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Dialogue among Ethnic-Nationalists?

The most effective way to manage the secessionist impulses in the Tamil polity is to reconstitute the state in such a way that the Tamils as well as other ethnic minorities share state power along with the majority Sinhalese community as political equals.

Lattar from South Asia

Dialogue amongEthnic-Nationalists?

The most effective way to manage the secessionist impulses in the Tamil polity is to reconstitute the state in such a way that the Tamils as well as other ethnic minorities share state power along with the majority Sinhalese community as political equals.


epal and Sri Lanka at present are going through two different trajectories of political change. In Nepal, mass political action in the streets shifted the balance of power from the royal palace to parliament, terminating a crisis that had all the potential of pushing the country into the abyss of civil war. Sri Lanka, in contrast, is sliding back to civil war after a period of relative peace. No popular mobilisation seems to be possible in Sri Lanka to end the war and establish peace.

Why this anomaly? At a recent meeting of a group of academics-activists in Colombo, a colleague explained it by saying that in ethno-political conflicts like in Sri Lanka, popular mobilisation for peaceful conflict resolution is not possible. In conflicts where issues of social justice, economic redistribution or democratic reforms are central to the struggle, the popular imagination is fired by socialtransformative impulses. In such conflicts, people find political bonding across class, caste, regional, and ethnic differentiations. But, as my colleague argued, ethnic conflicts are essentially divisive. They don’t bring people across ethnic communities together. Ethnic conflicts often mobilise people for war and violence, not for issues of social justice, political change and democratic transformation, but for goals defined by feelings of ethnic exclusivity and group separateness.

This explanation raises some interesting questions. Are ethnic conflicts nontransformative? Isn’t there any transformative potential at all in ethnic mobilisation? What do ethnic mobilisations really do to societies that await social and political transformation? If ethnic conflicts are nontransformative, or at least limited in their transformative capacity, how would people committed to social and political change deal with ethno-nationalist projects?


In Sri Lanka’s political debates on the nature, consequences and responses to the ethnic conflict, all these questions have been present in one way or another. A key issue that touches all these concerns is the absence of a will to reform Sri Lanka’s post-colonial state. This in fact entails a peculiar political conservatism that continues to provide reasons for the Sinhalese-Tamil conflict to prolong.

Quite interestingly, the ethnic conflict itself is an outcome of the incapacity of post-colonial ruling elites to reform the state in a direction of power sharing. The most effective step to manage the secessionist impulses in the Tamil polity is to reconstitute the state in such a way that the Tamils as well as other ethnic minorities share state power along with the majority Sinhalese community as political equals. In other words, there is, to put in a somewhat outdated language, an “objective necessity” to radically reform the Sri Lankan state.

However, the ethnic conflict has created a syndrome of “fear of reform” in the minds of some leading sections of the Sinhalese political class. Federalist reform, or even limited devolution, is seen by them as weakening the state already threatened by a minoritarian separatist insurgency. The Tamil separatist insurgency should have weakened the argument that “federalism is a stepping stone to separation”, because it was unitarism and centralisation that spawned the impulses for secession. But this has not happened in Sri Lanka. Instead, the Sinhalese nationalist intellectuals and their lawyer cadres continue to argue that it is the unitarist unification, and not power sharing, that can prevent the “little island in the vast Indian ocean” being divided into two entities.

This argument has been a powerful one. Only a few political leaders have dared to deviate from it. Chandrika Kumaratunga who was the president from 1995 to 2005 and Ranil Wickramasinghe who held the office of the prime minister for two years from 2002 to the early months of 2004 are the two notable exceptions. There are of course several other politicians who identify themselves publicly with the devolution/federalism option. But they are not capable of redefining the terms of the political discourse. There has been a recurring contestation for the dominant political discourse in the majority Sinhalese polity. The state reformists have not yet been able to win the battle for discursive supremacy. The larger context for this condition is a paradoxical one: “radicalism” in minority politics has only reinforced “conservatism” in the majority polity.


The ascendancy of political conservatism in Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese polity has another fascinating paradox: the main agency of that conservatism is the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which has a Left-wing and radical history. The JVP, originated in the late 1960s as a radical movement in the New Left and experimented with two armed insurgencies to capture state power, the first in 1971 and the second in 1987-89. It has now become a parliamentary party. In the present parliament, it has 39 members. The JVP is a member of the present ruling coalition in Sri Lanka. Its leadership as well as cadre comprises overwhelmingly young people. The JVP has the character of a youth political movement, displaying tremendous energy and vitality in mobilisation, propaganda, agitation and polemics.

However, on the ethnic conflict, the JVP is the most conservative political force in Sri Lanka today. It opposes any political sharing of state power with the ethnic minorities on a regional/territorial basis. Administrative decentralisation is the solution the JVP offers to Tamil demand for self-determination. Ironically, the JVP’s stand on the ethnic question is exactly the position earlier held by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP), the two traditional “capitalist” ruling parties. It is also a continuation of the old statism of the

Economic and Political Weekly July 8-15, 2006


traditional Left. The ideological position that the JVP holds dearly is the one that Sri Lanka’s conservative ruling elites have abandoned in the early 1990s. Can a youthbased political movement, socially anchored among the rural peasantry, the urban salariat and upholding Leninist slogans, become counter-reformist and politically conservative? If so, how could one explain this “radical conservatism”? To find an answer, we need a fresh analysis in political sociology. A tentative explanation would be that the reformist role of the political forces based on intermediate social classes has come to an end.

Meanwhile, is the Tamil nationalist project, appropriated by the Tamil youth in the early 1980s and redirected towards securing separate sovereignty through secession, reformist? The answer is “no”. Separatism has not yet proved that it is grounded on a state reformist agenda. Of course, a separatist project does not seek reforming the state from which it wants to secede. But it can ideally be reformist when it comes to the new state which it wants to create. But all the evidence available suggests that the LTTE’s vision of a new Tamil state could at best be a replica of the unitary state, as built by the British colonial rulers and consolidated by the majoritarian Sinhalese ruling elites. While the pre-separatist Tamil nationalist project sought federalist reforms within the post-colonial Sri Lankan state, the new state that the young Tamil nationalists envision to create will not be a federal one. It is not likely to be a democratic one either. Sri Lanka’s Muslim resistance to Tamil separatist project emanates largely from this possibility of a highly centralised and unitarist Tamil ethnic mini-state in Sri Lanka’s north and east.

The point I tried to establish in this discussion so far is that ethno-nationalist political projects are not state reformist. They also buttress counter-reformist and conservative impulses within themselves and among their rivals.

An Impossible Dialogue?An Impossible Dialogue?An Impossible Dialogue?An Impossible Dialogue?An Impossible Dialogue?

Can ethno-nationalist projects turn themselves into strivings for state reformism? Can majoritarian and minoritarian political visions be mutually encouraging in a state reformist mode of imagination and practice? At a recent discussion in Colombo, I made an argument that would say “yes” to these two questions. The point I made was something like the following. Ethnic-nationalist mobilisation is the most powerful political force in Sri Lanka today. Sinhalese, Tamil and to some extent, Muslim projects of state formation and political “emancipation” have been moving in three separate directions, one excluding the other. At the heart of the “problem” in Sri Lanka today is the inability of these projects of political “emancipation” to engage in a conversation for collective transformation. Hasn’t the time come now for Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim ethnonationalisms in Sri Lanka to enter a phase of dialogue and conversation?

A few colleagues immediately objected to my proposition. They took up the line that a dialogue among nationalisms was not possible at all. In their reasoning, ethnonationalisms flourish because they do not dialogue. Othering and exclusion is the logic that has propelled ethno-nationalist practice into war, violence, ethnic-cleansing and pogroms. How can ethno-nationalists dialogue?

Undeterred by the opposition shown by my colleagues, I continue to think that a country like Sri Lanka, ripped apart by ethnic-nationalist politics, can still find a way out only by turning that politics around. As the folk saying goes, when you fall into a well, you have to get out only through the mouth of the well. My argument is to de-ethnicise nationalist projects, democratise and repoliticise them through a radically state reformist thrust. After all, ethnic conflicts have only democratic solutions, and not ethnic solutions. And all these projects have emancipatory desires at their core, no matter how distorted they may appear in ideology and practice.

Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict offers a whole range of lessons to those who are committed to seeing post-colonial nationalist projects in multi-ethnic nation states, reinvented in the fashion of pluralism, democracy and inclusivity. Distilling these lessons for a tranformative political practice requires a basic precondition, that is, the capacity to establish and maintain what one may call an “epistemic distance” from all types of ethno-nationalist projects while preserving the political faculty for empathy. This task needs to be carried out by an agency, a political agency, located outside the space of inter-ethnic competition and conflict. This calls for an ethnicity-neutral agency of change and transformation. Ethnicityneutrality of the agency – this is crucial.


But, who is the agency? Sri Lanka does not offer a clear answer to this question. In fact, Sri Lanka at present is a polity without a transformative agency. This fact alone constitutes the fundamental difference between Nepal and Sri Lanka in the sense of political change. This absence of a domestic agency for change is also instinctively felt in a distorted way among Sinhalese nationalist groups. Their appeal to India to intervene to defeat the LTTE and impose a military solution to the “terrorist” problem is a reflection of this agental vacuum. Yet, externals can hardly impose a solution in Sri Lanka without generating resistance, as India learned in 1987-88.

In my view, recent events in Nepal offer two important lessons about the question of agency for political reform. The first is that there is no single agency as such that should monopolise the discourse, agenda and practice of transformation. A broad political coalition, backed by a popular uprising, is capable of transforming itself into the role of agency. That act of coalitioning through popular action is the moment for national political will formation across ideological and programmatic divisions among a multiplicity of agencies. Secondly, unless the moment for change is seized, there is the risk of losing the conjuncture for transformation.

Possible DialoguePossible DialoguePossible DialoguePossible DialoguePossible Dialogue

What should this dialogue be in Sri Lanka, in any case? In my view, it is an effort to understand that political emancipation of one ethnic community is not a threat, but a precondition for the political emancipation of another ethnic community. It is a dialogical process to discover that political emancipation of all ethnic communities will have a better chance through a set of normative goals that are both shared and binding. The key elements of such a shared and non-threatening framework of political visions are the elementary aspects of what communities would understand as the essence of political emancipation – equality, rights, security, justice and fairness. This will enable us to theorise autonomy and inter-group solidarity from the perspective of the politics of transformation of all.

Dialogue among ethnic-nationalist projects in Sri Lanka cannot take place in conditions of war and violence. The precondition for it to begin is an extended phase of relative peace. This presupposes the existence of a stable ceasefire process that will eventually delink war and violence from the ethnic “conflict”. An instrumentalist understanding of the ceasefire and negotiations, which almost everybody seems to share at present, is not adequate for such an envisioning. It indeed calls for transformative understanding of even minor gains in the struggle for peace. m


Economic and Political Weekly July 8-15, 2006

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