Last week, protesters in Mullaitivu demanded the termination of a Mahaweli project, that was officially intended to facilitate the economic development in the war ravaged region.
Their main demand as explained in a petition handed over to the government agent was: “considering the benefits, dis-benefits, challenges and the complication of the Mahaweli project in the North, we are compelled to request you to immediately stop the Mahaweli project in Mullaitivu district and proposed plans in the Northern province.
The protesters alleged the Mahaweli L zone, an offshoot of Sri Lanka’s largest development project, of ‘Sinhala colonization’ of the area, and the Archaeological Department of ‘manipulating the history and violating Tamils’ cultural heritage.’
It has always been a rather tricky task to weed out fiction from facts in Tamil political grievances. Though any community may harbour a good deal of imaginary grievances, Tamils have a unique problem: Tamil political psyche is rooted in Tamil exceptionalism, identified as unique cultural, linguistic, historical legacy and in part the perceived superiority of Dravidian civilization. Rather than being absorbed into a larger amalgam of identities, which may often operate under one dominant state identity, Tamil political leadership on both sides of the Palk Straits preferred to play alone. India through its quasi federal constitution and assortment of other measures, managed to appease Tamil exceptionalism to some extent, but Sri Lanka could not, partly because, the very existence of Tamil Nadu with 90 million Tamils next door, both generated anxiety in the Sinhalese political circles to share power, and also emboldened Tamil leadership not to compromise. This status quo gradually weakened as Tamils gradually lost, first, pre-eminence, then the parity in economic and professional life in the country, and finally were herded to a sliver of land off Mullativu lagoon as cannon fodders by a nihilistic terrorist group that the traditional Tamil elites nurtured and identified as the sole representatives of the community.
Few communities, if ever has said no to development, especially when its members are living lives of depravity. When Tamil politicians and instigated local folks demand that the government shut the shop, and leave the North, one should view those demands in association with their historical record. The role of Tamil political class in the country’s economic development from the early days of independence is negligible- though individual Tamil members contributed immensely to professional and economic life, and rose to its height. That is a poor show viewed in the context of political elites of other communities, say, Muslims or Tamils of Indian origin.
Tamil political leadership has always sacrificed economic interests of the country, and their own community to advance political interests born out from primordial impulses of Tamil exceptionalism.
In Sri Lanka, Tamil nationalism defined itself along the line of a distinctive nation, a Tamil homeland and right to self-determination. That gamble proved to be a disaster. However, Tamil political class seems to be keep repeating the old mistake.
Earlier the chief minister C.V. Vigneswaran demanded that the Tamil National Alliance boycott the Presidential Task force for Northern development, because as he feels ‘a political solution is far more important than economic development.’ TNA snubbed him. However, for quite sometime, Mr Vigneswaran has ganged up with Tamil nationalist parties such as Gajendra Kumar Ponnambalam’s Tamil National People’s Front and founded Tamil People’s Council, which he may use to contest the provincial council election in the likely case of rejection of nomination by the TNA.
"Tamil political psyche is rooted in Tamil exceptionalism, identified as unique cultural, linguistic, historical legacy and in part the perceived superiority of Dravidian civilization."
As the TNA has taken a moderate posture in its dealing with the central government, Mr. Vigneswaran and his buddies are trying to fill the vacuum in the political discourse of the radical Tamil nationalism. In the recent history of Tamil politics, it was this intense electoral competition that drew all Tamil parties to the fringes, and inspired the Vadukkodai resolution. There is no guarantee that the history would not be repeated.
Tamils do, of course, have special grievances. However, being rather unique political grievances, they are by products of a protracted war and they are primarily economic. The North and the East lag way behind the rest of the country in all economic indicators. Those disparities need to be addressed, along with a decent degree of power sharing to the provinces.
However, even the most well intentioned efforts to address economic grievances could also cause a sense of psychological, and physical displacement. When primordial instincts of Tamil exceptionalism come to play, it complicates this entire exercise.
The recent Tamil protests over Sinhala colonization has a lot to do with those primordial impulses.Tamil exceptionalism is tribal and territorial. How far the government is willing to go to appease these concerns is also a delicate matter. In the normal context, a Sinhalese fisherman putting up a fishing hut in the Mullaitivu beach should not be any different from a Tamil man buying land in Wellawatta.
This is also a catch 22 situation. Keep away from the North, and let Mr Vigneswaran and the Northern Provincial Council to run the show, you are more likely to end up with useless and self- pontificating resolutions; As M.S.M Ayub pointed out last week, NPC has passed 415 odd such resolutions. Those resolutions may not ease the plight of Tamil, but, they could in the long run radicalize Tamils. In addition, a poorer North where the government’s presence is limited, is more likely to relapse into suicide terrorism than where the government plays an active role, though some circles of Tamils may like it to stay away.
On the other hand, the government involvement itself generates opposition and can be exploited to rally the youth and the affected communities to fringe nationalism. That could again lead to the repetition of the gory history.
At the end, security of the rest of the country should prevail over other concerns. What is permissible in Mullaitivu or Jaffna should be subject to that equation. That requires the government to strike a delicate balance of accommodation and force. Genuine grievances need to be addressed, and exploitation of fictitious ones needs to be watched. Individuals and front runners of fringe nationalism should be monitored. Work of Intelligence apparatus should not be curtailed. The government should not let another generation to be taken up by surprise by another militancy.
Perhaps, nothing untoward will happen. The majority of Jaffna youth who listen to rabid nationalist orations of their leaders, will go home, eat a rottie and sleep . So did their previous generations in the 60, and 70s. However, a few were so inspired by those talks that they decided to blow up an army convoy in July 1983. Sri Lanka went through three decades of mayhem for that simple security lapse of not keeping an eye on its trouble makers ( no different than an earlier blunder that materialized into a full blown insurgency in 1971)
The country should not let a repetition of its violent past. Irrespective all good intentions of political correctness by the government,any symptoms of potential runaway chaos should be nipped in the bud.