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The federal solution

I celebrated the millennium’s arrival in a restaurant in Galle in Sri Lanka. An election had just taken place where I was an observer and that taught me a lot about politics in Sri Lanka....

Written by Meghnad Desai | February 1, 2009 12:38:50 am

I celebrated the millennium’s arrival in a restaurant in Galle in Sri Lanka. An election had just taken place where I was an observer and that taught me a lot about politics in Sri Lanka. This was the time when Chandrika Kumaratunga fighting for reelection as President suffered a bomb attack and lost an eye. She was declared LTTE’s Enemy No.1. Ever since she returned to Sri Lanka and won,she had worked to settle the dispute which had by then been raging for a dozen years.

Of course her father S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike had been the cause of the dispute. He had unilaterally declared Sinhala as the sole national language of Sri Lanka. The Sinhala majority was to rule over all Ceylonese and Tamil as a language was to lose its status. The Tamil leaders who had been a part of the democratic make up of Sri Lanka tried to negotiate a modus vivendi but failed. In a similar language dispute in India about Hindi— where Tamils in India were up in arms—Lal Bahadur Shastri succeeded in defusing the issue. No such statesmanship was available in Sri Lanka. By 1981,the more radical and younger of the Tamil youth had taken the path of war.

This 28-year-old civil war is just coming to an end. Along the way some Tamil organisations such as EROS have gone back to the parliamentary road and only the LTTE has been out there fighting a war. The Tamil diaspora in Europe and North America,via their many small shops selling groceries and newspapers,have been funding the movement. Prabhakaran has been an amazing military leader. It was he who invented suicide bombing which has become the most potent weapon of modern terrorism.

At the heart of the civil war was a clash of nationalisms. Was Sri Lanka a single nation of Sinhala speaking Buddhist people with Tamil and other minorities or was it a multi-national polity in which many communities could live together in peace? The LTTE argued that Sri Lanka had two independent nations in its midst—Sinhala and Tamil. Chandrika Kumaratunga took the view that the two nations could be contained within a federation with a lot of provincial autonomy. No newly independent country likes to have its territory divided or disputed and so with Sri Lanka. India has fought off many such nationalisms—Khalistan,Nagaland and in Kashmir. It has used a combination of force and negotiations to keep the many nationalisms in one large tent.

Unfortunately for Kumaratunga and the party of federalists,the Sinhala majority was itself split on this issue. There was a distinct preference for a unitarian single people model where Sinhala speakers would dominate. Sri Lanka had two civil wars going on simultaneously: one of Sinhala with Tamils and the other among the Sinhala themselves. This is why no peace efforts ever bore fruit since even a popularly elected President had no mandate to settle. The Norwegians tried to broker a peace but the hardliners on both sides did not wish to settle it.

Now we are in the endgame. All the democratic elements among the Tamils have reconciled themselves to the parliamentary peaceful solutions. Rajapakse took a gamble on a military solution despite much opposition from the international community. He has succeeded. Whatever else one may say about his regime,it is hard to avoid the conclusion that any Indian Prime Minister would not have behaved any differently.

Where India can now help is in the reconciliation process. Here the antics of the many parties in Tamil Nadu are unhelpful and the Prime Minister and External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee have been quite right in ignoring them. India cannot defend Prabhakaran or the LTTE and fight terrorism at home. What it can do is help in the rescue and relief of civilians in Lanka and brokering an amnesty for all who were recruited forcibly in the LTTE.

India’s lesson for Sri Lanka is that such disputes-like those in Mizoram and Nagaland in India—are best settled by a democratic process. Try a federal solution; give the Tamil majority areas provincial autonomy and lure the guerrilla fighters to the ballot box.

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