By Rajan Philips –
It has been a while since I wrote a two-part article (Colombo Telegraph, 3rd and 10th August 2014) under a common main tittle: “Politics getting nuttier”. They were written polemically in response to: 1) the canard about global Muslim population expansion finding its way into Sri Lanka; and 2) suggestions that Tamils should adopt the practice of polygyny (multiple male marriages) to alleviate the misery of war widows in Tamil society and to contribute to the growth of the Tamil population depleted by war. This piece is a rather belated sequel to the first two and addresses comments and criticisms my articles of August 3rd and 10th seem to have generated. It is also my purpose to reinforce and expand my earlier arguments for the same reasons that motivated me to write my previous articles in the first place. One, we need to be relentless in fighting back the canard of global Muslim population dominance which is intended to create anti-Muslim backlashes in western societies; and Sri Lanka needs no part of it. Second, polygamy, polygyny, and polyandry belong to the footnotes of history as far as the Sri Lankan Tamils are concerned. They are the poly-footnotes that do not deserve to be embellished by invoking the Sangam literature tradition of Tamil society, and their advocacy needs to be rebuked as it is inconsistent with the norms of gender equality and international legal opinion in the twenty first century.
Having been a political critic and writer for longer than I have been an Engineer, I do not need any special license to write on demography or any other subject that is of political and social interest and consequence. My engineering credentials have nothing to do with my political writing and my political writings do not have a place in my engineering resume. But it so happens that besides being an Engineer, I am also trained in Urban Planning and Environmental Studies, with focus on infrastructure planning and environmental assessment in general, and transportation infrastructure in particular. These disciplines and practices involve demographic projections, population/employment growth scenarios and their spatial distributions, demand forecasting models and the interpretation and use of model results for policy and investment decisions. While one does not need a special professional nexus for political writing, the not so few nexuses I have cultivated over the years, do inform my political writing. And since when did residency in Sri Lanka become a requirement for political writing in an off-shore internet journal like the Colombo Telegraph, which has been made officially inaccessible in Sri Lanka (as far as I know) and provides a lively forum for the Sri Lankan diaspora? If patriotism was the last refuge of the old scoundrel, residency-insistence is the hallmark of the new breed.
Medical demography and political demography
At the risk stating what ought to be commonplace, the practice of Engineering is not limited to drawing board design and factory production or spatial construction; it involves technical studies and analyses in a range of fields with invariable nexuses to several branches of knowledge, including demography. It should be equally commonplace that the practice of medicine too has its nexus to demography, especially when it comes to public health, or community medicine. But given a description, if not a definition, of Medical Demography as being the “application of demographic concepts, models and techniques to the analysis of the dynamics of morbidity, disability and mortality”, it is fair to suggest what should not be considered as being a part of Medical Demography. It is not my place to point out that fertility is not explicitly included in the above-noted description, but it is very pertinently my place to point out that ethnic composition of population should not be a concern of Medical Demography except for dealing with relative incidences of morbidity, disability and mortality among different groups of people in a plural society, or for comparative research purposes in general. When a medical practitioner strays into discussing the political implications of ethnic composition, one strays away from Medical Demography into Political Demography. It is not that medical practitioners should not foray into politics, but when they do they should not assume that they have medical immunity against political criticism. President Truman’s famous advice is always useful: “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen!”
There is another and more historical meaning to drawing a distinction between Medical Demography and Political Demography. In the second of my two articles (10th August), I referred to the ‘racialization’ of Sri Lankan society by British census enumerators in the 19th century. Anthropologists have pointed out that more than 100 racial groups (52 in Colombo and 48 in Jaffna, besides other groups in the rest of the country) were identified and enumerated in the 1827 census. This practice in Sri Lanka and other colonies was in contradistinction to the census practice in Britain at that time. According to Arjun Appadurai, the Anthropologist, the census in 19th century Britain primarily used a “territorial and occupational” classificatory system, and restricted “invasive investigation” of people to those at the “social margins: the poor, the sexually profligate, the lunatic and the criminal”, presumably to deal with public health issues and crime problems. Writing about the early British census practices in India, Appadurai has argued that unlike in Britain the colonial census in India by adopting the method of “invasive investigation” transformed the Hindus and Muslims into “enumerated communities” (with the “dramatic manifestation” of communal electorates), and “unyoked” castes and other social groups from their traditional agrarian reference points and turned them into modern political categories. I do not have to labour here the point, that some of us have been writing about for quite some time, about the influence that 19th century census categorizations invariably had on subsequent political developments in Sri Lanka – throughout the 20th century and now into the 21st century.
While it is true that censuses have over time evolved to be “invasive” in many societies, these changes have usually been accompanied by the development of a mainstream professional demographic culture that rejects the use of racial profiling for political purposes. While it is acceptable and necessary to profile the relative vulnerability of different groups to heart attacks or diabetes, it should be altogether abominable to use demographics to determine immigration quotas for different ethnic groups, enforce birth control methods to restrict the political representation of select minority groups, or to provide fertility incentives to the main host population to stem its shrinking size. The former (acceptable) is Medical Demography, and the latter (abominable) are different versions of ‘ethnic cleansing’. But racial profiling does occur, as it does rather notoriously in police organizations in western societies, and in racist political demography. The French U-Tube video on Muslim Population was a racist mischief that went viral. It cannot be and should not be defended by anyone in the name of Medical Demography, whether indirectly by claiming professional nexus, or inadvertently by contesting my use of Pew Forum reports to debunk the U Tube video. Let me clarify.
Pew Research versus U Tube video
The two articles I wrote in August had a clear division of themes: the August 3rd article dealt with world Muslim population growth, while the August 10th article was entirely about demographic changes in Sri Lanka and about the gender-insensitive absurdity in suggesting polygamy/polygyny, as an antidote to widowhood. I referred to Pew Forum reports in my first article, but I had no use for them in the second article. The purpose of the first article was to denounce the claims of French U-Tube video, which did not require any special effort on my part because several others including mainstream news organizations in the west have already debunked the spurious claims of that video. However, I used information from the two Pew Forum reports to illustrate the religious composition of the world’s population and the place of Muslim population within it. The two reports are: “The Future of the Global Muslim Population” (January 27, 2011) and “The Global Religious Landscape” (December 18, 2012). I called the Pew reports/projections methodologically rigorous and I stand by that observation. Anyone can visit the Pew Forum website, and read through the narrative on Methodology included as Appendix A in each of the two reports I have cited. One could also click on Appendix C in the first (2011) report and browse through the long list of consultants, including Muslim scholars, with specific regional and country foci, who were involved in the project.
Much has been made about the discrepancy between the 2012 Sri Lankan census figures and the Pew projections in regard to the number of Muslims in Sri Lanka, and it has been suggested that I do not know what I am talking because I am using borrowed lines from lay people’s accounts to describe Pew research as “methodologically rigorous.” What I really do not know is whether to laugh or puke at such nonsense. As I have already noted, I did not use any projections from the Pew reports to discuss demographic changes in Sri Lanka. Why would I use Pew figures to discuss Sri Lankan demography, when Pew uses data from Sri Lanka to make its projections? The discrepancy between the Pew projections for Sri Lankan Muslim population and the Sri Lankan census figures is not a measure of the methodology used by Pew, but an example of the differences between calculated (theoretical) results and measured (observed) results – something some of us first got introduced to in school physics before going on to encounter its more complex variations in later life.
Given the nature of their two projects, Pew researchers were using available data from about 230 countries and over 2500 censuses. The year of data and data type varied from country to country. According to Pew, in about half the number of censuses, religious identification is not even a census question. The Pew team used the available data, obtained supplementary data and made projections to 2010 as the base year, and to 2030 as the horizon year. So there will invariably be differences between the 2010 projections based on pre-2010 census data and 2010 interpolations based on post-2010 census figures. Appendix B in each of the two Pew reports describes the Data Sources by country, and acknowledges the temporal variations in the data. In regard to Sri Lanka, Appendix B indicates that the primary data source was the 2001 census, while for the Northern and Eastern Provinces the 1981 census results were used, because of the their unsettled conditions after that year. And it should not be a surprise to anyone that the Pew projections for 2010 and 2030 Muslim population in Sri Lanka are different from 2010 interpolation and 2030 projection based on the 2012 census figures.
Also, while the January 2011 Pew Report projected SL Muslim population to be 1,725,000 in 2010, and 1,876,000 in 2030, the December 2012 report indicates a higher projection 2,040,000 for 2010. Keeping in mind that the January 2011 report is about current (2010) and future (2030) world Muslim population, and that the December 2012 report is about all world religious populations in 2010 only, it could be surmised that between January 2011 and December 2012, Pew Forum researchers adjusted and increased the 2010 Muslim population projection in Sri Lanka, but before the 2012 census data would have become available. Pew might still adjust the projections for 2010 and 2030 based on the 2012 Sri Lankan census figure of 1,869,820 for Sri Lankan Muslims. Alternatively, serious students of demography could take up the matter with Pew Forum and have it clarified in light of the 2012 census figures. But the reliability of the 2012 Sri Lankan census is an altogether different question. From my standpoint, the above noted differences in Pew projections for Sri Lankan Muslims are insignificant in global population estimates and are irrelevant to discussing Sri Lanka’s demographic changes.
That some Vatican cleric bemoaned in 2008 about Muslims surpassing Catholics as the world’s largest religious denomination, is redundant information because the Pew projections that I summarized in my first article clearly indicated that Catholics constituting one half of the world’s total Christian population of 2.2 billion (2010 figures) are fewer than the total Muslim population of 1.6 billion. It was not my purpose to simulate a world religious population race, but to demonstrate that no sky was falling because the number of Muslims in the world has been increasing in recent decades owing to identifiable material factors, and that this increase would subside with changing material circumstances as it is already evident in some of the major Muslim countries such as Indonesia, Bangladesh and Turkey. The second (2012) Pew Report also indicated that inter-religious conversions were not a significant factor in the evolving religious landscape of the world. Anyone who knows Vatican will know that its main worry is not about any Muslim threat but about its congregations being snatched away by charismatic Christians in the current heartland of Catholicism in South America and parts of Africa.
As well, what I wrote in my first article, viz.: “it would be nutty for anyone to think of projecting beyond 2030 or 2040, to a hypothetical long term when the Muslims may overtake the Christians in the world population. Worse still would be to search for a mythical millennial horizon when the Muslims may just top the 50% mark!” – was a polemical broadside against anti-Muslim crackpots and not a technical take on long term demographic projections. Why would anyone get exercised about it, and even make a technical bone of contention out of my passing wisecrack using Keynes’s quote – is beyond me! But since we have been introduced to the existence of a UN report viz., “World Population in 2300”, let us spread the education more usefully, leaving aside the waggish thought as to who else in the world except UN experts would have the luxury of crystal-balling 300 years ahead – thanks in however small a measure to the taxes that a number of the Colombo Telegraph contributors and readers pay.
But, I say, this UN Report is worth our taxes because, besides making it clear “any demographic projections, if they go 100, 200, or 300 years into the future, are little more than guesses”, the report offers quite a few sobering thoughts. It confirms the obvious that projections over such long horizons are not “forecasting”, but “extrapolations,” and that the purpose of extrapolation is to get a better understanding of current trends and to test scenarios, but not to make serious predictions. To be sure, UN extrapolators are not crystal-balling the religious landscape of our planet three hundred years hence, but they tell us that there are more uncertainties than certainties about long term scenarios. One particularly relevant observation in the report is that there is no certainty that the current nation-state boundaries, within which we now estimate populations, will be around in the same form in two hundred or three hundred years from today. We know from recent history that the current national boundaries were not around in the same form even hundred years ago, but we should also try to learn from ancient Greek wisdom captured by Thucydides when he wrote that Themistocles’ greatness was in his realization that Athens was not immortal. Mortality is not only a human condition, but could also be a national, societal and even civilizational condition.
The poly-footnotes of History
Lastly, a few words on what I would call the poly-footnotes of history as far as Tamil society is concerned. Whether in Sangam literature, or the literature of later periods, and pre-colonial and post-colonial histories of Tamil society, the references to incidences of polygamy, polygyny and polyandry (triple-p) are at best cursory. As a matter of literary curiosity, it would be interesting to know where in the Sangam literature references to multiple marriages and marriages of widows occur. My little random search came up empty, and I could not find mention of them in the sociological commentaries on Sangam literature notably by Kamil Zvelebil, K. Kailasapathy, George Hart, Gloria Sundaramathy, or Manonmani Shanmugadas, that I am familiar with. Of course there are copious poems depicting human love and its consummation in a range of pre-marital, marital, extra-marital and non-marital situations. While it is a necessary part of learning to generate and satisfy curiosities, it would be, yes, nutty to look for model social practices in the Sangam period to apply them in the 21st century. The greatness of Sangam literature is in the versification of ordinary human experiences of that time into extraordinary poems for all time. As proud inheritors of a great literary tradition, we should learn about and cherish Sangam literature for generations to come, but we should not treat them as codes of customs, shastric rules, or, as has been our recent experience, as battle-cry inspirations.
Historically, among the Sri Lankan Tamils both versions of polygamy, polygyny as well as polyandry, appear to have been practiced in pre-colonial times and until the Dutch period. While Justice H.W. Tambiah (in The Laws and Customs of the Tamils of Jaffna) speaks of “intrinsic evidence” of the practice of polygamy among the Tamils during the Dutch period, Kamala Nagendra (in Matrimonial Property and Gender Equality – A Study of Thesawalamai) refers to polyandry practices in earlier times. What should be evident from these and other accounts is that monogamous unions were already the predominant marital form during the historical period even before the arrival of colonial rulers and the advent of Christianity. This is consistent with developments among the Hindus in the Indian subcontinent. According to Indian historians, monogamy was the predominant marital pattern in both Vedic and post-Vedic periods, while polygamy was neither “recommended openly” nor “held in contempt”, but “generally tolerated.”
The Indian parliament, in enacting the Hindu Marriage Act in 1955, to make polygamy illegal for India’s Hindus, Jains and Sikhs, was not adopting any Christian principles, but was legalizing monogamy as the form of marriage accepted by the vast majorities of the Hindu, Jain and Sikh populations. Equally, the 1907 Marriage Registration Ordinance enacted by the British in colonial Ceylon, legalizing only monogamous unions in the case of Tamils, should not be seen as an imposition of “Anglican principles” but the recognition of the predominantly monogamous form of marital unions among them. If there was overwhelming evidence to the contrary among the Sri Lankan Tamils, or if the Hindu Law of marriage permitted other forms of marriage in colonial India, we could surmise that the 1907 Ordinance in colonial Ceylon would have made exceptions for Tamil Hindus just as it did for the Muslims and the Kandyan Sinhalese.
I am not an Anglican, but I must say that the terminology “Anglican principles” is ill-advised at best and offensive at worst. What was involved at that time was the more secular process of “anglicization” that transformed the body of laws and the administration of justice in Sri Lanka according to the utilitarian ethos of 19th century Britain. While there have been criticisms in regard to the changes in judicial administration that were not sensitive to pre-existing traditional systems for laying down local rules and resolving disputes, there have not been similar criticisms in regard to the development of the fields of law comprised of the customary personal laws (Thesawalamai, Kandyan Law and Muslim law), the residuary common law (or the ‘anglicized’ Roman-Dutch Law), and the statute law. What we gather from the writings of legal scholars like, Prof. T. Nadaraja, Justice H.W. Tambiah, Shirani Ponnambalam, and Kamala Nagendra is that the law principles relating to marriage and inheritance among the different Sri Lankan communities are an “amalgam of rules drawn from different sources”, and that their evolution has been judiciously guided by socially-informed court rulings in keeping with changing social conditions.
Social conditions in Sri Lanka underwent rapid and dramatic changes during the British colonial rule unlike any earlier period in the island’s history. The emergence of the monogamous form of marriage as the dominant, if not the exclusive, marital form during this period could be attributed to changing social conditions and not to the influence of Christianity. It is commonplace that marital forms and practices have been changing over time and across cultures, and the general direction in most societies has been to move from multiple marriages to systems of monogamous unions. Predicating these changes were changes in modes of production and property relationships. Religions and customs formalized marital systems that were emanating from the material conditions of property and production.
In our time, it could be said that the monogamous form of marital union has received an irresistible impetus from the new norms of gender equality. It is acknowledged by academic commentators that gender equality is now part of the international customary law supported by state practice and subjective acceptance (opinio juris). Within this framework the dominant international trend is towards either legislatively prohibiting or severely restricting the practice of polygyny. A number of countries do not admit as immigrants, people in polygamous relationships. Remarkably, many Muslim states and societies are also turning against polygyny through state practice against polygyny and subjective acceptance of monogamy. As against the dominant Islamic interpretations and Muslim personal laws supporting polygyny, there are counter-interpretations and restrictions against polygenic practices in many Muslim societies. Polygyny is banned by law in Turkey and Tunisia and is highly restricted in other societies. Polygamous unions are not necessarily a majority, relative to monogamous unions, in many Muslim societies. Anecdotally, it has been said that monogamous unions are the rule and polygamous unions are the exceptions among Sri Lankan Muslims.
In sum, speculating about literary and historical roots of polygyny among the Sri Lankan Tamils would be like breathing life into what should be left alone as historical footnotes. Equally, to prescribe polygyny to enliven war widows and boost the Tamil population is to add insult to the injuries that the war has inflicted on Tamil women, and to place an undue emphasis on population size is to derogate the democratic assertion of equality among peoples regardless of size. Such speculations and prescriptions also fly in the face of norms of gender equality and the obligations under international customary law. Tamil society has so many other matters to attend to and can do much without these distractions.
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