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Politics of Ethnicity: Sri Lankan Case Study

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Aristotle, the Greek philosopher called man a “social animal” by nature. Human survival has been a key characteristic and this depended on man’s ability to become part of social groups. In old times, physical survival of these collective bodies depended on the in-group cohesion.  From here the concept of us versus them, was sprouted. These distinctions have always tempted people to divide themselves into diverse groups. Humans consider themselves as part of a certain group on the basis of clan, family, ethnicity, race, religion and so forth. They recognize themselves as an in-group identity, to which generally positive characteristics are attached. For an in-group identity there must be the “other” group that is perceived as the out-group. This otherness has always been considered a threat which ultimately in many cases leads to hostilities and differences between the two groups.

Conflicts are inevitable and can occur in different dimensions and in distinct dynamics. They can be ethnic and political in nature and together it gives rise to ethnopolitical conflict, which is fought between different factions. It is an intergroup conflict that disturbs communication and distorts perceptions between the groups. They foreground ethnic and religious differences which as a result alter the perceptions of the other side. (Souleimanov 2013).

 SRI LANKAN CASE STUDY

Formerly known as Ceylon, Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country.

The ethnically diverse country constitutes 75 percent Buddhist Sinhalese and Tamils who are chiefly Hindus form 15.4 per cent, of which 11.2 per cent are Sri Lankan Tamils and 4.2 per cent are Indian Tamils. (Div-05 2016) The Indian Tamils were brought as laborers to Sri Lanka by the British.

 Ethnic differences between the two dominant ethnic groups, Sinhala and Tamils, coupled with rising nationalism generated the ethnopolitical conflict.  The discriminatory rule of the British before independence and the culturally biased policies of the Sinhala government after freedom from the colonial rulers are considered the leading causes of the conflict. The politicization of ethnicity by Sri Lankan government resulted in the birth of LTTE.

In 1948, Sri Lanka gained independence from the British. Sri Lankan people, before and after independence have been a victim of ethnopolitics. However, the ethnic politics became clearly manifested in 19th and early 20th centuries.

The colonial phase of Sri Lankan history largely shaped the conflict. The British rule from 1815 to 1948 created borders which formed divisions between ethnic groups and also set the stage for the conflict.

The British colonizers favored the minorities. The divide and rule strategy aggravated the differences between Tamils and Sinhalese. The minority under colonials in Ceylon were Tamils.  The minority, after all, was more trustworthy to become an ally. This also led to Tamils enjoying more necessities than Sinhalese who were in the majority. For example, a larger number of Christian missionaries in the north meant Tamils having more access to English education. This resulted in Tamils accessing more positions in civil services and having a greater economic influence. (“Sri Lanka, Ethnic Conflict, and the Rise of a Violent Secessionist Movement” 2013). This marked the initiation of socio-economic and political divide between Sinhalese and Tamils.

The tables turned when the island nation got independence from British rule. Tamils found themselves in a precarious position because the majority group sought to receive political and economic power. When Sri Lanka got independence in 1948, the Tamils now feared for the protection of their political, economic and cultural rights under the rule of now the major ethnicity of Sri Lanka.

The major Sinhalese dominated political parties, relied on ethnic emotions to win Sinhalese support and exploited public opinion in 1950s. Different policies emerged in the next five decades which are regarded as a step towards ethnicization of politics. The first of these was the 1956 Official Language Act (of Sinhala-only language). The main source of this Act is considered the growing resentment from Sinhalese population for Tamil language being a national language. The impact of this was that it created greater job opportunities for Sinhala speakers and limited them for non- Sinhala speakers. Though education at primary, secondary and tertiary levels was provided in person’s vernacular, but with time in public service, Sinhalese became the lingua Franca (“Sinhala Only Bill | 1956, Sri Lanka,” n.d.). However, linguistic nationalism is one of many other driving factors for Tamil demand of separate homeland.

After independence, issue of land ownership and access to it also was a consistent source of ethnopolitics. Certain ethnic groups in Sri Lanka are distributed in certain geographical areas. Tamils were majorly settled in dry zone areas of Northern and Eastern provinces. Colonization and resettlement of these areas was another problem faced by Tamils. (Perer 2001)

Sinhalese and Tamil leadership at this time played a crucial role. The reason for Tamil distrust in Sri Lanka political system finds bases in Tamil elites trusting the Sinhalese government and Sinhalese breaking it, time and time again. Before the emergence of separatist movements, Tamils made several attempts to work through with the government. All these attempts went in vain when fake promises made by the government were completely ignored in the end. The Bandaranaike- Chelvanayakam Pact that was abandoned at the end provoked more tensions between both two ethnic communities. In the same time period, Tamil Language Special Provisions Act, inspired by Sinhala Only Bill and Senanayake- Chelvanayaka Pact were signed and abandoned because of pressure from certain Sinhalese. The inability to make concessions and keep promises had become an engrained norm of Sri Lankan government. From this point onwards, demands for a separate homeland in northern Sri Lanka-Tamil Eelam were made.  

Tamils also used non-violent means to achieve their political goals. Two major Satyagraha campaigns were adopted by Tamils. Both the instances of Satyagraha were response to the Sinhala Only Act in 1956 and 1961 respectively. (“Sri Lanka, Ethnic Conflict, and the Rise of a Violent Secessionist Movement” 2013).

In Sri Lanka, the politicization of ethnic tensions further exacerbated the situation.  As stated above that the conflict had historical roots but fuel was added by the politicians. They provided the spark that ignited violence in the country. The politicians took help of raw violence and votes.

The above argument suggests and helps understand the emergence of Liberation of Tamil Tigers and other insurgent groups and movements.  LTTE also state that “they are the product of the Sinhala violence and chauvinism”, or as Neil de Votta says the birth of the separatist movement is “Sinhala-inspired.” (Abdul Razak 2007). To please the Sinhalese voters, the political parties created an environment of distrust between Sinhalese and Tamils. Communal riots resulted in Tamil killings, beatings and many were maimed and forced out of their homes.

The ethnocratic government and its ethnocentric politics lead to intense nationalism among Tamils. The unattended grievances by the Sri Lankan government drove the Tamils towards retaliation in the form of a violent rebel. LTTE was formed in 1976 as ethnic tensions rose in Tamil majority regions. The Tamil militants started the insurgency with low intensity to maintain control in the Tamil dominated areas. They declared the first Eelam war as a result of these violent riots. Initially, LTTE had the support of legitimate Tamil political representatives but Liberation Tigers with time became a violent entity and started to fight other Tamil factions. They massacred their opponents and came in power over the other separatist movements by 1986. They became the “sole representative of the Tamils.”(TamilNet 2005)

The Sri Lankan civil war is divided into 4 phases named as Eelam wars. Each phase was bloodier than the previous one. Tactics used by Tigers with time became more lethal. The insurgent group targeted many high-profile personalities. The war officially started as a low-level insurgency in 1983 as a result of ethnic riots.

LTTE soon was labelled as the terrorist group after the use of terror tactics including suicide bombs. (“The Sri Lankan Civil War and Its History, Revisited in 2020” 2020).

The rebel group was responsible for assassination of premiers

On May 2009, the Sri Lanka army announced victory after killing the LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. This marked the end of the civil war. (thoughtcodotcom 2009)

Ethnicity and politics when merged create tensions, violence and chaos.

The political development in Sri Lanka and ethnic strife proved that violence was the consequence of politicization of ethnic differences. The LTTE firmly believed that employed violence was validated because government had reacted violently to Tamil demands. The Sri Lankan government, on the other hand, justified its violence against Tamils and LTTE for safeguarding the territorial integrity of the Sri Lankan island.

Ethno-political conflicts require resolutions that guarantee stability, ethnic peace and security. In ethnically divided societies power sharing and partition is a highly practical and achievable solution for security of ethnic groups. Other than partition, depending upon the conflict, ethnic peace needs to be sustained.

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South Asia

Opposing Hindutava: US conference raises troubling questions

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Controversy over a recent ‘Dismantling Global Hindutava’ conference that targeted a politically charged expression of Hindu nationalism raises questions that go far beyond the anti-Muslim discriminatory policies of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government and ruling party.

The conference and responses to it highlight a debilitating deterioration in the past two decades, especially since 9/11, of the standards of civility and etiquette that jeopardize civil, intelligent, and constructive debate and allow expressions of racist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic attitudes to become mainstream.

Organizers of the conference that was co-sponsored by 53 American universities, including Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Columbia, Berkeley, University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania and Rutgers, insisted that they distinguish between Hinduism and Hindutava, Mr. Modi’s notion of Hindu nationalism that enables discrimination against and attacks on India’s 200 million Muslims.

The distinction failed to impress critics who accused the organizers of Hinduphobia. Some critics charged that the framing of the conference demonstrated a pervasiveness of groupthink in academia and an unwillingness to tackle similar phenomena in other major religions, particularly Islam.

The campaign against the conference appeared to have been organized predominantly by organizations in the United States with links to militant right-wing Hindu nationalist groups in India, including some with a history of violence. The conference’s most militant critics threatened violence against conference speakers and their families, prompting some participants to withdraw from the event.

Opponents of political Islam noted that Western academia has not organized a similar conference about the politicization of the faith even though powerful states like the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt have lobbied Western capitals against the Muslim Brotherhood and its Turkish and Qatari supporters with notable successes in France, Austria, Belgium and Britain.

Academia was likely to have been hesitant to tackle political Islam because Islamophobia is far more prevalent than Hinduphobia.

Moreover, perceptions of political Islam, are far more complex and convoluted. Islam is frequently conflated with political expressions and interpretations of the faith run a gamut from supremacist and conservative to more liberal and tolerant. They also lump together groups that adhere and respect the election process and ones that advocate violent jihad.

Scholars and analysts declared an end to political Islam’s heyday with the military coup in Egypt in 2013 that toppled Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother, who was elected president in Egypt’s first and only free and fair poll. Political Islam’s alleged swansong loomed even larger with this year’s setbacks for two of the most moderate Islamist political parties in Tunisia and Morocco as well as hints that Turkey may restrict activities of Islamists operating in exile from Istanbul.

A more fundamental criticism of the framing of the Hindutava conference is its failure to put Hindutava in a broader context.

That context involves the undermining of the social cohesion of societies made up of collections of diverse ethnic and religious communities since Osama bin Laden’s 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

The attacks fueled the rise of ultra-nationalism and politicized expressions of religious ultra-conservatism not only in the Hindu world but also in the worlds of other major religions.

These include politicized ultra-conservative Islam, politicized Evangelism and Buddhist nationalism. Right-wing religious nationalism in Israel, unlike Islamism and politicized Evangelism, is shaped by ultra-nationalism rather than religious ultra-conservatism.

The worlds of religious ultra-nationalism and politicized expressions of religious ultra-conservatism are often mutually reinforcing.

Scholar Cynthia Miller-Idriss’s assessment of the impact of Al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks on the United States is equally true for India or Europe.

“In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the rise of violent jihadism reshaped American politics in ways that created fertile ground for right-wing extremism. The attacks were a gift to peddlers of xenophobia, white supremacism, and Christian nationalism: as dark-skinned Muslim foreigners bent on murdering Americans, Al-Qaeda terrorists and their ilk seemed to have stepped out of a far-right fever dream,” Ms. Miller-Idriss said.

“Almost overnight, the United States and European countries abounded with precisely the fears that the far-right had been trying to stoke for decades,” she added.

The comparison of politically charged militant nationalist and ultra-conservative expressions of diverse religions takes on added significance in a world that has seen the emergence of civilizationalist leaders.

Scholar Sumantra Bose attributes the rise of religious nationalism in non-Western states like Turkey and India to the fact that they never adopted the Western principle of separation of state and church.

Instead, they based their secularism on the principle of state intervention and regulation of the religious sphere. As a result, the rejection of secularism in Turkey and India fits a global trend that conflates a dominant religious identity with national identity.

Sarah Kamali, the author of a recently published book that compares militant white nationalists to militant Islamists in the United States, notes similar patterns while drawing parallels between far-right xenophobes and militant Islamists.

Militant Islamists’ “sense of victimhood […] is similar to that of their White nationalist counterparts in that [it] is constructed and exploited to justify their violence… Both mutually – and exclusively – target America for the purpose of claiming the nation as theirs and theirs alone, either as a White ethno-state or as part of a global caliphate,” Ms. Kamali writes.

Similarly, the Taliban defeat of a superpower energized militant Islamists, as well as proponents of Hindutava, with Islamophobic narratives spun by Mr. Modi’s followers gaining new fodder with the assertion that India was being encircled by Muslim states hosting religious extremists.

Modi is essentially helping the recruitment of…jihadist groups by taking such a hard, repressive line against the Islamic community in India, who are now being forced to see themselves being repressed,” said Douglas London, the CIA’s counter-terrorism chief for South and South-West Asia until 2019.

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Panjshir – the last stronghold of democracy in Afghanistan

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The Taliban’s rapid advance in Afghanistan has briefly stalled only in the face of strong resistance mounted by the people of the country’s recalcitrant mountainous province of Panjshir. Whoever controls the region’s passes controls the routes leading to China and Tajikistan, but to seize this mountain valley and, most importantly, to keep it permanently under control has always been a problem for all invaders. Eager to let the international community see for the first time in 40 years a united Afghanistan as a sign of their final victory, the radical Islamists were prepared to make any sacrifices, including filling the approaches to the Panjshir Valley up with dead bodies. Moreover, the Taliban’s longtime ally Pakistan, which, regardless of its status of an ally of the United States, has provided them with direct military support. In fact, Islamabad admitted its less than successful role when it proposed signing a truce to find and take out the bodies of its special Ops forces who had died during the attack on the valley. However, drones flown by Pakistani operators, professional commandos (possibly once trained by the Americans), air support and other pleasant gifts from the allies eventually bore fruit letting the Taliban be photographed in front of the mausoleum of Ahmad Shah Massoud Sr., the famous “Lion of Panjshir,” who controlled the valley from 1996 to 2001. The Islamists also took control of the province’s central city of Bazarak.

Having deprived the province much of its Internet access, the radicals, who control most of the Afghan territory, found it easier to wage an information war. Their claims of victories were now more difficult to contest, even though information about their retreat did reach the outside world. Reflective of the heavy losses suffered for the first time by the Taliban and their allies – the Haqqani Network and other remnants of al-Qaeda, as well as by the regular Pakistani army is the brief truce arranged by Islamabad. Looks like the mountain passes leading to Panjshir were literally filled up with corpses…

As for Massoud Jr., the young lion of Panjshir, and his supporters, they retreated to the mountains. In fact, they had nowhere to fall back to. The problem of Afghanistan is its ethnic diversity. Thus, the country is home to 23 percent of ethnic Tajiks, most of whom live in the Panjshir Valley. However, the Taliban rely mainly on the Pashtuns, who account for over 50 percent of the country’s population. As for the new masters of Afghanistan, they are ready to carry out ethnic cleansings and even commit outright genocide in order to bring the valley into submission. To make this happen they are going to resettle there their fellow Pashtun tribesmen. Local men aged between 12 and 50 are already being taken away and, according to the National Resistance Front, no one has seen them again. However, due to the information blockade, the Taliban will not hesitate to refute such facts. One thing is clear: Massoud’s Tajik fighters and the government troops that joined them are fighting for their lives, and there will be no honorable surrender!

The main question now is whether the young lion of Panjshir will receive the same support as his father once did, or will find himself without ammunition and food. After all, the Taliban leaders have reached certain agreements with the United States. Suffice it to mention the numerous remarks made, among others, by President Biden himself about the Taliban now being different from what they were 20 years ago.

But no, the Taliban`s remain the same – they have only hired new PR people. Meanwhile, hating to admit their defeat, Brussels and Washington will have to engage in a dialogue with those who are responsible for the tragedy of September 11, 2001, and for the numerous terrorist attacks in Europe. The Taliban are pretending to make minor cosmetic concessions. Minor indeed, since they are still depriving women of the opportunity to work and study, destroying higher and secondary education and brutally clamping down on people who simply do not want to live according to religious norms.

The United States is actually helping the “new-look” Taliban. Their potential opponents, including the famous Marshal Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, left the country under various guarantees, and Washington is trying to keep them from any further participation in the conflict. Democratic politicians naively believe that by creating an Islamic state and ending the protracted civil war in Afghanistan the Taliban will ensure stability in the region and will not move any further. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan do not think so and are strengthening their borders and preparing to protect their Afghan compatriots, because they know full well that the Taliban`s are not a national political party; they are a radical Islamist ideology.

It knows no borders and spreads like a cancerous tumor, destroying all pockets of Western culture. It can only be stopped by force. However, the two decades of US military presence in Afghanistan showed that Washington, which quickly took control of the country in 2001, simply had no strategy to keep it. The Afghans were given nothing that would appear to them more attractive than the ideas of radical Islam. As a result, the few Afghans who embrace European values are fleeing the country, and those who, like Massoud Jr., decided to fight for their freedom, now risk being left to face their enemy all by themselves.

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Misjudgements in India’s Afghan policy

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India’s Afghan policy has always been obsessed with the desire to deny Pakistan the “strategic depth” that Pakistan, according to India’s perception, yearns. If India had a pragmatic policy, it would not have found itself whimpering and whining like a rueful baby over spilt milk.

India supported the invasion of Afghanistan by both the former Soviet Union and the USA, both losers. President Trump mocked Modi for having built a library for the Afghan people. Trump expected India to contribute foot soldiers, and by corollary, body packs to the Afghan crisis. India played all the tricks up its sleeves to convince the USA to make India a party to the US-Taliban talks. But the USA ditched not only Modi but also Ashraf Ghani to sign the Doha peace deal with the Taliban.

India’s external affairs minister still calls the Taliban government “a dispensation”. Interestingly, the USA has reluctantly accepted that the Taliban government is a de facto government.

Humanitarian crisis

The United Nations’ Development Programme has portrayed a bleak situation in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is faced with multifarious challenges. These include prolonged drought and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, upheaval caused by the current political transition: frozen foreign reserves, and rising poverty.

About 47 per cent of its people live below the dollar-a-day poverty line. If the poverty line is pushed to $2 a day, 90 per cent of Afghans would be poor. About 55 per cent of Afghans are illiterate.

Ninety seven percent of the population is at risk of sinking below the poverty line, As such, Afghanistan teeters on the brink of universal poverty. Half of the population is already in need of humanitarian support. The UNDP has proposed to access the most vulnerable nine million people by focusing on essential services, local livelihoods, basic income and small infrastructure.

Currently, the gross national product of Afghanistan is around $190 billion, just a little more than the $160 billion economy of Dhaka city. The country’s legal exports of goods and services every year account for $1 billion. It imports$6 billion worth of goods and services every year.

About 80 per cent of world production of opium comes from Afghanistan. Every year, Afghanistan produces nearly 10,000 tons of opium and the revenue generated from it amounts to $7 billion approximately. About 87 per cent of the income of opium producing farmers comes exclusively from this single product. The illicit opium export by Afghanistan is worth $2 billion every year. The role of opium is significant.

About 80 per cent of public expenditure in this country is funded by grants. Since 2002, the World Bank has provided Afghanistan with a total of $5.3 billion as development and emergency relief assistance. The IMF earmarked for Afghanistan $400 million in Special Drawing Rights (SDR) for combating the Covid-19 pandemic in the country.

The United States has frozen about $10 billion worth of Afghan assets held at various banks in Afghanistan. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has withdrawn the $400 million worth of SDRs allocated earlier to Afghanistan for addressing the Covid-19 crisis. The World Bank has not said anything as of yet, but it may also put restrictions on its funding to Afghanistan.

India’s lip service to Afghanistan

India provided around $3 billion in aid to fallen U.S.-backed Afghan government.  It trained the Afghan army and police. But now it is not willing to pay or pledge a penny to the Taliban government. Look at the following Times of India report:

“India did not pledge any money to the Taliban ruled Afghanistan probably for the first time in 20 years. That it has not done so as Jaishanker declared … (At UN, India offers support to Afghanistan but does not pledge money. The Times of India September 14, 2021).The Hindu, September 11, 2021

India’s tirade against Afghanistan

Indian policymakers and experts say they see no guarantees that Afghanistan won’t become a haven for militants. “Afghanistan may be poised to become a bottomless hole for all shades of radical, extremist and jihadi outfits somewhat similar to Iraq and Syria, only closer to India,” said Gautam Mukhopadhaya, who was India’s ambassador in Kabul between 2010 to 2013.  He added that the Taliban victory could have an “inspirational effect” not only for Kashmir’s rebels but wherever religiously-driven groups operate in the broader region… Lt. Gen Deependra Singh Hooda, former military commander for northern India between 2014-2016, said militant groups based across the border in Pakistan would “certainly try and push men” into Kashmir, following the Taliban victory in Afghanistan  (With Taliban’s rise, India sees renewed threat in Kashmir, Star Tribune September 14, 2021). “Meanwhile, Rajnath Singh conveyed to Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton that the rise of the Taliban raises serious security concerns for India and the region. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has appealed for an injection of cash into Afghanistan to avoid an economic meltdown that would spark a “catastrophic” situation for the Afghan people and be a “gift for terrorist groups.”). Afghan economic meltdown would be ‘gift for terrorists,’ says U.N. chief” (The Hindu, September 11, 2021)

 India’s former envoy to Kabul, Ambassador Gautam Mukhopadhyay is skeptical of the conciliatory statements by the taliban government. He advises: “We should welcome recent statements by Stanekzai and Anas Haqqani that suggest some independence from the ISI. But we should also ask some hard questions and judge them by their actions and words, and not let down our guard, both with regard to our multiple security concerns such as whether they can protect us from the Ias and ISI, sever ties with other terror groups, especially those supported by the ISI against India, deny Pakistan strategic depth, and preserve and build on our historic P2P and trade ties; and a genuinely inclusive govt in Afghanistan that accommodates the majority of Afghans who want the rights and freedoms enshrined in the 2004 Afghan Constitution or at least acceptable to the Afghan people.” (Taliban move to form govt, Naya Afghanistan brings new challenge for India, September 2, 2021).

Concluding remarks

India wants a “central role’ to be given to the UN in Afghanistan. India’s mumbo jumbo implies that Afghanistan should be made a UN protectorate. Indian media is never tired of calling the Afghan government a bunch of terrorists. They have even launched video games about it.

India needs to rethink how it can mend fences with Afghanistan that it regards a hothouse of terrorists.

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