Ahilan Kadirgamar on Southasian Solidarity and Questions of State and Land

[This guest post is by AHILAN KADIRGAMAR who is an activist with the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum. He has written about the international dimension of the conflict and peace process in Sri Lanka and worked on human rights concerns related to the conflict. His current interests include the political economy of state-society relations and attempts at state reform in Sri Lanka.]

I have been travelling between cities, from Kathmandu to Delhi to Calcutta and down south to Madras. Visiting friends, but also trying to understand peoples’ perceptions of Sri Lanka in a time of war. I give talks here and there, but many more meetings over tea and dinner. There is an older tradition of solidarity, but now I am thinking again of the meaning of Southasian solidarity.

In Calcutta, on an activist’s book shelf, I find a book signed and gifted to her in the mid-eighties by Para, my friend from Berlin who passed away last year. Kumaraswamy Pararajasingham, a Marxist and human rights activist in Lanka in his early years, was a pillar of Tamil dissent over the last two decades of exile in Germany. An old Marxist in Calcutta, asks me about Hector Abhayawardhana, the theoretician of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP – the major Trotskyite Party), who taught me so much about Lankan politics, still continuing in his late eighties in Colombo. Hector was exiled in India, and was part of that 1942 movement of Trotskyites finding refuge in India, fleeing imprisonment in colonial Ceylon. He stayed in India through the early sixties engaging in Marxist debates across the spectrum. In Delhi, a journalist talks to me about Kethesh Loganathan, the brilliant mind that could consolidate complex ideas into a few sentences and who mentored me during the last many years before he was assassinated two years ago by the LTTE. Kethesh was the spokesperson of the Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF – a left leaning Tamil militant group) and spent the better part of the eighties in India. It was a different world, that pre-1989 world of anti-colonial and post-colonial solidarity of Third World internationalism. As I travel now, I am attempting to share my concerns about developments in Lanka, but I end up learning far more than I can share, I am overly pessimistic, but draw optimism in the emergent Republican Nepal and am engaged by the political vibrancy in post-Nandigram Bengal.

State and land, two concepts that trouble Lanka, are also two concepts that trouble solidarity. It is to break the boundaries of the political and territorial borders of nation-states that present a formidable challenge for Southasian solidarity. The weakening of solidarity means that Lankans can only consider Indian engagement in terms of the Indian state. Even the economic engagement by Indian business is mediated by state-to-state relationships; in the Free Trade Agreement, the upcoming Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA – the free flow of services and investment), in infrastructure investment facilitated and carried out by the Indian state. Consider the figures on trade; Sri Lanka imports the most from India (an estimated US$ 2.7 billion), it is the third largest destination of exports (an estimated US$ 0.8 billion), in a country with a US$ 32 billion GDP in 2007. And of land, one can only despair at the destruction caused in the name of (home)land, drawing territorial boundaries of nations and using it as the rallying cry of nationalisms. In Sri Lanka today, in the age of “terrorism”, “security” and “development”, the ruling regime avoids discussion of state reform and land reform. State and land are reified into the concepts of sovereignty and territorial integrity, which constrict the space for possibilities of solidarity for struggles and reforms.

Even as I think of state and land during my travels, I want to explain about Sampur, the land south of Trincomalee, the site of war in 2006 and 2007, and then designated a High Security Zone in May 2007. With close to sixteen thousand of its people still displaced, it will now become the site of coal power plants and coal landing facilities, and perhaps a Special Economic Zone. 35 square miles (20,000 acres) of agricultural and fisher-folks’ land has been chosen as the site where, the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) of India will invest a large part of the US$ 500 million project to generate 500 Mega Watts of electric power. Indeed power is important. Sri Lanka is heavily dependent on oil for electric power, further pushing inflation in a time of global oil price increases. And indeed Indian power continues to compete with Chinese power (there is the Norochcholai electric power plant being built by the Chinese), where political hegemony in the region is increasingly determined through economic engagement.

Sampur however, is very much a part of the broader history of the multi-ethnic Eastern Province. The uses of land and the ruling regime’s intentions, at a time when the Muslim community also fears Sinhalization of the East, raises questions about the history of land reform. Repression, though much less than struggles, also raises questions. The Paddy Lands Act of 1958, that populist act by the Trotskyite leader Philip Gunawardena, significantly transformed share-cropping and land alienation, specifically in its impact on small farmers, even if it was driven by the bureaucracy in the form of the Agrarian Services Department. The land reform laws of the early and mid 1970s led to the nationalization of estate lands. The curse of plantation economy, the mainstay of British colonial interest, and for long the largest provider of wealth for Ceylon and its social welfare policies, was at the cost of the severely exploited Up-Country Tamil labour (Indian indentured labour brought over the century prior to de-colonization to work in the plantations). The estates went through changes for the state centred interest of the United Front government of 1970 – 1977 (a coalition including the Left parties), as much for appeasing the Sinhala nationalist fears that the Sinhala political formations mobilized on. Nationalization of the estates threw thousands of plantation workers on the streets, and eventually in settlements in the North and East, becoming cannon fodder for subsequent decades of the war. There were the changes that the bureaucracy brought about through the Agrarian Services Act of 1979, which began setting back any gains and protections granted to paddy land tenants, where significantly silent was the opposition to rolling back land reform. How quickly the question of land reform disappeared from the public scene, providing only room to speak of (home)land. And indeed, then came 1977 and the opening of the economy and the early beginning of a neoliberal onslaught that was paralleled by the changes to the political geography through attacks on minorities and the cycles of war.

Thinking of Sampur reminds one of the multi-billion dollar Mahaweli power and irrigation scheme, the largest development project in Lanka’s history, funded by the World Bank and other donors, accelerated for implementation in a time of conflict in the 1980s, facilitating Sinhala colonization and further polarizing the communities through its ideological claims. Colonization and gerrymandering of the East by Sinhala nationalist politicians in the mid-eighties, who also put the Sinhala poor in the border villages to face the wrath of the war as a buffer for the security forces. And when one thinks of the question of land, of alienation, of colonization, of displacement, one can not forget the cleansing; the ethnic cleansing of seventy to eighty thousand Northern Muslims, the entire population of Muslims in the Northern Province that were evicted by the LTTE in less than forty eight hours in 1990. In Lanka, reform can not be seen independent of the war, both attempts at state reform and land reform are reframed and attenuated by militarization and war. And in thinking of land, caste was so central to any conception of society. However, in Jaffna and the North, the question of caste has been shut out by the narrow cry of the Tamil nation after 1976. In attempting to talk about land, or about the state or for that matter Southasian solidarity, in attempting to even raise questions, I find I have to return to the particular histories. I think of peoples’ struggles, each different, yet raising broader questions about land and about state. In Lanka, and particularly the North and East, the militarization of society, the decimation of social movements, and repression of decades of war, have crippled the potential for peoples’ struggles, troubling also the possibilities of solidarity.

In Bengal, I find that Nandigram has raised the question of land and rejuvenated the sense of solidarity. In Nepal, I meet a second generation Indian Maoist from London. He does not seem interested in state reform or land reform, even though both are stated priorities of Nepal’s Maoist party. He wants to see his revolution at any cost. Diasporas and distance, and forms of solidarity can also be irresponsible and destructive. The dominant sections of the Tamil Diaspora are also not interested in state reform or land reform, they are only interested in securing (home)land and the emergence of a (nation-)state at any cost. Kethesh and Para spent the last two decades trying to change that.

In returning to thinking about solidarity, the world has changed much. It is not the decade of the forties, when Hector and others would form the Bolshevik Leninist Party of India (BLPI). And it has even moved on from the eighties, when Kethesh and other Tamil militants would relate to a broad spectrum of political parties and social movements in India. Solidarity then may have to begin with intellectual questions, but with commitment and responsibility. Questions that are in many ways Southasian (to borrow Himal’s definition), not in the sense of the relationships between South Asian states, but questions about the Southasian peoples. Questions about our particular states, their relationship to our particular lands and peoples, which despite the severest repression and erasure, will nevertheless emerge and challenge us. The sharing and exploring of such questions are also beginnings for solidarity.

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