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Inclusion is effective nationalism

[TamilNet, Saturday, 11 July 2009 12:57 No Comment]

Ethnic identity is not genetic but of social origin caused by political action, argues Dr. A.R.M. Imtiyaz of Temple University, USA, explaining what made the Tamil speaking Muslims in the island of Sri Lanka opting for a separate identity seeking power. In a recent article ‘The Eastern Muslims of Sri Lanka: special problems and solutions,’ published in the Journal of Asian and African Studies, Dr. Imtiyaz emphasizes that the divide, a reality of today caused politically, has to be addressed by appropriate political models for the mutual benefit of Tamils and Muslims in their homeland. The academic, hailing from Colombo, rejects feasibility of power-sharing units for Muslims in such an inter-dependent landscape, but suggests consociationalism, i.e., proportional allocation of power.

Reflecting on his article, the TamilNet political commentator in Colombo said that it is high time the Eezham Tamil nationalism re-iterates in no uncertain terms its inclusiveness, secularism, liberal democracy, cultural pluralism as well as what political accommodations and devolution it can make to the Muslims and Sinhalese in the North and East.

“Tamils defining their nationalism and polity in a healthier way and the demonstration of that in words as well as in deeds are of utmost importance to challenge the Sri Lankan state that has decisively proved its exclusivity,” the commentator said.

“The Vaddukkoaddai Resolution has already incorporated elements of such an outlook for Eezham Tamil nationalism. Along with re-affirming it or as a follow-up, the Tamils have to consider mandating an outline of their nationalism and polity. Muslims sharing a common language with Tamils and the Sinhalese assured of equal rights to their language and culture should be able to feel a better future in the secular and pluralistic Eezham,” the commentator further said.

Excerpts from the article of Dr. A.R.M. Imtiyaz:

Muslims, Sri Lanka’s second-largest minority after ethnic Tamils, share close linguistic and cultural ties with Tamils and speak Tamil; however, they prefer to be recognized by their religious and cultural identity. […]

In Sri Lanka, Muslim elites’ willingness to build ‘distinct’ identity from the Tamils and the Tamil violence persuaded the North and East Muslims to be identified as separate ethnic group based on the Islamic faith which has played a significant role in shaping their ideas, values and lifestyle, and eventually led to the emergence of Muslim religo-nationalism in a corner of the Eastern province. […]

Tamil violence against the Eastern Muslims raises the key question: Why did the Tamils target the Muslims? The majority of Sri Lanka Muslim scholars do not present any logical answer to the question. The truth is that Muslim elites since independence regularly cooperated with the ruling Sinhala political elites regardless of who occupied the powers in Colombo to consolidate their commercial interests. […]

Another issue concerning the stability of the region is the permanent merger of the North East province. Tamils consider the recently de-linked North and East provinces as the traditional homeland of the Tamils (Wilson, 2000), and they would reject any solution beyond the permanent fixture of the provinces (Vigneswaran, 2007). Eastern Muslims, however, express reservation about the permanent merger of the provinces.

A permanent merger would marginalize the Muslims and lose the unique identity of the Muslims.

The majority of the Eastern Muslims think that Muslims would further lose their lands and political mobility, and Muslims would be placed at the receiving end of the Tamil domination if the merger is done.

Eastern Muslims believe that Muslims for their part have similar concerns of living in a ‘unitary’ North and East under the Tamil–Hindu chauvinism, given their own history of harassment and oppression at the hands of the Tamil Tigers. Thus, they demand permanent de- merger of the province for their better future.

Such fears can be managed or minimized if there were some institutional safeguards in the form of power-sharing. […]

The key question is that could an arrangement of devolution of powers accept able to the Muslims of the Eastern province be arrived at in the present political context? Muslims in the region think that the establishment of a political unit for the Eastern Muslims could be arrived at in the present political context. Though Muslims sharply differ about the form of devolution model, they think such a politico-administrative unit is possible in the Eastern corner.

There are many options, which are being put forward. One is an exclusive power-sharing arrangement, which can take care of the Muslim majority areas of the region with the legislature and the executive political arena proportionate to their demographic presence in that area, in other words, a kind of Muslim unit that would ensure administration and security of the Muslims in the region. Second, there is the need for some means of equitable sharing of resources between the Muslims and the other communities with regard to issues like economic development, land, financial resources, credit and educational opportunities. This is one type of approach, which is essentially an arrangement for the Muslims to participate meaningfully in a devolved administration (Imtiyaz, 2004). Degrees of autonomy can be discussed, but Muslims think they should be given an opportunity to have a greater say in how they are governed in the areas where they live.

Then, another question that arises is how would the resources currently shared between the Tamils and Muslims of the Eastern province, for instance water, roads and other public infrastructure including government administration, be affected by the proposed scheme of devolution in the form of a Muslim unit?

Though Muslim spokespersons succeeded in articulating the rationale for the separate power-sharing, it seems many of them are not very knowledgeable about the practical difficulties of such a power-sharing mechanism in the region. The Eastern province, homeland of both Tamils and Muslims, is demographically adjacent with Tamil and Muslim villages. The analogy of ‘pittu and coconut’ the traditional Tamil delicacy explains how adjacent the Tamil and Muslim villages are and how deeply linked their economic and social relations and affairs are in Eastern Sri Lanka.

The purpose of the establishment of a power-sharing unit is to give opportunities to the local people to decide how they should be governed in the areas where they live. Such opportunities need market, adequate resources, and effective control for delivery. As Lijphart (1977) notes, socio-political conditions are crucial for successful consociationalism.

It is true that Muslims in the region are economically rather well off. However, what is also true is that they do not have an exclusive market to decide their own destiny. Farmers from Sammanthurai or Sainthamaruthu from the Amparai district or Eravur or Kattankudy from Batticaloa willingly or unwillingly need to cooperate with the Tamils in the region for their prosperity. It is, thus, practically impossible for the Eastern Muslims to freeze the economic cooperation with their Tamil counterparts.

It is very likely that Tamils would hold back their economic dealings with the Muslims if the Tamil unit controlled by the Tamil nationalists chooses hostility against the interests of the Muslim unit. Practically, greater Tamil areas containing the North and East can survive without the active support of Muslims of the East. The Tamil Tigers already proved such a politico-economic infrastructure is possible in the chunk of North and East. And, in future a greater Tamil power-sharing unit composing Tamil pockets in the East could further strengthen the mobility of the Tamil market. However, Muslims in the region would likely confront greater challenges if the Tamil unit declines to build a healthy economic cooperation with the Muslims who become part of the Muslim unit. Such a scenario would be disastrous both for the Muslims and the Muslim unit. Thus, it remains unclear how the future Muslim power- sharing unit would create a market for the Muslims in the region on its own to meet the pressing challenges of the greater Tamil unit.

Besides the controversy of the market, uncertainties are prevailing in the areas of water, roads and other public infrastructure including government administration. As a matter of fact, regional institutions such as Muslim schools, local libraries and administrative bodies that come under the control of the Muslim unit may function well because they do not necessarily require exclusive Tamil cooperation. However, a crisis is likely when the Muslim unit begins businesses with public resources, particularly public water and roads as well as government infrastructure.

In July 2006, the Tamil Tigers cut off the water supply to over 30,000 acres of paddy lands in Sinhalese-dominated Seruwila, a key village of Trincomalee, threatening the livelihoods of a large farmer community. The situation has assumed grave proportions since the local population are largely dependent on this supply for drinking (Mallawarachi, 2006). A Muslim unit may face such a fate since the areas of the Muslim unit do not possess independent natural resources under the control of Muslims of the region.

Instability concerning sharing resources, however, can be minimized if there is a political cooperation possible both at the elite and masses level among the Tamil and Muslim community. According to Lijphart (1977), power-sharing is prosperous when the cooperation dominates both at the masses and elites level, particularly the latter level. However, it is not very clear that implementation of power-sharing divisions in the Eastern province would promote ethnic cooperation or ethnic disaster in the impulsive Eastern region. If cooperation dominates, difficulties related to public infrastructure and resources can be fixed in an amicable manner. […]

Sinhalese leaders formulated some anti- Tamil policies to attract the sympathy of the Sinhalese. The result was violent Tamil mobilization. On the other hand, Tamil polity controlled by the violent Tamil movements denied justice to the Muslims. Thousands of Muslims were expelled forcefully from Jaffna in October 1990; 300 Eastern Muslims were killed at prayer time inside their mosque in 1991 and Muslim wealth confiscated in the Jaffna, Baticolaoa and Amparai districts of the North- Eastern Province. But a conflict resolution process supported by the global community does not give due space to the Muslim representation.

Muslim elites and intellectuals might have constructed Muslim identity, but such constructions could have made less impact if the Muslims had been treated humanely by the Tamil polity. Therefore, un-making or re-constructing the Muslim identity may not help build peace between the Tamils and Muslims as long as Muslims patch the differences and problems with the Tamils.

On the other hand, the Muslim democratic representations need to play ‘genuine and responsible’ political roles in the national affairs concerning Tamil and Muslim relations. In this regard, Muslim political forces should seek policies both to calm the fears of Eastern Muslims concerning the Tamils and to develop cooperation with the Tamils at the elite level to seek a political solution. Also, Muslim politicians need to understand the consequences of employing symbolic religious slogans to win the votes of the Muslims who value religious identity over other traits. It is very likely too much dependency on religion to just win elections could transform the society into the stage where commitments to non-violence can be discouraged. It may be hard for political parties to freeze some easy access to power, because they formulate policies, in Downs’s (1957: 28) language, ‘to win elections’. But bad choices of Muslim politicians more likely would trigger instability and chaos in the East among the Muslims and Tamils at the masses level. Also, as suggested by the ICG (2007), a democratic Muslim political establishment needs to monitor the activities and behaviors of the Muslim armed groups in the East.

The Eastern Muslims already have spilled enough blood. So, the special problems of the Eastern Muslims require political solutions as the Tamil grievances deserve. Maybe help from the international community to pressure the actors in the peace process could raise the trust of the embattled Muslims.The global community needs to ‘make a greater commitment in any peace process, including a separate delegation at peace negotiations’ (ICG, 2007: 5).

Then again, it is the responsibility of the Sri Lanka government to search for a solution beyond the current unitary political system. Such a solution can be found based on consociationalism, which proportionally allocates political power among the communities – whether religious or ethnic – according to the percentage of their population.

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