"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
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Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
 
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Selected Writings by Nadesan Satyendra
- நடேசன் சத்தியேந்திரா

Sathyam Commentary
10 May 1998

A Simple Question

"To see ourselves as others see us is a most salutary gift. Hardly less important is the capacity to see others as they see themselves..." - Aldous Huxley, in The Doors of Perception


Nineteen ninety eight  is the 50th year of Sri Lanka's independence from British rule. It is perhaps, an appropriate occasion to ask a simple question:

Q. Why is it that in Sri Lanka, for five long decades since 'independence', we have always had a Sinhala Buddhist as the executive head of government?

Sinhala Sri Lanka President D.B.Wijetunga put the matter in his own forthright fashion when speaking at Anuradhapura, the old Sinhala capital on 2 February 1994:

"Our children should be able to claim that this country is the Sinhalese land (Sinhala Deshaya). There are no races according to Buddhism, but every country has a majority race. However much I try I can't become the Prime Minister of England. Neither can I be the leader of Japan, India or even Tamil Nadu. They have their majority races." (Sinhala owned Sri Lanka Island, 3 February 1994)

There are those who may want to dismiss President Wijetunga's remarks as simply the pre election chauvinism of a Sinhala political leader, bent on garnering votes. But that is to miss the point.

During the past 50 years and more, ethnic identity has in fact determined the way in which both the Sinhala people and the Tamil people have exercised their political right of universal franchise. In this period, no Tamil has ever been elected to a predominantly Sinhala electorate and no Sinhalese has ever been elected to a predominantly Tamil electorate - apart, that is, from multi member constituencies.

The political reality is that the practice of 'democracy' within the confines of an unitary state has led to rule by a permanent Sinhala majority. A Tamil 'however much he may try' cannot become the executive head of government in Sri Lanka.

The Sinhala people are not simply an ethnic group. Cultural identity and political aspirations have fused to give birth to a Sinhala national consciousness. The Sinhala people constitute a nation.

What is a nation? A nation is rooted in kinship and grows through a process of differentiation and opposition. A nation exists with other nations - and because other nations exist. A nation is a togetherness cemented by struggle and suffering. A nation is a political togetherness directed to secure the aspirations of a people for equality and freedom - and to secure the institutions necessary for that purpose.

The Sinhala nation is rooted in kinship and has grown through a process of differentiation and opposition. And it is this that the website opened by the Sri Lanka government, to herald the 50th anniversary of Sri Lanka's independence, proclaimed in December 1997:

"The history of Sri Lanka goes back to pre-historic times with a recorded history of over 2,000 years... documented history began with the arrival of the settlers from North India (Prince Vijaya). They introduced the use of agriculture through a rudimentary system of irrigation. They also introduced the art of government. Of the ancient settlements, Anuradhapura grew into a powerful kingdom under the rule of Pandukabhaya. According to traditional history he is accepted as the founder of Anuradhapura.

During the region of King Devanampiya Tissa, a descendant of Pandukabhaya, Buddhism was introduced in 427 B.C. by Arahat Mahinda, the son of Emperor Asoka of India. This is an important event in Sri Lankan history as it made the country predominantly Buddhist influencing its way of life and culture.

In the mid 2nd century B.C. a large part of North Sri Lanka came under the rule of an invader from South India. From the beginning of the Christian era and up to the end of the 4th century A.D. Sri Lanka was governed by an unbroken dynasty called Lambakarna, which paid great attention to the development of irrigation. A great king of this dynasty King Mahasen (3rd century A.D.) who started the construction of large 'tanks' (reservoirs) which in turn fed smaller reservoirs. Another great 'tank' builder was Dhatusena, who was put to death by his son Kasyapa, who made Sigiriya a royal city with his fortress capital on the summit of the rock.

As a result of invasions from South India the Kingdom of Anuradhapura fell by the end of the 10th century A.D. Vijayabahu I repulsed the invaders and established his capital at Polonnaruwa in the 11th century A.D. Other great kings of Polonnaruwa were Parakrama Bahu the Great and Nissanka Malla, both of whom adorned the city with numerous buildings of architectural beauty.

Invasions continued intermittently and the capital was moved constantly until the Portuguese arrived in 1505, when the chief city was established in Kotte, in the western lowlands. The Portuguese came to trade in spices, but stayed to rule until 1658 in the coastal regions, as did the Dutch thereafter. Dutch rule lasted from 1658 to 1796, in which year they were displaced by the British. During this period the highland kingdom, with its capital Kandy, retained its independence despite repeated assaults by foreign powers who ruled the rest of the country. In 1815 the Kingdom of Kandy was ceded to the British who thus established their rule over the whole island...."

A month after the website was opened, the capsule history was shortened (and sanitised, somewhat) to read:

"Sri Lanka is an ancient land with highly developed prehistoric human settlements. Recorded history begins from about the 4th century BC when people settled down in Anuradhapura. The King of Anuradhapura embraced Buddhism in 427 BC. Invasions from South India continued and in the 11th Century AD, after repeated threats from South India, the Sinhalese Kingdom moved its capital to Polonnaruwa and then southwards. This resulted in the abandonment of the highly developed tank (reservoir) irrigated rice cultivation system, which the Sinhalese had developed and resulted in the decline of the Sri Lankan agrarian Economy. The remains of the civilization from 500 BC to 1300 AD are the spirit and inspiration of the people of Sri Lanka. (Sri Lanka Web Window)

It was this capsule history which also appeared in an advertising supplement sponsored by the Sri Lanka government in the Washington Post on 4 February 1948.  Ex President D.B.Wijetunga and current Sri Lanka President Chandrika Kumaratunga are at one in regarding the history of the island as the history of the Sinhala people - with the Tamils cast in the role of 'invaders'. In this they echo the words of D.C. Vijayawardhana in 1953:

"The history of Sri Lanka is the history of the Sinhalese race... The Sinhalese people were entrusted 2500 years ago, with a great and noble charge, the preservation... of Buddhism..." (The Revolt in the Temple, by D.C. Vijayawardhana, 1953)

The views of the Sinhala historian and Cambridge scholar, Paul Peiris though it may appeal to common sense, finds no place in the history that the Sri Lanka government has chosen to propagate in cyberspace on the 50th anniversary of the Sinhala people's independence from British rule:

`..it stands to reason that a country which was only thirty miles from India and which would have been seen by Indian fisherman every morning as they sailed out to catch their fish, would have been occupied as soon as the continent was peopled by men who understood how to sail... Long before the arrival of Prince Vijaya (from North India), there were in Sri Lanka five recognised isvarams of Siva which claimed and received the adoration of all India.

These were Tiruketeeswaram near Mahatitha; Munneswaram dominating Salawatte and the pearl fishery; Tondeswaram near Mantota; Tirkoneswaram near the great bay of Kottiyar and Nakuleswaram near Kankesanturai.Their situation close to these ports cannot be the result of accident or caprice and was probably determined by the concourse of a wealthy mercantile population whose religious wants called for attention...' (Paul E. Pieris: Nagadipa and Buddhist Remains in Jaffna : Journal of Royal Asiatic Society, Ceylon Branch Vol.28)

Neither do the observations of British Colonial Secretary, Sir Hugh Cleghorn, find a place in Sri Lanka's encapsulated history in cyberspace:

"Two different nations, from a very ancient period, have divided between them the possession of the Island: the Sinhalese inhabiting the interior in its Southern and western parts from the river Wallouwe to Chilaw, and the Malabars (Tamils) who possess the Northern and Eastern Districts. These two nations differ entirely in their religion, language and manners." - Sir Hugh Cleghorn, British Colonial Secretary, June 1879

Here, there is a need to separate myth from historical fact. Ex President D.B.Wijetunga and current Sri Lanka President Chandrika Kumaratunga are wrong to promote the view that the island was first 'settled' by the Sinhala people and then 'invaded' by the Tamils - wrong, because that is a myth.

However, nations often do resort to myths to reinforce their identity and legitimacy. That they do so does not have the result that that nation does not exist.

The capsule history promoted by Sri Lanka in cyberspace is right to the extent that it points out the growth of the Sinhala nation  through a process of differentiation from the Tamil people and in opposition to them.

Here, the question is not whether the Sinhala people were the first settlers in the island or not. The undeniable fact is that Buddhism did survive in the island of Sri Lanka though it did not survive as a major religion in India, the land of its birth. The undeniable fact is that most Tamils are Hindus and that Sinhalese as a language grew in the island of Sri Lanka but was not known in India. The interlinked growth of Sinhalese and Buddhism within the protective environs of an island is a fact - and the Sinhala Buddhist national identity is no myth.

To the Sinhala people, the Tamils in the island (both in the north-east and in the plantations) as well as over 50 million Tamils in Tamil Nadu across a narrow strip of water, are all Tamils - alien Dravidians who speak a foreign tongue, who profess a different religion and who, most importantly,  trace their origins to different roots. The Sinhala people see themselves as a minority in the region and fear invasion and subjugation by an alien Tamil majority and a dominant Tamil culture.

Some 6 years ago, on 29 December 1991, the Ven. Madihe Pannaseeha Mahanayaka Thera gave expression to fears such as these, in the context of certain proposals submitted by Minister Thondaman for the settlement of the conflict in the island:

‘‘Minister Thondaman’s proposals... are formulated on the basis of a 'traditional Tamil homeland' and self-determination for Tamils.

‘Traditional Tamil homeland’ would best be introduced to the world as an amusing bit of fiction ...

Anyone who has any love for this country and puts the interest of this country beyond his own and his own narrow racial group, has accepted that any devolution of power should guarantee the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. These, in other words, are not negotiable.

Mr Thondaman’s proposals go against these. A few illustrations would prove this... If Trincomalee, Kankesanthurai, Talaimannar and Palaly are handed over to the North and Eastern provinces, how can the Central Government ensure the defence, security and sovereignty of the country?...

Will not the LTTE declare Eelam immediately after they have built their own invincible armed forces. Can the LTTE be trusted at any cost in view of their past records?

After declaring Eelam, will they keep quiet? Will they not push their boundaries south until they envelop the hill country? The Government armed forces would not be able to resist them, once the two thirds of the coast of this country with all harbours and ports there, are given on a platter to them.

Mr Thondaman’s proposals will sow the seeds of a permanent war between the Sinhalese in the South and the Tamils in the North and East until the Sinhalese are completely subjugated and reduced to the position of a minority in the whole of Sri Lanka...?

The error in dismissing these fears as being rooted  in 'myths' and in a 'majority minority complex' is that such an approach promotes the belief that reason will dissolve the 'myth' and that with appropriate 'psychotherapy' the 'complex' will disappear . 'It is all the fault of the Buddhist monks'. 'Evil Sinhala political leaders were ‘hoodwinking’ the Sinhala masses by exploiting irrational fears.' The political reality is that the Sinhala Buddhist identity is not simply a creation of the Mahavamsa - rather, the Mahavamsa was a reflection of that identity and helped to consolidate it.

In the 1950s some Sinhala Marxists who subscribed to the 'majority minority complex  theory' directed their efforts to curing the Sinhala masses of their 'complex'. After years of failure, Dr.Colvin R.De Silva (a declared Marxist and a leader of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party) accepted appointment as Minister of Constitutional Affairs in Mrs.Srimavo Bandaranaike's government in 1970. Rejecting the proposal for a federal constitution, he urged the Sri Lanka Constituent Assembly on 15 March 1971:

"Mr. Chairman, there is a Unitary Constitution in Sri Lanka. This has been there for a very long time... If we were to divide the country and unite once again we will face many problems as evidenced by our history.. .. I submit this proposal for a Unitary Constitution for approval by all sections of this Assembly."

It was the same Dr.Colvin R.de Silva who 15 years earlier had declaimed eloquently in Parliament:

"Do we want a single state or do we want two? Do we want one Ceylon or do we want two?.. These are the issues that in fact we have been discussing under the form and appearance of the language issue... if you mistreat them (Tamils), if you ill treat them.... if you oppress and harass them, in the process you may cause to emerge in Ceylon, from that particular racial stock with its own language and tradition, a new nationality to which we will have to concede more claims than it puts forward now... If we come to the stage where instead of parity, we through needless insularity, get into the position of suppressing the Tamil ... federal demand... there may emerge separatism." (Dr Colvin R. De Silva, Sinhala Opposition Member of Parliament, Hansard, June 1956)

That was in 1956. In 1972, another Lanka Sama Samaja Party leader, Leslie Goonewardene, (also a declared Marxist) rationalised his party's support for Mrs.Bandaranaike's 1972 Constitution. He explained his party's shift from 'parity' to the entrenchment of the 'Sinhala only' law in the new 1972 Constitution, by saying that his party had earlier failed to recognise that it was the Sinhalese who were in a minority in the region.

In an important sense, Leslie Goonewardene was right. The fears that the Sinhala nation had (and continue to have) are not irrational - they are rooted in fact. State boundaries do not a prison make. Fifty million Tamils across 20 - 30 miles of water is no Mahavamsa myth. It is a continuing  political reality.The growing togetherness of more than 70 million Tamil people living in many lands is also a continuing  political reality. And, that particular river is not about to flow backwards.

The Sinhala people seek to defend their island home against alien rule and to protect their Sinhala Buddhist national identity. In their fear of assimilation by the Tamil majority in the region, they themselves adopt an assimilative approach to the Tamils in the island of Sri Lanka. They see this as a necessary step in defending their 'island home' against alien domination.

It is this reasoning that leads them to deny, at every turn, the existence of a Tamil homeland in the island - and at the sametime, deliberately attempt to divide and colonise it. It is this reasoning which led them to disenfranchise the Tamils in the plantations soon after independence in 1948, because to them they were all Tamils.   It is this which led them to impose the Sinhala Lion Flag as the 'national' flag of newly independent Ceylon and later in 1956, impose Sinhalese as the only official language.

It is the same reasoning, which led the Sinhala people in 1972 to call the island by its old Sinhala name 'Sri Lanka', repeal the Constitutional safeguards afforded to minorities and secure a privileged position for Buddhism in the Sri Lanka Constitution.

It this reasoning which led the Sinhala people to cry 'separatism' when the Tamil Federal Party campaigned for a federal constitution. Professor Marshall Singer was wrong (and somewhat patronising) when he declared to the US Congress in November 1995:

"One of the tragedies of Sri Lanka is that the Sinhalese have never understood the meaning of federalism. To them it meant creating a separate country on the island, which they simply could not abide." (Professor Marshall Singer - US Congress Committee on International Relations Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific Hearing on Sri Lanka, November 14,1995)

The Sinhala people have always  understood the meaning of federalism. After all, Dr.Colvin R.De Silva's knowledge of constitutional law (and political science) was not second to that of Professor Marshall Singer. The Sinhala people were aware that federal structures have helped some countries to stay united. But they fear that in Sri Lanka, federalism will be a stepping stone not simply to a division of the country but to a pan Tamil state which may threaten the very existence of the Sinhala nation. If the island of Sri Lanka was situated near the South Pole, a genuine federal structure may well have come about several decades ago.

It is not without reason therefore, that Sinhala political leaders cry separatism at the mere mention of the word 'federalism'. They know that their cry will strike a responsive chord not only in the hearts but also in the reasoning minds of the Sinhala people, concerned as they are to safeguard their own Sinhala Buddhist national identity against alien Dravidians. They rely not simply on the past but on the present as well - they rely not simply on history but on geography.   Sinhala political leaders do not seek to 'hoodwink' the Sinhala masses - they seek to 'tune into' the reasoned concerns of the Sinhala people.

Again, it was not without reason that the Tamil Federal Party called itself the Tamil Arasu Katchi - which directly translated means Tamil Kingdom Party or Tamil Government Party. It was not that there was no equivalent Tamil word for ‘federal’. There was. It was not that Tamils did not understand the meaning of ‘federalism’. They did. But the Federal Party directed its appeal (in Tamil) to a growing Tamil national consciousness rooted in the Tamil heritage and consolidated by the 'assimilative' approach adopted by the Sinhala majority - with its attendant discrimination and oppression.

The Tamils in the island of Sri Lanka have sometimes responded to Sinhala fears of a pan Tamil state by emphasising the separateness of their 'Eelam Tamil' or 'Eelavar' identity from that of Tamils in the South of India. But despite such Eelam Tamil protestations, the Sri Lankan government and the Sinhala people have continued to act on the basis that the Tamil people are one. And so has the New Delhi government. Indian Foreign Secretary Dixit comments in his book titled 'Assignment Colombo':

"It was also my considered opinion that the LTTE's insistence on the creation of a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka, based on ethnic, linguistic and religious considerations, would have far-reaching negative implications for India's unity and territorial integrity too..." 

And in 1992, New Delhi banned the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam not on the ground of 'terrorism', but on the ground that the LTTE's demand for a Tamil homeland was a threat to the integrity of India.

However, as both Colombo and New Delhi have continued to act on the basis that all Tamils are one, the Tamils have become increasingly one.

Tamils in the plantations in the island of Sri Lanka have begun to empathise with the struggle for Tamil Eelam - and so have the ordinary people of Tamil Nadu.  The actions of Colombo and New Delhi have fertilised the growing togetherness of more than 70 million Tamil people living in many lands. Tamil political leaders  in the plantations and in Tamil Nadu have begun to see  the need to recognise the strength of this rising Tamil consciousness. Distress is binding ordinary Tamil people together.

Here, it needs to be said that this growing Tamil togetherness is directed not to the disintegration of India but to the growth of a greater, stronger and freer Indian union - an Indian union where the several nations of India may associate with each other in equality and in freedom. The Tamil people are also Indians.

Again, the growing togetherness of the Tamil people is not directed against the Sinhala nation. A self confident Tamil nation will have no need to conquer and rule the Sinhala people. It is the weak who fear and who in their fear seek to subjugate and assimilate, so that they may feel secure.

The Sinhala nation fears the growing togetherness of the Tamil people and so it lives a lie. It is a nation that dare not speak its name. To pursue its assimilative agenda, the Sinhala nation masquerades as the Sri Lankan nation (albeit with a privileged position for Buddhism and in practice, for the Sinhala language as well).

The attempts of Sinhala political leaders to deny the masquerade often exposes the lie they live.

Sri Lanka President Chandrika Kumaratunga, speaking in July 1995, declared:

'The Sinhalese Buddhist majority should merge with the Sinhala Christians, Tamil Hindus, Tamil Christians, Muslims and others to form one Lankan nation. This is the greatest task we are facing today'

She glossed over the political reality that when a 75% ruling majority 'merges' with smaller 'minorities', the result is that which is usually known as 'assimilation'. President Kumaratunga buttressed her 'assimilative' merger theory by recourse to 'history'. She declared:

'Our ancestors succeeded in forging one nation. Even those communities who retained their separate identities lived with the Sinhala Buddhist majority as one nation."

In claiming that her ancestors had succeeded in forging one nation, President Kumaratunga was following in the footsteps of ex President J.R.Jayawardene who too claimed in 1983 that the country had been a united nation for 2500 years, moving the International Commission of Jurists  to comment:

"... (the President's) statement that the country had been united for 2,500 years flies in the face of history. There was for some centuries an independent Tamil kingdom and the chronicles report frequent wars between Sinhalese and Tamil kings. Separate Sinhalese and Tamil communities existed on the island from the precolonial era until the administrative unification of the island by the British in 1833." (Supplement to Professor Virginia Leary Report on a Mission to Sri Lanka 1981-83 published by the ICJ)

It is to the same 'one nation' theme that President Kumaratunga returned in her message to mark Sri Lanka's 50th year of independence on 4 February 1998. She proclaimed:

``At this decisive moment in the history of our country, while we take pride in our achievements, let us have the humility to accept our failures... We have failed to forge together the diverse communities of our peoples into one coherent and strong Sri Lankan nation. We have faltered along for 50 years, permitting the differences to emerge and dominate our social fabric, rather than nurture the commonalities".

President Kumaratunga was right to admit that after 50 years of independence from British rule, there was as yet no 'coherent Sri Lankan nation'. But then the historical fact is that there never was a 'coherent Sri Lankan nation' - after all the Sinhala people and the Tamil people were brought within the confines of one state for the first time in 1833 by an alien British conqueror. And nations cannot be created by Presidential fiat.

The words of Tamil leader, Nadarajah Thangathurai uttered in February 1983 (a few months before he was murdered whilst in the custody of the Sri Lanka government) serve to underline this political reality:

"Allegations are made that we are asking for separation, that we are trying to divide the country. When were we undivided after all? Our traditional land, captured by the European invaders has never been restored to us. We have not even mortgaged our land at any time to anyone in the name of one country. Our land has changed hands off and on under various regimes, and that is what has happened... What we ask for is not division but freedom. "

Again, President Kumaratunga's own speech reflected the lack of 'coherence' that she decried - and served to expose the 'one nation' masquerade. On the one hand,   President Kumaratunga spoke of the need to nurture the 'commonalities', on the other hand, she addressed her message to a   'great nation with an ancient civilisation nurtured in the traditions of Buddhism'. She declared:

"The silent majority watched in horror, while a great nation with an ancient civilisation...nurtured in the traditions of the noble Buddhist philosophy of peace, tolerance and love veered off into a terrifying era of ethnic, political and social violence"

And it was the remains of this ancient Sinhala Buddhist civilisation, that President Kumaratunga  proclaimed in cyberspace as 'the spirit and inspiration of the people of Sri Lanka':

"The King of Anuradhapura embraced Buddhism in 427 BC. Invasions from South India continued and in the 11th Century AD, after repeated threats from South India, the Sinhalese Kingdom moved its capital to Polonnaruwa and then southwards. This resulted in the abandonment of the highly developed tank (reservoir) irrigated rice cultivation system, which the Sinhalese had developed and resulted in the decline of the Sri Lankan agrarian Economy.The remains of the civilization from 500 BC to 1300 AD are the spirit and inspiration of the people of Sri Lanka" (Sri Lanka Web Window)

That the Tamil people do not trace their origins to a 'civilisation nurtured in the traditions of Buddhism' (leave alone being 'inspired' by it), that the Tamil people by and large profess a different religion, that the Tamil people speak a different language and trace their history to a different origin, are facts that President Kumaratunga ignored and would have her audience ignore - ignore, so that the masquerade may continue.

And, so we return to our simple question.

Q. Why is it that in Sri Lanka, for five long decades since 1948, we have always had a Sinhala Buddhist as the executive head of government ?

A. Because, a Sinhala Buddhist nation masquerading as the Sri Lankan nation, will always have a Sinhala Buddhist as executive head of government.

Behind the masquerade lies the political reality - and it is this political reality that will need to be addressed, if the conflict in the island is to end.

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