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.
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.
By S Sathananthan – Colombo Telegraph, July 31, 2013
The Tamil National Alliance has boomed Justice C.V. Wigneswaran as its chief ministerial candidate. There is no gainsaying his impressive legal career and that he is an upright individual akin to the metaphorical Palmyrah tree. The Alliance is promoting him as an able interlocutor who may, as northern Chief Minister (CM), command respect in Colombo, New Delhi, London and Washington. He is expected to tackle onerous tasks, including re-building bridges between Tamils and Muslims and striving for a ‘Marshal Plan, Reparations and an Economic Programme’ for the Northern Province.
Heady stuff by any measure if sullied by the deafening silence on pursuing accountability for crimes against humanity committed in the build up to Mullivaaikkal and post-Mullivaaikkal.
The all-important political track record, however, is conspicuously lacking. Justice Wigneswaran’s formative experience in statecraft is as a government servant schooled in the benign tradition of dissenting, politely of course, within State-sanctioned parameters. He is a political novice with no appreciable history of defending Tamils’ national rights either with the pen or on the streets. In his speech accepting the post of Supreme Court Judge (2001), Justice Wigneswaran had comforted Sinhalese nationalists Tamils don’t threaten their power: ‘The vast majority of the denizens [sic] of the north and east seek the restoration of their rights and not devolution of power’; that, while the LTTE was simultaneously leading the armed resistance. Evidently he naively believes rights could be won and defended without power, unaware of the time-tested truth: those without power cannot defend freedom.
Why, then, has TNA leader R Sampanthan, sporting more than four decades of political experience, nominated Wigneswaran for CM and trotted out his laudable non-political attributes as ludicrous strengths essential to head the Northern Provincial Council (NPC)?
Sampanthan’s monstrously incompetent leadership of the Alliance is under intense criticism in Tamil society and especially among the more radical, younger Tamil politicians grouped within the dissenting Tamil National Peoples’ Front (TNPF), who demand a larger devolution of power not provided for in the decentralisation under the 13th Amendment to the Constitution (13A). They may well marginalise the Alliance in the forthcoming NPC elections since the TNA, after extended sabre rattling against the Amendment, is edging towards caving in to Sinhalese nationalists. But the Alliance risks political suicide by jettisoning devolution, to which they long paid lip service (satyagrahas, etc), especially when Tamil areas are under the jack-boot and Palestine-style changes to ‘facts on the ground’ are being rammed through.
What the TNA sorely needed is a new face that does not carry any nationalist baggage and could bury the Tamil struggle by inveigling Tamils’ consent to 13A, to be ruled sans accountability or justice. Sampanthan has also to prevent real power slipping from his grip and so prefers a CM who has no political base among Tamils and, therefore, cannot challenge Sampanthan for TNA’s leadership, which the old war horse Mavai Senathirajah could, and probably will, if appointed CM. So Sampanthan dredged up the politically inept Wigneswaran who is a safer bet for him.
If Wigneswaran turns up trumps, the TNA hopes to take full credit and pick over the bones of Tamil nationalism. If the strategy comes down in flames, as it most likely would, Sampanthan will swiftly distance himself and feed Wigneswaran to the Lions.
Whether or not Wigneswaran would mature into an effective power broker, capable of mass mobilisation to defend national rights, will become evident if elections are held to the NPC and if he takes over as CM. But the omen is not propitious: he has already signalled his subservience to Colombo and New Delhi by unleashing a broadside against Tamil Nadu and its people.
What we find fascinating, and is the focus of this writing, is the euphoria among large sections of Sinhalese nationalists – hardliners and triumphalists – over Wigneswaran’s candidature couched in the code “reconciliation”. [Translation: defeated Tamils must knuckle under victorious Sinhalese domination.]
A triumphalist gushed over the chief ministerial candidate in the north and confidently anticipated Wigneswaran ‘will cement the Tamil party’s credibility as being truly invested in the cause of national reconciliation.’ [Translation: Wigneswaran would help TNA jettison Tamil nationalism]. Another triumphalistsuavely brushed aside international investigations into crimes against humanity and asked rhetorically: ‘What then?…will it…affect the policies of the government of Sri Lanka–this one or a future one?…a newly energized Sinhala community’, s/he gently warned, ‘will become more unforgiving and determined to continue their policies.’ A remarkable confirmation indeed of the abysmal moral decline in the south. What justice, if any, can this lot dispense to anyone? The staggering contempt for law and due process is nothing new; for more six decades Sinhalese politicians from K.M.P.Rajaratne through J.R.Jayawardene and onwards had entrenched blatant impunity by rejecting legal remedies Tamils demanded for violence suffered during pogroms. Not a single Sinhalese has been convicted in any court of law during those bloody decades for the unbridled violence against Tamils while thousands of Tamils are incarcerated for supposed ‘terrorist’ offences.
A hardliner salivated at ‘Sampanthan’s master-stroke’ and bubbled: Wigneswaran ‘is, in sum, the TNA’s Lakshman Kadirgamar.’ But not long ago (2008) he bayed for Tamil blood brandishing the ‘crucible of the sword’, a phrase borrowed from arch imperialist Barak Obama whose armies have been pillaging their way through Iraq and Afghanistan and whose mercenaries are laying waste Libya and Syria. On the eve of LTTE’s defeat, he had spelt out his triumphalist delusion: ‘Tamils must sell something Sinhalese will be willing to buy at affordable price’; in other words he peremptorily demanded the consent of Tamils to Sinhalese rule.
What if the Tamil people don’t ‘sell’? As it turned out Tamils haven’t, post-LTTE.
So the hardliner played the goni billa card, a high water mark in his dialectics. The ‘broadest global consensus’, he threatened, is for 13A not federalism. In other words, Tamils have no one to turn to and must submit. But no ‘consensus’ is cast in stone for all time. Tamils may, of course, ‘sell’ but at their price.
Many decades ago S.J.V. Chelvanayagam, without urinating on theory’s fence posts (Gramsci, Marx, etc), had wisely cautioned S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike that Sinhalese can rule Tamils only with the consent freely given by Tamils and that consent requires the rights of Tamils be honoured as a non-negotiable pre-condition. Reportedly, Bandaranaike let out his well-known cackle!
Those Sinhalese nationalists who believe today they have a solid grip on enlightened self-interest have two strings to their bow. The first one is to urge elections to the NPC to install TNA’s invertebrates and exclude TNPF radicals. This is standard in counter-insurgency (COIN): military operations to crush nationalist resistance in the short term followed by the long term political accommodation of ‘moderates’ [Translation: collaborators] through ‘managed’ elections to ‘representative’ institutions. We have seen this neo-colonial process unfolding before our eyes in Iraq and Afghanistan. The US cannot consolidate its military successes and is facing defeat, argues Yury Fedorov, primarily because the political processes have unravelled. That is, the Anglo-American forces are incapable of stabilising the political rule by their puppets in Bagdad and Kabul.
The Anglo-American defeat is not surprising. COIN specialists Frank Kitson and William R Polk argued the overwhelmingly large part of the battle is political, not military. In fact Polk attributes at least 80% to the political. It is for this reason the Co-Chairs and New Delhi have repeatedly urged ‘elections’ in the north to reinforce the military gains of anti-Tamil counter-insurgency.
The Sinhalese UPFA regime is nowhere near achieving the 80% political component in the north and east. Failure or incapacity to succeed on the political front – losing ‘hearts and minds’, to borrow a hackneyed phrase – threatens to undo military successes. The Sinhalese nationalists are betting on the TNA and Wigneswaran to deliver the much sought after political Mullivaaikkal.
Given the backdrop of total war and the current virtual military rule over the north and east, elections to the NPC and earlier to the Eastern Provincial Council (EPC) are political components of continuing counter-insurgency. The Sinhalese nationalists are pushing for NPC elections to move the process forward to install the pliant TNA, now that the LTTE is out of the way. They obviously anticipate the Sri Lankan army will be more successful in stabilising the Alliance rule than were the Anglo-American forces in legitimising their puppets in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Sinhalese nationalists’ second string is Wigneswaran, in whom they see the two-in-one potential to be both a Tamil quisling in Colombo – hence the comparison with Kadirgamar – and Colombo’s satrap in Jaffna to outdo Alfred Duraiappa. They are relying on the TNA and Wigneswaran as CM together to extract the consent of the Tamils for 13A – a game of smoke-and-mirrors – and usher in a political Mullivaaikkal. The Sinhalese strategy hinges on Wigneswaran’s effectiveness, which in turn utterly depends on the NPC’s legitimacy in the eyes of the Tamils people.
Sampanthan is alive to the awful political damage Sinhalese nationalists’ undisguised backing for Wigneswaran is causing the TNA and will vitiate the NPC and its CM’s prospects. So, to conjure southern opposition, he reportedly spread the laughable canard in the north that President Rajapakse is ‘saddened’ by the decision to put Wigneswaran up for CM.
The obscurantist Sinhalese Nationalist Collective, wielding the PSC cleaver to eviscerate the PCs, is a spanner in the works; it’s capable of torpedoing the COIN strategy to foist ‘namby pamby’ (V Navaratnam’s words) effeminate Tamil politicians on the NPC. It will also erode the credibility of the Council and have a knock-on effect on the EPC.
The vociferous defence of 13A and PC elections by numerous Sinhalese nationalists ought be understood in this context. They are not protecting devolution or democracy, though they exploit the vicious criticisms from the Nationalist Collective and its ilk to preen themselves as progressives. That is pure illusion. Rather, they oppose the obscurantists in order that the regime’s COIN could successfully move onto the political realm of indirect rule over Tamils, since the current direct military rule is counter-productive and cannot be sustained in the long term.
Lastly, a word to my friends who wish to know: if not 13A, what else?
13A decentralised the unitary State’s functions (however duplicitously) to all provinces. For that reason, it’s irrelevant to the additional issue of Tamils’ national rights. 13A is an illusory path from post-war to post conflict – the mantra mouthed by spineless sycophants of the regime. ‘We have won a war’ cheered a policy alternatives apologist speaking on behalf of Sinhalese nationalists (enthusiastic applause); ‘but we are still stuck in a post-war situation. We need to move to a post-conflict situation.’
But are Tamils in a post-war situation? The current military rule over Tamils in the north and east by an army speaking a different tongue is an act of war. The on going mass, systematic rape of Tamil women, exhaustively documented by Human Rights Watch, are acts of war. Arbitrary expropriation of Tamils’ lands and deliberate denial of their livelihoods are acts of war. For Tamils, the hydra-headed war continues in these and other myriad manifestations. What, then, is the relevance of 13A?
For those who query what else if not 13A, the utterly desperate need today is to campaign and mobilise to halt the on going war against Tamils. But 13A has become TNA’s and, will very soon, Wigneswaran’s proverbial beggar’s wound. The supine Alliance politicians, incapable of mobilising to halt the on going war, are instead busying themselves over 13A. Worse still, to contest NPC and EPC elections while the war against Tamils is raging on many fronts is a terrible betrayal, though we appreciate the northern and eastern Councils are important employment exchanges for TNA politicians.
Perhaps TNA claims it must first capture the NPC and then confront the regime. But can its politicians escape the shackles of the decades-old, knee-jerk habit of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds?
* The author read for the Ph D 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.