Sri Lanka: Use and Abuse of History

31 May, 2013    ·   3965

V. Suryanarayan deconstructs the truth behind Sinhalese-Tamil relations through the centuries

Looking at the past through the prism of the present can lead to falsification of history. Despite the obvious diversities in Sri Lanka - language and religion - the Sinhalese and the Tamils share many common cultural attributes. Like their Indian counterparts, a composite culture has evolved over the centuries. Unfortunately, with the escalation of ethnic conflict, Sinhalese and Tamil chauvinists - two sides of the same coin - started projecting the two communities as antagonistic entities, who were at war with one another for several centuries. This falsification of history reminds one of the famous statement of Rabindranath Tagore, “The greatest source of all calamity in history is misunderstanding, for where we do not understand we can never be just”.

The Daily News, dated 22 May 2013, has published an article entitled “Tamil Eelam Sprang from Chola Expansionism” written by W A De Silva. De Silva traces the origin of the concept of Tamil Eelam to Chola period when the island was subjected to frequent invasions from South India. Second, he makes a distinction between the contributions made by North India and South India. Third, the support extended by certain Tamil Nadu politicians to the establishment of a separate state for the Tamils is an illustration of “Tamil expansionism”.

What is the reality? According to distinguished anthropologists like Stanley Tambiah and Gananath Obeyesekere, the Sinhalese and the Tamils share many parallel features of “caste, kinship, popular religious cults and so on”. Obeyesekere has pointed out that biologically speaking, “what we call Sinhala are in fact racially inter-mixed with South Indian peoples and the original groups like the Vedda; and the Tamils - are also similarly biologically mixed”.

The argument that Sri Lanka’s relations with North India were “cordial and friendly” while those with South India “were aggressive, invasive and harmful” is equally fallacious. Few Sinhalese scholars want to subscribe to the objective truth that Buddhism was a virile religion in South India and the efflorescence of Buddhism in the island had much to do with fruitful contacts with Buddhist centres of learning in Madurai, Kancheepuram, and Kaveripatinam. One of the greatest epics of Theravada Buddhism is in Tamil language, Manimekalai, written in second century AD. It is considered to be the finest literary gem in Tamil Buddhist literature.

Regarding military conflicts between Tamil and Sinhalese kings, it has to be viewed as an attempt to bring about territorial expansion, and not as a conflict between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. De Silva has admitted that it was not a one-way process; strong Sinhalese kings like Gajabahu and Parakramabahu led invasions to South India. What De Silva and other chauvinist writers ignore is the fact that there were Tamil soldiers in the armies of Sinhalese kings and Sinhalese soldiers in the armies of Tamil kings. There are also several illustrations of Sinhalese kings making generous grants to Tamil Buddhist monks.

As regards the conspiracy between Tamil Nadu politicians and Sri Lankan Tamil political activists to bring about an independent state of Tamil Eelam, it must be highlighted that the origin and growth of Tamil sub-nationalism in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka took diametrically opposite courses. The two movements had autonomy of their own. In Tamil Nadu, the demand for a separate State of Dravida Nadu was followed by the realisation that the Tamil identity could be preserved and promoted in a federal state. As a result, separatism gave way to domestication within the Indian polity. What is more, with the formation of coalition governments in the Centre, the Dravidian parties became partners in the Centre. In Sri Lanka, Tamil political leaders were a part of the unitary government in the years immediately following independence; it was a consensual and consociational form of government. But when the Sinhalese rulers attempted to build the nation on the language and religion of the majority community, the demand became federal. Gradually, militancy began to creep into Tamil politics. The inability of the moderate leaders to fulfil the aspirations of the Tamil youth led to armed struggle and the call for the creation of a separate State of Tamil Eelam. It is interesting to point out that in the mid-1960s, the Tamil leader Selvanayagam was toying with the idea of a sovereign state consisting of Tamil Nadu and Tamil areas of Sri Lanka. He met CN Annadurai to solicit his support. But Annadurai evinced no interest in the proposal.

In his absorbing novel, When Memory Dies, A Sivanandan narrates a conversation between uncle Para and young Vijay. “When memory dies, a people die” Para tells Vijay. Vijay asks Uncle Para, “But if we make false memories?” Uncle Para responds, “That is worse, that is murder”.