Neville Jayaweera, presenting here Extracts from Chapters 9 and 10 and Epilogue 1 of his book “Exorcising the past and holding the vision – an autobiographical reflection on the ethnic conflict”, covering the period when Jayaweera was the Government Agent of Jaffna in 1963-66 and the aftermath.... with the highlighted emphasis within the text being choices inserted by the author himself.
From chapter 9: Nationhood and Leadership
In the last week of December 1964, a cyclone of unprecedented ferocity devastated the Northern Province. The fishing villages of Myliddy, Kankesanthurai, Point Pedro, Nargakovil and several areas within the Jaffna District were reduced to a wilderness of sand dunes, stagnant salt water and windswept debris. In the Myliddy fishing village alone, several hundred lost their lives at sea. The Collector of Ramnad District in SE Tamil Nadu (India) contacted me to say that over 200 bodies had been washed ashore there and he had no alternative but to order mass cremations on the seashore to halt the spread of disease. Throughout the Jaffna District the Kalavoham crop (the main paddy crop) was wiped out and hundreds of fishing boats were reduced to matchwood. The distress was appalling.
When the cyclone struck, my wife and I were in Colombo on Christmas vacation and I had no way of returning to station. The Palaly Airport had been rendered unserviceable and it took me 36 hours, making tortuous detours along the way, round fallen trees and broken culverts, through Puttalam and Anuradhapura, to get back to Jaffna. Eventually, it was the Government Agent of Vavuniya, my colleague R.M.B. Senanayake, who helped my wife and me to get back to base, by placing at our disposal a Land Rover and a driver.
On reaching Jaffna I found conditions were horrendous. Our resources were limited, having no heavy machinery for clearing roads and for rescuing people buried under fallen houses. Everything had to be done by hand and we were hard put to bring relief and succour to hundreds of sorrowing families. All public services, particularly the PWD (Public Works Department) and the Irrigation Department, and my DROs (Divisional Revenue Officers) and village headmen, suspended their normal work and mobilising to a man, struggled valiantly to bring some order out of the chaos. Fortunately, one of the first services to be restored was the telephone link to Colombo.
Call to the Prime Minister
In a personal call I made to the Prime Minister Mrs. Bandaranaike at Temple Trees, giving her the grim picture, I pleaded that she should visit the devastated areas immediately. I told her that she should demonstrate to the people of Jaffna that she was indeed the Prime Minister of the whole country and that the Tamil people were as much her people as were the people in the South. I also pointed out that it was a magnificent opportunity for her to heal the long-running wounds and to make a new beginning. She listened to me without betraying any feeling and said she will consult her advisors and let me know.
Not content with my personal pleas to the Prime Minister, I also asked my brother Stanley Jayaweera who had close personal links to her, to impress on her the utmost need for her to visit her people in Jaffna at this time of their dire need. Stanley had done exactly as I had asked him to, but her rejoinder to him shattered me.
Referring to the effigy-burning that accompanied the abortive Secessionist Campaign a year earlier, she had said, “Huh! Why should I go to them now, if they burnt my effigy a few months ago? If they did not want me then they must not expect me to come to them now.”
Her response filled me with dismay and a deep sadness. It was not just the pettiness that was unworthy of a country’s Prime Minister that appalled me, but that Sri Lanka as a nation had no leader!! It was as if the Prime Minister of the country had consciously renounced responsibility for one fourth of her country’s population! Not least, the high esteem in which I had held her after meeting her on several occasions plummeted.
The US Ambassador Cecil Lyon and the Canadian High Commissioner James George, both sent personal emissaries to see me, to condole with the people of Jaffna, and to proffer whatever help was within their means to render. I realised of course that their gestures were expressions of goodwill, rather than concrete offers of assistance.
Having decided not to visit her people in their distress, the Prime Minister opted to send the Governor General, William Gopallawa and her Perm.Sec. Mr. N.Q. Dias, along with General Udugama and Admiral Rajan Kadirgarma, to deputise for her. It was a delegation which, although high on rank and heavily weighted with brass, was politically offensive, for what could be more insensitive than sending N.Q. Dias and General Udugama, both names that were symbols of oppression in the minds of the Tamil people, to console them in their extremity.
The response of the local people was eloquent and scathing. As the Governor General’s convoy drove slowly through all the devastated areas, literally not one local, not even one of the grieving widows, stepped out to meet them. The silence was eerie and overpowering. It was like driving through a graveyard.
It is easy to judge Mrs. Bandaranaike as unforgiving, petty, petulant and paranoid, all of which she probably was, but I also believe that her reaction was symptomatic of a deeper malaise and that she was manifesting attributes that were more than merely personal to her. She was also a creature and victim of a cultural ethos, deeply rooted in her history, of which she was not even aware, which of course does not exculpate her, but helps us to understand the problem at a more complex level.
The capacity to transcend peer pressure and one’s inherited culture, and construct one’s own cultural environment based on a set of universal values, such as the Brahma Viharas or the Fruits of the Spirit (love, kindness, forgiveness, equanimity, joy and peace), or the Fundamental Rights enshrined in the UN Charter is vouchsafed only to a minuscule few, and clearly Mrs. Bandaranaike was not one of the few.
Consciousness and the constitution
The disturbing thought began to dawn on me that none of the politicians of Sri Lanka, whether Sinhala or Tamil, seemed able to transcend their cultural conditioning and historical memories. Worse still, none of them seemed to have any concept of a fully-integrated and harmonious Sri Lankan nation, and much less, of how to achieve it – the operative concept here being “nation”. Most of them had a vibrant sense of Sinhalaness on one hand or of Tamilness on the other, but both sides lacked a sense of a Sri Lankaness as a common ground.
They seemed to ignore the stark facts of history, which, whether they liked it or not, had over the centuries constituted Sri Lanka as a mosaic of diverse ethnic groups and religions. That mosaic was a given and irreversible. What Sri Lanka seemed to lack were leaders who could weld those diverse groups into a harmonious polity.The politicians of all parties, both in the North as well as in the South, seemed to reduce the problem of nation-building to a constitutional issue – should Sri Lanka have a Unitary Constitution or a Federal Constitution? They did not see nation-building as having to do with the more fundamental question of raising consciousness, and forgot that in the absence of a consciousness of wholeness, constitutions by themselves cannot integrate a society, whatever checks and balances may be built into them.
Within a few decades of the close of WW2, all constitutions dispensed by experts all over the world, and handed down to former colonies by the erstwhile masters, disappeared from the political landscape proving that, to really work, a constitution must embody the consciousness of the whole national community. The primary task facing a nation’s leaders must therefore be to help develop that consciousness as a necessary condition of a constitution’s viability.
Building a deseeya chintanaya (a consciousness of nationhood)
Building a consciousness of nationhood, or a deseeya chintanaya (as distinct from a jathika chintanaya which can degenerate into sectarianism), is not a responsibility that can be left to politicians and constitutional lawyers alone. A deseeya chintanaya cannot be legislated, nor can it be secured through structural changes. Unlike a jathika chintanaya (a consciousness of ethnicity), whether Sinhala or Dhamila, which have roots reaching back over 2,000 years, the seeds of a deseeya chintanaya have yet to be sown.
It is pre-eminently an educational task, to be initiated at the level of our schools. It requires a new way of looking at history, and helping young minds to climb out of the constraints placed on their understanding by the sectarian myths, legends and memories that are embedded in their ancient chronicles, whether they relate to their Aryan origins or to their Dravidian origins. This does not mean that children should be ignorant of, much less that they should reject, their rich historical inheritance, but that they should acquire a more global view of history and be equipped with a critical sense that will enable them to stand back and look at their respective narratives more objectively.
Building a deseeya chintanaya is a task that also devolves on Civil Society – on artists, novelists and poets, on intellectuals, on film producers, on writers of lyrics and songs, on religious leaders and on the NGO (Non-Governmental Organisations) network.
Most of all, it is a task that should be undertaken by newspapers and journalists who, rather than sow to sectarian emotions, should open the minds of their readers to a broader and deeper vision of social reality.
On the other hand, if these agents of Civil Society are themselves not imbued with a deseeya chintanaya, no amount of constitution making and no amount of structural surgery can ever achieve it.
The point I am trying to make here is that our preoccupation with constitution making, whether to have a Unitary or a Federal constitution, whether to devolve and how much to devolve, misses the point. In fact, they are escape routes from reality.
The reality is that in the absence of a consciousness of nationhood, constitution making is a spurious game. Constitutions do not create social reality but only reflect it. On this point I also demur from classical Marxist theory which claims that ownership of the means of production, or economic relations, are the primary determinants of social and political relations. Marxists forget that even bringing social and political relations into sync with the underlying economic relations requires the re-engineering of consciousness, or as Paulo Freire (the radical Latin American thinker) pointed out, the “conscientization” of the people, which is a rather convoluted form of saying that transforming the consciousness of the people is primary.
The inability to comprehend this truth was at the root of the failure of the worldwide socialist experiment of the 1917 to 1989 era. The ownership of the “means of production” was changed through legislative or revolutionary means but the superstructure or “relations of production” did not change proportionately. The conflict between the two contributed to the collapse of socialism worldwide.
Where there is no underlying consciousness of nationhood, constitutions and structures that claim to ensure it serve only to conceal its absence. They are merely forms without substance.
The missing X factor
So, what has been that absent X factor in shaping Sri Lanka’s consciousness as a nation? I believe that the missing X factor is leadership. More than any other single factor, it is leadership that catalyses separateness into unity and conflict into harmony, and it requires a great leader to carry a society from tribalism to nationhood.
Sri Lanka’s inability to produce leaders who combined a great vision with moral stature has been crucial. I believe that the drought in Sri Lankan leadership, its lack of men and women who had caught the broader, grander view, who could rise above the compulsions of opportunistic politics and who could envision the good of the whole country as opposed to the advantage of this or that ethnic group or this or that party, has been fundamental.
The primary commitment of the vast majority of our politicians has been to their respective sectarian constituencies, whether Sinhala or Tamil, rather than to the nation as a whole, and given Sri Lanka’s demographic structure, whoever stokes majoritarian emotions will always exercise power over the whole country, whereas whoever puts the nation first is likely to pass into political oblivion!
Ironically, as a nation, Sri Lanka has never had a constituency or a leader. This paradox can be resolved only under two conditions. Firstly, the people’s consciousness has to be raised and widened to encompass the whole nation as its domain, but since that is likely to take several decades, or even a century, rather than years, there must simultaneously emerge one or more leaders who can rise above their narrow constituency perspectives and be able to catalyse the fragmented ethnic and religious groups into a unity.
Broadly, there are two types of political leaders.
The commonest are those who have sensed the dominant mood of the people, the zeit-geist, and ride it to power, like surfers ride the waves. They are the sectarian populists. Not being rooted in a set of values, and lacking a higher vision, they do not question the morality of the dominant mood, much less seek to transform it, and once ensconced in office, using all the state apparatus at their disposal, seek only to magnify it. Lacking moral goals higher than attaining or remaining in power, they are quite willing to sacrifice the nation and the long-term good of the very people who brought them to power, at the altar of their ambitions. As they hurry the nation in a disintegrating downward spiral, their sectarian constituency cheers them on, and lacking any criteria by which to judge themselves or their constituency, they cease to be true leaders of the nation and become instead tribal chieftains.
The second type of leader is one who, having caught a vision of a civilised society, tries to objectify it. His take-off point is not the mass but the vision, and the attributes of that higher moral order constitute his constant reference frame. That reference frame comprises fundamental rights (freedom of speech, freedom to worship and freedom of association), righteousness, equality, justice, integrity, fairness, harmony and peace. The dominant paradigm will always resist any attempt by that higher order to intrude upon its sectarian domain, but the test of a great leader is his willingness to dilute into it those elevated attributes, so that they may start working like grains of salt in a bowl of soup. Seeing that there is a huge gap between the higher vision he is trying to objectify and the sectarian consciousness in which he is trapped, the great leader tries to bridge the gap by upgrading the latter. He starts paddling upstream, against the torrent. Sadly, such leaders belong to a miniscule minority.
My experiences in Jaffna in the mid-1960s prompted me that Sri Lanka was light years away from attaining nationhood, and the events of the decades that followed have fully confirmed that conviction.
As I said earlier on, Mrs. Bandaranaike’s refusal to visit her people in Jaffna in December 1964 when they were in deep distress, was more than a personal dereliction. It was symptomatic of a deep underlying national disorder. It is not without significance that since Prime Minister Sir John Kotalawala visited Jaffna in 1955, up to this moment of writing (2008) not a single incumbent Executive Prime Minister or President has visited Jaffna. (I stand to be corrected here.) It looks as if for over 55 years the Head of the Sri Lankan state has renounced responsibility for one quarter of the country’s people! Is it a wonder then that those who are thus disowned and renounced seek to set themselves up separately and go their own way?
From chapter 10: The non-Vellalars unbound++
For the reasons I have identified earlier in this publication the Vellalar class has been evicted from a dominant role in national politics, and for the first time in 1,500 years has been reduced to a subaltern status. The Vellalars had played lead roles within the Chera, Pallava, Pandya and Chola empires within India and, especially under the Cholas in Lanka. Now, at the best, they survive only as a co-runner with the very class – the non-Vellalars – whom they once despised, or merely as an appendage to them.
That should not blind us to certain facts concerning the Vellalar class. Regardless that the Vellalars’ perspective on national politics has been highly introverted and class/caste based throughout the past 100 years, their ideological commitment to the democratic process has been consistent and unequivocal, even though since the Vaddukoddai Declaration that commitment has been tarnished somewhat. That notwithstanding, they understood liberal democratic values, they have always respected the parliamentary process and their primary commitment has been to dialogue and negotiation.
Their eviction from the national political landscape has not only dented the country’s democratic fabric but it has also taken Tamil politics out of the democratic discourse and placed it in an altogether different domain.
At a personal level I can confirm that during my years in Jaffna and over the past 45 years I have interacted with the most iconic of the Vellalar leaders as well as with simple Vellalar middle-class folk, and many of my friends hail from amongst them. I can also confess that they are some of the finest human beings I have met anywhere, cultured and dignified, never vulgar or offensive and never abusive or crude. The eviction of the Vellalars from a dominant role in Tamil and national politics saddens me, but history unfolds impersonally and relentlessly.
The eviction of the Vellalars from national politics has three major political consequences:
- The first is the unbinding of the non-Vellalars and their elevation to the dominant place in Tamil politics.
- 2. The second is the impact of this ascendency on the national political process as well as on international relations.
- The third is the rise of the Tamil diaspora.
I shall deal with each of these separately.
The upsurge of the non-Vellalars
The vacuum created by the eviction of the Vellalars from the dominant role in Tamil politics has been filled by the non-Vellalars, who are now its major driving force, whether in Sri Lanka or abroad. After unnumbered centuries the non-Vellalars have been unbound.
Several characteristics differentiate the non-Vellalars from the Vellalars as a political force. Whereas the Vellalars had enjoyed a heritage of a deep culture, social stability and power for centuries, the non-Vellalars inherit a legacy of poverty, instability and oppression. Whereas the Vellalars have been sophisticated and bourgeois, the non-Vellalars are simplistic and crude. Whereas the Vellalars have been adept at dialogue and negotiation, the non-Vellalars are bereft of negotiating skills, which has been evidenced abundantly in recent years. Whereas the Vellalar consciousness emanates a quiet confidence and a sense of dignity, the non-Vellalars are driven by paranoia and are highly volatile and prone to violence.
To understand the non-Vellalars as a potential political powerhouse, we must grasp how their psyche has been shaped in the crucible of oppression, humiliation and suffering for untold hundreds, or even thousands of years. Throughout their long sojourn in the wilderness, in India, and for the past 1,000 years in Sri Lanka, they have known only authoritarian rule and oppression, and have never experienced democracy. If I am asked to identify one quality that characterises their collective consciousness more than any other, I would unhesitatingly say that it is paranoia; that is, the disposition not to trust anyone but to see enemies and conspiracies lurking everywhere. Without any malicious intention I would say that their world view has been that of creatures who live in underground caves.
Especially noteworthy is that, through the Vellakkaras and Maravars, warrior castes who were a part of the Pandya/Pallava armies that invaded Lanka between the 1st and 7th centuries and were later employed by the Sinhala kings as mercenaries, the non-Vellalars also inherit a tradition of militarism which is reputed for brutality and barbarism. The Portuguese, the Dutch and the British suppressed this militaristic tradition among the non-Vellalar Tamils, but the rebel armies of the Tamil militants readily co-opted it. The Sinhala words maravara balaya (which means the power of intimidation) have their origin in the depredations of the Maravars in Sri Lanka during the Pandya, Chola and Kalinga invasions. The potential for destruction and mayhem inherent in the non-Vellalar culture was most evident in their ferocious sacking and pillage of Anuradhapura under King Kalinga Magha. It was Kalinga Magha’s terrorising of Raja Rata that terminated a 1,500-year-old Sinhala kingdom and triggered its drift to the south-west of the island.
Once the Vellalar top cover had been removed exposing the non-Vellalar base, the government and the international community can expect to find the descendants of the Vellakkaras and Maravars. They will be confronted by a political entity, united by a common experience of being suppressed for aeons by the Vellalars, and of being defeated and humiliated by a Sinhala-dominated state. The government must not forget that even after the killing fields have been vacated, whenever that will be ( written before the final destruction of the LTTE in 2009), the non-Vellalar Tamils in the North alone will still number over 500,000, and they will be a powerful force to reckon with.
In my view, unless Sri Lanka can produce a leader, who, while keeping his nose to the grindstone, can also keep his eyes on the stars (Peter Drucker’s model – see Chapter 2 of memoirs), the next phase of Sri Lanka’s history will be more troubled than the past few decades have been. The critical question is whether Sri Lanka can produce a leader who is capable of that paradoxical role, of being both a Commissar and a Yogi.
Implications for international relations
The isolation of the Vellalar class from international links proved their undoing. They had no leverage abroad. That explains why the Vellalar-led Federal Party and Tamil Congress were never able to stir the interest either of Tamil Nadu or of New Delhi on behalf of their cause, and why their cries rarely received a serious hearing in India.
By contrast, although they are currently proscribed by New Delhi, the non-Vellalars have historic structural links with Tamil Nadu, where over 80% of the population constitute the parent stock of the Jaffna non-Vellalars. That is why when the latter are threatened there is unrest and agitation in Tamil Nadu. Caste affinities tie the non-Vellalars of Jaffna to the majority of Tamil Nadu in a historic relationship and a lack of understanding of this axis of political power can prove critical for Sri Lanka.
How the future unfolds depends primarily on how the government in Colombo responds to this reality. If it proceeds rapidly to resolve the historic grievances of the non-Vellalar people – i.e. the problem of landlessness, the lack of access to jobs, their perception of being oppressed both by the Sri Lankan government as well as by the Vellalars, their resentment at having their lands treated as occupied territory, and above all, their exclusion from political power – and initiates effective measures rapidly to ameliorate them, it will be possible to cocoon them and isolate them from the Tamil Nadu giant.
On the other hand, if the government in Colombo opts for myopia and succumbs to those who ask “what grievances?” one can expect Tamil Nadu not only seriously to destabilise Sri Lanka, but equally to start rocking the Indian Union boat itself, which can then capsize Sri Lanka as well!
The rise of the diaspora
Another consequence of the fall of the Vellalars has been the emergence of a formidable new Tamil formation, the Tamil diaspora, which is now composed equally of Vellalars as well of the non-Vellalars. Wounded and humiliated by decades of Sinhala hegemonism, in a dramatic metamorphosis the overarching consciousness of Tamilness has prevailed, and the two historic Tamil enemies, the Vellalars and non-Vellalars, have closed ranks.
Although within a matter of 50 years their world had been turned upside down, their capacity to bounce back and regain lost ground has been phenomenal, a feat matched only by the Jewish diaspora.
Today (writing in 2009) in the UK for instance, the Tamils of both caste groups have a common business directory, entitled the Tamil Pages, patterned on the regular Yellow Pages, advertising enterprises owned exclusively by them. In 2004 the directory numbered over 700 pages, with over 26,000 registered Tamil business enterprises paying taxes in the UK, and that is not counting the thousands in the professions and over 50,000 corner shops and convenience stores which do not enter the registry. I am told that in the USA and Canada their business directories are 3-4 times as large and include many shipping lines among the registered enterprises.
All this represents an enormous entrepreneurial resource which might well have been utilised within Sri Lanka itself for generating wealth. Now, however, it is not only a net loss to the country, but is being mobilised against it, with the LTTE acting as proxy. A few years back the gross annual income generated by the Tamil diaspora in the Western countries alone was estimated to exceed Sri Lanka’s GDP.
Like all other diaspora that owe their origin to a deep trauma, the united Tamil diaspora have not forgotten the past, and they are now being driven by a terrible revengist resolve.
Caste as an underlying reality
The underlying reality of the Jaffna Tamils was caste, and the central theme of this chapter has been that unless one understands how caste has fuelled and shaped the conflict, our ability to resolve it will be proportionally impaired.
I am not saying that caste is the principal factor driving the Tamil response to Sinhala hegemonism, but that it is a very important factor, and if I have appeared to over-emphasise it, it is only in order to remedy its neglect by policy makers, commentators and the intellectual community.
Caste was a mechanism evolved in India, over a 2,000-year period, for allocating specific social functions to specific categories of people deemed best equipped to carry them out. The allocation of social functions to specific groups of people based on aptitude was not in and of itself evil, although social systems that practised it tended to end up as slave societies and dictatorships, as the political philosopher Karl Popper argues in his book, The Open Society.
The functional allocation of social tasks was first conceived of in the Rig Veda around 1,000 BC and was spelt out as the Varnasrama Dharma, which was later codified minutely around 600 AD through the Manu Smriti. However, outside India, the structuring of society according to social functions and individual skills was first practised concretely around 400 BC in Sparta, which was the archetypal slave society, and it was also conceptualised in Plato’s Republic, as well as in Hegel’s concept of the perfect state.
However, in none of these cases was the allocation of social functions to specified groups of people based on “heredity”. What made the Tamil caste system pernicious and absolutely evil was the hereditary principle – once a road sweeper, always a road sweeper – generation after generation, and that was the mechanism that subjected the non-Vellalars to degradation and anonymity for over 2,000 years, first in India and later in Jaffna.
A belated clarification of terms
Even belatedly, I think I should clarify two words I have been using in this publication, namely Vellalar and non-Vellalar. It is erroneous to assume that by Vellalar I mean just the Federal Party or the TNA (Tamil National Alliance), and that by non-Vellalar I mean simply the LTTE. I consider these entities to be only ephemeral manifestations of a deeper structural reality, which will persist long after the manifestations have passed from view.
Also, I have endeavoured in this chapter to avoid, as much as possible, using the words LTTE and Pirabhikaran, because they seem to evoke, even among the intelligent and the educated, highly emotional responses, which obscure their capacity to perceive the structural realities underlying the hated names. When we confuse the manifestation with the underlying reality we are merely addressing the symptoms, leaving room for the hidden reality to flare up as another malignant manifestation, when the one confronting us currently has been obliterated.
Summing up – a Gramscian view
Based on my experiences in Jaffna in the 1960s, in this chapter I have tried to open a new window to our understanding of the conflict that has engulfed Sri Lanka for over three decades. Although it draws on my direct experiences, and face to face interactions with both the Sinhala and the Tamil for many decades, both in Sri Lanka and abroad, my contribution is a modest one. It is only just another paradigm through which to look at the conflict.
Commentators have generally identified the Sinhala Only Policy, Sinhala chauvinism, the clash of Sinhala and Tamil nationalisms, the over centralisation of power in Colombo, India’s intervention, and the pathological malevolence of Pirabhikaran as being among the principal causes of the conflict. I do not deny the enormous impact that all of these factors have had on determining the intensity and character of the conflict. However I do not think that the Sri Lankan conflict, or for that matter, any major socio-political conflict, can be understood through just a few variables. We need a more inclusive and holistic model.
The “Sinhala Only” policy and “Sinhala chauvinism” were certainly the immediate triggers for the conflict, but when seen within a wider perspective the conflict is far more complex, and its roots network over a much wider field. One must remember that the Sinhala Only policy and Sinhala chauvinism and Tamil nationalism have their own historical roots of which the current actors are not even aware. National leaders, politicians, intellectuals and civil society, on both sides of the divide, think and act within paradigms they have inherited, without even being aware of their inheritance, and without pausing to think beyond the manifestations to the deeper realities of which they are merely the effects.
If I am pushed to select a model for understanding the Sri Lankan conflict, my preferred option is the one advanced by Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist of the last century.
There are two aspects of Gramscian thought that I find relevant. First, he eschews the tendency to explain major socio-political conflicts in terms of just a few variables, and suggests instead an “ensemble of relations”, i.e. an interlocking system of multiple causes, within which a change in one variable sets off changes in all variables.
The other Gramscian concept I find useful is “hegemonism”. As applied to the Sri Lankan conflict, hegemonism is the dominance of Sinhala over the Tamil and of Vellalar over the non-Vellalar. In both instances, the dominant class seeks to impose its own view of reality on the consciousness of the subaltern class, so that the latter may see it as the natural order of things. The subaltern class reacts to this dominance sometimes through insurrection and seeks to replace the operative hegemony with its own alternative hegemony.
We have seen that happen in Sri Lanka. The Sinhala hegemony replaced the British colonial hegemony but was in turn challenged by the Tamil subaltern class. One cannot realistically envisage that Sinhala hegemony will ever be overturned, much less replaced, by a Tamil hegemony, except through India’s intervention, which in the current context is not even a remote possibility. However, within the Tamil corpus the Vellalar hegemony has been effectively challenged and overturned by the non-Vellalars, and replaced by their own hegemony.
From Epilogue One: Forging a new nation ++++
Having listened to Barack Obama’s swearing in as the 44th President of the US on the 20th January 2009, within sight of the impending collapse of the LTTE and with sounds of revelry and triumphalism already in the air, I wrote an article to the Sunday Island of the 9th February 2009, entitled “A draft manifesto for a Sri Lankan Obama”. The theme of the article was how to forge a new nation out of the chaos of a protracted civil war. The following is an extract from that article:
An important fact to remember is that the military triumph achieved by the Sri Lankan armed forces, enormously creditworthy though it may be, has not been over a foreign enemy, but over a section of their own nation, and however loathsome the enemy who has been vanquished, the revelry and the triumphalism have to be seen in that context.
A new nation cannot rise out of triumphalism for triumphalism is not only vulgar and coarse, but hurtful and humiliating to those who, for over six decades have been made to feel as if they did not belong here. Civil wars are the worst of all possible wars, especially protracted ones, because when one side has defeated the other, the victor has yet to live with the vanquished and embittered side, and unless he can find a way quickly to remove the causes that provoked the conflict and heal the wounds, the victory can in short order turn out to be hollow.
In a brutal civil war, military victories by either side do not engender reconciliation and integration. They only further deepen hate and consolidate schism, and healing and reconciliation will come only when the victor takes positive initiatives for achieving them.
Therefore, the paramount need of the hour (written in 2009) is for restraint and magnanimity, for compassion and forgiveness. The haemorrhaging has to end, wounds have to be healed, and tears have to be wiped from every eye, but those tasks require great minds and large hearts at the helm. They require leaders who have caught a great vision, a vision that goes beyond tribalism and lighting crackers. They require leaders who have a coherent concept of nationhood, leaders who are capable of rising above the pettiness and the enmities that have characterised our politics for six decades. Not least, we need a whole new vocabulary to illuminate our discourse. The crying need of the moment is not celebration, but a spelling-out of all those measures we propose to take for ushering in the peace. How do we raise a new nation from the shambles of our past mistakes?
An organic whole
First, we must face up to the self-evident truth that 61 years after Independence (written in 2009) we have yet to emerge as a Sri Lankan nation, never mind dreaming of a “new” nation. On one side, we have certainly rediscovered what it means to be Sinhala, and on the other, as a countervailing response, we have intensified our feeling of what it means to be Dhamila (sadly, in both instances, to the point of morbidity), but in between, we have yet to discover what it means to be “Sri Lankan”. The long walk to achieving a Sri Lankan nationhood has been blind, lacerating, and unfruitful so far.
Secondly, we will not emerge as a nation until we concede that the nation of Sri Lanka is more than just the Sinhala people. Neither will we so emerge, until we realise that the nation of Sri Lanka is more than just the Sinhala people plus the Dhamila people. Nor will we so emerge, until we realise that the nation of Sri Lanka is more than Sinhala plus Dhamila plus Moor and Burgher. Indeed, we will not emerge as a nation until we realise that Sri Lanka is more than all of these, plus Buddhist, plus Hindu, plus Moslem and Christian, plus the many foreign nationals who have made this land their home, and not even then! For Sri Lanka to emerge as a nation, it must not only include all of these people, but it must be greater than all of them put together. Sri Lanka must be more than the sum of all its parts, and more than a collection of marbles in a jar.
The nation of Sri Lanka must be an organic, living, pulsating unity, encompassing its entire constituent people, but must also be something that is greater and grander than the sum of its constituent people. It must be a focus of loyalty and emotion, not just for the Sinhala people but for all of its component members. In a sense, nationhood is only a concept, an abstraction perhaps, but paradoxically, a profoundly solid one. It must be a reality so firmly embedded in the consciousness of its people that devotion to it will transcend every sectarian loyalty, so much so that the words “Sri Lanka” will evoke from Tamil, Moor and Burger alike, as it now does from the Sinhala, bold and resonant commitments to its overarching cause. That I believe is what true patriotism is, devotion to the whole, rather than to any single section thereof, which can degenerate into sectarianism or racism, but it is up to the Sinhala leadership to facilitate that outcome.
Our Sinhala-Buddhist hinterland
This is not to say that plural Sri Lanka does not have a distinctive cultural hinterland. Let those who talk of pluralism never forget that every plural formation has a core, a “central zone” (to borrow a concept from Edward Shils an eminent sociologist) that holds the plurality together and imparts to it its unique identity, which in the case of Sri Lanka, is its Sinhala-Buddhist tradition. This is true regardless whether one is Tamil or Moor, Burgher or Malay, Hindu or Moslem, Christian or atheist, and its truth is not dependent on anyone’s acceptance of it. It is simply a historical reality with which all those who constitute our plurality must come to terms. Anyone who denies that must be grossly unintelligent, blind or perverse.
I say this not in the spirit of chauvinism, which, as a totally devoted follower of the Christ I cannot ever be, but out of a commitment to objectivity and truth, which my spiritual allegiance makes irreversible.
However, when we talk of the Sinhala-Buddhist tradition as constituting the central zone of the Sri Lankan identity, we must also not forget that genetically, the Sinhala are as much Dhamila as they are Sinhala. If we are to believe our great chronicle the Mahavamsa, which many Sinhala do, our archetypal ancestors Prince Vijaya and his 700 comrades, who incidentally were from Kalinga, and from whom the Sinhala claim descent, took Pandyan wives, which means that through our maternal line, 50% of the Sinhala DNA is Dhamila and our genetic pool is therefore equally Dhamila as Sinhala.
The point I am trying to make is that genetically, the Dhamilas are not an alien people but are of the same flesh and blood as the Sinhala. Therefore, integrating them into our nation as equal partners is at least expedient, if not mandatory, and it is our failure to do so that caused them to want to set up on their own and go their own way, setting off a bloody civil war as a consequence. Recognition of that fundamental truth, and raising a national consciousness and an environment appropriate to it, will be the first task that awaits a new Sri Lankan nation builder.
Not a banyan tree
On the other hand, let us also never forget that our Sinhala-Buddhist central zone should not be a banyan tree, suffocating every other organic growth around it, and under which nothing else prospers. Neither should we ever talk of those others who comprise our plural nation as “creepers”, or as “parasites”, as one Sri Lankan President once did. Nor should we permit the words, attributed to a military man recently, ever to gain currency that Sri Lanka belongs only to the Sinhala. Such utterances are for Neanderthals, and must be banished for ever from our national discourse, and relegated to the sewer where they rightly belong. That is certainly not the Sri Lanka that we need to see born, and should our leaders continue down that road, as many of them have over the past 60 years, and many of them still do, it will only perpetuate the conflict and the blood-letting that have marred this country’s progress so far.
The nation of Sri Lanka must be an organic whole, within which its constituent parts subsist, unthreatened and secure, in a symbiotic relationship with the Sinhala-Buddhist central zone. It must be an organic whole, wherein no part, not even the central zone, is self-sufficient, but where each needs the other in a synergistic relationship, and draws energy from one another, and where they all live for the whole, and the whole exists for all.
As a necessary condition of raising a Sri Lankan nation, our new nation builder will first have to tame the rampant Sinhala-Buddhist triumphalism, and make it possible for the other components of our plural society to live in dignity alongside the Sinhala-Buddhist central zone. Regrettably, during the 61 years since Independence, not one leader, bar Ranasinghe Premadasa, himself an iconic Sinhala-Buddhist, has had a vision of an integrated Sri Lanka nation (I know that this statement may provoke derisive protests, but having known Premadasa the man, shorn of his many masks, and his multifarious failings, I can truly claim that it is so.) Premadasa never pandered to divisive ethnic politics. President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga (CBK) was also endowed with a vision for a truly united Sri Lanka but nothing came of it bar the “Package” which simply dribbled into the sand of petty party politics. Equally sadly, not only have our leaders, bar Premadasa and Kumaratunga, lacked a vision for a united Sri Lankan nation, but many of them have shamelessly sowed to division, and have exploited every vestige of interracial enmity, for attaining and holding on to power. That is why building a consciousness of unity will be a daunting one, requiring vision, intelligence, character, integrity and above all a profound moral commitment, unmatched hitherto.
One of the principal obstacles to building such a consciousness will be the refrain, “What grievances do the Tamils have?“ Well, this is not the place to answer that question, except to say, that if for more than six decades, a community known for their intelligence and ancient culture have been traversing the globe complaining of injustices inflicted on them, and have been willing to lay down their lives in tens of thousands to have them righted and, as a consequence, suffer the most unspeakable privations, exposing their land and their homesteads to devastation, and lest we forget, simultaneously inflicting the most horrific barbarities on their opponents, it is rational to surmise that their claims may not be chimera, and that there just might be some substance to their grievances. If a thing waddles like a duck, and quacks like a duck, and swims like a duck, it is just possible that it might be in fact, a duck!
To be realistic however overcoming decades of division and mistrust, healing wounds that are still haemorrhaging, drawing the Tamils out of sullenness and sulk, remedying their long-festering grievances, and building a consciousness of unity and oneness, will take several more years, perhaps even decades. Meanwhile, however, an enlightened leadership can contribute enormously towards catalysing the process.
Who are enlightened leaders?
Who are enlightened leaders? They are those who have caught a vision of a civilised society, framed in a set of absolute values which are rooted not in the mass, nor in the mundane and the expedient, but in the transcendent. They are guided not by popular clamour but by a moral compass, which keeps pointing unerringly towards fundamental rights, freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, freedom of worship, righteousness, equality, justice, integrity, fairness, harmony, peace and not least, freedom from corruption, and all their energies are directed towards objectifying those noble values within their native land.
They have broken out of the tyranny of the mass, and their reference frame is no longer the rabble-rousing populism which small men exploit to ride to power. Rather, they see as one of their immediate tasks that of educating and upgrading the populist mind. However, the populist mind will always resist any attempt by the enlightened leader to let those values intrude upon its fetid domain, but the test of his leadership is precisely his willingness, regardless of cost, to dilute those universal values into the structures of governance, so that they may start working like grains of salt dissolved into a bowl of soup.
Seeing that there is a huge gap between the higher vision he is trying to objectify and the sectarian consciousness in which he is trapped, he starts paddling against the torrent, upstream, however daunting the task.
Admittedly, such leaders belong to a miniscule minority, amongst whom are Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel and now, Barak Obama. We may never replicate such leaders within our land, but we can at least hold them up as models constantly to be emulated.
The cave mentality
According to anthropologists, it was from his cave, some 250,000 years ago, that primitive man started his long ascent up the ladder of “civilisation”, and from the very beginning, he fought ferociously to protect the sovereignty of his cave, albeit only with sticks and stones.
Over the centuries the only things that have changed have been the size of the cave, and the tools man has used for defending it, substituting deadlier and deadlier weapons for sticks and stones; but basically, regardless of the mansions and the luxury flats he owns today, man has continued to live within his cave.
Most of us are still essentially cave-dwellers, held captive within our several mental caves – personal caves, family caves, ethnic caves, cultural caves and most of all, within our nationalist caves (all of which, according to the Buddha, are merely extensions of the primary cave of avijja or ignorance) and we have yet to emerge from the cave mentality. We are still in prehistory and the story of civilised man has yet to begin!
However, I believe that in the sublime teachings of the great spiritual masters, enumerating chronologically: in the Upanishadic concept of moksha, in Gautama Buddha’s teachings on Brahmaviharas – maitriya, karuna, muditha and upekha , in Jesus Christ’s Gospel of love and forgiveness, and in the Islamic doctrine of universalism, Sri Lanka has an extraordinary spiritual resource, which if properly understood, can dissolve the most stubborn cave mentality and produce genuine harmony and peace across the land. Rather than indulge in superstition, our new national leader must harness these spiritual resources and take the first tentative steps towards raising a united, righteous and just Sri Lanka.
More than the power it derives from an overwhelming superiority in numbers, what exalts any majority community, and endows it with a true greatness and moral authority, is its willingness to accord to all those other communities who lack the advantage of numbers, a status and dignity equal to its own, and never to let them feel marginalised or disadvantaged because they are fewer in number, or because they are different in colour or beliefs.
Unless and until Sri Lanka can produce leaders who can realise that truth, and are willing to act on it, it will continue to be mired in conflict.
Neville at SLBC in the late 1960s(?)
++ This chapter was written in January 2009 – five months before the collapse of the LTTE.
++++ The following chapter was written in February 2009 – four months before the collapse of the LTTE.
ALSO SEE https://thuppahis.com/2014/09/13/jaffna-exorcising-the-past-and-holding-the-vision/
- Charles Sarvan: A Review of “Exorcising the Past”,” 27 March 2015, https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/jaffna-exorcising-the-past-holding-the-vision/
Chelvanyagam & Tamil satyagrahis at Galle Face Green in protest against Sinhala Only campaign
… subject to mob attack by Sinhala extremists
Bandaranaike listens to bhikkhu castigating his Party for BC Pact
|Title||Jaffna Exorcising the Past and Holding the Vision: An Autobiographical Reflection on the Ethnic Conflict|