Land and the National Question in Sri Lanka

by N. Shanmugaratnam,, Colombo, July 13, 2012

Image courtesy Sainthan Sivanesan on 500px

I am thankful to the Norwegian Tamil Study Forum for inviting me to address this Workshop and am looking forward to listening to the main speakers.

In this brief intervention I wish to make some general comments and raise a few issues, which I believe are pertinent to the purpose of the workshop. I shall offer some background to the concept note before commenting on the current situation. I shall also put forward some ideas for discussion.

As stated in the concept note, land remains a major bone of contention in the resolution of the national question (NQ) as it is not only a vital means of livelihood for the vast majority of the people but also the contested material base with intangible symbolic value for territoriality and identity construction. The protracted war has generated new grievances and conflicts related to land and coastal zone resources in the North and East (NE), which have added to the complexity of the NQ through feedback effects. Indeed, consequences have entered the causal chain of the conflict. And today, while the NQ remains unresolved, certain trends in post-war development in the NE have raised concerns about land grabbing and enclosures, and their consequences for people’s livelihoods and well-being.

That the land question (LQ), particularly in the North and East of the country, is so intimately linked to the NQ is well known. That this link has a lot to do with state-aided land settlements and related development and cultural projects which have irreversibly altered the ethno-demographic landscape in the predominantly Tamil speaking NE of the country is also well known.

However, there are diverse and competing narratives of the history and the political economy, or perhaps more appropriately the political geography, of this process. It is not my intention to discuss the different narratives in the short time I have, although they are relevant to a broader understanding of the perpetual impasse in which Sri Lanka finds itself on the NQ.

I shall, instead, offer a perspective on the relationship between the LQ and the NQ, as a modest contribution to the dialogue we expect to have in this forum today. Of course, I am aware that this perspective would be seen as one of the contested narratives.

It is important to remind ourselves at the outset that the state is the biggest landowner in the country, and irrespective of the devolutionary provisions of the 13th Amendment to the constitution, the centre continues to retain absolute control over state land.

The story of how land in the NE became intertwined with the NQ has to do with the story of post-colonial state building and the Tamil people’s resistance to it in Sri Lanka. In political terms, it is about a prolonged unequal contest between two ethno-nationalisms. In 1948, when Britain granted us independence, we inherited a colonial state. We may say that there was a ‘Lankan state’ but the more important point, in my view, is there was no Lankan nation, which actually had to be imagined and created out of a multi-ethnic, multi-religious social formation. Tragically, that did not happen and what happened was a process of refashioning the colonial state as a Sinhala Buddhist state which went on along with a reconstruction of a collective Sinhala Buddhist identity –i.e. the construction of Sinhala nationhood.  1956 is generally regarded as the moment that marked the rise of ethno-politics and the resurgence of Sinhala ethno-nationalism in post-independence Sri Lanka. The other side of this phenomenon was the decline of both class politics and multi-ethnic political formations.

State-aided land colonization in the East and the North, which began in the 1930s, became a part of this project of building a state with a dominant mono-ethnic character in a multi-ethnic society.

Indeed, what has been going on in Sri Lanka was the making of an ethnocratic state by manipulating, modifying and transforming the governance structures of a rather flawed liberal democratic system left behind by the British.

State-aided irrigation and land settlements in the NE were seen as a way to solve the problems of landlessness in the South. It would seem reasonable to distribute state land to landless peasants anywhere in the country. However, these settlement projects were ideologically inspired and legally sanctioned ethno-spatial structures meant to alter the ethno-demographics of particular regions.  Land settlements and declaration of particular areas as sacred areas were means of extending ethnocratic territorialisation, and the whole programme was openly justified as a reclamation of the sites of ancient hydraulic civilization of the Sinhalese, which were lost due to invasions from southern India. The programme has been described as the ‘Myth of Reconquest’ by some scholars who have studied dry zone land settlement policies and the state in Sri Lanka. The ‘Reconquest’ entailed a top-down ideological infusion of emotive values and beliefs among the settlers about a glorious past. Territory is a dynamic factor indeed. It changes in character with the creation of new spatial realities. The state was busy renaming places and assigning symbols to them while re-demarcating existing administrative units and creating new ones, often to the resentment of Tamils and Muslims in the NE. State-aided settlements reinforced ethno-politics in the NE with lasting harmful effects on inter-communal relations.

This ethnocratic territorialisation was the context in which the claim to a Tamil homeland by Tamil ethno-nationalists came to be strongly articulated. On the other hand, land colonisation has been the most effective instrument in the hands of the state to counter the Tamil homeland demand by breaking the identity-territory nexus on which it rested. Both nationalisms had their own historical and emotionally charged narratives to justify their territorial stakes. Both had ideological axes to grind when it came to interpreting the history and archaeology of the NE. Unfortunately, the real issues concerning state aided land colonisation in modern times were submerged and lost in an endless controversy over who (i.e. which ethnic group) were the original inhabitants and rulers of the NE in ancient times. This controversy dragged the entire NQ onto an unhealthy terrain of discourses on ‘history’ thereby obscuring the fundamental challenge of building a country in which diverse collective identities could co-exist with mutual respect within a larger unifying democratic Lanka. The reality on the ground reflected the structurally asymmetric character of the conflict.

In the 1970s, some Tamil organisations initiated their own projects in ‘counter-settlements’ in some parts of the NE with upcountry Tamils who were displaced due to ethnic violence. They used state lands taken on long-term lease by Tamil individuals and organisations for this purpose. In the eyes of high level Sinhala bureaucrats, military officials and politicians this was a ‘Tamil Eelamist invasion’. There was suspicion at high levels of the state that Tamil public servants were involved in the establishment of these settlements. However, there were many older Tamil settlements in these areas as well.

In the 1980s, with the advent of the war, land colonisation – especially under the Accelerated Mahaweli Development Project (AMDP) – also became militarised and, in some instances, Tamils living and farming on state-land were evicted by the state with the assistance of the military to create Sinhala settlements with the intent of further breaking the already broken geographic contiguity of the region claimed as ‘the Tamil homeland’ by Tamil nationalists. The settlements of displaced upcountry Tamils created by Tamil organisations were among the first victims of this onslaught. The government revoked the long-term lease agreements granted to Tamil lessees.

In 1984, the LTTE reacted to the establishment of Sinhala settlements under the AMDP by massacring many settlers. The government responded to this by arming Sinhala settlers. What about the Muslim people in the NE who were also affected by the ongoing ethnocratic territorialisation and the armed conflict? For instance, in the Eastern Province, Muslims account for about 40 per cent of the population but do not have access to even 15 per cent of the land. Initially, there was some unity between Tamil and Muslim communities. However, with time, Tamil nationalism turned progressively narrow and failed to develop a common platform. The LTTE took this trend to the extreme when it expelled the Muslims from their homeland in the North in October 1990, which happened barely two months after its massacre of Muslim worshippers in a mosque in Kattankudy in the East.

The protracted war has impacted on the ethno-demographics of the NE and the rest of the country in many ways. Mass displacements were not always the unintended consequences of military clashes but were also deliberately caused by the state’s armed forces and the LTTE. Many people lost their land deeds and permits. There were waves of outward migration of civilians, mostly Tamils from the NE. The government created a large number of High Security Zones (HSZs) in the NE. Most of them continue to this day. I shall not go into details on these matters and the plethora of land disputes in post-war NE as I expect these issues to be addressed more competently by some of the other speakers.

I wish briefly to state some of my observations on the post-war realities and raise some points with a view to promote an open discussion.

 Post-war situation

We need to take into account the changed ethno-demographics and the spatial realities of power relations and governance in the NE. The break-up of the identity-territory nexus, large-scale emigration of Tamils and the changed ethnic composition of the region, the demerger, HSZs and continuing militarisation, and a weak civil administration subservient to the military are among the stark realities. The government’s new declarations of special economic zones and sacred areas have added to the already existing grievances among people over loss of land rights. These declarations are perceived by the affected groups as ‘dispossession by decree’. State security continues to take precedence over human security.

There is progress in resettlement, but thousands of families remain to be resettled. A socially, ethnically and spatially uneven type of economic revival/development is taking place amid a whole range of conflicts and uncertainties related to land and fishing rights, and inter-communal relations in the NE. There is evidence of military and police involvement in colonisation activities in the East, which remains a hotspot of inter-communal tensions over land. There is a lack of fair and effective mechanisms to settle land disputes and to facilitate restitution. In the North, there is agitation against military occupation of private properties and land grabbing and dispossession in the name of security and development.

The international migration of Tamils created a Tamil diaspora with strong links to relatives and Tamil communities back home – i.e. the phenomenon of transnationalisation. The Tamil diaspora is not a monolithic entity. Nevertheless, it is a key political actor on Lankan Tamil affairs. The remittance economy has its positive and negative sides, a subject which I hope will be taken up for discussion at some point in this workshop.

The post-war Lankan state is more militarised, more authoritarian and more centralised than before. So, it’s not just a unitary state but an ethnocratic unitary state with other inter-linked repressive characteristics as well. Can there be a genuine political solution without a democratic restructuring of the state?

The government does not seem interested in a political solution. The hardliners in the government and outside believe that the main aim of the ethno-majoritarian project has finally been achieved and any concession in the form of devolution to the NE is tantamount to surrendering the gains of the military victory and paving the way for the rise of secessionism again. The hardliners are dead against power sharing. They would rather see more state-aided land colonisation in the NE. Their sense of justice reminds one of the justice in the world of fish – where it is natural for big fish to swallow the small. In his book, The idea of Justice, Amartya Sen recalls an ancient Indian text on justice which addresses this very issue. This ancient Sanskrit text discusses Matsya Niyaya which means ‘justice in the world of fish’. The point made in the text is that while it may be natural in the world of fish for big fish to swallow the small, it is totally unacceptable in the world of humans.

Letting diverse ethnic and cultural identities exist, interact and blossom is the fundamental premise for imagining and developing a transcendent overarching unity and identity. This I believe should be the basis to challenge the hardliners. Let me hasten to add that intolerance to diversity is not a monopoly of the Sinhala nationalists. In the past, militant Tamil nationalists have also displayed a similar trait.

Regarding a political solution to the NQ, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) as the main elected representative of the NE Tamils has shown its willingness to find a negotiated solution within an undivided Lanka. But the government has shown no sign of reciprocity at all. In its exasperation, the TNA has turned to the International Community. There are also signs of dissonance within the TNA.

We have had three decades of war and a quarter century of non-implementation of the 13th Amendment to the constitution in the NE. Indeed much has happened in violation of this constitutional provision. Even the government’s own Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) has drawn attention to land issues and recommended that the ‘land policy of the government should not be an instrument to effect unnatural changes in the demographic pattern of a given province.’ It refers to the 13th Amendment and recommends maximum possible devolution, while Dr Jayampathy Wickremaratne, a constitutional expert and former advisor to the government, has said that the 13th Amendment is ‘irredeemable’, and what he says about the main party in the ruling coalition – i.e. the SLFP, is worth quoting: ‘I cannot actually see that the current leadership of the SLFP is genuinely committed to finding a solution based on the fundamentals of power sharing.’ (Interview to JDS Lanka, 17 June 2012).

So internally, we are in a continuing impasse which appears harder than ever to overcome. However, internationally, the situation appears a bit more favourable than before for a political solution. There are mild external pressures on the government for accountability and to find a political solution through negotiation with the TNA. Global and geopolitical factors are important indeed. None the less, I want to focus on the domestic scene and reflect on the need to rethink and reframe the NQ.

Need to rethink & reframe the NQ

The Tamil diaspora is continuing to play a role. However, I believe the dominant actors in the diaspora need to rethink their political stand and strategy in the light of the political realities back home. One key question is how to strengthen the negotiating position of the party chosen as their representative by the majority of the Tamil people in the NE. It is also important to understand that the NQ is bigger than the question of the rights of the Tamil and Muslim peoples in the NE. It encompasses the rights of the upcountry Tamils, and Tamils and Muslims living in the South. It is important to reach out to all these groups which have their grievances as Tamil speaking communities. It is equally important to connect directly to the Sinhalese people and make them aware of the divisive and iniquitous consequences and the undemocratic character of ethno-majoritarianism and of the common cause all peoples of Lanka have in the struggle for democracy and human well-being.

My reading of the realities back home tells me that there is an urgent need to rethink and explore how the NQ can be reframed with a view to mobilise a broader democratic alliance in the country to struggle for a political solution, durable peace and human freedoms. The point I want to make is that the NQ has not been standing still all these years. It has been changing under the impact of successive governments’ policies and programmes, certain actions of the LTTE and other militant movements, and more significantly under the impact of the protracted war. I have already talked about the changes in ethno-demographics and spatial realities in the NE. Most of these changes may not be reversible and the need of the hour is to prevent further expansion of ethnically motivated state-aided colonisation. This along with a call for demilitarisation must be articulated as a democratic demand and linked to the democratic demands of the other groups mentioned before.

Permit me to return to a point I made a moment ago. Letting diverse ethnic and cultural identities exist, interact and blossom is the fundamental premise for imagining and developing a transcendent overarching unity and identity. I suggest this can be a basis for a dialogue across ethnic and religious divides towards building a principled and broader democratic alliance in Lanka.

The problem with the state is not only its ethnocratic character. Its authoritarianism and militarism, the politicisation of the judiciary and the bureaucracy, and the government’s economic policy that heaps hardships on the working people while serving the interests of corporate capital which is engaged in, among other things, land grabbing in different parts of the country, are all matters of deep concern for wider sections of the Lankan society across ethnic and other divides. Therein lies the potential for a broader political alliance which I believe deserves our serious attention. The struggle for a political solution to the NQ cannot move ahead in isolation from the other struggles for democratic rights and without the support and solidarity of the progressive forces. Admittedly, building and sustaining a broad political alliance is a major challenge. This needs to be addressed urgently in broad forums in the country and outside. It is not my intention to offer a political manifesto. My appeal is for a critical, including a self-critical, reflection in order to better understand the current realities and move forward politically. It is in this spirit I say that we need to rethink and reframe the NQ.

I look forward to a fruitful discussion.  Thank you.


N. Shanmugaratnam is Professor Emeritus, Development Studies, Department of International Environment & Development Studies, Norwegian University of Life Sciences (UMB). The above were opening remarks made at the workshop on ‘Land Policy and Practices and the Political Process in Post-war Sri Lanka’, University of Oslo, 22 June 2012


Comments are disabled on this page.