The published speech delivered in a meeting organised by Tamil solidarity in Chennai. Delivered by well known activist and journalist Satya Sivaram.
Friends and Comrades,
I would like to first thank the organisers of this meeting here today for inviting me to come and speak before this distinguished audience. I apologise for my inability to speak to you today in Tamil as being a Tamilian brought up in central India I never had opportunity to master the language but promise to make amends in future. Hope you will bear with me for the time being.
Before I get to the subject of what lessons we have to learn from the three decades of conflict in Sri Lanka let me dwell a bit on what is wrong with India. For it is the understanding of the largest and oldest country in South Asia that we can get a better grip on what this region is all about.
And before I talk of human rights and democracy I want to talk about public health again because it is a very important indicator of what are really the values and culture of the society we live in.
It is a common sight these days to see people around the country wearing masks on their faces. They are I am told worried about getting infected by the swine flu virus and trying to protect themselves.
I must confess I am very happy to see all these middle-class Indians hiding their faces.
To begin with the mask till just a few months ago was a sartorial accessory reserved exclusively for terrorists and other assorted demons. So when respectable people start wearing masks they can help counter stereotypes about what terrorists look like or are supposed to wear. Wearing a mask in broad daylight has become respectable now.
But the real reason why I think it is a good idea for middle-class Indians to keep these masks on, permanently if possible, is simply that they should be deeply ashamed of what is happening in their country. For the fact is that none of them is fit to show their face in public. Last time I checked, a week ago, the numbers of Indians dying every year due to sudden assaults on their health by poverty, viruses, bacteria, parasites and badly driven motor vehicles were as follows:
– Under-nourishment kills around 2.5 million children annually
– Malaria – Over 900,000
– Air pollution – 527,700
– Tuberculosis – 400,000
– Road Accidents – Over 100,000
Just between these avoidable causes of death the overall figure translates into roughly 12000 Indians dying every day contrasted with the 100 or so who have succumbed to swine flu in two months of the pandemic’s presence in the country. And if each one of these 12000 cases were to be individually portrayed on the front pages of our newspapers and TV news headlines every day there would be no place for anyone to hide at all! So when I say that all privileged Indians should wear masks permanently all their life you can understand what I mean.
What I am pointing to of course is the fact that ours is a part of the world where life is really cheap and the silent genocide of millions every year due to neglect and poverty does not touch the conscience of the public. And societies that are willing to accept a silent and invisible genocide in their midst will over a period of time also accept a loud and visible genocide when it happens.
Nowhere else in the entire world will so many people be allowed to die silently of poverty, disease, sectarian conflict every day as happens in South Asia. I mean nowhere will so much suffering happen without sparking off a revolution.
Ladies and gentlemen, there is no doubt in my mind at all that the genocide of Tamils that has taken place in Sri Lanka in recent months and still continues in various ways is part of the overall lack of value for human life that the ruling classes of South Asia have.
And the first lesson that we should draw from this complete contempt shown by our elites for the life of ‘lesser beings’- be they religious and ethnic minorities, marginalised cultures or the poor- is that the people of this sub-continent need to answer back with a social and political revolution. Nothing short of revolutionary change will really solve the problems South Asia faces, whether of poverty, of conflict or the conflict that is produced by poverty.
Failure to work for and bring about a truly revolutionary change – whatever this involves- will only mean more and more genocides in our region of the kind that we have already witnessed in Sri Lanka.
Even in India which is a democracy of some sort the truth is that it is a democracy by default- not one where the rulers genuinely believe in democratic values and principles but one where they have no other choice.
I have always thought for example that it is impossible for a Hitler to emerge in India, simply because there are too many Hitlers in our country already and no one of them is strong enough to dominate the others. The ‘world’s largest free market democracy’ is in practice a wrestling pit for Hitlers of different shapes, sizes, colors and tongues. And it is our task to fight each one of these Hitlers, whoever they may be and wherever they are and change to a system that does not produce Hitlers any more at any level.
The second lesson from the over thirty years of conflict in Sri Lanka is simply that this is not a problem of the island of Sri Lanka alone. At the very minimum it is an issue that needs to be taken up by the entire South Asian subcontinent, if not the entire world.
Given the involvement of so many countries from India and China to Israel and Russia in helping the Sri Lankan government fight against the Tamil Tiger rebels it cannot even be referred to as the Sri Lanka conflict any more. The Tamil diaspora, which supported the movement for a separate Eelam all these years, is also spread over four continents and nearly 10 countries.
So when the Mahinda Rajapakse regime tells international human rights groups and media to stay out of the Sri Lankan conflict one can only laugh. Successive Sri Lankan governments have always internationalised their domestic conflict by seeking help from foreign governments. Even in 1971 when the leftist JVP insurgency in the south of Sri Lanka threatened to topple the government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike it survived only with the help of the Indian Navy and the Pakistani Air Force.
It is interesting to see that in the case of Sri Lanka foreign governments, which are otherwise usually hostile to each other, have always joined hands to help put down the opponents of those in power in Colombo. Even recently the way the Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, Russian and Israeli governments came to the rescue of the Rajapakse regime is testimony to this curious phenomenon.
Indeed the third lesson we have to learn is the need for the people of all these countries involved in the Sri Lankan conflict to unite against their own governments. If the governments can unite against their people so can the people unite against their own governments.
In specific terms this means that those fighting for the rights of the Sri Lankan Tamils today have to extend solidarity to the struggles of the people of Kashmir, the Indian north-east, Tibet, Baluchistan, Chechnya and Palestine. Anyway they all have so much in common in terms of their battles for independence or autonomy from oppressive, domestic colonial regimes that such a unity should not be very difficult to forge. It is through such solidarity that the struggle of the Sri Lankan Tamils will become a truly international cause.
Such a unity will also have a very important implication for the concept of right to self-determination, which has been the basis for the independence movements of minority groups in many countries around the world.
I believe that the right to self-determination is an absolute right and the highest democratic principle possible in international politics of our times. Divorce after all is always preferable to an unhappy and violent marriage. In the case of Sri Lanka in particular historically it was not even a ‘love marriage’ between the Tamils and the Sinhalas but a forcibly arranged one, over 60 years ago by the parting British colonial power. So a referendum for Sri Lankan Tamils to decide their own fate is a fundamental right that must be given to them. Let them decide what they really want in a peaceful and democratic manner.
However, I would also say that separation from one kind of arrangement does not mean that the newly independent entity should consider becoming part of a larger, more democratic federation. In my view the struggle of ethnic, linguistic and other minorities in the South Asian sub-continent has to proceed along two lines- one is to establish their right to self-determination and the other is, at the same time, strive for a democratic, federation across South Asia. In a dialectical sort of way separation and unity should go hand in hand.
One important reason for this is that if you look at the world around all over you will find that the individual nation state is no longer the basis for future politics. Global economic realities, capital flows and operations of multinationals have made the nation state redundant. This is one area we need to learn from the multinational corporations. In fact what we need is to become a multinational sub-continent where instead of business motives the people are bound by their common goals and struggles against their own ruling classes. So while we fight for our own nation state and identity we also keep in mind the fast changing realities of the planet where new identities are being created by the tectonic forces of economy, migration and even phenomenon like global warming.
The fourth lesson from the Sri Lankan conflict is that the militancy of a struggle cannot be measured by the number of gunshots and bomb blasts it involves. For a long time not just in South Asia but also around the world there has been a debate on the use of violence versus non-violence in political and social movements.
Despite endless debate over the categories ‘violence’ and ‘non-violence’ there is little clarity on the subject anywhere. In fact these categories are not opposed to each other, as is often assumed, because there is a continuum between the two. Who really knows in the world we live in where ‘violence’ ends and ‘non-violence’ begins?
In that sense the more accurate categories to use are ‘bloody violence’ and ‘bloodless violence’ with the latter being the preferred method of action in the current South Asian social and political context. If there is to be bloody violence at some stage because the sub-continent’s ruling class will never give up power without using brute force then we will deal with it at that time. That juncture can be understood in advance but not pre-empted artificially by insisting on a central role for the gun and the bomb in mass struggles.
Also it is important to understand that power is not just political or administrative in nature. It is also social, economic and cultural power that needs to be captured and many of these kinds of power cannot be simply conquered by brute force. To run a real country or even a community of human beings there is need for many more skills apart from purely military skills.
The last and most important lesson I want to emphasize today is that we need to build up the global movement for the rights of the Sri Lankan Tamils in such a way that it allows ordinary people to participate in simple ways, making it a truly democratic one I can give you an example of a movement that if taken up can immediately hurt the Sri Lankan regime of Mahinda Rajapakse – the boycott of tourism in Sri Lanka by Indian tourists. There are dozens of ways in which this goal can be achieved in a creative and peaceful manner and can be the beginning of a larger international effort to isolate the war criminals who are running Colombo today.
Another demand we should make is for a White Paper in the Indian Parliament on the role of Indian agencies in Sri Lanka over the past thirty years and in particular during the past year. Successive Indian governments, politicians and bureaucrats have played a very negative role in the Sri Lankan conflict and should be accountable to the Indian people for what they have done in a neighbouring country in the name of all of us. For there is no doubt in my mind that they will play similar mischief with Indian citizens if they are left unpunished for the international crimes.
In the context of Tamil Nadu itself the widespread support for the rights of Sri Lankan Tamils should be expressed in specific and tangible ways. Mere rhetoric is no longer enough. For example the thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils who have been coming to this state over the past two decades still do not have the basic rights of refugees as per international law. The Indian government has refused to sign the UNHCR treaty on refugees and treats the Sri Lankan Tamils like some unwanted relatives who have suddenly turned up home without an invitation. They are housed in unliveable shelters, their youth denied employment, their children denied proper education and their men arrested arbitrarily on any pretext in a routine manner. It is time for us to demand that they be given basic rights and that the Indian government signs the UNHCR treaty immediately.
I would like to add here that while we are fighting for the rights of Sri Lankan Tamils should we not also fight for the rights of Tamils in Tamil Nadu itself. Is there a shortage of problems in this state – whether it be of health, education, employment, of women or of Dalits? Unless we challenge our own domestic politicians and governments there is nothing very much we can really do to uphold human rights in foreign lands.
At the international level the action that is needed more than anything else today is to bring to justice those in Sri Lanka who are responsible for the mass killings of not just Tamils but also Sinhalas opposed to the regime of Mahinda Rajapakse. The ‘Sri Lankan Model’ of dealing with opponents and dissidence is emerging as a favorite among all the governments in the South Asia region.
There needs to be both a countrywide and international campaign to make sure the perpetrators of war crimes and genocide are brought to justice, for their impunity threatens the lives of many millions more in our region. The fight of the Sri Lankan Tamils for justice therefore is no longer about Sri Lankan Tamils alone but one that involves all of us- our lives, our rights, our democracy and our future.