Friday :: Feb 6, 2009

Language and Ethnic Conflict in South Asia

by eriposte

Yesterday, the Foreign Policy blog Passport linked to a news story in Bloomberg discussing the noticeable 17% rise in the stock market in Sri Lanka this year due to perceptions that the long-running conflict in Sri Lanka was coming to an end. The rise in the stock market has been driven by the news that the Sri Lankan government has overrun much of the territory long held by the opposing terrorist group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and is on the verge of "defeating" the LTTE after decades of conflict.

The conflict in Sri Lanka is one of the most terrible examples of what can go wrong when you combine a government that rules with contempt and disregard for ethnic minorities and a violent opposition (LTTE) that ranks amongst the most vile terrorist groups on the planet. If you look at the map depicting the Foreign Policy/Fund for Piece 2008 Failed States Index, you will notice that with the exception of China and unlike India, all of India's other neighbors are either in the "Critical" (especially Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka) or "In Danger" categories. The Failed State Index rankings place Pakistan at 9, Bangladesh at 12 and Sri Lanka at 20, much worse than many African nations that have had long-running conflicts. Why did this happen?

As I discussed in my recent series (Introduction, 1, 2, 3, 4) on the past Indian conflict in Mizoram, conflicts rarely have a single root cause. There are almost always several factors that combine together to create a combustible and violent environment. However, very often, some of the key factors are similar across conflicts. In the case of South Asia, the post-colonial (1947+) history of South Asia makes it obvious that conflict over ethnicity - particularly as manifested by a suppression of language - has been one of the principal underpinnings of violent conflict in the region. To be clear, language suppression alone is almost never the only cause of conflict. What I mean is that suppression of language is often accompanied by ethnic discrimination and suppression, and since linguistic identity is such an important ingredient in the preservation of ethnic traditions and culture, language rights often become a rallying cause sitting atop underlying socio-economic and ethnic suppression. In this post, I'm going to briefly discuss this topic and also highlight why, India, despite its extraordinary linguistic diversity (unlike much smaller and far less linguistically diverse countries like Sri Lanka and Pakistan) is not on the endangered list in the Failed States Index.

My primary focus in this post is the Sri Lankan conflict, mainly because it is very important not to gloss over its ethnic underpinnings, even if, and especially if, the Sri Lankan government succeeds in defeating the LTTE. If the recent claims of the Sri Lankan government are indeed true then we might get a badly needed respite from the violence there. However, it is unlikely that a government victory over the LTTE, in itself, will solve Sri Lanka's long-running conflict because it is not clear that the Sri Lankan government will address the fundamental reasons that triggered the conflict in the first place. It is therefore imperative that the United States and other major countries across the globe continue to put pressure on the Sri Lankan government to undertake massive reform to truly eliminate the issues that were a major contributing factor to the start of this conflict.

This recent Associated Press story by Ravi Nessman and this 2006 Council for Foreign Relations (CFR) Backgrounder by Carin Zissis provide a brief discussion of the triggers of the Sri Lankan conflict. For a more detailed overview, we turn to a recent article - "Sri Lanka at Sixty: A History of Ethnocentrism and Degeneration" - by Associate Professor Neil DeVotta of New York's Hartwick College, published in one of India's rather unique, progressive, and often scholarly, subscription-only publications - Economic and Political Weekly. Unfortunately, this piece is behind EPW's subscription firewall, but I will quote a few excerpts (emphasis mine, throughout this post):

The high expectations for the island at the time of independence [1948] notwithstanding, one of the very first decisions Sri Lanka’s new leaders made was rooted in racism; and this pertained to not conferring citizenship on hundreds of thousands of Indian Tamils born and raised in the country (with many being fourth and fifth generation denizens). The British brought the Indian Tamils from south India to work as indentured labourers beginning in the 1830s and by the time the country gained independence they were fully incorporated into the island’s tea estates. The leftist and communist parties had campaigned on behalf of these estate labourers and consequently won most of their allegiance, which the conservative United National Party (UNP) found problematic. Yet Indian Tamils were denied citizenship mainly because Sinhalese Buddhist leaders feared that they threatened the demographic advantage the upcountry Sinhalese had long enjoyed. The rhetoric and justifications used make this amply clear.7 Some Tamil politicians from the north, influenced by their retrograde casteist proclivities, supported the policy.8 The irony was that this, in turn, strengthened Sinhalese Buddhist representation in the legislature and made it easier for Sinhalese parliamentarians to eventually discriminate against Sri Lankan Tamils as well.

In her book "World on Fire" Amy Chua briefly discussed the roots of the Sri Lankan conflict and pointed out that one of the main factors behind the Sri Lankan governments' actions was that prior to the independence of Sri Lanka in 1948, "the disproportionate economic power of the Tamil minority had produced bitter resentment among the (largely Buddhist) Sinhalese majority by the 1950s. Solomon Bandaranaike - Oxford-educated and a consummate politician - capitalized on this resentment. Converting from Roman Catholicism to Buddhism, he swept to electoral victory in 1956 by scapegoating Tamils and championing the cause of "Sinhala only"." (page 132). That wasn't all. As DeVotta writes:

Some like to argue that Sri Lanka would have avoided Sinhalese Buddhist ethnocentrism and the subsequent civil war had D S Senanayake, the country’s first prime minister, lived longer. They conveniently forget that it was D S Senanayake who oversaw the disenfranchisement of Indian Tamils on demographic and racial grounds even as he pursued Sinhalese colonisation of traditionally Tamil areas in the north-east...


The single most important cause that sundered Sinhalese- Tamil comity and marked the island for civil war was the movement that made Sinhala the country’s only official language in 1956 (DeVotta 2004). The Sinhala only demand ensued when many Sinhalese began opposing the so-called swabasha movement (which would have provided parity of status to both Sinhala and Tamil) and instead clamoured for Sinhala alone to be made the country’s official language. Their position was championed by opportunistic and unprincipled politicians like S W R D Bandaranaike, who manipulated the burgeoning chauvinism in their community to capture power. Bandaranaike aspired to become prime minister as a member of the UNP. However, he left the party to join the opposition and create the SLFP upon realising that D S Senanayake was grooming his son for the prime minister position. When the UNP discovered it was going to lose the 1956 elections by championing linguistic parity, it too adopted a Sinhala only platform. Thereafter both the UNP and SLFP resorted to ethnic outbidding, with each trying to outdo the other on promoting Sinhalese Buddhist preferences and maximising Sinhalese Buddhist gains (ibid)


...Peaceful Tamil protests outside parliament led to attacks that started the first ever anti-Tamil riots killing over 150 Tamils. The government’s attempt to impose vehicle number plates with Sinhala lettering in the north-east led to further Tamil protests and culminated in the 1958 anti-Tamil riots. Bandaranaike sought to appease Tamils by making Tamil a regional language (among other things) but the chauvinists he had manipulated would have none of it.

As I pointed out at the start of this post, language suppression is usually a means for other ethnic or socio-economic suppression and there was plenty of that in Sri Lanka. As DeVotta points out:

...While respected for being incorruptible, Sirimavo Bandaranaike did more to marginalise the island’s Tamils than anyone before her. Be it due to nescience, arrogance, or ethnocentrism, her two governments (1960-65 and 1970-77) pursued policy upon policy geared to make Tamils second class citizens: for instance, they avoided developing Tamil areas in the north-east and instead developed Sinhalese areas; barred Tamils being hired into the government service; forced the remaining Tamil civil servants to learn Sinhala in order to be promoted; stationed Sinhalese civil servants in Tamil areas, disregarding the difficulties this posed to Tamils when interacting with these transplants who knew no Tamil; instituted Sinhala only into the courts system in the predominantly Tamil north-east; instituted policies that required Tamil students to score higher to enter the university system; created a quota system so that Sinhalese students from especially rural areas could enter the university at the expense of hitherto overrepresented Tamils; banned Tamil publications promoting Tamil culture from [nearby] Tamil Nadu [state in India]; pursued Sinhalese colonisation by flooding traditionally Tamil areas with Sinhalese from the south; and disregarded Tamil input when crafting an ethnocentric constitution that codified Sinhala as the only national language and Buddhism as the foremost religion. The UNP government during 1965-70 rolled back the policy of Sinhala only in the court system and sought to be more sensitive toward Tamils’ legitimate grievances, but it was unable to defenestrate the majoritarian political culture that demanded Sinhalese Buddhist superordination and minority subordination.

When peaceful protests failed to change this trajectory, a minority of the island state's Tamil population unfortunately started resorting to violence and this eventually gave rise to the ultra-violent LTTE (an organization that was responsible for the female suicide-bomber in India who killed Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi). DeVotta naturally has harsh words for the LTTE:

Sri Lanka is not going to be sundered. The recent military gains by the country’s armed forces coupled with how the government has made satraps out of former LTTE cadres in the Eastern Province suggest that the LTTE’s quest for Eelam (a separate Tamil state) is increasingly in regress. However, as long as the LTTE’s leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran is alive, the group is unlikely to be completely wiped out. It may instead revert to a guerrilla war that could destabilise Sri Lanka in the future. A number of reasons have contributed to the outfit’s setbacks, and these include divisions within the organisation, its megalomaniac leader’s determination to create Eelam via military means alone, its inability to tolerate dissent, ruthless taxation policies in areas under its control, and practices such as suicide terrorism, bombs targeting innocent Sinhalese civilians, and forcible recruitment of children. No separatist outfit became as formidable as did the LTTE and yet no separatist outfit has so undermined its military prowess due to the inherent contradictions and fissures within the organisation. It is also ironic that a group that claims to fight for Tamils’ freedom is despised by many Tamils living in Sri Lanka. Those who grudgingly sympathise with it do so because they believe the LTTE’s military prowess is all that is left to extract political concessions from the Sri Lankan regime, not because they endorse the LTTE’s claim that it is the sole representative of the island’s Tamils.

The ethno-linguistic conflict in Sri Lanka is not unique to that state. In fact, after the partition of pre-colonial India into India and Pakistan in 1947 largely on religious lines (due to mostly religious arguments from the Muslim League), Pakistan subsequently split into two states. There were a few major reasons for this, but language was one of them - an underpinning for other forms of suppression:

In 1948, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan's first Governor-General, declared in Dhaka (then usually spelled Dacca in English) that "Urdu, and only Urdu" would be the sole official language for all of Pakistan.[18] This proved highly controversial, since Urdu was a language that was only spoken in the West by Muhajirs and in the East by Biharis. The majority groups in West Pakistan spoke Punjabi and Sindhi, while the Bengali language was spoken by the majority of East Pakistanis.[19] The language controversy eventually reached a point where East Pakistan revolted. Several students and civilians lost their lives in a police crackdown on 21 February 1952.[19] The day is revered in Bangladesh and in West Bengal as the Language Martyrs' Day. Later, in memory of the 1952 killings, UNESCO declared 21 February as the International Mother Language Day in 1999.[20]

In West Pakistan, the movement was seen as a sectional uprising against Pakistani national interests[21] and the founding ideology of Pakistan, the Two-Nation Theory.[22] West Pakistani politicians considered Urdu a product of Indian Islamic culture,[23] as Ayub Khan said, as late as in 1967, "East Bengalis... still are under considerable Hindu culture and influence."[23] But, the deaths led to bitter feelings among East Pakistanis, and they were a major factor in the push for independence.[23][22]

Despite the experiences in then-East Pakistan, successive Sri Lankan governments continued their policy of linguistic suppression. In the case of Pakistan, partly due to India's intervention, East Pakistan split and became the independent nation of Bangladesh in 1971. In the case of Sri Lanka, the LTTE has long ruled parts of Northern Sri Lanka as if it were a separate state - and it appears that rule might finally come to a violent end.

Let me turn to the question of why India, despite its substantially higher linguistic diversity has not seen the same scale of civil conflicts over language. It is true that India has its own checkered past in dealing with internal strife (especially in Kashmir), but there is no doubt that it has emerged stronger internally than its immediate neighbors. R. Guha in his book "India After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy" discussed why (pages 752-753):

The creation of an Islamic state on India's borders was a provocation to those Hindus who themselves wished to merge faith with state. My own view - speaking as a historian rather than citizen - is that as long as Pakistan exists there will be Hindu fundamentalists in India....In times of change, or when the political leadership is irresolute, they will be influential and assertive.

The pluralism of religion was one cornerstone of the foundation of the Indian republic. A second was pluralism of language. Here again, the intention and the effort well pre-dated Independence. In the 1920s Gandhi reconstituted the provincial committees of the [Indian National] Congress [party] on linguistic lines. The party had promised to form linguistic provinces as soon as the country was free. The promise was not redeemed immediately after 1947, because the creation of Pakistan had promoted fears of further Balkanization. However, in the face of popular protest the government yielded to the demand.

Linguistic states have been in existence for fifty years now. In that time they have deepened and consolidated Indian unity. Within each state a common language has provided the basis of administrative unity and efficiency. It has also led to an efflorescence of cultural creativity, as expressed in film, theatre, fiction and poetry. However, pride in one's language has rarely been in conflict with a broader identification with the nation as a whole...


That, in India, unity and pluralism are inseparable is graphically expressed in the country's currency notes....The note's denomination - 5, 10, 50, 100 etc. - is printed in words in Hindi and English...but also, in smaller type, in all the other languages of the Union. In this manner, as many as seventeen different scripts are represented...


Some Western observers - usually American - believed that this profusion of tongues would be the undoing of India....Linguistic states they regarded as a grievous error....


...In fact, exactly the reverse has happened: the sustenance of linguistic pluralism has worked to tame and domesticate secessionist tendencies.

As Guha summarizes (page 754):

Pakistan was created on the basis of religion, but divided on the basis of language. And for more than two decades now a bloody civil war has raged in Sri Lanka, the disputants divided somewhat by territory and faith but most of all by language. The lesson from these cases might well be" 'One language, two nations'. Had Hindi been imposed on the whole of India the lesson might well have been: 'One language, twenty-two nations."

Let us return to Sri Lanka. Earlier in January, in the New Yorker, Steve Coll published an essay by Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickramathunga, then-editor of the Sri Lankan newspaper Sunday Leader, who was subsequently assassinated. As Coll pointed out: "He knew that he was likely to be murdered and so he wrote an essay with instructions that it be published only after his own death." The entire essay is worth reading and it rightly flays both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. Here are a few passages:

On the contrary, as our opinion pieces over the years amply demonstrate, we often voice ideas that many people find distasteful. For example, we have consistently espoused the view that while separatist terrorism must be eradicated, it is more important to address the root causes of terrorism, and urged government to view Sri Lanka’s ethnic strife in the context of history and not through the telescope of terrorism. We have also agitated against state terrorism in the so-called war against terror, and made no secret of our horror that Sri Lanka is the only country in the world routinely to bomb its own citizens. For these views we have been labeled traitors, and if this be treachery, we wear that label proudly.

Many people suspect that The Sunday Leader has a political agenda: it does not. If we appear more critical of the government than of the opposition it is only because we believe that - pray excuse cricketing argot - there is no point in bowling to the fielding side. Remember that for the few years of our existence in which the UNP was in office, we proved to be the biggest thorn in its flesh, exposing excess and corruption wherever it occurred. Indeed, the steady stream of embarrassing exposes we published may well have served to precipitate the downfall of that government.

Neither should our distaste for the war be interpreted to mean that we support the Tigers. The LTTE are among the most ruthless and bloodthirsty organizations ever to have infested the planet. There is no gainsaying that it must be eradicated. But to do so by violating the rights of Tamil citizens, bombing and shooting them mercilessly, is not only wrong but shames the Sinhalese, whose claim to be custodians of the dhamma is forever called into question by this savagery, much of which is unknown to the public because of censorship.

Wickramathunga ended with this:

...Niemoller spoke out, and for his trouble was incarcerated in the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps from 1937 to 1945, and very nearly executed. While incarcerated, Niemoller wrote a poem that, from the first time I read it in my teenage years, stuck hauntingly in my mind:

First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. 
Then they came for the trade unionists  and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. 
Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.

If you remember nothing else, remember this: The Leader is there for you, be you Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, low-caste, homosexual, dissident or disabled. Its staff will fight on, unbowed and unafraid, with the courage to which you have become accustomed. Do not take that commitment for granted. Let there be no doubt that whatever sacrifices we journalists make, they are not made for our own glory or enrichment: they are made for you. Whether you deserve their sacrifice is another matter. As for me, God knows I tried.

As we read the news from Sri Lanka in the coming weeks it is important we don't forget history and urge the Sri Lankan government to do what is truly needed to address the root causes of the Sri Lankan conflict.

eriposte :: 7:43 AM :: Comments (2) :: Digg It!