The indispensable book for our confused times – Part One

“The main theses of the Vadukoddai Resolution, demanding a separate state and urging violence in pursuance of this political goal, were given respectability and legitimacy by the “ethnic entrepreneurs” in privatized research centers run by foreign-funded NGOs.”

by H. L. D.Mahindapala

(January 11, Melbourne, Sri Lanka Guardian) The Separatist Conflict in Sri Lanka – Terrorism, ethnicity, political economy -- Prof. Asoka Bandarage, Georgetown University, USA. (Publishers: Routledge – 2008).

Prof. Asoka Bandarage’s latest book, The Separatist Conflict in Sri Lanka, Terrorism ethnicity, political economy, is a new academic evaluation of the diverse and salient issues that had bedeviled the Sri Lankan conflict. It challenges the orthodox views and presents new insights that had missed the attention of the “ethnic entrepreneurs” who filled the public space with the monotonous drum beat of blaming only one side – the majority Sinhala-Buddhists.

In any intellectual/academic enterprise it is unrealistic and illogical to conclude that the complex forces, interacting and influencing each other, can be reduced to the sound of a clap with one hand. Yet a whole school of “ethnic entrepreneurs”, mostly from America, led by Prof. S. J. Tambiah of Harvard University, thrived by “manufacturing consensus” (Noam Chomsky) on this mono-causal thesis of blaming only the Sinhala-Buddhists. Rushing in from various angles the Sri Lankans in American academia (examples: H. L. Seneviratne, C. R. de Silva, de Votta, Bartholomeusz, etc) ran down this mono-causal narrow seam as if they were a herd chivvied by a “Rhinocerian” goad (Eugene Ionesco). Prof. Bandarage’s new study, on the contrary, explores the multi-factorial forces intertwining into the entangled and matted mess of the Sri Lankan conflict. It goes beyond the limited confines of the prevailing academic orthodoxy which has been dominated by some of the leading “ethnic entrepreneurs”.

In the absence of formidable and competitive perspectives penetrating the unfolding events this orthodox view gained the upper hand. The “American school” was aided and abetted by the Sri Lankan academics – particularly those from the Colombo University – who gathered their forces to buttress and propagate this mono-causal view. There are nearly 4,000 academics in the 14 universities and only the voices of those linked to this American network of academics (who were also allied to cash-flushed NGOs funding their “research”) were heard in local and international fora.

Proponents of this orthodox view also gained ascendancy because the opposite points of view were silenced by the overwhelming power of resources thrown by the privatized research centers that were popping up inside the walls of proliferating NGOs. They constructed the political vocabulary and the theoretical framework. They handpicked the narrow field of ground work that confirmed their political biases. And they craftily selected the evidence to fit into the politicized re-writing of history. Points of view that did not fit into their political agenda were dismissed as “unscientific” “chauvinism” and “racism”. Exclusion rather than inclusion was the norm in their intellectual exercises.

It is, therefore, pleasantly surprising to find a fresh academic voice challenging this mono-causal view. Prof. Asoka Bandarage’s latest book, The Separatist Conflict in Sri Lanka, Terrorism ethnicity, political economy, comes into this enclosed space like a breath of fresh air, easing the suffocation inside the closed ideological box. The book gains an added significance and value when it is read in the context of the “ethnic entrepreneurs” who hid behind the ubiquitous “cadjan curtains” of Jaffna. It opens up vistas that were never considered valid for analyzing the Sri Lankan conflict. In this respect her book not only breaks new ground but also presents a panoramic view of the conflict. Her decision to break away from the pack and go off the beaten track is a daring move that is rare in Sri Lankan studies.

Above all, her book is a pleasant surprise because it comes from America – the home of manufacturing consensus! Though she has taught at Yale and is now with Georgetown University her new book reveals her capacity to think outside the box. She is with the Georgetown Public Policy Institute specializing in comparative politics, South Asia and Conflict analysis and resolution. Her courses at Georgetown include, Comparative Ethnic and Religious Conflict, Democracy in South Asia, Global Social Movements and Conflict Analysis and Gender in International Security.

Before going any further into the book it is necessary to emphasize that her study reaches a new scholarly peak from which it is possible to look down on the prevailing mono-causal ideology that distorted the realities of the Sri Lankan conflict. The recurring question that runs through the mind when reading her book is: why did academia and think-tanks exploring the Sri Lankan conflict accept this narrow, mono-causal view when all the available evidence and reasoning ran against it? Conventional wisdom has categorized the Sri Lankan conflict as a product of culturally based violence where the majority Sinhala-Buddhists not only discriminated against the minority Tamils but also refused to accommodate their “grievances” which incrementally led to the exacerbation of inter-ethnic relations until the northern Tamils were forced to pass the Vadukoddai Resolution in May 1976 declaring war on the majority Sinhalese.

Incidentally, this was also the view that was held by a segment of the Sinhala intelligentsia, coming initially from the left-wing based on misplaced ideological sympathies and from the right-wing of late based on opportunistic politics to grab the Tamil vote. It became fashionable among those at these two ends of the political spectrum to view the conflict in simplistic terms of a clash of ethnic identities. The “ethnic entrepreneurs” in privatized research centers like the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES), MARGA, Center for Policy Alternative, et al too directed their resources and energies to reinforce the Jaffna-centric political line of a majority vs. minority issue in which the Tamil minority was kicked around by the majority Sinhalese. Victimology became the ruling mantra of this mono-causal cult.

Though this view has been contested it has not gained acceptance at the same level as theory of the culture-driven violence of the Sinhala-Buddhists against the Tamils. The opposition to this thesis has come out sporadically, in an ad hoc fashion, without collating the anti-thesis into a solid, cohesive argument. Prof. Bandarage brings together these ad hoc arguments, plus her own insights, to mount a forceful challenge to the conventional thesis handed down by the mono-causal theorists whose primary aim was to paint the northern Tamils of Jaffna – the most privileged community in Sri Lanka – as the victims of the Sinhala-Buddhist majority. She has pulled the multi-factorial strands into a lucid narrative which is bound to make her book the standard reference point for future scholars to explore the hidden realities of the Sri Lankan conflict. .

Finger-pointing at the Sinhala Buddhists was a subtle means of providing ideological incentives and justifications for Tamil violence. The distorted presentation of a mono-causal theory was the primary source that justified Jaffna Tamil violence endorsed in the Vadukoddai Resolution of 1976. In fact, the mono-causal theory was a carbon copy of the Vadukoddai Resolution. Every theorist who argued for the separatism in one form or other – from Eelam to confederalism to federalism to power-sharing – hardly ever deviated from the concocted geography and the manufactured history laid down in the Vaddukoddai Resolution. It was the bedrock on which Tamil separatism was based.

The main theses of the Vadukoddai Resolution, demanding a separate state and urging violence in pursuance of this political goal, were given respectability and legitimacy by the “ethnic entrepreneurs” in privatized research centers run by foreign-funded NGOs. The new ideological foot soldiers that fanned out globally to fire the ammunition manufactured by NGOs and partisan academics were content to wage their ideological war wearing these tinted monocles. Denigrating the Sinhala-Buddhist was a part of their strategy to promote the image of the northern Jaffna Tamils as the pristine, innocent and the vulnerable underdog that faced the brunt of Sinhala-Buddhist discrimination and violence in the post-independence phase.

As the northern violence gathered momentum a whole new industry developed inside academia and NGO think-tanks to rationalize the separatist political agenda prescribed in the Vadukoddai Resolution. The only difference was in the sophistication of the arguments presented by partisan academics in support of the main political agenda, outlined rather crudely, in the Resolution.. In every other respect they ran on parallel lines. Norman Uphoff of Cornell University political scientist, “who did many years of extensive field research in conflict areas in Lanka,” confirms this when he says: “Sinhalese politicians were blinded by their own ethnic prejudices and perceptions, themselves seeing the conflict much as LTTE has defined it, as an ethnic struggle rather than a blatant attempt by a minority to seize political power and territory.” (quoted by Prof. Bandarage – p.16)

The major thrust of the academic enterprise was to force the public to see the “conflict much as the LTTE has defined it.” As Uphoff has pointed out, it is the LTTE that defined the political agenda after it took over from the old guard that steered peninsular politics in feudal, colonial times and pre-1976 period.. But the LTTErs were essentially the children of the Vadukoddai Resolution. They were merely the young agents recruited ideologically by the elders of Jaffna to implement the Vadukoddai Resolution which was drafted, endorsed and politically packaged for the specific objective of unleashing political violence.

She points that the separatist agenda was drawn not only on “erroneous premises” but also on falsified historical statements. She states: “The Vadukoddai Resolution was taken almost verbatim from the erroneous Cleghorn Minute….”(p.71) She also cites K. M. de Silva, Sri Lanka’s foremost historian, as the authority that had investigated and debunked the Cleghorn Minute. Hugh Cleghorn was the first Colonial Secretary under Gov. North and he left the country in disgrace after it was found that some of the pearls that were in his custody had gone missing. It is not his questionable character that is at stake. It is his ill-informed knowledge of history that casts doubt on the validity of his minute. In the same minute he states that the Sinhalese came from Siam. K. M. de Silva shreds Cleghorn’s minute to strips in his monograph, “Separatist Ideology in Sri Lanka: A historical appraisal”. K. M. de Silva’s monograph is a critical study that explodes the foundations of the “traditional homelands” myths on which the Vaddukoddai Resolution was based.

To Be Continued
- Sri Lanka Guardian