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Sri Lanka’s Sinhala-Tamil Divide: A Fatal Tamil Unawareness

The task is challenging because victory, instead of rousing the Sinhalese to magnanimity, has only led to triumphalism and a strengthening of ‘racist’ animosity and hatred


by Charles Sarvan

I isolate the following two from an email message I received recently:

“The anti-Tamil feeling began in 1949 with the de-citizenizing of Tamils”

“In Kandy there was a Mudali by the name of A. Premadasa whose lorries brought fish from all over the coastal areas in Sri Lanka. He spread the rumour that in the lorry that arrived from Jaffna, the dismembered body of a Sinhalese girl, daughter of a bakery owner in KKS had been found in one of the boxes.” (End of quote)

Regarding the first, I think it’s a case of mistaking cause and effect. Depriving Upcountry Tamils of their citizenship does not mark the beginning of anti-Tamil feeling but the result of such feeling.

With the second, what’s important is not the rumour but the willingness of people to believe it. Why? Because they wanted to believe it. Why? Because, among other reasons, it confirmed their ‘racism’, and justified the appalling violence they were unleashing. Why are the absurd stories of the Mahavamsa readily, if unconsciously, internalised?



Allow me to relate a personal, revelatory, incident from my article, ‘Racism and “exceptionalism”’: “While an undergraduate at the Peradeniya Campus in the 1950s, one of my closest friends happened to be a Sinhalese Buddhist. I spent holidays with him at his parental home in what was then a little village. His mother was a personification of gentleness and kindness, wise and caring, yet ready to smile or laugh. She liked me and it would not be an exaggeration to say she treated me as if I were one of her own family. Yet my friend told me that, while he was a growing child, she had related stories which portrayed Tamils not only as “the Other”, but which created the image in his mind and imagination of the Tamil as trouble and menace, to be distrusted, held at a distance and controlled. I have not the slightest doubt this was not her intention: she simply was not aware of the image of ‘the Other’ that folk tales and folk history create; their effect on the mind and imagination of a child and, finally, on the hapless Tamil. Essentially kind, decent and good she was simply “innocent” (in the sense of being unaware) of the possible long-term effects of the stories she narrated, tales she told and retold simply to entertain her son. Folk history and stories help to explain the intensity of hatred, and the ferocity of attack, during successive anti-Tamil riots and pogroms. They form an unbroken line of suspicion, resentment and hatred from ancient times into the present


I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
(Extract from ‘September 1, 1939‘ by W. H. Auden)


Where does one start in an attempt to understand Sinhalese anger, and their resulting injustice and violence? In Volume 2 of my Public Writings on Sri Lanka, I noted: “Imperialism, particularly British imperialism, was based on, and expressed, utter contempt: contempt for the natives, their colour and person; history and all aspects of their culture, including religion and language. The Buddhist monks who had enjoyed patronage and prestige at the royal court were marginalised. All public business - government, administration and commerce - was conducted in English, and those not proficient in English (the vast majority) were disadvantaged and made to feel inferior. These are some of the factors that created a reservoir of resentment, seething, potentially virulent but inarticulate because of imperial control. Nehru in the speech made at India’s independence said that “the soul of a nation, long suppressed, [now] finds utterance”: in Sri Lanka, it seems the Sinhalese soul at independence was sorely bruised, angry and bitter, confused and impatient. Reaction found vent not on the British – distant, powerful, grudgingly admired – but on the Tamil.”

But one can go further back in history, before the arrival of the Europeans, when Tamil kings from South India invaded the Island. But this is to see the past through the lenses of the present. Professor Romila Thapar’s Somanatha: The Many Voices of a History shows that what is now remembered and transmitted as a Muslim depredation of a Hindu religious site (1026) is not accurate. There were, for example, Indians in Mahmud’s army – even as there were Sinhalese soldiers in Tamil Elara’s army: see, W I Siriweera, ‘The Dutthagamani-Elara Epiisode’ in Ethnicity and Social Change in Sri Lanka (Social Scientists Association of Sri Lanka). I recall an African colleague asserting that Africans never sold fellow Africans into slavery. Seeing my astonishment, he explained that the concept and feeling of ‘African’ then didn’t exist. There were then no “Africans”, and identity and loyalty were on other grounds - as in other regions and places.

Perception is paramount. Professor K M De Silva, in his A History of Sri Lanka states: “When by the middle of the thirteenth century, the Pandyas had established themselves as the dominant power in South India, they were inclined to support the Sinhalese kings against the [Tamil] kingdom in the north of the island” (op. cit., p. 67).

The bulk of what follows, I take from an article with almost the same title (‘Tamils: a fatal historical unawareness’) from Volume 111 of my Public Writings on Sri Lanka: “Eelam [Sri Lankan] Tamils of the present, and even more, those of future generations interested in history will reflect with a view to understanding how and why Eelam Tamils came to be in such a sorry plight. Something of the historical background is sketched in the essay ‘Reign of Anomy’, included in my Public Writings on Sri Lanka, Volume 2.

The reader will, I hope, understand and excuse that I use the document as I return to this inquiry, having been recently sent a booklet, about eighty-five pages, titled Eylom: Beginnings of Freedom Struggle. Sub-title: ‘Dozen documents by C. Suntharalingam with candid comments and criticisms by Lord Soulbury’. It’s a 2007 reprint of documents that had their origin in the 1950s. “The die is cast" is a Latin phrase attributed to Julius Caesar as he led his army across the Rubicon river. There was no longer the option of going back: the die had been cast. Or, to alter lines from Fitzgerald’s translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, the moving finger writes and, having written, moves on. Nor can all your tears wipe out a single word. It seems to me that for Tamils the die was cast, the writing done, shortly before Independence in 1948.

Young readers whom I mainly have in mind might wonder who was this C. Suntharalingam. Chellappah Suntharalingam (1895-1985) was awarded a ‘double first’ in mathematics by Balliol College, Oxford. Selected by the prestigious Indian Civil Service, he preferred to join the Ceylon Civil Service but, energetic and restless; bored with bureaucracy, he resigned. For a while, he was vice-principal of Ananda College (unthinkable for a Tamil today); later, the first Professor of Mathematics of ‘Ceylon University College’. Entering politics and winning the Vavuniya seat, he was a proverbial “stormy petrel”; independent, fearlessly frank and outspoken. D S Senanayake, before he became independent Ceylon’s first Prime Minister, frequently visited Suntharalingam, and “Sun” personally knew many of Ceylon’s political leaders, both Sinhalese and Tamil. Of course, there are other aspects to the man but they lie outside the present concern.

Suntharalingam, feeling deeply betrayed by the Sinhalese, was perhaps the earliest of Tamil leaders to advocate a separate state, rejecting federalism. Federalism, he argued (Eylom, page 51), means union; and union means consent but there is no consent from the Sinhalese, not even to discuss it. Suntharalingam reposed hope neither in federalism nor in peaceful protests: the latter has brought only greater insult, humiliation and danger (Eylom, page 76).

I quote from my Public Writings, Volume 11. “The person most identified with this peaceful phase of the Tamil struggle is S. J. V. Chelvanayagam, a soft-spoken man; like Mahatma Gandhi, frail in figure but strong of soul. “SJV” based his struggle on satyagraha (the force, or strength, of truth) drawing inspiration from Gandhi’s non-violent campaign against the British. But in India, the weapon of Satyagraha had been deployed by a majority against a very small (occupying) minority. The parallel did not apply to Sri Lanka because, Island-wide, the Tamils are a small minority, and because of the ready willingness of the Sinhalese government and a section of the Sinhalese people to meet peaceful protest with brutal violence.”

“No proud, cultured people ever obtained freedom or retained their self-respect except through suffering and sacrifice, and the Tamils have before them and their progeny for the immediate future, only toil and tears” (“Sun”, page 20). He could not have known the nature and the degree of suffering that lay ahead! I see this booklet as a bitter lament, the lament of a man who realizes too late the existential peril confronting his people. What’s more, a danger into which he and other Tamil leaders had led them.

Truly, unawareness (ignorance, innocence) can exact a heavy toll. The following is taken from Suntharalingam’s Eylom. If “equality of treatment had not been conceded in 1944 by the very large majority of the State Council, there would have been no appointment of the Soulbury Commission. No Reform of the Constitution, no Dominion Status for Ceylon and no Independence for Lanka! The Tamils to a man would have opposed, tooth and nail, even any talk of reform” (page 17). Had the Tamils known what they now know, “not a single Tamil leader would have joined in the struggle for Ceylon’s independence from British imperialism” (page 22) “Without the consent, concurrence and co-operation of the Tamil leaders of 1947 and before, no Independence was possible or could have been achieved for Ceylon” (page 43).

If the “Tamil leaders had any reason to suspect that the Sinhalese leaders would go behind their undertakings and promises, or to doubt their bona fides, they would have acted differently during the whole course of the country’s struggle for emancipation. Indeed, when the Independence resolution was introduced in the first Parliament of Ceylon not a single Tamil member, including plantation Tamil members, cast their votes against the resolution” (page 56). Then comes what must be a self-lacerating sentence: “If I had not joined the Cabinet, there would not have been that unity between the two major communities of Ceylon without which the British would never have granted independence” (pages 62-3).

Suntharalingam unwittingly helped to create structures that made possible “the treacherous process of liquidating the Tamils of Ceylon” (“Sun”, page 13). Advised by Sir Oliver Goonetilleke (described as one of the most astute and wily of men), D S Senanayake, when he set about forming his cabinet, made sure that there were also Tamil (Suntharalingam), Muslim, Malay, European and Burgher ministers. Impressed and reassured, the British Parliament in December 1947 passed the Ceylon Independence Act, renouncing forever its right to legislate for Ceylon. Tamil leaders thought they were laying the foundation for a beautiful (harmonious, inclusive and prosperous) island, unaware that it was their own grave they were digging. “Tamils of Ceylon have been tricked and betrayed” (Suntharalingam, page 25). They had helped to replace British imperialism with Sinhalese imperialism and colonialism. I recall my mother (Mrs V. J. Ponnuthurai, nee Asirwatham, 1908-1988) asking me after ‘Black July’ 1983, whether life hadn’t been, after all, better for the Tamils under British imperialism.

Lord Soulbury, in his Foreword to Bertram Hughes Farmer’s Ceylon: A Divided Nation (Institute of Race Relations, London, 1963) confesses that his Commission would have been less hopeful of a solution to the ethnic problem if it had had “more than a cursory knowledge of the age-long antagonism between these two communities.” It is scandalous that Soulbury made recommendations affecting an entire country on the basis of “cursory” knowledge. After all, the Commission was appointed in 1944. Indirectly he admits that democracy can degenerate to the tyranny of the majority, and no constitutional safeguard would have been in the long run of much avail. In his words, justice and reconciliation will “depend not on constitutional guarantees but on the goodwill, common sense and humanity of the Government in power and the [Sinhalese] people who elect it.”

I am reminded of what Rousseau writes in his The Social Contract: an architect before erecting a building, examines and tests the soil in order to see whether it can support the proposed weight. Similarly, one must first consider whether the people are able to sustain the political and administrative changes proposed, in this case, true democracy with its concomitants such as justice and equality. I think Soulbury is being disingenuous when he claims innocence (ignorance); I suspect he knew full well what the consequences would be but pretended not to, and played the game along with D S Senanayake, aided by ‘innocent’ Tamil leaders. Tamil leaders were from the elite who knew and interacted with the Sinhalese elite. They had no inkling of how deep and widespread was the animosity harboured by the Sinhalese folk, fostered by the Mahavamsa and Buddhist monks; their ‘racist’ feelings and Sinhala-Buddhist hegemonic determination.

Professor Suntharalingam, quoting (page 47) an anonymous poem, addresses his “Fellow Tamils” and asks, “What of the night?” Again (unaware of the far worse that was yet to come) he wrote: “Never in the history of Ilankai has the Ceylon Tamil been in a worse plight”. The stanza from which he took that line reads:


But, watchman, what of the night,
When sorrow and pain are mine,
And the pleasures of life, so sweet and bright,
No longer around me shine?


Moving still forward in time, in the opinion of the Jesuit priest, Paul Caspersz (1925-2017; indefatigable champion of the poor and those discriminated against) there were just grievances underlying both the JVP uprising and the Tamil armed struggle. St Augustine (354-430 CE) wrote that when a grave wrong can be stopped only by violence, it would be a sin to be peaceful: similar thoughts were expressed by Gandhi. Philosophers, ethicists and others have proposed two aspects to war. The first, ‘jus ad bellum’, is the right grounds on which to go to war; the second, ‘jus in bello’ is right conduct in war. A third category now added, ‘jus post bellum’, deals with the morality of post-war settlement and reconstruction.

Regarding the first, jus ad bellum’, Tamil pleas for justice were jeered at and dismissed; peaceful protests were met with mob and state violence. War, therefore, was not the first but the very last resort of a people who had earnestly explored every other means. After the horrific pogrom of July 1983, there was international sympathy for the Tamils but the ‘jus in bello’ (rightly or wrongly) turned sympathy into revulsion and rejection. Present and future generations now have to “pick up the pieces” and build again.

The task is challenging because victory, instead of rousing the Sinhalese to magnanimity, has only led to triumphalism and a strengthening of ‘racist’ animosity and hatred. Military victory is seen as moral and racial vindication. As in the past, Tamils must not gauge Sinhalese feelings and attitudes based on their friends, acquaintances and colleagues nor on the few voices that speak up for equality and inclusion. In short, they must not assume a goodwill that does not exist in reality. Sinhalese leaders know that electoral success and resulting power depends on the easily-excited masses, and on the Buddhist monks who lead them.

They and the masses form a symbiotic relationship. Unawareness and illusions can exact a painful price.

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