Rienzie Wijetilleke and Kusum Wijetilleke, in Island, 4 September 2020,with this title “False perspectives of Wigneswaran”
Archbishop Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith’s recent comments regarding racial and religious politics were most timely. In a climate where religious leaders seek to become political leaders, to hear the Archbishop state so unequivocally that religion and language should not be the basis for a political party is at least mildly reassuring. It seems that the Archbishop was irked by recent comments made in Parliament by MP C. V. Wigneswaran regarding the primary language of Sri Lanka’s indigenous peoples. Cardinal Malcom is certainly not alone, although when he states that this division began in the 1950s, he is only half right. Certainly, the introduction of the singular language policy of 1956 created a significant fissure in the country, yet the beginnings of the debate around language and ethnicity and its political divisions had taken root long before this.
In Sri Lanka’s post-independence self-reckoning, many colourful characters played their roles in further igniting the already volatile situation and using their positions to foment distrust for personal gain. Many famous (or infamous) political luminaries were involved throughout the decades in the see-saw struggle to build a unitary nation state with guaranteed rights for all ethnicities. Specifically, the following passages will pay attention to two important figures during this period; former Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and the Politician and Lawyer G.G. Ponnambalam, both selected mainly for their colourful use of language and rhetorical flourishes.
S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike (SWRD) is widely considered to be one of the foremost characters in the era of post-independence Sri Lanka, marked by communal divisions, creating the conditions for a separatist struggle with a terrorist organization. SWRD and other nationalist agitators were all armed with ideological justifications for their dogmatic ethno-political positions. S.J.V. Chelvanayakam (SJV), the aforementioned G.G. Ponnambalam (GGP) along with SWRD were all guilty during certain periods in their careers of utilizing divisive supremacist and absolutist rhetoric, stoking communal tension.
In the mid-1950s, speeches such as the below, made by SWRD, were common place: “… the fears of the Sinhalese, I do not think can be brushed aside as completely frivolous. I believe there are a not inconsiderable number of Tamils in this country out of a population of 8 million. Then there are 40-50 million Tamil people in the adjoining country. What about all this Tamil literature, Tamil teachers, even films, papers and magazines?… I do not think there is an unjustified fear of the inexorable shrinking of the Sinhala language. It is a fear that cannot be brushed aside”
Against a historical backdrop of inflamed rhetoric and divisive political machinations, today’s politics appear to be exhibiting many of these traits. Recent elections saw various politicians using their platforms to propagate their own community’s sense of historical grievance and connect it to the present day.
In his recent comments, Mr. Wigneswaran alluded to “false historical perspectives of the past”. Taking these comments in unison with his opening lines regarding Tamil being the language of the “first indigenous inhabitants of this country” one can easily detect a hint of the racial supremacy that was the hallmark of GGP’s rhetoric. Notwithstanding the historical accuracy of his speech, there seems little reason to make such a remark other than to embellish his otherwise banal statement with a trace of controversy so that it may reach the collective conscious of the mainstream. Thereafter followed the plea to “recognize the intrinsic rights of people of the North and the East.”
In the mid-1930s, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike (SWRD) formed the Sinhala Mahasabha, a party whose sole purpose was to promote Sinhalese culture and community interests. This was a direct response to the Tamil Nationalist anti-Sinhala movement led by G.G. Ponnambalam (GGP) in that same decade. The result was one of the earliest Sinhala – Tamil riots in modern history, at Nawalapitiya in 1939. The riots were reportedly the result of disparaging comments made by GGP regarding the Mahavamsa which were perfectly in tune with much of his rhetoric during this time.
Prior to the incident, at the launching of the Sinhala Mahasabha branch in Nawalapitiya, SWRD commented that the party should erect a statue of GGP to thank him for provoking its very existence. Being a shrewd politician, SWRD understood the influence of a well-motivated reactionary movement, fueled by the rhetoric of its nemeses. This seems to be a point lost on Mr. Wigneswaran judging by his recent comments in Parliament, reminiscent of the sort of grand-standing and ferocious rhetoric the famous GGP traded in.
The Contradictions of Ponnambalam
A talented lawyer by trade, GGP was blessed with foresight and tactical acumen which made him a considerable political force. He realised early on that the Tamil elites of the time had more in common with the Sinhalese elites than their ‘own people’. SWRD and the Sinhala Mahasabha joined ranks with the UNP of D.S. Senanayake and began constitutional reforms with the aim of establishing an independent ‘Ceylonese’ nation. Ponnambalam Arunachalam (PA) and Ponnambalam Ramanathan (PR), both stalwarts of Ceylonese politics, were supportive of constitutional reforms and of the concept of an independent Ceylon under the auspices of the Donoughmore Commission. PA and PR had earlier rejected the concept of communal representation, encouraged by the British Governor of the time, William Manning, in favour of the universal franchise. It is suspected that both PA and PR were suspicious of communal representation since it may have dissolved their positions as elites belonging to a higher caste and thereby entitled to be the torch-bearers for the Tamil people in an independent Ceylon.
GGP realised that the introduction of the universal franchise would dilute Tamil representation in the legislature. Whilst GGP appeared to disagree with the elitist PA and PR he seemed to betray his own elitist tendencies when he proposed the “50/50” Balanced Representation scheme. Yet, it was his rhetoric that spurned the potential for a truly inclusive ‘Ceylonese’ state. To this extent GGP supported PR in his regular visits to London in the 1930s to lobby the British Government to discard the universal franchise in favour of communal representation and in effect, uphold the caste system.
Against the context of the introduction of the universal franchise, GGP articulated his belief that the Sinhalese did not warrant a majority in the legislature or a primary role in governing the country and structuring any future nation state. His campaign often included racist epithets and spoke of historical racial power balances not too dissimilar to the content of Mr. Wigneswaran’s recent comments. GGP would regularly repeat his ideology, which promoted the supremacy of the Tamils over the Sinhala race in ancient Ceylon. One of his main weapons was to disparage the Mahawamsa knowing well the emotional attachment of the Sinhalese to it. He consistently labelled the Sinhalese as a “race of hybrids” and inculcated a sense of social and hierarchical grievance amongst the Tamils.
Internationally Borrowed Localized Intellectualism
This sense of racial supremacy was also prevalent during the 1920s and 30s in different parts of the world as well as amongst some of the Sinhalese politicians. The rise of Nazism in Europe and Stalinism in the Soviet Union influenced many Ceylonese intellectuals of the time as well. The ‘Catholic Guardian of Jaffna’ for example, expressed admiration for Hitler during this period. GGP referred to SWRD as a Nazi during comments in the Legislative Chamber, while remarking that he would not allow the Tamils to be treated like the Jews in Germany.
However, GGP himself was said to have visited Nazi Germany on more than one occasion along with some members of the British Union of Fascists. He, like others, seemed to be influenced by the staunchly racialized politics of the time. As an example, Dr. N.M. Perera and Dr. Colvin R. De Silva were influenced by Marxist ideology that was so popular during this time. During the debates on the Sinhala Only Act, a special mention must be made on the efforts of Dr. Colvin R. De Silva to rebuke what was a popular decision amongst the majority;
“… Do we want an independent Ceylon or two bleeding halves of Ceylon which can be gobbled up by every ravaging imperialist monster that may happen to range the Indian Ocean? These are issues that in fact we have been discussing under the form and appearance of the language issue… One language, two nations; two languages, one Nation…”
These intuitive comments would prove to be prophetic some years later. It must be said that many of these men were all products of their time, of their environments and of their intellectual pursuits.
Returning to the recent comments of the Archbishop, he certainly seemed bemused when he laments the current debates surrounding the “original” language of this country and its “original” people. Mr. Wigneswaran’s intent is clear: to carve out a fresh political pedestal for himself, perhaps eager to carry the heavy burden of separatist politics that has ravaged this country for so long.
If we are to humour Mr. Wigneswaran and read between the lines of his statement, if only to uncover an ulterior motive, it seems that he may be setting up his stall as an agitator for not just the people of the North but also the people of the East. It seems necessary to state that while Tamil is a common language between the majorities of both Northern and Eastern provinces, they seem to have little else in common. Thus, it is ironic that Mr. Wigneswaran visited the LTTE memorial in Jaffna before deciding that he had earned the right to speak for the people of the eastern province as well. Note that the Eastern province has over 1.5 mn people, some 400,000 of them Sinhalese and over half a million of them Muslim. Unlike Mr. Wigneswaran, the people of the Eastern Province will still remember the LTTE’s campaigns of terror on Muslim populations; 150 deaths in the Kattankudy Mosque Massacre (1990) and up to 285 deaths in the Palliyagodella Massacre (1992). This is to say nothing of the total eviction of some 72,000 Muslims from the north.
Economic Policies Required Not Communal Politics
It certainly seems that Mr. Wigneswaran has not grasped the lessons of history and continues to trade in the same communal politics of the pre-independence era. He might have been excused for this due to the recent renaissance of mainstream communal politics in the aftermath of the Easter Attacks. Yet, we should not excuse a politician of Mr. Wigneswaran’s proven intellect. The separatist tendencies that exist in the political mainstream should be alienated, not given centre stage at a time when the economic strife of people in the North as well as the South should be the focus of parliamentary business. History has taught us that the politics of racial superiority will only lead to further destruction. Would GGP himself have ever endorsed such rhetoric had he known the real future costs of his separatist ideology?
This seems to indicate that Mr Wigneswaran himself suffers from false historical perspectives. One example is equating the LTTE to the Tamil population in general, a notion that many Tamils would find offensive. Indeed he remains a strong surrogate for the ‘Balasingam ideology’ that still persists through the remnants of the Federal Party. What would he say if a Sinhalese politician were to make similar comments in Parliament? Instead of accepting the overwhelming mandate gained by the President and the PM and focusing on the obvious economic hardship that so many in the country are going through, Mr. Wigneswaran seeks to re-energise the nativists in his corner. It seems tactically naïve to constantly create more support amongst the Sinhala supremacists, who need so little invitation. Why fan the flames when it may be at his political peril? Perhaps, it is designed to sow hatred and instigate fresh violence, which will then improve his negotiating position and prove his point in the process.
The current economic situation is dire for many, people have no disposable income, very little sense of financial security due to rising personal debt and stagnant wages, should we not, at least now, seek to cast away communal politics? If mainstream political discourse begins to degenerate into the racialized rhetoric of pre-independence Sri Lanka, we should hope that the modern day versions of the Tamil elites show more restraint than GGP did. We should hope that the mainstream rhetoric of the majority embraces pluralism as part of its patriotic nationalistic posturing.
If the economy is mishandled further while the electorate is still waging its communal war against each other, the long and ardent project to build a successful ‘post-Ceylonese’ Sri Lanka will stumble further and eventually crash. Any state that remains, be it Sinhalese or Tamil, will be a pale imitation of what was promised by the aforementioned forefathers of their own nationalist movements. What then will become of those intrinsic rights?