Tamil Lilliputians posing as Gullivers of Sri Lankan history
H. L. D. Mahindapala
Of all the migrants that stepped into Sri Lanka to make it their home only the Sinhala-Buddhists created, consolidated and sustained, the mainstream culture that shaped and dominated its history. No other minority has succeeded in displacing them from the commanding position and power they held in the mainstream down the ages. As a pioneering force the Sinhalese opened up the virgin land for human habitation. The “Sihalas”, as named in the Mahavamsa, were conscious of their mission in their new home. They knew that they were defining their identity, their future and their destination. They knew the tasks they had to fulfil as permanent settlers committed to create a new culture, new language and new civilisation. The legacy they left behind speaks silently and eloquently of their commitment and dedication to the land they transformed from a wilderness to a unique civilisation.
The gigantic monuments rising to reach the skies indicate the intensity of their commitment to the land. The deep roots they put down testify to the fact that they were not transient travellers or traders passing through to another destination, another homeland. There was no ambiguity in their minds, keeping one foot in Lanka and the other in India from where they came. They were not invaders. They were not marauders. They were not exploiters. They were not conquerors or colonialists. They were the creative force that made “our island a fit dwelling-place for men” – a political ideal laid down in the Mahavamsa (1:44). In its extended meaning, it is a phrase that summarises the entire range of the provisions in the UN Charter. After all, isn’t the UN Charter designed to make “our world a fit dwelling-place for men”? This humane and civilising mission of making “our island a fit dwelling-place for men” was stated as a sacred mission in the Mahavamsa. Besides, the ultimate aim of all religions, millenarism, Marxism, Platonism, -- you name it – has been to make the world “a fit dwelling-place for men”. Historian Mahanama had spelt it out as a Buddhist political principle, with absolute clarity and certainty, in the 5th century.
Within this overarching historical architecture built by the pioneering Sinhala-Buddhists the minorities played their secondary and tertiary roles, in particular the Tamils. Despite their repeated boasts about their grandiose role in Sri Lankan history, sometimes claiming pompously that they were the First-comers -- “even before the birth of Buddha,” said C. V. Wigneswaran, Chief Minister, Jaffna – their history has tagged along at a lower level than that of the Sinhalese. For instance, the history of the Tamils reveals that they did not even possess a deep, or cohesive sense of history rooted in Jaffna soil. They were in two minds, not knowing whether their homeland was in Jaffna or across the Palk Strait. The latter-day claims of “Tamil nationalism” surfaced only in the post-Chelvanayakam period. Their hearts and minds were in S. India while their hollow physical frame walked in Jaffna, unwilling to sever the umbilical cord that tied them to their one and only homeland. Worst of all, they were not even aware that there was no written record that could comprehensively authenticate their real or imagined roles in Sri Lankan history.
They feel more aggrieved when they realise that their own Tamil historians have failed to provide them with a comprehensive history to either look back with pride or look forward with hope. Complaining that the Tamils did not “actively pursue a systematic study of their past”, Tamil historian, Dr. Murugar Gunasingam, wrote : “The most important single shortcoming at this time (2008) is that no historian, archaeologist, or even a social scientist, whether Sinhalese, Tamil, or western scholar has written a complete and comprehensive account of the history of the Tamils in Sri Lanka.” (p. 14 –Tamils in Sri Lanka, Comprehensive History (C. 300 B.C. – C. 2000 A. D), MV Publications, South Asian Studies Centre, 2008). Then listing the various books written on Jaffna by Tamil scholars he adds: “As the above discussion has revealed, no overall or comprehensive history of the Tamils in Sri Lanka has yet been written. Scholars seem to have limited their research to their specialised areas of expertise.” (p.17 – Ibid).
Dr. Gunasingam is credible not only because he is a Tamil historian but also because he makes his confession after combing the archives and libraries in Holland, Portugal, America, UK, India, and Sri Lanka. This confession should send shock waves among the Tamils who never fail to boast about their “great history”, “great learning”, and their overall claims of being superior to all other communities. After crowing about a great past, particularly as the First-comers who arrived before the birth of Buddha, how was it that they failed to produce a scholarly and comprehensive history book until 2008 when Dr. Gunasingam produced his book, Tamils in Sri Lanka, emphasising in the subtitle that it is “A Comprehensive History (C. 300 B.C. – C. 2000 A. D.)”. Dr. Gunasingam trots out several excuses for the failure of the Tamils to produce a comprehensive history. Predictably he blames the active Sinhala scholars researching and writing comprehensive histories with the backing of the Government. He even accuses the Government of hampering Tamil researchers. But the same governments had established two Tamil universities.
The Jaffna University was established in 1974. Apart from teaching universities are expected to do research. Why couldn’t Jaffna University write a history during the 44 years of its existence? They could have completed a Tamil history even if they wrote half a page every day. As usual Dr. Gunasingam blames the Sinhalese for the failure of the Tamils to produce their history. Not having an impressive history of their own they are not shy to claim in their writings what the Sinhalese has done as their history.
This also reflects the Tamil tendency to sweep under the carpet the oppressive internal dynamics within Jaffna that had stunted their growth. Jaffna Tamil politics has survived and thrived exclusively on blaming the Sinhalese. They never had any viable or credible agenda other than pointing the finger at the Sinhalese. Even when the Tamils fail to write their own history they blame the Sinhalese. They refuse to acknowledge the fact that the Jaffna University chased out the first professor of history, Prof. K. Indrapala, for writing a history that was not palatable to the Tamils. Jaffna either killed or cleansed academics / intellectuals who did not toe the line of the ruling elite. One Vice-Chancellor was forced to quit his job because he was a low-caste. Mrs. Rajini Thiranagama of the Medical Faculty was shot when she was cycling home because she was critical of the LTTE. Another academic with all the requisite qualifications for an academic post in Jaffna University was rejected because he was a Christian. Respected academics like Prof. Rajan Hoole had to hide in the South because the Tamil killers of Thiranagam were also after him. Prof. Indrapala was hailed and reclaimed by the Tamils only after he recanted and re-wrote a new version of Tamil history aimed at polishing the image of the Tamils. Tragically, Jaffna which produced the biggest killers of Tamils, from Sankili to Prabhakaran, could not produce a single historian who could write, on his own steam, a comprehensive history of their past. Isn’t it time that the Jaffna Tamils, who claim to have been here from the dawn of time, sat down to consider what is wrong with their own culture that failed to produce a comprehensive history for so long?
However, it should be noted that there are many papers and monographs written on various aspects of Jaffna society, politics, religion, caste etc. But they do not add up to a comprehensive or panoramic survey of the history of Jaffna. Yalpana Vaipava Malai, for instance, remains as the questionable and mythical history of Jaffna written on the back of a stamp. In the minds of the Tamils, it is, more or less, the equivalent of Mahavamsa. But poet Mylvaganam did not write it on his own volition like Venerable Bede, who wrote the Ecclesiastical History of England or Bhikku Mahanama of Sri Lanka, both of whom were inspired by the values and the greatness of their civilisations. Mylvaganam wrote it because he was commissioned by the Dutch Governor Jan Maccara (1736) to produce an account of Jaffna for him to understand the lie of the land.
So writing the history of the Tamils in Jaffna has a rather curious history. As stated by Dr. Gunasingam, foreigners and Sri Lankans were falling over each other to write the history of the Sinhalese and the Buddhists, but not that of the Tamils. Why? If nobody had bothered to write about it could it be because it was not that great? Or because the Tamils did not have a sense of history because they were more committed to their homeland in S. India than their temporary residence in Jaffna? In any case, what is the worth of a people without a history? Why is it that the ground realities of Tamil history do not corroborate the assumed arrogance of Tamil greatness? Could it be that they were dragged all the way to Nandikadal because they were imbued with a politicised history that was miles away from the known facts.? Have not the Tamils lost the plot and gone down the wrong path – all the way to Nandikadal – because their leaders were misled by their own boastful propaganda which they thought (mistakenly, no doubt) was their history? Or, as stated by Prof. Kumar David, were the Tamil leaders “congenital idiots” who, with their peninsular minds, thought that they could force their version of history down the throats of the nation which had produced a great and unique civilisation, way beyond that of the ant hills of the Tamils? Are the Tamils lying in the present state of despondency because they do not know how to climb out of the fake history into which they have fallen?
Faced with the monumental achievements of the Sinhalese, Tamil historians take refuge under the excuse of limited resources. Historians S. Arasaratnam and Dr. Gunasingam both fork out this excuse to cover up the failure of Tamils to rise beyond the level of mediocre copy cats of the grand and great Dravidian civilisations of S. India. In hiding behind this lame excuse they ignore the magnificent architectural marvels of ancient Egypt built in the middle of a dry desert.
In the absence of a credible excuse the most common line of defence of the Tamils has been to attack the Sinhala-Buddhist history. Belittling Sinhala-Buddhist history has been their way of feeling superior to the Sinhala-Buddhists. They defend their greatness by claiming everything great in the Sinhala-Buddhist culture. They claim that the Sinhala-Buddhist civilisation was either initiated by the Tamils or nurtured by the Tamils. They claim that they were the founding fathers of Sri Lankan history by coming first, before even Buddha was born. They claim that they laid the foundations of the Sinhala-Buddhist culture and civilisation with their Dravidian contributions. They claim that even the Sinhala language was born out of Tamil words.
I am prepared to concede all that proudly, if that is their proud defence, because the Sinhalese possessed the creative genius, like all other great cultures and civilisation, to borrow from other cultures and civilisations, and produce a unique culture and civilisation of their own. Cultures that failed to borrow stagnated in their own billabongs like the aboriginal cultures, or, in some ways, like that of Jaffna which stagnated in the shadow of the overwhelming S. Indian culture. Jaffna failed to rise to a higher level because they were smugly resting on the laurels of the culture of S. India.
Whenever they claimed the greatness of the Tamils they meant the greatness of the culture made in the history of S. India and not in Jaffna. For instance, when the Tamils talk of the Tamil revivalism under Arumuka Navalar and C. V. Thamotherampillai it meant, in short, the unearthing the buried and neglected sacred texts of S. India and publishing those texts in Jaffna for a readership that knew nothing about it. They did not produce any Tamil classics of their own which could add to the glory of the Jaffnaites. Jaffna was born and always remained as a pale imitation of the S. Indian culture. It never produced a genius that shone like a beacon across the Tamil landscape. Jaffna always basked in the reflected glory of S. Indian culture without contributing any original or significant creations – the hallmarks of a great civilisation. Jaffna was always sandwiched between two great cultures: the Dravidian culture of S. India in the North and the Sinhala-Buddhist culture in the south. Jaffnaites were Lilliputians who pretended to be Gullivers without any stature to back up their boastful claims.
J. P. Lewis, one of the keen analysts and prolific writers in the British colonial administration (he was the Government Agent of the Northern Province and left Ceylon in 1910 ) summed up the roles of the two communities in a very sharp observation. He was commenting on the work done in a dance hall in Galle. The work was done by the Sinhalese and Tamils. Having seen the roles of both communities he wrote : “It is curious how the unfortunate Sinhalese to whom the credit of decorations were due are always overshadowed by the more widely known Tamils who are their fellow islanders” – p.51, Ceylon in Early British Times, J.P. Lewis, CMG, Government Agent of Northern Province.
Lewis’ observation is applicable on a large scale to the history of the nation. Starting from the late 20th century the Tamil ideologues have laboured routinely and consistently to grab the headlines with their exaggerated claims of greatness. C. V. Wigneswaran, former judge of the Supreme Court and now Chief Minister of the Northern Province and Dr. Gunasingam are two peas in this jingoistic pod rooted in Jaffna. In their attempt to downgrade the monumental achievements of the Sinhalese both project Tamils as the great makers of Sri Lankan history. Though Dr. Gunasingam has done some useful research and put together his Tamils-are-great claim in his book written to elevate and rescue the image of the Tamils, it only confirms, in the last analysis, the essence of Lewis’ cutting remark: the Sinhalese do the hard work and the Tamils come out screaming that it was all done by them.