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Neutralisation of Tamil moderates in Lanka

Since independence in 1948, Sinhala polity has never thought it fit to negotiate with Tamil moderates, writes PK Balachandran.
By PK Balachandran | PTI
UPDATED ON JUL 24, 2006 11:11 AM IST
It was July 13 — the 17th anniversary of assassination of one of the most prominent moderate Tamil leaders of Sri Lanka — Appapillai Amirthalingam.

The day went unnoticed, but for an article by the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the web newspaper Asian Tribune and a short appreciation in the state-owned Daily News.

None of Amirthalingam's comrades thought it fit to mark the event.

The treatment meted out to Amirthalingam, who spearheaded the Tamils' democratic and peaceful struggle after the death of "Eelam's Gandhi" SJV Chelvanayakam in 1977, is a reflection of the continual marginalisation of moderates in the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict.

Right from the time Sri Lanka or "Ceylon" became independent in 1948, the dominant Sinhala polity has never thought it fit to negotiate seriously with the Tamil moderates.

This unwillingness had given rise to Tamil militancy, which, in turn, devalued the moderates further.

And fearing isolation, the moderates themselves began to tout the extremist agenda, alienating themselves even more from the Sinhala polity.

But right through, despite mouthing separatist slogans, the moderates had made sincere attempts to tread the path of constitutionalism and accommodation.

To their dismay, these were invariably sneered at by the Tamil militants and the Sinhala polity, leaving them with no alternative but to toe the extremist line again.

There have also been occasions when the Sinhala polity and the Tamil extremists have united to fight the moderates, albeit for entirely different reasons.

Both saw the moderates as obstructing the line of fire. They hoped that once the moderates were sidelined, they would be able to take each other on more effectively.

The absence of any moderate intermediaries resulted in the exacerbation of the conflict and its continuance.

It paved the way for intervention by non-Sri Lankan forces, India first and the international community later.

The latter came as honest brokers, facilitators, mediators or as active participants as a third force.

But far from reducing the anxieties in the minds of the two principal actors, the foreign actors only added a new dimension to these anxieties.

If the Sri Lankan state felt an unwanted abridgement of its sovereignty, the non-state actor, the LTTE, felt that its hands were being tied.       

Today, with the moderates having been eliminated, the LTTE is waging an armed struggle for an independent Tamil Eelam based on the right to self-determination.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), comprising a set of politicians, is but an unabashed supporter of the LTTE and touts its line in parliament and outside.

Killings mount despite a Ceasefire Agreement. The international community, including India, is fully in the picture as a third party, but its role is a cause of new frustrations and frictions.

The pathetic story of the Sri Lankan Tamil moderates has been told very vividly by the veteran Sri Lankan journalist T.Sabaratnam in his book, The Murder of a Moderate: Political Biography of Appapillai Amirthalingam (Nivetha Publishers, Dehiwela, Sri Lanka, 1996).

Language issue

Although the Sinhala-Tamil conflict predates Ceylon's independence, it got exacerbated with the introduction of the "Sinhala Only" Act in 1956.

Tamil, spoken by more than 24 per cent of the population, particularly concentrated in the North-East covering a third of the island's land mass, was given no place in the administration of the country.

The aggrieved Tamils, and their chief political organisation, the Federal Party (FP), felt that they would get justice only if they had regional autonomy under a "federal" Sri Lankan Constitution.

In August 1957, the FP sought the establishment of a "Federal Union of Ceylon" with an autonomous Tamil state in the North East; parity between Sinhala and Tamil; and an end to state-aided colonisation meant to whittle down the proportion of Tamils in the North East.

FP's agitation led Bandaranaike (popularly known as Banda) to enter into a pact with the leader of the FP, SJV Chelvanayakam (popularly known as Chelva) in 1957.

Under the "B-C Pact", Tamil was to be used in the North East. Banda was ready to consider a Provincial Council, but ruled out a merger of the North and East to form a Tamil-dominated Regional Council.

His Sinhala constituency feared that a consolidation of Tamils on a territorial basis would lead to secession.

The B-C Pact was not implemented, due to an agitation led by JR Jayewardene of the opposition United National Party (UNP) and supported by Buddhist monks who considered themselves guardians of the majority Sinhala-Buddhist community.

In fact, Banda tore up the pact when Buddhist monks confronted him on April 9, 1958. But Banda's dramatic gesture did not assuage communal feelings.

There were anti-Tamil riots in various parts of the island in May and June.

However, Banda regretted tearing up the B-C Pact and brought in the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act. But this too was not implemented.

Moves to get the provisions included in the Constitution failed.

With the UNP playing the Sinhala Only card to capture the majority Sinhala vote, the SLFP wriggled out of its commitment to implement the B-C Pact.

Led by Banda's widow, Sirima Bandaranaike, the SLFP swept the 1960 polls. And her government said that the Sinhala Only Act would be implemented from January 1, 1961.

FP was dismayed, and the more radical youths in it urged the party to give up federalism and go for full separation instead. But the party Supremo, Chelva, rejected separatism, saying that it was "premature" and advocated Civil Disobedience.

The Civil Disobedience movement took a violent turn at a few places and the FP issued Tamil Arasu (Tamil Government) postage stamps, giving a hint about the existence of a separatist undercurrent.

In April 1961, Ms Bandaranaike declared a State of Emergency and placed the North East under military rule. But this only hardened the Tamil stand.

In  1963, the FP asked Tamil government servants not to learn Sinhala even as the government threatened to sack them.

In the March 1965 parliamentary elections, the UNP led by Dudley Senanayake better known as "Dudley" won. The FP supported him, and Dudley entered into a pact with Chelva called "D-C Pact".

The D-C Pact said that the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act would be implemented in the North East; District Councils (DCs) would be established and locals would get priority in land allotments in the North East to allay fears of planned Sinhala colonisation among the Tamils.

As a compromise, the FP did not press for federalism or regional Councils, even though these were in its 1965 election manifesto.

But as author Sabaratnam points out, the D-C Pact was implemented only "half heartedly". Some of its provisions were not implemented at all, he notes.

He quotes Dudley telling Chelva: "I thought that after sometime you will not insist on your demands!"

However, Dudley said he was prepared to introduce District Councils (DCs) and asked a moderate Tamil minister from the FP, M Tiruchelvam, to draft a devolution package for them.

The DC system Thiruchelvam fashioned was toothless because it functioned under the Centre and did not replace the district administrative structure.

While the radical Tamil youth in the FP were angry, the opposition SLFP deemed the DCs to be a stepping stone to the division of the country and started to agitate.

Dudley climbed down and temporarily withdrew the District Councils bill in 1965.

Upon this, the radical youth in the FP wanted the party to quit the government. Amirthalingam, who was General Secretary, said that Dudley should be given more time to fulfill his promise.

However, in 1969, the FP withdrew support to the government.

In the 1970 parliamentary elections, the FP campaigned for federalism, with five autonomous states within Sri Lanka.

To allay Sinhala fears, the FP said that a state should have only limited powers and that the Centre should be able to dismiss a state government.

But the 1972 Republican Constitution did away with the safeguards for the Tamils, which existed in the previous Soulbury constitution, and entrenched the Sinhala Only Act.

Regulations made under the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act were not made part of the constitution. Tamil failed to get a place even in the North East. Sinhala was made the court language all over the island.

The militant Tamil youth, encouraged by the emergence of an independent Bengali-speaking Bangladesh with Indian military assistance in late 1971, pressed the FP to go abandon federalism and go for separation.

But the FP continued with its demand for an autonomous "Traditional Homeland" in the North East within Sri Lanka.

Meanwhile, Velupillai Prabhakaran had formed the Tamil New Tigers (TNT) to wage an armed struggle for total separation. He was fully exploiting the frustration of the educated Tamil youth.

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