Land Reform in the North and East – not too fast !

| by V. Krishnarajan

(October 18, California, USA, Sri Lanka Guardian) I write a props the article by Mr. Sebastian Rasalingam entitled “Land Reforms in the North and East of Sri Lanka”, published in the Island newspaper, 13th of October. One part of Mr. Rasalingam’s thesis is that the Tamil Nationalist movement, which eventually fell into the hands of terrorists, started off as an effort by the landed upper castes to maintain their hegemony over the depressed castes. He insinuates that all this started in 1929, with opposition to the Donoughmore commission and Universal franchise. Summarizing the recent history of the North, he says that there were indigenous Tamils who remained in Jaffna, as well as Singhalese who took refuge (from Sankilli) in the Vanni and became “tamilized”. Then he alludes to the arrival of Malabar Tamils to work in the new tobacco plantations of the North.
Land reforms in the North and East are important to remove inequalities. The south got some measure of reform in the Paddy lands act of Philip Goonawardena, and in the Plantations act of Colvin R de Silva. They had little or no impact on the North.

History can be written according to different narrations, just as the view of the valley below depends on one’s perspective on top of a hill. There is some truth in all such perspectives, and some fallacies as well+. Indeed, one component of the rise of Tamil nationalism was the extreme opposition of the upper classes to any tinkering with the caste system, as is clear from the actions and orations of Ramanathan, Ponnambalam and other early leaders. It is also true that those Malabar and Indigenous Tamils who collaborated with the Colonials got land grants and became the dominant landed caste.

However, exactly the same thing happened in the south. The Dissavas and other Kandyan aristocrats who collaborated with the British became the Singhalese leaders, earning Mudliyar designations, and usually becoming Christians. We don’t have to look far as both Banadaranaike and Senanayake clans started from such gate Mudliyars who took the side of the Invader. So, it is not only in the North, but also in the South, that the origin of land ownership is tied to collaboration with the Invader. Those valiant patriotic leaders (be they Tamils, or Singhalese) who rose against the Colonials were ultimately rounded up and decapitated. Most of the Kandyan peasantry who rose against the British were driven out to the forests of Uva-Wellasa, and coffee plantations were begun. As the Singhalese peasents refused to work for the Brtish, another set of Tamils – Indian Tamils- were brough to Sri Lanka
Of course, the caste system is weaker in the south, perhaps because of Buddhism and greater exposure to invasions. while the North has been always exposed to south India with its heavy caste system..
Rasalingam writes with some passion and anger because, although he is a Tamil, he is alienated from Tamil society due to his early experiences. He is probably the only member who has lived such social strata and who writes to newspapers. So he is indeed a valuable lone voice. But then, he does not understand the feelings of the vast majority of Tamils like me who, while not being from his situation, have never had sympathy for the exploitative mindset of the high castes that prevailed in our younger days. The caste system will erode off with the increasing commercialization of the North. The upgrading of the road system undertaken by the government, and other development steps will be a key factor here.
The draconian, and rather uncompromising approach suggested by Rasalingam is totally unhelpful, and will NOT bring in ethnic reconciliation. I fully grant that some measure of land reform and redistribution is needed. But this has to be done compassionately, respecting property rights, and not in haste as claims and counter-claims needed to be judged with wisdom. Even if some of our great-great grand fathers got their land by the grace of the Invader, much water has flown under the bridge since, and trying to reverse history usually produces even greater problems and injustices.
Rasalingam seems to think that all Tamils who left the North left because they wanted to go west and send money to the Tigers. Far from it. Many Tamils left their homes because they couldn’t support or agree with the Tigers. So they forfeited their land, a way of life, and left to save their lives. Some moved to the South. They too were victims of the Tigers. So were the internally displaced people who remained in the Vanni because they could not go anywhere else. Furthermore, many Tamils, while being fundamentally opposed to the Tigers, supported them emotionally because that was the only way they could handle the sense of humiliation and alienation that prevailed during those times when the Tamils were subject to violence, in successive communal riots.
It is useless debating who was responsible for the riots, and whether Chelva was honest about federalism versus Arasu, or whether Banda caved into the hands of the Chauvinists etc, etc. History is not physics, and can be mostly narrated in any way you wish by selecting a suitable set of facts, and ignoring others. However, I grant that since 1983, street violence has stopped and good sense seems to prevail. Many Tamils are in leading positions in commerce and other professions in Sri Lanka today. There is a chance for Tamils to prosper in modern Sri Lanka, if politicans don’t mess it up.
When our Tamils go to Norway, Germany or Poland, they soon learn those languages and flourish. Given that Singhala has been the official language for over half a century, if Tamils cannot work in the majority, that is truly because of the ethnic polarization and antipathy to the official language created by politicians fishing in troubled waters.
Land reforms in the North and East are important to remove inequalities. The south got some measure of reform in the Paddy lands act of Philip Goonawardena, and in the Plantations act of Colvin R de Silva. They had little or no impact on the North. However, any type of Land reform in the North and East must be done with great understanding, since you are dealing with a fragile situation of a people who have been injured and hurt beyond measure. The Tamil leadership needs to work in a sensible way to achieve this, instead of creating hostilities by linking up with a foreign diaspora out-of -step with the Tamil people in Sri Lanka.
The TNA, instead of going to India or USA, needs to hold meetings in the South, explaining its position; they need to be able to speak in Singhala, and have enough courage to do that!
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Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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