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Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 16

A Paradise Derailed

Monday 7 April 2008, by M R Narayan Swamy


Sri Lanka: A Land in Search of Itself by Mohan K. Tikku;
National Book Trust, India; pages 158; Rs 50.

This is a gem of a book. Only a journalist with perspective and empathy could have condensed so well the tumultuous history of Sri Lanka in so few pages. Tikku, who spent many years in Colombo coinciding with the times Indian troops battled the LTTE in Sri Lanka, has missed nothing. And he has not minced words either. Tikku is clear what he feels has gone wrong with an island that in the 1970s was wooed by the ASEAN but today struggles to stay afloat, locked in a bleeding ethnic conflict that shows no signs of ending.

This book is not about the Tamil campaign for a homeland, a conflict that has left over 70,000 people dead. It is about Sri Lanka per se. Nevertheless, the story of the ethnically divided nation is one of two peoples fighting over history, over space; it is the conflict, and more important the failure to address the issues that triggered it, that have made an island of less than 20 million a sick patient today. Unfortunately, despite a quarter century of violence and suffering, nothing, it seems, has changed, as far as the Sinhalese leadership’s attitude is concerned. This lies at the heart of present-day Sri Lanka—and this is the story Tikku captures in 156 easy-to-read pages.

Tikku takes the readers from the ancient times, through colonial rule, and into an independent Sri Lanka. “Like its two types of climate, the Sinhalese and the Tamil people have two versions of their past.” (page 15) He could not have been more apt. If King Vijaya founded the Sinhalese nation, Duthagamini discovered its nationhood. And then the Sinhalese Buddhist self-image vastly changed to the detriment of its role in history.

The trouble over this bit of history is that while the Sinhalese and Tamils, with their common origins in India, one of Aryan stock and the other of Dravidian lineage, argued passionately about who preceded who into Sri Lanka, everyone forgot the Veddas, the original settlers, akin to the tribal population in India. The Veddas lived in and loved the forests. Civilisation, to them, meant nothing. “The Veddas inhabited the island at least 14,000 years ago,” says Tikku (p. 34). “If anyone, they are the original Sri Lankans.”

SO what went wrong? Why did a land seen as a paradise slip so badly? Tikku calls a spade a spade.

“It is the policy of linguistic exclusivity that the Buddhist clergy spearheaded and the Sri Lankan politicians promoted just before and after the country became independent that deepened the ethnic divide.” (p. 21) He notes that when Sri Lanka became free in 1948, the Tamils, who took to English education in large numbers before the Sinhalese, held a greater proportion of government jobs despite their numerical minority. “If only the Sinhalese had been a little more patient, ethnic proportionality in government jobs would have been achieved in the next decade or two.”(p. 22) But that was not to be. Sinhalese leaders, eager to win parliamentary numbers, joined the bandwagon, “dumping reason and moderation by the wayside”, with disastrous consequences. The story continues.

President J.R. Jayewardene, who in 1987 signed a pact with India pledging to give limited autonomy to the Tamils, was not a visionary when he took power a decade earlier with a brute parliamentary majority. If he wanted, he could have embraced the Tamil politicians of his era and easily satisfied their concerns. The LTTE barely existed then. But he failed, even as he opened a repressed economy. His “economics may have been right, his politics (and of his predecessors and successors) was wrong where it concerned the Tamil question”. (p. 79) The result? “When moderation and reasoned arguments of the Tamils did not take them anywhere with the rulers in Colombo, their pent up frustration broke out as military in the northeast in the last quarter of the 20th century.”(p. 31)

The militancy slowly escalated, sucking in India too. Tikku does not go into that in any great detail. But he notes that Sri Lanka eventually became the most militarised society in South Asia. (p. 81) Today it has 8000 military personnel for every million population—a far cry from the period when it had a ceremonial Army of 26,000.

India gained independence from the British in 1947, Sri Lanka a year later. Why did India succeed, to a great extent, vis-à-vis nation-building where Sri Lanka failed? While the Indian leadership fought a protracted battle against the British, winning many hearts worldwide including in Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese got independence on a platter. “There thus was a basic difference of values and world views between leaders of the two countries.” (p. 107)

In the process was born a love-hate relationship that Sri Lankans display towards India even now. “An India that gave them Buddhism … they love and respect; and at the same time, an India that they look at with some misgivings and at times suspicion.” (p. 109) It is a lesson the Indian Government has learnt at great cost—and so has the world.

This is the story of “a paradise derailed”, of “dreams gone sour”. Sri Lanka’s decision in January to scrap the Norway-brokered and internationally-backed ceasefire agreement with the LTTE “showed how little had basically changed even after so much brutality and bloodshed”.
(p. 119)

Tikku is despairing at the end, as if to say that Sri Lanka’s future is not too bright. “If the Sri Lankan leadership and the majority Sinhalese population had been accommodative in respect of the language question, and were prepared to permit the Tamils a degree of self-rule, the country could easily have been spared so much bloodshed… Indeed, the Sinhalese leaders had turned it into a matter of habit to miss opportunities for consensus and compromise whenever these presented themselves. On the other side, with each rejection, Tamil stridency kept on growing till it culminated in the rise of the military and the LTTE, and its rejection of modern approaches.” (pp. 156-57) No one could have said it better.

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