Eurasia Review: Sri Lanka’s Sinhala-Tamil Divide: A Fatal Tamil Unawareness – OpEd

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By Charles Sarvan;

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

  1. “The anti-Tamil feeling began in 1949  with the de-citizenizing of Tamils”
  2. “In Kandy there was a Mudali by the name of  A. Premadasa whose
    lorries brought fish from all over the coastal areas in Sri Lanka. He
    spread the rumour that in the lorry that arrived from Jaffna, the
    dismembered body of a Sinhalese girl, daughter of a bakery owner in KKS
    had been found in one of the boxes.” (End of quote)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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