The “Ezuka Thamiz” rally of 24th September was more theatre than politics. As will be explained later, the phrase itself is a play on words in the fashion of “Pongu Thamiz” (2001–2008). Identifying language with race, nationality and people is strong in Tamil politics, in both Tamilnadu and the North and East of Sri Lanka, partly in response to what was seen as oppression and domination by another community. Tamil linguistic nationalism has metamorphosed over the past few centuries. In Tamilnadu resistance to Sanskritization of Tamil early in the 20th Century transformed into opposing Hindi in independent India. In Sri Lanka, ethnic rivalry within an elite group for positions of influence under colonial rule became the Language Problem in 1956 with the expressed concern that Sinhala as official language threatened the survival of Tamil. While Tamil nationalists sought to protect Tamil from Hindi and Sinhala, the real threat posed by the domination of English was mostly ignored.
While making Hindi the official language of India met with strong mass protest in Tamilnadu, the Kannadigas and Bengalis, who too had strong feelings on the subject, responded by asserting the use of their languages for key purposes in their respective states. Despite the arousal of Tamil sentiment by the politically ambitious demand and the violent protest, the opponents of Hindi were readily appeased by the assurance that English will continue as official languages as long as non-Hindi speakers want it. However, anti-Hindi sentiments craftily coupled with anti-Aryan theories (in essence anti-Brahmin in the Tamil context) paid dividends and the DMK was an unstoppable political force from 1962.
Politics of sentiment remains strong in Tamilnadu and has in the past few decades been used to stir feelings against Malayalis, Kannadigas and to a less extent Telugus, who along with Tamils were part of the Dravidanadu (Dravidian state) project which fell by the wayside even before the DMK found excuses to formally dump it, based on the anti-secessionist legislation (the Sixteenth Amendment) introduced by the Nehru regime in 1963 following the Sino-Indian border war. By the 1970’s the DMK ― which in post-independence India represented the interests of the Tamil upper and upper middle class elite and had a strong middle class following ― despite its assertion of Tamil autonomy readily compromised with the caste and class elite controlling the Indian state. A succession of state governments of Tamilnadu (headed by the DMK and its clone the AIADMK) have since ― notably except during the notorious Emergency 1975‒77 under Indira Gandhi when the DMK regime dared to defy the Centre ― been effectively reined in whenever they rebelled, with a mere hint of action on their various shady deals.
I will avoid going deeper into the politics of emotion in Tamilnadu, and it would suffice to say that the principled idealism of EV Ramasamy (Periyar) ― founder of the rationalist movement which he transformed into the Dravidian movement, and a genuine champion of the rights of women and victims of caste oppression ― was a matter of the past for the successors to the Dravidian movement. Blending sentiment with deceit, they excelled in electoral politics, compounded by large scale corruption.
The Dravidian movement had echoes in Sri Lankan Tamil politics from the late 1930’s but, except in the Hill Country, the Dravidic Mantra Kazagam (founded in 1947) had greater appeal than the more radical Dravida Kazagam of Periyar. The DMK, until it became a major force in the electoral politics of Tamilnadu in the 1960’s, had an atheistic identity and hints of residual leftist populism inherited from the DK, neither of which appealed to the leadership of the ACTC or FP. The leaders were particularly wary of the atheistic, anti-Hindu and anti-Brahmin identity of the DMK which lasted, at least nominally, into the 1960’s. The emotive language and theatrical public address which characterized DMK propaganda, however, appealed to many of the younger generation of public speakers of the FP, who were also influenced by the Tamil cinema― with a strong DMK presence in the 1950’s and early 1960’s.
Except for the short-lived Jaffna Youth Congress, idealism based on social justice was weak in Tamil nationalist politics. Emotion, a later dimension, was not noticed in the politics of the North and East even when the Hill Country Tamils were deprived of their citizenship and the right to vote. Except for the principled stand on that issue by the Ilankai Tamilarasuk Katchi (Federal Party, FP) which parted company with the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) based on that matter, there was little evidence of concern for social justice in Tamil nationalist politics after the FP supported the Hartal of 1953.
Whatever sentiment there was to Tamil nationalism was based on a strong feeling for language and culture, but not so much religion as in the South where Sinhala nationalism had all along a strong Sinhala Buddhist undercurrent. Caste-based Hindu (rather Saiva) conservative identity of the elite yielded to language-based identity in 1956, when the prospect of Sinhala becoming the sole national language of the country stirred Tamil emotion. While planned settlement of Sinhalese in the Eastern Province and later the Northern Province posed a bigger threat to Tamil national identity, little political work was done in that respect until the 1970’s, but again not by parliamentary politicians. The FP, the main Tamil nationalist party since 1956, concentrated on the language issue until 1965, when it joined the government led by the Sinhala nationalist UNP.
The FP’s call for protest against the Sinhala Only Act and its demand for parity of status for Tamil and Sinhala were well received by Tamils across the country. But the FP was mainly interested in parliamentary strength, based on support in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. There was, however, mobilization of Tamils on an unprecedented scale since 1956 until the collapse of the Satyagraha campaign of 1961, based on the language issue. The FP, like its weakened Tamil nationalist rival the ACTC earlier, was intent omits bargaining power in parliament and opted for issues with mass appeal, often based on sentiment. Its political bankruptcy became clear in 1965 when it accepted a cabinet portfolio in the UNP-led coalition, something about which it constantly taunted the ACTC since 1949, the year of founding of the FP. Having achieved nothing tangible on the language question or the long awaited devolution of power on a district basis, the FP was desperate after the defeat of the UNP at the hands of the SLFP-led People’s Alliance (PA) coalition in 1970.
The PA government, out of bitterness towards the FP for its role in bring down the SLFP-LSSP government in 1964 and joining the UNP-led government in 1965, seriously erred in its responses to the grievances of the Tamils; and in the process provided a basis for the FP to recover. The FP, meantime, having failed in its pledge to secure parity of status for Tamil ― let alone anything like the federal state that it stood for ― by parliamentary and peaceful struggles, needed a fresh electoral strategy.
By 1974 the FP consolidated its parliamentary base by founding the Tamil United Liberation Front comprising mainly the FP and much of the ACTC. The call by the TULF in 1976 to work towards the separate state of “Tamil Eelam” worked well to return a large number of TULF MPs in 1977. But the TULF had neither intention nor plan to achieve its declared goal; and that made the Tamil youth openly question the credibility of the TULF as a Tamil nationalist party.
What followed the return of the UNP to power in 1977 with a massive mandate was a complex sequence of events leading to a civil war. Although the armed conflict ended with the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ― who monopolized the Tamil nationalist project of Tamil Eelam from around the mid-1980’s ― worse followed for the innocent victims of war. Even more depressing is the total lack of interest of Tamil nationalists of all shades to understand what went wrong with the struggle of the Tamil nationality for its legitimate rights.
While vote gathering had high priority in Tamil electoral politics, militant politics was about military superiority over rivals and control of a docile population. Interestingly, in both modes, politics of sentiment played a key role. Thus seven years after the defeat of the LTTE, there is still reluctance to address real issues facing the Tamil nationality; and the space available for free expression is used not for serious critical analysis of the failed armed struggle or the futile parliamentary approach that preceded it, but to play once again to the sentiments of the Tamil public.
Tamil Nationalist Politics under UPFA
Having forfeited the name TULF to Anandasangaree, its former leader, other leaders regrouped as the Tamil National Alliance to successfully contest the General Election in 2001 with the blessings of the LTTE. The TNA then had to exclude PLOTE ― which had links to the armed forces at the time ― and other Tamil nationalist factions seen as hostile to the LTTE; and India punished the TNA for this show of ‘disloyalty’ by humiliating its leaders at every turn. The TNA, eventually, made up with India after the fall of the LTTE in May 2009, by yielding to the condition that anyone suspected of LTTE loyalties would be kept out. The ACTC leader and his pro-LTTE allies were thus denied TNA nomination for the General Election in 2010, forcing the ACTC to restructure itself as Tamil People’s National Front (TPNF) to contest the elections, but unsuccessfully. Despite outright rejection by the Indian establishment, the TPNF has still been reluctant to take a stand on issues like poaching by Indian trawlers in the Northern waters and the now-abandoned coal power plant in Sampur on the East, because its allies in Tamilnadu would dare not fall foul of the Indian establishment.
Since 2010 the TPNF has adopted a seemingly militant posture; and its erstwhile allies, the Trotskyite Nava Samasamaja Party (NSSP) and the Colombo-based Tamil nationalist Western People’s Front (renamed Democratic People’s Front) warmed up to the TNA― and the UNP on pretext of defending democracy. Desperate for allies, the TPNF briefly sought after left and progressive forces in the North to take up issues concerning victims of war. However, pressure from its Tamil diaspora sponsors prevailed and the TPNF quickly distanced itself from the left to adopt a strong Tamil nationalist line. The true colours of the TPNF showed soon after when it sought to hijack a joint protest by associations of Northern fishers against poaching by Indian trawlers to promote its narrow Tamil nationalist agenda, thereby wrecking the protest.
The TPNF strategy has been to rouse Tamil separatism, but without reference to the Tamil Eelam project in order to avoid identification with the prohibited LTTE. Thus it simplifies the national question as an issue between the “Sinhala and Tamil nations” avoiding reference to problems faced by the Muslims or Hill Country Tamils, in contrast to the TNA, which too does not accept Muslims and Hill Country Tamils as distinct nationalities, but realizes its inability to represent them and has learned to deal with Muslim leaders on a more equal footing. (More recently TNA MP Sumanthiran dared to cross the “red line” by appealing to the Tamils to apologise to the Muslims for their expulsion from the North in 1990, only to face the wrath of Tamil extremists and sections of the Tamil media loyal to the TPNF.)
The TNA was never politically united, and the personality clashes that haunted it go way back to its TULF days. When the UPFA government finally yielded to external pressure to hold elections for the Northern Province Council in 2013, rivalry for nominations threatened to rip apart the TNA. Amid this, CV Wigneswaran, a former Supreme Court Judge with a good public image and no party affiliation, was brought in as Chief Ministerial candidate mainly to quell bickering among leading members of constituent parties vying for the post of Chief Minister.
Chief Minister Wigneswaran with other ideas about his role, was soon in conflict with the leaders of the TNA, especially those of the dominant the FP. The TPNF saw its opening in this rift and backed Wigneswaran whenever he aired his differences. Wigneswaran has, however, thus far avoided denouncing the TNA leadership or endorsing the TPNF.
Tamil Nationalists and “Good Governance”
Wigneswaran has been a failure as Chief Minister of the NPC. He and the NPC led by him have done little to address the problems of the suffering majority. Meeting after meeting, the NPC would pass a series of resolutions on the national question but sidestep issues that concern the people, and even side with their oppressor on occasion. The NPC had nothing concrete to offer on the national question, and merely prayed to the International Community to intervene on behalf of the Tamils.
Feeling isolated and insecure with the TNA, Wigneswaran gradually warmed up to the TPNF ahead of the parliamentary election of 2015 and effectively supported the TPNF candidates by declaring “neutrality”. But voter rejection of the TPNF was even stronger than in 2010. That slowed his drift towards the TPNF, until opportunity knocked again when Tamil disillusion with the “Good Governance” regime found expression in the form of protests on various issues.
With differences sharpening between him and the TNA leadership, Chief Minister Wigneswaran ― initially conciliatory towards the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) regime and critical of sections of the diaspora dabbling in local issues ― turned out to be more antagonistic towards the new regime of “Good Governance” and especially Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, whom the TNA has been wooing for long. This was when the Tamil population of the North and East had hope that the new regime will address their problems.
Opening up of the democratic space in the North and East was seen a positive aspect of the “Good Governance” regime by the public, who used the democratic space to express protest on many issues to force the government to pledge action― even to reverse occasionally its stand on key issues, like the setting up of a coal power plant in Sampur in the Trincomalee District recently. The TNA chose to play down the national question to avoid embarrassing the regime in its now fading hope that the regime will give it a helping hand in the proposed new constitution, only to be left high and dry by the government as well as the International Community, which would not risk its client regime losing power. The TPNF, however, failed to transform TNA’s misfortune into its gain, mainly for lack of a credible alternative policy.
Thus what has been going on in the North since the change of government is effectively theatre without an audience. The war weary people ― who are, on the one hand, bitter towards the defeated UPFA regime for escalating the war to cause much destruction and loss of life and, on the other, growingly disillusioned with the new order ― are least interested in the idle talk of secession promoted by sections of the Tamil diaspora or in the Tamil isolationist line of the TPNF and now Wigneswaran. The TNA, with no plans either, has a weaker support base among the diaspora but good electoral support at home, mostly by default, from a community still not free of Tamil nationalist sentiment, as none of its nationalist rivals has a credible alternative to offer.
The Tamil People’s Congress emerged in the wake of failed moves to being all Tamil nationalist parties under an umbrella organization named “Tamil National Congress”, which failed to take off since the TNA was deeply suspicious of the motives of its potential founding partners, namely the TPNF and the Tamil Civil Society Forum with some affinity for the TPNF. Following the failure of this project with some hope for a strong comeback, the TPNF went ahead to set up the Tamil People’s Congress (TPC). Wigneswaran, now much in the bad books of the TNA leadership despite its polite words for him, and having dissipated most of the mass enthusiasm for him when he was chief ministerial candidate by his poor performance as Chief Minister, chose to throw his weight behind the TPNF without declaring so. The TPNF enabled it by making him leader of its proxy organization, the TPC, which also includes disgruntled members of the TNA with an axe to grind against the leadership. The TNA is, however, playing down this new cold war waged by the TPNF.
The Run-up to Ezuga Thamiz
The Tamil public is bitter about the failure of the “Good Governance” regime to address issues of importance to it, such as the prolonged detention of LTTE suspects without inquiry or charges, rehabilitation of former detainees and ongoing occupation of land by the armed forces, which could have been attended to without letting extreme Sinhala chauvinism make political capital of it. A section of the TNA, the FP especially, still hopes that something could be redeemed from the deteriorating situation by cooperating with the government. Also, they fear the prospect of the return of Mahinda Rajapaksa to power. The TNA is highly concerned that the regime is unlikely to fulfil its expectations on devolution of power by daring to implement the 13th Amendment, let alone transcending it. Having persuaded Tamil voters to support Maithripala Sirisena’s bid for presidency and later the UNP-led alliance in regions outside the North and East, the TNA, is desperate.
Meanwhile the TNPF, aided by its proxies, the TCSF and the TPC, intensified its narrow nationalist sloganeering to create a niche for itself in a political sphere dominated by the TNA. It has no plans except trying to enhance its performance in elections to come, and sees its opportunity in the likely loss of support for the TNA owing to goodwill gestures ― including support the recent anti-people Annual Budget 2017 ― towards a government which is fast losing the trust of the minorities, as well as the majority for altogether different reasons.
In the process, the TNPF indirectly promotes affinity for the LTTE and its slain leader V Pirapakaran to reactivate secessionist reactionary Tamil nationalism. They target the urban middle class youth, with a poor understanding of the conflict, and capitalize on a surviving tendency to romanticize the LTTE and its leader. The group, while hinting at the prospect of secession if various issues are not addressed, is cautious, however, to avoid creating an impression in the South that they are LTTE loyalists or have a separatist agenda. The Ezuga Thamiz rally of 24th September was part of a process of having it both ways.
Similarities with Forerunners
Significantly, the Ezuga Thamiz campaign had stark resemblance to earlier mass mobilizations by the FP such as the “Anti-Sri Campaign” of 1958 and the failed Satyagraha of 1961 in their lack of planning. Like the FP then, the TNPF-TCSF-TPC trio had nothing beyond mass mobilization in mind. The FP succeeded in bringing the people to the streets, but had not the foggiest idea of its next move. The Ezuga Thamiz narrative is little different. The trio could organize a few more events in this fashion, depending on how things turn out in the coming months, but no more.
A deceptive feature of the Ezuga Thamiz event concerns its name. Translated correctly, Ezuga Thamiz (literally “Let Tamil arise”) means a salutation to the language, but implicit in it is a call to the Tamils to rise. It was to the latter that many (but not as many as anticipated by the organizers and supportive sections of the Tamil media) responded. Interestingly, the participants hardly knew what they were to rise for. Ezuga Thamiz 2016 was thus a cheap edition of the Pongu Thamiz event started in January 2001 by university students of Jaffna to protest alleged disappearances, mass graves and other abuses under military rule in the North. That event was peaceful. The title Pongu Thamiz was a play on words― suggesting a surge of the language linked with the annual Thai Pongal festival (usually around 14th January), ‘pongal’ being ceremonial boiling of rice. But ‘pongu’ could also refer to rising in anger. The phrase was probably inspired by the popular emotive line “Pongu Thamizarukku innal nernthaal sangaaram nisamenru sange muzangu”― roughly translating as “If there be harm to the surging Tamil folk, annihilation is certain, declare thee sea-shell trumpet (conch)” ― by the brilliant progressive Tamil (earlier Dravidian) nationalist poet Bharathidasan.
The ambiguity at the time was understandable, since an explicit statement of anger would have earned the wrath of the armed forces and police who were in firm control of the Jaffna Peninsula. The authorities nevertheless banned the event which attracted between 4000 and 5000 defiant students in Jaffna amid open threats from the state machinery. In 2003, the event was held again ― amid hope aroused by the Norwegian facilitated Peace Talks and less control by the state ― to attract over 150,000 people, and became an annual event in LTTE held areas until 2008. (Since 2008, when the fortunes of the LTTE in the battlefield ebbed fast, sections of Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora adopted the idea to make it a nostalgic annual event in the countries where they reside.)
Side-shows like the celebration of the birthday of Pirapakaran on 26th November and Heroes’ Day (Maaveerar Thinam) on 27th November have become annual events like remembrance of war victims at Mullivaaikkal ― partly as genuine expression of grief and homage to the dead by the public and partly as a play on emotion to keep alive the dream for Tamil Eelam. The TNA leadership was smart enough to take part in the Heroes’ Day events, endorse the celebration of Pirapakaran’s birthday by university students, and even defend CV Wigneswaran’s speech at the Ezuga Thamiz rally against criticism by Sinhala extremists, so that Tamil sentiment was not hijacked wholesale by the rival TPNF.
The Players in Ezuga Thamiz
The event itself was only an outpour of emotion which was not witnessed very much in Sri Lanka after the fall of the LTTE. Thus to expect any better than from Pongu Thamiz is futile. Besides, the intended ambiguity in “Ezuga Tamil” is far less witty than that in “Pongu Thamiz”.
The LTTE and its proxies at home and abroad have used emotion as a key factor in fund raising exercises. The anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983 and the civil war that followed drove several hundred thousand Tamils to seek refuge abroad, mainly in India, Europe and Canada. The European and Canadian diaspora have been the main known sources of public funding for Tamil nationalist projects (monopolized by the LTTE in course of time). As the diaspora included many victims of the civil war, who had lost their homes, family or close relatives and property during the conflict, its view of Sri Lankan events, driven by emotion, lacked objectivity and showed ignorance of conditions in Sri Lank because of reliance on restricted sources of information, so much so that sizeable sections of the European Tamil diaspora could be misled to believe that the LTTE was winning the war, even days before its final defeat, and that the West was ready with a rescue plan to protect the LTTE leaders. Opportunists cynically exploited such gullibility by spreading the myth that the leader of the LTTE was alive, for many months after May 2009.
Several Tamil elite groups enhanced their fundraising potential among the diaspora by creating the impression that they had influence with the governments of EEC countries, Canada and the US and could secure support to establish an independent Tamil Eelam, the way Kosovo and South Sudan were ‘liberated’ and made independent countries. They played that card before the defeat of the LTTE and now push the line that the International Community can be persuaded to punish Sri Lanka for war crimes. Sadly, such confidence tricksters were and still are paymasters of several Tamil political parties and groups in Sri Lanka. They need clients, desirably with good electoral performance, to keep funds rolling in: the TNA has, and the TPNF is trying.
Against this background, one can see that the electorally weak TPNF needed Ezuga Thamiz to retain its modest support base and bait a section of the supporters of the TNA which is slowly losing ground, partly owing to the failure of the NPC to deliver on not just the election promises but also on what it could have done for the people of the North using its powers and resources, however limited. The TPNF did not capitalize on this failing of the TNA, for its aim is to benefit from TNA’s internal conflicts ― which really concern position in the TNA and posts in Parliament and NPC ― and the TPNF needs Wigneswaran who is still somewhat popular despite his dismal record as Chief Minister NPC.
Even if the initiation of the TPC project, supposedly above party rivalry but without reference to the TNA leadership, is acceptable, its bringing in only elements of dissent within the TNA makes its political neutrality questionable. The TNA has kept a careful distance from the TPC thus far without denouncing it, to avoid charges of parochialism.
Likewise, the TNA did not officially endorse Ezuga Thamiz, and had no stated official position on it. Public responses by leading figures (other than the few supportive dissidents who joined the TPC) varied from a criticism of its timing by TNA MP Sumanthiran in a BBC interview to a strong defence of NPC Chief Minister Wigneswaran’s speech by the TNA President Sampanthan in Parliament.
The differences were more explicit in the Tamil media of the north: the pro-FP newspaper Uthayan was openly hostile to the event, while others were supportive to differing degrees. There were also complaints that important participants had been side-lined so the limelight was on leaders of the TPNF and EPRLF in an event in which several organizations participated. It was also observed that minimal publicity was given to statements of support, however misguided, from left and liberal political parties of the South.
The aim seems to be to highlight salient aspects of the national question. But publicity achieves nothing if purpose is unclear. The TPC has offered no plan or programme beyond mobilizing a large crowd, confirming suspicions that the aim is on the one hand to impress overseas sponsors and on the other to build a support base for elections to come.
The Narrow Outlook
A worrying aspect of Tamil nationalist political activism, militant or not, has been its inability to look at problems holistically. Little attention is paid to how other stakeholders, especially members of other nationalities, would respond. Two aspects matter most: addressing genuine concerns of others about Tamil nationalist demands; and addressing the interests of parties with other agenda. The first includes understandable worries of the Sinhalese and Muslims. The consistent inability of identity politics to view problems from another’s perspective has to be overcome to ease if not eliminate undue concerns. The second includes chauvinistic political forces, politicized sections of the armed forces and the police. Appeasing them is hard ― if not impossible ― in the immediate context. But their influence on the Sinhalese can be weakened or even neutered through effective political work. The post-war climate has shown considerable softening of attitudes among the Sinhalese ― but not the media or major political parties ― since the Sinhalese who saw the war as one against terrorism are inclined to feel that since terrorism is over it is time for reconciliation and addressing of genuine grievances.
In this context “Ezuga Thamiz” is likely to have a negative impact. However, its scale of success seems inadequate to stir fresh concerns in the South. A lack of understanding of the political situation in the North and East and of the agendas of various political forces was a contributory factor to the surge of Sinhala chauvinism. Equally “over correction” by some left and liberal political forces in the past encouraged wrong tendencies as well as weakened their own credibility. Uncritical support for the LTTE by the NSSP and its leader Dr Vikramabahu Karunaratne is notable in this respect. While many Tamils were impressed with Dr Karunaratne, his failure to criticize the LTTE for several of its misdeeds against ordinary Sinhalese hurt his credibility among the Sinhalese; thus his support for the just cause of the Tamils had no impact where it mattered, namely among the Sinhalese. The support expressed by the NSSP and United Socialist Party (USP) for Ezuga Thamiz appears to be a result of confusing the just grievances of the Tamil people with the abuse of the grievances to promote a reactionary agenda by a group reputed for its pro-imperialist stand and parochial attitudes.
The leader of the EPRLF addressing the rally went as far as to claim that Ezuga Thamiz was a continuation of the LTTE’s project. The leader of the TPNF threatened to take the Ezuga Thamiz beyond the shores to India and among the Tamil diaspora. Whether one takes such utterances seriously is one matter but the kind of appeal that they generate is another. Wigneswaran’s address, although more sober, drew attention to various grievances of the Tamil people. His utterances on the history of Buddhism in the North were, however, designed to assert a somewhat erroneous historical Tamil‒Hindu identity of the North. There was also no consideration of the views of the Muslims. Interestingly he drew attention to the problems caused by Sinhalese fishers to Tamil fishers, while ignoring the big issue, namely poaching by Indian trawlers.
The understanding of the national question by the TPNF and its proxies may be summed up as: the Tamils and only the Tamils have a problem, namely the national question or simply the Sinhalese‒Tamils problem, which only the International Community can resolve with facilitation by the Tamil diaspora, as long as the Tamils remain united and await instruction from the leaders. Thus any bid for militancy by the TPNF is only pretence, for buyers among the diaspora, with some of the Tamil media nursing sympathy for the LTTE.
Real Issues and Parochial Responses
Several real issues faced by the people of the North have been highlighted in the Ezuga Thamiz event.
Military Presence: Although the conduct of military personnel in the North is far better than in the past, it is still an impediment to normal life. Besides, the activities of the armed forces appear to be designed to impose a strong Sinhala Buddhist cultural and demographic identity on the region. This makes the people further resent military presence in the North. This is not an argument to make the North free of military presence, but to say that an unduly strong presence after the decisive defeat of the LTTE cannot be justified and troop levels should only be comparable with those in other parts of the country.
Seizure of Land: Large tracts of land taken over by the armed forces remain in their hands and need to be returned to the people. There is also the need to address in this context the questions of resettlement and landlessness; the latter further hurts the poor by denying them post-war housing relief.
Release of Long Term Political Detainees: This has been an issue which should have been resolved soon after the end of the war. Detaining people without inquiry or trial is a violation of human rights, but permissible under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The prolonged detention reflects vindictiveness and lack of political will on the part of the government. Detention has continued despite the pledge in early 2016 by the President that all un-convicted detainees will be released. The solution to the issue should thus be comprehensive to include the immediate release of detainees, socio-economic rehabilitation of those released, repeal of the PTA without replacing it with another piece of repressive legislation, and scrapping all state mechanisms associated with repressive legislation.
Missing Persons: The state should seriously deal with the question of disappearances, mainly at the hands of the armed forces, the police and paramilitary organizations. A proper inquiry should be conducted to deal with all cases reported of persons missing during the war, including those outside the war theatre.
Centralization of Power: The existing majoritarian centralised state and undemocratic practices by those wielding power are responsible for the aggravation of the national question, which needs to be addressed through devolution of power, which will go as far as to allow the exercise of power at community level to address matters of community interest, including education, local industry and economic development and policing among others.
A flawed approach: The manner in which Ezuga Thamiz faces these issues is worrying. Matters such as the reduction of military presence, let alone total withdrawal, require convincing not just the government but also the public as a whole, since the armed forces are more assertive now than before the war in the affairs of the country. Mass political pressure is needed not just to reduce military presence in the North but for an overall reduction in defence personnel and defence spending.
The Ezuga Thamiz campaign paid most of its attention to matters which it could present to its local and foreign sponsors as issues of oppression of the Tamil nation by the Sinhala nation. Thus whatever surge was intended did not concern the most oppressed sections of Tamil nationality. The slogans raised and the emotive speeches at the rally were characteristic of an elite group which had not the least interest in the plight of the victims. That will in part explain why Ezuga Thamiz badly failed to inspire the Tamils living in the Vanni, who faced the brunt of the repressive war.
State repression now hurts the toiling masses of all nationalities and is bound to intensify as the flawed economic policy of the government heaps burdens on the people. Ezuga Thamiz has judiciously avoided reference to the sufferings common to the toiling masses of all nationalities. Its failure to refer to the plight of the Muslims expelled from the North in 1990 was no mistake or accident.
The TPNF is fearful of the prospect of people of all nationalities joining hands in common struggle against the state, and does what comes to it naturally, namely politically isolating the Tamil polity to develop it as its own preserve and in the process aggravate the national contradiction.
The TPNF is not mindful of the reality that mobilization of Tamil people for Ezuga Thamiz was not the consequence of its political work, but the result of the courage that the people built through mass struggle covering a range of issues, mostly affecting their day to day life and their living environment. Sustained protests were held on issues affecting whole communities, including the ones for the recovery of army-occupied land in Valikamam North, against water contamination in Chunnakam in 2015, calling for the termination of the coal proposed power plant in Sampur and, in February this year, against the ADB backed desalination project for Jaffna. Protests against sexual abuse of women and children demanding police are among specific issues where whole communities mobilized for the rights of the vulnerable.
Such struggles inspire others to struggle for justice. What is important is that these struggles, however limited in scope, have well defined purpose and a programme of action. More than success or failure of struggles, what matters is the spirit to struggle for justice. The Tamil nationality has a just cause to struggle for. But the cause has been packaged by Tamil nationalists in ways that isolate the Tamil people and thereby weaken the struggle. There has been no critical analysis of any of the failed struggles of the Tamil nationalists, be it parliamentary wrangling of the ACTC and the FP, the peaceful campaigns of the FP, the armed struggle of the youth movements― the LTTE especially.
The Ezuga Thamiz has not been the political success for the TPNF that it was intended to be. There is no immediate prospect of the TPNF dislodging the TNA as the main Tamil nationalist party. But much depends on how well the national question will be addressed by the government in the proposed constitutional reforms. The question is whether the TPNF and its proxies will ever have a credible programme of struggle, holistic or otherwise, to carry forward the struggle of the people.
Organizations like the Mothers’ Front in the 1980s and more recently the Mass Movement for Social Rights have motivated people to take to the streets. Irrespectively of whether they succeeded or failed, they stood by the people to the bitter end. This is in sharp contrast with the Tamil nationalists bringing people to the street without a programme of action, only to abandon the people on the street.
Tamil people have been led the up the garden path by reactionary Tamil nationalists for too long and the Ezuga Thamiz drama is yet another. While the likelihood of its sustained restaging is poor, the left and progressive forces cannot idly watch such pathetic repetition of Tamil nationalist history. It is time now for a progressive alternative.