Tamils - a Trans State Nation..

"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home > Tamil National ForumSelected Writings - Karthigesu Sivathamby > Speaking out the unspoken: revisiting the tracks of the Great Divide

Tamil National Forum

Selected Writings - Karthigesu Sivathamby

Speaking out the unspoken: revisiting the tracks of the Great Divide
Northeastern Herald, 13 September 2002

The logic of South Asian politics has reasserted itself in all its customary intensity. On 16th September, the three major ethnic groups of Sri Lanka are meeting in Thailand to work out a plan for the devolution of power that would ensure coexistence.

Can Sri Lanka escape the tragedy of India / Pakistan and Pakistan / Bangladesh? Of course India became wiser and quite soon under the guidance of India’s Foreign Secretary K. M. Panikkar devised a system of linguistic states, which in spite of many tensions, is keeping India intact. Unfortunately, neither Pakistan nor Sri Lanka realise the value of accommodating with grace the ‘smaller brother.’ Sri Lanka faces this uphill task now.

At this time when an earnest attempt is being made to resolve the Sri Lanka problem, which has ravaged the country for almost 26 years, it will be useful for curative and preventive purposes to view ‘clinically’ what went wrong, where. This article attempts to present the Tamil point of view on how the alienation took place and the Great Divide became a reality.

Sri Lanka’s entry into electoral democracy was through the gates of communalism. In the 19th century, the British colonial government made the Legislative Council more representative by appointing unofficial members from the various communities in Sri Lanka – Kandyan Sinhalese, Low Country Sinhalese and Sri Lankan Tamils. When it came to the Muslims (Moors), this community accused Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan of trying to block Muslim representation by claiming the Moors were really Tamils. Tensions had already started.

In the beginning, the movement for Buddhist identity and cultural revival, as much as it was in Saivism, was not anti-Christian. And as the 20th century opens with Anagarikka Dharmapala coming into the picture, the cry was against ‘foreigners.’ Buddhist writings of this period reveal a strong anti-Muslim trend. In a way, the Sinhala-Muslim riots of 1915 though overplayed by the British government, lay within the logic of history.

Ramanathan, the great Tamil, chose to speak for the Sinhalese and it is said he made a special trip to London to plead their cause. The late Badi-ud-din Mahmud, the minister of education in the UF government of 1970-1977 told this writer, “The Muslims shall never create a chance for another 1915 and never forget what the Tamils did to their linguistic brethren.”

At that time there was not much vitriolic writing against Sri Lankan Tamils though there was the undesirable trend in historiography to treat Tamil intrusions into pre-Western Sri Lanka as foreign invasions. John M. Seneviratne in his ‘Story of the Sinhalese’ is quite clear in dubbing the South Indian Tamil intrusions as ‘invasions.’ The emerging Buddhist consciousness and the general attitude of the Sangha was to uphold the ‘Mahawansa’ tradition of treating the non-Buddhist intrusions as something against the country and its people. The basic Mahavihara ideology of the ‘Mahawansa’ was not taken into count and terms like the ‘Demalas’ read in Geiger’s translation of the ‘Mahawansa,’ had a completely different meaning in the 1920s and 1930s. It took almost 30 years for historians like R.A.L.H. Goonawardene and W. I. Suraweera to take a more historicist view of the ‘Mahawansa’ narrative.

An intellectual decision was taken almost unanimously to distance Tamil and Tamilnadu history from Sinhala and Buddhist, and present the Tamils, at least in historical researches, as a damaging force. The interactive and the syncretistic were almost always overlooked. More basically, the interaction of the culture of the Tamils with that of the average, village-level Sinhalese was also ignored. The Theravada layer of Sinhala culture was highlighted, almost ignoring the ‘thovil’ and ‘gammaduwa’ traditions (which constitute a rich legacy for the ritualistic dramatic traditions of the Sinhalese) coming to terms with those same acts of syncretism.

It is understandable that the Buddhist upsurge was not taken to highlight the pre-Buddhistic and non-Buddhistic elements. But it also chose not to highlight the Tamil-Buddhist interaction that was very much evident in the history of Sri Lankan Buddhism. Efforts were also made not to emphasise the post-Polonnaruwa cultural intermingling, which was seen in the Dambadeniya and Kotte periods. (Scholars like Professor Liyanagamage have drawn attention to some of these interactions). All these led, inevitably, to treating Tamils as being against the Sinhalese and Buddhism.

On the part of the Tamils, (at least the articulate Tamils of the day) Sinhala culture was nothing but a mosaic of what had travelled down from India – especially South India. They made the mistake of not realising that those Indian influences in Sri Lanka had blended into such a form that there was something specifically Sri Lankan about it. But in the Buddhist / Sinhala view, the innovativeness of the adaptation was a Sinhala achievement. One could even say the much-respected Ananda Coomaraswamy himself made this mistake.

It was in such a situation and with the coming of communal representation that the Sinhala – Tamil divide began to take substantive form. With Ramanathan out of the picture, his brother Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam could not convince Sir Claude Corea and Sir Marcus Fernando that the Tamils in the Western Province deserved representation. And it might be recalled the word Tamileelam is now traced to the last days of Arunachalam when he formed the first Tamil party.

History since the 1930s and the working of the Donoughmore Constitution are well known for building silent barriers between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. The great nationalist effort of the Jaffna Youth Congress to boycott the 1931 elections under the Donoughmore system was taken as an act of communalism. Seelan Kadirgamar has argued very convincingly in his edition of the Handy Perimpanayagam papers how the whole matter was misunderstood. It should be accepted that the foundations for a racial, if not ethnic divide was firmly laid during this period.

The coming of the Donoughmore Constitution and the decision to go for territorial representation led only to an extension and expansion of communal politics. The failure of the Ceylon National Congress (CNC) in real ‘national’ terms should be seen in this context. And the Sinhala Maha Sabha was an important political group and no less a person than S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike was associated with it.

It was in this situation of mutual distrust and backstabbing that Sri Lanka took two very effective steps towards future democratisation – steps, which enabled the participation of the entire population of Sri Lanka. The first was the decision to develop education in Sinhala and Tamil. In fact there was a proposal that Sinhala and Tamil be made national languages in the State Council. Second, and more important, was C. W. W. Kannangara’s proposal of a system of free education. Education, which was the only passport for the upward mobility in colonial Sri Lanka, was now open to all – irrespective of class differentiation and distance from Colombo.

This brought about a great revolution. Coupled with the shift to ‘swabasha’ as the medium of instruction, free education was a radiant socio-political fire that swept across the country. But though Sri Lanka did the correct thing educationally and democratically, the manner by which it was implemented went against it. In deciding to make Tamil and Sinhala the media of instruction, it did not care, or pause think, on the need for coordination between the two languages. Sinhalese did not have to learn Tamil and Tamils did not have to learn Sinhalese. There was no coordination for the establishment of a Sri Lankan linkage.

This led slowly and surely to the erection of impenetrable walls between the two communities. Given the contemporary mood of the Sinhalese, what began going into Sinhala textbooks on the history and culture of the country were really material accusing the second largest community in the country of playing a negative role in the development of Sinhala and Buddhism. The year 1956 marks an important turning point. What the average Sinhalese did not feel as having imbibed in 1948 at independence, he or she felt they had found in 1956. Power, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike said was now in the hands of ‘panchcha maha balavegaya’ – the ‘sangha,’ ‘guru,’ ‘kamkaru,’ ‘veda’ and ‘govi.’ The historiography of the Sangha made the Tamils look villains.

We are now in the late 1950s and 1960s. The die was cast and divisions along ethnic lines could not be postponed further.

It is at this point that one should take count of the Sinhala media – especially the influential press. Growing out of the anti-Christian and anti-alien tradition it did not differentiate either between race and religion, or country and race. It argued very strongly for the Sinhalese of the entire country and the reification of what is referred to as Sinhala-Buddhism. In the eyes of the influential Sinhala press, any attempt on the part of the minorities to assert their presence was taken as anti-national.

It is true that in 1949 and the early 1950s the political forces that led Tamil opinion were insisting on Tamil with a Dravidian flavour, bringing into Sri Lanka the overtones of the Dravidian parts of South India. It should be agreed this element was substantively present in the rhetoric. But it was enough to frighten the already frightened Sinhalese community, which was becoming a victim of its own minority complex forgetting the fact it was a majority.

At a time like this it was expected the major left parties of the day could have played a decisive role. And to a certain extent they did. The CPSL was for regional autonomy and it were they who organised the first meeting opposing Sinhala Only at the Colombo town hall. Dr. Colvin R. De Silva made the famous remark “two languages one nation, one language two nations.” But the vagaries of Soviet politics and the absence of a sound Marxist understanding of the Sri Lankan situation, led to the major left parties to take a pro-Sinhala position in five – six years’ time.

The only political force that could have cemented the Sinhala – Tamil rift was now becoming openly anti-regional autonomy and by the mid-1960s the leftist slogan of “Dudleyge badey, masala wadey,” brought out the hatred of the hitherto uncorrupted Sinhala comrade to view the Tamils as political enemies.

The coup de gras comes in 1972, when the Marxist Constitutional Affairs Minister Dr. Colvin R. De Silva presented the Republican Constitution, taking away Section 29 of the 1948 Constitution, which was the only safeguard for minority rights. What Prime Minister D. S Senanayke had to accept from the Whitehall, De Silva unceremoniously threw out of the window. Following this, the old and feeble Federal Party leader S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, made a two-sentence declaration in the House. Many of the members of the House did not know what he said till the Hansard arrived. And the wolf the Sinhala media had been crying had at last arrived. Chelvanayakam declared that his party now stood for separation

The new Constitution and the actions of the United Front government alienated the Tamil youth too. By the late 1970s, Tamil militant groups vehemently attacking the traditional Marxists but using Marxist slogans of liberation etc. had come to stay. In such a loaded situation, 1983 was not far away. With 1983 there was no denial of the ethnic war coming into the open. This was a reflected very strongly in the lexis used. The Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims were no longer ‘communities’ living in one country, but became ‘ethnic groups’ with defined, almost racial characteristics.

The passage from community to ethnicity is the price the Sri Lankan polity has had to pay for intransigence in dealing with Tamil demands for justice. Further, when there is a reference to ethnicity, cultural separatism is implied and the demand for political separatism is only a matter of time. Since 1983 Tamil resistance has become resistance against oppression – both military and administrative.

It is this run of events we have to look back upon and if possible correct. Till 2002 it was argued that when the UNP was in power the SLFP opposed all what the UNP said and did, and vice versa. But from the Tamil point of view there is no better opportunity to resolve the ethnic conflict than at the present moment, where there is a SLFP (PA) president and a UNF (UNP) premier.

If the Sinhalese cannot come to an agreement between themselves now as to how they are going to accommodate the other sections of the Sri Lankan population, it is hardly likely they would do so in the future. But ironically (or is it tragically?) the Sri Lankan state has two governments within it. And let it not be forgotten the Tigers too have their own government. “Lead kindly light lead thou me on, I am far away from home.”


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