Follies and Fantasies in the Sri Lankan Conflict

In an often quoted line Marx remarked, “history repeats itself first as tragedy, second as farce” and years later, Henry Ford, not known exactly either for his scholarship or his political wisdom, nevertheless said wisely “we want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history that we make to-day.”

In considering these two views about history and applying them to events in Sri Lanka, it is clear that we must amend Marx to “history is being written in Sri Lanka by fools and fanatics and is leading to immense tragedy.”  And in Sri Lanka to-day, we must take Ford’s dictum seriously: the only worthwhile history is the history we make today.

The conflict in Sri Lanka between the Sinhalese people and the Tamil people, it is claimed, began soon after the country gained its independence from Britain in 1948.  In 1956, the conflict accelerated with the election of a Sinhala nationalist government headed by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and came to a head with the passage of what is commonly known as the “Sinhala Only Act”.  From thenceforth, there were non-violent confrontations, violent confrontations, pogroms against the Tamils and eventually the violent confrontation spearheaded by the Tigers on behalf of the Tamils and the Sri Lankan State.This conflict has been ideologized before and after the emergence of the violent confrontation by various myths and fantasies that are mutually contradictory and, needless to say, have only a remote connection to facts. Nevertheless, they have taken a decisive role in the continuation of the conflict, however acceptable or absurd the claims are. I propose to give a summary of these fantasies and myths and confront them with the facts on the ground and examine, not either their historical accuracy nor their epistemological acumen – but their relevance to the construction of a modern Sri Lankan nation state.

The Myths in the Air

It is fruitless at this stage of the relations between the Sinhalese and the Tamils to wonder which side began one of the most persistent follies and fantasies that have bedeviled the political discourse. Nevertheless, it is best to begin with the Sinhala discourse on nationalism and rights since they are not only the majority with control of the major institutions of the society — journals, newspapers, universities, courts of law, legislatures radio and television ,and, above all, a standing army there by have the  institutional power with which to assert and defend their discourse — including abductions and assassinations.  I will call one such myth – using the word in the anthropological sense — recounted in the Mahavamsa, the claim of rights based on a primordial occupation of the island.  This is based on the claim that a Prince from India named Vijaya descended from an unnatural union between a lion and princess, came to an island inhabited by savages and, by one means or another, took possession of the island and brought civilization to it. Further, it is claimed that the Buddha visited the island and blessed it as the home of his creed and entrusted its kings and its inhabitants with the responsibility to protect and safeguard the religion.

The historical veracity of these claims apart, let us, for argument’s sake, grant all of these claims except the story of bestiality. Again, let us not challenge the claim that these events occurred 2500 years ago. Since then successive kingdoms have come and gone and many invaders too have come, tarried for a while and left too. The last invader left in 1948.

If the events are taken as indisputable, the question arises as to their relevance today. One of the main arguments of the Sinhala nationalist discourse is that since the current Sinhala people are descended from these early invaders they should have certain special rights that are not available to others who inhabit the island.  This includes the enshrinement of Buddhism as the “state religion”, Sinhalese as the official language and that a pre-eminence being given to the Sinhala culture. Just or not as these claims may be, it is fallacious to base these claims on the basis of a primordial occupancy of the land and the right of inheritance. This theory applies only to private property in the shape of land and goods and not to political rights. In many defenses of the claims of the Sinhalese, the rules applicable to private property are smuggled into the argument. The implication is that insofar as the present-day Sinhalese are descended from Vijaya and his merry men, they are entitled to the land.  Another aspect of this claim is the acceptance of a theory of patrilineal descent:  the original fathers who came with Vijay, according to the Mahavamsa married Pandyan princesses as well as commoners from the Pandyan country. In this line of argument, matrilineal descent must be discounted since if it is accepted the land should be ceded to the descendants of the Pandya princess!

The Buddha’s visit and his offer of the religion to the island, as recounted in the Mahavamsa, are treated as a “gift” or “bequest” in the literal sense of these terms and, therefore, transmitted over the generations to those who are now called Buddhists.  Here again, the religion is treated as a form of property that is passed from one generation to another and anyone who “owns” it can claim special rights over others and  have not only special responsibility towards it, but can claim special rights based on such ownership. Of course religion cannot be “owned” and Sinhalese were not the only Buddhists. Buddhism had a serious presence in the Tamil country too and when the Saivite revival occurred many Buddhists reconverted to Saivaism while others left the region and settled in the nearest Buddhist country – Sri Lanka, and probably in the Jaffna peninsula within the island.

The Tamils have their own version of this discourse of primordiality. They do not have a hard text like the Mahavamsa to found their claims and had to resort to other conjectures. One is the appeal to mythology: Ravana from the Ramayana story is adduced as the original king of “Lanka”: he was a Saivite and from the descriptions in the relevant texts, he was dark-complexioned and was, therefore, a Dravidian. One written source of this version is the famous Yalpana Vaipava Malai, composed probably in the 18th century. The reliance on the Mahavamsa to base current political claims is bad enough, but to use the story of Rama and Ravana, is, in a sense, worse.  The historical basis of the Ramayana has never been established and even taking it as myth, it is of  doubtful value because there is no basis for the claim that the Sri Lanka of today is the “Lanka” in the story. The inherent implausibility of a King of Sri Lanka going to Ayodhya to kidnap a silly “Aryan” princess and an army of thousands coming all the way to Sri Lanka, marching through thick jungles, should be obvious even to a cursory reader.  The story of the Ramayana is no doubt a myth constructed to deal conceptually with relations between the invading Aryan-speaking tribes and the native ones. Historians and mythologists have demolished the claim that  the island across the Palk Straits is the Lanka of the Ramayana. (H.D. Sankalia, for instance). “Lanka” probably meant “land across the water – even a river — across which the Dasyus lived, separated from the invaders. Again even if this version of the “history” of the Tamils in Sri Lanka can be granted for argument’s sake, it is still as totally irrelevant for the construction of a modern Sri Lankan nation as the stories in the Mahavamsa.

Incidentally, Yalpana Vaipa Malai details another story that should give some ammunition to the Sinhala nationalists: Yalpanam was given as a donation or grant to the Yarl-player (lute player) called Yarlpadi by the Sinhala king Wasaba! If it can given, it can also be taken back since no royal grant is given in perpetuity but only for services rendered.

Archeological evidence of a pre-historical habitation of the island is used to claim that insofar as the island is very close to the Southern India land mass, these inhabitants were from the same stock as from South India and were the original Tamils and have, therefore, primordial  to rights in the land. If I remember right, once a skeleton dug up in Annaicottai in the Jaffna Peninsula was deemed to have Dravidian features!

While this claim of Tamils as primordial inhabitants of the island has been one strand of the Tamil discourse, the other thread has been the claim of “traditional homelands.”  These claims were made in the fifties of the last century and used to describe a limited territory, the North and East of the island as such a homeland.  Besides demographics, a hard document was available to make this claim — the Cleghorn minute.  Cleghorn was a British civil servant who after years of service on the island had concluded that there were two distinct “nations” in the island, one Tamil, which occupied the Northern peninsula and the Eastern seaboard and the Sinhalas who occupied the rest. This document is of dubious value since we really don’t know what Cleghorn meant by the word “nation”. Then, as now, this is an ambiguous concept and the referent is uncertain. If however one grants the Tamil version, for the sake of argument, it has no merit in the construction of a modern nation state. The Tamil claim too, is, once again, as with that of the Sinhalese, based on a claim of primordial  property rights. Such a claim does not take into account the changes that have taken place since the Cleghorn minute was written. The Sinhala claims and the Tamil claims in this regard have been endlessly debated with each side seeking to demolish the argument of the other with dubious data and specious logic — best called chauvinistic — and foolish anachronistic stereotyping example, there is no evidence whatsoever of the Buddha visiting the island nor is there any basis for the conclusion that the Vijayan migration encountered a pristine land devoid of any inhabitants but for a few savages.  Every fact on the ground that any nation-builder must recognize is that the island is in habited by a variety of people distinguished by ethnicity, language-preference, religion, region, caste and even historical presence. They are all here now and they have no intention of leaving.  It would be an excellent state of affairs for a country to have no such significant differences – like Sweden, Norway, Greenland or Iceland, etc.  In Sri Lanka, that is not the case and we have to learn to live with it and make the most of it to construct a workable nation-state.

What then are the facts on the ground?

  1. The ground is, in fact, constituted by many subdivisions:  Sinhalese, Muslims, Tamils, Burghers, Malays, not to speak of Veddhas, Sinhala Veddhas, Tamil Veddhas as well as assimilated Veddhas.  Further, there are low country Sinhalese, Kandyam Sinhalese, Eastern Tamils,  Jaffna Tamils, Vanni Tamils, Muslims of different sects and ethnicities; and Burghers, Dutch and Portuguese, not to speak of Sinhalas with Portuguese names, and others of  ambiguous ancestry. Then, there are Buddhists  with  varying commitment to the doctrine, Christians of many denominations and varying commitments, Hindus of many stripes and perhaps a smattering of atheists, agnostics and animists. They will always be there in the island and they can be neither obliterated or their rights undermined by “majority vote”. Deny them their claims, and the state will be forever faced with resistance of some sort or another. The situation on the ground in the island, for good or ill, is not then an ethnically, religiously, or linguistically homogeneous system.  The majority may be Sinhalese and they could continue to win elections, but the construction of a viable nation is not a matter of winning elections.  Rather, it is the construction of national system in which the various heterogeneous elements arrive, not at homogeneity or even a harmony, but at a working consensus.  This only means that, neither legally nor in practice, is any one is allowed to become a victim of deliberate discrimination and exclusion.
  2. The island is not just an island in the ocean. It is part of the global economic system and is heavily dependent, whether we like it or not, on the world economic system  The island not only  dependent on exports but is also locked into the international monetary system. It has to send a large number of its workers and professionals to work overseas in order to sustain its economy.  None of these facts is likely to change in the immediate future.  A relatively powerless country, small in its natural resources, cannot,  defy what I will call, without too much cynicism, “international morality” for too long (except for Israel!)  The embeddedness of the island’s economic well-being in the international systems should necessarily influence, to some extent at leas the national policy it has to follow. If we do not do this everyone –Sinhalese included, will pay a heavy price in the short run as in the long one.
  3. The next  aspect of the situation in the ground is that demographically the island has a population that is distributed in such a way that while the majority of Sinhalese live in most of the provinces of the island, the Tamils, though concentrated in the North and Eastern regions, live also in the rest of the island. If one takes into account, the Tamils who live in the central highland, it appears more Tamils live outside the North and East than in them. This fact must be recognized.

The ethnic “history” notwithstanding, any attempt to construct a nation must take these material facts, and a few other perhaps too, – into account.  Such accounting does not depend on the numerical superiority of one group over another. A working machinery  must be found to accommodate as far as possible, the interests of all the divisions and sub-divisions  the people of the island.  Whether one belongs to a majority community or not, there will not be a relatively peaceful society unless the interests of everyone is taken into account.  Majorities only decide elections among different people who differ on matters of policy.  It cannot, by the nature of the case, diminish or obliterate the interests of a non-majority or exterminate them, at least not these days. If a state tries to do that, there will always be resistance – armed  ones or not. No functioning state can carry on with a permanently disgruntled group in its midst – moreover a group with strong ties to  powerful outside forces.

In the present history of Sri Lanka, the moves that the state should take are relatively simple, and in terms of cost-benefit analysis, parsimonious:

  1. Make Sinhalese, Tamil, and English the official language of the country and implement it in practice in every possible way in all parts of the country.  It is not enough to pass a law and leave it there.
  2. Recognize the regional concentration of people who consider themselves a homogenous community.  Construct regional administrative systems with relative autonomy.
  3. Open up the public services to recruitment of people from every community.
  4. Appoint Tamil-speaking people to all government offices.
  5. Undertaking a massive program of reconstruction and development of the land devastated and depopulated by mindless fanaticism of the militants and the ruthless repression by the state over the last thirty years—not just the last four years.  Of course, war is war and war is hell and destruction  and civilians  do get killed and war has its own logic. But peace is also peace and peace and reconciliation demand  reconstruction and rebuilding without any reservations – not pious statements and mischievous and destructive myths but practical and concrete steps.
  6. Encourage the intellectuals and journalists and other scribes to systematically create an ideology and a political myth that is truly inclusive of all the communities in the island – instead of doing the opposite as many are doing now.
  7. Discourage the preachings of exclusivist and supremacist ideology. This discourse is truly not necessary insofar as the Sinhala community  has  a substantial majority and are indeed counterproductive. It merely frightens the minorities without too many practical or psychic rewards for the majority. Indeed it puts them constantly on the defensive having thus to proclaim their uniqueness all the time! Whatever, happens, they will always be supreme in the island. Colvin R de Silva, not just a famed politician, but also a famed historian, once remarked: ”In this little country, history has given the Sinhalese race the position of being a majority with the characteristic of a minority. The Sinhalese nurse this sense of peril, a belief that, like the Jews, history has vested them with a role of maintaining their traditions.” I think the Sinhalese can rest assured that their majority status can never be withered away. Not the northern or eastern Tamils, not India or Tamil Nadu, not the UN or the EU or Norway can undermine the hegemonic control of the country by the Sinhalese.   In fact the opposite is more likely to occur, as has happened in the past: the slow assimilation of many Tamils. Overcoming the defensive “minority psychology “will of course mean “be generous and kind to those in the minority” since they can well afford it.