Intolerance: Hues & Issues

Michael Roberts

This article was written on 3 October for Nethra No. 2 and is reproduced here now that the journal is in print –see ISSN 1391-2380 that is Vol.11, No. 02, December 2010

“We are a defeated people,” said a middle-aged lecturer friend at the University of Jaffna when we met during my brief visit to the Jaffna Peninsula in early June 2010. “People are living freely … There is no fear, but where is the political solution?” complained the journalist Aiyathurai Satchithanandam to a fellow-journalist, Ross Tuttle, when the latter visited the Jaffna Peninsula recently. The tensions and mutterings are exacerbated by the intimidating presence of a swathe of armed personnel in the northern reaches and the oversight of critical junctions by armed men and/or fortified guard posts.

   The politicized Tamil voices also claim that Sinhala colonisation is about to be unleashed on their territories, while more specific allegations assert that Buddhist shrines are sprouting in the north as one step in the government’s ulterior intentions.

 Shrine at seaside in Wellawatte which seems to draw both Tamil and Sinhalese supplicants — to judge from the two occasions [one quite teeming] that  I walked by in 2010

    On a priori reasoning rather than sociological research I conjecture that such suspicions and claims are inspired by underlying factors that remain mostly unexamined by those presenting the grievances. Tamil nationalist pride took a massive blow when the LTTE was defeated in such a crushing manner. Pirapāharan and the LTTE had stood out for decades as an epitome of Tamil capacity and power (as indeed they were). As the LTTE slid to defeat in the early months of 2009, many Tamil bloggers went into a state of denial.

   The final decisive outcome in May seems to have generated profound waves of bitterness and fury in some Tamil quarters, especially among migrants in other lands. Even Tamil dissidents and moderates who had reservations about the LTTE were pained. To judge from their comments here and there, they remain hurt. Indeed, without the LTTE threat looming beside them some Tamil dissident voices have shifted towards sour evaluations of the Sri Lankan scene. They display a readiness to accept any rumour retailed along the Tamil circuits. Since the agit-prop activities of Tiger International are still active, these leanings provide fertile conditions for all manner of grievance to take root and reside as definite fact in Tamil minds.

    The tale of Buddhist temples sprouting in the north is one such complaint. Its foundations are skimpy. Recently, the PLOTE leader, Dharmalingam Siddharthan, cut the ground from under this assertion: “So far there is no evidence of new Buddhist temples being built in the north.  I only see this Kilinochchi one, which has been there even when I was a boy and visited my farm in Kilinochchi.  That was there for 70 odd years and now they have rebuilt it. That sort of thing can happen, which should be done. Buddhism is an offspring of Hinduism.” His evidence is significant because he resides in Vavuniya and he has “travelled around very freely without any armed guards to visit almost all the resettled villages in the Vanni” since the war ended. He also added that “In the north, there is very good communication between the public and the army. If there’s any problem, the people don’t hesitate to tell the army, and the army tries their best to do it. I’ve never come across any serious complaint about the army.  In certain areas, the army sends groups of soldiers and rebuild houses for the civilians.”[i]

   The picture Siddharthan paints gains in value because it is placed within an express argument that the Tamils “want an ethno-federalist state like in Tamil Nadu or … a Tamil speaking province.” Furthermore, he felt that

“the Sri Lankan government has ulterior motives because the claim of our homeland must be completely destroyed.  Even if it’s state land, we feel it is our land.  We want recognition, that is, demarcation of land, something like a province. Why can’t we develop those areas? What happened in the Eastern Province is our fear.  That is the reason we are asking for control of land power.” (emphasis mine).

    It is the phrase that I have underlined, set as it is within his belief that the Tamils are “a separate nationality,”[ii] that requires our spotlight. Add to this the widespread belief among Tamils today that new Buddhist temples are intruding upon their space. Though Siddharthan disputed this as fact, it would seem that he himself objects to any new temples even while he is quite happy to accept long-standing temples. It is this particular feature in contemporary Tamil grievances that I wish to highlight because it is founded on the firm belief that there is a “Tamil territory” whose people should control the installation of what, from their view, amount to “intruding alien religious edifices” (my phraseology).

    This claim exists within a wider nation-state setting where Hindu kovils and shrines flourish in the urban areas and the hill-country regions within the south-central parts of this island. Therefore double standards are in force here. The backdrop, of course, is not only that of Tamil patriotism in pain. The victor state is seen not only as Sinhala, but also as Buddhist. The Buddhist masthead is therefore deemed by some Tamils (but not Siddharthan?) to be one of the hegemonic arms endangering the Tamils people and their space.

 Reflections via Comparison

As a sensitizing move and a means of reflection I take the peculiar step of a comparative leap backwards to the year 1948 in the island of “Ceylon” and the situation surrounding those peoples who were identified as “Indian Tamils.” Standing today that label generates problems, as do all other alternatives; so I adopt the term “Malaiyāha Tamils” (meaning Up-country Tamils) because that is said to the self-appellation favoured in the plantation districts nowadays (Bass 2001). By venturing upon such a comparative project I bring into relief those political settings that are marked by two features: (A) where one set of people enjoy numerical preponderance and believe in historical rights of occupation and (B) a temporal moment marked by a transformative triumph after a period of confrontation.

     Framed thus, one is in a position to investigate the politics of grievance and the subjective sentiments impelling passionate expressions that contain threads of intolerance within what are seen as “just claims.” In other words, the hues of legitimacy attached to these grievances should not preclude one from discerning the extremism threading some of the impassioned statements.

 The “Indian Tamils,” 1920s-2000s            

Ceylon gained independence from British colonial rule in 1948 after four decades of pragmatic constitutional struggle that episodically involved verbal tussles across tables (Roberts 1977a, Elites).  Though seemingly moderate in comparison with the Indian nationalist vocabulary, one must attend to the powerful anti-colonial and nativist sentiments coursing through the political currents of the time. These strands were interlaced with Marxist and socialist currents hostile to capitalism.

   At the forefront of the capitalist order in Ceylon at that stage were the British-dominated plantation interests, both plantations proper and the agency houses at the apex of the business order (SBD De Silva 1982; Snodgrass 1966). These plantations were mostly in the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka, which had been the centre for the last independent Sinhala kingdom, that of Sihale (identified in English as the “Kingdom of Kandy”).[iii] These regions were peopled by Sinhala-speakers who had developed a measure of differentiation from the Sinhala-speakers in the lowlands of the south-west after the consolidation of colonial power in the latter regions from the mid-sixteenth century resulted in some differentiation within strong commonalities – so that the twentieth century was bequeathed the distinction between the “Kandyan Sinhalese” (or kanda-udayo[iv]) and the “Low-Country Sinhalese” (pāta rata aya). This differentiation was accentuated by economic processes associated with modern capitalism that resulted in Low-Country Sinhalese outpacing the Kandyans in the economic and social avenues of advancement that produced indigenous capitalist and middle-class families (Roberts 1973).

    From the 1890s through to the 1940s and thereafter one of the major planks in the anti-colonial rhetoric was the belief that the plantations had developed through the expropriation of lands used by the Kandyan people. The Kandyan Peasantry Commission of 1951 embodied this ideological force. This current of distaste and political hostility embraced the recent Tamil migrants from India who provided the bulk of the labour force sustaining the tea and rubber estates.[v] These workers were identified in the census data as “Indian Tamils” in distinction from the “Ceylon Tamils.”

     Though Leftist spokesmen championed their cause, the weight of Sinhalese opinion in the 1940s-1970s viewed the underclass Malaiyāha Tamil people as alien outsiders of low status. This was a mark of majoritarian intolerance and Sinhala nativist chauvinism.  

     Such strands of prejudice had a long history. Indeed, Sinhala “communalism” on this issue surfaced in the late-1920s when the Donoughmore Commission addressed the issue of voting rights in line with its advocacy of universal franchise.[vi] The compromise on the rights of the Indian plantation workers engineered then in 1931, which enabled voting rights to some Malaiyāha Tamil people, was one of the issues targeted by anti-colonial nationalists of a Sinhala hue during the 1930s and 1940s. At one point in 1942 P. de S. Kularatne presented this perspective in pithy terms when he described them as having “one foot in Ceylon and both feet in India.”[vii] He was identifying their propensity to sustain links with their home villages in the Madras Presidency (Tamilnadu eventually) and thus branding their political sentiments as anti-national.

    As soon as independence was secured, this strand of intolerance moved quickly to exclude the vast bulk of the Indian Tamils from the political system through the Ceylon Citizenship Act No. 18 of 1948 and the Indian and Pakistani Residence (Citizenship) Act No. 3 of 1949. The Westernised-English speaking factions of right-wing politicians around DS Senanayake were at the heart of this act of deprivation. Paradoxically, they had the support of the key “Ceylon Tamil” representatives around GG Ponnambalam and his Tamil Congress. The “Indian Tamils” were deemed “non-Ceylonese” despite domicile in Sri Lanka for a length of time (Bass 2001: 8-10) because of their tendency to make periodic visits to their home villages, considered ur (native place). In the result the Malaiyāha Tamil had little say in the subsequent agreements between Sri Lankan and Indian governments which resulted in the repatriation deals of the 1960s that led to about 400,000 of this marginalized underclass moving back to ‘homeland India (where they may well be identified as Sri Lankan Tamils !!).[viii]

    I cannot do justice to the complexity of the issues around this topic in a brief excursion, but note here that one can profit from a qualified comparison of the tempestuous relationship between the Malaiyāha Tamils and the host society in Sri Lanka from the 1920s to the 1980s with the relationship between Turkish migrants and their host society in Germany between the 1950s and 2000s. Take one dimension of this comparison highlighted by two questions to which impressionistic answers may be sought: when Sri Lanka has contested India on the cricket field in the last forty years, whom did (do) the majority of “Indian Tamils” with an interest in cricket support? Where do their hearts lie? Likewise, one can ask: when Turkey played (plays) Germany at soccer over the last 40 years, whom do Turkish-Germans with an interest in soccer support? My information from one young Malaiyāha Tamil lecturer at Peradeniya (Sashi Kumar) circa 2001 was that most sided with India. One of my friends in Worms, long resident in Germany, reckons that “99% [of the Turkish-Germans] would support Turkey.”[ix]

    Any insights that emerge from such a comparison must, however, note one major geo-political difference. Turkey does not loom above Germany as a big brother neighbour in the manner in which India and Tamilnadu together cast a ‘shadow’ over Sri Lanka. This is one of the reasons (but not a justification) for the “long series of actions” by various Sri Lankan governments which resulted in the political marginalization of the Malaiyāha Tamils (Bass 2001: 10). Whatever the insights provided by such comparisons, the further and more critical issue is whether such cross-border nationalist sentiments should have any bearing on the voting and civil rights of large migrant populations that have taken root in new countries.

    For my purposes here the significant issue arising from this line of thinking is the relationship of “host society” and “migrant mass.” In other words I am marking the conceptual pertinence of the category “host.” Without having any say in the enterprise, from the nineteenth century onwards the Sinhalese people (and Kandyan Sinhalese in particular) were hosts to the influx of Indian Tamil plantation workers (and adjunct interests such as the Chettiyar and other merchant elements). The Germans have been also been host to migrant Turks, Italians, et cetera since World War II, albeit with a considerable say in this process.

     Mutatis mutandis this issue underlies the presence of the Sinhala-dominated armed forces in the Jaffna Peninsula and the northern Vanni today. Since the 1980s articulate Tamil voices have seen the Sinhalese personnel as an “occupation army” (though it is likely that few Sinhalese would grant that claim). They also believe that they have spatial rights of domicile and majoritarian clout in these territories, even though the territories are a regional part of a long-recognised polity. In the animated hostility aroused by stories about new Buddhist shrines in these lands they are seeking to exercise their position as “host.” This line of protest, of course, derives further emotional force from the pain and shame of military defeat and the bitterness of a minority subject to majority power.

     My argument therefore seeks to highlight implicit facets associated with Tamil grievances. I go further. However heartfelt, I suggest that these Tamil spokespersons are revealing strands of intolerance that match, albeit approximately, the intolerance displayed by the host population of Sinhalese to the rights and practices of the Indian Tamils in their midst during the period 1931-1980s. To be sure, the Indian Tamils were an underclass rather than a master-class of military personnel serving as the arm of a government that has recently vanquished an insurgent Tamil state. Once they secured the reins of power in 1948 what the political elites in Sri Lanka sought in the 1940s-to-1980s was to continue exploiting the labour power of the Indian Tamil plantation workers, while denying them voting power. Their discrimination was selective.

    In the meanwhile demographic trends resulted in the Indian Tamil population increasing to the point where they constituted 47.3 percent of the people in the top-country District of Nuwara Eliya in 1981. Sinhala chauvinists were quite disturbed by this phenomenon, but “the UNP-CWC entente” (KM de Silva’s phrase) that had emerged in the late 1960s served as a considerable buffer in protecting the rights of the Malaiyāha Tamils. Indeed, guided by political expediency the UNP under JR Jayewardene reversed previous policies and promised an extension of the vote to the remaining body of Indian Tamils on the eve of the 1977 elections.[x]

    This voting power came into force in the 1980s. The pragmatic policies pursued by the leaders of the Indian Tamil community in the context of this asset and the cooption of their factions by subsequent governments seems to have brought about a sea-change in the circumstances of the Malaiyāha Tamils. Generational time has also provided a permeating influence. The younger generations of Malaiyāha Tamils see their estate localities as their ur in contrast with the grey-haired cohorts: their estate spaces have been “imbued with meaning” (Bass 2001: 4, 17). Whatever their loyalties to India, they seem to be increasingly accepted now as elements within the local dispensation, aided no doubt by their ability to speak Sinhala and a range of hybrid practices in cuisine and other daily activities (Bass 2001: 17). Thus, I would emphasis the “osmosis of time-in-specific place” as one factor producing this sea-change in both amendment and acceptance by the host society. The LTTE threat seems to have contributed to this process: it is arguable that in recent times the Malaiyāha Tamils have benefited (rather like the Muslims, but not exactly) from being, so to speak, in the slipstream of the LTTE cauldron.

    The emphasis in this article, however, is on the discrimination and intolerance towards these people displayed by the Sinhala majority in the first three quarters of the twentieth century. Yet, amidst this disfavour, the Sinhala-majority did not frown upon the installation of Hindu shrines and kovils in the valleys and hillsides by the Malaiyāha Tamils people; nor deny the numerous Sri Lankan Tamils in the southern regions from setting up kovils in the heart of urban centres.

   This line of tolerance was, and remains, an outcome of the incorporative and intermingling forms of embodied religious practice in Sri Lanka and India. Deities and icons from a variety of religions are respected, feared and propitiated by most people in these lands. There is considerable cross-fertilisation across the major religions, Buddhism, Hinduism (in its various sectarian forms) and Catholicism. During specific festival days for major Hindu deities, therefore, processions and devotees dominate some of the urban streets in south-central Sri Lanka, as they drum, chant and bodily engage the divine powers.[xi]

    Some Buddhists and Catholics participate actively in the devotional and supplicatory activity at major Hindu temples in such places as Munnesvaram and Kataragama. Such interpenetration of worshipping practices arises from popular engagements with transcendental powers in ways that are as profound as vibrant. Buddhist doctrine, moreover, does not present the Buddha and his Dhamma as a direct source of boons. This aspect of the religious philosophy has opened the path for the incorporation of all manner of deities from the Indian Hindu world into the Buddhist pantheon over time.[xii]

    Notwithstanding the fact that some Sinhala Buddhists may describe these deities as “Hindu gods” (e.g. Gombrich and Obeyesekere 1988), in this role they are in fact deities for and of the Buddhists. The meaningfulness of a specific god for the generality of Buddhists does not necessarily replicate his meaningfulness for the generality of Hindus who propitiate the same god at the same temporal moment. Such deities are understood to work within the Buddha’s varama (authority, warrant). Thus, one conventional practice is for a devotee to transfer/offer the merit s/he gains from a pūjā for the Buddha (immanent and alive in his icon) to a specific deity as one of the bargaining modalities of supplication.

    Significant caveats must be attached to this picture of religious tolerance and plurality in the southern reaches of the island where the Sinhala-speech community dominates. There are limits. Sri Lanka can never be a secular state in the Western mould (and indeed, in my view, should not be so). It is understood that a primacy attaches to the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.

    As such, at pivotal moments, whether triumph at the general elections or at some point of political transformation, key state figures visit the Daladā Māligāva and pay homage to the principal Mahānāyakes. Nor did the milieu of tolerance prevent some Sinhalese assailants from attacking some kovils during the peak moments of political conflict that saw the outbreak of riots and pogroms against the Tamils. In one notorious instance at Panadura in 1958 the kurukkal was even burnt alive.

Concluding Remarks

My broad interest in this essay is in the passionate expression of grievance and the circumstances that invest the claims with legitimacy.  Within these parameters I have moved by devious routes to the contention that intolerance has many hues. Sometimes even besieged minorities who protest vehemently against the oppressions of dominant majorities are guilty of a few drams of intolerance within the unexamined foundations that sustain their complaints. This appears to be a characteristic attached to the complaints pressed by a few vocal Sri Lankan Tamils today, whether pro-LTTE elements, relative moderates such as Dharmalingam Siddharthan, or those adhering to liberal constitutional theory and its secularism.

    The intimidating presence of Sri Lankan military forces in the Tamil-majority regions of the north and the overweening authoritarianism displayed so blatantly by the Rajapakse Regime does not make such threads of argument any less intolerant. The Tamil complaints against the alleged diffusion of Buddhist temples in the north reveal double standards in being blissfully inattentive to the widespread presence of Hindu Saivite kovils in many towns within Sinhala-majority regions,[xiii] including the Central Highlands and Morowak Korale.

    Two justifications may conceivably be presented for a differential yardstick for the north. One: the Tamils of the north today are a minority confronting a Sinhalese majority and believe that they suffered from discrimination in the recent past. This situation is distinct from the setting in the south where the Hindus who establish religious shrines are usually a minority. The religious sensibilities of the northern Tamils must therefore be respected. Two: the state should be neutral and secular. Therefore the establishment and encouragement of Buddhist temples by army units that are effectively Sinhala Buddhist is an infringement of Tamil rights.

    The first of these justifications is tendentious special pleading. The second derives from liberal constitutional theory moulded in the secularised West. It rests upon an either/or epistemology that demands clear-cut boundaries and refuses to recognise anything other than the black and the white. Synagogue, mosque and church cannot mix.

   Ironically, during the colonial era Sinhala Buddhist ‘liberation figures’ drew upon Western intellectual currents to enforce similar readings of ‘good Buddhist practice.’ One example is Don David Hewavitarne, better known as Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1934).[xiv] It was because he absorbed the highly rational interpretations of Buddhism presented by Protestant Western intellectuals who were attracted to the Dhamma, such as Rhys-Davids, Paul Carus and C. T. Strauss, that Dharmapala became a fervent opponent of “all ceremonies, rituals, tomfooleries, abominations which go under the name of astrology, charms, sacrifices and beliefs in Ghosts, demons, godfathers…” (diary entry 18 Aug. 1902). Thus, on one occasion in 1905 he intervened personally and forcefully to drive away a body of music-making Muslim Malayālis who were part of a traditional procession entering the Kālaniya Temple (diary/entry, 10 Aug. 1905). This arrogant act, surely, marked his purist antipathy to religious syncretism and was in tune with a broader sweep of Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism in his time that inspired occasional violence against churches and sponsored the mini-pogrom against the Muslims in 1915 (Roberts 1994).

    In brief, Westernised foundations served as one influence directing Dharmapala’s doctrinal rigidity in ways that excluded syncretism. Dharmapala, as we know, was rendered into one of the ‘patron saints’ of the 1956 revolution and its ideology.[xv] This ideology in its turn flowed into the currents embodied within the Mahinda Chinthanaya.

   Sinhala Buddhist intolerance in recent years has been directed against some Pentecostal churches by shadowy elements that may be few in number, but seem to work with impunity and benefit from the inactivity of state authorities at all levels. Thankfully, this strand of prejudice and the Dharmapala-type of purism have not targeted kovils or the embodied religious practices (trance, ecstasy, “god-dancing”) of Buddhists seeking aid from deities who work within the parasol of the Buddha Dhamma.   

    Placed beside the qualified religious tolerance and pluralism that flourishes in the southern reaches in contemporary Lanka, the vehement hostility to any new Buddhist shrines voiced by some Tamils in the north appears to be a purist position that renders any new Buddhist shrine into an intruder. They press double standards, one for the northern reaches and another for the south-central regions.

     Such a stance is understandable: the threats encountered in the recent past by the Tamils have emanated from forces that were both Sinhala nationalist and Buddhist; while Tamils today face a triumphant and hegemonic Sinhala dispensation. In their reactions to such a situation, however, my article suggests that these articulate Tamils should look inwards at their own premises and leanings. They should ask themselves whether they are not trading the self-righteous path of a Saivite Dharmapala, or a secularised, constitutionalist and self-righteous avenue that is as unbending in its premises as Dharmapala. I am asking them, and their friends and critics, to examine where they are coming from. 

[i] This line of evidence on army behaviour is confirmed quite independently in the statements of T. Sridharan of the EPRLF in his interview with De Silva-Ranasinghe (2010a).

 [ii] Note that I have myself argued that the SL Tamils have constituted a “nation” ever since they were explicit on this point from 1948/49 (Roberts 1999, 2008a, 2008b).

 [iii] See Roberts 2004 for this term and a whole array of synonyms.

 [iv] See Roberts 2004: 000 for kanda-udayo and its context.

 [v] This inflow by small boat and foot across the north-western jungles began as a trickle of seasonal labour for the coffee plantations in the 19th century. See Roberts 1966, Wesumperuma 1986 and Bass 2001 (and also the work of Ian Vandendriesen).

 [vi] This episode is relatively neglected in the historiography and cannot be condensed into a few words. readers should consult Samaraweera 1981

 [vii] See Roberts, Documents, 1977; 1407 & 1484. at one time the Principal of Ananda College, P. de S. Kularatne (1893-1976) was among those adopted the so-called “Arya Sinhala” dress. More vitally, he was among the few that remained in the Congress Rump from1947-51 and then became an important backroom voice in the SLFP under Bandaraniake.

 [viii] See Bass 2001: 11-14 for the basic details.

 ix] Email from Herbert Perera (13 Oct. 2010). But guided by the last European Cup, Lucia Fetzer notes that “there were many Turkish-Germans who were going with both flags” (email, 12 Oct. 2010).

[x] De Silva 1998. Note that the Sirima-Shastri Pact of 1964 led to the repatriation of some Malaiyāha Tamils.

 [xi] For my summary of the evidence that sustains this clarification, see Roberts 2005b, Divine Potency; but note that this article is based on the following anthropological works: Bastin 2002a and 2002b, Gombrich & Obeyesekere 1988, Obeyesekere 1975 & 1978, Pfaffenberger 1979, Stirrat1992 and Tanaka 1991.

 [xii] See especially Obeyesekere 1963 and Holt 1991 & 2004.

 [xiii] Note Bass 2001: 17.

 [xiv] See Roberts, For Humanity, 2009a. Note also Roberts, Himself and Project, 2009b.

 [xv] Beside the standard literature on the electoral transformation of 1956, see Roberts, The 1956 Generations, 1981.

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