Sunday, April 26, 2009

Forget Prabhakaran. What about the Tamils?


What “Tamil cause” is the LTTE fighting for? Of all the horrifying TV footage of recent days, one was heartrending: Decrepit Tamils in their hundreds trying to escape from the war zone and a few LTTE cadres shooting at them to keep them hostage.

A lakh and half had already escaped. If a few thousand of the remaining population were retained as human shield, Prabhakaran could hope for international opinion to force a slowing of Sri Lankan military operations on humanitarian grounds. In his desperation he forgot that Mahinda Rajapakse was as ruthless as he himself. If the leader of the Tamils could cynically sacrifice a few thousand Tamils, the Sri Lankan President could do so with greater cynicism, international opinion or no international opinion.

Rajapakse may be answerable for a great many criminalities including the murder of Sinhalese public figures who criticised his dictatorial ways. But he cannot be faulted for seeking the elimination of the LTTE, for LTTE’s aim was to partition the country. In 1962, C.N. Annadurai asked in Parliament for “ a separate country for southern India”. A shocked Parliament passed the 16th Amendment (popularly called the anti-secessionist bill) which banned any party with sectarian principles from contesting elections.

Annadurai was statesman enough to accept the reality and adjust his party objectives accordingly. What would have happened if he had insisted on an independent Tamil Nadu, eliminated the leaders of all other Tamil parties and taken to arms and suicide squads? Prabhakaran harmed his own cause by asking for the impossible.

Prabhakaran’s end may give the Sri Lankan Government a sense of triumph. In fact, President Rajapakse’s challenge only begins now. If he rough-handles the Tamils as a defeated people, he will be proving himself no better than Prabhakaran. Of Sri Lanka’s 20 million citizens, as many as 18 percent are Tamil. They have legitimate rights. It will be folly to ignore these.

Language is too powerful a political factor for politicians to play with. Pakistan suppressed the legitimate sentiments of its Bengali citizens and the result was the breakup of Pakistan. The pulls of language were stronger than those of religion. Even in today’s Pakistan, the rivalries between Sindhis and Punjabis and Baluchis are serious enough to threaten the nation’s future. There were language riots in Karachi in 1972 when the Sindh Assembly made Sindhi the official language of the province alongside Urdu.

There were language riots in Nepal in 2008 over a silly issue. The new Vice President Parmanand Jha, being a native of southern Nepalese plains adjoining India, took his oath in Hindi. The highland Nepalese took that as an affront to their national language. The violence lasted a week.

Language patriotism can sometimes be stupidly emotional. Tarring English signboards is one example. A more sinister example was witnessed in Assam in the early 1960s when there was an agitation for the inclusion of Assamese in the 8th Schedule of the Constitution. One of the methods the more radical agitators adopted was killing of Bengali settlers in Assam, often brutally.

Compared to the Assamese and the Nepalese, the Tamils of Sri Lanka have a strong case. For them it is their educational and job opportunities that are at stake. If these are wisely handled, the Rajapakse Government may yet gain a mention among the makers of Asia. If not, it will be a footnote among the wreckers. And Sri Lanka will become a duplicate of the Israel-Gaza calamity.