Facebook icon
Twitter icon
e-mail icon

Anti-India or just Anti-Tamil?

Illustration by Keera Ratnam / @wavesofcolour

The current frontrunner in Sri Lanka’s presidential polls Anura Kumara Dissanayake, leader of Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and National People’s Power (NPP) coalition, was invited to visit Delhi earlier this month, where he engaged in a series of high-level talks. The move was seen as recognition from the Indian government that Dissanayake is a serious contender in elections which are set to take place later this year. It also seemed to mark a significant shift in the militantly Marxist JVP, a movement that was once violently anti-Indian but now seemingly open to engagement with Delhi. As Dissanayake’s visit demonstrates, however, the veneer of anti-imperialist politics within the Sinhala left has always been thin. It is not necessarily Indian interests they oppose, simply Tamil ones. 

Dissanayake’s maiden official tour saw talks with senior government and security officials, as well as the self-proclaimed communist leader meeting with leading business figures in Gujarat. For a party that has railed against New Delhi for decades, the JVP were happy to revel in the limelight. Though some observers claim it marks a landmark shift in policy from an organisation that staged a bloody rebellion against Indian intervention on the island, that view misinterprets the history of the JVP’s failed 1987 uprising and of the party itself. 

It was not simply the spread of Indian influence that the JVP opposed. As it is for much of the Sinhala South, it was the fervent anti-Tamil sentiment that remains the key driver behind its seemingly “anti-India” stance. The long history of Sri Lankan ‘Indo-phobia’ is driven by a protectionist, Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. This chauvinistic logic sees the island as a bastion of Sinhala Buddhism that is constantly under threat, particularly from Tamils. Aside from those in Eelam, Tamil Nadu, a powerhouse Indian state with a population of almost 70 million, is a stone’s throw from the island’s Tamil North-East, and has a millennia-long history of close cultural and linguistic links. The Indian government also initially supported various Tamil movements, as they launched an armed independence struggle. Thus, for the South, the spectre of India became synonymous with the Tamil call for self-determination.

The Sinhala left was no different. From its inception, the JVP was infused with Sinhala populism and found its support amongst the rural South. Founder Rohana Wijeweera even framed Tamil demands for self-determination as in-hoc with US imperialist interests. The party denounced Indian-origin estate workers, Malayaga Tamils, as a “fifth column instrument of Indian expansionism”. Indeed, the reason the JVP movement raised arms against the Sri Lankan state in 1987, was not because it was an anti-capitalist revolution, but because it feared an Indian presence on the island would allow the Tamil liberation struggle to sweep the North-East. This is a point that it remains proud of to this day, as senior JVP leader Herath told reporters last week. Even after its cadres, and tens of thousands of civilians, were massacred twice by the Sri Lankan state however, the JVP found no sympathy or solidarity for Eelam Tamils and instead remained staunchly opposed to the devolution of powers. The party went on to breed some of the island’s most fervent Sinhala racists who protested against peace talks with the LTTE, rejected the possibility of joint post-tsunami aid distribution, endorsed Mahinda Rajapaksa on a platform specifically opposed to the peace process, tore up a merged North-East at the Supreme Court, and openly promoted a military offensive that would culminate in the Mullivaikkal genocide. Little has changed today.

Dissanayake’s latest venture North confirms that for the JVP, it is not necessarily India they oppose. As Herath, who was part of the delegation to Delhi, made clear, their opposition to the Indo-Lanka Accord and its piecemeal pledges of devolution to Tamils, will underscore any dealings with India “today and in the future”. His remarks, no doubt made to reassure the Sinhala polity, confirm what Tamils have long known about the JVP, in that it offers little difference from the other parties of the south. Alongside the embrace of war criminals and military figures – something the opposition SJB has also ramped up in recent weeks – it demonstrates once more how Tamils have no choice within Sri Lanka’s racist political institutions. 

Having already secured a host of business agreements under the current Sri Lankan regime, India is hedging its bets amongst Sinhala leaders as polls draw closer. For years it has paid lip service to the Tamil question, and now Delhi may feel that the issue can safely be placed on the back burner. But, as the Central government should know by now, reliable partners on the island will not be found in the South. Indeed, until the Tamil question has been settled, there will be no stability at all.

We need your support

Sri Lanka is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist. Tamil journalists are particularly at threat, with at least 41 media workers known to have been killed by the Sri Lankan state or its paramilitaries during and after the armed conflict.

Despite the risks, our team on the ground remain committed to providing detailed and accurate reporting of developments in the Tamil homeland, across the island and around the world, as well as providing expert analysis and insight from the Tamil point of view

We need your support in keeping our journalism going. Support our work today.

For more ways to donate visit https://donate.tamilguardian.com.