A friend from Sri Lanka recently visited Bangalore, and not unexpectedly was in a mood of dark depression. The always uneasy cease-fire between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eeelam and the Sri Lankan Government had broken down. Civil war had resumed. Once more, bombs were going off in the heart of Colombo; once more, the Army was burning villages in the North.
It is one of the tragic ironies of modern South Asian history that the most beautiful parts of the sub-continent are also the most violent. Kashmir, Bastar, Nagaland—the list of lovely places wracked by civil war is long. Yet Sri Lanka is in a class of its own. The bulk of India, and Indians, can carry on living as if Kashmir and Nagaland never existed. But in that little island, the clash between recalcitrant rebels and a bloody-minded government affects almost every citizen of the nation.
There is another difference. Like Kashmir and Nagaland, Sri Lanka is beautiful; unlike them, it has a highly skilled and educated population. Had there been no war, the Tamils and Sinhalas between them would taken their country to the forefront of the knowledge economy. Instead of California being nervous about losing jobs to Bangalore, Bangalore would have complained of business being ‘outsourced’ to Jaffna and Colombo. Further, as a self-contained island Sri Lanka is easier of access than Kashmir or Nagaland; thus, had peace reigned, the tourist trade would also have been booming.
I called the rebels in Sri Lanka ‘recalcitrant’; the government, ‘bloody-minded’. However, there is a third and most complicating factor to the conflict, which is the Tamil diaspora. One reason that the Tiger supremo Vellupillai Prabhakaran won’t carry negotiations forward to a peaceful conclusion is that like many dogmatists he finds compromise difficult; another reason is that large sections of the emigré population will not let him. In the autumn of 2000, I spent six weeks travelling through Switzerland, talking to members of the Sri Lankan Tamil community. While I did meet a Muslim whose village had been attacked by Prabhakaran’s men, and a Christian priest who worked for reconciliation, the vast majority of the Hindu Tamils living in the Alps supported the Tigers, totally. Further, they were prepared to settle for nothing else than independence. I asked a Tamil leader in Zurich whether he hoped the Norwegians—then as now overseeing the ‘peace’ process—would be able to get them some real autonomy in a unified Sri Lanka. The answer was swift, and decisive: ‘We have lost everything—homes, lands, forests, families. What for? In 1985 we might have accepted autonomy. But now, after all this struggle and sacrifice, what can we accept? Only an independent Tamil homeland, Eeelam’.
In this respect the Tamil exiles are representative of diasporic communities everywhere. By and large, the New York Jews are far more extreme in their defence of Israel’s borders and the Israeli army’s excesses than Jews who live within the Jewish homeland. As in Sri Lanka, there are many reasons why a workable settlement has not been achieved in Palestine. The Palestinians have been unable to present a united front; sections of the Israeli establishment are plagued by a peculiar form of paranoia. But it is quite possible that the contending parties could have forged a lasting agreement had the American Jews allowed the American Government to honestly play the role of a honest broker, or if they had not so recklessly pushed the right-wing in Israel to expand Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories. At every turn, the expatriate Jews have supported and endorsed the most uncompromising elements within Israel. They have also ensured that the Americans can never place on the table an agreement which is truly even-handed between Israel and the Palestinians.
Recall that the movement for a Sikh homeland in the 1980s was also sustained, in more senses than one, by diasporic Sikh communities based in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. It was they who supplied the money which bought the arms used by Khalistani terrorists in the Punjab. If they were not raising money, they were lobbying the United States Government to come down hard on the Government of India. It was also the exiles who most assiduously denied that the Sikhs were part of the larger Indian family, denying, for example, that they shared a roti-beti rishta with the Hindus, breaking bread with them and marrying into their families. As Khushwant Singh famously put it, the vocal Khalistani ideologue in Washington, Ganga Singh Dhillon would be more honest if he changed his name to Potomac Singh Dhillon.
By the late 1980s the movement for Khalistan had collapsed within the Punjab. But it lingered on in the diaspora. I remember an extended conversation sometime in 1997 with a Sikh taxi driver who drove me from San Francisco airport across the bay into Berkeley. He was convinced that the creation of Khalistan was around the corner. He claimed that forty Senators were already behind a Bill which was going to be introduced in the U. S. Congress mandating a Sikh homeland. Once another ten Senators had been persuaded—or bought—the Bill would be brought to the table of President Bill Clinton, who would sign his assent. And since the United States was now the sole superpower, the Government of India had no alternative but to heed their command. The next year, the cabbie’s geopolitical calculations were shown to be spectacularly awry, when President Clinton visited India and paid glowing tributes to its democratic traditions without so much as mentioning Khalistan.
Like the Sikhs and the Jews, the Irish in America have also supplied arms and money to extremists at home while seeking to stall any negotiations with the other side. But why do diasporic communities promote the most extreme forms of nationalism? One reason is psychological, namely, that they are doubly alienated, not at home (for whatever reason) in their country of origin and not at home in their country of residence either. Since by virtue of skin colour or faith (or both) they cannot ever entirely belong in America, they maintain a deep emotional connection to their land of origin, which they then wish to purge of all contaminating influences. It is because they want a place where they can at last be fully at home that American Jews want a Israel sans Palestinians, American Sikhs a Khalistan without Hindus, and American Irishmen an Eire where not so much as a shadow of a Protestant will fall.
Khalistan is now dead and buried. After the fiasco of the Indian Peace Keeping Force we are keeping well clear of Sri Lanka. And Palestine and Ireland are far away. Still, India is not entirely free of the blighting effects of long-distance nationalism. I have in mind the activities of right-wing Hindus in the U. K. and especially in America, who have provided strong support—financial and ideological—for such extremist organizations as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. Like their Jewish or Sikh counterparts, these Hindus are dangerous as well as hypocritical. Dangerous, for their activities have fuelled a cycle of violence and counter-violence in pursuit of the fantasy of a India that is essentially and emphatically ‘Hindu’. Hypocritical, for they will not put their limbs where their money goes, choosing to live on in the West while professing their love for India. Inspired by Khushwant Singh, I shall advise these diasporic nationalists to stop thinking of Bharat Mata—who can take care of herself—and instead learn Latin and take an annual sin-cleansing dip in the Mississippi.