Nationalisms, Militarization and the Politics of War in Sri Lanka: Ahilan Kadirgamar

Any discussion of Sri Lanka at the moment can not avoid discussion of the war.  And at the heart of discussions on the war in Sri Lanka, is the question of what will come after the war, at least after an end to the war in its conventional mode with defeats faced by the LTTE on the battlefield.  It is indeed important to grasp that the current state of anxiety is not only about the war but also what will come after the war.  From the London based Economist to Tamil activists in and outside Sri Lanka, this has become the central question.  I write this article as a dissenting Tamil activist and as a member of that diverse set of Tamil activists both inside and outside Sri Lanka, who chose to stand independent of the LTTE, but whose politics nevertheless at the moment is dispersed from the Left to the Right, across a whole range of issues from class, nationalism, caste to gender.  In thinking about the outcomes after the war, just as we could not predict the direction of the war prior to its resumption, we can not predict the outcomes after the war, which are part of the dynamic of war; it drastically changes the political landscape.  But we nevertheless take positions on the war; on either side or against the war.  And those positions are explicitly political, they are underpinned by a politics, whether they are pro-war or, as has been less commonly acknowledged that of anti-war.  Indeed, an anti-war position itself can be arrived at from different political positions, from a pacifist stand to that of political expediency depending on the military fortunes of one actor or another.  It is such politics of war that I intend to explore here in relation to the dynamics of nationalisms and militarization in Sri Lanka.

My concerns are in part theoretical – how nationalisms and militarization relate to each other and to the politics of war.  But they are also existential, in terms of our practice as activists in the context of one of the most critical and devastating times in our history.  I emphasize the latter, because we have been there before.  The JVP insurgency and the State repression in the South during the late 1980s was an atrocious period in Sri Lanka’s history of human rights abuses.  The massacres of Sinhalese and Muslim civilians by the LTTE, or for that matter the massacres of Tamil civilians by the State in the eighties and nineties, were of proportions that we can only hope that the current phase of war will not entail.

I will begin then with a few points in the form of thesis, or points forming a political position relating to the war that I believe are important:

·    From the point of view of civilians, any cessation of hostilities is desirable and should be encouraged.  Just as the humanitarian concerns of civilians are of utmost importance while the war continues, even a temporary cessation of hostilities will provide some respite for the civilians.
·    The diminution of the dual nationalisms (Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and Tamil nationalism) is desirable.  But it is not a balancing act, such that I only want to see diminution of one if it leads to the diminution of the other, even though as I will discuss below both are related.  Independent of each other, I want to see both nationalisms politically challenged on their own terms.
·    Demilitarization and an end to the political culture of militarism and war politics are desirable.
·    Independent of the above three points and without any of the above three being conditional on each other, progress with any political process to resolve the national question (defined as the question of minorities and their relationship to the post-colonial State in Sri Lanka) is desirable.
·    The rebuilding of inter-ethnic relations and a strengthening of minorities politics (defined more broadly along ethnic, caste, economically marginalized and gender) is desirable.

These points relate to each other in the dynamics of political engagement – we can rarely severe the links between extreme nationalisms and militarization – but I want to conceptually unpack the current political dynamic before addressing their inter-relationship.  I also begin with this political position, not only to make it clear, but also to establish what I believe I inherited during the last decade from what I considered to be Tamil dissent.  More simply put, the point is that we cannot join the LTTE to defeat the State, nor can we join the State to defeat the LTTE; even when the LTTE was on a project to eliminate Tamil dissent.  Rather our activism has to focus on engagement with political processes addressing the national question.  This is now a position that, unfortunately, when I look around at the broader grouping of dissenting Tamil activists, is unravelling along with the escalation of the war.  Tamil dissent is also being cornered into taking sides on the war.  This sort of blackmail is intrinsic to the logic of nationalism, you are either “loyal” or you are a “traitor”; it denies possibilities for ethical and principled positions.

I would also like to clarify the difference in my position in relation to the war, with some of the actors who comment and engage in the same terrain.

First, my position is different from the position of say the mainstream human rights community, in that I do not restrict my opposition to the war to that of mainly opposing violations of international humanitarian law (also known as the ‘laws of war’), and of meeting the humanitarian concerns; the position that I understand to be that of the Amnesty Internationals of the world.  Rather, I would as a point of principle at the immediate moment, call for a cessation of hostilities so it provides respite to the civilians, that civilians have the freedom of movement and are allowed to leave the areas affected by the war.  Furthermore, I would want to join forces with those who challenge the dual nationalisms and who struggle for an end to militarization, and for progress with an inclusive political process.

Second, the position is also different from those in the conflict resolution camp.  One of the disastrous outcomes of the Norwegian peace process and the NGO-ization of politics in Sri Lanka is that conflict resolution now takes centre stage in any discussion of peace.  I do not call for negotiations between the LTTE and the State, because prior to any negotiations, there has to be willingness to adhere to certain principles of inclusiveness, pluralism and democratization, the absence of which could only lead to the further entrenchment of nationalism and consequent militarization.  That is the lesson learned from the Norwegian peace process.  Furthermore, the extent to which the LTTE is the vehicle of Tamil nationalism, or the JHU the vehicle of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and to lesser extent the JVP or for that matter the SLFP under Rajapakse, their political defeat is desirable in so far as undermining the two destructive nationalisms and militarization.

The question inevitably must arise as to why the emphasis on the diminution of nationalisms and an end to militarization, as it relates to the politics of war.  Here I will begin with a theoretical discussion borrowing from an article by Newton Gunasinghe, who was also instrumental in introducing the writings of Gramsci and Althusser into the Sri Lankan political and academic discourse. I quote Gunasinghe:

“In a social structure which generates an ideology that religion does not relate to one’s personal beliefs but to one’s family antecedents, S.W.R.D.’s move to become a Buddhist and what is more, his vocal advocacy of Sinhala-Buddhist interests, testifies to his ability of political manoeuvre.  S.W.R.D., through these able political tactics, was able to establish his personal hegemony, distancing himself away from his extended family group, while going against the old-established bourgeois strata, simultaneously cultivating solid political relations with newly emergent bourgeois and petty bourgeois strata emanating from diverse social backgrounds. But his ideology of populist Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism, while creating the social base for his assumption of power, also alienated the Tamils in the northern, eastern and central provinces.  Here, although S.W.R.D. was capable of encapsulating diverse social segments coming from various factions of the Sri Lankan social structure, this very encapsulation was done on the basis of excluding Tamils.  Foucault’s comment that one could define ‘the self’ only in relation to ‘the other’ may be of relevance here.  Nevertheless, this laid the political foundations for the terrible ethnic conflict, destabilisation and violence which we are obliged to undergo today.”

These notes, titled ‘A Sociological Comment on the Political Transformations in Sri Lanka in 1956 and the Resultant Socio-Political Processes’, were written by Gunasinghe not too long before his death in 1988.  Gunasinghe claims that 1956, and the political manoeuvre which brought to power Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike on the platform of “Sinahal Only” (language policy) to power, was not adequately understood thirty years later when he wrote this piece.  And we may reflect now twenty years after Gunasinghe, following two more decades of war interspersed with attempts to negotiate peace, that we are yet to understand the dynamic of not only Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, but also the consequences of two other destructive forces that Gunasinghe would not have fully understood twenty years ago, that of Tamil nationalism and militarization.

In thinking about the politics of war, I have to reflect on the legacy of Tamil nationalism particularly over the last thirty years.  How first Tamil parliamentary politics and then Tamil militancy mobilized a Tamil base around Tamil nationalism.  And then how the LTTE under the cover of Tamil nationalism, consolidated its base to eliminate all other opposition within the Tamil community in deploying its fascist claim of “sole-representation”.  Such extreme nationalist politics of the LTTE also led to massacres, ethnic cleansing and the alienation of Muslims.  Where the Tamil community has arrived today, with very little space for political engagement and decimation by war is a result of the inexorable logic of the LTTE’s fascist and militarist politics.  Furthermore, Tamil nationalism now reinforces Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and vice versa; both nationalisms now need each other.

However, nationalisms alone can not and have not in the past constricted the space for dissent or political opposition to the current extent.  And this is where I think it is important to relate militarization to the dynamic of nationalisms.  A protracted war over two and a half decades changes the political landscape with militarization becoming the brutal expression of the nationalisms.  If I can borrow from Althusser’s ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’, the situation has deteriorated to an extent where the Repressive State Apparatuses have come to the fore, reducing the possibilities for contestations with the Ideological State Apparatuses.  So it is not so much the religious clergy or the teachers that in carrying out their ideological mission are waiting for an S.W.R.D. or a Tamil nationalist leader to perform a manoeuvre.  Rather, the situation has deteriorated over the last two years in the South to an extent that the military establishment and its war propaganda have now gained political ascendancy.  Similarly, the LTTE has ensured over the last twenty years that there is little space for politics outside of its totalitarian militarism.  Indeed, the dominant ideologies as expressed by both nationalisms are in full force, particularly in the context of their militarization and the war; on a day to day level, we see it in the production of culture to that of the media.  However, I would argue that in such critical times of war as during times of coup d’etat, the Repressive State Apparatuses come to the fore drastically reducing the political space to challenge dominant ideologies.  Furthermore, in the Sri Lankan context, much as there are the dual nationalisms reinforcing each other, militarization also has a dual logic, with the LTTE and the State reinforcing each others militarization.

This reinforcing dynamic of both the nationalisms and militarization has to be broken, and that is something I find lacking in the positions of both those who support the war and oppose the war in Sri Lanka.  Breaking that reinforcing dynamic would entail a commitment to demilitarization and to push for the retreat of the Repressive State Apparatuses.  All the more so, because it is the retreat of the Repressive State Apparatuses that will provide the space to engage in the realm of ideology and to challenge the Ideological State Apparatuses.  Ideology as well as Ideological State Apparatuses for Althusser are located in the domain of constant contestation.  Following from this, I claim that in addition to the historical decimation of progressive politics in Sri Lanka, it is the Repressive State Apparatuses coming to the fore with the war, that has paralyzed challenges to the dominant ideologies of the nationalisms.

The current developments in Sri Lanka, and analysis of the military fortunes of both the State and LTTE are increasingly pointing to a possible military defeat of the LTTE.  While as I mentioned early on, the political defeat of the LTTE is desirable, what of its military defeat?  Independent of supporting the State politically and independent of civilian casualties, the LTTE’s defeat is desirable, but with one caveat.  How we define the LTTE is contentious – so many of its cadres are youth and children, who had little say about the war which the LTTE resumed.  Even if I don’t take a pacifist position, I cannot accept their deaths as “collateral damage” or as a consequence of their status as “combatants”, so I make a clear distinction between the LTTE leadership and the lower ranks.  This has been the real tragedy of the war, the loss of an entire generation to a senseless war.

Now in response to this call for the LTTE’s defeat there is the counter-argument from people not necessarily aligned with the LTTE that the victory of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism will spell doom for resolving the national question, the political problem of minorities.  This argument is posed in those terms as the Rajapaske Regime has given centre stage to Sinhala Buddhist nationalism in its war propaganda and more recently even refused to acknowledge the national question.  Here I want to again make a theoretical point borrowing from the same essay by Gunasinghe, where he refers to Karl Marx’s ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’ and makes a distinction between state and regime.  Gunasinghe understands S.W.R.D.’s manoeuvre as an attempt by S.W.R.D. to take hold of the State.  But I want to extend that theoretical distinction of regime and state to include the other meaning of regime; that is the ideological regime of war politics and of militarized nationalism.

The dynamic around the politics of regime currently going on in Sri Lanka has two important aspects.  On the one hand, the Rajapakse Regime is trying to consolidate itself, in opposition to foregoing regimes that have historically ruled Sri Lanka, whether they are the SLFP Bandaranaike regimes or the various UNP regimes.  But in parallel it is also promoting a militarized nationalism through an ideological regime of war politics.  It is that ideological regime that has emboldened attacks on democracy as in the abuse of the constitution (the 17th amendment to the Constitution has been disregarded with direct appointments by the President to key independent commissions) or the physical attacks on journalists and repression of the media.

The critical question for me then is whether that ideological regime of war politics can be challenged now or in the near future.  And here I would make the conjecture that the defeat of the LTTE and an end to the war, while it may immediately provide opportunities for the consolidation of the Rajapakse Regime in possible electoral victories soon after the war, it will nevertheless weaken the ideological regime of war politics and of militarized nationalism.  And to the extent that the Rajapakse Regime has depended on the ideological regime of war politics to consolidate itself, its political fortunes will also unravel.  Both regimes need war.  This is indeed a debatable point, but I am unwilling to merely accept more of the same, that of a politics of war or for that matter anti-war that is unwilling to engage the politics of militarization related to the nationalisms.

In thinking about these questions relating to the war and its aftermaths, which as I mentioned earlier are part existential and part theoretical, I sense a paralyzing state of political anxiety among those who fall broadly into the progressive camp or for that matter Tamil dissent.  In re-reading Gunasinghe and in thinking through his intellectual preoccupations – the concepts of regime and manoeuvre, the theories of Gramsci and Althusser – I am revisiting an intellectual discourse in Sri Lanka that attempted to grapple with difficult political questions.  It is not that such theorization necessarily provides any answers, but it stimulates debates that can only sharpen our political engagement.

Unfortunately, such political debates and engagement are almost non-existent, and the causes of this state of affairs must also be carefully considered.  Indeed, if there is to be the opening of political space to challenge oppressive ideologies or for that matter to address the national question after the war, what would the terrain of political engagement look like?

Here, I must say that just as the Sri Lankan elite, the Sri Lankan bourgeoisie if you may, failed to address the shortcomings in building a bourgeois democratic state, there is also the failure of the Left in Sri Lanka’s post-colonial history in putting forward a progressive politics that could galvanize the masses.  Or more specifically, the failure of a certain middle class (from sections of the bourgeoisie and the petty-bourgeoisie) progressive politics promoted by the Sri Lankan intelligentsia.  This failure of middle class progressive politics was hastened by the accelerated political ascendancy of nationalism and militarization, which they found difficult to respond to even in the 1980s when the likes of Gunasinghe were active.  The failure of that generation of intellectuals is characterized by the emergence of visionless NGO politics and the hegemonic hold of nationalist or Statist politics that we see today.

Here I must also add to the list the limitations of middle class politics of dissent, which some of us treasure and which had the important role of keeping some sanity going during the last two and a half decades of war.  I don’t think that middle class dissent can also escape this generational failure.  And when it comes to Tamil dissent, the generation before me that formed it has either been liquidated by the LTTE or driven into exile for the most part.  While dissent in the Tamil diaspora is important in challenging the destructive support for the LTTE (support in both political and financial terms for a war they do not have to face), Tamil dissent in the diaspora as with the diaspora as a whole can not provide an alternative nor be a significant actor for shaping progressive politics in Sri Lanka.

Therefore, I don’t think we can return to the politics of the generation that Gunasinghe represented nor should we romanticize that generation.  Rebuilding a democratic political culture will be as difficult or perhaps more difficult than rebuilding the war-ravaged areas and this is going to be all the more true within the Tamil community decimated by the war.

I do not see another middle class generation providing any radical alternative in Sri Lanka; there needs to be a break with the Colombo-centred and paternalistic politics and a serious rethinking of intellectual leadership in the face of its failure.  And if I am to place my hope in the emergence of a slow but eventual challenge in the sphere of Sri Lanka democratic politics, I would place it in those who were marginalized by the politics of war, of the militarized nationalism of the last few decades.  Those are the youth of the Muslim community and the Up-Country Tamil community, but also the subaltern classes in all communities and among women.  It is the caste minorities and the economically marginalized that have been the canon fodder of this war, and it is the women who have had to bear the brunt of the war in economic and social terms, not to mention the particular forms of gender violence.  These forms of subaltern and feminist politics might also provide possibilities in the face of the failure of middle-class male radicalism.  An end to the politics of war and end to militarization will provide room for the political foundations and the emergence of such politics.  It will require re-thinking solidarities and of coexistence, but also to borrow from Gramsci, politics engendered by organic intellectuals.  Forms of politics that may be more akin to democratization, and can challenge the nationalist ideologies, and reframe and engage the national question.

Ahilan Kadirgamar is an activist with the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum.

12 thoughts on “Nationalisms, Militarization and the Politics of War in Sri Lanka: Ahilan Kadirgamar”

  1. I find Ahilan Kadirgamar, a Sri Lankan State propagandist in the garb of Marxist and other rhetorics. He is trying to subtly pluralize the issues of the various minorities in Sri Lanka and sublimate the Tamil challenge. This, when the Muslims and the Tamils have come together against the Sri Lankan state. His pro-statist arguments regarding democracy, etc are just wishful rubbish meant to placate the international community.

    Kadirgamar sounds like a Government sponsored intellectual, teaching in a U.S University, who doesn’t mind being used as a two-minutes spokesperson in a news programme where Amy Goodman asks him a couple of questions only American liberals are shamelessly capable of –
    What is the problem in your country? What should be done about it? And last but the most important question of all – How can the US play a role?

    To these propaganda questions, Mr. Kairgamar answers with every desire to play the perfect stooge. He replies in a manner which anyone who wants to skirt a direct critique of the state would do – he talks about “progress in the political process”, to sound fair, desires the government to come out with a “fair solution” for all minorities, and – o’ how unpredictably (pun intended) – desires a “principled engagement” by the US. He satisfies everything according to the demands of his Sinhalese identity and the Sri Lankan State’s need for the US.

    I have a deep suspicion of proposal-minded political jargons, where the issues become less important than the neatly drawn ways of overcoming them. It all sounds nice – and hollow. I also have scant regard for such intellectual posing in the guise of engagement. Just because the LTTE cannot quote Mrax and Gramsci, doesn’t make their claims less credible than Kadirgamar’s. But not that Kadirgamar is talented. All he can do is talk about “minorities”, “masses”, “civilians” and even the “bourgeois” whenever the particular term is handy for him, as categories in his shifty framework. He attacks militarization without going into the real reasons behind who’s responsible for it and how. This perfectly fits his state-centric, human-rights approach. He calls his own approach “part existential and part theoretical”. I guess as existential he means the angsts of being the nephew of the Foreign Minister who was murdered by the LTTE, and as theoretical he probably means the the Sri Lankan State’s annihilation of the LTTE. Kadirgamar can then have his revenge as well as his idea of a ‘Sinhalese’ democracy in place.

    And please don’t miss the point of how Kadirgamar betrays his whole-hearted expectations from the Sri Lankan government to deliver all his “ethical” wishes – why? why?

    This is merely an exercise to draw our attention away from the utterly barbaric way in which the Sri Lankan government has been behaving with the Tamils in particular. No one wants a war. But no one also wants people like Kadirgamar to spread one-sided stories about the war. Such a dishonest missionary zeal should end.


  2. ps –

    I would like to clarify that I mentioned Kadirgamar’s ‘Sinhalese’ identity in the ‘nationalist’ sense and not his own. He takes a kind of easy, elitist ground vis-a-vis the problem of the Tamilians in Sri Lanka and sides with power. As a “dissenting Tamil activist”, Kadirgamar cannot use his exasperations to get him closer to the rhetoric of the State. There may be problems with the current workings of the LTTE but it shouldn’t be forgotten that was formed after many compromises were made by other Tamil groups who played into the hands of the Sinhalese.


  3. Dear Manash,
    Sharp differences of opinion are fine – even welcome. But can we please, at least among ‘ourselves’ (i.e, as distinct from some others who ‘walk into’ the blog with nothing but invectives), at least try and observe one limit: address the argument and not attribute motives. As a policy of this blog, we do not as a rule delete comments unles they are rabid and have no content. Sometimes they are rabid, full of bile and still make some point and we approve them. But can we please try and observe some minimum decorum in our critiques? Name-calling is not criticism but just sounds/feels like so much hot air.


  4. Dear Aditya,

    Hmm, will stick to the arguments. I was a bit uncomfortable on my response later. There is at least a formalistic, ideological difference between someone like Kadirgamar and say a nuisance like Sumit Srivastava and they need different responses. Will keep the air cool !!


  5. Ahilan, thank you for a post that relentlessly complicates all forms of identity including that of the Left intellectual/activist. Reading this from India, one is overwhelmed by the immensity of the task in Sri Lanka of building a new politics of radicalism in the midst of the brutal devastation of war.
    I am also acutely aware that “dissenting Tamil” voices such as yours have been effectively physically eliminated, leaving the LTTE as the sole spokesperson for a supposedly homogeneous community of “Tamils.”
    Your description of the field you occupy – as that of the “diverse set of Tamil activists both inside and outside Sri Lanka, who chose to stand independent of the LTTE, but whose politics nevertheless at the moment is dispersed from the Left to the Right, across a whole range of issues from class, nationalism, caste to gender” – seems to me the new form of democratic politics emerging in our region, around issues rather than around ideologies.
    The anti-SEZ movement in West Bengal, for instance, includes a wide range of otherwise incompatible political formations – Muslim right-wing organizations, Maoists, and Trinamool, the centrist opposition to the CPI(M). This formation is “dispersed” in precisely the manner you outline, and it will not have a life beyond the specific movement. While in existence, however, it is tremendously effective. The Old Left purist distaste for allying with anybody other than those who are with you one hundred percent on all possible issues, is being replaced by new forms of alliance which are more tentative and consciously momentary.
    Manash, what happens to the “nuanced” gaze you urge in your other comments when you look at contexts outside India? You conflate a “dissenting Tamil voice” with Sinhala nationalism; you seem to be unaware of LTTE’s campaign against Muslims (“Muslims and the Tamils have come together against the Sri Lankan state”); and you are blind to LTTE’s fascist nationalism in which there is no room even for Eastern Tamils. The latter voice is condemned by the LTTE as ‘regionalism’ – because of course, once the ‘Tamil Nation’ has been formed, other voices within are, by that logic, traitorous.
    This logic of the nation-state is what Ahilan’s argument contests.


  6. Dear Nivedita,

    I do have a sketchy historical knowledge about the Sri Lankan context, and surely glossed over them as I found Kadirgamar’s line of argument too diverse, vague and policy-ridden to be convincing.

    Kadirgamar talks about groups but doesn’t go into the question of hierarchy ‘among’ groups (except in terms of the general “middle class male radicalism” within all groups and the specific problem of the LTTE). I was also uncomfortable with Kadirgamar’s fuzzy blend of concerns – from “generational” differences, to “limitations of middle class politics of dissent”, to “middle class progressive politics”, to “middle-class male radicalism”, to “totalitarian militarism”, and to a recall of Althusser’s ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’.

    I understand everything he means to say but find it more confusing than illuminating. But in all this confusion – one thing seems pretty clear – Kadirgamar’s is all for de-militarization of all ‘nationalist’ movements within the country. This he feels, would force the ‘Repressive state apparatus’ to take a back seat, and usher in the possibilities of contestations within the ‘Ideological state apparatus’.

    To bring in an Althussarian distinction in the context of nationalist struggles is really strange. Nationalist struggles are struggles ‘against’ the state and are not concerned about Althussarian distinctions because such distinctions apply to people who at least agree to contests ‘within’ the idea of a state whereas nationalist struggles are struggles of identity, freedom and contested histories. These issues lie beyond the Althussarian concern. In fact, for nationalist struggles, there is no distinction between the ‘ideological’ and the ‘repressive’. We have come a long way from Althussar’s theory and know how power works more insidiously than Althussar’s neat (however nuanced) distinction. No wonder people find Agamben’s “state of exception” more credible for understanding anti-state movements and the state’s repressive AS WELL AS ideological mechanism against them. In other words, Kadirmar should do well to fuse the Althussarian distinction rather than hold them apart.

    I understand Kadirgamar’s concern for the subjugation of dissenting voices within the national movements which have become heavily militarized (and therefore masculinized). But those “marginalized by the politics of war” cannot be taken as a single category of people from all sides. This is to again fuzz the central issue of contesting communities and the hegemonic, majority community which holds power. It would have been far more illuminating to know what ‘produces’ militarization than what militarization becomes, because we all know about that pathology which comes to afflict the frustrations of all anti-state movements. But the ‘production’ of such pathologies can only be understood through the working of the state apparatus.

    Kadigamar’s approach is quite humanistic. Having delineated many groups for us, I wonder what group he would himself identify to be a spokesperson of. Perhaps it is safest to imagine from his current status, that Kadirgamar would like to belong to a group of democratic (dissenting) activists. In that case I would like to know how he looks at the relationship between nationalism and democracy in a context where the idea of the state is being heavily contested. My reading is that in such cases, issues like democracy are part of the ideological rhetoric of the state. The moment a state is in question, democracy is also in question – a question it has to answer for itself before raising fingers on the lack of democracy in the working of its subject-population. We have to address the nature of the pathologies created by the state to critically understand problems of militarization of anti-state movements. And let us simply not do this by bringing in only the most handy humanitarian virtues to support our angst.

    I obviously understand the constant necessity to ‘simultaneously’ address the problems within one’s own nationalism vis-a-vis the struggle against the state. But we also know how anti-state (nationalistic) movements of our times face far more difficulties than the earlier anti-colonial movements because the machinations of the state under “democracy” is far more complex. Also, it is far more difficult to fight the ‘colonizer’ within. If the LTTE has become right-wing, its mindset certainly has to be marginalized. But the ‘dissenting’ voices shouldn’t equally get trapped in the power discourse of the state and shouldn’t get into an easy rhetoric of maintaining ‘universal’ norms in ‘marginal’ conditions.


  7. Manash Bhattacharjea seems to be ignorant of what has been going on in Sri Lanka since the mid-1980s, specifically with respect to the LTTE. He characterizes the LTTE as being ‘anti-state’, whereas its whole endeavour is to establish a totalitarian state of its own. This is what accounts for its massacres of rival Tamil militant groups like TELO and dissidents within its own rank like Mahattaya, as well as thousands of civilian dissidents. Its definition of ‘Tamil identity’ excludes Tamil-speaking Muslims, thousands of whom it massacred and tens of thousands of whom it ethnically cleansed from the North; it excludes Hill-country Tamils, who, paradoxically, had been fighting for Sri Lankan citizenship since they were deprived of it immediately after independence; it even, as Nivedita points out, excludes Eastern Tamils. It has never allowed freedom of expression, freedom of association or the right to vote in the territory under its control. None of this excuses the ‘utterly barbaric way in which the Sri Lankan government has been behaving,’ but it does mean we have to fight against the equally barbaric way in which the LTTE’s proto-state has been behaving.

    While I agree with much of Ahilan’s article, I would take issue with his reference to the ‘national question’ in Sri Lanka. Historically, the ‘national question’ has been seen to arise when there is a struggle to constitute a nation-state. For those who accept the legitimacy of the Tamil nationalist struggle for an exclusively Tamil state in the North-East of Sri Lanka, there might indeed be a ‘national question’, but for those who reject this goal, and for the rest of Sri Lanka, there is no ‘national question’ at present: Sri Lanka gained its independence over sixty years ago.

    What we do have in Sri Lanka is discrimination against minority communities, and persecution and violence directed at them for much of the period since Independence. I would see this as a failure of democracy, the bedrock of which is equality, rather than a ‘national question’. At present, there are parts of India where Muslim and Christian minority communities are being subjected to persecution that is worse than the treatment of Tamils by the state in Sri Lanka, but no one talks of a ‘national question’ in India. The Nazis exterminated the Jewish and Roma minority communities in Germany, but this, too, is not referred to as a ‘national question’. I feel that reference to a ‘national question’ in Sri Lanka is a concession to Sinhala and Tamil nationalism, whereas posing the issue as a failure of democracy facilitates a critique of both.


  8. This raises an important and interesting question, Rohini: the ‘national question’ and the problem of democracy.
    In my opinion, the language of the ‘national question’ in these times seems really quite archaic. Not simply because, as you say, there is a larger problem of the failure of democracy. My sense is that we have kept ‘democracy’ insulated from all interrogation and critique. But when I look at the entire century of ethnic cleansings that lies behind us, I am struck by the fact that every where, the quest for stable (democratic?) majorities has tipped over into majoritarianism. The democratic quest for ‘majorities’ very soon got dislocated from its French revolution ideals and got inserted into the logic of the ‘national question’, if you please. Nations must have a single, identifiable national culture – for only then can they supersede/cancel out smaller and local identities and cultures; only then can they emerge in the modern world as legitimate players. And yet, it is precisely this quest for a single and homogeneous national culture that produces, in the first place, the problem of unassimilated minorities. Democracy’s complicity with ethnic cleansing, studied sociologically in recent years by Michael Mann (The Dark Side of Democracy) needs some further investigation.


  9. Rohini and Aditya,

    You both raise interesting questions. I don’t think I am in disagreement with Rohini’s concern, but I think there are both a semantic question and a political question. And of course, the two are related.

    The semantic question is how we understand the ‘national question’ in Sri Lanka, whether it is about the Tamil and Sinhala nationalism, and the ‘nation’ in the sense of the debates about the formation of a new ‘nation state’ or whether it is a question about Sri Lanka as a ‘nation’ in the pedestrian sense of the term. I would argue that the way we talk about the ‘national question’ now in Sri Lanka, it is not so much about the right to self-determination as the ‘national question’, the way it was originally formulated in the debates between Luxemburg and Lenin, which Rohini referred to in a very welcome critique of nationalism in lines magazine, in February 2003 in an article titled ‘Nationalism and the Left in Sri Lanka’. That after the Left becoming very weak in Sri Lanka, in the mainstream the ‘national question’ has come to mean a political problem about minorities. However, the Sinhala nationalists now want to claim the ‘national question’ as a political problem does not exist, and that the only problem is one of a military problem to be addressed through the eradication of “terrorism”.

    That is the political problem for me, do we drop the use of the concept ‘national question’ particularly at this moment, when there is a systematic attack from the Right, and a refusal to recognize the problem of minorities as a political problem? How even democratization etc are co-opted by the current Regime to deflect attention away from this political problem? This is something that Thushara and I tried to articulate in a recent article in the June issue of Himal in an article titled, ‘Critical Thinking in Wartime’. I feel there is quite a bit of traction around the use of the term ‘national question’ in the devolution debate in Sri Lanka and we need to think carefully about how we shift this debate away from its nationalist moorings but at the same time not throw out the baby with bath water so to speak, by losing the democratic potential inherent in the use of the concept ‘national question’ to signify a political problem.

    And this of course brings me to the question of democracy. Indeed any discussion of the national question has to engage with the problem of democracy, as both Rohini and Aditya have mentioned. Furthermore, majoritarian democracy has been a root cause for the conflict in Sri Lanka. I would like to point to Rohini’s excellent article in the EPW of 9 August 2008, titled, ‘Democracy as a Solution to Sri Lanka’s Ethnic Crisis’, where she has articulated the importance of any move towards devolution being underpinned by democracy. However, this idea of democracy I feel should not be reduced to rights (whether of human rights or minority rights) or for that matter of discrimination, but should entail fundamental restructuring of the State. The weight given to such restructuring of the State in the debates around the ‘national question’ is another reason why I am reluctant to throw out the use of the concept ‘national question’, even if the meaning in Sri Lanka has shifted considerably from its original formulation in the Marxist debates. For me the question about the ‘national question’ as consisting of both a semantic question and a political question remains open, and I feel it has more to do with political engagement at the current moment than a question of purely a theoretical or historical nature.

    And to Aditya’s question about the logic of democracy, and its tendencies to lean towards the logic of numbers and the majoritarian tendency, is there not room to change that through struggle and work towards reforming institutions? One line of thinking in the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum which I belong to, is to think in terms of coalitions of minorities, not just on the basis of ethnic minorities (and yes the historical problem of the ‘national question’), but to broaden it to broader coalitions of overlapping minorities of caste, ethnic, gender, economically marginalized etc. That would lead political equations, not limited to that of national majorities and minorities or ethnic majorities and minorities, but rather different alliances in the realm of democratic struggle.


  10. Dear Rohini,

    You say that

    “What we do have in Sri Lanka is discrimination against minority communities, and persecution and violence directed at them for much of the period since Independence. I would see this as a failure of democracy, the bedrock of which is equality, rather than a ‘national question’. At present, there are parts of India where Muslim and Christian minority communities are being subjected to persecution that is worse than the treatment of Tamils by the state in Sri Lanka, but no one talks of a ‘national question’ in India. The Nazis exterminated the Jewish and Roma minority communities in Germany, but this, too, is not referred to as a ‘national question’. I feel that reference to a ‘national question’ in Sri Lanka is a concession to Sinhala and Tamil nationalism, whereas posing the issue as a failure of democracy facilitates a critique of both.”

    You have forgotten to mention that the differnce between India and Sri lanka is that it is state sponsored against its own citizens in Sri lanka but that is not the case in India.


  11. Dear Selva,

    I am surprised you would say in response to Rohini’s comment that

    You have forgotten to mention that the differnce between India and Sri lanka is that it is state sponsored against its own citizens in Sri lanka but that is not the case in India.

    Surely the long history of communal “riots” in this country tells us that no riot can ever actually occur without the complicity of the state in every instance, and outright state sponsored genocide in some. The Anti-Sikh “riots” of 1984 and the Gujarat pogrom against Muslims in 2002 are horrifying reminders of how deeply enmeshed the state is in violence against communities. The Modi government not only prevented the police and bureaucracy from doing its job in protecting Muslim citizens, but actively assisted the mobs as they raped, pillaged and murdered over 4,500 people over a period of three days.

    The current violence in Orissa against Christians speaks of an ineffectual government, but let us also remember that the ruling BJD is an ally of the BJP which is a fascist right-wing party whose own lumpen support base is responsible for the continuing attacks against Christians.

    Therefore I think there is no reason at all for us to be sanguine about the role of the state in violence against its own citizens in India.


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