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Tamilnation > Struggle for Tamil Eelam > Conflict Resolution - Tamil Eelam - Sri Lanka > Norwegian Peace Initiative > Interim Self Governing Authority & Aftermath > Re-evaluating Concepts of Sovereignty

Norwegian Peace Initiative

Re-evaluating Concepts of Sovereignty
Ana Pararajasingam
South Asia Analysis Group paper No. 879
  1 January 2004

India’s former Prime Minister Nehru and Sri Lanka’s former Prime Minister Bandaranaike shared a common Westernised background and an education at Oxford, one of England’s oldest and most prestigious universities. But, the similarities ended right there.

By heeding the sentiments that led to Potta Sri Ramulu burning himself to death (in protest against the imposition of Hindi on the non-Hindi speaking masses of the South) and by redrawing the boundaries of Indian states to reflect the linguistic characteristics of the population, Pundit Nehru helped India build an overarching Indian identity.

By pandering to a virulent linguistic chauvinism that called for ‘Sinhala Only’, Bandaranaike, set his country on a path to destruction.

Language is a potent force. Some may argue that it is a primeval force. It is now quite well established that language is not only a reliable indicator of genetic affinity, but shapes the way in which speakers think and behave. As such, it can form a bond much closer to that which can be forged through ideologies or religion. Linguistic nationalism has the potential to transcend the barriers of religion, class and caste.

Nehru realised it and sought to contain it and build an overarching Indian identity, Bandaranaike also realised it but sought to exploit it for his own grab for political power. Nehru’s policy led to the DMK abandoning its call for separation in the face of external threat (from China in 1962), while Bandaranaike’s policy transformed Tamils into ‘reluctant secessionists’ (referred to by Donald Horowitz and quoted by A. J. Wilson in “Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism,” Penguin, 2000).

Tamils have paid dearly in the course of this conflict that began with the opportunistic policies of Bandaranaike. Tamils were subject to pogroms and were collectively punished for voicing their protests. They were deprived of not only equality in respect to the use of their language, but were discriminated against in their pursuit of higher education. Today, in addition to the 18,000 young men and women who have died in the quest for Tamil independence, at least 60,000 ordinary civilians have perished, over 500,000 have fled the country and 800,0000 have been made homeless. The North East, the Tamil homeland is a shadow of its former self, dotted not only with burnt out and shelled buildings, but also with mass graves and mines.

An Indian type of federalism might have worked in Sri Lanka had it been introduced before the Tamils began their quest for independence. As stated above, much water has flown under the bridge since then.

The Tamil quest for independence began in 1976, with the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) declaring at Pannakam that “the restoration and reconstitution of the Free, Sovereign, Secular, Socialist State of Tamil Eelam based on the right of self-determination inherent in every nation, has become inevitable in order to safeguard the very existence of the Tamil Nation in this country.”

The overwhelming support for this resolution was demonstrated when TULF emerged as the national opposition at the 1977 General Elections, winning 18 of the 22 seats contested.

The refusal of the Sinhala political establishment to accept this verdict and instead attempting to beat the Tamils into submission through physical assaults (pogrom of 1977 & 1983), the destruction of their cultural identity (the burning of the Jaffna public library in 1981) and attacks on the contiguity of their homeland (accelerated Mahaveli project) were the events that transformed a low intensity resistance into a full-fledged war. India, too, played a role by providing sanctuary to Tamils (militants and moderates) and using that as a lever to bring Colombo into its sphere of influence. In this task India has been successful, although in that process, it has managed to lose sight of the need to keep the Tamils onside as well.

Today, there is acceptance by both centres of political power in Sri Lanka-Colombo (Sinhalese) and Kilinochchi (Tamils) that an enduring peace cannot be forged without Indian support. To Colombo, sovereignty as it is commonly understood is sacrosanct, to the Tamils, self-determination is paramount.

On the surface, it would appear that these two concepts are mutually exclusive and, hence, the attempts to contain Tamil aspirations within commonly understood notions of federalism.

It is this writer’s view, that this need not be so, and it is possible for sovereignty to be shared. Sumantra Bose, Indian writer and author of “States, Nations, Sovereignty-Sri Lanka, India and the Tamil Eelam Movement” (Sage Publications, New Delhi, 1994) has called for “imaginative associative structures whereby the Sinhalese and Tamil peoples can peacefully coexist, and freely associate and cooperate in certain vital spheres of common concern (and there are many), so that the welfare of both people can be safeguarded and enhanced.”

Although an Indian type of federalism is unworkable in the Sri Lankan context given the mutual mistrust and the enormous price paid by Tamils in the war, India can and indeed should play a role in formulating a solution under which the Tamils and Sinhalese can share sovereignty.

Those with vested interests (within India and Sri Lanka) have sought to deny Tamils in Sri Lanka their aspirations by raising the bogey of pan-Tamil nationalism. It is alleged that should Tamils in Sri Lanka end up exercising their right to self-determination, this may cause Tamils of Tamil Nadu to agitate for greater autonomy, causing the eventual break up of the Indian Union. Unlike Tamils in Sri Lanka who were alienated by the short-sighted policies of the Sinhala-dominated political establishment, Indian Tamils consider themselves to be an integral part of the Indian Union and hence have little reason to disrupt the Union. The very party (DMK) that espoused ‘separatism’ has voluntarily abandoned the demand due to the inclusive nature of Indian nationalism. Furthermore, Tamil Nadu with a population of sixty million will gain little by leaving the Union. Given the current tendances for countries to seek greater cooperation by sharing sovereignty (The expansion of the European Union being the prime example), a move to secede by any member of the Indian Union will not only be an exercise in futility, but also against the prevailing trend. On the contrary the (Eelam) Tamil State and the Sinhala State in Sri Lanka may find it prudent to engage with the Indian Union in matters of economy given their common cultural and historic ties to the mother country. We may well find ourselves in the not too distant future - all nations in the South Asian region - pooling our sovereignty in order to facilitate greater cooperation for economic gains.

A viable political solution in Sri Lanka based on the voluntary pooling of sovereignty by the Tamil and Sinhala people may well be the beginning of this process.

The process, however, can only begin by acknowledging the following ground realities:

· The existence of a de facto state in the North East of the Island. Fifteen years ago, Professor A. Jeyeratnam Wilson in the book aptly titled "Break-Up of Sri Lanka"(University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 1988) wrote “My considered view is that Ceylon (Sri Lanka) has already spilt into two entities. At present this is a state of mind; for it to become a territorial reality is [only] a question of time.” True to his prediction, this is the territorial reality today where a de facto state has emerged in the North East with its own customs, immigration, police and judiciary - a state of affairs implicitly acknowledged by the Sri Lankan Government in the Memorandum of Understanding reached with the LTTE in February 2002 and explicitly proclaimed by the LTTE in its proposal for an Interim Self-Governing Authority for the North East (ISGA) in October 2003.

· The futility of attempts to dismantle the de facto state through military force. The dismal failure of operation ‘Jayasikrui’ (Certain Victory) launched by the Sri Lankan Government to take the Northern mainland, the retaking of the entire ‘Vanni’ by the LTTE and the over-running of the impenetrable Elephant Pass military camp by the LTTE has amply demonstrated that the military solution is no more an option.

· The issues faced by minorities, i.e. Muslims and Sinhalese living within the borders of the de facto state (acknowledged by the LTTE in its proposals for an ISGA) and Tamils, Muslims and others living outside the de facto state.

· The need for institutional safeguards to maintain the independence of the judiciary and protect human rights within the de facto state (also acknowledged by the LTTE in its proposals for an ISGA) and outside the de facto state.

· The acceptance by the Sinhala political establishment of Delhi’s position as the regional power - a far cry from the days when the fear of ‘Indian expansionism’ was the cornerstone of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy and the Indian presence in the Island was the rationale for the JVP to whip up support for its cause!

· The strong cultural and linguistic ties prevailing between the Tamils across the Palk Strait and its potential to bring about greater cooperation between the Tamil state in Sri Lanka and the Indian Union despite the horrendous consequences of (the ill-advised) physical intervention by India in 1987.

India, with its unquestioned position as the regional power and the close relationship it enjoys with Colombo, is well placed to assist the process whereby the Island of Sri Lanka is transformed into a union of two states.

By acting promptly, India can bring about an enduring peace in the Island of Sri Lanka and at the same time be the harbinger of a new understanding of sovereignty that may help resolve conflicts through restructuring relationships between sovereign people.

This calls for a paradigm shift on the part of Indian policymakers, who need to conceptualise sovereignty as one that is primarily derived from the people, instead of as one residing with ‘internationally recognised governments.’ In making this shift, Indian policymakers need to reflect that such an understanding calls for a more equal relationship between sovereign people and as such is likely to strengthen relationships and not weaken them as previously imagined.



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