The Self- Determination Rights of Peoples 

with Ethnic/Linguistic  and Cultural Identities



 It is indeed very heartening that Human Rights and the allied theme of Conflict Resolution are beginning to get academic recognition as disciplines for study in academia around the world. That the UGC should come forward to sponsoring a national seminar on New Perspectives in Human Rights is also very encouraging.  This development is taking place alongside of the widening of the horizon among Human Rights Activists and organizations.   In earlier days Human Rights activism was predominantly limited to making the police behave themselves in using the Cr P.C.; challenging custodial torture, custodial deaths, confrontation killings, the all too frequent neglect of the officialdom in bringing to book people who commit crimes against women, trying to keep a check on the all too trigger happy cops who try  to silence uncomfortable group protests resorting to their fire power against unarmed civilians ...  In other words, only state violations of rights of individuals and ad hoc groups have been taken on board. Religio-cultural sanctions which were at the root of oppression against women, age long denigration of Dalits based on social stratification and the denial of political rights of peoples who get marginalized in the contemporary trends of majoritarianism were not taken up as issues by human rights groups.   Having made such a sweeping statement, however, I must go on to qualify that statement by admitting that eminent human rights advocates  like Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, K.G. Kannabiran, Justice Rajindra Sachar and several others have been throwing their weight behind the just claims of politically marginalized peoples as well.  Things have changed and now. The rights of people as well as rights of individuals have become concerns of the human rights realm.  And, it is not just the State versus people, it has become imperative to take note of religious, sociological and cultural factors into consideration.   It is in keeping with this development that Human Rights concerns have begun to find a place within academia as well.

   My major interest for some years has been the plight of Sri Lankan Tamils.  I would like to narrate their story briefly and draw certain inferences and conclusions with far reaching implications for all who are committed to safe guarding the rights of a people whose sufferings have been immense and unrelenting for more than two decades.  I am well aware that many may jump to the conclusion that I am trying to hold a brief for the LTTE.  Yet others may even get incensed that I am trying to rationalize and justify the many political assassinations which have been done supposedly on behalf the Tamils.  And a few others may think that I am inserting the thin end of a wedge to argue for separatism.  Yes, this last guess is not far out except that I shall try to point out that much as unity of a country is desirable if separation alone will safe guard the rights and security of a people who have suffered tyranny and terror from a chauvinistic State then we should be open to that idea.    Having made that admission, however,  let me say emphatically that there will be no defense of the way LTTE have conducted themselves particularly their dastardly act of assassinating Rajiv Gandhi and  the many subversive killings of Tamil politicians within Sri Lanka who differed from them,  many mass killings resorted to,  with a view to intimidate and terrorize people into accepting their leadership and the undeniable tactics of extortion to collect money to sustain their armed rebellion in their quest for Elam (i.e. an independent state for the Tamils in their traditional homeland).  Well, I shall argue that in principle there should be no objection to the quest by a people to live on their own in their own land.  Especially when they have found coexistence with people of another ethnic origin who have the power in their hands but do not have the intention to treat everyone alike this seems to be the only way.  In other words the rights of people to self determination are superior to the claims of the integrity of a state. 

    Such a stance has far reaching implications for the State of the Indian Union too.  I am well aware that I have to contend not merely on the basis of principles.  Powerful opinion makers have already laid a strong foundation and have built an edifice of opposition on sentimental as well as on the objective merits of staying together as fellow home makers in the global village.     Let me say that at least some opinion makers have deliberately presented a one sided story playing down the atrocities of the Sri Lankan State against its own people.   LTTE unambiguously have resorted to terrorism as part of their military attack on the Sri Lankan army but it is not always that the Sri Lankan State hit back only  in retaliation simply to counter further terrorist attacks with the pure intention of safeguarding the lives of unarmed citizens.  In the earlier part of the struggle and in fact even now the Sri Lankan State resorts to many subversive acts of provocation and the rest of the world is prepared to wink an eye over it.  The Norwegian mediators also by and large choose to be silent observers of State violations.  Otherwise, they would be asked to leave.  Now let me try and narrate to you the story of the Tamil peoples of Sri Lanka as briefly as I can.  This story is made out of gleanings from personal conversations, from participation in several Consultations organized by NGOs and by the National Council of Christian Churches in Sri Lanka.  I have some knowledge of the happenings as I have lived in Sri Lanka for short interspersed periods of 3 months to one year from time to time through the last twenty years.  Please let me add that my gleanings have not been purely from Tamil people.  I have quite a few Sinhala friends who would not have any disagreements with the way in which I have tried to shape this narrative.  Within India I am sure I can count on the endorsement of this story by no less a person than Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, though he may not approve of the conclusions I reach from the story.

The Sri Lankan Tamils

   There are three different people who have Tamil as their mother tongue in Sri Lanka.  They are the Native Tamils who live in the north & north eastern regions of Sri Lanka, ie. the region north of Vavuniya including Mannar in the northwest, and the Jaffna Peninsula. The coast line which is contiguous with the eastern coastline of Jaffna where the famous harbour town of Trincomalee and Batticolao also belongs to the traditional homeland of the native Tamils bordering on the Amparai District in the south east.  In the East also live Tamil speaking Muslims.  They, however, have developed a different ethnic consciousness.  They claim Arabian descent and explain their Tamil speaking as due to the necessity of having to learn the language of teachers of Islam who came from Tamil Nadu.  The Eastern coastal strip has all three ethnic groups, namely the native Tamils the Tamil speaking Muslims and the Sinhala Buddhists.  The Eastern Province's demographic distribution is even among the three groups with each approximately claiming 33 %.    The word claiming is used deliberately because as of today many Tamils have had to flee from home either as refugees to other countries or as internally displaced people.  The Sinhala population has been artificially boosted with deliberately settling many Sinhala released prisoners in the Maha Veli Irrigation project area with the definite intention of breaking the contiguity of the Tamil Homeland and upsetting the demographic distribution.  The Tamil people of the North-East  would constitute 12 % of the total population of the Island.  The Tamil speaking Muslims would constitute 5%.

   The third group of Tamils of the island are the Tamils of Indian Origin.  They are themselves subdivided into two groups.  The majority of them are those who were taken to Sri Lanka as indented labourers who were later rendered stateless and under Shastri - Sri Mao pact were to be totally repatriated back to India.  However, this was stopped after two lakhs people landed in India.  Further repatriation was stopped by Mrs. Indira Gandhi and a vast majority of them have now become naturalized citizens by the efforts of late Thiru Thondaman who achieved this by becoming a supporter of the Sri Lankan Government.  The second small group among the people of Indian origin are those who went to Sri Lanka as bureaucrats and business people who did not suffer any state oppression.  The Estate Tamils live in the pocket of Tea Estates right in the heartland of Sinhala country.  It must also be pointed out that nearly 25 % of the native Tamils of North-East live in Colombo in the Wellawatha - Bambilipitya belt down the western coast line of the Colombo City.  The total population of the Island according to census taken nearly three decades ago was 20 million. Of this the Native Tamils were 12%; The Tamil Speaking Muslims were 5%; the Tamils of Indian Origin were 5 % the Burgers i.e. an Eurasian community accounted for about 1% and the rest were Sinhalese.  Religiously, 7% are Christians, Muslims 5% and Hindus among the Tamils were about 10 % and the rest were Sinhala Buddhist.  The Christian Church alone has both Tamils and Sinhala people in it.  To a large measure there is good understanding and amity among the two communities within the Church.  Worship Services are printed in English, Sinhala and Tamil in parallel columns and hymn books also are multilingual.  Very often Sinhala preachers would attempt to summarize their sermons in Tamil and vice versa and if the priest were not bilingual then some one who was would be requested to act as interpreter.  Rarely if ever the ethnic divide shows its ugly head in the choice of leaders.  So it is possible for two different communities to live in amity and cordiality if there was an all round commitment. Please understand that I am not holding a brief for the Church. Recent attempts in the East among young people of the Tamil and Islamic background to bring about mutual understanding too are proving to be enormously successful. However, the socio political scenario nation wide today is one of mutual suspicion and occasionally outright animosity.  I would like to point out the reasons for this.

   Sri Lanka was under colonial rule first under the Dutch and then under the British.  Both Colonial masters were adept in using the divide and rule policy by pampering the minority and marginalizing the majority.  So the Tamils did very well under the colonial rule.  Added to this official patronage, we must concede that the Tamil people were far more hard working and enterprising.  So there were many who got well educated among the Tamils proportionately than among the Sinhalese.   In business too the Tamils did well.  There were yet two other factors that acted as a spur towards Tamil Development.  The land terrain of the North is not very fertile and did not enjoy much rain.  So cultivation depended on underground water whereas in the deep south land is fertile and it enjoys a lot of rain.  So the Tamils had to work hard.  Among the elite Tamils there was a lot of migration towards Britain, Canada and Australia.  This factor also helped enhance the well being of Tamils compared with the Sinhalese community. 

  The Sinhalese psyche on the other hand was home to two extremes.  On the one hand their Buddhist upbringing made them passive, contended and far less ambitious so especially the poor farmers among them did not experience much development.  The Sinhalese soldiers do not have a fighting spirit and the rate of desertion in the army continues to be high and there was not the effort among the lower middle class and the poorer sections were not interested in improving their lot through education.  Notwithstanding the spirit of passivity and contentment and unwarlike temperament, however, there was a simmering discontent deep within nurturing resentment and sullen anger especially within the Colombo based Sinhalese people which started seeping down into the communities in the deep South.  The JVP - The Janata Vimukthi Pramuna a Maoist-Leninist group fanned this discontent a great deal to gain political mileage.   Of course their initial targets were not the Tamils.  They wanted to dismantle the Ruling Kandy Elite and capture power.  The resentment against the Tamils became an easy starting point   The Buddhist clergy also played their part by encouraging the Government to declare Buddhism as national religion, and a Sinhala only language policy to stem the development of the Tamils.  All this resulted in the following:  There were many Tamils among the top brass in the Police force and in the Armed forces.  Gradually they got phased out to the end today the army and the police are exclusively Sinhala.  Entry of Tamils into middle level bureaucratic positions was also made difficult as they had to take exams in Sinhala.  A policy of standardization went beyond the quota reservation policy and near exclusive priority was given to Sinhalese candidates even when their entry point attainment was way below reasonable academic standards. 

   It was but natural that the Tamil community started agitating.  Tamil United Liberation Front which was established by the famous Tamil politician Selvanaygam to which movement belonged the slain leaders l Neelan Thiruchelvam and Amirthalingam was the first political movement which tried to protest against all the above mentioned policies of suppressing the Tamils through democratic means.  Even today they remain an unarmed political front although thoroughly decimated by the LTTE which did not like the fact that this movement was led by many from a high caste group, all well educated, that they were opposed to armed rebellion and were prepared not to press for separation if the reasonable demands for territorial autonomy and justice in the matter of equal opportunities were met and the insistence on Sinhala only were given up.

   Armed rebellion erupted when the Sri Lankan army set fire to the Tamil Library in Jaffna in 1981 and the so called Security Task Force set up by J.R. Jeyawerdene the President (which was commanded by his nephew and was kept outside of the control of the Armed Forces Command) started unleashing terror against the civilians.  Women were molested and killed.  Some women were subjected to extreme forms of torture and were made to bear indescribable ignominy.  This happened at such large scale many young children who watched what was done to their mothers/sisters became psychological wrecks when they reached adolescent age.  What is being stated is no exaggeration.  I met a Roman Catholic priest in the year l992 in Jaffna who had started a Counselling Centre to help these traumatized young people and was saying that the numbers were so large that he and his small team of counsellors could not cope with the need and so he had simultaneously started training programs for other counsellors. 

   The eruption of armed rebellion with the demand for a separate Elam brought out another spate of reactionary violence.  What is now known as the Black July in 1983 mobs in Colombo started looting and killing the Tamils who lived in the ghetto Wellwatha down Galle Road to Bambilipitya.  The riotous mob seemed to have been well prepared prior to the uprising.  They knew the odd houses where non Tamils lived and their homes and the inhabitants were spared.  There were of course many exceptions.  Not all Sinhalese by any means approved of this mob attack on Tamils of Colombo.  The Methodist Church headquarters was also on Galle Road as the Tamil settlement was thinning out.  The President of the Church Rev. Soma Perera was an exceptionally courageous man.  He was the President of the Civil Rights Movement of Sri Lanka.  The Church headquarters is in a large campus with a school building and a Church housed within it.  He threw open the gates of this campus and spent practically three days and nights at the gate and allowed all the fleeing Tamils inside and dared the riotous mob to enter only after killing him.  Some political leaders like Colvin De Silva the leader of the Lanka Socialist Party and many other ordinary Sinhalese citizens also gave refuge and looked after those who sought refuge with their own resources until the riots abated.  The JRJ Government did precious little to stop the rampage.

   The black July riots of 1983 were by no means a one off riot.  There have been mob uprisings in 1956 and 1977.  These two earlier attacks were aimed at stopping the Government from scrapping the Sinhala only policy and the attempt at a small measure of devolution through setting up District Councils.  Any concession to the Tamils and even small attempts at devolution has been resented by the chauvinistic elements up to today.  Today there are provincial governments which are no better than Municipal Corporations.  The Sinhala only policy has been given up with all Government communications and sign boards using all three languages.  This latter change came due to the intervention of the Privy Council when the Queen of Britain was still nominally the head of state.  The LTTE demanded some time back a structure called Interim Self Governing Authority with representation to the Government at the Centre and representatives of Sinhala and Muslim communities with majority in the authority for the LTTE.  The mandate of this ISGA was to be only rebuilding the ruins and development in the war devastated North-East and administrative infra structure relevant to such a mandate.  The Norwegian mediators recommended the ISGA.  Mrs. Chandrika just stalled time and did not do anything because once again the party of the Buddhist clergy now a political forum and the JVP violently opposed the proposal as a thin end of the wedge towards full autonomy. In the mean time Tsunami came.  The Western Governments said that unless there was a common structure they would not give the sanctioned aid.  Chandrika then went ahead and signed an agreement to allow the LTTE to have a say in the areas controlled by them under the MOU.  But the JVP went to the Court and had the PTOMS - Post Tsunami Operations Monitoring Structure stayed.  Chandrika shed crocodile tears and the Western Governments handed over the money to her without any further ado. 

   I need to say a word about the ceasefire violations of the Sri Lankan Government also.  It has been reported in the News papers whereas LTTE committed more than 3000 ceasefire violations of a serious kind the Sri Lankan Governments violations were only about a l000 and they were of a minor nature like harassments caused to passengers at check posts.  Usually the gullible readers in India have been ready to believe this all too readily.  The Sri Lankan Army set up a unit called Deep Penetration Unit and infiltrated deep into Vanni forests an area accepted as LTTE territory in the MOU  and assassinated more than 16 second level leaders.  This was done with the help of EPRLF cadre who knew the territory.  The Tigers chose not to shout about this fearing that an impression will develop that they are not invulnerable after all.  The Sri Lankan Government also gained over Col Karuna the former commander of the East of the LTTE and since then has been using him and his forces extensively in hitting at LTTE always disclaiming any connection between Karuna's forces and the GOSL.  Most recently we have been witnessing a sudden influx of refugees into our land.  Once again it has been put out that refugees arrive because they fear reprisals, extortions and recruitment of young people and that is why the people want to find a safe haven in Indian shores.  While this may be true to some extent it is not the whole truth.  Bishop Joseph Royappa, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Mannar has sent a gruesome report of what goes on in Mannar.  Immediately following the bus bomb incident in Anuratha Pura soldiers of the SL army went on a rampage in the Mannar District.  They have killed batches and batches of fishermen as they were getting ashore even after verifying their identities making them kneel and shooting them through their mouths.  They had two aims.  First to wreak vengeance for the Anurathapura killings assuming that bombing was the handiwork of the LTTE without clear proof.  The second reason is to kill as many fishermen with boats as possible to prevent them from carrying the refugees across to India.   One Sinhalese Human Rights Activist provides an analysis for the initial act of warlike attacks on the LTTE camps following on close heals of the attempt on the Army General as a stage managed act with readiness to retaliate using the incident as an excuse.   While LTTE are capable of conducting many dastardly acts it is not impossible that the GOSL should contemplate stage managing supposedly subversive acts of LTTE in order to find an excuse for well contemplated attacks which would pass as inevitable retaliation by a security conscious Government. 

   Well I have given you my view of what goes on within Sri Lanka.  The Indo Sri Lanka Friendship Society to which I belong and for which we have Justice V R. Krishna Iyer as patron has condemned the LTTE's political assassinations, internecine killings of deemed rival militant groups, recruitment and deployment of child soldiers, their extortionist methods in raising funds for their sustenance... unequivocally.  Of course we could not but concede that armed rebellion was thrust upon the Tamil militants.  As such their attacks against military targets should not be considered as acts of terrorism.    But we have been also painfully aware of the cunning strategies of the GOSL.  For want of space I shall barely mention that the Tamils of Sri Lanka have suffered also from the Indian Peace Keeping Force.   This is unpalatable for patriotic Indians.   In such a situation inevitably one is forced to raise certain questions, and to which task I now turn. 


v      Is the integrity of any State permanently sacred and non-violable?

v      Is there an optimum size for a State in terms of territorial extent and size of population?

v      What are the democratic rights of a minority people who have been pushed to limits of seeking a separate political identity?

v      What does a ruling majority stand to loose except its pride in letting a people have their own politically autonomous State in their own homeland?  What is the role of opinion makers and human rights advocates?

v      Conclusions

Answering the first two questions is simple and straight forward.  The integrity of any State is not sacred.  Many States have come into being due to historical contingencies such as for example our own country Bharat, some were united on ideological commonality such as the erstwhile USSR.  The State came into being mainly because the British brought all the different units they conquered into one administrative entity.  The Former USSR had been ruled as one State because all the various regions shared a common ideology.  The ethnic identity proved to have a stronger pull on people and so it has disintegrated.  So too Yugoslavia.  It looks as if the process of splintering into different ethnic identities forming their own nation-States is still not over. 

So too with regard to the optimum size for territorial integrity or for the size of a national population.  We need not elaborate it any further.

   When people are pushed into seeking spa ration with undeniable reasons of suffering under a chauvinistic State all concerned should try to intervene and seek justice for the affected people.  The United Nations usually washes its hands off saying that its charter does not provide for interference into internal/civil disputes.  This same sentiment restrains neighboring countries also.  When we take into consideration that there are other geo political and market considerations enter into the field the ulterior motives of the players set the agenda for relations with the chauvinistic State.  This is what happens with regard to Sri Lanka.  There is an international game going on centering on the control of Trinco harbour between India and the US.  There is also the interplay of market forces.  For India Sri Lanka has become a big market.  It may sound cynical to say, but it is true nevertheless, that the ethnic conflict going on helps expand the size of the market.  Therefore the excuse of the policy of non interference in a neighbour's internal policy is a convenient cover to keep the conflict alive.  As far as Human Rights perspectives are concerned we need to give top priority to the rights of self determination.  Of course, it may be necessary to point out that totally independent State may be detrimental to their own people. We need to take the potential threat to the Tamil dwellers of Colombo and the plight of the Estate Tamils and the possibility of the three communities of the East demographically evenly distributed continuing to vie with each other a federal structure may be the more conducive solution.  However, many safeguards need to be built into such a structure if the Tamils are to live in peace and amity with their Sinhala and Muslim neighbors.  But such help to the people have not been offered by India since the first abortive attempt of the Indo Sri Lanka Accord and the 13th Amendment.  It failed because the confidence of the LTTE was not won.  India attempted to set up a puppet provincial government with EPRLF after rigging the elections!  The IPKF turned into an occupation army and committed atrocities equal to that of the STF of GOSL. 

   As has been hinted at the Sinhala people stand to loose nothing by letting the Tamils have their own political autonomy.  Somehow people get into false patriotic modes of thinking and shut their minds totally to suggestions such as what has been given above.  I can vividly remember with shame one Press Conference in Chennai convened under the aegis of the Indo Sri Lanka Friendship Society with Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer and Advocate Kannabiran seeking to update the information gaps in Indian minds because our opinion makers, the journalists had chosen to censor away much information that would be detrimental to the glorious image of India patriotically held in the minds of the people.    As soon as Justice VRK mentioned the failure of the IPKF experiment and also the undeniable fact of its misbehavior one journalist representing an eminent daily stood up and protested that he did not come to the Press Meet to hear slander about IPKF and left.  Immediately several others also followed him and we were left with just two or three personally known to our convener T N Gopalan.   The promulgation of POTA and its abuse by the Government has also acted as a powerful deterrent in the minds of the people.  Of course, the gruesome assassination of Rajiv Gandhi heartlessly and mindlessly executed allowing only the vengeful spirit full play has been yet another powerful deterrent in thinking why should not the Tamils of Sri Lanka be granted political autonomy and why our nation does not exert more pressure on the Sri Lankan Government which has been letting lose State Terrorism on its own people for nearly three decades. The only way forward for Human Rights Activists and Groups is to help our nation and its leaders transcend prejudice and put the affected people's plight first.  It may be helpful to think that many Tamils of Sri Lanka, even those who point out the absolute must of the armed conflict do not agree with all that LTTE has been indulging in supposedly on their behalf.  There is a whole new generation which wants peace in their country and peace and amity with their immediate neighbors who may be ethnically and religiously different.  We need to keep the welfare of this whole new generation in mind, overcome our own prejudices, our own policies of non interference... and do all we can to evolve a different opinion and mount pressure on our national leaders also to do justice in their dealings with our closest neighbors. 

    Wish to thank you all for your patient listening and your restraint in not walking out on me.





Copyleft 2006 Dhyanchand Carr; All Rights Reserved