Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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Getting to Know Sri Lankan Tamils

by Karthigesu Sivathamby, Sunday Observer, March 26, 2006

It will be the aim of this series to know that the Sri Lankan Tamils are deeply committed to this country and to their cultural identity. It is not a history parallel to that of the Sinhalese, but a complementary one, with deep cultural affinities with the Sinhalese and with Buddhism.

An island with only 270 miles land stretch between its Northern and the Southern borders and 140 miles stretch between its Eastern and the western points has had to engage itself for over 30 years in an intensively fought war between the Sinhalese and the Tamils, with the Muslims getting badly affected too.

The irony of the situation becomes all the more pronounced when one notices the fact that there is a need for a mediation by a third country to enable the contending parties to speak to each other.

The tragedy of this alienation between the major communities of the country becomes all the more striking when one contrasts this with what is happening in India, geographically described as a sub-continent. The post British period in India has seen the partition of India and the formation of Pakistan as a separate country on the eve of its Independence (1947).

This has been a bitter lesson which the Indians could not forget. This, perhaps, has been the compelling reason for India to work out a unity among such linguistically diverse groups as the Sikhs on one hand and the Malayalies (Keralists) on the other.

Reality of the "divide"

The Sri Lankan situation demands close attention. And one has to accept the reality of the "divide" but, more importantly, inquire into how this divide had occurred and has grown to these proportions.

The stark truth is that there has been no genuine effort taken to understand each other. Worse still, there has been a number of misrepresentations of history, so much so the history of this country has become a major factor in this alienation between the communities.

However, in recent times there is a welcome trend to speak of Sri Lanka as a multicultural country. This multiculturalism has been recently emphasised by no less a person than the Mahanayake of the Malwatta Chapter.

Even a cursory glance at the history of this country from about the mid 19th century and, especially, the history since the political independence of this country (1948) will reveal that the concept of a national integration has been totally absent, and the first time it had been used in official circles was after the Ceasesfire Agreement in 2002. From this date onwards the Ministry of Constitutional Affairs has the additional appellation "National Integration."

At this time, when a genuine effort is being made to resolve the ethnic conflict, it would be helpful to know how deeply the non Sinhala ethnic groups consider themselves as Sri Lankans, with essence of inseparable attachment to this island.

It will be the aim of this series to know that the Sri Lankan Tamils are deeply committed to this country and to their cultural identity. It is not a history parallel to that of the Sinhalese, but a complementary one, with deep cultural affinities with the Sinhalese and with Buddhism.

Speaking of history, it may not be out of place to go into how these inter-ethnic differences have become so sharp and deep. The immediate response on the part of many is to point the finger at what is taken as the history of this country.

It's a well-known fact that it's historiography that determines what is written as "history." In the manner the history of this country has been presented, there is a focus on the Sinhala-Buddhist aspect. The historians of ancient and medieval Sri Lanka have indicated the necessity for this focus. An analysis of especially the 20th century writings on Sri Lankan history reveals the truth that the concept of colonialism has not been taken into Sri Lankan historiographical thinking.

This needs some explanation. This island has been under colonial subjugation since the beginning of 16th century. Today there is a tendency to highlight only the Britania Adhirajavadaya, but there has been the colonialist rules of the Portuguese and the Dutch from about 1521-1796 over the maritime regions.

The impact of the Portuguese rule and the Dutch rule created an unprecedented religo-cultural dislocation. In fact, the British rule was more lenient than the Portuguese and Dutch rules.

This colonial impact has determined our view of the pre-colonial period. The pre-colonial period was understandably seen as one championing the indigenous cultural traditions. If one takes into count the historiography of the Buddhist historical writings of the pre-colonial era, one can easily understand how the ethnocentric histories were conceived and written.

This is not the place to go into the details of the evolution of this historiography, but we should remind ourselves of the ideological response of the Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese to Christianisation and modernisation in the 19th century.

Muslim identity

A review of the history of 19th century Sri Lanka reveals that, after 1833 when the efforts towards the structuring of the British rule was taking place with the active support of the education provided by the Protestant missionaries, the indigenous religio-cultural groups began to assert their individualities without disturbing the overall British colonialist supremacy.

It is interesting to note that the first move towards such a religio-cultural assertion was undertaken among the high cast Hindu-Tamils in Jaffna. Arumuga Navalar (1822-1879) highlighted the Saiva-Tamil integrality. The intensity of the missionary education activities was felt more in Jaffna than in the other parts of the island. There was also the interaction with Tamil Nadu.

Around the 1870s Sidee Lebbe of Kandy, through his Journal "Muslim nesan," argued the need for the preservation of the Muslim identity through Islam and Arabic.

On the Buddhist front, responses to Christianisation had been there earlier, too, but the movement for religio-cultural identity of the Sinhala-Buddhists was given full politico-cultural expressions by Anagarika Dharmapala in the first two decades of the 20th century.

Thus, the three major communities opted for an internal religio-cultural exclusivism within British colonial rule.

It was around this time that the process of politicisation started. The indigenous participation in the legislative process of the colony was founded on the basis of communal representation, that is, there were members appointed to represent the interests of up the country Sinhalese,the low country Sinhalese, the Tamils and the Muslims.

Sri Lanka's entry into representative politics began to solidify itself. The adult suffrage given in the early 1930s was consciously used to consolidate the underlying religio-cultural exclusivisms of the different communities.

The process of politicisation led to the takeover of majoritarianism, a concept that the British system of administration had introduced to us.

The evolution of Sinhala nationalism and its takeover of the majoritarian concept, known through the British parliamentary tradition, became the corner-stone of Sri Lankan politics.

The Marxist intervention, with its notions of class, did not go down into the Sri Lankan soil and the main Marxist parties accepted populist nationalism as politico-social progress.

The efforts of Sinhala nationalism to define itself in terms of language and religion led to Tamil responses based on language and not much on religion. It is an irony of history that the efforts of the first independent government in Sri Lanka to define the citizenship of this country led to the formation of the Federal Party in the year after the Independence (1949).


Thus, the difference began to snow-ball and mutual distrust provided speed for the snow-balling. The 1972 constitution, ironically enough the handy work of one of the greatest Marxist intellectuals of this country, Dr. Colvin R. De Silva, had no constitutional reference to the Sri Lankan Tamil community.

The Federal Party now became the advocate for an independent Tamil state. Again the greatest irony was that the pronouncement was made by a man who firmly believed in non violence - S. J. V. Chelvanayakam. The political downhill trend soon led to the emergence of Tamil militant youth movements.

They took Tamil Eelam as an a priori assumption. The ensuing war was inevitable. Here again, the tragedy was that the war which was aimed at the Tamil militants began to destroy Tamil lives and property.

The lack of understanding, if not the misunderstanding, was by this time complete.

The country now begins to realise how its future lies in its compositeness, and at this point of time it is important for the Sri Lankan Tamils to let their fellow countrymen know their commitment to Sri Lanka as the land of their birth and their future.

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