Broker Politics Or Democratic Action?

by S. Sathananthan, 'The Colombo Telegraph,' August 9, 2013

The Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi’s (ITAK) Satyagraha 1961

The more incisive comments on myprevious posting, The Meanings of Wigneswaran, raise several inter-related issues that have been central to the Tamil Question and still bedevil action. This writing responds to and builds on them and attempts to probe further.

It is necessary at the outset to clarify an unfortunate misreading in one comment, that my arguments envisage ‘a need to fight the regime’. It’s ludicrous on my part to suggest Tamils ought to ‘fight’ the regime. That vocabulary belongs to the LTTE era.

Instead I strongly underlined, ‘the utterly desperate need today is to campaign and mobilise’ Tamils. Campaigning and mobilising are universally recognised democratic activities; they are integral to the exercise of the fundamental right of freedom of expression. It’s a pity these long established, legitimate avenues for peoples’ participation are interpreted in the LTTE idiom of ‘fight’ (5 times) and ‘force’ (twice) in that comment.

Sathananthan Dr S 2013

Dr. S Sathananthan

The time-tested power of the people is not our discovery. Tamil politicians paid lip service to peoples’ power during the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi’s (ITAK) 1961 Satyagraha. The new-and-improved Tamil United Liberation Front’s (TULF) 1976 Vaddukkoddai Resolution called ‘the Tamil Nation in general and the Tamil youth in particular to come forward to throw themselves fully into the sacred fight for freedom’. The LTTE and V. Pirapaharan took the urging to heart and, no doubt dismayed by the impotence of Tamil parliamentary politics, had launched mass armed resistance.

More recently, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) too urged popular mobilisation. During an August 2011 public ceremony in Jaffna TNA leader R. Sampanthan, while criticising the Colombo regime, aggrandised the TNA was pondering ‘alternative ways’ that he characteristically dodged spelling out. A Vanni TNA parliamentarian Sivasakthi Ananthan helpfully elaborated that the Alliance intends to ‘build up from the grassroots a powerful base of civil struggle’.

However, a popular, sustained mobilisation by Tamil politicians is yet to see the light of day whether before, during or after the LTTE phenomenon!

Instead they appear fixated on mandates. After submitting nominations of TNA candidates for the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) elections, Wigneswaran firmly declared in Jaffna on 29 July he would seek Tamils’ ‘mandate’ for the 13th Amendment (13A).

That brought memories of another, more far-reaching Tamil mandate. The TULF had based its 1977 election manifesto on the Vaddukkoddai Resolution and garnered an electoral mandate (about 75%) from Tamils in the north and east to establish an independent State of Tamil Eelam.

When TULF’s parliamentarians, with A. Amirthalingam in the lead, smugly strolled into parliament mandate in hand, President J. R. Jayawardene virtually spat on it! Lacking bargaining advantage since they were incapable of mobilising Tamils’ street power, they tucked tails between legs and perched on Opposition benches while meekly floating the canard that the Resolution has been shelved on the advice of friendly but unspecified ‘foreign interests’.

Memories also flow back of a 1993 conversation we had with one of those firebrand thookku-maedai-panju-meththai-type Tamil politician at his residence. His party was gearing up for the 1994 parliamentary elections in which it hoped to secure a mandate to negotiate on Tamils’ rights. Quite out of curiosity I asked him what he intended to do with the mandate. ‘We’ll take it to the Sinhalese people.

They must accept it.’

‘They won’t’, I replied. Visibly annoyed, and perhaps expecting me to wilt as his party minions do, he vigorously slapped the table for emphasis: ‘it will be the democratic mandate of the Tamil people’; and wagging a thick finger (which inevitably made me think of the subsidised parliament cafeteria), ‘they [Sinhalese] have to accept it.’

I smiled but pursued: ‘true; but they’ll not accept it.’ Lost for words, he turned on me: ‘what would you do?’ I explained Tamils should be democratically mobilised to confront President D. B. Wijetunge in the streets. The politician’s attention wavered and, with a far away look in his eyes, he muttered: ‘they are not ready’; this, ignoring the LTTE had mobilised vast sections of Tamils. I quipped, ‘you mean you are not ready.’ The conversation ended abruptly.

The mandate Wigneswaran intends to seek during the Provincial Councils (PC) election campaign is a shadow of the one secured in 1977. Yet it ran into stormy weather within 48 hours. The United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) regime delivered a resounding political slap to the TNA and its putative messiah, Justice Wigneswaran; President Mahinda Rajapaksa categorically declared on 31 July police and land powers will NOT be granted to PCs under 13A. As one comment on my article noted, ‘people give bones to canines after eating all the meat. 13th Amendment [sic] is same. But the foolish canine guards its bone carefully!!’

Will Wigneswaran, who we are informed is a man with ‘character and a straight, uncorrupted reputation’, stand firm on the original 13A complete with police and land powers or would his knees bend to seek Tamils’ mandate for the excoriated one, meekly deliver it to Colombo and ask the ruling Sinhalese elite for Tamils’ rights?

This business of asking for rights takes me back to a discussion in the mid-1990s with a TULF stalwart who explained: ‘we go for talks on behalf of Tamils to ask for rights.’ ‘What if their answer if no’, I probed. ‘We’ll ask again’, he responded exasperatedly as if I were too dense to grasp the political process. ‘You can ask the Sinhalese a thousand times’ I countered, ‘but the answer will be no every time’. The essence of my position is that everywhere and always rights are not given; they are taken.

The point I made, that he refused to take on board, is the following: every form of power politics has its roots in the streets; Tamil politics is no exception. The history of social change in modern nations over the past two or three centuries incontrovertibly proves the utter centrality of peoples’ power. The Chartists and Suffragettes, the civil rights, anti-war, anti-racist and women’s activism as well as revolutionary movements testify that changes come about only when victims exercise organised power in the streets – the public spaces in the broad sense.

The outcomes are then formalised and institutionalised through resolutions and legislation in councils and parliaments. In other words, law follows reality; but Liberalism characteristically puts the cart before the horse: that changes in law lead to transformations in society (or reality follows law) oblivious to how evolving social forces compel subsequent modifications in the legal regime.

At no time did Tamil parties mobilise Tamils to flex street power; the 1961 Satyagraha was a promising beginning but didn’t go beyond tokenism. Instead Tamil (as well as Sinhalese) politicians from the time of the 1920s Ceylon National Congress practised petition politics: it was introduced by colonial rulers and consists of the incrementalist tactic of the powerless, of selecting ‘brokers’ who are mandated to travel to power centres of the State elite and advocate their own peoples’ cause by appealing to the ‘good sense’ of the ruling elite to kindly acknowledge the fairness of requests.

The ITAK politicians fell back on the same tactic in dealings with the Sinhalese elite; on more than one occasion they appealed to the ‘good sense’ of then Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike during parliamentary debates over the 1956 Official Language Bill; the consequence is history!

Obviously it’s in the interest of broker politicians to keep that lucrative practice alive and not encourage and if necessary prevent peoples’ empowerment through popular participation. Consequently Tamil political culture is bereft of the much-needed tradition of democratic mobilisation and that made the average Tamil feel powerless and prone to falling at the feet of supposed messiahs.

The LTTE interregnum is an exception. Its armed power was a magnet to the Tamils rendered powerless and humiliated by broker politics. They saw opportunities in armed mobilisation to establish parity of power with Colombo and joined the Organisation in droves. In a historic departure the LTTE’s popular mobilisation empowered Tamils to confidently grasp the levers of emancipation themselves and strive for a new dawn.

The Sinhalese elite, threatened by Tamil empowerment, reacted in predictable ways. A majority bluntly accused Tamils of ‘dividing’ the country. A minority, who fancied themselves to be intellectuals, stridently slandered the LTTE as ‘undemocratic’, ‘fascist’, even ‘pol pot-like’ that is robbing Tamils of their rights (about which they have little to say in the ongoing post-LTTE war against Tamils)!

The LTTE-led empowerment of Tamils and the 6th Amendment (6A), which criminalised thought, word and deed aimed at promoting and building an independent Tamil State, together made the parliamentary politics of ‘brokers’ paying lip service to the Vaddukkoddai Resolution virtually redundant. They moved fast. They jettisoned the Resolution, took oath under 6A and contested national and local elections to claw back lost political space.

Their parliamentary politics dovetailed with the Sinhalese elite’s evolving anti-Tamil counter-insurgency. In fact TULF MPs joined Chandrika Kumaratunge’s Peoples Alliance (PA) minority government and propped it up through the 1995-96 military campaigns, which culminated in the occupation of most of the Jaffna peninsula and expulsion of the LTTE.

Had the TULF withdrawn support, the PA minority regime would have collapsed and its occupation of Jaffna would not have come to pass. The TULF politicians – most of them are in the TNA – directly share responsibility for the violence Tamils suffered in 1995/96/97 and the horrendous Chemmani Mass Graves.

The TULF added insult to injury. The broker politicians insisted their abject collaboration must also be acknowledged during the armed forces victory celebrations in Jaffna in 1995 December. The party, through Neelan Tiruchelvam, dredged up a supposed Tamil pennant – a Nandi Flag – and had it raised to signal Tamils [read: TULF] too rejoiced the ‘victory’ over the LTTE!!

On the political front, the TULF and, later, TNA politicians were and still are an ineffective parliamentary minority that has not the remotest chance to stymie or deflect the Sinhalese nationalist juggernaut within parliament.

The best they may do is make inconsequential speeches to the open derision of those blatantly chauvinist Sinhalese MPs. But they repeatedly conjured up the mirage of a constitutional path to Tamils’ emancipation and contested elections to reinforce the delusion, which they insidiously manipulated to undermine Tamils’ identification with LTTE-led empowerment; they poured their share of counter-insurgency poison into the Organisation’s popular base in the north and east. All this and more merely to cling to their electoral seats.

The author read for the PhD degree at the University of Cambridge. He was Visiting Research Scholar at the Jawaharlal Nehru University School of International Studies and is an international award-winning filmmaker.


The Meanings of Wigneswaran

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