The Historical Quest to Restore Tamil Rights
By D. B. S. Jeyaraj
“In devising policy toward this region of ancient cultures, we know
that a rounded historical perspective and due regard for South Asian
attitudes are needed. And so is humility! As an American diplomat
who has lived five years in India and about six months here in Sri
Lanka, I appreciate the need for humility in approaching South Asia.
Sometimes frankly, it seems to me that this region produces more
history than it can consume. So complex are the various religious,
ethnic and political relationships in South Asia that I often think one
needs a degree in higher math to make sense of it all!
- From the address of U.S. Ambassador Ashley Wills in Jaffna on March 7, 2001.
The enduring search for restoration of rights by the Tamils of Sri
Lanka has undergone several phases over the past century. The
evolution and growth of the Tamil struggle for equality is a heroic
saga of a resilient people striving defiantly against overwhelming
odds to regain their rightful place under the sun.
So complex are the issues that many persons sympathetic towards
the Tamil plight are themselves not fully aware of the ramifications
involved. This leads to situations where well-meaning individuals
articulate viewpoints that are inaccurate as well as being insensitive
to the feelings of a bitter and beleaguered people.
Erudite scholars, analysts and commentators are often guilty of a
common fallacy in recent times. The crystallisation of Tamil political
aspirations in the demand for a sovereign and secular state of Tamil
Eelam has created an impression that the Tamil people are ethnic
supremacists aiming to forge a separate state to pursue that
Race of warmongers
The ascendancy of the Tamil armed struggle in contemporary times
has given rise to a notion that the Tamils are by nature a race of
warmongers. Certain acts of omission and commission by the
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have helped reinforce this negative
image of the Tamil people and their political philosophy.
Those genocidal elements that are desirous of annihilating the
Tamils in this island have exploited this phenomenon to their
advantage and derived much propaganda mileage out of it.
Against the backdrop of the Sri Lankan Tamil people conducting an
armed struggle for secession it is possible to conclude erroneously
that the Tamil people are an exclusivist, anti-social people, incapable
of breaking out of ethnic barriers and preferring to confine
themselves to self-imposed boundaries rather than merge with other
people, other cultures rather than build together if necessary new
structures of state sans the bondage of race, religion, caste and
The fact that Tamil Nadu in India boasted of a flourishing separatist
movement in the early decades of Indian independence could be
interpreted as another indicator of separatism being inherent in the
Tamil psyche. The constant reference by north Indian and south Sri
Lankan commentators to the possible emergence of a pan-Tamil
state comprising the Tamil people living on either side of the Palk
Straits could add more credence to this opinion.
The separatist ideology
In juxtaposition to this perceived mindset is the modern reality of
different ethnicities being molded into a single, unified state without
any great difficulty.
Sadly, the image projected of the Tamil people in their current
‘avatar’ of being adherents of a separatist ideology does not do
justice to the underlying principles of Tamil political philosophy that
are deeply embedded in the collective Tamil psyche.
The great seal of the United States has the Latin phrase Pluribus
Unum meaning ‘Out of many, One’. As the US envoy in Colombo
Ashley Wills stated “even more than two centuries ago, the
founders of the United States saw that our country would be diverse
and we should reject efforts to stress differences among its people.
The idea was and is, thatdiverse people can come together and build
one country, one nation”. Now the emphasis is on the globalisation
and the global village etc. The Tamil demand for separation could be
viewed as an anachronism by enlightened circles in the current
Yet, it may come as a surprise to westerners particularly Americans
proud (rightfully perhaps) of their Pluribus Unum that a Tamil poet of
the Pre-Christinan Sangham era Kaniyan Poongundranar sang
“Yaathum Oore, Yaavarum Kelir which the renowned Catholic Tamil
Scholar Rev Fr. Xavier Thaninayagam translated as “All the world is
my world, all humanity is my fraternity”.
Unbelievable as it may be to those judging Tamils within the
framework of contemporary politics a Tamil poet was able to evolve a
global consciousness and conceptualise such lofty maxims at
a time when the greater mass of humanity had not transcended tribal
tendencies and parochial
Global outlook two millennia before globalisation!
Former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi provided a sense of pride
to the Tamil people all over the world when she quoted these
memorable lines of Kaniyan Poonggundranaar when she
addressed the United Nations in 1980. Other gems of classical Tamil
literature like the ‘Thirukkural’ for instance illustrate the higher levels
of universality and humanism that Tamil thought was capable of
achieving in the past.
Why, then are the Tamil people caught up now in the throes of a
raging conflict that threatens to undermine all these noble principles
propounded by their sages and poets centuries ago? The answer to
that is also revealed by another Tamil poet and holy man who strode
the spiritual-literary scene several centuries after
This was Thirunaavukkarasa Naayanaar generally referred to as
Appar who spearheaded the Saivite Tamil renaissance.
Poongundranaar was able to dream about humanism and
universalism at a time of prosperity, Appar thundered at times of
adversity ‘Naamaarkkum Kudiyallom, Namanai Anjom’ meaning “We
are slaves of no one, we shall not fear death”.
Thirunaavukkarasar who along with Gnanasambandar,
Suntharamoorthy and Manickavasagar comprised the premier
quartet of the 63 ‘Naayanmaar’ or Saivite Tamil saints also sang
‘Thamilodisaipaadal Maranthariyen’ (I will never forget Tamil and its
music and songs).
If Kaniyanpongundranar’s immortal lines epitomised the pinnacle of
Tamil magnanimity, Appar symbolised the spirit of Tamil defiance at
times of peril and the fervent desire of the Tamil to preserve and
protect his or her beloved language and culture against forces
Tamil political philosophy
This then is the essence of Tamil political philosophy as propounded
by Poonkundranaar and Appar. In peace universal amity and
goodwill towards to all beings. But when danger threatens
and war becomes inevitable then courage and defiance. This
philosophy finds resonance in western thought too.
As Shakespeare said in ‘Henry V,’ “In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man as
modest stillness and humility: But when the blast of war blows in our ears, then imitate
the action of the Tiger: stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, disguise
fair nature with hard-favoured rage; then lend the eye a terrible
The Bard of Avon was certainly not thinking of the Liberation Tigers
of Tamil Eelam when he composed these lines.
But yes, they certainly do echo powerfully the thoughts expressed by
the Tamil visionary poet and a holy Tamil activist. Most Tamils of the
present day too would subscribe to these views.
There may be different positions about how the armed struggle is
being conducted or about its viability and future, but few would
disagree that armed Tamil resistance to Sinhala hegemonism
was historically inevitable.
If militarisation and ideologies considered by western powers as
extreme and unrealistic in the current environment are to diminish,
then the causes that led to such a phenomenon must be dealt with.
The remedy should address the malady rather than merely treat the
The communal curse
If the Tamils of India moved away from secession to national unity
and integration through the enlightened policies adopted by the
Indian state towards fissiparous tendencies such as these, the case
in Sri Lanka was vastly and tragically different. Here the problem was
initially not with Tamil nationalism but with Sinhala chauvinism
masquerading as nationalism.
The Sinhala-Buddhist supremacists insist that they and only they
have a divine right over this island depicted by them as the last
bastion of pristine Theravada Buddhism. It is this dominant assertion
by the majority community that was fundamentally responsible for
ushering in the communal curse here. The original sin that upset the
tranquil environment of the Garden of Eden was this. Of course
colonialism paved the way for it but it is pointless to accuse the
British alone when the real blame lies with Sinhala supremacists as
opposed to the Sinhala people.
When the cry for a separate Tamil state was first proposed by a little
known man called Visvalingam in 1918 there were absolutely no
takers for it. Even the explicit reference to Tamil Eelam by the
intellectual giant Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam in 1924 struck no
responsive chord in the Tamil heart.
About an “Eylom”
In the latter days of British rule the Tamil political leadership made no
demand for a separate state or even federalism. When the brilliant
Tamil intellectual C. Sundaralingam articulated a clear-cut political
demand for Eelam, which he spelled out as ‘Eylom’, he was scorned
as an “eccentric”, and his demand rejected by the Tamil politicians.
The “Suyaatchi” or autonomy demand put forward by him was simply
an euphemism for a separate Tamil state. He and his party were
routed. But when the newly formed Tamil United Liberation Front
contested the 1977 polls on a separatist platform it swept to victory
winning 18 of the 19 Tamil majority electorates in the Northeast.
Recent history would testify that the road to Tamil separation was
due mainly to Sinhala oppression and repression.
After the Tamil areas of the northeast were merged together with the
rest of the island and unified in one administrative entity the Tamil
people too began embracing the new reality. When administrative
reform culminated in the forming of nine provinces the Tamils were in
a majority in only two.
In terms of the overall population they were a numerical minority vis-à-
vis the Sinhala people. Yet the Tamil self-perception of themselves
was that they along with the Sinhala people were equal partners
forming the new Ceylonese nation. When limited franchise was
allowed in early 20th century, Tamils saw themselves as equals.
There was also much affinity between the dominant Sinhala and
Tamil castes the Goigama and Vellalas.
Security to Tamils
Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan’s victory over Sinhala rivals in two
successive elections to the Educated Ceylon’s member constituency
illustrates that. Further constitutional reforms created tensions but
were contained due to the principle of communal representation
being adopted. In spite of its flaws this principle afforded some sense
of security to the Tamils.
Then came universal franchise and the principle of territorial
representation under the Donoughmore Constitution. The
composition of the state council brought out the stark fact that the
power relationship had changed and that the Tamils were now a
minority and no longer on equal terms with the majority. Thereafter
the Tamil political leadership thought in terms of being
the principal minority community in the island.
It did not however think of retreating to its ethnic enclaves but wanted
to be part and parcel of the new Ceylon extending from Point Pedroin
the north to Dondra in the south. The Tamil leadership under G. G.
Ponnambalam wanted to mobilise the minority communities and
demand an equitable power sharing formula where the minority
communities together would equal the majority community. This was
the principle of balanced representation commonly called the fifty-
After independence the Tamils still thought of themselves as an all
island minority and not a territorially confined one. G. G.
Ponnambalam and his All Ceylon Tamil Congress adopted the
policy of responsive cooperation and joined the UNP government.
The breakaway faction led by S. J. V. Chelvanayagam and C.
Vanniyasingham formed the Federal Party. For the first time the
Tamils were perceiving themselves as a territorial minority and
demanded federalism for the two Tamil majority provinces.
In 1952 the FP was defeated at the polls. Yet the colonisation
policies of the government and the demand for Sinhala only made
Tamils feel increasingly insecure. In 1956 the ‘Tamil Also’ FP
swept the polls in the Tamil areas and the ‘Sinhala Only’ SLFP the
Sinhala areas. Sinhala became the sole official language. The ethnic
divide was a harsh reality.
Satyagrahas’ suppressed with force
The FP continued the struggle through non-violent modes of protest
like Satyagraha that were ruthlessly suppressed through force. Even
though the FP was prepared to compromise in negotiations all
assurances provided in the form of agreements were revoked or
honoured in the breach by Sinhala dominated governments.
Finally, the Tamils who had been consistently rejecting all forms of
separation, and fighting peacefully for rights within a united Sri
Lanka, opted for secession. The Tamil parties formed the
TULF and contested 1977 elections as requesting a mandate for
Tamil Eelam. The Tamil people voted overwhelmingly for it. In the
meantime Tamil youth inflamed by discriminative policies like
standardisation began resorting to isolated yet ineffective acts of
violence. The writing on the wall was clear. Yet the Sinhala
dominated government did not take any meaningful and genuine
steps to address Tamil grievances and win back the alienated people.
A campaign of repression was conducted. State sanctioned pogroms
were unleashed on the Tamil people. Repressive violence against
the Tamil people was institutionalised in the form of war. Death,
destruction, displacement and despair became the way of life for the
Tamil people. In spite of this the Tamil armed struggle has developed
to a point where the whole world recognises the reality of an LTTE
Tamil army being present in the North- East.
A sad and bitter trail
There was a time when Sri Lankan Tamil poets like
Somasundarappulavar of Navaly sang Mavali Sool Ilangai Naadengal
Naade (This land where the Mahaveli flows is our country).
This spirit was not reciprocated and Sinhala poets like
Mahagamasekera sang only of a Sinhala preserve Me Sinhale
Apagey Ratai, Api Ipadune Marana Ratai (This Sinhala is our land, A
land where we are born and die).
The reaction from the Tamil side was predictable. Kasi Anandan, the
foremost Sri Lankan Tamil nationalist poet wrote thus Engal
Arunthamil mannai... Angulamum ini naangal ayal veriyar Aala
vid... Thangathamil Eelam Thamilanukke, Thamilanukke (We will not
allow alien fanatics to rule an inch of our beloved Tamil soil. Golden
Tamil Eelam is for the Tamils)
This then is the sad and bitter trail that has led to the current
situation where the Tamils want to secede. No one speaks of a
plebiscite or referendum for the Tamils. But if a free and fair poll is
conducted then there is every chance that the Tamils would opt out.
An idea can be defeated only by a superior idea. The demand for
separation has only been dealt with force and not by the articulation
of a superior vision of national unity, equality and
A land of their own.
It is also possible for the outside observer to be misled by the
present _expression of Tamil nationalism, the homeland theory being
an example. The American ambassador in Sri Lanka for
instance observed recently that “those in Sri Lanka who advocate
separation of the state long for ethnic purity, a genetic and
geographical impossibility. Worse than that it is an atavism, a
denial of the harmonising, connecting forces at work in the modern
This may be applicable to those Sinhala Buddhist hegemonist forces
who seek to convert this multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-lingual,
country to a mono-ethnic, mono-religious and mono-lingual state,
and hark back to a past and not the future. But in the case of the
Tamils the homeland theory is not a throwback to the past but one
that was necessitated by the exigencies of sheer survival.
Former Opposition Leader Appapillai Amirthalingam said in the
aftermath of the 1983 pogrom that the twin concerns of his party
were the security of our people and the integrity of our
homeland. Both concepts were interlinked. When Tamils were
attacked by Sinhala mobs in 1858, 1977, 1981 and 1983 they were
sent for safety to the northern and eastern provinces.
The limited political representation that the Sri Lankan Tamils have is
also from these provinces. These provinces comprise the Tamil
linguistic region as articulated by the Ceylon Workers
Congress in the 1984 All Party Congress. This is the only region
where the Tamils can live in security and nourish their culture if and
when war ceases.
The Tamil homeland concept was nurtured in Tamil political
consciousness as a citadel of safety and not a preserve of
exclusivity. Even pacts between Sinhala leaders like Bandaranaike
and Senanayake with Chelvanayagam recognised this concept
tacitly. The Indo-Lanka accord concretised this concept in 1987 by
linking up both provinces into a single administrative unit and
describing them as ‘areas of historic habitation by the Tamils.’
Furthermore, the existence of a Tamil homeland concept is
interwoven with the Tamil demand for self-determination. The Tamil
cry for a country of their own is based on two factors. One is the
historical premise where it is argued ‘Tamil sovereignty’ ceded to the
Portuguese in the battle of Nallur in 1517 should have been handed
back to the Tamils at the time of Independence or the advent of the
republic in 1972. The Portuguese handed it to the Dutch, and the
Dutch, to the British who in turn gave it over ‘illegally’ to the
Sinhalese the argument goes.
The Tamils seek therefore to restore lost sovereignty. The second is
on the basis of universally recognised canons of a self-determination
that includes among other things a common territory.
Sinhala hegemonism has been consistently attempting to dilute the
Tamil homeland and deprive the Tamils of their last resort of safety
State aided colonisation schemes were executed to change the
demographic pattern of the Tamil areas. The East in particular was
In fact the reference to the north and east as the ‘traditional Tamil
homelands’ was first made by Chelvanayagam in response to this
‘Sinhalaisation’ of Tamil speaking areas that he described
as ‘colonisation’. The Sinhala component of the north-east
population has progressively increased to the point where several
Sinhala representatives have been returned to parliament.
When independence dawned there were none.
The war has seen the cleansing of many areas. Tamils were driven
out of the strategic northeastern, Manal Aaru or Weli-Oya region and
Sinhala colonists settled in a bid to destroy the territorial contiguity of
the north and east. Failure to appreciate this savage bit of history
could lead to misunderstandings about the genesis of the Tamil
Among the advantages afforded by numerical superiority to the
Sinhala majority is the opportunity to camouflage discriminatory
measures in the veneer of acceptable democratic norms. Reducing
the Tamils to a minority within their own areas by altering the
demographic balance can be explained away as an exercise of the
right of every citizen to move and reside in
any part of the country.
The ulterior motives of the Sinhala state and the insecurity felt by the
minorities is glossed over. Even the Sinhala only bill that reduced
Tamil to inferior status was passed democratically by Parliament.
Most anti-Tamil measures are democratic. The emergency for
example is extended every month democratically by parliament.
Democracy in Sri Lanka is not that of the ‘greatest good of the
greatest number’ in a non-ethnic sense but only in the context of the
Sinhala Buddhist majority.
A ruthless virulence
All these serve to demonstrate that Tamil nationalism was initially of a
reactive nature and that it assumed a separatist hue only because of
the impact of Sinhala chauvinism. Nevertheless, it must be admitted
that Tamil nationalism too has acquired in recent times a ruthless
virulence that does no good to the cause or the image of the Tamil
Also, the dormant nationalist consciousness of the Tamil people may
have been awakened to such an extent that it could now be resolved
only through very genuine power-sharing that goes far and beyond
all concepts of devolution being bandied about nowadays.
Tamils perceive themselves as a nation and not a minority now. The
Sri Lankan state has to be re-invented to that of an associative
structure if Tamil aspirations and grievances are to be
accommodated and redressed within a united Sri Lanka whose
territorial boundaries are intact.
Achieving this goal is a gigantic journey indeed. But the conspiracy of
history has necessitated that the perilous voyage towards this safe
refuge be undertaken by the Sri Lankan Tamils just as the sea-god
Poseidon caused Ulysses to sail on endlessly till he reached his
The Odyssey is indeed hazardous with dangers, diversions and
obstacles like the enchantress Circe, the one eyed Cyclops, the
enticing melodies of the sirens, the amorous Calypso, pleasure
loving Phoenicians and Scylla and Charybidis etc. Yet the Tamils
must continue their quest if they are to meet with their collective
destiny as Odysseus did till reuniting with his beloved
The success or failure of this Tamil venture depends very much on
Sinhala willingness to accept the justice of the Tamil cause and
restore their lost rights. Until this is realised all half-baked
solutions proffered would be regarded suspiciously as Trojan Horses.
Advice to accept unholy settlements can only be construed as
Hectoring. [The Sunday Leader]