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COMPARISON OF TAMIL POLITICAL MOVEMENTS

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Sinhala Buddhist nationalism became the dominant rhetoric through which mainstream Sinhala politicians mobilized support. Just as caste was subsumed by the rhetoric of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, the Federal Party’s construction of a defensive Tamil nationalism also subsumed the socially significant differences of caste and region. The arguments developed by James Manor and Kanchan Chandra are helpful in understanding the political consolidation of the Tamil and Sinhala ethnic identities. Political power is effectively centralized in the central government, while the unitary constitution recognises only the Buddhist identity. As such, the central political question facing Sri Lankan voters and political actors regarding Sinhala and Tamil ethnic groups relates to the extent to which power is centralized. While Sinhala political actors and voters have material and ideological interests in a centralized and unitary state, Tamil actors can only reliably access state patronage within an autonomous Tamil unit. Regional and caste interests within both ethnic communities are effectively subsumed as they cannot be pursued outside of the larger ethnic group.

CONCLUSION The present paper represents the outlines of my work so far in tracing the very different trajectories of Sri Lankan and Indian Tamil nationalisms. It is clear that weak party structures are central to explaining the escalation of ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. Nehru’s management of the language question depended on his secure hold over the Congress party and a developed ideology of civic nationalism that allowed him to contain the opposition of Hindi advocates. The groups demanding “Sinhala Only” were very similar to the middle class job hunters and place hunters, who were behind the demands for linguistic states and for Hindi in India. To some extent, the Congress party could contain and manage these demands, while federal structures later worked to undermine the unity of linguistic groups. In Sri Lanka, however, weak, undisciplined, and disorganised parties undermined Sinhala party leaders who tried to accommodate both Tamil and Sinhala demands. Sinhala party leaders who tried to reach an accommodation with Tamil leaders were vulnerable to dissension from within their own parties and from the opposition benches. The failure to reach an accommodation with the Tamil leaders further consolidated the overarching Tamil identity at the expense of smaller caste and regional identities.

Sagar XVII — 2007  
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