Tamil polity split helping Sinhala hardliners

N Sathiya Moorthy, 19 August 2017 

Some of the recent events and developments in the ruling four-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in the ethnically-sensitive Northern Province has raised more questions about Sri Lanka’s ‘national questions’ than provide any answers. If anything, they may have also provided greater confidence to ‘Sinhala hard-liners’ to think in terms of further delaying and prevaricating on an ‘acceptable’ political solution to the vexatious ethnic issue in the fond hope that the Tamil polity would get as rudderless and leaderless as in the pre-war era, sooner than later.

Unknown to the outside world and unacknowledged by the self, the Tamil polity is split in the middle, so to say – but only in terms of the leadership issue and concerns. The TNA’s venerable leader R Sampanthan and his three-year-find for the Alliance’s post-war Northern Province Chief Minister in retired Supreme Court Judge C V Wigneswaran are at logger-heads. They are reported to have stopped personal communication and conversation long ago, and this means that trouble-makers on either side can have a field-day sowing more seeds of mutual suspicion and doubts than already.

Turning 85 next February, Sampanthan also has a compromised heart, is still great game for politics, especially when it comes to leading the moderate Tamils with conviction and certain direction, so to say. In the given complexity of the majority Sinhala polity inside and outside national Parliament, he is also the ‘Leader of the Opposition’, as recognised by Speaker, Karu Jayasurya. At 78, Wigneswaran too is neither young, nor in the pink of health, so to say. But their rivalling political positions on the larger issues concerning the long-term problems and solutions has the potential to ‘orphan’ the larger Tamil community after their times.

If anything, Sampanthan heads the conventional brand of ‘Tamil moderates’ who want the long-pending aspirations of the community met within a united Sri Lanka. Wigneswaran is more focused on the aspirations part than on the methodology, meaning that he would not mind if it meant breaking up with the Sinhala majority and possibly the Sri Lankan State. In this, his ideology is closer to that of the LTTE but his methodology is that of the moderate Tamils, known better as ‘Tamil hard-liners’ in the post-LTTE era.

ITAK ‘cornered’?

At the head of the four-party TNA is the ‘Ilangai Tamil Arasu Katchi’ (ITAK), conveniently calling itself as ‘Federal Party’ (FP) in English, from the days of the founder, the late S J V Chelvanayagam, also known as ‘Tamil Gandhi’ or ‘Thanthai’ Selva, ‘father’ or ‘Bapu’ (?) by fellow-Tamils in the island-nation. Three other parties now in the TNA have little or no mass support and influence, and they all require the ITAK voter-base for them to get elected to various positions of power and pelf. The alternative would be for them to either stay away from electoral politics or contest against the ITAK, jointly or severally, and get marginalised and for good.

Over the past years, leaders of the EPRLF, PLOTE and EROS, all those that were forced out of their militant origins by the aggressive and arrogant LTTE in its time, have used the ITAK’s obsession with ‘Tamil unity’ and self-acclaimed leadership, to indulge in limited black-mail ahead of election time and register limited success in seat-sharing talks with the TNA’s dominant partner. If they did not and could not press harder and had to yield on all occasions, especially in the post-war era since 2009, it also owed to a credible leader acceptable to all three first, and possibly to the larger Tamil population.

There are also other peripheral Tamil parties like the All-Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) under Gajendra Kumar Ponnambalam, grand-son of Independence era Tamil leader, C G Ponnambalam and many NGOs, either close to the LTTE in ideology and methodology, and to the pro-LTTE Diaspora groups, since. The ACTC, or whatever remains of the original self, and the rest have proved no patch on the much-established and deep-rooted ITAK, whose ‘House’ symbol is what all other TNA partners too seek to win elections in the Tamil areas in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. If anything, despite Wigneswaran lending informal yet forceful leadership without quitting the TNA, the peripheral combine lost out badly in the parliamentary polls of 2015, contesting against official TNA candidates from all three partners.

More than anything else, the non-ITAK partners within the TNA seems more eager to corner the ITAK leadership than even the ‘rival’ Sinhala ‘majority’ and the Sri Lankan State, in terms of addressing an acceptable solution to Tamil aspirations. Chief Minister Wigneswaran too seems to be bend on such a course, and seems wanting to exploit his ‘hard-liner’ image vis a vis the Sinhala majority, to his possible greater advantage within the Tamil community and polity than the other way round.

Wigneswaran’s recent utterances that “the Tamils of the North and East occupied our island even before the birth of Buddha … Long before the Sinhalese language was born out of Pali, Tamil and indigenous dialects, the Tamil Dravidians have been occupying this land for centuries…” has been provocative, to say the least. It also has a veiled message for the larger Indian neighbour, which cannot but take notice and be concerned.

Considering the current approach of the ‘judicious’ Tamil Chief Minister of the North, any Sri Lankan Government and Sinhala ruling party leadership at the Centre would rather have the ongoing Constitution-making process deferred, if not completely derailed until after the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) polls, due by September 2018. There are also equal chances of the NPC polls being deferred at the instance of an unsure ruling coalition at the Centre, as a part of their larger scheme to have simultaneous elections to all nine Provincial Councils in the country, if only to stall the possible advancement of the self-styled Joint Opposition (JO), identified with former President, Mahinda Rajapaksa.

One-upmanship and more

The current troubles within the TNA includes Chief Minister Wigneswaran’s intent to sack all four provincial ministers, including two from the ITAK, in the name to clearing the administration of ‘corrupt politicians’ – after a probe ordered by him had found the other two to be. Both were supporters of the Chief Minister. Claiming from day one that he is a direct entrant to the TNA though not recognised as such by the Election Commission (EC), and not of the ITAK as presumed, Wigneswaran yielded ground for a while until he hit back at the latter in more recent days.

This has led to the voluntary resignation of Health Minister, Dr P Sathiyalingam, once promoted by the Sampanthan-Wigneswaran duo as a prospective chief minister candidate of the TNA. The ITAK legislators, numbering 16, have a majority among the 30 PC members in the 38-seat House, and have now refused to join the Government, creating a politico-constitutional crisis, the kind of which Wigneswaran had blamed on the Sinhala polity in Colombo, during the earlier round. At the time, which also included his demand for Minister Sathiyalingam and another to go on a month’s leave, ITAK members of the Provincial Council had submitted a no-trust motion against the Chief Minister to Governor Reginald Cooray, only to withdraw the same at the instance of Sampanthan and other TNA leaders.

At the height of the ethnic war, the Norway-facilitated cease-fire (CFA) period witnessed the Eastern wing of the LTTE, then under Vinayagamurthy Muralidharan alias ‘col’ Karuna, breaking away from the militant outfit, alleging bias by the entrenched northern leadership which they alleged was using them, and only them, as canon-fodder for the Government’s armed forces. The Tamil polity and society leaders refused to accept that the North-East Tamil unity was an artificial amalgam engineered by Chelvanayagam for his own political good after losing the first post-Independence national parliamentary polls in 1949, in native North, with the local politics dominated by the elite ‘Jaffna Vellalar community’. They also did not want to work on the plausible premise that given any medium to long term peace vis a vis the Sri Lankan State and the majority Sinhala polity, all artificial unity imposed either through emotional blackmail or threat to life, would wither away at first signs of possible peace viz the majority community.

The situation is no different now. With the war far behind in every Tamils mind, and the exit of then Government under President Rajapaksa, too, a distant thought, the Tamil community and polity in the war-ravaged North is now back to what they are good at – caste and leadership-centric faction-feuds, all in the name of ameliorating the lot of the hapless Tamil innocents in their hundreds of thousands. Unmentioned by the non-ITAK partners of the TNA just now is the continued ‘Jaffna Vellalar’ community domination of the Tamil political leadership, which the second-dominant fisher/Karayar community under LTTE’s Prabhakaran had subdued, when around.

Ironically, though, like the communists in India, who have customarily been led by elites, the non-ITAK group is now being led by the most elite of all Jaffna Vellalars in Justice Wigneswaran, otherwise an ordinary resident of the capital city of Colombo. The current game-plan is also to hoist upon the TNA, if not the ITAK, a new successor to Wigneswaran in Ananthi Sasitharan, a rabid rabble-rouser, who attained instant fame after leading Tamil women folks over their ‘missing men’, starting with her husband and LTTE leader Ezhilan, in the post-war era and obtaining the second highest 80,000 preferential votes among all TNA winners in the 2013 PC polls after chief ministerial candidate Wigneswaran with his highest 134,000 votes.

The TNA leadership initiated disciplinary action against Ananthi during the 2015 parliamentary polls for ‘anti-party activities’, yet that did not stop the Chief Minister from elevating her as minister, possibly without even consulting the leadership. Today, Wigneswaran has used the ongoing leadership tussle and one-upmanship within the TNA to hoist Ananthi, a favourite of pro-LTTE Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora groups, on the Tamil community as Minister recently, with the hopes of helping her succeed him as Chief Minister, whenever he decides to bow out of office. Certainly, it was/is not as he wished to quit office at the end of his first year in office, which was in October 2014 – but stopped talking about it long ago.

Tamil polity split helping Sinhala hardliners

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