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Race, class, and Wigneswaran’s historiography­



By Uditha Devapriya

Former Chief Minister Wigneswaran made two remarks at the commencement of the 16th parliament. First he contended that Tamil is the oldest surviving language, presumably in the world. Then he contended that the Tamil people are this country’s original inhabitants. Since I do not know much Tamil, I am not sure whether something got lost in the translation provided by the TV channels and news outlets which broadcast the parliamentary session. In any case, this essay should not be construed as a refutation or an endorsement of what the former Chief Minister of the Northern Province, now an MP from a splinter group of what was not too long ago the dominant political party in that region, said.

Regarding MP Wigneswaran’s first assertion, all I can say is there’s much evidence for his view. He is certainly not the first South Asian politician to make such a claim, nor will he be the last. In September last year at the UN General Assembly, for instance, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called Tamil “the most ancient language in the world.”

Spoken by more than 70 million people, including the present CEO of Google, Tamil has gone on record as the first language with its own grammar guide: Tolkāppiyam, reputedly published in 2500 BC. As one scholar remarked, “who can publish a book on grammar when other languages were in trouble [just] to shape out their alphabets?”

Archaeological evidence points at a considerably old, rich history, with different estimates for the age of the language. On the border between Madurai and Sivangangai in Tamil Nadu, for instance, is the village of Keezhadi, where excavations made around seven years ago have been dated by historians at between the fifth century BC and third century AD. The remains of earthen urns in Adichanallur and Kodumudi, on the other hand, tell us of a history that goes back 2,000 to 2,500 years. A stone inscription in Thanjavur, more than 160 kilometres from Kodumadi, hints at a linguistic history spanning 10,000 years. There is much debate about which came first, Tamil or Sanskrit, but the popular view is that since it used Sanskrit rather sparingly in its early days, Tamil came first.

Does this validate or vindicate ex-Chief Minister Wigneswaran’s second assertion? It really depends on how you look at it. I assume, given the emphasis he puts on it, that when he talks about Tamils being the original inhabitants of the country, the ex-Chief Minister and now MP is seeing them in racial terms. Thus a long history of 2,500 years, if we are to take the Adichanallur-Kodumadi remains as our foundation, is reduced to a single community, a single race, bearing the same characteristics then as now, and presumably harbouring the same aspirations. This is something even those on the other side, i.e. the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist crowd, do: assume that a racial community, as it stands today, stood in the same light from its inception. That is how films and novels projecting Sinhala or Tamil nationalist narratives pit one race against the other, as though every historical battle involving these communities was exactly that: one race versus another.

When we make such assumptions, we automatically graft modern day labels and epithets on a past that is as elusive as it is ineffable. This view of the past, paraphrasing R. A. L. H. Gunawardana in his groundbreaking essay “The People of the Lion”, happens to be moulded by contemporary ideology, so much so that popular works of art based on what happened 2,000 years ago use such terms as “demala” and “sinhalaya” broadly, crassly, and carelessly, without accounting for the specific historical context in which they were uttered, written down, and recorded, even by monks and priests.

The writings of those who critique Sinhala nationalism can just as well be used to critique Tamil nationalism. H. L. Seneviratne in a lecture delivered at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies in 2002 (titled “Buddhism, Identity, and Conflict”) observed that contrary to the conventional wisdom, the Dutugemunu-Elara conflict was “more complicated than is generally understood in the nationalist reading of the Mahavamsa.” He cited Gunawardana for this view, having noted earlier that in ancient Sri Lanka, “there were Sinhalas who were not Buddhists and Buddhists who were not Sinhalas.” It is only fair to apply this to the Tamil community as well: after all, Dutugemunu’s army had soldiers of Tamil extraction, just as Elara’s army had those of Sinhala extraction. Unfortunately, for some reason or the other, while many Sinhala scholars are willing to take up the cudgels against nationalists spouting historical myths, not many Tamil scholars seem to do so.

It would be better to accept the available historical evidence and go on believing that the evolution and growth of identity and group consciousness in Sri Lanka was less moulded by race and religion than what scholars from both sides of the divide suggest. In the service of historians, nationalism turns out to be a petty bourgeois ideology, representing the interests of a stunted middle class searching for more room in a diminishing economic space. It is this ideology that goes into the production of big budget historical epics, and it is this ideology that both Tamil and Sinhala nationalists alike propound.

To put it briefly, identities never evolved as races; they evolved as lineages, which in turn were rooted in occupations and professions rather than ethnicity. For instance, the Brahmi inscriptions, of which there are many in Sri Lanka and India, emphasise a donor’s station in life: Kaboja, Milaka, Dameda, Barata, and so on. Moreover we have Yaksha, Naga, Vedic, and Puranic inscriptions, and they all allude to the status of their authors, their families, and their occupations. The Puranic inscriptions in particular tell us of pre-Buddhist religious cults that revolved around Vishnu and Siva, which lends credence to G. P. Malalasekara’s view that as a monarch, Vijaya was tolerant of all faiths.

Significantly, not a few of the inscriptions include the terms “upasika” and “upasaka”, denoting what could be the beginnings of a religious identity. But this is at best peripheral. I have written on these inscriptions in an essay elsewhere, where I attempted to trace the contours of Sinhala nationalism in the 20th century to the Hela Havula’s historiography, as seen for instance in their view that Kuveni’s act of spinning a wheel at the time of her first encounter with Vijaya showed that, prior to the Indo-Aryan colonisation, there had been a flourishing, advanced civilisation here.

It is dangerous to rely on such literal interpretations of historical texts. Even more dangerous is to deconstruct the narrative in such texts in terms of contemporary notions of ethnicity. Mervyn de Silva, in one of his last essays, prophetically noted that “in this age of identity, ethnicity walks on water.” This has always been the case. To contend otherwise would be to read into the meanings of words and epithets, and to claim, as ex-Chief Minister Wigneswaran does, that this country was inhabited originally by one race or community. What results from such a crass reading of these texts are thus not historical documents, but alternative histories and worse, exclusivist narratives.

That, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. Racism and racialism are not products of Western civilisation and they are not its preserve either. But race as is understood today was certainly the product of two Western trends: imperialism and orientalism. The term itself dates, in Europe, from the 16th century onwards: the era of Hobbes, Locke, and later, Montesquieu, the likes of whom actively sought to prove that democracy, the rights of the individual, and sovereignty did not apply to dark-skinned and “inferior” people. The work of William Jones, who tried to show the link between Sanskrit and European languages, must be cited here, as must that of Max Müller, who claimed superiority for Indo-Aryan culture and provided the ideological rung for the Nazi ladder.

The end result of it all was, as Vinod Moonesinghe correctly noted many years ago in this paper, that the British, subsequent to their occupation of this country, played up the divide-and-rule game by trying to prove that the Sinhalese (“Aryans”) belonged to a superior race and Tamils (Dravidians) were of a lesser order: a tactic which boomeranged spectacularly when Sinhala elites used this logic against the British themselves.

I mentioned this as the tip of the iceberg. Why? Because when we talk about race so crudely and simplistically, we not only forget that they meant completely different things to people from centuries ago, we also lay aside the fact that any talk of race must necessarily be at the expense of class, undoubtedly most pervasive social division today.

Thus those opposed to Sinhala nationalism claim that there has always been systematic discrimination by Sinhala people, of all backgrounds, against the Tamil community, failing to distinguish between the lower and the higher ends of the social hierarchy. When it is made clear that under British rule the two most discriminated communities were Indian plantation workers (Tamil) and Kandyan peasants (Sinhala), academics argue that the Kandyan peasant was not as marginalised as the evidence points out, simply by virtue of the fact that he had elite backing. Thus Mick Moore writes of a “Sinhalese myth of the plantation impact”, while Vijaya Samaraweera writes of “nationalist political leaders.” What is forgotten here is that class can often, if not more often than not, override ethnicity.

One of the many things I agree with Marx is his view that agrarian communities can be collectively considered as a class in itself (rather than a class for itself, since it did not in the beginning have representation). This is certainly applicable to the Sinhala peasant, which often makes me wonder why it is that we don’t read Marx more.

The truth was that class, and caste, determined the fortunes of political representatives and elites from that era. The class limitations of the colonial bourgeoisie, despite their supposed liberalism and support for the peasantry, can be seen in the fact that they vetoed proposals for universal franchise and, later, free education: proposals which, if implemented in full, would have had their biggest impact on the peasantry.

Their nationalism, as with their reformism, was limited by their economic interests. “They were men acting in the interests of their classes,” wrote N. Shanmugaratnam: “the native landed proprietors, the native owners of graphite mines, and the comprador bourgeoisie.” There was nothing to suggest, as Moore does, that the conflict was solely between colonial officials and capitalist elites. “The interests of the Ceylonese planters,” observed James Peiris in 1908, “are identical with those of the European planters.” In such a situation, it is difficult to imagine that Sinhala peasants were behind Sinhala elites, and not behind the more cosmopolitan Left, which, after all, agitated for reforms that benefitted them: not just the franchise and free education, but also the Paddy Lands Act.

So the Sinhala peasantry, along with the Tamil peasantry, ought to be considered apart from the Sinhala bourgeoisie. Where Sinhala and Tamil nationalists, who are overwhelmingly petty bourgeois and thus allied, with or without their knowledge, with a class that has a definite stake in dividing communities to maintain its hold, have gone wrong is their belief that all these communities and formations can be considered as one. Sinhala peasants are accordingly put into the same basket as Sinhala elites: a classic error.

In a later essay I will elaborate on the pitfalls of that kind of reasoning, but for the moment all I can point at as evidence for how political history rebels against this reasoning is the fact that, in the 1982 presidential election, the Jaffna people gave their preference to the SLFP candidate over the UNP candidate, beating J. R. Jayewardene to third place. The reason was simple economics: the Jaffna farmer had benefited under Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s agrarian policies. Had the Jaffna farmer considered himself a descendant of the original inhabitants of the country, he would not have given his vote to a “Sinhala Buddhist” party so openly. Now the thing with history is that it has a habit of repeating itself, as the ex-Chief Minister and MP ought to be aware: in the recent general election, the Jaffna people again gave a sizeable chunk of their votes to the SLFP, over the SJB.

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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