Colombo Telegraph

How Many Homelands Do The Jaffna Tamils Need?

By H. L. D. Mahindapala

H. L. D. Mahindapala

Scholarly narratives tracing the brief history of the Tamils agree that the itinerant migrants from S. India turned into an organic and  distinct entity of their own in Sri Lanka only after they decided to be permanent  settlers in the northern region in the 13th and 14th centuries. “The establishment of an independent Tamil kingdom in Ceylon in the thirteenth century,” wrote historian S. Arasaratnam, “is a landmark in history of the Ceylon Tamils. No doubt it was helped by the weakness of Sinhalese political power…….What we can say with certainty is that by 1325 the Tamil kingdom had come onto the historical scene.” (p.103 – 104 – Ceylon, S. Arasaratnam, Prentice-Hall Inc., New Jersey, USA).

Prior to that the Tamil migrants drifted in and out of Sri Lanka as adventurers, traders, marauders, invaders, craftsmen, mercenaries, mostly for Sinhala kings, fishermen, explorers but never as permanent settlers with a commitment to make Sri Lanka their home. They always went back to their one and only homeland in S. India because they were instinctively drawn to  their roots. Even when they became  permanent settlers they were dependent primarily on the original S. Indian base that shaped their Tamil identity. The S. Indian umbilical cord was the sole source that sustained their spiritual, cultural and political needs. Their Freudian  urge to go into the womb in S. India was an innate part of their genetic makeup.

In short, when they left S. India they never abandoned their homeland. As legatees of the Dravidian cultural, spiritual and  historical heritage, which they carried religiously on their backs, they knew that they could never construct another homeland overseas to replace the original homeland they left behind. Any attempt to replicate the original homeland in foreign lands could only result in creating a “fake-land” and  not a genuine homeland. In any case, like all migrants the S. Indians who crossed the Palk Straits  regarded Jaffna only as a transit lounge until they could return to their roots in the S. Indian  homeland  sooner or later.

K. S. Sivakumaran, a Sri Lankan journalist, reflecting on his S. Indian roots, reveals his inner feelings when he said : “ Well, let me put it this way – as a Tamilian I felt proud to be in Tamilnadu. The Tamil consciousness reigns supreme there. Having lived in a cosmopolitan city like Colombo for over thirty years – most Sri Lankans are more westernized than most people in India – I’m used to the lack of an exclusively Tamil context. But in Tamilnadu – in Madras and other places – I could feel a cultural atmosphere springing from a Dravidian foundation…” (p.50 – Le Roy Robinson in Conversation with K.S. Sivakumaran on Aspects of Culture in Sri Lanka, Chamara Printers, Colombo 6, 1992). Mark you, he is writing this in 1992 and he is still yearning to go back to the “Dravidian foundation” even after living in cosmopolitan Colombo.

The cultural affinities that attaches him inseparably to his Dravidian homeland is the common experience of all Tamil migrants. The indelible feelings of Tamil exiled from S. India is expressed emphatically by Sivakumaran writing  in 1992. Undoubtedly, the gravitational pull of the Jaffnaites to Tamil Nadu is stronger than those who had migrated to distant parts of the globe. Their proximity to Tamil Nadu makes it their home away from home. Obviously, this means that though the Jaffna Tamils claim their migrant settlement in the North of Sri Lanka to be their homeland they know, in their heart of hearts, that their one and only homeland is in S. India, the birthplace of all Tamils who migrated to other lands. All other overseas settlements lack not only the genuine spirit of a homeland but also the substance of a history which can transform the alien geography into a homeland. In fact, in India there is a sacredness attached to the homeland. For instance, the Brahmins, who came from the  head  of Brahma, according to  classical Hindu caste system, were forbidden to cross the seas. Only the low-castes, like the Vellalas who belonged to the Sudra  caste that came from the feet of Brahma, ventured out. Those who crossed the seas lost their Brahmanical status and Gandhi, for instance, had to be re-baptised to be admitted into Indian society.

Naturally, all Tamils who  migrated from S. India had “the Dravidian foundation” tattooed in the back of their minds.It was permanently located in their memory as the dependable and homely “backyard” – the first and last resort from which they could derive strength in  times of need. It was,above all, a historical haven to lift them up from the cultural desert in Jaffna. This apart, the Jaffna Tamils would know that there is a hollowness and a contradiction in claiming Jaffna as their homeland while sitting next door to their one and only homeland in Tamil Nadu. Those who claim Jaffna as their homeland, in addition to that of Tamil Nadu, are confused, with one leg planted in both territories. As seen  in the case of Sivakumaran, they are confused in their divided minds, not knowing whether they belong to Tamil Nadu or Jaffna. Their heart strings pulling strongly in the direction of a Dravidian homeland make them feel that they belong to Tamil Nadu primarily because of the glories of its history. Jaffna has nothing to offer in comparison to the monumental achievements of their ancestors in Tamil Nadu.  In fact, in revealing his  heart, Sivakumaran makes it clear that he is just not speaking at the end of a sentimental journey into his past. No. He was affirming that he was back in his ancestral homeland – the place where the Tamils originated and later fanned out to occupy various  parts of foreign lands. Sivakumaran’s experiences in Tamil Nadu comes out as if he had regained his paradise after living in exile in Jaffna. It is a natural and genuine feeling which the migrant Tamils cannot escape.

Once they  go back to their roots in Tamil Nadu the old atavistic feelings, buried deep within, rise to  bond  with  their homeland – a feeling that is  not evoked in the minds of Tamils returning to their domiciled homes in alien lands abroad. So if their hearts and minds are in Tamil Nadu and only their body is in Jaffna where is their  homeland? What is more, when they stare across the Palk Straits doesn’t it make amockery of their claim to have two homelands, one sitting next to another on  the shores of the Indian Ocean? When the same people claim two homelands, one next another, won’t they be in two minds not knowing to which land they belong, particularly because all what they claim to be Tamil culture exist only in Tamil Nadu?

And this leads to a more serious question : If the autochthonous Tamils of Tamil Nadu have not being given a state of  their own to make it their homeland after reigning over great and independent kingdoms recorded in their glorious  history, on what basis can the migrant settlers in Jaffna, with a dubious and a Lilliputian history, claim to have a separate state of their own in Sri Lanka? This does not mean that the Tamils are incapable of creatively manufacturing history to claim a homeland wherever they are located, west, east, north or south. Not surprisingly, in 1983, the Tamils circulated a spurious claim in Australia saying that they were the first to greet Captain Cook, with thosai, vadai, poomalai and  nagasalam, when he first landed in Botany Bay in Sydney! Of course, no one  took it seriously, except some nutty Tamil fanatics. This claim was based on historian Manning  Clark’s theory  that the Veddahs of Sri Lanka were among the first wave of migrants to Australia. (p.1 Chapter 1, Short History of Australia, Manning Clark).

A critical look at the post-independent Sri Lanka will reveal that the mainstream political trajectory spiralled downward into violence, and finally to Nandikadal, because the Tamils, in their obsession with a history that exists only in their minds, refused to face the hard realities of their superficial past. Their sudden urge to establish a separate state forced them to create a history that warped the minds of the Tamils. The best they could produce as history was a hastily written political tract to boost the claims to a separate state in the Battekotte (Vadukoddai) Resolution. But a homeland needs a sacred and undisputed history. It can only come out of the hands of those who make history with their innate genius to transform a  land built in their own image. Their labour of love for the land leaves a proud legacy which their successors can call it their  own. For instance, the American created a unique culture which they could proudly claim to be their own. They surpassed the European culture from which they borrowed to make a new civilisation of their own. All civilisations are built on borrowings. The genius is in putting their indelible stamp of identity as they marched into history. So have the Tamils of Jaffna come anywhere near to a level which would qualify them to be that of innovative homemakers like those in Tamil Nadu or in Sri Lanka? Where is the genius in physically transporting  everything from S. India and transplanting them  in Jaffna? Besides, a homeland is made at home not overseas. Everything  in Jaffna was made across the Palk Straits. So where is their homeland?

Since the Tamils of Jaffna remained as mediocre copy cats, imitating the superior culture of Tamil Nadu, can they be considered to be innovative creators who laid the foundations for a homeland of  their own in Sri Lanka? Or should they be categorised as mere carters who transported readymade products from Tamil Nadu imagining that they were a part of their creative genius? Their best achievement was in transporting slaves from Malabar, or in denying the low-castes their basic rights even to walk in daylight. Under the fascist Vellala rulers Jaffna was turned into an abominable gulag divided into upper caste priviligentsia and the outcasts who were treated as sub-humans. Velupillai Prabhakaran who inherited this fascist Vellala culture took it to the extreme and eliminated all Tamils who refused to pay pooja to the “sole representative of the Tamils.” As usual, it is the Sinhala south that had to  move in and save the Tamils from their  barbaric oppressors.

Jaffna was a haven for the Vellala upper-caste but a suffocating hell-hole for the oppressed low-castes. Even the upper-caste had to either go to S. India or to the Sinhala south to get a breath of fresh air and breathe easily. With nothing much to claim as their own contribution to the Tamil culture they invariably had to fall back on the history and culture of Tamil Nadu. Before the anti-Sinhala-Buddhist vitriolic was injected into Jaffna politics by G. G. Ponnambalam, the Jaffna aristocracy headed by Arunachalam and Ramanathan brothers, were invariably singing  the  praises of the ancient Sinhala-Buddhist culture. Those who know their history are aware that the brief history in the miniscule geography of the north is not a patch on the magnificent achievements of Tamil Nadu, or the Sinhala south.

It is the overwhelming Tamil Nadu culture that reigns supreme in their minds, as stated by Sivakumaran. His spiritual / mental / cultural affinities with Tamil Nadu culture reveal the underlying factors that go to make a Tamil. The Tamilness that he felt in Tamil Nadu is a unique force that is confined exclusively to its historical borders. The “cultural atmosphere springing from a Dravidian foundation” could not be found in Jaffna. Sivakumaran’s confession makes  it clear that the pristine Tamilness that moved him in Tamil Nadu is missing in Jaffna. Though  he does not say it specifically, his statement acknowledges that his spiritual homeland is in Tamil Nadu.  Period. Jaffna, to all intents and purposes, is a mere arid geographical strip hanging like a tail from the main body of Tamil Nadu. It could not – and has not – produced the culture of Tamil Nadu which makes it the only homeland of the Tamils. Jaffna can be considered the first post of the Tamil migrants moving out to occupy foreign lands in the Tamil diaspora. Jaffna has been a homeland for the Tamil settlers only to establish a legal claim for a bit real estate from the Sinhalese.

Feeling the pervasive weight of Tamil cultural  heritage Sivakumaran asserted that he was proud to be a Tamilian in Tamil Nadu. That is natural and understandable. But  how many Tamil Naduans can look around Jaffna and feel proud of the Jaffna culture? What is there inspiring in the imitative and mediocre culture of Jaffna? In  contrast, take the case of an American who can justifiably take pride in the achievements of his/her homeland by putting the distinct stamp  of American identity on every inch of land and making it their own  from valley to mountain peak. Today the distinction between England and America is as wide as the Atlantic Ocean that keeps them  apart.  Winston Churchill who was sharp enough to notice the difference said that America and England are two countries divided by one language! Well, in comparison what is it  that the Jaffnaites have achieved on their own which the Tamil Naduans had not achieved? The Jaffnaites are still playing second fiddle to the Tamil Naduans and they feel that the Tamil Nadu Dravidians are still their superior masters. The Jaffnaites, however, take some  pride in preserving the purity of Tamil language. Apart from  this, both Tamil Naduans and Jaffnaites know that there can  only be one homeland and that is in Tamil Nadu and not in Jaffna. Tamils from Jaffna must be the only community in the world who claim to have two homelands in one ocean – one filled with the originals and the other filled with the flotsam and jetsam that went ashore as unintended consequences of accidental history.

The migrant Tamils who settled down overseas knew for certain that there could never be another homeland outside Tamil Nadu. As a result they were quite content, once they settled down in Sri Lanka, to be mere imitators basking  in the glory of the S. Indian culture. Surveying the past of the North, Arasaratnam wrote: “No original artistic tradition grew   in Tamil Ceylon. Culturally, the Tamils looked upon their arts as part of the Dravidian tradition of south India.” (p.115 – Ibid). There was nothing noteworthy in the Jaffna Tamil culture. This  could be one reason why the  great cultural  savant of South Asia, Dr. Ananda Coomarasawamy, wrote his classic monograph on Medieval Sinhala Art. If there were any outstanding cultural achievements worth protecting he couldn’t have missed it because he came from Jaffna.

(To be continued)

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