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Liberal pluralism, Tamil Peoples

Council and the new Constitution

The people of this country should be the


architects of their constitution. Though as everywhere else, politicians and
constitutional lawyers would play a decisive role in authoring the
constitution, there should be avenues for social movements, trade unions
and activists and intellectuals to offer direction to the processes of drafting
the new constitution. Unfortunately, there is very little conversation on the
constitution between academics and experts working in the field of
constitutional law and academics and activists working in the areas of
identity, economy, gender, culture and literature in Sri Lanka.
by Mahendran Thiruvarangan
( January 14, 2016, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) More than six years after the wars
end, a particular line of thinking has come to the forefront in Tamil nationalists defence
of their ely, on ethnicity or culture, it tends to build a one-to-one relationship between
cultural identities, territoriepolitics around national self-determination. I would broadly

describe this philosophy as liberal pluralism. Predicating the politics around state reformation primarily, if not sols and the state. It is not an entirely new phenomenon as
far as Tamil politics in Sri Lanka is concerned. It has been the bedrock of political
reforms proposed as solution to the national question by a wide variety of actors in the
country and in the diaspora ranging from liberal intellectuals based in Colombo to
sections of the Leninist left to the old Federal Party, sections of todays Tamil National
Alliance, the bi-nationalist Tamil National Peoples Front, journalists and various
militant groups and organizations like the Trans-national Government of Tamil Eelam
and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the latter would not settle for anything
less than a separate Tamil state in the north-east of the island.
What is comparatively new about this trend is that this ideology is deployed today in
such a way that it places unwarranted limits on anyone outside a particular political
community in shaping the trajectory that politics centering that community ought to
take. It sometimes encourages communities to (mis)articulate their political existence
as secluded political islands. An example of this political thinking appears in the policy
document released by the Tamil Civil Society Forum (TCSF) in 2014, which states that
the TCSF recognises the right of the Muslim and Up-Country Tamil communities to
decide how they want to articulate their political identity as regards their relationship to
the Sri Lankan state. The document also notes that they are equal but independent
partners in a process that addresses their political rights. It is easy to make such
claims which, one would even say, demonstrate a genuine interest on the part of the
TCSF to build an amiable political relationship with the other minority communities
whose political aspirations were often subsumed in the past under the political identity
called the Tamil speaking people, an identification that overtly and by subterfuge
offered a place of privilege to the Tamils of Ceylonese/Sri Lankan origin in the northeast and their political aspirations. But, nations and political communities do not exist
in a vacuum. Their politics is often directed towards the territoriality of the state. The
pluralist narrative hinging on the logic of cultural difference and cultural autonomy
would not work beyond a point as a given territory is often home to and the homeland
of multiple political communities. For instance, the north-east of Sri Lanka which Tamil
nationalist narratives present as the traditional homelands of the Tamils was described
as the traditional homelands of the Muslims in the north-east too in the Oluvil
Declaration which was presented during the ceasefire agreement between the United
National Front government and the LTTE in 2003 amidst heated debates on the demerger of the merged North-Eastern Province. The TCSF statement does recognize

the Muslims and Sinhalese claims to the land in the north-east. But it fails to stress
the importance of collaboration (which is different from extending solidarity to one
anothers struggle) among these three communities and the others in the northeastand outside in charting the political future of the region. Its activism which primarily
concerns the Tamils right to self-determination in the north-east which is inescapably
limited by the ethnic diversity of the north-east, does not seek to include the Muslims
and Sinhalese in the region and their political concerns as the movement has framed
itself as a Tamil group.
Liberal pluralism may seem rosy as a concept, but before the stark reality of competing
territorial claims it falls to pieces. When it is overstressed it will result in the creation of
small ethnic enclaves. While narratives on ethnic-nations seek to keep communities
apart or place them side by side, the shared identity of the territory reminds us that we
live amidst and within one another and behooves us to work together, forge alliances
and even speak on behalf of one another. My critique of cultural relativism does not
intend to erase or trivialise the political significance of cultural/ethnic differences;
rather, it seeks to open up a conversation, especially as the country embarks on the
process of charting a new constitution, on how best we could address the specific
concerns of our ethnic communities while imagining a shared future of peaceful ethnic
coexistence all over the country. It is primarily and fundamentally about framing the
sovereignties of our (national) communities as contingent (interdependent on one
another) realities circumscribed by multiple territorial claims, only meaningful and
effective within a larger collective of diverse smaller groupings, as opposed to
unencumbered collective wills, and recognizing the specific nature of identities and
ethnic concerns while envisioning a cosmopolitan, inter-nationalist future.
From a Leftist point of view, one could argue that the precursors to modern liberal
pluralism appeared in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when the capitalist and
imperialist classes in Europe began to manage cultural and linguistic differences
among the laboring populations in places like the plantations in the Americas and their
colonies in Asia and Africa. The oppressed classes and communities, for strategic
reasons and sometimes in a chauvinistic manner, internalized and incorporated these
divisions into their politics and organized themselves into racial, cultural and ethnic
groups. Similar cultural alignments were promoted in the work of nationalist activists
and writers (including anti-colonial nationalists) who supported the self-determination
of national collectives. But, as an overstretched discourse, postmodern pluralism often

becomes blind to the ways in which different collectivities crisscross and overlap and
share territory, resources, nature and institutions with one another. This is why one has
to bring the historically constituted porous totality within which differences and
specificities present themselves back into the discussion. What we need is a critical
approach to culture that views the tension between the specific/plural and the singular
unity as reciprocal, productive and enabling. This is an approach that prioritizes neither
the specific nor the cosmopolitan over the other.
Many contemporary proponents of Tamil nationalism assert that self-determination
does not mean separatism. For me, separatism does not just mean the creation of a
separate, sovereign state or a federal unit in a given territory; any political thought that
assumes that a given population can act on its own and determine its political future in
isolation of theother populations with whom it shares a territory and along with whom it
belongs to a common political totality created by the forces of history needs to be seen
as separatist. Pluralisms that fail to take into consideration the reciprocal relation
between the specific constituents of a collective and the collective as a whole are
separatist in character. They would only create narrow political enclaves and lead to
anunimaginative institutionalization of cultural and ethnic differences on the structures
of the state.
The TPC and Mono-ethnicism
The newly formed Tamil Peoples Council (TPC) with the Chief Minister of the Northern
Province as one of its co-chairs has raised the eyebrows of many. What kind of
political vision is the newly-formed Tamil Peoples Council trying to offer? Is there an
attempt on the part of this group to part with the dry, debilitating pluralism that
dominates the Tamil nationalist political landscape and offer an alternative that
promotes inter-ethnic dialogue and action? The initial remarks made by the Chief
Minister does not indicate a welcome shift in this regard. In his address at the second
meeting of the TPC held on the 27th of December, Chief Minister Wigneswaran stated
that since the last century, the Sinhalese people had tended to hold the view that
allowing the Tamil people to prosper and progress on the island would be detrimental
to their interests. Wigneswaran may be right. But, he has not paid attention to the ways
in which social, political and economic forces and the ruling classes of the Sinhala
community created anti-Tamil sentiments among sections of the Sinhala population.
For instance, the Sinhala nationalist leadership of the 1950s created the impression

among the Sinhalese that the Tamil community as a whole was a privileged class in
colonial and post-colonial Ceylon by misrepresenting the prestigious public sector jobs
held by an English-educated section of the Jaffna Tamils as indicators of the social and
economic prosperity of the overall Tamil population.
This leadership concealed from the rural Sinhala communities the truth that thousands
of oppressed caste Tamils and Tamils in the Vanni and the rural regions of the east
were as marginalized as (or even more marginalized than) the poor Sinhala people
who lived outside the urban areas of Colombo and Kandy. This is just one example of
how the Sinhala nationalist leadership sow the seeds of racism in the South in the
past.
Wigneswaran has also failed to note thatanti-Tamil/anti-minority views have always
been challenged by progressive social movements and political actors in the south,
although the latter were a few in number and not able to create a major shift in postindependence Sinhala politics that would favor devolution or federalism. Yet there have
been optimistic examples that one cannot easily sweep under the rug. The electoral
victories of former President Chandrika Kumaratunga in 1994 in the Sinhala heartland
when she contested elections on a visibly pro-devolution platform prove that the
Sinhala people did support political reforms that aimed at sharing more state power
with the Tamil community. Of course, one needs to admit that the pro-devolution forces
in the South could not sustain these victories in the long-run in the face of the
opposition from the UNP to devolution and federalism.
The violence that the LTTE unleashed on the Sinhala people in the south and the
border villages of the north-east in the 90s and 2000s alienated pro-devolutionary
activists from the political mainstream in the south and shifted the discourse on
federalism to the right. After the war victory in 2009, the Rajapaksa regime promoted
anti-federal positions and furthered the ethnic divisions within the country by fanning
the flames of communalism. On the other hand, the increased international
involvement in managing Sri Lankas ethnic conflict by neo-liberal organizations and
powerful Western states and the Tamil political leaderships invitation and uncritical
support to such external involvement gave chauvinistic politicians and ideologues
disguising themselves as anti-imperialists many an opportunity to heighten their antiTamil rhetoric and scuttle dialogues between the communities. One needs to
understand the Sinhala psyche, if at all there is one, in the larger social and political

contexts in which it emerged and by identifying and analyzing the forces that nourished
it. And it is only through self-introspection and a holistic socio-economic analysis that
eschews ahistorical readings of ethnic hostility that Tamil leadership will be able to
make any progress in winning the support of the Sinhalese and the other communities
to their political struggle.
The TPCs vision, as it appears in the statements made by the Chief Minister and its
conveners, is primarily about building a mass-based movement that would include not
just Tamil political parties but also civil groups, professionals, the educated classes,
trade unions, women and marginalized sections within the Tamil community. All in all, it
is a mono-ethnic Tamil movement for the Tamil people by the Tamil people. Those who
are active within this new formation are yet to present their plans on initiating dialogues
with the other communities in the north-east or the rest of the island on the national
question. From what we have heard since its inception in December, the TPC appears
to be liberal at best and enclavist and separatist at worst. This movement, unless it
undertakes a course correction on the inward-looking nature of Tamil nationalism,
would be mired in ethnic parochialism and never be able to encourage the other
communities on the island to view the Tamils struggle for emancipation as their
struggle as well. On the other hand, if the members of the movement think that they
can build a pan-Tamil movement merely by accommodating women and marginalized
sections without actively challenging the caste, class and gendered forms of
oppression felt by the downtrodden groups within the Tamil community on a daily basis
or by imagining themselves as custodians of Tamil culture without questioning its
hegemonic underpinnings, it is hardly possible that the TPC will be able to bring about
any social and economic transformations that would bring relief to the oppressed
sections of the Tamil community.
At this historical moment, as we are preparing to draft a new constitution, we need to
grapple with the question of ethnic difference and its institutional manifestations as we
see in the various commissions and omissions by the state in its interactions with the
different ethnic and cultural communities on the island. At the same time, we should
not allow these identities to trump our inter-nationalist political vision.
The new constitution should recognize not only the multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multilingual and multi-cultural character of our polity but also the changing nature of ethnic
and linguistic identities and cultural boundaries and the dynamic relationship between

culture/ethnicity, territory and state power instead of predicating the political on culture
in a crude, linear, and ahistorical fashion. For example, a healthy and open dialogue on
the status of the Eastern Province that attends to the current demographics of the
province, its historical connections to the Kandyan kingdom, its centrality in the postindependence Tamil and Muslim national imagination and the social and cultural reconfiguration that occurred in the region as a result of state-aided colonization is
necessary to address the competing claims made by the people of the province over
its territory.
The inflow of foreign remittances sent by family members and relatives has led to the
rise of a Tamil (upper) middle class in parts of Colombo. This phenomenon shows that
the state alone is not responsible for the social and cultural changes that happen in a
territory. The constitutional exercise of drawing new territorial boundaries needs to be
informed by a class analysis as well of the demographic changes that have happened
in the various parts of Sri Lanka over the years Devolution should also address the
concerns and needs of regional minorities, internally displaced groups and laboring
communities. The Muslims in the Northern Province and the plantation Tamil
communities in the Southern Province are two among the many groups that deserve
special attention in this respect. Besides the three major minorities, the new
constitution should bring to the center numerically smaller minorities like the Malays
and the Burghers whose historical claims over the island have often been overlooked
in our deliberations on political reforms.
Our recent conversations on constitutional reforms tend to focus predominantly on
abolishing the executive presidency or sharing state power among the different ethnic
groups or nations or electoral reforms. We have not given much thought to important
questions like how federalism would benefit a member of the landless oppressed caste
internally displaced community in Jaffna or a fisherwoman in Puttalam or a tea-plucker
in the central hills or what the socialist in Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri
Lanka, the name of the country as stated in the constitution, means to the workers,
peasants, the unemployed and the poorof the country considering the rapid
liberalization and neo-liberalization of Sri Lankas economy that has happened with the
blessings of the different governments that came to power since the introduction of the
second republican constitution in 1978. Class, caste and gender remain absent in our
reflections on the constitution. Lets hope that these identities and identifications will,
alongside ethnicity, animate the debate on devolution by framing the questions of

belonging, land and social existence in multiple ways. Perhaps the constitution needs
to present a legally binding state policy (not like the ineffective and superficially
socialist Directive Principles of State Policy and Fundamental Duties included in the
current constitution) that ensures the (re)distribution of land and resources to the
landless, poor, oppressed caste communities, the cultural autonomy of women and
minority genders, the continuation of free educational and health care services to the
people of the country and the rights of trade unions, farmers, fishermen and workers.
The people of this country should be the architects of their constitution. Though as
everywhere else, politicians and constitutional lawyers would play a decisive role in
authoring the constitution, there should be avenues for social movements, trade unions
and activists and intellectuals to offer direction to the processes of drafting the new
constitution. Unfortunately, there is very little conversation on the constitution between
academics and experts working in the field of constitutional law and academics and
activists working in the areas of identity, economy, gender, culture and literature in Sri
Lanka. There is a wealth of path-breaking scholarship on the latter produced by Sri
Lankan and international academics, but much of it does not usually find its way into
the chambers where policies are made. I would just name a few that I am familiar with
and consider leftist and radical in orientation: Qadri Ismails Abiding By Sri Lanka and
Unmaking the Nation, a volume of essays co-edited by Qadri Ismail and Pradeep
Jeganthan, Sivamohan Sumathys Militants, Militarism and the Crisis of (Tamil)
Nationalism and her work on the Malaiyaha Thamilar and displaced Muslims. Ahilan
Kadirgamars writings on the neo-liberalization of Sri Lankas economy, Arjuna
Parakramas work on border villages and language standards, Thanges Paramsothys
work on caste and land issues in the north, the writings of Jayampathy Wickremartne
and Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri on the national question and devolution, M. A. Nuhmans
work on the formation of the Muslim identity and Tamil nationalism, Dainel Bass
writings on the Malaiyaha Tamil community and S. H. Hasbullahs work on land issues
in the north and east. I would also addpoets, novelists and film makers like
Ambalavanar Sivanadnan, Somachandra Wijesuria, Liyanage Amarakeerthi, Vihanga
Perera, Sivaramani, Dharamsena Pathirajah, Shoba Sakthi and many other writers,
actors, dancers, artists and singers to this group who have kindled in us a political
imagination that is inclusive, egalitarian and counter-hegemonic. One wonders how
much of this scholarship and creativity would figure in and shape the philosophy of the
new constitution and if those who draft the constitution will see these works as offering
useful conceptual frameworks for the new constitution. As trade unionists, academics

and writers, we the people of this country should find ways of intervening in the
debates on the new constitution and should ensure that the radical creativity, critique,
research and activism that we have produced and presented through the long years of
violence, communalism and neo-liberal assault despite the various forms of
intimidation that we faced from various state and non-state actors have a
transformative value for the future of our polity. Otherwise the new constitution will only
represent the nationalist, liberal and neo-liberal views propounded by chauvinistic
politicians, experts and NGOs that have already caused much confusion, chaos and
destruction in this country.
Drafting a constitution inevitably involves building boundaries and borders around
identities, communities and territories. Thus the new constitution, like any constitution,
would make exclusions and lead to new forms of discrimination. But when the
constitution is informed by a socio-economic analysis that captures the complexities
characterizing the social and political existence of the different communities in the
different territories of the island without simplifying them in an ahistorical fashion into
binaries and essences we can certainly come up with historically relevant and less
exclusivist institutional arrangements that encourage the people to work together and
bring the communities polarized along ethnic and religious lines closer to one another.
(The writer is a member of the Collective for Economic Democratization in Sri Lanka)
Posted by Thavam