Sri Lanka: Nationalisms at war

India cannot take an interventionist position with its southern neighbour, yet the outcome of the political negotiations there have a serious repercussion for itMohan Guruswamy ColomboNationalism is a double-edged sword. It is a benign yet potent force when it is expressed as a sense of belonging to a community of people defined by a territory and the history that goes with it. But when it is expressed as a sense of community of a shared ethnicity, religion or imagined history it often becomes corrosive and divisive. Unfortunately nationalism is increasingly defined in terms of the latter and recent instances abound. India has largely succeeded in forging nationalism on the basis of geography and a shared perception of history. A taste of what to expect came when the Lal Bahadur Shastri government tried to make Hindi the single official language of India. Nationalism cannot succeed if it is an imposition of the majority. Or even a minority, for can there ever be an Iraqi nationalism where only the Sunni Muslim matters?  On the other hand, even as potent a force as Islam cannot guarantee a sense of oneness. In Pakistan the Muslim political identity is now under severe strain from the challenges posed by asserting ethnic identities. The call of the muezzin is heard just as well by the Baloch but that is not apparently enough to keep them satisfied with being Pakistani. What is happening in Sri Lanka today has its roots in what happened in India over thousands of years. The fusion of invading Aryans into Indo-Aryans, the recession of Dravidians deep into the lower parts of the peninsula and the emergence of Buddhism against the rigid autocracy of the Hindu caste system have mutated into the deep divide between the island's Sinhala majority and Tamilian minority. This is a complicated situation emerging out of a rich and complex history with ebbs and tides that are seen as highpoints and low points depending on who you are. Just like the Pakistanis christen their North Korean missile "Ghauri" to honor the marauding Afghan, Mohammed of Ghori, whose depredations were mostly in what is Pakistan today, yet who is seen as the foremost exponent of Islam's conquering sword arm instead of the looter and pillager as most Indians now see him. In Sri Lanka too one man's hero is another's villain. Such infatuation with long past events is unhealthy to feelings of community so essential for transition into the modern age.These differences are further accentuated by perceptions of how one group fared to the disadvantage of the other during the colonial period. As KM De Silva the author of the masterly A History of Sri Lanka puts it: "Most Sinhalese believe that the Tamil minority has enjoyed a privileged position under British rule and the balance has of necessity to shift in favor of the Sinhalese majority. The Sri Lanka Tamil minority is an achievement oriented, industrious group who still continue to enjoy a high status in society, considerable influence in the economy, a significant if diminishing role in the bureaucracy and is well placed in all levels of the education system. The Tamils on their part would claim that they are now a harassed minority, the victims of frequent acts of communal violence and calculated acts and policies of discrimination directed at them." It would seem that an irresistible force vies with an immovable object. With such strong emotions behind them the clashing forces have soaked the rich soil with the blood of thousands of believers and many more thousand innocents. Both sides are a bit punch drunk and staggered, but the spirit is still willing. The current ceasefire is not because there is a realisation that the strife has to end with a compromise, with much give and take. It is in place because both have lost and the world is getting increasingly fed up with their ways.The conflict in Sri Lanka is between two competing nationalisms whose antagonisms have intensified by selective and often fanciful interpretations of long past events. Today an internationally brokered ceasefire ensures a kind of peace between two armies dug in behind age-old prejudices and grievances at a time when the winds of globalisation offer a great window of opportunity for Sri Lanka to break out of the confines of low income and low growth. It has endured for three years and the two sides are now meeting in Geneva to seek ways of finding an enduring solution and a lasting peace. Three years ago Sri Lanka was engulfed by enthusiasm, as it seemed to many that the peace talks in the Thai resort town of Satahip will lead to a political agreement. That was not the case as it was forced on the parties for their own strategic considerations. However the violations have intensified since the coming of power of Mahinda Rajapakse, who rode to power on the wings of a resurgent Sinhala nationalism and the realpolitik assessment of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that led to the boycott of the elections at a severe cost to the aspirations of the more moderate Ranil Wickramasinge. It would have seemed that the LTTE wanted the hardliner Rajapakse to win so as to force the Sri Lankan government to break the peace. Prabakaran is now recharged for another round of war. In the last three months alone the Sri Lankan army has lost almost 90 soldiers to LTTE attacks. So will the talks in Geneva lead to any lasting good? Or are we seeing the motions being gone through before the inherent inflexibilities of both sides lead to the inevitable rupture? These last three years would have convinced the Tamils that a small enclave they hold is not big enough to meet all their aspirations. Now the question for India to answer is whether it can live with an independent Tamil nation in the backyard? Maybe it can. It is widely believed in Sri Lanka that for the peace, such as it is, to endure the party who can do most to ensure it is India. Because India not only looms large in geographical terms but also in political terms considering the fact that the Tamil cause in Sri Lanka has strong bonds with Dravidian politics in Tamil Nadu. When Rajiv Gandhi intervened in Sri Lanka in the late eighties it was as much due to the pressures exerted by an increasingly restive population in Tamil Nadu who were not taking too kindly to the news that their Tamil brethren were being slaughtered in Sri Lanka. India then as it is even now is cognisant of the fact that Tamil Nadu had a full-blown secessionist movement till 1962 when the DMK abandoned its line and took to espousing Tamil nationalism circumscribed by the demands of living within the Union of India. But the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and the sudden but forced departure of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) have made things extremely difficult for India to play any role in Sri Lanka. It cannot be a part of the internationally sponsored negotiations as it cannot afford to be seen sitting on the same table as the LTTE which has its hands stained with Rajiv Gandhi's blood. On the other hand it cannot afford to forget the ingratitude of the Sinhala nationalists who even colluded with the hated LTTE to discomfit the IPKF. Not surprisingly the dominant mood in India still is pox on both your houses. But no sensible government can afford to say that quite so starkly as that, but the leaders in New Delhi cannot afford to buck the sentiment either. As it is the Congress Party has endured taunts over its political alliance with the DMK, a party that it accused of having colluded with the LTTE to kill Rajiv Gandhi. It's true that the realities of politics make for strange bedfellows, but there is a limit beyond which the strangeness cannot go.But if the fighting resumes in Sri Lanka, the dynamics will change for India. If the Tamils can hold out, and there is good reason to believe that they can, India will watch and wait it out. If the Sri Lankan government gets overt foreign assistance from powers not to India's liking, and that includes most nations who could conceivably get involved, India will use all means possible to make it desist. It is unlikely that will happen, as it is just as unlikely that the Tamil nationalists will be able to make military gains of the order that will force the Sri Lanka government to seek direct outside assistance.On the other hand it is just as unlikely that the Sri Lanka army will be able to mount any sustained and successful campaign against the entrenched Tamils in the north. The Tamils will try to regain control of Jaffna and if they can do that and then hold out till another ceasefire we might be looking at a permanent solution to the Sri Lanka imbroglio. As it happened in Cyprus. There Turkish intervention engineered a permanent division. But the Tamils have burnt their boats with India for that to happen as things stand the way they do politically in India. A regime change becomes an essential precondition for any change in India's perception. That is indeed a tall order. The auther is chairman, Centre for Policy Alternatives, New Delhi