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Charting a new history, for a new future

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By Uditha Devapriya

For Sinhala nationalists, I daresay the history of Sri Lanka remains the history of the Sinhala people. This begs two questions: one, who are these Sinhala people, and two, where does their history begin? The typical nationalist response to these would be, first, that Sinhala people are those who form the majority in the country, and second that their history begins with the advent of kinship as outlined in chronicles like the Mahavamsa.

But such responses ignore important historical considerations, like the fact that the kings of Sri Lanka, or at least the first among them, hailed from India, or that the chronicles refer to a civilisation that is supposed to have predated their arrival.

How do nationalists resolve these contradictions? They would probably contend that the island possessed a civilisation that was eminently different and superior to that which kings brought about here, while conceding that the latter also developed the country. After all, there are important debates over historiography within nationalist circles, boiling down to whether we to trace our ancestry back by 2,500 years, to the colonisation of the country by Indo-Aryan tribes, or by 10,000 years, to the formation of a pre-Indian, pre-Aryan civilisation supposedly free of external influences. Though there’s no real archaeological evidence for the latter view, there is no shortage of popular writers who speculate about Sinhala people being bearers of a culture predating the Indian influence.

It must be pointed out that the notion of race figures prominently in both cases. In fact, for Sinhala nationalists as much as for Tamil, Muslim, and other nationalists, race remains the primary consideration, the only priority. It is true that as R. A. L. H. Gunawardana has noted that in European languages the word race “dates only from about the sixteenth century”, while neither Sinhala nor Tamil has a satisfactory equivalent for it. Yet for nationalists, history is at best a series of encounters between ethnic groups. Thus, whether they are talking about a prodigal son from northern India conquering the island of Tampabanni or a ten-headed king ruling the island long before the arrival of that son, they reduce the history of the country to the history of a dominant group. This is essentialist scholarship at its crudest.

Nationalists, of course, can be flexible on these matters. They often are. For instance, one prominent Jathika Chintanaya intellectual claimed, at a public seminar, that the Nayakkar kings of Kandy could become Sinhalese after they had been absorbed to the Sinhala social structure in the same way that Victoria, despite not being proficient in English, could turn into an English queen. But on the same grounds, these intellectuals and commentators talk of terms like Sinhalathvaya as if they are etched in stone. While they would readily accept that the Nayakkars became Sinhala because they were kings and had to be benefactors or be seen as benefactors of Buddhism, they would deny that Muslims could be absorbed into Sinhala social structures or take part in Sinhala rituals. According to their logic, to “become” Sinhala is a preserve of a ruling class that cannot be allowed for other groups.

The case of Wath Himi Kumaraya, popularly known as Gale Bandara Deviyo, shows how this kind of essentialism can blind us to the intricacies of our history. While records are unclear about his origins, what we can gather from them is the account of a Muslim pretender to the throne being killed by a group of nobles, only to be venerated later by adherents of both Islam and Buddhism. The transformation of a Muslim usurper to a popular deity is of course a fascinating historical anomaly in a thoroughly Sinhala and Buddhist realm, but one which seems to be appreciated by few, if at all. Certainly, a racialist historiography would ignore or omit such details, while those who subscribe to such histories would be ignorant of them: I myself realised this the other day when, after I suggested that Gale Bandara was “Muslim”, a lad of 19 argued passionately that Buddhists should stop venerating him!

I am not certain to what extent local textbooks reinforce racialist accounts of local history. I am certain, though, that these texts do not inculcate in their readers an appreciation of the many groups that form the identity of the country. Paradoxically, while reinforcing ethnic or religious supremacy, textbook accounts borrow concepts steeped in Western ideology. The notion of race is just one example, as is the origin of terms like Aryan, which had to do with the identity of a ruling class rather than of a hegemonic ethnic community.

This is a paradox that writers who privilege the racialist dimensions of history are not bothered with: even in their rejection of “Western” notions of multiethnic identity, they subscribe to other dominant “Western” notions, which happen to be as pervasive, if not more so. How can we address such contradictions? How can we resolve them? A good first step would be to historicise and find out what can be done with them.

By the early 20th century, debates and polemics had begun to crop up over issues of racial identity, territorial rights, ethnic distinctions, and so on, a point Senake Bandaranayake has made in his essay on “The Peopling of Sri Lanka.” Those who took part in these discussions fell back on divisions that European philologists and orientalists had drawn, between ethnic groups, on the basis of certain characteristics such as dialect and dress type.

What these examinations left out, which scientific advancements have made it possible for us to ascertain today, were the commonalities that link communities together. As evident and common as certain biological traits may be within communities, these by themselves, as Bandaranayake and Gunawardana have noted, by no means warrant the use of categories like race, which are so fluid they can’t be used as markers of distinction.

Perhaps what lent credence to such essentialist views was the scheme that early historians adopted in their periodisations of local history. As in India, where colonial scholars made an arbitrary and imaginary distinction between classical Hindu and decadent Muslim phases, in Sri Lanka they drew lines between a pristine medieval culture and a decadent pre-colonial phase, the latter usually identified with the period of the Kandyan kings. Other scholars took a further step by identifying not the Kandyan kingdom but colonial rule as decadent, in stark contrast to the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa periods.

Whatever the biases of the scholar would have been, the drawing up of chronological divisions along these lines made it possible for popular writers to fit their racialist accounts of history within such schemes later on, though history, as Senake Bandaranayake and R. A. L. H. Gunawardana have shown, rebels against such chronologies.

The biggest omission made by those who saw history as a contest between ethnicities was the issue of caste, which remains the least understood social phenomenon in Sri Lanka. The stalwarts of the Marxist Left, including Hector Abhayavardhana, forayed into rural society at the height of the Suriya Mal and anti-malaria campaigns of the 1930s, making it possible for scholars to examine social stratifications from a materialist perspective. Yet, over the years, discussions of such stratifications have tended to wane.

To me this is a striking omission. Intra-group differences are as important as inter-group ones. They emphasise the rifts that exist, not only at the racial level between communities, but also at caste and class levels, within the same communities.

For the most, sadly, historians and writers, be they “Marxist”, liberal, or nationalist, have ignored these considerations. That has led to a situation where, while rejecting the racialist rhetoric of nationalists, liberal scholars have fallen back on criteria no different from those which nationalist ideologues adopt. Hence, accounts of Moor, Malay, Tamil, even Burgher contributions to Sri Lankan society valorise these communities in an ethnic light, portraying them as racial types against which nationalists bring up their claims of superiority. Whether or not they intend it, then, the most progressive of Sri Lankan scholars provide ammunition for nationalist debates, given that they also view history through an ethnic lens. Perhaps the best example for this would be the notion of “Tamil Buddhism” in Sri Lanka, raised by social scientists, and the knee-jerk rejection of such a thesis by Sinhala nationalists.

I believe the first step towards liberating Sri Lankan historiography from its fixation with ethnicity and racialism would be, as Senake Bandaranayake noted, to consider the history of ethnic formation in the country as a complex process involving “the convergence of various pre and proto-historic developments.” On the one hand, nationalist historians are adamant on constructing a Sinhala Buddhist identity. On the other, the liberals’ response frames the issue in racial terms and adopts the criteria used by their opponents, hence legitimising the latter. Both approaches lead to a dead-end, and so both should be discarded.

The solution, perfectly sensible in my view, would be to start examining history from the vantage point of other social phenomena, like caste. In doing so, we will be able to come up with a historiography which places emphasis on the differences separating groups as much as on the commonalities binding them. To quote Senake Bandaranayake here, “[a] study of Sri Lankan history, stripped of its myths and distortions and free of communalist bias on one side or the other, can do much to contribute to the historic process of the formation of an integrated polyethnic modern nation.” We obviously have a long way to go.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com



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Features

UK support for govt.’s pragmatic reconciliation process

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Lord Ahmad with GL

By Jehan Perera

The government would be relieved by the non-critical assessment by visiting UK Minister for South Asia, United Nations and the Commonwealth, Lord Tariq Ahmad of his visit to Sri Lanka. He has commended the progress Sri Lanka had made in human rights and in other areas as well, such as environmental protection. He has pledged UK support to the country. According to the President’s Media Division “Lord Tariq Ahmad further stated that Sri Lanka will be able to resolve all issues pertaining to human rights by moving forward with a pragmatic approach.” The Minister, who had visited the north and east of the country and met with war-affected persons tweeted that he “emphasised the need for GoSL to make progress on human rights, reconciliation, and justice and accountability.”

Prior to the Minister’s visit, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had announced in Parliament that his government had not violated nor would support “any form of human rights violations.” This was clearly an aspirational statement as the evidence on the ground belies the words. Significantly he also added that “We reject racism. The present government wants to safeguard the dignity and rights of every citizen in this country in a uniform manner. Therefore I urge those politicians who continue to incite people against each other for narrow political gains to stop doing so.” This would be welcome given the past history especially at election time.

The timing of Lord Ahmad’s visit and the statements made regarding human rights suggest that the forthcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, commencing on February 28, loomed large in the background. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights will be presenting a written report on that occasion. A plethora of issues will up for review, including progress on accountability for crimes, missing persons, bringing the Prevention of Terrorism Act in line with international standards, protecting civil society space and treating all people and religions without discrimination.

The UK government has consistently taken a strong position on human rights issues especially in relation to the ethnic conflict and the war which led to large scale human rights violations. The UK has a large Tamil Diaspora who are active in lobbying politicians in that country. As a result some of the UK parliamentarians have taken very critical positions on Sri Lanka. Lord Ahmad’s approach, however, appears to be more on the lines of supporting the government to do the needful with regard to human rights, rather than to condemn it. This would be gratifying to the architects of the government’s international relations and reconciliation process, led by Foreign Minister Prof G L Peiris.

REACHING OUT

In the coming week the government will be launching a series of events in the North of the country with a plethora of institutions that broadly correspond to the plethora of issues that the UNHRC resolution has identified. War victims and those adversely affected by the post war conditions in the North and livelihood issues that arise from the under-developed conditions in those areas will be provided with an opportunity to access government services through on-the-spot services through mobile clinics. The programme coordinated by the Ministry of Justice called “Adhikaranabhimani” is meant to provide “ameliorated access to justice for people of the Northern Province.”

Beginning with Kilinochchi and Jaffna there will be two-day mobile clinics in which the participating government institutions will be the Legal Aid Commission, Office for National Unity and Reconciliation, Office for Reparations, Office on Missing Persons, Department of Debt Conciliation Board and the Vocational Training Authority to mention some of them. Whether it is by revising 60 laws simultaneously and setting up participatory committees of lawyers and state officials or in now launching the “Adhikaranabhimani” Justice Minister Ali Sabry has shown skill at large scale mobilisation that needs to be sustained. It is to be hoped that rather than treating them as passive recipients, the governmental service providers will make efforts to fulfill their need for justice, which means that the needs of victims and their expectations are heard and acknowledged.

It will also be important for the government to ensure that these activities continue in the longer term. They need to take place not only before the Geneva sessions in March but also continue after them. The conducting of two-day mobile clinics, although it will send a message of responsiveness, will only be able to reach a few of the needy population. The need is for infusing an ethic of responsiveness into the entirety of the government’s administrative machinery in dealing with those problems that reaches all levels, encompassing villages, divisions, districts and provinces, not to mention the heart of government at the central level.

The government’s activities now planned at the local level will draw on civil society and NGO participation which is already happening. Government officials are permitting their subordinate officials to participate in inter-ethnic and inter religious initiatives. It is in their interest to do so as they would not wish to have inter-community conflicts escalate in their areas which, in the past, have led to destruction of property and life. They also have an interest in strengthening their own capacities to understand the underlying issues and developing the capacity to handle tensions that may arise through non-coercive methods.

BUILDING PEACE

Many of the institutions that the government has on display and which are going to the North to provide mobile services were established during the period of the previous government. However, they were not operationalized in the manner envisaged due to political opposition. Given the potency of nationalism in the country, especially where it concerns the ethnic conflict, it will be necessary for the government to seek to develop a wide consensus on the reconciliation process. The new constitution that is being developed may deal with these issues and heed the aspirations of the minorities, but till that time the provincial council system needs to be reactivated through elections.

Sooner rather than later, the government needs to deal with the core issue of inter-ethnic power sharing. The war arose because Sinhalese politicians and administrators took decisions that led to disadvantaging of minorities on the ground. There will be no getting away from the need to reestablish the elected provincial council system in which the elected representatives of the people in each province are provided with the necessary powers to take decisions regarding the province. In particular, the provincial administrations of the Northern and Eastern provinces, where the ethnic and religious minorities form provincial majorities, need to be reflective of those populations.

At the present time, the elected provincial councils are not operational and so the provincial administration is headed by central appointees who are less likely to be representative of the sentiments and priorities of the people of those provinces. In the east for instance, when Sinhalese encroach on state land the authorities show a blind eye, but when Tamils or Muslims do it they are arrested or evicted from the land. This has caused a lot of bitterness in the east, which appears to have evaded the attention of the visiting UK minister as he made no mention of such causes for concern in his public utterances. His emphasis on pragmatism may stem from the observation that words need to be converted to deeds.

A video put out by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office confirms a positive approach with regard to engaging with the Sri Lankan government. In it Lord Ahmad says “the last three days illustrated to me that we can come together and we can build a constructive relationship beyond what are today with Sri Lanka. We can discuss the issues of difference and challenge in a candid but constructive fashion.” Lord Ahmad’s aspiration for UK-Sri Lankan relations needs to be replicated nationally in government-opposition relations, including the minority parties, which is the missing dimension at the present time.

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Yohani…teaming up with Rajiv and The Clan

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I know many of you, on reading this headline, would say ‘What?’

Relax. Yohani, of ‘Manike Mage Hithe’ fame, is very much a part of the group Lunu.

But…in February, she will be doing things, differently, and that is where Rajiv and the Clan come into the scene.

Rajiv and his band will be embarking on a foreign assignment that will take them to Dubai and Oman, and Yohani, as well as Falan, will be a part of the setup – as guest artistes.

The Dubai scene is not new to Yohani – she has performed twice before, in that part of the world, with her band Lunu – but this would be her first trip, to Oman, as a performer.

However, it will be the very first time that Yohani will be doing her thing with Rajiv and The Clan – live on stage.

In the not too distant past, Rajiv worked on a track for Yohani that also became a big hit. Remember ‘Haal Massa?’

“She has never been a part of our scene, performing as a guest artiste, so we are all looking forward to doing, it in a special way, during our three-gig, two-country tour,” says Rajiv.

Their first stop will be Dubai, on February 5th, for a private party, open-air gig, followed by another two open-air, private party gigs, in Oman – on February 10th and 11th.

Another attraction, I’m told, will be Satheeshan, the original rapper of ‘Manike Mage Hithe.’

He will also be a part of this tour (his first overseas outing) and that certainly would create a lot of excitement, and add that extra sparkle, especially when he comes into the scene for ‘Manike Mage Hithe.’

Yohani and her band, Lunu, last performed in Dubai, a couple of months back, and Satheeshan, they say, was the missing link when she did her mega internet hit song – live, on stage.

There was a crowd to catch her in action but it wasn’t a mind-blowing experience – according to reports coming our way.

A live performance, on stage, is a totally different setup to what one sees on social media, YouTube, etc.

I guess music lovers, here, would also welcome a truly live performance by Yohani de Silva.

In the meanwhile, I’m also told that Rajiv Sebastian plans to release some songs of the late Desmond de Silva which he and Desmond have worked on, over the years.

According to Rajiv, at this point in time, there is material for four albums!

He also mentioned that he and his band have quite a few interesting overseas assignments, lined up, over the next few months, but they have got to keep their fingers crossed…hoping that the Omicron virus wouldn’t spike further.

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Multi-talented, indeed…

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Thamesha Herath (back row – centre) and her disciples (students)

We all know Trishelle as the female vocalist of Sohan & The X-Periments, so, obviously it came to me as a surprise when it was mentioned that she is a highly qualified Bharatanatyam dancer, as well.

What’s more, she has been learning the skills of Bharatanatyam, since her kid days!

And, to prove that she is no novice, where this highly technical dance form is concerned, Trishelle, and the disciples (students) of State Dance Award winning Bhartanatyam Guru, Nritya Visharad Bhashini, Thamesha Herath, will be seen in action, on January 29th, at 4.00 pm, at the Ave Maria Auditorium, Negombo.

Said to be the biggest event in Bharatanatyam, this Arangethram Kalaeli concert will bring into the spotlight Avindu, Sithija, Mishaami, Nakshani, Venushi, Veenadi, Amanda, Sakuni, Kawisha, Tishaani, Thrishala (Trishelle), Sarithya, Hewani, Senuri, Deanne and Wasana.

In addition to her singing, and dancing skills, Trishelle has two other qualifications – Bachelor in Biomedical Science, and Master in Counselling Psychology.

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