Challenges Today: Weevils in the Mind

Michael Roberts

 Courtesy of where the essay was posted on 22 May 2010 and where blogger comments can be found.

Daya Somasundaram was in Jaffna town in late 1995 when the Sri Lankan army advanced south and eastwards from Palaly. As the LTTE decided upon a strategic withdrawal, they insisted that all the Tamil people should move with them. This enforcement was termed an “Exodus” by some Tamils versed in biblical themes. As Somasundaram relates the tale, many people resented this specific LTTE writ.

Eventually most of the people moved back to their homes in army-occupied territory. Somasundaram was among the professional classes who engaged in their duties in the Jaffna Peninsula in the late 1990s. Within no time army-rule had generated a “collective amnesia” among the Tamils: it was the army that had created the exodus and the Sinhala state was the principal ogre. The role of the LTTE mostly slipped under their retrospective assessments.[i]  

Now, in 2010, after the defeat of a LTTE regime that had enforced an exodus on the Tamils residing in the northern Vanni, one which corralled them under starvation-diet within territories subject to the hellfire of war, these clusters of Tamil people are being encouraged to forget their reservations and/or hatred of the Tigers. The present Rajapakse regime’s paranoid overemphasis on security means that uniformed men blanket the Tamil-majority territory in ways that arouse resentment. The bitterness towards the LTTE among some of these Tamil people is in the process of being converted into bitterness towards the state, a bitterness that can also draw on communal sentiment and memories of bombings and specific atrocities in the decades past.

In brief, I present here an image of the uniformed state personnel as weevils undermining the “peace dividend” secured by the military victory of 2007-09. This spectre is also a tale of the left-hand undermining what the right-hand gives. The right-hand of the Rajapakse state deserves plaudits for the many lines of economic development it is implementing in the Tamil region, both east and north.[ii] However the thrust of my article is towards insisting that the infrastructural projects must be supplemented by genuine hearts and minds work.

The first principle here is to treat Tamils as human beings. This means space for their “Tamilness” and recognition of the fact that they are a nationality or nation. Following and amending Seton-Watson, a “nation” can be said to exist as a force whenever “an [articulate and politically significant] section of its members are convinced that it exists.”[iii] This position was reached by the Sri Lanka Tamils between 1949 and 1956; but has since developed deep roots through the crucibles of war and suffering.

One expression of this ideology is the movement initiated by migrant Tamils motivated by fury and goals of vengeance to create a transnational Tamil state-in-exile through a formal process. Even though this institution is cast within the ethereal stratosphere, such a step will accentuate the paranoia of the Sinhala guardians of Sinhalaness. As Tamil dissidents such as Rajasingham Narendran argue, these forms of Tamil nationalism are more likely to hinder the process of accommodation between the two peoples within Lanka rather than otherwise.

However, there are more substantial obstacles blocking the prospect of the island’s Tamil people being recognised as a nation worthy of accommodation as a unit, or units, within a Sri Lankan constitutional framework that is attentive to the island’s pluralities. Limitations of space preclude me from going beyond an inadequate check-list of these weevils within the Sinhala dispensation.

One: I begin with the obvious political context. The regime of the Rajapakses is firmly ensconced in power, with the glorious halo accruing from triumph in Eelam War IV now capped by commanding victories in both the Presidential and parliamentary elections. In their own minds they can purr with a sense of political legitimacy. This comfort has a positive prospect: it may encourage them to press forward with some political measures catering to the Tamils. But, therein rests the problem: will these measures be provided in a spirit of condescending largesse? …. as patronage dispensed by a walauwa hāmu on high?  ….. rather than rights due to distinct Tamil (and Muslim) communities? The products of the Asokan model of rule[iv] that informs patronage politics at the highest level in Sri Lanka are inherently unstable. What is given with condescension can be withdrawn in anger. Sri Lanka’s need, however, is institutionalized devolution/decentralization of a robust, lasting character.

Two: the Rajapakses and their SLFP represent the rural provincial Lanka of Sinhala-speaking areas, with a prominent Ruhunu badge. But it is rural Lanka that has a spearhead constituted by socially-aspirant and socially-advancing intermediate classes. As such, they are also camped around and within Colombo in places such as Maharagama. They represent a new variant of the panchamahābalavēgaya that pitch-forked Bandaranaike’s SLFP into power in 1956.[v] In brief, they mark the resurgence of similar ideological currents in re-adjusted form. As such, the Westernized Colombo-elites (including Chandrika Kumaratunga) constitute one of its enemies, yakku who sustain their image of themselves as agents of “the people.” They embody populist, indigenist currents of thinking that shore up a form of government that can be depicted as “populist authoritiarian.” The line between such forms of government and the fascist state-form – take the history of Romania in the twentieth century as one example[vi]– is pretty thin.

Three: replicating the trends associated with the 1956 transformation, the Rajapakse Regime’s populism is suffused with indigenism. This indigenism is Sinhala – so that its populism is not weighted towards all the underprivileged, the Tamils, Muslims, Malays et cetera, in equal measure. In the result, when an ideologue like Nalin de Silva deliberately obscures the categorical distinction between “class” and “nation” by quite imperiously casting the underprivileged people of the island as a “nation” that has successfully challenged the “alien nation” composed by the Westernized Sri Lankans, he privileges the Sinhala-speaking underprivileged in a manner that simply bypasses other communities.[vii] The verbal gymnastics here are as bizarre as alarming. In this thinking the self-justificatory language of “class struggle” and anti-Western nativist struggle are merged in ways that insidiously pushes the Tamil underprivileged into some forgotten corner.[viii]

Nalin de Silva may be influential, but he is nowhere near President Mahinda Rajapakse in the clout he carries. So it is disconcerting that Rajapakse should adhere to a version of this mode of thinking. At the celebration honouring the war heroes on Friday 22nd May 2009, the President spoke of the jātika kodiya, sinha kodiya (national flag, Sinha flag) in the same breadth. In this critical conceptualization a part of Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese people, is equated with the whole of Lanka.

Four: this ideological current in turn fuses with, and energizes, what can be called a “Sinhala mind-set.” This perspective is based on the conventional belief, however questionable it may be in fact, that the Sinhala peoples were the first civilized settlers, the historically-confirmed fact that the “irrigation civilizations” of the late Anuradhapura and Polonnaruva periods were dominated by Sinhalese and the enumerated fact that Sinhalese have been the numerical majority since census-taking began in the nineteenth century. “Ceylon” of British times has therefore been widely regarded as a Sinhala space – even by Britons and non-Sinhalese.

On this foundation many Sinhalese – I have no way of providing figures and proportions – slipped into the habit of treating the labels “Ceylonese” and “Sinhalese” as synonyms. Just as some English subsumed “British” within “English,” these Sinhalese equated the two terms. Thus, today, the territory “Sri Lanka” is equated with the Lankā, Heladiv, Siri Laka etc of old and the term “Sri Lankans” is often equated with the label “Sinhalas” (Sinhalese).[ix]

In a nutshell, then, we have the Sinhala part subsuming the Sri Lankan whole in an insidious and yet powerful fashion. Thus we find that in one of Anagarika Dharmapala’s essays addressed to “the Ceylonese Youth” in the early twentieth century, he slips within the body of his text into providing advice to the “Sinhalese youth.”[x] Nor is it an accident that Dharmapala was one of the patron saints of the 1956 revolution.[xi] This mind-set underpinned the surge of political forces that effected the political transformation of 1956, challenged the primacy of the English language and its class-agents, made Sinhalese the language of administration and in the process placed the Tamil vernacular in a secondary position.

There are persons of goodwill within the Sinhala community today who are attentive to the needs of the present hour: namely, a healing touch that is built on a genuine confederative ideology that sees the minorities as an integral part of the concept “Sri Lankan.” However, I do not know what political clout they carry or what proportion of the Sinhala-speakers they constitute. My conjecture is that they are a tiny minority.

In other words, the conjecture is that most Sinhalese adhere to the Lanka=Sinhala mind-set and that most of them are not even aware of the part/whole relationship that I have set up as a PROBLEM. When leading politicians proclaim that the only distinctions that count today is that between “patriots” and “non-patriots” (that is, traitors) one witnesses an expression of this mode of thinking. That such a perspective is wrapped up as a homespun populist truth, and thereby derives double legitimacy, indicates how dangerous this worldview is. It is especially dangerous because it reposes within the very institutions and forces that have been entrusted with the tasks of reconciliation.

This article is a consciousness raising act. It does not claim that this set of ideological blinkers is necessarily the most central issue within the conundrum raised by groundviews; but I believe it to be a significant issue. If this is accepted, then, the question arises: how do we address these cancers within the hegemonic ideology of the day? How does one raise consciousness in terrains that count?

As problematically, at the celebration honouring the war heroes on Friday 22nd May, the President spoke of the jātika kodiya, sinha kodiya (national flag, Sinha flag) in the same breadth. In this critical conceptualization a part of Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese people, is equated with the whole of Lanka.

[i] This summary is based on a couple of leisurely conversations with Daya Somasundaram in Adelaide and “collective amnesia’ was a phrase he used. Note that during his stay in Jaffna he was courageous enough to criticise the LTTE (as well as the state) when video-interviewed on air for an ABC documentary directed by Marc Corcoran ( “Truth Tigers,” 15 May 2002). After the ceasefire his professional psychiatric capacities extended to the Vanni areas controlled by the LTTE.

[ii] Roberts, “The Rajapakse Regime: Brickbats, Plaudits,”, 16 December 2009, Note M. Sarvananthan, “Putting Entrepreneurship at the Heart of Economic Revival in the North, East, and Beyond,” ICCR Talk I Colombo, 27 April 2010.

[iii] Hugh Seton Watson, Nationalism Old and New, Sydney University Press, 1965: 3. His statement runs thus: whenever “an active and fairly numerous section of its members are convinced that it exists.” I do not believe that numbers are vital; 4-15 percent in well-organised operations can be quite a force. The restive youth in underground associations in the Jaffna Peninsula were a force even in the 1970s.

[iv] For the concept of the Asokan Persona and illustrations of the type of operations this mode of thinking encourages in Sri Lanka, see the relevant four chapters in Michael Roberts, Exploring Confrontation, Reading: Harwood Academic Press, 1994.

[v] Besides the clarification of this political process by such scholars as Wriggins, Kearney and KM De Silva, readers may be interested in my charting of the generational overlaps between such intermediate political activists from the 1880s to the 1950s in Roberts, “The Political Antecedents of the Revivalist Elite within the MEP Coalition of 1956″ in K.W. Goonewardena Felicitation Volume, ed. by C.R. De Silva & Sirima Kiribamune, Peradeniya University, 1989, pp. 185-220 and “The 1956 Generations: After and Before,” in Roberts, Exploring Confrontation, Reading: Harwood academic Publiishers, 1994, pp. 297-314.

Since completing this article I find that Nira Wickremasinghe has developed motifs about the class forces driving the Rajapakse phenomenon in ways that mesh with mine. See her “After the War: A New Patriotism n Sri Lanka?” Journal of Asian Studies, 2009, 68/4: 1045-54

[vi] See Constantin Iordachi, “God’s Chosen Warriors. Romantic Palingenesis, Militarism and Fascism in Modern Romania,” in C. Iordachi (ed.) Comparative Fascist Studies. New Perspectives, Routledge, 2010: 316-57; and Ghita Ionescu, and Ernest Gellner (eds.) 1969 Populism: Its Meaning and National Characteristics, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

[vii] Nalin de Silva, “A tale of two nations,” island2010.html.

[viii] Taking off from President Rajapakse’s victory speech in May 2009, Nira Wickremasinghe also highlights this facet of the Sinhala mind-set: “the president’s vision merges nation and state and promotes a love of country based on a particular reading of the history and foundation myth of the Sinhala people in which all other groups—those formally known as minorities—are present merely as shadows, not as constitutive elements of a common political culture” (2009: 1047 – see fn. 5 above). For a previous criticism of the President’s approach see Roberts, “Some Pillars for the Future,” Frontline, Vol. 26/12, 6-19 June 2009.

[ix] I have not discovered when precisely the term “Sinhalas” was deployed in English as a substitute for the word “Sinhalese.” I know that Gananath Obeysekere began to follow this practice in recent decades, but am uncertain where the innovation originated. In etymological terms it is probably a more correct usage. However, it has also been adopted by Nalin de Silva and the Jātika Chintanaya school of thought. In brief, whatever a particular author’s intention, it is now an expression of political puritanism. In this manner it is a mirror image of the Puritanism that was sustained in Tamil Tiger circles by such figures as Thamilenthi and Baby Subramanium, supported indirectly by the Orientalist pedantry of Peter Schalk. Set against this context I insist upon adhering to the old noun “Sinhalese” in both plural and singular implication, while using “Sinhala” only as adjective or as reference to the language.

[x] Dharmapala, Return to Righteousness, ed. by Ananda Guruge, Colombo: Ministry of Cultural Affairs, 1965: 501-44.

[xi] Note also this statement from Nalin de Silva: “What happened in 1956 was a continuation of the movement of Anagarika Dharmapala after driven into oblivion for more than half a century as shown by Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekera” (fn. 6 above).


Filed under reconciliation, Sinhala-Tamil Relations