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Needles, Haystacks & the Sinhala Left
17 February 1997 (from the Tamil Circle)
I refer to the recent exchange of views on needles and haystacks between Mr.Vasantha Raja and Professor Peter Schalk.
Many Tamils who are committed to the struggle for an independent Tamil Eelam state, will welcome Mr. Vasantha Raja's efforts to not "merely 'spot' needles in haystacks" but also his (and others) active struggle "to transform portions of hay into needles."
However, Mr.Vasantha Raja does not appear to be satisfied with the limited attention that Professor Schalk suggests that we may give such efforts. He has spelled out the reasons why Tamils should give greater attention to the 'active struggle' to transform portions of hay into needles. One of the reasons that he advances is that this 'active struggle' will in the short term 'significantly demoralise the Sinhala army occupying the Tamil homeland and would perhaps diminish the number of new recruits to the army'. According to Mr.Vasantha Raja the Sinhala 'oppressed poor' are being 'hoodwinked' by the "opportunistic political-game being played by the UNP/SLFP duo".
Here, Tamils may fear that Mr.Vasantha Raja's exposition in the Tamil Circle of the strategy of the 'Sinhala progressives' may evoke an even more virulent chauvinist response by the 'UNP/SLFP' duo who may attempt to tarnish such 'Sinhala progressives' as traitors to the Sinhala nation. And Sinhala workers and peasants (who, according to Mr.Vasantha Raja, appear to have shown a certain propensity to be hoodwinked in the past) may be 'hoodwinked' yet again.
After all, Marxists in Germany in the 1930s spoke of the working class brotherhood, and called upon the workers of the world to unite and in the end were annihilated by Hitler's chauvinism and militarism - a chauvinism and militarism which found fertile ground in the economic hardships of the German workers and peasants in the depression years. The German Marxists failed to recognise that German workers and peasants, were not only workers and peasants but were also German.
Again, in days gone by, we had the old left of the CP and the LSSP who sought to represent the Sinhala workers and peasants. Initially, these parties supported parity and federalism. And there were some Tamils who were diverted into supporting these parties and gave them more than 'a little attention'. In 1956, the LSSP opposed the Sinhala Only law and Tamils remember LSSP leader Dr.Colvin R.De Silva's courageous stand: "One language, two nations - two languages, one nation".
But as time went on, and the 'revolution which was always round the corner' failed to materialise, the courage also diminished. The old left realised that their 'federal' line was not winning them the support of the Sinhala 'workers and peasants', and they switched to the 'masalavadai' line; opposed even the innocuous District Councils proposed by Dudley Senanayake; participated as coalition partners of Mrs.Bandaranaike's government in 1970; and LSSP leader Dr.Colvin R.De Silva became the architect of the 1972 Republican Constitution which repealed even the earlier meagre safeguards against discrimination and furthermore secured that the Sinhala Only law was given constitutional protection.
Then we had the revolutionary left of the JVP which took a rabidly anti Indian Tamil stand and at no time supported the Tamil struggle for self determination. Some of those on the fringe of the JVP later functioned as advisers to President Premadasa. Others, now function as 'ethnic advisers' to the Chandrika government.
We also have the 'new' left of the NSSP of Vasudeva Nanayakara *, who says he supports Tamil self determination but he would not support secession - 'self determination' but we will advise you what you should determine! And, in a recent interview published on the Web he also feels that today's TULF reflects substantial Tamil opinion - failing to note that even under an IPKF sponsored provincial council election in 1987, the TULF was badly beaten.
Here, let it be said that this is not simply a matter of 'honest' Sinhala left politicians and 'dishonest or opportunist' ones. The old Sinhala left and the new Sinhala left failed to influence their own Sinhala people during the past several years because they started from a Marxist theoretical premise which was fundamentally flawed.
Theory is a practical thing. Many years ago, Samir Amin declared that the theory of nationalism was Marxism's greatest historical failure. And I believe that he was right.
But for the Sinhala left to admit to this will also mean abandoning much of the Marxist baggage which they hold dear. And so they end up by claiming that the 'workers and peasants' were 'hoodwinked' - hoodwinked year after year for the past forty years and more.
Strangely, it is Marxists who seem to take an elitist view of 'workers and peasants' as being easily 'hoodwinkable'. Workers and peasant are not ignorant. They do understand and relate to their ethnic identities. It is the Marxist who talks about 'the diametrically opposed' class divisions in Sinhala society who does not understand that modern day nationalism is a deep and horizontal comradeship which cuts across vertical class divisions.
The political fact is that the overwhelming majority of the Sinhala people (including millions of Sinhala workers and peasants) over the past forty years and more, have consistently elected and supported political leaders who are determined to continue to rule the Tamil people and who refuse to recognise the existence of the Tamil homeland.
Whilst it is true that leaders influence a people, equally it is a people who create their leaders. It is not a case of either or but both. It is in the interplay that political reality lies.
Again, it is not that economic contradictions within a society are not relevant but the question that Marxism failed to adequately answer was why it was that economic discontent found expression through an 'ethnic' channel. For example, why was it that the JVP insurrection in 1971 did not include a single Tamil within its fold? Was it that youth unemployment amongst the Tamils was less than it was amongst the Sinhalese?
Again, thousands of Tamils who were eyewitnesses to the 'Sinhala poor' with raised sarongs attacking Tamil homes, burning Tamils alive, and murdering hundreds, in 1958, 1977 and again in 1983 will have their own personal understanding of the deep roots of the Sinhala Buddhist identity.
Further, nationalism is one thing. Chauvinism another. Chauvinism is an exaggerated nationalism which seeks to conquer and rule other people. But here too, Sinhala chauvinism is not simply a creation of the Sinhala political leadership and the Buddhist Maha Sangha. The question may properly be asked: why is it that whilst the Tamil nation seeks only freedom and does not seek to rule the Sinhala people, the Sinhala nation seeks to occupy the Tamil homeland and rule the Tamil people?
After all, it is not that the Sinhala people are evil people. They are as evil or as good as any other people.
But the Sinhala people do not see only the Tamil people in the North-East of the island. They also see more than fifty million Tamils across a narrow stretch of water in Tamil Nadu. They see the plantation Tamils in the hill country. To the Sinhala people, they are all Tamils.
It is a demography which has been reinforced by that which the Sinhala people see as history. They see that Buddhism which (largely) died in the land of the birth of the Buddha, did survive in the island of Sri Lanka. They see that Sinhalese as a language was never spoken in India but has grown and flourished in the island of Sri Lanka - and nowhere else. They believe that the growth of the Sinhalese language and Buddhism in the island went hand in hand and was protected by brave Sinhala kings and the Maha Sangha against alien Tamil invaders. They believe that the Sinhala Buddhist nation can be protected only if they control the entirety of island. They see the island of Sri Lanka as a Sinhala Buddhist deepa.
They glorify King Dutugemenu, who was found by his mother, as a child, on his bed, huddled in a corner. When asked by his mother why he was huddled in a corner, Dutugemenu replied: "The Sinhala people too are huddled in a corner of the island." And King Dutugemenu later went on to wage war against the Tamil King Elara in the North and was the victor. Dutugemenu's feeling of being huddled in a corner, was perhaps, not dissimilar to Hitler's feeling that the German people, without access to the seas and oceans, were being pushed into a corner by the mercantile states of Europe.
The story of King Dutugemenu is known to every ten year old Sinhala child and is taught with pride in every school in the island as a part of the history of the land. As a Tamil, I myself was taught the story in the History class in a Colombo school some forty five years ago. Today, it is repeated by Sinhala mothers and fathers to their children who later become, in Marxist terms, Sinhala 'workers and peasants', and the Sinhala 'poor' and the 'Sinhala masses'.
The Achilles heel of Sinhala chauvinism is that as it continues to act on the basis of its fear that all Tamils are one, its actions will result in consolidating and strengthening that oneness. The idea of an independent Tamil state has taken firm root in Tamil consciousness and will not go away.
Whilst therefore Tamils welcome the efforts of Sinhala 'progressives' who seek to rid chauvinism from the midst of the Sinhala people, they are also mindful of the immediate and urgent concerns that the people of Tamil Eelam confront in the face of the genocidal war being waged by the Chandrika government. During the Nazi blitzgrieg of Britain in the 1940s, it would have been unwise for Winston Churchill to have given more than a 'little attention' to the potential of the German workers and peasants to rise against Hitler. He had more immediate and serious matters to address.
And as for Mr.Vasantha Raja's concern for Tamils living in Sinhala areas after Tamil Eelam is formed, the fact is that many Tamils will probably prefer to settle in the new state, and help to build a prosperous and independent nation as well as a future for their children and their children's children - a future where they may grow to the fullness of their potential. As for those Tamils who choose to remain in Sri Lanka, an independent Tamil Eelam will help to secure their security, their human rights and dignity. It is not only Bosnia that we should look at. We can look at Latvia, Estonia, and Ukraine as well. And, yes, even Chechenya.
By all means, let us not take a static view of matters. Let Sinhala progressives (and Marxists) explore the potential of the contradictions within Sinhala society so that they may liberate their own people from the grip of Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism and create a self confident Sinhala nation that sees no need to masquerade as the 'Sri Lankan' nation - a self confident Sinhala nation that is at ease with itself and does not feel threatened by Tamil freedom. Let them recognise the pointed force of Professor Schalk's comment that you cannot 'forge' a so called 'Sri Lankan nation' except as an exercise in forgery. Let them go amongst their own Sinhala people. Let Sinhala progressives do all this, not so much to help the Tamil struggle, but to help their own Sinhala people.
Arguably, this is a task which should engage their full attention and their energies. Perhaps as Marxist-Leninists they may also see the common sense of Lenin's statement (in a different context) to march separately and strike together, should the circumstances make that necessary and possible. Let them also learn the lessons from the failure of the German 'progressives' in Hitlers Germany.
Nadaraja Thangathurai's statement from the dock, fourteen years ago, on 1 March 1983 is also something that Sinhala 'progressives' may also want to bear in mind:
But as for the Tamil people Velupillai Pirabaharan's words on Maha Veera Naal on 26 November 1996 will hopefully help to focus minds and hearts:
At this point of time, expatriate Tamils can expose in a systematic fashion, the genocidal nature of the war that Chandrika has launched - a war that 'has seriously disrupted the peace of the Tamils, reduced them to refugees, as subjugated people, destroyed their social and economic existence and brought them intolerable suffering'.
Expatriate Tamils can help to expose 'the military atrocities occurring in the occupied areas and the anti-Tamil persecution taking place in the South' and show that ' compared to previous Sinhala Governments, it is Chandrika's regime which has inflicted a deep wound in the soul of the Tamil nation.'
In this way, expatriate Tamils can make it more difficult for those who pretend not to see to continue their pretence with any degree of credibilty.
The expatriate Tamil community can also help by fearlessly spelling out the legitimacy of the Tamil struggle and its lawful nature and challenge 'the intense propaganda campaign' launched by Sri Lanka to demonise the LTTE.
Despite the preponderant weight of international law showing that the struggle of the Tamil people against alien Sinhala occupation is an armed conflict, and an international armed conflict at that, the Sri Lanka government and their apologists continue to treat Tamil resistance as an 'internal disturbance', and label it as 'terrorism'. In this way, they seek to provide a legitimising facade for the Biafran type genocidal attack on the Tamil people.
The short point is that the genocidal war that Sri Lanka is waging against a people struggling to assert their right to self determination is unlawful and unjust and the recent example of the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechenya serves to underline the urgent and imperative need for Sri Lanka to withdraw its armed forces from the Tamil homeland and in this way advance the peace process.