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Home> Tamils - a Nation without a State> Struggle for Tamil Eelam > Thangathurai, Kuttimuni & Sri Sabaratnam >Where do we go from here? - Sri Sabaratnam Memorial Lecture, May 1987
SRI SABARATNAM MEMORIAL LECTURE
Where do we go from here?
We are met here today to honour the memory of Sri Sabaratnam, the leader of the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation who together, with a few hundred other brave and honest Tamils gave their lives an year ago, in the cause of the Tamil people.
Sri Sabaratnam stood tall for that which he believed to be right. In his death as in his life, he followed in the footsteps of Nadarajah Thangathurai and Selvarajah Yogachandran, who too were murdered, whilst engaged in a struggle to free their people. The poignant words of Nadarajah Thangathurai uttered from the dock in a musty court house in Colombo, a few months before his murder in July 1983, retain their eloquence and significance today. He said:
As I stand before you today, I am reminded of my first meeting with Nadarajah Thangathurai. It was at the high security Panagoda Prison, in early 1982, a few months before I commenced his defence at the trial at the Colombo High Court for offences under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. I remember telling him that whilst I would defend him to the best of my ability, it was unlikely that a Sinhala Judge acting within the framework of the Sri Lankan judicial system would do that which was fair and that it was inevitable that he would be convicted on the basis of alleged confessions, even though they had been extracted by torture.
I told him that if he had retained me in the belief that my appearance on his behalf would lead to an acquittal then I felt that I should declare to him at the very beginning that I for one did not believe that I would be able to achieve such a result. I shall always remember Nadarajah Thangathurai's response. It was immediate and spontaneous. He spoke in Tamil:
It was a clear and straightforward response from some one who I shall always regard as a clear, straightforward and honest human being. The second accused at the trial was Selvarajah Yogachandran, sometimes known as Kuttimuni. And there was yet another accused who was not in the dock but who was tried in absentia at that trial - and his name was Sri Sabaratnam.
And so it was that Nadarajah Thangathurai, Selvarajah Yogachandran, and Sri Sabaratnam were content to utilise the court arena provided for them by Sri Lankan state, not so much to defend themselves but to defend the Tamil liberation struggle and place the true facts of that struggle before a wider public, both in Ceylon and abroad.
On the first day of the trial, the objection was taken on behalf of Nadarajah Thangathurai, Selvarajah Yogachandran, Sri Sabaratnam and the other accused that the Colombo High Court did not have jurisdiction to hear a case about an incident that had happened in Thamil Eelam - and the accused refused to plead guilty or not guilty to the charges framed against them.
Today, all those accused are dead - murdered in cold blood and with deliberation - and perhaps, it is not out of place for me reiterate something which I had said at the end of that trial of Nadarajah Thangathurai, Selvarajah Yogachandran and Sri Sabaratnam, in January 1983, in the High Court of Colombo. My words were, and I repeat them today:
And, this evening, in all humility, I bow my head again, in memory of Nadarajah Thangathurai, Selvarajah Yogachandran and Sri Sabaratnam and thousands of other Tamils, belonging not only to the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation but also to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front, the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation, and several other groups and who have willingly given their lives during the past several years - given their lives so that reason may prevail - and given their lives so that those of us who may have been fortunate enough to survive, may also stand up for that which is right .
It was the rejection of reason by successive Sri Lankan governments, during the past 40 years and more that has also constituted the rationale for the armed struggle of the Tamil people in the defence of their basic and fundamental rights: basic and fundamental rights which were crystalised in the four point Thimpu declaration in August 1985:
The Thimpu declaration served to give direction to our national struggle not only because it was the expression of the unanimous will of all the liberation organisations engaged in the struggle but also because it was founded on reason.
Where do we go from here?...
But that was in August 1985. Today, we are in May 1987. And during the past 18 months and more, the negotiating process that was initiated at Thimpu has slithered along the slippery path of expediency and in the meantime more and more lives continue to be lost. And so we ask: what is it that we, as Tamils, should do? We ask: where do we go from here?
As always, it is reason that must show the way. To change anything we need to understand - and we understand anything only to the extent that we are able to change it.
A national struggle is just that: the struggle of a nation. It is not the struggle of any one individual or group. After all, that is also what democracy is about. The democratisation of the Tamil national struggle will not weaken it - it will strengthen it. But democracy is not something that can be 'given' to a people - it is something that we, as a people, must build for ourselves.
We cannot mobilise our strength on the basis of a mindless acceptance of that which we know to be wrong. People are not fools. Where they see wrong, their support lacks commitment. It does not endure. Where they see no direction, they keep away. There is apathy. Let us not be afraid to learn from the mistakes that we have made. There is need for self criticism. We need to have the strength to do that. The future cannot be built by denying the lessons of the past.
Let us, in all humility, reason with each other because it is only around reason that unity will come. It is in this spirit that I would like to share with you some thoughts this evening, so that we may think together about some of the issues that confront the Tamil people today - think together - because as I have said, there is a need for more and more Tamils to interact with each other, honestly and sincerely, and with humility - a humility born out of the knowledge that no one is the font of all wisdom.
Let us ask ourselves some basic questions - what is the nature of the struggle in which we are engaged?...
Let us ask ourselves some basic questions. What is the nature of the struggle in which we are engaged? Is it a struggle for education, security, employment and economic well being or is it a struggle to preserve one's language and one's culture? Or is it both? Can one achieve one without the other? And if it is a national struggle, are the Sinhala people too engaged in a national struggle? Is there a difference between our nationalism and their nationalism?
Again, will our struggle be allowed to take its course without the involvement of international influences and what are those influences? What is the international dimension of our struggle and what is India's role?
Most importantly, what is the contribution that each one of us can make? Our thinking must be related to that which each one of can do - otherwise we will be building castles in the air. The questions that I have asked are not new. Sometimes answers are given on a subjective basis - on the basis of something that President Jayawardene may have said yesterday and something which Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi may have said the day before. But whilst it is useful to pay attention to that which political leaders say, it is also important to recognise some of the structural features which influence and continue to influence their decisions. It seems to me that there is a need to look at some of these issues in greater depth.
Is it related to our existence simply as an idea that we talk about - at seminars and on public platforms? Again, is it related to our existence because we become emotional about our language and our culture? Is that what nationalism is - a sentimentality? Or again is it that nationalism is merely a convenient vehicle for improving the economic conditions of our life?
Or is it that our national togetherness is a group identity which is related to all these three elements - our mind, our emotions and our physical existence - an identity which has grown through a process of opposition and differentiation spanning more than two thousand years? And, in the end, is not the demand for national self determination no less and no more than a demand for equality?
If we understand this, we may begin to recognise that national self determination is not some rarefied theoretical concept. It is when we are treated differently that we become different - it is when we are treated separately that we become separate.
More often than not, amongst a people, the idea of a nation emerges first in the more socially mobile because it is they who have immediate experience in their own lives of the lines that are drawn against their further growth, and it is they who are determined to change the structures which stand in the way of that growth. The demand for national self determination is concerned with the growth of each one of us and with the growth of our children and our children's children. To the extent that each one of us recognises this reality, to that extent it will increase the strength of our commitment to the struggle.
The Tamil national struggle is not the struggle of 'somebody out there' - it is a struggle which concerns each one of us...
The Tamil national struggle is not the struggle of 'somebody out there' - it is a struggle which concerns each one of us.
The political force of Tamil nationalism is rooted in the direct personal feelings and the material interests of large sections of the Tamil people. It is when we understand the nature and content of Tamil nationalism that we can interact amongst ourselves on a proper footing - and it is when we ourselves understand that we can also communicate our understanding to the external world.
The Tamil nation is a deep and horizontal togetherness - deep because it is rooted in the material conditions of existence of the Tamil people and horizontal because it prevails despite the inequalities amongst us.
There is a need for us to understand the nature and content of Sinhala nationalism as well...
But it is not enough for us to understand the nature and content of Tamil nationalism. There is a need for us to understand the nature and content of Sinhala nationalism as well. Indeed, as we understand one more, we understand the other better. Again nation-ness is not something peculiar to the Tamil people and the Sinhala people.
Nation-ness remains the most legitimate political value of our times. Ofcourse nations had a beginning. They will also have an end. It is in that sense that a nation is a historical category. Nations have not existed from the beginning of time. Neither will they continue to exist till the end of time.
A matured nationalism will lead to a greater internationalism in the years to come.
In Europe the growth of nations came in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Where land was the dominant means of production, people tended to be tied to the land and they lived in communities separated by relatively large distances. The industrial revolution brought with it the steam engine and the railroad. It also brought with it the printing press. It also brought the need for markets for goods manufactured at relatively low cost in factories using not horsepower but steam and later electricity.
The growth of nations in Europe was linked to the breakdown of the feudal system and the emergence of the new capitalist economy. It was the new emerging bourgeoisie which provided the thrust for the growth of that nationalism. It was the 'national' bourgeoisie which provided leadership in the formation of nations in early Europe. All this amounts to traditional wisdom today.
But in the Indian subcontinent, Ceylon and elsewhere, within artificial state boundaries which served the interests of the colonial master, industrialisation was stifled and the local economies managed to provide agricultural commodities and raw material for the industrialising West. It was after independence that the countries of the Third World were faced with industrialising in competition with an already industrialised West.
Within the structural constraints of a dependent post colonial economy...
The structural constraints of a dependent post colonial economy brought with it certain fundamental consequences. Richard Falk of the University of Princeton put it well:
Again, the smaller the country, the smaller is the market and therefore weaker is the national bourgeoisie - and the weaker the national bourgeoisie, the more dependent it becomes on the global market and those who influence it. In Ceylon, successive Sinhala leaders have become increasingly linked to the external global market forces and Sinhala chauvinism is the vehicle through which they have sought to bridge the ever widening gap between themselves and the Sinhala people.
Sinhala chauvinism has fed on the latent fear of the Sinhala people of the Tamils of neighbouring Tamil Nadu...
This chauvinism is an exaggerated and distorted Sinhala 'nationalism' which seeks to divert the attention of the Sinhala people from the problems of development within the structural constraints of a dependent post colonial economy. On the one hand it preaches Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. On the other hand it opens the economy, builds tourist hotels and encourages the growth of a non Buddhist culture. It is often caught in its own contradictions.
Successive Sinhala governments have sought to use the constitutional framework of a unitary state to perpetuate themselves in power by pandering to Sinhala chauvinism. The Sinhala political leadership has, through a series of legislative and administrative acts, ranging from disenfranchisement, and standardisation of University admissions, to discriminatory language and employment policies, and state sponsored colonisation of the homelands of the Tamil people, sought to establish its hegemony over the Tamils of Ceylon, as a way of securing its own power.
These legislative and administrative acts were reinforced from time to time with physical attacks on the Tamils of Ceylon with intent to terrorise and intimidate them into submission. It was a course of conduct which led eventually to the rise of Tamil militancy in the mid 1970s with, initially, sporadic acts of violence. The militancy was met with wide ranging retaliatory attacks on increasingly large sections of the Tamil people with intent, once again to subjugate them. In the late 1970s large numbers of Tamil youths were detained without trial and tortured under emergency regulations and later under the Prevention of Terrorism Act which has been described by the International Commission of Jurists as a 'blot on the statute book of any civilised country'.
In 1980 and thereafter, there were random killings of Tamils by the state security forces and Tamil hostages were taken by the state when 'suspects' were not found. Eventually, in the eyes of the Sri Lankan state all Tamils were prima facie 'terrorist' suspects. And in 1983, the Tamils were deprived of the effective use of their vote by an amendment to the Constitution which the International Commission of Jurists has declared to be a violation of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights and which has rendered vacant the Parliamentary seats of the elected representatives of the Tamil people. And it is this 'democracy' which the Sinhala political leadership has sought to preserve by recourse to torture, extra judicial killings and by armed force.
It is a Sinhala chauvinism which in pursuance of its objectives, has logically, sought to deny the existence of the Tamil nation in Ceylon and which, in addition, seeks to masquerade as a 'Sri Lankan nationalism' by denying the existence of the Sinhala nation as well.
Reason shows that nothing, exemplifies the intellectual dishonesty of the Sinhala political leadership more, than its continued denial of the existence of its own constituency namely, the Sinhala nation in Sri Lanka.
Demand for the recognition of the Tamil nation cannot be separated from its socialist and egalitarian base...
Here, it is important to recognise that Tamil nationalism, in common with many nationalisms of the Third World in the 20th century, differs in a significant way from the nationalisms of Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. As we have seen, it was the new emerging bourgeoisie which provided leadership to the struggle of the nations of Europe. But, in the 20th century, the structural constraints of a dependent post colonial economy, have had their influence on the growth of the Tamil nation and the Sinhala nation in Sri Lanka.
On the one hand, a weak and dependent Sinhala bourgeoisie has mouthed the slogan of 'nationalism' to secure its continued hold on power, whilst serving interests on which its power was dependent - interests which were, at best, unconcerned about the true welfare of the Sinhala people.
It was a struggle of those who neither owned nor controlled the means of production and to whom the demand for equality was not only a demand for equal treatment vis a vis the Sinhala people but was also a demand for equal treatment amongst the Tamil people as well. The demand for the recognition of the Tamil nation cannot be separated from its egalitarian base. It is futile to ignore this hard reality.
We said that we need to think together and understand the nature of the struggle in which we are engaged - and to me, the structural attributes of a post colonial economy appear fundamental to any proper understanding of the issues that confronts us.
The armed struggle of the Tamil people is not taking place in the stratosphere...
It is said that foreign policy is often the external manifestation of domestic institutions and power centres. The open economy brought with it trade, aid and Western influence into the Indian region. Here perhaps, is the point of departure to consider the international dimension of the Tamil national struggle.
The armed struggle of the Tamil people is not taking place in the stratosphere. It is taking place on the ground and in an increasingly small world, the territorial boundaries of states have become porous. No state is an island. And the struggle of the Tamil people has reached beyond the island of Ceylon. It is to the Indian region and the international arena that we must turn, if we are to further our understanding of the nature and content of the struggle in which we are engaged.
The fact that the Indian government has supported the struggle is self evident. The fact that such support has been a qualified support is also self evident. And by that I refer to the often repeated statement of Indian policy makers that they do not support the creation of a separate Tamil Eelam. If we are to understand the nature and extent of India's support, we must ask ourselves why it is that India has given its support to the Tamil struggle?
It is sometimes said that India has given its support to the Tamil struggle, on humanitarian grounds because of the presence of more than 100,000 refugees on its soil. These refugees are a burden on the Indian government and it is in India's interest to secure a settlement which would enable the refugees to return to Sri Lanka. Whilst this is undoubtedly one aspect of the matter, we need to ask ourselves whether the presence of a hundred thousand refugees in a country with a population of more than 700 million would by itself lead to that country committing its resources to support a militant movement.
Again, it is stated that India is concerned with the effect on Tamil Nadu where more than 50 million Tamils reside. This may well be a long term consideration. But at the same time, the Central Government may be mindful that overt support for a Tamil militant movement may well strengthen separatist tendencies within Tamil Nadu. Why then does India support the Tamil struggle?
We need to look at the Indian Ocean region as a strategic arena in the larger world context...
We need to look at the Indian Ocean region as a strategic arena in the larger world context. We live in a bipolar world dominated by two super powers, the United States and the Soviet Union. The nuclear deterrent has prevented direct conflict. But the confrontation continues by other means. In the 1950s, Europe was the arena of the cold war. In the 1980s, the Indian Ocean Region has become an important area for the confrontation between the super powers.
Professor L.William Dowdy, Chair of Military and Strategic Studies at Acadia University, Nova Scotia, Canada has remarked in a recent study:
It is not only the United States which is interested in the Indian Ocean Region. I quote again from Professor Dowdy:
The fundamental premise of India's foreign policy is to deny any intermediary role to extra regional powers in the affairs of South Asia...
It is in this frame that India's own strategic policies must be considered. The fundamental premise of India's strategic policies can be simply stated - and that is to deny any intermediary role to extra regional powers in the affairs of South Asia.
Mr.Onkar Marwah, Joint Director, Asian Centre, Graduate Institute of International Studies, Geneva, has commented:
Clearly, the primary Indian objective will be to prevent the fall out from any of the possible super power actions from affecting India's own economic development, political stability and flexibility of choices.
The way in which big powers intervene in the affairs of smaller powers...
Let us recognise that these are not the day dreams of academics in Universities.
The way in which big powers intervene in the affairs of smaller powers is brought out in a recent book by President Carter's former National Security Adviser Brzezinski. He writes that on the occasion of Chinese leader Deng's first visit to the United States in January 1979 -
So it was that socialist China invaded socialist Vietnam in February 1979 - a twenty day invasion to 'teach Vietnam a lesson.'US support in the international arena helped to bring China and the United States closer. We need to bear in mind that whilst a tilt by Sri Lanka towards the United States may concern India, a tilt by India towards the Soviet Union will be a matter of concern to both the United States and China.
'Thongura' power, India and Sri Sabaratnam...
When I speak of 'India', I am reminded of something that an Indian who works for a human rights Organisation in Geneva once said to me. He said 'You know, the current joke is that in India, the upper middle class and big business are pro Western, the bureaucrats are pro Soviet and the revolutionaries are pro Chinese - and so, to which India do you refer?" The actions of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's government can be properly understood only in the context of the interplay of these different forces within the Indian political frame.
Sufficient, perhaps, has been said to set some of the parameters relevant to Indian foreign policy objectives in relation to the Tamil struggle. These parameters were not unknown to Sri Sabaratnam. It was in August 1985, before I went to Thimpu, that Sri Sabaratnam said to me in Tamil:
Sri Sabaratnam, spoke as the leader of an organisation which had received military assistance from the Indian Government, but who was also mindful of the serious limitations of being the recipient of such help.
What is to be done?...
It is appropriate therefore, that on the anniversary of Sri Sabaratnam's death, we should give some thought to some of the basic issues that confront the Tamil national struggle today. The way forward is clear. We need to build on the platform of the Thimpu declaration. We need to understand, and bring that understanding to others that the Thimpu declaration sets out a principled framework for the negotiating process and that it is on the basis of the Thimpu declaration alone that justice can be secured.
We need to understand, and bring that understanding to others, that there can be no peace without justice. And above all else, that which is foremost in many Tamil minds today, is the pressing and urgent need for unity because in unity lies strength and today, we as a people need that strength. We need to speak with one voice in order that we may be heard. A divisive cacophony will influence no one. But how do we bring about unity?
In 1902, some 15 years before the overthrow of the Czar, Lenin wrote:
These words of Lenin, may be of some relevance to all of us who are engaged in the Tamil Liberation struggle. Let us recognise that absence of unity is not something peculiar to the struggle of the Tamil people.
There are some amongst us who mourn about the divisive nature of the Tamil people. They moan that each one of us is too much of an individualist - too full of himself. And they usually end up by saying with self pity that 'this is the trouble with us Tamils'.
The differences in approach that exist amongst us is only a sign that our struggle is in the process of maturing. Divisions have existed at various stages in all struggles and Lenin's words are a reflection of the divisions that existed in the struggle against the Czar. And so my fellow Tamils, let us not moan. Let us not be diffident. We are not without hope. Let us not cry helplessly. We are not helpless. Let us ask what is it that each one of us can do to bring about unity. Again it is reason that must show us the way.
Let us begin by first recognising that the responsibility for the absence of unity amongst us, must lie with each one of us - it must lie with each Tamil without exception and by the same token, it is only, we, who together can help to set the matter right. But unity cannot be built by rhetoric. It cannot be achieved by oratory. It cannot be achieved by moaning about its absence. Neither will unity be achieved by murdering those with whom we disagree. Nor again by assassinating the character of those who differ from us.
Unity will grow only around reason. Unity will grow when each one of us engage ourselves, not in endless talk, but in work in support of the Thimpu declaration - a declaration which as we have seen, was the expression of the unanimous will of the Tamil Liberation movement. As we engage ourselves in that work, we will further our understanding of the nature of the struggle in which we are engaged. As we further our understanding, we will also see the need to interact honestly and openly with each other.
The resources of the Tamil people are three fold: the Tamils of Eelam, the Tamils of Tamil Nadu and the Expatriate Tamil Community. There is a need to mobilise all three resources. Again each one of us cannot do same thing. To each according to his ability. In the words of the Gita - to each according to his Dharma - his or her way. Can we help in this process? We can give our time or our money or both. What else can we give?
There is a need for us to interact and there is a need for us to set up appropriate institutional fora where such interaction may be furthered. Let us recognise that there may be influences which may be inimical to the interests of the Tamil people which may infiltrate our movement, but the surest safeguard is not secrecy but the scrutiny of a fearless reason and a movement which is at all times rooted in our people. Let us not be afraid to reason with each other to unite: let us unite around reason.