An irrelevant model

Published : Jun 24, 2000 00:00 IST

Historical realities and the demographic pattern, among other things, make a 'Czech model' separation irrelevant to the Sri Lankan situation.


SPEAKING at his 77th birthday celebrations on June 3, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi stirred a hornet's nest by suggesting the creation of a separate "Tamil Eelam" by breaking Sri Lanka on the lines of the partitioning of Czechoslovakia into th e Czech Republic and Slovakia. This proposal, a marked departure from his earlier stand on the ethnic strife, was criticised by several national and regional political parties and the national media, which subjected the suggestion to critical scrutiny.

A few days later, Karunanidhi attempted to justify his stance by providing the backdrop. Accusing his critics of speaking from an ivory tower, he asserted that he was not motivated by linguistic considerations. He wanted peace to return to the war-torn i sland and did not want more refugees to flood the State. Since the ethnic problem cannot be solved by military means, he said that he was not wrong in suggesting a political solution based on the "quasi-federal, confederal or the Czech model".

The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader's statement had another fallout: it created confusion in the National Democratic Alliance of which the DMK is a constituent. The Czech model implied support to the creation of a separate state, an indirect endorsement of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and its leader Velupillai Prabakaran. It was contrary to the basic tenet of New Delhi's policy of respecting the unity and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. An embarrassed Prime Minister distanced himself from the DMK and reiterated India's firm commitment to the unity of Sri Lanka and expressed the hope that a peaceful solution could be found by the devolution of powers.

In order to present a facade of unity, Murasoli Maran, the high-profile Minister for Industries, belonging to the DMK, was invited to attend the meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security. Later, speaking to the media, Murasoli Maran tried to gloss ove r the differences: "We together created the policy on Sri Lanka. We are both taking the same line. The NDA is not fragile. It is like the Rock of Gibraltar." He defended Karunanidhi by shifting the blame onto the media. Maran pointed out that Karunanidhi had also suggested other options such as quasi-federal and confederal political systems. He added that the media had singled out the Czech model and had blown it "out of proportion". Karunanidhi felt it necessary to issue another clarification. He state d that his suggestion was directed at the Sri Lankan government and not at the NDA, and that sections of the media had "mischievously twisted" his earlier statement.

In Sri Lanka, where Tamil Nadu looms large in the intellectual horizon of the Sinhalese and the Tamils alike, Karunanidhi's remarks created misgivings about India's Sri Lanka policy in general and the role of Tamil Nadu in particular. Given the happening s of a not-so-distant past, when Tamil Nadu was the sanctuary and safe haven for the Tigers, Sri Lankan political leaders accused Karunanidhi of encouraging the separatist forces. The recent visit of External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh to Colombo was in effect a damage control exercise. Jaswant Singh reiterated New Delhi's commitment to the "unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka".

Despite the claims and disclaimers of various political players, the fact of the matter is that the Sri Lankan issue is once again getting intertwined with the competitive politics in Tamil Nadu. And the suggestion of the Czech model has to be viewed in the context of impending elections to the Legislative Assembly. As the memory of Rajiv Gandhi's assassination has started fading away from public memory, political forces that were hitherto lying dormant have started coming out into the open in defence o f the LTTE and Prabakaran. The MDMK, led by Vaiko, the PMK under the leadership of Dr. S. Ramadoss and Dr. K. Krishnaswamy's Puthiya Tamizhagam have joined P. Nedumaran of the Tamil Nationalist Party and K. Veeramani of the Dravidar Kazhagam in championi ng the cause of the Tigers. By propagating the Czech model, Karunanidhi believes that he has got one up on his opponents and hopes to take the wind out of their sails. For after all the Czech model is a justification for the parting of ways and the estab lishment of an independent Tamil Eelam.

There is another interesting dimension. Karunanidhi's statement followed Vaiko's decision to call off the MDMK rally in support of the LTTE. Was the suggestion a quid pro quo? Was Karunanidhi reflecting the feelings of Vaiko when he suggested the Czech model? Observers of the Tamil Nadu political scene will not brush aside this incident as of no consequence. The Czech model will continue to be cited from time to time.

TO what extent is the Czech model relevant to Sri Lanka? Unlike Sri Lanka, where the Sinhalese and the Sri Lankan Tamils have lived together for several centuries, Czechoslovakia had only a brief life span of 74 years, from 1918 to 1992. It was a marriag e of convenience. On January 1, 1993, when the divorce took place, the Slovaks celebrated the birth of a new nation, while the Czechs reconciled themselves to the fait accompli. Vaclav Havel, who inspired a whole generation of Czechoslovakia and who move d from prison to presidency in 1989, was heart-broken. He resigned from the post of the head of state, stating that he did not want to preside over the break-up of his country.

There was no Czechoslovakia before 1918. The Czechs were originally part of Austria and the Slovaks were part of Hungary. Czech nationalism, based on language, had it origins in the early part of the 19th century. The Slovak experience was relatively har sh because they had to resist forced Magyarisation and the oppressive rule of Hungarian despots. Their nationalism, however, developed much later. Though the two communities shared some common bonds of ethnicity and language, Czechs and Slovaks had diffe rent historical experiences under Austrian and Hungarian overlords. The Czech areas of Bohemia and Moravia were prosperous parts of the Austrian empire, while Slovakia was the economic backwater of the Hungarian empire. What is interesting is that the Cz echs and Slovaks had no shared historical experience and that the two groups came together for the first time under the provisions of the peace treaties concluded after the First World War.

The main reason for the establishment of Czechoslovakia was geo-political. The incorporation of Slovakia in Czech territory was considered essential to checkmate the growing influence of three million Germans in Bohemia. It was hoped that the Slav majori ty of nine million could offset the influence of the Germans. For the first time in history, to give the people a sense of nationhood, the political leaders began to instil the idea of "Czechoslovakism".

The dramatic developments in Europe during the inter-war years had their impact on Czechoslovakia. The German minority came under the influence of the Nazis and in 1939, in Munich, the Allied powers capitulated to Nazi demands. Bohemia and Moravia were c onverted into German protectorates. Still worse, the puppet Mgr. Joseph Tiso government detained 70,000 Jews and sent them to concentration camps.

After the Second World War, Czechoslovakia came under Communist rule. In order to give the Slovaks a sense of identity, a new constitution was promulgated; a tripartite system of government, a Slovak Republic, a Czech Republic and a federal government to bind the two, came into existence. All powers were concentrated in the hands of the Communist Party and the Presidium. This system continued until 1968 when momentous developments took place in the country leading to the 'Prague Spring' and the 'Velvet Revolution'.

The first expression of separatism became evident in 1990, soon after the 'Velvet Revolution'. The issue was about the name of the country and centred round the hyphen. The Slovaks demanded that the country should be spelt Czecho-Slovakia, so that both s ides will be equal. The Czechs, after initial hesitation, agreed to change the name and the country was renamed Czech and Slovak Federal Republic. Another distressing aspect of the situation was the patronising attitude that the Czechs adopted towards th e Slovaks. Vaclav Havel remarked: "At times, they were so selfish, disparaging and insensitive about it that they drove the Slovaks to stop thinking of Czechoslovakia as their country." The Slovak alienation increased and their demands escalated from fed eration to confederation and finally to a separate state. In the elections held in 1992, Slovaks voted overwhelmingly for the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia led by Vladimir Meciar. Czechs also started to feel that it will not be a bad idea if Slovaks got separated, for Czechs had been subsidising the economic development of Slovakia for a long time. Separation provided an opportunity to get rid of the burden.

Following the 1992 elections, a final attempt was made to establish a federal government. It could not make any progress and the leaders of the two regions decided to part ways. On January 1, 1993, Czechoslovakia ceased to exist and Czech Republic and Sl ovakia came into existence. The disintegration is remarkable because it was accomplished through peaceful means. Nobody advocated the use of force to maintain the integrity of the state. Nor did the Slovaks or the Czechs perceive any security threat afte r the two states came into existence.

While discussing the relevance of the Czech model for Sri Lanka, it is necessary to highlight the demographic pattern. It would reveal that the Czech model cannot be replicated in Sri Lanka. Czechs and Slovaks live in virtually separate territories. The population of the Czech Republic is approximately 10.2 million of which Czechs (Bohemian) constitute 81.2 per cent, Moravians 13.2 per cent and Slovaks only 3.1 per cent. There are minuscule Polish, Hungarian and German minority groups in the country. In the Slovak Republic, the population is approximately 5 million, of which Slovaks constitute 86 per cent, Hungarians 11 per cent, and Czechs, Moravians and Silesians 1.09 per cent.

Sri Lanka provides a sharp contrast. Large section of Tamils live outside the North and the East. An overwhelming number of Indian Tamils live in Sinhalese areas. Two-thirds of the Muslim population lives among the Sinhalese. Only one-third of the Muslim population lives in the East. It should be kept in mind that there is no love lost between the Muslims and the LTTE, and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress is not only opposed to the concept of a separate state of Tamil Eelam but also to the merger of the No rth and the East into a single province. There are also substantial numbers of Sri Lankan Tamils who live outside the North and the East. In fact, there are more Sri Lankan Tamils in Colombo than in Jaffna town. According to the 1991 census, Sri Lankan T amils constitute 9.8 per cent of the population in Colombo. Over the years, their number has increased; many of them use Colombo as a transit point to go abroad. In other words, the creation of Tamil Eelam will not provide a solution to the Tamil problem .

While the 'Velvet Divorce' took place without acrimony and bitterness, Sri Lanka has become one of the most notorious killing fields in the world. If a Tamil Eelam comes into existence, two thirds of the Sri Lankan coastline, including the strategic port of Trincomalee, will become part of the Tamil state. It is a scenario the Sinhalese shudder to visualise. The solution to the Tamil problem in Sri Lanka has to be found by devolving more powers to the Tamils so that they can maintain and promote their s eparate identity in a united Sri Lanka.

There are illustrations in Europe, where multiple identities co-exist in peace and harmony. If Karunanidhi wanted to provide a relevant case study from Europe, he should have cited the example of Switzerland. Switzerland is a multi-lingual state and its population of 7 million comprises Germans (63.6 per cent) French (19.2 per cent), Italians (7.2 per cent), Raeto Romansch (0.6 per cent) and others (8.9 per cent). The country is divided into 26 cantons. The constitution provides for decentralised politi cs and cantons enjoy enormous powers. Decentralised government means decentralised politics. And, what is more, it is interesting to note that in a multi-lingual country like Switzerland, controversial issues such as education and language come under the cantons and not the federal government. The cantons are also vested with considerable financial powers.

Prof. V. Suryanarayan is former Director, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras.

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