When elephants fight it is the grass that suffers, so goes an old Kenyan proverb. In the maelstrom of political hysteria unleashed by Jayalalitha and Karunanidhi ostensibly in aid of Sri Lankan Tamils, democracy, truth and solidarity have been the biggest casualties. Over the past few months, Tamil Nadu has witnessed attacks on Sri Lankan Buddhist monks and Christian pilgrims, and the government sanctioned blockade of Sri Lankan schoolchildren and sportspersons.
The latest salvo from Chennai regarding Sri Lanka is the Tamil Nadu assembly resolution calling upon India to press for a United Nations Security Council mandated referendum amongst Tamils living in Sri Lanka as well as Tamils of Sri Lankan origin in other countries on the question of carving out an independent Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka. This is in addition to demands to declare Sri Lanka a ‘hostile state’, impose some form of sanctions etc.
However, is this the ‘solidarity’ and ‘support’ Tamils in Sri Lanka, in whose name all this is being done, really want and will gain from? On doing so, in Sri Lanka at least, one would find many different and perhaps even some conflicting answers. For example, the fishing community in Sri Lanka’s north and west, around Jaffna and Mannar will tell you just the kind of solidarity they would really appreciate—stop those large Indian trawlers from regularly raiding the Palk Bay deep in Sri Lanka damaging the area’s marine ecology and the livelihoods of Sri Lankan Tamil fishing communities. Yes, the Sri Lankan Navy has attacked Indian fisherfolk on many occasions but along the Jaffna and Mannar coasts there is actually a perception that the Sri Lankan Navy is not policing the maritime boundary strongly enough.Here is an extract from a statement made at the end of a workshop on the Palk Bay fisheries issue held at the University of Jaffna in January 2013:
“The primary focus of the workshop was to address the economic devastation facing the Northern Sri Lankan fishing community. This community, which was unable to go to the seas during the war, continues to suffer from the impact of Indian trawlers on Northern waters. Great financial losses due to the destruction of fishing nets and inability to go to sea when trawlers are present, as well as serious damage to ecological resources were all issues discussed at the workshop. [….] The workshop underlines the importance of multi-disciplinary research and multi-tiered dialogue for generating appropriate solutions. This initiative appeals to the Governments of Sri Lanka and India, academics, opinion makers and all relevant actors to address the issue with urgency. “
This is an issue on which political parties, civil society and even the government in Tamil Nadu can take the lead and really make a concrete and positive difference. However, the refusal to acknowledge such realities is troubling and only lends more credence to the widely held belief including amongst progressive political circles in Sri Lanka, that much of what is happening in Tamil Nadu is manipulation of sentiment for selfish political ends.
Tamils in Sri Lanka have long seen politicians in Tamil Nadu take up their cause only when it is politically convenient for the latter. When thousands of Tamil lives were being lost in the final stages of the war in 2009, the DMK did not walk out of the UPA-II and nor was Jayalalitha shedding any tears. Add to this, the history of atrocities against Tamil civilians committed by the IKPF and Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination at the hands of the LTTE and the picture becomes far more complex and tenuous than many in Tamil Nadu would perhaps like to admit.
A second aspect that is really troubling is the way Sri Lankan Tamil identity and the conflict itself continue to be essentialised in Tamil Nadu and more generally in India. It is not without some regret that Meena Kandasamy’s recent article in Outlook needs pointing out to as an example of this. She speaks about “Ealam Tamils” as if that is a self-evident and unproblematic identity today. But not every Tamil in Sri Lanka’s North, never mind in the hill-country, will readily answer to this label or claim affinity with it. Kandasamy, like so many others in India and elsewhere, tend to embrace reductionist views of identity and the conflict in Sri Lanka’s North. This includes the ‘two sides’ theory, which erases the Muslims from the picture, as many dominant narratives of the conflict, including that of the LTTE’s, have done.
This also has implications for homeland-centred narratives of self-determination, which, if at all, need to be deployed far more critically than Kandasamy and many others care to do. Around 80,000 Tamil-speaking Muslims who lived in the North and North-West of Sri Lanka were forcibly expelled (in some cases with just a hew hours notice) and dispossessed by the LTTE in October 1990. They have begun a slow and painful process of return after more than 20 years of displacement and immense hardship. Even greater numbers of Muslims live in the East—in Trincomalee, Batticloa and Amparai districts. The North and East are also ‘homelands’ for hundreds of thousands of Muslims, who have lived there for generations, not just ‘Eelam Tamils’. In fact, the recurring motif of ethnic exclusivism that marks such discourses only serves to legitimise similarly hegemonic narratives championed by many Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists.
On the basis of reductionist and politically expedient constructions of the issues and problems, an already muddled Indian foreign policy establishment is now being held hostage to all sorts of ill-conceived demands, whether with respect to the UN, Katchatheevu or declaring Sri Lanka a ‘hostile’ state. And as the domestic political stakes are driven up through competitive ethnic outbidding in the run-up to a General Election, it will become more and not less likely that the Manmohan Singh government will act to preserve its own short-term political interests rather than act in a manner that meaningfully secures the interests of Sri Lankan Tamils. Similarly, the call for an economic embargo or cultural/sporting boycott is also equally dangerous and misplaced. The reality is that there simply isn’t a credible constituency within Sri Lanka, even amongst opponents of the regime, for such demands. Unlike Israel-based champions of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign or an African National Congress in South Africa, there is no significant movement or activism within Sri Lanka to domestically earth such high voltage international political discourses.
The problem with calls for measures such as declaring Sri Lanka a ‘hostile’ state or a UN backed-referendum on Tamil Eelam, boycotts, blockades of Sri Lankan sportspersons and imposing sanctions, etc. is that these are easily refracted inside the country as ‘anti-Sri Lanka’, including by those opposed to the regime. This allows the Rajapakse regime to manipulate these sentiments and push questions of political settlement, justice, accountability and other domestic economic and political issues further into the background. Moreover, those already in the cross-hairs of the regime and its non-state allies for engaging in activism, advocacy or even research that challenges the regime will come under even more pressure as state and non-state actors close ranks against them. All of this bodes particularly ill for war-affected communities in the North and those working with them.
We must remember the context in which activists and dissidents work in Sri Lanka. The untrammelled executive power, near total collapse of rule of just law, and lack of freedom of expression coupled with the fact that a range of state and non-state organs police civil society mean that political activists and human rights advocates in Sri Lanka are very thinly stretched. It is crucial that international solidarity not add to the pressures on them.
None of this is to suggest that international advocacy or the transnational pressure on the Sri Lankan government must cease. On the contrary, the crisis in democracy internally renders it all the more important. And minorities (not just Tamils by the way), political activists and human rights advocates in Sri Lanka could do with support, in fact lots of it. However, expressions of solidarity will be counter-productive if they fail to draw on a better understanding of the ground realities and the varied agendas, expectations and anxieties of these communities within Sri Lanka.
Amnesty International discovered this the hard way in 2007 when its ‘Sri Lanka: Play by the Rules’ campaign tried to use ICC Cricket World Cup in the Caribbean to highlight human rights concerns in Sri Lanka. Precisely because it failed to account for the complexities on the ground described above it ended up backfiring. Many prominent democratic and human rights activists in Sri Lanka openly distanced themselves from the campaign because it polarised opinion so much and “made an issue of itself in Sri Lanka and detracted attention from the issue […] it rightly sought to draw attention to.” Moreover, as the Free Media Movement noted, it ended up “fuelling the already powerful rhetoric of extreme nationalist forces in the country” thus narrowing the already constricted space for human rights work in the country.
Even though the context today is different, there are disturbing parallels. On the one hand, Jayalalitha and others are cynically celebrating the caving in of IPL authorities to her undemocratic and unprincipled demands to exclude Sri Lankan players from matches in Chennai. On the other hand, this has only added more fuel to Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists who are pressing Sri Lankan players to boycott the IPL altogether. Whether they succeed or not, chauvinism and intolerance will have gained a little more steam on both sides of the Palk Straits, leaving the minorities in Sri Lanka even more vulnerable and thousands of concerned but under-informed citizens in Tamil Nadu none the wiser. It is vital that better-informed sections of Indian civil society play a more proactive role in trying to build bridges of understanding and meaningful solidarity as well as critiquing anti-democratic and self-serving agendas being advanced in the name of solidarity with Sri Lankan Tamils.
PS: Speaking of UN sanctioned referendums, wasn’t India supposed to hold one in Kashmir decades ago? Maybe the key to the question of Kashmiri self-determination lies buried in Poes Garden.