The Historical Quest to Restore Tamil Rights

By D. B. S. Jeyaraj

“In devising policy toward this region of ancient cultures, we know that a rounded historical perspective and due regard for South Asian attitudes are needed. And so is humility! As an American diplomat who has lived five years in India and about six months here in Sri Lanka, I appreciate the need for humility in approaching South Asia. Sometimes frankly, it seems to me that this region produces more history than it can consume. So complex are the various religious, ethnic and political relationships in South Asia that I often think one needs a degree in higher math to make sense of it all!

- From the address of U.S. Ambassador
Ashley Wills in Jaffna on March 7, 2001.


The enduring search for restoration of rights by the Tamils of Sri Lanka has undergone several phases over the past century. The evolution and growth of the Tamil struggle for equality is a heroic saga of a resilient people striving defiantly against overwhelming odds to regain their rightful place under the sun.

So complex are the issues that many persons sympathetic towards the Tamil plight are themselves not fully aware of the ramifications involved. This leads to situations where well-meaning individuals articulate viewpoints that are inaccurate as well as being insensitive to the feelings of a bitter and beleaguered people.

Erudite scholars, analysts and commentators are often guilty of a common fallacy in recent times. The crystallisation of Tamil political aspirations in the demand for a sovereign and secular state of Tamil Eelam has created an impression that the Tamil people are ethnic supremacists aiming to forge a separate state to pursue that objective.

Race of warmongers
The ascendancy of the Tamil armed struggle in contemporary times has given rise to a notion that the Tamils are by nature a race of warmongers. Certain acts of omission and commission by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have helped reinforce this negative image of the Tamil people and their political philosophy.

Those genocidal elements that are desirous of annihilating the Tamils in this island have exploited this phenomenon to their advantage and derived much propaganda mileage out of it.

Against the backdrop of the Sri Lankan Tamil people conducting an armed struggle for secession it is possible to conclude erroneously that the Tamil people are an exclusivist, anti-social people, incapable of breaking out of ethnic barriers and preferring to confine themselves to self-imposed boundaries rather than merge with other people, other cultures rather than build together if necessary new structures of state sans the bondage of race, religion, caste and creed.

The fact that Tamil Nadu in India boasted of a flourishing separatist movement in the early decades of Indian independence could be interpreted as another indicator of separatism being inherent in the Tamil psyche. The constant reference by north Indian and south Sri Lankan commentators to the possible emergence of a pan-Tamil state comprising the Tamil people living on either side of the Palk Straits could add more credence to this opinion.

The separatist ideology
In juxtaposition to this perceived mindset is the modern reality of different ethnicities being molded into a single, unified state without any great difficulty.

Sadly, the image projected of the Tamil people in their current ‘avatar’ of being adherents of a separatist ideology does not do justice to the underlying principles of Tamil political philosophy that are deeply embedded in the collective Tamil psyche.

The great seal of the United States has the Latin phrase Pluribus Unum meaning ‘Out of many, One’. As the US envoy in Colombo Ashley Wills stated “even more than two centuries ago, the founders of the United States saw that our country would be diverse and we should reject efforts to stress differences among its people. The idea was and is, that diverse people can come together and build one country, one nation”. Now the emphasis is on the globalisation and the global village etc. The Tamil demand for separation could be viewed as an anachronism by enlightened circles in the current context.

Yet, it may come as a surprise to westerners particularly Americans proud (rightfully perhaps) of their Pluribus Unum that a Tamil poet of the Pre-Christinan Sangham era Kaniyan Poongundranar sang “Yaathum Oore, Yaavarum Kelir which the renowned Catholic Tamil Scholar Rev Fr. Xavier Thaninayagam translated as “All the world is my world, all humanity is my fraternity”.

Unbelievable as it may be to those judging Tamils within the framework of contemporary politics a Tamil poet was able to evolve a global consciousness and conceptualise such lofty maxims at a time when the greater mass of humanity had not transcended tribal tendencies and parochial perspectives.

Global outlook two millennia before globalisation! 

Former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi provided a sense of pride to the Tamil people all over the world when she quoted these memorable lines of Kaniyan Poonggundranaar when she addressed the United Nations in 1980. Other gems of classical Tamil literature like the ‘Thirukkural’ for instance illustrate the higher levels of universality and humanism that Tamil thought was capable of achieving in the past.

Patriotic poetry
Why, then are the Tamil people caught up now in the throes of a raging conflict that threatens to undermine all these noble principles propounded by their sages and poets centuries ago? The answer to that is also revealed by another Tamil poet and holy man who strode the spiritual-literary scene several centuries after Kanianpoongundranaar.

This was Thirunaavukkarasa Naayanaar generally referred to as Appar who spearheaded the Saivite Tamil renaissance. Poongundranaar was able to dream about humanism and universalism at a time of prosperity, Appar thundered at times of adversity ‘Naamaarkkum Kudiyallom, Namanai Anjom’ meaning “We are slaves of no one, we shall not fear death”.

Thirunaavukkarasar who along with Gnanasambandar, Suntharamoorthy and Manickavasagar comprised the premier quartet of the 63 ‘Naayanmaar’ or Saivite Tamil saints also sang ‘Thamilodisaipaadal Maranthariyen’ (I will never forget Tamil and its music and songs).

If Kaniyanpongundranar’s immortal lines epitomised the pinnacle of Tamil magnanimity, Appar symbolised the spirit of Tamil defiance at times of peril and the fervent desire of the Tamil to preserve and protect his or her beloved language and culture against forces threatening it.

Tamil political philosophy
This then is the essence of Tamil political philosophy as propounded by Poonkundranaar and Appar. In peace universal amity and goodwill towards to all beings. But when danger threatens and war becomes inevitable then courage and defiance. This philosophy finds resonance in western thought too.

As Shakespeare said in ‘Henry V,’

“In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man as modest stillness and humility: But when the blast of war blows in our ears, then imitate the action of the Tiger: stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, disguise fair nature with hard-favoured rage; then lend the eye a terrible aspect.”

The Bard of Avon was certainly not thinking of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam when he composed these lines.

But yes, they certainly do echo powerfully the thoughts expressed by the Tamil visionary poet and a holy Tamil activist. Most Tamils of the present day too would subscribe to these views. There may be different positions about how the armed struggle is being conducted or about its viability and future, but few would disagree that armed Tamil resistance to Sinhala hegemonism was historically inevitable.

If militarisation and ideologies considered by western powers as extreme and unrealistic in the current environment are to diminish, then the causes that led to such a phenomenon must be dealt with. The remedy should address the malady rather than merely treat the symptoms.

The communal curse
If the Tamils of India moved away from secession to national unity and integration through the enlightened policies adopted by the Indian state towards fissiparous tendencies such as these, the case in Sri Lanka was vastly and tragically different. Here the problem was initially not with Tamil nationalism but with Sinhala chauvinism masquerading as nationalism.

The Sinhala-Buddhist supremacists insist that they and only they have a divine right over this island depicted by them as the last bastion of pristine Theravada Buddhism. It is this dominant assertion by the majority community that was fundamentally responsible for ushering in the communal curse here. The original sin that upset the tranquil environment of the Garden of Eden was this. Of course colonialism paved the way for it but it is pointless to accuse the British alone when the real blame lies with Sinhala supremacists as opposed to the Sinhala people.

When the cry for a separate Tamil state was first proposed by a little known man called Visvalingam in 1918 there were absolutely no takers for it. Even the explicit reference to Tamil Eelam by the intellectual giant Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam in 1924 struck no responsive chord in the Tamil heart.

About an “Eylom”
In the latter days of British rule the Tamil political leadership made no demand for a separate state or even federalism. When the brilliant Tamil intellectual C. Sundaralingam articulated a clear-cut political demand for Eelam, which he spelled out as ‘Eylom’, he was scorned as an “eccentric”, and his demand rejected by the Tamil politicians.

The “Suyaatchi” or autonomy demand put forward by him was simply an euphemism for a separate Tamil state. He and his party were routed. But when the newly formed Tamil United Liberation Front contested the 1977 polls on a separatist platform it swept to victory winning 18 of the 19 Tamil majority electorates in the Northeast. Recent history would testify that the road to Tamil separation was due mainly to Sinhala oppression and repression.

After the Tamil areas of the northeast were merged together with the rest of the island and unified in one administrative entity the Tamil people too began embracing the new reality. When administrative reform culminated in the forming of nine provinces the Tamils were in a majority in only two.

In terms of the overall population they were a numerical minority vis-à-vis the Sinhala people. Yet the Tamil self-perception of themselves was that they along with the Sinhala people were equal partners forming the new Ceylonese nation. When limited franchise was allowed in early 20th century, Tamils saw themselves as equals. There was also much affinity between the dominant Sinhala and Tamil castes the Goigama and Vellalas.

Security to Tamils
Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan’s victory over Sinhala rivals in two successive elections to the Educated Ceylon’s member constituency illustrates that. Further constitutional reforms created tensions but were contained due to the principle of communal representation being adopted. In spite of its flaws this principle afforded some sense of security to the Tamils.

Then came universal franchise and the principle of territorial representation under the Donoughmore Constitution. The composition of the state council brought out the stark fact that the power relationship had changed and that the Tamils were now a minority and no longer on equal terms with the majority. Thereafter the Tamil political leadership thought in terms of being the principal minority community in the island.

It did not however think of retreating to its ethnic enclaves but wanted to be part and parcel of the new Ceylon extending from Point Pedro in the north to Dondra in the south. The Tamil leadership under G. G. Ponnambalam wanted to mobilise the minority communities and demand an equitable power sharing formula where the minority communities together would equal the majority community. This was the principle of balanced representation commonly called the fifty-fifty demand.

After independence the Tamils still thought of themselves as an all island minority and not a territorially confined one. G. G. Ponnambalam and his All Ceylon Tamil Congress adopted the policy of responsive cooperation and joined the UNP government. The breakaway faction led by S. J. V. Chelvanayagam and C. Vanniyasingham formed the Federal Party. For the first time the Tamils were perceiving themselves as a territorial minority and demanded federalism for the two Tamil majority provinces.

In 1952 the FP was defeated at the polls. Yet the colonisation policies of the government and the demand for Sinhala only made Tamils feel increasingly insecure. In 1956 the ‘Tamil Also’ FP swept the polls in the Tamil areas and the ‘Sinhala Only’ SLFP the Sinhala areas. Sinhala became the sole official language. The ethnic divide was a harsh reality.

Satyagrahas’ suppressed with force
The FP continued the struggle through non-violent modes of protest like Satyagraha that were ruthlessly suppressed through force. Even though the FP was prepared to compromise in negotiations all assurances provided in the form of agreements were revoked or honoured in the breach by Sinhala dominated governments.

Finally, the Tamils who had been consistently rejecting all forms of separation, and fighting peacefully for rights within a united Sri Lanka, opted for secession. The Tamil parties formed the TULF and contested 1977 elections as requesting a mandate for Tamil Eelam. The Tamil people voted overwhelmingly for it. In the meantime Tamil youth inflamed by discriminative policies like standardisation began resorting to isolated yet ineffective acts of violence. The writing on the wall was clear. Yet the Sinhala dominated government did not take any meaningful and genuine steps to address Tamil grievances and win back the alienated people.

A campaign of repression was conducted. State sanctioned pogroms were unleashed on the Tamil people. Repressive violence against the Tamil people was institutionalised in the form of war. Death, destruction, displacement and despair became the way of life for the Tamil people. In spite of this the Tamil armed struggle has developed to a point where the whole world recognises the reality of an LTTE Tamil army being present in the North- East.

A sad and bitter trail
There was a time when Sri Lankan Tamil poets like Somasundarappulavar of Navaly sang Mavali Sool Ilangai Naadengal Naade (This land where the Mahaveli flows is our country). 

This spirit was not reciprocated and Sinhala poets like Mahagamasekera sang only of a Sinhala preserve Me Sinhale Apagey Ratai, Api Ipadune Marana Ratai (This Sinhala is our land, A land where we are born and die).

The reaction from the Tamil side was predictable. Kasi Anandan, the foremost Sri Lankan Tamil nationalist poet wrote thus Engal Arunthamil mannai... Angulamum ini naangal ayal veriyar Aala vid... Thangathamil Eelam Thamilanukke, Thamilanukke (We will not allow alien fanatics to rule an inch of our beloved Tamil soil. Golden Tamil Eelam is for the Tamils)

This then is the sad and bitter trail that has led to the current situation where the Tamils want to secede. No one speaks of a plebiscite or referendum for the Tamils. But if a free and fair poll is conducted then there is every chance that the Tamils would opt out.

An idea can be defeated only by a superior idea. The demand for separation has only been dealt with force and not by the articulation of a superior vision of national unity, equality and harmony.

A land of their own.
It is also possible for the outside observer to be misled by the present expression of Tamil nationalism, the homeland theory being an example. The American ambassador in Sri Lanka for instance observed recently that “those in Sri Lanka who advocate separation of the state long for ethnic purity, a genetic and geographical impossibility. Worse than that it is an atavism, a denial of the harmonising, connecting forces at work in the modern world”.

This may be applicable to those Sinhala Buddhist hegemonist forces who seek to convert this multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-lingual, country to a mono-ethnic, mono-religious and mono-lingual state, and hark back to a past and not the future. But in the case of the Tamils the homeland theory is not a throwback to the past but one that was necessitated by the exigencies of sheer survival.

Former Opposition Leader Appapillai Amirthalingam said in the aftermath of the 1983 pogrom that the twin concerns of his party were the security of our people and the integrity of our homeland. Both concepts were interlinked. When Tamils were attacked by Sinhala mobs in 1858, 1977, 1981 and 1983 they were sent for safety to the northern and eastern provinces.

The limited political representation that the Sri Lankan Tamils have is also from these provinces. These provinces comprise the Tamil linguistic region as articulated by the Ceylon Workers Congress in the 1984 All Party Congress. This is the only region where the Tamils can live in security and nourish their culture if and when war ceases.

The Tamil homeland concept was nurtured in Tamil political consciousness as a citadel of safety and not a preserve of exclusivity. Even pacts between Sinhala leaders like Bandaranaike and Senanayake with Chelvanayagam recognised this concept tacitly. The Indo-Lanka accord concretised this concept in 1987 by linking up both provinces into a single administrative unit and describing them as ‘areas of historic habitation by the Tamils.’

Furthermore, the existence of a Tamil homeland concept is interwoven with the Tamil demand for self-determination. The Tamil cry for a country of their own is based on two factors. One is the historical premise where it is argued ‘Tamil sovereignty’ ceded to the Portuguese in the battle of Nallur in 1517 should have been handed back to the Tamils at the time of Independence or the advent of the republic in 1972. The Portuguese handed it to the Dutch, and the Dutch, to the British who in turn gave it over ‘illegally’ to the Sinhalese the argument goes.

Ulterior motives
The Tamils seek therefore to restore lost sovereignty. The second is on the basis of universally recognised canons of a self-determination that includes among other things a common territory. Sinhala hegemonism has been consistently attempting to dilute the Tamil homeland and deprive the Tamils of their last resort of safety and security.

State aided colonisation schemes were executed to change the demographic pattern of the Tamil areas. The East in particular was highly vulnerable.

In fact the reference to the north and east as the ‘traditional Tamil homelands’ was first made by Chelvanayagam in response to this ‘Sinhalaisation’ of Tamil speaking areas that he described as ‘colonisation’. The Sinhala component of the north-east population has progressively increased to the point where several Sinhala representatives have been returned to parliament. When independence dawned there were none.

The war has seen the cleansing of many areas. Tamils were driven out of the strategic northeastern, Manal Aaru or Weli-Oya region and Sinhala colonists settled in a bid to destroy the territorial contiguity of the north and east. Failure to appreciate this savage bit of history could lead to misunderstandings about the genesis of the Tamil homeland theory.

Among the advantages afforded by numerical superiority to the Sinhala majority is the opportunity to camouflage discriminatory measures in the veneer of acceptable democratic norms. Reducing the Tamils to a minority within their own areas by altering the demographic balance can be explained away as an exercise of the right of every citizen to move and reside in any part of the country.

The ulterior motives of the Sinhala state and the insecurity felt by the minorities is glossed over. Even the Sinhala only bill that reduced Tamil to inferior status was passed democratically by Parliament.

Most anti-Tamil measures are democratic. The emergency for example is extended every month democratically by parliament. Democracy in Sri Lanka is not that of the ‘greatest good of the greatest number’ in a non-ethnic sense but only in the context of the Sinhala Buddhist majority.

A ruthless virulence
All these serve to demonstrate that Tamil nationalism was initially of a reactive nature and that it assumed a separatist hue only because of the impact of Sinhala chauvinism. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that Tamil nationalism too has acquired in recent times a ruthless virulence that does no good to the cause or the image of the Tamil people.

Also, the dormant nationalist consciousness of the Tamil people may have been awakened to such an extent that it could now be resolved only through very genuine power-sharing that goes far and beyond all concepts of devolution being bandied about nowadays.

Tamils perceive themselves as a nation and not a minority now. The Sri Lankan state has to be re-invented to that of an associative structure if Tamil aspirations and grievances are to be accommodated and redressed within a united Sri Lanka whose territorial boundaries are intact.

Achieving this goal is a gigantic journey indeed. But the conspiracy of history has necessitated that the perilous voyage towards this safe refuge be undertaken by the Sri Lankan Tamils just as the sea-god Poseidon caused Ulysses to sail on endlessly till he reached his Ithacca.

The Odyssey is indeed hazardous with dangers, diversions and obstacles like the enchantress Circe, the one eyed Cyclops, the enticing melodies of the sirens, the amorous Calypso, pleasure loving Phoenicians and Scylla and Charybidis etc. Yet the Tamils must continue their quest if they are to meet with their collective destiny as Odysseus did till reuniting with his beloved Penelope.

The success or failure of this Tamil venture depends very much on Sinhala willingness to accept the justice of the Tamil cause and restore their lost rights. Until this is realised all half-baked solutions proffered would be regarded suspiciously as Trojan Horses. Advice to accept unholy settlements can only be construed as Hectoring.