How does one BECOME Sinhalese or Tamil in Sentiment?

Michael Roberts

with Anne Abayasekera’s response in the spirit of the essay also reproduced below.



This article was first presented in that pulsating site on current affairs,, in late April 2008. Major transformations have taken place since then, not least the defeat of the LTTE and the dismantling of its de facto state. Nevertheless, the impasse in the political relations between the Tamils of Sri Lanka and the Sinhala-dominated state, as well as the affiliated issue of the Muslim community and these other two communities, remains unresolved. Note, too, that there are Tamil moderates who have been directing criticism at the hardline stance adopted by the Tamil National Alliance at the present moment.

Clearly, then, political engagements of this sort are central to the processes that reproduce ethnic consciousness. But, here, I wish to move readers towards developing reflective self-consciousness about the mundane processes of upbringing that instil communitarian sentiments within one’s hearts and minds. It is towards this end that I re-insert this old essay together with another by Anne Abayasekara that took up the baton on her own initiative in an essay published in the Island on 30th June 2008. I am grateful to Anne for such a perceptive response on the basis of her own biography. We should all be grateful to her.

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My interpretation of the present impasse in the politics of Sri Lanka, determined as it is by the competitive jostling-cum-conflicts between the three main ethnic groups (where “Muslim” is ‘ethnic’ by virtue of its relationship of opposition to “Sinhalese” and “Tamil” in the same sentence), leans towards an emphasis on how one should address present circumstances. Though I am a historian, I believe that delving into ancient history is of limited value for any exercise in rapprochement. Indeed, I would go further and insist that the circumstances of the immediate present, today in 2008, must mould any constitutional and economic arrangements seeking a modus vivendi. We cannot erase memories of the atrocities committed by all parties in the conflict that rest within the minds of today’s victimised survivors. But, subject to such caveats regarding the immediate past, a bracketing and limiting of historically-based claims would be of immense benefit towards paths of reconciliation. Even the census of 1981 cannot be a baseline for territorial adjustments. The hard realities of the present-day ground situation must assume predominance for pragmatic adjustments of accommodation.

History, however, looms large in the claims to space within Sri Lanka among the propagandists and ultra-nationalists who are at the cutting edge of claim and counter-claim. Historical data, or, rather, what passes for data, is at the root of arguments of legitimisation and demand. Any Tom, Dick or Harry (hereafter TomDH) in the ultra camps feels that s/he can deploy bits and pieces of historical ‘fact’ to support the various claims to island-space. They also voice interpretations of the more recent past to emphasise their grievances and the legitimacy of political position.

These claims cannot be majestically cast aside: for the reason that they emanate from emotional commitments and earnest belief and, as such, are part of the politics of identity and political competition. It is for this reason that I addressed the subject of “History-Making” in an article that appeared in cyber-space within The main argument was directed towards illustrating the sweeping character of the theories about the ancient history of Sri Lanka presented by some of the ultra TomDHs who ventured boldly in this field without any expertise in the subject. The emphasis was not on their lack of disciplinary training, but on the manifest absurdity of some arguments and the manner in which vast claims were asserted on the basis of one alleged ‘fact’, a fact that, as often as not, is wholly unauthenticated..

Insofar as some of the extreme views that I challenged had harped on racial distinctions, one of the subsidiary themes in History-Making argued that the peoples of Sri Lanka were racially mixed and that blood-distinction was a non-issue. This assertion — and let me stress that it is a conjectured assertion – is based on common sense and the geographical location of the island in the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean, its proximity to the Indian sub-continent and a considerable body of widely-known facts about bodies of people who migrated to Sri Lanka at various moments during the last fifteen centuries or so.

Strikingly, though, this sub-theme is the issue that attracted most blog comments. Apart from a few carping attacks by readers who had not understood my contentions, both Dushy Ranetunge and the pseudonymous Dingiri concentrated on this facet of my argument. Both in fact supported my thrust and stressed the mixtures of ‘blood’ or country of origin that have shaped the genes of the peoples who have lived in Lanka in recent past and distant past. Both even sought to provide a positivist cast to my assertions and their own assertions by suggesting DNA testing as likely proof.

It is this emphasis that gives rise to this particular essay. The emphasis on the racial aspect, this focus on our blood pedigree so to speak, is worrying even if the speakers are taking a moderate line that celebrates hybridity. For one, it demonstrates the power exercised by the racial categories spawned in the West and imported in the course of imperial expansion in an era marked by Darwinian currents of thought. Such forms of thought found fertile soil in countries where varna theories held sway and caste distinctions averse to the mixing of blood[1] had deep roots.

For another, it encourages a misunderstanding of ethnicity in the contemporary world. It does not give adequate weight to the force exerted by its depth of subjectivity. Ethnic differentiation is not solely “racial” or based on contemporary beliefs about supposed racial distinction (though that can be one powerful ingredient in such distinctions). Ethnicity is a subjective group sentiment. It is such sentiment that drives the ideologues who seek to manipulate the sentiments for their own immediate purposes. As subjective sentiment, ethnic identity is always in context and in relation to other groups in an interactive setting in territorial space. There is a “We” dimension in differentiation from a “They” dimension to ethnic differentiation, one that can differentiate XYZ from several categories of neighbouring people (so that “They” can be a cluster of named others).

Such differentiation can be sharpened where there is competition for resources and for institutional power, including state power. That type of competition will be familiar to most readers so let me focus here on the cultural ingredients of subjective We-ness, that is, the cultural practices that sustain the distinctions and, then, reproduce them over generational-time in dynamic ways that can insert shifts in emphasis amidst significant continuities.

Language is often a fundamental dimension of one’s experience of the world, though it does not necessarily serve as a major factor of distinction everywhere or constitute difference in the same fashion. It is also a complex phenomenon because there can be meaningful dialect differences within each language. The dialect variations among the English and the Germans, for example, have been of considerable import for centuries and one facet of their emergence as “nations” was the moulding of an overarching ‘standard’ form of English or German that confederated their loyalties within the emergent new state.

The state as an institution was so central to the development of Englishness in the period extending from the fifteenth-to-eighteenth centuries that some historians depict the process as one involving a state-become-nation. But this state encompassed the British Isles and was known as “Britain” rather than “England.” Thus, the Scots, Welsh and Cornish were among those drawn into the confederative concept of Britain in the early modern and modern eras, an incorporation that was made easier by the economic opportunities opened up by the imperial expansion of Great Britain.

A subjective attachment to “Us” as distinct from neighbours is rarely constituted, and then re-produced over time, by just one central factor. It is a multi-factor process. Among other factors, self-perceptions and the sentiments around such affinities are moulded by everyday practices of a complex kind engaging preferences in cuisine, dress, tonsure, cosmetics, bodily cleanliness, architecture and so on. Let me illustrate this argument from close to home, my home Sri Lanka.

In the late 1990s I was sent a draft manuscript by an Indian journal for review as Referee. The article was by Dennis McGilvray, an experienced American anthropologist conversant in Tamil and familiar with the Eastern Province. Addressing the issue of Tamil and Muslim identities in the Eastern Province his conclusions stressed the many commonalities they share and expressed a hope for political reconciliation in the immediate future. This emphasis was clearly motivated by well-intentioned hopes of peace, besides his knowledge of the regional scene.

In reviewing the draft I expressed my reservations about the overly one-sided stress on similarities. Besides the evidence of recent clashes of a violent character between elements within these two bodies of people in the Eastern Province, sometime back I had chanced upon a Jesuit missionary document that recorded a violent riot some 110 years earlier in the 1890s. I also suspected that over the last century there would have been occasional bazaar clashes and land disputes with ethnic hues, flash-points that never received newspaper reportage. So I had always been sceptical of platform rhetoric from local politicians affirming life-long amity among the different communities in the Eastern Province.

This caution was backed by my attentiveness to the significance of cultural difference of the sort embedded in practices of cuisine, coiffeur, tonsure et cetera and the reproduction of community endogamy because of the limited degree of cross-ethnic marriage throughout Sri Lanka. I therefore suggested that McGilvray’s essay could be improved if he, Mcgilvray, attended to a whole range of seemingly minute areas of difference: for example (a) architectural practice relating to the directional location of one’s household cesspit and (b) the trimming of pubic and armpit hair that was enjoined on good Muslims. McGilvray was rather taken aback by my point two, but did revise the article on the foundations provided by his ethnographic knowledge.[2]

Marriages across ethnic boundaries do occur in Sri Lanka. With reference to the  last two centuries, say, from 1796-to-1981,one can say that in some areas, such as the Chilaw-Negombo coastline and the sparsely populated dry zone jungles there has been some degree of inter-marriage between Sinhalese and other ethnic categories — including Väddas in some places. Likewise, in the slum and shanty areas in Colombo and among the jet-set elites such cross-ethnic marriages seem to be greater than among the general populace. But subject to such caveats one can present broad generalisations to the effect (1) that Muslim women have rarely married outside their community, though some Sinhala brides have been absorbed by the community; (2) that caste-oriented marriage practices among the Sinhalese and Tamils have assisted a broad process that sustains ethnic endogamy as a general feature and (3) that the Burghers have shown the greatest propensity to marry outside their group, though even here the pukka upper-crust Burghers tried to remain pukka.

Thus, for every instance of cross-ethnic marriage in the recent Sri Lankan past one could find another case where an individual who defied community and/or parental preference was disinherited or shunned; and there are surely enough anecdotal tales of boy-girl love interests that were vetoed by parental or sibling fiat.

Marriage, however, is not the only arena where one can evaluate degrees of cross-ethnic amity. Food sharing and funeral arrangements provide litmus tests. It is not enough to share Muslim feasts at Ramazan or other symbolic moments. It is when and with whom food is shared that is significant. For that matter, it is how food is shared: does a visit to a Muslim household by a Tamil or Sinhalese friend (male?) involve eating rice out of the same main dish as everyone sits on the floor in a circle around the repast? The latter practice is one sign of Muslim-ness, inclusion in the brotherhood of local being, albeit, ultimately, a pointer towards the pan-Muslim community or ummah.

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This long digression is directed towards emphasising the significance of a range of cultural practices – which obviously vary with area, climate and peoples – in moulding community sentiment of an ethnic kind in the global universe writ large. Travel and migrant movement in this era of globalisation may generate melting pot conditions in some places, but at the same time one also finds the development of heightened ethnicity shaped by nostalgia, ethnic networks of support, urban clustering, ghetto situations and the prejudices of host populations. Thus, ethnic affiliations always emerge in particular “sites” in the broad sense of the latter word (inclusive of class and time-period). They also are shaped by their relational field of structured social exchanges, including the impact of demographic weight and the control of resources and state power.

Thus, the appeal in this article is for us to move away from a focus on racial pedigree or beliefs about racial origins (though the latter can be one factor in the scenario) and to consider the range of factors, including seemingly benign everyday ways of dressing, cooking, eating or refining one’s body, that constitute difference.

Towards this end I would ask each Sinhalese who reads this piece to reflect on the following issues: What makes you FEEL that you are a Sinhalese? How did you BECOME Sinhalese? What made your parents think and feel themselves Sinhalese? And are you at the same time a Sri Lankan in sentiment? Or is the last question redundant in that “Sinhalese” is equivalent to “Sri Lankan”?

Likewise, with adjustments and a deletion of the last question, this battery of reflective questions can be pondered over by Tamils of Sri Lankan origin, some of whom may well have jettisoned their Sri Lankan-ness at this stage of their life as a result of recent experiences. In this regard the Tamils can also ask themselves if they have any sense of warm affinity to the Tamils nourished in Tamilnadu, Malaysia or Fiji? In other words, is one’s “Tamilness” locale-specific and rooted in memories of place or places, say, Manipay, Paranthan or Pasakudah?

To put my question in a nutshell: how did each of you become Sinhalese or Tamil and develop attachments to that entity?The inspiration for this question, I add, comes from the grave. On one occasion in August 1983 a few weeks after the anti-Tamil pogrom of that year, Charles Abeysekera and Newton Gunasinghe (both now deceased) were at the Social Scientists’ Association office in Nawala Road reflecting on the situation facing their country. As related to me once by Newton, he was forced to confront a question on the lines above raised by Charlie: “how do you know you are Sinhalese and what makes you Sinhalese?” It was not a joke, but an analytical twister. Newton had proceeded to address it with due seriousness and in analytical fashion. It is this I ask of you.


Am I a Sinhalese first and a Sri Lankan afterwards: An honest attempt to answer the question

Anne Abayasekara

from the Island, 30 June 2008.

The question that sprang at me in bold black type on the front page of the Midweek Review of The Island of 30th April, 2008, was posed by Dr. Michael Roberts who put  it thus: “How Does One BECOME Sinhalese or Tamil in Sentiment?” It not only caught my eye, it engaged my mind and has stayed with me for the past two months. I am neither an academic nor a scholar, just an ordinary citizen, one of millions in this country who feels deeply about the sad state of present-day Sri Lanka and the ongoing war that is surely destroying all of us, irrespective of what we call ourselves.

Dr. Roberts himself wrote out of concern for what he termed “the present impasse in the politics of Sri Lanka.” What he had to say was relevant to our condition and was worthy of serious consideration. So, while I have been reflecting on the issues raised by him, I have also kept an eye open for some response from even one or two readers of the same calibre as Dr. Roberts. I wonder whether he has been as disappointed as I that nobody at all has bothered to write even a Letter to the Editor on so pertinent a matter.

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, we are told. I am not “rushing in”, having cogitated at odd moments throughout all these weeks on the truth of the matter as it relates to myself.

“What makes you FEEL that you are a Sinhalese? How did you become Sinhalese? What made your parents think and feel themselves Sinhalese? And are you at the same time a Sri Lankan in sentiment? Or is the last question redundant in that `Sinhalese’ is equivalent to `Sri Lankan’?” I took Dr. Roberts’ questions seriously and the reason why I am putting my own findings about myself forward is that I think it is an exercise deserving our attention, whether we are Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim or Burgher.

When I look back to my childhood I see that, like most children whose parents don’t make a big thing of their race, I just accepted that I was a Sinhalese. In our little corner of the NWP where I was born in a village that was “gama’ to both my parents, there weren’t other racial groups – not any that came within my ken as a child, any way.

Everyone with whom I lived and moved was of the same race and spoke the same language. The village seemed to be composed largely of our kith and kin and when we went to church on a Sunday morning, the place was full of relatives. There were plenty of villagers around, of course, and I played with their children, all of whom were also obviously Sinhalese. I vaguely knew that they followed a different religion as there were two Buddhist temples bordering the coconut estate on which we lived, but in those days the fact that we belonged to a minority within the majority by virtue of being Christians, hadn’t seeped into my consciousness.

Then, when I was 5 years old, I was catapulted into an alien world in Colombo, the world of school. There, for the first time, I mingled with grown-ups and children of many different ethnic groups, some of them of different faiths and having a mother- tongue other than Sinhala, and some of them having a skin-colour different from mine. .

It didn’t bother us small fry. English was the medium of instruction and many of us kindergartners struggled to learn the new language. All of us learned together and played together and any external differences in appearance were accepted. It takes a bigoted adult to instill in young children the idea that such differences matter.

When I reached the 4th standard at age 9, however, something happened that had an impact on me as a Sinhalese. We were introduced to a history book called “The Story of Lanka” by L.E. Blaze (the great educationist who founded Kingswood College, Kandy).

The chapters in it that I remember clearly after all these years, were those relating to King Dutu Gemunu. I was stirred. I became conscious that I was a Sinhalese and I admired Dutu Gemunu. I don’t know what effect it had on the Tamil girls in the class, because at 9 years of age you don’t appreciate the fact that there may be others who react differently to your hero and who might even perceive him as an enemy.

The girls and boys of my generation who grew up in schools with a very mixed student population were, I believe, very fortunate. While we may have spoken in different languages at home, English, the language of school, was definitely the link language for us all. If you spend the formative years from 5 to 17 or 18 in the one school, mingling from infancy with children of all communities, you are bound to make life-long friendships across race and religion. A bonding that stands the test of time is cemented without your realising it. This, perhaps, is the greatest benefit conferred on us by those schools.

In the higher forms, we were taught Ceylon history by an English teacher who didn’t really impart the “feel” of it to us. Growing up in a devout Protestant (Baptist) home where religion was accorded the highest place, I reached adolescence with a scant knowledge of the grandeur of Anuradhapura or the glory of Polonnaruwa. I had learned about King Kasyappa and the rock fortress of Sigiriya, with no concept of what a marvel it was. I was 20 when I read “Ceylon, Beaten Track” by W.J. Keble (a name highly respected by Thomians of an older vintage). This book by an Englishman opened my eyes to what I had missed in being unaware of much that gave my country its special quality. And then, in 1947, I visited Polonnaruwa for the first time and was awe-struck by the shrines and monuments I saw. Never will I forget my first sight of the Gal Vihara at which I gazed spellbound. It seemed to me sublime. Everything about Polonnaruwa fascinated me. Those “Sinhala” feelings stirred within me again. As they did when I went to Anuradhapura and beheld the ancient places and wondrous ruins there. I climbed Mihintale and later, Sigiriya. I went to see the Aukana Buddha. In Kandy, I witnessed the grand spectacle of the Perahera for the first time. I visited the Dalada Maligawa and also walked the hot, dusty track that led to the Embekke Devala. You didn’t have to be a Buddhist to thrill to the splendid monuments and hallowed places.

Yet I have to confess that I have not been able to respond in the same way to what little I have seen of Hindu temples and sculpture. I hope my Hindu friends will pardon me when I say I had my attention drawn to phallic symbols standing amidst ruined devalas in Polonnaruwa, and to figures of the God Ganesh, and they left me cold. When I went to Kataragama with a large group, I couldn’t make myself enter the kovil along with the others. It seemed alien to me in a way that no Buddhist temple did, although all my Buddhist friends in the group eagerly entered in. My reluctance may have been due to some quirk in me.

Dr. Roberts mentions food sharing and funeral arrangements as providing “litmus tests” on cross-ethnic amity. He particularly talks of the Muslim custom of eating out of one dish. In a flash I recalled how at a Muslim wedding, we Sinhalese were greatly relieved that serving spoons were provided for us when all around us the Muslim guests dipped their hands into a common main dish. Does one’s inability to identify with some particular ritual or practice that is peculiar to members of another community, signify exclusiveness? Not necessarily, I would say, while granting that the “other” invariably appreciates any effort made by outsiders to emulate their customs as a matter of courtesy and delight shows in their eyes when we endeavour to speak their language, however poorly we may perform. But there are differences that can be accepted as just that – “differences” – and they don’t confer superiority or inferiority on one or the other, I do wince inwardly when I see a Muslim lady garbed in black from head to foot, with just two narrow slits at the eyes, and while I feel thankful that I do not have to comply with such a requirement myself, I see that mode of dress merely as a distinguishing mark of her religion and ethnicity.

Then there is the test of “marriages across ethnic boundaries”. In recent years this has been more common among Sinhala and Tamil Christians than Dr. Roberts appears to realise, for he observes only that there has been “some degree of inter-marriage along the Negombo-Chilaw coastline and in the sparsely populated dry zone jungles.” He also concedes that “in the slum and shanty areas in Colombo and among the jet-set elites such marriages seem to be greater than among the general populace.” It is a fact (although I don’t have any statistics to back me up), that mixed marriages between ordinary middle- class Sinhalese and Tamils and Burghers are not uncommon. Here, there is bonding through their common religion. When 3 of our children chose partners of the other community, it posed no problem to us. Having moved closely with Tamil friends since schooldays and also having always worshipped together with them in our churches, there was no barrier that we could see These marriages have lasted now for over 30 years and have enriched the lives of the families on both sides. I also remember the delightful Burgher lady who married a maternal uncle of mine, as one who was dearly loved and accepted by all her Sinhala in-laws, as he too was by her people.

There is one more acid test of ingrained attitudes and that is how people behave in times of national chaos and lawlessness as happened most unforgettably in 1983. In some instances, people who had maintained friendly relations with Tamil neighbours suddenly found the veneer of friendship ripped apart, leaving them to view the other with fear and suspicion and hostility. There were many “Sinhala Buddhists” whose humanity transcended any narrow exclusiveness and who gave succour and shelter to Tamils in distress. They acted like true Buddhists. There were also those who found it in their hearts to turn aside, muttering that “It serves them right!” Our political leaders of the day, who knew very well that this whole terrible and shameful chapter in our history had been carefully orchestrated by one of their own, probably with the tacit approval of others in the Cabinet, behaved ignominiously. When they finally made an appearance on television after four days of silence in the face of havoc in the country, every one of them spoke as Sinhalese and not as Sri Lankans. In July1983, I felt ashamed to call myself a Sinhalese.

Our leaders – both religious and political, alas! – have never honestly tried to create a Sri Lankan nation, nor are they making any noticeable attempt to do so even today.

Tragically, we are more sharply divided than ever. There are a few schools and some homes where a real effort is made to instil our oneness into children, to show them that, despite our diversity, we are all a part of the Sri Lankan family and indeed of the whole worldwide human family. But what the vast majority of our young ones see and hear every day is the opposite. Yes, I am a Sinhalese, but I do believe I am first a Sri Lankan. I am happy that our own children imbibed this from us from their earliest days.

[1] For a fuller understanding of this issue, just read Piyadasa Sirisena’s novels of the early twentieth century and the first chapter in People Inbetween (Colombo, Sarvodaya Publications, 1989).

[2] See McGilvray’s revised article in Contributions to Indian Sociology and then reprinted again as a Marga Monograph in 2001 entitled “Tamil and Muslim Identities in the East.”


Filed under communal relations, cultural transmission, governance, historical interpretation, life stories, politIcal discourse, racist thinking, reconciliation, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, slanted reportage, sri lankan society, the imaginary and the real, vengeance, world events & processes

13 responses to “How does one BECOME Sinhalese or Tamil in Sentiment?

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  13. Daya Wickramatunga

    A must read for all Sri Lankans,
    We cannot build a strong Nation unless race and religion IS put aside; and instead make a collective effort to build a sturdy and healthy Nation. Everytime we have had communal and religious conflicts, we have suffered a national calamity and the country has gone down as a whole..

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