A few years back during a ‘BBC Session’ at the Galle Literary Festival clearly designed to rant and rave about rights abuse by the Sri Lankan security forces, the late Sunila Abeysekera, one of the panelists, spoke about the conflation of ‘Tamils’ and ‘the LTTE’. The charge was that the Government had essentially marked all Tamils as either LTTErs or sympathizers of that terrorist organization.
A question was put to her: “Who is indulging in conflation here? Who wanted the LTTE to be treated as the ‘sole representatives of the Tamil people’?
Who wanted parity of status for the LTTE vis-a-vis the Government in negotiations to resolve what the parity-seekers called an ‘ethnic conflict’, i.e. one between the Sinhalese and Tamils? Aren’t you, Sunila, guilt of conflation here?”
It’s just one illustration of how language works to mis-represent, deceive, promote a particular ideology and drive processes towards a preferred outcome.
Let’s start with the more familiar nomenclature associated with the ‘ethnic’ conflict. First, the naming of entities as North and South (and at one point ‘Kilinochchi’ and ‘Colombo’). To those unfamiliar with the relevant history, geography and demography the immediate image is of an island cut across the middle, from East to West, where given the identities of the principal protagonists, the ‘North’ is ‘Tamil Homeland’ and the South the domain of the Sinhalese. Numbers are suppressed in this characterization. Legitimacy to struggle is scripted as a ‘goes without saying’ (never mind the ‘came without saying’ and who moved what and for what reason!
‘Border villages’ is another term liberally used at the time. On the face of it, the term would apply to those areas on the periphery of the principal zone of conflict (never mind the fact that terrorism in its application was oblivious to boundaries, be they provincial or imaginary as per the notion of a ‘traditional/historical homeland’). On the other hand, ‘border’ has a meaning, it is a demarcation that separates one geographical entity from another. The entire conflict, in the ethnicization of it at least, was about real estate. ‘Border village’, then, surreptitiously infuses legitimacy of land-claims to the discourse ab initio. Another ‘came without saying’ thing calculated to acquire ‘goes without saying’ value.
This is how grievances get inflated and aspirations are made to appear ‘reasonable’. It must be kept in mind that such sleight of hand in and of itself will not necessarily win the day for the mischief-makers.
Obfuscation is a long-term project. It involves selective reading of history, painstaking myth-modeling, creative historiography and relentless vilification of perceived enemy with deliberate ignoring of context, careful sifting of evidence to find and use only that which buttresses proposition and so on.
That deeper ideologically motivated ‘academic putsch’ if you will is clearly evident in the work of academics who, at best, were or are motivated by a need to end ‘inter-ethnic tensions’ or at worst have some kind of deep-seated antipathy to the historical and real connexion between ‘Sinhala’ and ‘Buddhist’. Thus we have tall stories about the Nestorian cross found in Anuradhapura as evidence of early Christian communities in the island, and equally tall tales about Prince Mugalan being a Christian or at least having among his men Christians when he took on King Kashyapa. For the record, such claims have been comprehensively rebutted by academics and the rebuttals have been responded to with a deafening silence by the claimants.
The intellectual sloth of well-meaning academics (or dishonesty in the case of the pernicious variants) as well as the political dishonesty of their approvers (‘likers’ and ‘sharers’ if you want to use the social media terminology for the relevant mis-education) has been excellently shown in a recent book. Ishanka Malsiri, a young academic, an archaeologist by training, has completely debunked the claims made by Gananath Obeysekere in his much celebrated and oft-quoted essay ‘Duttagamini and the Buddhist Conscience’. Malsiri’s review, titled ‘Dutugemunuge Hrda Saakshiyata Pilithurak’ (A reply to Dutugemunu’s conscience’) takes issue with each and everyone of Obeysekere’s contentions, points out the errors of omission and commission, his as well as the sources he has used to support his thesis, and inter alia points out how outcome-preference has driven the writer and robbed the essay of intellectual worth.
Included in this response to Obeysekera is a critical assessment of the vilification of Anagarika Dharmapala and a refutation of many associated claims, including Obeysekere’s claim that Dharmapala considered Buddhism the preserve of the Sinhalese and sanctioned violence against Tamil people.
We state all these factors because they have directly and indirectly fed the current drive for a federal solution (sic). Here again, we see the politics of language and deliberate obfuscation. The examples that are most frequently cited are those of the USA and India. If history matters (and it should if we are talking about traditional/historical homelands), then the historical record rebels against ethnic-based breaking up of the nation and certainly against devolution to areas demarcated by current provincial boundaries.
If we are to draw from the USA and India, then indeed ‘federalism’ has to be taken as a coming together of distinct political entities contained in distinct geographies. Scripted into that definition is this: whoso voluntarily joins can by the very fact choose to live arbitrarily. The centralizing processes in both countries, one notes, are conveniently ignored by those who cite the relevant cases.
Even a cursory glance at the election manifesto of the TNA clearly indicates the double speak. They talk of a ‘federal solution within a united Sri Lanka;. They avoid defining ‘united’ or ‘unity’, which are clearly not depended on the structure of the state and cannot be obtained by constitutional article. The details of the manifesto, moreover, show that whereas ‘federal’ is the label, the wine is a separate state.
It is in this context that one has to assess the reservations expressed by some ardent federalists about pushing devolution (read ‘federalism’) at this point. Some have argued that at the present time there is a danger of holding a referendum because ‘wounds are still too fresh and a negative vote by the electoral majority is a possibility’.
Interesting. What is implied is that the purpose of a democratic exercise such as an election/referendum is not about ascertaining the will and its direction but pushing through a particular position.
It gets worse. Consider this thought from an ardent federalist who was also a one time cheerleader for the ‘parity of status’ call: “No government that is elected, and whose mandate has democratic legitimacy, can make political decisions that do not have majority electoral backing. The majority of the electorate is waiting to be educated and convinced about the need for change, and for the change proposed by the government, as this is what is desired by the Tamil people.”
The majority of the electorate is "waiting to be educated and convinced about the need for change", did he say? So they are as yet dumb and unconvinced? How condescending!
Interesingly though, the project has been revealed. It’s not about reconciliation. It’s about pandering to the desires of the Tamil people which (are we to assume?) are expressed by the political coalition that represents them, the TNA. It’s about subjugating all other interests and ‘desires’ to those of a chauvinistic minority!
Language is not innocent, let us repeat. It is pregnant with outcome preferences and ideological privileging. It inflates real grievance and seeks to legitimate aspirations. Crudely put, in the discussion and promotion of devolution, federalism and even reconciliation, language seeks to legitimate the process of constitutional and political tinkering that is expressly motivated to deliver what Prabhakaran and his bunch of terrorists fought, destroyed and killed to obtain.
All of this we can say is ‘politics and usual’ and dismiss the anti-intellectualism, deliberate misleading and so on as ‘part of the game’. The problem is that a square peg will not be forced into a round hole. The misfit at best will yield something shaky. Constitutions should be more robust. When they are not and when they are (as envisaged) forced down people’s throats, the body rejects it, one way or another.
Tragically, what this ends up doing is to flush not only aspiration but even grievance down the tube. Federalists, then and now, I offer are doing great disservice to the Tamil people, ironically in the very name of addressing grievances, delivering aspirations etc., not to mention that they seek also to dull the Sinhalese and hoodwink them into believing that it’s for their own good! This is why, one might add, it is so necessary to vilify the Sinhalese and craft a ‘conscience’ that buys the nonsense about historical wrongs done to Tamils. All language-stuff. Obfuscating. And potent.
Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: malindasene