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The need for a renewed Tamil-Hindu politics in Sri Lanka

By Romesh Jayaratnam

(July 27, Kandy, Sri Lanka Guardian) This week marks the 26th anniversary of the 1983 race riots in Sri Lanka. A lot has happened since then. We need ethnic reconciliation.

Hinduism defined the Tamil identity in Sri Lankan history. The Saivite Hindu value system shaped Tamil politics before independence. This was epitomized in the careers of Arumuga Navalar, Muttucoomaraswamy, Ponnambalam Ramanathan, P. Arunachalam, Vythialingam Duraiswamy, Kandiah Vaithianathan, Swami Vipulananda, Arunachala Mahadeva, Nadesan and many others. 1850 to 1950 marked the heyday of Buddhist Hindu convergence in the Ceylonese polity.

The subsequent polarization between the Sinhalese and Tamils enabled the church to exert a disproportionate influence on Tamil civil society. Tamil Christians helped redefine Sri Lankan Tamil politics in the 1960s. The Sinhala only policies of S.W.R.D Bandaranaike provided the occasion to change track. Samuel James Velupillai Chelavanayakam and E.M.V. Naganathan co-founded the Federal Party. Both were Tamil Christians. The de-Hinduized and strident Tamil nationalism of the 1960s had become a useful tool to roll back the Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka, contain India and convert the Tamil Hindu to Christianity. Efforts were made to deny the Hindu roots of Tamil identity in Sri Lankan history.

This Tamil Christian project is exemplified in 'TamilNet', the foremost proponent of Tamil secessionism on the internet. TamilNet twice provided space this month to Samuel Ratnajeevan Herbert Hoole, a retired lecturer in Electrical Engineering and California resident. It reproduced his anti-Hindu diatribes on July 14 and on July 19. (Click) Hoole, a Christian fundamentalist, has repeatedly denigrated the Hindu religion in various fora. He does not mince words in his denunciation of Hinduism as evidenced in his publications on C.W. Thamotherampillai, his family biography and numerous newspaper articles.

Hoole used a discussion on caste in recent Tamil history to attack two icons of Tamil Hindu identity in colonial Ceylon i.e. Arumuga Navalar and Ponnambalam Ramanathan. He makes false innuendos.

I do not intend to respond to his dubious observations on caste except to mention that Christianity was responsible for unprecedented violence in its history. This included the Crusades against Islam, the Inquisition and Pogroms against Judaism (which inspired the later Holocaust), the wars of religion between Protestants and Roman Catholics, the extermination of the Inca, Maya, Aztec, native Americans and the Australian Aborigine, and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Francis Xavier called for the wholesale destruction of Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam in Asia. Much of this had its roots in the Bible. Christianity accompanied European colonialism.

This article, however, has a different objective. It is intended to highlight the constructive role of Tamil Hinduism vis-a-vis Buddhism in the pre-independence era. This offers a dramatic contrast to the subsequent destructive ethos of a de-Hinduized Tamil politics since the 1960s.

The career of Ponnambalam Ramanathan highlights this fact. The memory of Arumuga Navalar is a revered one. He did so much for the Hindu revival and Hindu education in the 1800s. Other Tamil Hindu leaders of the 1800s and 1900s had a similar commitment to their religion and identity. This article focuses on Ramanathan to illustrate the inclusive world view of Tamil Hinduism.

Sir Ponnambalam Ramanthan was a Member of the Legislative Council of Ceylon from 1879 to 1892, Solicitor General from 1892 to 1906, a member of the Legislative Council from 1911 to 1921, and from 1924 to 1930. A Barrister by profession, he was elected by a broad coalition of Buddhists and Hindus.

Ramanathan supported the Hindu revival. He established two flagship Hindu schools in Jaffna which he envisioned as the precursor for an eventual university in Jaffna. One in fact did become the University of Jaffna in the 1970s. He brought down leading educationalists in Europe and America to teach in these schools. Ramanathan, along with many others, helped found the Hindu Board of Education that established a vibrant network of more Hindu denominational schools. The Hindu school system in colonial Ceylon helps explain the high levels of literacy in rural North Ceylon. It provided a fillip to Tamil language education.

Ramanathan worked with the colonial administration to open up lands for agriculture, invest in irrigation and provide livelihood for the impoverished Tamil peasantry. In 1928, he defended the right to vote of the Indian origin tea and rubber estate workers.

He supported the efforts of the Theosophical Society to establish Buddhist denominational schools. He worked tirelessly for Hindu Buddhist unity. He was responsible for making Vesak, the birth anniversary of the Buddha, a public holiday in colonial Ceylon. Ramanathan, like P. Arunachalam, was a scholar of Sanskrit, Pali and Tamil. He studied and commented on both Hindu and Buddhist scriptures. Henry Olcott, the co-founder of the Theosophical Society, responsible for the establishment of Buddhist schools in Sri Lanka said:

‘From the time Buddhists of Ceylon began to take into their own hands the education of their youths, we have had a staunch friend and co-operator in the person of my friend Mr. Ramanathan, the Solicitor-General of Ceylon’

The colonial administration had arrested the entire Sinhalese leadership in 1915. This was in response to the islandwide Sinhalese Muslim riots. The British authorities were harsh in their treatment of the Sinhalese community. Many were shot without trial. The entire Sinhalese leadership was imprisoned. Ramanathan traveled by sea to London in October 1915, at the height of World War I with the ever present threat of German submarines, to represent the incarcerated Sinhalese leadership. He negotiated the release of all those detained. I quote him.

'Take the Sinhalese nation. I have served the race all my life. In my twenty-eighth year I entered the Legislative Council and never once have I thought myself to be a member of the Tamil community only — I supported the Sinhalese interests and every other interest and treated every subject with the same sympathy and desire to do the best for all communities. I knew through and through the men and women of the Sinhalese community of all classes. They have all the characteristics of a great people. They are decidedly considerate and peaceful.'

Anagarika Dharmapala, the leader of the Buddhist revival, wrote to Ramanathan to express personal appreciation of his efforts. A. Ratnayake, the erstwhile President of the Senate described Sir Ponnambalam Ramanthan as the 'father of the Ceylonese renaissance'. Sir Baron Jayatilaka, the head of the cabinet in the State Council, called him 'the greatest man Ceylon had produced in the past 50 years'. D.S. Senanayake, the first Prime Minister of independent Sri Lanka, hailed Ponnambalam as 'the greatest Ceylonese of all times'.

It is important that we Tamil Hindus revive the legacy of Sir Ponnambalam Ramanthan and other Tamil Hindu leaders in the pre-independence era. This is needed to roll back the destructive ideology of Tamil secessionism. The politics of Tamil secessionism, be it by the Federal Party of the 1960s or the LTTE in the last 25 years was based on a hatred of Buddhism. It took us no where! The Tamil Hindus need to revert to the inclusive politics of the pre-independence era. Its time to revive the legacy of Hindu Buddhist concord. That alone would ensure our future.

An enlightened Sinhalese leadership should likewise reach out to us. A good first step would be to allow all IDPs to return to their lands and villages in the Vanni. That would provide a much needed fillip for Buddhist Hindu reconciliation.

-Sri Lanka Guardian


Sandeepweb said...

This is a very informative & insightful piece, which traces the history of Sri Lanka upto about 200 years to the present.

What Sri Lanka urgently needs is peace, something, which it can achieve by following the suggestions made in the article. To revive the rich Hindu-Buddhist legacy that people like Ramanathan have bequeathed it. Now that the LTTE has been eliminated decisively, it's time to give peace a chance. It doesn't make sense to continue the policy of discrimination/ethnic strife any longer.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the viewpoint that is not always heard internationally. This Tamil Hindu perspective needs to be heard more often overseas. I also hope that the Rajapakse administration pays heed to this stand of political thought.

The Tamil Hindu is heir to a rich civilization and has much in common with the Sinhala Buddhist - the shared new year, the shared veneration of several divinities and shared marriage customs being a few examples out of many.

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