Social diversity in Sri Lanka only through Tamil right to self-determination – Sivaram

By: Jude L. Fernando - Ideas

This is the second and final excerpt of this article; the first part appeared last month.

Siva was extremely proud of and enjoyed the fact that he is a Tamil. For over 20 years was actively involved in research on Tamil language and culture, including the conventions that governed the writing of social history and culture. During our conversations he never forgot to point out the specificity of Baticaloa on the Tamil cultural landscape in ways Bengalis talk about the pivotal place of Calcutta in Indian civilisation.

Siva was equally knowledgeable about Buddhism not only in Sri Lanka, but also in southern India. He was very interested in comparative analysis of symbolic structures in different temporal and spatial context in India and Sri Lanka, and drawing their relevance to contemporary politics in Sri Lanka. At the time of his death he was actively engaged in writing about the links between state formation and the temples in Sri Lanka and southern India. He had also accumulated detailed knowledge about the historical changes in the land tenure systems, including their specificity in Batticaloa. His commitment to details and accuracy in research delayed the publication regarding these important matters that he very much wanted to see in print.

In his intellectual, political and social endeavors, Siva celebrated multiculturalism than anybody I have met in recent times. His sense of multiculturalism is refreshing as it is unique in many respects. He believed nations consist of diverse cultures, and cultures are hybrid. While their social meanings change over time they also assume concrete forms and produce concrete events that we experience as political, economic and cultural realities in our every day life. And we need to hold humans responsible for these events, and reward and punish them as appropriate.

By invoking such logic Siva argued that the social diversity of Sri Lanka could be best preserved within a political system that recognizes the right to self-determination of the Tamils. This has to be located within a physical landscape given that culture cannot be meaningfully enjoyed without it. Does this eliminate all forms inequalities within Tamils population and between them and other ethnic groups? For Siva the answer was no. He was well aware of how ethno-religious nationalism could be used as an instrument of legitimisation of the capitalist system by all political parties.

Siva and I spent considerable amount of time debating on how to reconcile politics of identity with politics of redistribution in contemporary Sri Lanka. While I pursued a classical Marxist line of reasoning by emphasising the need to privilege the process of production of wealth within the capitalist system more than redistribution, Siva insisted that the reconciliation between the two political needs had to be looked in a broader historical context, and in the case of Sri Lanka, the necessity of prioritising politics of identity given the over 50 years of deception the Tamils had suffered and the remote possibility of proletarian revolution in the south. The JVP style politics, in the process of claiming to liberate the nation from the LTTE will create more obstacles for ethnic harmony and opens more possibilities for capitalist system to take control over our land and lives.

Siva’s articulation of the reconciliation between politics of identity and politics of distribution was extremely complex and underpinned by critical analysis of neo-liberalism which also took into account the immediate sufferings and basic dignity of human beings. Once we prepared a list of long list of companies, plantation estates, and land that are being, often unscrupulously, handed over to the foreign companies, a good number to companies based in India. This provides ample testimonies to how while political parties including the JVP are busy with politics of ethnicity and nationalism, the country is progressively subordinated to the interests of the transnational capital often using the language and the tactics of its opponents.

Here are three ironies. First, nationalist-minded groups that hate Norway, which hardly has any visible economic interest in Sri Lanka, are not equally critical of those countries and corporations that continue to take over the nation and its wealth. Secondly, these groups while vehemently opposed to current attempts to settle the ethnic question, including the joint mechanism, have rarely opposed various types of capitalist imperialism. “They are willing to give everything to the foreigners, not a inch to the Tamils” said Siva once. In fact, the joint mechanism and other policies that preceded it were mainly a problem between the Sinhala-dominated political parties and mattered less to the Tamils. This is why he wrote one of his last articles asking not to “deceive my people.” Thirdly, these groups suffer from ideological bankruptcy and lack of political will to offer alternatives to neo-liberal capitalism.

We both agreed that prolonging of a solution to the ethnic question would only provide more opportunities and freedom for capitalism to nest and settle in this country. At the current pace by time we find a solution to the ethnic conflict the country would have lost all its wealth to the capitalist forces. Siva always pointed out that simple celebration of social diversity will not take us anywhere and it could be better enjoyed within certain universal frames. In deliberating these matters he often invoked the most relevant literature on these subjects, among them were Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, Breton Stein, David Ludden, Karl Marx, Terry Englton etc.

Siva often pointed out the narrow-mindedness and economic and political opportunism of the Colombo-based advocates in civil society. Although civil society consists of diverse groups, they all do not share equal power and influence. More importantly, they all do not carry equal moral and ethical legitimacy. The post-modern type of ethical relativism and diversity celebrated by the Colombo-based civil society suffers from several handicaps.

First, their ideas and actions borders on moral nihilism and it is very difficulty to make claims a bout right and wrong. Second, they do not focus on how capitalist system reproduces itself through the internalisation of social diversity promoted by advocates of civil society who appear as its antagonists. Thirdly, the present generation of civil society advocates does not engage in systematic discussion on the capitalist system and interplay between politics, economics and culture. Their actions are always embedded within the ideological and institutional parameters of neo-liberal capitalism. This in fact resonates with Marx’s observation of the parallels between the marriage between slavery and the feudal system and civil society and capitalism.

In a nutshell, all our discussions focused on how politics of NGOs and civil society today helps the capitalist system to resolve its crises of accumulation and legitimacy. Siva had a long list of progressives including their wealth in offshore and local banks who are now being tamed and disciplined by the civil society to function according to the imperatives of neo-liberal capital.

I also must mention that there was some ambiguity and fuzziness in Siva’s thinking about the role of the LTTE on these subjects. Often our discussions in this regard ended after Siva saying, “Machang I am working on these matters and my work is still in progress.” Siva was more concerned with the historical processes that lead to militant movements and strategies to correct these processes rather than the specific claims and acts of the LTTE. This is precisely why he functioned in diverse intellectual, political and social settings. I think they used each other for their respective projects. Perhaps, Siva would have been the token diversity among his Sinhala nationalist friends. However, as a political strategist, Siva was convinced of the need to provide basic dignity and security to the Tamils prior to dealing with other forms of intra and inter-ethnic inequalities in the country. This he saw from the perspective of all ethnic groups.

The state response to the tsunami in the North and East deeply troubled him and further reinforced his understanding of the importance of ethnicity and nationalism for the legitimacy of the state. He was one of the few who could think about the impact of the tsunami in a broader social and political context. He was quick to point out the necessity of analysing and strategising the post-disaster management within the context of the crisis of governance that predated the tsunami. As political ecologists point out the magnitude of people’s vulnerability to natural disasters and the effectiveness of state responses are largely determined by the political culture that predates natural disasters.

Siva was extremely influential on informing the international community on evaluating the impact of utilising tsunami aid needs within the context of the crisis of governance and state formation rather than outside it. For him the peace process should be an integral part of post-tsunami reconstruction. His sentiments about the inefficiency of the state and the NGOs were no different from many others in the south who are deeply suspicious of the motives of the state to respond to the tsunami victims. Yet many of Siva’s journalist friends were often reluctant to expose the inefficiency of the state when it come to delivering services in Tamil-speaking areas because of their unwavering preoccupation with defeating the LTTE rather than the immediate welfare of the north and east.

I do not fully know Siva’s position on the joint mechanism and if and how the tsunami changed his position on the ethnic issue. However, TamilNet candidly exposed the plight of the Tamil as well as Sinhalese victims and the importance of ethnicity in the distribution of tsunami aid and the proclivity of different interest groups to exploit the tsunami to serve their respective political interests. Without a doubt, the clarity and depth of his reporting on post-tsunami disaster management had an influence on the international community at large. He was invited to deliver a lecture in Japan about the tsunami when death overtook him.

Timing of his death was also characterised by splits and tensions within the Tamil militant groups. Siva took these tensions as an intellectual and political challenge, and was busy with redefining his own identity within the Tamil struggle for right to self-determination, while some robust supporters of the LTTE underplayed these tensions or took uncompromising anti-Karuna positions. Highly complex relations between Karuna, the security forces, the government, and the LTTE would certainly have placed Siva in an extremely a vulnerable position.

It is unlikely that Siva’s relations with the Tamil militant movements were always smooth and uncontroversial. Some have pointed out that Siva actions were under suspicion by the more robust supporters of the LTTE. This even cost him some of his close friendships. Siva continuously reflected upon the differences and tensions between Tamils within the Tamil-speaking areas of North and East. I am not exactly clear on Siva’s ideological positions regarding these tensions. However, his analysis of these tensions was more a combined classical Marxism with cultural studies, in ways very different from the post-modernists. In one of the discussions we had in Summer 2004, drawing from Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, Edward Said and Antonio Gramsci, Siva reasoned how often Marxist analysis of state formation become socially meaningful through the medium of culture.

One important implications of Siva’s reasoning about cultural and economic processes was that right to self-determination is a cultural medium through which people responded to the contradictions of capitalist development. At certain moments in social evolution, the right for self-determination becomes essential precondition for other forms of social liberation. One of the main challenges facing the progressives in this country is to understand how capitalist imperialism utilises the right to self-determination and the culturally defined notions of time and space as a means of resolving its own internal contradictions. Currently, there is a great need for a political ideology that provides guidance for economic and political freedoms for Sri Lankans.

Siva was perhaps the best know defense and security analyst in the country. Unlike many other defense analysts, his writings were not sensationalist and verbose. They conveyed clear, lucid and deep political meanings. This was a major factor that shaped his popularity among the diplomatic community, international donors, and academics, human rights groups and the Sri Lanka military. Siva has the remarkable ability to select, frame and present news in a manner that conveyed a message with deep political meanings and presented opportunities and threats to groups with different interests and agendas.

I have no reason to believe that the authorities will bring those responsible for Siva’s death for justice. Yet, what Siva achieved within such a short span of his life has taught us many lessons that will remain forever.


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