By Rajan Hoole –
Sri Lanka’s Black July – Part 11 –
In South Asia in general the principal mark of identity is caste. Language and religion are transmutable. Thus when the Kandyan kingdom in the 18th century was in need of a Kshatriya prince to fill the throne, a Hindu Tamil-speaking Nayakkar from South India was made king and the protector of Buddhism. Such perceptions of identity still have considerable life as a survival from a feudal past. A passing fashion among Western scholars of the 19th century identified language with race and popular nationalism on both sides began to speak of Sinhalese Aryans and Tamil Dravidians. Kumari Jayawardhana in her work traces the use of new perceptions of identity to hate campaigns against Indian and Moor business competitors and Indian labour from the early 20th century.
The introduction of universal adult franchise with the Donoughmore reforms of 1931 found several members of the Sinhalese ruling class changing their religious allegiance from Christianity to Buddhism. Among the ‘Donoughmore Buddhists’ were Bandaranaike and Jayewardene who had been Anglican Christians. Jayewardene, the choirboy at St. Michael’s, Polwatte, was among the earliest to play the Buddhist card openly. Campaigning in the 40s against his opponent E.W. Perera for the Kelaniya seat, Jayewardene asked, “As much as I hold E.W. Perera in great esteem, how can this hallowed city of Kelaniya be represented by a Christian?”
The UNP took a resounding beating in 1956 and Jayewardene siezed on the Bandaranaike- Chelvanayakam Pact to devolve more power to the North-East, to revive the UNP’s fortunes. Jayewardene organised a march to another ‘hallowed city’ – Kandy with the Temple of the Tooth – to pray for the welfare of Ceylon, which he accused Bandaranaike of selling to the Tamils. Dudley Senanayake, then re-entering politics after 5 years called the B-C Pact an act of treachery. The UNP leaders then publicly swore from the Temple of the Tooth that they would, to the end, oppose the formation of regional councils under the B-C Pact. [See p. 82- 83 of T. Sabaratnam’s The Murder of a Moderate.]
For Jayewardene with his visions of monarchical grandeur, the Temple of the Tooth became an obsession. It was he who began the public appearance of the new head-of-state at the Temple of the Tooth. It was from the precincts of this Temple in the late 70s that some of the notable productions of Cyril Mathew’s Ministry of Industries & Scientific Affairs – the hate literature against the Tamils – were first distributed to the public.
Mathew’s rise to prominence is another interesting phenomenon in Sinhalese nationalism. He comes from one of the service castes who together comprise about 40% of the Sinhalese population and are known to be of fairly recent South Indian origin. Colonial education, particularly under the British, and new commercial opportunities helped many of them to advance within Sinhalese society, although they were only grudgingly accepted by their peers from the Govigama (Sudra, Vellala) caste.
To Jayewardene and Bandaranaike Buddhism was primarily a means to getting votes. To Mathew it was something much more. His zeal for planting or allegedly discovering Buddhist temples in Tamil- speaking areas is well-known. It was as though this zeal was for him a means of fighting for a place in Sinhalese society which tolerated, rather than accepted him. Jayewardene pandered to his vanity by making him MP for the ‘hallowed city’ of Kelaniya, where Mathew in turn made himself President of the Kelaniya Sacred City Trust.
Mathew’s assumed pro-Buddhist and anti- Tamil zeal points to another phenomenon – an attempt to make Buddhism the key element in the Sinhalese identity while playing down caste. Today the most strident of Sinhalese publicists and scholars who move towards demonising the Tamils while eloquently holding out against political accommodation with them, come mainly from the service castes.
The new however jostles uneasily with the old. Gamini Dissanayake was a Kandyan Govigama. During the July 1983 violence he and his wife dropped in one evening among old friends visiting a Tamil lawyer on holiday from Britain. In private discussion, Dissanayake lamented the state of the Left. “Earlier”, he told another visitor, “in dealing with the Left, one could have talked to a good Govigama like Dr. N.M. Perera or to a good Dutch Burgher like Pieter Kenuman”. “But now”, he added, “the leadership of the Left has gone to the scum!”
Part four – Sri Lanka’s Black July: The Cover Up
Part five – 30th July 1983: The Second Naxalite Plot
Part seven – Black July: Thondaman & Muttetuwegama
Part nine – Tamil Merchants In The Pettah – Post July 1983
*From Chapter 9 of Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power – Myth, Decadence and Murder”. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To be continued..