, angry Tamil men, violated by the 1983 pogrom, with direct training and arms. Tamil militant groups grew exponentially, with no need to draw sustenance from the ‘people’ they claimed to represent; any progressive tendency was foreclosed, counter-massacres and civilian-directed bombings proceeded apace. The LTTE then eliminated other groups and dissenting Tamil leaders. Rajiv Gandhi’s failed attempt as peace maker, in 1987, which was really an attempt to tame his mother’s beast, led not only to his own death - (the parallel with Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and Indira Gandhi should not escape us) – but also to a brutally suppressed Sinhala ‘patriotic’ insurrection in the south. The LTTE continued cult like expelling Tamil speaking Muslims from the north, refusing repeated offers of peace and compromise from the Center and the Sinhala south, in 1990, 1995 and 2002 – making inevitable its final destruction at the hands of a military force more powerful than its own, by the middle of May 2009.
While there were terrible casualties on both sides of this battle, the human tragedy was far smaller than it might have been. The howls of protest emanating from the “international (read: neo-imperial) community” and its associated press barons at the destruction of the LTTE’s military power, their refusal to appreciate what The Hindu editor N. Ram has recently described as an “astonishing feat of rescuing by military means close to 275,000 civilians who were… confined by the Tigers for use as a human shield,” can only be understood in a fresh geopolitical frame that includes Sri Lanka’s new alliance with China and its continuing one with India, that leaves some room for US maneuvering, but little for the European Union or United Kingdom, which had, geopolitically, like Norway, tied its relationship with ‘Sri Lanka’ to the continued existence of the LTTE. Nor has the outpouring of assistance, from medicines, cooked food and clothes to the survivors of the war, sent north from the south of the country warranted any coverage ‘internationally’ as it does not fit easily, it seems, with the neo-imperial frame of ever hateful natives. Indeed, the conditions in the camps seem to be improving daily, and there is every reason to believe that restrictions on freedom of movement will be temporary. The project of de-mining and re-building the lands devastated by years of war will be challenging but will proceed apace. The northern province will be re-capitalized and physical quality of life should improve.
The real challenge lies in the content and form of the political process that will emerge in the wake of the LTTE’s destruction. On the one hand, for the first time in decades, multiple Tamil voices can emerge, engendering healthy debate within the community. Non-northern Tamils might find that the implementation of the neglected provision of the constitution that made their language an ‘official’ one, in 1987, and the quasi-federal provincial councils that devolve some power away from the center, satisfies their aspirations for dignity and self-respect. But many northern Tamils, both in Sri Lanka and Diaspora, who feel a deep melancholia, after the defeat of the LTTE for the loss of a ‘nation,’ that never was, never will be, may still argue, as they did before, for some kind of confederal self-rule, for a larger region.
Ultimately, such nationalist arguments will be met by other nationalist arguments within the country, leaving ‘stability’ and ‘governance’ to the heavy hand of law and order, as exemplified by Singapore or Malaysia. Real democracy and social justice can flourish in Sri Lanka only when its citizens manage to transcend the colonially constructed communal boxes that have governed their political processes after the decline of the Left, and form new alliances across such divisions, as we try to move, slowly and painfully, into our common future.