By Uditha Devapriya
The Sri Lanka Navy recently commissioned Vijayabahu, a former US Coastguard Cutter. The ship joins two other US origin vessels in the Navy. For some reason, the name seems to have caused consternation among certain circles. Alan Keenan of the International Crisis Group, for instance, has noted on Twitter that it is “loaded with social and political meaning” and that “it’s hardly an advertisement for the multi-ethnic, multicultural #SriLanka western govts say they want to promote.” He cites two other names, Gajabahu and Samudura.
The Pali and Sinhalese Chronicles depict both Gajabahu and Vijayabahu as national heroes: Gajabahu (113-136 AD) for having led a campaign to rescue 12,000 Sinhala captives in the Chola (or Soli) kingdom, and Vijayabahu (1055-1110 AD) for having driven Chola invaders from Polonnaruwa and laid the foundation for the unification of the polity by one of his successors, Parakramabahu (1123–1186 AD). Alan Keenan’s reference to the “social” and “political” meanings of these names is doubtless based on how Sinhalese Buddhists imagine these kings today, and how military regiments have appropriated them.
There is no denying that nationalist historiography has reduced these personages into mythical heroes today. It’s not just the military. Even popular writers prefer to see history through a particular prism. Their interpretation of the past places these kings as saviours of the race (jatiya) and unifiers of the polity (rata). This presents an interesting problem. In praising these monarchs for having brought the country together, nationalist writers tend to impute contemporary terms, like sovereignty, on what was essentially a non-unitary State. This is historical anachronism at its best (or worst?), and it is from there that these writers extract the contemporary meanings of these kings and their names.
I have implied in many of my essays that by viewing history through these prisms, Sinhala nationalists have done a disservice to their own history. In other words, they have not been fair to their past. We must be careful not to commit the same mistake when criticising these writers. While pointing out the errors of their methodology, it would be prudent not to use the same categories and binaries they deploy. To that end, it would be more constructive, instead of pointing out the “contemporary” meanings of Sinhala kings and their names, to highlight their historical and non-mythical meanings. Once we do that, we will be able to reconstruct a past more in keeping with the multi-ethnic, multi-caste character of Sri Lankan history, particularly in the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa periods.
Vijayabahu, for instance, was the product of a period that saw deep and close interaction between Sri Lankan (Sinhala) monarchs and their South Indian contemporaries. In his book Rewriting Buddhism: Pali Literature and Monastic Reform in Sri Lanka, 1157-1270, Alastair Gornall notes three “interrelated” changes in the 10th and 11th centuries that profoundly shaped Sri Lankan history: the invasions of two Cola kings (Raja Raja and Rajendra I), the “fragmentation” of the ruling family, and “changing attitudes” to Sanskrit literature, which influenced Sinhala and Pali literary works. The early Chola invasions laid the foundation for Kalinga Magha’s conquests in the 13th century AD and the later shift from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa. In other words, there were linkages between an ostensibly “Sinhala Buddhist” polity and a “Hindu” South Indian dynasty that makes the use of binaries like Sinhala/Tamil, Buddhist/Hindu, and Sri Lanka/Soli redundant, if not anachronistic.
Indeed, the kings of these times actively involved themselves in the politics of South India. During the first millennium AD, Gornall writes, conflicts within the State were “contained.” What this means is that they never threatened the social and political patterns of the country. Once we pass this period, though, the Anuradhapura State becomes embroiled in the politics of its neighbouring states. As Professor Raj Somadeva has argued, between the reigns of Sena I (833-853 AD), Dappula IV (924-935 AD), and Mahinda V (982-1029 AD), Sinhala kings sided with one or the other contending dynasties in South India, thus exposing themselves to “the threat of outside invasion.” These interventions eventually lead to the humiliating deposal of Mahinda V, the last ruler of Anuradhapura.
Vijayabahu is celebrated in nationalist reconstructions of history as a just and able ruler who put an end to these humiliations, recaptured the State from the Chola invaders, and fortified the State. However, his hold was considerably tenuous. In seeking to unify the State, he had to account for and accommodate certain realities: he therefore entrusted the tooth relic of the Buddha to Velaikkara mercenaries. Gornall suggests that the Chola invaders harboured very little cultural ambitions in Sri Lanka: it was the South Indian social and mercantile elites who patronised and built Hindu temples in Polonnaruwa. Yet they did exert an influence on the political, social, and literary landscape of the post-Anuradhapura State.
In his book Foreign relations of Sri Lanka, from earliest times to 1965, Vernon Mendis argues that history has not been fair to this ruler: he is castigated for having capitulated to South Indian overlords and mercenaries. Nevertheless, to borrow an oft-quoted phrase, there was little that he could do. Vijayabahu’s response to these geopolitical realities was pragmatic, if not inevitable: in the interests of the State, he put up with a South Indian presence, to the extent that an inscription eulogising him was carved in literary Tamil, and married a Kalinga princess, Tiloka Sundari, to ensure “the longevity of his own lineage.” Not surprisingly, it is in this ruler’s reign that ties with South India become complex.
What nationalist interpretations of Vijayabahu’s achievements and failures thus omit is that the times he lived in were simply too complex to accommodate the binaries that popular writers impute to their reading of history. Long before Vijayabahu, before even the collapse of Anuradhapura, Sinhala kings had begun a tradition of claiming descent from the Kalinga line. This was, at one level, to add respectability to their office. It was also a creative way of accommodating the rise of South Indian power and the decline of Sinhalese power, both of which can be dated between the fourth and 14th centuries AD.
Following these cycles of decline and revival, we come across literary works, predominantly Sinhalese, that legitimise certain colonisation and nationalist myths. While the authors of the early Chronicles, especially the Mahavamsa, sought to validate specific religious sects, the authors of the later Chronicles, especially the Rajavaliya, sought to romanticise if not mythologise these cycles of decline and revival and to valorise the supposedly “enduring” character of Sinhala society. Hence the Rajavaliya eulogises Gajabahu for having rescued 12,000 captives from the clutches of a Chola king, though as Obeyesekere has pointed out there is little historical evidence for this. It also depicts him as settling Tamil communities in and around Kandy, though the rather anachronistic inclusion of Kandy indicates that this episode would have been the basis for a colonisation myth.
The polity and State presented in these stories are, to be sure, Sinhalese and Buddhist, and they admittedly legitimise the hero/villain distinctions that popular writers deploy in their re-imaginings of the past. Yet embedded with these same stories are important clues and signs of a vibrant, diverse, even multi-ethnic society. Gajabahu is presented as a Sinhalese hero, but there are narratives that depict him as the patron of the Pattini cult in Sri Lanka. Obeyesekere questions these myths and posits that they are “worthless.” Yet the inclusion of this king in a major Tamil literary work, the Silppadikaram, and the invocation of him in a ritual associated with the Pattini cult, the gammaduwa, tells us that the society of his time was more multifaceted that what the Chronicles would have us believe.
The Pattini cult itself shows clear linkages between Sinhalese and Tamil communities that have survived the many fratricidal conflicts we have seen since independence. Gananath Obeyesekere’s advice, in that sense, is probably the most important: when reading these myths, it is essential that we do not literalise them, since a literalist reading can pave the way for conflict and tension. That is why Alan Keenan’s point about the social and political meanings of names is highly relevant. However, it is important to not only highlight those meanings, but also look at possible alternative meanings. This admittedly requires historical and anthropological research of a sort we simply do not have here. It is only through such research and scholarship that we can prevent the country from sliding down into the murky waters of ethno-supremacism. For that, we need to return to our past.
The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at email@example.com
Teaching feminism at SL universities
“Feminism is not a synonym for man hater though we need a new man now”:
By Aruni Samarakoon
Recently, I was in a discussion on Feminism with the members of the Post-Graduate Research (PGR) community at the University of Hull, in the United Kingdom. They were my colleagues, from the Middle-East, Asia and Europe, representing the natural and social sciences, but, apparently, did not possess any prior knowledge on feminism. I say this because most in the natural sciences seemed to characterise feminism as a political ideology against man (man in this context represents male). This discussion provoked me to recollect why feminism was stereotyped by these scholars, who were researching for their doctoral degrees at the time.
The objective of this article is to extend my argument of teaching feminism at the Sri Lankan universities in my last Kuppi column (25/10/2022), which drew attention to the gaps in teaching and learning feminism in the classroom and practicing it in everyday life.
I introduced the basic notion of feminism in my last Kuppi column, but would like to extend the conceptual understanding of feminism in a new direction, that is the notion that feminism is not an anti-man discourse. bell hooks—lowercase letters symbolise, for hooks, resistance to injustice and prejudice in the capitalist system or a “new language” of equality and justice for all—in Feminism for Everybody: Passionate Politics (2000) states, “Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression… and it was my hope at the time that it would become a common definition everyone would use. I liked this definition because it did not imply that men were the enemy ” (p.01). hooks’ proposition was further reinforced by socialist feminist Sheila Rowbotham in her book, Women, Resistance and Revolution (1972). Rowbotham suggests that feminism is a new political project to empower both men and women and create a new man and woman. Notably, hooks and Rowbotham did not agree with ‘binary politics’ that constructs man as “enemy” and woman as “victim”.
Who is the “New Man”?
The political notion of the “New Man” was developed by Rowbotham. She critically examined women’s representation in post-French revolution politics and asked how the latter “represents the voice of women in the French Revolution”? She suggested that women moved once again into the second sex (subordinate role) paradigm at the end of the French Revolution as revolutionary politics turned into patriarchal politics. Therefore, she suggested the concept of “New Man,” a man who recognizes class and sex oppression as the primary determinants of exploitation. The “New Man” understands the equal significance of ending classism and sexism at once. I draw on hooks and Rowbotham to propose that a “new man” is a necessary condition for teaching and learning feminism at Sri Lankan universities.
The question is whether you see the “New Man” in any context in Sri Lanka? Let’s start with the recent peaceful uprising of “Gota- Go-Home-2022”. Revolutionary political agents of both male and female sex were visible at the beginning of the uprising. For example, the image of a woman carrying a child in one hand and a placard in the other went viral on social media. The female undergraduates were on the front lines of the protests, holding the banners and shouting the slogans. The activities of women in this scenario took me back to the French Revolution;
“The idea of a march of women to Versailles to stop the bloodshed spread in April 1871. Beatrice Excoffon, the daughter of a watchmaker who lived with a compositor, told her mother she was leaving, kissed her children and joined the procession at the Place de la Concorde. Nobody was clear about the aims of the march or knew definitely what they should do, but there were political rather than strictly economic motives” (Rowbotham, 1972, p.104).
The women who came to the streets in the Sri Lankan uprising had both political and economic motives. They were not certain about the plan, though their voice was to end the “dictatorship” and restore “democracy”. The fundamental question is where are these women now? How many of these women were in the political party negotiation table at the end of the uprising? How many were able to voice their political motives? I argue that these revolutionary women were thrown to their private spaces by the “Old-Man”- the agent of patriarchal politics. The irony is that the “Old-Man” was preoccupied in ending the dictatorship in parliament, while maintaining sexist dictatorship in their revolutionary political bodies. Thus the “New Man” is a necessary condition to practice feminism as political ideology for everybody.
The aims of feminist academic discourse and activism were/are to raise women’s political consciousness and empower them to be the “New Woman”. The scholarship of hooks and Rowbotham interpret the “New Woman” as one who opposes patriarchal politics. The “New Woman” can be found today in every sector; these women are in a hard struggle to establish the “Woman’s identity” in those settings. For example, the underlying impetus driving the ongoing Iranian protest is to recognize Women’s identity as a human being. Tearing off their hair cover was a symbolic representation of their voice to get identified as human, in my interpretation. However, creating the “New Woman” is a contested and difficult political process. What is the role of teaching and learning feminism at universities in creating the “New Man” and “New Woman”?
“Learning outcomes” of Feminism
A key “learning outcome” of Feminist pedagogy would be to critically examine a given social reality. The given social reality contains the stereotypes, power hierarchies and objectification of the human body. Feminism then, will throw light on this social reality and raise the critical mindset of both woman and man to question that given social reality.
Feminism, in that case, plays the role of activism for social transformation. The focus of old school pedagogy was examining theory; activism was not a part of older pedagogical approaches. It was feminism that introduced activism as a new method of teaching and learning Amy K Levin states in Questions for a New Century: Women’s Studies and Integrative Learning (2007) that, “feminist studies programmes work to meet knowledge and skills goals and activism is the requirement of the course” (p.18). Connecting knowledge and personal experience is a part of feminist activism.
However, in the context of Sri Lankan universities, activism is yet to be recognized as a legitimate pedagogical activity. In my experience, the most university academics in Sri Lanka maintain a hierarchy of academia and activism. They tend to present the theoretical arguments of other prominent scholars in academic language, rarely understood by the public. In activism, the theoretical explanations are discussed in simple language and examples of everyday life are connected to theory, to engage the public.
In conclusion, the point of feminism is not an anti-man thesis, but to create the “New Man and Woman” . The “New Man ” concept in Sri Lanka can and must be improved and expanded by teaching feminism at higher education institutions. Training undergraduates in activism is necessary for social transformation, which should be the ultimate objective of education. It is worth noting that the Kuppi collective has taken the lead in discussing new approaches to education; feminism is part of that discussion.
(Aruni Samarakoon teaches at the Department of Public Policy, University of Ruhuna)
Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies
Indian model as wayforward
By Jehan Perera
President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s statement that district committees can be considered as part of the solution to the vexed problem of power sharing between the ethnic communities has caused a considerable furore in the Tamil community. It came as both a shock and a disappointment as the president has also been speaking about fast-tracking the national reconciliation process. The president said he is ready to reintroduce District Development Councils when former president Maithripala Sirisena proposed setting up of district councils under the provincial councils as a cost cutting measure. “Former President, I listened to your comments on District Development Councils and I am ready to do it,” the President is quoted as having said. Subsequently, the president’s media unit clarified that the President meant that the District Development Committees (DDCs) will be established within the Provincial Councils.
The president’s media unit further elaborated that the DDCs would provide a platform for coordination between the government, the provincial councils and the local governments for all executive decisions. It also said this will ensure the process is not duplicated and will reduce financial wastage. The concept of the district as the unit of devolution was tried before in 1981 by the president’s uncle, the late president J R Jayewardene during whose period the government established DDCs to be part of the solution to the ethnic conflict that was getting worse by the day. The Sri Lankan security forces had been ordered to control the growing Tamil militancy. The security forces were armed not only with guns but also with the Prevention of Terrorism Act which was abused then as it is abused today though to a much greater extent then, than it is now.
The memory of the brief period of the DDCs is an unhappy one to the Tamil community. The elections to the DDC were contested by the ruling party, the UNP, to which the president belongs. The government’s attempt to rig those elections and win them at any cost led to the catastrophic burning of the Jaffna Public Library in 1981. This seat of learning was one of the most sacrosanct institutions of Tamil civilisation that symbolised the high quality of education in the north of the country that was the envy of other parts of the country. It is therefore not surprising that the president’s media unit was quick to deny the very negative inferences made with regard to the president’s speech.
The president’s media unit can be relied upon to accurately portray the president’s cryptic remark with regard to his willingness to resuscitate the district council system. However, the very idea of creating a complex platform for coordinating the central government, provincial councils and local government bodies for all executive decisions seems to be a difficult task. It runs the real risk of killing any possibility of decision making through a multiplicity of committees. Coordination within one level of the government is difficult enough. Coordinating between multiple levels will be even more difficult. There have been issues when two drivers sit at the wheel. Who does the Government Agent in a district report to as he also serves as the District Secretary? What is the protocol when a central deputy minister and provincial minister attend a formal meeting?
The questions noted above have been raised in the past and many remain unresolved and making further units of devolution will be confusion compounded. The irrelevance of the proposed district committees to the solution of the ethnic conflict can be seen by another problem. The provincial councils, which were formulated to be the solution to the ethnic conflict, and to represent the wishes of the people of each province, do nothing of the sort at the present time, as they are non-functional where people’s representation is concerned. For the past four years, the provincial councils have only been administrative bodies run by a presidentially appointed governor who can act, and does act arbitrarily, without consulting the people of the province. During this period, elections to the provincial councils have not been held. Far from being institutions of devolved power, the provincial councils now represent the centralised power of the state, both unfortunately and perniciously.
The ability of the government to neutralise the provincial councils by the undemocratic method of not permitting elections to be held for 4 years gives impetus to the Tamil community’s rejection of them. The provincial councils were brought into existence in 1987 as the main democratic part of the solution to the ethnic conflict. They were meant to provide the people of each province with the power to decide on locally relevant matters. But this right has been denied to them. This would be the main reason why the demand for federalism is once again coming to the fore. In a landmark judgement the Supreme Court in August 2017 with Chief Justice Priyasath Dep presiding ruled that “Advocating for a Federal form of Government within the existing State could not be considered as advocating Separatism.” The court dismissed a petition that ITAK (or Federal Party) had, as one of its “aims” and “objects” the establishment of a Separate State.
The TNA which is the largest Tamil party (with ITAK as its major component) has responded positively to the president’s announcement that he intends to seek a solution to the ethnic conflict by the 75th anniversary of Independence. They have said that they will seek a solution on the basis of federalism. Their spokesperson M. A. Sumanthiran has pointed out that there are more than 25 countries in the world which have federal system and they are very much united, and contain over 40 percent of the world’s population. The United States, India, Switzerland and Malaysia are examples of federal states. The key feature in a federal state is that the government will not be able to change the way a provincial council is governed. Certainly, the government will not be able to arbitrarily postpone elections to a provincial council for four years and then run it centrally through a governor of its own choice.
On the other hand, from the time that the Tamil polity has asked for federalism, beginning in the 1950s, the Sinhalese polity has rejected it as being injurious to the country’s national sovereignty and security. There is misapprehension that federalism might be the first step to secession. The examples of the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia are given as examples of federal states that broke up on the lines of their federal units. The Sinhalese position is that a unitary form of government would protect the country from being divided in this manner. However, even unitary states have been divided if they did not manage their ethnic relations in a constructive manner as was the case in Sudan (which divided into South Sudan) and Serbia (Kosovo). The enlightened reasoning and decision of the Sri Lankan Supreme Court in 2017 needs to be explained to the political parties and to the general population.
The 18th century English poet Alexander Pope wrote “For Forms of Government let fools contest whatever is best administered is best.” Just across the seas from Sri Lanka the world has a good example of a diverse and huge country that has held together as one and is now getting stronger and stronger, both in terms of its economic might, but also its international stature. The Indian form of government is neither wholly federal nor wholly unitary, but can take on aspects of either as the situation demands. In times of peace it is federal, in times of stress it can become unitary. This was the solution that India and Sri Lanka agreed to in the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 and which was distorted in the 13th Amendment. Recently in parliament, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa went one step forward to say he was for discussions on 13th Amendment plus. India has been Sri Lanka’s best saviour at the present time in terms of the economic crisis, giving Sri Lanka far more than other countries. With India’s political support to a political solution based on its own learning and experience, a viable solution can be found and Sri Lanka can forge ahead as a truly united nation to economic development.
Top acts heading overseas…for 31st night
Sohan & The X-Periments, and the new-look Mirage outfit, will not be around to usher in the New Year – 2023.
While The X-Periments will take a break, from 31st night activities, their leader Sohan will be away, in the UK, making sure that the folks, over there, have a ball, as the New Year approaches…and after!
He will be at the Honeymoon Banquet Hall, in Hounslow, London, together with the band Roots, and guest artiste Damin David – UK Lankan’s Voice Winner – to welcome 2023.
This dinner dance will commence at 7.00 pm and wind up at 1.00 am, and will be held in typical Sri Lankan style, with kiribath, tea, coffee, after the countdown.
Among the highlights will be the selection of the New Year Queen.
This will be Sohan’s third trip to the UK, for this year, and it did come as a surprise, he says, adding that he is glad that he is in demand in the UK, as well.
Sohan will also take wing for Australia, to perform at a very important event – a concert to honour the late Desmond de Silva.
It will be held on 11th, February, 2023, in New South Wales, and will also feature Mignonne and Suraj, Melantha Perera, Mariazelle, Corrine, and Sohan Pieris, among others.
This concert will showcase the music from Desmond’s incredible musical journey…with the Spitfires, Jetliners, Foreign Affair (UK), Replay 6, Desmond and The Impressions, and the baila king himself, in ‘hologram.’
In the meanwhile, the new-look Mirage, who captivated a full house at the Peacock, Berjaya Hotel, Mount Lavinia, last Friday night – December 2nd – is scheduled to head for Oman for two important seasonal gigs – on 23rd December and 31st December.
On Friday, the 23rd, they will be at the Grand Hall, Al Falaj Hotel, in Muscat, for ‘Sri Lankan Musical Night’ – from 3.00 pm onwards.
In addition to their Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve gigs, the General Manager of the Al Falaj Hotel, Praveen George, indicated to me that Mirage will also be seen in action at a few more events, in Oman.
Down Under, too, elaborate plans are being made to celebrate the dawning of another New Year.
Two popular bands, in Melbourne, Replay 6 and Ebony, will be at the Grand On Princess, to provide the right kind of music to make this New Year’s Dinner Dance nostalgic.
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