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Notes on a scholarly class



By Uditha Devapriya

Note: Names of students have been changed to protect their identity

Nethum, 20, loves the guitar. He plays it well and, moreover, plays the clarinet well too. In 2018 he bought a Yamaha GL1 Guitalele – secretly, without telling his father. Back then he had dreams of starting a band, doing some gigs, earning some cash. So he started a group with some of his batch-mates, and began practices at a prominent studio on the outskirts of Colombo city. They got a couple of events – two birthday parties, of a friend and of another friend’s sister – not too long afterwards.

He had other dreams also. When I met him two weeks before he decided to buy the guitar, he divulged some of them. “I want to buy a big patch of land, a big house, in my village, and get away from Colombo,” he told me, the faintest of smiles flickering through a pained face. Why not Colombo, I asked. “Because I’m fed up of living in this city,” he replied.

Since he’d spent much, much more time here than there, in his hometown, I pressed him on. He said he wanted to take care of his brother, sister, mother, and ageing father. “I can’t do that over here.” Since he was studying Biology for his A Levels, I asked him whether he wanted to do all this while pursuing medicine. “No,” he said, a little hesitantly. “I want to be a guitarist, a musician.” His father, he hastened to add, wouldn’t like the idea. That is why those dreams had to be indulged from a distance. “I’ll tell him later.”

Dinindu, 18, loves to act and to write scripts. A member of the Drama Society at his school, he dreams of authoring his own Netflix series, the first in Sri Lanka. He is a fervent lover of superhero movies, though he tends to discriminate: Batman, yes, but not the Christopher Nolan trilogy; Justice League, yes, but preferably the upcoming Zack Snyder cut. He dislikes big budget epics, cheap comedies, and melodramatic romances. These, he explains to me, are not worth it. People want entertainment. They don’t really want to see life as it is lived, and lived through, onscreen. Thus he wants to try something new, different. Having chosen Commerce for his A Levels after realising Maths wasn’t his cup of tea, however, he finds it hard to balance his dreams with his family’s expectations.

Both Nethum and Dinindu came to Colombo after they turned 10. Having sat for the Grade Five Scholarship Exam, arguably the most touted and celebrated such exam in a student’s life (after the O Levels and A Levels), they had passed with flying colours, surpassing the cut off point by a considerable margin and securing a placement at a popular school. By dint of their results, they had gained admission to the most popular such institution in Colombo. It had been much cause for celebration.

Nethum, from Walasmulla, and Dinindu, from Matugama, had never seen the city before, except in textbooks and newspapers and on television. Since it was not practical to transit from Colombo to their hometown after school every day, they were both boarded at the school hostel. They are hence what most refer to as “Hostellers.” Except for the occasional visit home during holidays, they remain in Colombo, partly because of schoolwork but more importantly because of extra classes; in Sri Lanka, not even Poya days are taken as days of rest from private tuition. For these boys, then, Colombo has become home.

Introduced in 1948, the Scholarship Exam today strives to achieve two objectives. The first is the admission of students to popular, elite schools. The second, an often overlooked aim, is the provision of bursaries to bright but disadvantaged students. The brainchild of C. W. W. Kannangara, as well as of the Left, at its inception it also sought to add prestige to the newly established Central Colleges, which boasted of teachers, infrastructure, and facilities that exceed anything even elite schools possess today. Some of our most renowned intellectuals emerged from the Central College system. Its contribution to the post-1956 socio-political landscape, thus, cannot be denied. Neither can that of the Scholarship Exam.

The quality and content of the Exam has, to be sure, changed considerably since then. In 1969, it was rebranded as the Jathika Navodya Scholarship. Prior to 1995, it consisted of two papers: First Language (Sinhala or Tamil) and Mathematics. After officials restructured it in 1995, it tested students beyond just linguistic or mathematical proficiency, delving into such abilities as observation, prediction, translation, and perception. In its present form, it is seen as a stepping stone to popular elite schools, a point underscored by the state of degradation many Central Colleges have succumbed to. The Exam has thus turned into a competition, for which students are prepared from an early age.

Those who emerge at the top invariably get the best schools, and invariably, these happen to be far, far away, in the big cities: Galle, Kandy, Jaffna, and Colombo. Not surprisingly, the highest cut-off marks are for Colombo schools. No matter how far away you may be, if you get through, you try to go there. This is underscored by the fact that in Sri Lanka, where you study is seen as more important than what you study.

Surveying the public school in an earlier essay (“Pavilions, Grounds, and Gyms”), I quoted a keen observer of Sri Lanka’s social landscape and contended that such institutions are no longer the preserve of the elite: they have, effectively, been taken over by a new political class, and a lower middle class aspiring to join the ranks of an old order. A considerable part of this lower middle class hails, as I pointed out, from the Scholarship crowd. That, I should add here, has led us to an inexorable contradiction: a program designed to benefit the poor has ended up benefitting a more intermediate class.

Ashani Abayasekara, in an impressive but sketchy research conducted three years ago, concluded as much. While national schools “account for the largest share of scholarship exam candidates, at 95%”, she noted that “only 79% of Grade 5 students in underprivileged provincial schools” write it. Meanwhile, only 36% of those who passed the cut-off mark qualified for the bursary (for students whose families earn an annual income of less than Rs 50,000), a paltry Rs 500 per month; “as a share of all Grade 5 students,” Abayasekara observed, “this amounts to a mere 3.6%.”

These findings are eye-opening, but certainly not surprising. I say that because, more often than not, positive discrimination programmes have a habit of benefitting those who do not really need such programmes; this is as relevant in Colombo as it is in Chicago. Conceived for the poor to bypass the handicap of poverty, the Scholarship Exam has therefore come to be associated with a more privileged lower middle class.


The eminent historian Arno Mayer once enumerated the characteristics of the lower middle class: they earn their living by work “that is not pre-eminently manual labour”; by objective criteria of income, wealth, and education, they fit into neither the lower nor the upper class; they are conscious of being neither the one nor the other, “but aspire upward”; they tend to be individualistic in their pursuit of upward mobility; they can be easily co-opted by/into the upper class; they do their utmost to improve the lot of their children; they are fearful of falling down to lower class status; and they get together as a group to agitate for political reforms only when they face the threat of collective impoverishment.

The Sri Lankan lower middle class, of which I am a member, bears out these characteristics well. But that is beside my point. The vast majority of the Grade Five Scholarship holders hail from this milieu. In terms of their origins and their aspirations, they are part and parcel of, and also opposed to, that crowd. And no other section of this group displays this paradoxical attitude, to their own social conditioning, better than the Hostellers.

Ostensibly distanced from their roots, yet not cut off from them, the Hostellers live in a world of their own. Popular schools in Sri Lanka are invariably associated with traditions, habits, and beliefs; the Hostellers, a subset within the larger student body, are viewed as laying claim to their own traditions, habits, and beliefs. The stereotype almost always is of them being more intelligent, athletic, enduring. “The result,” said one boy as I questioned him, “is that compared with other students, we’re more likely to be taken into co-curricular and extra-curricular activities.” From Literary Societies to Debating Clubs, from Cadetting to Scouting, they hence figure in quite prominently.

That explains Nethum’s love for music and Dinidu’s love for drama. It also explains their intense desire to get into these fields once they leave school. Largely because their parents don’t loom over them like those of non-Hostellers, they consider themselves free to follow their aspirations, and just dream on. Yet the pressure to conform to elderly expectations becomes all the more stronger because of, and not despite, that: freed temporarily from parental supervision, many of them tend to neglect their studies – ironically what got them into these schools in the first place – as they climb up the ladder. “We procrastinate, almost always,” Mithila, 20, explained to me.

“We think, ‘We’re the Scholars, we got in because we are thought of as special’, and walk the hard yards slowly.”

By the time they realise they’ve walked a little too slowly, of course, it’s too late. “The pressure comes on gradually,” Mithila added. “We occupy ourselves so much with club and society work that at times we have to lie to our mothers and fathers.” At this point, parents get worried: in the worst case, “they take us out of the Hostel and board us in a room or an annexe in Colombo, so that we can concentrate better on studies.”

Of course, the clash isn’t just between their aspirations and the aspirations of their elders. It’s also between their culture and the culture they now find themselves in.

Born in Kurunegala, Chathuja, 22, used to be the butt end of his friends’ jokes. “When I first came here,” he told me, grinning, “I had to get rid of my regional dialect. It’s not that they looked down on me. It’s just that even those from other villages, and especially those from Colombo, thought the way I spoke strange and peculiar.” While he managed to lose his dialect, to the extent that he can’t recall it now, not all students abandon such quirks: Himal, 20, hails from Ambalangoda, and he relapses to village argot whenever he phones home. “I just take care not to use it here,” he grinned at me.

This does not mean these boys surrender themselves completely to the world they move to. Far from it: they both accept and reject the new urban world and its culture. Most of them, for instance, admit to their biggest handicap, lack of fluency in English, but many of them, as Dinindu told me, feel that English isn’t everything. “We speak it only when it is needed.” This is unlike the anglicised crowd AND the urban middle class Sinhala crowd, to most of whom proficiency in the language has become a must have cosmetic.

Dinindu remembered one time when he and other Grade Five Scholars (Hostellers as well as non-Hostellers) were put into a class with English medium students. He remembered the tastes that set them apart from the latter. “They were always poring over Goosebumps, Enid Blyton, and Tintin. In terms of what we were reading, in our language, they seemed rather infantile to me.” What did his set read at that point? Translations of Russian novels and Guy de Maupassant short stories, plus the entire repertory of prabuddha (profound) Sinhala literature: not just Martin Wickramasinghe, but also more recent writers, including Mahinda Prasad Masimbula. “I’m not saying we were superior to the English speaking kids. It’s just that they seemed below the level, in English, that we were in, in Sinhala.”

The most vivid contrast between their lower middle class “subaltern” backgrounds and the backgrounds of the elite crowd that used to, and still, attend elite institutions, came to me the other day from Mithila. An Old Boy had attended an event as the Chief Guest, and had given a speech. The speech had centred on that evergreen concern of the anglicised elite: the deterioration of norms, values, and principles (of the anglicised elite, that is). Students shout too much; they have turned ruffians; they don’t wear Western attire as well as they used to. To cut a long story short, Mithila listened in, and had a laugh with his friends. “That speech,” he described it to me, “was the most antiquated tripe I’d ever heard.”

Somehow, somewhere, I feel that sentiment has gained ground among Mithila’s friends. Paraphrasing Tennyson, the old order here has indeed changed. And how.


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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