Colombo, Politics and Governance

How does one BECOME Sinhalese or Tamil in Sentiment?

My interpretation of the present impasse in the politics of Sri Lanka, determined as it is by the competitive jostling-cum-conflicts between the three main ethnic groups (where “Muslim” is ‘ethnic’ by virtue of its relationship of opposition to “Sinhalese” and “Tamil” in the same sentence), leans towards an emphasis on how one should address present circumstances. Though I am a historian, I believe that delving into ancient history is of limited value for any exercise in rapprochement. Indeed, I would go further and insist that the circumstances of the immediate present, today in 2008, must mould any constitutional and economic arrangements seeking a modus vivendi. We cannot erase memories of the atrocities committed by all parties in the conflict that rest within the minds of today’s victimised survivors. But, subject to such caveats regarding the immediate past, a bracketing and limiting of historically-based claims would be of immense benefit towards paths of reconciliation. Even the census of 1981 cannot be a baseline for territorial adjustments. The hard realities of the present-day ground situation must assume predominance for pragmatic adjustments of accommodation.

History, however, looms large in the claims to space within Sri Lanka among the propagandists and ultra-nationalists who are at the cutting edge of claim and counter-claim. Historical data, or, rather, what passes for data, is at the root of arguments of legitimisation and demand. Any Tom, Dick or Harry in the ultra camps feels that s/he can deploy bits and pieces of historical ‘fact’ to support the various claims to island-space. They also voice interpretations of the more recent past to emphasise their grievances and the legitimacy of political position.

These claims cannot be majestically cast aside: for the reason that they emanate from emotional commitments and earnest belief and, as such, are part of the politics of identity and political competition. It is for this reason that I addressed the subject of “History-Making” in an article that appeared in cyber-space within The main argument was directed towards illustrating the sweeping character of the theories about the ancient history of Sri Lanka presented by some of the ultra TomDHs who ventured boldly in this field without any expertise in the subject. The emphasis was not on their lack of disciplinary training, but on the manifest absurdity of some arguments and the manner in which vast claims were asserted on the basis of one alleged ‘fact’, a fact that, as often as not, was of dubious authenticity.

Insofar as some of the extreme views that I challenged had harped on racial distinctions, one of the subsidiary themes in History-Making argued that the peoples of Sri Lanka were racially mixed and that blood-distinction was a non-issue. This assertion — and let me stress that it is a conjectured assertion – is based on common sense and the geographical location of the island in the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean, its proximity to the Indian sub-continent and a considerable body of widely-known facts about bodies of people who migrated to Sri Lanka at various moments during the last fifteen centuries or so.

Strikingly, though, this sub-theme is the issue that attracted most comment (thus far a week into the event). Apart from a few carping attacks by readers who had not understood my contentions, both Dushy Ranetunge and the pseudonymous Dingiri concentrated on this facet of my argument. Both in fact supported my thrust and stressed the mixtures of ‘blood’ or country of origin that have shaped the genes of the peoples who have lived in Lanka in recent past and distant past. Both even sought to provide a positivist cast to our series of assertions by suggesting DNA testing as likely proof.

It is this emphasis that gives rise to this particular essay. The emphasis on the racial aspect, our blood pedigree so to speak, is worrying even if the speakers are taking a moderate line that celebrates hybridity. For one, it demonstrates the power exercised by the racial categories spawned in the West and imported in the course of imperial expansion in an era marked by Darwinian currents. Such forms of thought found fertile soil in countries where varna theories held sway and caste distinctions averse to the mixing of blood (just read Piyadasa Sirisena’s novels of the early 20th century and the first chapter in People Inbetween re this issue) had deep roots.

For another, it encourages a misunderstanding of ethnicity in the contemporary world and the force exerted by its depth of subjectivity. Ethnic differentiation is not solely “racial” or based on contemporary beliefs about supposed racial distinction (though that can be one powerful ingredient in such distinctions). Ethnicity is a subjective group sentiment. It is such sentiment that drives the ideologues who seek to manipulate the sentiments for their own immediate purposes. As subjective sentiment, ethnic identity is always in context and in relation to other groups in an interactive setting in territorial space. There is a “We”:”They” dimension to ethnic differentiation, one that can differentiate XYZ from several categories of neighbouring people (so that “They” can be a cluster of named others).

Such differentiation can be sharpened where there is competition for resources and for institutional power, including state power. That type of competition will be familiar to most readers so let me focus here on the cultural ingredients of subjective We-ness, that is, the cultural practices that sustain the distinctions and, then, reproduce them over generational-time in dynamic ways that can insert shifts in emphasis amidst significant continuities.

Language is often a fundamental dimension of one’s experience of the world, though it does not necessarily serve as a major factor of distinction everywhere or constitute difference in the same fashion. It is also a complex phenomenon because there can be meaningful dialect differences within each language. The dialect variation among the English and the Germans, for example, have been of considerable import for centuries and one facet of their emergence as “nations” was the moulding of an overarching ‘standard’ form of English or German that confederated their loyalties within the emergent new state.

The state as an institution was so central to the development of Englishness in the period extending from the 15th to 18th centuries that some historians depict the process as one involving a state-become-nation. But this state encompassed the British Isles and was known as “Britain” rather than “England.” Thus, the Scots, Welsh and Cornish were among those drawn into the confederative concept of Britain in the early modern and modern eras, an incorporation that was made easier by the economic opportunities opened up by the imperial expansion of Great Britain.

A subjective attachment to “Us” as distinct from neighbours is rarely constituted, and then re-produced over time, by just one central factor. It is a multi-factor process. Among other factors, self-perceptions and the sentiments around such affinities are moulded by everyday practices of a complex kind engaging preferences in cuisine, dress, tonsure, cosmetics, bodily cleanliness, architecture and so on. Let me illustrate from close to home.

In the late 21990s I was sent a draft manuscript by an Indian journal for review as Referee. The article was by Dennis McGilvray, an experienced American anthropologist conversant in Tamil and familiar with the Eastern Province. Addressing the issue of Tamil and Muslim identities in the Eastern Province his conclusions stressed the many commonalities they share and expressed a hope for political reconciliation in the immediate future. This emphasis was clearly motivated by well-intentioned hopes of peace, besides his knowledge of the regional scene. [See McGilvray’s revised article in Contributions to Indian Sociology and then again as a Marga Monograph in 2001 entitled “Tamil and Muslim Identities in the East”].

In reviewing the draft I expressed my reservations about the overly one-sided stress on similarities. Besides the evidence of recent clashes of a violent character between elements within these two bodies of people in the EP, sometime back I had chanced upon a Jesuit missionary document that recorded a violent riot some 110 years earlier in the 1890s. I also suspected that over the last century there would have been occasional bazaar clashes and land disputes with ethnic hues, flash-points that never reached newspaper reportage. So I had always been sceptical of platform rhetoric from local politicians affirming life-long amity among the different communities in the Eastern Province.

This caution was backed by my attentiveness to the significance of cultural difference of the sort embedded in practices of cuisine, coiffeur, tonsure et cetera and the reproduction of community endogamy because of the limited degree of cross-ethnic marriage throughout Sri Lanka. I therefore suggested that McGilvray’s essay could be improved if he attended to a whole range of seemingly minute areas of difference: for example (a) architectural practice relating to the directional location of one’s household cesspit and (b) the trimming of pubic and armpit hair that was enjoined on good Muslims.

Marriages across ethnic boundaries do occur in Sri Lanka. With reference to the  last two centuries, say, from 1796-to-1981, one can say that in some areas, such as the Chilaw-Negombo coastline and the sparsely populated dry zone jungles there has been some degree of inter-marriage between Sinhalese and other ethnic categories — including Väddas in some places. Likewise, in the slum and shanty areas in Colombo and among the jet-set elites such cross-ethnic marriages seem to be greater than among the general populace. But subject to such caveats one can present broad generalisations to the effect (1) that Muslim women have rarely married outside their community, though some Sinhala brides have been absorbed by the community; (2) that caste-oriented marriage practices among the Sinhalese and Tamils have assisted a broad process that sustains ethnic endogamy as a general feature and (3) that the Burghers have shown the greatest propensity to marry outside their group, though even here the pukka upper-crust Burghers tried to remain pukka.

Thus, for every instance of cross-ethnic marriage in the recent Sri Lankan past one could find another case where an individual who defied community and/or parental preference was disinherited or shunned; and there are surely enough anecdotal tales of boy-girl love interests that were vetoed by parental or sibling fiat.      

Marriage, however, is not the only arena where one can evaluate degrees of cross-ethnic amity. Food sharing and funeral arrangements provide litmus tests. It is not enough to share Muslim feasts at Ramazan or other symbolic moments. It is when and with whom food is shared that is significant. For that matter, it is how food is shared: does a visit to a Muslim household by a Tamil or Sinhalese friend (male?) involve eating rice out of the same main dish as everyone sits on the floor in a circle around the repast? The latter practice is one sign of Muslim-ness, inclusion in the brotherhood of local being, albeit, ultimately, a pointer towards the pan-Muslim community or ummah.

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This long digression is directed towards emphasising the significance of a range of cultural practices – which obviously vary with area, climate and peoples – in moulding community sentiment of an ethnic kind in the global universe writ large. Travel and migrant movement in this era of globalisation may generate melting pot conditions in some places, but at the same time one also finds the development of heightened ethnicity shaped by nostalgia, ethnic networks of support, urban clustering, ghetto situations and the prejudices of host populations. Thus, ethnic affiliations always emerge in particular “sites” in the broad sense of the latter word (inclusive of class and time-period). They also are shaped by their relational field of structured social exchanges, including the impact of demographic weight and the control of resources and state power.

Thus, the appeal in this article is for us to move away from a focus on racial pedigree or beliefs about racial origins (though the latter can be one factor in the scenario) and to consider the range of factors, including seemingly benign everyday ways of dressing, cooking, eating or refining one’s body, that constitute difference.     

Towards this end I would ask each Sinhalese who reads this piece to reflect on the following issues: What makes you FEEL that you are a Sinhalese? How did you become Sinhalese? What made your parents think and feel themselves Sinhalese? And are you at the same time a Sri Lankan in sentiment? Or is the last question redundant in that “Sinhalese” is equivalent to “Sri Lankan”?

Likewise, with adjustments and a deletion of the last question, this battery of reflective questions can be pondered over by Tamils of Sri Lankan origin, some of whom may well have jettisoned their Sri Lankan-ness at this stage of their life as a result of recent experiences. In this regard the Tamils can also ask themselves if they have any sense of warm affinity to Tamils nourished in Tamilnadu, Malaysia or Fiji? In other words, is one’s “Tamilness” locale-specific and rooted in memories of place or places, say, Manipay, Paranthan or Pasakudah?

To put my question in a nutshell: how did each of you become Sinhalese or Tamil and develop attachments to that entity? The inspiration for this question, I add, comes from the grave. On one occasion in August 1983 a few weeks after the anti-Tamil pogrom of that year, Charles Abeysekera and Newton Gunasinghe (both now deceased) were at the SSA office in Nawala Road reflecting on the situation facing their country. As related to me once by Newton, he was forced to confront a question on the lines above raised by Charlie: “how do you know you are Sinhalese and what makes you Sinhalese?” It was not a joke, but an analytical twister. Newton had proceeded to address it with due seriousness and in analytical fashion. It is this I ask of you.