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Being Tamil: pluralist or tribalist?

Many condemnations of the assassination of Sri Lankan foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar included pointed references to his Tamil ancestry. It was argued that his Tamil identity combined with his strident anti – LTTE politics provided the motive for his assassins. He was targeted by the LTTE, it was alleged, because he was a traitor, a Tamil who opposed the cause of Tamil self–determination.



Lakshman Kadirgamar, his admirers claim, was hated by the LTTE because he was not an exclusivist and did not assert that Tamil identity required a separate state. The LTTE targeted him, in this view, because of his political beliefs, his commitment to a united but plural Sri Lanka in which all communities can live together in mutual respect and harmony. This enlightened pluralism, they also claim, threatened the LTTE because it offered the Tamils an alternative to the ‘narrow minded, violent’ nationalism that is deemed to define the LTTE’s political vision.



Something akin to this line of thought can be discerned in attempts to promote individuals such Douglas Devananda or, more recently, Anandasangaree, as ‘moderate’ alternatives to the LTTE’s leadership of the Tamils. Anandasangaree, Devananda and Kadirgamar are unambiguously taken as Tamils by virtue of their birth. As such, they are deemed to have as much right as any other Tamil to represent ‘their’ people.




The so-called ‘moderate’ Tamils lacking any accountability to the constituency they claim to represent, have consistently failed to address its urgent political, social and economic needs.

On the other hand, because they are deemed to promote (by not demanding a separate state) the argument that ethnic identity is somehow marginal to political rights, they are considered ‘moderates.’ In comparison to the alleged narrow - minded nationalism of the LTTE, Devananda, Anandasangaree and Kadirgamar are presented as good liberal, pluralists. In particular, good liberal, pluralist Tamils. But whilst appearing to decry the ‘communalism’ or ‘tribalism’ of the LTTE, such arguments rely on a deep and illiberal connection between ethnic identity and political representation.



To begin with, to suggest that individuals who are unable to demonstrate the support of a wide Tamil constituency can be considered viable Tamil political leaders rests on the assumption that Tamil political demands derive from a cultural something which might be described as ‘Tamilness.’ In this view, ‘ethnic’ Tamil identity, common to all Tamils simply by fact of their birth, is enough to speak for Tamils.



Kadirgamar or Douglas or anyone who can claim Tamil ‘ancestry’ can then legitimately represent Tamils in the same way that a religious leader represents a community of the faithful. More pointedly, like a religious leader who shares the faith of his or her community, anyone who has a Tamil ‘cultural’ identity is believed to know and understand what Tamils need and can speak on their behalf. Culture is one thing. But it is when this logic is transferred to politics that things come adrift.



The above understanding of the political consequences of Tamil identity in Sri Lanka serves to misrepresent the conflict in ways that then make it possible to speak of ‘moderate’ and ‘extremist’ Tamils. If Tamil political demands are considered the result of a primordial ‘Tamilness,’ then the ‘moderates’ are simply those who argue that Tamil interests can be accommodated within a united Sri Lanka. The ‘extremists’ on the other hand, can be deemed to subscribe to ‘fascist’ notions of ‘ethnic hygiene’, to not understand that different groups can live together and to demand a separate state for Tamils simply on the logic difference.



This misrepresentation of Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka obscures the fact that its origins and ability to mobilise support stem from a history and lived reality of oppression and political exclusion. According to self-confessed Tamil nationalists, it is this exclusion that has shaped the boundaries of the Tamil political identity, not some innate belief in Tamil greatness. (Contrast this, as an aside, to Sinhala political identity). To their advocates, the Thimpu Principles are the result of a specific political history, not the spontaneous expression of a desire to preserve and foster a sense of ‘Tamilness.’




Anyone who can claim Tamil ‘ancestry’ is thought able to represent Tamils in the same way that a religious leader represents a community of the faithful.

Furthermore, like all political representatives, Tamil leaders have to be judged against their ability to pursue the concrete material interests of their constituency. Arguably, under the current circumstances, Tamils want to see normalcy restored to the war-torn Northeastern areas of the island. However, the ‘moderate’ Tamils, such as Kadirgamar, lacking any ties of accountability to the constituency they claim to represent, have consistently failed to address the urgent political, social and economic needs of this constituency.



Devananda’s party, for example, has adopted the classical ‘Tamil’ musical instrument, the Veena, as its election symbol. But it has failed to respond to the manifest need for economically sound reconstruction and rehabilitation activities in the Northeast. Instead, it has sought to establish, no doubt with the encouragement of its political sponsors, ‘cultural capital’ by funding, for example, the reconstruction of innumerable temples. It is curious that while a Tamil ‘ethnic’ identity is central to the legitimacy of the ‘alternative’ Tamil leadership, Tamil nationalists such as the LTTE, can separate ethnicity from political representation. As such, legitimate Tamil representatives have included Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, atheists and a white Australian.



Although the so-called ‘moderate’ Tamil leadership lacks a real base in a Tamil constituency, its ‘Tamilness’ is often used to good purpose. In Sri Lanka, Tamil individuals have often been used to justify and rationalise strategies and policies that are manifestly inimical to even basic Tamil interests. A number of Tamils, some of whom were promoted as the alternative leadership, actively supported and legitimised President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s ‘war for peace,’ which sanctioned unprecedented military violence in Jaffna and Vanni. These Tamils’ vocal participation helped conceal the brutal reality of the strategy: an attempt to impose the control of the Sinhala-dominated military over a Tamil population.



Lakshman Kadirgamar played a much-celebrated role in this regard. He led the charge to demonise the LTTE whilst aggressively challenging international concern about the hardships endured by Tamils in the warzones. When questioned about the intense suffering caused by the 1995 – 2002 embargo on food and medicine going into the Vanni, he retorted that Sri Lanka was the only country that sent supplies to civilians living in enemy territory. This chicanery concealed, for a while at least, the untold misery caused by critical shortages of food and medicine. He thus used his ‘Tamilness’ to justify a pernicious policy that would have been illegal in a conflict between two states.



In short, a Sinhala politician adopting Kadirgamar’s rhetoric and positions could easily be accused of being a chauvinist. But Tamil ethnicity – in Kadirgamar’s case, stemming solely from his ‘ancestry’ - can be used to cover a multitude of political sins. The irony of Lakshman Kadirgamar is that despite his famous assertion that he was not a tribalist, his effectiveness in justifying and rationalising Tamil civilian suffering depended critically on his ethnicity. In fact, only a Tamil could take such extreme Sinhala nationalist positions without being considered a racist.