Challenging Ratnawalli’s Imperial Sinhala Position

Michael Roberts

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.

2b-Chelva hustings  Chelvanayakam campaigning 13-Banda & masses for Sinhala OnlyBandaranaike on the SLFP Sinhala Only ‘road train’

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.[1] Her critique of “Shanie” for Shanie’s reading of “traditional homelands” was spot on.[2] Again, she provided a clear summary of my concept of “tributary overlordship” in her own words[3] 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[4] 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.[5] 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.[6]

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.”[7]

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.

***  ***


Arasaratnam, S. 1958 “Dutch sovereignty in Ceylon: a historical survey of its problem,”, Ceylon Journal of Historical & Social Studies 1: 105-21.

Arasaratnam, S. 1966 “The Vanniar of north Ceylon: a study of feudal power and central authority, 1660-1760,” Ceylon Journal of Historical & Social Studies9: 101-12.

Bouchouwer, M. 1931/2 “Transactions between the Dutch and the King of Kandy. 1600-1617. The remonstrance of Marcellus de Bouchouwer,” Ceylon Literary Register I and II, serialised from 1:1, 2639 onwards at various moments.

De Silva, C. R. 1983 “The historiography of the Portuguese in Sri Lanka: a survey of the Sinhala writings,” Samskrti 17: 13-22.

De Silva, C. R. 1995c “The rise and fall of the Kingdom of Sitavaka,” in University of Peradeniya, History of Sri Lanka, Vol. II, ed. by K. M de Silva, Colombo: Sridevi, pp. 61-104.

De Silva, D. G. B. 1996 [1998] ‘New light on Vanni chiefs, based on historical tradition, palm-leaf manuscripts and official records’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Sri Lanka, n.s. being the Sesquicentennial Special Number, 1996, vol. LXI: 153-204. Note that the 1996 issue appeared in 1998.

Dewaraja, Lorna S. 1972 The Kandyan Kingdom of Ceylon, 1707-1760, Colombo: Lake House Investments Ltd.

Dyche, Thomas and William Pardon 1972 [1740] A new English dictionary (1740), Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag.

Ferguson, Donald 1909 “Letters from Raja Sinha II to the Dutch’,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Ceylon Branch 21: 259-67.

Ferguson, Donald 1998 The earliest Dutch visits to Ceylon, Delhi: Asian Educational Services. A reprint.

Goonewardena, K. W. 1977 “Kingship in seventeenth century Sri Lanka,” Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities 3: 1-32.

Hinsley, F. H. 1973 Nationalism and the International System, New York, Oceania Publications.

Peiris, Gerald H. 2013  “An appraisal of the concept of a traditional Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka,” a reprint, 26 April 2013,

Ratnawalli, Darshani 2014 “Into the Vanni and Jaffna of the 17th Century,” 9 October 2013,

Roberts, Michael 1979ba Collective identities, nationalisms and protest in modern Sri Lanka, Colombo: Marga Institute,

Roberts, Michael 1979b “Meanderings in the pathways of collective identity and nationalism,” in Roberts (ed.) Collective identities, nationalisms and protest in modern Sri Lanka, Colombo: Marga Institute, pp.1-96.

Roberts, Michael 1979c “Stimulants and ingredients in the awakening of latter-day nationalisms,’ in Roberts (ed.) Collective identities, nationalisms and protest in modern Sri Lanka, Colombo: Marga Institute, pp. 214-42.

Roberts, Michael 2005 Narrating Tamil nationalism: subjectivities and issues, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications – a reprint from South Asia 27(1), 87-108.

Roberts, Michael 2010 “Ethnic Identity in Sri Lanka’s Pre-capitalist Past: Shanie, Darshanie and Roberts,”15 August 2010,

Roberts, Michael 2011 “The vocabulary of ‘nation’ in the English language in the early modern period,” 10 July 2011,

Roberts, Michael 2013 “Tributary Overlordship and Cakravarti Figures in Pre-British Lanka,” 9 October 2009,

Roberts, Michael 2016 “Embittered Tamilness as a Problem of Reconciliation,” 3 August 2016,

Seneviratne, H. L. 1978b ‘Religion and Legitimacy of Power in the Kandyan Kingdom’, in Bardwell L. Smith (ed.) Religion and legitimation of power in Sri Lanka, Chambersburg, Penn.: Anima Books, pp. 177-87.

Seneviratne, H. L. 1997 ‘Identity and the conflation of past and present’, in H. L. Seneviratne (ed.) Identity, consciousness and the past, Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp. 3-22.

Seton-Watson, Hugh 1965 Nationalism Old and New, Memorial Lecture, University of Sydney.

Sitrampalam, S. K. 2003 Tamils of Sri Lanka: historical roots of Tamil identity, The Northeastern Herald, August 2003,…. and/or

Stalin. Josef 1913 “Marxism and the National Question,”\

Strathern, Alan 2004 “Theoretical approaches to Sri Lankan history and the early Portuguese period,” Modern Asian Studies 38: 189-226.

Strathern, Alan 2006a, ‘Towards the source-criticism of Sitavakan heroic literature, part one. The Alakeśvara Yuddhaya: notes on a floating text’ in Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities 32: 23-39.

Strathern, Alan 2006b ‘The royal ‘We’: Sinhala identity in the dynastic state’, a review of ‘Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan Period 1590s to 1815’ by Michael Roberts’, reprinted from Modern Asian Studies 39 (2005): 1013-1026, as a pamphlet for the Social Scientist’s Association, Colombo.

Strathern, Alan 2007 Kingship and conversion in sixteenth-century Sri Lanka, Cambridge University Press.

Strayer, Joseph R. 1965 “The Historic Experience of Nation-building in Europe,” in Karl W. Deutsch & W. J. Folz (eds.) Nation building, New York, Atherton Press, pp. 17-26.


[1] For instance, see Ratnawalli, “Into the Vanni,” 2013.

[2] See Roberts, “Ethnic Identity in Sri Lanka’s Pre-capitalist Past: Shanie, Darshanie and Roberts,”15 August 2010, Note that I have since discovered that “Shanie” was the late Lanka Nesiah.

[3] This was in an essay in the Nation which has disappeared from the internet circuit.

[4] Writing from my sister’s home in Colombo I do not have access to these volumes.

[5] See my “Introduction” as well as my chapter on “Stimulants and ingredients in the awakening of latter-day nationalisms,” (1979b).

[6] For full text see Roberts, Tamil Person and State. Pictorial, Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2014, pp. 271-92.

[7] This specific modality of double-speak and dissimulation continues today in the presentations and thinking of several individuals who are treated as moderate Tamils.


Filed under British colonialism, ethnicity, Left politics, legal issues, life stories, LTTE, nationalism, politIcal discourse, Portuguese in Indian Ocean, power politics, reconciliation, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, world events & processes

3 responses to “Challenging Ratnawalli’s Imperial Sinhala Position

  1. Chandre Dharmawardana

    Look at this extracted passage:
    “[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.”

    Both Ratnavalli and Roberts are surely equally guilty of trying to transfer modern notions (that became possible only after -but only long after- the discovery of printing) to ancient societies. Both Roberts and Ratnavalli know well all the things that I am going to state below – nothing new.
    But they love their semantics and the game of pouring new wine into old clay pots, preferably pots with Brahmi inscriptions.

    Anyway, back to the main issue.

    The king (and some elites that belonged to his aristocratic clan by kinship) basically “owned” the people, and they also owned the land where the people worked. Only the priesthood (or monks) had some semblance of state-sponsored independence.

    There were no “nations” in the days of the ” cave-lip inscriptions ” that Roberts mentions. Instead there were kings and kingdoms essentially despotically owned by the king . A community of Sinhalese speakers or Tamil speakers under a Sinhala king or a Tamil king fared pretty much the same way. They were called upon to fight an enemy Prince irrespective of what moderns call “nationality”.

    However, every Roman was a Roman citizen – not a nationer or nation-vivant , nationheimer, nationwohner, or even nationska. Greeks to had their cities and citizens. But there was no Greek nation or Roman Nation although they had a common language, culture etc.

    However, even while being essentially surfs or totally subject peoples, a sense of unity can come into being when a common endeavour is undertaken. The Gurkas, subject to the British, fought with the British, and celebrated British victories. In ancient Lanka, the battle between Elara and Gemunu which led to a victory for Gemunu would have been the first such triumphalist event where a group consciousness (“sinhala consciousness”) may have arisen mainly among the fighting forces and their kith and kin in the rural homesteads. Even Tamils who fought alongside Dutugemunu would have been part of this elated “sinhala consciousness”. It is the elan of this stream of consciousness that is recorded a few centuries later in the Mahvamasa in the form of an epic poem in Pali where the heroic character is none other than DutuGemunu. But there was NO Sinhalese nation in the sense of its modern diction even there. The epic poem was not written in Sinhala even though it was already highly evolved as Buddhism wass practiced in Sinhala, and from which the Pali canon was written.

    . The “Sinhala kingdom”, and the “Sinhalese consciousness” should be distinguished from the “Sinhala language” which already had evolved into a distinct form (sinhla prakrit) prior to the time of DutuGemunu.

    Even in modern times, say in the 1920s, when Tamil Nationalism was becoming strong with the battle for the Colombo seat between Ponnambalam Arunachalam and the Sinhalese, was there really a “Tamil nation” in 1920ies within the meaning, or meanings given by Roberts?
    I invite Roberts and Ratnavalli to answer it.

    Arunachalam claimed that the Sinhalese had promised him the Colombo seat in a backroom deal that was not honoured, where as Arunachalam had also foolishly angered the governor in trying to make him promise the seat when the governor visited Jaffna, and this too led to his not getting the seat [If Arunachalam had the favour of the Governor, nothing could have stopped his getting the Colombo seat.].

    Then, when Ponnambalam Ramanathan stepped into lead Tamil politics after Arunachalam left “claiming deception”, Ramanathan regarded the Tamil nation (if he ever though in those terms) as being constituted only of the pristine upper-caste turbaned Tamils from Manipey and their close kith and kin. He took along delegations to London seeking to include into the constitution the principles of the caste system as an inalienable aspect of Hindu culture.

    So, what kind of a Tamil nation, or “nation state” could these concentrations of Tamil speaking peoples in the eastern littoral, Jaffna Peninsula and the Northern Wanni have been, let alone in ancient times, but even in the 1920ies? They were hierarchically controlled fiefdoms “owned” by a closed group of landed aristocrats and nothing more. The landed aristocrats have become enlarged into a larger base of educated elites, mainly living in Colombo or as an international diaspora and having recently acquired a sense of unity and Tamil nationhood, achieved during the endeavour of opposing (i) the Donoughmore constitution with its universal franchise equally covering “lower” castes, women, and not at all distinguishing between minorities and majorities, (ii) the Sinhala politics which rapidly became Sinhala only chauvinist and violent, hand in hand with the Tamil-hegemonic separatist ITAK activity which fanned ethnic polarization (iii) reaction of educated Tamils to State sponsored Terror in dealing with Tamil chauvinism that had morphed into many terrorist organizations that hijacked Tamil nationalism, out of which emerged the LTTE as the most brutal outcome.

  2. Sickular filth aj agarwal

    LoL BOTH tamils&sinhalese are “immigrats” from India!

    And technically speaking the indo-aryan tongue is not only alien to the austro veddas but it is an invasive language which decimated dravidian langauges(not people!)which was spoken all over India.

    Sinhalanazis’s exclusive national claim over lanka is hilarious! It is nothing but hypocritical denail of their own indoaryan migration from bengal which is roughley parellel to the tamil migration that happened at the time.

  3. Pingback: Bandara Vanniyan ‘crowned’ Today | Thuppahi's Blog

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