Time for Upcountry Tamils to come together

Time for Upcountry Tamils to come together

By N Sathiya Moorthy

Barring his followers, no one really got to know about the lead of the Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) of Upcountry Tamils, Mano Ganesan, abstaining from what passed off for an all-party conference called by President Ranil Wickremesinghe the other day, to discuss and discourse on the ‘National Problem’. No, it is not the economic issues that continue engulf the nation a year after it all began as a rude and unbelievable shock. Instead, it was all about the original ‘National Problem’, namely, the ethnic issue, though no one uses that phrase in that or any context any more.

Mano Ganesan said that they were boycotting the all-party meet because it was not addressing the concerns of the Upcountry Tamils, and instead focussed exclusively on what remains to be focussed on the ethnic issue relating to the Sri Lankan Tamil (SLT) community. Well said, but there is no guarantee that Mano would say such things again and again and again – and chart out a future course of action aimed at the government and the national polity taking the Upcountry Tamils’ cause into reckoning.

It is not unlikely, and mostly likely, his followers too seem to have concluded that Mano Ganesan boycotted the talks because the mainline Opposition SJB too stayed away. Yet, whatever news flowed out of the boycott, it was the SJB’s abstention made the news, and naturally so. Barring a few Tamil newspapers in Jaffna, which looked also at the Tamil politics of capital Colombo, not many reported Mano, even as much as they have done with his periodic statements, which invariably commented on the ethnic issue more than the Upcountry Tamils’ problems.

No, it does not mean that Mano Ganesan has not spoken about his clan. Rather, he has commented on every micro issue that is of concern for the Upcountry Tamils. But overall, his voice was heard more on larger issues, or rather, what others thought as larger issues, where the Upcountry Tamils were deemed to have little or no say.

Twine shall not meet

Maybe, the late veteran Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman or Mano’s late father V P Ganesan, who charted out their own limited courses that was confined to the Upcountry Tamil cause. Thus, Thondaman Sr told off SLT leader and ITAK founder, S J V Chelvanayagam, to mind his business and let him mind his. The logic was simple. The SLT polity was fighting for rights, the Upcountry Tamils were fighting for survival, physical and political. The twine shall not meet, seem to have been his conclusion.

Yes, that’s true. The post-Independence government began their first year in office as far back as 1948 by disenfranchising the Upcountry Tamils and rendering them stateless, for which the pre-SJV kind of SLT too extended its support. Even without it, there is the historic, ‘cultural’ issue of the Upcountry Tamils being the late-comers from the south Indian State of India. In comparison, the SLT people would tell the nation’s Sinhala majority and also the international community that they were a part of the nation’s being from the very beginning. In India and to Indians, they would say that they had umbilical cord links that cannot be cut off.

But in reality, then and now, it has more to do with castes and political power from the side of the SLT, and of jobs and incomes for the Upcountry Tamils. Like the SLT community, the Upcountry Tamils did not lose their well-being to the constitutional rights and political powers, of which the former wanted more and the latter lost even whatever little they have had.

Problem of perception

The problem with the Upcountry Tamils is a problem of perception of its divided polity, and their priorities. After Thondaman Sr, his nephew, the late Arumugan
Thondaman did not measure up, nor could he keep the community united under the larger CWC flag. His ways and waywardness caused constant splits in the party, hence in the community, too, and the results are there for everyone to see.

When not long ago, Mano Ganesan joined and the young inheritor to the CWC flag, Jeevan Thondaman, there were hopes of most, if not all Upcountry Tamil parties, joining hands even if they did not merge. Those hopes have since been belied, or have at least taken a back seat.

So much so, no other Upcountry Tamil leader seems to have congratulated Jeevan becoming the youngest cabinet minister, not only from the community but also from the country as a whole. Among them were many who had done so when he quit the previous Gotabaya Rajapaksa government.

Maybe, it is time veterans like Mano Ganesan, who too has years of politics ahead of him, join hands with the young Jeevan-Senthil duo, and reunited the community and polity to its historic strength. And Mano has to take the initiative as others would be reticent if not diffident, for obvious reasons.

Post-war, when some Good Samaritans tried to bring them all together, that was when Thonda too was around but the present-day duo was not anywhere in the picture, the inherent differences were set out as one of perception and programme. The CWC, like the Tamil-speaking Muslim parties, had concluded since the days of  Thondaman Sr, that to obtain benefits for their people, they have to work with the government of the day, not certainly against it.

Failed miserably, yet…

To them, protests against the government was different from protests against estate owners for higher wages. Though some of it has since changed, the underlying spirit has remained. Against this, Mano and the rest had long since concluded that they had to fight for their rights, say, like their SLT brethren, who in the heart of hearts possibly did not consider them as one, then and since.

Did such an initiative flow from Mano Ganesan having to depend on the substantial number of SLT voters in his parliamentary electorate, for him to win/retain his seat in Colombo district? Yes-and-no is the answer. However, his efforts to combine both to identify himself as much a leader of the SLT community in the national capital, which has no SLT party or MP to call its own, have failed miserably, despite repeated attempts. Yet, Mano is not the one to easily give up, not on this count.

In simple terms, Mano Ganesan cannot hope to ride two horses at the time – fill the vacancy at the community’s top on the one hand and arguing the SLT’s case, both inside and outside Parliament, eyeing their votes in his electorate. Last year’s episode where he was called in to sort of arbiter intra-SLT dispute over the latter writing to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. SLMC’s Rauff Hakeem too was similarly roped in.

Both got a bloody nose after someone out there in the SLT told in so many nice words that it was the community’s internal problem, and no just the majority Sinhalas but also other Tamil-speaking community leaders like Mano and Rauff had no business or place in their scheme. Short of being told, not to try and fish in the troubled waters, they were believed to have been told to quit without complaining.

Decent thing to do

The two leaders obliged, not because there was the LTTE-like threat, but because that was the only decent thing to do. A more decent thing would have been for the two not to have got involved in the first place.

It is thus anybody’s guess why Mano did not talk to his SLT compatriots about the plight of the Upcountry Tamils, for enlisting their support. The plain and simple answer is this: One, they are unable to resolve their one internal crisis and then find a political solution in talks with the government over the past several decades.

Two, they would rather go to New Delhi and other global capitals with their woes, but have never ever really approached the Upcountry Tamils and the Muslims – after Thondaman Sr had sort of rebuffed SJV. Plain and simple, the SLT is telling the likes of Mano Ganesan to take care of his community’s issues and not to bother them with his owes, nor interfere with their own  problems and concerns.

But then, Mano has offered his voice more frequently and louder, in the cause of the SLT community, the Sinhala masses (‘Aragalaya’ protests, for instance but that wasis not he only one) and everything opposed to the government of the day. His voice is being heard, yes, but has anyone heard him enough, leave alone listened to him?

Thereby hangs a tale, and that is also the bane of the Upcountry Tamils in political terms, today.

(The writer is a policy analyst & political commentator, based in Chennai, India. Email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)

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