A Debate on the Ethnic Identity of Tamils

 by compiler: Sachi Sri Kantha


Introductory Note by Sachi Sri Kantha

Thirteen years ago, I was a participant in a debate which filled the pages of the now defunct Lanka Guardian journal edited by Mervyn de Silva. My opponent was Mr.Izeth Hussain, a Sri Lankan diplomat. A paper with the title, ‘Ethnic Identity: Tamils and Tamil Nadu’ was presented by Izeth Hussain at a B.C.I.S.[Bandaranaike Center for International Studies] Seminar on Indo-Sri Lankan Relations held in 1990. It was published in the Lanka Guardian in three parts (Feb.1, 1990; March 1, 1990 and March 15, 1990). In this paper, Hussain described the activities of the former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.G.Ramachandran (who was a supporter of Pirabhakaran and LTTE) and the counteractivities of M.Karunanidhi, the DMK leader, between 1983 and 1989. MGR had died in December 1987, a few months after the beginning of Indo-LTTE war. Izeth Hussain offered a distorted opinion on MGR’s patronage to LTTE, which differed from that of the views held prominently by Eelam Tamils, including me. Subsequent revelations in 1990s from Indian analysts, including that of J.N.Dixit, a prominent figure of that period, had proved that Hussain was in error on MGR’s relationship with the LTTE.

Leaving this issue aside, Hussain also provocatively concluded his paper as follows:

“The Tamil Nadu and Sri Lankan Tamils are distinct ethnic groups. At the sametime they do share a cultural substratum, and that means an enduring linkage between them. But the ethnic distinctiveness means that their interests do not coincide all the time, and hence the notable ambivalence in Tamil Nadu attitudes towards their Sri Lankan brethren…”

This conclusion resulted in an acrimonious debate between Izzeth Hussain and me in the pages of the Lanka Guardian, which I thought will be of interest to the readership of Sangam website.

For those who are not familiar, I should provide some background about Mr.Izeth Hussain, since he has turned out to be a leading commentator on the political issues in Colombo. He is a Muslim and has been churning out essays, commentaries and opinions frequently to the Colombo press. The most distinguishing feature of his writing is verbosity, which is not surprising for one with a professional training in diplomacy. What can be said in 30 words, he would bloat it to 300 words, dropping names here and there to show off his penchant for logorrhea. One should not underestimate this gift in an ex-diplomat, since this is one route of making a side income in Colombo, at the expense of clarity. The second important feature of Izeth Hussain’s personality is his thin skin for criticism. In the pages of Lanka Guardian, more than once, I engaged in duels with Izeth Hussain. The third distinguishing feature of Izeth Hussain’s advocacy is that he would express his views in a wishy-washy lingo, which is again typical for one who spent his professional life as a Sri Lankan diplomat. This is a chamelon-type escape mechanism adopted by diplomats so that they can wiggle out of any situation without taking blame for anything they mangle.

If Izeth Hussain had stated in his conclusion that the ‘notable ambivalence’ was only in the minds of Tamil Nadu politicians and their fart catchers in the field of journalism, I would have kept silent. But he made a sweeping generalization to give a distorted meaning that for the general Tamil population in Tamil Nadu ‘the ethnic distinctiveness means that their interests do not coincide all the time, and hence the notable ambivalence in Tamil Nadu attitudes towards their Sri Lankan brethren’. This is far from accurate. Thus, I protested. Only the segments of the debate on the Tamil ethnicity issue is presented below in eight published letters in the Lanka Guardian. Frequently for convenience, the abbreviation LG was used, which stood for the Lanka Guardian.

1.

Ethnic Identity of Tamils

[Lanka Guardian, May 1, 1990]

I was flabbergasted with the conclusion of Izeth Hussain’s thesis that “the Tamil Nadu and Sri Lankan Tamils are distinct ethnic groups” (LG, March 15). According to the Encyclopedia Americana (1989, vol.10), ethnic groups are “distinguished by common cultural and frequently racial characteristics. They also have a sense of group identity and the larger culture within which they live recognizes them as a distinct aggregation.”

Ashley Montagu’s 1964 definition of an ethnic group states that, “it represents one of a number of populations, comprising the single species Homo sapiens, which individually maintain their differences, physical and cultural, by means of isolating mechanisms such as geographic and social barriers. These differences will vary as the power of the geographic and social barriers acting upon the original genetic differences varies.” (Current Anthropology, vol.5, p.317).

In this context, both Tamil Nadu and Sri Lankan Tamils belong to the same racial (Dravidian) group and they speak the same language. So, it is ridiculous to assert that they are “distinct ethnic groups”. Tamil Nadu Tamils and Malayalam speakers in the Kerala state of India are legitimate distinct ethnic groups, since the latter (though belonging to the same Dravidian race) separated from the Tamils a millennium ago, due to geographic barriers and developed their own language….

Sachi Sri Kantha
Philadelphia, USA.

2.

Two Groups of Tamils

[Lanka Guardian, May 15, 1990]

In his insulting letter (LG of May 1) Sachi Sri Kantha writes that he was flabbergasted by my conclusion that the Tamil Nadu and Sri Lankan Tamils are distinct ethnic groups. He need not have been had he understood the two quotations he himself provides, both of which could accommodate my conclusion. Thereafter he proceeds to state that my conclusion is ridiculous as the two groups of Tamils belong to the same racial group and speak the same language.

Obviously he is unaware of the controversy that has been raging for years over the question of what exactly constitutes an ethnic group. There are scores of definitions, and some scholars have even taken to arguing that there is no such thing as ethnicity. A vast body of literature on ethnicity has accumulated since the early seventies when historians, sociologists and others became really serious about ethnicity as a subject of scholarly inquiry. If Sri Kantha consults some of that literature, he will soon find that the consensus is against his simplistic notion that ethnicity is constituted just by race and language. For instance, Joseph Rothschild writes in his Ethnopolitics that language, religion, pigmentation, or tribe are primordial markers that are necessary but not sufficient for the consolidation of ethnic groups.

Let me explain. The Spanish of Latin America are of the same race, and share the same language and religion, but because of their different histories in different Latin American countries they have come to be culturally differentiated over the centuries and can be regarded as consisting of several distinct ethnic groups. So, can, say, the Arabs of Iraq and Syria. Consider also the fact that the Swiss Germans and the Germans of the two Germanies, or the Swiss French and the French of France, share commonalities of language and race but are all the same regarded as belonging to distinct ethnic groups. This point applies also to the Tamils of Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu. That my view is far from ridiculous, and acceptable at least to some Dravidians, is shown by the quotation at the end of paragraph three of my paper. It is from the Peace Trap by P.S.Suriyanarayana who argued that there is no ‘symbolic cultural kinship’ between the two groups of Tamils.

It might interest Sri Kantha to know one of the two discussants of my paper was Professor K.Sivathamby of Jaffna University, who acknowledged that my distinction between the two groups of Tamils was correct in an ‘anthropological sense’ but he thought I had pushed the distinction too far. He is too much of a scholar to make himself ridiculous by arguing that my distinction is invalid simply because the two groups belong to the same racial group and speak the same language.

Izeth Hussain
Colombo 7

3.

Determination of Ethnicity by biomedical evidence

[Lanka Guardian, July 1, 1990]

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy”, wrote Shakespeare in Hamlet. In rebutting my criticism, Izeth Hussain brings to his defence the names of Joseph Rothschild, P.S.Suriyanarayana and K.Sivathamby, on whose scholarship, he had inferred that the Tamils in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka are distinct ethnic groups (LG, May 15). I presume that none of those cited scholars are biomedical scientists. Whether Sivathamby is “too much of a scholar” or a mediocre academic is not the question of interest. But whether he is trained in biomedical sciences is relevant to this discussion. With respect to Sivathamby’s scholarship, I have to answer in the negative.

That the controversy of “what exactly constitutes an ethnic group” seems to remain unresolved mainly in the cultural anthropological circles due to the fact that they depend on polygenic traits (skin color, face form etc.) for classification. But the exact mode of inheritance of these polygenic traits are not known yet. However, since World War II, biomedical scientists and geneticists have come out with genetically well defined characters such as blood groups, hemoglobin types, haptoglobins, transferrins and finger prints (dermatoglyphics) to classify the different ethnic groups.

There are many merits in using gene frequencies as the scale to measure the divergence of humans. They are more objective measures and they could be quantified as well. For example, both Tamil Nadu Tamils and Sri Lankan Tamils possess only transferrin C (with same frequency 1.000). In contrast, the frequency of transferrin C in Sinhalese and Veddah are 0.988 and 0.890 respectively. Whereas Tamils from Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka do not possess other transferrin types, Sinhalese do have two more transferrins; transferring B with frequency 0.006 and transferrin D with frequency 0.064. The Veddahs do not have transferring B, but do possess two subtypes of transferring D (source: Races, Types and Ethnic Groups, by Stephen Molnar, Prentice Hall, NJ, 1975, p.84).

If Hussain is ignorant of this development during the past four decades, I would suggest that he refer to the contributions of A.E.Mourant, W.C.Boyd, C.S.Coon, S.M.Garn, L.L.Cavalli-Sforza, M.Nei and A.K.Roychoudhury. Based on the data published by these biomedical scientists, one can conclude that there exists hardly any distinction between the Tamils of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. I assert again that Izeth Hussain’s thesis is made ridiculous by the biomedical data reported in the last three decades. In this field, for those who are interested, I also wish to mention that N.Nagaratnam (ex-consultant physician at the Colombo General Hospital) has published a well compiled review entitled, ‘Hemoglobinopathies in Sri Lanka and their anthropological implications’, Hemoglobin, vol.13, pp.201-211, 1989) recently, which traced the origin of the Sinhalese.

Sachi Sri Kantha
Philadelphia

4.

Ethnic Groups

[Lanka Guardian, Sept.1, 1990]

It is evident from his letters in the LG of May 1st and July 1st that Sachi Sri Kantha can read. It is equally evident that he cannot understand what he reads. As if this is not enough of a handicap for someone who obviously has a taste for polemics, he has the additional handicap of habitually reading what is not there in the text.

In his July 1st letter he states that in rebutting his criticism I had brought to my defence the names of Rothschild, Suriyanarayana and Sivathamby, on whose scholarship I had inferred that the Tamils of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka are two distinct ethnic groups. I nowhere stated that I had come to my conclusion just on the basis of their scholarship. Sri Kantha has therefore read what is not there in my text. In support of my conclusion I referred in fact to the extensive literature on ethnicity which has been accumulating since the early ‘seventies, about which I wrote a whole paragraph in my letter of May 15th. Sri Kantha had evidently read that paragraph. Equally evidently he failed to understand it.

In his July 1st letter Sri Kantha pontificates on ethnicity, basing his arguments on the findings of biomedical scientists. In my May 15th letter I had already provided material to show that racial identity does not dispose of the problem of what constitutes an ethnic group, in which connection I pointed to the ethnic distinctiveness of the Spanish, Germans, French and Arabs in different countries. In fact, it is not just a case of ethnic distinctiveness but sometimes of murderous hatred between ethnic groups who share a racial identity, as shown by the communal conflicts that are endemic in India. Bengali Hindus and Muslims regard themselves as virtually identical in terms of race as the infusion of Mogul blood in Bengali Muslims was minimal. Yet they certainly have regarded themselves as constituting distinct ethnic groups, and what is more they were responsible for some of the worst internecine massacres in pre-partition India. If Sri Kantha can understand what he reads, he has to acknowledge that biomedical criteria cannot suffice by themselves to define an ethnic group.

The biomedical authorities he cites may use the term ‘ethnic group’ for their limited scientific purposes. But no one today writing of ethnic problems in a political context will be so jejune as to try to dispose of the problem of what constitutes an ethnic group in purely biomedical terms. No one, that is, who really knows what he is talking about. The two quotations Sri Kantha himself provided in his May 1st letter demonstrate my point. In the first it was stated that ethnic groups are “distinguished by common cultural and frequently racial characteristics”. The term ‘frequently’ means that ethnic groups cannot be defined always and only in terms of racial characteristics. Likewise his second quotation referred both to ‘physical and cultural’ characteristics. He provided those quotations in what he thought was a triumphant refutation of my argument. What they do refute is his simplistic notion that ethnic groups can be defined in purely biomedical terms. Sri Kantha can transcribe quotations. He cannot understand them.

In Sri Kantha’s rather limited polemical lexicon two words figure prominently, one of which is ‘ridiculous’ and the other ‘ignorant’. They are made to function as substitutes for reason and argument, in fact as not much more than abusive expletives. There is a problem of communication in dealing with Sri Kantha as he cannot understand the plain meanings of plain words. I will therefore use the language to which he is accustomed, and advise him to stop making himself look ridiculous by polemizing on matters about which he is ignorant. Should he wish to engage in further polemics, I suggest that he first take some reading lessons.

Izeth Hussain

5.

Defining Ethnicity: A Reply

[Lanka Guardian, Oct.1, 1990]

Well – Izeth Hussain had tested my ability to read and comprehend (based on two 600-word letters, which strongly criticized his interpretation of the term ‘ethnic group’) and I have flunked (LG, Sept.1). It certainly is a christening experience to be babtized like this by an ex-Sri Lankan diplomat.

Mr.Hussain’s main gripe is that I am suffering from a “persistent habit of reading what is not there in (his) text”. Not being a diplomat, I have learnt to read “between the lines” in addition to reading what is “in the lines”. If this habit irks him, let be it.

Casting aside Mr.Hussain’s nonsensical broadside about my “inability to understand simple declarative sentences”, for sake of objectivity, I wish to recapitulate what had transpired so far in this on-going dialogue on ethnicity.

Hussain’s hypothesis: “Not withstanding the commonalities of language, culture and religion, the Tamils of Tamil Nadu and of Sri Lanka constitute two distinct ethnic groups” (LG, Feb.1 and Mar.15).

My criticism: The common language and cultural characteristics shared by the Tamils of Tamil Nadu and of Sri Lanka makes them belonging to the same ethnic group (LG, May 1). The biomedical evidence does not show any distinct differences between the Tamils of Tamil Nadu and of Sri Lanka (LG, July 1).

I will let the LG readers to decide who has failed to grasp the “plain meanings of plain words”. In this dialogue, the problematic words are, “distinct” and “ethnic group”. The conventional dictionary meanings of these two words as well as anthropological evidences should show my point of view to be correct. If Mr.Hussain believes in his interpretation of the meaning of these words he is welcome to have it. But, he should provide an acceptable new definition of what he means by “distinct” and “ethnic group”. Finally, if some folks can still hang on to the belief of flat-earth hypothesis, even after 400 years of Galileo, I can excuse Mr.Hussain for his ignorance in dismissing the biomedical criteria for defining ethnicity as limited in scope. Amen.

Sachi Sri Kantha
Philadelphia, USA.

6.

Plain Words

[Lanka Guardian, Nov.1, 1990]

I see that Sri Kantha has failed to profit from my advice that he should take some reading lessons before engaging in further polemics. In reply to my detailed demonstration that he cannot understand what he reads, he writes (LG of Oct.1) that he was reading between the lines. I do not see how he can possibly succeed in metaphorically reading between the lines when in the first place he cannot grasp the plain literal meanings of plain words. Consequently I am certainly not going to waste LG space taking up his quibble about the term ‘distinct’ in relation to ethnicity.

His problem is the same as Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, who said “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less”. I suggest therefore that he take to writing nonsense literature, a genre that has not been properly exploited since the great days of Carroll and Lear. He should make his mark, provided he remembers that there is a difference between nonsense literature and tommy rot.

Izeth Hussain

Nine Months Later

Nine months later, another Lanka Guardianreader, M.P.de Silva, picked up on Izzeth Hussain’s change of stance on the issue of ethnicity, pertaining to the Tamils of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. de Silva wrote:

7.

Separatism

[Lanka Guardian, Aug.1, 1991]

Izeth Hussain in LG of March 1, 1990 stated that “the Tamil Nadu and Sri Lankan Tamils constitute two distinct ethnic groups” (p.19, last para). In the LG of July 1, 1991, he states that they can be regarded as distinct groups “in some senses” (p.4, para 5). How come, this qualification?….

M.P.de Silva
Colombo 6.

Not one to be caught with his pants down and not one to acknowledge that he had revised his stance, Izeth Hussain wiggled out of the dilemma he faced by copping out an excuse, as follows:

8.

Distinct in some senses

[Lanka Guardian, Sept.1, 1991]

M.P.de Silva (LG, Aug.1, 1991) must not abstract statements from their contexts. He writes that in LG of March 1, 1990, I stated that the Tamil Nadu and Sri Lankan Tamils constitute two distinct ethnic groups, while in LG of July 1, 1991, I state that they can be regarded as distinct groups “in some senses”. Reference to my 1990 article will show that I referred to its introductory part in LG of Feb.1, 1990 where I wrote, in paras two and three, that the two groups might be regarded as “constituting a single ethnic” in terms of certain factors, while it could be argued in terms of other factors that they were “two distinct ethnic groups”. In other words my original position, which has not changed, was that they are distinct “in some senses”…

Izeth Hussain

Concluding Note by Sachi Sri Kantha

Izeth Hussain was a Sri Lankan diplomat. He had served as the Sri Lankan ambassador to Philippines and Russia. As typical of any successful diplomat who is also a bully, he could yawn with his mouth closed. He could also portray himself as an expert on ‘everything under the Sun’ – which includes anthropology, ethnography, sociology and linguistics, while not acknowledging that he would never be wrong. What he could not do was to acknowledge that he revised his thoughts, following valid criticism.

I opted to present this debate on the ethnicity of Tamils in Tamil Nadu and Eelam for more than one reason. First, to reveal to the readers (especially the younger readers who wouldn’t have had the chance to read the spicy exchanges which filled the pages of Lanka Guardian in the 1990s) that I had been vigorously criticised in print for my stance on Tamil issue. Izeth Hussain was one of my harshest critics, who uncouthly smeared my learning without directly tackling the issue of my criticism. Though hardly free from vanity, unlike Izeth Hussain, I rejoice in criticism since it challenges me to correct myself, if I’m in error. Secondly and more importantly, the question whether the Tamils in Tamil Nadu and Eelam belong to two different ethnic groups deserves serious study in the 21st century. If one has to extend the logic of Izeth Hussain, the English-speaking white-skinned ethnics of Britain, Canada, USA, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland has to be tagged as different ethnic groups.

Sept.17, 2003

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Posted November 11, 2003