In a recent article I took issue with Robert S. Perinpanayagam for his short sharp comment on one of my essays on the Elephant Pass debacle of the year 2000. Embittered Tamilness has appeared in Colombo Telegraph as well as Thuppahi. Darshanie Ratnawalli recently entered a long comment in CT in ways that seem to support my work. However, her reading confuses the concept of “nation” with “nation state,” while also providing a distilled historical interpretation that overweights the past record in ways that suggest a measure of Sinhala exclusivism that leans towards the chauvinist camp. My presentation of this set of criticisms here is intended to supersede the hurried memo I placed in CT in opposition to her claims.
Let me note initially that Ratnawalli has presented several articles in the past on historical issues that are commendable in their explorations of historical issues via original research. Her critique of “Shanie” for Shanie’s reading of “traditional homelands” was spot on. Again, she provided a clear summary of my concept of “tributary overlordship” in her own words in a manner which indicates that she has comprehended this complex topic within its setting in my work Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan Period (2004).
In her recent intervention, however, she errs. Because she merges the concept of “nation” with “nation state” she moves to a distilled historical interpretation re Sri Lanka’s past that is Sinhala-exclusivist and which I contest strongly. So, let me first present her claims within their full context
“Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam was gunned down by the LTTE on 29th July, 1999. He was co-architect of the GL-Neelan devolution Package under the aegis of the then Executive President Chandrika Bandaranaike, which sought to replace the unitary state of Sri Lanka with a union of regions. It enshrined the post-colonial claim that the Sri Lankan Tamil community was a distinct and separate Nation. It came into conflict with the overriding claim that although centuries of historical processes had placed concentrations of Tamil speaking peoples in the eastern littoral, Jaffna Peninsula and the Northern Wanni, they were minority communities settling in the inalienable and sovereign habitats of Lanka and did not constitute a separate Nation. Predictably the Package was abandoned. But the issues still remain in the Lankan ideologisphere, an ideal playing field for a political theorist like Professor Miller”
I leave it to others to review her assessment of the Tiruchelvam package and its outcomes. I focus on the part underlined in red. It is misleading and dangerous on two counts.
ONE: it is grounded on the false assumption that the concept “nation” — and thus its sister concept of “nationality” — is equivalent to a “nation state.” My readings of such scholars as Hugh Seton-Watson, Joseph Strayer, Kenneth Minogue and Eric Hobsbawm in the course of teaching at Peradeniya University (1966-75) had indicated that there were two pathways to ‘nation-ness’ in European history.
Along one path, states with considerable internal differentiation – for instance England, Spain and France – became “nations” (“nationalities”) in the new modern sense by a process that saw “states” becoming “nation-states” — understood in shorthand as “nations” (or “nationalities”). The diffusion of Enlightenment thought and the French Revolution of 1789 capped this process by establishing the primacy of the concept of “self-determination.”
Along another path the developments in Western Europe then encouraged peoples with a cultural sense of one-ness (e. g, Germans, Italians, Poles, et cetera) to reach for the peak of nation-statehood in the 19th century and after.
My understandings of these processes developed further during the decade 2000s when I delved more deeply into the concept “nation” in the English language in the British context. Within this world in the 16th and 17th centuries the term “nation” was synonymous with “tribe,” “kin,” “clan” and “folk”. It was through the process of warring and imperial competition for colonies that the term “English nation” began to embody a higher value and to be associated with Enlightenment political philosophy.
My reading of this process of transition is recorded in a sub-section entitled “The vocabulary of ‘nation’ in the English language in the early modern period” within my work on Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan Period (2004) – now more widely available as an essay in Thuppahi. The rationale for such an excursion was simple: since the Sinhalese of the 17th and 18th centuries developed their political thought in conflict with the invasive European forces, it was logical for them to be influenced by the terminology of the Europeans. My unfamiliarity with Portuguese and Dutch meant that I had necessarily to concentrate on the understandings of “nation” in the British/English context.
So: once this process gained primacy in the new world order dominated by various strands of Western imperial powers in the 19th century, the concept “nation” and its sister concept “nationality” received weightage and primacy. Within this conceptual order, therefore, I have always followed Hugh Seton-Watson’s dictum in giving primacy to self-conception in understanding when a nation exists: a nation exists when an articulate and powerful segment of a ‘people’ claim that they are a “nation’ in the modern sense of the world and when this perspective is sustained over several generations.
On this reasoning my researches in the 1970s on nationalist currents in Sri Lanka in the 20th century and the work put in editing the Documents of the Ceylon National Congress (1977) led me to contend that the SL Tamils were a nation from the moment when leading activists in the Ceylon Communist Party (CCP) used Stalin’s thesis on the issue to assert this position in 1943/45. Though Stalin (1913) refers to a nation as “a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture,” my faint recollection is that the CCP was influenced by Austrian Marxist thinkers of the time and also deployed the term “nationalities.”
While members of the Tamil intelligentsia such as Kandaih and A. Vaidialingam were influential party members, the central driving force behind the CCP formulation was communist theory forged in Russia and Central Europe. I came across this evidence when working on the introduction to the documentary collection printed eventually in four volumes as Documents of the Ceylon National Congress (Colombo, Dept of National Archives 1977).
In this conceptualization of nationhood, the CCP was followed a little later by what was widely identified as the “Federal Party” when it was initiated in 1949. Aware of the Federal Party’s demands in the 1950s to 1970s, my edited book Collective Identities, Nationalisms and Protest in Modern Sri Lanka (Colombo: Marga Institute, 1979) – drafted in Peradeniya in the mid-1970s — uses the plural in its title and its internal presentations. This was a considered act.
Though aware that the Federal Party had emerged in 1949 I was not privy then to its presentation of self. That is now feasible through access to the English version of their party manifesto under the name of “the Federal Freedom Party” or Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi presented on 18th December 1949 at Maradana in Colombo.
My recognition of the communitarian ‘peopleness’ of the Sri Lankan Tamils does not mean that I support all the claims postulated in the ITAK manifesto including (a) the absurd attempt to maximise their clout by embracing the Muslims in an imperial sweep embodied in the term “Tamil-speaking peoples,” and the (b) act of historical dissimulation embodied in the term “traditional homelands.”
My questioning of the latter concept –-viz. traditional homelands”—on the foundations of my historical research in the 19th century as well as Gerald Peiris’ meticulous work on the early British census data on the Eastern Province (2013) highlights the problem arising from too facile an acceptance of “nation” as necessarily meaning “nation-entitled-to-statehood”.
The SL Tamils in the island today and in centuries recent past happen to be a majority in areas of the country that once held Sinhala speakers in resident and dominant majoritarian positions. The cave-lip inscriptions in Brahmi recording donations to Buddhist monks dating from the early centuries of the first millennium AD – when Sinhala or Hela was the language of the majority of settlers – indicate that what is the northern Vanni today as well as the central regions of the old Rajarata Kingdom in the north-central reaches and the eastern hinterland of Dighavapi et cetera were inhabited by Sinhala-speaking agriculturalists.
Thus the contemporary SL Tamil claim to self-determination demands regions to which Sinhala-speakers in the contemporary order also lay claim on the foundations of historical antecedents and abiding sentiments. So, one is confronted with that intractable situation where two bodies of relatively distinct people can lay claim to the same habitat. The Arabs and Jewish people of “Palestine” now confront each other in this manner — courtesy of Western political operations dating from the First World War. The Kurds today are undoubtedly a nation (or “nationality”), but have no hope of securing the status of a “nation state” because it means defeating Turkey, Iraq and Iran in a series of wars.
This comparative survey and background does not mean that one can side with Ratnawalli’s assertion that “[the Tamils] were minority communities settling in the inalienable and sovereign habitats of Lanka and did not constitute a separate Nation.” That is a Sinhala-extremist way of denying the Tamils their sense of communitarian oneness. It is a Sinhala historicist hammer – the sovereignty of the past wielded as tool today. It is feasible, courteous and advisable to recognise the “peoplehood” of the SL Tamils. That opens up a possibility of working out an honourable modus vivendi.
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Ratnawalli, Darshani 2014 “Into the Vanni and Jaffna of the 17th Century,” 9 October 2013, https://thuppahis.com/2013/10/09/into-the-vanni-and-jaffna-of-the-17th-century/
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Roberts, Michael 2016 “Embittered Tamilness as a Problem of Reconciliation,” 3 August 2016, https://thuppahis.com/2016/08/03/embittered-tamilness-on-display-the-case-of-robert-perinpanayagam/#more-21877
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 For instance, see Ratnawalli, “Into the Vanni,” 2013.
 See Roberts, “Ethnic Identity in Sri Lanka’s Pre-capitalist Past: Shanie, Darshanie and Roberts,”15 August 2010, https://thuppahis.com/2010/08/15/ethnic-identity-in-sri-lanka%E2%80%99s-pre-capitalist-past-shanie-darshanie-and-roberts/ Note that I have since discovered that “Shanie” was the late Lanka Nesiah.
 This was in an essay in the Nation which has disappeared from the internet circuit.
 Writing from my sister’s home in Colombo I do not have access to these volumes.
 See my “Introduction” as well as my chapter on “Stimulants and ingredients in the awakening of latter-day nationalisms,” (1979b).
 For full text see Roberts, Tamil Person and State. Pictorial, Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2014, pp. 271-92.
 This specific modality of double-speak and dissimulation continues today in the presentations and thinking of several individuals who are treated as moderate Tamils.