Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Sri Lanka: Indian Delegates go Home Empty Handed

by Dr. Kumar David, South Asia Analysis Group, Delhi, June 15, 2011

The previous description of the government’s core constituency should make it clear why it will not, more important why it cannot, agree to any degree of devolution or solve the Tamil question however much jet fuel Mr Manhohan Singh expends and however many delegations he dispatches to the island nation... Though village society will divide as the government’s popularity declines, the loyalty of the hard-core Sinhala-Buddhist petty-bourgeoisie is predicated entirely on whether the government retains an uncompromising attitude to the Tamils... 

I feel confident in forecasting that the Tamil problem will not be resolved for so long as this government remains in power... Till then it is more constructive to aim at another set of targets; political education, raising public consciousness against narrow nationalism, exposing the primitiveness of chauvinist ideologies and rejecting the ethno-centric state. Its high time democrats, the left and the liberals in Lanka understand that toughness not appeasement is the need of the hour.

The umpteenth Indian delegation (Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, National Security Advisor Shiva Shankar Menon and Defence Secretary Pradeep Kumar) came to Colombo and having wasted fuel for aircraft and charges for 5-star hotels, duly went back empty handed and funny as a comic strip! President Rajapakse handed them a flat ‘Nyet’ and for once in a lifetime, I must admit, he spoke the truth. “If I make any devolutionary concessions to the Tamils, 13A Plus, Minus, Divided or Subtracted, it will be curtains for me.” That much is absolutely true; it has been so starkly obvious to anyone who had brains enough to see (so that excludes Delhi), so why on earth it came as a surprise beats me. The government’s parliamentary group met the evening before the esteemed visitors arrived and decided; ‘Let’s tell them the truth straight from the shoulder and upfront; let’s tell them, if we do it we are dead meat.’ 

There are two ways of understanding history. Theory 1, ‘Individuals, personal deals and tricks come first, and as for the facts, who cares for objective material reality’; and the other theory is that ‘objective circumstances are determinate and the role of the individual is to dance on this stage’. Fools who thought they could do deals with Rajapakse before the war and have agreed goodies duly stamped and delivered after finishing off the Tigers, are aficionados of the first theory. The protagonists of the second hypothesis, folks like me, who, though they disliked the LTTE, had not the slightest doubt that if the Tigers were wiped out, thereafter the Tamils in Lanka would get nothing.. During the final two years of the war, though driving myself hoarse I won few adherents to my appeal that a political solution must be in place first, then do as you will with the sole bargaining chip that the Tamils had, the armed power of the LTTE. Remember Machiavelli? “Armed prophets have conquered and unarmed ones have come to grief.” 

Why Rajapakse can’t do it ?

Delhi, Sri Lanka’s liberal democracy, and the international community have appealed time and again to give the Tamils some autonomy and recognize their rights as a community – too late, too dumb, and too hypocritical having first helped the regime wreck mayhem! The Lankan Left, except for the toadies in government, despises this “chauvinist regime”, its hangers-on and its applauders. India, the US and the EU have advocated devolution, self-administration, and a negotiated settlement with non-LTTE Tamil parties, enough to fill a library shelf, but what?  

The underlying assumption is that the government, if it so wishes, can do it. What if this assumption is incorrect? What if the balance of power between constituent parties and elements of government, and the mood of the Sinhala-Buddhist mass on which the regime leans for its survival, are such that the regime would court disaster if it made concessions to Tamils? What if objectively, the forces of chauvinism are so strong that in the unlikely event GoSL undergoes a moral epiphany and embarks on a deal with the Tamils, its stability would be shattered? Rajapakse, his brothers and his close advisors are right in thinking along these lines. Having cashed in on and ridden upon the backs of the chauvinists for all this while, if he betrays them now - well we know what happens when extremists think leaders are too soft on minorities; vide Gandhiji and Lincoln.           

Local society has added its voice to an international chorus demanding GoSL changes track and compromises. Friday Forum, Christian Churches, the National Peace Foundation, the Centre for Policy Alternatives, to mention only better-known organisations in Sri Lanka, have called for change. GoSL was unmovable both before and now two years after the end of the war. How much longer will it take for the penny to drop, for conscientious liberals, Delhi and foreigners to see that the regime isn’t going to do anything of the sort? How long before these worthies glimpse that the Rajapakse regime just ain’t gonna do it even if the worthies scream themselves hoarse? In this respect Jayalalitha seems more a realist with feet planted on terra firma. 

The Rajapakse regime will not grant substantial devolution to the Tamils nor “solve the national question”. More important, and this is the crucial point, the reason is not because the leadership is plain cussed and chauvinist (it is, but that’s not the point), the basic reason is that it cannot make concessions and continue to survive in power. The Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact on regional councils was torn up in 1958 and the Dudley Senanayake-Chelvanyagam deal buckled in the mid-1960s not because the two premiers were spineless (which they were) but because racist sentiment whipped up on the streets, in society, and in the temple, was too powerful for the government of the day to withstand. It is the malady facing this regime; damned if it does, damned if it doesn’t. Fate is not kind to leaders who sign contracts with Mephistopheles or dance with the devil; GoSL is a prisoner of its past.  

The Rajpakse regime's core constituency 

In countries at the stage of development corresponding to Lanka, the petty-bourgeoisie, that is the petty-bourgeois class, is the most numerous and of course the Sinhalese portion is the largest among ethnic groups. As a ballpark figure we could say the Sinhalese are 75% of the total population and the Sinhalese petty-bourgeoisie about two-thirds thereof, that is say half the population. There is some confusion in the careless use of the categories middle-class and petty-bourgeoisie interchangeably; there is overlap but the two should more appropriately be used to denote differences. Strictly speaking the middle-class belongs in the modern economy; good examples would be those young fellows in starched white shirts in private sector companies, professionals, civil servants and corporate managers. Culturally, middle-class means English speakers who prefer to blend with a Westernised outlook. The petty-bourgeoisie is more numerous and dominated by the rural mass which is not wage labour in a capitalist production process, but self-employed on the land. The petty-bourgeoisie, neither bourgeois nor working class, and not positioned in the modern capitalist economy, includes the self-employed, the informal economy, small traders and the influential clergy in yellow and the native physician and school teacher in white.

Of course there is overlap between the petty-bourgeoisie proper the modern middle-class, for example in the shape of mixed families, but the distinction is significant, especially culturally and politically. Middle-class people are less nationalistic and a larger proportion vote UNP. A goodly portion of the upper layers of traditional rural society too, of course, votes UNP; otherwise it couldn’t have an assured 25-30% vote bank.            

The petty-bourgeoisie, even after such careful delineation, is a fairly broad-brush category and social scientists refine it with a finer comb. We do not need to do so for this discourse; but we do need to make one further split between two portions of the petty-bourgeoisie foundation on which this government stands. There are two distinct components; one is the rural mass, the village folk, the phalanx of SLFP support in the deep south and other areas. There is also a distinctly different component, ideologically Sinhala-Buddhist and materially middleclass-like, deep-set in semi-urban regions such as those encircling Colombo – Maharagama-Kotte, Dehiwala-Ratmalana and Gampaha (the exception is the Catholic belt in, and beyond the north of the city). These two distinct components, the village folk and the Sinhala-Buddhist revivalists, respectively, are the legs on which this government stands.  

There are two more points to make about these social classes to round off the class descriptions. The less privileged, poorer, caste disadvantaged, and under or unemployed younger elements of these class, both in the rural hinterland and in the semi-urban belt, constitute the JVP’s core constituency. The UNP also has a solid foundation in the villages, but smaller than the SLFP though this can swing wildly with the electoral fortunes of the major parties; and of course the UNP holds pole-position in the middle-class. 

Closing the loop           

The previous description of the government’s core constituency should make it clear why it will not, more important why it cannot, agree to any degree of devolution or solve the Tamil question however much jet fuel Mr Manhohan Singh expends and however many delegations he dispatches to the island nation. The loyalty of the village mass can, and will split when the urban areas turn against the government; and this seems to be happening right now in the universities, business classes and even sections of the working class. The Ceylon Tamils always detested Rajapakse and the Muslims and Upcountry Tamils, though in cabinet, will desert when times change. Though village society will divide as the government’s popularity declines, the loyalty of the hard-core Sinhala-Buddhist petty-bourgeoisie is predicated entirely on whether the government retains an uncompromising attitude to the Tamils. Therefore the odds are, GoSL will remain obdurate; if not ministers like Wimal Weerawansa will be on hunger strike whipping up the mobs, minister Champika Ranatunga’s party will walk out, some Mahanayakes (chief incumbents of the Buddhist clergy) may call on the faithful to rise up, and so on. Rajapakse cannot stand against such forces because this is his very heartland.  

I feel confident in forecasting that the Tamil problem will not be resolved for so long as this government remains in power. Perhaps it may run its full six-year term, perhaps it will become unstable before that (take no notice of the two-thirds in parliament, those who have been bought will just as quickly desert if the ship begins to list), and perhaps there will be a change of government. After that a fresh and more hopeful attempt can be made the sort out devolution for the Tamils. Till then it is more constructive to aim at another set of targets; political education, raising public consciousness against narrow nationalism, exposing the primitiveness of chauvinist ideologies and rejecting the ethno-centric state. Its high time democrats, the left and the liberals in Lanka understand that toughness not appeasement is the need of the hour. Also, they should have zero confidence in Delhi, who knows what it will do.