Origins of Tamil political violence | Sunday Observer

Origins of Tamil political violence

May 14, 1976 is one of the most underreported, underestimated, underexamined dates in the political calendar of independent Sri Lanka. It was the date on which the Tamil leadership which had gathered in Vadukoddai passed a resolution declaring war against the democratically elected state demanding a separate state. Stitching bits and pieces of selected events from here and there, they painted their version of history which consisted of highly controversial accusations to demonise ‘the Sinhala-state’ – their terminology to stigmatise the democratically elected state as a racist entity with no space for the minorities, particularly the Tamils. Shedding copious tears for the Tamils, the Vadukoddai Declaration of War urged the Tamil youth to take up arms and never rest until they had achieved Tamil Eelam – a political haven of the Tamils, by the Tamils for the Tamils.

The call to take up arms was declared in the last two paragraphs of the Vadukoddai Resolution. It said: “This Convention directs the Action Committee of the Tamil United Liberation Front to formulate a plan of action and launch without undue delay the struggle for winning the sovereignty and freedom of the Tamil Nation;

“And this Convention calls upon the Tamil Nation in general and the Tamil youth in particular to come forward to throw themselves fully into the sacred fight for freedom and to flinch not till the goal of a sovereign state of Tamil Eelam is reached.”

In these two concluding paragraphs the Tamil leadership assembled at Vadukoddai called upon the Action Committee to “formulate a plan of action” for the Tamil youth in particular to take up arms, abandoning their pretensions of being a non-violent movement. And from 1976 both the Tamil elders and the Tamil youth followed the declared objective of “winning the sovereignty and freedom of the Tamil Nation” through violence.

It was a clear and decisive declaration to pursue a military course of action to achieve political goals. This was the primary message delivered by the Tamil leadership to the Tamil people. It was the fateful day on which the Tamil leadership made their biggest political gamble by deciding to abandon the non-violent, democratic mainstream and go down the path of violence. They decided to change the course of history – and their destiny -- with violence. They invested everything they had in pursuing violence and failed. Failed miserably!

Aging leadership

Throughout the post-independent decades, the ageing Tamil leadership had pushed Tamil communalism to the extreme end and by May 14, 1976 the force of events generated by them had cornered them. They discovered rather late that the consistent, unrelenting and massive political campaigns they had whipped up, blaming everything on “the Sinhala state” in the post-independent phase, had not gone in the direction they had wanted. Their aim was to divide Sri Lanka into two states – a task which they set out to achieve with the typical Tamil arrogance boosted by historical distortions, political fictions, and anti-Sinhala-Buddhist venom. They had raised the hopes of the Jaffnaites overestimating their peninsular power and underestimating the consolidated historical forces that had created, built and sustained the nation over the ages.

By 1976 the false expectations they generated had risen to fever pitch and the internal forces – mainly, the Tamil youth -- that rose with the high expectations had gone as far as they could and reached the end of their political tether. The Tamil youth were impatient and rebelling against the conservative and failed Tamil leadership demanding a change of course. The internal dynamics within the peninsula had gathered momentum which demanded instant solutions.

Eelam remained in the Never-Never land, elusive as ever. The hate politics of mono-ethnic Tamil extremism, targeting the Sinhala-Buddhists of the South, had gone too far to a point of no return, leaving no room for peaceful co-existence. Any moves for compromises were decried by one or the other Tamil party as surrender to the Sinhalese. Following Jinnah’s partitioning of India the Tamil leadership declared that the marriage of partnership was over. They were determined to go for divorce which in their desperate circumstances seems to be the only way out.

In the Vadukoddai Resolution the Tamil leadership was throwing not a challenge but an ultimatum to “the Sinhala state”. Pumped up by their mono-ethnic rhetoric, wrapped in mythologies, they were hoping to force their way into Eelam. The plan of the Tamil elders was to make use of the Tamil youth to pull their political chestnuts out. In the process, they had painted themselves into a mono-ethnic extremity from which they could not get out except through violence. They were determined to dissolve the marriage made by the gods of geography and history. All what they needed was a public declaration justifying the hate politics of the North for them to declare war.

The Vadukoddai Resolution was introduced to spell out the reasons why they refused to coexist. Demanding disproportionate shares of positions (particularly in the government service), power in the legislatures, privileges enshrined in the various constitutions and, most of all, territories as ethnic enclaves they had pushed themselves into a self-destructive political extremity. It led them to mono-ethnic politics, excluding the “other”. With this agenda they had nowhere else to go except to embrace violence. This confirms the proposition that separatism and violence are inseparable.

It was amidst these overwhelming pressures that the Tamil leadership met in Vadukoddai and gave the official nod for the Tamil youth to take up arms against the elected state of Sri Lanka, hoping to ride on their backs to the seats of power in Eelam. The old Tamil leadership did not realise at this stage that they were handing over their traditional power, which they had wielded from feudal times, into the hands of the untried, untested and inexperienced Tamil youth. The immature Tamil youth who took over were armed with the Vadukoddai Resolution that legitimised their violence. Fired up by the Vadukoddai ideology they came out of their cells like bulls in a china shop. They literally went berserk believing that they had the Vadukoddai licence to kill everything that crossed their path, including their political fathers.

In the meantime, the ageing Tamil leaders and the Tamil youth continued to maintain their two-pronged attack on the South. Needling the lower-level ethnic leadership of the South was a deliberate and chosen tactic of the Northern provocative politics, wrote Prof. A. J. Wilson, son-in-law of S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, father of Tamil separatism.

Joint front

The joint front of the Tamil elders and the youth were heading towards violence. Clearly, ‘1976’ was segueing, slowly but surely, into ‘1983’. The explosion of 1983 did not come out of a misguided government turning a blind eye. It was the cumulative reaction to the collective violence unleashed in the Vadukoddai Resolution.

No doubt, the aggressive reaction of the lunatic fringe in the South, provoked by the hate politics of Jaffna jingoism, too had aggravated the worsening inter-ethnic relations with reactive mob-violence breaking out sporadically. But the ultimatum issued in the Vadukoddai Resolution, and the provocative violence targeting the ‘Sinhala state’ that followed, were heating up communal tensions. Sinhala CTB bus drivers were returning to Colombo from Jaffna complaining that the Tamil shops were refusing to serve even a glass of water. By 1983 the two communities had drawn as far apart as they could. The last straw that broke the back of the Sinhala camel was the killing of the 13 soldiers.

Looking back, it is obvious that “1983” was the Southern reply to the arrogant politics of ‘1976’ and the subsequent increase of violence of the Tamil youth threatening the sovereignty of the nation – the only place available to the Sinhalese in this lonely planet. At least nominally, the Tamil and Muslim communities had other historical havens to which they could withdraw in case the worst came to the worst. The Sinhalese had only Sri Lanka.

It was the only base they built exclusively for themselves. Generations of Sinhalese sacrificed their lives to make it their safe haven. They had a historical right to claim it their own. It was not narrow racism / chauvinism. It was their legitimate, historical and natural right. The Vadukoddai Resolution posed a threat to their security and history and their defensive reaction was predictable.

The debate on the whys and the wherefores of “1983”, of course, is not going to end in a hurry. Taken out of its context and viewed as an anti-Tamil outburst of a society gone mad, the Tamils made ‘1983’ the ultimate proof of their need for a divorce. But if it is placed in the context of consequences flowing from the ideological and political violence unleashed in the politics of ‘1976’ and after, it is logical to conclude that ‘1983’ was an inevitable outcome of the preceding Tamil aggressive and provocative politics. They asked for and they got it, was the general reaction of the Sinhalese. The sequence of events that flowed from ‘1976’ ran incrementally, step by step, one leading to another, until escalating violence reached its explosive peak in ‘1983’.

Provocative rhetoric and actions of the North unravelled slowly but surely into ‘1983’. The explosion of 1983 was the counter-violence to end Tamil expansionism and aggressive power grab threatening the territorial integrity and the historical heritage left behind by the Founding Fathers of the nation. The ideological and emotional ambience for an ethnic explosion was prepared and fertilized by the Tamil leadership. The Tamils have always been quite clever in digging their own grave. The other two minorities escaped the horrors of a 33-year-old war because their leadership was wise enough not to hand over their grip on power to the misguided youth. It is the restoration of power to the non-violent stream of Tamil politics by the Rajapaksa brothers that has introduced a new normalcy which, hopefully, will grow into a new nation.

Sinhala violence has invariably been reactive, responding to provocative political violence of the minorities. And ‘1983’ is no exception. Besides, no responsible Sinhala leader, no respected or established Sinhala community organisation, nor “the Sinhala state” had officially declared war against another community, despite the provocative violence they had faced. Like any other state it had reacted defensively to restore peace, and protect territorial integrity and sovereignty. It has never declared a war to impose its supremacy over the other communities.

The live-and-let-live policy of the Sinhala majority did not go beyond sporadic violence of the fringe freaks against the provocative acts of the minorities.

Politics of hate

Without condoning any kind of violence, it is clear that those explosions were like the fizz of the soda bottle. Sinhala violence has always gone down almost instantly, soon after its explosion, returning the nation to peaceful co-existence. Only the Tamil leadership decided to declare war against ‘the Sinhala state’ at Vadukoddai, creating the longest period of brutal violence.

Their politics of hate leaves no room for peaceful co-existence. Vadukoddai Resolution was a recipe for separatist violence and chaos. But it was a wave of tsunamic violence that came from the volcanic sifting of the territorial plates in Vadukoddai and nowhere else.

I repeat, separatism and violence are inseparable. It is the kind of politics that can breed only hatred and not reconciliation.

To be continued