Thursday, June 04, 2009

Sri Lanka: Ten Myths by Satya Sagar

Over the years and decades dozens of myths have been floated about this island nation's history, politics and conflict.

Many of these myths were created by colonial administrators and ‘scholars' in the period when the British ruled the island. Many more were created by the chauvinist Sinhala elite- of different shades- who have run Sri Lanka for the past sixty years. Some others were born in the fertile minds of the armchair warriors who sit in New Delhi and a few created by the various champions of the Sri Lankan Tamils themselves.

Given below is a list of the top ten myths (in my opinion) about contemporary Sri Lanka , the dispelling of each of which is indispensable to finding a lasting solution to the seemingly perpetual tragedy of its diverse population.

Myth One: The Sri Lankan government is/was at war with the LTTE: This has been the single biggest myth about the Sri Lankan conflict in our time and used as an excuse by many outside to keep quiet about what has been happening all these years in this island country. The LTTE is/was after all a ‘terrorist' organisation banned by the international community and so what as wrong if the Sri Lankan government went to war against them?

The simple truth is that the Sri Lankan conflict is much older than the LTTE itself, which emerged as a force only in the early eighties. The systematic conversion of Sri Lankan Tamils into second-class citizens in their own country or state-sponsored violence against them however dates back to the time of Sri Lankan independence in the late-forties itself.

The recent offensive in the north of Sri Lanka was just a new and more brutal phase of the war that Sri Lankan Sinhala elite have been waging for a long time against Sri Lankan Tamils and indeed all the minorities in the country.

In their quest for power there has been no human norm left unviolated by the Sri Lankan elite, which has managed to murder over 20,000 or more of the country's Tamil citizens in its final assault on the LTTE in May this year. If the LTTE has used terrorist methods to further its cause there is no doubt that the Sri Lankan government has used genocidal methods to put them down.

Myth Two: The Mahinda Rajapakse government has ‘won' the ‘civil war' and successfully prevented the division of Sri Lanka : There is of course nothing ‘civil' about any war but this term implies that the conflict in Sri Lanka is between two groups that belong to the same nation. Maybe this was true upon a time long ago but is certainly not the case any longer.

How many countries around the world do you have governments bombing their own citizens using air power, mobilising tanks, heavy artillery, thousands of ground forces, sophisticated military equipment supplied by foreign governments?

How many governments herd all citizens of a linguistic minority into concentration camps to be treated as terrorists simply because of their identity?

And after doing all this what right do they have to call themselves ‘one nation'?

What we are today witnessing in Sri Lanka is indeed a war between two separate nations. Whether the regime in Colombo realizes this or not by their own actions over the years they have made Tamil Eelam a reality today. The defeat of the LTTE is not the defeat of the Tamil people of Sri Lanka . Nor is it the end of their quest for dignity, against racist discrimination and the right to self-determination.

There comes a point in every relationship when divorce becomes inevitable and the only alternative to separation is gross murder. That time has arrived in Sri Lanka today. The future of the Tamil people should be urgently decided by a internationally monitored referendum on whether or not they want to be part of a united Sri Lanka .

Myth Three: The creation of a Tamil Eelam will damage the interests of the rest of Sri Lanka : In fact the opposite is likely to happen if Sri Lanka 's Tamils are given the right to self-determination and form their own country. Either they will fail miserably and clamour to become part of a future Sri Lankan federation on their own accord or succeed brilliantly and create a prosperous neighbourhood that benefits everyone. If a group of Tamil guerillas could make fighter aircraft while hiding in the forests of Vanni imagine what they can achieve in peacetime.

At the same time the proponents of Tamil Eelam will also have to remember that independence does not mean all their problems will be solved automatically. They will have to deal with the divisions of caste, religion, class within the Tamil population and also demonstrate to the world that they treat all minorities in their midst as equal citizens unlike the Sri Lankan state they have opposed so bitterly all these years.

Also any Tamil Eelam will geographically forever remain on the same island- after all Eelam can't be physically carried away to Australia or Canada . In the long run the Tamil and Sinhala people, along with every other community on the island of what is currently called ‘Sri Lanka' today will have to come to terms with each other and live in harmony - as perpetual war can only mean collective suicide.

Myth Four: The Sri Lankan Tamils will gang up with Indian Tamils and create a ‘Greater Tamil' nation: For all the light and sound produced in the Indian province of Tamil Nadu about the fate of their ‘Tamil brothers and sisters' in Sri Lanka the fact remains – beyond the usual rhetoric- they have not really done much for them. Over the past twenty years there are thousands of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees languishing in Tamil Nadu without proper shelters, livelihood, education for their children or even safety from arbitrary arrest by local police. The Indian government has repeatedly turned down calls to sign international treaties on rights of refugees and the politicians of Tamil Nadu – busy bargaining for their place in the Indian cabinet- don't care a damn.

Similarly, soon after independence from British rule when the then Sri Lankan government, in one of its first vile acts, disenfranchised over a million Indian Tamils working in the country's tea plantations there was not a murmur of protest from the then leaders of the Sri Lanka 's Tamils. They were ‘Indian Tamils' after all and that too poor workers to boot.

The point I am trying to make is that Sri Lankan and Indian Tamils have different histories, outlooks and priorities and cannot be simplistically conflated into one phrase ‘Tamil people'. The fact is that the problem of the Sri Lankan Tamils is not a ‘Tamil' issue at all- it is a problem common to many linguistic, ethnic, religious and other minorities around the world. While indeed the people who are suffering today in Sri Lanka are the Tamil speaking population of that country their primary identity is that of an oppressed people fighting for their rightful place under the sun and not as Tamil speakers alone.

In that sense what is being murdered in Sri Lanka is not just the Tamil population but the very concept of humanity itself, an issue that should agitate the entire world. To make my stand clear I would say that if the Sinhala people had been a minority in Sri Lanka and the Tamils had been the racist oppressors I would have appealed to the world to fight for the rights of the Sinhalese.

Myth Five: Sri Lanka has a special place in world Buddhism and its territorial integrity needs to be protected by the Sinhala people: From whatever little I know, the Buddha became what he did only by giving up his entire kingdom in the search for truth and the salvation of humankind. In the process he in fact conquered the entire world. What the current day proponents of religious nationalism in Sri Lanka are promoting is a crude kind of ‘landlordism' and certainly not ‘Buddhism', which has nothing to do with ownership of property.

The idea of the Sinhala elite being champions of Buddhism – a religion of compassion, peace and tolerance - is also simply laughable given their historical record of taking so many lives. Ultimately you are a Buddhist only by what you do in practice and not by wearing saffron robes, chanting a few mantras in Pali or Sanskrit or building large and expensive monuments to the Buddha.

Two thousand years ago the great Emperor Ashoka became a Buddhist when he repented for the massacres he committed in the war on the Kingdom of Kalinga . Today the Sinahala chauvinists, many of whom claim their ancestry back to the very same Kalinga, are exiting from Buddhism through the genocide they have committed against the Tamil people. These champions of Buddhism have no doubt become its greatest destroyers.

Myth Six: Sri Lanka is a sovereign country and outsiders should not interfere: Sri Lanka used to be a sovereign country once upon a time when they were not at war with their own people. The fact is that whenever the Sri Lankan regimes have been in deep trouble they have always violated their own sovereignty to seek help from other countries to help prop up their rule.

In 1971 the Sirimavo Bandaranaike government sought and obtained the help of the Indian navy together with the Pakistani air force to put down the JVP rebellion- mainly consisting of Sinhala youth fighting for revolutionary change in their country. Today in their war against the Tamils the Sri Lankan regime is supported by the governments of India , Pakistan , China , Russia and Israel while the entire Lankan economy depends on regular infusions of aid and cash from the IMF, World Bank, Japan or the European Union. It is also worth mentioning that the conflict on this island over the decades has sent thousands of Tamil citizens fleeing the country into exile all over the globe. So for all the touchiness of its leaders against ‘foreign interference' what is happening in Sri Lanka is really an international conflict and the people of the world have as much right to interfere there as their governments.

Myth Seven: A majority of the Sinhalese people are racists and chauvinists: Sinhala chauvinism was inevitable in a country where the Sinhala population is in a majority and every politician has to stoke nationalist, ethnic or religious passions to win his/her election. So whether you were a practicing Buddhist or not or knew even how to speak Sinhala properly or really loved your motherland you had to be a ‘Sinhala Buddhist nationalist' in order to succeed in politics.

There is no real history of Sinhala-Tamil conflict before the formation of the Sri Lankan ‘nation' artificially carved out of their ‘Raj' by the hastily departing British colonialists in 1948. For most ordinary Sinhalese, like ordinary folk everywhere, the main concern is livelihood or love and the quest for a better life denied to them by their own elites.

But so venal have been the feudal Sri Lankan families that inherited power from the British that they chose to divide and destroy their motherland rather than give up power- political, economic or social- to the ordinary men and women of their land.

If one looks at the results of the 2005 presidential election in Sri Lanka the hawkish Mahinda Rajapakse won only by a slender margin of 50.29% of the overall votes against 48.43% for former Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe, who had signed a peace deal with the LTTE in 2002. Since the Tamil population largely boycotted the election what this clearly shows that close to half the Sinhala voters preferred peace over war when they voted for Ranil.

Today most of these Sinhala people are also being held hostage by the fascist Rajapakse regime, which has turned Sri Lankan nationalism into a family-run dictatorship guarded by guns purchased with the people's own hard earned money. The fact that there are still enough Sri Lankan journalists and human rights activists willing to die to preserve democracy in their country is evidence that human decency is still not dead everywhere on this troubled island. The entire world should come to the support of these brave people fighting one of the most murderous regimes in recent history.

Myth Nine - The Indian government, once supportive of the Sri Lankan Tamils, has turned against them: The truth is that the Indian government does not really care for either the Sri Lankan Tamils or the Sinhalese for that matter. Like in most countries of South Asia successive Indian regimes too have only been bothered about preserving the power of the corporate or feudal elites and care little for their ordinary citizens.

New Delhi in that sense is not the capital of India but the seat of the Indian Empire inherited from the Mughals and the British by the ‘Brown Sahibs' of today. And among the nefarious things these Johnnies have been up to all these years is bullying neighbouring governments and playing games with the lives of their people - especially those that don't ‘stand up and obey'.

So the Indian regimes in the past supported the Tamil struggle, including through military assistance and training, when they wanted to put the then Sri Lankan government in ‘its place'. Later on when their priorities changed – for various reasons chief among which was the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi- they dumped the Tamils and started cultivating the Sinhala elite.

The lip sympathy for Tamils across the Palk Straits that still emanates now and then from New Delhi is solely because of the compulsions of electoral politics in Tamil Nadu- where politicians routinely play political football with the hopes and aspirations of the Sri Lankan Tamils. Once elections are over it is back to the usual indifference to the fate of thousands of people being pulverised by the genocidal Sri Lankan state.

Myth Ten – Governments around the world do not care what happens to the Sri Lankan Tamils: Many of them actually they care so much that they will not do anything to help the Tamils form their own nation. For many governments – from India to Israel and China to Russia- Tamil Eelam becoming a reality would set a ‘bad example' to their own restive minorities. Hence their all out support to the ruthless Sri Lankan government, who they believe is showing them ‘the way' how to deal with dissent of all kinds within their borders.

Western nations, that themselves have the blood of innocent civilians on their hands in Iraq , Afghanistan and elsewhere, also care- but only about their own global image. Making noise about upholding human rights after the genocide has been carried out allows to them to appear to be ‘civilised' without having to take any meaningful action.

After all it was quite clear that a colossal human tragedy was in the offing for the past three months. If the UK , EU and the US had put their combined might together to warn the Rajapakse government properly the Sri Lankan lion- for all its bravado- would have squeaked like a trapped mouse.

The fact is that the Sri Lankan Tamils today can expect genuine support for their cause only from other people around the world facing similar racist discrimination or fighting for autonomy and self-determination. That is not such a bad thing, as looking across the globe such people probably constitute well over half the planet's population.

There are the Palestinians, the Tibetans, the Burmese, the Kashmiris and people of the Indian North-East, the Baluchis, the Pashtuns, the Chechens, the Basques, the Puerto Ricans, the Scots—and lots more. If Sri Lanka 's Tamils can join hands with all these struggles for dignity and equality it would be a good start indeed to make a fresh bid for Tamil Eelam!

Source : Counter currents website

Satya Sagar is a journalist, writer, video maker based in New Delhi . He can be contacted at

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Binayak Sen, India and Justice!!

“How many does it take to metamorphose wickedness into righteousness?

“One man must not kill. If he does it is murder. Two, ten, one hundred men, acting on their own responsibility, must not kill. If they do, it is still murder. But a state or nation may kill as many as they please, and it is no murder. It is just, necessary, commendable and right. Only get people enough to agree to it, and the butchery of myriads of human beings is perfectly innocent.

“But how many does it take? This is the question. Just so with theft, robbery, burglary, and all other crimes. Man-stealing is a great crime in one man, or a very few men only. But a whole nation can commit it, and the act becomes not only innocent, but highly honorable…

“Verily there is magic in numbers! The sovereign multitude can out-legislate the Almighty, at least in their own conceit. But how many does it take? Just enough to make a nation.…Alexander the Great demanded of a pirate, by what right he infested the seas. By the same right, retorted the pirate, that Alexander ravages the world. How far was he from the truth?”

- Adin Ballou, American social reformer and abolitionist (1803-90)

A famous story links two great Americans. When the United States invaded Mexico in 1846, the great naturalist Henry Thoreau, in an act of civil disobedience, refused to pay his taxes as a mark of protest against US actions and was sent to prison for his sin against the state. His close friend and mentor from Harvard, Ralph Waldo Emerson came to see him in jail. Emerson quipped “what are you doing inside?” Thoreau's reply made Emerson blush. “What are you doing outside ?”, he replied.

There are times when jails become one of the few places of honour left in the world. Where, after all, would you like to find yourself if robbers and murderers were masquerading before the public as magistrates, judges and hangmen?

India today finds itself crouched in one such corner of shame, wherein those with permeable skin feel out of place before the television sets in their own living rooms. The air is thick with suspicion and accusation as the odour of staggering injustices hangs about us everywhere one goes.

While well-known serial killers gamely garner tickets from national parties for the parliamentary elections and mass-murderers sagely deliver their homilies from our television screens, women and men of integrity and courage must lurk and slide in the dark alleys of our cities or in the forlorn jungles of the land. It is a state of affairs which would have appalled and nauseated decent citizens a generation ago, let alone the heroes and heroines of our freedom movement. The sad truth is that as a civilisation India 's standing in the world has suffered a precipitous fall during the last several years, even as our elated elite's vainglorious aspirations to super-power-hood never miss a morning to announce themselves. Are they out of step, or the rest of us? Time will tell, though it is as much up to us to determine which way the die of destiny will roll.

If Adin Ballou is right, and the multitude is indeed sovereign (“un punishable”, in the words of Edmund Burke), the question for us in India today becomes as to which multitude is the more important one, the one which is suffering the lies and crimes of our leaders, or the numerically far lesser one which prospers on their patronage. It is for us, the citizenry of this beleaguered country, to ensure that we find the courage to determine the morally correct order of importance. Or else, posterity will curse us.

The case of Dr. Binayak Sen

After six decades of freedom from colonial rule, India is still a largely poor country. One of the most severe forms of deprivation suffered by the poor is with respect to health, particularly so in a time when the cost of drugs, tests and health care has shot up so dramatically, thanks to the “liberalization” and privatization of the health sector. In such a context, it is worth asking how many Indian paediatricians one can name who have given 30 years of their lives as a volunteer – in unstinting service to the needy poor in the countryside. At a guess, the actual number is in three figures, or perhaps even in two digits. But the name of Dr. Binayak Sen surely figures prominently among them.

Are we just going to sit and watch?

A universe of human struggle for dignity stands between rule by men and the rule of law. Some of the more glorious chapters in the history of the world since the American and the French revolutions occupy this universe.

Today in India we live – de facto – under the rule of men, rather than under the rule of law. As the moral decline of the Indian justice system keeps pace with the decay of the polity (there are over 25 million pending cases in our courts), are we going to keep sipping beer and munching chips while watching the IPL on Television every night? How long before the government admits that – election or no election – it can never assure the security of sportsmen and women again, the state Pakistan has already reached?

22 Nobel Laureates – including 9 in medicine, 9 in Chemistry, 2 in Physics and 2 in Economics – signed a petition a year ago asking for the unconditional release of Binayak Sen. They expressed “grave concern” that Dr. Sen has been held in prison for the peaceful exercise of fundamental human rights. They point out that this is in contravention of Articles 19 (freedom of opinion and expression) and 22 (freedom of association) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which India is a signatory. They also point out that Dr.Sen is charged under two internal security laws that do not conform to international human rights standards.

There was not a single Indian name in that list . Does that say something about us?

Our outrage at the perpetrators of injustice needs to be louder and more relentless. We need to subject state functionaries to the same standards that they reserve for us citizens. Our judgment of truth and falsehood, right and wrong have suffered enormous reverses since the days of globalization and 24/7 entertainment began. If you think I am exaggerating consider taking a little quiz.

What is common to the following group of people? Socrates, Nelson Mandela, Kenneth Kaunda, Kwame Nkrumah, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Jayaprakash Narayan, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Binayak Sen

Irom Sharmila, Martin Luther King Jr., Henry Thoreau, Bertrand Russell, Rosa Luxemburg, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov, Leon Trotsky, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Alexander Pushkin.

Write your answer down.

Now consider a second group of people and try to see what they have in common: Mullah Omar, Osama Bin Laden, Jagdish Tytler, Sajjan Kumar

H.K.L Bhagat, Narendra Modi, Jyoti Basu, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjea, Bal Thackeray, George Bush, Tony Blair, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, John Howard, Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Ferdinand Marcos

Idi Amin, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi.

Write your answer.

Now you can compare your answers with the right one. The first group of people all belong to a set who went to prison for speaking up against the injustices of their respective governments. The second group of people are mass-murderers who have been so fortunate as to never have to stand trial for their crimes. It is time to find our moral balance.

To read the rest of the article click here.
Aseem Srivastava could be contacted at


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