Sri Lanka: Racism, Nationalism and Supranationalism – I

The home of Tamil nationalism must be Tamil Nadu, not Sri Lanka, contrary to what the handful of racists among ordinary Sri Lankan Tamil politicians claim on behalf of the barely 4% of the global Tamil population that live in little Sri Lanka. 

by Rohana R. Wasala

Definitions

I would be the last to use the words ‘nation’ and ‘race’ interchangeably in the modern Sri Lankan context as some appear to do nowadays. There was a time in the past when in most countries, the two words could be used as synonyms. Each state was formed by a particular race, on territory fully or preponderantly inhabited by that race speaking the same language and following the same religious tradition. 

The modern idea of nation state is the culmination of centuries of evolution, particularly in Europe, that resulted in defining a distinction between race and nation, as nation came to mean a unification of a population belonging to diverse races, religions, and political ideologies, inhabiting the same geographical territory. The word racism means “unfair treatment of people of a particular race in a society especially to the benefit of people of another race,… the belief that certain races of people are superior to others…” according to the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary. The same source gives a similarly negative, but curiously contradictory, definition of the word ‘nationalism’: “loyalty and devotion to a nation especially : a sense of national consciousness …… exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups”. Unfortunately, this is the entirely negative supremacist and aggressive nationalism that certain big powers of the world pursue, while persecuting smaller nations for their belief in a non-aggressive nationalism based only on the ideal of loyalty and devotion to their nation/people, especially,on their sense of national consciousness or national identity (e.g., the innocuous independent nationalism that the nationalists of Sri Lanka are pursuing at present; it is inclusive, multiracial, non-aggressive and non-discriminatory towards minorities. But this form of praiseworthy nationalism  is given a negative definition by the American Merriam-Webster Dictionary, because that is what Americans say it is: “radical nationalism”, i.e., ’independent nationalism not under U.S. control’ (as Noam Chomsky cynically points out in his Who Rules the World?, p.151).  

By the way, 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). Isn’t this similar to or identical with a newer version of globalization such as neoliberalism, that is overtaking the world, and that is spelling disaster to the political and economic survival of the Sri Lankan state, among others caught up in the same predicament. I’d like to leave it to specialists to decide if my man-in-the-street conjectures are valid.

Importance of a sense of national consciousness

Back to the point. Can any people develop or modernize, or at least physically survive on the face of the earth without a proper sense of national consciousness, that is, a sense of national identity? The nationalism that accommodates this is a positive thing in my opinion. No one criticises America for having left the replica of the American flag on the moon after its moon landing in 1969; neither does anyone blame China for claiming national honour for successfully trying to pioneer the exploration of the far side of the moon that humans normally never get to see from the earth. Who will find fault with Israel for celebrating, if they choose to do so, their own unique genius as a nation, for having invented the Iron Dome air defence system that so successfully intercepted and destroyed hundreds of rocket strikes from Gaza recently, thereby saving the lives of innocent Israeli citizens? 

History of the national identity of the Sinhalese

A racial group’s ancestral language is the most basic distinguishing feature of their identity. The Sinhalese are separated from other races on the basis of their language, Sinhala, which is confined to Sri Lanka, where it originated. It is not found as a native language in any other country. The phonology of Sinhala (its vocal sound system – vowels, consonants, etc) is not like that of any other language. Its morphology (how its words are formed), and its syntax (rules that govern the arrangement of words in forming meaningful phrases and sentences) are unique to it.  The Sinhala vocabulary (the total range of words the language possesses, and enters in its dictionaries), like the vocabulary of other languages, comprises both its own original words, new coinages, and borrowings and adaptations from other languages that its speakers have come into contact with. Sinhala came to enrich its vocabulary with borrowings from Sanskrit in ancient times. 

The ‘nelum’ part of botanical name of what is called the Indian lotus Nelumbium speciosum or Nelumbo nucifera comes from Sinhala. ‘Nelum’ is the Sinhala word for the lotus even today; it is also a name for a girl. Although Sinhala has such a long history, and is still a living language spoken and used by nearly 17 million Sinhalese, it is a minority language on a global scale. 

Because of its specific individuality, the linguists’ classification of Sinhala as an Indo-Aryan or an Indo-European tongue, is problematic, but not difficult to understand. One reason for it may be the preponderance of Sanskrit-derived words in the Sinhala vocabulary. That categorization might support the myth given in The Mahavansa or the Great Chronicle (composed in the 5th century CE) that the ancestors of the Sinhalese came from the Vanga Desha in northern India in the 6th century BCE.  Prince Vijaya is said to have landed at a region then called Thambapanni (place of copper coloured sand; ‘thamba’ in Sinhala means copper) from which the Greek name for the whole island Taprobane came. The Vijayan legend has been subjected to questioning by the recent discoveries of local and foreign historians and archaeologists. But the place known in ancient times by that name in the north-west of Sri Lanka still has coppery sands. Evidence of a pre-Vijayan civilization found during excavations carried out in the inner city of Anuradhapura in 2009 suggests that the race of people known as Yakkhas, the original dark skinned inhabitants of the island, were the real ancestors of the Sinhalese. The ‘Yakkhini’ (feminine form of ‘Yakkha’) that features in the Vijaya legend, Kuveni, was no doubt a mythical reincarnation of some powerful matriarch from the local ruling family of the time.  Some sort of an invasion by a lighter skinned tribe from north India probably took place and created trouble for the indigenous Yakkha community. Thus, the Yakkhas and Yakkhinis that the Mahavansa author fictionalized as fearsome supernatural beings or demons were the true ancestors of the Sinhalese. Archaeological finds currently being studied in the hilly interior parts of the country (like those dug out by Professor Raj Somadeva of the University of Kelaniya) support this hypothesis.

The Mahavansa

The Mahavansa itself as a valuable source book for the study of the island’s history is not invalidated by its fictitious delineation of the origin of the Sinhalese. Modern concepts of historiography or archaeology, or the advanced scientific modes of analysis of available historical and archaeological data emerged only very recently. Given the antiquity of the Mahavansa, the intellectual sophistication that its author has evinced in its compilation, and the care he has taken to record the stories as he had heard them are truly astonishing. We have to read the details carefully, and read between the lines, as it were, to determine what approximates the truth.  The Mahavansa is a refined Buddhist literary masterpiece, a poem in the Pali language, which works at three levels: a history, a homily, and a heuristic lesson for the contemplation on the dhamma. As a history, it records the services the Buddhist kings  rendered for the advancement and assured survival of the Buddha Sasana; it hardly focuses on the economic and political struggles that occupied the monarchs, amidst internal and external challenges to their rule. The stories are told in a spirit of illustrating Buddhist moral truths concerning the unsatisfactoriness of human existence, the necessity of compassion towards all beings, the brevity of life, and fickleness of royal fortunes, etc. The Mahavansa was written for the ‘serene joy and emotion of the pious’ (as a phrase that recurs at the end of each chapter of the book declares).  

Emperor Asoka versus King Devanampiya Tissa 

In Chapter 11 of the Mahavansa, we have details of how Devanampiya Tissa, the grandson of Pandukabhaya the first indigeous king of the country after the alleged coming of Vijaya, sends an embassy to king Dharmasoka, following his installation as king. King Dharmasoka answers with his own embassy to Lanka with instructions and the wherewithal to anoint Devanampiya Tissa a second time as king of Lanka, which suggests an empire versus vassal relationship between the two countries. 

Be that as it may, although he depicts the meeting of the monk and the monarch at Ambatthala (Chapter 14) while the latter was engaged in the royal sport of a hunt, as an unannounced initial step towards the introduction of Buddhism to the people of the island, details given in Chapters 12 and 13 of the monk’s preparations prior to his departure from Videha in Jambudvipa (India) to the island, and his arrival there, suggest that the Lankan king had already received the gift of ‘the three treasures’ (Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha) from the mighty king Dharmasoka, who ordered the mission to the island under his own son Mahinda Thera. So, the Mahinda mission was probably a more wide-ranging follow-up. It is possible that through strengthening the Buddhist cultural ties between the island and India, emperor Dharmasoka was affirming his imperial authority over the island state. Before he came to Lanka, Mahinda Thera groomed himself in the language of the islanders.

According to Chapter 14 of the Mahavansa, Mahinda Thera preached to the people ‘in the language of the land’ (Hela basa/Elu/Sinhala). This means that even by the time Mahinda Thera arrived in the island in 236 BCE, the Sinhala language had reached an advanced state of development that was adequate for it to function as a medium for the communication of the profound philosophical doctrine of Theravada Buddhism to ordinary people. It was in the first century CE that the Pali language Three Pitaka (The Three Baskets/the tripartite scriptures of Buddhism, Sutta, Vinaya and Abhidhamma) which, until then, had been transmitted down the previous four or five centuries since the Paribbana (demise) of the Buddha, through oral tradition, was committed to writing at a Buddhist shrine in central Lanka during the reign of king Valagamba in the first century CE, as shown later in this essay. And the writing was done in the Sinhala script. (Incidentally, according to matadornet.com, the Sinhala characters form the second most aesthetically pleasing script  in the world, the place going to the Burmese script Of Myanmar). 

Kingdom of Sinhale of antiquity

In ancient history of the world, the kingdom of Sinhale, Lanka, or Taprobane occupied a  conspicuous place. One reason for this was because of the island’s location. It was an important port adjacent to the ancient trade routes joining the east and the west. The island population then consisted of four tribes called Yaksha, Raksha, Naga and Deva. The Yakkhas were probably the majority ruling tribe and they spoke an ancient form of what we know as Sinhala today. Their language must have been adopted by the other tribes as well. The four tribes had a common identity as “dipe danan” (people of the land).

A nation is “a large body of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular country or territory” (google.com). The people of Sinhale had achieved that status by the time of the arrival of Buddhism in 236 BCE  during the time of emperor Asoka of Bharata (268-232 BCE). Incidentally, the Mahavamsa provided some information required as data for dating emperor Asoka’s reign in the subcontinent. Mahinda Thera addressed the people of the island in their own language, which was an early form of Sinhala. The Pali Tripitaka was committed to writing at Matale Alu Vihare in central Sri Lanka during the reign of Valagamba of Anuradhapura (89-77 BCE) using Sinhala characters (which implies that Sinhala already had a developed orthography by then). Archaeological evidence was unearthed in 2009 of a pre-Vijayan civilization in Anuradhapura during excavations carried out with the assistance of the University of Berlin under the supervision of distinguished archaeologist Dr Shiran Deraniyagala (who was then Advisor to the Department of Archaeology). The traditional story of Vijaya as the progenitor of the Sinhala race contained in The Mahavamsa cannot be true. The Sinhalese were not migrants from another country, although they were probably temporarily subjugated by an invading force from a territory (fabled to be called ‘Vanga’) in northern India in the 6th century BCE. The local princess that features in the story, Kuveni, was probably a fictitious invention of a story teller, modelled on a real princess who had belonged to the ruling Yakkha (Hela or Sinhela) people of the country then. They were the native Hela people who spoke the Hela language (the prototype of Sinhala). The ancestors of the Veddas and the Sinhalese were contemporaries and were even genetically identical relatives, who probably had escaped to the jungle after fleeing foreign invasions. European scholars  identified the Veddas as aborigines, because they wrongly assumed that the Veddas were a distinct race that had lived in the island before the alleged arrival of the Sinhalese from somewhere else. No, the Sinhalese are as indegenous to the island as the Veddas. The history of Sinhalese and Vedda relations remains to be studied by a self-respecting new generation of independent native historians, archaeologists and anthropologists, who are not content with parroting their predecessors, the deracinated colonial clones of the mid-20th century.

Curse of colonial clones and the duty of the educated youth

The last mentioned were culturally estranged from their own people through their Western education; their minds had been colonised. They were trained to look at the latter as the ignorant ungrateful beneficiaries of the goodies of colonization, while, at the same time, belittling the efforts of patriots like Anagarika Dharmapala as those of native troublemakers who obstructed the alleged English-initiated modernization that they themselves believed in. Some Sri Lankans of my generation who, as adolescents in the 1960s, had developed a certain iconoclastic attitude towards traditional heroes and the beliefs and values that they represented and championed, were temporarily enamoured of those West-oriented false prophets. It is a pity to note that a significant proportion of today’s educated youth are still stagnating at that immature stage of  a broader political awareness and engagement that is expected of them by a resurgent nation.  This is particularly regrettable at a time when a handful of decrepit old racists among minority politicians are holding the majority Sinhalese community to ransom by aligning themselves with global superpowers who are bent on destabilizing  the Sri Lankan state in relentless pursuit of their geostrategic goals in the region. Politicians representing these powers follow a supranationalist agenda while being narrowly focused on purely nationalist interests within their own countries, which they can’t ignore, lest they be rejected at the polls. It is the national duty of our educated young people, especially the English educated, to stand by the silently suffering majority of Sri Lankans comprising all communities, who are at the receiving end of persecution by both local and foreign politicians, at the current critical juncture instead of hurrahing their oppressors. 

So-called Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka   

Tamil Nadu, located in the southernmost part of subcontinental India, is the historical homeland of Tamils. According to the Unique Identification Aadhar India (updated December 31, 2020), the T.N. population is currently estimated to be 78.8 million individuals, inhabiting an area of over 130,000 km². Sri Lanka that lies to the south of India separated from it by the sea (the Palk Strait) is equal to half of Tamil Nadu in area (i.e.,65, 610 km²) with a population that is significantly less than one third of T.N.’s (i.e., almost 22 million by now as could be projected based on the general census of 2012). Sri Lanka’s current Tamil minority which accounts for 15% of Sri Lanka’s population consists of two groups of Tamils who came to the island in different periods in the country’s history: Ceylon (Sihela) Tamils in the northern parts, whose ancestors settled there permanently just over 800 years ago (from the middle of 13th century CE/Ref. A History of Sri Lanka by K.M. de Silva in repeated editions from 1985 to 2005)  after having arrived as traders, adventurers, invaders, mercenaries, and visiting scholars, etc., are 11% of the island population, while the rest 4% consists of estate or Indian Tamils, subjects of the British empire, who were brought to the southern interior parts as indentured workers to toil on the rubber, coffee, and tea plantations owned by Europeans from the mid-19th to early 20th centuries. Over four million Tamils live outside Tamil Nadu scattered in other countries across the world including Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan Tamil community, who share Sri Lanka with the Sinhalese (75%) and Muslims (9%) as their common homeland, formed 15% (about 3 million) of the island’s total population in 2012 (as already stated). 

(My claims about the history of Tamils in Sri Lanka are based on extant authentic historical, literary, epigraphical and archaeological evidence found across the length and breadth of the island; but these are sure to be disputed by those who rely on the false assertions of certain biased historians and academics who have been deliberately distorting history in the service of the Tamil separatist cause. A glance at the Wikipedia will show anyone interested the plethora of distortions of Sri Lanka’s history concocted by hired fake academics in support of the separatist project.)

A circumstantial discrepancy 

There is a seeming contradiction between Sri Lanka the inalienable only homeland of the Sinhalese and Tamil Nadu the undisputed homeland of the Tamils in terms of their relative current status: while the small island of (Ceylon) Sri Lanka is an independent sovereign state, enjoying membership of the United Nations as such, Tamil Nadu is only one of the 29 states that constitute the single sovereign state of the (federal) Republic of India, whose constitution does not allow separation. The Republic of India occupies a seat in the United Nations. The disgruntled Tamil nationalists (who can’t open their mouths to talk about Tamil nationalism in their own Tamil Nadu homeland, the Indian constitution obliges them to accept Indian nationality, and embrace Indian nationalism) appear to be taking their frustration out on the hapless Sinhalese, who are actually a global minority, over this perceived injustice. Paradoxically, the Sinhala speaking Sri Lanka president Mahinda Rajapaksa was probably the first head of state to address the UN General assembly in Tamil in its history. This was in September 2008. He urged the global Tamils to trust him to deliver justice to Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority in the context of overcoming the armed separatist terrorism that was plaguing his country then. Even the imperial British had ruled the vast landmass that they called India including what we know today as the independent sovereign states of Pakistan (created in 1947) and Bangladesh (created in 1972), as a single entity. The British ruled Ceylon and India as separate countries.

Unrealisable Tamil aspirations and India’s duplicity

Tamils might naturally aspire to have their own sovereign state, and since Tamil Nadu has been their historical homeland for countless millennia, that is where they ought to have it. It is inconceivable that they will be allowed to have that separate state elsewhere, where they are domiciled after having migrated from Tamil Nadu or from any other country they have long been resident in as an immigrant minority. The home of Tamil nationalism must be Tamil Nadu, not Sri Lanka, contrary to what the handful of racists among ordinary Sri Lankan Tamil politicians claim on behalf of the barely 4% of the global Tamil population that live in little Sri Lanka. 

But Indians do not want to have a Tamil separatist problem within their own country. Indian politicians and diplomats are intelligent enough to understand that an independent sovereign state in the north and east of Sri Lanka will be a convenient stepping stone to eventual secession of Tamil Nadu from federal India. That will definitely be a thorn in the flesh for that country. So, what they have effectively done over the past few decades is to export the separatist problem to hapless Sri Lanka, while hypocritically demanding for the Tamil minority in the island what they will not allow Tamil Nadu Tamils themselves within the Republic of India! For example, Tamils in Tamil Nadu are required to sing Jana Mana Gana the Indian  national anthem which happens to be in the Bengali language. According to the Wikipedia, the people of Tamil Nadu also have a state song in Tamil in the form of an “Invocation to Mother Tamil” in addition to the Indian national anthem Jana Mana Gana. But this could only be cold comfort for the Tamil nationalists. In Sri Lanka, under the previous yahapalanaya, the Tamil version of the constitutionally appointed Sinhala language national anthem was sung at national events in the name of fake ‘reconciliation’. Though India would not tolerate Tamil nationalism with separate sovereign identity being accommodated within its territory, it seems ever ready to use it in Sri Lanka in order to promote its own expansionist goals. India apparently wants to control, among Sri Lanka’s other resources, its seaports and airports. 

In 1987 India had friendly relations with Russia. So, to spite the then president UNP’s JR Jayawardane who followed West-leaning foreign policies, India surreptitiously groomed Prabhakaran and trained his rebel followers in military facilities on Indian soil to mount terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka against the state.  When the government troops were on the point of capturing Prabhakaran, and thus putting an end to his terrorism, India interfered in a highhanded manner (a la the infamous parippu-drop operation) to rescue him. This condemned innocent Sri Lankans of all communities to nearly three decades of fratricidal civil war, that they finally brought to an end at great cost, not only in terms of lives lost whose value is beyond count, and much material damage, but in terms of prolonged economic stagnation. Now India is with the Americans as demanded by its own national interest, and it wants Sri Lanka to be its ally against China, which is also a world power. How can Sri Lanka abandon the friendship of China that has been supporting it through thick and thin at all times, without at all interfering in Sri Lanka’s internal politics unlike the West and India? 

(To be concluded)

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