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Context demands Tamil-Muslim solidarity


“Muslims may not be a community distinct from the Tamils, but they have some special problems pertaining to their security. […] Tamil support for Muslim security and peace could open a new chapter in Tamil-Muslim relations,” says an article by A.R.M. Imtiyaz and S.R.H. Hoole,
appeared in Routledge-published July issue of Journal of South Asian studies. “We argue that the Tamils’ northern leadership has been insensitive to Muslims,” the article said. Reviewing the article, a Tamil academic in the island commented that while the argument is partly true, the East was always influencing and imposing decisions in this regard. Inspiring initiatives should therefore originate from the East, evolving from its experiences, and all Tamils should support it. Based on secular and inclusive attributes of Tamil identity, progressive forces in Tamil Nadu also have a role to play, the reviewer said.

Full text of the review by a Tamil academic in the island follows:

Dr. Imtiyaz and Prof. Ratnajeevan Hoole in their article, “Some Critical Notes on the Non-Tamil Identity of the Muslims of Sri Lanka, and on Tamil-Muslim Relations” concluded that the Muslim elites impelled by the exclusive politics of Tamils tried to construct a non-Tamil identity, but did not succeed in arriving at distinct identity markers.

“This study argues that the Muslim elites’ efforts to construct a distinct identity for their community were mainly a direct result of the exclusive nature of Tamil politics. Ironically, though, these efforts were mainly counter-productive. Identity markers such as a distinct race of Arab origin, and a mixed language that Muslims called Arab-Tamil, or Arabic Tamil, or Muslim Tamil, did not help the quest for a distinct non-Tamil identity for the Tamil-speaking Muslims. More particularly it demonstrates that the Muslim elites’ endeavours to form a non-Tamil social formation based on the Islamic faith also did not offer legitimate ethnic recognition to the Muslims. Rather, they helped configure the Muslims as a narrow religious group rather than empowering them as an ethnic group. Religion is a powerful symbolic marker, but it cannot serve as the primary ethnic boundary-marker in societies deeply divided along ethnic lines,” the conclusion part of the article said.

As the authors have rightly observed, identity is sense of belongingness, base for power and is elite-constructed. “Ethnic elites can construct new identities or deploy interpretations of them to consolidate their community’s position in a time of crisis.”

But identity is also ‘imposed’ sometimes, by how others look at one. At the same time, a person or a people could also have multiple identities, ranging from household or local to global, but coming out with the one which they psychologically feel important to the context. It is like having several cards in one’s pocket but taking out the right one to meet a situation.

When a people come out with highlighting an identity they have reasons for it. That identity has to be accepted, understood, and accommodated before it becomes aggressive. Accepting another’s quest for identity is the first step to forge larger inclusive identities facilitating enhanced and consolidated power.

Culturally sophisticated identities that are more accommodative and more inclusive are more successful.

Tamil linguistic identity is the only living identity in South Asia and is one of the few in the world that accommodated all the major religions of the world. This became possible because of its long existence as classical as well as living language.

Eezham Tamils have to explore and effectively use the secular-inclusive potentialities inherent in Tamil identity towards forging bondage between Eezham Tamils and Tamil speaking Muslims. Elite sophistication in both the identities is the requirement.

* * *

A criterion of identity that has particular relevance to the crisis as well as potentialities of Tamil-Muslim relationship, but needs more elucidation in the article, is land or geography.

Human-environment relationship is a powerful form of identity that sometimes surpasses all the others.

When the sense of belongingness to a land is threatened by aggression, the affected peoples have to forge a common identity, but as the article has pointed out the affected allowed them to be set against each other.

“We argue that the Tamils’ northern leadership has been insensitive to Muslims—that they have played into the hands of the Colombo government by persecuting Muslims in their midst on the pretext of responding to government-instigated violence among local Muslim youths,” Imtiyaz and Hoole said in the abstract of the article.

A little in depth analysis would show that Tamil and Muslim competition in the East, especially related to land, perverted Tamil-Muslim relationship in the whole of the island.

Leaders of the militant movements from the north on many occasions privately admitted that despite their eagerness to forge unity with Muslims they had to yield into the pressure of the local situation in the East, lest they would lose cadres and supporters from that region. Whenever any northerner spoke in sympathy of the Muslims, an Eastern Tamil nationalist would often retort that the northerner didn’t know the ground realities.

Yet there were Left-oriented militant cadres coming from both Muslims and Tamils who rose above the division and were in the Tamil liberation movements. They were side lined. In the late 1980s both the Indian and American agencies were keen that the Tamil liberation movements should get rid of the Leftists.

These can’t be excuses for the lacuna in the Tamil national movements or for their failure in forging the Tamil-Muslim unity in a determined way.

But the East still holds the key for Tamil-Muslim relations.

Many agree that liberation sentiments are comparatively at its highest ebb in the East, a region that has seen the worst of colonisation for decades. The unresolved Tamil-Muslim equation impedes the region from rising up.

Rather than looking upon the north or accusing it, the elites of the East have to take their own initiative in resolving their local crisis and in setting inspirations. The East has to join with the north as equal partners. The country of Eezham Tamils must be able to give confidence to all peoples including Sinhalese, but whether it could provide confidence to Muslims is specially counted.

* * *

Another region that needs focus in dealing with the Tamil heritage of Muslims and Tamil-Muslim relationship is the Puththa’lam district in the Northwest Province.

Ilavangku’lam, Puththa’lam, Katpiddi and Chilaapam belt and its continuity into Neer-kozhumpu (Negombo), which was exclusively a Tamil-speaking region of Muslims and Tamils is today not in the picture of discussions.

Muslims seeking non-Tamil identity is in “sharp contradiction to Tamil Nadu Muslims and Christian Tamils describing themselves as Tamils,” Imtiyaz and Hoole cite in their article.

But the Northwest province and Western Province in the island show a picture of irony. While Christian Tamils of the region, through elite as well as Church decisions, have become Sinhalese without any qualms in the last few generations, it is the Muslims of this region who strongly retain Tamil in their usage.

With tourism cum corporate land-grab, this region is coming into turmoil in recent times. The Tamil solidarity should go with all those whose land rights are threatened. The Puththa’lam region needs a special attention in building Tamil-Muslim solidarity and in setting inspirations. It may perhaps be easier to start it in Puththa’lam region, as Tamils are not a threat there.

* * *

A big variation in academic treatment is perceivable in different parts of the article. One part treated with impersonal and impassionate academic professionalism turns into the opposite in another part.

Two minds of different orientation at work are easily identifiable in the article written by Dr. Imtiyaz and Prof. Ratnajeevan Hoole.

While there are many in-depth points to be analysed with academic refinement in bringing out a total picture of the issue, deviously partial examples, personal bias and amateurism in sociological treatment mar certain parts of the article and that may harm the sane aims of the article.

Depending on Manu to explain the complex caste practices and hierarchy (p222) is not academic sociology. Western Orientalism has only one word ‘caste’ to call the phenomenon. But it is elementary in the study of caste in South Asia that Varna of the Dharma Sastras and Jaati that preceded it belong to different genera.

“The varna-model has produced a wrong and distorted image of caste. It is necessary for the sociolo¬gist to free himself from the hold of the varna-model if he wishes to understand the caste system,” is what the famous sociologist MN Srinivas said in 1962.

Census in Colonial India and the Birth of Caste by Padmanabh Samarendra
An enlightening article in this regard, “Census in Colonial India and the Birth of Caste,” by Padmanabh Samarendra of the Jamia Millia Islamia of New Delhi appeared in the Economic and Political Weekly last week.

“Colonial census officials, working with concepts of varna and jati, struggled unsuccessfully to define and classify these into castes on a single pan-India list, where each caste had to be discreet, homogeneous and enumerable, Padmanabh writes adding that “The history of caste enumeration in the Indian census illustrates how difficult it is to capture indigenous social hierarchies and identities under the term caste.”

“Caste, as conceived in contemporary academic writings or within the policies of the State, is a new idea produced during the second half of the 19th century in the course of and because of the census operations,” Padmanab argues.

The author of the concerned parts of the Routledge article is sure to be benefitted in sociological understanding by reading the Economic and Political Weekly article.

The Routledge article brings in an analogy of the colonial legacy of the upper caste Hindu-Protestant confrontation for social leadership in attributing contemporary Tamil-Hindu attitude towards Muslims. While the analogy is not befitting to the context, competition for social leadership is not exclusive to the upper echelons of any single religion.

The Routledge article also has a lacuna in assessing the social and attitudinal changes that have taken place in the Eezham Tamil society through a prolonged struggle for liberation.

There are also a few factual errors in the article: “The earliest stratum of Arab traders are likely to have been Christian, as indicated by the archaeological finds of a Thomian cross, and an early Christian baptismal font, from the pre-Buddhist Anuradhapura period (161–137 BC),” the article says, citing Codrington and a 2009 newspaper article by Andrew Scott. The date and the pre-Buddhist label are wrong.

One of the footnotes in the article says, Thai Pongal is a Tamil Vellala Hindu festival and other Hindus in India do not celebrate it. The day, which is basically an astronomical reckoning, is observed under a different name Makara Sankranti in the rest of India, and is a national holiday there.

The article, which sees Tamils secularizing Thai Pongal into a day of Tamil cultural identity as an example of Hindu-Vellala cultural domination, fails to see that the New Year on January 1 is nowadays celebrated in Hindu temples.

* * *

Agreeing with, and citing the International Crisis Group, the article says the following on the attitude of ‘Jaffna leadership’.

“This tendency to take non-Jaffna people for granted reached its most vulgar extreme in 2009, when overseas Tamils tied to the Jaffna leadership, who were demonstrating to save the Tamil Tigers, refused to say a word about the dire plight of the people of the Vanni who had been forcibly recruited by the LTTE.”

The TamilNet editorial on last Sunday has dealt with the issue:

“The International Crisis Group (ICG) that voices the inner thinking of the establishments in the West is naked in implying that it is not merit but context that matters and the context doesn’t favour liberation of Eezham Tamils, which shamelessly means context could ignore or allow genocide.

It is with such an orientation organizations like the ICG were setting the opinion platform for the war in the island that took a genocidal course but they now chose to blame the diaspora for not demanding the LTTE to tell the people to surrender to the SL Army.

Some vicious elements even interpret it as Jaffna-dominated diaspora’s preparedness to sacrifice the people of Vanni to save the LTTE leadership.

A large part of the people trapped in Vanni was either from Jaffna or of Jaffna origins. The diaspora had its kith and kin among them. The diaspora’s demand to the international community was to stop the war and directly take charge of the people. The diaspora’s concern was that the people should never get into the hands of the genocidal Army.

The IC and India didn’t want to do it and the diaspora’s concern is proved by the way the war was ended and the way the remaining people were treated by the genocidal Army.”

While citing the editorial on the specific issue, the reviewer doesn’t argue against the need for wider leadership of Tamils and Muslims in future.

* * *

On Tamil international views of the past offending the Muslims the Routledge article said: “From the late 1950s the Federal Party became avowedly pro-Israeli because many Tamils saw themselves to be like ‘the Jews’, clever but put down, and capable of setting up their own state. The Manavar Peravai or youth wing of the Federal Party was in close contact with the Israeli embassy in Colombo. As the Left-leaning government moved towards severing contacts with Israel in the 1970s, Federal Party MPs spoke out against the move. This too made it difficult for Muslims to be on the Tamil bandwagon.”

The article concentrating on the LTTE and SL government doesn’t recognize that many other Tamil militant organisations received training from the PLO.

However, reading the paragraph in the current context, one cannot help wondering that to what extent academics of American university connections, sharing views with International Crisis Group and writing in Routledge, UK, would be acceptable to Muslim grassroot in the island.

Progressive civil society in Tamil Nadu, and especially progressive Muslims in Tamil Nadu could be able to play a practically conducive role in making acceptable approaches to the grassroots in forging Tamil-Muslim solidarity in healthier lines. Kaayal-paddinam, Keezhakkarai, Athiraam-paddinam, Naaggor etc are still close to the hearts of the Muslims in the island.

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