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Book Reviews of Pathways of Dissent: Tamil Nationalism in Sri Lanka

by Prof. A.R.M Imtiyaz, August, 2011 and Lynn Ockersz, October 28, 2009

This edited volume provides a unique insight into the Tamil perspectives of the ethnic conflict and, in doing so, it fulfills its stated purpose of addressing “the complexities and contours of Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka” (p. ix), thus adding an important dimension to the analytical framework of the Tamil-Sinhala ethnic struggle.  It is an valuable source of information for all students of Sri Lanka history in general, and ethnic conflicts in particular. 

Pathways of Dissent Tamil Nationalism in Sri Lanka R. CheranEdited by Cheran, R. Pathways of Dissent: Tamil Nationalism in Sri Lanka. New Delhi, India.: Sage Publications, 2009. 283 pp.

Many scholarly studies on Sri Lanka explain the nature and the roots of the ethnic conflict between the Tamils and the Sinhalese, which eventually opened the way for the birth of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the separatist Tamil organization, commonly known as the LTTE, established in May 1976 and violently defeated in May 2009).  However, very few studies on Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflicts focus on the Tamil perspectives and the complexities of their struggle or the dynamic evolution from the non-violent stage (1947-1976) to the violent phrase (1976-2010) of this historical chapter. Pathways of Dissent: Tamil Nationalism in Sri Lanka edited by Cheran fills that gap and offers profound insight to readers. The chapters provide a combination of narrative and analytical information, thus making the volume appealing to both the general readership and scholars who are well versed in Sri Lankan history.

Several essays in the early segment of the book concentrate primarily on the roots and nature of Tamil nationalism as well as the profound origin of the Tamil ethnic identity and its historical stages of transformation. As Cheran aptly points out, “nationalism involves and evolves from a fusion of several elements: language, territory and distinctions, from contiguous neighbors in ways which sustain a group’s sense of us and them” (p. XVI).

Ethnicity exists and affects the behaviors of members of different ethnic groups; however, ethnic identities alone do not cause tensions among them. Tensions and conflicts occur in divided societies between groups when political forces politicize the ethnic identities to win power. In Sri Lanka the Sinhala political class has made systematic efforts to politicize the ethnic relations by providing state concessions to the Sinhala ethnic nation. The concessions from the “Sinhala only” language policy in 1956 to the pro-Sinhala ethnic standardization education policies in 1972, and from the religious policy establishing state patronage of Buddhism in the 1972 Constitution to land policy which, as early as 1948, began state colonization of the Tamil land, all contributed to the growth of Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka. It is worth noting that the Tamils, who were victims of the Sinhala violence, mobilized politically without any violence under moderate parties such as the Federal Party (FP).  However, Sinhalese chauvinism neglected the Tamil moderates. More tragically, the Tamils’ peaceful protests were met with Sinhalese ruling class’ violent responses.  The aggressive Sinhala response to the moderate demands of Tamil nationalism encouraged some Tamils to seek violent alternatives to win justice and peace. This helps us to understand the socio-political conditions behind the birth of Tamil violent movements, particularly the LTTE in the 1979s (pp.34-37).

The LTTE claimed that it was the inevitable result of the Sinhala oppression and thus identified itself as the liberation movement.  However, anti-LTTE critics argue that the LTTE’s anti-Sinhala and Muslim positions and actions have seriously compromised the LTTE’s claims.  It is true that LTTE targeted innocent Sinhalese villagers. The Muslims, whose political leaders supported all the anti-Tamil legislations of the Sinhala regime since independence, have accused LTTE of confiscating Muslim wealth in the North- Eastern Province. In addition, LTTE did not tolerate liberal opposition of the Tamil polity and violently targeted Tamil politicians and activists who challenged its position in the Tamil political apparatus.  However, it is also true that the LTTE’s anti-liberal policies in its 30 years’ struggle are characteristics similar of many other political/military movements in other third world countries. One of the key reasons for their radical nature is attributable to the fact that these movements are often the product of the postcolonial states that have, not uncommonly, resorted to the use of violence in cracking down oppositions. 

The point is that, as Vaitheespara acknowledge, “despite its many mistakes and blunders, it was possible to convert the movement from a strictly nationalist organization into a more liberation organization” (P. 47). Also, the growth of the non-violent movements, particularly the LTTE, affected how the Tamil polity deals with the social issues from economy to caste and from family to feminism. The chapters in the book expressively and critically analyze these changes and their consequences.

The defeat of the LTTE in May 2009 came with the loss of an enormous number of innocent Tamil people. But the question remains: will Sri Lanka embrace ethnic peace in order to heal the historical wounds and minimize ethnic hatred?  Historical experiences confirm that when political elites politicize ethnic symbols of a particular group to win power, it would put different groups at the risk of security crisis and war. Such developments increasingly weaken the prospect of peace when wars claim innocent civilian lives.  Sri Lanka’s current dilemma in its efforts at constructing a precarious peace serves to reinforce this theory, a point that is made by several contributors. 

This edited volume provides a unique insight into the Tamil perspectives of the ethnic conflict and, in doing so, it fulfills its stated purpose of addressing “the complexities and contours of Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka” (p. ix), thus adding an important dimension to the analytical framework of the Tamil-Sinhala ethnic struggle.  It is an valuable source of information for all students of Sri Lanka history in general, and ethnic conflicts in particular. 

A.R.M. Imtiyaz                                                  Temple University, Philadelphia, PA.


Book review: Tamil militancy in perspective

Title: Pathways of Dissent – Tamil Nationalism in Sri Lanka Published by SAGE Publications India Pvt Ltd, Edited by R. Cheran

By Lynn Ockersz

(October 28,2009, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) At a time when public discourse in Sri Lanka on the ethnic conflict and the issues growing out of it is bristling with misconceptions, misperceptions, jaundiced judgments, and even down right lies, this book makes a welcome entry into our midst with the abundant capability of putting the record straight on a multiplicity of such heatedly-contested matters. Chief among these issues on which clarity and perspicacity is remarkably achieved is the nature of Tamil militancy. 

‘Freedom fighters’ or ‘terrorists’?; this is probably one of the most contentious issues to be raised about the LTTE. On reading some of the learned papers in Pathways of Dissent, one soon begins to detect the highly simplistic, superficial nature of the thinking that underlies this poser, over which hairs have been needlessly split over the years in particularly Southern Sri Lanka. The truth which dawns is that Tamil militancy is far too complex a political phenomenon to be broached in these starkly blanket terms – ‘terrorist’ or ‘freedom fighter’?

The correct approach to understanding Tamil militancy of particularly the LTTE kind, is to place the phenomenon in the socio-political conditions within which it has had its origins and evolution. It goes without saying that the militancy of the LTTE eventually degenerated into unalloyed barbaric violence but it must be clearly comprehended that such ruthlessness arose in reaction to the repressive and equally virulent and destructive ethno-populist violence of sections of the Southern polity. The 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom in Sri Lanka is a case in point.

In his thought-provoking paper, Towards Understanding Militant Tamil Nationalism in Sri Lanka, Ravi Vaitheespara, Associate Professor of History at the University of Manitoba, Canada, says, in the course of making a case for the continuous use of analytical categories, such as, neo-colonialism, class and caste, to understand Tamil militancy, that it is the excesses committed by the Tigers that made the use of the term ‘terror’ to describe their activism, seem acceptable. He explains:

‘While this shift may be understandable to some extent in light of the level of violence and extremism of Tamil militancy, what is less understandable is the accompanying tendency to not highlight the relationship between state repression and the violence of Tamil militancy or to completely shift the source and focus of the "national problem" to Tamil militancy or "Tamil terrorism" – it is a tendency that has been amplified a great deal in the popular media in the South and abroad. It is hardly surprising that the post-9/11 discourse on terrorism has only helped this tendency.’

We are reminded by papers such as these of the abject failure of public discourse in this country on the ethnic issue, to strike any qualitative depth and of the fact that it has been continuously nourished by mainstream, superficial popular perceptions that fail to place Tamil militancy in particular in the correct perspective. In other words, the ‘alternative discourse’ on the National Question has failed to strike deep root in the local political culture or has been effectively drowned out by the propaganda of the South’s ethno-populist forces. This is a vital poser for those sections which are seeking to promote an informed public debate on the National Question.

Another ‘must read’ in this collection of eye-opening papers is the one titled Nationalism, Historiography and Archaeology in Sri Lanka by S.K. Sitrampalam, Emeritus Professor of the University of Jaffna. This could be considered a comprehensive overview of the issues in a multiplicity of disciplines which are essential for an insightful understanding of the ethnic conflict. Particularly illuminating are the writer’s findings in the course of his archaeological and historiographic studies, which lend credence to the notion of the Tamils’ separate nationhood. The following are just some of the more ‘quotable quotes’:

‘The study of Brahmi inscriptions datable to the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC shows that there were 269 pre-state chieftaincies throughout the island (Gunawardana 1982). The author of the Mahavamsa says that by killing 32 Damila kings Dutthagamani (in the 2nd century BC) became sovereign ruler of Sri Lanka (Geiger 1950).’

‘However, the colonization of the Tamil areas became an obsession of the Sinhalese politicians inspired by the concept of Sihaladipa. This is evident in the biography of D.S. Senanayake entitled Sri Lanka’s First Prime Minister, Don Stephen Senanayake (D.S.) written by H.A.J. Hulugalle (1975). He states how D.S. Senanayake followed the model of Jewish settlements planted in traditional Palestine territory in order to deprive the latter if their homeland.’

‘A new confederation of Kandyan leaders crystallized into a new political association in December 1925 as the Kandyan National Assembly. In 1929, the Kandyan National Assembly fostered the case for a type of federal system when its membership gave evidence to the Special Commission on the constitution of 1927 (Donoughmore Commission).’

V. Nithyanandam, Professor of Economics, Department of Commerce, Massey University, New Zealand, in his paper The Economics of Tamil Nationalism, Evolution and Challenges comprehensively sets out a relatively underemphasized dimension in the development of Tamil nationalism – the crippling economic conditions underlying Tamil grievances. Beginning from the earliest imperialistic infiltrations of Sri Lanka, and the policy measures that came in their wake, the writer gives us a detailed study of the increasing economic marginalization of the Tamil community. On reading this insightful analysis, one comes to understand why confrontation rather than continued accommodation, became an inevitable option for some sections of the Tamil community.

A very useful appendix by Santasilan Kadirgamar, former teacher of Modern History and International Politics, Universities of Jaffna and Colombo, titled Jaffna Youth Radicalism – The 1920s and 1930s, brings this ground-breaking collection of papers, by some of the leading minds of the Tamil community, edited and put together by R. Cheran, Assistant Professor, Dept. of Sociology, University of Windsor, Canada, to a close. On reading it one begins to perceive the promising, progressive directions in which Tamil politics would have developed at the beginning of the last century, if this salutary trend had not been thwarted by the virulent communalism in sections of the South.

All on all, Pathways of Dissent meets a long-felt but neglected need in Sri Lanka’s efforts to more fully understand what went wrong in the island’s post-independence political history, from the point of view of the articulate sections of the Tamil community. It helps greatly in coming to grips with the ‘other side of the story’.



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