Trans-national minorities

If you are French, German, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Thai or Turkish, you belong to a nation-state. You belong to a country which has been united for its entire history. You share the same language and culture as your countrymen.

But not all nationalities are like yours. In a world where new nationalities are carved up and old nationalities evolve, a common phenomenon is the trans-national minority. A community with a shared culture, a separate language, an independent history and a collective consciousness, but without a country to show for it. Sometimes, these trans-national minorities peacefully remain part of a larger country, and sometimes, they instigate bloody wars of separatism.

The Basques are a case in point. They are Europeans alright, but their language is unrelated to other European languages, much to the surprise of sociolinguists. Their territory spans southwestern France and northeastern Spain. They are a peaceful part of France, but in Spain, it’s a different story altogether.

The Spaniards under the “leadership” of General Franco waged a bloody war to annex the Basque country into Spain. He imported the latest German fighter planes and bombed the Basque country. This was depicted by Pablo Picasso in his famous painting Guernica. The Basque country fell to Franco, but they have never been happy since. Even today, the Basque separatists are fighting for an independent homeland in the north of Spain.

Picasso’s Guernica depicted the violent annexation of the Basque country

The Basques are not the only trans-national minority in Spain. The Catalans are similar. Their native region is Catalonia in eastern Spain, and they speak Catalan. They know Spanish due to its administrative and business importance, but they have a strong identity as a Catalan nation. Catalonia is disproportionately successful economically. Therefore, they tolerate the linguistic and cultural domination of the Spaniards, and do not aspire for secession.

The Galicians of northern Spain are another trans-national minority. They are known to favour secession, but they don’t get the publicity the Basque separatists get, probably because fewer instances of violence are associated with them.

Over to the Middle East, the Kurds are a prominent trans-national minority, with territories in Turkey, Iraq and Iran. They have received publicity as one of the communities persecuted by Saddam Hussein. They have always been looking to separate from Iraq, and recently, there are nascent murmurs of separatism in Turkey too. There is a significant Kurdish diaspora in Europe and North America. Google’s Director of Sales, Omid Kordestani, is a Kurd as his name suggests.

The Kurdish region, with territories in Turkey, Iraq and Iran

The Pashtuns (also known as Pathans) are a trans-national minority whose native region lies in southern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. They have a significant presence in the cities of Peshawar and Karachi. There is a Pashtun diaspora all over the world, particularly India and the USA. There is a subculture of Pashtun nationalism in Pakistan, but this does not have popular support, as Pashtuns have integrated well into Pakistani society and have high representation in the government, military and business.

The Indian subcontinent is a hotbed of trans-national minorities. The Punjabis of India and Pakistan have a shared culture and history, and were divided only by religion during the time of the partition. Ditto for the Bengalis of eastern India who share their roots with the neighbouring Bangladeshis.

The Tamils are a trans-national minority of southern India and northern Sri Lanka. There are 65 million Tamils native to Tamil Nadu province in India, 3 million Tamils native to northern and eastern Sri Lanka, and a significant diaspora all over the world.

tamil flag
Unofficial flag of Tamils, with the words, “All towns are our own, all people are our kin”

At the time of India’s independence, there were murmurs of separatism in Tamil Nadu, especially when Hindi was imposed as the sole official language of India. Riots erupted in Tamil Nadu opposing the imposition of Hindi. This caused an amendment to the Indian Constitution, giving official language status to 22 languages. This also caused the reorganization of Indian states along linguistic lines, to give each linguistic community a state with some degree of autonomy. This appeased the separatist sentiments of Tamils.

Indian Tamils today are contented due to the industrialization and urbanization of Tamil Nadu, and the success of the province in many industries like textiles, automobiles and healthcare. Tamils still complain about the cultural domination of the Hindi-speaking North, but this has not manifested itself into separatist tendencies, simply because Tamils don’t face economic problems. There is little support for separatism in Tamil Nadu today.

It was an entirely different story for the Tamils in Sri Lanka. At the time of independence, there were only 2 million Tamils in Sri Lanka, among whom 1 million were Indian Tamils who were denied Sri Lankan citizenship. The 1 million Sri Lankan Tamils had neither numerical strength nor a large geographical area. So when Sinhalese, the language of the majority Sinhalese community, was made the sole official language of the country, the Tamils could not prevent it through their protests.

Sinhalese became the language of education and business. The English-educated Tamils were disenfranchised. The better-educated Tamils with skillsets left the country, and contributed to the success of countries like Singapore. The remaining Tamils protested peacefully for decades, such as tarring the Sinhalese signboards (an echo of their brethren in India who tarred Hindi signboards). But over the decades, hostility slowly escalated, gradually adopting the form of violence. Four Tamil militant groups emerged, and fought with each other for the right to represent Tamils. After a Darwinian struggle, the LTTE emerged as the last group standing.

Some well-publicised instances of violence brewed hatred between the two communities, escalating the conflict. The ambush and killing of 12 Sri Lankan Army soldiers by the LTTE was a watershed event. It heralded the infamous events of July 1983 (known as Black July). Furious Sinhalese civilians killed Tamil civilians (hundreds of them if you believe the Sinhalese, thousands of them if you believe the Tamils). Tamil localities in several Sri Lankan cities were burnt. Tamil-owned businesses and factories were destroyed. The economic loss to Sri Lanka was estimated at US$ 300 million.

black july
Destruction of Tamil-owned homes and businesses during Black July

Black July was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The direct outcome was a bloody civil war that has claimed 70,000 lives in the past 25 years. Sri Lanka was arguably the most promising country in South Asia in the middle of the 20th century, with the right size and natural resources. But today it’s surviving on the aid of numerous countries, and grappling with a terrible human rights record. Singapore’s leader Lee Kuan Yew has remarked, “It is sad that the country whose ancient name Serendip has given the English language the word ‘serendipity’ is now the epitome of conflict, pain, sorrow and hopelessness”.

Trans-national minorities need to be handled with sensitivity. An important first step is to acknowledge their right to be different. Attempts at assimilating them into a supposed “national” culture have always resulted in communal tensions. Trans-national minorities need to retain their identity, and at the same time become part of a beautiful whole. Countries with trans-national minorities should preserve the culture of those trans-national minorities, adding to the richness of a pluralistic national culture. The mosaic is always more attractive than the melting pot.

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