Prophesies on Sri Lanka’s Global Vulnerability: a Critique (part 1)

Since Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka has found it necessary to preface his ‘Devolution and Sri Lanka’s Global Vulnerability: A Response to Prof. GH Peiris’ (The Island, 6 June) with a statement of the “fundamentals” of his stand in relation to province-based devolution, it would not be inappropriate for me to spell out the essence of my perceptions on this issue.

I believe that any constitutional provision which conforms to or perpetuate the ‘Two Nation Theory’ and the idea of the northern and eastern parts of the island constituting an ‘exclusive traditional Tamil homeland’ is detrimental to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the nation-state of Sri Lanka. There are several corollaries to this belief. For instance, I subscribe to the view that the whole of Sri Lanka is the traditional homeland of all ethnic groups that constitute its population (a basic truth which appears to be acceptable to more than 50% of the Tamil community in Sri Lanka). I reject the oft repeated fallacy that a constitutional arrangement facilitating autonomy in respect of a range of powers and functions of government to the Northern Province would make a contribution to inter-ethnic “confidence building” (a hackneyed phrase of the reminiscent of the ‘peace talks era’ ten years ago, but still popular among our amateur social psychologists) and maintain that it would, on the contrary, jeopardise the tangible post-war advances in Sri Lanka’s efforts at ethnic reconciliation. It is also my conviction that a semi-autonomous Northern Province, while not satisfying the demands of political groups that adhere to the ‘Eelam ideology’, will increase Sri Lanka’s vulnerability to coercive external intervention.

I am not at all sure whether the JHU, NFF and the BBS (“Prof. Peiris’ co-thinkers” according to Dr. DJ) agree with me in all my convictions referred to above. However, I do find myself in agreement with the stand taken by these organisations (and by the JVP in its latest statement) in regard to the need to abolish the ‘Thirteenth Amendment’. These so-called “co-thinkers” might disagree with my view that there should be a substantial enhancement of powers and functions of our minority communities in the central government, even in the form of constitutionally facilitated ‘weighted representation’, ‘reservations’ and/or a ‘bicameral legislature’ with provision for accommodating underrepresented segments of the population. If I were to be pushed into a political camp on the basis of my views on province-based devolution, I should say (largely by way of returning compliments) that I can highlight a great deal of common ground between the ‘Dayan thoughts’ referred to above and, say, the Vadukottai Resolution of 1976’; the “Thimpu Declaration” made in 1985 by Nadesan Satyendra as the spokesman for the representatives of the LTTE, EROS, EPRLF, TELO, PLOTE and the TULF; the “Heroes’ Day Speech” by Prabhakaran on the eve of the Oslo Negotiations of December 2002; the ‘ISGA Proposals’ formulated at the LTTE Conference held in Paris under Norwegian sponsorship in August 2003 (as distinct from the UNF ‘ISGA Proposals’ of May 2003); and the press statements by Surendiran, the spokesman for the ‘Global Tamil Forum’, in the aftermath of the vote on the US resolution on Sri Lanka at Geneva in March 2013.

I am thoroughly pleased to note that Dr. DJ has had to fall back on Aristotle to extricate himself from the total mess he has made of international analogies and comparisons. He is yet unable to grasp the fact encapsulated in my sketch of the Yugoslav Crisis (which, incidentally, is not a Wikipedia extract, but an abridged version of an earlier published study by me – I can send him my list of sources if it would help improve his understanding) in which, I have made it clear even to the meanest intelligence that the disintegration of Yugoslavia was due largely to the break-up on ethnic lines of its mammoth all-pervading communist party apparatus following the death of Marshal Tito, impelled also by an economic recession and the increasing economic inequalities between the ethnic groups of the federation. It is nothing short of lunacy to compare the Serb repression of other ethnic groups (especially the Bosniaks and the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo) to anything that has happened in Sri Lanka and call it ‘Aristotelian comparative politics’.

Dr. DJ’s understanding of the ‘Indian Unity’ is equally revealing. This is what he says:

“(In India) violent conflicts have been manageably contained and often dampened. What is remarkable is that unity has been sustained in the face of such enormous diversity precisely by accommodating such diversity. The ‘idea of India (as Shashi Tharoor among others have put it), transcending such multinational and multi-religious diversity and cross border influences has been a striking achievement, in stark contrast to the failure to generate fealty to an idea of Sri Lanka outside of cricket matches and an idea of being Sri Lankan which is not a synonym for Sinhalese or Sinhala Buddhist. India has a greater percentage of Hindus than Sri Lanka has of Sinhalese Buddhists and yet, it resisted the temptation, despite the partition and emergence of Pakistan as an Islamic state, despite the murder of Gandhi by declaring itself as anything but secular”.

Glimpses of the squalid aspects of the Indian polity of the type that could be provided through a newspaper article cannot dispel the type of prejudice and ignorance which Dr. DJ has displayed in this ‘Aristotelian’ comparison. What could be attempted here is to refer briefly and somewhat sporadically to a few basic facts on contemporary India which could guide the reader away from the fallacies which he has tried to propagate, prefacing what needs to be stated with the general observation that one of India’s greatest achievements is the preservation of the tradition of independent scholarship which continues to be evident at the highest levels.

In the first place one should be aware of the fact that, apart from language and religion, caste and tribe constitute significant ‘markers’ of group identity in India, and that, while socio-economic inequality tends to cut across the country’s major linguistic differences, there is, at least in certain parts of India, the semblance of a correspondence between religious differences and those of economic power and privilege, more generally, in most parts of India, there is a close correspondence between caste and tribal differentiations, on the one hand, and variations in socio-economic status.

It is true that, according to census enumerations, about 80.5% of the Indian population is accounted by those classified as ‘Hindus’. It is also correct to say that the Indian constitution has a categorical commitment to secularity of the Indian State. There are, however, several considerations germane to an assessment of the significance of these facts. There is, on the one hand, the issue of ‘who is a Hindu’. Romila Thapar (1989), Indian historian of global repute, while highlighting the absence of a common creed and a monolithic priesthood associated with religious practices that are labelled as ‘Hinduism’, has shown that it was only during the recent centuries that diverse beliefs and practices, albeit with certain ideological and ritualistic commonalities, came to be recognised as the ‘religion’ of the vast majority of inhabitants of the Indian sub-continent. This issue has not been confined to the plane of scholarly discourse but has a continuing practical significance in matters pertaining to poverty alleviation and ethnic relations. For instance, in the massive wave of violence that erupted in the wake of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s long delayed attempt to implement certain recommendations of the Mandal Commission, there were some quite eminent persons who argued that only those who belong to the ‘chaturvarna’ castes of the Hindu traditional social hierarchy should be considered Hindus. Those familiar with the works of the great humanist Mahatma would know that even for him this issue remained a dilemma. And Dr DJ, if he is not excessively confused when confronted with facts, would grasp the reality that in most states of India, those not classed as ‘Hindus’ by census enumerators continue to be denied the benefits of ‘affirmative action’ intended by the central government in favour of the underprivileged.

In my research writings into the subject of religion-based intolerance in South Asia (I am reluctantly compelled to refer to this mainly in response to Dayan’s uncouth insinuation that my information sources are confined to encyclopaedia entries) include a lengthy essay titled ‘Group Identities and Problems of Governance in South Asia’ published by the Delhi-based ‘Centre for Policy Research’ (an e-copy could be made available to anyone genuinely interested), I have shown that, while there are inter-country variations in the intensity of religious intolerance within the region, from comparative perspectives, India appears in a very unfavourable light in respect of violent conflict generated by Hindu extremists. It is not feasible to venture into the related details here (I have done so in a forthcoming volume on ‘Political Conflict in South Asia’, presently with the publisher). On the real significance of India’s constitutional commitment of secularism, I confine myself here to pointing out that the aging political leader who personally led the attack on the Babri Mosque in 1992 was, until about a week ago, the leader of the second largest political party in India, and another individual, pointedly indicted for inciting mob violence by the ‘Srikrishna Commission’ which inquired into the convulsions ushered in by the demolition of the Babri Mosque (ghetto-level brutalities associated with the ‘Gujarat Riots’ of that year, and the “serial bombing” of Bombay by Islamic militants in March 1993), is the Chief Minister of Gujarat, and is likely to be the BJP’s Prime Minster candidate at the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections.

Dr. DJ would perhaps be particularly interested to learn that, in the recent past, in several areas outside the Northeast where there is a numerically formidable Christian presence; conversion to Christianity has generated furiously hostile responses from certain Hindu groups. According to a report published by the All-India Christian Council, a wave of anti-Christian violence which originated in Orissa in 2007, and spread thereafter to Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, was featured by more than a thousand incidents of killing, serious physical injury, destruction of churches and private dwellings, intimidation, and, in the State of Karnataka, even official harassment. The large majority among those proselytised are said to be drawn from the lowest caste groups and tribal communities. The ‘Hinduthva’ flag-bearers such as the Vishva Hindu Parishad and the R?shtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (far more powerful in the Indian political mainstreams than the lunatic fringe of the Buddhists community here in our politics) legitimised these hostilities with the charge that Christian missionaries employ “unethical” modalities such as offer of monetary and other material inducements to those who opt to be converted. An Indian researcher (Chatterji, 2008) has pointed to the possibility of at least some recent incidents of anti-Christian violence which have gained world-wide publicity of having been ignited by provocateurs like the ‘Maoist’ liberators (i.e. PWGs) that operate in the Deccan, sometimes in competition with the more aggressive Christian saviours of souls.

Shashi Tharoor (a gifted person with a solid American education, an unsuccessful aspirant to the post of Secretary General of the UN, a maverick who has embarrassed the elite of the Congress Party on several occasion – is he also a role model for our Dr. DJ?), whom Dayan cites, is not an authority on the subject of ‘Indian Unity’. He is an active and ambitions politician, a State Minister, always expected to take a hyperbolic political stance which politicians often tend to do. There have all along been more authentic interpretations on this subject. For instance, Jawaharlal Nehru, even in the final phase of his regime, frequently bemoaned the fact that India was far from reaching the ideals of a coherent national territory with its integrity free of external and internal challenge, and an overarching sense of national unity among the diverse groups of people inhabiting that territory. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar who figured at the vanguard of India’s freedom struggle as champion of Harij?n interests declared: “I am of the opinion that in believing that we are a nation we are cherishing a great delusion. The sooner we realise that we are not yet a nation in the social and psychological sense of the word, the better for us”.

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