The National Question

by NPC Chief Minister C.V.Wigneswaran, Bernard Soysa Centenary Memorial Oration, Tamil Sangam Hall, Colombo, date unclear, published 'Global Tamil News,' March 31, 2014

Pictures courtesy ‘Colombo Telegraph,’ March 31, 2014

at Tamil Sangam Hall, 57th Lane, Colombo – 06 at 5 p.m.

Bernard Soysa Centenary Memorial Oration
Gururbrahma ..

Mr. Chairman, distinguished Guests, my dear Brothers & Sisters.
It is indeed ironic that we are remembering a stalwart among our Majority Community Parliamentarians of yesteryears at this citadel of Tamil Letters and Literature on his hundredth birthday. In fact we live at a time when a mere 57th Lane cannot be renamed as Tamil Sangam Lane in Colombo because the word ‘Tamil’ appears to be anathema to some of our governing elites. I am wondering whether calling this Lane as Thamil Sangam Mawatha might be acceptable to those who oppose the renaming. There could be a fusion of Thamil Sangam with Sinhala Mawatha!

Wigneswaran CV 2014The very ground on which this Tamil Sangam Hall is constructed was the venue of our pre-teenage cricketing combats in the late 1940s. Each of us then would consider ourselves the local incarnations of the three Ws who played for West Indies then – Frank Worrel, Clyde Walcott and Everton Weekes apart from the bowling duo Ramaddin & Valentine! Almost all who lived here at 57th lane at that time -both Muslims and Tamils understood the Tamil Language. I believe even today majority of the residents down this very short lane are Tamil speaking. I wonder why there is so much opposition to this road being renamed carrying the Tamil Sangam name.

Such parochial considerations were anathema to Brother Bernard. I prefer to call him Brother Bernard rather than Comrade Bernard since comradeship with those of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party got excised with the passing of the 1972 constitution which took away the plural nature of the citizenry of this country replacing it with a mono lingual, mono religious and mono cultural ambience in Sri Lanka.

Speaking of Brother Bernard one is reminded of the spirit of pre-1972 Sama Samajism, which he so thoroughly effused in his life and conduct.  To   me   pre-1972 Sama Samajism taught us two important lessons. The lesson of empathizing and the lesson of united effort. It is a fact of our recent history among the leftists of this country that learned men and women who could have shone so eminently in their respective fields and lived their lives in the comfortable company of the elite, preferred to identify themselves with the common man, empathising with their feelings, needs and wants. They would sit, talk and eat together with the common man. It was they who taught our common masses that power lies in their united efforts. It was they who remained by the side of the unlettered and the rudderless people goading them to action, which ultimately registered their trade union rights in no uncertain terms. Our working class today are beholden to the pioneering efforts of the Sama Samajists and the Communists. Their parties have no doubt lost the charisma they enjoyed in the past, but their spirit is pervasive among our people specially the working class despite the opportunistic course followed by the Party after 1970.

Bernard was a gentleman to his fingertips. A politician others could emulate without hesitation. His reputation as an honest politician was illustrated by his being returned for the Colombo South electorate even though many voters disagreed with his socialist politics. Another quality about Brother Bernard was that he never harboured  grudges against anyone. He was never the vindictive type. It stands to Brother Bernard’s credit that he was Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament from 1964 to 1977 a period of 13 years during which U.N.P held sway from 1965 to 1970. Even his detractors respected his honesty and integrity. Dr.NeelanThiruchelvam said of Brother Bernard as follows. “He refined the principles of financial accountability and made an enormous contribution to improving the quality and accuracy of our public accounts”.

Soysa Bernard

Bernard Soysa

I am indeed privileged to be called upon to speak in his memory. The subject that Brother Tissa gave me, I hope he does not mind my calling him so, because I no more refer to my dear brothers as comrades, is the National Question. Generally the audience would think that National Question means the question that perturbs the Nation. But I do not look at it that way.  To me it is a question that deals with the Nations in Sri Lanka- the question that has arisen on account of the non-recognition of Nations in Sri Lanka.
Let me explain.

While the terms ‘country’, ‘state’ and ‘nation’ are often used interchangeably there is some sort of consensus on the different implications of each of these words, especially the words ‘state’ and ‘nation’. A “State” with a capital ‘S’ may mean a self governing political entity recognized by the international community as a distinct state or a division of a federal entity. In the first sense it can be used interchangeably with ‘Country’.  But a ‘Nation’ is a tightly knit group of people who share a common culture and perceive themselves as such. A ‘Nation State’ is a Nation, which is coterminous with the borders of a State. Nations are groups of people having relatively greater cultural homogeneity, and perceive themselves to be distinctive.  They are generally larger than a single tribe or community, and share a common language, institutions or religion or religions, and historical experiences. There are some States that have two Nations such as Canada and Belgium. There could be Nations without States.  Prime examples of these are the Kurds in Iraq. South Ossetians in Georgia are considered by a large majority of the countries in the world to be members of a nation, though Russia and a few other countries have recognized them as belonging to a Nation State.

The Tamil speaking people of the North and East of Sri Lanka are a Nation without a State. They have a number of characteristics which qualify them to such a description – a long history in Sri Lanka which goes to pre-Buddhistic times, a language, probably the oldest living language, which binds them all and distinct cultural practices.  The areas of residence of this group of people were delineated even from the time of the Dutch and the British, though certain tinkering was done after independence to change the demographic base of these areas of residence. And the tinkering continues up to date.

There was a time when the Hindus of yore centuries ago became votaries of Gautama the Buddha. But Hinduism had embraced Jainism and Buddhism as part of it and therefore Buddhism is not regarded as foreign to the Hindus. In fact, the five great epics in ancient Tamil literature have Buddhist and Jain theme.  The fact that many Tamils practiced Buddhism for two or three centuries accounts for the Buddhist remains in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.  I refer to this due to wrong perceptions of  history being circulated with ulterior motives in recent times.

The Tamil Speaking Peoples of Sri Lanka constitute a Nation from an objective standpoint and consider themselves to constitute a Nation. They are conscious of the Tamil Speaking Muslim People and recognise and celebrate their aspirations and identity as well.
It was on the 5th of June 1956 that Dr.Colvin R. de Silva said in the Parliament of Ceylon as follows- ‘Parity, Mr.Speaker, we believe is the road to the freedom of our Nation and the unity of its components. Otherwise two torn bleeding states may yet arise of one little State which has compelled a large section of itself to treason, ready for the imperialists to mop up that which imperialism only recently disgorged’.

Dr. de Silva had used the word ‘Nation’ in a larger sense as the Ceylonese Nation, which was co-terminous with the word ‘State’ with a capital ‘S’ and its components as states with simple ‘s’. But his idea remains valid until today. Those who allege that imperialism coming to the aid of those affected by the War should marvel at Silva’s foresight and sense of history, for it would appear that such intervention has arisen due to the abject failure on the part of the State to give parity to the nations.

The National Question has arisen on account of our inability to understand the reality of the existence of two nations, or two states as Dr. de Silva said, in this fair Island of ours. Some say it is not that there is inability in understanding on the part of powers that be, but a spirit of aggrandizement has taken control of them in dealing with the minorities in this Country. Some attribute it to the fear of India and Tamil Nadu just a few nautical miles away.

When I was very young we were all British Citizens.  That was before Independence. Under the British one felt equal to whom so ever he or she met in this Island of ours. Until 1956 it was so. In fact I started studying the Sinhala Language in the year 1955under Mr.Ellawela who was a teacher at Royal who later became the Vice Chancellor of a University.  But in 1956 the Sinhala Only Act had a tremendous negative effect on me. I no more felt the same. I became the aggrieved, a victim of political manoeuvering. In fact I refused to study Sinhala thereafter – a decision I regret now for my Sinhala is imperfect. If I was amply educated in Sinhala I could have gone to every nook and corner of this Island and explained the plight of the Tamils to my Sinhala brethren. I could have laid bare the conspiracy hatched by Politicians to keep the Sinhalese away from the Tamils and to create a rift, which never existed for almost 2000 years. Our history had been a history of kings fighting against each other not Tamils fighting against Sinhalese. Let us not forget that Dutugemunu having been highly impressed by the old King Elara, who at 77 years not wanting to get his subjects involved in a war, fought so valiantly against him, the young man of 28 years that he was,  for three days and losing the battle only due to the difference in the height and weight of their respective Elephants Kandula and Parvatham, decided to build a Monument in his remembrance called the Elala Sohana which when built was venerated for centuries  even until  as recently as in the late 1940s when I resided quite close to it in Anuradhapura.

Be that as it may, if only the stand taken by the L.S.S.P in 1956 to promote parity of status to both Sinhala and Tamil Languages was appreciated and applied the National Question engendering violence would never have seen the light of day. The short sighted but deliberate act of the so-called Sinhala Nationalists contributed to the antipathy between the Sinhala Speaking Nation and the Tamil Speaking Nation which has now found collaborators for both Nations abroad.

At the time when S.W.R.D.Bandaranayake, losing sight of the fact that Northern and Eastern Provinces were always for centuries Tamil speaking, decided to make Sinhala the sole State language he was not only going against the caution laid before him by the L.S.S.P but even decided to refuse taking advise from a leader like Lee Kwan Yew who at that time said that S.W.R.D was making a colossal mistake. Lee Kwan decided to make all four languages, English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil as State languages in Singapore and we see the correctness of his decision as opposed to that of S.W.R.D.

You might think I have oversimplified the National Question to one of languages. The point is that the enthronement of a single language was the most significant attempt to deny the existence of the Tamil Speaking Nation.  Please observe that all later developments were either a reaction to the installing of one language over the whole of Ceylon when there was clear cut areas of usage of two different languages which were spoken by two Nations or a reaction to the continued enactment of similar laws with regard to State Colonisation, Standardisation, change of demography, and more recently militarization of the North and East.  All these actions stem from the failure or refusal to recognise the existence of two nations. Violence emerged as a response to the persistent and pernicious refusal to recognise the existence of distinct nations.  However, the violence took the form of espousing the formation of distinct States.  This led to a violent and brutal war that ravaged this country and particularly and overwhelmingly, the Tamils.

The reason I stress on the reason for the violence is because we cannot answer the National Question, without knowing what spawned it.  It has to be understood that the National Question is founded in the inability or unwillingness to recognise the plural nature of Sri Lanka’s peoples.  The idea of separation was only a reaction to the attempts to destroy the Tamil Speaking Nation. The Tamil Speaking Peoples remain committed to the idea of a single and united State.  As a judge I have seen this phenomenon play out in private disputes.  The refusal to acknowledge co-ownership of land often leads to partition actions, sometimes to the detriment of both parties, who are left with economically unviable plots of land at the end of the partition action.

How then should we answer the National Question?  The short answer is by the simple recognition of the existence of distinct nations.  In other words by the celebration of diversity or the entrenchment of pluralism. All this requires is political will.

Unfortunately, history has shown that every time there has been some attempt at recognition of the distinct nations in Sri Lanka, subversive forces take control.  One is reminded of a comment made in the context of another international conflict – we never seem to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity! Most recently, at the end of the War, the President appeared to be keen on rectifying this problem and his commitment to do so was found to be reasonable by the International Community. In fact the joint communiqué issued by the Secretary–General of the United Nations Mr. Bang  ki Moon and our President on 26th of May 2009 inter alia had these to say –

The President and UNSG agreed that addressing the aspirations and grievances of all communities and working towards a lasting political solution was fundamental to ensuring long term socio economic development;

The President expressed his firm resolve to proceed with the implementation of the 13th Amendment and begin broader dialogue with all parties including Tamil parties in the new circumstances to further enhance this process to bring about lasting peace and development in SL;

The GOSL will expedite the necessary basic and civil infrastructure as well as means of livelihood necessary for IDPs to resume their normal lives at the earliest.

The SG welcomes announcement by GOSL expressing its intention to dismantle the welfare villages at the earliest as outlined in the plan to resettle the bulk of IDPs and call for its early implementation;

The GOSL reiterated its strongest commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights and keeping with international human rights standards and Sri Lanka’s International obligations and
The UNSG underlined the importance of an accountability process for addressing violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. The Government will take measures to address those grievances.

This Joint Communiqué underscores the three areas necessary to answer the National Question.  An understanding of the problem, the establishment of necessary supporting conditions and having the political will to solve the issue.  Such enlightened viewpoints were short lived. Within a short time, all interest in taking these steps was lost.  Instead of taking steps to implement a lasting solution to the National Question steps were taken to implement lasting rule through the implementation of the 18thAmendment.  Instead of taking steps to strengthen democratic rule, steps were taken to strengthen autocratic rule through the abolishing of the 17thAmendment.  Instead of taking steps to include Tamil Speakers steps were taken to exclude them by banning the singing of the national anthem in Tamil.  Instead of building a Sri Lankan identity that is plural in nature, steps were taken to build a Sinhala-Buddhist identity which viewed other identities as subordinate.

Let me examine the specific undertakings given in the communiqué I referred to earlier.  It consisted of the following:

1.    Working towards a lasting political solution
2.    To  proceed with the implementation of the 13th Amendment and begin broader dialogue
3.    To expedite the necessary basic and civil infrastructure as well as means of livelihood necessary for IDPs to resume their normal lives  at the earliest;
4.    To resettle the bulk of IDPs
5.    To promote and protect  human rights and keep up  with international human rights’ standards and Sri Lanka’s International obligations and
6.    To set up an accountability process for addressing violations of international humanitarian and human rights law

Items 1 & 2 deal with the identification and addressing the problem.  Items 3-6 deal with  establishing the conditions conducive towards addressing the problem.  The implementation of these will be evidence of political will.  Let us now look at these briefly, for such an examination would reveal the marked lack of will that lies at the heart of our inability to answer the National Question.

There seems to be no attempts made by the Executive to work towards a lasting political solution except to blame the TNA for not coming forward to participate in the Parliamentary Select Committee process. As explained by our leader Mr.Sambandan the earlier discussions between the TNA and the Government were abandoned by the Government not by the TNA. Not to lay down in advance the basics of the Parliamentary Select Committee deliberations would lead the Committee towards the same abortive end the earlier deliberations faced. If we lay down on the table the Reports and Recommendations of various Committees which had gone into these matters earlier, especially those during the time of Madame Chandrika Bandaranaike as well as those during the stewardship of the present President and instruct the Parliamentary Select Committee to take forward their deliberations from where the earlier Committees have left, I see no reason for the TNA to keep out of the Parliamentary Select Committee deliberations.

It is my view that there is no interest in finding a bilateral or multilateral solution. The only interest is in a unilateral solution facilitated by the military. The extra quick forcible colonisation of areas with people from the South with the help of the Army in Vavuniya,  Mullaitivu and Mannar areas is a step in that direction. I was given copies of Notices pasted in many parts of the South calling for Sinhalese to apply for lands in the Vanni to be given free of charge. In fact my friends in Vavuniya know the identities of some who have managed to get such free land. So the lasting political solution mentioned by the President seems to mean one brought about by cannibalisation of the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

The next promise was the full implementation of the 13th Amendment. The elections to the Northern Province were promised in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013. It finally took place in 2013 only due to the intervention of India. The Election in September last year was marred by the interference of the Army. All resources at the disposal of the Government were made use of in favour of the Government candidates. Yet the people voted in full strength against the Government. Despite the overwhelming mandate of the people, steps have been taken to stymie the progress of the Northern Provincial Council – undermining the already insufficient 13th Amendment even further.  At one time it appeared that legal steps would be taken to abolish the 13th Amendment.

We tried our best to help the Government to implement the 13th Amendment despite its shortcomings. Ironically, it appears that the Government is doing its level best to prove the inadequacies of the 13thAmendment, long pointed out by the TNA, by its espousal of the view that the overall administration of the province is outside the purview of the Provincial Councils in legal proceedings. The Government is not interested in devolving powers to the periphery and most certainly to the North and East. After certain so called procedural shortcomings the Northern and Eastern Provinces were divided by the Supreme Court. No steps have been taken so far politically to rejoin the Provinces in terms of the 13th Amendment.

Even though our President undertook to expedite the necessary basic and civil infrastructure as well as means of livelihood necessary for IDPs to resume their normal lives at the earliest the lives of IDPs continues to be pathetic. No proper assessment of their needs and requirements let alone their numbers and identities have been prepared so far. No attempts have been made to undertake such research in a scientific manner. Ad hoc politically activated processes seem to be in place but do not seem to solve the problems of the IDPs in any significant manner.

The other undertaking given by our President to the Secretary General of the United Nations was the resettlement of the bulk of IDPs. In Valigamam North on the North Western side of the Peninsula over six thousand acres of prime agricultural land has been taken over forcibly by the Army under the pretext of setting up a High Security Zone and is being cultivated by the Army. Palatial buildings are being put up to house top Army Officers as well as Political figures coming mainly from the South. The legal occupants entitled to reside in those six thousand acres are in about 32 or more welfare centres in other areas unable to go back to their lands. They have become a problem to the owners of lands and houses, where these IDPs presently reside. There are other areas in the Peninsula as well as the Vanni where the Army has taken control of large acreages of lands and are refusing to hand over them to the legitimate owners. The Army cultivates, does fishing, do trade and business and interfere in the daily lives of the people. In other words an Occupational Army has laid claim to the enemy’s land and properties. They have deprived the IDPs of their livelihood. There are nearly 150,000 soldiers stationed in the Northern Province. If anyone disbelieves this number he or she is most welcome to arrange for an International inquiry into that matter. There are very large Army Camps in the midst of thick jungles apart from the Army camps lining your way visibly wherever you travel in the Northern Province. In recent times they are making applications to vest agricultural lands taken over by them in the name of the Army. All these lands belong to our people. They are deprived into IDP hood while the Army lives a luxury life.  So much for the resettlement of the IDPs.

To promote and protect human rights and keep up with international human rights’ standards and Sri Lanka’s International obligations was one of the promises our President made to the UN Secretary General. Under the pretext of making out that the Tigers have started regrouping in the North of Sri Lanka at a time when our case was before the Human Rights’ Council in Geneva, we have begun to re-enact what was done earlier to our people to bring them under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act.  People in large numbers are now being taken into custody consequent to an unfortunate witch hunting which was started for political reasons. No one believes that there is any such Tiger re grouping. What is worse is that the people oriented useful steps that were taken by the energetic Commander of the Northern Province since he took over recently, have now come to naught. He is himself forced to peddle a Tiger regrouping story, which is disbelieved by many Sinhalese in the South also. With several Military Check points in place and constant checking of our people I am sure the President has given up thinking of his obligations to the Secretary General of the United Nations! No wonder the International Community has started taking steps to curb and question the activities of the present regime, which certainly is not people friendly in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

It is because the Government did not set up a proper accountability process for addressing violations of international humanitarian and human rights law that the Human Rights Council of the United Nations has passed a Resolution against Sri Lanka last week. I do not want to expatiate too much since it has been the talk of the Country and elsewhere in the past so many months now.  If you strip the discourse of its emotion and rhetoric, the issue is simply that crimes committed whether during a war or during peace time, whether by a soldier or a civilian, whether by a Government official or private citizen, should be investigated and tried.  Can anybody here honestly expect crimes that may implicate powerful people to be genuinely investigated or tried in Sri Lanka?  If there were even half a chance that such genuine investigation or trial could be carried out in Sri Lanka, do you think that the Resolution would have passed?  What does it say about us when we seem to be more concerned about the slight on our so called sovereignty, than the complete erosion of the rule of law?  To me the greatest tragedy is that many people are more keen on stating that we will solve our problems ourselves instead of solving our problems.

Thus there is a lack of will and possibly a lack of understanding on the part of those that matter in Sri Lanka with regard to the National Question. In summary let me say that the National Question arises from the refusal to accept the presence of distinct Nations in Sri Lanka. A solution could be worked out only if the majority community is prepared to accept this fact. All recent activities on the part of the Government are geared to deny the existence of such a reality. In fact the deliberate activities undertaken by the Government in power today are in the opposite direction. They want the dismantling of the other Nation and the enthroning of a single Sinhala-Buddhist Nation in this Island from Point Pedro to Dondra. It is not too late to realise our mistakes. The Tamils have unequivocally committed themselves to the State of Sri Lanka. We only seek recognition of our status as brothers in this beautiful but bloodied land. Let us hope that there emerges political will to take positive steps in the direction of real reconciliation based on trust and understanding to solve our National Question.

Thank You!
Justice C.V.Wigneswaran, Chief Minister, Northern Province

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