By Arya Selvaraj –
The writer is a Sri Lankan Tamil who is a lover of the Sinhalese people, whose closest friends are Sinhalese and who speaks Sinhala better than Tamil. This article is therefore not anti-Sinhala. It is, however, against the Mahavamsa’s mistaken equation of Sinhala=Buddhism=Sri Lanka. This equation is being resurrected again today to sound the death-knell for Sri Lankan national unity and for minority rights in the country. This article is also against the current constitutional system, which has contributed directly to our communal discord. It seeks to examine our shared history, politics and constitutions with a view to seeing, first, how they have brought us to this level of disunity; and secondly, how we can live together harmoniously in one united state.
I – The Problem
In a past piece in the Colombo Telegraph, a well known writer posed the question/statement: Why is it that the Tamils think of themselves as Tamils first, and only secondly as Sri Lankans, while the Sinhalese think of themselves as Sri Lankans first, and only secondly, as Sinhalese?
The answer to this question encapsulates the dimensions of our national crisis – but not for the reasons that the above writer implies.
The first part, namely, that the Tamils think of themselves as Tamils first, seems regrettably to be true, especially since 1956 and the constitution of 1972. The Tamils find it difficult to identify with a state that has come to be ‘owned’ and controlled by the Sinhala race, especially when it is going through an intolerant, exclusive ‘nationalistic’ phase. As our famous Field Marshal has said: Sri Lanka ‘belongs’ to the Sinhala people. The second part of the question/ statement merits the following sad answer. When government politicians periodically incited Sinhala mobs to kill unarmed Tamil civilians (1956-83) thus dividing the country, were they acting as Sri Lankans first, or as Sinhalese first? When the Sinhala-controlled Parliament and the Sinhala-dominated electorate passed the Sinhala Only Act (emphasis on ‘ONLY’) and abolished English as a national language, which was the main bridge between the different communities, were they acting as Sri Lankans first, or as Sinhalese first? When the Sinhala majority amends the constitution at will, eviscerates the Bill of Rights and establishes an Executive Presidency with scant respect for the rule of law, are they acting as Sri Lankans first, or as Sinhalese first? The Tamils and the Sinhalese both take for granted the same thing: that the state of Sri Lanka is completely controlled by the Sinhalese such that they wield the entire powers of the state, making it dance to their own communal tune.
The nature of the state has been changed in three ways since our independence. First, ever since the 1972 Constitution, the Sinhala majority has taken over all the powers of the Sri Lankan state. Secondly, and more dangerously, this complete control of state power has led to the self- identification or conflation of Sinhala–Buddhist nationalism with Sri Lankan nationalism and with the Sri Lankan state. Thirdly, through this conflation of Sinhala nationalism with the state, and taking advantage of the Westminster-type constitution, Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists now claim, in the name of the state, to rule the whole country, unilaterally deciding the fate of Tamils and Muslims in the North and East. This gives rise to the question: are we a Sinhala-Buddhist state or a Sri Lankan state made up of different communities, each with equal rights, as promised at independence? This question has already been answered by the Minister of Justice who recently declared that Sri Lanka is not a secular state but a Buddhist one; in practice, it is a Sinhala-Buddhist one. Thus we are faced with a constitutional coup d’etat whereby the Sinhala majority has changed the nature of the state: the same state which the Tamils and Muslims also call their own.
This is exacerbated by an ultra nationalistic Sinhala-Buddhist resurgence which has replaced Sri Lankan nationalism with its own brand of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. It is natural that after a long period of colonial rule, that there should be such a national resurgence; but in Sri Lanka it has taken the form of an exclusive Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism at the cost of a broader Sri Lankan nationalism and national unity, thus placing conflict at the heart of our so-called nation state. For example, in a recent article in the ‘Sunday Island’, Mr. Stanley Jayaweera praised Mr. N.Q. Dias for his contributions to ‘nationalism’. However, every instance quoted in the article relating to Mr.Dias’ contribution was to an exclusive Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism, which the writer equated with Sri Lankan nationalism. In fact, most of these ‘contributions’ were to one race and religion, which proved divisive to Sri Lankan national unity.
Worse still, this Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism coupled with monopolistic access to all state power has now led to its self-identification with the state. This self-identification and conflation of the Sinhala majority with the state is well illustrated in the following example. The Tamils seek accountability for the alleged mass killings at Nandikadal; but the Sinhala majority in Parliament as well as the Army is unwilling to investigate this allegation – except on their own (cover-up) terms. It is clear that the Sinhala Parliamentary majority, the Government, the state of Sri Lanka and the Army are one and the same in their unwillingness to have an impartial investigation – even if this is against national reconciliation and causes national disunity – and even if it means reneging on the Government’s own commitment to the United Nations and to the world.
This leads us to examine, the reasons why the Sinhala-Buddhists believe that they have the right to rule the whole island, including the north and east, even if it be on terms that negate the consent of the governed. The first reason is the historical and conceptual power of the Mahavamsa, which has promoted the belief that Sinhala = Buddhism = Sri Lanka, thus combining the heady mix of Sinhala ethnic nationalism and Buddhism with the right to rule the whole country on their own ethnic nationalistic terms. Since the Mahavamsa has been taught as history and religion in the pirivenas and schools for over 1600 years it is difficult to erase its spell. It is like mother’s milk to the Sinhala heartland, inevitably colouring the Sinhala-Buddhist worldview. The second reason is the British-type constitution that has enabled the Sinhala-Buddhist majority to gain absolute power over the whole country through electoral means. Although the Sinhala people are a decent people, while Buddhism is the noblest of all religions, the above is doubly dangerous because the Sinhala-Buddhist people are currently undergoing a wave of racial and religious nationalism; notwithstanding the noble teachings of the Buddha, this has fuelled both racial and religious intolerance. For instance, the helpless Rohingya refugees in Sri Lanka have been attacked on pseudo-Buddhist grounds, while Muslim houses are being torched in Gintota, despite the presence of the agents of the state. The problem for the minorities is that dressed in the guise of the state, Sinhala, Buddhist Parliamentarians sitting in Colombo have the constitutional right to decide the fate of Tamils, Hindus and Muslims in the North and East, whose language they do not even speak, and whose religion they do not follow. The historical and political reasons for these unfortunate developments are discussed in Sections II and II while possible constitutional remedies are examined in Section IV.
II – Myths of the Mahavamsa and Their Effects on the Unity of Sri Lanka
The Mahavamsa is a great historical legacy for the Sinhala people, of which they can be justly proud. For it provides a continuous chronology (together with the Culavamsa) of the Vijayan/Sinhala Kings and of the Sinhala people over some 2000 years. This is unmatched as a continuous chronology in the whole world: the Tamils have nothing to compare with this. On the other hand, in its bid to promote the Sinhala race as the protector of the dhamma, the Mahavamsa indulges in myths and exaggerations, suppressing or falsifying facts in order to further its biases and goals. Since the Mahavamsa has for more than 1600 years been used in Buddhist pirivenas and in schools as a vehicle for teaching history and religion, it has succeeded in distorting both Sri Lankan history as well as the teachings of the Buddha. Its distortion of the latter has been explained elsewhere by more qualified Buddhist writers. Only a few examples of the historical inaccuracies and biases of the Mahavamsa detrimental to Sri Lanka’s national unity are discussed below.
First, the Mahavamsa made out that the day of the Lord Buddha’s death coincided with the day of Vijaya’s landing in the island, which the Buddha blessed. The writer of the Mahavamsa could not have possibly known the exact dates of either event. This false tale was invented with the aim of naming the Sinhala people as the guardians of Buddhism to rule the whole island.
Second, Vijaya’s advent to Lanka is romanticized, as if he came to a country inhabited only by yakkas and spirits. However, iron-age implements and burial urns exactly the same as in South India have been uncovered as far inland as Anuradhapura, dating to some 500 years before Vijaya’s landing. This is confirmed by the historian and archeologist, Dr. Paul Peries who notes that long before Vijaya’s arrival, Hindu worshippers from India came to worship at the five famous Hindu temples in Lanka. Another historian has noted that a fisherman sailing from South India would, within an hour, see the coast of Lanka. There is little doubt that Dravidian people from South India (and not from China, Russia or Bengal) had settled in our island long before Vijaya. Even the Mahavamsa accepts that the Sinhalese were not the bhumiputras of our little island: they were ‘Yakkas’ and Nagas, who were Dravidians from South India.
Third, the monk Mahanama started writing the Mahavamsa around 600 A.D. in the reign of Dhatusena, just after a South Indian invasion and the occupation of Anuradhapura. This accounts for his vitriolic anti-Tamil bias. The entire narrative treats all Tamils as South Indian invaders – as if they are the enemy. It is true that South Indian invasions have caused much destruction. On the other hand, the Tamils’ peaceful co-existence with the Sinhalese over many centuries is not even mentioned. The Mahavamsa’s intent on naming Tamils as the enemy seems to have overcome all.
Fourth, the anti-Tamil bias of the Mahavamsa is seen further in the Duttugemunu story. The Mahavamsa states that Dutugemunu, as a young prince, could not sleep because the ‘Damilas’ were pressing on his chest. This too is a made up story, for there could not possibly have been a consciousness or identification of a separate Sinhala race in Duttugemunu’s time. This is supposed to have happened just 340 years after Vijaya’s reputed landing, when Lanka was a melting pot of races. The Sinhala race could not possibly have evolved into an identifiable people separate from the Tamils or other people of the island. Hence, the Mahavamsa tale, written some 850 years after Duttugemunu’s reign gave an anti-Tamil twist to what was a dynastic fight between two kingly contenders. Duttugemunu was a young, ambitious price who wanted to conquer more territory: he was definitely not fighting as a Sinhalese or as a Buddhist to defeat the Tamils. In fact, the historian Michael Roberts is of the opinion that the idea of ‘Sinhalaness’ emerged only in the 12th century, while the consciousness of ethnic/national identities in Europe developed as late as the 15th century.
Fifth, there are the lines in the Mahavamsa (Geiger translation) in which King Duttugemunu mourns the ‘million’ deaths caused by his battle with Elara. But Buddhist arahats and monks advise him that the ‘murders’ are justified because the ‘invaders’ (Tamils) are likened to ‘sinners’ and ‘wild beasts’. This is firstly against the Buddha’s own teachings about killing. Secondly, its anti-Tamil venom is obvious – which is also against the Buddha’s teachings. Unfortunately, this has been taught as ‘Buddhism’ for over 1600 years in the pirivenas.
Finally, the Mahavamsa’s repeated references to ‘Damilas’ as invaders from South India detracts from the contribution of the Tamils in building our common home. There was a strong Tamil merchant class and merchants’ guilds, while Tamil/Dravidian household troops supported the Kings of Lanka through many generations. Not only were many Kings of Lanka of Tamil origin, but even the Sinhala race was marked by the infusion of Tamil blood. To quote from an article by Prof. Gananath Obeysekere on the ‘The Institutionalization of Political Violence’ (1984): “Except perhaps for the oldest stratum of settlers prior to 500 BC, almost all subsequent settlers in Sri Lanka came from South India, mostly from Tamil Nadu, Orissa, and Kerala and quickly became Sinhalised. In fact, some of the most vociferously anti-Tamil castes among the Sinhalese were post-fifteenth century migrants from South India. By contrast, the Tamils of Jaffna and the East Coast have been in Sri Lanka from at least the tenth to the fourteenth centuries A.D, if not earlier”. As Prof. H.L. Seneviratne, another well known anthropologist has
noted in his ‘The Sinhala Buddhist Worldview and the Modern State’, “In broad perspective, one look at the ethno-demographic spread of peoples in the subcontinent makes it quite obvious that the Sinhalese are a variety of Tamils, as are other ethnic and linguistic groups of South India. It is because of the twentieth century Sinhala-Tamil rivalries that this fact is forgotten or explicitly denied”. Hence, it seems that both the majority of Tamils as well as the majority of Sinhalese came to the island not as invaders but as peaceful migrants from South India. The above does not denigrate, however, from the fact that the Sinhalese went on to build a glorious civilization here in Lanka.
Since the Mahavamsa with its biases and built-in agenda is taught as history in our schools, its myths have given rise not only to the notion that the Tamils are the ‘enemy’ but also to the fatal equation that Sinhala = Buddhism = Sri Lanka: that is, the union of the state with a single race and religion. This has given rise to a false ‘religious’ and historical belief that the Sinhala race was given a mandate to rule unconditionally over the whole island on its own terms. Not only is this against the facts of history, but it makes impossible the evolution of a Sri Lankan nation that binds together all the communities of Lanka into one nation state.
To be continued …..