Temphatic support for the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) – which swept the polls in the Tamil constituencies – means by implication, that Tamil voters have rejected forces such as the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) that adopted a rather aggressive and exclusive Tamil nationalist line. For some time now the TNPF – along with the [...]

Sunday Times 2

Crisis in Tamil society and challenges before Tamil politics


Temphatic support for the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) – which swept the polls in the Tamil constituencies – means by implication, that Tamil voters have rejected forces such as the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) that adopted a rather aggressive and exclusive Tamil nationalist line.

For some time now the TNPF – along with the Tamil Civil Society Forum (TCSF), some pro-LTTE sections of the diaspora, a few members of the Northern Provincial Council (NPC), including Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran, Ananthi Sasitharan and M. K. Sivajilingam, and former TNA parliamentarian Suresh Premachandran – have been attacking TNA leader R. Sampanthan and parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran, perceived as “moderates”; severely criticising their attempts to reach out to the South.

Future uncertain: A woman selling gram outside a Kovil

Terming every effort to engage with the Sinhala south a betrayal or a shameful compromise, all that the TNPF and these extreme Tamil nationalist forces wanted to do was adopt a political position of boycott; something that has cost Tamil society dearly.

It is heartening that there appears to be a clear shift from divisive politics in the south as well, as evidenced by the Rajapaksa regime’s successive defeats in the presidential and parliamentary elections. Given this opening, which promises to present a more conducive environment for meaningful north-south engagement, what is the way forward?

It would be useful for Tamil politics to reflect on the political course and choices, even as it prepares to take the next step towards negotiating the long-pending demands for greater devolution and a lasting political solution. Historically speaking, Tamil politics dominated by the Federal Party has not done much else than win elections.

However, politics should typically be about building alliances with other political forces, mobilising society and finding solutions to people’s social, economic and political problems.

Not only do Tamil nationalist politics fail to demonstrate its capacity in governance, as with the NPC, but it also has no vision to address the post-war crisis in the North and East.

Wearing nationalism like blinkers
All forms of politics are limited by their class basis. For instance, the UNP and the SLFP are unlikely to be perturbed by the widening class inequalities in our society.

Yet, depending on the particular bourgeois democratic character of the UNP and the SLFP regime in power at a given point, there might be more room to engage the parties on some of the concerns of the working classes.

Similarly, Tamil nationalist politics continues to disregard many of the social differences and forms of oppression.

Issue of Tamil-Muslim relations, class and caste oppression in Tamil society, gendered forms of exploitation and regional disparities have seldom found mention in the Tamil nationalist political discourse.

However, these social concerns are at the core of the social and economic crisis facing Tamil society today. The Tamil polity cannot address its people’s challenges without confronting these uncomfortable, yet crucial realities.

The extreme Tamil nationalist forces in Jaffna consist of sections of the urban middle class professionals, particularly many doctors, lawyers, journalists and lecturers, with strong links to the Tamil diaspora.

is thus a class and caste character to those who constitute the ranks of the TNPF and TCSF, and they were resoundingly defeated by the broader Tamil population in the parliamentary elections.

While these narrow Tamil nationalists make all the noise for national and international actors to hear, it is the rural folk in the Vanni, the oppressed castes involved in Palmyrah work, the fisher-folk on the peripheral coast and single women with dependents that silently endure the aftermath of the brutal war.

Tamil nationalist politics has never bothered to address the realities of the many everyday struggles of the oppressed.

Space for women

Though more than half the northern population is female, Tamil political parties rarely engage women in politics. Not many women would come forward, even if there were an opportunity, because of the overtly conservative politics of “Tamil culture” that discourages women from taking leadership positions and perpetuates the dependency of women on men.

Even today weddings are negotiated with dowry. In fact, one of the main concerns of single mothers with daughters who came before the recent Presidential Commission on Enforced Disappearances was that they did not know how to raise dowry for their daughters, even as they struggled to make ends meet.

Furthermore, state lands are mostly given to the male in the family. With increasing break up of families in the post war context, women are left to fend for themselves and their children without property. Such economic dependence is also one reason for the continuing cycles of domestic violence against female spouses.

Instead of addressing these challenges facing women, Tamil cultural politics claims the Tamil community is losing its traditional customs and values in the post-war period. It problematically deploys a discourse of systematic “cultural deterioration” introduced by alien forces through modern communication technologies, drugs and alcohol.

Such “cultural deterioration” is said to be the reason for all evils in Tamil society, including the rise in sexual violence against women. Not only are issues like domestic violence faced by Tamil women disregarded, “cultural deterioration” has become a powerful discourse to control women’s bodies and repress their social life.

With no political culture of reflection, let alone self-criticism, Tamil nationalist politics is deeply complicit in the repression of women.
Some bitter truths

The last five years have seen a sustained campaign and advocacy for the release of lands acquired by the state, in order for the resettlement of Tamil communities that were displaced. Military acquirement of land has been rightly opposed by Tamil politics.

In this context, while fears of “Sinhala colonisation” figures centrally in the campaigns on land, little has been done to address the historical landlessness of deprived sections within the Tamil population.

There is little doubt that the Mahaweli development scheme facilitated Sinhalese settlements in the North and the East. However, there seems to be no memory of the eviction of Muslims from the North in the 1990s and the ‘colonisation’ by the LTTE of the Muslim lands.

Tamil nationalist discourse makes claims over the Eastern Province, without considering the almost equal ratio of Tamil and Muslim populations. Are Tamil nationalist majoritarian claims over the Eastern province and the Muslim population any different from Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism?

Tamil nationalism claims it will build a society where everyone will have equal access to social and economic benefits. How would that be possible if there is no acknowledgement of the caste stratification within the Tamil community over the centuries?

Caste made an ugly appearance even in adverse situations during displacement, when there were concerns about who would live next to the upper castes in temporary shelters. Youngsters from the north who migrate to Colombo for higher education or employment invariably find ways to maintain and reinforce this hierarchy by ensuring that lunch groups and social gatherings are exclusive.

Inter-caste marriages are still seen as a despicable crime and the couple will be excluded from their communities.

The post-war years are witnessing a reconsolidation of caste structure in Tamil society, with temples marked by caste drawing huge investments and rural schools showing a subtle segregation along caste lines.

, if you ask passionate proponents of Tamil nationalism, they would argue that caste was a non-issue, or at best a minor issue. This reluctance to admit to a serious problem in our society only perpetuates caste oppression.

So when Tamil nationalism puts forth an idea or concept of nationhood, it is one that is oblivious to prevalent forms of discrimination, inequalities and oppression within the community.

Any dissenting voice is hurriedly branded as that of a “traitor”. These prejudices are way too entrenched in the Tamil community to be wished away by merely embellishing nationalistic policy documents with phrases of equality for women, creating a casteless society and non-discrimination against the Muslim community.

There is a need for a fundamental rethinking of Tamil politics, including the core elements of Tamil nationalism that has dominated it.

Political solution and more

The NPC, by all standards, has proved a complete failure. There is a major gap between the ideological claims of Tamil nationalist politics and the social and economic realities of the war devastated Tamil population; people of the North and the East now lack hope for a meaningful future.

How do the recent elections and its outcome relate to the contradiction between political demands and social life?

The new government elected in January 2015, took a few but significant steps to respond to some demands of the Tamil political leadership. The two military governors in the North and the East were replaced, and in Jaffna and Sampur nearly two thousand acres of land held by the military were released for resettlement. These moves offer promise of some space opening up for negotiations towards a political solution.

The contours of a political solution will have to address such questions as the degree of the devolution of powers; mechanisms to share power at the centre including a second chamber such as a senate; the structure of state as to whether it be federal, unitary or neither; and the unit of devolution, particularly the demarcation of the Province.

These political demands about autonomy and the state also relate to demilitarisation, ending the climate of fear and guaranteeing freedom of association; all of which will give some confidence to the people about a secure future in the North and the East.

While a political solution has been long-pending and evasive, it would still not convincingly address the economic and social crisis prompted by the devastation of war and the subsequent failure of post war reconstruction.

The drastically falling incomes, absence of employment opportunities, widespread indebtedness, deteriorating public health and educational institutions, and rising social violence together present an enormous challenge in the region that would need not just political will, but also a sensitivity on the part of Tamil politics.

Here, Tamil politics has the important task of providing leadership and hope to a broken society. While a political solution is central to changing the attitude of all communities and for a more robust democracy in the country, the process of uplifting the people warrants a deeper vision and committed mobilisation of society.

The way forward

Tamil politics has paid a heavy price over the decades. The LTTE decimated Tamil politics through assassinations and a climate of fear, and the Tamil political parties are yet to recover. In the absence of any organic link between these parties and their constituencies, regressive cultural politics fills the political vacuum.

Without any meaningful intervention, Tamil nationalist politics has reduced the predicament of the Tamil community to victimhood.
Deep wounds remain after the brutal war. A process of healing should necessarily include a processes of accountability and truth-seeking.

However, there is a need for openness and self-criticism among all communities and cannot be approached from a position of victimhood and covering up for the LTTE. Only a mature political leadership will have the courage for such reflection and the confidence to push for a political solution and engage in a credible truth-seeking effort.

V. Karalasingham’s profound words in his seminal essay, ‘The Way Out for the Tamil Speaking People’, originally published in the Young Socialist in 1962 resonate even today:

“The fundamental flaw in the political strategy of the Federal Party is their conception that the fight for the rights of the Tamil speaking people is the responsibility solely of the Tamil speaking people themselves and that it is only the Tamils who can wage this fight and that they must do this as Tamils.”

Will Tamil politics eschew its exclusivism and begin working with the Muslims, the Up-Country Tamils and the progressive Sinhala forces?

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