Dissecting Roberts’ Review of NARRATING TAMIL NATIONALISM

Bandu de Silva, in The Island, on 30 October 2006, reviewing Narrating Tamil Nationalism—Subjectivities and Issues by Michael Roberts

Michael Roberts’ slim book (52 pages) with pictures, published by Vijitha Yapa publications has already Attracted some public attention but I think it deserves a wider comment despite the shortness of the treatment because it is in itself a commentary on a more controversial work by A. J. Wilson on Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism, its Orgin and Development in the 19th and 20 Centuries with a Chapter by Rev. A. J. V. Chandrakanthan. (London Hurst & Co., now published as a Penguin Book. A Jeyaratnam Wilson

     A Jeyaratnam Wilson

Like Wilson, Roberts is not the last word on issues of identity formation. This clearly comes out of the critique of the latter’s other recent more voluminous work ‘The Royal We‘ — Sinhala identity in the Dynastic State’ (VYP 2004) by the Oxford scholar, Alan Strathern. (Social Scientists Association publications, 2006).

Strathern subjects that work to a ‘la derniere rigeour’ which is rarely seen in modern textual criticism. Commenting in general on Robert‘s work this scholar says his writings give the impression of a writer who is ready to write at the drop of a hat and at great speed,’ the approach as openly adversarial as many of the relationships he takes as his subject; arguments occasionally advanced by death-defying conceptual leaps or obscure symbolic readings; the prose style quirky or impatient with the more conventional academic prose, he enters into a detailed analysis of the work pointing out both positive and weaker elements in his approach.

This is not the place to go deep into that critique of his other books but suffice it to say that as much as Robert’s writings, as that of any other, may need some reservation in appreciation, reading his booklet ‘Narrating Tamil nationalism” under discussion here one gets the impression that he has applied equal rigour in discussing Wilson’s book; and that not without justification.

Wilson was a leading political scientist but, to summarize Roberts’ remarks simplicity, he has taken a “death leap” by using the facade of the scientific approach of the traditional positivist to hide a subjective treatment of a fragile claim of “Tamil homelands” and allied matters which became a popular plank in Tamil assertions on which rested the claim to ‘liberate’ the areas as the younger generation of Tamils aspired. Roberts concludes that ‘Wilson’s book generated a defensive Tamil nationalism that demanded a separate state in their “traditional homelands” — a separate state of ‘Eelam’

 Chelvanyakama ddressing acrowd in the Jaffna Peninsula


Roberts surveys Wilson‘s work largely by focusing on Wilson’s personal subjectivity. Discussing the background to the writing of the book, he observes that Wilson’s personal involvement has generated significant measure of partisanship. He identifies two mainsprings for such sources: (1). the Black July 1983 events; and (2) disillusionment with J. R. Jayewardene.

He also sees, implicitly rather than overtly, based on his own observations, the partisan position of the book also as a spatial response. In this respect he identifies two principal constituencies his book addresses, namely, the Tamil Diaspora: and the familiar circle of Tamil friends within Toronto where he had retired at the time. In other words, he did not wish to be called a ‘traitor’ by the overseas and academic Tamil community.

Roberts encapsulates Wilson’s predicament as transformation from an individual with investments in the “Sri Lankan” identity to the position of an “Illavar” or “Thamil-eelamist” towards support for LTTE.

Concerning the presentation, Roberts observes that Wilson follows the positivist tradition which he learnt in his trade which gives a dispassionate air to the work, conveying credibility, in a manner likely to seduce non-specialists by its seeming neutrality and definitive self conviction. It is through this approach that he reaches the global readership which is the third major constituency targeted by his work.

The seeming validity of Wilson’s book arises, as Roberts observes, not only from the style of writing (positivist tradition) but also from the clever (mis) use of secondary sources less immersed in Tamil sentiments.

Tamil Struggle

Wilson’s conceptual framework follows a threefold scheme. (i) From the advent of the British, the Tamils were a “community” with “group consciousness.” (2) from 1920 onwards Tamil awareness became transformed into a new phenomenon, Tamil national consciousness (more active); (3) Tamil national consciousness was brought to a fever-pitch by Chelcanayagam and Federal Party, with the militants later becoming the vehicle of Tamil nationalism. This general theory attaches primacy to the geographical shape of the future state espoused by the movement of which the shape must be singular and contiguous.

Its ethnographic foundation is deficient, as Roberts observes.

Roberts also observes that the principal thesis of Wilson which is Sihalese majoritarianism and the subordination of the Tamils is the most significant failing in the narrative which Wilson has built up episodically from 1920 to 1990s. He says that shows how Wilson has read the present into the past and the influence of personal subjectivity and bitterness, with distortions of the politics of 1920s. Wilson’s major thesis that Tamil nationalism was defensive And reactive and the result of Sinhalese majoritariaism is considered needing revisiting.

On the issue of territorial representation supported by the Sinhalese leaders Vs. communal representation espoused by Ponnambalam Ramanathan, Roberts observes that it would be gross misinterpretation of the integrity of individuals such as E. W. Perera, E. J. Samerawickrema, F. R. Senanayake, Francis de Zoysa, and James Peiris who supported the former though the idea may have lacked pragmatism.

Roberts says that those who knew Wilson in the 1960s and 1970s would state categorically that he would never have presented such an interpretation. He attributes this transformation to a scholar living in an era of sharp conflict and massive transformation. He shows that Wilson’s support for British imperialist stonewalling in the 1920s is in step with which he seems to contemplate the possibility that in the late 1980s Rajiv Gandhi would have “incorporated North-East Sri Lanka into India” in order to secure “lasting peace.” This goes to show his partisan subjectivity: the distant power is better than one’s immediate ‘domestic’ opponent.

Entry of Chandrakanthan

The incorporation of the chapter by Chandrakanthan within the book whose value is seen as its fervour than analytical rigour, is the voice of “Sri Lanka Tamils”, for the “Sri Lanka Tamils” and “made for the liberation Tigers”. The picture of Prabhakaran given there is of a “veritable paean of praise in the Kavya Tradition — a “Thesai-talavar” (national leader); that Tamils are nurtured and trained to regard themselves ‘urayutham’, that is, to make their life into weapon, which is the making of the suicide bomber, a person to whom suicide is “self-gift”.

Roberts rightly observes, that by incorporating Chandrakanthan’s chapter, Wilson has accrued to himself any sins of omission and commission on the part of the other.

“Traditional Homelands”

The worst of the sins, Roberts states, is the manner in which both justify the picture of “traditional homelands” and equate this area to the boundaries of the Northern and Eastern Provinces. This picture, he says, is “selectively blind and designed to pull the wool over the eyes the readers, local as well as foreign, who are blissfully ignorant about the island’s history. An ingredient in this picture is a particular conspiratorial reading of state-sponsored “colonization policy”.

Roberts points out that for historical justification, wilson has quoted from Pathmanathan’s statement that Tamils have lived in Sri Lanka from pre-Christian times. He questions (1) whether these people remained Tamil speakers or as the extant data suggests, became mostly Sinhalese speakers (Prakrit/Proto-Sinhala). (2) What was their relative numerical provenance? (3.) What was the nature of their link with Rajarata civilization (3rd century B.C. to 12 century)?

The other authority, C. R. de Silva, Wilson quotes who speak of a “sizable” Tamil community in the 7th century is no specialist as Roberts observes; and obviously has drawn from Pathmanathan. The language he uses itself is an indication of his poor appreciation of history. Pathmanathan himself wrote on the “Jaffna Kingdom” and his reference to early Tamils is superficial. Even his book (PhD thesis) on the Jaffna Kingdom, is a poor piece of research on these piratical people, as Ibn Batuta observed, probably due to paucity of evidence.

Tamil presence in the island had ended p in a one way process until the arrival of Vellalas with their slaves in the 18th century encouraged by the Dutch for the purpose of tobacco cultivation in the Jaffna peninsula which was bringing rich dividends. The Portuguese records show that the peninsula was under populated and barren for most parts. This is what its geographical situation had conditioned and neglect under the so called Jaffna kingdom resulted in.

Even the much acclaimed Jaffna kingdom was a mere dynasitc list compiled by modern writers piecing together floating traditions. As Dr. Nath Yogasundaram’s findings in his recent book, ‘A comprehensive History of Sri Lanka; (VYP 2006), though not a serious research work) indicate, the so called Jaffna kingdom had no Capital for over two centuries, i.e., from the beginnings of Kulasekara (Ariyacakravarti) (c1256) to Kanagasuriya (1451-1479) and two centuries of history from 1256 to 1451 is a total blank! That accords with the foreign observer ibn Batuta’s observation that Ariyacakravarti was “a vicious and perverse pirate.” Pirates could not have been ruling from a Capital, less having claims to a kingdom!

It was after Sapumal Kumaraya’s regaining of Jaffna patent that a potentate with a fixed Capital in Nallur was established. After Sapumal Kumaraya left to assume the throne of Kotte, Pararajasekeram came from South India and ruled from Nallur. It was during his rule that the Portuguese appeared in the peninsula. The rule of next six potentates saw interaction with the Portuguese power till finally, Cankili II was deposed and the peninsula was subjugated. Kotte and later Kandy talking over that mantle never gave up the claim to Jaffna principality. The Portuguese were ready to enthrone a son of Bhuvanekabahu VII who was badtized and lived in Goa as the ruler of Jaffna and Kandy but the prince died of small pox.

On the contrary, Wilson had ignored K. Indrapala’s “more subtantive research”.

Roberts observes that “it is shocking that after initial reference to Pathmanathan, Wilson proceeds to make an amazing claim:” namely “From their heartland in the Jaffna peninsula, when there was a dense concentration of population, the Sri Lankan Tamils fanned out from the earliest times to other parts of the island, penetrating the Northern Province and, from there, the Eastern Province”.

Monumental errors

Both these ‘facts’ are “monumental errors” says Roberts, which is perhaps why no evidence is offered in support of these claims, though there is a deceptive whiff of Pathmanathan’s authority conveyed by the previous paragraph. Roberts then quotes from Indrapala (a) giving toponymic evidence of over thousand Sinhalese names in the Jaffna Peninsula (b) it was unlikely that there were large numbers of Tamil settlers other than in major ports;

Wilson glosses over the fact that the Jaffna kingdom only encompassed the peninsula and the northernmost sections of the Vanni. Nowhere are the readers told that the eastern littoral was not part of the Jaffna kingdom. Roberts gives counter evidence to show that these parts formed part of the Kandyan kingdom and also says Wilson simply ignores the works of G. H. Peiris and K. M. De Silva.

Roberts also set aside the claim that the state aided colonization was a conspiracy hatched by the Senanayake government. Delving into the pioneer present colonisation schemes, he says, to invest Senanayake with ulterior motives is to treat a whole array of decent and excellent administrators, several of them Tamil, as cat’s paws, fools and/or manipulators. He refers to men like Edmund Rodrigo, G. L. D. Davidson, Frank Leach, L. J. de S. Seneviratne, Sri Kantha K. Kanagasundaram, M. Rajendra. et al. He says Wilson reveals no awareness of the antecedents of the settlement policy in the 1920s and the critical place of both the Land Settlement Ordinance of 1931 and the Land Development Ordinance of 1935 as its foundation, behind which were the preference for a peasantry yeomanry displayed by a long line of British officers brought to a fruition in the work of V. Bryne and A. N. Strong in the 1920s and secured a whole-hearted response from D. S. Senanayake.

In overview, Roberts concludes that the contention of Northern and Eastern provinces as “traditional Homelands” of Tamils is sustained in Wilson’s book by a thin veneer of evidence, the naturalization of bureaucratic categories and a measure of historical manipulation. The engineering includes the non-disclosure of facts that are widely known to older generations but which are not widely diffused among newer generations. Nor does Wilson address counterarguments in publications available to him. (K. M. de Silva and G. H. Peiris). The conclusion is that personal subjectivity has intruded Wilson’s work.

 Chelva and ITAK leaders at satyagraha on Galle Face Green in 1956 -where they were  subject to mob assaults


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