THE CIVIL WAR in Sri Lanka and the coup in Fiji have linked the Indian
Ocean and the Pacific in a massive anti-Indian sweep.
In political terms, of course, the Tamils of Sri Lanka are Sri
Lankans and the Indians of Fiji are Fijians. But if that were truly
so, there would be no battles. The Indian identity, linked in core
terms around religion and culture, is at the center of the conflict.
On a recent visit to Colombo, Sri Lanka, a taxi driver asked me
where I was from. India? Where? Bengal, Calcutta, yes, but are you
Hindu? The answer -- Hindu -- immediately put me in the enemy camp.
The driver did not speak to me again.
In its most stark terms, the fight in northern Sri Lanka is a fight
between Tamil culture and Sinhalese culture, cultures whose principal
difference is religion. The Tamils are Hindus and the Sinhalese are
This puts India in a dilemma -- should it back Sri Lanka's
government because it is a friendly neighbor, or support the
separatist rebel Tamils, who have ethnic, religious, cultural and
linguistic links with one of India's southern states, Tamil Nadu?
Such links cannot be discounted by saying they are with but one
region of India. Any segment is part of the whole of India. To
choose not to support the Tamils in Sri Lanka because Tamils are only
one ethnic group in India, and predominant in only one state, is to
alienate one's own population and invite secession.
How does the Indian become acceptable, be it in Fiji or Sri Lanka?
Is it years of residence? Indian people have been in what was once
called Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, from the early centuries and stopped
coming from India after the 15th century -- certainly long enough to
make Tamils native Sri Lankans. Not long enough, however, for the
Tamils have entered the professional class and prospered in
business in Sri Lanka. They have become political leaders and won
elected office. But even that was not enough for the Tamils to gain
acceptance by the Sinhalese. Tamils have remained outsiders in Sri
Lankan culture, as exemplified by adoption of the 1972 constitution
which made Sinhala the official language and Buddhism the state
religion. Earlier, the Sri Lankan government passed a law that raised
the requirements for Tamil students but not for Sinhalese students
for entrance into medical and engineering colleges.
The Tamils formed a guerrilla force known as the Liberation Tigers
of Tamil Eelam. The Tigers have been fighting for 17 years for a
separate homeland for the country's 3.3 million Tamils, a minority of
Sri Lanka's 18.6 million people, most of whom are Sinhalese. The
claimed 61,000 lives.
The Tamil leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, however alienated Tamils in
India in 1991 when he ordered the cold-blooded assassination of
Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi during an election campaign in the
Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Gandhi was killed by a human bomb because
he made a deal with the Sri Lankan government to curb the power of
the Tamil Tigers after he led Prabhakaran to believe he would back
the Tamil Sri Lankans.
Despite Prabhakaran's Tigers' spectacular victories on the
battlefield in recent weeks against the Sri Lankan army, Tamils in
India are lukewarm in their support of
the separatist Tamil Tigers. Consequently, the Indian government may
never support the Tamil Tigers.
Despite defeat in battle, the Sinhalese refuse to accept the Tamils
as full Sri Lankan citizens.
The U.S. Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering, Norwegian Deputy
Foreign Minister Raymond Johansen and the Norwegian special envoy to
Sri Lanka, Erik Solheim, held talks last week with representatives of
Delhi and Colombo in what appears to be the first signs of a peace
agreement that could bring the Sri Lankans and Tamils to the
negotiating table. India's position on the peace talks is ambiguous
--Indian diplomats are being consulted by all parties but no Indian
is taking an active role as a peace broker.
Pickering, after his meeting in Delhi, traveled to Colombo while
Solheim went to Delhi after talks in Colombo on May 22. A two-way
peace shuttle has begun.
Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan government is buying $800 million in
arms and aircraft from Israel, the Czech Republic and Pakistan,
according to the Sri Lankan foreign minister.
Arms alone will not ensure victory for the Sinhalese, nor will
victory assure the Tamils acceptance in Sri Lanka. Nor will
establishing a separate Tamil homeland. Balkanization is no
substitute for pluralism.
In Fiji, the seeds of conflict are similar. Democracy has proved a
election by the majority of the voters, Mahendra Chaudhry, Fiji's
first prime minister of Indian descent, has been ousted from office
and taken hostage by armed indigenous Fijian rebels. The rebels are
angry that ethnic Indians have power in a nation where the majority
of the population is indigenous Fijians.
Indians came to Fiji as indentured laborers to work on the
British-owned sugar plantations beginning in 1840. Today, Indians
represent 44 percent of the Fijian population, while 51 percent are
According to news reports, the rebel leader, George Speight, said he
was overturning Chaudhry's government and taking power on behalf of
indigenous Fijians, who he said have been discriminated against by
the government led by Fijians of Indian descent.
Speight and other coup leaders want the Great Council of Chiefs, a
council of indigenous Fijians, to decide if the elected government
should remain in office.
War is the last resort in Sri Lanka. It is the same in Fiji.
Passivity for the Tamil Indian in Sri Lanka, for the Fijian Indian in
Fiji as elsewhere could be political extinction.
Ranjan Gupta was recently in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He was a former Fellow at Harvard and Berkeley. He is the author of the book, ``The Indian Ocean: A Political Geography.``
©2000 San Francisco Chronicle