By Michael Roberts –
Rajan Hoole is now presenting his studies of Sri Lanka Tamil political ferment in the 20th century via the Colombo Telegraph and local newspapers. This earnest endeavour is to be applauded. However, such surveys are not without their problems. Serious commentary on his arguments – as distinct from off-the-cuff blog comments – will have to dwell on the “depth and reach” of his documentation.
The historical material, whether secondary literature or primary sources, on the politics of the period extending from the 1920s to the 1980s is considerable. For one hand to delve into the readily available data at depth in brief articles is well-nigh impossible. Even with this caveat it is surprising that Hoole has made no reference to Arasaratnam’s and KM de Silva’s essays on the constitutional agitation of the early 20th century, Ranjith Amarasinghe’s study of the Trotskite movement (2000) or the documentary material on GG Ponnambalam’s approaches to the Colonial Office in Documents of the Ceylon National Congress and Nationalist Politics in Ceylon: 1929-1950 (1977).
Moreover, there is the issue of written records that remain unexplored. As far as I know the documentary material in the Tamil language from the late 19th century into the 1950s has not been researched in depth by scholars. This means that our awareness of the principal intellectual currents in the Tamil world, including those strands that writers of liberal/radical disposition would call “Tamil communalism,” is minimal.
This gap in our historical stock is highlighted by the fact that the historical findings on “Sinhala communalism” are considerable – though I stress, here, that the investigations of the political outpourings in Sinhala during the interwar years (1918-45) are limited and thus unsatisfactory.
Rajan Hoole’s recent writings are leavened by his attention to the agitation of the Jaffna Youth Congress of the 1920s/30s and the researches of Jane Russell embodied in her book Communal Politics under the Donoughmore Constitution 1931-1947 (1982). Jane Russell and Janice Jiggins from England were both pursuing their doctoral dissertations in Sri Lanka in the 1970s and Russell’s supervisor was KM de Silva. They were part of my friendship circle and active members of the Ceylon Studies Seminar, a cross-disciplinary research and seminar cluster centred around the Arts Faculty of Peradeniya University.
Russell spent a considerable amount of time in the Jaffna Peninsula in the early 1970s as part of the investigations that led to her dissertation (eventually transformed into a book in 1984) and one facet of her oral encounters there provided a vital ingredient in consolidating my pessimistic reading of the emerging political situation vis á vis Sinhala-Tamil relations (mind you, this was at a time when the first JVP insurgency had failed and the ‘Naxalite’ Left challenge was also in the forefront). At ome point in 1973 she told me that there were some youth in the Peninsula who told her they had plans to bomb Colombo if there was no movement on (federalism)/ separation; nd when she r indicated that such acts would result in reprisals causing Tamil civilian deaths, their response was that they didn’t care if all the Colombo Tamils died as they were “traitors to the Tamil cause.” I took this vital piece of data seriously – very, very seriously. These guys had moved to the extremist pole: there were no limits. I did not broach ethnographic etiquette and ask Jane for further details on whom the youth were. So, I fed this ‘piece of dynamite’ into my stock of knowledge. It consolidated my deep concerns, then around 1973, about the widening Sinhala-Tamil split.
My reasoning then was founded on several factors. One: ever since I had commenced teaching in Sinhala at the Department of History at Peradeniya University in March 1966 after returning from England, I was exposed to the chit-chat and political discussions within the Arts Faculty, notably in its “Common Room,” Two: engaged as I was in collecting oral history reminiscences and data by interviewing Sri Lankan CCS men as well as politicians, I had to address contemporary political issues while pursuing inquiries into the relationship between the politicians and the administrative service in the State Council era. These topics embraced the issue of the transfer of power in British times and the competing claims of “Ceylonese nationalism”, “Sinhala communalism”, “Tamil communalism” and “Left Socialism” from the 1930s onwards. Three: these paths of interest were deepened further by my commitment to editing the documents of the Ceylon National Congress on an unpaid commission from the Department of National Archives. Four: because of these interests I had launched a new history course entitled “Nationalism and Its Problems” in the year 1972, a topic that was cast in comparative mode and embraced nationalism in Europe as well as its expressions worldwide (including Central Asia and South East Asia). Five: set in such a context and located as I was at Peradeniya University, I was fully alive to the ferment among the Tamil intelligentsia in opposition to the gerrymandering of university admissions via a district quota and standardization scheme established by the United Front government of Mrs. Bandaranaike — a scheme that aggravated pre-existing Tamil dissatisfaction going back to the 1950s and even further back. Six: the occasional meeting with Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe, a mentor and friend from my undergraduate days, added grist to my concerns because he was at the centre of mediatory efforts among the intelligentsia of the day and was fully aware of the developing ultra-nationalist undercurrents. “Bishop Laks” as we all called him, even featured as one of the speakers at a seminar on the constitution of 1972 arranged by the CSS at Peradeniya in late 1972 or early 1973, with political scientist Professor AJ Wilson from the Economics Department as another of the keynote speakers. Whether then or on another occasion Bishop Lak told me that the Federal Party leaders were quite bitter about the manner In which their representations to the Committee formulating what became the Republican Constitution of 1972 had been listened to dismissive fashion.
It was this grounding that inspired me to suggest to the CSS core that we should arrange a conference on “The Sinhala Tamil Problem” in Colombo so that we could reach as wide an audience as possible. This idea was attacked by WI Siriweera and a few of the United Front apparatchiks in the Arts Faculty. Eventually, however, the key organisers bided their time and with aid from Mark Cooray at Law College, the Marga Institute and Revd Kenneth Fernando at the Anglican Cathedral a whole day conference was organized at the Cathedral’s hall in Bauddhaloka Mawatha in early October 1973 – an operation that was a major logistical exercise for us in Peradeniya.
The morning session was devoted to setting the context with the three speakers being Dr. Chandra R de Silva (History Peredeniya), Senator Murugeysen Tiruchelvam (barrister and Federal Party) and Nissanka Wijeyeratne (ex-CCS and SLFP). The afternoon session was devoted to the topic of “Bridge Building” and featured Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe, Neville Jayaweera (ex-CCS and Marga), V. Karalasingham of the LSSP and myself.
Mark Cooray served as chairperson and was armed with a bell to maintain the rule that those who spoke from the floor were restricted to a specified set of minutes. These presentations from individual members of the house, I stress, were of some significance. It was the first occasion on which I had heard Appapillai Amirthalingam and Murugesu Sivasithamparam speak. Janice Jiggins was among those who came up to the microphone and presented their thoughts. I cannot recall whether Jane Russell did so.
This gathering was designed to spawn ideas promoting paths of appeasement. In hindsight one can now say: that goal was utopian. Nor did conference experience lessen my pessimism about the implications of the sharpening Sinhala-Tamil divide. Gerald Peiris added another little tit-bit of ethnography to this line of reasoning. As I travelled with him by car in Kandy a few days later, he drew attention to the manner in which one of Wijeyeratne’s remarks had aroused Tiruchelvam to histrionic anger: “if a gentleman like Tiruchelvam can get so worked up, what hope have we with the [Tamil] youth!” said he. Peiris knew Tiruchlelvam intimately because both he and CR de Silva had been represented gratis by that gentleman in a legal wrangle with the Ministry of Education. So his reading was significant.
However, in my glum reading of the situation it was the thinking of the Tamil youth that Jane Russell had highlighted earlier that carried greater weight. Thus, in 1973 as well as the months that followed from November 1973 to June 1975, my pessimistic assessment remained. I was, I emphasise, not aware then of the incident involving Ponnudurai Sivakumaran. Nor was I aware of the several underground militant associations that had been set up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including the Tamil New Tigers.
My reasoning arose from my knowledge of deep-set Sinhala thinking going back into the 19th century – a strand that remained central in the1970s. My first exposure to this seed-bed had been in the writings of Anagarika Dharmapala. In an important essay addressed in the English language: “A Message to the Young Men of Ceylon” in 1912 Dharmapala moved unthinkingly within his arguments to speaking to “We Sinhalese.” Thus, the majoritarian part merged with the whole. In my reading this slippage was deadly in its implications. When the WHOLE and the PART are seen as one in such a seamless taken-for-granted fashion, a problem cannot be redressed because it is not viewed as a problem. This ideological fusion, in my analysis, had blocked accommodation for decades. It was a central contention in the paper I presented in Colombo in October 1973.
This impediment, in my further reading then in the 1970s, remained a major ideological obstacle to accommodation. This was one of the major historical contentions inserted within an article I penned in Heidelberg, Germany in 1976, one entitled “Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka and Sinhalese Perspectives: Barriers to Accommodation.” It was presented initially at a seminar at SOAS in 1976 and appeared eventually in Modern Asian Studies in 1978. I also indicated therein that the Sri Lanka situation could easily go down the paths that had been being forged in Cyprus, Lebanon and Northern Ireland.
This set of motifs was central to one of the “theme songs” in my web site Thuppahi when I set it up in 2009. Alongside the ‘pillar’ clarified in the note “Why Thuppahi,” I imposed another pillar: entitled “Sinhala Mind Set.” That mind-set remains an ideological cancer today as I have insisted in several essays in recent years — alas arguments that do not seem to have much mileage in vital circles).
However, it takes two to tango. Enter Jane Russell once again. Hoole’s recent excursions prompted me to review my own writings and my fading memory was re-drawn to some of the comments (blogs) that had been inserted in response to “Sinhala Mind Set” – notably several by Jane Russell. Her remarks are informative – taking me to an arena where my information was/is limited. Liberals and radicals who happen to be Tamil should take note. Rajan Hoole has to take note as well. So, I bring up Jane’s commentary to the web-world once again – full-frontal, stark.
I invite Tamils and other thoughtful commentators to respond and add grist to our thinking mill. I will be complementing this collection with a bibliography that may conceivably assist serious researchers.
Jane Russell’s Comments on the Discussion in and around SINHALA MIND SET, 10 March 2012
Thanks for your thoughtful and reasoned comments on the Sinhala mind-set with which I totally agree. However, it takes two to tango… the Jaffna (and to a lesser extent East coast) Tamils also have a similar mind-set. At their back they feel the power of 60 million or so south Indian Tamils who give them assurance that they too can turn a part of Sri Lanka (the north-east) into a whole — a Tamil whole. Thus we had the claims of 50-50 before independence (which many Sinhalese and Tamils understood to be 50% of Sri Lanka for Tamils and 50% for Sinhalese — it was not this at all but the slogan carried the idea that it might be). And later so many of the Eelamists produced maps showing almost half the land mass and even more of the coastline to be “Tamil homelands”. Even now so many Tamil fundamental nationalists claim that Negombo is a Tamil town. This is all just a fruitless foray into a political cul-de-sac down unresearchable paths of forgotten and probably bloody history: I personally and idiosyncratically believe that domesticated winged dinosaurs were used by Sri Lankan kings as virtual spy planes (launched from the huge cave at Ella) to fight off an army of gigantic dinosaur gorillas from south Indian invaders — which led to the whole Ravanna myth. But I’d never expect to turn such eccentric crankiness into a theory on which to build a modern nation-state… but both the Sinhala Buddhist fundamentalists and Tamil fundamental nationalists seem to dwell in the fields of fantasy best left to JR Tolkein and JK Rowling!!
…. (Once, while waiting for a CTB bus at Kurumbacciddy Junction in 1974, I saw a blackboard advertising a lecture by the then proto-LTTE which showed speedboats pulling the Jaffna peninsula across the Palk Straits and joining it to Tamil Nadu…..) Meanwhile, the real nation-building (including proper historical research) is kicked off the field by the loonies who can shout louder and sloganise more easily ….
with best wishes and much sadness at so much blood having flowed under the bridge and still so few recognising what a waste of lives it has all been….
A Response to Jane from Chandre Dharmawardana, 4 April 2012
“Once, while waiting for a CTB bus at Kurumbacciddy Junction in 1974, I saw a blackboard advertising a lecture by the then proto-LTTE which showed speedboats pulling the Jaffna peninsula across the Palk Straits and joining it to Tamil Nadu…”
There have been articles on the Federal option for Sri Lanka, published not too long ago. On reading some of them carefully, one realizes that the Federalism envisaged is federating with Tamil Nadu. This is a perfectly logical proposition, already followed by some sections of the Christian church.
Jane’s reply to Chandre, 5 April 2012,
Hi Chandre, Thanks for your comment and the chance to further explain.
What I was trying to say in my overall comment, of which you have extracted a small portion, is that there are absurdly unrealisable and positively dangerous options posited by extremists within the Sinhala Buddhist warrior camp as well as by the Tamil warriors of the LTTE et al which each camp then takes seriously and thereby can justify their equally crazy antithetical position. It is “50-50” in terms of who can out-trump the other in going more and more into the realms of political fantasy. However, the victims of this assault on the rational instinct are the political moderates who understand that mediation and compromise is the only the way forward and also the civilians who are sacrificed to this warrior mentality.
The example you use is typical of the kind of impossible scenario sketched out by the LTTE to their less worldly followers as something that could be achieved. Equally, the Sinhalese who talked (and still do) of “sending back to south India” Tamils who refuse to “Sinhalise” — an attitude which played nicely into the hands of the warrior Tamil nationalists who were able to introduce the label of “ethnic cleansing” into the global debate and thereby gain useful support among the human rights lobby and media in the west – are either shooting themselves in the foot or deliberately provoking the Tamils to adopt an even more extreme position. Whether cock-up or conspiracy, it is bad for peace and reconciliation and that is what is required now.
Two generations of Sri Lankans have endured thirty plus years of civil war plus a nasty backhander from nature with the tsunami: at least the man-inspired misery can be ameliorated … but not if the Sinhala and Tamil warriors continue to dominate intellectual debate.
A Comment from Roberts aka Thuppahi, 5 April 2012
To add to Jane’s latest note, a friend in London with links across all ethnicities had this to say: “I am aware however that even onetime moderate or liberal Tamils, as distinct from the pure LTTE rump, have of recent become quite paranoid and look on anyone trying to maintain some sanity as being opposed to them, or as being apologists for the government. “Anyone who is not with us is against us” is what they are saying. However, given the hardening pro – Sinhala line within the South, and the apologetic stance taken by many onetime liberal Sinhala intellectuals in the South, such an extreme countervailing reaction from the Tamils is understandable.….. What is happening now is that the confrontation is widening and the middle ground is fast disappearing.”
A few months back my sentiments were similar in that I felt that within the middle class strata and politicoes on both sides in Sri Lanka the situation is reminiscent of the 1960s and 1970s [when I lost hope].
This list is directed towards encouraging serious students to delve more deeply into the historical processes that have wrought such havoc within Sri Lanka’s history. While I have read or delved into most of the items cited, I can hardly claim—at this point of time–that I recall the arguments and data therein. The idea is to stimulate Hoole and others of the same assiduous temperament to pursue further researches. Rigourously.
Abeysekera, C. et al 1998 Unitarism, devolution and majoritarian elitism. A response to the interim report of the Sinhala Commission, Colombo: Social Scientists’ Association.
Amarasekera, Gunadasa 2000b ‘The rape of nationhood’, Island, 19 July 2000.
Amarasinghe, Y. Ranjith 2000 Revolutionary Idealism and Parliamentary Politics: A Study of Trotskyism in Sri Lanka, Colombo: Social scientists’ Association.
Amunugama, Sarath 1979 ‘Ideology and class interest in one of Piyadasa Sirisena’s novels: the new image of the “Sinhala Buddhist” nationalist’ in M Roberts (ed.) Collective identities, nationalisms and protest in modern Sri Lanka, Colombo: Marga Institute, pp 314-36
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 Newspaper and web editors tend prefer articles of 700-1500 words in length. That constraint and the format of print media discourage documentation. So Hoole’s historical explorations may have been constrained by these factors.
 There have been studies of Arumukar Navalar’s activism in boosting the Hindu revival in the 19th century, while it is probable that work by K. Sivathamby’ and Revd Thaninayagam on Tamil literature explored some aspects that had political implications. See Young and Jebanesan 1995; and Hellmann-Rajanayagam 1989 & 1994.
 Documents in Sinhala have been studied by several scholars not only with reference to the Buddhist revival, but extending to the activities of cultural associations with political import. In particular studies of the temperance movement in the early 20th century and the factors promoting the mini-pogrom directed against the Moors in 1915 were directly focused upon Sinhalese nationalism and most studies deployed data in Sinhala. See Wickremaratne 1969; Malalgoda 1973; PTM Fernando 1971; John Rogers 1989; V Kumari Jayawardena 1970 & 1972; Jayasekera 1970 and Roberts “Stimulants” in Roberts 1979; Roberts 1989b; 1990, 1994b and 1996.
 KNO Dharmadasa’s work on Munidasa Kumaratunga and the hela movement is an exception. Kumari Jayawardena has delved into a few sources in Sinhala in this period and I have dabbled occasionally but the agitations in the Sinhala language in these decades have not been researched much – as far as I am aware.
 The Ceylon Studies Seminar was initiated on 7 November 1968 with a presentation by AJ Wilson on “Sinhalese Tamil Relationships and the Problem of National Integration.” The series lasted till the late 1970s because of the energies of CR de Silva and SWR de Samarasinghe. Russell & Jiggins presented a paper on “Dedigama 1973: A Profile of a By-election in Sri Lanka” in 1973, the 12th paper (and cumulatively 44th) that year.
 Much later in the late 1980s I did ask Jane if any of the individuals she had heard expressing such views were key personnel in the militant organisations and she indicated that none were.
 These interviews, tapping over 100 persons in Lanka, were in the course of the years 1966 to 1969. They included such eminent Sri Lankans as Colvin r de Silva, WA de Silva, M. Rajendra, Leslie Goonewardene, MD Banda, Vernon Gunasekera, Shelton Fernando, Sir V. Coomaraswamy and Hector Abhayavardhana. For fuller details, see Roberts Oral History Project, http://www.adelaide.edu.au/library/special/mss/roberts/… click on the link to Adelaide Research and Scholarship under Series 1 – Digital versions
 I had located the documents in the possession of JR Jayewardena and he donated the vast stock to the Archives on the understanding that they would be collated for publication – a venture sustained by Minister Nissanka Wijeyerate in the 1970s with support from Messrs Dewaraja and Haris de Silva of the Archives.
 Having heard an eminent scholar named Alexandre Bennigsen present a talk at the University of Chicago in late 1970 on the dormant but virile nationalities in the Central Asian regions of the Soviet Union, I used the book by Mortimer Wheeler in my course work to outline the situation and nationalistic prospects there. Likewise, Truong Buu Lam’s book (1967) indicated to me that Vietnamese identity had deep roots and would eventually generate friction with China.
 See Chandra R de Silva 1974 and 1979.
 The pro-UF coterie at Peradeniya had generated a stir and sought to influence the informal CSS organisers (myself, Samaraweera, CR de Silva and Peiris), at an organizational Siriweera decreed that Sri Lanka’s problems were economic and that the ethnic issue was of little import. As their energies flagged some of us proceeded to arrange seminars as per usual without their input.
 Sivakumaran (Vellalar stock) was a militant whose attempt to carry out a punishing act of assassination failed. When cornered by police subsequently, he committed suicide by swallowing cyanide in order to protect his comrades in arms. His funeral at UrumpIrai in 1974 was marked by a hartal in the Jaffna Peninsula writ large, while the leading Tamil politicians were berated and assaulted with slippers when they visited that domain. My familiarity with that set of events was derived much later (see Roberts, “Filial Devotion,” 1996).
 Hellmann-Rajanayagam 1993; Jeyaraj 1994 and Narayan Swamy 1994.
 This article was originally presented in a pamphlet printed in Calcutta in1922 and is found in full in Guruge (ed.) !965: 501-18. The fuller implications of this perspective is clarified in Roberts 1978
 I had received an Alexander von Humboldt Fellowship involving four months at a Goethe Institute and one year thereafter at the Sud Asien Institut, Heidelberg Universitat.
 More recently it has been selected by Subrata Mishra for reprint in an anthology of articles on South Asian politics (an outcome I had no hand in).
 In an unsolicited email HL Seneviratne recently complimented me for this forecast.
 Specifically: “Pillars for the Future” (2009); “Weevils of the Mind” (2010); “Mixed Messages,” (2011); and “Mahinda Rajapaksa: Cakravarti Imagery and Populist Processes,” (2012);