On the Tamil question in Sri Lanka :


Sri Lanka is the key to the Indian Ocean. It has the best ports, the most strategic position, a strong economy with industrial elements in addition to a leading position in tea production and a significant output of precious stones. Commercially it has unimpeded sea routes to Africa, India, the countries on the Bay of Bengal including rising Myanmar, and Indonesia. It also has a powerful and militant working class, which has generated a class-war stalemate situation rather like that in Sweden – welfare concessions in health and education that are very deeply rooted, coupled with political control by single-minded neo-liberal capitalism that has long had the lip-service socialist leaderships of the island’s working class in its pocket. “Trotskyist” governments and coalition deals have done as little for the workers in Sri Lanka as Labour governments in Britain or “Communist” Stalinist governments in West Bengal, or the Maoist leadership in Nepal. Labels are of no consequence when it comes to class policies.

The blight of British imperialist policy is as crippling for Sri Lanka even after “double” independence as it has been in Ireland, where it fostered the literal blight of the potato famine of the 1840s which starved and exiled half the population. And in common with Ireland it has a British diplomatic and strategic legacy of a cultural and religious antagonism assiduously cultivated to divide and rule for decades and even centuries. In Ireland, Irish Catholic vs British (mainly Scottish) Protestant, and in Sri Lanka Sinhalese Buddist vs Tamil Hindu.

The British were fully aware of the strategic importance of their Ceylon – and struggled as hard to keep it as they could. Separating the island out from the rest of the subcontinent in 1947 they refused to grant it any independence. Militant popular pressure forced them to grant concessions in 1948 – but merely the pretence of the same dominion status as Australia, New Zealand and Canada. The treacherous and divisive policies of Lankan leaders weakened the consciousness of the people, but failed to quell its militancy and democratic desire for full independence. The treachery lay in the welfare state concessions including large-scale nationalization, and the divisiveness in the attempt to institute a Sinhalese only social and cultural monopoly in the island. As long as the continued rule of the British united the whole people, however, the capitalists were helpless and a left-wing insurrection in 1971, although it was put down, led immediately to the cutting of formal ties with Britain and the establishment of the republic of Sri Lanka in 1972.

At this point, the counter-revolutionary working class leadership sabotaged a clear opportunity for the working class to take power and create a real socialist workers state in the subcontinent. It was not long before the neo-liberal bourgeoisie had power in its hands and could stoke the fires of communal antagonism and try to turn the tide of welfare policies and nationalization.

Sri Lanka is not a large nation by South Asian standards – a mere 20 million people. But it isn’t a peasant nation. The population is hugely working class and urbanized, and the rural tea workers are as proletarian as the city dwellers. The potential political clout of the nation can be compared to that of relatively small imperialist nations like Sweden or Holland in that respect. In Asia, perhaps there is a comparison to be made with Singapore in relation to Malaysia – a British strategic victory of divide-and-rule and ethnic antagonisms that it would have loved to replicate in Sri Lanka.

Once the British were out, the petty nationalist and self-seeking capitalist objectives of the bourgeois political forces took over and decades of civil war and social attrition began.

Since Sri Lanka is the key to the Indian Ocean, the biggest question in an international perspective is “Who holds the key to Sri Lanka?” Who controls it?

After decades of civil war, there are two answers to this. The first is more and more clearly India. With the British expelled, the Indian ruling class stepped in and applied all the lessons of divide-and -rule they had learnt so well. But even more subtly, they did it from a distance through the agency of the Tamil population, until they were forced to intervene openly with their own forces.

The second answer, and the more interesting one, is “Nobody”. Sri Lanka is uncontrollable. Here again the comparison with Ireland is inevitable. The only solution for both countries is complete independence from foreign domination and a genuinely socialist workers state, with an end to communal warfare and full and equal rights for all, both democratic and social. Until this materializes, a situation of permanent tension and crippledom will persist. Since both Britain and India realize deep down that the game is up, historically speaking, they are perfectly willing to prolong the agony of such a situation as long as they can. The cost in destruction, suffering and death is immaterial. A divided Sri Lanka, like a divided Ireland, means India, like Britain, can rule the roost and stave off the revolutionary threat to its social and political control.

Given this historical context, what is the present situation in Sri Lanka and the southern Tamil region of India that is inextricably bound up with it.

The third Eelam war ended in 2009 with the complete defeat of the the LTTE and the total destruction of their armed forces. The aftermath of the victory has seen some of the worst atrocities against the Tamil population in Northern Sri Lanka. The Lankan army is said to have killed up to 20,000 Tamil civilians and displaced nearly 200,000 in the course of the war, in what can only be called a genocidal offensive against the Tamil population in Sri Lanka.

With this came the bloody end of one of the most well armed and capable national liberation organizations in the world, but not the cause for which they fought. The question of self-determination of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka remains one of the most potent struggles for self-determination in South Asia. Not only that, but with the extermination of the LTTE and the genocidal persecution of Tamils, this question has only grown sharper and potent today.

By and large the Tamil population in Sri Lanka is employed as tea plantation workers and their demographics are concentrated in the North of the island. While the historic linkage of the Tamils and Sri Lanka goes back to pre-history, the present day demographic is the result of British colonization on the island and the imposed migration of Tamil workers across the Indian Ocean. This created a migrant working class within Sri Lanka as well as a the foundations for a plantation economy in the islands. These factors and the ones previously mentioned, together with the general South Asian anti-colonial movement, created a very militant working class.

The Tamil workers in the tea plantations were and still are in the forefront of class struggle in Sri Lanka. The development of this working class reached a pinnacle in the decade of the 1940s when the first Bolshevik-Leninist force emerged in South Asia and contributed to the formation of the Bolshevik-Leninist Party of India, Burma and Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was known then). By and large the anti-colonial movement in Sri Lanka at this time was constituted and led by the working class and their parties, the bourgeoisie playing little or no role. The British seeing this threat tried to replicate the success of the Congress Party in India and create a bourgeois political force. Its aim was to nip the revolutionary movement in the bud.

The Tamil workers being in a leading position had to be alienated from the majority Sinhalese population. The United National Party, created with the blessings and guidance of British imperialism, was handed power in 1948 under terms decidedly in favor of British imperial interests. The new government would thus be nothing more than a glorified lackey of British imperialism despite the token autonomy of dominion status. This move was steadfastly opposed by the Lanka Sam Samaj Party which was the successor to the Bolshevik-Leninist Party. On the eve of transfer around 50,000 workers were mobilized at its call to oppose this one sided hand-over. This was a first taste of the strength of the working class in Sri Lanka for the nascent bourgeois government.

The next round of battle would be around the new government’s economic policy announced in 1953 which sought concerted attacks against the working class (aimed no doubt to curb the growing power of this revolutionary force). In retaliation the LSSP led the working class in a crippling general strike which nearly forced the ouster of the government. The government was compelled to convene an emergency meeting on a British warship anchored in Colombo harbour and reverse its policy. This action made it clear not only how powerful the working class under a revolutionary leadership could be, but also that it was an urgent matter for the bourgeoisie to cripple this power through a concerted process of divide and rule.

The Sri Lankan bourgeoisie had already effected discriminatory laws aimed at dividing the populace of the island through the Citizenship Act of 1948. This marked a culmination of the communalization begun by the British colonial administration. The act was the first major move to subjugate and institutionalize discrimination against the Tamils of Sri Lanka by denying plantation workers in the highlands voting rights. By the 1956 elections a new method of division was put in place, overtly pandering to Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism. The Sri Lankan Freedom Party was launched which openly appeased to religious and cultural traditions and prejudices of the majority Sinhala Buddhist community. But alongside this, to obtain mass support, the party was driven to propagate a leftist welfare agenda with the nationalization of the plantations high on its agenda.

This combined two of the most tried and tested methods of weakening the working class, as we already made clear: 1) Divide and Rule, through alienating the minority and majority communities from each other, and 2) Concessions, where the working class is pacified by temporary concessions and their militant edge is blunted. The very same year the government led by the SLFP promulgated the Official Language Act (otherwise known as the Sinhala Only Act) which made Sinhala the sole official language of Sri Lanka.

The seeds thus sown begun to flower first crippling the working class leadership, then bringing about their political isolation and paving the way for the rise of rabidly right-wing communal forces. By the 1960s they became influential, founded on a reactionary communal basis. The putatively revolutionary leadership of the LSSP was unprepared to face this challenge having entered into the SLFP under the guidance of the 4th international in an ill-conceived attempt to take it over from inside. This de facto abandonment of independent working-class policies and organization created havoc not just in Sri Lanka but also in the rest of the world revolutionary socialist movement.

The roots of the struggle for self-determination :

The conditions necessitating a future struggle for Tamil self-determination had already been put in place by the discriminatory policies of the Sinhala government. The Citizenship Act of 1948 denying citizenship to migrant workers in the central highlands was the first such act of institutionalized discrimination. The first political organization of the Tamil community, the Tamil Congress, was in government with the ‘moderate and pro-western’ UNP party which promulgated this law. The opposition to the Tamil Congress and the discriminatory laws saw the start of a new more advanced phase of Tamil politics in Sri Lanka. Together with this the progressive deterioration of relations between the majority Sinhala Buddhist and minority Hindu Tamil community continued more strongly after 1956 till the early 70s.

This was a period of great upheaval and revolutionary change in South Asian history and the winds of change blew over Sri Lanka just as hard. The welfarist policies of the SLFP failed to address many of the grievances of the new generation of youth and middle class, and typical of most such post-colonial statist systems, it led to mass discontent and frustration. The failure of the leading working class parties to channel this discontent in a revolutionary direction resulted in the rise of chauvinism.

On the one hand the new government tried to appease reactionary chauvinistic sentiments through its language policy, while on the other hand it failed to deliver on the real needs of the people especially the youth for jobs and economic stability. In this setting the first major communal conflagrations occurred between majority Sinhala and minority Tamil populations. In 1958, the first large scale riots were witnessed in Sri Lanka. The Federal Party which became the main political organization of the Tamils of Sri Lanka, after the failure of the Tamil Congress, was subsequently scapegoated by the government and banned.

Subsequently, the government embarked on an ambitious internal colonization scheme aimed at altering the demographics of the Tamil majority areas around the coastal provinces of the country. This was to be achieved through mass settlements of Sinhalese in Tamil majority areas. Chauvinists lauded this idea, while Tamils opposed it. This scheme was carried out vigorously in the 80s and became the most important factor behind inter-communal violence between Tamils and Sinhalese.

In the decades leading up to the youth uprising of 1971 led by the Maoist JVP *( Janatha Vimukti Peramuma), which espoused then as now a rabidly chauvinistic and arrogant stance towards the Tamils of Sri Lanka, the government continued to aggravate its attacks on the Tamil population, now targeting Tamil cultural identity. Tamil language books, movies, magazines and journals from Tamil Nadu in India were banned. Groups affiliated with the regional bourgeois party the DMK (Dravida Munetra Kazhagham) were also banned. Thereafter, the promulgation of the Standardization rules by the majoritarian government led to a fall in the enrolment of Tamil students at university level.

Under these pressures the estrangement between Tamils and Sinhalese reached a pinnacle. The Federal Party decided to demand a separate state for Tamils in Sri Lanka. This started a new phase of the struggle of the Tamil people, from defending economic and democratic rights to a struggle for secession. The Federal Party united with other Tamil political parties to create the Tamil United Liberation Front in 1975. This party was banned after the elections of 1977 in which it advocated a separate Tamil state.

But alongside this parliamentary force, militant armed groups arose which advocated violent means for achieving secession. The leading militant armed group was the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE. Two events propelled the development of the armed movement. First was the burning of the Jaffna library in 1981 in which 95,000 volumes of Tamil literature were destroyed, and the second was the infamous pogrom known as “Black July”. This was a large scale hugely disproportionate retaliation killing thousands of Tamil civilians in response to an ambush by the LTTE on a Sri Lankan army convoy that killed 13 soldiers. This incident destroyed any chance of conciliation between the two communities and cemented the position of the LTTE as the leader of the Tamil cause in Sri Lanka.

The role of Indian sub-imperialism :

The 60s and 70s were a revolutionary period in South Asia. While a near revolutionary situation had arisen in Bengal and Pakistan, a powerful wave of working class struggles swept through India. In reply the bourgeoisies of all South Asian countries resorted to a whole range of reactionary policies, all combining harsh emergency measures coupled with populist concessionary measures. This was exemplified in India by Indira Gandhi’s prime ministership. In the early 1970s, Pakistan and Sri Lanka saw two powerful insurrectionary movements. The first was the Bangladesh liberation war and the latter was the youth insurrection led by the JVP in Sri Lanka. India was active in both, supporting the former while repressing the latter.

The JVP itself was a through and through maoist party with a national democratic agenda, but it was heavily tainted with Sinhala chauvinism. While the party succeeded in channelling the frustration of the Sinhala youth, who had lost opportunities owing to a sluggish statist economy, it failed to create any goodwill among the Tamil minorities and it failed to break the ideological and cultural hold of the reactionary chauvinists. On the contrary this party made peace with them.

The insurrection of 1971 itself was badly planned and hastily executed, but the scale was such that the armed forces of Sri Lanka were unable to handle it. The then Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, was forced to rely on Indian military assistance. This was india’s first intervention in the island, and showed its strategically dominating position over Sri Lanka. The revolt was brutally crushed, and in the insurrection was followed by a prolonged period of emergency which lasted until 1977. More importantly, the revolt forced the government to break all remaining ties with the UK, and Ceylon at last became Sri Lanka, a fully independent republic.

The field was thus opened for a new imperial power to take over where Britain left off. The legacy of the ethnic divisions between Tamils and Sinhalese fomented and encouraged by the British provided the perfect bridgehead to extend the influence of Indian capital in Sri Lanka. The cultural connection between Tamils in India and Sri Lanka has only aided this. Though India’s involvement in the LTTE’s liberation struggle was light in the 70s, it increased later on and by the 80s it was substantial. The LTTE itself advocated the supremacy of armed methods over parliamentary means of redressing the grievances of the Tamil population, and would from time to time engage in killings of Tamils themselves who were part of the establishment. The development of this group was encouraged by sections of Tamil politicians within India as well as expatriate Tamils in Europe and America.

By the 80s the LTTE had garnered enough financial and political backing to emerge as the best organized national liberation organization in the world. The actions of the Sri Lankan government cemented its political position among the Tamil populace of the island, driving more and more people towards the goal of Eelam. In 1987 however, the Indian government which had hitherto been supportive of the LTTE and Tamil rights in Sri Lanka made a 180 degree turn. The civil war which erupted after “Black July” caused untold sufferings to the Tamils of Sri Lanka and a steady stream of refugees entered India, arousing strong sentiments within the Tamil population in India. This forced the Indian government to intervene militarily, after diplomatic overtures had failed to bear fruit.

An Indian Peace-Keeping Force was assembled for an intervention in Sri Lanka and bring a swift end to hostilities. By and large this force of 100,000 soldiers ended up fighting the very Tamil people they were ostensibly sent to defend.

After two years of terrible warfare and numerous war crimes, the Indian Peace Keeping Forces faced their own ‘Vietnam’. An anti-war movement had emerged for the first time in India which saw the Indian Tamil population mobilizing in solidarity with their kin in Sri Lanka. Pressure from within and without led to the fall of the Congress government headed by Rajiv Gandhi and the withdrawal of the peace-keeping forces by the subsequent government led by V P Singh. Thus the grand military misadventure ended in debacle and put a stop to India’s political and military interventions in the Indian Ocean and left a political crisis back home. India’s former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who had authorized the peace-keeping exercise, was subsequently assassinated by an LTTE cadre.

However, India’s capitalists didn’t share in the humiliation of the Indian state. With the massive show of force by India, the Sri Lankan bourgeoisie could no longer ignore India’s dominance over the region and the Indian Ocean as a whole. The Indo-Lankan accord was signed with an aim of bringing about an amicable settlement and lasting peace between the Tamils and Sri Lankan government and sought partial autonomy to the Tamil Eelam areas while recognizing the unity of Sri Lanka. This has since become the cornerstone of ties between India and Sri Lanka. However, the ‘concern’ that the indian bourgeoisie has shown for the plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka is a cleverly concealed sham.

India’s real interests were never allied with the interests of Tamil workers and peasants. The real interest behind India’s intervention was to concretize its military domination and eventually open the Sri Lankan market for Indian capitalist investment and trade. The ‘fruits’ of India’s bloody game in Sri Lanka are being reaped today with Indian capital being the largest foreign investor in the island.

After the Indian peace-keeping troops left, fighting between government forces and the LTTE resumed. Temporary truces would be called till fighting resumed again. Eelam wars 2 and 3 took place between 1990 and 2003 in which the LTTE and the Sri Lankan army fought each other to a stalemate. This pattern went on and on till the final Eelam war fought in 2006-2009. During this war, the Indian navy actively participated in operations against the LTTE’s ‘sea tigers’. The power of the naval assault was seen in course of the war, which completely broke the LTTE’s naval forces. With the key element of the LTTE’s military machinery destroyed the Sri Lankan army swept the floor with the Eelam fighters on all fronts.

The present scenario:

The last phase of the Eelam war was the worst. War crimes were committed brazenly on both sides. This fourth and last Eelam war showed the full vindictive horror of the chauvinistic Sri Lankan bourgeoisie. The final savage phase of the fighting saw the Sri Lankan army conducting wanton massacres of Tamil civilians and constructing squalid detention camps for refugees of the war. The land captured by the Sri Lankan army showed signs of total devastation and depopulation. There is little difference between the destruction they wrought and that of the tsunami that flattened Aceh in Sumatra in Indonesia.

By the end of the war almost a quarter of a million refugees were in refugee camps. The refugees themselves were subject to numerous abuses and the conditions of the camps were decrepit to say the least.

In the face of this calamity organizations like the UN and its Human Rights Commission naturally proved useless, as they were mere hostages to great power interests. India’s timely scuttling of efforts at investigation proved to be decisive in helping the Sri Lankan regime to hide the worst atrocities committed by the army. The conditions of these displaced people have not improved subsequently, either.

The most recent farce was a toothless vote at the UN condemning the excesses of the Sri Lankan army, the importance of which was foolishly exaggerated as somehow indicative of power relations over Sri Lanka. The core question of the rights of the Tamil people of Sri Lanka were altogether forgotten and forsaken.

The destruction of the LTTE has hugely weakened the Tamil cause and has brought the political movement back to square one. But from the ashes new forces can re-emerge, as they must and will.

What must be done:

The Tamil question is one of the most urgent and painful ones in South Asia. It ties in with the larger question of self-determination affecting many oppressed nationalities in South Asia. The experience of the last 60 years has shown that all the bourgeoisies in South Asia are committed to suppressing the democratic aspirations of the people.

The Tamils of Sri Lanka have been the victims of a prolonged policy of discrimination, divide and rule. The present conditions of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka, as well as the general condition of Sri Lanka itself (suffering through one of the worst economic periods in its recent history with a militarist bonapartist regime presiding over it, under the wing of India’s own military establishment) show the utter failure of the bourgeoisie to meet the needs and aspirations of the people. What is most clear, and painfully so, is that the enemy of the working class is not from its own class, not a rival working class, but the enemy class, the bourgeoisie. The irreconcilable conflict between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat must be understood as the supreme conflict underlying all deep social antagonisms. The Tamil worker and the Sinhala worker are both exploited by the bourgeoisie of Sri Lanka and its patrons in India. The common class enemy ties both communities into one class struggle.

But in order to forge such a unity, given the unforgettable horrors and atrocities perpetrated in the inter-communal fighting, the burden must fall on the shoulders of the majority community to go out of its way to bridge the ethnic divide built up and cemented over 6 decades. In the first instance this requires honouring the aspirations of the Tamils for autonomous governance of the Tamil provinces and a respect for their linguistic and cultural rights. The provisions proclaiming Buddhism as the state religion and Sinhala as the sole official language must be struck down, and the libraries and cultural centres of the Tamils must be rebuilt, and the soldiers and groups responsible for crimes against the Tamil community be brought to book.

There is at present no demand for complete secession. However, should such an aspiration find appeal among the majority of the Tamil people, it is only due to the divide created by successive bourgeois governments. If resolving this contradiction requires that the Tamils be given their Eelam, then that is what is needed to bridge the two into a united struggle and repair the relations between them.

Abolish all laws proclaiming a monopoly state language and a monopoly state religion!

For self-determination for the Tamil people !

Down with India’s imperialism!

Defend the rights of Tamil Minorities !

Immediate trial for war criminals !

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