Devolution on a linguistic basis?

| by Sebastian Rasalingam 
( November 28, 2012, Ontario, Sri Lanka Guardian) Mr. R. M. B. Senanayake (Mr. RMB), writing on the 26th of November Island Newspaper talks of `devolution on a linguistic basis’. He  presents the common but patently incorrect genesis of the conflict touted by the anglicized-Sinhalese journalists and Colombo Tamils who do not read Tamil, or understand the plight of the depressed-class Tamils. Here I present another aspect of the tragedy of  the Tamils then, and even now. 

Mr. RMB’s diagnosis is that (a) when SWRD introduced the Sinhala act, the Tamils in the North  revolted. They `not knowing Sinhalese’, unable to deal with the state, felt discriminated. He says that (b) `these extremists later realized that the Tamils were entering … the Medical, Engineering and Accounting professions in … disproportionate … numbers, … introduced media-wise standardization for entry to the universities. (c) This was the last straw for the Tamil youth who took to arms to establish their own State where they could …control resources… serve their objectives of higher education’.

Surely all the above applied to the Muslims (Tamil speaking) and to the estate Tamils (my wife is an estate-Tamil from Hatton).  Their reaction was starkly different. The reason —  the leaders of these two groups were not land-owning caste-based elites with objectives different from their own people.

Control of Tamils by the elite masters of Tamil Society.

I grew up in the Jaffna peninsula, then in Mannar after world-war II, and later in Hatton and Colombo. No Tamil I knew was concerned with the issued raised by Mr. RMB.  Tamils were governed by aristocratic land-owning lawyers living in Colombo;  they knew little Tamil. Their children went to Colombo schools, learnt French at the `Alliance Francais’, German at the `Goethe Institute’, and had Sinhala private tutors. They knew just enough `inga-va’ Tamil to order the servants.

The poor Tamils worked in the properties and homes of the upper-caste Tamils. We could not go in buses, or attend school. Our very presence was `polluting’. When the buses were nationalized by SWRD, the CTB allowed any one to travel in them, THAT angered the Tamil leaders. It was the Church that grudgingly opened doors very slightly to the oppressed Tamils by allowing them to learn English and read the Bible. In my young days I sat on the class-room floor or carried a low stool from class to class, as only the high castes could sit on chairs. The teachers treated me and and another child like me as excreta and punished us for daring to be there. But I thought that was the law – each had his station in life.

When I moved to Hatton, and later to Colombo, I found a very different world. It was a transforming experience for me and my wife to find that our work mates, mostly Sinhalese, would actually sit with us and share a cup of tea, as if that was normal. We found that we could go to night school and study without been threatened, beaten up, or go and borrow books, and do things that would bring swift retribution `back in the North’. Our dwellings would have been torched, and our women would have been raped with impunity.

This was in the late 1950s, when Mr. RMB is claiming that the Sinhala bill was introduced to `hurt the Tamils’. There were far more horrendous things going on in Tamil society. Young Tamils knew nothing about the south, and everything they knew was what they heard from their ruling masters and poisonous propagandists. We implicitly obeyed our Periya Doreis and the Tamil pamphlets told the `truth’ – the Cingala were our enemies. Very few young Tamils had ever traveled to the south. In our young days low-caste people were not allowed on trains although there was no such law. In the 1950 and 1960, `low-caste’ Tamils could go in trains in the Sinhalese areas, but after Vavniya we ran the risk of being assaulted and even thrown out of the train. All Indian estate workers in the early days went to India on foot, avoiding high-caste Tamil areas on their path, as their women could be raped as `rightful game’ by tradition, and they could be ordered to do menial work for the right of passage, or the privilege of drinking water or lighting a fire.

Has Mr. RMB asked why almost ALL the Tamils who entered the University were from the Vellar caste, with a sprinkling of the Karayiar caste? Why are all Tamil journalists from the upper castes? Even in the late 1970s the `Peking aligned’ communists challenged the TULF regarding low-caste children and `school admission’. But this was ignored. However, they organized children to protest against what Mr. RMB presents as `language based’ discrimination at University entrance! That was a protest regarding the privileges of less than 0.5% percent of the Tamil population. Instead, the vast discrimination at kindergarten, middle and high schools that denied education to the poor (low-caste) Tamils, fully flouting the rules of the `Colombo government’ should have been protested.

How the ITAK fanned communal polarization.

The conflict based on the cry of language, then on university admissions etc., were carefully managed affairs that involved whipping up Tamil Nationalism by fanning  promises to  recreate the glorious  Chola Kingdom.  Sinhala thugs who loved the mayhem made martyrs of them. The average Tamil, just like the Muslim or the estate Tamil, would have readily learnt Sinhala if needed. In fact, most Tamils who live in the south — and today there are probably more Tamils in the South than in the North– already know and use Sinhala. Tamils have gone to countries like Norway or Poland and learnt those difficult languages in no time.

Language is NOT the reason why the Tamils of the North were USED by the Tamil leaders living in Colombo for their fight.  The land-owning, mostly non-Hindu anglo-Tamils like the Chelvanayagams and Naganathans,  the religiously-neutral Ponnambalams or the  turbaned ultra-castiest Ramanathans of a previous generation  had much to loose. They were haughty men of great hubris certain of their `moral right’ to reign. They wished to retain their land within the oppressive and profitable norms as in colonial times. The Donoughmore reforms, with universal franchise was the first frightening volley loosening the  power in their hands. The equal seating in the CTB after the bus nationalization in 1956 was an unbearable insult by SWRD. The tarring  of the Sri signs on buses and cars was the swift reaction.

Mr. RMB should read the 1949 Maradana resolutions of the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) published in the Tamil language to see that the 1976 Vaddukkodai resolution for Eelam was already formulated some seven years BEFORE the advent of the Sinhala bill. The ITAK English publications with `federal’ proposals were for Colomb. But some Sinhalese knew Tamil, and the Tamil nationalists did not like it either.

Prabhakaran and the TULF.

The proposal for Eelam, and  `devolution’ as the next best thing were  valid objectives for the pre-Prabakaran Tamil leaders. Tamil land-owners could  run `their’ land as they wished. But Prabhakaran had no use for the Colombo Tamil leaders and their dreams. So he killed a few, when the  `leaders’ shamelessly succumbed, ignoring their dead.

The first informants against Prabhakaran were low-caste Tamils. They were hung on lamp-posts as a lesson to `traitors’. The LTTE were the new Periya Doreis. The implicit obedience  secured by the Tiger was a traditional feature of Tamil society. Mr. RMB says “the Tamil youth … took to arms to establish their own State where they could manage … their objectives of higher education”. This is sheer nonsense. Prabhakaran and his click, or Sivakumaran the first cyanide suicidee were not interested in education.

[File Photo: Low-caste Tamils hung as traitors by the LTTE.]

Tamils had Devolution before.

The Tamils HAD devolution since colonial times when the Ramanathans and Ponnambalams ran the land as their private land, and treated us as their surfs. We glimpsed democracy from 1948 to 1980. From then on there was de facto devolution into the hands of Prabhakaran.

Mr. Mervyn de Silva unilaterally imposes capricious rules in the Kelaniya area, and he is not even a chief minister. The 13th amendment and devolution set the stage for such men, be they Sinhalese or Tamils. The `Friday Forum’ politicians say that the Rajapaksas have set up a national fiefdom. If it happens so at the center, it is even more easy in rural corners, away from the lime-light. The Tamil-speaking areas that were under the LTTE are  particularly prone to subjugation by a son of a gun of a Chief minister. So please, NO, no, and no  for the 13th amendment for the Tamil areas. Let Mr. RMB move to the fiefdom of  Mervyn de Silvas and taste de facto devolution under an alleged descendant of Dutugamunu. The Tamils have suffered enough from devolution.

The language-based governments that Mr. RMB proposes are simple ethnic enclaves. How does a Sinhalese living in the Tamil areas, or a Tamil living in the Sinhalese areas communicate with their governments without `suffering discrimination’ under Mr. RMB’s proposal ?  Mr. RMB probably knows about some 20% Hispanics who live in the US, with some states like New Mexico and southern California having over 60% Spanish speakers. But the USA is firmly English, and any deviant politician would need CIA protection. France has some 10% Arabic speakers. But ask the French ambassador in Colombo if they sing the Marseillaise in Arabic  at the official functions, even in predominantly Arabic Marsaille.

In Canada there are 52 % English to 42 % French speakers and so they have crafted a bilingual policy. But still, except for federal offices that put out a bilingual facade, there in no  French in Toronto or Calgary. Meanwhile, even the tourist pamphlets in Quebec are often  `en Francais seulement’ ! Separatism is not cured even with bi-lingualism and full devolution. 

Minorities have a very important place in the cultural tapestry of a nation. This is achieved by building mutual trust and cooperation. The early Muslim Leaders like T. B. Jaya, `Sinhala Marikkar”, Bad-ud-deen Mohamed and others were Tamil speakers who were the very opposites of the Tamil-lawyer class who lived in the Cinnamon Gardens and ruled the North.

The route to reconciliation is NOT devolution or Eelam, or making linguistic or ethnic partitions, but creating opportunities for full intermixing of the people. A vigorous program of state encouragement for the Sinhalese to move to the North, and Tamils to move to the South is needed. Scholarships to leading schools for children of parents making such moves, bank loans to businesses who open up branches with  ethnic diversification, etc., are the right steps. These have to go with a land reform of the North where, even today, a few elite families hold much land while living in Boston  or London.

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Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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