Reconceptualising State, Nation and Sovereignty
Reconceptualising State, Nation and Sovereignty
Reconceptualising State, Nation and Sovereignty
extracted from States, Nations, Sovereignty
– Sri Lanka, India and the Tamil Eelam Movement
– Copyright Sumantra Bose, 1994
published by Sage Publications India Pvt Ltd
<small>”It seemed to me, that within this circle there were only states and citizens; there were no people at all.” – Amitav Ghosh in The Shadow Lines, Delhi, Ravi Dayal, 1988</small>
<small>”The source of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation: no group, no individual may exercise authority not emanating expressly therefrom.” – Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789)</small>
<small>”If the 1950s and 1960s were the decades of the anti colonial liberation movements, the 1990s will prove to be the decade of post colonial liberation movements. Self determination is not a mere phrase. Nor is it a dirty word. The political force that it generates has begun to prevail over the power of many existing state structures.” – Tamil Nation, January 1992</small>
The territorial, juridical state is in serious peril. Despite the legalistic ‘legitimacy’ that such states enjoy, and the formidable coercive resources that they often have at their disposal, their very existence is facing concerted challenges, the world over, from those who speak the emotionally charged language of ‘national self-determination.’
Perhaps the most striking facet of the confrontation of state and nation is that it is omnipresent. It characterises a wide variety or societies and polities, and not merely in the ‘Third’ World alone – though it is a fact that such conflict is most pervasive in developing countries.
The former ‘socialist’ bloc has already disintegrated, and a large number of independent states, all justifying their existence in the name of ‘nationalism’ and ‘self determination’, have emerged from the wreckage. Nor are the industrialised states of the capitalist West immune to challenges to their authority that emanate from some approximation or variation of nationalist sentiment.
But, as Walker Connor has correctly pointed out, ‘few indeed are the scholars who can claim to have anticipated even the possibility of such a trend’ (1978: Ethnic and Racial Studies 1,4 October pp.377-400).
The conventional wisdom in Western scholarship held that the ‘neutral’ Third World states, headed by cosmopolitan elites, that emerged in the wake of decolonisation, would rapidly render ‘primordial’, ‘parochial’ and ‘tribal’ allegiances redundant (for example, Geertz – Old Societies and New States, New York, Free Press, 1963)
My study of Sri Lanka, for one, demonstrates that this optimism was not merely founded on myth – it was a farce. It is the supposedly ‘neutral’ state (the ‘racketeer’ that perpetrates ‘organised crime’, in Tilly’s parlance), primarily the Sri Lankan but also the Indian, that stands squarely indicted in my account of the genesis and evolution of the Sinhalese – Tamil conflict and of the rise and consolidation of the Tamil national liberation movement in Sri Lanka.
At the other end of the political spectrum meanwhile, the ideologues of ‘socialism’ had convinced themselves that ‘Marxist – Leninist’ indoctrination, and fraternal socialist solidarity, would render such historically retrograde and antiquated ideas as nationalism simply irrelevant. In one sense, the second group were closer to reality than the first. They at least explicitly acknowledged that their state-building efforts were having to deal with nationalism as opposed to ‘primordialism’ ‘parochialism’, etc. But, even so, the extent of their self delusion is today there for all to see.
Crawford Young wrote in 1976 that
“despite the frequently arbitrary and artificial manner in which it came into being, the state-system is firmly anchored in contemporary reality, and the central trend appears to be its aggrandisement and reinforcement…whether it is viewed as the ultimate framework for human fulfilment or a constricting straitjacket of discord and division, that the state – system in approximately its present form is here to stay seems one of the most durable axioms of modern politics.” (Politics of Cultural Pluralism, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1976 p82)
Indeed, the international’ state system has for long been so much a part of our routinised perceptions of reality that its very existence has seemed entirely banal and ordinary. But seventeen years down the road, with the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia no longer in existence, this most resilient of modern political axioms seems far less permanent than Young assumed it to be. Indeed, Young’s most recent writing bears ample testimony to the fact that the equations and conditions governing the workings of the ‘international system’ have dramatically changed. (National and Colonial Questions and Marxism in Alexander Motyl,ed., Thinking Theoretically about Soviet Nationalities, New York, Columbia University Press, 1992)
Another critical transformation that seems imminent is the erosion of the normative force of ‘territorial integrity’ doctrines in international affairs. The long period of state stability appears at an end. The break-up or Canada, Yugoslavia, Ethiopia, Sudan and Sri Lanka, among others (apart from the Soviet Union), is no longer a remote contingency. Some of these will find formulas for survival, but it is inconceivable that all will persist in their present form into the next century. The international normative order will thus once again need to redefine the scope and limits of the doctrine of self-determination.
The clash between the ever-increasing clamour of claims to nationhood and aspirations to sovereignty, on the one hand. and the persistence, indeed consolidation, of visions of a monolithic, unitarian, and indivisible statehood, on the other, certainly represents one of the most striking contradictions, and one of the most fundamental moral and ideological conflicts, of our times.
As Lisa Anderson has observed, politics in the modern Middle East has been characterised by an almost endemic strain between officially sanctioned ‘state patriotism’, on the one hand, and the appeal of ‘alternate identities’, on the other. As a result, ‘the notions of citizenship, patriotism and love of country which undergird loyalty to the modem state frequently face competing conceptions of identity, loyalty and legitimacy’ (The State in the Middle East and North Africa in Comparative Politics 20,1 October 1987)
Rodolfo Stavenhagen has pointed out that the central contradiction in Latin American politics is that between the ‘model of the unitary state …adopted after the wars of independence and developed during the republican period’, and the ‘ethnic and cultural diversity of the societies of Latin America’ (Challenging the Nation-State in Latin America, Journal of International Affairs 45,2 1992)
Jackson and Rosberg have commented that ‘in almost every Black African country, there are ethnic groups that wish to redraw international boundaries’, and that movements championing the cause of ‘self determination’ are ‘alive sociologically among millions of Africans’ (Why Africa’s Weak States Persist – World Politics October 1982 pp1-24)
Thus, it would appear that just as the dialectic of an overpowering colonial state and subjugated civil society gave rise to anticolonial liberation movements, so also the dialectic of the nationalist state and excluded, oppressed sections of society, has led to the growth of ‘postcolonial’ liberation struggles. While it remains to be seen whether the 1990s will go down in history as the decade of postcolonial liberation, it is a reality that this dialectic of state and society has culminated in certain instances, Sri Lanka being a most notable example, in an almost total rejection by a substantial segment of civil society of the ideology that has hitherto sustained and legitimised the existence of the juridical state.
The contest is, above all, over the notion of sovereignty – a conceptualisation of sovereignty that emanates from the highest echelons of a centralised state is at fundamental variance with one that holds that sovereignty resides essentially in the social base of that selfdefining community, the ‘nation‘.
Dissent on this critical core of the state’s raison d’etre is usually regarded as the height of sedition, and sovereignty has been declared a nonnegotiable issue, as in Sri Lanka. Paradoxically, however, as we have seen, the very denial of nationhood to a collectivity that has come to regard itself as such, and the use of coercion to decisively establish the supremacy and inviolability of the juridical state, seems to further the spread of ‘national’ consciousness among the dissenting collectivity, and heighten the resolve of the alienated to resist the state, with arms if necessary.
The result of this statesociety dialectic is precisely what we have in Sri Lanka today: civil war and the coming into being of two national states (in the true sense of the term) on practically every level but the formal, legalistic, juridical one.
Assertions of a collective national identity, and demands for popular sovereignty, are today sweeping the former Soviet Union, eastern and central Europe, the Middle East, Canada, The Horn of Africa and other parts of the world. But perhaps nowhere are they being articulated more powerfully, and resisted more stoically, as in South Asia in general, and Sri Lanka in particular.
Indeed, there is a double irony inherent in the unquestioning acceptance of the legitimacy of unitary states, so nearuniversal among scholars and lay public alike. in the context of much of the ‘Third World’ including the Indian subcontinent.
The first irony is that such states, in the case of the vast majority of the ‘nations’ of. Asia, Africa and Latin America, are legacies of colonial conquest and imperialist partition. As Jackson and Roseberg have pointed out in the context of subSaharan Africa, ‘the juridical state in black Africa is a novel and arbitrary political unit: the territorial boundaries, legal identities and often even the names of states are contrivances of colonial rule’ . (Why Africa’s Weak States Persist – World Politics October 1982 pp1-24)
And, of course, it is generally believed, in most of the ‘Third World’, that the colonial era was one of tyranny and enslavement. What compounds the irony is that ruling Third World ‘nationalist’ elites, legators of a tradition of political activism which historically defined its agenda in total, binary opposition to colonial power, are today the greatest champions of the sanctification and perpetuation, apparently by any means necessary of the centralised, territorial entities bequeathed by the colonialist.
In such circumstances it is hardly a surprise that the major states in the South Asian region have been confronted with broadly similar challenges to entrained authority, and, no less importantly, to the hegemonic discourse revolving around that misnomer among misnomers, the ‘nationstate’. The observation Hamza Alavi made two decades ago about Pakistan can thus be readily extended to the rest of the subcontinent:
“The…outstanding fact about Pakistan’s political history is that the most powerful challenges to the dominant central authority…came primarily from political movements that drew their strength from people of underprivileged regions and voiced demands for regional autonomy and for a fuller share…in the distribution of resources, as well as in state power” (New Left Review 74 July-August, 1972)
Indeed, the national question is a paramount political issue in the subcontinent today. While the Kashmiri, Sikh, Tamil, Assamese, Chakma and other movements are very different in many respects, they do share in common an uncompromising opposition to the authority, and unequivocal rejection of the legacy, of the ‘nationstate’ as presently constituted. Radical Tamil nationalists in Sri Lanka, for one, have explicitly recognised that theirs is not an isolated struggle, but an inseparable part of the fate of the subcontinent as a whole:
“The Tamil national liberation struggle is not taking place in outer space. It is taking place on the ground and in the Indian region. The political impact of much that happens on the…subcontinent is also felt by the people of Tamil Eelam. Though reports of the disintegration of the Indian Union are often greatly exaggerated, events in the Soviet Union show that empires do crumble, if they do not recognise, well in time, the political force of emergent nationalisms, and take steps to restructure in a genuine and meaningful way. And for the Indian Union the time is now. Unity will emerge only when the different nations of the Indian Union are recognised as equals, not when it is sought to deny their existence. Unity will emerge only when New Delhi acquires the vision and the strength to constitute (India as) a federal commonwealth of free and equal nations. It will be futile for New Delhi, Canutelike, to order the rising tide of…nationalism to recede. The rising tide of Kashmiri nationalism will not recede in the years to come. Neither will Assamese nationalism recede…on the contrary, these nationalisms and others will grow from year to year” (emphasis added). (Editorial, Tamil Nation, June 1992, p.10)
In light of this reality, the need to resolve the contradiction that has arisen between state power and nationalist consciousness attains a grave urgency. Such an exercise, though it certainly represents a major intellectual challenge, is not merely of academic interest. On its success depends the future of many millions, as well as prospects of regional stability, mutual coexistence and cooperation, and, ultimately, world peace. What, then, are our options?
One ironical point that must be noted at this stage is that the ‘post colonial’ nationalists seem to be just as enamoured of the state as their anti colonial predecessors. To the Tamil Tigers, it is an article of faith that the Tamil nation must seek its ultimate fulfilment or selfexpression, in a territorially demarcated State of Tamil Eelam.
Everything in Tiger politics is geared towards the achievement of this intimate ‘political objective’. In this regard, the Tigers appear to have thoroughly imbibed the Leninist maxim that ‘the basic question of any revolution is that of power in the State. Without a clear grasp of that question, there can be no talk of conscious participation in a revolution, nor to speak of leadership of it’ (Lenin – Collected Works, Volume 20, Moscow, Progressive Publishers, 1978)
One can understand where this uncompromising commitment to the normative prescription of secession springs from. Above all, it stems from a yearning for physical safety, and security from the violence of the military and the mobs, to which the Tamil people have repeatedly been subjected. It also arises from the incontestable fact that Tamil demands for meaningful regional autonomy, and for a federal redistribution of power within a united Sri Lanka, have repeatedly been dismissed as nonnegotiable, and a holy cow has instead been made of a discriminatory and brutally authoritarian central state.
However, there are serious problems inherent in a partitionist argument…
Even so, however, there are serious problems inherent in a partitionist argument, as reflected in the fetishisation of an independent state as the ultimate panacea to the Tamil predicament. Most importantly perhaps, the thrust of such an argument is essentially at variance with the fluidity, flexibility and malleability of the process of identity formation and transformation that results in the coming into being of a nationality.
Simple minded votaries of partition do not usually take into account the reality of the existence of multiple identities. On the contrary, they posit the supremacy, presumably for all time to come, of one particular identity (say, ‘Tamil’) over all possible alternatives, rivals and competitors (even if that identity may actually have emerged as the definitive focus of group behaviour at a certain point in time, as in the case of the Tamils of Sri Lanka). Thus, the Muslim population of eastern Bengal attained an impressive degree of solidarity with their brethren in West Pakistan in 1946-47, but that did not prevent the state of Pakistan from being shattered by the explosive force of Bengali mass nationalism (in whose rise, incidentally, the post colonial Pakistan state played a central role, a mere quarter century later! As Horowitz comments:
“For most ethnically divided states, secession or partition is likely to merely effect a re-ordering of heterogeneity. The prescriptions that postulate a clean break are heedless of both the complexity of ethnic configurations in such states and the fluidity of identities at different levels of salience..” (Horowitz – Ethnic Groups in Conflict, Berkeley, University of California Press,1985: pp58392)
It is this neglect of subtleties that prompts Robert Dahl to brand partitionist positions a form of ‘philosophical anarchism’. (See Dahl in Democracy, Majority Rule and Gorbachev’s Referendum in Dissent, Fall 1991, 49196 for a thoughtful discussion of the many problems and negative implications that accompany wholesale fragmentation, as is happening in the former Soviet Union today)
Equally importantly, and disturbingly, the notion of a Tamil national fraternity that seeks fulfilment in an independent homeland of Eelam itself has strongly unitarian and monolithic overtones to it, much in the style of La Republique une et Indivisible of French liturgy, and the ‘One Nation, Indivisible’ of the American pledge of allegiance. Even though the ideal of Eelam may today signify a beacon of liberation to the overwhelming majority of Ceylon Tamils, who is to say that it might not come to be perceived tomorrow as a mechanism of a stifling, imposed homogeneity, an ideological straitjacket that propagates a false monolithicism?
In this context, movements such as the Liberation Tigers, which pride themselves on their ‘revolutionary’ credentials, would do well to take note of Benedict Anderson’s warning that the model of ‘official nationalism’ assumes relevance, above all, at the moment when revolutionaries successfully take control of the state, and are for the first time in a position to use the power of the state in pursuit of their visions…even the most determinedly radical revolutionaries always, to some degree, inherit the state from the fallen regime…like the complex electrical system in any large mansion where the owner has fled, the state awaits the new owner’s hand at the switch to be very much its old brilliant self again. One should therefore not be much surprised if revolutionary leaderships, consciously or unconsciously, come to play lord of the manor…the more the ancient dynastic state is naturalised, the more its antique finery can be wrapped around revolutionary shoulders (Imagined Communities, London, Verso 1983: pp145-46)
There are also serious practical problems inherent in the partitionist solution. For one thing, the territorial boundaries of putative states are usually contested – and a settlement acceptable to all parties concerned would probably require, in most cases at least, lengthy negotiations, arbitration and adjudication. This is very much the situation in Sri Lanka, where the Sinhalese Buddhist state has consistently refused to recognise the North and East as the ‘traditional homeland’ of the Tamil people.
Closely related to this problem is the exceptionally urgent question of minorities within the nearly sovereign political units. The demographics of most of the world today are such that it is infeasible to try to segregate whole collectivities, even if they are ‘nations’, from one another, and almost any newly independent state is bound to have some kind of ‘minority problem’ of its own. As is well known this factor is playing havoc with prospects of peace normalcy and economic progress throughout the territories of the former Soviet Union (the tragic conflicts in NagornoKarabakh, the northern Caucasus and Moldavia being the most extreme instances), as well as in Croatia and, above all, BosniaHerczegovina, both formerly constituents of the deceased Yugoslav state.(Slovenia, also a former constituent of Yugoslavia, is a rare exception to this general rule – it has a largely homogeneous population.)
This is also a major consideration in Sri Lanka, where the Ceylonese Muslims, who comprise close to a fifth of the population of the areas that would constitute the state or Tamil Eelam (and a full onethird in the eastern province), and are sometimes called the ‘third nationality’ of Sri Lanka, have repeatedly made it clear that they wish to have no truck with the Tamil bid for secession.
In recent years, there have frequently been violent clashes between radical Tamil youth and local Muslims in the eastern province and a number of brutal massacres and countermassacres have occurred as well.
The TamilMuslim conflict in the eastern province has added an entirely new dimension to the struggle between the Tamils and the Sri Lankan state, and the ‘Muslim question’ now deserves to be seen as an integral aspect of any postulated solution. Thus, it seems evident that if peace, justice and reconciliation are the eventual goals, redrawing the map of the world anywhere and everywhere might not be the most ideal or effective way of going about it.
Moral dilemma of the urge to secession…
Nonetheless, it remains very true that the urge to secession, especially when it assumes the form of a mass movement, leaves the scholar saddled with a particularly difficult moral dilemma. As Horowitz observes,
“there are times when a resulting homogeneity may be envisioned, or when, despite all its problems, partition seems the least bad of the alternatives… there are times when the passion for ‘selfdetermination’ is so great that it is senseless to thwart it” (emphasis added). (Ethnic Groups in Conflict, Berkeley, University of California Press,1985: pp58892)
As long as Tamil Eelam remains a ‘state of mind’, a revolutionary ideal as opposed to a juridical reality, the model of an oppressive ‘official nationalism’ will probably not have a chance to fully assert itself, and the struggle for Tamil liberation will probably continue to call forth the unstinting devotion and commitment of the vast majority of Sri Lankan Tamils.
It is especially important to remember that what makes the Tiger Movement a veritable political religion for its participants and supporters is that it is considered a vehicle for the attainment not simply of national freedom, but also of social liberation.
‘Self determination’ in Tiger ideology, is defined as national liberation and social revolution. For those countless Tamils, particularly the youth, who subscribe to this view, the struggle against the state holds out the prospect of freedom, not just from national oppression, but also from social inequality and exploitation. The inspirational power of the idea of a Tamil state that will not just be independent, but will also not replicate traditional forms of social domination and oppression, is so great that the scholar’s penchant for pointing out the possible pitfalls of a partitionist solution may well seem incidental, if not entirely redundant, to those in the frontline of the revolutionarv struggle. The suicide bomber and the cyanide capsule guerrilla are here to stay.
This moral dilemma has assumed particular salience and topicality with the fracturing of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, and the coming into being of a myriad of sovereign states in these regions. With members of the ‘international comrnunity’ falling over each other in the rush to establish diplomatic and economic missions in the capitals of Tadjikistan. Kirghizia, Estonia, Slovenia et al., the recent words of a ranking Tamil nationalist leader seem especially poignant “We ask why do you look at our problem differently? Why adopt two standards and two different approaches to that which is after all very similar? Why do you look at national questions in the Third World differently?’ (Lawrence Thilagar in A War Fratricidal in Tamil Nation, London, January 1992).
Of course, the blatant opportunism and double standards of the ‘international community‘ (‘freedom struggle’ and ‘self-determination’ when convenient, ‘terrorism’ and ‘civil war’ when inconvenient) is hardly something that affects the Tamil struggle alone. A Bosnian military commander, for example, has recently said what is arguably the last word on this question:
‘If you ask me, the whole of the international community are bastards. Nobody is helping us. What’s more, they have sold out and are accomplices to the extermination of our people’. (Zulfiqar alias ‘Zuka’, former smuggler and later one of the most important Bosnian commanders in the Sarajevo area. Quoted in Fuentes 1993).
The note of ambivalence in the analysis of the last few pages cannot have gone unnoticed. In a way, this element of uncertainty, of doubt, is unavoidable, for the problem is one of the greatest complexity. In the words of Dahl:
‘A crisp, unimpeachable solution (to the question of states, nations and sovereignty) would be a marvellous achievement of political theory or practice. Alas, no altogether satisfactory solution seems to exist’ (Democracy, Majority Rule and Gorbachev’s Referendum in Dissent, Fall 1991, p493)
If the juridical state is to survive at all, it must seek an honourable peace with nationalism…
It seems indisputable, however, that if the juridical state is to survive at all, it must seek a rapprochement, an honourable peace, with the forces of mass nationalism. This is a particularly desperate imperative in Sri Lanka, where a large number of the most important empirical attributes of state sovereignty have been very seriously eroded and undermined, if not altogether destroyed, by the Tamil uprising.
The first of these is popular acceptance and recognition of the legitimacy of the state’s authority- the ‘consent of the governed’, which, in the ultimate analysis, must constitute the moral foundation of every truly democratic state. This popular sanction is something which is dangerously close to becoming extinct in the Ceylon Tamils’ attitude towards Colombo. As Young points out –
‘the basic survival of the state will always be in doubt if large numbers of subjects, particularly if they are…collectivities, reject the state as a legitimate framework’ (Crawford Young- Politics of Cultural Pluralism, University of Wisconsin Press, 1976 p70)
For the rising generation of Sri Lankan Tamils, who have grown up in an environment of fervent nationalism in the quasistate created by the Tigers in their ‘liberated zones’ in the north, it makes very little sense that they are still, formally speaking, citizens of a juridical state called Sri Lanka, which, apart from exercising no positive influence over their lives, intermittently bombs them from the air and tries to starve them into submission.
The second key defining principle of the modern state that has been fatally undermined in Sri Lanka is the state’s monopoly over the means and instruments of coercion, with all its implications for the effective control of territory. Since l98586, the Jaffna peninsula, the thickly populated Tamil heartland in the far north, has virtually been an undeclared Eelam with Colombo’s authority practically nonexistent and all aspects of administration total in the grip of the LTTE. Today, the LTTE exercises total control over some 85 per cent of the area of the northern province, and maintains a major presence throughout the eastern province as well. Despite the most strenuous efforts of the Sri Lankan armed forces, it has proved impossible to dislodge the LTTE from the north, and from its rural and jungle strongholds in the east.
This firm control over the majority of the territory and population of ‘Tamil Eelam’ has enabled the everresourceful and hardworking Tigers to set up the framework of what amounts to a de facto state in their northern ‘liberated territories’, especially the Jaffna peninsula. A recent visitor to the north observed that while the unofficial border between Sri Lanka and Tamil Eelam’, marked by the first Tiger checkpoint just outside Vavuniya town, was ‘not (yet) an international border, it might as well be’,(Vijay Joshi, reporting in the Asaha Evening News Japan, 29 September 1992) while another discovered that ‘this jungle checkpost is the gateway to what is in effect, the de facto state of Tamil Eelam’.
Indeed, it would be a mistake to call the Tigers the ‘parallel government’ in northern Sri Lanka, for they constitute what is in effect the sole government in that region. The LTTE has assiduously built on its military success ire expelling the Sri Lankan army from the ‘liberated areas’ by establishing its own police force, judiciary, taxation structure, education department, transportation system and information and broadcasting networks (they have their own radio and television stations) throughout the north, to the extent that the de facto Eelam has unmistakably begun to exhibit many of the empirical features of a sovereign state.
In fact, from the standpoint purely of empirical criteria, it is absolutely no exaggeration to say that Sri Lanka does not qualify as a fullfledged state any longer (and has not for some time now). It would be more accurate to characterise the present situation in Sri Lanka as one of ‘fragmented’ or ‘multiple’ sovereignty, with the fragmentation of state authority into two epicentres, Tiger Jaffna and SinhaleseBuddhist Colombo, each claiming exclusive legitimacy in a territory (the north and east) where only one such violence and taxation monopoly had previously operated (for an elaboration of this theme see Tilly – Revolutions and Collective Violence in Greenstein and Polsby eds., Handbook of Political Science, Volume 3 1975, pp 483553).
And the fact that the Tigers are, in the unromanticised professional opinion of an Indian general who fought against them, ‘an unique fighting force’, unparalleled in ‘motivation and calibre’, makes the viability of a ‘military solution’ to the national question very tenuous indeed. Even if, hypothetically speaking, the state was to defeat the nationalist resistance in battle, such an exercise would be ultimately futile, in that it would set the clock back even further on winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of an already profoundly alienated populace. N. Ram (l99l) correctly argues that
“talk about ‘liquidating’ the LTTE and hammering down a military solution in the north and east is old and virtually useless currency in Sri Lankan politics…at the end of the chapter, each adversary (of the Tigers) has learnt the same bitter lesson: the guerrilla ‘fish’ cannot be flushed out of the water by any means short of genocide The problem…lies as much in the sociopolitical arena and in the hearts and minds of divided, bitter and alienated people as it lies down the barrel of the gun.” (N.Ram – India’s Moral and Political Responsibility in the Independent, Bombay, 9 June 1991)
As Dahl has remarked, ‘in practice, as distinct from theory, the usual solution (to national questions) has been force plus time’ (Democracy, Majority Rule and Gorbachev’s Referendum in Dissent, Fall 1991, p493)
In Sri Lanka, force is simply not feasible any longer as a solution (or even part thereof), while time, even by the most optimistic calculations, is rapidly running out.
Even the most dedicated of ‘Eelamists’ has compelling pragmatic motives to seek negotiated solutions…
All this notwithstanding, it remains perfectly valid that even the most dedicated of ‘Eelamists’ has compelling pragmatic motives to seek negotiated solutions to the conflict. Why? One reason certainly is that
a (purely) military solution to this conflict is unlikely to succeed. The Sri Lankan government cannot win this war, nor can India win it for them. The Tigers are too organised and have far too much grassroots support to be wiped out…(but) on the other hand Tamils cannot win this war either. They can drag it out and frustrate both the Indian and Sri Lanka Governments but it is seriously doubtful that they can establish Eelam by force. If they drag it out too long, they might even incur the wrath of a warweary local people which would spell disaster for a movement that relies heavily on grassroots support (Brian Senewiratne – An evaluation of solutions to Sri Lanka’s Ethnic conflict in N.Seevaratnamed., The Tamil National Question and the Indo Sri Lanka Accord, Konark Publishers, New Delhi, 1989: p 31)
But there is an even more crucial factor involved here. While unflinching determination, a powerful military capability, and a congruence with the social base may all be necessary components of a formidable bid for secession, they are in themselves not sufficient to establish a fully sovereign state in the world of today. This is because ‘sovereignty’, in the practical sense, is not composed of empirical criteria alone – it also has a critically important juridical aspect to it (for a detailed explanation of these concepts, see Jackson and Rosberg 1982).
The juridical aspect translates, in everyday terms, into ‘international recognition.’ This precious commodity is something that can be conferred only by the ‘international community’ of extant sovereign states acting through its co-ordinating mechanisms, such as the United Nations.
And we have already had occasion to discuss the conservatism and opportunism of this particular ‘community’ of ‘nations’. It does seem, as of now, that the international recognition which would convert Tamil Eelam’s de facto existence into a de jure one has relatively little prospect of materialising in the very near future.
The bitterness generated by the IndoTamil war of 198790, the alleged complicity of members of the LTTE in the assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in Tamil Nadu in May 1991, and India’s own growing crisis of survival as an united, democratic and secular state all make it rather unlikely that New Delhi will have either the time or the inclination to take the lead in securing international recognition for an independent Sri Lankan Tamil state (as it did so successfully in the case of Bangladesh in 1971).
This denial of formal statehood means that Tamil Eelam, while possessing many of the empirical qualifications of sovereignty, is likely to remain a non entity in the juridical sense for the foreseeable future. We thus have a peculiar situation of fractured sovereignty in contemporary Ceylon, with ‘Sri Lanka’ clinging on to juridical legitimacy but very seriously deficient in empirical statehood, and ‘Tamil Eelam’ empirically largely sovereign but, as of now, devoid of juridical recognition.
A negotiated resolution to the national question, this must surely rank as a truly desperate imperative in so far as those at the helm of the SinhaleseBuddhist state…
If the warriors of Tamil Eelam have good reason to seek a negotiated resolution to the national question, this must surely rank as a truly desperate imperative in so far as those at the helm of the SinhaleseBuddhist state are concerned. In addition to all the considerations outlined in the last few pages, it would appear, as of early 1993, that even the military balance in the Tamil region is shifting decisively against Colombo, and that the Tigers whose morale and motivation apparently remains as strong as ever, are gradually gaining in the extremely protracted and painful war of attrition, certainly in the north and perhaps in the east as well.
A recent report in a very mainstream Indian magazine, for instance, noted with same trepidation that the (Sri Lankan) army is reeling from heavy casualties and collapsing logistics’, and that ‘an estimated 6,000 army men have deserted this year (1992), many…with arms (the total operational strength of the Sri Lankan army is believed to be less than 60,000)(Ramesh Menon Sri Lanka: Tilting the Scales India Today, 15 December 1992, p109)
Indeed, the Tigers are now (early 1993) killing government soldiers at an average rate which is well in excess of a hundred a month (mostly in the eastern. province), and during the second half of 1992, they successfully executed several spectacular ‘decapitation attacks’ on the enemy command structure, eliminating in the process many of the topranking officers in the Sri Lankan army and navy
Not that those who control state power in Sri Lanka are entirely ignorant of these unavoidable realities. The late Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa recently expressed the opinion that ‘a peaceful solution to the northeast (Tamil?) crisis’ is essential to ‘save innocent lives’, ‘release. .funds to improve the living conditions of the people’, and, most instructively, to ‘prevent the division of the country’.
But a ‘just peace’, as the Tigers call it is apparently easier said than done. Fully in line with Premadasa’s thinking, the ‘Indian’ Tamil minister in the Sri Lankan cabinet, the octogenarian Mr. S. Thondaman, had as early as December 1991, proposed a political solution to the national question. Candidly admitting that only the grant of ‘maximum autonomy to the people of the NorthEast Province can stem the disintegration of the nation’ (sic), the minister opined that ‘a commitment from the Central Government and the majority community to share power with the people of the North-East Province is imperative for peace’
The provisions of the package, if implemented, would effectively transform Ceylon into a confederal polity, and concede the essence of Tamil selfdetermination while preserving the unity and territorial integrity of the juridical state. The Tigers had welcomed the suggestions as a ‘positive development’ and an ‘advance’ and called for a public debate and detailed discussions, as well as facetotace negotiations, to thrash out ,any remaining ambiguities or omissions.
The proposals were aborted at the very outset. They provoked a hysterically negative response from a crosssection of influential Sinhalese opinion, socialised over generations to view even the slightest concession to the Tamils with suspicion, with the Buddhist clergy, in an eerie repeat of their performance at the time of the B C Pact in 1958, leading the charge of the faithful. A prominent monk denounced the proposals as ‘treacherous, and declared that there ‘should be no negotiations (with the Tamils) till the war has been successfully concluded.’
An impromptu Organisation called the ‘Sinhalese Defence Movement’ took it upon itself to inform the public that the proposals, if implemented, would have ‘disastrous consequences for the country’, ‘what the LTTE could not obtain by force of arms they would have received as a gift’, and that ‘the heroic sacrifices of the Sri Lankan armed forces who fought to prevent the creation of Eelam would have been in vain’. An alarmed government, concerned, no doubt. about the implications of such sentiments for its electoral prospects, promptly put the peace plan in cold storage.
This episode clearly reveals that there are serious structural obstacles to a lasting settlement in the Sri Lankan situation. But why precisely, does the Sinhalese Buddhist elite, pious platitudes notwithstanding, consistently find it so difficult to reach an understanding with the Tamils? I believe that in order to arrive at a complete explanation of this puzzle, one must go beyond the ‘competitive chauvinism’ bred by Sri Lanka’s form of electoral competition.
Cosmetic surgery will not work….
What is urgently needed in Sri Lanka today is clearly a fundamental democratisation of the apparatus and structure of the state. Cosmetic surgery will not work. Any solution to the national question, if it is to retain any viability at all, must go far beyond halfwayhouse liberalising reforms (the ‘constitutional engineering’ advocated by Horowitz, or the elitist ‘consociationalism’ of Arend Lijphart) such as proportional representation or a diluted and insignificant local autonomy. Of course, the Sri Lankan state elite finds it hard enough to reconcile itself to the thought of even such minor reforms. But if ever (God forbid!) it were to have to agree to the structural transformation that is the need of the hour, the Sri Lankan state that would emerge in the aftermath of the dernocratisation process would surely bear rather little resemblance to the entity that existed prior to the initiation of that process.
In a truly and substantively democratic state of Sri Lanka, would there be any place (in the hierarchy of power, at least) for the postcolonial elite who have built their careers and legitimised their privileges by selling to the Sinhalese people a thoroughly hollow and foul opiate of a monolithic, indivisible sovereignty, purportedly based on the inalienable rights of the ‘majority’?
Probably not. Indeed to the extent that even the initiation of a substantive democratisation would be tantamount to an admission that the state building enterprise in Sri Lanka has been deeply flawed from the very beginning, an enraged Sinhalese constituency might then justifiably demand an explanation from their leaders as to why they have been led up the garden path for so many years and decades. Why did rivers of blood have to be shed if the enemies of the unitary state were right after all?
With the onset of a process of genuine democratisation, there is a real risk that the entire edifice of state authority might be irrevocably undermined, and that the Jayewardenes, Bandaranaikes, ultra nationalist interest groups such as the Buddhist clergy, hard-liners in the military and cynically opportunist and hypocritical ‘leftist’ factions, all compromised and tainted by their association with that state structure and with the propagation of the supremacy of the ‘majority’, might come tumbling down from their selfarrogated lofty pedestals as well. In other words, heads would roll, at least in the figurative sense, and who knows, perhaps literally as well.
It is this understandable fear of upheaval, I believe, which blocks the will to systemic change in Sri Lanka. A bleeding and seemingly interminable war is certainly an unpalatable prospect- but at least the ones who are losing their lives in this conflict, in the thousands, are ordinary Tamils and Sinhalese. If the alternative-a radical and comprehensive restructuring of the state- means (as it well might) that the political and perhaps even physical survival of the hitherto privileged and dominant would be under grave and immediate threat, that, by comparison, is an entirely unacceptable proposition.
Monolithic, unitary conceptions of state sovereignty will not work…
But this pattern also illustrates what I believe is a much wider phenomenon the continuing persistence, even consolidation, of monolithic, unitary conceptions of state sovereignty. Indeed, the intensity of such a commitment, at least in the South Asian context, appears to be actually increasing in direct proportion to the rise of potent and powerful challenges to precisely that kind of authority-yet another instance, it would seem, of the dialectic of state and society.
The recent meteoric rise of the extreme centralist, unitarist and majoritarian (‘Hindu’) chauvinist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on India’s political firmament is a good case in point. Since the ‘Hindutva’ movement the BJP represents is itself an exceptionally ugly and malignant symptom, or manifestation, of a deep structural crisis afflicting an increasingly unitary Indian state system (largely dominated, since 1947, by a failed and discredited ruling order, symbolised by the Congress party), it is little surprise that the B)P seems to attach inordinate importance, in its platform, to, say, the massive popular uprising for independence currently raging in Indianheld Kashmir (this of course also supplies a handy pretext to bait Muslims in general, and foment antiPakistan hysteria)
The fate of Sri Lanka is a grim warning as to what happens when movements professing such singularly destructive and anti- democratic ideologies succeed in seizing control of the state. Indeed, the central tenets of the ‘Hindutva’ worldview bear an uncanny, almost eerie similarity to the most virulent and xenophobic aspects of the ideology of modern SinhaleseBuddhist nationalism. It is a fact that whenever and wherever such movements have succeeded in capturing the state power they all crave, both the ‘majority’ they claim to speak for, and the (always indispensable!) ‘minority’ they stereotype and vilify as the ‘other’, have ended up paying a terrible price. One can only hope that India will not tread its own variant of the disastrous road charted by its small neighbour.
The metaphor that inescapably comes to mind is that of a person resolutely and defiantly sitting it out in a badly leaking boat in midocean, or even trying to enlarge the hole through which the water flows into the boat. Decentralisation and devolution of power will, in the opinion of these selfproclaimed usurpers of the ‘nationalist’ mantle, whether ‘Hindu’ or ‘Sinhalese Buddhist’, foster fragmentation arid dismemberment, rather than what I feel it would, in all probability, lead to the democratic empowerment of civil society as a whole.
This opinion regards the democratisation of the state and the sharing of power between the Sinhalese and Tamil nations as a zerosum game-while empirical studies of similar experiments world-wide actually suggest that ‘there is no reason to posit a zerosum relationship between power available to central and regional units of government’ (Crawford Young – Politics of Cultural Pluralism, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1976 p77).
Yet the inadequacies, if not the inappropriateness, of centralised state structures in highly diversified societies are becoming increasingly obvious all over the globe. Sri Lanka is but an extreme instance of a world-wide phenomenon.
Yugoslavia and Quebec…
There are two cases in the contemporary world that would seem to stand in contradiction to my argument. One of these is the disintegration of the ostensibly ‘federal’ state of Yugoslavia; the other is the recent resurgence of separatist sentiment in Quebec, the Francophone province already enjoying considerable autonomy within Canada. But as I will show, a closer examination of the specificities of these instances, far from refuting my argument, actually serves to powerfully reinforce and confirm the validity of my thesis.
It is especially important to tackle the question of Yugoslavia. A Sinhalese polemicist, among others, has recently argued that ‘the threatened disintegration of the federal State of Yugoslavia is surely a warning’ against such ‘facile ideas’ that federalism might be an effective antidote to Sri Lanka’s ills (De Silva, H.L. An Appraisal of the Federal Alternative for Sri Lanka, Colombo, Sridevi Printers Pvt.Ltd).
But did Titoist Yugoslavia represent even an imperfect approximation of the idea of a ‘federal state’? There is a remarkably broad consensus among scholars or post-war Yugoslavia that it did not. Wayne Vucinich opined almost a quarter century ago that despite an extraordinary preoccupation among the ruling Titoist elite with the most minute details of the organisational or institutional aspects of federalism post Word War II Yugoslavia was, in effect, ‘an unitary state’ (Wayne Vucinich Ntaionalism and Communism in Contemporary Yugoslavia, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1969 p282) with the really decisive power safely centralised in the hands of Tito and his closest associates, and a range of residual powers delegated not to the constituent ‘federal’ republics as such but to Titoist subelites in the republican capitals of Belgrade, Zagreb, Ljubljana, Sarajevo, Skopje and elsewhere”.
Ivo Banac has written that ‘Tito’s domestic policy…actually put a premium on the power of the centre….(while) decentralisation was enshrined in the (ostensibly confederal) Constitution of 1974…(even) this constitution retained the majority of powers for the centre and the ruling party, and was, hence, by no means the code for a confederation’ (Banac – Post Communism as Post Yugoslavism in Eastern Europe in Revolution,, Ithaca, Cornell University Press 1992 pp17173)
Svetozar Stojanovic has been even more explicit on this issue. As he says. Yugoslavia ‘was not a genuine federation before 1974, and did not automatically become one after the constitution of that year’ (Stojanovic, Mediterranean Quarterly 2, 2 Spring 1991 p94)
The reason for this apparent paradox is a simple one. ‘The distinctive forms Yugoslav socialist practice takes have all been initiated and controlled from the top’ by a monolithic party leadership, and ‘oneparty rule and a (truly) autonomous society are mutually exclusive’
I have elsewhere summarised the central problem in the Titoist conception of statebuilding and federalism as follows: ‘Far too much form, far too little content’ (Bose – Yugoslavia: Crisis of the Titoist State in Economic and Political Weekly, 2 May 1992 pp938-41).
Indeed. if we are to make sense of the Yugoslav outcome, it is essential not to confuse the outward trappings of a (con)federal system with its essence. One must be able to distinguish between the Titoist rhetoric of federalism, on the one hand, and what it amounted to in practice in postwar Yugoslavia, on the other. Titoist Yugoslavia’s much vaunted ‘federalism’ was never more than a pale shadow of the real thing the reason being that a highly decentralised, federal order that is not just form but substance is not quite compatible with the singular lack of political democracy that is implied by a permanent party monopoly on all political activities.
In fact, as I have argued in much greater depth and detail elsewhere, it is this very centralisation of power and the failure to undertake substantive democratising measures in good time that lie at the root of Yugoslavia’s apocalyptic demise. Southern Asia and south-western Europe are very dissimilar contexts, but what is common to Sri Lanka and the former Yugoslavia is the organic linkage between frameworks of unitarist and hegemonic rule and the coming of civil war.
As for Quebec, the unexpected revival of support for the independence option that took place there in 1990-91, and which was taken by some to indicate that federalism merely whets the closet secessionist’s insatiable appetite, must also be seen in its proper context. The resurgence of Quebecois separatism was the result of a conjunctural rather than a structural factor – the rejection in 1990 by English Canada of the Meech Lake accord, concluded in June 1987, which, if implemented would have somewhat enhanced and extended Quebec’s autonomy.
As Maurice Pinard has persuasively argued the ‘main rnotivating factor’ behind the resurgence was that ‘the accord’s failure was perceived by many…francophones in Quebec as a humiliating rejection by English Canada…(and) produced a deep sense of resentment among them’ (Journal of International Affairs, 45, 2 Winter,1992 pp471-97).
This resentment was particularly keenly felt because the Meech Lake agreement, on the whole, contained ‘moderate, minimal (federalist) demands – and even this was rejected by English Canada’. This denial of what they considered very reasonable demands so enraged the francophone population that ‘many former supporters of independence who had abandoned the cause and many disillusioned federalists turned (again) to the sovereigntist option’ with a vengeance.
But it is most noteworthy that even at the peak of the separatist resurgence ‘most Quebecois still preferred some kind of renewed federalism to a sovereigntist outcome’ (emphasis added). Thus in April 1991, an opinion survey found that 52 per cent of Quebecois still preferred federalism, either with the stainsquo federal-province distribution of powers (16 per cent), or, significantly, with greater powers granted to the province (36 per percent). Of the 47 per cent who favoured some form of sovereignty 37 per cent wished to retain at least an economic association with the rest of Canada, and only 10 per cent supported a clean break. Moreover, in 1991, as many as 62 per cent of Quebec francophones still felt ‘profoundly attached’ to Canada! (all statistics cited in Pinard 1992). Thus the evidence from Quebec would seem to support, rather than invalidate, my argument for widerannging decentralisation of authority and devolution of powers to constituent federal units.
Regional autonomy consolidates rather than weakens…
Compelling evidence is also forthcoming from other parts of the world that granting regional autonomy to distinctive groups serves to consolidate, rather than weaken the juridical state. The recent research of Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan on Spain for example, has demonstrated that once the (previously highly unitary) Spanish state made a clear commitment, in the late 1970s to ‘change its historically centralised statestructure for a new decentralised one characterised by an unprecedented devolution of power to peripheral nationalist constituencies’, i.e., the rebellious Basque country and Catalonia, strong separatist tendencies in these regions largely dissipated, and ‘the legitimacy claims of the central government’ were greatly strengthened.
Even more significantly, following the restructuring, Basque and Catalan identities came to be seen, by and large, as complementary to rather than in conflict with a broader Spanish and even European identity – support for European unification was very strong among both Basques and Catalans. In other words, once the state structure was democratised, and the aspirations of distinctive national communities taken into account in a generous, accommodative spirit, mutually supportive, legal and effective memberships in substate (Catalan), state (Spanish) and suprastate (European) polities emerged. Further, the hard-line Basque separatist movement, ETA, suffered a precipitous decline in popular support (see Linz and Stepan in Daedalus, Spring 1992: 123-39, esp. 126-30 for relevant statistics).
What is clearly needed, then, in Sri Lanka as in other countries of South Asia and in much of the rest of the world, is the will, the sanity, even, to recognise that there is nothing inviolable or sacrosanct about the constitution of extant juridical state – that all forms of unitary or centralised authority are social and political considerations. A view of state power that regards it as a zero sum game can never foster the creation of the complementary, mutually supportive identities (‘Tamil’, ‘Sri Lankan’ etc.) which are crucial to prospects for democracy and stability in multinational states.
Indeed, it is likely to achieve just the opposite. There must therefore be the realisation that a fundamental re-negotiation of statesociety relations is the only path to lasting peace and justice. If the complete collapse of state structures, and ensuing fragmentation, is sought to be avoided, scholars and policymakers must address themselves to the task of accommodating these multiple identities by advancing creative, flexible ideas of dispersed, diffuse sovereignties – of building institutional frameworks of decentred, democratically accountable systems that will give distinctive national formations a sense of belonging, and will bestow upon them the power to actively negotiate terms on which to forge larger economic and political unions, which, 1 strongly believe, will be beneficial to all concerned. The challenge today is to find ways and means to blend power with principle, to reconcile authority with freedom. In other words, it is imperative to totally rethink our understanding of ‘state’ and ‘nation’, and creatively reconceptualise the notion of sovereignty to accommodate both.
As Ruth Lapidoth has put it:
a compromise must be found to satisfy…the aspirations of various groups.. the term ‘sovereignty’ can be used in a flexible manner; in a case of diffusion of power, both the central governrnent and regional/ autonomous authorities could be the lawful bearer of a share of sovereignty, without necessarily leading to the disappearance or dismemberment of the state (1992: 345-46)
And, as Allen Buchanan has forcefully argued:
“Rightly or wrongly, more and more people are becoming convinced that the centralised, largescale nationstate is more an evil than a necessity. The most fundamental assumption about the scale of viable political association are being widely questioned….for the first time in perhaps three centuries…when the idea of the nationstate first took hold in (Western, European) thought and practice….secession is now on the political agenda across the globe… (however) once the possibility of a variety of types of political association with differing forms and degrees of self determination is appreciated, dissatisfied groups within existing states will not be faced with the stark choice of either remaining in a condition of ..(subjugation) or of taking the radical step of seceding to form their own sovereign state. Exercising the right to self determination need not always involve secession if other degrees and forms of self determination are available.” (1992: 351-52,362)
Otherwise, Tilly’s prediction that ‘the statesystem Europeans fashioned has not always existed…(and that) it will not endure forever’ (Coercian, capital and European States, Oxford, Basil Blackwell,1990: 225) may yet turn out to be a prophetic one.
Demands for ‘national selfdetermination’ are a struggle for a higher form of democracy…
Demands for ‘national selfdetermination’ are in one sense, therefore, also a struggle for a higher form of democracy. It must then be recognised that ‘post-colonial liberation movements’, far from being inherently ‘undemocratic’, ‘subversive’, ‘terrorist’ ad infinitum, are often the most effective medium for democratic assertion by social groups who have been deprived of equal citizenship rights, who have been subjected to denial and state oppression.
This is something that is true from Palestine to Kashmir, from Kurdistan to Tamil Eelam. As Lenin once wrote, ‘the bourgeois nationalism of any oppressed nation has a general democratic content that is directed against oppression, and it is this content that we (socialists) unconditionally support’ .
The poetical and philosophical vision that is required today has been eloquently articulated, ironically enough, by radical Tamil nationalists (‘chauvinists’ and ‘separatist terrorists’, according to the official wisdom), in l985:
“We know that in the end, national freedom can only be secured by a voluntary pooling of sovereignties, in a regional and ultimately in a world context. And we recognise that our future lies with the peoples of the Indian region, and that the path of a greater and larger union is the (eventual) direction of that future. It is a union that will reflect the compelling and inevitable need for a common market and a common defence and foreign policy, and which will be rooted in the common heritage that we share with our brothers and sisters not only of Tamil Nadu but also of India as a whole. It is a shared heritage that we freely acknowledge and it is a shared heritage from which we derive strength -and we know that we too, as a people, can….contribute to that strength.” ( The Thimpu Declaration, Satyendra in N.Seevaratnam ed., The Tamil National Question and the Indo Sri Lanka Accord, Konark Publishers, New Delhi, pp142-43) (emphasis added).
In the specific Sri Lankan context, the challenge is to devise and implement innovative and imaginative associative structures whereby the Sinhalese and Tamil peoples can peacefully coexist, and freely associate and cooperate in certain vital spheres of common concern (and there are many), so that the welfare of both peoples may be safeguarded and enhanced.
In my view, the most efficacious solution would transform Sri Lanka into a voluntary confederation of two essentially sovereign peoples. In other words, the Sri Lankan state as it presently exists must be thoroughly overhauled, if it is not to expire altogether.
Kittu, in his conversations with me, repeatedly expressed himself in favour of such a ‘confederal’ resolution, negotiated in a civilised manner, rather than a bloody and acrimonious partition. A cautious and reasonable international intervention, through the medium of the United Nations, might potentially contribute something towards achieving this end- the UN sponsored referendum on Eritrean sovereignty in April 1993 is one instance of a fruitful and positive UN role. But ultimately, of course, the transformation of Sri Lanka will have to be accomplished through the will and efforts of Sri Lankans themselves, be they Sinhalese, Tamil or Muslim.
Such a transformation might take as its starting point, and philosophical basis, the fourpoint Tamil declaration of sovereignty at the Thimpu conference in 1985. Of course, the rights of minorities, especially the east coast Muslims in the Tamil region and the Colombo Tamils in the Sinhalese region, is a subject that should command special attention and the utmost priority.
Compromises could also be worked out across the table on other contentious issues. For example, Trincomalee could be declared a free port, to which the Sinhalese authorities and people would also enjoy unimpeded access. Till all this is done, however, peace on the fractured island will remain a distant and elusive dream. And, of course, if there is ever to be peace and stability in South Asia, there is an absolutely compelling moral and pragmatic case for extending similar processes of structural democratisation to the other countries of the subcontinent, India in particular and the sooner the better.
The LTTE claims that ‘the Tamil national movement cannot be snuffed out. It can be reasoned with’ (The Indo Sri Lanka Accord and the Tamil National Question, Blackrose Press 1988).
Despite its element of self serving bluster, I would take this apparently bland statement very seriously indeed – especially if I were one of those who walk the corridors of power in New Delhi or Colombo. The capacity of individuals, and collectivities, to go on defying state power in the name of a deeply held ‘national’ cause has been repeatedly demonstrated in course of history. As Subramaniam Bharathi, poet of revolutionary Tamil nationalism, wrote in colonised India at the turn of the century –
In our land
we can no longer be slaves,
We are no longer afraid.
On this earth
injustice multiplies with
To the motherland we sacrifice
Should we continue
sobbing silently to ourselves
Or is life so sweet
we dare not risk it
for rebirth in freedom?…
Is it a sin to love freedom
Is it a crime to end our suffering?
Is there hatred in that?
We have learned
the only way is unity.
eve have learned well.
We will no longer be surprised
separated by your cruelty.
Our will is unshakeable.
If you slice my flesh
into bits, will you lose your fear of us?
your hunger for revenge?
Will you gain your purpose?
When my corpse is burnt
my heart will not melt,
for there is locked
my life desire
[From Subramaniam Bharathi, ‘Chidambaram Pillai’s Reply’, translated in Ludden (The Songs and Revolution of Bharathi in Gough and Sharma eds. Imperialism and Revolution in South Asia, New York, Monthly Review Press,1973 pp 274-75)
Bharathi’s intensely political poetry, incidentally, bears a striking resemblance to the ideology of the LTTE, whether in its passionately romantic evocations of Tamil nationhood (which is, nonetheless, placed at the service of the panIndian struggle against colonialism), or in its emphasis on the need for social liberation of oppressed groups such as women and ‘lower castes’ as a requisite for strengthening and unifying the national formation]
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