Mr. Sumanthiram, tear down that federal wall!
In an impassioned speech delivered before the Steering Committee of the Parliament M. A. Sumanthiram, the spokesperson for the TNA, argued the case for federalism which is by far the most plausible presentation I have heard on the subject. And I must add that have heard some of the best and the brightest on this subject from the time I was the lobby correspondent of The Observer in the Old Parliament when outstanding political giants from both sides of the House made the inner chamber virtually a brilliant department of political science, worthy of any leading university teaching, researching and informing the public on the key issues of the day. In fact, if I did not know the other side of Sumanthiram’s narrative, particularly the parts he omitted, either deliberately or inadvertently, I could have easily accepted his version as the last word on federalism. He had marshaled the relevant data, dates, reasoning, and selected events and personalities from the 20th century to verbalize his case persuasively. Like all good lawyer he has presented his case with the relevant material to substantiate his cause.
But, as in most cases, his entire case comes apart when the other side of his narrative is pitted against his version. Predictably, his arguments were all tailored to blame the Sinhala-Buddhists, with S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike featured, once again, as a justification for federalism. Sumanthiram had no case to argue if he did not have the Sinhala-Buddhists to make them his scapegoat as usual. According to him the Sinhala-Buddhist majority is to be blamed because, he says, they denied the Tamils their rights, dignity, and equality. Anyone who knows anything about Sri Lankan politics will agree that this has been the standard litany of complaints which they had been marketing even before independence, and long before Bandaranaike, their pet hate, and farthest away from 1983”.
The Sampanthan-Sumanthiran (SS) version of federalism is the latest manifestation of the perennial cry for a disproportionate share of power that first began in the 1920s. In the twenties the Tamils demanded one extra seat in the preponderant Sinhala Western Province in addition to the seats given to them in the Northern Province. In the thirties the Tamils escalated their demand to 50 per cent share of power to 11% of Tamils. In the forties the Tamils launched the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi which was loosely termed as federalism in the South though it was marketed as a separate state in the North. In a similar deceptive vein, the S-S federal formula today is not for rights, dignity and equality of the Tamils (as will be shown later) but purely to revive and pursue relentlessly the old claim for a disproportionate share of power and territory for the most privileged minority community in Sri Lanka.
No sane Sinhalese will ever refuse to give the rights, the dignity and equality to the Tamils or the Muslims. With his own life experiences, growing up in the post-Bandaranaike era, Sumanthiram should know this very well. The problem is not in giving rights, dignity and equality. The problem is in giving a disproportionate share of power to one community, depriving the other communities of their right to share every inch of Sri Lanka as their common homeland.
Sumanthiram’s main contention is that the majoritarian rule of the Sinhala-Buddhists has robbed the Tamils of their rights, dignity and equality”. When he said this in Parliament he was exposing himself as a living contradiction of his own accusation. He stood there as the embodiment of a Tamil who has been the recipient of the best of the rights, dignity and equality” bestowed on a citizen by the majoritarian state every step of the way in his career. The proof of it is in the fact that he has never complained so far that he has been discriminated or charged fees at Royal College, his alma mater. Nor has he complained that he was forced to sit on a lower chair in the classroom to signify his lower status as a Tamil like the way the Vellalar Tamils did to the low-castes Tamils in the North. From Royal College he went to Law College and passed out as a lawyer without paying a cent. No discrimination there either. In Tamil Nadu, the one and only homeland of the Tamils, all university students, except the schedule caste, have to pay fees. I am also sure he would have enjoyed the equal status of a machang” – a term which represents a brotherhood common to all students wherever they may be in Sri Lanka. So where is the loss of dignity and equality?
Then he practiced law in the Sinhala state” courts without fear or favour. No majoritarian discrimination obstructed his progress there too. But he gets up in Parliament and talks of Tamils not getting their rights, dignity and equality. And he was not joking either. Since he was deadly serious he should have first tested his accusation of not getting his rights, dignity and equality in the South by comparing it with the opportunities / chances he had in the one-man Tamil state of Prabhakaran in the North. As he knows only too well, no Tamil lawyer who respected his rights, dignity and equality ever went to practice in Prabhakaran’s courts – an incontrovertible fact which questions Sumathiram’s ability to honour the truth known to him. The Tamil lawyers shared equal power in the courts of the Sinhala state” with due respect and dignity. Not even the Chief Minister, V. Wigneswsaran, who was a judge in the Sinhala state”, ever complained that he was treated as an inferior judicial officer because he was a Tamil. His rights, dignity and equality” were honoured with great respect on the bench and also in the Sinhala state” and society.
Furthermore, the career paths of the Tamils in public service demonstrate amply that the best period of Tamils was when they shared their lives in the Sinhala state” as equals, despite the most detestable events of 1983” which no sensible Sinhalese would ever endorse. The historical record states, with unquestionable clarity, that in the last 70 years the Tamils achieved a status which they had never achieved in their feeble attempts to make a history of their own from the 13th century when they settled down permanently, abandoning their traditional role of being itinerant wanderers and explorers with no abiding interest in Sri Lanka to call it their home.
The liberation of the oppressed Tamil outcasts from centuries of Vellahla fascism, dating back to the pre-Dutch period, and the final liberation from the fascist rule of Tamil Tiger tyranny are two historical events that confirm the story of the Tamils coming out of their feudal and colonial past with flying colours only in the post-independence era. There were, of course, a few odd individuals that shone in the colonial period. But the Tamils as a whole rose, from all corners of the nation, to great heights only in the post- independence years. For instance, when neither the ruling Vellalar elite nor the liberal British ever went out of their way to lift the oppressed low-castes from their misery it was Bandaranaike who made the very first move in his Prevention of Social Disabilities Act of 1957, to dismantle the dehumanizing Vellalar caste structure. If the Tamils were so committed to rights, dignity and equality why didn’t a single Tamil leader, including S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, the self-declared Thanthai (Father) of Tamils, stand up to defend the oppressed Tamils like Gandhi?
The double standards are indefensible. When Sumanthiram stood in Parliament and pontificated on rights, dignity and equality he should have also paused and asked, before he accused the other” : What the hell did we Tamils do to liberate our own people from the oppression and persecution of our own people down the ages by our own Tamils”? The accusation against the Sinhala state” is only for their acts of commission and omission in the last 70 years. But the Tamils ruled Tamils with an iron fist from the 13th century until the last Tamil fascist went down in Nandikadal in 2009. To be fair and balanced, shouldn’t they have compared the living conditions of the Tamils under centuries of fascist Vellalar rule and the one-man rule of Prabhakaran before they condemn the 70-year-rule of the Sinhala state”? Shouldn’t they first ask : Who gave the Tamils the better deal, if not the best deal ever, in their history?
Before passing severe judgment on the Sinhala state” Sumanthiram should have at least made a cursory glance at the Tamil past to assess the gains and losses of the Tamils under Vellalar-Prabhakaran rule and the Sinhala state”. For instance, he should have asked : How much rights, dignity and equality did he and his leader, R. Sampanthan, get when they went, with cap in hand, before their Thalaivar, bending in two as if Prabhakaran had replaced the discs in their spines with soft jelly? Didn’t they enjoy, at all times, their birth right to stand erect with dignity, respect and equality before another human being only when they came to the South – the region they love to hate? Also what were the chances of Sampanthan ever becoming the Leader of the Opposition in Prabhakaran’s regime? Or what were the chances of Wigneswaran writing a judgment defending the rights of Tamil school girls being forcibly abducted by the Tamil Boko Haram?
Besides, when were the turumbas, the lowest of the low-castes, ever given the right to walk in daylight – a basic right guaranteed to all human being, animals, birds and insects in the south? When were the low-castes given the right to sit side by side at an equal level with the Vellalars in schools, buses or temples? Shouldn’t Sumanthiram squirm in shame for what his leaders did to the oppressed Tamils before he takes the high moral ground about the missteps of the post-independent period which, he would admit, have been corrected? The Sinhala leaders also have apologized, quite rightly, for what happened in 1983”. When have the Tamil leaders apologized to their own Tamil people – forget the Muslims and the Sinhalese! — for breeding and nurturing the boys” that killed more Tamils than all the others put together, eh Mr. Sumanthiram? In what hole did he hide his passionate tongue for rights, dignity and equality when the teenage Tamil girls and boys were forcibly abducted and thrown into a futile war by the Tamil Thalaivar – the leader whom he obeyed so deferentially and obsequiously?
So under which Tamil regime of feudal, colonial and modern times did the Tamils ever enjoy better conditions than those provided by the liberal and open societies of the Sinhalese? In contrast to the welcoming liberalism of the Sinhalese, the land-owning Vellalar Tamils even imported Tamil slaves from Malabar and reduced them to subhuman outcasts. Can Sumanthiram now tell the world who was it who denied the Tamils their rights, their dignity and their equality? As a Christian he should know that it is not the fake gods of federalism that will save the Tamils. It is the truth. Only the truth shall set you free. (John 8:32). Until the Tamils learn to coexist in peace with their neighbours, without building federal walls to maintain their separateness and assumed supremacy, they will never find peace. But first they must find the truth and that could be found only if they revisit their nightmarish past and study what really happened in their history, leaving aside the myths in which they tend to wallow perpetually with smug self-satisfaction.
The first question they must explore is whether there was ever a time for the Tamils in their history better than the post-independent period when they cooperated with the south and worked for the betterment of all? I can predict the answer Sumanthiram, or his fellow-federalists, will give. Invariably, they will regurgitate the post-Bandaranaike accusations to cover up their horripilating history, and, of course to justify their claim for federalism in pursuance of Chelvanyakam’s objective of little now and more later”. That will not feree either Sumanthirams or his fellow-federalists. That will only drag them into the hell hole of their fascist inhuman past.
A good start for the Tamils to understand their history is to read the greatest piece of Tamil literature that came out of Jaffna. It was written by K. Daniel, a novelist who is a turumban. I don’t want to recapitulate the intense suffering of the Tamil people inflicted on them by Sumanthiram’s ancestors. All that is depicted in graphic detail by the creative pen of Daniel in his novel Mirage. My reference to this novel is purely to focus on the opening line in his preface to his masterpiece. This line contains a hidden story of its own. He wrote: The day I finished this novel was 9th of May 1983…” Every Sri Lankan, particularly the Tamils, knows the significance of July 1983”.
All hell broke loose in July 1983. By the time Daniel put the last full stop to his novel in May 1983 the ethnic tensions, escalating rapidly toward July 1983, had reached near breaking point. Everyone, both at home and abroad, was waiting anxiously wondering what would happen next. Everyone was obsessed with the North-South crisis looming large in the horizon, except Daniel. Despite living in a world of rising ethnic tensions, there isn’t a single word about the North-South conflict in his novel. The most radicalized and intense issue of the Tamils was totally irrelevant to him. It was not the North-South issue that gripped his mind. The critical issue to him was the oppression and the persecution of Tamils by the Tamils. It is the pain and the suffering of the Tamils under Tamil fascism that hurt him. It is the inhumanity of Tamils against their own kind that made Daniel cry his heart out in his classic novel.
Invariably, all great historical movements are heralded by creative minds forecasting the coming events. There is nothing like that in Tamil literature to depict the Sinhala-Tamil tensions. Oddly enough, 1983”, a landmark catastrophe in the post-independence era, doesn’t even get a mention in Daniel’s novel. He brushed aside the extremist peninsular politics of the day and focused precisely on the internal horrors of Tamils oppressing and persecuting Tamils. To him what the Tamils were doing to the Tamils were more important than the overblown issues of Tamil language, or the Tamil public servants refusing to learn Sinhala etc., — issues that ruled the minds of the Vellalars. In his realistic dissection of Tamil society the crisis faced by the Tamils was rooted within its own internal systemic failure. He raises the identical cry of Sumanthiram about basic rights, dignity and equality. The difference is that Sumanthiram cries to reclaim the power of the privileged caste/class that oppressed the Tamils. Daniel cries for the Tamils who were treated as subhumans by the Vellalar supremacists. There are no bogeymen from South oppressing or persecuting the Tamils. The oppressors and the persecutors are the ruling upper caste. When Sri Lankan was gripped with the deleterious fever of communal extremism, only Daniel had the incisive perception to look inward and grasp the meaning and the impact of the internal dynamics that were driving the Northern political culture into self-made self-destruction.
So if Sumanthiram could read that penetrating novel going deep into the inner layers of the vicious and volatile Vellalar vectors that were driving the peninsular forces into violence against its own people he may be better equipped to deliver a more balanced argument to tear down the ubiquitous cadjan curtain that separates its own people from each other. The cadjan curtains of the upper caste kept apart perpetually by the brutal Tamil oppressors who wrote the darkest chapter in Sri Lanka history. Daniel delineates the dark side of peninsular culture with consummate skill of a cultured novelists who feels for his helpless people. Though late, the Tamils deserve a new elite who can reject the Vellalar-Prabhakaran fascism that haunted their past and restore to them what they were denied for centuries by the fascist elite of Jaffna — a new democratic political culture that could lead them to peaceful co-existence for the good of all.