19 December 2011

If it’s about territory, then it’s about history

M.A. Sumanthiran, speaking at a seminar organized by the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies recently, is reported to have waxed lyrical about children conscripted for battle.  He had lamented that not only were their childhood taken away from them, they died and that their parents don’t have the privilege of visiting their graves. 
The TNA National List MP could have confessed the fact that neither he nor his party had ever found fault with the abductors, the LTTE, not for child-snatching and not for any of the countless acts of terrorism.  With that kind of disingenuous utterings neither he nor his party can reasonably expect anyone to believe that they are serious about reconciliation. 
Eran Wickramaratne, the UNP National List MP, has lauded various programmes of the Government, but is reported to have attributed everything to foreign pressure.  Perhaps this is a colonial mindset he has acquired after formally joining the UNP and deciding to back the present leadership, but it is strange that this man, known for sobriety, has not attributed the victory over terrorism also to someone like, say, Navi Pillai.  It’s that absurd! 
This is not to say that the Government and the President are all about doing everything possible to alleviate the suffering of all citizens, especially the Tamils.  Quite apart from the fact that no one expects anyone to be Superman, there are issues that are urgently in need of attention which are being neglected.  Not all of these are North and East specific nor Tamil-specific of course, but the fact remains that we are still a long way from reconciliation, even though it was no easy task to get over the biggest hurdle, that of terrorism and the realities of violent conflict. 
Wickramaratne might say the LLRC was also a product of outside pressure and in this he may be correct.  He doesn’t have what it takes to ever fault Western/UN double-speak, but it is certainly true that the LLRC was birthed as a prompted after-thought, never mind the pros and cons pertaining to the relevance of such an exercise. It is a fact and as such one we have to deal with.  It is a fact that produced a report.  The tabling of the report is also a fact. It an ‘out there now’ thing.  Locally made. 
The LLRC is faulted for mandate limitation.  It will be faulted for not offering goodies as per the wish lists of various stakeholders.  To be expected in various degrees of ferocity, one might add. 
The most important news story of the week, however, was not the tabling of the LLRC in Parliament.  It was not about the chauvinistic and myopic posturing of Sumanthiran or the Wickramaratne’s snooty down-the-nose dismissal of things Sri Lankan, by Sri Lankans and for Sri Lankans.  It was about a claim made by the TNA MP, S. Sritharan who claimed ‘there is archaeological evidence to prove that Tamil Buddhists lived in certain areas of the northern province’.  The evidence referred to is that Buddhist archaeological sites had been discovered in the North subsequent to excavation. 
Now there’s nothing to link ‘Tamil’ to ‘Buddhist’ in the evidence except the fact that these artifacts have been unearthed from areas where Tamils now form the majority.  Concluding in this manner is akin to saying that there were white people who held Mayan beliefs because some Mayan artifacts have been unearthed in some spot in the Andes where whites now reside.  It is like saying that the discovery of a Nestorian cross is evidence of Christians having played a key role and one equal to the role of Buddhists in building a civilization. 
Buddhism does not belong to the Sinhalese, this is true.  One of the greatest commentators on the scriptures, Buddhagosa, was a Tamil bikkhu, after all.  Buddhism did have its historical moment in South India, even though it never had the sway enjoyed in what is now called Bihar.  What is most striking about the extrapolation pertaining Buddhist archaeological remains is the conspicuous absence of the ‘Tamil’ signature.  Buddhism, from the time of Siddhartha and through the intense debates between and among the major schools, the Theravadins and Mahayanists, was a doctrine made for archiving. 
It is indeed strange that neither this politician nor those who share the ideology of separatism a la ‘traditional homelands’ can come up with a corpus of material IN TAMIL, either on stone or on some kind of printed form dating back to those heady days when ‘Tamil Buddhism’ owned the spiritual space pertaining to the claimed ‘traditional homelands’.  History shows that Tamils were not illiterate.  They had a script. They had a literature.  It is hard to believe that a community of Tamil Buddhist dominating to the point of leaving behind an exclusive archaeology did not think of penning a few words that could validate such claims millennia later. 
What is interesting about the statement is the fact that the TNA has finally understood that it has to back rhetoric and claim with fact and substantiation.   The long years of Eelam posturing was bereft of any reference to ‘Tamil Buddhists’ except from the staunch Tiger-supporting Peter Schalk, whose efforts were largely ignored by the Christian-dominated articulators of Eelam mythology.  The current ‘latching-on’, then, indicates a) the recognition that history will preside over claim-verification and b) there’s very little fuel in the Tamil Nationalism bus to take the country towards any significant landmark along the road to Eelam. 
It brings the debate down to terra firma, that of citizen’s rights and flaws and anomalies therein.   If exclusivity cannot be established when it comes to ‘traditional homeland’, if the illogical demarcations of provincial boundaries cannot be supported in ethnic or any other terms, if the demographic reality of more than half the Tamils residing outside the North and East has to be taken into account, then we are forced to get back to the constitution and all the flaws in it.  It is not about devolution, then, but about democracy. It is not about cultural domination, but about coexistence. It is not about gerrymandering to suit chauvinistic designs or tweaking of land laws to skew demography in favour of this or that community, but about being sensitive to concerns and indeed fears. 
Sritharan may have unconsciously stuck a poisonous thorn on TNA politics and Tamil chauvinism.  Now   Sumanthiran can no longer say one thing in private and another in public. He needs to grow out of Tamil chauvinism, acknowledge the racism of Chelvanayakam, be loud and clear about his position regarding merging the North and East, accept demographic and geographical realities, clear about history, eschew myth and apologize to the entire population for the crimes of omission and commission committed by the TNA in its Tiger-loving past and its chauvinistic present.  He can do it.  I doubt though that Wickramaratne, given his ecclesiastical prerogatives would budge from the colonial horse he’s borrowed, but then again anything is possible. 
The issue of history has been dodged for too long.  It is the very dodging that feeds chauvinists on both sides of the divide.  It is this dodging that helps keep a flawed and anti-citizen constitution largely unscathed by political upheavals and even regime change.  It is a dodging that all parties, all governments, and all presidents have indulged in.  For too long. 
The LLRC might, sadly, provide a diversion that is useful to politicians, but sooner or later the thorny issue of territory must be taken on.  History will preside, as it should, version, artifact, text and all.   It should not matter whose claims get punched holes in.  We need to get past this if we are to live as friends and citizens, equal under the law.

[Published in 'The Nation' of December 18, 2011] 


Walter Rajaratne said...

you never go dry in proactive thoughts taking the bull by the horn. Keep writing for long years to come to fill our quenching thurst in any given topic.

Ramanie de Zoysa said...

Good commentary! Keep writing!