When I set up the THUPPAHI WEBSITE in late 2009 I imprinted two project statements: one entitled “WHY THUPPAHI”; the other bearing the heading ‘SINHALA MINDSET.” Readers can access these two items via the sub-headings within the website – so I will not reiterate the latter here.
This set of project statements was crafted after the LTTE-led drive to create an independent SL Tamil nation state had been defeated over the course of Eelam War IV. I had been in Colombo from April-mid-June 2009, so I had vivid experiences of the last stages of this ‘encounter’ and the triumphant sentiments expressed in the Colombo area when the war was won. More vitally, I had been commissioned by Muralidhar Reddy, the correspondent from the Hindu newspaper chain based in Colombo to present analytic essays for their magazine FRONTLINE.
One of these articles was entitled “Some Pillars for Lanka’s Future.” There I presented forthright criticisms of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Victory Speech for its gross failure to address the process of reconciliation via his bland and over-simplistic assertion that “We are all Sri Lankans”.
I mention this line of interpretation on my part to demonstrate that my support for the outcome of the war did not seek to paper over the difficulties facing the island peoples in building the foundations of reasonably peaceful coexistence. The piece on “The Sinhala Mindset” was one ‘pillar’ in what one could call the Michael Roberts manifesto. The web site THUPPAHI has been one channel in this course of advocacy. It is in this spirit that I, now, embark on this review of the reactions aroused by “Sinhala Mindset.”
It was not till yesterday that I looked over the 79 comments that had been registered in response to The Sinhala Mindset over the course of the years 2010-21. As one would expect, there have been one or two clever johnnies making inconsequential remarks. There also have been one or two Sinhala or Tamil extremists – assailing me or presenting lines of commentary that are clearly partisan in an unhelpful manner.
“Duque” and Mel Glickman provided pleasant surprises in writing as Western watchers who were amenable to the outcome of the wars. However, the most pertinent and far-reaching comment (in my reading today) has been that by Dr. Jane Russell posted on the 19 March 2012. That Jane should stand out is not surprising. As an Oxford graduate in History, she pursued her postgrad doctorate at Peradeniya University in the early 1970s under the tutorship of Professor KM De Silva.
Critically for our purposes today, Jane spent a longtime in the Jaffna Peninsula in the early 1970s working on the historical manuscripts in the Jaffna Public Library and the Jaffna University library. Her topic was the politics of the years following the Donoughmore Reforms of 1931. This specific line of interest meant a focus on the agitations of the Jaffna Youth League and the Jaffna Association in the 1920s and 1930s; and on such figures as Handy Perinpanyagam GG Ponnambalam, W. Duraiswamy and C Suntheralingam. Thereafter, Jane went on to pursue other lines of historical research on Sri Lanka, while her conjugal partnership with a Sri Lankan meant (and still means) that she is part Lankan at heart. This empathy and rootedness mean that her grounding in Sri Lankan lifeways and politics is as profound as sharp.
So, do digest this her response to THE SINHALA MINDSET:
Thanks for your thoughtful and reasoned comments on the Sinhala mind-set with which I totally agree. However, it takes two to tango… the Jaffna (and to a lesser extent East coast) Tamils also have a similar mind-set. At their back they feel the power of 60 million or so south Indian Tamils who give them assurance that they too can turn a part of Sri Lanka (the north-east) into a whole — a Tamil whole. Thus, we had the claims of 50-50 before independence (which many Sinhalese and Tamils understood to be 50% of Sri Lanka for Tamils and 50% for Sinhalese — it was not this at all, but the slogan carried the idea that it might be). And later so many of the Eelamists produced maps showing almost half the land mass and even more of the coastline to be “Tamil homelands.” Even now so many Tamil fundamental nationalists claim that Negombo is a Tamil town. This is all just a fruitless foray into a political cul-de-sac down unresearchable paths of forgotten and probably bloody history: I personally and idiosyncratically believe that domesticated winged dinosaurs were used by Sri Lankan kings as virtual spy planes (launched from the huge cave at Ella) to fight off an army of gigantic dinosaur gorillas from south Indian invaders — which led to the whole Ravanna myth. But I’d never expect to turn such eccentric crankiness into a theory on which to build a modern nation-state… but both the Sinhala Buddhist fundamentalists and Tamil fundamental nationalists seem to dwell in the fields of fantasy best left to JR Tolkein and JK Rowling!!
(Once, while waiting for a CTB bus at Kurumbacciddy Junction in 1974, I saw a blackboard advertising a lecture by the then proto-LTTE which showed speedboats pulling the Jaffna peninsula across the Palk Straits and joining it to Tamil Nadu… ). Meanwhile, the real nation-building (including proper historical research) is kicked off the field by the loonies who can shout louder and sloganise more easily ….
with best wishes and much sadness at so much blood having flowed under the bridge and still so few recognising what a waste of lives it has all been (highlighting emphasis added by Editor Thuppahi).
Here, Jane Russell is highlighting a common historical tale in many lands where two sets of extremism (or a battery of extremisms) feed off each other. That process of mutual stimulation of each other by strident Sinhala, Tamil and Moor (Muslim) voices proclaiming extreme claims has been at work since the 1920s (if not earlier) and has been charted by many studies by historians, political scientists and anthropologists. I do not need to reiterate their expositions here.
It is a passing item of ethnographic reportage in Russell’s note that I wish to underline at this point: where she refers to an LTTE roadside advertisement that displayed speedboats pulling the Jaffna Peninsula into union with Tamilnadu. In this poster-composition the militant youth of the radical revolutionary organization known as the Tamil New Tigers (which morphed into the LTTE) were indicating the degree to which their radicalism was inspired by the strident politics of the DMK and other Tamil parties in southern India.
But, quite unintentionally, these Tamil radicals were stoking the deep fears of some (or many?) Sinhalese – fears that have existed for quite some time and been marked in the assessments of social scientists surveying Sri Lankan politics. For instance, take note of two shrill voices quoted by two different political scientists in 1970 and 1973:
- “If the Tamils get hold of the country, the Sinhalese will have to jump into the sea. It is essential, therefore, to safeguard our country, the nation, and the religion and to work with that object in mind” – the Mahanayake Thera of the Ramanya Nikaya in May 1967 quoted in Kodikara 1970.
- “The problem of the Tamils is not a minority problem. The Sinhalese area minority in Dravidistan. We are carrying on a struggle for national existence against the Dravidian majority” – a Member of Parliament quoted in Kearney 1973, p. 164.
These two assertions sustain the argument that in modern times of democratic politics the Sinhala people are a majority with the anxieties of a minority. It is a contention that is supported by the scale of size outlined in any map of island Lanka beside the subcontinent of India.
In parenthesis, I add another note to Russell’s ethnographic ‘snack’. That the Tamil Tigers chose speedboats to mark this political claim seems quite apposite for a militant association dominated by personnel from the Karaiyar fishing castes of VVT, Point Pedro and other coastal sites in the Jaffna Peninsula. It was this background and resource (coupled with ruthlessness) that eventually enabled the LTTE to muscle out and even eviscerate the other Tamil militants (EROS, EPRLF et cetera). It may be pushing this emphasis too far to make a further claim by suggesting that the pictorial metaphor deployed on this occasion, namely the speedboat, anticipated the capacity eventually deployed by the LTTE to develop the Sea Tiger arm into an innovative and efficient force that was a major threat to the Sri Lankan armed forces and people in the brown water arena fringing the northern and eastern coasts. As recent articles have indicated, it was not till the Sri Lankan Navy ‘engineered’ a similar innovativeness in fashioning an arm known as the Special Boat Service to undertake aggressive countermeasures in the brown water arena along the coasts and inland waterways on the coastal fringe that the LTTE could be ground down to lost cause.
De Silva-Ranasinghe, Serge 2009a “Maritime Counter-Terrorism and the Sri Lanka Navy,” Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter, November 2009, vol 35, pp. 32-33.
De Silva-Ranasinghe, Serge 2009b “Lessons in Maritime Counter Insurgency,” Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter, January 2010, vol 36, pp 50-53.
Dishan, Joseph 2021 “The Elite Naval Commandos Special Boat Squad with the Motto “Fortune Favors the Brave’,” http://www.dailynews.lk/2021/04/02/features/245624/elite-naval-commandos.
Farmer, BH 1963 Ceylon: A Divided Nation, London.
Hellmann-Rajanayagam, Dagmar 1986 “The Tamil Tigers in northern Sri Lanka: Origins, factions, programmes,” Internationales Asienforum, Vol. 17: 63–85.
Jeyaraj, D.B.S. 1993 “The composition, ideology and international dimension of the Tamil secessionist movement of Sri Lanka: An overview.,” In R. Premdas, ed., The Enigma of Ethnicity, St. Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago: School of Continuing Studies, University of West Indies , pp. 282–308.
Kearney, Robert N. 1973 The Politics of Ceylon
Kemper, Steven 1991 The Presence of the Past. Chronicles, Politics and Culture in Sinhala Life, Cornell University Press.
Kodikara, Shelton 1970 “Communalism and Political Modernisation in Ceylon,” Modern Ceylon Studies, vol 1: 94-114.
Narayanswamy. MR 1994 Tigers of Sri Lanka. From Boys to Guerillas, Delhi, Konark Publishers Pvt Ltd.
Narendran, Rajasingham 2009 ” Nartendran’s Cricical Dissection of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Victory Day speech on 18th May 2009,” 11 Ocober 2009, https://thuppahis.com/2019/10/11/narendrans-critical-dissection-of-mahinda-rajapaksas-victory-day-speech-on-18th-may-2009/
Ramaswamy, Sumathi 1994 “The nation, the region and the adventures of a Tamil ‘hero,’ Contributions to Indian Sociology (n.s.) VOL. 28: 295–322.
Ramaswamy, Sumathi 1997 Passions of the Tongue: Language Devotion in Tamil India, 1891-1970, Berkeley, University of California Press.
Roberts, Michael 2009 “Realities of War,” Frontline, vol 26/10, 9 May 2009.
Roberts, Michael 2009 “Some Pillars for Lanka’s Future,” Frontline, vol 26/12, 19 June 2009.
Roberts, Michael 2021 “The SBS Marine Commandoes of the Sri Lankan Navy,” 13 April 2021, https://thuppahis.com/2021/04/13/the-sbs-marine-commandos-of-the-sri-lankan-navy/
Russell, Jane 1982 Communal Politics under the Donoughmore Constitution, 1931-1947, Colombo, Tisara Prakasakayo Ltd.
Wriggins, W. Howard 1960 Ceylon. Dilemmas of a New Nation, Princeton, Princeton University Press.
SUPPLEMENT: EARLY ESSAYS on LTTE -and-BEYOND by Michael Roberts
- 2009f “Suicidal political action, I: soundings,” http://www.transcurtrents.com, April 2009
- 2009g “Suicidal political action, II: Ponnudurai Sivakumaran,” http://www.transcurrents.com, April
- 2009h “Suicidal political action, III: imperatives,” http://www.transcutrents.com, April 2009
- 2009i “Suicidal political action, IV: LTTE power & popular support,” http://www.transcurrents.com,April 2009
- 2009j “LTTE and Tamil people, I: preamble,” http://www.groundviews.org, 21 April 2009.
- 2009k “LTTE and Tamil people, II: interflows,” http://www.groundviews.org, 22 April 2009.
- 2009l “LTTE and Tamil people, III: nationalism and living religion,” http://www.groundviews.org, 23 April 2009.
- 2009m “LTTE and Tamil people, IV: dedicated Tamils,” http://www.groundviews.org, 24 April 2009
 I had met Reddy at a dinner hosted by Sanjay Srivastava in Delhi in early 1995 when I was on a Teen Murti Fellowship in that city.
 See Frontline, vol 26/12, 19 June 2009.
 For example, note this entry by S. Mahinda on 2 July 2010: “If readers would like to know the truth from all the LTTE propaganda re-inforced by the likes of Michael Roberts, the English PRESS in Sri Lanka and around the world then please read “Sri Lanka. The War Fuelled BY PEACE”. This 600-page book by Palitha Senanayake is simply brilliant.”
 I had met Jane on several occasions then and she also presented a Ceylon Studies Seminar paper at Peradeniya in cohort with Janice Jiggins in 1973. This was entitled “The Dedigama By-election. “
 This was before that wonderful institution was burnt down by a body of thugs (including policemen in plainclothes?) in 1981.
 See the printed version of her dissertation: Communal Politics under the Donoughmore Constitution, 1931-1947, Colombo, Tisara Prakasakayo Ltd, 1982.
 I suggest here that modern internet, mobile phones and other media have encouraged and stimulated the proliferation of strident advocacy groups and complicated the processes of appeasement.
 See Narayan Swamy 1994: 29-30, 56-58.
 On the vociferous Tamil voices in southern India, a good starting point is the work of Sumathy Ramaswamy (1994, 1997).
 Sri Lanka has also been termed “The teardrop of India” because of the tear drop shape of the island and its proximity to India.
 See De Silva-Ranasinghe 2009a and 2009b; Dishan 2020.