By Rajan Hoole –
The Dress Rehearsal In Trincomalee – Part IV
The New Bosses
Transplanted from settings where they had the help of family and friends, and thrown into a new environment as ‘driftwood’, the experience of the colonists was increasingly one of disillusionment and pauperisation. This made them more dependent on state patronage, and on politicians who held out to them the prospect of it. Their use as shock troops by politicians in the late 50s to break up meetings of the rival party and to harass delegates travelling to the Federal Party convention from the East have been mentioned by Vittachi.
To cabinet ministers dealing with land and resettlement, or with some other subject placing large resources at their command, furthering the party’s reach through settling more Sinhalese in areas having a Tamil association became a means of enhancing their prestige and influence. The prestige came from being seen as the torch- bearers of the Sinhalese cause into hostile territory. Settlement meant in time new electorates and their proteges becoming new MPs, strengthening in turn their position in competition for power within the party.
This gives us an idea of the role Gamini Dissanayake was playing as a minister in the government of 1977 with the huge resources at his command. Trincomalee District, where the Tamil population had declined from 76.5% in 1824 to 60% in 1901 to 37% in 1981, became a target of concerted attempts to tilt the ethnic (i.e. electoral) balance in favour of the Sinhalese. The proportion of the latter had increased from about 5% in 1901 to 33% in 1981. Sinhalisation lay at the root of the administrative policy of appointing Sinhalese GAs for Trincomalee, which has been followed by all governments.
At local level, the thrust of demographic transformation was led by administrators, security officials and persons who had entered politics as proteges of powerful ministers and had established themselves in the area or in the neighbourhood.
Abeysinghe (see above) describes a particular class of persons who acquire political influence (p 108), having come to the schemes as landless casual workhands, often with small time contractors: “These elements slowly get established through accumulative capital. They get hold of the alienated land from the weaker, lazy and unsuccessful farmers/settlers who come within their orbit for funds or help… He accumulates capital, finances production, lends money for settler needs… provides tractors/bullocks on hire, purchases the produce in bulk and becomes a ‘godfather’ to the settlers. He then extends his purview into local politics… links himself to an established family…through marriage. He then commands political power through economic power and becomes a benevolent leader”.
This is a class of persons to whom extending Sinhalese settlements into neighbouring Tamil speaking areas made, in theory at least, good economic sense, and also by this means extended their political influence. H.G.P.Nelson is a politician in this class described by Abeysinghe: “Nelson in Polonnaruwa came from Tangalle as a labourer… He first worked as a labourer, and later as a tea maker in his uncle’s shop. He encroached a canal reservation and gradually made his way up. He entered local politics and ended up an MP”.
He was appointed District Minister for Trincomalee in 1981. He narrowly escaped a JVP attempt on his life in October 1987 during the Southern insurgency of 1987-90. Later the Disappearance Commission for his region named him along with several leading politicians as being implicated in disappearances by witnesses who testified. As district minister of Trincomalee, the local Tamils did not regard Mr. Nelson as personally harmful. But he was symbolic of the power interests behind him.
Research, Ideology and State Policy in Relation to Trincomalee
When a State intends accomplishing something highly questionable among minorities devoid of effective power, it has many options, and can for the most part make its means appear normal administrative decisions intended to serve a higher purpose. In Trincomalee, a majority Tamil speaking district, as pointed out, all the government agents (GAs) since the mid-60s have been Sinhalese.
To be fair, the work of many of the Sinhalese GAs was appreciated. One or two of them were ideologically motivated crusaders, but most were gentlemen. The GA is the linchpin for the implementation of government policy. Most often the difference between having a Sinhalese and a Tamil GA in Trincomalee is a subtle one, and applies largely on account of the ethnic polarisation that prevails in the country at large. A Sinhalese officer when posted to Trincomalee as GA, knows that he is part of an agenda and the Government can influence the conduct of an administrator through a range of rewards and punishments. A Tamil officer marked for a certain zeal in ensuring that his Tamil clients get the best possible deal, may find himself refused the routine extension of service upon reaching the age of 55. (See our Special Report No.8.) In carrying out the kind of agenda the State has in Trincomalee, there is a need for secrecy and to have a fait accompli on the ground before any meaningful protest can be mounted.
In late 1968, a new rationale was created for the Sinhalisation of Trincomalee. That year the Federal Party (the main party of the Tamils) which was in the coalition government of Dudley Senanayake, wanted the Koneswaram Temple precincts lying in the colonial Fort Frederick at Trincomalee, to be declared a sacred area.
Dr. C.E. Godakumbura, a retired archaeological commissioner, was fairly typical of retired public men turning crusader. He argued in articles in the Sun (17th Sept. & 9th Dec. 1968) that such a move would allow ‘quislings’ and ‘fifth columnists’ to entertain foreign agents in the temple precincts and facilitate an invasion of this country by India. True to the wisdom of his class, he pointed out that ‘when Visakapatanam is developed as a naval base, Trincomalee will be easily accessible from there’. He saw agents of the invader coming in advance to the ‘sacred city’ as tourists and pilgrims to be entertained by ‘collaborationists’ etc. After some dithering, Prime Minister Senanayake stated that the Federal Party’s request could not be granted for reasons of ‘national security’.
Ironically, in April 1971, the danger to security arose not from India, but from within, from the JVP insurgency in the Sinhalese South, and at the invitation of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s government, Indian troops came not to invade, but to guard key installations until the Government regained control. Politicians thus took the extremists seriously only when it suited them.
The Hindu sacred area episode above, brought to the Koneswaram Temple precincts in Fort Frederick, a brand new Buddhist temple, purported to be the replanting of the ancient Gokanna Vihare that had disappeared without a trace. It was the first time that a lost shrine was located with so much certainty without a trace of archaeological evidence to support it. The story is instructive because it marked a precedent for discovering ancient Buddhist sites in the Trincomalee District and planting Sinhalese colonies. This was one of the hobbies of ministers notably in the Jayewardene government.
The Koneswaram Temple of antiquity was destroyed by the Portugese during the 17th century, but the tradition of worship at the location continued (e.g. Emerson Tennant’s Ceylon compiled in the 1840s). In 1955, Archaeological Commissioner Prof. S. Paranavitana published in Epigraphica Zeylanica V his reading of a donative inscription in Sanskrit from a fragment discovered in the temple precincts. Dating from about the end of the 12th century AD, the inscription recorded a visit by a Prince Codaganga Deva to Gokarna.
Observing that Gokanna is the Pali equivalent of the Sanskrit Gokarna, Paravitana was quick to identify Trincomalee on the north-eastern sea- coast, with Gokanna, a place referred to by the Pali chronicle Mahavamsa (37: 41). The text related to the building of a Buddhist Temple by King Mahasena in the 3rd Century AD. Mahasena, who had earlier converted to Hinduism, is said to have recanted his apostasy and built three Buddhist temples after destroying the Hindu temples at those locations. Two of these places have been identified in ancient Rohana, the present Hambantota District in the south-east of the island (see Wilhelm Geiger’s Mahavamsa). The third, Gokanna, described as lying on the eastern sea- coast, is also consistent with Rohana.
After placing the lost Gokanna Vihara in Trincomalee, Paranavitana made other deductions. Pointing out that the etymological equivalent of Gokanna is ‘Gona’ (Bull) in Sinhalese, he deduced that ‘Ko’ (King, and the Bull as the vehicle of Siva) in the Tamil name Thirukonamalai (Trincomalee) is a transliteration of Gona in Sinhalese. Paranavitana suggested that the Buddhist shrine faded away even as the Hindu shrine [of Koneswaram] flourished after its supposed destruction in the 3rd century AD. Writing 13 years later in 1968 (Sun 9.12.1968), Godakumbura, Paranavitana’s successor as archaeological commissioner, who was then retired, would not even allow that the Hindu shrine existed in antiquity. Indeed, however, the name Gokanna itself is indicative of a place- name deriving from a shrine of Siva. It was by then well known that remains of the shrine, apart from archaeological artefacts, had been discovered in the sea and identified (see M.D. Raghavan’s Tamil Culture in Ceylon and Arthur C. Clarke’s The Reefs of Taprobane).
From then onwards, any suggestion of a Tamil connection with Trincomalee dating back to antiquity, was greeted with intolerance by an articulate section of the Sinhalese academic establishment (see K.N.O. Dharmadasa’s Place- Names and Ethnic Interests in the Sri Lanka Journal of Humanities, December 1976, in response to a paper in the same journal by S. Gunasingam on an 11th century AD Tamil inscription from Nilaveli). All these strong conclusions about Trincomalee were based on highly tricky etymological arguments. Their authors would not allow Ko in Tamil a life independent of Gona in Sinhalese, even though Ko occurs widely in Tamil devotional literature (e.g. Gnanasambandar’s hymns of the 7th century AD). Trincomalee was thus first Sinhalised by the academic establishment in Sri Lanka.
The inconclusive nature of etymological arguments is illustrated by another possible source of the Tamil name Thirukonamalai given by Hugh Nevill in the Taprobanian (p.176 in Vol II of 1887): Thiru Kona Nathan of the Inky Throat – or The Lord of the Chief Angle (of the Three) – is another name for Lord Siva.
We may note here that the identification of the remains of the destroyed temple on the sea- bed as Pallava in architecture, matches well with other information we have. Gnanasambandar in a 7th century hymn to Siva speaks of Konamalai (Hill of Siva) by the roaring ocean. Mahayana Buddhist inscriptions a few miles north of Trincomalee in Kuchchaveli (Epigraphica Zeylanica III) and Thiriyai (EZ IV) date back to the same period. Both are in Sanskrit (as distinct from Pali, the sacred language of the Theravada sect). These inscriptions are in the Grantha script, and are of South Indian inspiration. The one in Thiriyai, written in the Pallava Grantha script, speaks of sea-faring merchants and of the shrine’s foundation by guilds of merchants. This was also the period when the rival faiths of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism were vying with each other in the South-Indian region. We thus learn a good deal about the contemporary fame of all these shrines and of how Gnanasambandar came to know so much about Koneswaram. These shrines were closely connected with maritime trade.
There was an even trickier point in the arguments of Paranavitana and the others mentioned. Names are subject to replication and Gokarna is a generic name denoting ‘Shrine of Siva’, that has in several instances come to denote the place names of such shrines (see Nando Lal Dey’s The Geographical Dictionary of Ancient and Medieval India, 1927). It is not unlikely that there were several of these Gokarnas in Sri Lanka.
Quite independently, Henry Parker in the 19th century, in his Ancient Ceylon (p235 ff), using local tradition and information available from the Pali Chronicles, had located the Gokanna referred to in them, in Magama (in ancient Rohana) in the Hambantota District. His arguments had completely been ignored. From an event in Gokanna described in Culavamsa 57: 5, where Muruga (Kumara) is featured, Paravitana deduced that Trincomalee (or Gokanna according to him) was a centre of the cult of Skanda-Muruga. There is no such tradition in Trincomalee. But, if one were looking for a Gokanna near a renowned cult centre of Skanda-Muruga (i.e. Kataragama), one would have immediately hit upon Magama. Culavamsa 45: 58-59, a passage not referred to by the writers named above, places the villages of Gonnagama and Gonnavitti in the vicinity of Magama.
All these references in the Pali Chronicles pertain to the period 3rd to 8th century AD. Subsequently, Rohana went into decline. The next reference to Gokanna by the Culavamsa in the 12th century AD refers no doubt to Trincomalee, but has nothing to say about a Buddhist temple.
The new re-discovered Gokanna Vihare, a model of the State’s piety and munificence, faces prominently the sea-front in Trincomalee town. Guarded by the Sri Lankan Army, the Vihare is a paradigm of how academic scholarship, ideology and state policy combine to the detriment of the country’s unity.
The momentum had thus been set in Trincomalee and during 1975, the Army moved to acquire Plantain Point in addition to its base at Fort Frederick. A land officer named Jayasuriya who was in the Volunteer Force of the Army, went into Plantain Point and unceremoniously evicted the Tamil squatters. The Government Agent Tissa Devendra, who was reportedly unhappy with the move, is said to have left the station in order to dissociate himself from it, as well as to avoid confronting the Army. (Our Special Report No.8.)
In the latter 1970s and early 80s the new government of J.R. Jayewardene embarked on massive development programmes in Trincomalee hardly any of which was meant to benefit the local Tamils and Muslims, many of whom by 1983 had lost both their property and security. Several ministries and ministers were involved, and they launched on a spree of land acquisition. 5000 acres along a long stretch of the Colombo Road leading from town were brought under the Ports Authority of which not even 100 acres have been used. Land totalling several thousands of acres, was acquired by the Tourist Board, Petroleum Corporation and several other state bodies. The linchpin of these efforts was Government Agent Jayatissa Bandaragoda. Two examples would suffice to show how these moves were meant to bring about a planned influx of Sinhalese
When applicants were called for employment at the Singapore owned and newly installed Prima Flour Mills, it was stipulated that they should be cleared for security by the GA even though Tamil militants were then (about 1980) not active in Trincomalee. It was thus ensured that 80% of those selected were Sinhalese. Of the 5000 acres taken over by the Ports Authority, 700 were ceded by President Premadasa in 1993 to government abetted encroachment by Sinhalese. (See our Report No.11 of 1993.) Whatever the Government’s pretensions to be working towards a higher national purpose, they were by this time looking extremely dubious. (A defensive, but frank statement of the Colombo establishment’s intentions is given in pp. 307-308 of Sinha Ratnatunga’s book.)
*To be continued..
*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power – Myth, Decadence and Murder” published in Jan. 2001. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To read earlier parts click here