MYTHS AND SCHOLARS - PART II
(1999 March 31)
Ms. Coomaraswamy in her "paper" tries to give the impression that she is independent, objective, impartial etc., and that she being a rational scholar is above myth making among both Tamils and Sinhala people. However as I have said in Part I of this series of articles, which may not appear on consecutive Wednesdays due to exigencies of current affairs, there are no objective and impartial people among the human beings and Ms. Coomaraswamy is no exception. There are a number of myths in her "paper", but I must say that I do not hold her responsible for making those myths. After all making myths is also a kind of creative art or science depending on the way one looks at it. While giving the impression that she is against myth making she presents or tries to portrait the Tamil myths as gospel truth and the historical facts cited by the Sinhala people as myths. That is a good strategy provided that the others are unable to notice her technique.
In her "paper" Ms. Coomaraswamy informs us the following:
(i) Tamil politics that was 'rights' oriented at the national level until the seventies turned to an ideology based on Tamil nationalism in the eighties. I think what the lawyer in Mr. Kumar Ponnambalam says when he tells us that the Tamil politics has graduated from grievances to aspirations is not very different from this assertion by Ms. Coomaraswamy.
(ii) Some Sinhala people spend their time constructing international conspiracy theories and creating myths.
(iii) The 'discourse' of a chosen nation, which is a familiar and important part of Sinhala nationalism, has 'become a new and disturbing phenomenon in Tamil political writing'. While she talks of myths created by the Sinhala people and of an important part of Sinhala nationalism Ms. Coomaraswamy mentions of a new and disturbing phenomenon in Tamil political writing. How careful she has been in using words?
(iv) Tamil myths as 'currently espoused by some Tamil expatriate scholars' (note that it is the expatriate community among the Tamils who create myths) include among other things that Tamils are the original people of the country.
(v) Most Tamil 'scholars' accept Mahavansa only as a source of legends and they do not depend on that work for facts.
(vi) Dr. G. H. Pieris's "more scholarly paper" addresses the concept of traditional homeland from
a geographical position and not from a political perspective.
Now Ms. Coomaraswamy, the objective social scientist states: "Until the 1970's Tamil politics at the national level was 'rights' oriented, a reaction against measures taken by governments motivated by a Sinhala nationalist ideology. Though Tamil culture and creative writing witnessed a renaissance in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka after the rise of the DMK, Tamil political discourse in Sri Lanka in the 50's and the 60's was characterised by a sense of grievances and political oppression. The rhetoric and language of Tamil politics was 'developmental'- i.e. grievances with regard to education, employment and land. In addition, it was 'democratic' - i.e. against laws that appeared to discriminate against the Tamil language and for political structures which would allow for autonomy in predominantly Tamil areas. Consciousness was centered around language and economic rights." She further tells us that Prof. Sivathamby has analysed this as being the discourse of the Federal Party which represented for the most part, the interests of the Tamil middle classes.
Then she claims that the Tamil politics took a different course after 1983, ESPECIALLY AS EXPRESSED IN CERTAIN TYPES OF EXPATRIATE LITERATURE (Ms. Coomaraswamy's emphasis) and before trying to explain from where this discourse (I am not quite sure whether she uses the word discourse in the same sense as the French thinkers associated with post modernism) came she comments on the politics in the 50's and the 60's. She says: "The rise of the DMK in Tamil Nadu and its version of anti-Brahmin, populist nationalism had an important effect on Sri Lankan Tamil consciousness in the 50s and 60's. Tamil pride in culture and language has been an important part of Tamil identity, but there was no automatic spill over into Tamil political discourse and political writing."
Contrary to her previous statement that "the rhetoric and language of Tamil politics was 'developmental'- i.e. grievances with regard to education, employment and land", Ms. Coomaraswamy has been forced to admit that there has been a Tamil pride in culture and identity in the 50's and the 60's but she says it did not spill over into Tamil political discourse. She has further admitted that even as early as the 1950's, Mr. C. Suntheralingam had spoken "in terms of a Dravida, Saiva Siddantha consciousness as part of the Sri Lankan Tamil identity" She says: "However, his writings were on the fringe of the movement and were therefore not in the consciousness of other Tamil political leaders, especially S.J.V. Chelvanayagam who was a Christian with little affinity for this type of political consciousness".
Ms. Coomaraswamy's thesis, though not original, is that the Tamil politics in the 50's and the 60's was a reaction against the Sinhala nationalist ideology due to which certain rights in the spheres such as education and land were lost to the Tamils. The effect of Tamil Nadu, the pride in Tamil culture and language did not play an important part in Tamil politics in this era. Even Saiva Siddantha consciousness articulated by people like Mr. Suntheralingam had no effect on Tamil political leaders. Now this is not a bad thesis if it can be substantiated. Unfortunately for the objective social scientist Ms. Coomaraswamy it is not so.
Tamil racism has a history which goes back to the last century. In any case Mr. Suntheralingam who had been a member of the State Council and the Parliament was not on the fringe of Tamil politics. Neither was he on the fringe of national politics. Like some Tamil politicians of today he was an advisor to the local person who held the highest position in the country. The Tamil consciousness from the last century was built not only on Saiva Siddantha but on myths regarding the history of the Tamils in this country. It was this Tamil consciousness, which took a racist stance from the very beginning with the encouragement given by the British, which refused to accept that the Sinhala people were the majority in the country. When the Tamil politician Mr. P. Ramanathan claimed in 1885 that the Muslims in this country, were Tamils as an ethnic group he did not have to worry about the Sinhala language act "threatening the Tamil language" nor about the so-called colonisation of the eastern province by the Sinhala chauvinist governments. In fact the eastern province came into existence, in the present form, only in 1889. The discrimination of the Tamils in the fields of language and land would not have been in the minds of the British governors of the last century. How does Ms. Coomaraswamy explain with her thesis, the politics or may I say the discourse of the Tamil leaders like Mr. P. Ramanathan in the last century. Was the language of Tamil Politics in the eighties, not in the present century but in the previous century, 'developmental' - i.e. 'grievances with regard to education, employment and land'? In addition, was it 'democratic' - i.e. 'against laws that appeared to discriminate against the Tamil language and for political structures which would allow for autonomy in predominantly Tamil areas'?
How does Ms. Coomaraswamy account for the actions of the Tamil politicians in the first half of the present century when they demanded equal or more representation for the Tamils in the legislative assembly, the state council and then in the parliament with respect to the Sinhala people? Can she describe them as 'developmental' and 'democratic' in the same sense she has used those words in her "paper". The behaviour of the Tamil politicians whether they call themselves moderate or not can be explained as arising from Tamil racism that in connivance with the British tried to deny the Sinhala people their rightful place in the country and their history. There was no graduation from grievances to aspirations, or from 'developmental' politics arising out of grievances to separatist terrorist politics arising out of an ideology of Tamil nationalism. It was Tamil racism from the very beginning. Prabhakaran is only the political grand nephew of the Ponnambalams and the nephew of Chelvanayakam. The differences are in their tactics and strategies and not in their racism.
Tamil racism from the very beginning had an ideology. It is not something that the Tamil expatriates have created after 1983. In any case Prabhakaran did not wait for an ideology to come from the Tamil diaspora .By the late sixties he had started his terrorist 'discourse'' based on the ideology of Tamil racism handed down to him by the Ponnambalams and Chelvanayakam. Tamil racism as an ideology has always believed that the Tamils had lived in this country for more than three thousand years and the Sinhala people are late comers. With the assistance of the British they never accepted that the Sinhala people built a unique culture in this country and that the latter are the majority of the country. There are various versions of theories arising out of this ideology some claiming lineage to Nagas some others to Mohenjadaro Harappa civilisation, when historians of the calibre of Nilakanta Shastri are of the view that the Tamils came to India after the Aryans had come there. I suppose the Tamil racist ideology can gain some currency if the 'scholars' can come out with a theory to establish that the Tamils went to India from Sri Lanka! Mind you, being great 'scholars' they are not incapable of doing that.
Now let us move onto Mr. Chelvanayakam and his consciousness. Prof. A. J. Wilson has done a great service to the Sinhala people by publishing his book on his father-in-law Mr. S. J. V. Chelvanayakam. I think some body should translate this into Sinhala so that the Sinhala people could understand the nature of Tamil racism. In his book Prof. Wilson says: "he (Mr. Chelvanayakam) was emphatic that the Sinhalese, after independence, had 'proceeded to plunder Tamil lands by colonising the rich agricultural districts in Tamil provinces like Galoya and Kantalai ....which even Sinhalese kings during the days of their most autocratic rule never dared to do......[....] The Tamils held these provinces for the last three thousand years and now the Sinhalese, not satisfied with the seven provinces they occupy, are trying to usurp our lands as well..." (page 21). Now this was in January 1956 and not after July 1983. It was three months before even the general election of 1956 that swept Mr. Bandaranaike into power. Mr. Chelvanayakam here talks of a three thousand-year history of the Tamils in Sri Lanka.
Ms. Coomaraswamy mentions that Mr. Chelvanayakam was a Christian. In referring to the politics of Mr. Suntheralingam she informs us that 'S.J.V. Chelvanayagam who was a Christian' had 'little affinity for this type of political consciousness'. This is far from truth. While the Christian British and Clergy have right through out nurtured Tamil racism, Mr. Chelvanayakam and the other leaders had not deviated from the Hindu consciousness of the Jaffna Tamils. He may not have become a Hindu but he was influenced by Hindu culture. In this connection we must remember that even the Tamil Christian clergy think of themselves as Tamils first and then as Christians. Let us listen to his son-in-law.
"The arrival of Chelvanayakam's family in Tellippalai had a profound significance in his personal development, in a number of different ways. The first of these was that while he was growing up he lived in close proximity to Tamil Nad in South India. He learned South Indian music and its Carnatic tradition, and became an enthusiast for Tamil drama in Tellippallai, taking part himself. All through his life he would wear Tamil dress at home and in Tamil areas on ceremonial occasions and when appearing on public platforms- this at a time when Western clothes were generally preferred. Thus he seems to have imbibed early and retained a strong Tamil consciousness." (page 3)
"Yet despite his Christianity, Chelvanayakam absorbed much of the Hindu ethos during his youth. He adhered to this Christian-Tamil Hindu contextualism also because quite a number of his relations were Hindus. He therefore made the paradoxical claim that he was a Christian by religion and a Hindu by culture." (page 4).There is nothing paradoxical about this type of situation especially among the Hindus whether in Sri Lanka or in India.
Ms. Coomaraswamy has failed to establish that Tamil politics has taken a turn after 1983 from action based on grievances to ideology based activities. Thus she or the "scholars" responsible for this thesis have only created another myth that is being used by Tamil racism.