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Unitary state, united citizens and multiculturalism

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Many of us living in the multi-cultural, pluralist societies of the West tend to take for granted our freedoms. Britain, for example, is, on the whole, a multicultural and tolerant society. But even Britain faces its communal fissures. Post June 2005, there has been considerable soul searching as to whether Britain’s multiculturalism, its encouragement of diversity, has gone so far as to prevent the establishment a unifying national identity that will withstand the pressures of opposing religious and national loyalties. Ethnic harmony, it seems, is not inevitable; it needs constant nurturing even amongst the most tolerant of societies.

In contrast, the question for Sri Lanka is whether ethnic harmony can begin to be achieved within the framework of a single country. There is an unstated assumption among the international community as well as the Southern (Sinhala) electorate that just because countries like Britain has achieved a level of multi ethnic harmony, so can Sri Lanka - eventually, if not now.

Southern voters demonstrably privilege the maintenance of a unitary state over that of multi-ethnic harmony (the latter is only valued in its contribution to the former).

Or perhaps, at least that Sri Lanka can appear to. For the priority of those who oppose an independent Tamil state on the island is not a multi ethnic Sri Lanka but merely a unitary one. The principle of a unitary Sri Lanka is thus more important than that of multiculturalism. This unitary state is the platform on which the current President, like those before him, was elected. A multi ethnic Sri Lanka is an unavoidable necessity for a unitary Sri Lank, a means to this end. The alternative – a mass emigration (or, for some extremists, expulsion) of the Tamils is not feasible.

The question as to which – ethnic harmony or unitary state – is more important by posing two stark choices. (a) two happily functioning multi ethnic states, side by side or (b) a single Sri Lanka with an discontent Tamil population. The former entails Tamils and Muslims living as a minority in the southern state and Sinhalese and Muslims living as minorities in the northern state. The latter entails dwindling minority populations as the ranks of Diaspora in the West and elsewhere expand.

Undoubtedly the second option would be a clear preference. All the signs today point to this. The current president was elected on a staunchly unitary platform, even though it will perpetuate the ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka. President Rajapakse could easily seek a mandate to go to war to recover the unitary state, if peace talks fail to dismantle the de-facto new state in the north. This moreover, despite the obvious death and deprivation this would visit on the minority communities in the Northeast.

A high proportion of Tamils have already emigrated, fleeing the civil war. Undoubtedly more will leave if the war resumes, despite the best efforts of international immigration measures to prevent this. There are an estimated million Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora around the world, particularly in North America, Europe and Australia, representing roughly a third of the Tamil population of Sri Lanka.

But the proponents of a unitary Sri Lanka have never been against the emigration “solution”. On the contrary, in the past, emigration of non-Sinhala communities has been encouraged or forced through legislation. The 1948 citizenship act which deprived a million Upcountry Tamils of citzenship, almost all of whom were third generation ‘Sri Lankans,’ followed by the 1964 Srima-Shastri pact which provided for the repatriation of almost 650 000 of these to India is the most notable.

No southern political party objected to the 1948 act or the follow up repatriation 16 years later. No southern party has lamented the departure of the Tamils, let alone reached out to this now massively skilled and educated population to return for Sri Lanka’s betterment.

Now in theory, the first solution above, that of two peacefully coexisting enjoying harmoniously multi ethnic polities is perfectly possible. Yet there is a barely concealed assumption both within the Tamil and Sinhala communities that secession by the de-facto LTTE state will require an outward movement of Tamils from the south and Sinhalese from the south - primarily for security reasons.

This is evidenced in a number of public statements, most recently in 2005 by the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister on a trip to Washington that the government could not guarantee the safety of the Tamils in Colombo in the event of a resumed conflict. It also underpins that oft asked question: what would become of those Colombo Tamils who wish to live in Colombo if the island were no longer a single state?

To those of us who live in truly multi ethnic societies the answers to these questions seem blindingly clear. Even if the traditional Tamil homelands were to become a new state, what is to prevent those Colombo Tamils who prefer it, from opting for southern (Sri Lankan) citizenship? Equally, what is to prevent an (Tamil) Eelam citizen from living in Colombo or holding property? Clearly the other foreigners will continue to live or work in Colombo?

Rhetorical questions, of course – at least for now. But in the lack of acceptable answers to these questions, we see the superficiality of Sri Lanka’s claim to a multi-ethnic, pluralistic vision. There are no election manifestos with discussions of how to ensure the safety of the Tamils in the south in the event of conflict: even those ‘liberal’ politicians who seek the southern Tamil vote rarely dwell on this in public (and yet are surprised when Colombo Tamils heed the advice of (Tamil) political forces and do not bother to vote). Rather, Southern elections are won through championing of the ways and means, including war, by the unitary state can be protected and preserved.

Southern voters demonstrably privilege the maintenance of a unitary state over that of multi-ethnic harmony (the latter is only valued in its contribution to the former).

This then posits another question: can Sri Lanka, in a reasonable period, evolve to a genuinely multi ethnic society instead of the present Sinhala-Buddhist dominated one? The latter has been around for six decades (remember ‘Sinhala Only’ of 1956?) and has become increasingly entrenched with even the international community sensitive to Sinhala-Buddhist sentiments.

But despite the manifest practical difficulties of dismantling Sinhala-Buddhist dominance – a pre-requisite to produce an individual based equality, there is a stubborn refusal amongst single-state liberals to acknowledge this will not only need enormous willpower – or pressure – but will take an dauntingly long time, with no guarantee of success or of reversal on the way.

And here in lies the rub. It is easy to forget that Britain’s multiculturalism has been at least sixty years in the making (assuming the result of two thousand years of successive immigration or invasion by the early Celts, Romans, Vikings, Saxons and Normans can be considered a single community before World War 2). It is Britain’s democratic institutions and liberal value underpinned society which provide the foundation for its present multiculturalism. And, as is well known, even then there have been resistance, tension, even serious ruptures on the way.

Nevertheless, Britain has assimilated – by strong liberal principles, rather than strong unitary state – immigrants from every continent, perhaps every country. There are, for example, an estimated 4 million ‘Indians’ who still cherish strong Indian – Bengali, Gujarati, Tamil – identities (as well as an Indian and a British one), whilst being loyal, productive and, above all, happy, UK citizens.

Sri Lanka, by contrast, has hardly produced a national identity in which even the island’s non-Sinhala communities – let alone others from abroad – could easily join. The Scots and English have lived separately for millennia, but are equally British. Tamils and Sinhalese, who have lived for almost the entirety of their centuries of occupation of the island as two separate communities. The latest set of ‘immigrants’, the Upcountry Tamils, are still segregated and outside the Sri Lankan’ identity.

The administrative ‘unification’ of the Tamil and Sinhala entities by British colonial administrators two centuries ago, could, arguably, have led post-independence to genuine integration. See Singapore. But this opportunity was spurned and gave way instead to racist post-independence legislation.

'A unitary state is not a prerequisite for inter-ethnic harmony and peace, whereas the reverse is true.'

Between independence and 1983, the periodic riots ensured that security remained a fundamental concern for Tamils seeking to live and work in traditionally non-Tamil parts of the country. The argument that the anti Tamil riots are events of the past is made hollow by the fact that there has never been even a symbolic act of reparation: neither an effort to bring the perpetrators to justice, nor an apology, nor compensation. And the 1983 anti Tamil riots were followed immediately by the eruption of civil war as the Tamils sought separation and the south began to focus its effort (and defense budget) on maintaining the unitary state.

It is worth noting a unitary state is not a prerequisite for inter-ethnic harmony and peace, whereas the reverse is true. Whereas a unitary state can be built and (for some time at least) held by force, a truly pluralistic and multi-ethnic state can only be built with consensus and a truly shared, even loved identity.

But that consensus cannot be built when there is no acceptance of the ethnic tensions and animosity that underpin Sri Lanka’s election campaigns, media reporting, ordinary life. It is on critical – political - matters that ethnic harmony is truly put to the test and must be judged, not the superficial unity of cricket or mixed neighbourhoods.

It is also impossible to move from here to the ideal multi-ethnic vision without acknowledging the objective realities of the Northeast. The obsessive pursuit of the unitary state by military means disenfranchises and alienates the Tamils. The de-facto Tamil-dominated state in the Northeast is a product, not a cause of ethnic tensions. The Sinhala garrison patrolling Tamil Jaffna is corroding the foundation of a multi-ethnic state. But without this foundation the unitary project is ultimately doomed. Catch 22. But who dares admit it?

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