Michael Roberts as an Apologist for Sinhala Nationalism/Chauvinism

| by Laksiri Fernando

( February 26, 2014, Sydney, Sri Lanka Guardian) The republication of Michael Roberts’ 1991 article “Nationalism, the Past and the Present: The Case of Sri Lanka” gives rise to some concerns in a context where the efforts on the part of the current political regime can best be characterized as ‘assimilation’ of minority communities and not ‘reconciliation’ within a plural society and a democratic political system. What it tries to establish or re-establish is the hegemonic position of Sinhala Buddhism over the other strands of ethnic or religious identities in the country on the basis of historical legacy which might or might not be correct as an objective or dispassionate historical interpretation.

Even it was the case in the past, which I seriously doubt as a ‘continuity’ even with breaks or change, the glorification of such a hegemony even on the pretext of a ‘defensive mechanism’ is completely unwarranted in the 21st century for the people in the country or anywhere else under similar conditions to live in peace and harmony. Sri Lanka is not the only country with ethnic strife, colonial past, overlapping ethnic solidarities across borders or even perceived or actual external threats. None of these would warrant the domination that the Sinhalese elite exerts on the minority communities, religious or ethnic, in the name of larger community or country interests, not to speak of barbaric acts of violence like in the case of July 1983 for example.

General Considerations

As a review of three books that Roberts has mentioned, I have no issue in agreeing with some of the relative merits of what he has to say, particularly in respect of the possibility of some form of ‘nationalism’ or more correctly ‘proto-nationalism’ in the ancient past in Sri Lanka or elsewhere. This must have been there on the part of both the Sinhalese and the Tamils undoubtedly with variations in historical origin, spread and continuity. However, it is completely doubtful whether there was an ‘ethnic conflict’ and associated ‘nationalism’ or anything else in the ancient past as we can see or document today. I am not convinced of any evidence given by Michael Roberts, Leslie Gunawardana or any other on this matter and particularly on so-called ‘Sinhala consciousness.’

The scholars on nationalism (not merely historians) are divided on the issue of the origins of nationalism or more so on its definition. I am not touching on definitions here for the sake of brevity. There are ‘modernists’ (i.e. Gellner, Hobsbawm, Anderson etc.) who primarily believe that nationalism is a modern phenomenon and there are others (i.e. Smith, Hastings, Greenfeld etc.) who believe that nationalism was there even in ancient past or pre-modern times. It is however only the nationalists who believe that nations or nationalism/s are timeless phenomena.

In his review article, Roberts has taken a particular umbrage against the modernists, but has not mentioned at the outset that there are other scholars who differ with modernists. His mentioning or quoting of David Smith is only incidental. Of course he has given an excuse saying “This review article was drafted in 1991 and should therefore be assessed in the light of the literature available then,” but the debates on the two strands of thinking were well known by 1991. Of course there are many other strands of thinking on nationalism.

A Major Mistake

A major mistake of many of those who talk about nationalism, except perhaps the above mentioned ‘modernists,’ is making their take on ‘nationalism’ without any consideration for the period, the country or the region. This has led to considerable confusions. There is no one phenomenon of nationalism that suits all times and all countries. Moreover, there are varieties of nationalism/s (economic, political, cultural, ethnic, religious etc.) largely based on the social groups who espouse them. Roberts has of course made an attempt to make a distinction between the past and the present saying, “In line with my previous writings on the subject (1979a), this, Sinhala identity is labeled a “patriotism” and treated as conceptually distinct from latter-day “nationalism.” This distinction is at best nebulous, and utterly confusing. Today we consider ‘patriotism’ mainly as a part of nationalism, malignant or benign. Just see the historical sweep that Roberts has taken in the very previous paragraph after making this imprecise distinction.

“It [his article] lays special emphasis on the role of oral traditions and the interplay between the oral and the written traditions in reproducing Sinhala consciousness; and on the imprint of conflict between the Sinhalese (under their dynasts) and a series of Indian invaders from the ninth to thirteenth centuries, and the conflict with successive European powers from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. It was this consciousness which informed the efforts of those Kandyan Sinhalese who participated in a massive rebellion against the British occupation in 1817-18.”

In contrast to what Benedict Anderson (Imagined Communities, 1983) said about the ‘role of the print media’ in the creation or construction of modern nationalism, I don’t have much issue in accepting a possible role for the ‘oral traditions’ or even ‘the interplay between the oral and the written traditions’ in creating a form of proto-nationalism in the ancient times. Those are possibilities but not established facts as far as I am aware. Perhaps that is where Roberts has an original contribution.

But it is too farfetched to talk about the most undefined and rather metaphysical notion of a ‘Sinhala consciousness’ during these times whether by Roberts or Gunawardena. I would hypothesize that proto-nationalism, if at all, in ancient times by and large was an elite phenomenon and not a mass movement like modern nationalism/s. I would like to talk about nationalism/s in the plural.
Past Conflicts!

On the one hand, if there had been a “conflict between the Sinhalese (under their dynasts) and a series of Indian invaders from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries,” it has to be accepted by Roberts that there must have been a Tamil counterpart ‘under these Indian invaders.’ It was not like colonialism. Otherwise, these invasions were not sustainable if one side is backed by nationalism or masses (i.e. Sinhalese). The period he talks about is at least four centuries.

On the other hand, if these so-called conflicts were primarily in the form of wars between dynasts, there is no possibility or rather necessity of having a (strong) Sinhalese or Tamil elements behind them in the form of ‘patriotism’ or ‘nationalism’ as we understand them today. At best it must have remained at the elite level as proto nationalism, on both sides although at different degrees. In that case one cannot talk them as a conflict with the Sinhalese.
It is my understanding that as we go back in history, the phenomenon of ‘Sinhala’ was more of a religious notion or even a name, than an ethnic or a national one.

I have no qualms with Roberts in identifying some roots of modern (say twentieth century) Sinhala nationalism within the resistance against successive European invasions from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. This is also the case to a lesser extent of modern Tamil nationalism. But both are primarily the products of modern circumstances of capitalism, print media, mass politics and competitive interests (economic, language and religion), to name a few. I use the qualification or adjective ‘modern’ to allow the marginal or theoretical possibility of identifying some forms of group or ethnic identities in the past or even in ancient times. Its historical verification however should be facts based and rational. The glorification is not necessary, directly or indirectly.

Obvious Bias

Of course the nationalists on both sides try to trace their history of nationalisms or nations from ancient times. But the academics should not do that or be apologists to them. The following are two main quotes from Roberts where he talks about the origins of Sinhala and Tamil nationalism separately. 

“It [this refers to his own article] argues that there was a Sinhala consciousness in the past, in the era of dynastic monarchies. On Gunawardana’s own evidence this dates from the eleventh-twelfth centuries, but could arguably (in opposition to Guna¬wardana) be pushed back to the fifth-sixth centuries.” 

“In this strict sense, Tamil nationalism is a late phenomenon, though it clearly developed out of, and in direct linkage with, the body of sentiments, the recursive metaphors (Nash) and the political activities which had empowered a distinct Sri Lanka Tamil group identity in the decades before 1948-49, an identity recognized in Ceylonese English as a “community.”

It is very clear from the above two quotes that Michael Roberts has become an apologist to Sinhala nationalism and its chauvinist claims. He argues that (without definition or interpretation) that ‘Sinhala consciousness’ was there in the past in the era of dynastic monarchies and even the dates can easily be pushed back to the fifth-sixth centuries. The evidence given are all like tall stories.

Why does he talk about fifth-sixth centuries? I believe it is primarily because of Mahavamsa. Ironically, it is only today that Nalin de Silva wrote about “The Mahavamsa Myth” to The Island newspaper (26 February 2014) and said the following.

“Mahavamsa is clearly the Vamsakatha (history) of the Asoka Bududahama, and it establishes the ‘supremacy’ of that sect over the other sects of Bududahama or other Bududahamas. However, Mahavamsa should not be considered a book of history in the western tradition as no attempt has been made to write a history of Sri Lanka or the Sinhala nation. Ideally, it should be treated as a Vamsakatha and nothing more.”

In contrast to Sinhala nationalism, according to Roberts, Tamil nationalism is a late phenomenon. Even he almost blames the Ceylon Communist Party, referring to its 1944 Manifesto, for ideologically influencing Tamil nationalism particularly espoused by the Federal Party. What a tragedy of historiography?