The simmering ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka and the militant
Tamil nationalism associated with it have attracted a great deal
of interest to the subject of Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism. This
has generated a growing body of literature, both scholarly and
otherwise, on various aspects of Tamil nationalism and
Surprisingly, there has been little attempt so far to take stock or
critically assess the achievements of this body of work. The objective of the
present discussion is to reflect critically on this body of scholarship—to
observe its major trends and orientations and perhaps, more importantly, to
pin-point areas of neglect and areas that need further enquiry.
Keeping this goal in mind, the paper subscribes to a broad
definition of Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism both in terms of its
nature and chronology, and critically surveys the scholarship that
traces its inception from around the mid nineteenth century to its
more recent militant manifestation.
It does not however by any means attempt to provide a
comprehensive survey. Rather it seeks to focus on the dominant
trends in this scholarship, particularly that dealing with the more
militant phase of Tamil nationalism.
A striking feature of the historiography of Tamil nationalism in
Sri Lanka generally is that despite the enormous sufferings caused
by nationalism, it is rather unreflexive and under-developed,
particularly in comparison to the rich body of literature available
on nationalism in India.
There could be a number of reasons for this. One of the more
obvious is that that there was no significant popular mass-based
all-Ceylon anti-colonial movement, anti-colonial forces in the
country being confined to a small coalition of Left/liberal elites
whose ideological hegemony over the masses may have been even more
limited than was the case in India, which has been characterised as
a case of ‘dominance without hegemony’...
I would like to thank the following people for their useful
comments and suggestions on earlier drafts of this paper: Militon
Anandhi, Rajan Kurai, N. Sivahurunathan and Ravi Subramaniam. I
would also like to acknowledge the valuable discussions I had on
this subject with professors
S. Sivasegaram and
This brief critical survey of the literature available in English on Sri Lankan
Tamil nationalism reveals that, despite some notable advances, much remains to
be done— particularly with respect to the militant phase of Tamil nationalism.
Although more is known about the early phase of Tamil revival/nationalism during
the colonial period, the almost exclusive focus of this scholarship on the
Tamil/Saivite revival has tended to preclude a broader exploration of the
heterogeneity and complexity of Tamil elite formation in Sri Lanka. The
fascinating— almost symbiotic—partnership between the Tamil Protestant and
Saivite elites is also occluded by this preoccupation with the Hindu side.
And the same could be said for the next phase of Tamil nationalism which has
largely been covered from a purely political history perspective. The story of
defensive Tamil nationalism as Peravai—whose radical goals included inter alia
the empowerment of the lower classes/castes irrespective of ethnicity, the
empowerment of women, etc.
Among the relatively small body of scholarly works in English on the militant
phase of Tamil nationalism, the dominant approach of recent years has been one
that leans towards a kind of ‘othering’ of Tamil militancy and nationalism.
In one way this is not surprising, given the theoretical shifts that have
occurred since the 1980s in Anglo- American social science—particularly its
post-structuralism and postmodernism. But it is a tendency that has obscured
more than it has revealed. If indeed we take seriously the Broken Palmyra’s
charge that the
LTTE is a fascist or
neo-fascist movement, it is all the more imperative that we come to grips with
both the class/caste basis and the class forces behind the LTTE and how, as a
movement, it was able to subvert rival movements who offered a more
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