Saturday, April 20, 2024

Rise of Ultra-Nationalism and Elections, Tamil Nationalism and Resurrection of LTTE Ideology in Sri Lanka

The Tamil Nationalism propagated in the north of Sri Lanka will significantly influence the Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalism in the south.

Four factors will propel Sinhalese Buddhist ultra-nationalism to impact elections.

There is a high possibility of an ‘India-Out’ campaign in Sri Lanka, just like in Maldives.

A day before Sri Lanka’s 76th Independence Day, INS Karanj– a Kalvari-class diesel-electric submarine of the Indian Navy, arrived at the port of Colombo. The welcoming Sri Lankan Navy participated in a submarine awareness program. The Indian submarine arrived after the Sri Lankan government declared a moratorium on Chinese research vessels a month ago due to the security concerns raised by India on mapping Sri Lanka’s EEZ for submarine warfare. When Sri Lanka closed its door to Chinese research vessels, the neighboring Island Maldives, with its newly elected regime, opened its doors to Chinese research vessels. The strategic imbalance created by Sri Lanka and Maldives siding with India and China will have a consequence where the geopolitical tension will heighten over time. Further, the declared moratorium, the Indian submarine visit, growing ‘Tamil nationalism’, and Katchatheevu island are underlying geopolitical themes that will undoubtedly impact the domestic political space, especially with elections in India and Sri Lanka months from now. 

Katchatheevu island

Geopolitically challenged, Katchatheevu island is somewhat equidistant to India and Sri Lanka in the Palk Straits.  The 284-acre uninhabited island was administered by Sri Lanka and was a disputed territory claimed by India until 1976. Viewed by Indian media as an island ceded to Sri Lanka by the Indian administration under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1974 under the Indo-Sri Lankan Maritime agreementaimed at resolving the maritime boundaries in the narrow Straits. For Indian territory to be ceded to a foreign country, it is obligatory to amend the Indian constitution, which was not attempted for Katchatheevu. Therefore, it was not ceded. Thus, India accepted Sri Lanka’s sovereignty over Kachchatheevu. A subsequent agreement signed in 1976 restricted fishing activity by both nations in each other’s, which has been breached on many occasions up to the present day. There were tense moments during Sri Lanka’s civil war with the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) in the surrounding waters of Katchatheevu island between Indian Tamil fishers and the Sri Lankan navy, leading to Indian central government intervention and still the fisherman dispute between the two nations continues to date. 

Tamil nationalism from Tamil Nadu politics has focused its attention from time to time on securing Katchatheevu, its lost territory to Sri Lanka, especially echoed during Indian elections. Challenged in the Indian Supreme Court on handing over Indian territory to Sri Lanka without being ratified by the Indian parliament are demands raised from the Tamil Nadu side.  

Winning back Katchatheevu island through the New Delhi administration is a usual election rhetoric in Tamil Nadu politics. The concern is the rhetoric is now echoed in New Delhi directly by Prime Minister Modi, where he explained to the Indian parliament, blaming the congress government leader, Indira Gandhi, for handing over Indian territory to Sri Lanka. He said, “These people divided mother India” and DMK government of Tamil Nadu “keeps writing to him urging to bring Katchatheevu back to India”.  The South Indian claim and Modi’s position on Katchatheevu will be a strong spillover factor to Tamil separatist nationalism in Sri Lanka.

Sovereignty, secured by ultra-nationalist sentiments, dominates the political environment of India, which Prime Minister Modi has proven in the last two parliamentary elections. The same will work for Modi to secure a third term in the upcoming elections. Modi will become the only prime minister in Indian history to secure three terms after the nation’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. From the Ram Mandir temple in Ayodhya, a trajectory of ‘Hindutva’, to the recent work of foreign minister Jaishankar’s contribution ‘Why Bharath Matters’ resurrecting the Indian mythological god Ram and applying to modern-day Indian foreign policy are all part of the same nationalist agenda. Hindutva would work in the domestic political arena, leaving a gap to integrate India’s immediate neighborhood. India’s other provinces, such as South India, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) MP A Raja explained “that Tamil Nadu needs Dravidian and Tamil nationalism instead of Hindu nationalism”. Tamil Nationalism, used in Tamil Nadu, is spread north of Sri Lanka with a different separatist agenda. The recent victory of the new ITAK leader was a result of the successful use of Tamil nationalism to propel the grievances of the Tamils from the past and further refer to the slain LTTE rebel leader Prabhakaran. 

Tamil Nationalism in Sri Lanka

Among the two candidates who contested for the leadership position of ITAK, the mainstream and the largest Tamil political party in the North and East of Sri Lanka, Sivagnanam Shritharan won the election, defeating Sumanthiran, a mainstream Tamil national politician who played a more prominent role but refrained, from hardline Tamil Nationalism. Shritharan, who became the ITAK president, has managed to reach out to the younger demography with his hardline stand based on Tamil nationalism ‘which precedes the LTTE and continues after its demise, does not necessarily entail a separate state, but is compatible with federalism and other variants of power-sharing’ argues Dr Jehan Perera from National Peace Council. 

In an exclusive interview, Shritharan to Tamil Guardian explained, “13th Amendment [power sharing agreement] is not a political solution for the Tamil people. As far as the political aspirations of our Tamil people are concerned, it is our opinion that a solution reached within the ‘Unitary State’ will not fulfil those aspirations. Our journey is towards a federal solution..” Further adding to his victory in the election where most members voted for his ideology, “I have a clear view that it must start from the tombs of the heroes[LTTE] who were martyred. The blueprint for Eelam national liberation has been drawn up accordingly. There may be some of us who have views or misunderstandings against the LTTE.” The clear message to resurrect the LTTE separatist ideology was a strong message to the Tamil community in Sri Lanka. Shritharan’s Tamil Nationalism will impact the upcoming presidential elections at the end of the year. 

Shritharan’s first visit after winning was to the Kanakapuram cemetery to commemorate the deceased LTTE cadres. This is an apparent gesture towards resurrecting the pro-LTTE separatist agenda through Tamil Nationalism, already accepted by a considerable number of Tamil polity in the North and East. The Tamil Nationalism with separatist ideology propagated will directly flame the Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalism, which is an electoral tool for the Southern politicians, especially the Rajapaksa-backed politicians. The idea of “Sri Lanka becoming a sub-colony of India” is already articulated by Rajapaksa-backed nationalist politician Wimal Weerawansa. The sovereignty to safeguard the country from LTTE ideology is a perfect narrative for the Sinhalese ultranationalists to project the national security threat to win the election. The past presidential election campaign used the same sentiments. Shritharan’s pro-LTTE narrative is a blessing for the Southern Sinhalese Buddhist ultranationalists to secure their vote. The more considerable Indian influence on the island, such as the recent ferry service between the two countries to other infrastructure projects, such as the Trincomalee oil tank farm, will propel the sovereignty narrative. Marxist NPP political leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, who was critical of Indian projects in Sri Lanka and the power-sharing agreement with Tamils [13th Amendment], was invited to India, another push factor towards the “Indian sub-colony” mentality that will impact Sinhalese Buddhist majority voters.

The absence and loss of moderate voice in the Tamil political arena is also to be blamed on the Sri Lankan government, where the Tamil grievances were never genuinely addressed by subsequent governments. Issues of missing persons, the use of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), failure to return the land belonging to the Tamil people and the absence of a genuine reconciliation process were reasons for Tamil Nationalism to rise and be viewed as the only solution. 

The state of Sri Lanka has four-pronged challenges (see Table above): first, the rise of Tamil Nationalism with a separatist agenda; second, India’s sub-colony mentality due to the acquisition of strategic assets; third, the Tamil Nadu factor over Katchatheevu; and fourth, India’s geopolitical maneuvers through security measures to ward off Chinese influence on the island. These four factors already influence the domestic political arena, where Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalism will have a high impact and result in the next presidential election. Mainstream presidential candidates will require the Tamilian vote and, simultaneously, require the Sinhalese Buddhist majority vote over 70%. Suppose the India threat is projected well by the Sinhalese Buddhist ultra-nationalists towards an ‘India Out’ campaign. In that case, China will only be required to support the majoritarian camp to lead to a clear victory. The Maldivian election pattern was also in the same line where domestic security and sovereignty and the ‘India Out’ campaign favored the present leadership to victory.

An abridged version of this article was initially published by NIAS Bangalore.

Author profile
Asanga Abeyagoonasekera

Asanga Abeyagoonasekera is a Senior Fellow at the Millennium Project in Washington DC and the author of Teardrop Diplomacy: ChinaSri Lanka Foray published by Bloomsbury (2023).

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