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A star that shines against mist-clad Sri Pada



By Uditha Devapriya

Punya Heedeniya turned 82 on July 31. She was 25 when I first saw her many, many years ago on television, and 78 when I first met her in Colombo, one dull December evening. She had returned home with her husband and had run through a whole set of interviews with other newspapers, periodicals, and magazines.

That year, 2016, had been special to her: together with Nanda Malini, Sumitra Peries, Lester James Peries, and Amaradeva (who had passed away the previous month), the Sarasaviya Awards, held after eight years, had decided to bestow the “Abhimani” Lifetime Achievement accolade on her. Naturally, everyone in town wanted an interview. I was destined to be the last: she and her husband had planned to leave the following day.

From the 12th floor of Queen’s Court Apartment in Colpetty, you can see Sri Pada when the clouds and the dust settle. “I never fail to observe it,” Punya told me before we began the interview. “It reminds me of home,” she added. It also brings back memories of her debut. Deiyange Rate, directed by L. S. Ramachandran, produced by S. D. S. Somaratne, and based on a W. A. Silva novel, was made before she turned 20. “We ascended Maha Giri Dambe and shot Edward Senaratne lip syncing to H. R Jothipala. Try as he might, though, he couldn’t mouth his lines. So we ended up climbing 16 times.”

She looked to the horizon, beyond the windows. “I wake up every morning to the silhouette of the Peak.” She paused. “To me, it has always been a good omen.”

At Mirigama Madya Maha Vidyalaya, Punya had been an astute student and a voracious reader. She had also been a modest dancer. Apparently W. A. Silva had been a favourite: she read Deiyange Rate in middle school. This helped when a cousin of hers who knew S. D. S. Somaratne suggested her name after the erstwhile Senator and film producer asked him if he knew anyone who could play the role of Catherine, the female protagonist of the story. Punya’s father, however, needed some convincing; once her cousin and Somaratne got his permission, they whisked her away. L. S. Ramachandran had his office in Hulftsdorp, and the aspiring actress was asked to recite a section from the book. In her own words, “I not only recited it, I also performed it in front of them.” She was in.

Mirigama lies 60 kilometres away from Colombo. Situated in the Gampaha district; it is well known as the hometown of the first Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, connecting, on one side, to Kandy and, the other, to Kurunegala.

Punya came from a petty bourgeois family here. She lived “in two worlds”, as she put to me in my interview: that of the village and that of her school, where, in contrast to her Sinhala Buddhist upbringing, “I received an English education.” There she came under the powerful influence of her teachers, including the great Panibharatha.

“It was Panibharatha who got me into the performing arts,” she reflected, as her husband brought us tea and biscuits. She underscored her childhood lack of interest in dancing, singing, and acting with the fact that she didn’t take part in a single play at school. She wasn’t quite 17, almost out of school in fact, when Panibharatha called her to act in two dance sequences in Ashoka somewhere in 1953. “That was my initiation into films, though all what those two scenes amounted to was a set of traditional ballet items.”

This first encounter had intrigued her. Coming as she did from a staunch, traditional Sinhala Buddhist family, “I found it strange to reveal myself in front of an impersonal camera.” Her later encounters with the Minerva Players, including Rukmani Devi and the Jayamanne brothers, alienated her even more. “I realised how full of artifice the acting in their films was. After seeing them, I realised that to prosper as an actor, you had to break out of that mould. You had to become yourself.”

So how could a Sinhala Buddhist rural middle class girl from a suburb several miles from the capital city become herself? By selecting and getting roles that reflected her upbringing, of course. There’s a reason, after all, why Punya became the quintessential Sinhala woman on film, something not even Malini Fonseka equalled. Considering that such an achievement has been the result of a mere fraction of the roles Malini got, Punya’s importance – not only as an formidable actress, but also as an unmistakable symbol of how socio-cultural dynamics find their expression in a nation’s art forms – cannot be understated.

In the middle of a casual conversation with Lester James and Sumitra Peries years ago, I suddenly asked them to describe the milieu Punya hailed from. “I would say conservative, right of centre,” Lester conjectured. Sumitra was more specific. “They would have been the sort who voted for the UNP because of their landed interests and voted for the SLFP in 1956 because of their Buddhist roots.”

Scholars have interpreted the transformation of the underlying ethos of the national cinema in terms of the electoral change of 1956. In this scheme of things, there was less a transition than a paradigm shift in values, from a Colombo centric elite to a rural underclass. Thus Lester Peries’s Rekava is described as a symbol of the cataclysmic shift from the UNP to the SLFP, forgetting that the shift had been preceded by a change in the dominant ideology of the Sinhala cinema. This is true even of the actors who emerged at that juncture, of whom Punya no doubt represented a cultural high point.

A more comprehensive and thorough study of these trends can be found in Garret Field’s book, Modernizing Composition (University of California Press, 2017). By the end of the 19th century, Field contends, the Buddhist cultural revival had benefitted from the rise of print capitalism and, with it, the growth of an urban lower middle class and working class.

Together with the peasantry and the rural petty bourgeoisie, whose ideology undoubtedly influenced them, they “supported movements of religious revival and social protest.” In fact the line between their working class and ethno-nationalist aspirations blurred with the years, culminating in their participation in the 1915 riots that, as the likes of Kumari Jayawardena (who I’ve quoted above) have noted, had greater working class involvement than most commentators see it today.

The urban lower middle class and the urban working class found a ready outlet for their aspirations in the plays of travelling Parsi troupes. Field does not note the irony of an urban Sinhala middle class intelligentsia following up their support for Colonel Olcott’s Buddhist Theosophical Society and Anagarika Dharmapala’s revivalism with an enthusiastic reception of a dramatic form originating in a completely non Buddhist community, but the irony, if at all, can be explained by the fact that the organisers of these productions indigenised their themes to address issues considered relevant and pressing by that intelligentsia: in Field’s summing up, “edification, temperance, and education.” John de Silva’s act of indigenising them even more must be seen in this light. In converting a nationalist audience to his plays, he was, not surprisingly, being as much a capitalist as a “nationalist.”

The Parsees influenced the local urban theatre; it did the same with the local urban cinema. Ratnabivushana and Dissanayake, in regrettably the only study of its kind, conjecture that by the time of Kadawunu Poronduwa the “local film industry”, premature though it may have been, had come to cater to a largely urban Sinhala milieu. With its blend of Indian music and Sinhala poetry, its idealisation of Sinhala Buddhist “Arya” values through a mishmash of ragadhari and folk music, its appeal was unmistakeably profound.

Kumari Jayawardena writes of an instance where, during a performance of John de Silva’s play Sri Wickrama, a drunken sailor got up onstage and attempted to stop the actors playing the royal guards from leading Ahelepola’s family to their death at the hands of the last Kandyan king. You can see history being rewritten if not skewed in favour of a totalising “Sinhala” narrative right there, in the play’s denigration of that king as an evil, lustful murderer, though this reading is ironically pro British as Gananath Obeyesekere has shown. In any case, that peculiar worldview shaped the local cinema as well.

Urban lower middle class and working class society prefers colour, spectacle, the clash of cymbal and drum, and the valorisation of traditional values, and this spills over to more conservative sections of the rural community as time goes by. Unabashedly full of sound and fury, of legend and myth, the Minerva Players films therefore came to appeal to a considerable section of this population.

And yet, they were not enough. A more indigenous alternative had to spring up. The pioneers here were Sirisena Wimalaweera and Jayavilal Wilegoda, the one a director and the other an uncompromising critic. The anglicised upper class, meanwhile, sought refuge in the Western cinema; in 1945 they formed the Colombo Film Society, which as Lester Peries wittily observed in 1957 catered to “the culture snobs of Colombo 7.”

With its inadvertent mimicking of the Indian melodrama, the Sinhala cinema soon faced a crisis: by 1950, foreign films were being watched in greater numbers than local ones. At the time the music industry had moved from its Parsi roots: in the songs of Ananda Samarakoon and Sunil Shantha – both, incidentally, hailing from non-Buddhist backgrounds – the melody had become conspicuously more Sinhala. The Sinhala film, however, had not.

In reacting against the intrusion of the Indian melodrama, directors and scriptwriters decided to fight fire with fire. They began imitating the more openly and popular Hindi films. This had been done before, but as Ratnabivushana and Dissanayake note, “now the decision was to do [it] more brazenly.”

At this crucial juncture, directors of popular films returned to popular Sinhala literature. In W. A. Silva they found a saving grace. Even the Minerva Players realised this: the first adaptation of a Sinhala novel was not only based on one written by Silva, but also directed by B. A. W. Jayamanne: Kele Handa. Full of bawdy humour and physical combat, and set in a world where good and evil were divided into two irreconcilable halves, these new films – of which the apogee has to be Mathalan (1956) – projected a new set of values, though borrowing much from the films of an earlier era.

A new generation of producers soon emerged, among them S. D. S. Somaratne. With them, a new generation of directors: T. Somasekaran, Robin Tampoe, M. Masthan, Shanthi Kumar, Lenin Moraes, and L. S. Ramachandran. With them also, a new generation of actresses: Mallika Pilapitiya, Kanthi Gunathunga, and Punya Heendeniya. In the great twilight between Rukmani Devi and Malini Fonseka, Punya hence soon stood out from the rest.

Here I return to Punya, gazing at me, smiling openly as she and her husband remember their time in Africa and London and later in a different Sri Lanka, where they returned so that she could take up her signature role, as Nanda, in the sequel to Gamperaliya, Kaliyugaya. If you remember correctly, one of the more curious anachronisms in these two stories is that none of the women from the old order – including Nanda and her sister Anula – speaks English. When they have to do so, they rely on an interlocutor, like Nanda’s brother Tissa.

Vinod Moonesinghe tells me that this isn’t really historically accurate: the women of the old order,
when they joined the new, did try to learn English, just as their ancestors tried to learn and speak
Portuguese. That does not concern me though. What concerns me is the sociology behind it; the same sociology which explains not just the milieu of women like Nanda, but also the milieu of the
woman who played Nanda.

I left Punya Heendeniya there on the 12th floor, looking at Sri Pada and making plans for her departure the next day. I haven’t seen her since. I should, and hopefully, I will.

The writer can be reached at


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Sat Mag

George Floyd, African-Americans, and Sri Lanka’s Estate Tamils (Part II)



By Uditha Devapriya

Continued from last week…

The abolition of plantation slavery did not mark the end of plantations. Nor, for that matter, did it mark the end of slavery.

The unwillingness of indentured white servants to remain in the tropics, and the need to settle them on lands of their own, once their period of indenture was over, had earlier led the planters to dragoon permanent slave labour from Africa. The emancipation of these slaves in the 19th century, as George Beckford put it, “changed the scene drastically.” The newly emancipated slaves now sought to build settlements of their own.

The planters, trying to mitigate the losses arising from this, began a sharecropping scheme. When even that failed to make up for their losses, the latter used their influence to secure indentured labour from the new colonies of Asia. The expansion of the British East India Company in Sri Lanka and of Dutch influence in South-East Asia thus soon necessitated the recruitment of Indian migrant workers: in Malaya as in Sri Lanka, it gradually took the place, or rather was made to take the place, of indigenous workers.

It has almost become a practice among economists, historians, and social scientists to identify plantation activities as capitalist. Largely owing to a paradigm shift that transpired in the social sciences in the 1970s – a shift that, as the “privatisation” of the social sciences in the 1980s proved, was short-lived – we know today that in actual fact, they were anything but; the plantations outwardly exhibited capitalist forms of production, but inwardly, as S. B. D. de Silva has argued in The Political Economy of Underdevelopment, they remained pre-capitalist. Yet even George Beckford, whose study of plantations was largely limited to the Caribbean, characterised them as capitalist enterprises.

My contention is that we must draw a fine line between the capitalist facade and the pre-capitalist reality of the plantations of Asia here, because it has a bearing on the evolution of migrant Indian labour in Sri Lanka. It is vital to our understanding of the structures to which Indian Tamils found themselves tethered, and the insensitivity of Sinhalese and Tamil elites alike, after independence, to their exploitation by those structures.

There is little debate over the way the plantation economy developed in Sri Lanka. British officials in the island initially favoured the continuation of Dutch mercantilist policies. In his dispatches to the Governor, for instance, Henry Dundas, the Secretary of War, deplored the rising tide of laissez-faire sentiment in Britain. He clearly did not want laissez-faire to take root in the colonies either, at least not for some time.

Forty years later, though, owing to pressures exerted by aspiring planters who colluded with officials – who in turn, as the case of Edward Barnes and George Bird showed, themselves turned into plantation owners – a new economy system came into place.

The colonial State, as Bandarage (1982) has observed, completely identified with plantation development. In that scheme of things, land became paramount. The passage of the Crown Lands Encroachment Ordinance in 1840 hence paved the way for officials to take over uncultivated and unoccupied lands if locals failed to prove ownership.

Initially handed over as free grants, these were sold at five shillings an acre; according to Bandarage, in 1844 the minimum price was increased to £1. Their sales were swift: in one day in 1840, for instance, more than 13,275 acres were sold. The designations of their new owners indicate the link between the State and the emerging plantocracy: judges, road commissioners, surveyor-generals – even the Governor himself.

Here we need to assess the impact of these transactions and interventions on what became, for a while, the most discriminated community in the country: the Kandyan peasantry. In Java the plantation system managed to gain control of land through accommodation rather than outright takeovers. In Sri Lanka no such accommodation was possible, in light of the rebellions that sprang up after the British annexation of the Kandyan provinces.

Surprisingly, Beckford’s conclusion here seems to be that “the invading Crown” moved into and took over peasant land “without seriously disrupting the settled or shifting agriculture of the indigenous people.” This implies, in other words, that the British could take over land in the Central Province without radically altering the agricultural patterns of those regions. History tells us otherwise, and we need to assess this thesis in-depth.

A corollary to the characterisation of plantations as capitalist is the assumption, shared widely, that migrant Indian labour was necessitated by the unwillingness of indigenous labour (Sinhalese peasants) to adjust to the plantation economy. This explains not just Mick Moore’s “Sinhalese peasant myth” thesis, itself a myth, but also continuing references to the laziness of Sinhalese Buddhist “natives” by rightwing academics.

Such Orientalist views are not unique to Sri Lanka. Nor are they the preserve of rightwing academics, who, during the previous regime, frequently used to churn them out. But they indicate, if not intellectual bankruptcy, then a failure to grasp history: a history free of ethnic and racial stereotypes, one conversant with facts and figures. It is that history which we, whether as readers or students of the social sciences, must privilege.

The truth is that the Sinhalese, as S. B. D. de Silva has clearly shown, did not always remove themselves from the plantation economy. When land needed to be cleared and trees felled to build estates, it was to the peasantry that the plantocracy went.

That in itself flatly contradicts the two most cited assumptions regarding their unwillingness to engage in labour at plantations: their lack of familiarity with a monetary economy, and their aversion to hard work. What these presume is that acceptance of money transactions and wage labour is predicated on prior acquaintance with monetary exchange, rather than the factors which facilitate the transition from a non-monetary to a monetary economy: “a veritable non-sequitur of bourgeois scholarship”, as de Silva wittily observed.

In fact, the wage labour that scholars practically accuse the Sinhalese peasants of avoiding, due to an innate laziness, hardly resembled wage labour under conditions of capitalism. Yet these same peasants were initially eager to seek employment at plantation enclaves, even outside their traditional activities. Dispatches by officials make it clear that the main if not the only reason why they rejected work at those enclaves later on were the low wages being offered – or delayed and forfeited, as was often the case – by their overseers.

When locals discovered that their wages were being denied to them and intermediaries, especially the kanganies whose hold over migrant Tamils have been recorded by scholars, negotiated on their behalf while lending to them sums of money which they would deduct from those wages, they refused to leave their land. A questionnaire put to the peasants of Walapane in the early 19th century, for instance, revealed that while they remained landless and seemed to be going “[n]owhere in particular”, they did not want to labour at the estates because, as they put it, “we never get anything for our work.”

Thus the burden of the position of the most discriminated community in the country fell eventually on the shoulders of migrant Indian Tamils. Forced to seek employment owing to a never-ending series of famines which swept across South India throughout the late 19th century, they came to comprise more than 70% of the plantation population in Sri Lanka; one account in 1998 records no fewer than 300,000 migrant Tamils working at tea estates, alongside a mere 50,000 Sinhalese, Moors, AND Malays.

Incidentally, it wasn’t only the Sinhalese peasants who shied away from employment: wage differentials between Jaffna and migrant Tamils in the Eastern Province, where both groups had been recruited to repair irrigation tanks, encouraged officials to hire more of the latter, releasing the former to other fields of activity, in particular agriculture. The difference, of course, was that land in Jaffna was never as fragmented and encroached upon by the British as land in the Kandyan provinces had been; thus could hardworking Tamils eke out a living in an otherwise barren north and east.

In any case, migrant Tamils whether in the northeast or the upcountry found themselves in a position, as with the blacks of America, that of neither indentured servants nor wage labourers. They were quasi-wage labourers: the blacks of Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese absorbed as captives in the estates soon became as culturally delinked as them; as Shanmugaratnam observed, “they began to speak Tamil and to their children it became the first language”, while their children “spoke their own language with a Tamil accent.”

Meanwhile, the Kandyan Sinhalese sought restitution for the loss of their livelihoods. It is notable that the first attempt at drawing up a federal administrative structure in Sri Lanka was made in the 1920s by Kandyan (not Tamil) representatives in the Legislative Council. The harsh truth is that by this point, the Sinhalese peasantry in the hill country had become a backward community; devolution, they thought, would address their grievances. This had nothing to do with their innate “laziness”, as rightwing and “Marxist” intellectuals see it, but rather the state of degradation a century of colonialism had led them to.

To sum it all up, when Sinhalese peasants refused to work at plantations the State turned to migrant Tamils. The latter, not Colombo’s trading class, formed Sri Lanka’s real minority, though even by independence their deprived status had not been compensated.

Far from attempting compensation, in fact, the ruling party proceeded to disenfranchise them for the sin of being a Left vote bank, and stripped them of their citizenship. Such actions amply proved, quoting Dayan Jayatilleka in Long War, Cold Peace, that “we never had a Nehru.” One could just as easily quip, given how our founding fathers schemed to condemn an entire minority into slavery in pursuit of political self-aggrandizement, that we never had an Abraham Lincoln either. But that’s another story.

In the final analysis, any attempt at comparing African-Americans with Sri Lanka must take into account the status of a dispossessed minority, reduced to quasi-wage slavery, detached from the rest of the country, denied the most basic amenities, and supervised under a semi-feudal setup. In Sri Lanka this position would be occupied by the plantation migrant Tamils. For a while the Sinhalese peasant fitted in, but as in Malaya, the colonial State preferred to replace them with a poverty-stricken community from elsewhere.

If we are to repudiate certain “Orientalist” views of our history, as we must, we should also repudiate arguments, such as Beckford’s, which imply the British Crown took over native land without disrupting local agricultural and social patterns. We should also reject notions, entertained by “Marxist” academics, that the British, by disrupting those patterns, paved the way for the destruction of feudalism and the flowering of capitalism. For capitalism, as its most perceptive critic Marx realised, involves more than enclave colonialism, which is what plantations amounted to; it involves the reinvestment of profits in industry, rather than their repatriation to an overseas metropolitan centre.

Pre-capitalist, semi-feudal, and primitive, the plantations of Sri Lanka thrived on the dispossession of the peasantry and the erasure of entire ways of life. Contrary to the views of “Marxist” scholars and activists, then, the colonial government did not and could not lay the foundation for a modern State (which nationalist leaders later supposedly “feudalised”). To assume such a thing is to insult the legacy, not just of the Kandyan Sinhalese who lost their livelihoods (and lives), but also of Indian Tamils “recruited” – a word which conceals the quasi-militarised setup under which they arrived here – to replace them.

The writer can be reached at

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Sat Mag

Eating animals’ sex organs and faeces What a monster man has become!



When Indian elephants meet African elephants, they recognise that they are both elephants. So do Indian tigers meeting Siberian ones. But I have great difficulty recognising that I am of the same species as a person who attends a Wildfoods festival in New Zealand to drink shots of bull and horse semen taken fresh from animals.

I suppose that if you eat meat it makes very little difference whether you eat the head, the shoulders or the anus. But there seems something so savagely primitive and ugly about people celebrating at testicle “festivals” held across America in which the testicles of turkey, pigs, bulls and lambs are fried and served. In the Middle East, grilled testicles are served to honoured guests (along with eyes). In New Zealand, they go one better: the young lambs, on a farm, are routinely castrated to make them fatter and their testicles are cooked and eaten for lunch at the farm in front of the animals. Rocky Mountain oysters or prairie oysters are the name for the Canadian/American delicacy made from bulls’ testicles. They are known as huevos de toro (bulls’ eggs) in Latin America and Spain, “ox treasures” in China, and in Greece you call them ‘unmentionables’. In Scotland, they eat the testicles of deer. In Syria, baidghanam, or sheep testicles are grilled in lemon juice and garnished in parsley. Bull fries are floured and breaded testicles prepared from the animals killed during bullfighting. Spaniards consider that eating the testicles of prized bulls is a great way to show their bravery and masculinity. Bulls’ testicles, pink with red veins running through them, called “Ngầupín” in Vietnamese (which means electric battery) are common in supermarkets all over the world. Most of these testicles are from young animals whose private parts are simply sliced off without anaesthesia while they live in pain for another few months/years until they are killed.

Another great favourite is penises. Bull penis, cooked with bananas, is a traditional dish in Jamaica and is considered an aphrodisiac. China and Korea eat them, too, to increase their own manliness. Chinese at the 2008 Summer Olympics munched on deer penises all the time. It reminds me of certain tribes in Africa, who several hundred years ago used to eat parts of Christian missionaries in order to imbibe their “goodness”.

There is no medical evidence that eating penises has any health benefit but they are frozen, dried and sold as Pizzles in the United States and eaten in diets that promote low cholesterol and high protein, minerals and hormones.

In China, the country that gave the world the Coronavirus because of its filthy eating habits, there are restaurants that specialise in animal penises and testicles. A restaurant, called Guolizzhuang, started, in 1956, states that eating the penis from the head goat of a Mongolian herd will make women more beautiful and men more vigorous. It advertises the genitals of “horses, oxen, chicken, donkeys, dogs, deer, goats, sheep, and snakes.” The dishes are given poetic names such as “The Essence of the Golden Buddha,” “Phoenix Rising,” “Jasmine Flowers with 1,000 Layers,” “Look for the Treasure in the Desert Sand,” “Head crowned with a Jade Bracelet,” and “Dragon in the Flame of Desire.” The restaurant also sells stewed deer faeces, sheep foetus and peacock claws. They sell a hotpot of all these different male genitalia, in one dish, in order to boost the human libido. After all, what could be more energizing for a small thin Asian “man” than to eat the penises of every other animal? If you need to celebrate your great manhood, you can eat tiger penises soaked in water with herbs. It is officially banned in China along with Rhino horns but served openly.

Seal penises are eaten in Canada and the Fur Institute of Canada, in 2015, announced they were going to kill 140,000 grey seals to boost the seal penis market. These penises are also dried and sold as sexual enhancement products. They sell a beverage called Dalishen Oral Liquid to Asians, made from seal penis and testicles.

Cow and pig uteruses are grilled and eaten in Vietnam by pregnant women and by everyone else in Japan. The Pig Uterus Dish is called Ringeru. In Taiwan, pregnant women eat deer penises which are kept and fermented in large jars. Chicken ovaries are yellow and full of veins and make excellent chew sticks for snacking on in front of the TV.

If you can eat the private parts of animals, you can drink them as well. In Iceland, they sell a beer called Hvalur made from smoking whale testicles with sheep dung. Fin whales are an endangered species and it is illegal to kill them. But testicle dung beer is evidently more essential to the wellbeing of these humans. A beer is made from Bull testicles in the US as well. Sex Organ soup is popular in Hong Kong, made from testicles, scrotum, penis and labia.  Dick Soups (bull penises) are common in Malaysia.

What a horrible species we are. Even researching and writing this piece has made me feel sick and disheartened about the future of our planet.  But for a meat eater it is not such a difficult thing to imagine. After all, if you eat the other parts of a slaughtered animal, its genitalia are no big deal. And, from animals, the next step would be humans. On the Net, there is someone who has eaten human testicles. This is what he says about the taste: “The testicles were hard on the outside and soft and glutinous in the middle with a fishy or gamey taste.”

(To join the animal welfare movement contact,

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Sat Mag

George Floyd, African-Americans, and Sri Lanka’s Estate Tamils (Part I)



By Uditha Devapriya

Over two weeks, the George Floyd protests spread practically everywhere. From Kansas to Kenya, from Baltimore to Berlin, they turned into symbols of dissent against not just the racism, but also the xenophobia, of White America.

One of the most haunting images to emerge from the demonstrations was that of a young Sri Lankan girl, draped in the flag of her country, posing defiantly on the streets of an American city. The image and the girl in it attracted both support and opposition, the latter coming from militant Sinhala nationalists who felt she dishonoured a national symbol by using it as a sign of civil disobedience involving a domestic issue of another country.

The response of the nationalists to the George Floyd uprisings was, if at all, amusing. One section of this crowd took to social media to condemn White America for exhibiting its racist, chauvinist face yet again. Another section – no less big or significant – took the opposite stance, censuring those protesting against the murder of a black civilian because, to them at least, Floyd’s murder did not warrant the rampaging and the pillaging of public property. To the latter group, these protests seemed disproportionate to what they regarded as an instance of police authority enforcing the law over a minority community.

The few within the nationalist crowd who did support the raging protests were, even more amusingly, taken to task on social media by another group, this one ideologically opposed to nationalism. The latter crowd seemed to think, not without justification, that the nationalists sharing posts and posting comments against White America were myopic: they seemed to sympathise with George Floyd, but not with the Tamils and Muslims of Sri Lanka, whom the anti-nationalists alleged are as discriminated against over here as George Floyd’s community is over there. Thus both nationalists opposed to the protests AND anti-nationalists critiquing the selectivity of those supporting the protests persisted in comparing African-Americans to the Tamils and Muslims of Sri Lanka.

In that sense the protests taught us two important lessons. Though they don’t form the subject of this essay, they are relevant to it, and hence need to be examined.

Firstly, the inability of many Sinhala nationalists to take their struggle against neo-colonialism and Western hegemony forward. Resistance to colonialism has historically formed the bedrock of the Sinhala nationalist lobby, yet their denunciations of this uprising betrayed a failure to think beyond geographic borders. This came out quite despairingly in their reaction to the only local political party that saw it fit to organise a protest in front of the US Embassy. The government’s crackdown on the demonstration didn’t seem to ruffle their feathers, nor did the point that the demonstrators were making.

Secondly, and just as importantly, the inability of local left-liberal outfits to come up with a proper front, in Sri Lanka, against the George Floyd murder. The Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) organised the protest against the US Embassy, while the Socialist Equality Party (SEP) organised a discussion on it online. But neither of these belongs to what is traditionally labelled as “civil society.” The point can be made that the issue at the centre of these protests was not Sri Lankan and that is why civil society ignored it, but that excuse pales away when one considers that the moment sections of the nationalist crowd let out their anger at the US’s handling of the protests, certain social media civil society activists focused their energies more on pointing out the hypocrisy of the nationalists.

Despite the hostile exchanges between the two factions, one particular point brought them together: their comparison of African-Americans to Sri Lankan Tamils and Muslims. They underscored this comparison from two different vantage points.

Thus the nationalists who critiqued the protests seemed to believe that, like extremist Tamils and Muslims, African-Americans and other minorities in the US were unfairly questioning the legitimacy of rule by an ethnic majority. Those opposed to the nationalists, on the other hand, inadvertently, by their critique of the nationalists’ sidelining of Tamils and Muslims, equated the latter two with the community which Floyd hailed from. The question to be asked here is whether such an analogy is, if not plausible, then at least tenable.

In 2011, a year before Barack Obama won election for a second term, Vinod Moonesinghe wrote a cogent reply to someone who in an article had wished for a Tamil or Muslim to be elected as this country’s leader. Vinod made two points there: considering Obama’s win as a win for all African-Americans failed to distinguish between his class origins and those of most African-Americans; and equating African-Americans with Tamils and Muslims was anachronistic, given the economically privileged status of the latter two groups.

Taking class and caste into consideration, then, Ranasinghe Premadasa’s election win seemed closer to such a comparison than the potential coming to power of a member of a “minority.” Taking class, caste, AND ethnicity into consideration, the analogy would have to extend, not to Jaffna and Colombo Tamils, Moors, and Malays, or Borahs and Sindhis, but instead to a community that, like the blacks of the US, was imported as dirt cheap labour, cut off from the rest of the population, and supervised under a setup no different to the plantations of the southern US. In other words, the migrant Indian Tamils of Sri Lanka.

Before making an analogy between these two groups, though, it would do well to reflect, very briefly, on the historical trajectory of slavery in the West.

Following the Arab invasions of the seventh and eighth centuries, Europe turned inward. The eminent historian Fernand Braudel has written of a “second serfdom” that sprang up in parts of the continent where feudalism failed to give way to capitalism. The result was the growth of a kind of slavery, white slavery, across the East, in what is now Russia; it’s a testament to the legacy of the trade which emerged there that the word “slave” derived from the ethnicity of those marshalled into it from that region, Slav.

With the influence of the Arabs and the Ottoman Turks after them waning after the fall of Granada in 1492 (the same year Columbus “discovered” the New World), a liberated Europe, discovering hitherto unchartered colonies in the Americas on one side and Australia on the other, gradually instituted a system of indentured white bondage.

It has been estimated that around 67% of all white immigrants to the new colonies arrived there as servants. These immigrants were bound to a contract that compelled them to work for an overseer, without pay, over a specified period of time. Most often such contracts were drawn for those who had a prior obligation to these overseers which they couldn’t meet, such as a debt. Since the government usually didn’t interfere with these contracts, extortion and kidnappings became common, as they would among Africans later on. The situation was such that even in as late as 1910 the US government was trying to put an end to white slavery: the White Slave Traffic Act (or the Mann Act) that year made it a felony to transport women across state borders for the purposes of “prostitution or debauchery.”

Debt bondage, however, applied in the early period only to white immigrants to the white colonies, and the Irish; the difference between their situation and that of African slaves was that the latter were never recruited to pay off an obligation; most of them ended up as lifelong labourers, unpaid and treated as chattel or property. As Liam Stack once observed, “[u]nlike slaves, servants were considered legally human.”

To put this in its proper perspective, the position of those shipped to the sugar plantations of the West Indies and the cotton mills of the southern United States fitted that of neither indentured servants nor wage labourers. The process of recruiting and transporting these Africans, in the long term, thus became, as Gordon K. Lewis put it, “quasi-militarised”, while once quartered in the plantations their owners did everything to isolate the unfortunate immigrants, prisoners really, from the world outside.

Revisionist historians, white and black, have tried to understate the full weight of black slavery, either by pointing at the involvement of African intermediaries in it or by showing that European Christians became as entangled in it as Africans.

Thus Robert Davis (Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters) argues that while the Atlantic slave trade was 12 times as large, more Christians than Africans were captured between 1500 and 1650, while Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (“How Many Slaves Landed in the US?”) contends that of the 10.7 million Africans who survived the passage to the West, “only about 388,000” were shipped to the United States. What these “findings” fail to show is that black slavery was not geographically limited to the US, or for that matter to Western Europe, and that from 1530 to 1780, when more than five million Africans found themselves dispatched to Portugal and Brazil, only about a million Christians were forced into servitude in North Africa, along the Barbary Coast and into the Ottoman Empire.

The Abolitionist movement, no doubt representative of a progressive, enlightened wing in the Evangelical Revival, agitated for African slavery’s end. It did this as much for moral reasons as for pragmatic ones; the rise in Britain of an industrial Whig bourgeoisie over a landed Tory gentry and the expansion of British interests in Asia and Africa had by then necessitated the rise of plantation colonialism. It is hence not a coincidence that African slaves in the British West Indies were emancipated by official proclamation in the same year (1833) that the most ambitious set of administrative proposals were tabled in Sri Lanka (Colebrooke-Cameron) to lay the foundation for the new colonial plantation economy.

Against this backdrop, black slavery soon receded to countries where a white settler class predominated, including Rhodesia, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. S. B. D. de Silva in The Political Economy of Underdevelopment refers to these as “settler states”, a distinction I will return to later. In any case, what we have here is the first of many differences between the plight of African-Americans and that of Sri Lankan Tamils and Muslims.

Plantation colonialism demolished and also made use of existing traditional political, cultural, social, and economic patterns in much of Asia and Africa. The most immediate result of that, of course, was the impoverishment of the peasantry; in Sri Lanka, as we know, the peasantry most directly affected by these policies remained the Kandyan Sinhalese.

Marx was largely correct in his comparison of British domination of India to that of Ireland. He was more prescient in the implication that the British brought with them to the colonies their experience in subjugating the Irish peasantry. Two policies make it clear to what extent they were following the Irish example in India and Sri Lanka: the expropriation of peasant land, and the pursuit of divide and rule. I shall turn to these next week, and with them, the growth and evolution of Indian migrant labour.

To be continued next week…

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