Drama: Politics in Sri Lanka is so full of drama that it is sometimes
difficult to see the wood for the trees.
Where else would the brightest and most senior members of the
opposition crossover to the government in the first month of the year,
to be followed in the second by the President dismissing two of his most
senior ministers, one of them unquestionably bright?
Then one of them rejoins the Cabinet a week later, while March sees
an air attack by LTTE rebels on an air force base in the heart of
government territory. This leads in April to the leader of the
opposition, while bewailing the harshness of the government towards the
LTTE, deciding that now he should also play tough guy, and suggest that
the former hammer of the Tigers be made Defence Secretary.
University of Sabaragamuwa
In discussing this last issue last week, I had thought also of
exploring how the Tiger strike capacity had increased so dramatically
when that gentleman was in his bleeding heart phase, and as Prime
Minister allowed them to bring in so many arms. But I have realised that
those who look at evidence know well what happened from 2002 to 2003.
Those who don't believe in evidence will continue to think of Ranil
Wickremesinghe as a maligned hero, who could contain the Tigers whatever
equipment they possessed, because of his solid friendship with George
Bush and Tilak Marapana and Janaka Perera and all the rich Indians whose
weddings he graces.
I thought it would be more useful therefore to look instead at a news
item that was being printed at the very moment of the Tiger strike.
Though not as dramatic as the aerial attack, it deserved its top billing
in one national newspaper, though subsequently there was no follow up.
The item seemed the more pertinent in that the headline referred to
'Indian backing' for proposals based on the Indo-Lankan Accord. I have
pointed out before, in discussing earlier Indian interventions and what
they should be promoting now, why the merger should not be reinstituted,
which was the proposal highlighted first in the report.
Here, I would like to consider some of the other proposals, less
dramatic than the merger, but more important for the lives of the Tamil
citizens of this land, who must be proactively reintegrated into our
society if the alienation practiced in particular in the eighties is not
to confirm their adherence to a separatist LTTE.
The proposals came from the EPRLF-P, P being Padmanabha, killed by
the LTTE in Chennai in 1990 when sadly the Sri Lankan government
preferred them to the EPRLF.
Though Premadasa soon realised his mistake, and tried to work with
the Tamil groups that had actively re-entered the democratic process
after 1987, it was too late for the EPRLF to emerge as a distinct
That is why it has been of minimal importance since, as compared with
the days when it provided an umbrella for the Tamil groups that
contested the 1988 Provincial Council elections in the North and the
East, and why intellectuals like Suresh Premachandran now have to try to
work within the TNA despite it being dominated by the Tigers who would
have killed him too way back in 1990, had he not missed the meeting they
The current proposals of the EPRLF-P, even on remerger with redrawing
of boundaries, raise some practical issues to which the government
should give serious consideration. One, which was raised recently by one
of the sharper officials of one of the more dynamic Indian think tanks
(and that's talking more than top quality), was the need to recruit
Tamil youngsters into the Armed Forces.
This is imperative, not only on moral grounds, but also for very
practical reasons. Indians know how they dealt with Sikh separatism, not
only by tough military action against terrorists, but also by actively
reintegrating Sikhs into the Indian polity, and in particular using
their services for security as well as in administration.
On a smaller scale, to indulge in anecdotage, I once saw in Kashmir a
Muslim captain, through his knowledge of the ground situation, defuse
tensions that were worrying his Hindu major and may have led to what
seemed unwarranted oppression by the local population.
It is argued here that, for security reasons, it would be unwise to
recruit Tamils. I don't think this holds water, given how the Forces
used the services of Tamils for special operations, and how those Tamils
suffered when the LTTE identified them after the Athurugiriya betrayal.
But, even if we err on the side of caution, there are many areas in
which Tamils could be employed, with sufficient recognition of what they
have to contribute to the exercise of nation-building.
This was recognised by the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, who
knows that the remarkable achievements of the Forces which he
facilitated will be useless, unless the Sri Lankan State also wins the
hearts and minds of Tamils in general.
His proposals in this regard, to expedite recruitment of Tamils at
least into the Cadet Corps, were approved by the President, who wanted
them fast forwarded. The Ministry of Provincial Councils, recognising
the importance of such a directive, acted swiftly to find vacancies to
be filled by such cadets in fields of national importance.
University of Jaffna
However, while the Ministry of Education initially was positive, some
of its officials have slowed things down. So a Cabinet decision of a
year ago, that would have made clear the commitment of the government to
a pluralistic agenda, lies in abeyance.
It is unlikely that this is due to ministerial policy because, though
people like to protect their own turf, that is hardly in question here
given the sterling contribution of the Corps to education within the
Rather, I suspect opposition from those elements in the system who
rose to prominence during the entrenchment of a racist nationalism by
the UNP in the eighties, who fought so hard in the nineties - and sadly
successfully for so long - to keep Elara's name out of the history
syllabus, to ignore the Industrial and French Revolutions, to minimise
recruitment and deployment of teachers for the North and the East.
It is the failure of such officials to act positively that will, I
fear, spoil the achievements of this government in what the British
characterize as the great ministries of State, Defence and Finance and
Foreign Affairs. In those areas the assertions of the prophets of doom
in 2005, that we would soon be bankrupt, that we would be pariahs on the
international stage, that the Tigers would launch attacks that could not
be resisted, have been categorically falsified.
Meanwhile the efforts being made with regard to refugees, the
stabilisation of prices in Jaffna despite the destructive genius of the
LTTE, the discipline of the Armed Forces that makes unthinkable now a
repetition of the incidents of past decades when half a dozen terrorists
became hundreds because of ruthless victimisation, make clear the
paradigm shift from the flog 'em and burn 'em policies that created the
But that alone is not enough. The world has moved on and expects
higher standards as compared to days when the West thought democracy
unimportant, provided the Dictators were our Dictators, and when the
total control of the media and the courts that the Jayewardene
government institutionalized was condoned by British and Germans and
Only after July 1983 did they see the consequences of the racist
violence they had encouraged, and I suspect even then they would have
kept quiet had it not been for Indian interventions and the increasing
angst of the Tamil diaspora.
It is ironic then that politicians most worried by that diaspora
reserve their criticism for other victims of the government violence of
the eighties, and continue to celebrate the last survivor of the old
Mathew faction still in active politics.
But no one worries about history. And in terms of the present, the
President needs therefore not only to assert his more pluralistic vision
in major areas, but also to ensure that this is activated in all areas
This is particularly important in education, given that one of the
spurs to separatism was the reduction of opportunities for university
education that Mrs Bandaranaike's government introduced in the
seventies. Then, when the Jayewardene government entrenched this on
racist grounds, following Cyril Mathew's outburst in Parliament, young
separatists turned to terrorism.
Sadly, elements in the University Grants Commission seem to be bent
on making history repeat itself. A couple of days after the EPRLF
proposals, there was a report of a conflict between the Deputy Minister
for Higher Education and the University Grants Commission over the
admission of students to universities. The Minister is quoted as saying
that "The number of students taken, especially in the North and East,
has been reduced."
This is not something new, for these policies began towards the end
of 2005, though it could not have been with the blessings of former
President Kumaratunga who was certainly not a racist in her outlook.
But, on admissions finalised when she was Minister, Sabaragamuwa
University received no Tamil students at all into our Arts Faculty. Our
authorities took the matter up, to be told that the UGC had not realised
that we had an English medium. Since for a decade we had run a programme
that received plaudits from the UGC statistician with regard to
employment, and since all those years we received Tamil students, the
excuse seemed thin.
Someone, somewhere, decided two years ago that Tamil and even Muslim
admissions to universities in the south should be limited, and they
should be sent to the North and the East, which means that many of them
will lose the opportunity of higher studies.
Equally sadly, they will not have an opportunity to integrate into
the country at large, while Sinhala students, who benefited enormously
from interaction with members of other communities, will continue in
their sheltered cocoons.
Incentives to practise and thus develop English are lost, let alone
the chance to learn the third language too more actively, and thus - for
Tamils at least - enhance employment prospects even in the government
For this is another area to which the EPRLF proposals draw attention.
In listing the areas in which devolution should be maximized, after land
and police they refer first to education and then to 'Maintenance of
number of personnel, not less than ratio of population of minority
nationalities, in the Armed Forces, Police forces, and State
administrations, not only in the Provinces, but also at the Central
This last deficiency has been a continuing disgrace, to which also my
acquaintance at the Indian think tank drew attention. His concern with
this confirmed that what are claimed by our local prophets of doom to be
reasons for Indian intervention, humanitarian and refugee problems, are
seen by India now to be of minor importance.
However, we should also register that India is well aware of the root
problem, which is that any solution must look not only at political
formulas, but also at the status of minorities within the social and
economic body as well as the political.
Move to quotas
In short, if employment is not available for Tamils and Muslims at
levels commensurate with their numbers, we cannot demand of them the
allegiance to the nation state that is required if separatism is to be
The simple answer would be to move to a system of quotas. Some years
back, when there was not a single Tamil recruit into the Administrative
service, I was told that no one suitable had applied. The claim then was
that quotas would lead to unsuitable recruits.
However, we have accepted such a principle, with regard to university
admissions, where for rural youth without satisfactory educational
facilities we downplay merit. If that is acceptable, surely we should
also move to quotas in the administrative system, and indeed in the
security forces which now play such a large part in our lives.
That would be the best way of making it clear that the 'Api' in the
dynamic publicity campaign now conducted by the Ministry of Defence
referred to the whole nation and not just a privileged segment.
The government needs to consider such issues in producing a package
that will put paid to separatism.
The Armed Forces have done a tremendous job in the face of massive
provocation, and India, which dealt with similar threats in the Punjab
and now elsewhere, will doubtless not react adversely. But we should
also ensure that, as India did so successfully in the Punjab, we
encourage potential separatists to feel themselves securely part of our
own nation state.