By Niel Wijethilake
Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country. Historians differ on how Sri Lanka became inhabited. It is also believed that the original inhabitants of Sri Lanka were Tamils. As an island it is natural for people to come and go in different streams and from different angles. In addition to the people in the country at that time, most of these people must have come from different parts of India. Some of these people may have been integrated with the wider society. As the distance between these people increases, some sections may also build separate identities. This situation further complicated the structure of the population when some groups of the people may have been inhabited by Malaya, Coromandel and Arabs.
The birth of racism
The Tamil plantation workers who speak Tamil were later brought to Sri Lanka from India by the imperialists for plantation in Ceylon but they seem to have formed a separate group. Friendship and coexistence between these nations had been established for a long time and later the Sri Lankan bourgeoisie failed to carry forward the process of liberation from imperialism and the building of the Sri Lankan nation-state. The main reasons for this were the divide and rule policy pursued by the imperialists and on the other hand with the so-called independence of Sri Lanka, the Sinhala bourgeoisie took control of the country. And the Tamil speaking people, who constitute about 18% of the population, became second class citizens. There are many factors that influence this. Especially in the early period there were many issues such as the establishment of Sinhala colonies, land policy, language policy, lack of equal opportunities in education and lack of opportunity for Tamil speaking people to wield political power.
In fact, after all the negotiations and compromises reached by the Tamil bourgeois parties with the Sinhala bourgeois parties to seek relief for these grievances of the Tamil people, the Tamil National Movement for a Separate State came to the fore after the 1970s. At the same time, there was a rift between the Muslims and the Tamils, which led to the development of a separate Muslim politics in Sri Lanka. In fact, the Tamil people in Sri Lanka were not a people who represented homogeneous interests. Economically, culturally and socially, the Northern Province, the Eastern Province and the Vanni were of different cultures. At first there was an incompatible division between them. On the other hand, the privileged upper class Tamil elites were powerful in the entire Tamil society and the Tamil society was severely divided on the basis of caste and other racial divisions. Especially if the leftist movement in Sri Lanka has laid a foundation among the Tamil people, it was among these oppressed, underprivileged Tamils.
Formation of Sinhala racism and Tamil nationalism
But after the 1970s, a Sinhala-Buddhist-dominated constitution was drafted, and the occasional racist riots put severe pressure on the Tamil people. That was the beginning of building a Tamil nation. It was on this basis that the Eelamist movement was strengthened with the considerable approval of the people. The result was a fierce national war that lasted for thirty years.
For the past 30 years up to 2009, the Tamil National Liberation Movement has been the central issue in Sri Lankan politics. The struggle of the Tamil people for a separate state was strongly opposed by the Sinhala community and finally the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime, with the support of imperialism, was able to defeat it militarily. It also strengthened Sinhala racist state.
Racist movements and the left
From the outset, it was the leftist movement that stood firm against Sinhala racism. The left had to make many sacrifices to find a solution to the national question on the basis of equality, regardless of race or religion. They opposed D.S. Senanayake’s land policy. They also fought tirelessly for the rights of plantation workers, including their civil rights. They adopted a bilingual policy against making Sinhala the only official language. As a result of taking action against the 1958 Sinhala Only Act, LSSP leaders had to face attacks from Sinhala racists. But they did not surrender. Speaking on language issues, Col. R. Silva, a LSSP leader, said that one language and two countries or Two languages and one country. The compensation paid to the Sinhala and Tamil people of Sri Lanka for ignoring this prudent policy is very high.
But later, as the Left parties entered into an alliance with the bourgeois political parties, their policy on the national question have been faded, and this aroused suspicion not only among Tamils and Muslims but also among plantation workers. It is a wonder of history that these LSSP leaders were the ones who included the proposal to make Buddhism the main religion in the 1972 Constitution, which was initiated by Colvin R. Silva in particular.
A more revolutionary stance on the national question was taken by the New Socialist Party, which emerged after 1976, and the revolutionary organizations that followed. But the JVP ‘s stance on the national question was Sinhala – oriented. It is no secret that the militant movement was strengthened by the massive class defeat in the country and the rise of racism, which further weakened the radical left movement.
During this war, the bourgeois rulers made sure to nurture an anti-Tamil extremist racist ideology among the Sinhalese people. Due to this a sharp rift between the Sinhalese and the Tamils came to the fore. In fact, this process led to the formation of a sense of belonging among the Tamil people, the LTTE as their savior, despite their brutal terrorist war tactics adopted by the organization. Tamil society was accustomed to reacting to the army sent to war in the North and East as a foreign Sinhala army. Although some sections of the bourgeoisie worked for interim agreements from time to time, they saw them as proposals to deceive the Tamil people in the end. It was unfortunate that even leftist organizations such as the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, which stood for the just rights of the Tamil people, came to an agreement with the Sinhala racists to suppress the Tamil struggle. Although some organizations based on Sinhala society accepted the right of self-determination in the abstract, they failed to get it recognized by the Sinhala community. The result was that the left movement received no support from the Sinhala community as well as the Tamil community. This is a historic tragedy.
Although the LTTE was defeated after a sharp bloodbath in 2009, it has not yet been able to eradicate that ideology from Tamil society. This ideology is still gaining momentum, especially with the help of the Tamil Diaspora and the unresolved issues in Tamil society. There were many problems faced by the Tamil people after the war. To this day, Tamil society is in a state of severe injustice due to the disappearance of close relatives of their children, their prolonged detention without trial, the loss of their traditional lands and their severe unemployment and marginalization. In terms of development, it is still a very underdeveloped society. Because of this, there is serious opposition among them to the traditional Tamil leadership. That is clear from the last election.
Today, the vast majority of Tamil society is severely affected by the war and frustrated. The younger sections have turned to more radical Tamil nationalist tendencies and a significant section to the Rajapaksa forces, either for a short time or for economic reasons. That is what the 2020 general election results show.
As Lenin taught us, in such cases it is our view that our slogans in relation to the national question should be decided within a specific historical and concrete context. The basic principle to be considered in reorganizing the state so as to give a share of power to the Tamil and Muslim communities should be whether it is possible to mobilize the entire working people through it. The question is whether the right to self-determination can continue to be exercised in the same way as a solution to the national question under the present circumstances. However, we must understand that we cannot even begin a dialogue to find a democratic solution for the Tamil people without recognizing their right to self-determination. The right of self-determination of the Tamil people should be exercised by the Tamil people and not by the Sinhalese people. This is a fundamental Marxist stand on the national question, and it is essential that we unconditionally support the struggle of the Tamil people to bring the Left parties to political power, not just the collective problems of the Tamil people. Here we will never need to succumb to the various influences of racism or sectarianism.