By Rajan Hoole –
Sri Lanka: A Haunted Nation – The Social Underpinnings Of Communal Violence– Part 7
During the 6th Amendment debate in Par- liament on 4th August 1983, Lalith Athulathmudali told the House: “The time has come for the misguided youth in the North to lay down arms. We will not stop at enacting laws. We will use every weapon at our command to eradi- cate terrorism.”
Athulathmudali, an intelligent man, must have known that it was a most inappropriate message to the Tamils just after his Government had given them a good thrashing. Indeed, refugee youth from Colombo were just then, in Jaffna, joining the several militant groups. The rhetoric was part of Athulathmudali’s bid for power. By this time India had given notice of its interest in the problem and prevented the Gov- ernment from going much further then in marginalising the Tamils. India then sent its envoy G. Parthasarathy in a bid to hammer out a political solution. While talking to India which was mediating between the TULF and the Gov- ernment on the one hand, Jayewardene had also tied his hands with the extremism he had un- loosed in July. Jayewardene was in New Delhi that November for the Commonwealth leaders’ summit. Some TULF leaders went to him with the Annexure C proposals for a settlement worked out with Parthasarathy. Mr. R. Sampanthan recalls being surprised by Jayewardene’s attitude. He did not read it, but merely asked, “Where do I sign?” The impression given was that he was not serious.
There was a good deal of belligerence in the air. Lalith Athulathmudali was made in addi- tion Minister for National Security in March 1984. It was a high profile job and, in private, he was frank about his presidential ambitions. It was make or break for him and, for the estab- lishment as a whole, the lives of ordinary people that would be sacrificed were immaterial. Break- ing up any vestiges of a Tamil Homeland had become an obsession. Athulathmudali was widely quoted as wanting to deal with the Tamil problem by settling the likes of Sinhalese ex-convicts and fishermen in their midst, a move that was bound to place innocent civilians on both sides in great peril. This is where the Joint Ser- vices Special Operations and the Mahaveli Authority came into the picture. The JOSSOP’s areas of operation were precisely those districts with projects coming under the Mahaveli Plan and, on paper, meant to receive Mahaveli water after the construction of the NCP (North Central Province) canal. The latter had for all practical purposes been abandoned. Yet, the Mahaveli Authority was vested with the legal right to take over land in project areas which would never receive Mahaveli River water!
The settlements to be so established were of a military nature without economic value. The idea itself was reflected in the last speech Athulathmudali made in Parliament just before the July 1983 holocaust: “In those days it used to be said that there was a Tamil majority in the North. But now it is different. The time has come that the majority of Tamils live among the Sinhalese.”
Scholars and the Tamil Homeland
W ith India pressing for greater autonomy for the two provinces (then Northern and Eastern) with a Tamil-speaking majority, those vested with the task of demoli- tion also found that a scholarly counterpart would come in useful. It is here that G.H. Peiris, professor of geography, and K.M. de Silva, professor of history, both of the University of Peradeniya and the ICES (International Centre for Ethnic Studies), Kandy, came in. The paper, ‘An Appraisal of the Concept of a Traditional Tamil Homeland in Sri Lanka’, was presented by Peiris at an ICES workshop in August 1985.
What G.H. Peiris did roughly was to plot on the map of the Eastern Province its villages, as given in the 1921 Census. These were given dif- ferent markings according to ethnicity. It was a time when the Sinhalese formed 5% of the popu- lation of the Eastern Province. He then says “…. In 1921, almost all Tamil settlements were confined to a coastal strip barely extending even 10 miles to the interior. The Sinhalese settlements on the other hand, though comparatively few in number, were scattered over extensive areas of the interior.” He then argued that this state of affairs was the cul- mination of a long drawn out historical process featuring “territorial advances of the Tamil population on the one hand and, on the other, retreat and recession of the Sinhalese population.” In conclusion, he says,”… the interior, at least, of the eastern parts of the island… remained throughout a traditional homeland of the Sinhalese peasantry.”
K.M. de Silva presented “The ‘Traditional Homelands’ of the Tamils of Sri Lanka: A Historical Appraisal” at an ICES co-sponsored workshop in July 1987. He concentrated on challenging the credibility of the Tamil Homeland claim – that the North-East had been a Tamil political entity since ancient times. This job of demolition is as easy as demolishing parallel myths among Sinhalese nationalists, which K.M. de Silva did not touch. He moreover, treated the Tamil myths in isolation from myths propagated as state ideol- ogy and the supervening questions of conflict, violence and the use of state power. This was questionable in a responsible academic histo- rian.
In conclusion, de Silva, commending G.H. Peiris and in complete agreement with him, elo- quently supports the policy of state-sponsored colonisation. He says, “Indeed, these [Sinhalese settlements in the interior of the Eastern Province] had survived several centuries of war and invasion, of pestilence and privation, and ravages of nature in the form of droughts, floods and cyclones, till they were … revitalised as peasant colonies.” (For a discussion of the papers and correspondence, see the Counterpoint November 1994 – June 1995.)
The conclusions of the scholars are based on reasoning that is elementarily flawed. Suppose a state of things (or place) A can be reached by process (or route) P, among many (more than one) processes (or routes), it is then wrong to infer that A implies P (or that a traveller arriv- ing at A had necessarily travelled by route P). Peiris’ reasoning paints a picture of Sinhalese who were from ancient times populous in the area retreating into the inhospitable western jungles in the face of a Tamil advance from the coast.
Against this most unlikely picture, history does not speak of such enmity and conspiracy. Those were times when people wore their lin- guistic and religious allegiances lightly and caste was rather the dividing line in South Asia as a whole. Indeed, the Tamils of the region owed allegiance to the King of Kandy with no hard feelings.
The truth is quite something else. Folk tradition with available Dutch and British records of demographic changes (see Counterpoint above), point to the general movement of Kandyan Sinhalese into the East following the devastation resulting from the suppression of the Kandyan rebellion of 1818 by the British and their Kandyan allies. The true nature of the tragedy of the Kandyan Sinhalese victims is being shifted onto the Tamils by playing tricks with the 1921 Census. The interior of the Eastern Province, the jungles of Bintenne, was in earlier times (vide Robert Knox) regarded disease-prone and inhospitable, and mainly served exiles either on punishment or fleeing from civil unrest. The other inhabitants were the aboriginal Veddahs.
Contrary to K.M. de Silva’s claim that these Sinhalese villages (of exiles from the 1818 rebel- lion) were revitalised by colonisation projects, they were rather marginalised. They were swamped by recent state-aided colonisation and politicians take little notice of them since they have, by comparison, few votes to offer. It is the common plight of all earlier inhabitants irrespec- tive of ethnicity. The importance of these older Sinhalese villages arises only as figures on pa- per, which are useful in polemics. Occasionally one aspect of their tragedy gets publicity. This is when the LTTE attacks their isolated villages and massacres innocents. That too was partly the result of the thrust of military backed de- mographic transformation, in which politicians, administrators and scholars close to the ruling interests, all played a role.
To be continued..