Sri Lanka: Genocide and Other Majoritarian Falsehoods

Pothik Ghosh

Majoritarian chauvinism is almost always seen as a natural, if not a fitting, response to fascistic tendencies within a minority community. Sri Lanka has been no exception. The manner in which the triumphal advance of the island-nation’s armed forces into the northern bastion of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have been welcomed the world over, and particularly in India, indicates this has indeed become established wisdom. Buoyed by the current discourse on terrorism, the global opinion seems to have internalised the idea that violence cannot be immoral or unjust as long as it emanates from the state. And yet there could not be a crueler joke at this moment than to offer the imminent victory of the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) over the LTTE as hope of redemption to Tamils of the island-nation. Not only would such a victory weigh heavily against them by reinforcing the oppressive status quo and its configurations of majoritarianised socio-political power; it would completely obscure the origins of authoritarian and bonapartist tendencies among Tamils in the institutionalised Sinhala majoritarianism and the larger fascist conjuncture of Sri Lankan society.

New Delhi is probably being naïve when it continually expresses its concern for the civilian Tamil population of northern Sri Lanka even as it extends complete ‘moral’ support to the SLA’s operations against the Tigers’ apparatus of “terror”. The two simply do not sit together. Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s assertion that the SLA has been extremely careful in preventing collateral damage while mounting and carrying out successful military assaults on the political-military bases of the LTTE is, in that context, entirely disingenuous. And the only claim that exceeds such cant is Colombo’s declaration that it would implement the country’s 13th constitutional amendment for devolution of more powers to the northern province, once the LTTE has been wiped out, to enable the majority Tamil population of that province to realise its aspiration for greater autonomy. For, it is precisely the repeated denial of such autonomy to the Tamils by the majoritarian Sinhala polity and state that jump-started the Tamil separatist insurgency and civil war in Sri Lanka. It is kind of hard to believe that the island Tamils, who failed to wrest such autonomy from the Sinhala state during the heyday of their politics, would be bestowed with such autonomy at a time when they have no real and effective political agency left.

If Colombo does, indeed, effect such devolution, it would be no more than a top-down political manoeuvre, which instrumentalises Tamil autonomy and renders it purely formal. In other words, such institutionalised autonomy would barely be a chimera of the political autonomy the Sri Lankan Tamil struggle, both in its federalist-constitutionalist phase and its more radical separatist-nationalist moment, had sought to accomplish. This struggle for autonomy, albeit articulated by the bourgeois logic of competitive national sovereignty, had potentially posed the question of transforming the unequal configurations of social power and entitlements and their institutionalisation in a Sinhala majoritarian state into a more cooperative, dialogic and egalitarian socio-economic formation and, therefore, a more democratic and participatory state formation. The autonomy the Rajapaksa regime would deliver to the northern Tamils – whose vigorous political struggle for self-determination has almost entirely been exterminated – after it militarily vanquishes the LTTE, would leave the institutionalised structures of majoritarian power, and the unequal social order it is constitutive of, intact. Such autonomy would, therefore, at best create a new strata of Tamil political elite, which would be accommodated by its Sinhala counterparts in a spirit of class collaboration within the existing structures of socio-economic privilege and socio-political power. Meanwhile, the condition of the pauperised Tamil working class – which is already quite handicapped by the disappearance of the vigorous Tamil nationalist struggle and the non-emergence of a real proletarian movement – would only get worse.

That, after all, is exactly what Colombo has achieved in the name of devolution in the other Tamil majority province in the east, which was once also a hotbed of LTTE activity. The Tamils who comprise the supposedly more autonomous provincial government are essentially renegade LTTE elite, including Colonel Karuna, who was Vellupillai Prabhakaran’s eastern satrap till he fell out with the Tiger supremo in what was no more than a power struggle between two sections of the LTTE elite. That this government has delivered neither democracy nor equity to the eastern province is amply indicated by reports of a new power struggle having taken root within the breakaway LTTE faction and its government with the resulting violence spilling over into its wider Tamil-dominated society.

It is nobody’s case, though, that the LTTE is a paragon of national-liberationist and revolutionary virtues. The organisation has become, for its Tamil constituency, a fount of institutionalised military oppression. It has, as a consequence, undermined the very concept of Tamil political autonomy it claims to be fighting for. The question, in such circumstances, is who will decimate and displace the LTTE and how will it be done? To assume, as many including even some liberal sympathisers of Sri Lankan Tamils have, that it does not matter at this juncture if this task of eliminating the authoritarian organisation is accomplished by the security forces of the majoritarian Sinhala state is not only politically misplaced, but ethically troublesome too. The modality of politics constitutive of the ongoing anti-LTTE operation of the SLA sees not only the competitive struggle posed by the LTTE-led Tamil political elite against the Sinhala elite as a threat to the latter’s superior position within the socio-political hierarchy in the region, it even sees whatever is left of the non-LTTE Tamil nationalist impulse rooted in the Tamil working class as a challenge to its position and the hegemony of competitive and stratified capitalist socialisation it embodies. The overrunning of Killinochi, the LTTE’s administrative capital, by the SLA and the current fight to the finish it is waging against Tiger guerrillas in the jungles of Mullaithivu are, therefore, part of a deliberate military-political strategy to destroy not only the LTTE but also, in the bargain, crush all genuine aspirations for Tamil autonomy and empowerment and the concomitant potential desire to shift the paradigm of socialisation from competition and domination to cooperative socio-economic association and socio-political dialogue.

To not recognise this modality of anti-LTTE Sinhala politics, even as the LTTE is castigated for its reactionary and authoritarian strain of Tamil nationalism renders ‘fascism’ into an abstract, one-dimensional moral category and fails to locate it within the larger conjunctural dynamic of capitalism and its institutionalised structures of power. The LTTE’s ossification into a parallel state indicates the transformation of a section of the leadership of the Tamil nationalist resistance into a bureaucratised political elite. This transition, which occurs in all movements for political autonomy, has in this case underscored the failure of a section of the Tamil resistance movement to articulate, not merely subjectively but also objectively, the dialectical interplay between the social and the political. All struggles for political autonomy, whether proletarian or national-liberationist, aim to capture state power. Such seizure of state power is, however, not an end in itself. It is the first step towards reconfiguring institutionalised political power in a fashion that renders the state formation more participatory so that the qualitative and quantitative distribution and circulation of resources, which are constitutive of the differential of socio-political power, are also radically altered to yield a more egalitarian and less exploitative socio-economic order. An anti-LTTE critique and political struggle, which ought to have emerged from within the wider Sri Lankan Tamil society, would have sought to redress the failure of the Tamil nationalist movement on that count. The struggle, which would have sought to displace the LTTE, would not have implied a criticism of the Tigers’ will to capture state power as it would have attempted to do pretty much the same. Rather, it ought to have spelt rejection of the LTTE on behalf of the dispossessed and disenfranchised majority of the Sri Lankan Tamils for its unwillingness to reconfigure hierarchised structures of social power into a maximally democratic, cooperative and dialogic socio-political domain. This struggle, needless to say, would have had to be against the LTTE and the new Tamil political elite it embodies without giving up the larger Tamil resistance against Sinhala chauvinism.

In fact, the continuous forging of alliances among various Tamil nationalist outfits, their frequent disintegration into mutually warring factions, and splits within organisations – ever since the days of the formation of the Tamil United Front in 1972, the Tamil United Liberation Front in 1976 and right up until the mid-’80s – was precisely the churn that resulted from such struggles within the movement among the champions of a Tamil elite constantly in the making and the proponents of Tamil underclasses. That this churn eventually came to an end with the LTTE managing to successfully eradicate all opposition to its Thermidorian ascendancy within the Tamil national movement in Sri Lanka is largely responsible for the current predicament of the Sri Lankan Tamils where they are condemned to choose between two forms of ethno-nationalist authoritarianism.

That the Tamil movement for political autonomy has been a nationalist movement makes this predicament doubly difficult to beat, especially for the Tamil working class. Isaac Deutscher had, in an interview on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to the New Left Review in 1967, said: “…even in the revolutionary phase each nationalism has its streak of irrationality, an inclination to exclusiveness, national egoism and racism.” He could well have been speaking about Tamil nationalism.

There is absolutely no doubt that both the initial federalist movement for Tamil autonomy, under the leadership of S J V Chelvanayagam’s Tamil Federal Party, and the violent Tamil nationalist separatism into which it was subsequently transformed, through two decades of the recalcitrant rise and spread of Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism, were largely centred on a revanchist conception of the indigenous Tamil community’s royalist and feudal past in the northern and eastern parts of the island. And yet it would be equally difficult to deny that the emergence of such politics was entirely on account of the Tamils’ political disenfranchisement, socio-economic dispossession and cultural marginalisation – various moments of a singular political-economic manoeuvre – effected by an extremely repressive and supremacist Sinhala polity. Merely because native Tamil elites of Sri Lanka’s north and east experienced the institutionalised socio-economic marginalisation and political disempowerment of their community as an erosion of their traditional privileges, and have articulated it thus, does not mean that the Sinhala ruling classes have not systematically repressed and pauperised them. Legislation such as the Official Language Act, 1956, which proclaimed Sinhalese as the sole official language, the enactment of a Sinhala-supremacist Constitution in 1972 that made Buddhism into a de-facto state religion, not to speak of various legal and extra-legal measures (riots and pogroms) to socio-economically hold down the Tamils, are examples of how Sinhala majoritarianism has been the local ideological manifestation of the capitalist political economy of economic exploitation, social oppression and political domination. In such circumstances, Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism, which is objectively located in a social group that aspires to liberate itself from socio-political domination and economic marginalisation, cannot be rejected just because its ideological provenance and political tenor have been revanchist and elitist respectively. To quote Deutscher again: “The nationalism of the people in semi-colonial or colonial countries, fighting for their independence must not be put on the same moral-political level as the nationalism of conquerors and oppressors. The former has its historic justification and progressive aspect which the latter has not.”

True, the failure of Sri Lanka’s native Tamils to take up the cause of the Indian origin Tamil plantation workers of the central highlands, when they were repatriated to India in 1964 after the major anti-Tamil pogrom of 1958 in the Sinhala-dominated areas, was precisely on account of this elitist and revivalist orientation of the Tamil autonomy movement. And yet that would only be a partial telling of the story. Most of the blame for the brutal marginalisation, and repatriation (read expulsion) of this indentured community of Tamil workers should be laid on the doors of the Communist Party of Ceylon and the Ceylon Workers’ Party: working class organisations that had been the principal political agency of those central highland Tamils till they gradually began allowing their politics, together with that of other Sinhala liberals, to be by and large subsumed by the right-wing nationalism of the Sinhala elite. That, needless to say, virtually extinguished the fundamentally secular and social transformative politics of the Tamil indentured labourer community. A politics that could have emerged as a more progressive and ecumenical alternative to both the LTTE’s brand of authoritarian nationalism and the majoritarian chauvinism of the Sinhala ruling classes.

Besides, it would be grossly inaccurate to trace the genealogy of LTTE’s autocratic vision of Tamil nationalism to the elitist ideological moorings of the original movement for Tamil autonomy. The emergence of revolutionary guerrilla groups through the mid-’70s to the early ’80s, which either avowed a left-wing nationalist or a Maoist position, shows that nationalism of Sri Lankan Tamils had progressed beyond its elitist beginnings in the quest for federal autonomy towards a politics that sought to envisage national self-determination in terms of a larger project of militant social transformation. That groups such as the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation, Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students, People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam and Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front were eventually wiped out by the LTTE, which had in the meantime degenerated into a bureaucratised and institutionalised cabal of a new Tamil political elite, was as much on account of the tactical, political-military failure of those revolutionary nationalist groups vis-à-vis the LTTE, as the effective support the LTTE elite received from the Indian ruling classes (state) in their collaborative competition against the Sinhala ruling elite on one hand, and the revolutionary nationalist Tamil impulse on the other. All that, however, changed with the arrival of the Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka in 1987. The war the IPKF waged against the LTTE signaled a shift in the axis of competitive struggle among various configurations of the regional elite within the larger stratified capitalist hegemony in the region. Clearly, the Indian state was now collaborating with the Sinhala elite in a bid to not only prevent the LTTE’s new political elite from emerging as a force to reckon with within the stratified capitalist order of the region, but to also exterminate all revolutionary Tamil nationalist impulses that could pose a challenge to the hegemony that underpinned this order. The support the current Indian government has been extending to the Sri Lankan Army’s relentless advance into Tiger country, even as it joins Colombo to pay lip-service to the well-being of Tamil civilians “trapped by the LTTE fighters” in the jungles of Mullaithivu, is of a piece with this decades-old Indian imperialistic enterprise of preserving the existing structure of socio-political stratification in the region and the capitalist hegemony that engenders it. It is probably not naïveté after all.

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