“Ethnicisation” of History Writing in South Asia/Sri Lanka - Final Part

A Few Comments on J.L. Devananda’s Response

by Bandu de Silva

3.3 Vellalar’s and Sinhala Nationalism

(February 25, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The Tamil political scientist and son-in-law of the Federalist leader S.J. Chelvanayagam, A.J. Wilson once argued that Tamil nationalism was defensive and rose as a result of Sinhala chauvinism.

However, a more thorough and inclusive reading of Sri Lanka’s political past will reveal that the undercurrents of extreme Tamil Nationalism, although claimed to be defensive and a reaction to Sinhala Nationalism, were there well before Sinhala Nationalism of the kind seen in 1956, surfaced in Sri Lankan politics.
The awakening of this nationalism within the Jaffna Vellalar ranks can be seen in the decade preceding 1931, or the Donoughmore years, ushering in a new chapter in Sri Lanka Tamil politics. Led by G.G. Ponnambalam, the Colombo lawyer from the Vellalar community in Jaffna, this nationalism was based directly on a sense of “Dravidianism” designed to copy and yet counter the “Aryan” nationalist politics that was raging the European continent in the 1930s. Thus G.G. Ponnambalam, and following him Natesan, declared in the State Council that they were “proud Dravidians” (Hansard 1934, Column 3045). G.G. Ponnambalam carried this “Tamil-superiority” politics to the public platform, beginning with the attack on the “Mahavamsa”, as well as the Sinhalese people, calling them a “mongrel-race”, descendent from the Tamils. Several books re-writing the history of Jaffna, and Sri Lanka, claiming a long historical domination of the land by Tamils had already come into print. G.G. Ponnambalam’s “Mahavamsa bashing” was the public face of what was brewing among Tamil intellectuals who sought to nullify the Sinhala-majoritarian reality of Ceylonese politics.

The reasons for singling out the Mahavamsa can be seen in the observations of the British historian Dr. Jane Russell, when she said that “Ceylon Tamils had no written document on the lines of the Mahavamsa to authenticate their singular and separate historical authority ... a fact which (they) found very irksome”. (Russell). The many stone inscriptions and Buddhist ruins attesting to this irksome history was also very inconvenient. These were the primary reasons that inspired the early campaigns of G.G. Ponnambalam against the “Mahavamsa”, which later developed into the extensive territorial claims regarding which K.M. de Silva says “in less than a decade of its enunciation in 1949, [this] theory became an indispensable and integral part of the political ideology of the Tamil advocates of regional autonomy and separatism”.

It is this "irksome" feeling of the Sinhalese possessing a written record going back at least to two millennia that started the Mahavamsa bashing. At the end of the day, the Mahavamsa stood in the way of the Vellalar Tamils showing the British they were an equal majority with the Sinhalese and hence power should be split 50:50. It would not be far from the truth if one says that the Mahavamsa did not feature in Sinhala politics until G.G. Ponnambalam brought it into the forefront with his brand of confrontational Sri Lankan politics. So if such a thing called “Mahavamsa Mentality” does exist today on some level, it’s a direct result, or rather a defensive result of a campaign of Mahavamsa bashing that began with G.G. Ponnambalam, not the other way around!

It is then wrong to isolate the Mahavamsa as being responsible for Sinhala nationalism. The root of Sinhala nationalism has been construed as a fear of being engulfed by a much larger South Indian presence across the straits, and if the memory of the story in the chronicles was rekindled, for which G.G. Ponnambalam was no less responsible (Russell), there were far greater reasons which affected the people directly. Even if the demographic changes that British colonialists effected by introducing South Indian labour to the central heartland of the country in the 19th and early 20th centuries which accentuated the problem of landlessness among the Kandyan peasantry, the point was brought to the fore especially during the economic depression in the 1930s which created mass unemployment among the Sinhalese (Kodikara/Russel), the importation of South Indians as ‘scabs’ in the early 20th century to break Sinhalese trade union action saw the Sinhalese working class taking to the streets against Indians, both the traders and others.

There was also the emotional environment caused by the British imperialist policy of supporting missionary activity which saw the rise of the 19th century response to the Christian missionaries and other agents of western civilization. The oppression during 1915 Martial Law sealed the situation. I pointed out in the early section under Anagarika Dharmapala how the Tamil revivalism took place and Indian nationalism grew without an influencing factor like the Mahavamsa. Anagarika Dharmapala did not create these situations. The causes for the rise of Sinhalese nationalism were inherent in the British imperial policy which Sri Lankan Tamil elite “eagerly welcomed … as it elevated them to the [junior] ranks…” (Terminology in Italics borrowed from Mr. Devananda) in British administrative hierarchy and brought other benefits like the offer of land in the Tank country and the Eastern province. Even land at Gantalawa was offered to South Indians and Jaffna Tamils in preference to hapless Sinhalese peasants in the most difficult parts of Nuwarakalaviya. (Records of Governor McCullum’s Durbar with Tamil Chieftains, 1911, and Administrative Reports of the Govt. Agent of Trincomalee).

True, some scholars like Prof. K.N.O. Dharmadasa have tried to trace roots of Sinhalese nationalism even to the Mahavamsa, but these are argumentative scholastic propositions more than popular acceptance of actual situations and have not resulted in a mass response to exclude the ‘other’, far from taking the people to the streets. Only a very few even among educated Sinhalese even know about the existence of such literature.

As Dr. Jane Russell noted the Tamil politicians have exploited the Elara-Dutugamunu story even more than the Sinhalese. It was G.G. Ponnambalam who brought the Mahavamsa into modern politics in the 1930s, claiming that it was a false piece of propaganda, and in the next instant claiming that it was really a history of the Tamils, with the aboriginal ‘Veddas’ taken to be Tamils, Vijaya transmuting into Vijayan, Kasyapa into Kasi-Appan and Parakaramabahu a 66% Dravidian. His utterances went to incite the Sinhalese in Navalapitiya for the first Sinhala-Tamil riot in 1939! (Russell).

The literature of the early Sinhala nationalism emphasized the fact that the Sinhalese were being marginalized in their only home. The attempt to attribute Sinhala awakening to the influence of Mahavamsa as Mr. Devananda and others have done is an over exaggeration which does not take in colonial period developments.
The following comments by Jane Russell and Bryan Pfaffenberger are worth noting:

“...the Ceylon Tamil community perpetrated a social system whereby a significant proportion of the population were regarded as outcastes. These people were considered by the high caste (and the socially acceptable non-Vellalar castes) to be so intrinsically unworthy that they could be deprived of the most basic rights of citizenship without any compunction whatsoever. This social system encouraged an attitude of innate superiority among the Vellalar’s, the highest caste, and the majority community in the Northern Province. As most of the Ceylon Tamil elite were drawn from this caste, the attitude of the elite was permeated with this sense of superiority”

“As they were unwilling or unable to recognise the democratic rights of certain members of their own linguistic-religious community, their inability to recognise the legal sanction of a democratic majority was therefore not wholly unjustified” – Dr. Jane Russell, Communal Politics under the Donoughmore Constitution, 1931-1947, Tissara Publishers, Colombo 1982

“…The tradition that Ceylon Tamils wish to preserve is redolent of the ancient patterns of caste and regional discrimination favouring the powerful and conservative Vellalar caste of Jaffna, a caste that has for centuries dominated the political and economic affairs of Tamil Sri Lanka. While Tamil separatists no means aim to renew the ancient forms of Vellalar predominance, it is nonetheless true that the cultural conservatism that helps to justify the separatist drive is insidiously tied to the legacy of Vellalar domination…” – Bryan Pfaffenberger, The Sri Lankan Tamils: Ethnicity and Identity, Boulder: Westview Press, 1994 

The push for separatism is therefore influenced by a rather deep-seated insecurity amongst a section of the high-caste Sri Lankan Tamils that sustained Sinhala domination after independence will result in the erosion of their culture and the inter-communal dominance of the Vellalar elites. It is on the same basis of Vellalar supremacy that the Sri Lankan Tamil scholarship’s refusal to recognise the “distinguishing features” of the Sinhalese culture can be justified.

3.4 Twisting History across Palk Straits

Dr. Shinu Abraham’s observations quoted at the beginning are relevant in this connection. She observed how Tamil historians had not only treated archaeology as secondary which, curiously enough, is a charge, that Sri Lankan Tamil scholars like Dr. Sitrampalam, now joined by Mr. Devananda, are re-levelling against Sri Lankan [Sinhalese] historians. Unscientific cliché like “must have been”, “couldn’t have been otherwise” and “there are enough evidences” (Devananda in “Section on Tamil Presence”) are often found in the vocabulary employed by Tamil scholarship when concrete evidence is wanting.

At another level, the proximity factor between South India and Sri Lanka is often exaggerated, overlooking situations around the world, like for example, that Mongolian races had migrated to both North and South America, and Melanesians could have travelled to East Africa and formed impressive civilizations in Malagasy and now as research has revealed, African Palaeolithic age man had actually crossed a long stretch of sea and travelled to Crete (Ministry of Cultural affairs, Athens, 7 Jan. 2011).

The effect of such negative thinking that only close proximity was the determining factor in influences over the island ignores the oceanic factor which had been of primary importance even as observed by early foreign observers like Ptolemy and Pliny. Such negative thinking has even been employed to question the veracity of traditional accounts in Sri Lankan chronicles that the primary influences that affected the island in the pre-historic and early historic period came from the Northern part of India while Sri Lanka’s foremost contemporary historian, K.M.de Silva, like a few others earlier, has confirmed that “beneath the charming exercise of myth making, lurks a kernel of historical truth – the colonization of the island by Indo-Aryan tribes from northern India” and even K.S. Sitrampalam, a strong critic of the origin story found in the chronicles of the Sinhalese, after using the evidence of the Mesolithic and Megalithic phases to construct a Dravidian phase, himself seems to agree that a “super-imposition of the North Indian cultural penetration associated with Buddhism took place in the third century B.C”.

While accusing Sinhalese scholarship of North India oriented Sinhala-centicism, Tamils scholarship in its own pursuit of Tamil-centricism and over-zeal to record scoring points for the “Tamil homeland” theory, has gone to the extent of refusing to recognize what Prof. K.N.O. Dharmadasa pointed out as ‘distinguishing features’ of another culture. This is evident in the claim now that the hydrological work and monuments built by the Sinhalese as substantiated not only by chronicler tradition but also lithic inscriptions in situ as the work of a common South India-Sri Lanka (SISL) cultural zone, (Indrapala) and more crudely put by Mr. Devananda as the work of [Tamil] Nagas and Tamils!

As such, Mr. Devananda’s pious declaration that “we in Sri Lanka have had the benefit of several waves of cultural influences and that it is necessary that we should assess them with a certain amount of objective impartiality and admit the contributions made to our country by others; that our culture in the past has been a synthesis of different cultures, and in evolving a new culture these influences have to be taken into consideration” remains hollow. While asking for recognition of the benefit of the influence of others, it is obvious that there is no evidence of preparedness to recognize the contribution within the country itself, the ‘distinguishing features’ of the Sinhalese civilization, in this case. The case of the hydrological network is one such. There is no study of the similarity presented by hydrological work in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, two countries which have had long historical ties. (Cambridge scholar, Prof. Statrgaart’s Research). There is also no recognition of the fact that Sri Lanka was the centre of Buddhist influence from very early Christian centuries in China and countries in South East Asia which recognized the ‘distinguishing features’ of the Sinhalese-Buddhist civilization.

3.5 Conclusion

The arguments used by Mr. Devananda were presented by Sri Lankan Tamils in different forms in the first part of the last century too (see Russell). As such, today’s interpretations of Sinhalese chronicles by Sri Lankan Tamils/allegations are nothing new. Some of the Vellalar Tamils even formed what was called the “All Ceylon Aboriginal Inhabitants of Jaffna” (Hindu Organ, May 13, 1940), which not only reflected an imaginary situation of Sri Lankan Tamils being reduced to “Veddas” but also emphasizing their claimed “older ancestry”.

The Sinhalese too speak of prospects of their extinction. That is what would have happened if the British succeeded in completely substituting south Indians for Sri Lankans under the colonial thesis presented by men like Huntington and Locke (UNESCO: Sociological Theories, p. 293/4) and the favouritism shown to minorities at the expense of the Sinhalese throughout British rule.

The present paper was written as a response to Mr. Devananda’s mis-construction of the history of the island, especially, his perception that Sri Lankan chronicles are responsible for creating a certain mind-set among the Sinhalese. It does not in any way deny the great contribution made by Tamils and other Indians for the evolution of the Sri Lankan society, language, culture and even to religion as the great Cola Buddhist scholars did. The Sinhalese contribution has been recognized in countries like China, Myanmar, Thailand, Kampouchia, Vietnam and Indonesia and even in Kashmir where according to the 13th century Kalhana ‘Rajatarangani’ (modelled after Mahavamsa), Sinhalese engineers were invited to undertake irrigation work.

Even the compiler of the Mahavamsa part II and III (Culavamsa as Geiger called it) from the reign of Mahasena to Parakramabahu II is thought to be a Colan bhikku and not a Sinhalese! (B.C. Law, Chronicles, p.17). That possibility cannot be excluded when one finds both the style and the knowledge of Kautilyan strategy in describing Parakramabahu’s warfare, as well as such details of his long protracted campaigns in Pandya and Cola country with such elaborate accounts of every battle fought along with names of adversaries, intrigues and reversals. The account even included such details as the Sinhalese General, Lankapura, having to withdraw his troops finally because they were afflicted by a social disease called “Upsagga” (Upadamsa”?). Not even in Herodotus’ or Xenophon’s ‘Persian Wars’ doe’s one find such details!

The Tamil contribution has to be placed in the proper perspective not undermining the ‘special characteristics’ (Dharmadasa) of the Sinhalese contribution to culture, religion and technology. This cannot be done through envy against them or on the contrary, through ‘Vellalar supremacist’ perspective which even refuses to recognize the contributions of “other Tamils” to the society. Mr. Devananda has to recognise the relevance “the vamsa chronicles have for many contemporary Sinhalese; by granting that they contribute to some cherished values and serve as an anchorage that stabilises the sense of collective Sinhala being; and yet noting their mythological moral-making character”. (Prof. Michael Roberts, Vijaya Myth). Such reinterpretations of the Sinhala past, will encourage a similar readiness among extremely pro-Sinhala spokespersons to abandon their claims to extreme-majoritarian supremacy based on primordial originality. Hopefully, this will enable their equally ardent opponents, the non-Sinhalese (Tamil) scholar/writers – Devananda et al., to disengage themselves from combative historical warfare. It would then be easier for the latter, these non-Sinhalese, to accept the historical evidence that indicates:

(1) that the state civilisation from the 5th century A.D. onwards was predominantly Sinhala in complexion;

(2) that the religio-symbolic mythology of the Vamsa chronicles is meaningful for the collective identity of the Sinhalese.

To sum up, “…the Sinhala spokespersons, hopefully, can respond in kind and take note of the ways in which Tamil, Hindu and Islamic peoples or streams of consciousness entered into the making of Lanka’s history over the last two millennia”. (Roberts) Once the worth of their respective pasts is identified and recorded as meaningful, then – and perhaps only then – can the respective protagonists discard their battles over history and address their contemporary differences.


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