Thursday, May 21, 2009

Sri Lankan Tamils

I strongly support Sri Lankan Tamils’ desire and aspiration to establish a separate Tamil state on that island. I believe that they have a right to ask for a political solution to address their political problems. I believe that Tamils constitute a distinct group with a different language and religion and also different historical roots compared to the majority which happens to be Sinhalese Buddhist speaking people.

India has a dubious record of participation in the ongoing political and military crisis in Sri Lanka. In reality, India has lost its credibility vis-à-vis Tamil issue in Sri Lanka. India doesn’t know where it stands because it has started to look at the world and issues through the prism of what’s going on in its backyard. Since India discourages all separatism within its borders without reason or debate, it would like to extend the same logic to every other issue on the planet.

India has changed its stance on Palestine issue because India started to identity itself closer to the nation (called Israel) that suppresses every voice and action that demands a new state (called Palestine). India has changed its stance on Sri Lankan Tamil Issue too. That’s because India has become obsessed with Kashmir. Its obsession is not very different from the obsession of Pakistan with Kashmir. However, these two enemies are only different in their extent of that obsession.

Pakistan’s obsession with Kashmir runs much deeper than that of India’s. They do not apply reason or logic to any issue because they tend to look at the world only through that obsession. That obsession has made Pakistan resort to all kinds of tricks and carry out all kinds of shams, resulting in Talibanization of Afghanistan which is now about to engulf entire Pakistan. Obsession with Kashmir is turning out to be the toxic disease that will eat into Pakistan and consume it completely. The people on this subcontinent, both Indians and Pakistanis, fail to reason and see light only because of their obsession with Kashmir.

When it comes to Tamils of Sri Lanka, Indians are ready to denounce their fight for freedom as a terrorist movement. They are ready to dismiss their aspirations completely. They have gone ahead to support Sri Lankan government which has ruthlessly suppressed this movement using armed forces, blasting its way through Tamil stronghold thereby completely decimating all Tamil resistance. Sri Lankan Sinhalese glee over their success while Tamils have lost everything – their pride, their identity, and their political will to form a distinct entity on that island. Indians celebrate with their Sri Lankan Sinhalese counterparts because they fantasize such incursions into Kashmir, blasting their way to decimate and emasculate Kashmiri aspirations to form a separate nation.

LTTE is a terrorist organization to some while they are freedom fighters to others. Yes, LTTE has conducted innumerable crimes, resorted to killing innocents, used children as human shield, brainwashed kids to become suicide bombers, raped, pillaged, and murdered ordinary people thereby justifiably qualifying as a terrorist organization. I deplore the actions of LTTE. I condemn and reject their methods. It is a terrorist organization, no doubt.

However, what gets lost in the din is the voice of ordinary Tamils in Sri Lanka. What about him? What about his aspirations? What about his idea of freedom? Should he give up now because LTTE is a terrorist organization?

Can we ignore the history of how Tamils were targeted, discriminated, and marginalized in Sri Lanka? Does Sri Lanka have a prior record which suggests they are going welcome Tamils participation in that country? Can a Tamil become President of Sri Lanka the way a Sikh can become Prime Minister of India? In Sri Lanka only a Sinhalese Buddhist can become the President ensuring that a Tamil is never an equal in his own country though he is born there.

Lessons for and from India

Indians don’t know why they don’t have a Rashtra Basha. Some continue to delude themselves into thinking that India has a national language. They want to impose one identity or one religion.

India was born out of a compromise. It was realism that dictated how India would shape itself, not idealism. Every demand for utopia where only one religion, one language, one culture prevailed over all Indians was eventually struck down.

As I argued earlier, the only way India can stay united is by allowing people to maintain their distinct identities. With respect to languages, any imposition of one Indian language over the other will be met with utmost resistance and will lead to break up of this country. This was not ignored by our Indian politicians.

India had a long history of struggle with British spanning nearly ninety years. Indians learnt a lot during that time because they had a working Congress and a working Muslim League. They knew the vagaries of a pluralistic society much before India got its Independence. All those who thought one single identity would unite them all have eventually failed to realize their utopias. Pakistan which got formed on single identity called religion eventually broke up into two nations. Now, it is in tatters. There is a clear message – don’t try to unite a pluralistic country under one identity. Don’t impose one identity while blurring others.

Sri Lanka did not face an ongoing struggle for independence. It had no lessons to learn from. When they got independence, they used the ‘majority’ as a weapon to subdue the minorities. Unlike India, Sri Lanka did not learn that majority is not always right. Even Indians are slowly unlearning their lessons. Nowadays some Indians are conveniently using democracy to promote the will of majority to be imposed onto minorities.

Without any precedents to help them, Sri Lankans did not formulate a system that can safeguard the interests of minorities within their country. Sinhalese Buddhists formed political parties that came to power riding the wave of majority support and passed Sinhala Only Act thereby discriminating Tamils who could either speak Tamil or English. Within fifteen years, Tamils were all kicked out of administrative services to be replaced by Sinhalese. Starting from selecting a flag that was not acceptable to Tamils, then disenfranchising a huge Tamil population because they were of Indian origin, and then kicking out Tamils from capital city, then colonizing Tamil lands with Sinhalese, then suspending Tamil speaking officials from the administration, eventually changing the constitution by repealing an act that guaranteed protection to minorities and promoting Buddhism as state religion, Sri Lanka has ensured Tamils were emasculated, enervated, and completely extirpated from that island. Sri Lankans wanted to impose the might of majority onto minorities believing majority is right.

Some Indians are now using ‘majority’ slogan to wish for Hindi language as national language, wishing for Hinduism as the main ethos of Indian cultural and legal system, all in the name of unifying everyone under one banner. Sri Lanka is a good example of how such imposition of ‘majority’ identity can go really wrong.

Sinhalese rejected all demands for using Tamil as administrative language, not even in those areas where Tamils were in majority. They were bent on imposing their will onto everyone at the cost of everything, though there were many Tamils and Left Parties who suggested that both Sinhalese and Tamil should be given official status throughout the island. Colvin R de Silva, a Leftist who is credited with the famous response to ‘The Sun never sets on the British Empire’ slogan with ‘That’s because God does not trust the British in the dark’ has foreseen the future of this island nation when Sri Lanka passed Sinhala Only Act:

Do we want a single nation or do we want two nations? Do we want a single state or do we want two? Do we want one Ceylon or do we want two? And above all, do we want an independent Ceylon which must necessarily be united and single and single Ceylon, or two bleeding halves of Ceylon which can be gobbled up by every ravaging imperialist monster that may happen to range the Indian Ocean? These are issues that in fact we have been discussing under the form and appearance of language issue.

His foreboding came out to be true. Sri Lanka is ravaged by a civil war which has killed thousands, displaced hundreds of thousands, injured and mutilated many others.

Sinhalese in their blind obsession to wrest control from privileged Tamils who were adept at English, instead of making corrections like ‘reservations’ in India, resorted to completely banning Tamil and English from all institutions of Sri Lanka in order to deprive Tamils of employment and opportunity. Sri Lanka has conducted pogroms to target, maim and kill Tamils, vandalizing and destroying their properties, eliciting mass migrations. They were bent on completely decimating Tamils from that island.

The discrimination against Tamils started right from 1948 when they got independence. Sinhalese went around in gangs to target and kill Tamils, kicking them out of their homes, all with support from the government. Like in Gujarat of 2002, the administration of Sri Lanka decided not to intervene when the riots broke up and took its sweet time to stop them. When Tamils got concentrated in camps around the capital city they were eventually shipped to Jaffna. And in 1980s, Sri Lanka carried out programs similar to Israel where Sinhalese were given land and facilities to settle down in Tamil dominated regions.

Like in India where some Hindus target Muslims calling them traitors that have allegiance to an enemy nation, Sinhalese targeted Tamils for being closer to India. One of the Members of the Parliament said:

If there is discrimination in this land which is not their (Tamil) homeland, then why try to stay here. Why not go back home (India) where there would be no discrimination. There are your kovils and Gods. There you have your culture, education, universities etc. There you are masters of your own fate

What came as a freedom movement was a reaction to what Sinhalese did to Tamils. LTTE is a sad outcome of such reaction, equally bloody, equally suicidal.

This large scale civil war of the present day could have been averted had the Sinhalese majority party been rational enough to conclude that they could have two languages instead of one, if they had concluded that they could correct the under-representation of Sinhalese through affirmative action instead of barring Tamils from official positions, if they had concluded that their island nation can accommodate two cultures instead of one by pushing the other culture into wretched submission.

Tamils are marginalized as entire community from the mainstream of Sri Lankan society, vilified as traitors, only to be targeted in future for further discrimination and ostracism. Tamils in Sri Lanka has lost their pride, their voice, their self-respect and now have to live in ignominy.

Now that LTTE is defeated, its leader killed, its forces decimated, Sri Lanka has an immense responsibility. Hopefully, it has learnt its lessons. It should create an environment where Tamils regain their identity, their pride, and their culture. It should allow Tamil as an official language and ensure they are not discriminated against. They should create a federal structure whereby Tamils have their own state. They should set good examples by selecting and electing leaders to the top echelons of the government. Going forward, India should strive to work with Sri Lankan government to create a political platform for Tamils living in Sri Lanka.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Regional Parties and Coalition Politics

There are too many regional parties in the fray for the current Lok Sabha elections in India. For some Indians, that is a not a good thing. Even the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh thinks it is not a good thing. Some parties like Congress and BJP call themselves ‘national’ parties. They like to believe they stand for nationalism.

For many Indians nationalism comes as a virtue while regionalism comes as a nuisance. To them nationalism represents unity, oneness, single identity, grand goals and unselfish interests, where the whole country is under one banner while regionalism represents divisiveness, fragmentation, breakup of the nation, dissent, and parochial interests where regions come under many flags and banners. The slogan is ‘united we stand, divided we fall’.

Many nationalist Indians look at regionalism with derision. The images of Shiv Sena baiting Tamils in Mumbai or MNS chasing away Biharis out of Maharashtra come to one’s mind. The regional parties are known for promoting selfish interest of a region or community while ignoring the common interests of a nation.

Of late, coalition politics has been the norm where one ‘national’ party joined forces with ‘regional’ parties to form the government at the center. However, coalition politics is seen as a negative thing because it lacks decisive punch. There is no single party in power making things really complicated, unstable and slow. Many a times the national party had to bow down to the whimsical and parochial demands of regional parties. They were hijacked and held at gun point constantly. Governments fell before they could complete their full term. Policies could not be implemented and decisions could not be taken- all because of coalition politics that included many ragtag elements with conflicting interests. Many Indians wish it was simpler, like having just 2 or 3 parties. That way we would have a clear winner and then things would get smoother.

Nationalism is a virtue, regionalism a nuisance

This differential treatment was inculcated in us even before India became independent. It was done to unite and create a new nation where none existed. Our country was build from many fragments, many kingdoms, regions, and territories. It was important to promote a common identity to unite India by making nationalism a virtue. For a while, it was a romantic notion worth pursuing. Coming out of colonial rule it was necessary to prove to ourselves and to the world that we can stand as a nation, united and strong.

As a corollary regional ideology was suppressed to ensure there was no dissension. After Independence, Nehru created a strong central authority fearing that regional groups may try to secede from India. The trend continued where each of the successive governments at New Delhi tried to make the center stronger while doing everything to make the states weaker.

Nationalism is an ideology

Most of us inherit certain ideas as kids and many of us do not outgrow them. That’s why religion catches them young. You convert them as kids, and most often they are the followers for the rest of their life. An ideology like nationalism works similarly. A country catches people young, instills the ideas of a nation - how great it is and so on, asking them their devotion, their allegiance, making them take a pledge or an oath, and you have a convert who will be loyal for the rest of his life.

Our leaders introduced nationalism to create one identity, one theme that runs through all Indians so that they can stay united. Central authority was strengthened while the regional authorities were weakened. They tried to blur the local and regional identities imposing a national identity. They tried to impose a national song and a national language. These Indians fascinated by nations that had single identity – like in Germany or in Japan.

India is like a group of nations

In this jingoism and fervor of nationalism what gets lost is an essential attribute of India - that it is not a single nation, group, language, or religion. It doesn’t have a single culture, history, or empire. To understand India, one has to look at present-day Europe which has come together to form European Union. The only way that Union can survive is making sure all participants are represented fairly where no single nation imposes its identity onto others. Though we fail to admit it, India works similarly – like a group of nations. Since we do not recognize this essential attribute we never take measures to protect the interest of each region or group – either in the government or in our political system. Indian cannot equate itself with Germany or Japan.

India has never embraced a single identity – it has rejected all such attempts. The signs were there all along. We just failed to accept them. Tamils rejected imposition of Hindi as national language. States got aligned along languages. Lower castes got reservations in education and employment. It was clear right from the time of Independence that India had to deal with multiple identities.

India failed to accept group identities

This reality did not get translated into working mechanism to address regional and groups’ aspirations. When India conceded to these group demands it did so reluctantly, without a comprehensive and proactive strategy. India still tries to solve most of its problems assuming India is a monolithic entity.

India, like most constructed nations, works as a homogenous entity only in certain special situations, like when it faces a common enemy. Thankfully, India found such enemies (in Pakistan and China) right from the beginning. Later, in 1970s the sanctions following Pokhran-I became the rallying point for a wave of nationalism. 1980s saw Pakistan meddling in Punjab and 1990s saw Pakistan intervening in Kashmir thereby keeping the enemy of the nation alive. Nowadays it constructs such enemies where necessary. The last decade, we went about creating enemies internally, out of those who looked different, thought different or those who practiced a different religion.

While India kept its momentum on constructing a single identity, some regional and other group identities lost out, some of them were neglected, some felt they got unfair share, some were snubbed, some had to take an inferior position. There was no forum or platform where such regional aspirations could be addressed. If a state got unfair share there was no way it could express it because our political and administrative system did not recognize such group identities. Eventually, such groups came together to form regional political parties to represent their vested interests.

India, Indian people, Indian political parties do not openly accept the legitimacy of group politics and group identities. They do not take provisions to cater to the demands of group identities. They don’t know how to take care of proper representations. They still carry utopian dream of creating a meritocracy. And democracy is not a meritocracy. Regional and other group identities will eventually voice their opinion, and join the power struggle to get a fair share by creating a political party.

Its inability of Indian political system, its democratic setup, its government structure to recognize group identities that has led to so many regional parties in India.

Emergence of regional parties

These regional parties have come about because the so-called national parties failed to recognize regional aspirations. Like in Europe, each region in India has its cultural identity that it likes to preserve. They expect their requests to be heard, their demands to be met, and their share to be fair.

DMK and AIADMK represent Tamil’s Dravidian sentiment. TDP represented Telugu people’s identity, while TRS represents Telangana sentiment. Shiv Sena and MNS represent Marathas. BSP represents Dalits. SP represents lower castes and Muslims. So on.


Indian democracy will mature only when national parties start recognizing the aspirations of groups and regions in India. National parties have to balance nationalism with regionalism and create structures that allow for proper regional and group representation.

Only when these so-called national parties allow for recognizing regional and group identities would we see a reduction in regional parties. That may eventually lead to 2 or 3 parties in India. Till then, national parties have to work closely with regional parties if they have to form government. Regional parties and coalition politics are here to stay.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009


Many fanatic ideologies give us a grand picture of a perfect state, a utopia, which is based on a theory, a religion or a book. According to them, if one were to implement all the stipulated rules and laws laid out in that book, that religion or that theory, we would achieve a utopian state where everything would be perfect and everyone would be happy, all living in beautiful harmony.

According to many religious Muslims across the planet, there is a perfect state that was achieved during the time of Prophet (and for a brief time after him), where people were the happiest, because the rules and laws as laid out in Koran and associated religious books were implemented literally, without any deviations. And therefore, these religious Muslims continuously strive to create a perfect Islamic State, always trying to go back in time, trying to bring back those idyllic times where the world was devoid of modernity and all its associated evils. In that perfect Islamic State, everyone had honey and milk, all women were happy under perfect Koranic laws, and every non-Muslim was protected (as long as they remained subjugated and didn’t assert themselves).

These Muslims came very close to achieving one in the modern times – it’s called Afghanistan, under Taliban, where women were draped in burqas covering entire body except eyes, where robbers were amputated and adulterers were stoned to death in public hearings. Music and television were banned, and women were barred from all official institutions.

The proponents of Islamic State give lot of credit to Taliban for achieving peace in a land that was strife with war for many years. They believe this was achieved only through creation of an Islamic State. If ever it didn’t work out or didn’t last long, it was only because some corrupt and jealous elements had ensured that this perfect Islamic State did not survive, or that members of Taliban did not interpret the religious books properly. Had they interpreted the religious documents properly, had they implemented the rules more strictly, then definitely a utopia would have been achieved.

The fact that thousands were killed, many were deprived of basic human dignity and rights, and that most women were treated like animals usually gets ignored by these religious Muslims. It is seen as collateral damage on the path to recreate a perfect state.

Many religious Muslims around the world condone various excesses in the name of religion. The minute religion enters through the door reason is kicked out. Immigrant Muslim women living in the West, instead of fighting the evils and repressive laws meted out to fellow women living in Muslim world, actually support such laws by proudly wearing the burqa.

Many religious Muslims when cornered into explaining irrationality of their faith, or forced into embracing modernity in secular nations, or asked to live by modern laws, actually come out to support all repressive tenets of their interpreted religion, and this is done to defend their identity and preserve the Muslim way of life. Instead of reforming their own religion to come to terms with changing times, they try to restore the times of Prophet. They rely on resurrection instead of reformation.

Even Indian Muslims gladly embrace the repressive laws in the name of defending their religion against onslaught of (earlier) Western and (now) Hindu religions. During the ill-fated decisions of Shah Bano case, the government of India colluded with oppressive and male-dominated Muslim clergy men to deny an Indian woman her justice promised under Indian secular laws. Indian Muslims continue to believe that their identity is protected only through their personal laws interpreted from their religion.

Many Muslims around the world avow that a perfect state can be achieved if all the laws and principles enunciated in their religious books are strictly followed. They crave for such a state and believe that Shariat and other archaic laws will help them build one. Turkey, which tried to remain secular and modern for most part of the last century, is also succumbing now slowly to conservative tenets of Islam.

Pursuit of utopia is not unique to Muslims. Many other ideologies give a promise of such utopia. That perfect state was either far in the past or is far in the fictitious future, so that no living person can vouch for how it really was or check how it really would be. Most of these utopias include some sacred symbols – books, icons, idols, flags, etc, which remain unassailable, unchallenged and unquestioned. They make up grand stories, figures and statistics to show that the world was indeed perfect. They suppress debate and questioning when it comes to these symbols. People are asked to believe in them relying purely on faith – because ‘it is written so’, or ‘it is said so’. Complete obedience is must in these matters. People are measured by their adherence or allegiance to these sacred symbols. Atrocities are committed, rights are revoked, and people who are considered deviants, liberals or rationalists, are targeted by vigilantes or state police. In some extreme cases, state intervenes directly or indirectly to incarcerate or kill all the voices that doubt its authority.

There are many such promises of utopias.

Some fanatic Hindus, especially those who fight for a Hindu Rashtra, believe that a perfect state existed during the time of Ram, called Ram Rajya, where the world was perfect and everyone was happy. They strive to make India go back in time to those idyllic ancient empire, where the state is guided by Hinduism, where bride burning and ostracism of untouchables was a norm, where castes remained true to their profession, where Brahmins carried out learning and teaching, Kshatriyas ruled and protected, Vaishyas did the trade, Shudras did the manual labor while Untouchables carried human shit on their heads. In that perfect state, women wore saris, children respected their elders, and nobody drank alcohol. According to such Hindus their religion contains all the ideas, rules and principles to lead a harmonious and perfect life, not only for Hindus but for people of all religions. Their Sanatan Dharma accepts all religions within its fold as long as everyone is Hindu or as long as nobody interfered with Hindu way of life. That picture perfect state will bring harmony and exact balance of nature where everyone is slotted into their positions without conflict. If a conflict arose, the laws of Manu can be used to resolve issues– a lower caste person who insulted a high caste person can be punished by thrusting a red-hot iron nail ten-fingers long into his mouth, that’s all.

Fascism also looked into the past to borrow stories of a perfect state to promise a utopia in future. Nazi Germans called their state Third Reich, because there was First Reich and Second Reich in the past, considered great and glorious empires of Germany. Italian Fascists sought to recreate the Great Roman Empire.

Communists looked into the future based on certain books written by Marx and Engels. Out of those books came an autocratic and extremely repressive government suppressing all human rights and killing millions in the process. The followers of those theories believed they had to impose totalitarianism to achieve the grand promise of utopia where every man was equal in wealth and opportunity. For a while, it appeared as though such utopia was achieved after incarcerating and killing millions. But soon it became clear that it was an unstable equilibrium, a flimsy harmony that can dive to anarchy with small disturbance. When it became clear that it didn’t work out, the proponents of Communism claimed that the original theories were not implemented properly. Had they been implemented properly it would have really achieved utopia.

Most of these claimants to utopia, coming from various ideologies, look at past examples of which we have no memories. We are told that in order create that utopia we have to make immense sacrifices, like giving up basic human rights, our dignity and freedoms. Minority and underprivileged groups should make way for the majority and privileged groups. We will have to follow certain strict code, not question it or debate it. We will have to take some extreme actions, such as incarcerating and killing the detractors and opponents, targeting and suppressing people of a certain identity. Only then can we achieve a perfect state.

If history taught us something, it is that there is no room for perfectness because such a thing is impossible. If ever it appears for a moment for some groups, it comes with such a high price for others making it far more imperfect. All our attempts in our history to create that utopia have resulted in great miseries and sufferings to some or all people. However, the claimants to utopia refuse to concede this world cannot be perfect.

The realists, the rationalists and pragmatists accept that there is no such a thing called utopia. That it can never be achieved. That this world is an imperfect world to start with, and that the struggle of man is to make this imperfect world less imperfect. That it is more important to make this world a livable place for all, giving people their freedoms, their rights, their privileges, regardless of their identity, physical handicap, or any affiliation, than try to make a perfect state.

The modern nation, which has come out after struggling with various forms of governments, is definitely not a utopia. Far from it, it does not even give you a promise of utopia. The modern nation not does assert that it is a perfect form of government. It does not guarantee panacea to all problems of humanity.

In fact, the modern nation is a compromise. Constitutional democracy aided by parliamentary government based in universal adult franchise, that separates state from every dogma including religion, which allows for representation of group identities, but at the same time imposes laws that are common to all humans without any regard to their identity, allowing for an individual to aspire while achieving social justice, is actually a system of compromise that we have come to after eons of experimentation.

The strength of this system lies in its readiness to admit that it can make mistakes, willing to reform and correct itself that is constantly evolving and changing. It is an attempt to create a system that strives to guarantee freedoms and rights to all people allowing them to practice their faith, whatever it is, as long as it is personal.

There is no utopia. There is no perfect state. At best there is a compromise state where every individual is now considered equal and the government is formed of people, for the people, and by the people.