Fires of communalism were fanned by anti-Sinhala-Buddhist ideologues
Posted on September 8th, 2020

H. L. D. Mahindapala

The abuse of history has been one of the major contributory factors that led to the exacerbation of the North-South relations. If our political/social scientists had balanced the mono-ethnic extremism of the North with the Southern forces rising against the provocative politics  of the peninsula (Example: 12% Jaffna Tamils demanding 50% of power at the centre) and given both the due weightage, the communal conflagration that kept the nation burning for 33 years could have been avoided. Instead the anti-Sinhala-Buddhist ideologues in academia and NGOs played foul by manufacturing and reinforcing the mono-causal perspective that pointed the finger only at the Sinhala-Buddhists. This  ideological thrust deflected the attention  away from the demonic  juggernaut that came rolling down from the North and destroyed everything in its wake.

Prof. S. J. Tambiah’s Buddhism Betrayed?: Religion, Politics  and Violence in Sri Lanka is a typical example of blaming only the Sinhala-Buddhists. This mono-causal theory does not fit into a universe consisting of multi-factorial causes. Tambiah’s attempt to brush aside the complexities and reduce the North-South conflict to a  single cause is a cheap exercise that appealed to the partisan ideologues committed to separatism. Tambiah went overboard to convince the world that all the evils originated only from Buddhism.

Woven into this was the other theory that claimed majoritarianism is the worst evil under the Sri Lankan sun. They refused to accept that minoritarianism can be – and has been – an evil worse than majoritarianism. In fact, the current global stability has been threatened by minoritarianism targeting majoritarianism and vice versa. It has replaced the Cold War rivalry that plagued the post-World War II period. Tambiah ignores the rise of minoritarianism as a destabilising force driven by mono-ethnic tyranny and focuses only on majoritarianism which fought the longest war within a democratic framework. The one-eyed view of Tambiah questions his claim to be multi-dimensional analyst. His book is such a juvenile exercise that any academic mug could have written a similar book titled Christianity Betrayed?, or Judaism  Betrayed?, or Gandhism Betrayed?, oreven Marxism  Betrayed?.

It is no great intellectual feat to string together a few negatives of any given subject and call it This-and-that Betrayed? Besides, history is one big mass grave in which the dry bones of noble ideals lie scattered with no one caring two hoots about it. Clearly, Tambiah’s academic exercise to pick only on Buddhism, ignoring the parallel Hindu forces of the North fathered by Arumuka Navalar, a caste fanatic, does not elevate him beyond that of a partisan charlatan.

The parallel force in the South was led by Anagarika Dharmapala who, like Navalar, was an anti-Christian, anti-Western reformist whose primary objective was to restore the traditional values of the indigenous people suppressed by the colonial masters. The difference, however, is that Navalar’s revision of Saivism, which was a political move to anoint the Vellalas as the Brahmin aristocracy of Jaffna, perverted the political culture of Jaffna, empowering the Vellalas as the God-given rulers of Jaffna. The Vellala-approved Tesawalamai, which codified the customs of Jaffna, also legitimized the  owning and exploitation of slaves. These Tamil  pariahs (outcasts) were reduced to subhuman slaves. The Vellala struggle was to retain the feudal and colonial privileges, positions and perks which they feared would decline with the sun going down in the British raj.

As the Vellala power and glory began to crumble under the invasive forces of modernity they took to mono-ethnic extremism as a last resort to survive in the competitive electoral politics, particularly in the post-Donoughmore period.  Vellala casteism, legitimized by Navalar’s Saivism, was no longer viable to retain their supremacy. Jane Russell delineates this phase in  her brilliant study of communalism under the Donoughmore constitution. ( Communal Politics under the Donoughmore Constitution, 1931 – 1947).  Mono-ethnic  extremism  was the only defence left to retain their grip on peninsular politics.  Eventually, the Vellala devotees of Navalar abandoned the non-violent mainstream – a path endorsed by casteist Navalar —  and declared war in the Vadukoddai Resolution (May 1976) to preserve their casteist supremacy. It was this struggle that led them all way, via Vadukoddai, to Nandikadal, the Waterloo of the Vellalas.

As opposed to this, Anagarika Dharmapala’s Buddhist revival advanced all the way to the latest triumph of the Rajapaksas raising non-violent democracy to its  peak. With all its imperfections, the triumph of the democracy in Sri Lanka is attributed to the power of tolerant Buddhism to nurture and foster a democratic culture. This was the original conclusion of Prof. A. J. Wilson, son-in-law of the father of Tamil separatism. (See below).  Going against this reality, after the Tamils took to separatism, Prof. Tambiah manufactured a mono-causal history partly to demonise the Sinhala-Buddhists as the prime cause of the raging ethnic conflict, partly to cover up crimes committed by the Tamil Vellalas against their own people in the feudal and colonial times, and partly to legitimize the fascist regime of Vellala supremacists, born out Hindu ideological distortions, indoctrinated by Arumuka Navalar. Manufacturing a mono-causal theory to point the finger only at one side in a conflictual situation where the ubiquitous opposites in history collide is, in the first place, against the known laws of history. Second, history happens only as a dialectical clash of two or more conflicting forces. The reverberating sounds of history do not echo in the passages of time with a one-hand clap.

The traumatic and the catastrophic events that shook the nation from the declaration of war at Vadukoddai in May 1976 to Nandikadal in May 2009 need not have occurred if the Vellala leadership had greater concern for the Tamil people. The tragic ending in Nandikadal exposes the short-sighted politics of a leadership that used its people to achieve their  goals. Their strategy was to create a bogeyman in the South and market mono-ethnic extremism as the only way out for the Tamils. They never offered the Tamil people alternative ideologies — liberal, socialist or any other  varieties of Marxism – that prevailed in the South. The ideologues who ganged up to manufacture their version of history constructed only a one-eyed narrative of blaming only the Sinhala-Buddhists. According to them the Yal Devi went only to the North and never came down. 

Take, for instance, the case of Dayan Jayatilleka who never fails to advertise that he is a political scientist”. If Prof. Tambiah is at the high-end of anti-Sinhala-Buddhist gang Dayan is at the very low end, parroting what his gurus had told him. Wearing his tinted blinkers made in Gramsci’s factories in Italy, he is wont to attack the Sinhala-Buddhists, naming in particular Anagarika Dharmapala, the anti-colonial reformist who awakened the Sinhala-Buddhists to the corrosive effects of the Christianized, Westernized and alien forces imposed by the imperial masters.

Dayan has failed to give equal weightage to the parallel forces unleashed in the North by the Saivite revisionist, Arumuka Navalar – the most pernicious casteist fanatic who is the demi-god of the Vellalas. He fathered Vellala casteist fascism that turned his devotees in Jaffna into relentless and merciless oppressors of the Tamil people. This high priest of Vellalaism told his Saivite followers that it is their duty to kill those who revile” Siva. And if they can’t kill they should hire someone else to do it for them. (p. 80 – The Bible Trembled, The  Hindu-Christian Controversies of Nineteeth Century Ceylon, R. F. Young and (Bishop) S. Jebanesan). Imagine, for instance, what Dayan Jayatilleka and his fellow-ideologues would have done if Anagarika had told the Buddhists to kill those who had reviled” the Buddha. Wouldn’t he have danced the kavadi to the drum beat of goo-ooo-rung, goo-ooo-rung in the streets of Colombo condemning it?

Dayan’s pseudo-political science is yet to give due weightage to the Vellala factor that over-determined the North-South relations from the colonial period. He has, in his abysmal ignorance, failed to weave in the decisive and destructive Vellala factor that collided with the Southern forces reacting to the Vellala grab for power in the dying days of colonialism. At the centre of the North-South conflict has been the Vellala thrust to grab disproportionate power at the expense of other communities. Dayan was blinded by various shades of Eurocentric theories, particularly Marxism, that hardly worked at the grassroot level in Sri Lanka. He could not get out of that box and come to grips with the mono-ethnic extremism of the North – the sole source of power of the Vellalas — winding its way inexorably to the Vadukoddai Resolution and, consequently to Nandikadal.

Like all anti-national political pundits, he fancies that if he throws in a few quotes from Gramsci, Althusser, Marx, Lenin etc., he could lasso the multifarious forces that  had bedevilled Sri Lankan politics and keep them under his control in his ideological stables. He believes that the solution lies in theoretical mumbo-jumbo spun in Eurocentric ideological factories. But how many Gramscis, Althussers and Lenins marched all the way to the polls that swept the Rajapakses into power? Which theory of our pundits predicted the annihilation of the UNP, or the rise and rise of the Rajapaksas? The presidential and the Parliamentary elections debunked the theoreticians parading as political scientists”. The Eurocentric theoreticians were among the victims of the Rajapaksa tsunamis that swept the nation.

This is only one example of how our political/social scientists blacked out the destructive forces that came down from the North and destroyed the ground laid for peaceful co-existence by the Founding Fathers of independence. Better political/social scientists than Dayan have played the ignominious role of betraying the fundamental principles of scholarship. They had no qualms in abandoning their own findings/theses at the end of years of research and plugging anti-Sinhala-Buddhist propaganda to buttress their partisan political agenda. I shall deal with more of it later. 

Before that let me first deal with the manner in which distorted history played its subversive  role in post-colonial politics. Each time history was dragged into the political arena it either ran into verbal fireworks with the clash of theories and interpretations, or exploded in bloody violence like the fireball that rolled all the way down to Nandikadal. In fact, the very first communal explosion that ripped the uninterrupted inter-ethnic harmony of centuries occurred when the up-and-coming leader of rising Tamil communalism, G. G. Ponnambalam, launched his attack debasing the Mahavamsa and the history of the Sinhalese in June 1939 in Nawalapitiya. Lashing out at the Sinhalese as a race of hybrids” he denigrated them as nobodies in the history of the nation. It didn’t take long for inter-ethnic clashes to ignite in the neighbourhoods of Passara, Nuwara Eliya, and Maskeliya.

Next month S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike was able to form a branch of the Sinhala Maha Sabha in Nawalapitiya. At the inaugural meeting he said: The Nawalapitiya Sinhala Maha Sabha should erect a statue of Mr. Ponnambalam as we should be grateful to him for provoking the formation of this Sinhala Maha Sabha.” (p.256 – Communal Politics under the Donoughmore Constitution, 1931 – 1947, Jane Russell, Tisara Prakasakayo, 1982.)

This was the time when Ponnambalam was going around whipping up support for his 50 – 50” demand. The ruling Vellalas who formed the power elite in Jaffna backed Ponnambalam to the hilt. The anti-caste, anti-communalist Jaffna Youth Congress, the one and only movement of the North to reject Tamil communalism, was critical of Ponnambalam. The Youth Congress, which was a formidable force in the twenties, stated: There has been plenty of false propaganda and exaggeration on both sides. Mr. Ponnambalam has been singing the glories of the Tamil race from public platforms, and by implication and direct statement casting slurs upon the Sinhalese people. Communalists flourish on one another. It is the existence and utterances of a Ponnambalam that provide the means for the rise to popularity and power of a Bandaranaike, and it is the latter’s acts and utterances that the former used to whip up a following.” (Ibid – pp. 255-6).

Jane Russel points out that 1938 and 1939 mark the nadir of communal relations in Ceylon”. (Ibid – 234). And she noted: In March 1938, G. G. Ponnambalam and D. P. R. Gunawardena came to blows in the corridor outside the chamber (of the State Council).” (Ibid – p. 257). Footnote to this said: The victor to this pugilistic contest was, not surprisingly, D. P. R. Gunawardena”.

Any serious study of Jaffna will confirm that despite the boasts of the greatness of the Jaffna Tamils they lack not only substantial evidence to back it up but also a historical consciousness comparable to that of the Sinhalese. So when Jaffna launched the separatist movement in 1948 it became an urgent political necessity to manufacture a history that could substantiate their political agenda. The history” contained in the Vadukoddai Resolution is a clear example of Tamils making history on the run. The frantic rush to make a new history was inevitable because the Tamils, unlike the Sinhalese, did not have a sense of history. Writing on the attitude of the Sinhalese and the Tamil towards their past, E. Valentine Daniels, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Michigan, said that the Sinhalese privilege history, whereas the Sri Lankan Tamils privilege heritage.” (p. 1.– Three Dispositions Towards the Past: One Sinhala, Two Tamil, Social Analysis, No.25:22-41, 1989).

Besides, the Mahavamasa, Chulavamsa, Deepavamsa point to the deep historical consciousness of the Sinhalese. The Tamils have not produced any comparable records of their past. In fact, the colonial masters had to urge them to produce a history for their guidance. The best known, Yalpana Vaipava Malai, was produced by poet Mylvakanam, because the Dutch Governor asked him to do so. Nobody asked the historian Mahanama to write the Mahavamsa. He did so in medieval times because he inherited the historical consciousness from his ancestors. It was in their blood. It was different with the Tamils of Jaffna. In the 20th century the Vellala casteist supremacists were desperately in need of a history not only to maintain their casteist grip on peninsula politics but also to extend their power beyond the boundaries of Jaffna.

They needed history to sanctify, justify and legitimize political violence which they launched in the end to achieve their elusive Eelam. The South too used history to justify their violence. But it has been more reactive than provocative. For instance, only the North has officially resorted to violence consciously and deliberately to achieve their political goals by declaring war against the South in the Vadukoddai Resolution (1976). No other leadership of any other community has officially declared war on a mono-ethnic ideology to achieve self-serving political goals at the expense of other communities.

The ending of Vadukoddai violence in Nandikadal confirm that history returns again and again to renew and reinforce the flow of the mainstream, dismissing fanciful and futile interpretations of theoreticians. History refused to be boxed in by narrow, self-serving theories. The most deplorable  part is the role played by the intellectuals. Re-reading Prof. Tambiah’s Buddhism Betrayed?, particularly in the light of subsequent events, makes you wonder about the integrity of intellectuals and their capacity to contribute gainfully to the welfare of people, particularly to people trapped in conflict situations. Dayan’s theories too can be dismissed as hollow sounds of an empty vessel. Whether it is on Cuba, his ideal state, or on Sri Lanka, his political theories and somersaults question not only his intellectual honesty but also his failure to grasp some of the essentials of the ground realities.

It is the betrayal of their own principles and the sacred standards set for sound scholarship that make the anti-Sinhala-Buddhist academics/theoreticians a bunch of hired hacks selling their talents to the highest bidder in the political market. Take the case of Prof. A. J. Wilson, son-in-law of the father of Tamil separatism, S. J. V. Chelvanayakam. In his early career he began by commending Buddhism as the force that has stabilised Sri Lanka and fostered democracy. Here’s what Calvin Woodard, an American scholar, wrote in a review of Wilson’s, Politics in Sri Lanka, 1947 – 1973, (Mac Millan Press, 1974): The uniqueness of Sri Lanka, Wilson points out, is that it has faced these challenges without veering  from the democratic path. Certainly then, the key to the future lies in an understanding of the  past. How and why, in other words, has the democratic experiment been able to work so well in Sri Lanka? The author investigates this and  concludes that the political stability so far maintained in Sri Lanka is due mainly to two forces, one of indigenous origin and the other the  result of Western implantation. Primary is the Buddhist ethos and the doctrine of tolerance. This, according to Wilson, has acted to dissuade the majority community from unduly imposing itself on the minorities and encourage it to respect the fundamental rights and distinctions of others in the plural society. Similar in effect to the Western notion of compromis, the doctrine of tolerance has facilitated compromise and  provided essential underpinning in society to the parliamentary system.” ( pp. 72-73, The  Ceylon Journal of  Historical and Social Studies, Vol III, July-December, 1973, No.2).

It should be noted that this was written after S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, who is generally vilified by the Tamil ideologues as the evil force that unleashed Sinhala-Buddhism as a dominant political force.  Wilson’s ideological somersault is unacceptable. Yes, one could  take it from a prostituting politician selling himself to win votes but not from an intellectual who was the best-informed on the facts and issues of the day. Is there any intellectual integrity left in Wilson for turning against his own scholarly judgement? Is marrying the daughter of S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, the father of Tamil separatism, a valid reason for turning against the Sinhala-Buddhists?

Following in his father-in-law’s footsteps he too began to accuse the Sinhala-Buddhists of  being creatures of the Mahavamsa. Abandoning his own scholarly judgement, he had no compunction in using pop slogans like Mahavamsa mentality” to denigrate the Sinhala-Buddhists. Obviously, he has not read that masterpiece which declared that the ultimate objective of history was to make the island a fit-dwelling place for men” and  not for any particular community, certainly not for the Sinhala-Buddhists. This is another deplorable case of our intellectuals distorting history to serve their political ends.

This brief outline is only a part of the history of the anti-Sinhala-Buddhist  ideologues who had no compunction in selling  their souls for self-serving politics. Eventually these intellectuals reaped in Nandikadal the  hate politics they sowed in Vadukoddai. The tragedy is that they still keep on harping on the futile politics of blaming the Sinhala-Buddhists without examining seriously and honestly where they went wrong and why. How long are they going to keep on blaming  the Sinhala-Buddhists for their political blunders that took them nowhere?

Not knowing what to do next they are bent on going  back to their fathers’ and grand-fathers’ politics like G. G. Ponnambalam who talked of two nationalities” in Parliament on the opening day. I wrote this as prelude to deal with his attempt to go back in time to his grandfather’s divisive politics. Incidentally, his grandfather asked only for fifty-fifty” not a nation. Tamil nation” was a latter-day concoction. I shall go into some aspects of his politics in the next contribution.

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