Buddhist devotees watch a mahout bathe an elephant calf during the Vesakha annual religious festival in Colombo in May. AP/PTI
mong the bouquet of cultures that defines India, there is a special resonance for Tamil, a language that goes back millennia. Together with other noble offshoots of the Indian mainstream such as Bengali, those speaking Tamil continue to make history across the world, winning awards for science and literature and doing superbly in business and the professions. Among the Tamil diaspora, those coming from Sri Lanka are distinct, in that many left the island in the 1980s, following the riots that left thousands dead. The parents of this columnist were resident in Colombo in 1983, when the worst violence occurred, and was fortunate in that a mob entering their home stopped on seeing a statue of Lord Buddha in the living room, and left without doing any damage. Others had a different experience. The lucky simply lost their property, but many paid with their lives for the Sinhala-Tamil hostility that has been a legacy of British rule. Before 1948, because a large number of them were literate and moreover Christian, special preference was given by the colonial authority to Tamils in government service. After freedom, power went into the hands of the Sinhala majority, who sought to reverse the discrimination against their largely Buddhist community that was present during the days when the Union Jack fluttered over flag posts in Colombo, Jaffna, Kandy and elsewhere. However, they went too far, effectively blocking Tamil youngsters from access to higher education, and therefore to state employment. After three decades of such unequal treatment, leadership of the Tamil movement went into the hands of armed groups, finally getting monopolised by the LTTE by the simple expedient of killing any Tamil leader who did not follow their line.
The next three decades were hell for Sri Lanka, not only for the Tamils but for the majority (73%) Sinhala population as well. The LTTE was expert in blowing up people and buildings, or in gunning them down. Thanks to their bitter experience in Sri Lanka during the 1980s, several within the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora shifted to the side of the Tigers. Had they refused, it would have been unsafe to have taken out life insurance on the relatives that they had left behind in Sri Lanka. To oppose the LTTE was suicide. Even to not join them when asked was fatal, as Neelam Tiruchelvan (for example) found out decades ago. Even those who had done much for the Tamils, but who were opposed to the violence unleashed by the LTTE, such as A. Amirthalingam or Laxman Kadirgamar were killed by Prabhakaran's men, whose initial training had been in India under the aegis of Indira Gandhi. Nearly a third of Sri Lanka came under the LTTE's occupation and rule, although the extent changed over time, depending on the direction taken by the conflict with the Sri Lankan Army. Several times in the past, LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran was offered a deal by Colombo. Even after the killing of
Rajiv Gandhi by the LTTE in 1991 or the way in which 9/11 indicated the danger of a soft approach towards terrorism, European countries in particular continued to back the LTTE. Norway was a particular friend, with Foreign Minister Eric Solheim even calling Prabhakaran a "military genius" in his conversations with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2006, talks designed to persuade Rajapaksa to — in effect — introduce a Two-State solution in the island. Unlike Manmohan Singh or Sonia Gandhi, who bend into pretzels when sweetly requested to by the Europeans, Rajapaksa insisted on keeping his country united. By 18 May 2008, he had defeated the LTTE and sent Prabhakaran to the other world.
Mahinda Rajapaksa is not a city slicker the way Jayawardene was, or even Premadasa. He comes from a village in the deep south of Sri Lanka, and has the shrewdness of such origins. He knows that following in the footsteps of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and seeking to impose Sinhala domination over the Tamils would not only not be practical, but it would be a repudiation of the Buddhist faith that he is devoted to. This gives an opportunity to the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora that in the past was sympathetic to the Eelam concept. Sri Lanka is and will remain a unitary state. Within that state however, the Tamil-majority areas have the potential to be for Sri Lanka what the south coast is to China, the most prosperous part of the country. For this to happen, the Tamil diaspora needs to invest, invest, invest in Sri Lanka's Tamil-majority areas. Should this take place, it would be in the finest traditions of a culture that generated the Chola empire, and which has given so much to India, Canada, Singapore, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and other locations where Tamil-speaking migrants are present in sizeable numbers.