By H. L. D. Mahindapala –
The flow of migrants to Sri Lanka never ceased throughout its history. Each migratory wave came with its own characteristics. Each found its own niche in the over-arching Sinhala-Buddhist society. Historical records do not indicate that the new migrants encountered any difficulties in settling down with the numerically preponderant Sinhala-Buddhists. Take the example Robert Knox. He is noteworthy because he has left a record of his sojourn in the Kandyan Kingdom. Though he was not a migrant (he was a prisoner of the Kandyan King) his narrative gives an intimate account of the easy-going, friendly, hospitable and accommodating nature of the Sinhalese. Whatever prejudices the Sinhalese may have against foreigners initially, they disappear once they get to know them. In time the migrants become a part of the mainstream. The Sinhalese also have a continuous history of assimilation which explains, to some extent, why the Sinhalese population grew exponentially, leaving the other communities behind. Living with the “other” became a defining principle of the Sinhala-Buddhist culture. Multiculturalism and pluralism became a way of life. Peaceful co-existence has been the norm in the open Sinhala-Buddhist culture which provided ample space for diverse cultures.
In particular, the persecuted minorities who had nowhere to go invariably found refuge in the arms of the Sinhala-Buddhists.When the Catholics left behind by the Portuguese were persecuted by the Dutch they found refuge in the Sinhala-Buddhist kingdom. Wahakotte, for instance, remains as a Catholic island in a sea of Sinhala-Buddhists. When the Muslims were also persecuted by the Dutch they found security and prosperity among the Sinhala-Buddhists. And the Muslims who were driven out of Jaffna in feudal and modern times always found alternative shelter among the Sinhala-Buddhists.When Velupillai Prabhakaran hunted Tamil intellectuals, Tamil politicians etc., who were opposed to him, they found a safe haven in the Sinhala-Buddhist south. Even when the lunatic fringe of the Sinhala-Buddhist society went on rampage against minorities it was the majority of the Sinhala-Buddhists that rushed to their rescue. The opportunities for the minorities to rise within the overall Sinhala-Buddhist framework is demonstrated in the demography of Colombo : the minorities have overtaken the capital. The Sinhalese have withdrawn into the interior. Well, a capital that is dominated by the minorities cannot be all that bad for the minorities despite their repeated cries of discrimination.
Here I refer to the mainstream flow of events. I am not referring to aberrations which mar the image of all civilised societies. It is wrong to take the odd aberration and project it as a systemic failure of the whole. Any judgement should be proportionate to the whole because no society is absolutely pure. Walter Benjamin, who was a leading light of the Frankfurt School of Marxists, in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History” hit the nail on the head when he said that “there is no document of civilisation that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” It means that there is a dark side to all societies. Political idealism has been striving – in vain so far – to shepherd society into the sunny side of civilisation. So in this imperfect world only those who possess a higher proportion of goodness, tolerance, and humaneness have a right to cast the first stone.
Judged on this scale, the Sinhala-Buddhists, who had lived in communal harmony with diverse communities, have been commended by leading scholars.The leading Tamil political scientist, Prof. A. J. Wilson, son-in-law of S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, the father of Tamil separatism, argued convincingly that one of the reasons for the success of the parliamentary democracy was the tolerant Buddhist culture. In his essay on The Future of Parliamentary Government he wrote : “ …the Sinhalese Buddhist ethos of tolerance does help to overcome in limited ways militancy and rigidity of Sinhalese language and Sinhalese Buddhist extremists. The tolerance helps produce an atmosphere for accommodating the demands of minority groups. In this way extreme elements on both sides are inhibited from gaining the upper hand.” (p. 41, The Ceylon Journal of Historical and Social Studies, Vol.IV, Nos. 1 and 2, Jan-December,1975).
Historian Dr. G. C. Mendis, too focused on this aspect of communal amity that was writ large in the pages of pre-modern periods. He pointed out that there are no records of inter-ethnic tensions or violence under Portuguese and Dutch periods. North-South communal tensions exploded only in the thirties. It began with G. G. Ponnambalam, the rising star of Tamil communalism, provocatively vilifying the Sinhala-Buddhists. He demonised the Sinhala-Buddhists and ridiculed the Mahavamsa, claiming, in the same breath, that it was the Tamils who made history in Ceylon, as it was known then. The Hindu Organ (June, 22, 1939) wrote in its editorial, THE WRITING ON THE WALL : “Ceylon today is seething with petty problems which have been created by thoughtless gas-bags, and which threaten to poison the peaceful conditions in the country…..A verbal bombshell dropped unwittingly by a Tamil politician at Nawalapitiya appears to have set the South on fire……” In hindsight, this editorial note stands out as a prophecy, as suggested in its title. The destructive fire ignited by Ponnambalam could not be snuffed out until it ran into the waters of Nandikadal.
K. Indrapala, the first professor of history at the Jaffna University, too stated : “There have been political and social conflict among them (migrants) but the kind of ethnic consciousness and destructive prejudices that have surfaced in the twentieth century and continue to plague the island were not a part of Sri Lanka’s pre-colonial history.” (ix , Evolution of an Ethnic Identity, The Tamils in Sri Lanka, C 300 B.C.to C 1200 C.E., The South Asian Studies Centre, 2005).
Prof Wilson’s explanation for the success of parliamentary democracy in Sri Lanka was laid out in his book, The Nature of Politics in Sri Lanka (1974). It was a time when parliamentary democracy was hanging in the balance. In 1970 the JVP held a gun to the parliamentary system. Tamil parties too rejected the parliamentary system arguing that it did not give them a fair share of power. The Tamil leadership began by demanding a 50% share of power for 12% of Jaffna Tamils which later turned into federalism and finally morphed into a separate state. The Marxists, on the other hand, argued that the parliamentary democracy was only an instrument of the capitalist class to hoodwink the working class and perpetuate their exploitation and oppression. Besides, both groups who were in the opposition argued that parliamentary democracy would not bring solutions to their problems. Only the Sinhala-Buddhists stood steadfastly by the parliamentary system.
Commending Wilson’s book as “the finest work yet to appear on Ceylonese politics,” Prof. Calvin A. Woodward, Associate Professor of New Brunswick University, wrote : “Certainly then. the key to the future lies in the understanding of the past. How and why, in other words, has the democratic experiment been able to work so well in Sri Lanka? The author (Wilson) investigates this and concludes that the political stability so far maintained in Sri Lanka is due mainly to two forces, one of the indigenous origin and the other result of Western implantation. Primary is the Buddhist ethos and the doctrine of tolerance. This, according to Wilson, has acted to dissuade the majority community from unduly imposing itself on the minorities and encouraged it to respect the fundamental rights and distinction of other in the plural society. Similar in effect to the Western notion of compromise, the doctrine of tolerance has facilitated compromise and provided essential underpinning in society to the parliamentary system.Of equal importance, according to the author, has been the superb leadership supplied by the Ceylonese political elite, a fact which has always highly impressed the knowledgeable foreign observer…. I think Wilson has revealed the essential character of the Ceylonese political culture. Its core is the “middle way”, a principle that owed origin both to the liberalism of the Westernized elite and to the idea of tolerance espoused by the Buddhist majority. (pp. 72-73, The Ceylon Journal of Historical and Social Studies, Vol. III, July-December 1973).
What should be noted is that Wilson wrote this book in 1974, long after the Sinhala Only Act of 1956. And also after the uprising of the JVP in April 1970. He does not blame S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike or the Sinhala-Buddhists as Tamil-haters or extremists. On the contrary, he argued that Buddhism was a restraining factor that lowered the temperature of the extremists and led to the success of democracy. He goes even further, and in a footnote adds that “Buddhism among the Sinhalese has helped to mitigate the rigours of the caste system, which is otherwise similar to that of the Tamils.” (p.75 – S. J. V. Chelvanayakam and the Crisis of Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism, 1947 – 1977, A Political Biography, Lake House Bookshop, 1994). In other words, he admits, sotto voce, that the dehumanising Tamil caste system denied their own people the basic human rights and dignity.
Wilson undoubtedly would have agreed with Calvin who wrote that he (Wilson) had “revealed the essential character of the Ceylonese political culture…the idea of tolerance espoused by the Buddhist majority.” But shortly after that the Tamil political lobby launched a massive propaganda campaign to demonize the Sinhala Buddhists. Two years after Wilson had published his book, his father-in-law, S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, the father of Tamil separatism, was screaming for the blood of the Sinhalese. By 1976 the Tamil leadership had pushed mono-ethnic politics of the peninsula to the extreme end. The Batakotte (Vadukoddai) Resolution had (1) declared war abandoning the non-violent parliamentary process and (2) urged the Tamil youth to “come forward to throw themselves fully into the sacred fight for freedom and to flinch not till the gaol of a sovereign state of Tamil Eelam is reached.” In other words, Chelvanayakam fathered the Batakotte (Vadukoddai) War. Was it necessary? What did the Tamils achieve by going to war?
Tamil leadership has a lot to answer for misleading their people and dragging them to the extreme end of the racist spectrum. The Batakotte (Vadukoddai) War was an extreme act and, as proved by subsequent events, doomed to fail. Besides, the brutal violence unleashed by the Batakotte (Vadukoddai) Resolution, which gave birth to its first-born son,Velupillai Prabhkaran, was inevitable considering that the Tamil political culture was entrenched in extremism. Internally it was entrenched in casteist extremism that oppressed its own people throughout its brief history, denying them the basic human rights and dignity. Externally,the English-educated Vellala leadership took to extreme racism to survive in the competitive electoral politics of the peninsular. It was the mean by which they could divide and perpetuate their feudal rule. In the absence of any progressive political ideology they stuck stubbornly to the tried and tested anti-Sinhala-Buddhist racism, the winning card in peninsular politics.
The Vellalas, who reigned in feudal and colonial times with an iron fist, treating the Tamils discarded from their “pure” high-caste society as despicable subhumans, find their political kinsmen in the Nazis of fascist Germany. In the mistaken belief of being superior to the “other”, the Germans persecuted the gypsies,the disabled and, of course, the Jews. Unmistakably, the judgement of the British historian A. J. P. Taylor on German history applies to the vicious Vellalas who treated the “other” with absolute contempt. He wrote: “The history of the Germans is a history of extremes. It contains everything except moderation, and in the course of a thousand years the Germans have experienced everything except normality.” (The Course of German History – A. J. P. Taylor.)
There was nothing normal about Jaffna politics. The Vellala elite, who were in the driving seat of Jaffna politics, assumed that they had the divine right to enslave the low-caste “other”. They used the Hindu casteist ideology to justify, oppress and persecute their own people during feudal and colonial centuries. The Saivite-Vellala ideology inculcated into them an arrogance that turned them into fascist oppressors. In the end, their sense of superiority inflated their self-image into a destructive force. It infused into them a sense of superior exclusiveness that rejected any co-existence with the “other”. They acquired an unlimited capacity to imagine a greatness which they do not possess. For instance, Radhika Coomaraswamy, former head of the foreign-funded NGO, the ICES, in a lecture on her knighted ancestor, Sir. Muttu Coomaraswamy, said that he posed as a prince of Jaffna in the St. James’ court in London!
It was partly this arrogance that misled them all the way to Nandikadal. At every stage they rejected opportunities that were offered to them for peaceful coexistence, even when the solutions for peace came with international guarantees. Taking up extreme positions, from “50 – 50” to federalism, and finally to separatism, they led the way to the ultimate extreme at Batakotte (Vadukoddai) where they declared war against the Sinhalese. Which, of course, led to Nandikadal. At every critical stage the Jaffna Tamil leadership, labelled by Prof. Kumar David, as “congenital idiots”, pushed Jaffna, step by step, from one extreme into another. They began by demanding in the twenties one extra seat in the Sinhala Western province, in addition to the seats given to them in the Tamil North. Then in the thirties G. G. Ponnambalam took Jaffna to the extreme of demanding “50 – 50” – i.e, 12% demanding 50% of power. In the forties, his successor and rival, S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, raised the stakes to federalism and finally to separate state. The political, ideological and tactical trajectory of the Jaffna leadership kept moving unrelentingly, like an arrow, from one extreme to another, until they had nowhere to go except to Batakotte (Vadukoddai) which took them straight to Nandikadal.
At the core of the North-South conflict was the extremism of the Tamil leadership which poisoned inter-ethnic relations. They never stopped demanding disproportionate claims that were bound to blowback on them. They overestimated their power and assumed that they could push the majority to surrender to their arrogant extremism. It only raised the hackles of the majority community who reacted defensively to preserve and protect national unity and territorial integrity. For instance, a minority of 12% demanding 50% share of power would be laughed out of court in any known democracy. When G. G. Ponnambalam, the father of “50-50”, argued for it with the British rulers of the time they dismissed it out of hand.
The aggressive arrogance of the Tamil leadership was self-destructive. When the Sinhala leadership offered 47% Ponnambalam pooh-poohed it and rejected it. It was an opportunity that the Tamils could not afford to miss. It was a blunder of Himalayan proportions. No sensible, rational political leader would fail to grab such a grand opportunity. Imagine 12% minority rejecting an offer of 47%! It was the best deal ever that a minority could get from a majority of 75%. But “the congenital idiots” rejected it and blamed the Sinhalese for not cooperating or compromising. They consistently blamed the “Mahavamsa mentality”. Both Prof. Wilson, a political scientist, and Prof. S. Arasaratnam, historian, blamed Ponnambalam for missing the bus with his arrogance. The backlash from the Sinhala-Buddhist majority was inevitable. They reacted with their brand of nationalism to counter Tamil arrogance which has gone beyond the limits of reason, tolerance and endurance.
So who is responsible for the exacerbation of inter-ethnic relations? Is it the “Mahavamsa mentality”, or the Jaffna jingoism that dragged the Tamils all the way to Nandikadal?
The answer is blowing in the cold winds that sweep the murky waters of Nandikadal where the body of Velupillai Prabhakaran was found floating, ensuring, at last, that the Tamil children could go to school without being abducted on the way.
The Tamil Boko Haram is dead. Long live the Tamil children without fear of being dragged into another Nandikadal by another Tamil Boko Haram !