A Verbal Joust between a Tamil Nationalist and a Thuppahi Mongrel

Michael Roberts

Early in September I circulated an item describing efforts mounted by private enterprise in cooperation with the Sri Lankan state (military as well as government agents) to alleviate the life world of Tamil people being re-settled in the northern Vanni – a continuation of efforts in the IDP camps at Menik Farm in 2009 – through the establishment of psycho-social units working on the mental health of children in particular. Clearly, this note and its documents were part of the empirical terrain relevant to the propaganda war raging since early 2009.

 It drew a sharp response from a Sri Lankan Tamil of my generation writing to one of my friends. I have responded with a riposte. This exchange was circulated by email to those who had received the original item on “Mental Health Facilities for the Tamils at the IDP Camps and Now for Those Being Resettled … Reports from Manori Unambuwe.” However, a request from Victor Melder has prompted me to make this exchange more widely available.

I do so for several reasons. Firstly, as backdrop, we must note that Anton Chelvarājah is obviously of my generation – one that reached adulthood in the 1950s and 1960s. Secondly, in mistaking me for a Burgher, he proceeds on a disparaging course of a sweeping character that reveals his mix of caste and ‘racist’ prejudices tinged perhaps with hierarchical class airs (via his use of malicious rumour to describe SWRD Bandaranaike’ supposed bloodline).

Now, this latter feature is precisely the ideological fusion of caste ideology antipathetic to the mixing of blood on the one hand and on the other, the racist thinking of West European origin seeking to stamp its dominance in the course of imperial expansion from the sixteenth century onwards. I identified this current of thinking among the Sinhala nationalists of the late 19th and 20th centuries during the research work that led to the central chapter on “Pejorative Phrases: The Anti-Colonial Response and Sinhala Perceptions of the Self through Images of the Burghers,” in Roberts, Raheem and Colin-Thomé, People Inbetween: The Burghers and the Middle Class in the Transformations within Sri Lanka, 1790s-1980s. This thesis was partly founded on a study of the widely popular romantic novels penned by Piyadāsa Sirisena (born as de Silva) in the first half of the 20th century. Sirisena, mark you, was also a political activist and a journalist; and, arguably, his influence was greater than that of Anagārika Dharmapāla.

My investigations on this topic were conducted in the 1980s. Subsequently, and rather to my amazement, I unearthed evidence (A) on the insidious force of the segmentary structure of inside versus outside that is embedded in the Sinhala language and (B) the working of this exclusivist caste/race thinking in the Sinhala war poems (hatan kavi) of the sixteenth-nineteenth centuries.

   Take some illustrations:

(A)   “Thereupon the worthless crowds (sen) of Kāberis, Kanadis, and Jāvas, steeped in kansa and opium and witless with drink, the shameless Sinhalas who accompanied them., with the graceless Bengalis and Parawara sailors… with them were the Thuppāsi –double-natured like our tame elephants run wild – and many a low-born rogue from Colombo ….” (Rajasīha Hatana, v. 231-34, translation PE Pieris).

(B)    The worthless Kaffirs, like mountain-cats fattened on beef and steeped in drink, are cast upon the o ground on every side and beaten (Rajasīha Hatana, v. 386, translation PE Pieris).

   This research is embodied in my Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan Period, 1590s-1818, (Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Associates, 2004); especially chapters 6 and 9. Readers should supplement this reading with that of Alan Strathern’s subsequent book: Kingship and Conversion in Sixteenth-Century Sri Lanka: Portuguese Imperialism in a Buddhist Land (Cambridge University Press, 2008); while keeping an eye out for the writings of Sujit Suvisundaram.

My focus was on the ideologies permeating the thinking of Sinhala-speaking people over the centuries. It is my speculation that similar deep structures permeate the thinking of Tamil-speaking people in Sri Lanka and India; and for that matter, mutatis mutandis, most of the people in India. It will call for a brave Tamil scholar to investigate and disclose this phenomenon today.

 Chelvarājah’s diatribe is just one piece of evidence in support of this conjecture. But he also marks the commonalities in Sri Lankan society: one such being the propensity to slander others through scurrilous fabrications. The sharp ethnic conflict has generated a combination of this cross-ethnic tendency with nationalist vituperation that both marks, and sharpens, the ethnic divisions. Alas.


A Comment by Anton Chelvarajah, aroused by an item on Mental Health Services in the IDP camps circulated by Michael Roberts, 10th September 2011.  0315 hours.

Dear [name deleted]

Thank you. Good propaganda.  But, the funds for all these projects are from other countries. When these funds reach your crack pot country, half of them would be siphoned off to the red shawled, sarong Johnies who are your political masters. What are the good sinhalese like you doing about it?  You would not dare fearing your pensions will be terminated with the stroke of a pen by by Mr. 25% Basil Rajapakshe. Incidentally, I noticed only a few Tamil Civilians of military age in the pictures.  All of the latter category would have been shelled to smithereens in the ‘No Fire Zones’ on the premise that they are potential Tamil Tigers. Gamini, you need to find ‘Somapalas’ to believe this rubbish. There is no shortage of them in the villages and Sri Lankan Armed Forces. You need to examine the cause and effect of this conflict.  It all started with ‘Demala’ Banda’s Sinhala Only policy, restricting Tamils to the public service and the Armed Forces and a strict quota for Tamil University entrants. When my batch were on Special Duty for the funeral of ‘Demala Banda’ at Horagolla, we were shoved off to a school and expected to sleep on students’ Desks. Some of us got meals from the villagers for which we paid.  The spineless worms, Dep and Werapitiya visited the school to see how we were. They got hooted by all the constables and made a quick exit. The story of ‘Demala Banda’ which I heard from the School labourer was that he was the issue from Sir Solomon’s wfe and his Indian Tamil Horsekeeper. Now, I studied Human and Animal Genetics leading to my degree in Animal Science at Nottingham University. When you look at ‘Demala Banda’s complexion and his features, you do not need a Degree in Genetics to work out that he is a typical South Indian of Karawe caste.
We now come to the author of this article. When ‘Demala Banda’ brought in the Sinhala Only police, the Burghers emigrated with their tails between their legs.  Most of the Tamils remained and protested against ‘Demala Banda’s’ policies. The Gandian way of protesting by Tamil politicians at the Galle Face Green. They were beaten with Special Batons by the Police. It was when the Tigers realised that the Tamils could never live with the racist so called custodians of Theravada Buddhism that they decided to fight for their freedom.  They lost the battle for the Tamils but not the war. In Prabhakaran, the Tigers had a brilliant  World renowned Military stragetist but a  hopeless negotiator. When the Sri Lankan Government was on its knees during the time that the Tigers ran their own Government in a third of the country, the latter offered a negotiated settlement. Prabhakaran should have accepted it on the basis of ‘Little now, more later’. But he opted for ‘Ellam’ or Eelam immediately. Bad decision. 
I have travelled widely in the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, UK, France, USA, Canada, Germany, Rumania, Austria and Bulgaria.  We lived in Austria for a year with my younger brother who knew many Sri Lankans employed in the UN in Vienna.  I met Burghers in these countries who stated that they were Dutch!  In Melbourne, I run into ex Inspector of Police Ralph Janz at gatherings.  He was OIC Traffic when I was training at the PTS.  Many years ago, I met Janz at a Dance.  He had obviously not remembered me.  When I asked him whether he was a Burger, he replied that he was Dutch.  I then refreshed his memory that he was a Burgher and that he OIC Traffic at the PTS when I was a PSI.  He and wife promptly left our table and moved on.
So, these are the Burghers who now call themselves Dutch.   

RIPOSTE by Michael Roberts

Anton Chelvarajah’s unsolicited comment on the posting of “Mental Health Facilities for the Tamils at the IDP Camps and Now for Those Being Resettled … Reports from Manori Unambuwe” is as amusing as it is significant.

In response let me proceed elliptically by drawing your attention to a finding during my researches among British colonial material in the 19th century. One document claimed that the Portuguese Burghers of that day were notorious for sending anonymous letters to British officials seeking to bring X or Y into disrepute or punishment for some alleged misdemeanour.

Let me add that this trait wasn’t confined to the so-called lower class of Burghers. It was a practice among all the island’s ethnic communities. Indeed, it was a feature of Sri Lankan life in the second half of the 20th century as well. During my undergraduate days atPeradeniyaUniversity in the late 1950s, the terms “canard” and “slander” were in wide usage in recognition of this trait

Thus, in brief, there has been no difference between Tamils, Sinhalese, Burghers, Malays, Muslim Moors, Colombo Chetties, et cetera in the their propensity to muckrake and spread canard and, in some instances, to despatch scurrilous letters with the intent of harming someone they did not like. They were truly Sri Lankan one and all.

From demographic reasons, of course, the number of Sinhalese who indulged in this practice was larger. But the point here is that a tiny minority within each community pursued this practice on occasions. One recent instance of this tendency arose during the World Cup in Cricket when Sri Lanka lost the final –leading me o went my spleen in the article “Malicious Muckraking is killing Sri Lankan cricket by Rumour”…… (http://thuppahis.com/2011/04/17/malicious-muckraking-is-killing-sri-lankan-cricket-by-rumour/).

If, then,  Sri Lankan society is depicted as a tree with many branches, what I mark is the existence of a BRANCH full of muckraking types drawn from every ethnic category in the island. Chelvaraah is clearly attached to this august branch [while his former colleague Ralph Jansz can be placed in the purist or pure-race branch, a branch that included many Sinhalese nativists attached to Aryan theory as I have shown in People Inbetween].

No doubt some of the people who received Chelvarajah’s note may have already told him that in linking me with Jansz as part of his muckraking enterprise he has made an identity error.  Let me assure Chelvarajah that one or two pukka Burgher families in my home town of Galle would have been appalled if the Kaaberi Robertses were merged with them—though, mercifully, most of the Burghers whom I associated with at St. Aloysius College and the town of Galle were not snooty or “racist” in this manner [indeed, when visiting them in Melbourne I discovered that that some of these Burgher friends hated the pukka Burghers of the DBU with some passion]. In using the case of Jansz to brand all Burghers, of course, Chelvarajah is going overboard in the typical manner of a muckraker.

Apart from the slandering muckraker-branch and the purist-racist branch, the Sri Lankan tree does have another branch that we can depict as the “ten-percent branch” as shorthand to pinpoint the activities of those who receive commissions etc for favours rendered. This is, indeed, as Chelvarajah contends, a flourishing branch. It has flourished for decades because the particular form of democracy institutionalized in Sri Lanka involves patronage politics which has bribery, corruption and favours as an inbuilt feature. If rumours can be relied upon, it appears that the Rajapaksa brotherhood has promoted the lushness of this pre-existing branch.

However, let me add that, in receiving commissions for dishing out sub-contracts with regard, say, to some specific task in Hambantota port, the ten-percent Somapalas generate some jobs and some benefits for a few people. In comparison the work of the muckraking merchants produces zilch.

I trust Anton Chelvarajah has a pipe into which he can feed this pungent pod of tobacco.

For his further edification I enclose the note WHY THUPPAHI which is a signature piece for my web site http:thuppahi.wordpress.com; and, for those inclined to indulge in more investigation of Sri Lankan discourses of purity, let me point to the chapter entitled “Pejorative Phrases: The Anti-Colonial Response and Sinhala Perceptions of the Self through Images of the Burghers,” in Roberts, Raheem and Colin-Thomé, People Inbetween: The Burghers and the Middle Class in the Transformations within Sri Lanka, 1790s-1980s, (Colombo: Sarvodaya Press, 1989)

 Michael Roberts

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Filed under cultural transmission, disparagement, LTTE, politIcal discourse, propaganda, racist thinking, Rajapaksa regime, reconciliation, rehabilitation, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, Tamil civilians, Tamil migration, truth as casualty of war, violence of language, world events & processes

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