Sri Lanka Conflict: Is the Tamil homeland cry the real barrier to a peaceful solution?

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Jan 22 13:56:24 UTC 2007

Sri Lanka Conflict: Is the Tamil homeland cry the real barrier to a
peaceful solution?

Created 2007-01-22 04:05
By Raj Gonsalkorale

Although much has been written about the Tamil claims to a homeland in the
North and East of Sri Lanka, and the claim hotly opposed by the Sinhalese
and Muslim people, it maybe appropriate to revisit this issue, as well as
that of State colonisation and claims of discrimination in education
opportunities against the Tamils, in order for readers to engage in a
discussion and add to an informed debate on these subjects. The article is
not meant to be racist in any way, and if some of these claims are
contested, the purpose has been to try and isolate fact from fiction so
that contributors could contribute to this debate and make the wider
readership more informed on these issues.

Timeliness of revisiting this issue is due to many changes that have
occurred in the demographics of the country, and challenges to long held
views amongst sections of the population and the reality of the
contemporary world as compared to the world during which this issue,
especially the homeland concept was championed by the Tamil lobby as the
only way to their salvation. In the first instance, it is the authors
understanding that the Tamil homeland concept (for the North and the East
of the country) was promoted on the basis of this area being a
predominantly Tamil linguistic area, rather than a Tamil ethnic area. This
arose very likely because the Eastern province had a substantial, even a
majority population (in the province) of Muslims who were Tamil speaking
people and the Tamil ethnic leadership of the North and the East sought to
elicit their support for self governance, as fellow citizens of the
country who were allegedly disadvantaged and discriminated by the majority
Sinhala population.  Leaving this aside for the moment, let us examine
some historical facts relating to the Tamil ethnic homeland concept. The
following points are relevant to this discussion. References are cited
from renowned Sri Lankan historian, Professor K M de Silva's book Separate
Ideology in Sri Lanka: A Historical Appraisal.

1. A Tamil kingdom was established for the first time in Sri Lanka in the
thirteenth century in the Jaffna Peninsula and its immediate environments.
Dr Kathiragesu Indrapala, a Tamil Professor of History at the University
of Jaffna in his PhD dissertation, the essence of which was published in
1969 in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (Ceylon Branch) under the
theme Early Settlements in Ceylon", stated thus On the Tamil side the
chronicles that are extent are those written nearly three centuries after
the foundation of the Tamil Kingdom in the island in the thirteenth
century. The sections of these works dealing with the period prior to the
thirteenth century, i.e. the period during which the earliest Tamil
settlements were established - are full of legendry material and are
wholly unreliable. The Tamil works of South India have no notable
allusions to the activities of the Tamils in Ceylon

It is also interesting to note Dr Indrapala's comments that initial
settlements of Tamil people began in about the tenth century after the
Cola conquest of Anuradhapura kingdom in the late tenth century. He
further states that Tamil settlements at this stage were still outside
todays Jaffna district and of the present day TamiI areas, only the upper
half of the Eastern Province and parts of the Western coasts had Tamil
settlers in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and the invasion of Magha
(of Kalinga) with the help of Tamil and Kerala mercenaries had been far
more violent than earlier invasions. Its chief importance lies in the fact
that it resulted in the dislodgment of Sinhalese power from the North
Ceylon, the confiscation of lands and properties belonging to the
Sinhalese by the Tamil and Kerala mercenaries. Dr Indrapalas comments
clearly indicate that the Northern Sri Lankan area (including todays
Jaffna district) in fact had been a Sinhala area prior to the Magha
invasion and violent action of Tamil and Kerala mercenaries.

Reference to Dr Indrapala's work cited from Professor K M de Silva's book
Separate Ideology in Sri Lanka: A Historical Appraisal, is made in order
to establish the beginnings of Tamil settlements around the tenth and
eleventh centuries and the first Tamil kingdom in Sri Lanka in the
thirteenth century.

Beginning in the thirteenth century and until the advent of the Portuguese
there is mention of a Jaffna kingdom occupying sections of the present day
Northern Province with shifting boundaries depending on the power of
Sinhala kings who ruled the rest of the country from time to time.

There is however no similar evidence in regard to a Tamil kingdom
occupying the present day Eastern province contrary to claims made by
sections of the Tamil community to this effect. While there is mention of
the southern boundaries of the Jaffna kingdom extending to areas north of
Trincomalee (North eastern port city) for a brief period during the hey
day of the kingdom, there is no mention of any other part of the present
day Eastern province being under the suzerainty of the Jaffna kingdom at
any point of time in the history of Sri Lanka and neither is there any
evidence of an independent Tamil kingdom in the Eastern province at any
point of time. The Eastern province therefore had no evidence of an ethnic
Tamil kingdom or even a principality throughout history. Small
settlements, yes, but never a major presence of an ethnic Tamil population
from a historical perspective, whereas there is evidence that the East was
under the suzerainty of the Kings of Kandy and Kotte at different points
of time in history of the country, as much as todays Jaffna district in
fact was inhabited by Sinhala people prior to the Magha invasion.

2. The Cleghorn Minute

A historical claim that has been made by the Tamil community and used
extensively in their propaganda to bolster their claim for a homeland in
the North and East is a document generally referred to as the "Cleghorn
Minute". Hugh Cleghorn, a British academic, who had been in the island in
the very early years of British rule, was the islands first colonial
secretary. He produced a document for the British titled" Notes from Mr
Cleghorn's Minute dated 1st June 1799,on the Administration of Justice and
of Revenue under the Dutch Government'.

One extract from the Minute read as follows Two different nations, from a
very ancient period, have divided between them the possession of the
island. First the Cingalese[sic] inhabiting the interior of the country,
in its southern and western parts, from the river Wallouve[Walawe] to that
of Chilaw[sic], and secondly the Malabars[Tamils], who possess the
northern and eastern districts. These two nations differ entirely in their
religion, language and manners. The former, who are allowed to be earlier
settlers, derive their origin from Siam, professing the ancient religion
of that country.

Cleghorns Minute has been much studied, discussed and argued by scholars.
This presentation would not be sufficient or appropriate to discuss it in
detail. However, its use and misuse by proponents of the homeland concept
to further their claim requires a response. In a summarised form,

1. Reference to the Siam (Thai) origin of the Sinhalese casts doubts on
Cleghorns knowledge of history and this in turn raises doubts whether he
had any knowledge, contemporary or historical, relating to his statement
on the existence of two distinct nations in the North and East.

2. Another Tamil historian, Professor T Nadarajah, is of the opinion that
the Minute was not a composition of Cleghorn but sourced from material
supplied to him by officials of the Dutch East India Company who were
supplying him material for the document he was preparing on the
administration of justice and revenue under the Dutch. The question arises
how much of Sri Lankan history was known to the Dutch when their interests
in the country were generally confined to the coastal regions of the
country. The fact that some coastal regions in the east, as a result of
Portuguese action, and the Jaffna peninsula, which were by this time
occupied by Tamil speaking people may have been sufficient for the Dutch
to generalise and assume a larger presence of Tamils in the entirety of
the North and the East. Other historical evidence does not support such a
generalisation and as detailed earlier a Tamil kingdom had never existed
in the Eastern province of the country. A relevant fact, important for the
argument and cited by Professor K M De Silva in his book, is the presence
of a large number of Muslims who were Tamil speaking, in the coastal
regions of the Eastern province in port settlements like Trincomalee and
Batticaloa, people who were given safe haven there by the King of Kandy
during the time they were persecuted by the Portuguese in the Western and
Southern Province.

3. Colonisation of the Eastern Province

According to historians and scholars, some Tamils and some Sinhalese, the
settlement of Tamil speaking people in the coastal regions of the Eastern
province, mainly in Trincomalee and Batticaloa had been instigated by
colonial powers beginning with the Portuguese after the year 1500 and
consequent to the signing of treaties between the colonial powers and the
Kings of Kotte and Kandy who until that point of time had suzerainty over
the Eastern province, including its coastal regions. There is mention of
local chieftains or "Vanniars" who had small principalities in some parts
of the Eastern province, both Tamil and Sinhala Vanniars, who pledged
loyalty to the King of Kandy or the Tamil King in Jaffna depending on the
power and influence of the King at a given point of time.

Most of the Tamil Vanniars, although Tamil speaking, have nothing else in
common with the Tamil people. Their religion is Islam and they are of
Arabic origin with a culture quite distinct from the Tamils. Even today
they have a substantial presence in the Eastern province accounting for
about 35% of the total population in the province and they have
categorically rejected the claim of a Tamil homeland in the Eastern

To sum up the assertion that the homeland claimed by sections of the Tamil
community is a misinterpretation of history, Professor K M De Silva says"
A Tamil kingdom did exist from the 13th century to the early part of the
17th, but except during the brief hey day of its power it seldom
controlled anything more than the Jaffna peninsula, and some adjacent
regions on the coast and some parts of the interior. Set against a history
stretching over 2500 years the independent existence of this kingdom
covered a brief period and even during that brief period its influence
varied so dramatically..."

Contrary to the propaganda and claims that the Tamil kingdom was located
in the North and East at the time of the arrival of the Portuguese, it
was, as claimed by several renowned historians, both Sinhala and Tamil,
restricted to the Jaffna peninsula and its periphery. It is possible that
others may quote from other historians and try to substantiate Tamil
claims to a traditional homeland in todays North and East of the country.
However, at the end of the day, what we are left with will be claims and
counter claims and challenges amongst historians and others who attempt to
cite selective aspects of history to suit their arguments.

Realities of Today and a Solution based on Reality

What then should be the basis for a settlement of this conflict? As many
have argued, contemporary reality, and not debatable historical fact or
fiction should form the basis for a settlement that is just and fair by
all communities and is sustainable in the longer term.

If the basis for a political settlement is the historical Tamil homeland
concept, then it has very little chance of success because it is not based
on fact. If the basis for argument is shifted to the realities of today
which need not be subject to anybody's interpretation, then there is a
strong possibility for a successful political solution to the conflict.

What are some of these contemporary realities? Firstly, the fact that a
majority of Tamils in the country live outside the North and East, and
that a solution addressing Tamil issues should be available to all Tamils
irrespective of where they live. Some have pointed out that many Tamils
displaced from the conflict areas will return to those areas once a
solution is found, and the current demographic balance will change as a
result. This is speculation as it is unlikely that most Tamils who are
living overseas will return to Sri Lanka and gravitate to the North and
the East, It is conceivable that they may live in the West (Colombo and
the environments) rather than in the North and the East. Equally, it could
also be argued that Sinhala people and Muslim people would wish to move to
the North and the East once those areas have peace and prosperity, as much
as some Tamils living in other areas in Sri Lanka may move to the North
and the East. After all, Sri Lanka belongs to everyone and they all have
the right to move anywhere they wish.

Secondly, if the basis for a Tamil homeland are linguistic rather than
ethnic, a stand taken even by such Tamil luminaries like late Mr S J V
Chelvanayakam when he ultimately advocated a separate State for Tamils in
the North and the East, one is duty bound in a democracy to ask the Tamil
speaking Muslim population of the East, who are the linguistic links
persons like Mr Chelvanayakam alluded to, whether they wish to join hands
with the Tamils of the East as well as the North in a separate or Federal
State. From all accounts, the Muslim population in the East will have none
of that, and in fact they have been clamouring for a Muslim ethnic enclave
independent of the Federal State that some Tamils have been arguing for.

Thirdly, there is the issue of whether Northern and Eastern Tamils wish to
join together in a separate or a Federal State. TMVP Leader Karuna
certainly does not think so. Again, in a democracy, it is nothing but
right to ask that question from the Tamils in the East, rather than making
assumptions about their preferences.

Finally, there is the often ignored (by advocates of a Federal solution)
issue of whether the rest of the country would agree to a Federal
arrangement in a merged North/East province. Surely they too have a right
to express their opinion and be heard?

While one cannot deny the fallacy of the Tamil traditional homeland
concept, especially the notion that it included the Eastern province, it
also cannot be denied that independent Sri Lanka did not treat all ethnic
communities in equal measure, and neither can it be denied that the
British colonial powers practised positive discrimination favouring the
Tamils over the Sinhalese and that the governments since 1956 practised
positive discrimination favouring the Sinhalese over the Tamils, claiming
that all they were doing was righting a wrong committed by the British.

Whether the British did it or the Sri Lankan governments did it,
advantaging or disadvantaging one ethnic group over another simply because
of their ethnicity is wrong. Failure of the State law enforcement
authorities to protect people who were being subject to violence simply
because of their ethnicity is also wrong. The solution to this conflict
rests in the ability of the Sri Lankan State to address these two very
fundamental issues and to have measures in place to ensure they do not
happen again. This is where radical constitutional changes are needed at
the centre to make sure no government, on account of a numerical majority
they may have in the national Parliament, is able to pass legislation that
advantages or disadvantages one ethnic group over another. While
devolution of political power is also part of a possible solution,
devolution should be considered for the entire country, and not just for
the North and the East of the country, as a means of greater empowerment
of the people living in regional areas.

In conclusion, a reference is made about the often claimed discrimination
in education that Tamil people had to suffer under Sinhala administrations
since 1956. While the Sinhala only language policy for government
servants, the standardisation policy of the 1970s were discriminatory, and
therefore wrong, paradoxically, these policies, especially the
standardisation policy does not appear to have made serious inroads into
university education opportunities for Tamils at least up until 1981, just
prior to the violence of 1983 against the Tamils which followed the LTTE
attack against the Army that killed 13 soldiers, and the hardening of
attitudes on both sides of the divide. Department of Census and Statistics
data for 1981 show the following.

Number of Tamil students admitted to science faculties in Sri Lankan

Medicine 25.1%, Dentistry, 40.0%, Vet Science 23.3%, Agriculture, 27.0%,
Bio Science 28.9%, Engineering 30.4%, Architecture, 23.9%, Physical
Science 38. 0%, Commerce, 34.2%.

One can only hypothesise whether some of the discriminatory measures
(positive discrimination favouring the Sinhalese) would have had a major
effect on education and job opportunities for Tamils, had the LTTE not
been there and the Tamil politicians, as a collective, had continued to
pursue peaceful and democratic means to remove all discriminatory measures
and also negotiated greater political autonomy for them in the country.

The Sinhala politicians should wonder whether 1983 should have been
allowed to happen as firstly it was a disgrace against all that is human,
and secondly, as it was a political suicide act. In the end, it is the
violence perpetrated against the Tamils in 1983 that tilted the balance in
favour of an armed separatist agenda, and those politicians who had a hand
in it, implicitly or explicitly, and the State law enforcement authorities
who failed to safeguard the lives and property of Tamil people, could well
be identified as the traitors who helped to create a mountain out of
molehill, and made the LTTE what it became, the most violent terrorist
organisation in the world for a long time. It is this single act of 1983
that made a political solution almost impossible despite the efforts of

Today, a solution seems far more probable as the world has finally woken
up to the fact that the LTTE is an insult to genuine freedom fighter
organisations and that they have never been interested in any type of
solution to this conflict. This change of attitude has made it possible
for moderate Tamils to express their views and seek a solution through non
violent, democratic means.

The issue before such Tamil moderates is to differentiate fact from
fiction, identify their genuine problems, consider contemporary realities
and examine ways and means of arriving at a solution that is acceptable to
all communities. The opportunity is also there for the Sinhala and Muslim
people to reach out to such moderates and work with them to seek that
solution. One can only hope that the New Year will usher in new
partnerships and there will be a genuine desire on the part of all
communities to reach a political agreement that is just and fair, and is
sustainable in the years to come.

- Asian Tribune -


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