‘Eelam Tamil’: The Politics behind the Term

Karthick RM

“Words are never “only words”; they matter because they define the contours of what we can do.”Slavoj Zizek

In the discussions that have taken place on the Tamil national question in Sri Lanka, the concerned subjects have been referred to, even by well meaning comrades, as ‘Sri Lankan Tamils’. Whereas the subjects, if one should go by the term used by various Tamil activists, intellectuals and just common people who stand for the struggle for a Tamil homeland, refer to themselves as ‘Eelam Tamils’. What is in a name, as the bard asked ages ago? While the word ‘Eelam’ has been part of Tamil vocabulary for ages to denote the geographical entity which is called Sri Lanka today, the latter name became popular only a few decades back. All the same, today’s ‘Eelam’ has a completely different meaning and connotation from the ‘Eelam’ of the ancient period. Followers of national liberation movements across the world be it Palestine, Kurdistan or Chechnya, would know that the terms used to describe the people and the geographies they contest were not the same in the past as they are now. Of more value than the etymology of self-defining terms of oppressed nationalities is the deployment of such terms in their present resistance and thus, the contemporary usage of such terms is more political than anything else. Keeping this argument in mind, the article seeks to explain the politics of the term ‘Eelam Tamil’ and what it means to the Tamil resistance and its participants.

The sociologist Manuel Castells defines idenity as a people’s sense of meaning and experience. He argues that though identities may originate from dominant institutions, “they become identities only when and if social actors internalize them, and construct their meaning around this internalization.” From the day Sri Lanka achieved its independence, the recognized powers defining Tamil identity were primarily Colombo-centred Tamil elites, who were mostly bureaucrats in service of the Sri Lankan state. The institution they served and the Sinhala elites whom it primarily benefited championed a Sri Lankan nationalism that was essentially based on suspicion and/or hatred of the Tamil people. At its racist worst, Sri Lankan nationalism aimed at annihilation of the Tamil identity. At its liberal best, it aimed at assimilation. The post-independence Tamil elites found it easier to negotiate with the latter aspect, and like all elites disconnected from masses, had only their sectarian economic interests in mind. Despite the rather obvious structural racism that was being installed against the Tamil people, the Colombo Tamil believed that a liberal balancing act between two loyalties was possible. Accordingly, they sold out on popular classes. The best example of such betrayal was their unquestioning support to the Sirimavo-Sastri past of 1964 – the first major act of ethnic cleansing – by which over half a million upcountry Tamils, almost entirely belonging to the labouring classes, were stripped off their citizenship rights and shipped to India. Likewise, the process of colonization of Tamil territories and the phenomena of Sinhalization, where certain Tamil sections either owing to apprehension or seeking benefits ‘converted’ as Sinhalese, were also not challenged by these gentlemen.

For the Tamil popular classes the contradiction inherent in this identity project was becoming apparent even in the 50’s. Almost as if giving voice to this, V. Navaratnam, a theorist of Tamil nationalism and a doyen of the Federal party, wrote in 1957 in a short tract called ‘Ceylon in Crisis’ of the irreconcilable antagonism between the Tamil people and the unitary state. He was also highly contemptuous of the ‘Colombo Tamil intelligentsia’, a constant throughout his life – he would brand them as traitors later. While the Tamil people were unable to relate to the identity project of the pro-state Tamil elites, being unable to internalize it or relate it to their experiences, facing discrimination and violence at a day to day level from the very state they were called to be loyal to, they were still unable to come to terms with the terms of the radical nationalists. To use Sartrean terminology, the critical transition from seriality to a group-in-fusion was still incomplete. But not for long.

The Black activist Stokely Carmichael said that “We have to fight for the right to invent the terms which will allow us to define ourselves and to define our relations to society, and we have to fight that these terms will be accepted.” The 60’s and 70’s in Sri Lanka, periods that witnessed anti-Tamil violence, repressive laws, an escalation of colonization and institutional discrimination, were also periods where the Tamil political actors contesting the powers-that-be were fervently searching for the terms with which they would address themselves vis-à-vis the oppressor. Even as in 1972 Sri Lankan nationalists got a shot in their arm with the ethnocratic ‘republican’ constitution that effectively made Tamils third grade citizens, the political vocabulary of the Tamils was rife with an old word that got a new lease of life and meaning – Eelam. In 1973, S.J.V. Chelvanayagam, hailed later on as the father of the Eelam Tamil polity, pleaded for the recognition of a Eelam Tamil nationality as a distinct political entity with its right to self-determination. Three years later, the historical Vaddukkodai resolution that declared the necessity of the struggle for a “Free, Sovereign, Secular, Socialist State of Tamil Eelam” was passed under his aegis. After decades of attempted negotiations, reconciliations and compromises with the oppressors, the oppressed now had a paradigm, a terminology of self-definition of their identity. The Eelam Tamil discourse was set – and after 1976, one either recognized it or opposed it. It was then no coincidence that the birth of the most resolute defenders of the Eelam Tamil struggle, the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), happened in the same year.

Identity formation was one thing – to wage an uncompromising political struggle to secure rights by/for the people who assert that identity is another. The assertion and struggle are interlinked and inseparable. Of the various organizations that emerged in the late 70’s, it was only the Tamil Tigers who were able to keep track of both. Rapidly winning support among the Tamil masses, they promoted an Eelam Tamil politico-cultural identity that was modern, secular while at the same time politically ‘intolerant’. An example of this ‘intolerance’ is a statement of theirs from the early 90’s that defines a traitor as “whoever accepts or supports the Sri Lanka unitary constitution, the Sinhala national anthem, the Sinhala national flag.” (The French Resistance was no less ‘intolerant’ of the Vichy regime collaborators who served Nazi Germany, sang the Deutschlandlied, saluted the Swastika.) Zizek argues that it is not enough that one finds new terms with which to define oneself outside of the oppressor’s tradition, one should go a step further and deprive the oppressor of the monopoly of defining tradition the way he wants it. The Tigers’ much criticized ‘intolerance’ towards renegades was then but a progressive negation of the discourses framed by the oppressors – not only was the Tamil subject required to denounce the oppressor’s polity, he was also required to denounce the oppressor’s political language and political symbols. In short, assimilation was to be made impossible.

Taking on from Chelvanayagam, V. Prabhakaran, the leader of the LTTE, argued for the rights of the Eelam Tamil nation to self determination by virtue of their possessing “a distinct language, culture and history with a clearly defined homeland and a consciousness of their ethnic identity.” Amilcar Cabral argues in ‘The Role of Culture in the Struggle for Independence’ that this type of a resistance against a militarily superior power is possible only because “the popular masses, who have preserved their culture and identity, maintain their sense of individual and collective dignity despite the torments, humiliations and depredations they must often suffer.” Such struggle, he says, “the organized political expression of culture”, is necessarily a test of identity and dignity. The struggle is not just aided by the progressive aspects of the culture of the subject people, it also injects newer progressive elements into cultural life, preventing asphyxiation at a time of crisis.

For the LTTE, this was imperative. For the first time in the modern history of the Eelam Tamils, there was organization with a leadership that emerged almost entirely from the popular classes with an exceptionally high percentage of women at decision making levels – in 2002, 5 out of the 12 member central committee were women (If one subscribes to Marx’s belief that the progressiveness of a movement can be gauged by the position that it gives women, then this fact alone should vindicate the Tigers). The philistinism of the comprador Tamil elites of Colombo, long considered the face of Tamil culture, would have to be challenged and so would decadent cultural relics among the natives. The very historical fact of the massive support among popular classes, peasantry, women and backward sections for the Tigers, and owing to their cadre base and leadership being derived from such sections, they had to look at Eelam Tamil identity and culture not just as agents of political change, but also to radically remould them to fit a project of a progressive Eelam Tamil nationalism. It was pointless to talk Tamil culture or identity in abstract – it had to be rooted in the concrete, in the socio-political context that the Eelam Tamils found themselves in. Thus, Capt. Vanathi, a LTTE leader and poet martyred in 1991, did not find the subject of her poetry in a hoary Tamil antiquity – she found her revolutionary Tamil woman in the battlefield confronting the enemy, a political agent heralding a new culture and identity.

Another phenomena, probably the core aspect of the Tigers’ Eelam Tamil project was the ‘Cult of the Hero’, a close equivalent of Robespierre’s ‘Cult of the Supreme Being’. But while the latter demanded a faith in a common secular god and the immortality of the human soul, the former required a faith in the martyrdom of fallen comrades and the immortality of the meaning of their sacrifices. The result was the creation of a secular festival – ‘Heroes Day’, held every year on the 27th of November, the day the first LTTE cadre fell in battle. Under the Tigers, the occasion drew more crowds than any religious festival of the Eelam Tamils – it still does among the diaspora – and the event not just fostered a sense of solidarity but also provided the Eelam Tamils a shared memory of opposition to persecution. Besides, the festival produced a horizondalizing effect on what was once a vertical society. The Tamils paid common homage to martyrs of different castes, subcastes, religions alike and their graves were rallying points of the Eelam Tamil culture that the Tigers hoped to create, transcending sectarian affiliations. The grave of the martyr was also symbolic of an uncompromising rejection of assimilation by the oppressor’s tradition. Thus, the annihilation strategy of the Sri Lankan state that found its highest expression in the Vanni massacre of May 2009 was accompanied by a systematic destruction of the martyrs’ graves. The message Sri Lanka wanted to give to the Eelam Tamils was this. Resistance to assimilation would meet this fate alone.

Despite the different ways that supporters looked at the project of the Eelam Tamil identity and its protagonists, there was an agreement on certain fundamental points – recognition of Eelam Tamils as a unique national formation with inalienable rights to exercise their political and economic sovereignty, which includes their rights to oppose colonization of their lands and the concomitant mutilation of their cultural consciousness by means of assimilation. With the military crushing of the LTTE, the Sri Lankan state proclaimed the end of Eelam Tamil identity as such. Let alone recognition of nationality, Mahinda Rajapaksa declared that there are no minorities in the island and that all are Sri Lankans. This, of course, implies that the Eelam Tamil is beyond the frameworks of his definition. In this, he is complemented by both Sinhala and Tamil liberal intelligentsia.

While a Tamil using the word ‘us’ to refer to the Tamils as a community perturbs the liberal Sinhala, he nevertheless tolerates it. One can be anything as long as one is Sri Lankan. The Sri Lankan liberal views the Tamil as a minority whose rights must be protected, under his patronage of course. ‘They may be Tamils, but they are Sri Lankan citizens’, he argues while protesting against the abuses of the state. The elite liberal intellectuals of Colombo recognize a plethora of rights for the Tamils – citizen rights, human rights, women rights, children rights. All rights except that one right that the Eelam Tamil people fought for – right of a nation to self-determination.

It was pointed out before how the Colombo based Tamil elites pursued an identity project that was antithetical to the interests of the popular classes of Tamil Eelam. After the tragedy of Vanni, the farce of such intelligentsia became all too apparent. Take for instance, the Colombo based Centre for Policy Alternatives, an institute extensively funded by foreign capital, a hub of Tamil intellectuals following the collaborator Neelan Tiruchelvam’s line, opposes human rights violations while at the same time justifying the war on the LTTE. According to them, the Eelam Tamils deserve human rights accorded to a minority. The national question is blasphemy to them. Their demands for “non-violent conflict resolution and democratic governance” are nothing but cover language for their attempts to defend the economic interests of those privileged sections who defend the ‘Sri Lankan Tamil’ identity against the interests of the Eelam Tamil masses who would be stripped of their powers to resist assimilation at politico-ideological levels and are also left helpless to defend their national economy pillaged by colonization. The struggle of the Sri Lankan liberals, Sinhala or Tamil, is then at odds with the struggle of the Eelam Tamil people. Their struggle is for good governance. Our struggle is for self governance. This is the crux of Eelam Tamil identity politics – not a defence of abstract cultural rights or human rights, but a concrete assertion of political sovereignty.

But the limits of Sri Lankan liberal tolerance is tested when a Tamil questions the foundations of Sri Lankan nationalism, challenges the political economy of Sinhala colonization and refuses assimilation, that is, when a Tamil subscribes to Tamil Eelam – at this point, the lines are blurred between the Tamil liberal Saravanamuttu, Sinhala liberal Sanjana Hattatuwa and the racist Gothabaya whom they claim to oppose. All three are united in denouncing and denying the status and rights of the Eelam Tamils. No wonder that liberal and racist alike find the Tamil diaspora that adamantly refuses to be defined by them an eyesore (the ideological offensive that is being waged on diaspora requires a separate analysis in its own right). After all, only an Eelam Tamil nationalism has the power to negate the reactionary negation of Sinhala colonization, thereby ending privileges of local compradors as well. It would be naïve to expect the ruling class or their liberal apologists to recognize the same. The liberal Sinhala is only the human mask of a monstrous Sri Lankan nationalism and the Sri Lankan Tamil liberal is its make-up paint. The need to recognize and expose this is imperative for those who stand by the Tamils’ rights as a nationality and it is also imperative to deny the terms and definitions of those with the Sri Lankan establishment. For starters, the Eelam Tamils should be referred to as such, and not as ‘Sri Lankan Tamil.’ The political differences between the two terms are too much for them to mean one and the same.

To sum up, the Zizekian matrix of the Event can be used to explain the state of the Eelam Tamil politics while also drawing equations for the future.

(1) Fidelity – Vaddukkodai resolution of 1976, LTTE & secular-modernist Eelam Tamil nationalism
(2) Reactive re-integration – politics of ‘Sri Lankan Tamil’ identity, minority rights
(3) Outright denial of eventual status – Sri Lankan liberalism, assimilation
(4) Catastrophic total counter-attack – Sri Lankan fascism, annihilation Vanni style
(5) Total enforcing of the Event leading to an ‘obscure disaster’ – emergence of a Hamas-styled Tamil nationalism
(6) Renewal of secular-modernist Eelam Tamil nationalism

(2) (3) and (4) all contributed at different levels to weakening of (1). (2) and (3) also require a weakening of (4) as it weakens the moral legitimacy of their advocacy of ‘co-existence’, especially in the wake of various gross abuses coming to light in the international arena. All the same, (2) and (3) will not hesitate to rally behind (4) in case of an emergence of (5) or (6). In case (6) does not emerge, considering the continuing betrayal of the interests of the Tamil popular classes by protagonists of (2), the probability of (5) cannot be ruled out – as an example, we have seen the Hamas fill the vacuum in Palestine in the face of a weakening of a progressive movement and sell out by elites. In the long run, (5) may deliver freedom, but its ability to be egalitarian is a question. Hence our case for progressives to lend their support to (6) and for the subscribers of (6) to pick-up the thread of the uncompromising emancipatory political tradition of (1) and take it forward.

So, the question “What is in a name?” is not appropriate with regards to the Eelam Tamils. After all, a people do not wage a struggle for decades and sacrifice over 200000 lives for a rose to be named differently. Considering the Eelam Tamils’ political struggle now, the more apt Shakespearean question to be posed is “To be or not to be”!

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