Tamil future: some thoughts (October 2010)
As one of Shakespeare’s characters says, where there’s the greater (sorrow, pain, worry) other matters lose much of their importance, may even cease to be of interest: “Where the greater is fixed, the lesser is scarce[ly] felt.” The “greater” and the immediate is the situation of the Tamils. I have been asked, “Are we witnessing the death of yet another people, in this case, the Tamils? Is it the end of the history of the Tamils of Sri Lanka?” By “history” here is meant being not passive recipients of the decisions and actions of others but, instead, being active participants. It is the shaping (to some degree at least) by a people themselves of developments that relate to them. Where it’s not extinction, will the Tamils be reduced to eking an existence on the margins of what was once their ‘homeland’, such as the autochthonous elsewhere: the Aborigines of Australia, and the Native Americans?
In thinking about the present situation and future prospects of the Tamils, it is of the utmost importance that emotion (however passionate) and wishes (however deep) are kept distinct from actual, realistic, possibilities. Secondly, diaspora reaction and attitude must be separated from that of those Tamils still living in the North and East of “the Paradise Isle”. The latter have endured beyond the unendurable; are exhausted beyond exhaustion. What they wish for most is respite, “space” to re-build their lives with whatever means are available. It would be gross insensitivity to ask them, at present, to continue the struggle for equality. Nor is armed struggle an option now: the government will meet attempts at re-grouping and re-arming with the same utter ruthlessness that it has already demonstrated.
It is well to remember that, ever since independence, the Tamils tried to gain equality through democratic means, including peaceful satyagraha. These were met with state-orchestrated riots to terrorise Tamils into accepting the subordinate status assigned to them. Subsequent to (and largely because of) 1983, there was the recourse to arms. Due to various factors (not excluding mistakes and miscalculations by the Tiger leader), the Tamils are now in their worst-ever situation. Therefore, there is understandably a sense of déjà vu when talk surfaces of the same means, the same methods, that were futilely tried - repeatedly, over decades. Why should they succeed now when Sinhalese chauvinists have the Tamils at their mercy, defenceless, exhausted, anxious about the future, not knowing how to proceed?
If the Tamils have no viable, realistic, option are we, indeed, witnessing the end of Tamil history in Sri Lanka, the beginning of the death of a people? (No doubt, the very question will shock and outrage some of you.) Of course, the Tamils will continue to live, in whatever attenuated, diluted, form but will they, as a people? What is meant by “as a people”? The first prerequisite is land, territory, a space which belongs to the group, and where the wishes and ways of that group prevail, a “preserve” (sanctuary), within which the group can “preserve” its distinct cultural identity. Therefore, if occupation cannot be removed altogether, ways must be found to minimise influx and outside influence in daily life. With the influx – settlements, army camps etc – the Tamil exodus from Sri Lanka continues, as did that of the Burghers a few decades earlier: apart from territory, numbers also play an important role.
Lord Macaulay, in his address on India to the British Parliament (2 February 1835) said, “I do not think we would ever conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage”. It is only then that Indians will become what “we” want them to be: a truly dominated nation. In Sri Lanka, together with “demographic colonisation”, the cultural onslaught goes on apace in the North and East. One may remember and cite the Jews who, after over 2,000 years, returned to claim what had once been their country. But what held the Jews together, and strengthened them as a people, was their religion, the belief that they are the “Chosen” of Jehovah, and would, one day, return to ‘the Promised Land’. This religious faith sustained them through centuries of persecution and dispersal. The Tamils do not have such an inner rock of certitude. It is not only that some Tamils are Christian but Hinduism (unlike Judaism) is an inclusive religion, open to all individuals and peoples. In contrast, Judaism is exclusive and excluding. The Jews do not proselytise; indeed, they do not welcome conversion: by conceptual definition, the “Chosen” means a select, limited and privileged few. Hinduism cannot replicate the role Judaism played in Jewish history.
Among the possible parameters of time are three: the geologic, the historic and the human.
In geologic time, 500 million years is not considered exceptionally long. (Sri Lanka is thought to have finally separated from the land mass of India and became an island “only” about 7,000 years ago.)
In historic time, we can have a measure of, say, 500 years: for example, the Western domination of the world (beginning, roughly, in 1500).
In terms of human life, 50 years is a considerable chunk, may even constitute the entire life of an individual.
Viewing the Tamils at present, as things are now (emphasised) there is the acute danger that, over historic time, they may disappear altogether, through a process of assimilation: see, for example, the Ivanhoe parallel below.
Returning to the last two of the three measurements of time mentioned, the immediate (human) need is to help in healing and rebuilding – both in material and non-material terms. In relation to historic time, the effort must be to strengthen confidence, courage and determination. As Rabindranath Tagore wrote (Nationalism, 1917), the worst form of slavery arises when a people lose faith and confidence in themselves.
Among the Sinhalese, there are (a) the chauvinists and (b) the indifferent. But there are also Sinhalese who speak out, at great cost (if not risk) to themselves. As I have pointed out elsewhere, these Sinhalese are not working for the Tamils but against injustice, even as, for example, there were white South Africans who fought, not for Blacks, but against the injustice of apartheid, and some Jews today fight against the treatment of Palestinians.
There is yet another category of Sinhalese whose root chauvinism is more subtle and difficult to recognise. They deal with palliatives; in helping and doing good work but are happy to leave fundamental structures of inequality and injustice in place. They have it both ways: domination and superiority on the one hand, and the feeling (and reputation) of being kind and caring, noble (and therefore superior) human beings on the other.
As Doris Lessing wrote many years ago, it is not enough to be kind within an unkind system: the system must be changed. ‘Racism’, inequality and injustice must be removed; ethnic assumptions and beliefs changed. In short, the very nature of society must be transformed.
Ivanhoe: Tamil parallels and divergence
This novel (Walter Scott, 1819) is set in CE 1193, that is, about a century after the Battle of Hastings (1066) when the Normans conquered the Saxons and began to rule England. Of course, a major difference is that, unlike the situation of the Tamils, the invading and conquering Normans were the minority in the country; the conquered (resident, “native”) Saxons, the majority. I offer a few quotations from that novel (Wordsworth Class edition, UK, 2000).
Page 4 “... two hostile races, one of which still felt the elation of triumph, while the other groaned under all the consequences of defeat.” Power was completely in the hands of the Normans, a power that was not used moderately.
In official contexts, “Norman-French was the only language employed”. The language of the Saxons [in the present case, Tamil] was disregarded.
Page 18 Many try to hide or minimise their Saxon identity – as do some Tamils, for example, by changing their names, for example, from Rajaratnam to Rajaratne.
Page 37 If a people are held in contempt, harassed and persecuted, then it is inevitable that their character and behaviour change. This observation is made with reference to the treatment of the Jews. Struggling to survive, the Jews are quick to learn both French and Saxon (p. 90). Similarly, many Tamils now speak Sinhala fluently.
Page 52 Ironically, it was considered religious to hate, despise, rob and persecute the Jew: see the attitude of Sinhalese chauvinists to Tamils.
Page 214 Some Saxons, despairing, seek “refuge from oppression” by withdrawing to a monastery: many Tamils, seeing no hope, seek refuge in a foreign country.
Page 248 The sound of the trumpet no longer wakes the people, and they are “now but the unresisting victims of hostile and military oppression... Would to heaven that the shedding of my own blood, drop by drop, could redeem” them. No doubt, many a Tamil has the same feeling. One thinks too of Nathan Hale who, about to be executed by the British (1776), regretted that he had only one life to give for this people.
Scott wrote the novel about six hundred years after the Norman Conquest but, long before then, there were no longer Normans and Saxons in England but what we now know as “the English”. (That term, “English” itself, because of immigration from Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and elsewhere, seems to be giving way to “British”.) I understand there are more Chinese now in Tibet than Tibetans: What will that country be like in, say, two to three hundred years? What of Sri Lanka?