Wednesday, September 17, 2008

PROF.CHARLES PONNUTHURAI SARVAN/GERMANY: SRILANKA: REIGN OF ANOMY!

Sri Lanka: Reign of Anomy
An essay on the ethnic conflict.
Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan

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This Essay was written in 2006 and published (2007)
by
Centurion Media of India
under the title,
Sri Lanka: Reign of Anomy

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To the memory of
M. Shanmugan, Senior Superintendent of Police,
and
Dharmasiri de Zoysa, Public Health Inspector from Balapitiya.

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Contents
Preface
Essay
Bibliography
Appendix 1 Asoka not a Buddhist?
Appendix 2 The term ‘Racism’ and Discourse
Appendix 3 Made alien at home
Appendix 4 Godage: The Buddha statue and its ‘desecration’
Appendix 5 Jaffna. Extracts: Letter to Shanthi, my sister
Appendix 6 Shanmugan, policeman

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Preface
The things that impelled me into exile are also
the things that bind me to what was once home.
(Adapted from A Sivanandan’s novel,
When Memory Dies.)
I write this personal statement on Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict
with considerable misgiving. I am neither a trained historian nor a
social scientist. I have neither their knowledge and analytic skill nor
their phraseology and linguistic manner. Secondly, there is an element
of scepticism in me, if not of pessimism: virulent rhetoric, repeated
and repeated, has shut ears to other sounds; closed eyes to other
perspectives. Words, written or spoken, express attitudes and ideas
which, particularly if reiterated, take on a life of their own and are
no longer examined, are assumed to be axiomatic. Thirdly, in a
context where the middle-ground is all but eroded, I know I will
antagonise both Sinhalese and Tamil. Some Sinhalese (vis-à-vis
Tamils) refuse to recognise any fault and responsibility in Sinhalese
attitude and conduct; some Tamils will hear no criticism of the LTTE
(the “Tigers”) and its actions, least from another Tamil. Fourthly,
there’s the misgiving that rather than stimulating thought and reasoned
discussion, I will be met with personal abuse, even by those who
don’t know me personally: the tendency to substitute abuse and insult
for discussion, and calm, reasoned, exchange. Fifthly, I write in
English, though I have long held that far more important than talking
about, or even for, the people, is to talk with them – and to do that,
one must speak in their language. Yet another factor is that the “reality
on the ground” changes constantly, often nullifying the validity of
what is said today. And still I write, answering an inner compulsion;
if I may say so, a sense of obligation.

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I do not claim that what I write is the single truth: experience
and perspective differ; truth is multiple and complex. As Heidegger
wrote, “What is known remains inexact, what is [thought to be]
mastered insecure” (Poetry, Language, Thought, p. 53). Besides,
it’s foolish to claim objectivity for, as Heideggar also commented,
even objectivity is judged by a subjective self. Nor do I pretend that
I can be exhaustive: I merely present my personal understanding, in
the hope that the ensuing discussion, even disagreement, will make
a small, but positive, contribution. Someone (a Tamil, a retired
Superintendent of Police living in Australia) once wrote to me with
a sense of having superior social sensitivity and tact that he never
spoke of the ethnic conflict with his Sinhalese friends because he
did not wish to upset them. But surely part of the problem is that
there isn’t enough communication between the two groups, each
trapped in its own history, experience and thinking?
Truth is not truth unless it is spoken gently: see, Forster’s A
Passage to India. Developing this, one can say that even if what is
said is true, if it is expressed unkindly, the other will get angry; in
anger, she or he will reject the speaker; in rejecting the speaker, the
perspective s/he offers is dismissed, the case presented not
considered. But, in some cases, it’s almost impossible not to cause
offence, provoke violent disagreement, anger, recrimination and insult.
This is particularly true of politics. Thomas Mann said that in his
time human destiny presents its meaning in political terms. So it has
been, and is, in Sri Lanka. But, finally, the political translates into
the personal, and is experienced, enjoyed or suffered, by individuals,
often “lowly” but human: hence my sorrow and concern.
A class-based understanding of the conflict has been offered
by several, respected, analysts, and their work has contributed much
to an understanding of underlying causes. However, it must be

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acknowledged that class is not primarily pertinent to some conflicts.
For example, Mandela states (Long Walk to Freedom) that the
African National Congress rejected the claim of socialists that Black
South Africans were oppressed essentially as an economic class,
and not as a people. Indeed, issues such as “race”, religion and
language are so powerfully emotive that many are willing to damage,
even sacrifice, their economic interest for one or more of them.
Since I am unknown, I must introduce myself. I was born
(surname: Ponnuthurai) in Jaffna but moved with my parents while
still in my early teens to Colombo. I went to school at St Thomas’,
Gurutalawa; studied for two years at St Joseph’s, Maradana, and
entered the University of Peradeniya. I graduated and, two years
later, left for London. Except for “Shun” (see dedication), almost all
my friends were, and are, Sinhalese. Though it may appear
paradoxical, I must also say that they were and are not “Sinhalese
friends” but friends who (among other characteristics far more
important to me) happen to be Sinhalese. In the same sense, I did
not, about forty years ago, marry a German but a wonderful individual
who happens to be German.
Berlin, 2006-2007

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History: General
In Dr Johnson’s Rasselas (1759), it is said that the present
state of things being the consequence of the past, it’s natural to ask
what the causes are of the good we enjoy or of the evil we suffer.
Some are ignorant through no fault of their own – for example,
poverty, lack of educational facilities - but those who “voluntarily”
remain uninterested in political (that is, in public) matters, unthinking
and ignorant, may be accused of evil because they do not care to try
to learn how “evil” and misfortune came about and, therefore, how
these may be eradicated (Chapter 30).
Collective memory, fact or fiction, conscious or subconscious,
is incredibly tenacious. The remembering of history unfortunately
leads some to perpetuating that (constructed and contested) history.
For example, the Orange Order of Northern Ireland deliberately
parades through Roman Catholic districts of Belfast, celebrating the
Protestant victory on 1 July 1690 at the Battle of the Boyne. Similarly,
among the Sinhalese, stories from The Mahavamsa, particularly the
triumph of Duttugemunu, are perpetuated. Battles fought in BCE
(Before the Common Era; previously, BC, meaning Before Christ)
influence thought and action in the present, breeding pride and
triumphalism, bitterness and fear – or both. David Lowenthal in
Possessed By The Past draws attention to a particular kind of history
which simultaneously lauds and laments some fictional past; one
which is mired in the obsolete, and breeds xenophobic hate. Driven
by tribal demons, even victors persist in seeing themselves as
threatened; as being perennial victims, thus justifying unjust policy
and conduct. In order to highlight their own virtue, the vice and crime

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of the Other is magnified. The story of the Black Hole of Calcutta
(20 June 1756) has been questioned, challenged, even ridiculed but
that has not stopped its enshrinement in British mythology (Jan
Dalley, page 5).The eminent historian Eric Hosbawm, in an essay
titled, “The new threat to history”, warns that the study of history
may not be an innocent activity. On the contrary, it can manufacture
time-bombs. A people who are resentful of the past, disappointed
with the present and uncertain about their future, turn to xenophobic
nationalism and intolerance, and history then becomes the raw
material for “racism”. This brand of history is what a people learn
from their family, priests and schoolmasters; from magazines,
pamphlets, songs and television programmes. If we are to be saved
from “racism”, history must be separated from myth and ritual (p.
63). Paul Valery wrote in his Reflections on the World Today that
history is the most dangerous product ever concocted. Mishandled,
history can intoxicate, saddle people with false memories, keep old
wounds – real or imagined – festering and produce “the mania of
persecution”. Friedrich Nietzsche, in his essay, ‘On the Use and Abuse
of History for Life’, warned that History is beneficial only if used in
the right manner, and in the right proportion. He felt that the Germany
of his time suffered from an excess of history - and so it seems to be
with Sri Lanka.
Romila Thapar’s Somanatha: The Many Voices of a History
is a remarkable study, combining patient scholarship, clarity of
thought, the calm weighing of contrary evidence, honesty and moral
courage. Professor Thapar investigates the history surrounding a
single event: the raiding of the temple of Somanatha in 1026 by
Mahmud of Ghazni. (Ghazni is not far from Kabul.) Thapar uses
this one event to scrutinise how history is made, remembered and
transmitted. Who remembers? What is remembered? How is it
remembered? Why is it remembered? What function does the past
Romila Thapar

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play in the present? Thapar shows that what is now remembered and
transmitted as a Moslem depredation of a Hindu religious site is not
accurate. The early Islamic rulers were not seen as being primarily
Moslem, and there were Indians “of standing” in Mahmud’s army –
one may add, even as there were Sinhalese soldiers in Tamil Elara’s
army. Hindu princes and rulers too raided temples if there was loot
to capture and take away, but only raids and destruction wrought by
Moslems are remembered, diffused in story and song, and passed
on.
With these general statements on the writing and remembering
of history, I move to the specific experience of Sri Lanka.
Modern conflicts, including that involving Tamils
and Sinhalese, are reinterpreted in lofty historical
terms, seeing in them something that is much
grander than the shabbiness of contemporary
politics. They are interpreted as ancient feuds
which allegedly place today’s players in
preordained roles in an allegedly ancestry play.
(Amartya Sen, p. 43.)
The Sinhalese and the Tamils, the Moslems and the Burghers,
have now lived on the same small island for centuries: after hundreds
of years, does it matter that ethnic Group A arrived on Monday,
Group B on Wednesday and C on Friday? Whether it was Group A
or Group B which first sailed, walked or waded across from India
can be disputed at length but, proving it one way or another will not
change feelings and behaviour; will not affect present realities. To
me, the significance of “Who is the indigenous Sri Lankan?” lies not
in the answer but in the question itself - that hundreds of years later,
the question should be asked, should be thought important. It matters
History : Sri Lanka

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because we make it matter.
S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike was the Prime Minister under whom
the “Sinhala only” act was passed, and he is “credited”, among other
things, with having championed the “Sinhala only” cause. (His widow,
the world’s first female Prime Minister followed his path, and his
daughter, Chandrika Kumaratunga, later became President under the
changed presidential system of government.) However, Professor
Yasmine Gooneratne (born Bandarnaike; a niece of S W R D
Bandaranaike) suggests in her Relative Merits: A Personal Memoir
of the Bandaranaike Family of Sri Lanka that the family name may
have come from a Tamil officer, Neela Perumal. He was made high
priest of the Temple of the god Saman, and in 1454 ordered to take
the name of Nayaka Pandaram, that is, Chief Record Keeper. With
time, the name changed to Pandara Nayaka, and thence to the present
Bandaranaike. Similarly, there is evidence that the Salagama, Durava
and Karava castes were originally Tamil, from South India, and that
“Hettiarachige” derives from “chief of the Chettis”. (The chettis are
described as “a Tamil trading caste”.) Again, one wonders, “So what?
Is it important?” Yes, it is important because we make it important.
It is not the fact, but the value we attach to it: we are the source of
significance. (How long have Westerners been in America, Canada,
Australia and New Zealand? Even if they came after the Sinhalese,
how long have the Tamils been in Sri Lanka?) Some Sri Lankans
emigrate, acquire citizenship after a few years, then expect and
demand equal rights and treatment, object to being seen as “alien”,
advocate an inclusive, multi-ethnic, multicultural society, but they
urge inequality and intolerance back home. Irrespective of who came
first to the Island, both groups have inhabited that space for hundreds
and hundreds of years. Yet one encounters reference to “an alien
Tamil speaking group with little or no history in the island” (Sunday
Island, Colombo. 25 January, 2004, p. 7). Tamils are condemned to
History : Sri Lanka

13
being for ever para (“foreign”). As I wrote in my “Letter to a
Sinhalese friend”, I imagine a Veddha child (descendant of the
autochthonous) wistfully asking, “Mummy, when will the Sinhalese
go back to [India] where they came from?” (Sunday Island, Colombo,
29 October 2006.)
“The collapse of the ancient Sinhalese Kingdom of the dry
zone is one of the major turning points in Sri Lanka’s history” (K M
De Silva, A History Of Sri Lanka, p. 81). The periodic invasions
from South India which caused this “collapse” have left not only
resentment, but have made the Sinhalese, the majority (70% and more
of the Island), harbour the fears, insecurities and complexes of a
minority: fear and insecurity breed anger and hate; these, in turn,
violence. The fear is that the millions and millions of Tamils in the
South of India, almost all Hindu, will flow into and submerge the
Sinhalese, their “race”, language (spoken only in Sri Lanka) and
religion. But this, it seems to me, is to see ancient history through
modern, “racist” spectacles. That the attacks were by Tamil rulers
on Sinhalese kings was accidental, the point being that any ruler
who felt he could expand or attack and ravage, happily did so: see,
Romila Thapar above. Unfortunately, ancient attacks from the
mainland are seen, and worse, taught in schools, told in story and
song, as invasions by (Indian) Tamils of the Sinhalese. The invasions,
the killing and the pillaging, are not placed in the wider context of
those times. It’s not made clear that even if the whole of Sri Lanka
had been Tamil and Hindu, it would not have stopped the attacks -
as the internal history of India clearly demonstrates. Nor was Sri
Lanka passive. I again quote from Professor De Silva: As long as
the Cholas were the dominant power, Sri Lanka allied itself with the
Pandyas (p. 64); King Nissanka Malla of Sri Lanka not only sent an
expeditionary force to India, but accompanied the army himself (p.
65). When, by the middle of the thirteenth century, the Pandyas had
established themselves as the dominant power in South India, they
History : Sri Lanka

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were inclined to support the Sinhalese kings against the [presumably
Tamil] kingdom in the north of the island (p. 67. Emphasis added).
The major portion of John Keay’s India: A History deals with pre
British-rule India, and one is struck by the many wars that raged:
invasions from the North by peoples who were either ambitious or
were themselves being driven out by other peoples; principalities
and kingdoms against one another; rivalry between brothers;
usurpation, even of fathers. Indeed, Britain could not have conquered
what we today know as “India” (those beyond the Indus) if its many
rulers had not been more afraid of, and hostile towards, each other
than of the British. As with the Native Americans, as with Africa, by
the time the real enemy – Western colonialism and imperialism - and
danger were recognised, it was too late. Sinhalese soldiers joined
and helped the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British in their attacks
on the Kandyan kingdom, and later Kandyan chiefs, unaware or
heedless of imperial policy and action in India, helped the British to
secure Kandy. Africans facilitated the slave trade, and yet it is said
that Africans did not barter or sell Africans - because the concept
and identity “African” did not then exist. In modern Sri Lanka (as
elsewhere), a collective identity that did not exist in the past is
constructed, and then present generations are held responsible,
reproached and penalised, for the past when those who acted had no
sense of such a collective identity.
No doubt, there are several factors that explain why Sinhalese
soldiers fought Sinhalese in the service of Western, Christian, powers
but perhaps the case made by Professor R. A. L. H. Gunawardana
(see Sri Lanka: History and the Roots of Conflict, edited by Jonathan
Spencer) is of help here. Gunawardana argues that the term Sinhala
applied only to the ruling class and, by extension, to those closely
associated with it: Sinhala identity did not include all those who
spoke Sinhala. The Mahavamsa version sought to present the
Sinhala identity

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Ksatriya status of the ruling family, and did not include most of
those considered Sinhalese today. Even in the 19th Century, some
authors of texts in Sinhala refer to the last Nayakkar king as the
Sinhala maharajatuwa, the great king of the Sinhala (p. 68). In other
words, according to Gunawardana, the term still had a political –
and not an ethnic - reference. This claim, one that will fundamentally
and positively alter understanding, perception and attitude, is not
brought to public attention and discussed. That several kings and
rulers from Sri Lanka married Tamil women from Indian royal
families seems to indicate that (unlike at present), what mattered
then was high caste and not “race”. Does this help to explain why
Sinhalese soldiers helped foreigners to attack (what are now seen as
fellow) Sinhalese?
The fall of the Kandyan Kingdom at the beginning of the 19th
Century is popularly projected as the result of Sinhalese nobles rising
up against the Tamil king, the brother-in-law of the deceased Sinhalese
king. But K M De Silva (a Sinhalese and a Professor of History)
states that the Nayakkar dynasty had “identified itself with the
Kandyan national interest and blended the Nayakkar personality with
the Kandyan background” (p. 222). It is significant that the people
did not rise against the king “in support of either Pilima Talauve (in
1810 -11) or Ahalepola (in 1814).” And this, adds De Silva, in a
region where “the record of resistance to unpopular rulers was almost
as significant as the long tradition of resistance to foreign invaders”
(p. 230). A pretender to the Kandyan throne appeared in 1817, “in
the guise of a Nayakkar prince. This was Vilbave, an ex-bhikku posing
as Doraisami, a member of the deposed royal family. That the
pretender claimed to be a Nayakkar prince is a point worth noting,
both as evidence of the Nayakkar dynasty’s continuing popularity
among the Kandyans and as an acknowledgement of their status as
indigenous rulers” (pp. 232-3). The struggle was for power, status
Kandy

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and influence: it was neither “racial” nor religious. Looking
elsewhere, we read in Mani Shankar Aiyar’s Confessions of a Secular
Fundamentalist (p. 49) that the Hindu soldiers who marched on Delhi
(mid-19th century) did so not to establish a Hindu India but to restore
the last Mughal (Moslem) emperor to the throne.
The Uva Rebellion, 1817-1818, is presented, taught and
disseminated as a Sinhalese uprising against the British, but it was
essentially a Kandyan, and not a Sinhalese, struggle. For example,
Solomon Dias Bandaranaike received a grant of one hundred and
eighty acres of land and a medal from Governor Brownrigg as a
“reward for eminent service during the Kandian Rebellion A. D.
1818”: Translated, it means “reward for collaborating with imperial
Britain against the Kandyan chiefs”. Even as late as the beginning
of the 20th Century when talks were in progress to grant Ceylon
independence, Kandyan leaders asked for a federal system, with a
degree of autonomy for what had once been the Kandyan kingdom,
referring to themselves as the Kandyan nation. From colonial times
up to and including the 1971 census, Kandyan and Low-Country
Sinhalese were classified as distinct ethnic groups. Now the Tamil
having been made into the Other, history is either adjusted or forgotten
and a Sinhalese identity proclaimed which did not then exist. The
history that is popularly subscribed to is one that perpetuates
resentment and deepens divisions. For example, it is not mentioned
that some of the Kandyan chiefs who were signatories to the Kandyan
Convention of 1815 signed their names in Tamil script, rather than
in the Sinhala (Spencer: 24). Evidently, it did not matter then, but
now we make it matter to suit a divisive and destructive agenda.
Returning briefly to India and ancient fears, a Kandyan friend
(like me, retired and living in Germany) and I talk frequently on the
phone. Off and on, he laments that “the Sinhalese race” (deep down,
Kandy

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emotionally, he continues to subscribe to the notion of “race”) is
finished. Asked why, he replies that the Tamils will soon take over
the whole island. I patiently explain it’s most unlikely that 18% of
the population would or could control the entire Island. In numerical
and in practical terms, it’s an impossibility; nor will India, the US
and the UN permit it. He is temporarily reassured and comforted
but, after a while, I hear again the same anxious sounds. The point
I’m trying to make is that certain fears are deep-seated and hard to
extirpate with fact and reason. If my friend, living abroad, having
access to the media and the internet, still harbours anachronistic
beliefs and irrational fear, what of the rural masses in the Paradise
Isle? The fear is fostered, in the face of evidence to the contrary, that
India will help the Tamils: it’s the “Tamil Tigers” (and not the JVP)
who fought and expelled the Indian army from Sri Lanka; it is the
Tigers who stand accused of assassinating Rajiv Gandhi; it is India
which has objected to the Tamils in Sri Lanka being accorded anything
that smacked of autonomy. On the one hand, there is fear of the
horde, running into millions, massed just across the Palk Strait,
waiting to settle in little Sri Lanka; on the other, appeals are made to
India to assume its “regional responsibility”, intervene and sort out
matters in Sri Lanka which we are incapable of doing ourselves.
(The plea is not addressed to the proximate South of India but to
Delhi and the North: see Aryan-ness below.)
The Mahavamsa is regarded as a foundational work, and it
powerfully influences both the Sinhalese collective conscious and,
even more powerfully, the Sinhalese unconscious: Carl Jung noted
that the collective unconscious consists of mythological motifs. The
Mahavamsa is generally attributed to the monk Mahanama, brother
of king Datusena. This last is significant in that it brings together
two sources of power, political and religious, the one strengthening
the other. Written in the 6th century, CE (Common Era, previously
Past history, passport anxiety

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referred to as AD), it relates the story of the Sinhala kingdom from
its foundation in the 6th century BCE to the reign of King Mahasena,
274-301 CE. In other words, it records a “history” starting about a
thousand years earlier than the time it was written. I quote Professor
Carlo Fonseka (The Island, 22 October 1995):
I do not find that reading the Mahavamsa enhances
my self-esteem as a Sinhalese. On the contrary I
feel greatly embarrassed and deeply humiliated
when I learn that we the Sinhalese are the
descendants of Vijaya, the banished profligate son
of an incestuous marriage between (Sihabahu) and
sister (Sihasivali) whose mother was so
exceedingly lustful that only a real lion could
satisfy her sexually. [The princess sexually
stimulating a lion to mate with her has been
attributed by some to the sexual fantasy of celibate
monks.] Moreover, Sihabahu killed his leonine
father, the king of the brutes […] Thus, according
to the Mahavamsa, brutishness, bestiality, incest,
patricide and profligacy, were the stuff of our
genesis […] of the 54 rulers recounted in the
Mahavamsa , 22 were murdered by their
successors; 11 were overthrown; 13 killed were
killed in battle and 6 were assassinated.
Fonseka also comments that the admiration for royalty
(compare the fatuous adulation accorded to Princess Diana) is
misguided: “My heroes are among those who discovered how to
harness the forces of nature to promote human welfare; diminished
the load of human suffering caused by disease; created things of
beauty in music, literature and art.” Emperor Marcus Aurelius
Mahawamsa

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(Meditations, written in the 170s of the Common Era) asked himself
how one could estimate the true value of another person, and
concluded it was by looking for the things to which that person gave
value and importance. To Fonseka, real heroes are not kings who
extended territory at the expense of others or warriors who slaughtered
a great many human beings, but those who have made a positive
contribution to humanity; those who have brought some beauty to
life: one cannot but admire and applaud Fonseka’s values.
The Mahavamsa records that King Dutugemunu, having caused
the destruction of a great many lives, was concerned he would not
attain nirvana. Thereupon, Buddhist monks comforted him, saying
he had killed only one and a half men: the one was a Buddhist and
the other only on the path to becoming a Buddhist. The others who
died, being non-Buddhist, were but animals. “But as for thee, thou
wilt bring glory to the doctrine of the Buddha” (The Mahavamsa,
end of Chapter XXV). One is appalled that human beings can be
seen and treated as if they were animals; incredulous that such an
inhumane attitude could be proudly espoused in the name of the
gentlest of religions. The Buddha in his sermon on loving kindness
(the Karaneeya metha Sutra) urged the cultivation of loving thoughts
towards all: May all beings be well and happy. May we cultivate
boundless love for all beings. Let these thoughts of boundless love
pervade the whole world, without any hatred, without any enmity.
And yet The Mahavamsa seems not to be scrutinised, reflected
upon and questioned. Dr Mithra Fernando (Australia) comments
that the “Sinhala Buddhist mindset has been nurtured in isolation,
far away from the scientific historical facts.” (In a message to me
dated 22 May 2007, Dr Fenando says his article, though available
on the web, has not been published as yet.) I do not know to what
extent The Mahavamsa is actually read today, but material from it is
Mahawamsa

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transmitted orally, in Sinhala, by monks, teachers, parents, relations
and journalists – material that fosters hatred, justifies inhumane
violence; elevates cruelty and force to the level of patriotism, of virtue,
even of spirituality. Returning to Dr Fernando’s comment about the
lack of facts, the Indian government wishes to deepen the waters
between it and Sri Lanka, so that it could function as a shipping
canal. However, Hindu groups protest because it would damage the
bridge, now lying under the sea, built (according to the Ramayana)
by god Ram and his monkeys. The suggestion by the government
that there was no real evidence for this claim caused outrage among
some Hindu groups in India, and there was vociferous protest
(September 2007).
As Professor K. Indrapala observes, present-day nations and
regimes have a strong inclination to believe that they and their
forebears have ‘possessed’ their present territory since time
immemorial. Belief in the bond between ‘blood’ and ‘soil’ was one
of the most powerful psychological motors of nineteenth century
“racist” nationalism. This kind of “nationalism” dresses up myth as
history. Nations are (historically) recent entities pretending to have
existed for a very long time. Identity-history can lead to anachronism,
omission, de-contextualization and, in extreme cases, lies (pp. 12-13).
Even among those who recognise the work as myth, there are
some who continue to emotionally believe in it. One is tempted to
view The Mahavamsa as a pernicious work, one that has wreaked
horrendous damage. Sirima Kiribamune (1985), states that The
Mahavamsa has superimposed on the conflict between Elara and
Duttgamani attitudes and feelings not present at the time. The Tamil
king Elara, defeated by Dutthagamani, was a patron of Buddhism;
he was not fighting a Tamil war, and there was no conceivable
difference between the troops on the two sides. (The earlier chronicle,
Mahawamsa
21
The Dipavamsa, does not make any reference to Elara’s racial
identity.)
Herodotus (circa 480-425 BCE) in his Histories wrote about
a period about a hundred years before his time: The Mahavamsa
relates stories, some as distant as a thousand years prior to the time
of writing. Herodotus is known as the father of Western History
because he is credited with being the first to undertake research and
verification; compare authorities and attempt to estimate
probabilities. No such attempt is made in The Mahavamsa. But while
I dare say that The Histories are read today more for “story” than
history (his story), The Mahavamsa is regarded as embodying literal
truth because it is a written text. Some of those who believe it do so
because they are simple-minded; others because wish to accept it –
there is no historic or archaeological evidence to support the Vijaya
myth. As Michael Roberts comments with wry irony, there is as much
objective, verifiable, evidence for the Vijaya story as there is for
that of Adam and Eve. (It must be noted that the absence of fact and
objective evidence, rather than demolishing a myth can help in its
perpetuation.) Apart from all the supernatural (non-rational, nonscientific)
happenings recorded in The Mahavamsa, there is
absolutely no corroboration, either in the Buddhist Canon or its major
ancillary works, that the Buddha visited the Island even once - let
alone three times. (For Emperor Asoka being a Buddhist, see
Appendix 1.) Peoples and tribes have what are known as originary
myths – twins suckled by a wolf and going on to found what became
the Roman Empire – tales that are fascinating but not taken literally.
According to The Mahavamsa (Chapter V11), the Buddha
selected Sri Lanka as the place where his religion would be preserved
in its purest form. Dying, he spoke to Sakka (Indra, king of the gods)
and asked him to protect Vijaya who had just landed on the Island.
Mahawamsa
22
Sakka, being otherwise busy, handed over the responsibility to Visnu
(also from the Hindu pantheon) the god who, according to The
Mahavamsa, is like the blue lotus in colour. The Jews believe that
Jehovah has given them ‘the Promised Land’, Calvinists believe they
have been divinely chosen for salvation, and Western Europe thought
it had a sacred mission to civilise and Christianise the rest of the
world, and so they conquered, expropriated and exploited.. The idea
of divine election is extremely dangerous because it sanctions injustice
and cruelty, the group believing that it is acting in a great, divine,
cause. Such belief is used to justify – even compel - behaviour which,
otherwise, would be ethically reprehensible: what greater cause than
that of God himself? Richard Congreve, Bishop of Oxford, said that
God Himself had entrusted India to Britain and, therefore, Britain
had no choice but to hold on to its possession! (See, Ashis Nandy,
page 34.) Richard Dawkins, in The Selfish Gene, shows that
seemingly altruistic action can be traced to a selfish end: religious
fervour, the readiness to carry out the most ungodly of acts in the
name of god, the sacred or divine, can be similarly understood.
Etymologically, the word “education” comes from “to lead
out”. But the broadening of horizons is also to better understand the
starting place. As T. S. Eliot wrote in ‘Little Gidding’, “We shall not
cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be
to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”
And so, looking elsewhere in order to understand the here and now,
one notes that the Bush administration of the USA believes it has a
manifest destiny, a divine license; that the West has been chosen by
Christ and entrusted with a mission: see, New York Review of Books,
15 February 2007, p. 54. Once again, I quote from Amartya Sen
(winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, formerly Master of Trinity
College, Cambridge, and presently Lamont University Professor at
Harvard):
Divine election
23
The illusion of destiny nurtures violence in the
world (p. X1V). With instigation, a fostered sense
of identity with one group of people can be made
into a powerful weapon to brutalise another.
“Indeed, many of the conflicts and barbarities in
the world are sustained through the illusion of a
unique and choiceless identity. The art of
constructing hatred takes the form of invoking the
magical power of some allegedly predominant
identity that drowns other affiliations [and
overpowers] any human sympathy or natural
kindness”. (op. cit., p. XV).
Professor David Little states in his work: “It is a central
conclusion of this study that the claim to pre-eminence, tinted with
notions of racial and religious superiority, must bear considerable
responsibility for ethnic strife in Sri Lanka” (Sri Lanka: The Invention
of Enmity, p. 158).
The Mahavamsa does have interesting and instructive stories,
and should continue to be read: what needs to be altered is how the
text is presented and interpreted. To cite an instance, Chapter V1
describes an act of patricide, the slaying by Sihabahu of his lionfather.
The lion sees Sihabahu and “for love toward his son”, comes
out of the cave, thus making himself vulnerable. Sihabahu shoots an
arrow at him. It “struck the lion’s forehead but because of his
tenderness toward his son, it rebounded and fell on the earth at the
youth’s feet. And so it fell out three times, then did the king of the
beasts grow wrathful and the arrow sent at him struck him and pierced
his body.” The story should not be taken literally but figuratively, as
Divine election
24
a tale that simply tries to teach wisdom and moral conduct; the
Buddhist ideal of self-control and compassion: love forgives and
protects. As long as there was love in the lion for his son, it was not
“touched”. It is only when love is replaced by self and anger that we
can be wounded. How we react to what happens to us is finally more
important than what happens, etc.
Texts and their influence bring me to a modern work, D C
Wijewardena’s Dharma-Vijaya (Triumph of Righteousness), better
known by its alternate title, The Revolt in the Temple, 1953. Professor
Kumari Jayawardena, in her perceptive and penetrating study of
ethnic and class conflict in Sri Lanka, describes The Revolt in the
Temple as “rambling” and “openly chauvinistic” – descriptive terms
that have also been applied to Hitler’s Mein Kampf (My Struggle). It
puts forward legend as historical fact, and is a “totally romanticized
and unhistorical view of the past, based on mythology, fantasy and
racial ‘destiny’” (Jayawardena, p. 69). An unfortunate inheritance
can be traced from The Mahavamsa through the virulently “racist”
Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933. See, among other works,
Lawrence Zwier’s, Sri Lanka: a War-Torn Nation, 1998) to The
Revolt in the Temple. I recall that the book was widely read and
lauded for its “plain speaking”. Even those who hadn’t read the work,
had an outline of its argument, and went along with it. Again, what
is symptomatic and significant is the ready willingness of so many
to be carried along, thoughtlessly and heedlessly, by the text. Like
other such inflammatory works, it pandered to a virulently “racist”
political and social climate, and hence its immediate acceptance and
popularity: it was published in Sinhala and English. Perhaps, the
aura of scholarship and erudition, the exuding of righteousness and
reason, even piety and virtue, helped to create this ‘reception’. (One
is reminded of Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness who wrote in
lofty, compassionate, caring terms about the African, and suddenly
Revolt in the Temple
25
ended with “Exterminate the brutes”.)
Vijaya was a Hindu, Buddhist conversion of the Island being
reputed to have taken place about three hundred years later, thanks
to the effort of Mahinda but, identifying “race” and religion,
Wijewardena states that Vijaya and his followers were Sinhalese in
heart and mind even before they left India (p. 31). What it is that
made them already Sinhalese is not explained, nor any evidence
offered for the claim: the book seeks not to provoke thought but to
arouse emotion and sweep readers along, unthinkingly. The birth of
the Sinhalese “race” was not accidental but predestined – see Amartya
Sen above - and the Sinhalese-Buddhist nation is divinely designed
to carry “the Torch of Buddhism” for another 2,500 years, making a
total of 50 centuries: Hitler, another Aryan supremacist, settled for
a more modest thousand-year Reich. The attraction of numbers to
individuals and groups with such a mind-set; the use of certain
numbers in incantation, spells and magic, is a subject in itself. Why
not 49 or 51 centuries?
Wijewardena quotes from a poem by Goethe which, roughly
paraphrased, says that one must rise or sink; win and rule or lose
and serve; be the hammer or the anvil. (Eventually, it’s the hammer
and not the anvil that’s more likely to break. Meanwhile, the innocent
nails, caught between hammer and anvil, suffer.) Wijewardena’s is a
ruthless Darwinism; Tennyson’s nature, red with blood in tooth and
claw, here wrapped in divine election and sacred duty. There is no
awareness in Wijewardena that the difficulty and ethical obligation
is to overcome what appears to be our innate, human, nature. “Among
animals, man is uniquely dominated by culture, by influences learned
and handed down. Some would say that culture is so important that
genes, whether selfish or not, are virtually irrelevant to the
understanding of human nature.” (Richard Dawkins, The Selfish
Revolt in the Temple
26
Gene, Chapter 1, “Why are people?”).
Having advocated and justified domination, Wijewardena goes
on to lament the deterioration of Buddhism, forgetting that the Buddha
is credited with having urged compassion to all human beings,
Buddhist or not. Either he did not realize, or did not acknowledge,
that he (Wijewardena himself) is, therefore, an example of those who
have betrayed the very essence of Buddhism, and caused its
deterioration, its fall from the ideals preached by the Buddha.
The Sinhalese are Aryan, and the Aryan race is not only
intellectually but, more importantly, morally supreme in the world
(p. 33), asserts Wijewardena, blatantly ignoring history. The phrase,
Aryan race, translates into “White” people. (I place “White” within
markers because, as a character in Forster’s A Passage to India
observes, there are really no white human beings.) Western
imperialism which lasted centuries, the African slave-trade, the horror
unleashed on the Congo by Leopold of Belgium, the first and second
World Wars, the near-extermination of the Jews – the list is long -
these weren’t perpetrated by non-White, non-Aryan people. One
recalls the words of Mark Twain:
In many countries we have chained the savage and
starved him to death; and this we do not care for, because
custom has inured us to it; yet a quick death by poison
is loving-kindness [compared] to it. In many countries
we have burned the savage at the stake; and this we do
not care for, because custom has inured us to it; yet a
quick death is loving-kindness to it. In more than one
country we have hunted the savage and his little children
and their mother with dogs and guns through the woods
and swamps for an afternoon’s sport, and filled the region
Aryanism
27
with happy laughter over their sprawling and stumbling
flight, and their wild supplications for mercy; but this
method we do not mind, because custom has inured us
to it; yet a quick death by poison is loving-kindness to
it. In many countries we have taken the savage’s land
from him, and made him our slave, and lashed him every
day, and broken his pride, and made death his only friend,
and overworked him till he dropped in his tracks; and
this we do not care for, because custom has inured us to
it; yet a quick death by poison is loving-kindness to it
[…] There are many humorous things in the world;
among them the white man’s notion that he is less savage
than the other savages.”
(Mark Twain, Following the Equator: A Journey Around
the World. Chapter XX1. Pages 189-192.)
David Brian Davis makes the point that humanity was in the
“savages” and savagery in those who claimed to be civilized (Inhuman
Bondage, p. 215). For an eye-witness account, one turns to Bartolome
De Las Casas and his Short Account (1542): It was the Europeans
who were the savages, and the Native Americans whose culture was
poor, whose technology was non-existent and who had very few, if
any, of the arts and sciences which for all Europeans marked the
inevitable stages towards true civility, who were ‘civilised’. (For a
history of Latin America from the time the Europeans came ashore
to the present, see Eduardo Galeano’s powerful and damning Open
Veins of Latin America; for a more general account of Western
imperial and colonial action, see works such as Mark Cocker’s Rivers
of Blood, Rivers of Gold: Europe’s Conquest of Indigenous Peoples.)
This is not to argue the contrary, namely, that non-White, non-
Aryan, people were, and are, morally superior: all human beings
Aryanism
28
have the potential to be savage and, when possessed with power
(“possessed” also in the sense of being in the grip of “evil” spirits)
have tended to misuse it, to the detriment of other human beings and
the environment. I have dwelt on Wijewardena because his work leads
me to “race” - a Romantic (with a capital R) belief in “race” is but a
short step away from “racism”.
In an article titled ‘The Term “Racism” and Discourse’,
published several years ago (see Appendix 2), I attempted to make
the case that the word “racism” was unsatisfactory, being too vague,
covering a variety of different forms of prejudice. In the West, “race”
seems to be a coded way of referring to discrimination based on
skin-colour: shouldn’t one be specific and frank, and rather name
this type of “racism” as “colourism”? Further, race, as popularly
understood, has no scientific foundation. Race (now often substituted
by the term ethnicity) does not exist, but “racism” continues to thrive
and flourish, not least in Sri Lanka. Several scientists have shown
that the racial categories utilised to divide people do not correspond
with actual genetic populations. So too, the broad genetic populations
that supposedly compose “races” are too genetically diverse for races
to be meaningfully distinct from each other. Etienne Balibar and
Immanuel Wallerstein, in their Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous
Identities, observe that “racism” leads to contempt, intolerance,
violence, humiliation and exploitation: “races” do not constitute
isolable biological units but a certain mind-set, a certain group, at a
certain time in its history, constructs and fervently believes in “race”.
Presently, the old biological “race” has been replaced by a “racism”
without “race”, one not based on blood and genes but on culture.
But, racists argue, culture can be seen as nature, and so the biological
returns with a vengeance. Racist organisations often refuse to be
“designated as such, laying claim instead to the title of nationalist”
(Balibar & Wallerstein, p. 37).
Racism
29
The human genome has been mapped: in the words of the
journal Science, “the internal genetic scaffold around which every
human life is moulded”. The major impact of such studies is to reveal
just how similar we are from
a genetic perspective, all humans are
African - not only to each other, but to other species. Prejudice,
oppression and “racism” feed on ignorance. Knowledge of the genome
should foster compassion, partly because the human gene pool is
extremely mixed: stigmatizing any particular group of individuals
on the basis of “race” is absurd. However, “racism” is irrational
and, therefore, hard to combat with reason, science and fact.
Several states, particularly in the West, have passed laws that
prohibit and penalise the inciting of hatred based on colour, gender,
sexual orientation, religion, language and “race”. The UN has urged
that the perpetrators of such crime be “resolutely” brought to justice.
It has also called upon those states that have not yet done so to
consider including in their legislation laws that will punish incitement
to group hatred; indeed, that it should be “an aggravating factor for
the purpose of sentencing”. Were there such laws in Sri Lanka, many
public figures, political leaders and Buddhist monks will find
themselves in court. Indeed, in the present climate, it would not be
practical to apply the law: far too many would end up before the
judge.
Sirima Kiribamune, in the paper already cited, reminds readers
that the terms ‘Aryan’ and ‘Dravidian’ have entirely, and only, a
linguistic, and not a racial, denotation. G C Mendis, in his The
Early History of Ceylon, states that the word ‘Dravidian’ does not
represent a distinct “race” but those who happen to speak languages
classified as Dravidian. “It is difficult to gauge the extent of Tamil
blood among the Sinhalese, but there is no doubt that it is
considerable” (Mendis, p. 9): one recalls Daniel Defoe’s comment,
Laws against inciting ‘racial’ hatred
30
made in 1700, that the phrase “a true-born Englishman” is a
contradiction, an irony, and in fact, a fiction. Martin Bernal, in his
much-read, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical
Civilization, says that “race” does not exist, and should not be
important. But there seems to be a mystic belief in it; in communion
and communication not through reason, but via feeling and “blood”:
it exists because it has been brought into existence in order not merely
to emphasise group difference but to assert group superiority. The
belief in an Indo-Aryan family, the Romantic belief in an Indo-
European Urheimat (original home) somewhere in the mountains of
Central Asia, was the product of the racist atmosphere prevalent in
Europe in the late 18th and early 19th century. The black (African)
nature of Egypt was emphasised in order to distance Egypt from
Europe, and India [one includes Sri Lanka here] replaced Egypt as
the exotic ancestor of Europe. “For 18th – and 19th – century
Romantics and racists it was simply intolerable for Greece, which
was seen not merely as the epitome of Europe but also as its pure
childhood, to have been the result of the mixture of native Europeans
and colonizing Africans and Semites” (Bernal, p. 2. In the original,
these lines are emphasised). Sir William Jones (1788) speculated:
the similarity between “Sanscrit” (sic), Greek and Latin being such,
could it be attributed to accident? Perhaps, they sprang from a
common source? B.C.Clough, who produced the first Sinhalese-
English dictionary (1821) picked this up, and applied it to the Sinhala
language. Friedrich Schlegel, a German philosopher (he believed India
had helped to civilize Europe) used the term ‘Aryan’ in 1819 to
designate people whose languages seemed to be related. A few
decades later, we find Max Muller using the term, ‘Aryan race’,
though he later was emphatic in saying that ‘Aryan’ is inapplicable
to race.
Bernal (op. cit, p. 236), states that Western imperialism ensured
Aryanism
31
the natives learnt about their own civilization only through Europeans
and European scholarship: “This provided yet another rope to tie
the colonial elites to the metropolitan countries.” But among the
Sinhalese, the Aryan myth is not only of the elite, not of the few, but
of the group. For example, the ‘national dress’ worn by males was
known as the ‘Ariya Sinhala suit’. (No Sinhalese kings have been
referred to as Ariya. In fact, it was the dynasty which ruled in Tamil
Jaffna who called themselves Arya Cakravarti, or Arya emperors:
“It is an irony of history that in later times it was the Sinhala who
came to be associated with the term Arya”. See, Gunawardana in
Spencer, op. cit., p. 74.) Of course, as Western imperialism
consolidated its grip on the Indian subcontinent, respect and
admiration gave way to condescension and contempt. This is not
hard to understand. The imperialist and the colonialist cannot see
the Other as an equal human being and still continue to conquer and
rule, dispossess and exploit. To justify conduct, to salve the
conscience, he must believe in inferiority: in Darwinian terms,
imperial subjects had proved themselves inferior, having been unable
to defend themselves – the most fundamental requirement for group
survival.
The Sinhalese attitude to imperial Britain was (and is) complex
and contradictory. On the one hand, there was deep resentment – the
consequence of which I will come to later – but, on the other,
admiration for Western power (scientific and military) and other
attributes such as discipline and organisation. (I recall that a high
compliment in Sinhala was to say of someone that he was like a
“white” man – sudha vaage! I don’t know whether the expression is
still used.) Though defeated and ruled by European powers for almost
half a millennium, the Aryan affiliation (from the end of the 19th
century) helped the Sinhalese to redeem a measure of self-respect. It
provided a prestigious pedigree, relating them to the advanced ‘White
Aryanism
32
race’. If the ‘Aryans’ had been an impoverished people, bereft of
power and science, an association with them would have been
contemptuously rejected. Yet once again: we believe what we like,
and need, to believe. It was a salve to the Sinhalese that they were
defeated, and ruled, exploited and insulted by their “own”, fellow,
Aryans. (Similarly, some Tamils say that, if they are to be tyrannised,
they would prefer being tyrannised by the Tigers than by the
Sinhalese.) So it is that one still comes across sentences such as the
following: “The Kandyan Chieftains really exchanged the Nayakkar
Dynasty with the Windsor Dynasty of England who were of Aryan
stock replacing the wholly alien Dravidian power” (Sunday Times,
Colombo, 4 March 2007, p. 4.) The British deceived and betrayed
the Kandyan chieftains, but the result was rule by fellow Aryans –
something preferred and, therefore, a consolation. (I am grateful to
the author for sending me a copy of his article, and would believe
that either he was not aware of the full implication of the sentence
or, better, that I have misread it. With reference to the hurtful phrase,
“wholly alien Dravidian power”, see Appendix 3: Alien at home.)
Kumari Jayawardena, in her work already cited, presents
evidence showing that in the 1930s, the myth of Aryan-ness led some
to admire Hitler, to wish for a Sinhalese Hitler to stop the degeneration
of the Aryan Sinhalese “race”, and to make it pure and triumphant.
In 1939, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike was favourably compared to
Hitler because he expressed violent nationalist (read “racist”)
sentiments and determination: see, David Little, Sri Lanka: The
Invention of Enmity (p. 61).
If Hitler had, however briefly, occupied Sri Lanka (then
Ceylon), Nazi ideology, attitude and conduct would have been bitter
disillusionment to those Sinhalese who foster fond (“fond” also in
the earlier meaning of “foolish”) belief in belonging to the Aryan
Aryanism
33
family of “races”. It would have been a cruel shock, but it would
also have been curative. In contemporary terms, one imagines a
Sinhalese, Aryan-believing individual (or group), meeting up with a
neo-Nazi band in the West, proclaiming his Aryan-ness and expecting
a brotherly embrace. Sri Lankans in the West know that, if and when
there is “racial” prejudice, what usually counts is skin-colour – not
whether one is “Aryan” or “Dravidian”. V G Kiernan, as quoted by
me in Appendix 2, says that “White” people had the impression of
belonging to one “race”. See also, Theodore Allen’s The Invention
of the White Race, London, 1994. No doubt, after 9/11, there is a
new ‘clash of civilizations’ and not only “people-of-colour” but
Moslems are also looked upon with suspicion and hostility.
However, given the degree of irrationality in human beings,
my imagined encounter between a Sinhalese “fondly” believing in
his Aryan-ness, and a neo-Nazi Aryan group in the West, may not
effect a cure: of the almost fifty million killed in the Second World
War, about thirty million were from the former Soviet Union. (The
Russians took their revenge when they marched into demolished
Berlin, and other parts of Germany.) Despite that history, despite
Nazi contempt and devastation, people of colour in Moscow and
other cities - Aryan or not - were warned this year (2007) to stay
indoors around the 20th of April because Russian right-wing gangs
would be celebrating Hitler’s birthday! Belief is impervious to reason.
Coming to the period of Western imperialism, it’s sometimes
said that citizens of former imperial territories, since they’ve been
independent for decades, should now take responsibility for the
present state of affairs in their respective countries. (In the strict
sense, what happened in India and Ceylon was imperialism and not
colonialism because, unlike in America, Canada, Australia, New
Zealand – for a while, in Kenya and Rhodesia – people from the
Imperial legacy
34
West did not settle in large numbers, did not “colonise”, the subcontinent.
However, the word “colonialism” seems to have become
an umbrella term, like “racism”, and now includes “imperialism”.)
Some of the effects of imperial history persist into the present: some
pasts are not past. The Portuguese first made contact with “Ceylon”
around 1505 and soon encroached more and more into the island. In
due course, the Portuguese were displaced by the Dutch (1656-1802)
and the latter by the British who ruled until independence in 1948.
Of the many consequences of centuries of Western, Christian, rule I
will mention two. Imperialism submerged, rather than merged, the
Island’s different ethnic groups. Foreign intervention and control for
almost five-hundred years arrested what I would describe as the
indigenous historical development of Sri Lanka. Left alone, the
different ethnic groups would have fought but, over the centuries,
reached an accommodation. (Of course, no country is left free of
external influence and interference, but five hundred years of
continuous foreign domination is a considerable chunk of time.)
Secondly, imperialism meant forcible occupation, oppression and
exploitation: whatever empires may have achieved and contributed,
their basis was (and is) the ability to wield far worse violence than
the violence defenders could (or can) deploy.
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
made to feel inferior in their own country because they did not know
a foreign language. These are some of the factors that created a
reservoir of resentment, seething, potentially virulent but inarticulate
Imperial legacy
35
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 and
powerful – but on the Tamil.
It’s a common awareness that when those to whom injustice
has been done get the opportunity, they act unjustly in their turn. For
example, the Palestinians pay the price for centuries of insult and
cruelty inflicted on the Jews by Western Christians, culminating in
the Nazi holocaust. One is reminded of Shylock in Shakespeare’s
Merchant of Venice who said that a good student tries to be better
than his teacher. Western Christians “taught” the Jew insult,
humiliation, unkindness, and these he would try to practice in turn,
but in a “better” (that is, worse) form. Independence was granted,
the British left, and the Sinhalese felt the time for rectification and
restitution had come. Unfortunately, the majority of Sinhalese felt
that the way to regain what had been lost over the centuries was by
continuing to deny to the Tamils what the latter too had lost. There
followed the politics of exclusion and subordination; the politics of
asserting one’s dignity and rights by denying the dignity and rights
of others; the politics of not allowing to others what was wished and
demanded for oneself. I was told of some workers who complained
to the manager that the foreman was favouring a particular group of
fellow workers. The manager promised to put a stop to it, but the
workers didn’t want that to happen: their wish was to have the same
consideration extended to them. Similarly, the Tamils were not against
the use and development of the Sinhala language. But what prevailed
and found expression was the unjust and unkind politics of “only”,
the result of thinking that one could best protect one’s language by
denying to others the right to use theirs. So, it was a case of “Sinhala
Treat others as you, yourself would like to be treated
36
only” and of the Sinhalese being the only true Sri Lankans. (So too,
only “white” Christians are true Europeans and Americans; the Jews,
and only the Jews, are the people chosen by god etc.) What is enjoined
on the individual – treat others as you yourself would like to be
treated – is not practised by the group. Multiculturalism, toleration
and inclusiveness urged, and sometimes enjoyed abroad, are rejected
at home. I recall these lines, for purpose of comparison, from Andrew
Wheatcroft’s Infidels: A History of the Conflict between Christendom
and Islam (2004): The two alternatives in Granada after 1492 and
the expulsion of the Moors were “the cautious and painstaking
approach” and the violent and abrupt. “There had been no systematic
campaign of forcible Islamization in Spain after the Muslim conquest”
(see, p. 140). The Sinhalese government too had a choice, one that
was wise, cautious and kind; the other, abrupt and unjust. It opted
for the second.
During parliamentary debate on what was known as the
language issue, Dr Colvin R De Silva famously warned that the
forcible imposition of one language would lead to two nations; two
languages to (the continued existence of) one nation. Ten years later
(1966), Professor G C Mendis, in his address as President of the
Ceylon branch of the Royal Asiastic Society, pointed to the lack of
wisdom: the Sinhalese had little need to learn the Tamil language,
but Tamils, if it had not been forced upon them, over time, would
have learnt Sinhala, and the language problem would have been
solved, gradually – I may add, imperceptibly and painlessly. But, as
one who was caught up in the ensuing attack on Tamils (1958), it
seemed to me that the wish was not to be wise, not to be kind, but to
express power and that disregard which power permits; not to heal
but to humiliate: oderint, dum metuant. A rough translation of these
words of the cruel Emperor Nero would be, “Let them hate, as long
as they [also] fear”. Fear and hate can coexist but once the former is
Choice and the then-future
37
removed, I fear that in some only the latter will remain, leading to an
emotional, if not political, parting of the ways.
It is asserted that at independence Tamils enjoyed positions in
administration and the civil service completely disproportionate to
their minority status. I am unable to access actual statistics which
will either confirm or contradict this claim, but Michael Roberts
suggests evidence to the contrary in his Sinhala-ness and Sinhala
Nationalism. I think it is more a matter of a vague (envious and
resentful) impression, rather than of fact. Similarly, some “Whites”
see dark-skinned people everywhere. Such “Whites” and right-wing
groups exclaim that their country is being swamped, taken over, by
foreigners. I witnessed this in the London of the early 1960s when
Enoch Powell, by predicting trouble in the near future, attempted to
foment it in the present. Such fear is the product of deep-rooted
insecurity, and its dire and exaggerated expression creates insecurity
in the rest of the population, alarms the herd into panic and defensive
aggression. But the reality is otherwise and statistics show that the
number of so-called “coloured” people constitutes a very small
percentage of the total population. Crimes committed by persons of
colour are “seen”, highlighted and reacted to as being crimes
perpetrated by “Blacks”, while those carried out by “Whites” are
simply seen as criminality. So too, Tamils holding jobs or posts were
seen as Tamil, creating the impression, fear and resentment that they
were too successful. But, for the sake of discussion, let us assume
that there indeed was a disproportionate number of Tamils holding
government jobs or doing well in business. Still I would argue that if
there were a need to redress matters, how it was done was unjust and
unwise.
At auctions, the highest bidder is successful but what we saw
in “Ceylon” was a political auction where the person who bid the
Disproportionate Tamil sucess
38
lowest won: Sinhala only in twelve months; twelve weeks, a month,
a week and finally S W R D Bandaranaike won with the minimum
bid of “Sinhala only in twenty-four hours”. It was not “Sinhala in
twenty-four hours” but “Sinhala only”. With a stroke of a pen, most
Tamils were rendered “official illiterates”. English, the language of
British imperialism, had been replaced by Sinhala. The more “racist”
a politician proved himself or herself to be, the more hate-filled and
inconsiderate, the more he or she was recognised as a “patriot”.
Hatred, intolerance, and violence become proof of patriotism, of a
“nationalism” based narrowly and exclusively on “race” and
Buddhism.“ But, as it was said (I believe by Professor Sarachandra),
one cannot tell the difference between a Sinhalese and a Tamil when
they both lie naked on the mortuary slab. What flourishes in Sri
Lanka is linguistic nationalism, with language being a marker also
of religion: see Appendix 2.
To cite an instance of folly, according to The Island newspaper
(12 July 2000), plans are afoot to compare the genetic make-up of
the different ethnic groups in the country. The project, funded by the
Department of Archaeology and carried out in conjunction with the
Chemistry Department of the University of Colombo, will first “map”
and then compare the DNA of a sampling of the populace. All groups,
including the aboriginal people, the Veddahs of the country, will be
covered under the study. Perhaps, traces of lion blood will be detected
in the Sinhalese, and so provide scientific proof that The Mahavamsa
is fact, rather than imagination and myth. One wonders that these
are the concerns, preoccupation and priorities of some Sri Lankans
in the 21st Century.
Most Sinhalese being Buddhists, the role played by Buddhism
and the Buddhist clergy must be addressed. The following thought is
taken from David Scott’s Refashioning Futures: Criticism After
An auction in ‘racism’
39
Postcoloniality (1999). Until comparatively recently, Pali and Sinhala
did not have words representing the concepts “religion” and
“Buddhism”. No doubt, pious men and women in Sri Lanka thought
a good deal about the Buddha and his teaching but, until about two
hundred years ago, they had not thought of “religion” in its modern
sense of a systematic entity, as being one among a family of such
distinct religious entities. (See also, Appendix 1, Asoka not a
Buddhist?) Kitsiri Malalgoda writes that the term agama as the
general equivalent of “religion” was introduced by Christian
missionaries in the 19th century. “It was only later that it gained
acceptance among the Buddhists themselves as a term of selfreference”:
see Scott, page 57.
In the past, philosophy, ethical injunction and religious teaching
was not only a set of propositions but a way of life. The Buddha and
Christ are said to have lived the life they taught and enjoined: there
was no fracture, much less contradiction, between doctrine and
practice. (Dharmasiri de Zoysa, to whom this essay is partly
dedicated, did not talk about Buddhism: in terms of values and
conduct, he simply lived Buddhism.) The impression is that
monotheistic faiths, with their exclusive and exclusionary belief in
one god, one message and one truth breed intolerance, while religions
such as Hinduism and Buddhism are eclectic, accommodating and
tolerant. One could be a theist, a pantheist, a Communist - even an
atheist - and still be a Hindu or Buddhist. Indeed, the true Buddhist
is an atheist.
As I have argued elsewhere, religion does not determine the
nature and actions of a society. Rather, it is a people who, at different
times, determine the nature and behavioural expression of a religion.
So India’s BJP has damaged Hinduism’s reputation for tolerance,
and the Buddhist monks of Sri Lanka are associated with stoking
Buddhism in Sri Lanka
40
hatred and violence. Not to focus too narrowly and intensely on Sri
Lanka, and in order to place matters in a broader context, one recalls
that Christianity was used to sanction the African slave trade, the
exploitation (and near-extermination) of the native peoples of South
America, slave-labour in America, the veritable nightmare of
Leopold’s rule in the Congo, and imperialism in general. “Gentle
Jesus” gave way to “muscular Christianity” and Christians became
soldiers marching in the name of Jesus to conquer and pillage, rule
and exploit hapless peoples. Today, the Neoconservatives of the
United States are willing, even eager, to unleash violence for the
sake of civilization – that is, democracy and Christianity. Their
repeated call to “engage with moderate Islam to counter a militant
Islam that carries out terrorist acts,” is inaccurately worded. It is
not Islam but moderate or extreme individuals and groups who happen
to be Moslem: see the difference between Islam as practised by the
Emperor Akbar, and that expressed by his almost immediate
successor, Aurangzeb. Going further back in time, during the
European persecution, many Jews found protection under Moslem
rulers. In the 12th century, the Jewish philosopher Maimonides fled
to Saladin and was given an honoured place at court. (Salah ad-Din,
born in Tikrit, 1138, is known by many in England because he
defeated Richard the Lionheart.) One recalls too that when the
Crusaders captured Jerusalem, they killed as many Jews as they could;
when Saladin liberated the city, they were protected and left in peace.
The Caliph Abd al-Rahman turned Cordoba into “one the most
civilized places on earth”, helped by one of his deputies, (Jewish)
Hasdai ibn Shaprut.
Buddhism, in my opinion, is the gentlest and wisest of doctrines.
G C Mendis writes (op cit) that the Buddha was a teacher, and the
core of his teaching had to do with the individual developing his or
her self – one may add, through cultivating characteristics such as
Buddhism in Sri Lanka
41
self-knowledge, an all encompassing compassion, detachment and
self-control. Regarding gentleness and wisdom mentioned above, I
would refer readers to K. S. Palihakkara’s Buddhism Sans Myths &
Miracles. The book’s cover states that Dr Palihakkara was formerly
“Director of Pirivena Education (temple schools)… and also one
time Secretary to the Oriental Studies Society (which conducts
examinations mainly for the Buddhist clergy.)” Dr Palihakkara’s
effort is to rescue Buddhism from myth and miracle; superstition,
metaphysics and ritual, and to present it “as close as possible to the
actual words of the Buddha” (p. i). The scriptures were first written
about four hundred years after the death of the Maha Karunika (the
Being of Great kindness) and, by that time, even the earlier Theravada
texts had been corrupted by later additions. Buddhism as taught by
the Buddha is essentially an ethical doctrine. There is no creator
god, and neither past birth nor future rebirth. Since there is no past
life, karma means action in the past of one’s present life. However,
belief in karma is useful to those wielding power (be it political or
religious): when the poor and the outcastes of society suffer from
“poverty, sickness and squalor in their hovels”, their suffering is
attributed to bad karma from past births. The unfortunate are led to
believe that they themselves are responsible for their misery (p. 120).
The Buddha did not have miraculous powers and, rather than this
being an insult, “he appears even greater without them” (p. 28). The
Buddha did not visit Ceylon (as claimed in The Mahavamsa). Indeed,
there is no reference to him visiting even any other part of India
“outside the Gangetic Plain” (p. 25). It is difficult to reconcile
chanting pirith and tying the pirith thread with “a rationalist like the
Buddha who rejected prayers and slokas (recitals) of the Brahmins
to their gods” (p. 66). In short, what most Buddhists in Sri Lanka
practice practise today is more Hinduism than Buddhism (p. 109):
see also Nanda Godage, Appendix 4.
Turning from this representation of Buddhism (as already
Buddhism in Sri Lanka
42
stated, a rational and essentially kind and gentle doctrine) to the
reality of its expression today in Sri Lanka, we find a total and most
unfortunate divergence. Indeed, it can be argued that Buddhism as
preached and practised today has proved false to itself, to Buddhism.
As Godfrey Gunatilleke points out in Michael Roberts (Ed.) Sri
Lanka. Collective Identities Revisited, Vol. 11, the revival of
Buddhism in Sri Lanka did not take an inward, spiritual, form. On
the contrary, it found vociferous and violent expression, and the
presence today in Parliament of members of a political party made
up of Buddhist monks is the inevitable result of this participation in
public life. Sri Lanka is in danger of becoming a theocracy, like
Iran, where important decisions in all spheres of private and public
life must have the approval of the clergy. The Bandaranaike-
Chelvanyagam Pact, to which I will refer later, was abrogated because
Buddhist monks descended on Mr Bandaranaike’s residence.
(Bandaranaike was assassinated in 1959, not by a Tamil but by a
Buddhist monk, even as Gandhi was killed not by a Moslem but by a
Hindu; even as Yitzhak Rabin was killed in 1995 not by a Palestinian
but by a fellow Jew.) Regarding the Pact, Bandaranaike said that,
reflecting in the light of Buddhist precepts, he had come to “an
honourable solution”:
In thinking over this problem I had in mind the
fact that I am not merely a Prime Minister but a
Buddhist Prime Minister. And my Buddhism is
not of the “label” variety. At this juncture I said
to myself: “Buddhism means so much to me, let
me be dictated to only by the tenets of my faith,
in these discussions.” I am happy to say a solution
was immediately forthcoming.
(Colombo: Sunday Observer, 2 March 1958.)
In signing the Pact, “Banda” (as he was popularly known)
Political Buddhism
43
claimed he was acting as a Buddhist, that is, according to what the
Buddha had preached. It is ironic and unfortunate that finally he
was “dictated to” not by the Buddha and Buddhism but by Buddhist
monks:
“The present national crisis would not have arisen
had we allowed the implementation of the
Bandaranaike-Chelvanyagam Pact without
resorting to the short sighted polices we pursued
[…] the Pact was designed to mete out justice to
the Tamil community [… ]The late Mr J R
Jayewardene provoked us in order to politically
capitalise for his benefit […] It is pertinent to
mention here that I went to Jaffna when I was 15
in 1941 with my Nayake Thera. At that time, Mr
Jaya Pathirana’s father [Sinhalese] was a Jaffna
Municipal Council ward member.”
(The Venerable Mawatagama Vimalagama Thera,
as quoted in The Sunday Observer, Colombo, 01
June 1997, p. 27.)
If Buddhism is given the highest place, it follows that those
who most represent that religion, its clergy, will also enjoy power
and prestige: it could be argued that the demands made by the monks
were not motivated by lofty spirituality but for the secular position
and power they believed they had wielded and enjoyed before the
coming of Western, Christian, hegemony. The protestation is
Buddhism but the goal is power. One recalls Durkheim’s observation
that in highly and overtly religious cultures, God and society are
one. Thus, in worshipping God, people are in fact worshipping society
– ultimately, themselves. It follows that in an ostentatiously religious
society, priests, monks and religious leaders enjoy the highest position
Political Buddhism
44
and authority. And where there is cultural and ethnic plurality,
religious identity becomes ethnic identity, leading to a state that is
both theocratic and ethnocratic.
The Sri Lankan experience must not be seen as being unique:
the world over and throughout human history, members of the clergy
have participated in public life, religion being a potent force in the
mobilisation of the masses. (Roman Lucretius, c.99 - c.55 BCE,
wrote of men using wickedness in the name of religion; that religion
is a potent force in propelling men to evil.) Returning, in the context
of Buddhism, to the distinction made earlier between what is
remembered, and why and how it is remembered, the discovery of
Buddhist artefacts in the Tamil North of the Island is given a political,
hegemonic, significance. The finds are not used to establish an earlier
coexistence and harmony, a borrowing and incorporation. K M
Panikkar states (A Survey of Indian History) that the exclusiveness
of religious doctrines is a monotheistic concept: for instance, the
Emperor Asoka offered gifts both to Hindu priests and to Buddhist
monks.
The observation has been made that the Buddhist clergy is
passionate only on the ethnic problem: they do not march
vociferously; do not “incite” the people, on issues such as crime,
violence, poverty, prostitution, paedophilia, police brutality, social
injustice, corruption in high places, and moral decline. (I write “in
high places”, mindful of the saying that when a fish turns bad, the
rot starts with the head, and works its way downwards.) The issue
that excites and mobilises the majority of monks is the ethnic question
where their stance is right-wing in the extreme, though there are also
monks such as the Venerable Nandaratena Thera, chief priest of a
vihare in the Trincomalee district. He worked for ethnic co-existence,
and was shot dead on 13 May 2007.
Political Buddhism
45
Since ‘effect’ implies ‘cause’, an attempt must be made to
understand the ‘political Buddhism’ rampant in Sri Lanka. Again
trying to retain a broader perspective, one looks elsewhere, for
example, at Sikhism, founded by Guru Nanak (1469-1539). It was a
pacific movement, and Sikhs were “anxious to live at peace with
their neighbours”, as one writer expresses it. But the fifth Guru,
Arjun (1563-1606) was killed, and this violence helped to transform
the Sikhs into an armed brotherhood. (The military nature of the
Sikhs was completed by Gobind Singh who became the last of the
Gurus in 1675.) Returning to Buddhism, one reads in David Scott’s
work that, though the Christian missionary societies were aggressive,
the Buddhist monks did not retaliate. On the contrary, they reacted
to aggression and insult with kindness, hospitality and generosity.
But this attitude of forebearance changed around 1860. The present
(ungenerous and violent) nature of Buddhism has imperial, Christian,
roots. David Little (already cited) observes that both the aggressive
Catholicism of the Portuguese and the militant Calvinism of the Dutch
left behind a record of religious oppression (p. 11). The first
experience of religious intolerance in Sri Lanka came with [and
because of] the Christian missions (p. 12).
Reflecting on The Mahavamsa, “race”, Aryan-ness and
political Buddhism, brings me to the defiant assertion made by some
(almost invariably Sinhalese) that they are proud to be Sri Lankan.
Oddly, this emotional declaration is also made by Sinhalese who
have voluntarily chosen to leave the Island of which they claim to be
proud; by those who have returned to the island having made money
or won reputation which proud Sri Lankan circumstances did not
permit. (Afraid of harassment or worse; having lost hope of positive
change in the future, few Tamils, if any, return to what was once
“home” - except on short, and rather anxious, visits.)
Political Buddhism
46
The dictionary defines “proud” as the feeling of deep pleasure
or satisfaction, the result of one’s own achievements, qualities or
possessions or those of someone with whom one is closely associated.
Taking up collective achievement in the present, I wonder how much
justification there is for national pride. There are slums in and around
the capital, and people live in “shanties” in the most insalubrious of
conditions, often by canals and stagnant water. (Some tourists may
find this “picturesque”.) It is a distressing, near-overwhelming,
experience to walk down Colombo’s Galle Road in the late evening,
and see misshapen creatures settling down by the pavement for the
night: scenes out of the novels of Dostoevsky and Dickens. For them,
the Paradise Isle is hell. There is a high degree of crime and violence.
Amnesty International reported that over 4,000 people have
“disappeared” in the short period since early 2006 and the date of
the report - 12 April 2007. Victor Ivan in his An Unfinished Struggle
(2003) cites Harold Laski’s statement that the manner in which justice
is dispensed in any country is the measure of that country’s
civilization, and concludes that, based on this criterion, “Sri Lanka
is at the lowest level of civilization”. The police force is corrupt and,
rather than protecting the population, tends to bully it, Tamils with
greater impunity: see, ‘Being Tamil today’ below. A few years ago,
the Asian Centre for Human Rights reported that political patronage
and resulting impunity have turned the Sri Lankan Police into one of
the country’s most feared and organised criminal gangs. Sri Lanka
is one of the destinations for sex tourists, including paedophiles.
The suicide rate is high, as is that of alcoholism, and women
(supposedly from a traditional, conservative, island) go abroad into
helpless servitude: I once taught in the Middle East, and am well
aware of their plight. Individuals in power have paid or rewarded
followers who can be mobilised at short notice to form a righteous,
patriotically outraged, mob. As for the people, they seem to have
Proud to be Sri Lankan
47
given up hope of real, qualitative, change, and get on with their daily
lives, snatching distraction and recreation when they can.
Unemployment, poverty and the lack of hope are some of the factors
that explain the propensity to sudden, extreme and vicious violence.
Cricket is an exception, and the achievement of the team in
international fixtures partly explains the passionate interest in the
game by a people who have little other real cause for pride. According
to the e-Edition of the Daily Mirror (1 May 2007), while Sri Lankans
are obsessed with cricket, the country is burning and breaking apart,
and one in every 18 Sri Lankan is a refugee. Of course, the Island is
beautiful, in terms of its beaches, mountains and valleys, and one
can delight in them, draw solace and strength, but can we take “pride”
in landscape and seascape? In other words, is it our achievement? I
read the following lines in the Sunday Island (25th January 2004, p.
7): Despondency, deep, deep despondency and the desire to cry for
this ill-fated land of ours.
Then there is the other part of the definition of “proud”, namely,
“someone with whom one is closely associated”. Since Sri Lanka
was conquered and ruled for almost five hundred years, one indeed
has to go back a very long way in time to locate those “closely
associated” (that is, unless one includes the “White”, “Aryan”
imperialists). How “closely” can one be linked with figures lost in
the distant mist of History? The other aspect of ancient history is
that we know it almost entirely by the “peaks” of achievement (tanks,
statues, palaces), and events (battles, changes made and reform
instituted). The daily life of the vast majority of ordinary women
and men is not recorded, remains largely unknown and conjectural.
That being the case, the past becomes our pliant possession, to be
shaped as we wish. The operative words in this exercise are “idealise”
and “idealisation”. It is a need and a process - particularly seen in a
people who have little cause to be proud of and celebrate in the
Proud to be Sri Lankan
48
present. To cite a mundane example, given the lack of penicillin,
surgical instruments and present-day knowledge of hygiene, healthcare
must have poor and painful, as in other parts of the world. Of
course, there were wise and kind rulers, but the fact remains that
there was no middle-class, and no civic right for the people to elect
their rulers. There is no avoiding the truth: it was feudalism in the
extreme, with power on the one side, and servility on the other.
Chandima Wickramasinghe in her comparative study of slavery in
ancient Greece and ancient Sri Lanka, records the incident of a slave
woman, eight of whose children “were buried as soon as they were
born, by order of the master” because she had to look after his children
(p. 45.) The same work recounts that Kings and nobles offered food
to thousands of Buddhist monks, food that had been cooked by slaves.
The attempt here is not to discredit the past; not to deny that a
measure of example and encouragement, even of pride, can be derived
from it, but to plead for a more balanced, realistic, view of the past.
It is easy to idealise and wax sentimental over the past, simply because
it is past, and we can shape and believe in it as we will. One can be
“proud” but one must also be clearly aware of the grounds for that
pride. If not, it becomes an empty assertion: vague and easy to
trumpet, emotional and potentially dangerous. Further, “pride” can
lead to complacency, take away the responsibility and effort of
“constructing” (and I don’t mean building in the literal sense) in the
present, in the here and now: it is enough to defiantly proclaim, “I
am Sri Lankan, and proud of it.” Nobel Prize winner, Wole Soyinka
of Nigeria, declined to join the Negritude movement, saying that a
tiger did not feel the need to proclaim pride in itself: Soyinka
recognised the Negritude assertion for what it was, a sign of
insecurity. Altering Shakespeare’s sceptical words, one can say of
those given to proclaiming pride in being Sri Lankan, “I think they
protest too much”.
Proud to be Sri Lankan
49
50
Terrorism, 1983, the Tigers
“Terrorist” is now the term of political abuse, freely used and
misused. As with my thoughts on History, I begin with “terrorism”
in general before moving on to Sri Lanka. Terrorism can be
understood as (a) the unleashing of haphazard violence (b) on the
civilian population. It follows from the definition that (1) attack on
military personnel or installations is not terrorism, and (2) that the
state can also act in terrorist fashion by visiting violence on civilians,
even if the pretext proffered is that terrorists are harbouring among
them.
The label “Strawberry jam” on a bottle leads one to assume
that the content is strawberry jam. So it is with “terrorist”: stick on
the label, and most, without further thought, will take the content for
granted; will believe that content and label tally. But neither abuse
nor labels encourage reflection and analysis. On the contrary, political
labels foreclose reflection and understanding. The aim of those who
use the term “terrorism” in this fashion is to make independent thought
seem unnecessary, create fear and arouse anger.
In the first instance, one must make the distinction between
two kinds of “terrorist” group: one with an international, even global,
agenda; the other, with a specific, local, aim. Terror is usually resorted
to when the struggle is asymmetrical, that is, where one side in a
conflict is at a significant disadvantage. Governments can go shopping
on the open, commercially competitive market, and furnish their
troops with the best weapons of destruction, while opposition groups
must rely on weapons seized from the government, or buy at an
enhanced cost and bring them in at great risk. The unleashing of
terror is an attempt to redress this imbalance.
51
Moving on, one remembers that Nelson Mandela was branded
a terrorist by former UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.
Menachem Begin was accused of blowing up the King David Hotel
(22nd of July, 1946); declared a terrorist by the British government,
and a reward offered for his capture. Begin went on not only to become
Prime Minister of Israel but to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Yitzhak
Shamir, who also became Prime Minister of Israel, is alleged to have
been involved (in what was termed the campaign of “personal terror”
to force the British out of Palestine) in the assassination of the UN
mediator, Count Bernadotte of Sweden, in September 1948. Altering
the famous words of Sir John Harington (1561-1612) about treason,
one can say that terrorism never succeeds because, if and when it
succeeds, it ceases to be seen as “terrorism”.
This is not to condone acts of terror, whether by an individual,
a group or by the state. Sir Bernard Crick, in the course of a lecture
on political violence delivered at Birkbeck College, University of
London (14 June 2006), said that to understand is not necessarily to
condone. By way of example, I remind readers of the massacre of
Armenians by the Turks, towards the end of the 19th and in the early
20th century. These acts of state-sponsored terrorism can be explained
as the product of Turkish humiliation and vengefulness, resulting in
turn from successive Western military success, and increasing
Western intrusion in Turkish affairs. It explains, but does not excuse
the horror of that holocaust.
Sir Bernard also observed that, because we are law-abiding,
we go along with what the state does; indeed, we give tacit support
to the very acts of the state which cause terrorism; which “excite
and anger the terrorists”. Violence, whether on the part of the terrorist
or of the state, “too often arises from a failure to pursue political or
diplomatic solutions”. I repeat that the attempt here is not to defend
Terrorism
52
the indefensible but to urge analysis and thought: after all, Sri Lanka
is largely a Buddhist nation and, etymologically, “Buddhist” is derived
from enlightenment; enlightenment comes from knowledge, and
knowledge is not the product of emotion, abuse and violence but of
reason and understanding. Robert Pape (Dying to Win: The Strategic
Logic of Suicide Terrorism, Random House, 2005) offers foreign
occupation as the prime cause of terrorism, and Louise Richardson
(What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Terrorist Threat, 2006)
argues that terrorists are not crazed maniacs but individuals rationally
choosing a tactic they think (correctly or not) will further their
political ends. The ‘Final Report’ presented to the UN Secretary
General on 13 November 2006 by the ‘High-Level Group’ states
that injustice and inequality fuel violence and conflict. “Wherever
communities believe they face persistent discrimination, humiliation,
or marginalization based on ethnic, religious, or other identity
markers, they are likely to assert their identity more aggressively”
(3.13). The Report also points out that state terror has done far more
damage than that unleashed by terrorist groups. To their list of the
Holocaust, the Stalinist repression, the genocide in Cambodia, the
Balkans and Rwanda (3.12) one can add the two World Wars, North
Korea, Burma under the military junta, certain dictatorships in Africa
and South America, China under Mao – the list is long, and the
destruction and death caused by governments is much more gross
(the word “greater” is inappropriate here) than that carried out by
“terrorists”. Indeed, there is no comparison.
And yet, it is not state terrorism but that carried out by
individuals and groups that make the greater impact. The reasons
are several, among them that adduced by Sir Bernard Crick:
governments, even if they come to power by illegitimate means, once
in power, are seen as legitimate and, therefore, their actions as
legitimate and justified. Terrorist acts are dramatic and draw much
media coverage, and civilians identify with the victims: It could have
Impact of terrorism
53
been me, or someone I love, in that bus or train, building or market.
Governments (with their influence over, if not control of, the media)
highlight “terrorist” attack in order to discredit the enemy, to arrogate
more power, and to vindicate their own policies: reaction and
consequence are made use of to justify policy and action; the effect
to justify cause. Since “terrorists” operate from the shadows and
remain anonymous, their thought remains unknown to us, heightening
a sense of irrationality and madness. On one day (Wednesday, the
18th of April 2007), a single bomb placed in a market in the Sadriya
district of central Baghdad killed over one hundred and forty people.
Dozens die daily in Iraq, and over four million have fled the country,
making it perhaps the largest exodus since Palestinians were
“terrorised” into fleeing their land sixty years ago, their ‘right of
return’ denied by Israel. Almost every day, a few die in the North or
East of Sri Lanka. Deeply grieved over by family and friends, they
are unknown to the world and unnoticed. Evil does not cease to be
evil because there exists a counter evil. Tragedy is heightened, not
lessened, because there is counter tragedy: anger and mutual blaming
blind us to this fact.
Moving specifically to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
(known in short as the Tigers), I find myself holding pieces of a
jigsaw puzzle that do not fit. I was born in Jaffna, but spent barely
the first fourteen years of my life there. Looking back, I recall a
place that was peaceful and quiet. The soil not being arable, the
people worked hard, and lived simple, one would say, austere, lives.
There seemed to be neither taste nor scope for self-indulgence or
consumerism. (Sinhalese friends who visited the North of that time
confirm my recollection.) In contrast to the “timid Tamil”, the South,
particularly along the coast, had the reputation of volatility, with
men carrying fish-knives and being quick to anger. I find my memory
of the North, this piece of the jigsaw, difficult to fit with the present
image of the Tigers, and of the North as a battleground. (Lines from
Impact of terrorism
54
a poem, ‘Easter, 1916’, by W. B. Yeats come to mind: “Transformed
utterly…changed, changed utterly”.) Those who are against them
will see the Tigers as brainwashed fanatics; those who support them,
will use other words such as courage and self-sacrifice, perhaps quote
from The Bible: there is no greater expression of love than laying
down one’s life for the sake of others (John, 15: 13). But neither
execration nor admiration leads to understanding.
Returning to history, with the Sinhala-Only bill, there began
the plea, and the (peaceful) protests of the Tamils. The Tamil
leadership, over the years, had virtually begged and cajoled for
concessions, but successive Sinhalese governments turned them
down: M. R. Narayan Swamy, Tigers of Lanka, p. 14. (It must be
pointed out that Tamils reject the condescending term “concession”,
their struggle being one for rights and equality.) 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. In
this respect, the genius of Gandhi (as I see it) is that he chose the
right weapon for the specific conditions obtaining in India – spiritually
elevated, ethically sound and politically effective. (Gandhi, in his
own words, was overwhelmed by Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is
Within You, a work he read in 1894, while in South Africa. However,
his campaign of Satyagraha on behalf of the Asian population there
brought little result.) Non-violent protest by the Jews against the
Breeding terrorism
55
Nazis would have been ludicrous and tragic. Nor would it have
succeeded against a Pol Pot or a Saddam Hussein. Prayers, fasting
and “sit-down protests” by the Tibetans against Chinese occupation
have not succeeded. Gandhi himself commented that a mouse cannot
be said to “refrain from hurting a cat”: see Tidrick, page 126. The
mouse must first acquire the means of retaliation and then, voluntarily
refrain: that is the true moral and spiritual nature of satyagraha.
It seems the Sri Lankan government thought that if mob
violence were unleashed on peaceful protestors, they would be cowed
into an acceptance of subordinate status. Those performing
satyagraha on Colombo’s “Galle Face Green” were assaulted and
spat upon. A senior, respected, member of the Federal Party (I will
not mention his name) was stripped. He ran into the nearby Galle
Face Hotel for shelter, jeered and laughed at as he ran. There were
anti-Tamil riots in 1956, 1958, 1961, 1977, 1979 and 1981 - I deal
with 1983 separately. In short, peaceful protest brought only
humiliation and suffering. I think it will be acknowledge that, until
the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was no Tamil retaliation.
In the list of non-human damage, destruction and consequent
hurt, one must include the burning down of the Jaffna Library, the
flames consuming thousands of books (and texts written on ola leaf)
many of the former irreplaceable, not having been “saved”
electronically. The destruction of a library is an act of barbarism, a
loss to humanity of knowledge and culture (in the general sense of
the word). Like other such acts of vandalism, this one has also been
blamed on security forces temporarily running amok: in context, the
term “security” is ironic. However, Nira Wickramasinghe (and other
writers) suggests government instigation, pointing to “the presence
of two important government [Cabinet] ministers in Jaffna at the
time” (Sri Lanka in the Modern Age: see Note 64, p. 285). In
Breeding terrorism
56
Germany, on 10 May 1933, crowds in which students were well
represented, burnt books, particularly those by authors who were
Jewish, including Freud. Much earlier, the German-Jewish poet,
Heine, had written that those who burn books today will burn human
beings tomorrow. That came to pass with the Nazi Holocaust and, in
1983, in blessed Sri Lanka.
If one wants to understand the Tigers – and understanding
does not exclude criticism or condemnation – one must honestly and
frankly place their action against this background of History. As
Nelson Mandela notes in his autobiography, Long Walk To Freedom,
it is the oppressor, not the oppressed, who dictates the nature of the
struggle. Or, as the Caribbean-American Claude McKay, urged in
his sonnet, “If we must die, let it not be like hogs / Hunted and
penned in an inglorious spot”. The title of Professor K. M. De Silva’s
study, Reaping The Whirlwind, is taken from The Bible, Hosea,
Chapter 8, Verse 7. The full quotation reads: For they have sown the
wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind. But in Sri Lanka it seems
that earlier generations sowed the wind, and have left an awful legacy,
one where the present persists in sowing and reaping violence and
tragedy.
Apart from the major anti-Tamil riots I’ve listed, there were
incidents which are too minor (though not for those affected, the
bereaved) to find space in the historical record. For example, at
Bindunuwewa, Bandarawela, Tamils, aged between 14 and 23, were
massacred on 25 October 2000: ironically, they were in a state-run
‘rehabilitation’ centre. There was a massacre of civilians in
Chemmani, 1998, the evidence of mass graves thereafter destroyed.
Tiger retaliatory massacre has established a balance-sheet in the
popular mind; set in motion the cycle of counter-violence; mutual
recrimination and blame. In such an atmosphere, historical antecedent
Steps to terrorism
57
and a step-by-step development are cancelled out or forgotten.
It must be borne in mind that it did not always appear to be a
situation of enmity and conflict. There was a time when most, if not
all in the Island, irrespective of language and religion, equally took
a measure of pride and encouragement from ancient achievement,
temple and lake; an equal measure of happiness in being “Ceylonese”;
a time when Tamils described themselves as Ceylonese and not (as
some tend to do now) as “Sri Lankan Tamil”. When in 1915, D. S.
Senanayake (later the first Prime Minister of independent Ceylon)
and his brother, F. R. Senanayake were jailed by the British
authorities, Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan went to England to plead
their case. On his successful return, jubilant crowds placed him in a
carriage, detached the horses, and dragged the carriage themselves.
He was not seen as a Tamil who had helped free a Sinhalese, but as
a Ceylonese helping a fellow Ceylonese. Perhaps then there was not
that phrase which unconsciously betrays group assumption and
prejudice in various parts of the world and situations: “even though
he is…“ In 1925-6, when Bandaranaike, as leader of the Progressive
National Party, set out the case for a federal political structure for
Sri Lanka and made this the main plank of the political platform of
his party, he received no support for it from the Tamils: K M De
Silva, p. 513. In the 1930s, the Jaffna Youth Congress rejected
federalism. (They looked not look to Tamil Nadu but to Gandhi and
Nehru.) They persuaded almost all the leading schools in Jaffna to
teach Sinhala as a compulsory subject. As A E Jayasuriya observed,
“At a time when the Sinhalese were prepared to do without Sinhala,
the battle for Sinhala and Tamil was fought by Tamil leaders”: see,
D Nesiah, Tamil Nationalism, p. 12. Even after the trauma of
Standardisation (“racial” quota) in relation to University admission
beginning in 1971, and the Draft Constitution of 1972, the All Ceylon
Tamil Conference declared, “Our children and our children’s children
Steps to terrorism
58
should be able to say, with one voice, Lanka is our great motherland,
and we are one people from shore to shore. We speak two noble
languages, but with one voice” (Nesiah, p. 14). I recall that when C.
Suntheralingam of Vavuniya argued for a separate (Tamil) state in
the early 1950s, he was indulgently laughed at by most Tamils who
saw it as the eccentricity of a brilliant mind. In 1952, the
Kankesuntharai parliamentary seat was contested by Chelvanayagam,
as a member of the Federal Party: he was comfortably defeated by
a U.N.P. candidate.
“Those were the days”, one exclaims with nostalgia, but were
they? Was this amity and “oneness” pro tem and superficial (that is,
of the surface only)? The leadership drawn from the English-educated
elite was soon to be replaced. Indeed, some from this elite (like S W
R D Bandaranaike) reinvented themselves, taking on a more popular
and profitable identity. It was a complete “make over”, changing
religion, language and clothes; voice, tone and content. Do
(unscrupulous and foolish) politicians create ethnic attitudes and
feelings? It is all too easy for people to blame politicians, shifting
responsibility away from themselves. To what extent do politicians
“merely” exacerbate “racial” and religious feeling? To what extent
do they reflect them? Do they create or pander to? Is it an interaction,
the one worsening the other? What, in short, was the real state of
inter-ethnic relations then? And so one must be cautious when reading
statements such as the following: Sir Ponnampalam Ramanathan
was elected to the state council in the 1912 election by the majority
Sinhala vote. The Ceylon National Congress established in 1919 was
predominantly Sinhalese but Sir Ponnampalam Arunachalam was
elected its first president.
Soon after the euphoria of independence, there began a pattern
of using mob violence to achieve political ends, the “p” in “politics”
Those were the days - or were they?
59
in this instance standing for power; power implying domination;
domination, in turn, the dominated. As Kumari Jayawardena notes
(op. cit), in 1883, the conflict was between Buddhists and Christians;
in 1915, it was between Buddhists and Muslims; in the 1930s, the
target was the Malayalis. At independence, citizenship and the vote
were withdrawn from the Upcountry Tamil. Thereafter, it was the
turn of Tamils in general. (In an informal conversation, a Sinhalese,
unaware of my ethnic identity, told me that after the Tamils had been
“fixed”, the Muslims would be taught a good lesson.) Seen in the
context of this historical development, the pogrom of 1983 becomes
less of a surprise: sometimes, historical understanding turns the
incredible into the inevitable. On the lines of the distinction between
“doing” and “being”, it can be said that the Tigers “did” (attacked),
and the general Tamil population paid for “being”, simply for being
Tamil. Tamils were killed most horribly by strangers, that is, by
those who had no personal grievance against them: to be Tamil was
sufficient crime and sin. In this hate and frenzy, even Tamils who
had worked for the state were not exempt: in the long run,
collaboration does not buy favours, not even exemption. Police
inspector Bastianpillai was a relentless hunter of the Tigers; he was
warned by them and, when he failed to stop the hunt, murdered. Yet,
in 1983, his widow and their children were on the list, together with
the other Tamils marked for death. They were Tamil and that was
good enough reason: see, L. Piyadasa, Sri Lanka: The Holocaust
And After, p. 84.
“Black July” or “July ’83” as it has come to be known (rather
like the later shorthand, “9/11”) was not a spontaneous “riot” but a
pogrom. It was planned, with voter-lists studied to identify Tamil
homes, and the “security” (sic) forces providing transport. On 19
July, that is, five days before the incident in Jaffna claimed as the
cause (and justification) of “Black July”, President J. R. Jayawardene
Black July
60
issued an emergency order imposing press censorship. The Public
Security Act permitted the security forces to bury or cremate bodies
without post-mortem examination or judicial inquiry.
In the modern history of the Tamils of Sri Lanka, “Black July”
is the most significant and painful event – one cautiously adds, to
date. On the part of the Sinhalese, the response is various, among
them being that of suppression or repression, leading to a wished
and willed amnesia. (The term «suppression», in a broad sense, was
used by Sigmund Freud to describe a conscious mechanism intended
to eliminate undesirable psychical content from consciousness.
According to Freud, the difference between suppression and
repression lies in the fact that the latter defence-mechanism is
unconscious and under its influence repressed content becomes or
remains unconscious.) Other responses include that of minimisation
(“It wasn’t really that bad” – see D.C.R.A. Goonetilleke below) or
self-justification, and a ‘blame the victim’ attitude: “It’s their fault.
They asked for it”; even to “They deserved what they got”. I must
add that I know Tamils who were personally caught up in Black July
or are closely related to those who were, and yet have “forgotten”
the event. Perhaps, it is too painful and, in some ways, embarrassing?
Perhaps, they want to put it aside and get on with their lives?
Minoli Salgado, in Writing Sri Lanka, quotes Professor D C
R A Goonetilleke as stating that what was done to the Tamils in
1983 was “no Holocaust” (see, Salgado, Note 105, p. 179). There
are no official statistics but the number of Tamils killed is placed
between two and three thousand. It is therefore terminologically
inaccurate to describe the pogrom as a holocaust, and Tamils who
do so, moved by emotion, harm the case they attempt to make by
over-stating it. A holocaust is determined by intention (extermination)
and, following from that, also by number. Of course, one can quote
Black July
61
Donne and say that any one’s death diminishes us because we are (or
ought to be) involved in humanity; one can claim that what makes
for the heinous is not number but the nature of the action. Still
“holocaust” and “genocide” remain inappropriate terms for what
happened in Sri Lanka, and Goonetilleke, though lacking in sympathy,
is quite correct.
Michael Roberts has written extensively on Sri Lanka,
combining thorough scholarship and academic detachment, yet
heeding Yeats’ earnest wish that he be saved from thoughts thought
in the mind alone, that is, without compassion (Yeats: ‘A Prayer For
Old Age’). In his writing on July ’83, Roberts uses words such as
“gristly” and “beastly”. Since what happened took place also in
Colombo, there were several foreign, impartial (although horrified,
unbelieving) witnesses. It was revolting in detail – pregnant women
disembowelled; women gang-raped in public; whole families set alight
alive - and distressing in effect. Almost every Sinhalese family known
to me personally has a story to tell of help rendered or protection
afforded to “terrorised” Tamils. But there was no sense of national
revulsion, no collective protest; no public demand for inquiry, justice
and compensation. It was all blamed on a few unruly elements. In
contrast, Germany has publicly, almost obsessively, accepted
culpability for its actions during World War 11; paid compensation,
released self-incriminating documents. (As an Armenian said to
Jewish writer, Yossi Klein Halevi, “Your’re lucky it was the Germans
who killed you. They are a civilized people. They know how to
apologize.” The New York Review of Books, 10 May 2007, p. 37.)
The government of Sri Lanka expressed no regret because it felt
none. On the contrary, President Jayawardene said he was not worried
about the opinion of the Jaffna people. “The more you put pressure
in the north, the happier the Sinhalese people will be here. Really, if
I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhala people will be happy.” By way
Black July
62
of contrast, in a different context, Hannah Arendt admonished those
of her fellow Jews who were “racist” and ready to terrorise the
Palestinians: “Thou shall not kill, not even Arab women and children”.
(See, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Hannah Arendt: For Love of the
World, Yale University Press, 2004, p. 291.)
Focusing on the massacre that took place at Welikade prison
on the 25th and 27th of July, fifty-three Tamils in state custody
were murdered, the guards having opened the cells and given the
mob free access to the prisoners. Among this hapless group was
“Kuttimani” of TELO, found guilty of murder committed in the course
of a politically-motivated robbery. Asked by the court, as is customary
before the death sentence is passed, if he had anything to say,
Kuttimani replied he wished to donate his eyes so that, one day, they
would see an independent Tamil homeland. This unusual statement
was widely publicised, and when the mob dragged him out, they
taunted, “Are these the eyes that wanted to see Tamil freedom?”,
gouged them out, and then killed him.
A character in Romesh Gunesekera’s novel, The Match, asks,
“How can they do it? What could make a person throw kerosene
over another human being and set fire to him? Watch his skin crinkle
and burn? How could they hear the screams, see the flames wrap
around a writhing man, smell the burning flesh, and then do it again?”
(London: Bloomsbury, 2006, p. 154). Basil Fernando wrote a poem,
‘Yet another incident in July 1983’, based on an incident witnessed
by one of his Sinhalese lawyer friends at Narahenpita, close to the
Labour Secretariat. A car carrying parents and their two children,
aged about four and five, is stopped; Tamil identity is established;
petrol poured over the vehicle. Then someone opens the car door and
takes away the two children, crying and resisting. The vehicle is set
alight. Suddenly, the father, already on fire, steps out, bends down
Black July
63
and takes his two children. Not even looking around as if executing
a calculated decision, he resolutely re-entered the car. Once inside,
he closed the door himself… I heard the noise distinctly.
Michael Robers, from whose Exploring Confrontation (1994)
the above is taken, comments that his interest is in the lucidity of the
indictment expressed by that unknown Tamil father: his courage
and “incisive clarity of comment has etched its imprint on my soul”
(p. 322).
Returning to the dismissal by Professor D. C. R. A.
Goonetilleke, what remains in Tamil memory and heart is not the
number of those killed but the horrific nature of the attack. Tamils
are puzzled at the intensity of the hatred and, following, the ready
willingness to commit appalling atrocity. Tiger atrocities being post-
1983, Tamils have asked, “What have we done to excite and deserve
such intense and venomous animosity?” (In Coetzee’s prize-winning
novel, Disgrace, the daughter, victim of vicious gang-rape, asks her
father, “But why did they hate me so? I had never set eyes on them”.)
In another work of his, Michael Roberts discusses various theories
to explain the horrific violence which included the dismemberment
of corpses. According to one possible explanation, the Tamil has
come to represent the demon and, therefore, like the demon, must be
tortured and mutilated; made afraid and brought under control. The
mal-treatment of the body (before, during or after death) has an
effect on those related to the person: “In effect, the anxieties of kinfolk
will be multiplied not only in the immediate aftermath, but also
throughout their life span because the cause of specific afflictions
could be the wandering ancestor spirit of mutilated kin. In brief, the
dismemberment of a body maximises the ripple of chaos… over a
considerable span of time” (Roberts, Sinhala Consciousness, p. 152).
The belief in demons and spirits takes us back to The Mahavamsa;
Why such hatred?
64
to superstition and magic, to belief in spells and exorcism which
have penetrated, permeated and contaminated Buddhism. The placing
of dead or dying bodies before the Buddha statue is a recursion to
primitive times when some tribes offered human sacrifice to please
and placate an atavistic and bloodthirsty god. (One notes that,
etymologically, the word “holocaust” comes from burnt offering, that
is, sacrificial flesh offered to propitiate and please a god or spirit.)
Narayan Swamy’s study of the LTTE leader, Inside An Elusive
Mind, states that prior to 1983 the Tigers were little known and had
no popular base, not even in Jaffna. (Swamy is no supporter of the
Tigers, and the book’s cover describes his work as a profile of the
world’s “most ruthless” leader.) Tiger numbers prior to 1983 have
been variously placed between twenty and thirty; at a maximum below
fifty. All this changed after – and more importantly, because – of
that fateful year, a fact that must be borne in mind if one is to make
sense of subsequent development, of the violence and appalling human
tragedy.
As already mentioned, the government has at its disposal,
fighter jets, attack helicopters and tanks. It can purchase weapons
freely on the open, competitive market. Government soldiers whose
training is helped by US special forces and other countries, number
close to 100,000. (Repeated attempts to gain official figures failed.)
The Tiger cadres are thought to be down to 12,000, particularly
after the breakaway of “Colonel Karuna” in 2004. Seen in this light,
the wonder is that the Tigers have fought for so long - call it what
one will, heroism or fanaticism.
Since there is no conscription in Sri Lanka, the children of the
upper and middle classes are not found in the armed forces and, if
they are, serve in the relative safety of the higher ranks. The soldiers
who die are usually from rural areas, obscure family, and attract
The Tigers
65
little public attention. The majority of the Sinhalese population is
untouched, unaffected and gets on with its normal life. The simple
but brutal fact is that the battleground being in the North and the
East of Sri Lanka, the rest of the Island enjoys or, if poor, endures,
a normal existence. When elephants battle, it’s the grass and the
trees in the immediate vicinity which suffer. The exception is when a
terrorist attack takes place, causing death, injury, damage - or the
annoyance of having the watching of the cricket-cup final on public
television screens disrupted, as happened in April 2007.
It is well to remind ourselves that, as already mentioned, states
have killed far more, and wrought far greater destruction, than any
terrorist group, however ‘dramatic’ the actions of the latter.
By way of drawing attention to yet another “not-fitting”
piece of the jigsaw puzzle, I offer quotations from different
articles. “The battle-scarred Jaffna peninsula… The war-ravaged
northern peninsula… Jaffna has borne the brunt of a war that
has killed 64,000 people” (Gulf Daily News, Bahrain, 15 March
2002, p. 16). Jaffna is desolate. There is no sustainable education
system, and public transport is in “shambles”. “Magnificent
family homes have been converted into mini bases for the security
forces”. A lack of water and daily power-cuts create a sense of
hopelessness amidst the shattered houses. “What is taken for
granted in the south is a luxury in the north” (Colombo: The
Sunday Leader, 17 March 2002, p. 11. Italics added). The
following is taken from Jehan Perera’s article in the Daily Mirror
(Colombo, 3 April 2007):
There are in fact two societies in Sri Lanka: “the
much larger one outside the north and east which
is relatively prosperous and free, while the other
is ruined and terrorised” (emphasis added). The
Battleground North-East
66
release of the Central Bank’s annual report for
2006, which shows a 7.7 growth figure
demonstrates the resilience of the Sri Lankan
economy. The economy of the vast majority of
the people has been relatively unaffected. With
the exception of the tourism sector, the life and
economy of people outside the north and east has
been barely touched by the violence of the ethnic
conflict. There is “a disregard for those who are
suffering and are being left behind in the north
and east. By and large, violence and dislocation
is contained in the north and east.” There is gross
violation of property rights, and people are “driven
repeatedly from their homes to live in squalor in
refugee camps” without hope.
Mr Kathirgamathamby of the White Pigeons Institute, reporting
on the North (24 September 2007), describes a tragic situation. People
do not attend religious festivals because of the curfew and the extreme
feeling of insecurity created by the “security” (sic) forces. Economic
deprivation, the stress of daily life and the trauma of war have created
not only beggars, but mentally disturbed beggars.
Few Tamils visit the North, and those Tamils who fly in from
abroad tend to meet up with relations and friends in Colombo; fewer
Sinhalese make the trip, and so the truth, the reality on the ground,
is not personally seen and understood. Of course, extreme Sinhalese
groups will rejoice at the havoc, but I wish visits can be organised
for others so that they, personally and directly, get a measure of
what has been done, and is being done, in their name. Professor
Jayadeva Uyangoda (Beyond the Talks: Towards Tranformative
Peace in Sri Lanka, p. 20), goes so far as to describe the Northern
Battleground North-East
67
and Eastern provinces as “one of the most ruined regions in the
world” (italics added). See Appendix 5: extracts from a letter to my
sister, living in London, shortly after visiting Jaffna early in 2004.
Let me recapitulate. Inequality was abruptly imposed, and
met by peaceful, Gandhian-model, Tamil protest which was met
by increasing violence, culminating in the “bestial” and shameful
pogrom of 1983. At that time, the Tigers were a very small band,
but reaction – a mixture of anger and the loss of hope in redress
through Parliament - drove thousands of Tamils into their ranks.
The conflict is asymetrical in the extreme, with one side having
jet fighters and helicopters in the air, and a comparatively massive
number of soliders on the ground. (The two Tiger aircraft which
are presently creating so much excitement are hand-assembled,
propellor-powered planes, slow and clumsy.) The North and East
are devasted, sections of the population turned into refugees,
traumatised, and harassed. The rest of the Island, by and large,
enjoys normality. In this context, the Tigers occasionally succeed
in making the South realize that they too have a price to pay,
albeit much, much smaller. A little bit of the daily reality in the
North and East is intruded into the South so that the “problem”
will be addressed. This explains the resort to “terrorism” – and I
repeat, to understand is not to condone; is not to be without deep
regret. Terrorism, whether perpetrated by the state or dissident
group, causes human tragedy, and is morally repugnant.
During the American war of independence, Lord Chatham (also
known as William Pitt, the elder) said that if he had been an American,
he would have fought the British. The Sinhalese must honestly ask
themselves, “If I were a Tamil, and given the reality sketched above,
what would my options be? How would I react?” As I wrote earlier,
each group is trapped in its own experience, and resulting perspective,
Recapitulation
68
attitude and feeling. African American Claude Mckay, in his poem,
‘The Negro’s Tragedy’, wrote, “There is no white man who could
write my book”. Towards the end of the 1950s, John Howard Griffin,
an American “White”, changed himself and travelled, including the
notorious (in “racial” terms), Southern states of the USA, as a Black.
He published his experience in a work, Black Like Me, that became
a bestseller: apart from actually visiting the North, perhaps some
Sinhalese, preferably female, journalist will take on a temporary
Tamil identity –- in Colombo or elsewhere in the South, and
investigate the commonplace, everyday, experience ethnic identity
can visit on the individual? What does it mean to be a Tamil in today’s
Sri Lanka? As Human Rights Watch reported (New York, 6 August
2007), the government has given the green light to the security forces
to wage a dirty war against the Tamil civilian population. The
Minority Rights Group International’s Report, “Minorities under
Threat”, moves the Tamils of Sri Lanka from forty-ninth endangered
place in the year 2006 to fourteenth in the year 2007.
In a personal communication to me (April 2007), Fr Paul
Caspersz of Satyodaya, Kandy, remarked that both the JVP at the
time they staged their uprising and the LTTE had real and legitimate
grievance: what was unfortunate was the path chosen in the pursuit
of redress. Immediately after “July ‘83” there was much sympathy
for the Tamils, with international condemnation of what happened –
remarkably absent within the Island – and the opening of immigration
doors. However, the Tigers by their action have lost the moral highground,
dissipated goodwill, forfeited much support. They are now
proscribed in several countries and, generally, are associated not
with freedom but with terrorism. Dissent is not tolerated, and
competing groups have been eliminated without hesitation or mercy.
Ruthlessness was directed as much against fellow Tamils, as against
the “enemy” Sinhalese: among several works, see, Nira
Being Tamil today in Sri Lanka
69
Wickramasinghe, already cited. The Tamils find themselves caught
between Sinhalese chauvinism, and Tiger tyranny - or, as someone
here in Berlin said to me, they are trapped on a branch on fire at both
ends. Those who can, jump off – into exile and life in a foreign
country. Some may argue that the Tigers, fighting against huge odds,
must maintain “discipline” and an iron control at all cost but, again,
an explanation does not necessarily lead to exculpation: “at all cost”
is humanely and morally unacceptable.
The conviction, particularly among Sinhalese circles, is that
if the Tigers are removed from the equation, then everyone in the
Island (not just the Sinhalese) will enjoy peace and harmony. The
Tigers, their coming into being and existence (once the consequence
of injustice and violence) are now the cause of bloody and destructive
conflict. And so, like Cato’s oft-repeated cry, Carthago delenda est,
the current mantra is “The Tigers must be defeated, if not destroyed.”
But does History give confidence to the Tamil community that,
once the Tigers have been eliminated or neutralised, equality, justice
and inclusion will prevail? Where within Sri Lanka’s history does
one start to answer this question? In 1919, Ponnambalam
Arunachalam, on behalf of the Tamils, and James Pieris and E. J.
Samarawickrama on behalf of the Sinhalese, agreed to provide a
seat in the legislature for the Tamils of the Western Province. When
in 1922 it came before the Ceylon National Congress for ratification
(before it was forwarded to Whitehall), it was successfully opposed
by H. J. C. Pereira and others. That was the end of of the 1919 pact.
There followed “the Mahendra Pact” in 1925. C. E. Corea,
accompanied by others such as George E. de Silva and P. de S.
Kularatne, entered into a pact in Jaffna with a Tamil delegation. The
meeting took place at the residence (known as ‘Mahendra’) of
Waithilingam Duraiswamy, and so the agreement is known as the
A history of disappointment
70
Mahendra Pact. The proposals agreed to at this meeting were placed
before a general session of the Congress (Kandy, 1925) but
ratification was postponed to the next meeting. This took place in
Galle (1926), but the proposals were rejected.
G G Ponnambalam’s demand of “Fifty – Fifty” was deliberately
misrepresented and ridiculed. “Ponna” saw that in a multiethnic
country, the majority would always vote on “racial” lines, resulting
not in democracy but majoritarian dictatorship. (In a true democracy,
there is no fixed voting bloc, and the electorate changes support for
a party according to the issues that are considered important. It is
not a firm and predictable allegiance based on “tribal” lines.) I quote
words from the speech made by G. G. Ponnambalam in the State
Council (1939) on the Reform Despatch of Sir Andrew Caldecott:
The demand, as far I as I am aware, of the
minorities of this country has been for balanced
representation, for representation on the basis that
no single community should be in a position to
out-vote a combination of all the other
communities in the Island.
Thirty-four Members belonging to one community
united by a common language, united in most cases
by a common religion [...] as opposed to another
34 Members, consisting of a number of thoroughly
heterogeneous groups - of Tamils, Indians,
Muslims, Burghers, and Europeans and Malays
[...] I ask you, ‘What have the Sinhalese to fear’?
Section 29 of the Soulbury Constitution under which Ceylon
was granted independence in 1948 clearly reads that no law shall
A history of disappointment
71
“confer on persons of any community or religion any privilege or
advantage which is not conferred on persons of other communities
or religions”. This all-important safeguard was omitted in the
Republican constitution of 1972. In other words, it was made lawful
to discriminate, to deny equality and, therefore, justice - and there
was no outcry on the part of the majority community against this
reactionary, retrograde, move. (Those who wish a more detailed listing
of broken promises and disappointed hope could read the article by
one Stylo in the Morning Leader, Colombo, 27 December 2006.)
The best-known of agreements and pacts is that between
S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and S.J.V. Chelvanayagam, already referred
to. Caught between Tamil protest and Sinhalese vehemence, “Banda”
thought the solution would be to allow the mob a few days in which
to “terrorise” and cow the Tamils into acquiescence. This resulted in
the 1958 anti-Tamil riot. There then followed the Senanayake-
Chelvanayagam pact of 1965, but it too was abandoned, left
unimplemented. It must be made clear, and stressed, that these pacts
were not broken by Tamil action.
Given these facts, given this past record, what confidence can
the Tamils have that justice will prevail if the Tigers are neutralised?
What is pondered by Tamils is, “If, despite the Tigers, the majority
of Sinhalese are unwilling to extend justice and equality, why should
they when the Tamils are defenceless? Will it not be yet again a case
of “Woe to the vanquished”? When I asked a Sinhalese friend what
he thought would be the fate of the Tamils if and when the Tigers are
defeated, he answered without hesitation, “Subordination”: it was
not his wish but a sober prognosis. The issue of 11 January 2005 of
the Asian Times, from which I have already quoted, states: “Without
the protective role of the LTTE, the Tamils would be at the mercy of
the Sinhalese chauvinists.” Tamils have pointed out that, were a
Tamil tragic dilemma
72
Sinhalese group to take up arms against the government, the latter
would not bomb Sinhalese villages on the excuse that some
combatants are also there in the vicinity, take over property, destroy
schools and the infrastructure. Though ostensibly a war against the
Tigers only, the Sri Lankan Tamil population, whether in the North,
East, South or West, pays in one form or another. And yet Tiger
conduct has been such that even some Tamils see them as part of the
problem, and not of the solution: a tragic tale and dilemma.
Paulo Frire in his classic work, Pedagogy Of The Oppressed
(1970) states that those who are not fully free cannot be fully human.
The LTTE leader stated, “We are not chauvinists. Neither are we
lovers of violence enchanted with war. We do not regard the Sinhalese
people as our opponents or as our enemies. We accord a place of
dignity for the culture and heritage of the Sinhalese people. We have
no desire to interfere in any way with the national life of the Sinhalese
people or with their freedom and independence. All we desire is to
live in our historic homeland in peace, freedom and with dignity”.
However, human history, over time and the world over, shows
that justice and freedom are never gifted, voluntarily, out of altruism:
they are demanded, dearly paid for, extracted and won. Writing about
Kosovo, Tim Judah observes that though people say violence doesn’t
pay, experience shows the opposite. “Indeed, it was the passive
resistance of Kosovo Albanians to Serbian rule that failed to produce
results.” This failure finally drove the Albanians to resort to force
(The New York Review of Books, 10 June 2004, p. 36) and, one may
add, “force” means violence. Going back much further in time,
African American Frederick Douglass, during a speech in 1857, said:
“The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all
concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of
struggle… If there is no struggle, there is no progress… Power
Neutralising the Tigers
73
concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will”.
(See, Robert Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, p. 183.
Emphasis added.) A prominent 20th century politicial theorist wrote
it would be “ludicrous to believe that a defenceless people has nothing
but friends, and it would be a deranged calculation to suppose that
the enemy could perhaps be touched by the absence of a resistance”.
(Carl Schmitt, The Concept Of The Political, p. 53). Recent Sri
Lankan history validates this statement. Without oppositional power,
there is no need for compromise; without the need for compromise,
no incentive to seek a negotiated settlement leading to peace.
(Negative peace is the absence of war; real peace is the presence of
harmony, resulting from equality and justice.) To demand
disarmament before a settlement is reached and implementation
actually begun, is to be incredibly innocent, ahistorical or, worse,
dishonest and Machiavellian.
Decades ago, the Tamils rejected federalism: as already stated,
Chelvanayagam contested a seat in Jaffna as a Federal Party candidate
and lost to the UNP. Violence and an adamant refusal to accept
equality made the Tamils change their mind and see federalism as
the solution. When that was opposed, and mob “terror” unleashed,
they turned to separatism, exclaiming, as Moses declared to the
enslaving Egyptians, “Let [our] people go [free]:
Ever since independence successive Sri Lankan
governments have done everything in their power, from
state-sponsored racism to state-sponsored pogroms, to
render the Tamils a separate people, and inferior – and then
cried out against that separatism when the Tamils embraced
it to carve out their dignity and future (“Sri Lanka: Racism
and the Authoritarian State”, The Editor, Race & Class,
London, Vol XXV1, No 1, Summer 1984.)
Neutralising the Tigers
74
By the late 1970s, after a succession of failed effort in
parliament; after a succession of riots, culminating in the horrific
pogrom of 1983, it seemed to the Tamils that the parting of the ways
had been reached. So too, the thirteen American “colonies” declared
(4 July 1776) that in the course of human events, it sometimes
becomes necessary for a people to dissolve the political bonds which
have connected them with another. I quote (not always verbatim)
extracts from that famous Declaration:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all
men are created equal. Government is instituted
among humankind to secure [not to deny] these
rights. The power of government is just because
[and only when] it is derived from the consent of
the governed. When a government becomes
destructive, it is the right of the people to alter or
to abolish it. But governments “should not be
changed for light and transient causes”. That is
why people continue to suffer “while evils are
sufferable”. “But when a long train of abuses and
usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object
evinces a design to reduce them under absolute
Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw
off such Government.
Recent military gains in the Eastern province have created an
air of triumphalism – “the Tiger has been turned into a pussy cat” -
and the encouraged populace urges a military, rather than a political,
settlement. Few voices speak beyond the “racial”, the political and
the military to fundamental human rights. Few urge justice and
compassion, inclusion, and the according to others what one has
arrogated to oneself. It is unfortunate that while Sri Lanka has had
Neutralising the Tigers
75
(and has) hate-filled “racists” like Dharmapala (Buddhist monk) and
Wijewardena (layman), it has not produced a Mahatma Gandhi, a
Martin Luther King, a Mandela or Desmond Tutu. (In Bertolt
Brecht’s play, Life of Galileo, a character exclaims, “Unfortunate
the country that has no hero”, and the penetrating answer comes,
“Unhappy the country that needs a hero”.)
The Mahatma (“great of soul”), though himself a Hindu,
opposed Hindu lack of generosity and intransigence, both of which
led to ugly violence. Similarly, during the Rivonia trial of 1963,
Nelson Mandela said, “I have fought against white domination, and
I have fought against black domination”. In a tribute to the late Adrain
Wijemanne, I wrote, inter alia:
Of yet another kind of protest is when someone
takes a stand against the actions of her or his own
people: for example, those “Whites” who joined
their fellow Black Africans and fought the good
fight against apartheid in South Africa. They were
branded “traitors” by their fellow “Whites”, and
hated even more than the “enemy”. Wijemanne’s
stand was for justice: if the Sinhalese were
oppressed, he would have fought for them. What
mattered to him was not ethnicity but ethics. He
saw himself not as a Sinhalese but as a Sri Lankan,
and Sri Lankans as members of the one, human,
family: joining the struggle for justice for the
Tamil people of Sri Lanka, he fought for (a part
of) humanity. Politics mattered to him because
humanity mattered. Tamils who remember him
must be inspired by his example not only to
continue the struggle for justice, but also to have
Changing our political karma
76
his honesty and courage to confront mistakes and
injustice - even when they emanate from fellow
Tamils.
Ironically, the “LTTE’s conditions of existence are not supplied
by the LTTE itself but by others, including those who claim to oppose
separatism and terrorism” (Dayan Jayatilleka, in Remembering
Kethesh Loganathan, Sri Lanka Democracy Forum, March 2007,
p. 27).
In other words, the Tigers can be neutralised if the grounds
that led to their creation are removed; if one moves beyond ethnic
and party politics; beyond dealing with symptoms, rather than
addressing underlying causes. The past has determined the present,
but one must not fatalistically allow the present to fashion the future.
In this context, borrowing words from Karl Marx, the challenge;
indeed, the responsibility, is to change history. Altering and applying
a concept from Buddhism, one can say that we are responsible for
our political karma. The Tamils turned away from a monolithic
state to federalism; failing in that, and with continued and increasing
suffering, particularly in 1983, some Tamils – in their view, logically,
perhaps unfortunately, but inevitably - to separation. However, the
process can be retraced, if confidence, trust and hope are created.
And it is not a matter of pacts and agreements, but their clearly
evident implementation; not merely the letter of the law, but its spirit.
The Tigers can best be “disarmed” if Tamils are shown unequivocally
that there is no longer a need for an armed group to defend their
rights.
In the shameless and irresponsible pursuit of party politics;
that is, of personal and group power, federalism in the 1950s was
made into a veritable bogey, an ogre about to devour the Island. A
The future
77
populace characterised by credulity and emotion (and therefore also
by volatility) was easily convinced and “excited”, fear and passion
aroused. The people, unknowing and trusting, are easily led into
falsity and, resulting from that, deep-seated fear. The United States,
Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, Russia,
India, Pakistan, Malaysia – to name but a few - have a federal
structure, but we do not see them as in anyway divided nations.
Etymologically, the word ‘education’ means to lead outwards: the
horizons of the Sri Lankan populace is deliberately kept narrow, and
focussed, intensely and obsessively, inward. As with the term
“terrorism” discussed earlier, “federalism” is used without definition
and clarification. It must be added that, unfortunately, the contrast
is between federal and unitary structure, mistakenly suggesting in
the minds of the people that federalism destroys unity.
In viewing the present, one must also recall the past, and its
betrayed possibilities. I quote, again not verbatim (except when within
quotation marks) from the memoir of Lee Kuan Yew:
Ceylon was Britain’s model Commonwealth
country. It had a relatively good standard of
education, a civil service largely of locals, and
experience in representative government. “When
Ceylon gained independence in 1948, it was the
classic model of gradual evolution to
independence. Alas it did not work out. I watched
a promising country go to waste (emphasis
added). One-man-one-vote did not solve a basic
problem: the Sinhalese could always outvote the
Tamils.
The greatest mistake Jayawardene made was over
The future
78
the distribution of reclaimed land in the dry zone:
it was not shared with the Tamils who had been
the farmers of this dry zone. “Dispossessed and
squeezed, they launched the Tamil Tigers.”
Ranasinghe Premadasa was a Sinhalese
chauvinist. I met him on several occasions. “I
argued that his objective must be to deprive the
terrorists of popular support by offering the Tamils
autonomy”, but he was convinced he could destroy
the Tigers. Under his successor, Chandrika
Kumaratunga, the war continues.
Ceylon’s ancient name was Serendip, and
serendipity means an accidental, but happy,
discovery. The Island is “now the epitome of
conflict, pain, sorrow and hopelessness.”
Lee Kuan Yew’s comment is terrible and tragic but it should
not lead to despair and a sense of helplessness. Rather, it should
provoke clear and honest self-examination on all sides, and a
determination to create and bequeath a happier future. Pavlov’s
experiment with dogs conditioned to salivate is general currency,
but what is less known and noted is that if ‘reinforcement’ is stopped,
then the effects of the ‘conditioning’ wears off – and History offers
numerous examples of people led to see yesterday’s foe as today’s
friend.
Turning from Sri Lanka to India, that country neutralised the
separatist tendency in Tamil Nadu, not by armed might and counterproductive
violence, but by inclusion and incorporation; by
convincing the people that they had a share, and a say, at the centre.
The future
79
Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards,
resulting in anti-Sikh riots that left hundreds dead: today, the Prime
Minister is a Sikh. The leader of the party in power, Congress, is an
Italian, and the President, despite tensions with Moslem Pakistan, is
Dr Abdul Kalam. In stark and telling contrast, it is unthinkable that
in post-independence Sri Lanka, a Christian, even if she or he is a
Sinhalese, becomes President (hence the politic and political-religious
conversion of Bandaranaike and Jayawardena to Buddhism) and much
less, a Tamil, even if s/he were a Buddhist, whether by birth or
‘conversion’.
Sri Lanka ever since 1948 has deteriorated in political and
moral terms: what counts is not cricket, but the ethnic conflict and
the suffering it brings; corruption and crime. Corruption, having
infected the highest levels, has seeped down, so that the public takes
it for granted, accepts it as a part of life, like the weather, and are no
longer shocked and outraged. On Independence Day, the minorities
and the poor, being excluded, have more cause to mourn than to
celebrate, and the title of Alan Paton’s novel, Cry, the Beloved
Country, comes to mind. And yet (with acknowledgement to Martin
Luther King), there is the dream that, one day, people will not be
reacted to on grounds of ethnicity “but by the content of their
character”; that one day, the children of different groups “will be
able to join hands” and walk together; that one day, the Island rise
up and live out the true meaning of that belief and assertion: All are
created equal, and should be permitted, indeed, enabled, to live in
equality. As Chelvanayagam said in Parliament in the course of a
debate (1 March 1951), “Let us have one nation, but that ‘one nation’
must be based on the principle of evolving a harmonious unit, not on
the principle of destroying the smaller units. [But] you are proceeding
on the principle of destroying, hurting, the smaller units. How can
there be one nation on that basis?”
Conclusion
80
Things fall apart. Anarchy and the blood-dimmed tide are
loosed, and innocence drowned. The best lack all conviction, while
the worst are full of passionate intensity. Rough beasts stalk the
land: Freely adapted from Yeats’ poem, ‘The Second Coming’. Sri
Lanka’s present is marked by irrationality, hatred and violence; the
future, uncertain.
I offer no solution but have merely sketched some of the
problems, including what I term the Tamil dilemma and, in that way,
tried to make a contribution to awareness. The country is in a state
of acute cultural crisis – “cultural” in its broad sense, as a way of
life, and so including the political, religious and moral. It is said that
the first and essential step in an addict’s effort at redeeming himself
is to acknowledge and accept that he has fallen into a pit. Similarly,
the Island must give up denial and empty “pride”, and admit that it
is in a sorry state, a state all the more tragic because, unlike the
tsunami, it is self-created. Once that is done and acknowledged, the
next step will be to ask how we got where we are. Finally, a way out
can be found and fashioned, one that - because it includes elements
such as equality, justice, fairness and inclusion – will lead to harmony
and happiness.
Sri Lanka has the highest level of literacy (91%) in the South
Asian region; it boasts many who are highly qualified but the people are
not educated, that is, not led outward. We are inwardly focused and
obsessed. Mired in the past, we take myth for fact; distort Buddhism;
believe in essentialism and “race”, exclusivity and superiority; in
Aryanism and divine election. There is little desire to recognise what is
common and shared, while celebrating – even encouraging - variety and
equality. Posthumous restitution is not practical, and perhaps it is too
late for the present, but for the sake of the children of the present and
future, the long reign of anomy must be ended.
Conclusion
81
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Appendix 1: Asoka not a Buddhist?
The highly-regarded historian, K M Panikkar, in his A Survey
of Indian History, states the following: “Asoka is spoken of as a
Buddhist emperor and his reign as a kind of Buddhist period in Indian
history. The division between Hinduism and Buddhism in India was
purely sectarian […] The exclusiveness of religious doctrines is a
Semitic conception which was unknown to India for a long time.
Buddha himself was looked upon in his lifetime and afterwards as a
Hindu saint and avatar and his followers were but another sect […]
In the view of the people of the day [Asoka] was a Hindu monarch
following one of the recognised sects. His own inscriptions bear ample
witness to this fact. While his doctrines follow the Middle Path, his
gifts are to the Brahmana, Sramanas (Buddhist priests) and others
equally. His own name of adoption is Devanam Priya, the beloved of
the gods. Which gods? […] Buddhism had no gods of its own. The
idea that Asoka was a kind of Buddhist Constantine declaring himself
against paganism is a complete misreading of Indian conditions
through the eyes of Christian Europe. [Emphasis added] Asoka was
essentially a Hindu.” (Asia Publishing House, London, 1960 reprint,
page 31. First published: 1947.)
Similarly, India: A History by John Keay, claims that Asoka’s
“inscriptions never mention the Buddha and show no awareness of
his ‘Noble Eightfold Path’ or any other Buddhist schema. Even the
idea of conversion is suspect, since codes like those of the Buddhists
and Jains were not seen as exclusive. Religion as creed, doctrine as
dogma, and faith as truth are equations with little validity in pre-
Islamic India. […] Conversion, in the sense of renouncing one set
of doctrines for another, was meaningless […] the crucial distinction
was not between different belief systems but between different
lifestyles. The individual was defined purely by his relationship to
87
the rest of society. Not doctrine but conduct was what mattered.
[Asoka] attempted no philosophical justification of dhamma, nor
was he much given to rationalising it. It was not a belief system, nor
a developed ideology, just a set of behavioural exhortations”
(HarperCollins, London, 2000, pp. 96-7).
88
Appendix 2: The Term ‘Racism’ and Discourse.
The following is a slightly altered – and considerably abridged
- version of an article by me (parts of which are meant tongue-incheek),
published in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature,
London, Vol 35, No 2, 2000. As Derrida has pointed out, some
words should be placed “under erasure”: they are inaccurate, and so
are crossed out; but since they are necessary, they remain legible. In
my opinion, “racism” is one such term.
The term “racism” is vague, covering several forms of group
consciousness, and the resulting ill-treatment of those seen as not
belonging, the other(s). “Racism” in discourse is a palimpsest written
differently to suit varying emotions and agenda. For example,
prejudice against Jews is anti-Semitism, a manifestation of “racism”
– even if it is expressed by an Arab, that is, by a member of the same
Semite “race”, and Moroccan Jews have complained about the
“racism” they allegedly endure in Israel at the hands of European
Jews. In the United States, there is concern at what appears to be a
deterioration in relations between American-Jews and African-
Americans, both victims of “racism”, the former a racial group once
branded “the killers of Christ”, and the latter, on the ground of colour,
marked as the children of Ham. (Apropos the U.S.A., the census
form for 2000 listed sixty-three racial categories.)
Benedict Anderson states that though nations exist, there is no
scientific definition of a nation; a nation is a cultural artefact with
emotional legitimacy; an imagined political community – imagined
because not even those who go to make up the smallest of nations
will ever know most of their fellow-members, yet in the consciousness
of each lives the image of their communion (p. 6). Six pages on in
the same work, Anderson cites Ernest Gellner’s argument that
89
nationalism does not awake nations to self-consciousness: rather, it
is a certain kind of consciousness which invents nations. To belong
to a state (a legal status implying citizenship, obedience to a particular
set of laws etc) may not have emotional connotations, while a sense
of belonging to a nation usually does. An individual can be a citizen
of one country, and yet feel that s/he belongs to, and is a part of, a
nation geographically far away. The Kurds, fragmented in different
countries, scattered in many European and U.S. centres, are a case
in point: emotionally, they belong to a “nation” which they are
struggling to bring into existence. Some of the foregoing comments
on “nation” can be applied to “race”, and the latter term substituted
for the former: a certain kind of consciousness invents and thinks in
terms of “race”. Moving forward from these preliminary
considerations, I wish to examine the problematic of the term “race”
as currently used in discourse. For example, Caryl Phillips’
Cambridge and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children are said to
deal with the issue of “racism”, but the “racism” in these novels is
different, one based on colour, and the other primarily on religious
affiliation, and secondly/secondarily, on notions of “race”.
Language and words, whether written or spoken, remain the
main counters of expression and exchange we human beings have,
and we must try to be as clear and precise as we can, whatever the
experiential difficulty or philosophic discouragement. Helen Cooper
points out that there is no word equivalent to misogyny, and tentatively
suggests “misandrony”. The lack of a recognized term, she argues,
is an indication of an ingrained gender imbalance, as if man-hating
were literally unspeakable because it is unthinkable (p. 3). “Ethnicity”
(deriving from the Greek “heathen” or “pagan”) is an increasingly
popular term which, in the U.S., around the time of World War 11,
was applied to groups thought to be inferior, such as Jews, Italians
and the Irish, and now is often used as if it were a synonym for
“race”. Ethnicity is an aspect of relations between groups where at
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least one party sees itself as being culturally distinctive, if not unique.
This sense of difference influences the perception and treatment of
others. However, the boundary delimited by one cultural criterion –
system of government, language, religion, social customs and
practices – does not coincide with those established by other criteria.
The difference is deferred in the Derridean sense, and the term remains
problematic.
Dictionaries offer a plethora of definitions of “race”, the term
from which we derive “racism”: a group connected by common
descent or origin; a tribe, nation or people regarded as of common
stock; a group of several tribes or peoples, forming a distinct ethnic
stock (notions of a great Aryan race and Nazism?); one of the great
divisions of humankind having certain physical peculiarities in
common; humankind, as distinct from animals. The first paragraph
of Noel Ignatiev’s How The Irish Became White states that no
biologist has ever been able to provide a satisfactory definition of
“race”, a definition that includes all members of a given “race” and
excludes all others, and that attempts to give the term a scientific
foundation have led but to absurdities (1995). David Lowenthal
argues that race is a social artefact (1996) and, going further, Eric
Foner, in a review titled “How a Desire for Profit Led to the Invention
of Race”, writes that it is “now almost a cliché that race is invented
or socially constructed (1999). The tragedy as I see it is that though
“race” does not exist, racism most certainly does. The mountain
cannot be precisely located, it may not even exist, but the damaging
lava continues to flow. Racists fervently believe that human
characteristics, both physical (visual) and non-physical, are inherited
and, what is more, that these characteristics differ systematically
and consistently between all who go to make up different “races”.
Behaviour that confirms the stereotype is fastened upon and
highlighted; that which refutes and contradicts, passed over as an
exception proving the rule: it’s a “no-win situation”. In the words of
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Jeremy Waldron, “race” is something which should not matter, but it
has mattered, and therefore has to matter, in the sense that it should
be a subject of concern (1998). Undergoing a semantic shift as the
result of over-use, “racism” is now an umbrella term covering and
blurring many different manifestations.
As one who was born in Sri Lanka, let me begin with that
island, partly because some of us so-called third-world critics are
sensitive to racism in places such as Britain, Europe and America
but are unmindful of it at home. Indeed the same critic, hurt by and
indignant at attitudes and treatment in the West, may subscribe to
and righteously support racism back home, seeing her/his intolerance
as proof of patriotism. In Sri Lanka during the successive attacks on
Tamil civilians culminating in the ghastly pogrom of 1983, individuals
and families were asked to identify themselves – a prelude to assault,
rape and/or murder. Absurd as it may seem, life or death can hang
on a vowel or consonant. Tamil names, for example, Rajaratnam,
tend to end with a consonant; Sinhala names with a vowel: Rajaratne.
In the Old Testament of The Bible, the fleeing Ephraimites were
identified only by their language, by the way they pronounced words
like “shibboleth”. In Sri Lanka, during times of riot, Tamils have
been asked to pronounce certain Sinhala words, or to recite lines of
Buddhist prayers, the majority of Tamils being Hindu. The point I
endeavour to make is that in the Sri Lankan context where two groups
have inhabited the same, small island for approximately two
millennia; where inter-marriage was and still is not uncommon; where
some Hindu deities and elements have been incorporated into the
essentially secular philosophy the Buddha taught, often there are no
visible signs, no external markings, of “race”. The so-called “racism”
which flourishes is finally not based on a racial division: the tectonic
fault-line is mainly linguistic, resulting in the assertion that only
native-speakers of Sinhala constitute the original (therefore
“authentic”) nation. Language is the chief identity-marker and
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sustainer of “race”. (Religion to a lesser extent because there are
Sinhalese and Tamil Christians.) Elsewhere, too, where the ethnic
group is not visually distinct and immediately identifiable, the group
affiliation of the individual or family has to be ascertained before
discrimination is practised or barbarity unleashed. I propose that
the type of group hostility, such as the one thriving in Sri Lanka, be
known as linguoracism: “there is no more intimate or more sensitive
an index of identity than language (Crystal : p. vii). In Northern
Ireland where neither colour, language nor physical characteristics
differentiate warring groups, do we have a case of religioracism?
But here too, language can play a part: the name of a Nationalist
leader is Martin McGuinness, and that of a Loyalist leader, Ken
Maginnis. The surnames are homophones but the difference in spelling
signals group origin and affiliation (John Thieme,1999).
There’s another kind of prejudice, and resulting discrimination
and exclusion, also known as “racism”, based neither on “race”,
religion nor language, but on the colour of one’s skin, on whether or
not one is “white” (or “pinko gray”, as Fielding suggests in A Passage
to India). Unlike the other forms of “racism”, the difference here is
immediate, visual and overt. The white/non-white division is broad
and transcends different “nations”, “races” and languages. The sole
criterion is that of pigmentation and, sadly, Indians and Sri Lankans
who fondly (in both the Shakespearean and present meanings of the
term) claim to be of “the Aryan race,” are excluded. One is either
“white” or “non-white”, and so it has been said that a “white” woman
can give birth to a “black” child but a “black” (that is, “non-white”)
woman can never give birth to a “white” child. A “mixed marriage”
rarely means that (to give a random example) a German married a
Russian. John Wideman contends that “race” stigmatizes “nonwhites”
only, and that “whites” view themselves as raceless (1994).
I suppose, Pauline Hanson of the One Nation political party of
Australia would disagree, for the first item listed in the principles
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and objectives of her political party is the need for Australia to be
truly one nation. It would seem that to the members of the party she
founded, one “nation” equals one “race”, which equals “white”. With
an uncharacteristic coyness, Hanson refrained from naming the party
she founded “The Party of the One White Race.”
Wideman also comments that “non-whites” in telling their own
story unfortunately employ the words and terminology of the
dominant group, rather than independently and confidently fashioning
their own. It reflects a hegemonic situation, one which women too
confront: see, for example, the comment by Helen Cooper referred
to above. As Toni Morrison expresses it, a non-white writer struggles
with and through a language that can powerfully evoke and enforce
hidden signs of “racial” superiority, cultural domination and
dismissive “othering” (p. x). We see struggle and rebellion in
Arundhati Roy’s novel, The God of Small Things, as she rejects the
discourse of Hindu caste hegemony and writes, for example, of a
school for “Touchables”, a dichotomic neologism, for in general
usage, the opposite of “untouchable” is “high caste”, even as in
Britain the opposite of “coloured” is not “colourless” but “white”.
The term “race” as presently used refers to feelings, attitudes
and behaviour arising from an imagined and unscientific notion of
“race,” from a difference in language, religion or colour: with
reference to colour-based constructions of “race”, see Theodore Allen,
The Invention of the White Race, London, 1994. Patricia Williams’s
Seeing a Colour-Blind Future is a case in point, for the work is subtitled,
“The Paradox of Race”, thus unsatisfactorily conflating colour
and “race”. Cornel West, another African-American, also equates
racial discrimination with colour prejudice in his work, Race Matters
(1994), dedicated to his son who daily combats the invisible injuries
of “race”. But Hispanics, Asians and other “races” in the United
States also experience prejudice because they are not “white”, because
94
they cannot, neither collectively nor individually, merge into the
background, become unmarked and unlabelled. K Anthony Appiah
may remind us that “until about 100,000 years ago the ancestors of
all modern humans lived in Africa” but now, to some, there are only
two races, the “white” and the “non-white”. Perhaps what John
Wideman meant was that most “whites”, consciously or not, see
themselves as the norm, and all others as deviant and inferior,
calibrated according to the degree of colour or, more precisely, its
absence. In early 1999, when I was drafting this article, two cases
were receiving prominent media attention, one in the U.S.A., and the
other in U.K. In the former, a “white” man was found guilty of
assaulting an African-American who was on his way home, tying
him to the back of a vehicle and dragging the victim to his death,
body parts scattering along the way. Even violent America, albeit
momentarily, was shocked at this raw, gratuitous brutality. In the
U.K., the Stephen Lawrence story persisted. Stephen, aged seventeen,
an aspiring architecture student “of African Caribbean descent” (see
Toni Morrison below) was assaulted and killed in 1993 by a gang of
“white” youths as he waited for a bus. The determination of Stephen’s
parents to see justice done prevented the incident from being forgotten,
from becoming just another statistic. The report of a governmentappointed
inquiry, released on 24 February 1999, found that the police
force in Britain is riddled with institutional “racism” – a reflection
of the “racism” in the wider society. In both cases, the victims were
innocently trying to get home and, it appears, strangers to their
assailants. What singled them out and provoked murderous attack
was neither “race” (for example, that they were thought to be Slavs)
nor religion, but colour. These are two extreme cases that have
received attention for reasons already stated. Other incidents, either
less horrific or where the families and friends of the victims did not
succeed in pursuing matters, have secured at best a brief and passing
mention. At the other end of the racist scale, statistics cannot be
compiled for minor slights and differentiations, however frequent
95
and hurtful they may be, though African-American and Postcolonial
literature do provide attestation.
I feel that the different expressions of prejudice (tribal,
linguistic, religious and colour-based) shouldn’t all be labelled
“racism”, but ought to be differentiated so that they can be
particularized, immediately recognized, better combated and
dismantled. Their origins are different, as are their manifestations.
“Racism” in the so-called developing world invariably has an
(imagined) racial base or is premised on religion or language:
ethnicity-racism? cultural racism? Where it exists in the West, racism
is primarily predicated on colour, the visually immediate and most
important dividing marker. Oliver Sacks notes that those who are
colour-blind (in a literal, ophthalmologic sense) are not distracted
by trivial or irrelevant aspects; that they don’t go by the superficiality
of colour, but take everything into consideration. Of course, what is
at fault is not the perception of colour (nor language, “race” or
religion) but the significance we attach to it. The varied and colourful
world of nature is welcomed, causes delight and interest, but when it
comes to human beings, the reaction is primitive, primordial. “A
person of colour knows that the fact of her colour will register every
time in the eyes of [“white”] strangers, officials, shop assistants,
even friends and colleagues”. The genuinely “colour blind” are very
few in number though, moving with like-minded people, they may
think the numbers to be far greater than they really are. As a character
in Romesh Gunesekara’s novel, The Sandglass, expresses it, In
England, “it is my skin that people notice, that goes in front of me,
everywhere […] Everything else follows to fit” (p. 65).
I have already offered linguoracism and ethnicity-racism, and
my modest proposal now is that a colour-based “racism” be known
as whiteism, an absurd term for an absurd attitude. I had thought of
colourism because Africans and Asians are also guilty of partiality
96
and prejudice based on the visible, “accidental” signs of colour, but
I think it will be acknowledge that, given Western military supremacy
and economic domination over the last half millennium or so; given
past conquest, occupation and exploitation; given present economic
woes, and political and social turmoil, whiteism is more prevalent,
and that blackism and brownism are often only a reaction to Western
assumptions of superiority – witness, for example, the defensive
assertion of the Francophone Negritude movement. V G Kiernan in
his classic study, The Lords of Human Kind, argues that it was
colonial power and control that made “white” the distinguishing
feature that it has come to be. Being “white” became an important
element in the Western collective consciousness, and “white” people,
vis-à-vis “non-whites”, “gave the impression, to themselves as to
outsiders, of being one race” (p. 15). Not only colonialism and
imperial rule, but the slave trade in Africans and, after its abolition,
the use of Asian indentured labour, strengthened Western “racial”
assumptions and attitudes.
Particularity and clarity are neither in the nature, nor in the
interests, of those who harbour group prejudice and, as Toni Morrison
says, the habit of ignoring “race”, of pretending it doesn’t exist –
understood to be a tactful, sensitive, even generous, liberal gesture –
is finally unhelpful (p. 10).
Works cited
Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities. London, Verso Press,
1991.
K Anthony Appiah, “Africa: The Hidden Hisitory,” The New York Review
of Books, 17 December 1998.
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Helen Cooper, “A Glimpse of Paradise”, The Times Literary
Supplement, London, 19 March 1999, p. 3.
David Crystal, English as a Global Language, U.K., Cambridge
University, 1997.
Eric Foner, London Review of Books, 4 February 1999, pp. 23-4.
Romesh Gunesekera, The Sandglass, London, Granta, 1998.
Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White, London, Routledge, 1995.
V. G. Kiernan, The Lords of Human Kind, London, Weidenfeld &
Nicolson, 1969.
David Lowenthal, Possessed by the Past, New York, The Free Press,
1996.
Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark, New York, Vintage Books, 1993.
John Thieme, letter to me, dated 14 November 1999.
Jeremy Waldron, “Whose Nuremberg Laws?”, London Review of
Books, 19 March 1998, pp. 12-14.
Cornel West, Race Matters, New York, Vintage, 1994.
Patricia White, Seeing a Colour-Blind Future, London, Virago, 1997.
John Wideman, Fatheralong, New York, Vintage Books, 1993.
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Appendix 3: Made alien at home
I reproduce a slightly altered version of my letter (published
in The Island, Colombo, sometime in 2005) responding to a statement
attributed to D. E. W. Gunasekara, then the Minister of Constitutional
Affairs. Inter alia, he was quoted as saying, “The LTTE is our own
people. They are not invaders or foreigners. We must take every
possible step to bring them closer. That is our job: not the job of the
Americans or the British.”
Reading the above, I was reminded of an incident
that happened over forty years ago. I was given a
lift by a young African, somewhere in Sweden.
Shortly after, the car crashed. While waiting for
the police, surrounded by kind and concerned
Swedes, the thoroughly shaken African asked me,
“What happened?” Equally shaken, I replied, “It
was raining, the road was slippery but you didn’t
slow down!” (It later turned out he was a newlyarrived
student, the car was not road-worthy, and
he didn’t have a driving license.)
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“How could I? You are a stranger. You stopped
and gave me a lift. How could I tell you how to
drive?”
What followed has remained with me over these
many years. The African put his arm alongside
my arm and said, “Don’t you see, brother, we are
closer to each other than to these people? You
could have told me.”
Living abroad for decades, I have often thought
that the Sinhalese and Tamils have far more things
in common with each other than differences but,
tragically and calamitously, we have chosen to
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emphasise difference and discount what is
common and, therefore, unites us.
As Professor K. Indrapala writes, “The deeper one delves into
Sri Lankan history, the more one will find how much the Tamils and
the Sinhalese have in common. They have a shared history and
culture; and a common descent.” (The Evolution Of An Ethnic
Identity, p. xii)
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Appendix 4: From Nanda Godage’s,
“The Buddha statue and its ‘desecration’ ”.
Daily Mirror, Colombo, 13 May 2005.
Sadly for Buddhists, some illiterate monks and other ignorant
laymen are seeking to transform the Buddha into a God. Buddha,
Sidhartha Gautama, was no God and never claimed to be one.
The Buddha escaped from the cycle of birth and death or
Sansara, and so he cannot be prayed to.
Buddhism in Sri Lanka is being perverted by ignorant monks
and laymen. They have taken a page out of the book of the Catholics
and have been erecting statues of the Buddha at every nook and corner
of his country to show their piety.
The essence of Buddhism is Sila (morality) and the eradication
of ignorance. [Words of the relevant prayers are cited by Mr Godage.]
The worship of statues, all Pipal trees and monuments is
contrary to Buddhism. Sidhartha Gautama, when he became
enlightened, stood in front of the tree that had given him shelter during
the period of his meditation, in order to show gratitude to that
particular tree. Now every Pipal tree is being called a Bodhi tree -
not just the tree under which the Buddha sat at the time he attained
enlightenment - and is being worshipped. Some even bathe the trees
with milk and make vows. This is wholly alien to Buddhism.
The Buddha’s beautiful and meaningful sermon on loving
kindness is chanted not in Sinhala but in the ancient Indian language
Pali, understood by almost none. The intention of the Buddha as
conveyed in the meaning of his words has been lost - the sermon was
meant to be lived, not merely to be recited as a mantra [emphasis
added].
My thanks to the author for sending me a copy of his article, and for
giving permission to quote from it.
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Appendix 5: Jaffna. Extracts from a letter to
Shanthi, my sister. February 2004.
I deliberately went by car so as to see, experience and learn as
much as I possibly could.
All along the way are the signs of war and its destruction,
most evident in Kilinochchi, Chavakachcheri and Jaffna itself.
Swathes of the forest on both sides of the road have been destroyed
to deprive LTTE soldiers of cover, and for timber for the soldiers of
the “government” to build bunkers. I saw many trees with their tops
blown off by artillery and tank shells; saw bombed out schools,
houses, places of worship (Hindu and Christian) and other buildings
which once formed part of the infrastructure…The ground is littered
with landmines - laid, I understand, by both sides. (The mines are
not of the type that become inactive after a while, but will remain
lethal for about forty years.) There are warning signs, and much
work is being done by NGOs - slow, painstaking and dangerous work.
I was shown fertile fields that one dare not venture to cultivate, trees
with fruit one dare not attempt to pluck.
All houses and buildings along the main road have been taken
over by the army, the owners summarily turned out, without alternate
accommodation and without compensation. One speaks of
“government” soldiers but, given the fact that they are all Sinhalese,
it is difficult for the people not to see them as an occupying Sinhalese
army.
On the return journey, we stayed the night at Kilinochchi. We
were told that there was an LTTE cemetery, a “Resting Place of the
Heroes,” not far away, and that at night it’s lit up. We found the
place, but it was in total darkness. From somewhere in the middle,
102
an elderly man turned up with a torch, a thin man accompanied by a
skinny dog. He explained that the power supply had broken down.
We chatted briefly and, leaving, asked whether he didn’t feel uneasy
at being in the middle of a cemetery, far from town, all by himself
and in total darkness. He laughed and answered, “How can I be afraid
when I’m surrounded by thousands and thousands of heroic young
men and women!” The next morning, we visited the cemetery again.
It seems that the rule about removing one’s shoes has been relaxed
because some of the visitors are handicapped, some have artificial
limbs – in other words, the wounded coming to visit the graves of
their comrades who fell in battle.
It was strange to drive from such a geographic, and even more,
an experiential, environment and reality into the lush green of Kandy
and, the very next day, into Colombo, Colombo with its big shops,
fashion boutiques, restaurants and cinemas: there are many, and
very different, “normalities. You and I are sometimes startled by a
cracker, say at New Year celebrations, and I wondered how innocent
civilians “survive” aerial bombardment and heavy artillery barrages.
How do they endure physical violence and brutality? How do they
keep the soul, private and public ethics, intact and the mind whole
and stable? In war, ordinary people endure the extraordinary.
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Appendix 6: Shanmugan, Policeman. Extracts
from my letter to Durgha and Skanda
Shanmugan, May 2001.
Shun, like almost all human beings, was no “saint,” and yet
when it came to the police force, there was such a commitment in
him that I felt the police service was some abstraction to which he
had dedicated himself. It was his ambition from earliest childhood to
serve in the force. I suppose this had a lot to do with the fact that his
father had been a policeman.
I think his first appointment as an Assistant Superintendent of
Police was at Mount Lavinia and, almost immediately, unpleasant
reality presented itself. Shun had a telephone call from some political
figure demanding that a certain man held in custody be released.
Shun didn’t even know that the man had been arrested, but looked
into the matter and found that the person has been duly charged and
locked up. Shun therefore stood firm and declined to release the man,
that is, until his superior officer instructed him to do so: it transpired
that the man’s sister was a mistress of the politician.
Beautiful “Ceylon” was giving way to the ugly “Sri Lanka” of
corruption in high places, “race” hatred and violence. I recall him
telling me of his predicament during a time of anti-Tamil riot. He
stayed in the ‘Control room’, trying to deal with matters. A call would
come, asking the police for help and protection. He would look at
his map, identify the nearest police car, and instruct it to proceed to
the scene. Other calls and messages pouring in, he’d forget that case,
assuming it has been with, but only to receive, hours later, a plea
from the same place. On being contacted, the officers would say
their car had down, or that they had a punctured tyre. One excuse
followed another: the Sinhalese policemen did not see his actions as
those of a police officer doing his duty, protecting law-abiding
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citizens, but as those of a Tamil officer trying to defend Tamils from
Sinhalese mobs. Much later, he was to comment, with deep grief,
that no self-respecting Tamil could serve in the security forces because
they had been thoroughly racialised.
During one of the troubles known as the “insurgency”
in Sri Lanka’s history, a cabinet minister – I seem to recall his name
as one E L Senanayake – arrived in Kandy by helicopter, and ordered
Shun to arrest certain individuals. Shun declined because there was
no evidence whatsoever against them. The minister insisted, saying
he had come from a cabinet meeting and spoke with cabinet authority.
Subsequently, those individuals charged Shun in court with false
arrest. (In private, they explained that the legal action was not really
against him but the government.) The UNP, the party in power, then
approached Shun with the request that he takes the blame, that he
says that he had acted on his own initiative. In return, they would
foster his career. Shun refused and, thereafter, the government made
life as difficult as possible for him.
Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike (the world’s first female Prime
Minister) had once seen your father and said, “Shun, I hear they are
giving you a lot of trouble. Be patient.” Shun understood this as,
“Wait till we are back in power.” Recounting the incident to me, he
added, “They will come to power, and perhaps will give me a district
of my choice. But, then, sooner or later, they will ask me to do
something which I shouldn’t do; or not do something which I should;
some man or woman with influence will approach me, and when I
decline, I will be in trouble again.” He was a deeply hurt and
disillusioned man.
Then came the pogrom of 1983. What happened to your mother
(down to the deliberate neglect of the nurses); to him, and to thousands
of others, is well known, and I need not repeat them here. In his last
105
letter to me from California, he speaks of people being burnt alive
while politicians and officials had their regular hours of sleep and
fun… What really got me was the shock and reaction of my children,
Durgha 7 and Skanda 5. It’s taken them some time to get over things.
My mother who was with me all these years, must be having a tough
time without us. It is a pity I am unable to do the best till her sun sets
– this hurts me more than throwing away the childhood dream of
being a cop, and after twenty-one years without a single adverse
entry.
A few months later, he was dead. I see the tragedy that befell
dear Shun as a microcosm of the tragedy that has befallen the whole
Island.
106
107
[Back cover]
Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan holds a B. A. from the University of
Ceylon; the Postgraduate Diploma in English as a Second Language
from North Wales; the degree of Master of Philosophy, and that of
Doctor of Philosophy (English literature) from London.
Now retired, he taught in “Ceylon”, England, Nigeria, Zambia,
Bahrain and Germany.

1 comment:

sri suntharam said...

I enjoyed reading the article, which I believe every Sri Lankan, in particular,should read.
The diaspora who justify racism in Sri Lanka, seek and strive for equality in the countries they are domiciled.