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ACADEMICS EXPOSE MICHAEL ROBERTS

H.L.D.Mahindapala

Mr. Lionel Bopage’s attempt to explain his version of "extreme Sinhala nationalism" (The Island, 10/4/2002) through a review of Michael Roberts’s tendentious pamphlet is noteworthy not for its contents but for its vocabulary, its academic veneer and the conventional and repetitive anti-Sinhala-Buddhist rhetoric commonly used by NGO activists like Jayadeva Uyangoda of the Colombo University. Though LB has never exhibited such skills on previous occasions, I am thankful to him for rushing to defend the pamphlet titled "Sinhala-ness and Sinhala Nationalism" because it gives me another opportunity to revisit Michael Roberts’ academic record shredded to confetti by some of his more knowledgeable and objective scholars specializing in his chosen disciplines of history and anthropology. I must also thank LB for quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson ("all history becomes subjective; in other words, there is properly no history; only biography") as it provides me an opening to explore their subjective history that is inseparable from their "biography".

Taking off from the quote that there is "no history, only biography", let’s begin with some aspects of Roberts’ "biography" that is like an onion – the more you peel the more it reveals the hidden layers. It must be emphasized that this is not an exercise into the private lives of these anti-Sinhala-Buddhist agents. This review of LB’s review of Roberts’ pamphlet will be confined to their public life which he has opened for scrutiny by equating "history" with "biography".

In an earlier review of Roberts’ pamphlet (published in The Island) I cited extracts from his fellow-social scientist, Kumari Jayawardena, and Sri Lanka’s leading historian, Prof. Kingsley de Silva, who had exposed the fallacies of Roberts’s theories on caste and on the ordinary lime used by our housewives daily, to mention only two bizarre examples from his writings. The evidence produced in that series of articles was meant to demonstrate the "subjective history" of an academic obsessed with a bitter anti-Sinhala-Buddhist ideology. What I didn’t mention then was the unassailable evidence produced by a foreign scholar who openly accuses Roberts of committing the worst imaginable crimes by any academic.

The fraudulent practices of Roberts have been exposed in absolutely damning terms by Patrick Peebles, Professor of History at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, USA. His doctoral dissertation on the role of Mudaliyars under the British was supervised by the respected American historian, Prof. Bernard S. Cohn who wrote "Colonialism and its Form of Knowledge: The British in India". Briefly, it is a study of the British imperialists packaging information to make the natives feel inferior and submit themselves to the superior hegemony of the white man. The "brown sahibs" left behind by the British too feel superior to the native when they mimic their white masters. This cultural imperialism continues to rule the servile minds of the "brown sahibs" in academia -- e.g. S. J.Thambiah, R.A. L. H. Gunawardena, H.L. Seneviratne, Kumari Jayawardena and other imitators – paying pooja to their Western gods. It is an acknowledged fact that their careers, their perks and their acceptance among their peers in Western academia depend entirely on the distance they travel to denigrate the natives and worship the white man’s institutions and ideologies as the panacea for all ills in the developing world.

There are exceptions no doubt but Roberts is not one of them. He has made a career out of running down the Sinhala-Buddhists. There is, of course, nothing wrong in critically evaluating the role of the Sinhala-Buddhists provided these assessment are based on solid evidence, objective analyses, and meaningful theories. But when Roberts is repeatedly exposed for his theoretical distortions, cooked up evidence and intellectual dishonesty then he ceases to be a credible source of Sri Lankan history. Prof. Peebles has taken him to task precisely for his lack of intellectual honesty.

Coincidentally, Prof. Peebles and Roberts explored the common themes of the social changes in the 19th and 20th centuries and the rise of the new "elites" under British rule. Roberts focused on the caste "elite" and Prof. Peebles on the "Mudaliyar Class". It is in his study of "Social Change in Nineteenth Century Ceylon" that Prof. Peebles savages Roberts for his unethical and downright fraudulent practices. The following extensive quote from Prof. Peebles book, "Social Change in the Nineteenth Century Ceylon" (pp 12 -14, Navarang in collaboration with Lake House Bookshop, 1995) tells it all:

"Much of the writing on nineteenth century elites by volume has been published by Michael Roberts, with considerable confusion as to what an elite is. His initial foray into this field was his seminal paper on the "The Rise of the Karavas". This was an important contribution to the social history of Ceylon because it addressed the issue of caste in a way historian had not done previously. The paper documents points made about their wealth, independence and claims to highest social status by Bryce Ryan (author of "Caste in Modern Ceylon"). Unlike Ryan, however, he equated the prominence of wealthy karava families as a rise in the status of the entire caste from low to high rank, something not justified by the evidence. (If I may add to this, Kumari Jayawardena went further and exposed the fallacy of Roberts’s rise of the karava theory in her book, "Nobodies to Somebodies". She dismissed Roberts’s theory of the rise of the karava caste and explained that it was not one single caste that rose from the colonial enterprises but a whole new class.)

Prof. Peebles adds: "His (Roberts’) chapter in the University of Ceylon "History of Ceylon" Vol. III has an all-inclusive definition of elite: anyone who can claim some combination of a long list of attribute (wealth, power, office, life-style, sophistication, or high caste or other social status) was a member of the elite. He speaks of "a national elite" of five to eighteen percent of the population -- numbers that suggest that his national elite are the new middle-class reborn. Again he speaks of the mobility of entire castes, this time including the salagama and durava.

"Roberts’ chapter in the volume "Collective Identities, Nationalisms and Protest" is an extension of the previous paper, extended in part by considerable and inconsiderate borrowing from my doctoral dissertation. (In a footnote to this Peebles add: "The paper misquotes, mis-cites, and distorts my research. It attributes statements I never made to me, claims my conclusions as his own, and even reproduces a figure without permission"). Although he appears to accept my idea that the caste segmented the Sinhalese elite rather than being a primary dimension of stratification, he repeats his formula that the success of individuals within those castes led to ‘the success of the ‘Karava, Salagama and Durava castes. The same theme is elaborated in the collection of letters of Jeronis Pieris. This book brought about a scathing critique from a Sri Lankan historian, D. A. Kotelawela, who refers to his methods as "nonscholarship," in which others’ conclusions are questions without adequate evidence to the contrary.

"Roberts’ "Caste Conflict and Elite Formation" is a painfully detailed and conceptually obscure attempt to relate the history of the karava caste in Ceylon to caste mobility elsewhere in South Asia. The attempt is noteworthy because historians of Ceylon have been too narrowly focused; much can be learned from systematic comparisons with Indian history. In this case, however, Roberts tries to impose an untenable view of the karava caste in Ceylon on a false view of caste in general. The book includes a vast amount of information on nineteenth century elites, much of it from others’ scholarship. (In a footnote to this Peebles add: "The description of the salagama case on 133 – 40 is essentially a paraphrase of Malalgoda, Budhism in Sinhalese Society, 87 – 105").

"The inapplicability of his model to India has been exposed elsewhere. The strongest criticisms are that Roberts thinks of caste as ‘primordial identities’ that were fixed in the distant past with little change through history, and that he treats the relations between castes and eternal conflict and hostility. In fact, castes have always been changing in South Asian society, through migration, numerical decline, partition, intermarriage, and/or the economic fortunes of subcastes. These shifting groups have had to maintain flexible relations with each other, precisely because the position of each in society is subject to so much change. What Roberts sees as ‘caste warfare’ is part of the process of adjustment to changed circumstances.

"The book’s characterization of competition between the karava magnates and professionals and the goiygama elite as an aspect of upward mobility of entire castes, such as occurred among upwardly mobile castes in India is nonsense; caste leaders there formed caste association to elevate their castes, and conflict, when it occurred, took much more sustained forms than the flurry of pamphleteering that occurred in the 1870’s and 1880’s. Prof. Peebles concludes his attack on Roberts with this line: "Recently Roberts has come full circle and is once again equating elites with the middle class." In summary, Prof. Peebles lambastes Roberts for concocting theories without evidence, for cribbing from other scholars, for misquoting and mis-citing, for peddling "nonsense" by drawing parallels where none exists, for not acknowledging the sources from which he had borrowed, for confusing one concept with another, for claiming the works of other scholars as his own, for paraphrasing the original works of other scholars and passing it off as his own, for the ideological fixations that lead him to a static view of history, for a "nonscholarship" approach to history – all of which exposes the character, the honesty and the credibility of Roberts. It must be emphasized that Roberts’ is not the only one guilty of this kind of reprehensible conduct. The academic world is crawling with frauds, both in the science and the humanities faculties.

Among the anti-Sinhala-Buddhist social scientists he is only the tip of the iceberg. Roberts, a part time anthropologist, has been dabbling almost full time in Sri Lankan history. Any inter-disciplinary approach should be commended because one can throw light on the other. But in Roberts’ case both disciplines have been blighted by his distortions, dishonesty and his anti-Sinhala-Buddhist mania. When his intellectual integrity is questioned and exposed by his fellow-academics, can he be trusted to write a non-fictional history of Sri Lanka? Yet MARGA, led by Godfrey (Catholic) Gunatilleke, handpicked him to edit the series on the history of the north-south conflict. Surprising? No. Roberts’ anti-Sinhala-Buddhist dogmatism has made him a darling of the anti-Sinhala-Buddhist NGOs. For instance, MARGA and the ICES send for him regularly to participate in their celebrations and publications. In the $250,000-bash of the ICES to commemorate Neelan Tiruchelvam’s death anniversary held at the Galle Face Hotel, Roberts was one of selected invitees with all expenses paid for his trip from South Australia.

The hidden political agenda of the MARGA series edited by Roberts is to denigrate and inferiorize the Sinhala-Buddhists and to glorify the Jaffna Tamils. MARGA’s choice of Roberts to edit the anti-Sinhala-Buddhist series is predictable: MARGA was, perhaps, relying on Roberts’ lack of intellectual integrity to produce just the kind of pamphlet they need to denigrate the Sinhala-Buddhists. In the pipeline, I understand, are other books of Roberts’ peddling the same anti-Sinhala-Buddhist propaganda. This anti-Sinhala-Buddhist political agenda is apparent in the two pamphlets produced by the two editors: Roberts’ "Sinhala-ness and Sinhala Nationalism" and Devenesan Nesiah’s "Tamil Nationalism". Nesiah struggles desperately to find evidence for his idea of "Tamil Nationalism" which he admits hardly exists and Roberts takes a circuitous route through his "Vamsa theory" to blame Sinhala-Buddhism for the turn of events that led to the north-south conflict. Regurgitating Roberts’ theoretical hallucinations, LB recommends that it is a pamphlet that should be read all and sundry. Birds of a feather flock together, eh?

LB’s "biography" too has all the hallmarks of theoretical chicanery and shady enterprises. Consider his past briefly. He was high up in the JVPhierarchy of 1971 and along with his side-kick, Jayadeva Uyangoda (now attached to the political department of Colombo University) was assigned to take over Colombo and Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, dead or alive. With half-baked theories of Marxism, they assumed they had the theoretical tools, the revolutionary leadership, a firm grasp of the underlying political forces and the people and the cadres (ill-equipped and ill-trained) to stage a coup and deliver Sri Lanka out of the evil grip of capitalism into their socialist paradise. Their cockeyed view of history made them believe that they could repeat in Sri Lanka Lenin and Trotsky’s Russian coup, which was falsely interpreted and propagandized as the October Revolution.

Marx was right when he said that history repeats itself, first a tragedy and then as a comedy. On the eve of the planned putsch, the two lumpen Lenins of the JVP – Uyangoda and LB -- took one look at the armed forces in command of the city and fled as fast as their shoes could take them, to hide under a bed in the Paratta (Buddhist) Temple in Panadura. They did not stop to spare a thought for the two hundred odd boys and girls waiting anxiously for their signal to start the "revolution" that never happened, mercifully. Their misleading theories were as flawed as their "biographies". Their "revolution" ended with the cowardly betrayal of their cause and, of course, the naive youth indoctrinated to follow them. Their anarchic actions based on vulgarized Marxist theories laid the pattern to the political violence that erupted in the subsequent years. These theoretically perverted children were fathered by the returnees from the West who preached a pie-in-the-sky egalitarianism, borrowed mainly from their inapplicable theories of Marxism and text books found in British libraries. In the end, Dr. N. M. Perera and Dr. Colvin R. de Silva proved to be the fiercest denigrators of their warped Marxist brood.

The extremism and the violence of LB and Uyangoda were disowned by their Marxist political fathers and rejected by the people when they went to the polls under the leadership of Wijeweera. LB’s karmic past caught up with him and he was expelled by his own party. He is now attempting to stage a comeback by discrediting the new JVP as chauvinists or extremists. In fairness to the new JVP it must be stated that theoretical absurdities do not guide them in their appraisal of what the Marxist called the "national question". Whatever their faults, they have returned to the democratic stream and they must be respected for abandoning the past haunted by failed rejects like LB and Uyangoda. The one memorable feature of LB’s "biography" is that he did not have the courage to stand up to what he believed and ran away abandoning the naïve boys and girls waiting to start the violence he engineered.

His "biography" takes a curious turn after he was released from jail. He made some questionable trips to Iraq. After his return there was a mysterious explosion in the harbour. There may be no connection between the two but he found the waters were too hot for his liking. He then cottoned on to Lalith Athulathmudali and got himself an entry visa to Australia where he became a champion of human rights overnight whilst continuing to justify the extremism of the JVP in which he played a leading role. As a leader, who organized and strategized the political violence of the JVP, he should be held responsible for the fascist brutalities of 1971. It was the first organization that unleashed political violence against innocent civilians in the post-independence era. Among the Sinhala community in Australia he is noted for his anti-Sri Lankan activities conducted in the guise of human rights. He has often threatened to sue Sri Lankans who had challenged his anti-Sri Lankan politics.

Before dealing with some of the inconsistencies, inaccuracies and absurdities of LB’s latest attempt to theorize on Sri Lankan history, it is necessary to focus -- only in passing -- on the close relationship of the two failed terrorists, LB and Uyangoda. Their past connections seem to be so close that LB’s review has all the flavours of Uyangoda’s anti-Sinhala-Buddhist vocabulary. The sudden and surprising change in LB’s style, concepts and vocabulary, however, does not add to his stature because he has tied himself to another failed theoretician Roberts.

LB’s defense of Roberts runs on the identical line of all those who blame the Sinhala-Buddhists for the post-independence debacle. Whatever route they take – historical, anthropological, sociological, political or any other route – they all arrive at the predictable conclusion of blaming only one party (the Sinhala-Buddhists) in a complex historical process. The bogey of the Sinhala-Buddhists was manufactured and propagated by the political caste/class of the northern electorate which, impelled by its own internal compulsions, had to demonize the "other", the Sinhala-Buddhists and exploit it for their political survival. The Jaffna political culture never embraced pluralism, humanism, socialism, liberalism, multiculturalism or any other progressive ideology that informed and inspired the Sinhala-Buddhist electorate. There isn’t a single instance of Burgher, Muslim, Englishman or any other non-Tamil being elected from the northern electorate. The political caste/class in Jaffna stuck intransigently to extreme racism not only to beat each other at the polls in the northern electorate but also to preserve their feudal and colonial privileges.

LB (or whoever wrote the script) calls for a holistic approach. And then he proceeds to focus only on the history of the Sinhala-Buddhists avoiding the volcanic forces generated within the peninsula. Can a holistic approach be complete by focusing only one side? Their rhetoric purports to present a comprehensive survey of the crisis but it invariably ends in surveying and blaming the Sinhala-Buddhists only. They deliberately turn a blind eye to the ethnic cauldron that was boiling and bubbling in the north. Even after the ethnic lava that erupted from its dark womb set fire to the nation they refused to investigate the sources of Jaffna-centric violence. They dare not look into it because that would undermine the foundations of their political agenda that blames only the Sinhala-Buddhists.

Roberts too has neither touched nor explained why the current conflict is confined to the ill-liberal ethnic fanatics of the north and not to the other minorities. Roberts and his coterie of anti-Sinhala-Buddhist ideologues have to explain why the "Sinhala-ness and the Sinhala nationalism" did not spark off Jaffna-centric violence among the other Tamil-speaking minorities – i.e. the Muslims and the Indian Tamils. If the Sinhala conscious, imbued with "the Vamsa ideology which projects the land ‘as a blessed place, blessed by Buddha and the Sinhala people as a chosen people’" is the root cause of the escalation of Jaffna-centric culture of violence why did it not provoke the other two Tamil-speaking communities and why was it confined only to the dark womb of Jaffna?

Their theory could have had some validity if all the Tamil-speaking minorities reacted to "the Vamsa ideology" like the Jaffna Tamil vellahlas – the most vicious and brutal ruling caste/class that oppressed and exploited their own people ruthlessly from pre-colonial times. On the contrary, the Indian Tamils and the Muslims remained as an integral part of the multicultural society without exacerbating the inter-ethnic relations with extremist demands that were aimed at grabbing power and territory for a racist minority at the expense of other communities. Why did the Jaffna Tamils alone step out of this multicultural framework in which the Burghers, Jas, Yons, Parsees, a host of religious denominations built their own niches?

The history of the Jaffna Tamils’ refusal to participate in the multicultural society goes way back to a time long before the arrival of Bandaranaike in "1956". G.G. Ponnambalam’s "50-50" and its offshoot of Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachcu (the Tamil State Party) did not come out of Bandaranaike’s policies. S. J. V. Chelvanayakam established his Tamil State Party on December 18, 1949. It was a time when communal harmony was at its peak.


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