MYTHS AND SCHOLARS - PART IV
(1999 May 05)
In Parts II and III of the present series of articles it was shown, contrary to the myth propagated by Ms. Radhika Coomaraswamy, that Tamil racism has existed since the last century and that the myth making was started not by the expatriate Tamils after 1983 but by people like Mudaliyar Rasanayagam who as far back as 1926 were, in fact, echoing the tradition of the mythical Yalpana Vaipava Malai composed in the Eighteenth century. I wonder whether Mr. D. P. Agasthiyan who had written to "The Island" on the 1st and 3rd of May 1999 along the lines of these myths is an expatriate Tamil. Whether he is a local or not it is clear that even today there are many non-expatriate Tamils living among the Sinhala people, who continue to keep themselves busy with upholding the Malai tradition of History.
Ms. Coomaraswamy on the other hand pretends to recognise that some of these are myths. For example she says: "Tamil myths as currently espoused by some Tamil expatriate scholars appeals to have the following elements. Firstly Tamils of Sri Lanka are the heirs to an old and ancient civilisation which has its roots in Mohenjadaro and Harappa, civilisations which had been destroyed by less developed Aryans from West Asia. Secondly, Tamils are the original inhabitants of Sri Lanka and the Sinhalese are actually Tamils who came later to the island and became Sinhalese after adopting Buddhism as their religion. Thirdly, the Tamil language spoken in Sri Lanka is its purest form; it is Tamil as spoken during the Sangam renaissance of the ninth century. Fourthly, Saiva Siddhantha is the religion of the Tamil people and has a special home in Sri Lanka because of the teachings of Arumuga Navalar". Not only that she "concedes" them as myths she is also "against" the utilisation of these myths by those whom she wants us to believe as expatriate Tamils who have taken up the industry of myth making after 1983 as a reaction against the Sinhala nationalist ideology that arose in the fifties.
Now the question is why should Ms. Coomaraswamy try to create the impression that she is against these myths. Is it because that she is a rational objective impartial intellectual who is dispassionately interested in seeking the objective truth whatever the outcome of such endeavour may be? It could be so, but from her article, sorry the research publication, that appeared in "The Island" of 6th and 8th of March 1999, it is clear that there are other motives. She says: ".... the discourse of Tamil nationalism, ESPECIALLY AS EXPRESSED IN CERTAIN TYPES OF EXPATRIATE LITERATURE, appears to contain the same communalism, which if unchallenged will lead us further into the modern era of neo-tribalism". It sounds as if Ms. Coomaraswamy is "against" what she and her gurus in the west call neo-tribalism.
However only one paragraph later she says: " It may be argued that Tamil intellectuals cannot afford to make the same mistake (she is referring here to the 'mistakes of the Sinhala intellectuals'). Political ideologies which further the cause of social justice, which fight oppression and exploitation must be distinguished from those which find their sustenance only in tribe, race and ethnicity. The right of ethnic groups to political expression, to political autonomy and even to a separate state may be justified in "political" terms of the right to self determination or the right to be free from oppression or exploitation. It poses difficult problems if it is justified in terms of the discourse of a chosen people."
Then she goes on to say:" The discourse of a chosen people, which is a familiar and important part of Sinhalese nationalism has become a new and disturbing phenomenon in Tamil political writing . In surveying some of the books and articles which have come out since 1983 there appears to be an alarming and rapidly growing process of myth creation about Sri Lankan Tamils. It is important that these myths be dispelled now, before they receive ideological vigour. ........... The main thrust of this campaign appears to come, not so much from Madras or Jaffna, where every day issues of survival point to a different type of politics, but from the expatriate community, who have begun to write extensively on Tamil history and ideology. Their writings are circulated widely and have an important effect on Tamil consciousness.
Many Tamil social scientists have argued in private that this new phase in Tamil nationalist writing is an attempt by the middle class, expatriate population to capture momentum and give ideological direction to the Tamil nationalist movement which for the most part has relied on general concepts of freedom from oppression and the right to self determination. However, impugning motives to expatriate scholars, and thereby dismissing the influence of such writing may under-estimate the power of such ideology which draws sustenance only from ethnic loyalty. There is no doubt, that these writings have become an influential part of the ideological debate and it is therefore necessary to analyse the political implications of such myths of dissemination."
Ms. Coomaraswamy and others of her ilk would like to "debunk" these myths created by the so-called expatriate Tamils mainly because it will undermine their campaign for "political autonomy and even to a separate state" that "may be justified in "political" terms of the right to self determination or the right to be free from oppression or exploitation". They are now worried as "it poses difficult problems if it is justified in terms of the discourse of a chosen people." The "scholars" unlike the expatriates know with what kind of myths they can argue their case for political autonomy and a separate state. They would not like to see the Mahavansa being quoted at all as it gives credibility to that great work by Rev. Mahanama. They know that the historical or the ideological myth stands no chance at all in the face of the work done by Prof. Indrapala. In his Ph. D. thesis submitted to the University of London he categorically states that "Until about the thirteenth century A.D. the history of Ceylon was the history of the Sinhalese people." (page 6). Probably the lawyers close to Ms. Coomaraswamy would have helped her to weed out those expatriate myths that would pose problems for their case in arguing for political autonomy and a separate state without any assistance from the Mahavansa. The myth that the "scholars" (including the lawyers) have propagated with some success is that the Tamil demands are "rights" based. According to them the Tamils are demanding political autonomy, self-determination etc., because they have been discriminated against since the Sinhala Language Act of 1956. They claim that they have evolved a "political discourse" which can be defended as against an "ideological discourse" of the expatriates.
The "scholars" hide the fact that their so-called political discourse is also surrounded with myths. Firstly it is a myth to state that the "expatriates" started the "ideological discourse" after 1983. The Tamil racism from the very beginning is based on the ideological myths from which Ms. Coomaraswamy tries to give the impression that she is dissociating. Mudaliyar Rasanayagam nor Mr. Chelvanayakam who talked of a three thousand-year history of the Tamils were not expatriates who came to the limelight after 1983. As I have said in Part III the Tamil demands from the days of the legislative assembly were based on the notion that the Tamils have a history in this country going even beyond Vijaya and that the Sinhala people did not build a unique culture in this country. People like Mr. Agasthiyan based in the tradition of Malai come to conclusions such as "The Nagas and the Lambakarnas intermixed and together with other Tamils from South India formed the forefathers of the Tamils in the North today" and "Sinhalese did not play any part in the cultural development of the Tamils". He says that "in fact it was the other way around" based on arguments of the form "it is obvious that sufficient scholarship was not shown to the study of the message in this gold plate (Vallipuram-NdeS) for if it was done it would have clearly shown Jaffna neither had any Sinhalese living there nor was there any frequent contact between Jaffna and the rest of Sri Lanka." ("The Island" 3rd May 1999). Mr. Agasthian must be a present day Rishi Agasthi to "see" the conclusion even before a proper study (in his opinion) is made!
Secondly Ms. Coomaraswamy and the others propagate the myth that the Tamils are being discriminated in this country and that the Tamil demands in the fifties were "rights based". All these so called discriminations emanate from the reluctance of the Tamils to accept that (i) the majority of the people in the country are Sinhala, (ii) the history of the country is Sinhala, (iii) the culture unique to this country is Sinhala and (iv) the language of the country is Sinhala, as a result of the Malai type history. The Tamil racists are against Sinhala being the only official language in spite of the fact that more than 85% of the population can understand that language and they wanted Tamil also to be an official not because that the Tamil identity would be lost as a consequence but simply because of the belief in the Malai tradition of History. The so-called discriminations arise out of this "false consciousness" given to the middle class Tamils by an ideology based on a mythical history. Ms. Coomaraswamy and others of her ilk try to hide this fact and want the rest of the world to believe that there was no ideology behind the Tamil demands in the fifties of the so-called Federal Party and the other Tamil racist parties subsequently formed. The fact that the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi (Lanka Tamil State Party) was formed before the so-called discriminations debunks the Coomaraswamy myth. The Tamil demands in the fifties as well as those before and after the fifties were "ideologically based" and not "rights based".
Thirdly Ms. Coomaraswamy is propagating the myth that the history based on the "Yalpana Vaipava Malai" and the Mahavansa are both myths. What she and the other "scholars" are trying to say is that the Malai tradition and the Mahavansa tradition are only legends and nothing more. The strategy is simple. They know that Malai tradition is not consistent with the historical and archaeological facts and cannot be defended. By pretending to be non-biased they then claim that Mahavansa is also a mythical tradition. They are worried that some "scholars" like N. Satyendra quote Mahavansa to "prove that the Sinhalese are of Tamil descent." For example, according to Ms. Coomaraswamy, Satyendra has said: "The Sinhala Chronicle, the Mahavamsa, also records that a few years after his arrival in Sri Lanka, Prince Vijaya and his followers married Tamils from the Pandyan kingdoms in South India." Now the Mahavansa only says that the wives for Vijaya and the others were brought from the Pandyan kingdom. It does not say that the Pandyans were Tamils and this interpretation is given by the Tamil racists without realising that there were no Tamils in the Pandyan kingdom during that time. For Tamil racists any non-Aryan tribe in India and Sri Lanka is Dravidian and very often if it suits them they are Tamil as well.
It is unfortunate for the Tamil racists that the only source that they can quote "to prove that the Sinhala people are descendants of Tamils" is the Mahavansa. Even then they have to give their own interpretations based on the assumption that the pre Aryan tribes in South India and Sri Lanka were Tamils. This assumption is totally false, as the Dravidians, according to historians such as Nila Kantha Shastri, have come to India after the Aryans. I will discuss this in more details later. In the meantime let me quote Prof. Indrapala on the Sinhala and Pali chronicles. In his thesis he says: "While the Pali and Sinhalese chronicles of the island provide very reliable, fairly adequate and surprisingly continuous information regarding the political, and to an extent the religious, history of Ceylon, their contribution to our inquiry is little." So the Mahavansa is very reliable though its contribution to the study that Prof. Indrapala had undertaken was little. It has to be remembered that there are no contradictions between the Mahavansa and Prof. Indrapala's thesis. Thus Ms. Coomaraswamy's attempt to portrait the Mahavansa as the Sinhala equivalent of the mythical Yalpana Maipava Malai fails. However much Ms. Coomaraswamy and the others of her ilk attempt, they cannot equate Mahavansa to Yalpana Vaipava Malai or the Ramayanya and the Mahabharatha as the historical and the archaeological evidence corroborate with the Mahavansa on overwhelming number of cases.
However, one should not get the impression that Ms. Coomaraswamy is really against the myths in the Malai tradition. Let us see how Ms. Coomaraswamy approves the work of S. Ponnambalam, which contains the same myths, while derogating the Mahavansa. She says: 'Generally most Tamil scholars accept the Mahavamsa only as a source of legends. S. Ponnambalam in fact calls some Mahavamsa stories "nothing but a tangled web of cleverly contrived fiction." ......... The Sinhalese have always claimed that they were the original inhabitants of Sri Lanka, with the Tamil presence always being that of the invader. The Sinhalese chronicles, the Mahavamsa and the Dipavamsa, are used as evidence of this claim to priority. To combat this MYTH OF ORIGIN (my emphasis), Tamil scholars such as Ponnambalam have this to say. "According to tradition the Tamils of India and Sri Lanka are the lineal descendants of the Naga and Yaksha people. (According to Harry Williams). Nagadipa in the north of Sri Lanka was an actual kingdom known to historians and the people who occupied it were all part of an immigrant tribe from South India, Tamil people called the Nagars... The conclusions that could validly be drawn from the new historical data clearly establish that the present day Tamils were the original occupiers of the island long before 543 B.C. which the Pali chronicles date as the earliest human habitation of Sri Lanka." ".
Thus Ms. Coomaraswamy while discrediting the Mahavansa and stating that the Sinhala people were not the original inhabitants of the country vis-a-vis the Tamils (she calls this the myth of origin), upholds the view expressed by S. Ponnambalam that "the present day Tamils were the original occupiers of the island long before 543 B.C. which the Pali chronicles date as the earliest human habitation of Sri Lanka." Ms. Coomaraswamy tries to give the impression that she is against the myths of the expatriates who quote the Mahavansa albeit with their own interpretations to "prove that the Tamils were the original inhabitants", but approves the same myth when "scholars" like Ponnambalam express them quoting dubious sources. What is clear is that Ms. Coomaraswamy, contrary to the image that she is trying to portrait that she and the others of her ilk are against the myths in the Malai tradition, she is really not. She is against them only if the Mahavansa has been used to "prove" that the original inhabitants were the Tamils. Otherwise she is not and would even praise those who present the same myth while derogating the Mahavansa. So much for the scholarship of Ms. Coomaraswamy.
She and the "scholars" cannot claim that the Tamil demands at any time were "rights" based, as the Tamil racist movement has never been devoid of the myths in the Malai tradition of history. As I have said the so-called discriminations arose as a result of the belief in the myths of Malai and as shown above Ms. Coomarswamy herself upholds these myths as "scholarly" work contrary to the impression that she endeavours very hard to create that she is against them. The scholarship of the "scholars" itself turns out to be a myth.