Racism, Nationalism and Supranationalism -II

Supranationalism seems to be an ideal nursed by the Western bloc, not embraced with any enthusiasm by the other powers of the world that are its rivals or adversaries. 

by Rohana R. Wasala

(continued from August 23, 2021)

Sri Lanka and supranationalism

Every Sri Lankan government since independence has acted on the tacit understanding that, while remaining politically independent of India without being overawed by its size or strength, Sri Lanka should maintain friendly relations with its big northern neighbour at all times. But unfortunately, India doesn’t seem to reciprocate this established cooperative, non-threatening stance of Sri Lanka. Instead India seems to overlook or slily exploit the growing supranationalist influence of the West on Sri Lanka that is aimed at containing China. Here, America and India view China as their common rival in the region. What Sri Lanka wants is to remain neutral and non-aligned in its dealings with all three powers and enjoy the benefits of sound relations with each one of them. No one should blame Sri Lanka if it gravitated towards China in these circumstances. 

At the beginning of this essay I wrote: ‘the primary definition of the word supranationalism given in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary is  “the state or condition of transcending national boundaries, authority, or interests” (which needs to be related to different contexts as appropriate, I think, such as global economics, politics, etc)’. A fuller definition of the concept is offered by Marshall Hargraves, editor at Investopedia.com:

“A supranational organization is a multinational union or association in which member countries cede authority and sovereignty on at least some internal matters to the group, whose decisions are binding on its members. In short, member states share in decision making on matters that will affect each country’s citizens.”

Supranationalism seems to be an ideal nursed by the Western bloc, not embraced with any enthusiasm by the other powers of the world that are its rivals or adversaries. It may be a good idea for the few rich powerful nations of the West and the handful of their allies in the rest of the world, but at what cost to the poorer nations of the third world whose ancestors were at the receiving end of the depredations of Western colonialism that reigned more or less over the past five centuries? Isn’t it not likely that it will threaten nations’ sovereignty and their internal democracy? 

The United Nations, the World Trade Organization, and the European Union are supranational groups to varying degrees. They were established with a view to promoting cooperation while preventing conflict between nations particularly in economic and military matters. Supranationalism itself is not a new idea. It may be seen as a more threatening version of globalization, which itself is a metamorphosis of Western colonialism. Supranationalism has evolved  into what nationalists see as oppressive and imperialistic. Of course Americans decry the nationalism of countries that choose not to toe their line as ‘radical nationalism’, as a negative tendency that must be suppressed. Supranationalism has evolved from its apparently non-aggressive beginnings soon after the end of World War II in 1945 into a global menace. Sri Lanka seems to be almost in the grip of a steadily tightening supranationalist domination, exercised through UN organs for example, in a world where the country, as a small independent state, is being increasingly subjected to manyfold dangers and disadvantages. 

Sri Lanka faced with three sinister forces

Thus Sri Lanka finds itself pitted against a monstrous coalition of three sinister forces: global supranationalist hegemony, separatist Tamil racism and Indian expansionism. The three are actually strange bedfellows pursuing their respective separate targets at the expense of hapless Sri Lanka. They are mutually beneficial to each other at the moment. It appeared that America’s Millennium Challenge Corporation program was set to bifurcate the island without the people’s mandate to do so into two parts (north-western and south-eastern) with a so-called economic corridor from Colombo in the western province to Trincomalee in the eastern; the economic corridor was going to be administered under  American, rather than Sri Lankan, law. Sri Lankans that this would have coincided with the separatist agenda. Though the scheduled MCC Compact between the US and Sri Lanka was not signed in the face of Sri Lankan public’s opposition to it, giving the impression that the project was unilaterally abandoned by America, whether certain concessions are being guaranteed to the interventionist power through diplomacy, or whether it is being implemented under a different form of coercion is not known. 

India, preoccupied with expansionist regional superpower ambitions at the expense of Sri Lanka and other smaller neighbours, has lately given indications of its own bent towards a version of supranationalism. The Indian Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)tried to augment its influence in neighbouring countries through political, ideological, and religious strategies using Indian-related minorities in those countries. In mid-February this year (2021), Diplab Kumar Deb, Chief Minister of India’s Tripura State , was reported to have stated that the BJP was planning to expand the party into countries like Sri Lanka and Nepal. The BJP’s national president Amit Shah also has hopes of establishing BJP branches in neighbouring countries to win elections and form or participate in governments in Sri Lanka and Nepal. Sri Lanka and Nepal have already expressed their vehement opposition to such hegemonic moves on the part of India. Within opposition ranks in India itself, the BJP proposition has drawn heavy flak. 

The handful of racist Tamil politicians hinge their separatist demand upon an alleged Tamil nationalism within Sri Lanka. As shown in the first part, ‘nation’ means “a large body of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular country or territory”. Now the separatists had to back up their claims with proof of their eligibility in terms of this definition. So they concocted a historical homeland theory. It is noteworthy that even prominent Tamil historian Karthegesu Indrapala did not accept this idea. A distinguished Tamil historian and the first professor in history at the Jaffna University (established in 1974 during  the United Front government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike), Karthigesu Indrapala clearly asserted in his London University University PhD thesis (1965) “Dravidian Settlements in Ceylon and the Beginnings of the Jaffna Kingdom”, that on the basis of “the meagre evidence that is available, we have to conclude that there was no notable Dravidian settlements of a widespread nature before the tenth century…….”. He rejected assertions to the contrary made by earlier Tamil historians like C. Rasanayagam and Gnanapragasam as unscientific. Sri Lanka’s recorded history of two thousand five hundred years and ancillary historical and archaeological evidence available, do not lend support to the Tamils’ Sri Lankan homeland hypothesis.  So they decided to fabricate one that did.  To this end, they wanted to distort the history of Sri Lanka to suit their separatist goal. So, let’s now turn to this aspect of our subject. 

Historicity of Sri Lanka’s historical narrative 

When our country became an independent republic in 1972, we should  have retained the name Ceylon by which it had been internationally known for centuries before that and the name Lanka domestically, both as official names. Our narrow-minded politicians failed to use that great opportunity for making the historical assertion that the country still remained ‘Ceylon’. To explain the significance of this: ‘Lanka(wa)’ is what Sinhala speakers still call it locally; its Tamil version ‘Ilankei’ is what Tamil speakers use. Even officially, they seem to prefer ‘Ilankei’ to  the formal post-1972 ‘Sri Lanka’.  Or at least, we should have straightaway named it ‘Lanka’ without the Sanskrit word ‘Shri’ (which is what the simplified English spelling ‘Sri’ stands for).  During his term as president, Ranasinghe Premadasa, being a confirmed  believer in occultism in spite of his ostentatious Buddhist piety, insisted on the letter ‘h’ being added to ‘s’ in the word as transcribed in English (thus forming the palato-alveolar fricative ‘sh’), on the suggestion of numerologists, in order to ensure the alleged ‘correct’ pronunciation of the name, that is supposed to nullify certain alleged malefic effects! This was very naïve on his part, for in practice, even Sinhala speakers rarely get the fricative sound ‘sh’ right (it is not a phoneme in the authentic Sinhala sound system). Sinhala speakers almost always say ‘siri’ instead of ‘shri’. So it is always pronounced ‘Siri Lanka’ not ‘Shri/Sri’ Lanka among them, because initial consonants unaccompanied by appropriate vowel sounds are almost nonexistent in the language.

This preoccupation with the name of the country was due to the fact that, especially the Sinhalese majority, were anxious to  make a clear break with the colonial past with which the name ‘Ceylon’ was associated (or so the politicians reasoned). They were unaware of the fact that ‘Ceylon’ harked back to the ancient name of the island Sivhela/Sinhale/Sihela. Even the proponents of the new Sanskritized name ‘Sri Lanka’ seemed to have forgotten that ‘Ceylon’ was actually a corruption of ‘Sinhale’ ‘the land of the Sinhalese’.  But there were many other names by which the country was known in the past: Heladiva, Taprobane, Serendib, Lanka, etc. Lanka appears even in the Chronicles written before the 5th century CE, which deal with happenings in Lanka in the 6th century BCE. That these descriptive names were in common circulation among international visitors, sailors, travelers, and traders suggests the fact that, being on the ancient Silk Route, Ceylon/Sri Lanka was widely known in the ancient world.

The island was most commonly famous as ‘Sinhale’, the land of the Sinhalese, because it has been the homeland of the Sinhalese, and it was they who built up a vibrant civilization whose cultural moral foundation was the Buddhist ethical philosophy. King Dutugemunu (161-137 BCE) declared at the launch of his campaign against the invader Choa king Elara (205-161 BCE): “This enterprise of mine is not for the purpose of acquiring the pomp and advantages of royalty. This undertaking has always had for its object the re-establishment of the religion of the supreme Buddha” (Chapter XXV of The Mahavansa/Mudaliyar L.C. Wijesinghe translation/1889). The whole country is flagged with archaeological remains of ancient buildings such as royal palaces, Buddhist monasteries, stupas and shrines. Then there are rock inscriptions that support the written histories, bearing testimony to a history of more than two and a half millennia. The fact that the Sinhalese have no other homeland than this country cannot be disputed. 

Sinhalese ambassadors in the court of emperor Claudius

The Roman historian Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) in his Natural History gives a vivid account of a royal embassy consisting of four members with a person called Raki as its leader from the court of king Bhatika Abhaya Tissa (38-66 CE) visiting the imperial Roman court during the reign of the emperor Claudius (41-54 CE) to negotiate the purchase of red coral from there.  The coral was for making an ornamental net to cover the Maha Tupa (Ruvanveli Maha Saeya) at Anuradhapura as an offering to the sacred monument.  Ptolemy (c. 100 – c. 170) made his map of Taprobana (Taprobane as foreign visitors at that time called Sinhale) significantly larger than it actually was relative to his map of what is today called India to the north, signifies the importance he attached to the island as a country. 

The account of Annius Plocamus, a Roman tax collector from the Mediterranean region, (who mediated the royal ambassadorial visit during king Bhatika Abhaya Tissa’s reign (20 BCE – 9 CE)), currently available in the Wikipedia, provides a fine example of the deliberate distortion of Sinhalese history that has been carried on for nearly a century by certain Tamil racist historians. The Wikipedia entry refers to a certain Tamil writer by the name of T. Isaac Tambyah, author of ‘Psalms of Saiva Saints’ (1925). Isaac Tambyah assumes that the name given by Pliny of the leader of the embassy Rachias is a version of Rasaiah! Rasaiah is familiar to us as a common Tamil name. (Actually, to be fair by Isaac Tambyah, he only repeats an obviously uninformed guess that had been made by British governor Emerson Tennent (1804-1869) that the name Rasaiah suggested that the embassy was sent to Rome by an alleged Rajah of Jaffna (The governor had been misled by a Tamil zealot’s figment of imagination for there were no Tamil rulers in Dambakolapatuna {Jambukolapattana in Pali}, as that area was known then, in the first century CE.) There is no doubt that a Tamil distortionist had fed Tennent with wrong information! The same Wikipedia account suggests that the embassy was prompted by a trivial discovery of the sincerity of Romans by the king. The late Dr D.P.M. Weerakkody, Western Classics scholar, wrote a paper  about historical Sri Lanka-Rome relationships in 2013. It is obvious that Dr Weerakkody never took the Tamil historian’s claim that Pliny’s Rachias was ‘Rasaiah’ seriously. 

Historical truth of the Sinhalese embassy to Rome

The historical truth about the first century Sinhalese embassy to Rome is well established. Authoritative historians have found that the name Rachias is a  corruption of the Sinhala name Raki or Rakiya, one of the typically short Sinhala names that recurs in a number of inscriptions as distinguished professor in Archaeology Raj Somadeva of the University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka, has clearly pointed out.  He has provided much documentary and epigraphical evidence to prove this. Pliny himself has given a detailed account of Rachias or Raki, which shows that Raki was an important personage, indeed, a scion of the Sinhalese royal family. Raki’s father was an ambassador too. He was employed by the king of Sinhale of the time to lead an embassy to China. For Raki to represent the Sinhalese king in the Roman court, he had to be of the Sinhala royal family. He won’t have insulted the emperor by sending ambassadors under the leadership of a non-Sinhala, non-native commoner called Rasaiah! Can you imagine that a king who was rich enough to buy red corals to make a huge net to adorn the stupendous Maha Saeya would do such a thing? (The purpose of the embassy was to negotiate the purchase of those red corals.) 

Real independence was asserted in 1972

No fair minded Sri Lankan with a sense of self respect would disagree that real independence for Sri Lanka came with the adoption of the republican constitution in 1972 under the United Front government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike, widow of SWRD Bandaranaike who had spearheaded the 1956 nationalist revolution. However, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica editors “Actual independence for the dominion of Ceylon came on February 4, 1948, when the constitution of 1947 went into effect. …”.  (The author of the entry is Sinnappah Arasaratnam representing the E.B. Editors). A  dominion in this context means a self-governing nation within the Commonwealth of Nations (which is a euphemism for the menacing spectre of the former British empire). How can that be actual independence for any former colony? Hardly any Sri Lankan with a sense of history and a measure of regard for truth and justice would accept E.B.’s definition except the anti-nationalist minority,  who still hanker after the privileged position that they had been granted by the rapacious colonialists at the expense of the majority Sinhalese and the equally dispossessed lower sections of all the communities that far outnumbered the minuscule elite (composed of the privileged sections of the subject population irrespective of their racial identity) that relished the crumbs fallen from the imperial table. 

Menacing glare of former colonials

Even after half a century of egalitarian democratic republicanism, Sri Lanka hasn’t still succeeded in escaping the menacing glare of the former colonials, who continue to exploit the communal disharmonies that they created to destabilize the Lankan state. As Shamindra Ferdinando of The Island reported a couple of months ago, Conservative Party member Lord Naseby, the President of the All Party Parliamentary UK-Sri Lanka Group, said, “It was reprehensible that the UK, as a member of the UNHRC, had suppressed ‘robust evidence of utmost importance’”. Lord Naseby was speaking in defence of Sri Lanka against false allegations of war crimes); he stressed: “It is unforgivable and is a black day for my UK Government”. (I consider Lord Naseby to be in the line of Western intellectuals who, moved by their sense of humanity during colonial times, rendered yeoman service to energise the Buddhist national revival that independently originated among Lanka’s learned Buddhist monks in the latter half of the 19th century; these included British Buddhist scholar T.W. Rhys Davids {1843-1922}, founder of the Pali Book Society, German orientalist Wilhelm Geiger {1856-1943} who brought out critical editions of the Pali chronicles the Mahavansa and the Culavansa, and had them translated into English, his compatriot Buddhist educationist and author Marie Musaeus Higgins {1855-1926}, and the American military officer turned theosophist and Buddhist revivalist Henry Steel Olcott {1832-1907}).  

History behind the ‘Tamil national question’ 

Centuries of shared history between the native Sinhalese and South Indian Tamils anciently defined by trade relations and cultural interactions, but more frequently marked by Tamil military  aggression that went well beyond commerce and culture, preceded the arrival of European imperial powers in the island.  Permanent Tamil presence in Sri Lanka is only about 800 years old. (More than a century of deliberate distortion of history has enabled some Tamil politicians to put sovereign Tamil presence in the island even before the alleged arrival of Vijaya!) Until the 13th century CE, there were no permanent Tamil settlements in Sri Lanka, as authoritative historians like Professor K.M. de Silva have proved beyond disputation. Of course, Dravidians had trade relations with Sri Lanka over a long time before that. Muslims, though they didn’t settle down in the island permanently in significant numbers until much later, came to Sri Lanka for trade through India more than one thousand years ago; most of them must have come with  Tamils from South India. Even today the Muslim minority are overwhelmingly Tamil speakers. The islanders had trade and cultural links  with countries  in Asia such as China, Myanmar,Thailand, and Cambodia, and with countries in Africa such as Egypt, and even with imperial Rome in Europe, where Sinhale was well known as a popular port of call for trading vessels and as a regional emporium for diversified commerce (rice, spices, gems, elephants, and so on). 

At independence, the pursuers of the goal of a separate Tamil state within Ceylon who formed the Tamil State/Kingdom Party euphemistically called the Federal Party, had seized upon the  historically invalid “two nation” hypothesis embedded in the Cleghorn Minute of 1799, which proposes the idea of “two different nations (Sinhala and Tamil) from a very ancient period (having) divided between them the possession of the island……”.  This two-nation theory is a complete fallacy. Ceylon asserted real independence in 1972 through parliamentary democracy by declaring itself a republic, a unified country where the citizens belonging to various ethnic, linguistic and religious communities enjoy the same democratic rights and bear the same responsibilities as equal members of a single sovereign state protected by the same laws.

(To be concluded in the third and final part)

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