28 March 2007
One of the most contested aspects of the LTTE’s politics is its claim to the sole (or more recently, authentic) representatives of the Tamil people in dealings with the Sinhala-
Dominated Sri Lankan state.
The LTTE’s claim is rejected by its detractors using a number of arguments, one of the more fashionable of which is that Tamils themselves have multiple identities (such as those of class, caste, gender, region and religion) and that no single organization, particularly the violent LTTE, can really claim to represent all Tamil political aspirations.
Those of a more academic bent talk of the ‘impossibility of Tamil nationalism,’ given the allegedly multiple social, political and economic differences within the ‘imagined’ Tamil nation.
Another response is simply to point to Tamil opponents of the LTTE, as if the mere existence of Karuna or V. Anandasangaree is proof enough that the LTTE cannot claim to represent the totality of political opinion within the Tamil people.
The extent to which these figures actually have any solid political base or viable political program (i.e. independent of Sri Lankan government sponsorship) is less important in this regard than their espousal of an anti-LTTE position.
Furthermore, the LTTE and the Tamils that endorse its claim are expected to simply keel over and give up the struggle in the face of this superior, novel and incontrovertible logic.
The latters’ response, naturally, is that those challenging the LTTE’s sole representative claim or promoting anti-LTTE actors are primarily seeking to undermine and weaken the Tamils’ struggle for self-determination.
Interestingly, their argument has a historical precedent, dating to at least the high noon of the British Empire – in South Asia itself.
In the years following the formation of the Indian National Congress in 1885, senior British officials were eager to pour scorn on its claim to represent Indian public opinion (i.e. the British were not wanted).
For example, the then Viceroy, Lord Dufferin, dismissed Congress as ‘a microscopic minority.’
And well before the current post modern vogue, a thoroughly modern British colonial official, Sir John Stratchey, was emphatic about the impossibility of the Indian nation.
“There is not, and never was an India, or even any country of India.. no Indian nation, no ‘people of India’ of which we hear so much,” he confidently told a gathering of Cambridge Undergraduates.
“That men of the Punjab, Bengal, the North–West Provinces and Madras should ever feel that they belong to one great Indian nation is impossible.”
At different stages in the struggle between Congress and the colonial state, British authorities challenged the Congress’ authority to represent the Indian nation by pointing to divisions of religion, caste and class.
The Congress, it was alleged, could not be the ‘sole representative’ as it did not represent religious minorities, Dalits and the rural population.
Instead Congress was deemed to be a concern of upper caste, urban educated Hindus.
Indeed, the Colonial state went further, taking upon itself the mantle of guardian and protector of other groups against the minority interests being selfishly pursued by the Congress party.
With hindsight it is clear that in challenging the Congress’ claim to represent the Indian nation, the Colonial state was actually obfuscating its own exploitative and oppressive nature.
By pointing to the alleged divisions within the Indian nation, the Colonial state drew attention away from anti-colonials’ argument that India’s wealth was being drained, at the expense of her people, to support the British economy.
Furthermore, the anti-colonials pointed out, excise and import duties favored British imports over the development of local industry thereby preventing the Indian economy from moving out of its dependence on the export of raw commodities.
The oppressive nature of the colonial state became starkly clear at moments of popular confrontation, as occurred during the episodes of nationwide anti colonial protest mobilized by Congress.
Particularly well known incidents include the massacre at the Jallainwallah Bagh when the army, under the command of Brigadier General Reginald Dyer, opened fire on a crowd of unarmed peasants that had gathered for a fair.
The state that claimed to represent the sturdy, loyal peasant against the seditious, upper caste urbanite opened fire on a crowd of unarmed men, women and children. According to the official report 379 civilians were killed but Indians put the dead at closer to 1,000 with more than 2, 000 wounded.
Interestingly, in response to the British sneers, Congress did not deny the existence of multiple poles of difference within the Indian nation.
Instead it claimed to represent the interests of all Indians as colonial subjects in the struggle against British imperialism.
The thrust of Congress’s argument was that colonial rule was oppressive and detrimental to the interests of all Indians, irrespective of their other identities.
Meanwhile Congress leaders, particularly Gandhi, campaigned against the iniquities of caste while as early as 1920 the Congress party, recognizing the existence of multiple linguistic identities, reorganized its party structures along linguistic lines.
Although not even the most ardent Indiaphiles would argue that post – Independence India has been an unqualified success there have been striking achievements. India has remained a reasonably stable democratic and federal state that recognizes multiple linguistic and caste identities alongside the Indian identity.
The existence of multiple poles of difference within groups demanding the right to political independence is a recurrent phenomenon of both successful and unsuccessful nationalist movements.
Opposing states have also always sought to divide nationalist movements by playing upon these differences.
Nelson Mandela describes in his autobiography how the white Nationalists state attempted to undermine the African National Congress (ANC)’s bargaining position by creating divisions within the black and colored population.
“The Nationalists’ long-term strategy to overcome our strength was to build an anti – ANC alliance with the Inkatha Freedom Party and to lure the Coloured Afrikaans – speaking voters of the Cape into a new National Party,” he says.
“From the moment of my release, they began wooing both [Inkatha leader] Buthelezi and the Coloured voters of the Cape.”
Once again the state’s strategy is one of obfuscation. By pointing to the differences within the black and coloured peoples, the Apartheid regime sought to distract attention from the exclusions and hierarchies they all suffered under white minority rule.
Dharmeratnam Sivaram, the Tamil writer and journalist assassinated in April 2005, identified the creation of divisions amongst those struggling for freedom as a classic tactic of counter–insurgency.
Mark Whitaker reports in his recent study of Sivaram’s life, work and politics – ‘Learning Politics from Sivaram,’ – a conversation in which Sivaram discussed the use of divide and rule tactics in breaking the will of a resisting population.
According to Sivaram, “promotion of numerous political and interest groups from within the target population backed, covertly or overtly, by either vigilante groups or by the state, to dilute and obfuscate the basic issue in question that in the first place gave rise to the insurgency.”
The claim that Tamils are a nation with a right to political independence does not deny the existence of gender, class, regional and religious differences amongst them.
Rather what it asserts is that the social and economic well being of all Tamils would be served by a set of autonomous political institutions that would not be hostage to the whims of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism.
It should not be forgotten that the Tamil demand for independence came as a consequence of thirty years of discrimination and oppression at the hands of a state that privileged the economic, social and political claims of the Sinhala Buddhist majority at the expense of the Tamil - speaking minority.
This discrimination and violent oppression affected all Tamils equally, regardless of their gender, religion, region, class or caste. The racist mobs that hunted out Tamils during the pogroms of the 70’s and 80’s were not good post - modernists, stopping to consider their victims’ multiple sub-identities.
Similarly the violence being unleashed now against the Tamils by the Sri Lankan state does not discriminate. Are not those supposed to be Karuna’s supporters languishing in Batticaloa’s refugee camps along with the rest of the district’s Tamils?
The failure to share international development aid equitably has affected Tamil communities from all the northeastern districts: Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu, Mannar, Vavuniya Trincomalee and Batticaloa.
The government’s Kfir bombers do not discriminate between Hindus and Christians, men and women or fishermen and farmers. All Jaffna Tamils, irrespective of caste, class and religious bent are feeling the crippling effects of the government’s refusal to open the A9 highway.
The politics of divide and rule have found form in principled arguments such as the need to make peace negotiations ‘more inclusive’ or the need for ‘other Tamil voices’ to be heard.
It is interesting that Karuna, one of the so called ‘alternative voices’, has nothing to say while 200,000 Tamils driven from their homes by the Sinhala military now languish in refugee camps.
Anandasangaree, meanwhile, rails against the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement, saying the truce had prevented the ‘liberation’ of the Tamils of the Vanni.
Indeed, it is no accident that such actors are feted by the Sinhala nationalist forces.
By prioritizing the differences within Tamils, these arguments attempt to shift attention away from the burning question of the political status of the Tamil people: are they to be an autonomous nation in a multinational state or subordinate minorities in a Sinhala Buddhist one?
Interestingly, whilst there are repeated calls for a Sinhala consensus (equates to non-ruling parties uniting behind the Sri Lankan state in its dealings with the LTTE), there is no similar call for Tamil unity.
This is even whilst the state is urged to negotiate a lasting political solution with the Tigers!
Just as in the case of Congress and the Indians, in demanding to be recognized as sole representatives of the Tamil people, the LTTE does not claim to represent every single Tamil interest and sub-identity.
Rather, the LTTE claims to represent the overarching political interests that Tamils, as a collective, have in common as a consequence of the oppression and discrimination they share.
The LTTE argues that it is the only significant, organized political force that is acting and speaking on behalf interests that all Tamils share as a consequence of their collective marginalisation within the Sinhala Buddhist state.
Thus, especially in the current climate, where Tamils are facing levels of brutality last endured during President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s ‘war for peace’, arguments and strategies that prioritise the differences within amongst Tamils over their collective suffering can be plausibly dismissed as nothing more than new attempts to break their will to resist Sinhala domination.