Nation, Nation-State and The Tamil Kingdom – A reply to L.C.Arulpragasm
Posted on January 29th, 2020

Professor S. Amaratunga  DSc

L.C.Arulpragasam’s (LCA) article which appeared in three parts under three titles; Decolonization, Nationalism, the Nation State and Democracy – Part I” (Sunday Island, 14.10.2018), Some Unchronicled Consequences of the Colonial Period – Part II  (Sunday Island, 21.10.2018) and The ‘State Nation’ Versus the ‘Nation State’ ” (Sunday Island, 28.10.2018)   is an obvious attempt to develop a case for the creation of a Tamil autonomous state. His argument is that the British colonialist at the time of granting independence to Ceylon had disregarded the national boundaries that had existed for centuries in the country and brought together communities that had existed as separate people with their own territories, language, religion and culture and expected them to solve their differences by the democratic process that the colonialists constructed. As a result today the majority, as decided by the vote counted within colonially contrived boundaries, is being given power over the other communities via a unitary constitution. Thus LCA attempts to establish that Tamils had occupied the North and parts of East since the 13th Century CE and that in fact there was a Tamil kingdom in this territory from 1215 until the Portuguese conquered it in 1624 (1619 ?).  His argument is that bringing the Tamil kingdom and the Sinhalese kingdoms that existed before foreign occupation together and putting them into a democratic framework and expecting them to solve their differences under a unitary constitution is to deny the Tamils of their land and the right to self-determination. However, whether there were in reality Tamil inhabitants in the North and the East of the Island during that period who built a Tamil civilisation in those areas which resulted in the creation of a Tamil Kingdom is very much in doubt and therefore whether Arulpragasm’s contention would hold is in doubt too. 

LCA says the Europeans solved their differences not by democracy but by war and after their national boundaries were thus established they could develop their nation-states but the Tamil nation, as were the many African and Middle East nations, was denied their right to their homeland. He says the African nations are still struggling against this colonial evil deed and in the Middle East the Sunni-Shia conflict is still causing much violence. But it must be said that these nations had well established historical boundaries whereas whether the so called Tamil Kingdom was entitled to its boundaries is in doubt. For instance the conflict between Cameroon and Nigeria has been resolved on the basis of their historical border. There are about twenty separatist movements in Africa but the African leaders have agreed to honour the colonial boundaries and not try to redraw the map of Africa for good reasons. In the case of the Middle East the struggle is not due to colonial boundaries. On the contrary the Middle East conflict is kept in conflagration and unresolved by the USA and the Europe for their advantage. It could be resolved on the basis of historical boundaries between Palestine and Israel or on the basis of the 1947 UN Resolution but USA will use its veto power to deny the Palestinians a just solution. The conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran is exploited to further economic and political agendas of the West. The point here is that all these people had their historically demarcated territories and solutions could be arrived at on the basis of those borders but the Western powers would not allow that to happen whereas Tamils never had national boundaries of their own. LCA’s ideas do not tally with the reality in Africa or the Middle East, nor Sri Lanka for that matter.

Now let us look at LCA’s claim that Tamils of Sri Lanka are entitled to a land which they could exclusively call their own. In fact LCA is trying to revive the Traditional Tamil Homeland concept which has been debunked by several intellectuals in the calibre of Silva, G.H.Peiris, K.N.O. Dharmadasa, Gamini Irriyagolla and others. The claim  made by the TULF in several of its declarations including the one at Vadukodai in 1976 that Sri Lanka was occupied by the Tamils and Sinhalese since early times and that Tamils exclusively possessed the northern and eastern parts extending from Chilaw to Kumbukkan Oya is based on flimsy and far fetched material like the Cleghorn Minutes. K.Indrapala’s research work had shown that there is no evidence of Tamil habitation in Sri Lanka before the 10th Century CE. The claim made by some early Tamil writers that there are Tamil Brahami inscriptions in Sri Lanka has been refuted by K.M. De Silva. G.H. Peiris has shown the fallibility of TULF claims. Mudliyar Rasanayagam’s views on Tamil habitation in Sri Lanka have been proved to be baseless and less than a scholarly discourse of the matter by K.N.O.Dharmadasa. Moreover, there are no archaeological or epigraphical evidence of  ancient Tamil presence anywhere in Sri Lanka. Epigraphic inscriptions are considered to be one of the most reliable evidence of ancient habitation.

LCA in order to support his claim that Tamils were the exclusive occupants in the North and East of Sri Lanka from the 13th Century is relying mainly on the fact that there was a Tamil Kingdom in the North from 1215 to 1624 (1619?) CE. This Tamil kingdom was started by the Kalinga invader Magha who conquered Polonnaruwa which was ruled at that time by Parakrama Pandyan from Pandyan Dynasty. Pandyan had defeated Leelawathie the consort of Parakramabahu 1 and the ruler of Polonnaruwa at that time. Polonnaruwa was liberated from Magha by Parakramabahu 11 ( from Dambadeniya 1236 – 1270). However, Magha who had been ruling Polonnaruwa from Jaffna remained in the peninsula and started the Tamil Kingdom. This kingdom existed as a tribute-paying feudatory of the Pandyan Empire in South India. It gained independence in 1323 when the last Pandyan ruler in Madurai was defeated by Malik Kafur the army general of the Muslim Delhi Sultanate. 

During this time a Malay chieftain from Tambvalinga ( in modern Thailand) named   Chandrabhanu invaded the politically fragmented Sri Lanka. King Parakramabahu 11 was able to repulse the attack. However, Chandrabhanu moved North and secured the peninsula driving away Magha in 1255. Sandyavaranam Sundara Pandyan 1 invaded Sri Lanka in the 13th Century and defeated Chandrabhanu. Later the North was invaded for the third time by the Pandyan Dynasty under the leadership of Aryachakravarthi. When the Pandyan Kingdom which occupied most of South India and the North of Sri Lanka became weak due to Muslim invasion Aryachakravarthi rulers made Jaffna Kingdom  independent. This kingdom had to contend with simultaneous confrontation from Vijayanagar Empire which ruled South India and Kotte rulers. Prince Sapumal from Kotte kingdom conquered Jaffna for a brief period from 1450 to 1467.  Sapumal withdrew when the Kotte kingdom declined in power. Later Jaffna kingdom was made a vassal of Vijayanagar Empire and regained its independence when that empire disintegrated. Portugese arrived in Sri Lanka in 1505 and took control of Jaffna in 1619. 

 All this go to prove that the so called Tamil Kingdom was a creation of successive  invaders from South India and also Thailand and was for most of its existence a part of the Pandyan Empire in South India. This historical event was not any different from such other events in Sri Lanka caused by foreign invasions from South India and Europe. The so called Tamil Kingdom for long periods was part of a South Indian Dynasty. But so was the entire island of Sri Lanka when it was under British rule and considered part of the British Empire and perhaps also similarly part of Portuguese and Dutch Empires and also South Indian dynasties at different times in its history. Thus the so called Tamil Kingdom was only a result of foreign invasion and not a creation of ancient Tamil inhabitants. There are thousands of such happenings in the history of the world but they do not lead to the the creation of a separate state or a nation. The so called Tamil Kingdom therefore does not qualify as a Kingdom of Tamils. There is no evidence of an ancient civilization built by ancient Tamils living in the North or anywhere else in the country. The kovils built by invaders cannot be considered as features of a civilization. Tamils have not built, nurtured and protected a civilization in Sri Lanka.  On the other hand there is evidence that Sinhalese built a civilization covering the entire Island including the North and the East. Unless a group of people occupying an area of land build, nurture and protect a civilization on that land they are not entitled to that land. This fact is of paramount importance in the consideration of a claim for exclusive ownership to any land in any part of Sri Lanka.

Arulpragasam’s views on Nation-state and his idea of a State-nation may not help his course either. He has said that at independence the colonialist has put together different communities within arbitrary boundaries drawn by them and called them a nation-state. He says instead they should have been called state-nations for the state was created before the nation.  The term Nation has not been clearly defined by the UN or any other authority or political scientist. Political scientists have based their different definitions on different social, political and cultural aspects such as demography, language, territory, politics, psychology, common government, etc. Some social scientists recognize two types of nations, civic nation eg. France, and ethnic nation eg. Germany. Paradoxically the UN Charter includes a component of self governance and ignores, within its definition of nation, concepts or units of non-self-governing groups of people. More recently the international law has evolved away from the term Nation as it was commonly known to represent separate countries on the world map. Further the UN has no mechanism in place to evaluate and award Nation status. On the other hand it has a process to determine and recognize a State.

Thus there doesn’t seem to be consensus of opinion about what constitutes a nation or its salient features or an international mechanism to assess and determine whether a group of people constitute a nation. The presence of such diverse views and the absence of clear objective criteria to determine whether a group of people is a nation  make the concept of Nation a less important consideration when deciding on the political future of a people. In other words nation status should not necessarily entitle a group of people to exclusive ownership of land. 

The term Nation-state is equally vague in meaning and official recognition. Nevertheless Arulpragasm finds fault with the British for creating a Nation-state within the Island of Sri Lanka with colonially contrived boundaries. He means the British have disregarded the boundaries of the Tamil Kingdom and the two Sinhalese Kingdoms that existed before colonialists arrived. However the term nation-state has no significance for Tamils or Sinhalese for that matter because although the term is widely used no such entities exist. Nation-state has no UN or any other international definition. It has been defined by political scientists and according to one such definition a nation-state is one where the great majority are conscious of a common identity and share the same culture (Davis, 1997). This definition might suit Sri Lanka if the Tamils and Muslims agree to a common identity and culture. Another definition says the nation-state is an area where the cultural boundaries match up to with the political boundaries (Kazancigi L. 1986). It becomes obvious that a nation-state would exist if nearly all the members of a single nation were organized in a single state without any other national communities being present (Halliday, 1997). Therefore it may be concluded that no such entity exists.   

LCA’s attempt to show that Tamils of Sri Lanka had possession of a kingdom in the Northern part of the country during a period when there were two other Sinhalese kingdoms in the South has the ultimate goal of supporting the case for self determination for Tamils which could eventually lead to a separate state. However, as mentioned above it is seen that the so called Tamil kingdom does not qualify as a true kingdom with a civilization built by Tamil inhabitants. The archaeological and epigraphical evidence available in the North of Sri Lanka shows that the civilization that could be unearthed in that part of the country is part of the  civilization that had been built, nurtured and protected by the Sinhalese in the whole of the country. In the absence of official status for nation or nation-state, ownership of a civilization must become the single most important criteria and requirement for ownership of land. 

Arulpragasm  says that at independence one community has been given powers over the other by the democratic process” of voting , but under a unitary constitution within colonially contrived boundaries which bear no relation to ethnic/sectarian or national boundaries. This has had the effect of anointing” a particular ethnic group to power with its communal agenda. This results in rival nationalism to rise up and disunity and the ethnic divide will exacerbate. Firstly it must be said that the Sinhalese have no communal agenda and sufficient space has been provided for the minorities to participate in governing the country as a whole. The Muslim Community and the Up-country Tamils make full use of this opportunity. Unfortunately the Northern Provincial Council has not made use of its powers for the benefit of the Tamils and instead has converted the Council into a political platform to agitate for a separate state. Secondly there were no national boundaries within the Island of Sri Lanka as the so called Tamil Kingdom does not qualify as a kingdom built by Tamil inhabitants. Thirdly Tamil nationalism and its aggressive development including the demand for a separate country started well before independence as shown by several scholars like Gamini Irriyagolla and K.N.O.Dharmadasa and is therefore not consequent of the misdeeds of the colonialists.

Arulpragasm says it is desirable for all communities to come together as one country but on terms of equality with a constitution that did not let the unbridled nationalism of one community to trample on the rights of others. Firstly Sinhalese nationalism is not unbridled and is not aggressive and oppressive but is defensive and protective. It is sensitive to the threats on its civilization and would rise up in its defense when ever there is a threat to it as has happened through out its history including recent times when the LTTE was a threat. Secondly the present constitution grants equality to all communities and inhabitants of the country proving the fact that unitary constitution could extend equality to everybody. Universal franchise guarantees political equality. A federal constitution may grant better space to Tamils but at the expense of other communities. It would also go against the principle that the whole country belongs to everybody and no community could claim exclusive ownership to any part of the country which is the ideal that guarantees equality to every community and citizen. Thirdly the rights of Tamils have not been trampled by the Sinhalese or the constitution. They enjoy equal rights in every sphere; language, religion, economy, education, employment, culture, sports, physical facilities, etc. This is why the Tamils in the North have done equally well or better than the Sinhalese in all these areas in recent times. If they had been discriminated they would not have achieved what they have.

Professor S. Amaratunga  DSc

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