Reconciliation and the issue of identities
Nakba (‘Catastrophe’ in Arabic) is the name given to the ethnic
‘cleansing’ of Palestine of almost its entire Arab population. Zochrot
(‘remembering’ in Hebrew) is an Israeli group dedicated to educating the
Jewish population about the Nakba.
On April 25 this year in Tel Aviv, during Israel’s Independence Day
celebrations, the group attempted to recite the names of the depopulated
Palestinian towns. Mishteret Yisrael Police personnel suppressed the
Last year Israel passed a law to punish institutions (including
municipalities) which commemorate the Nakba. The reasoning behind this
action is clear. Zionists require memory of the Nazi holocaust which
killed six million Jews, but requires a one-sided view of their own
Ultra-nationalist movements require memories of ethnic repression to
survive and thrive. For example, the Nazis needed the memory of the
unjust Versailles Treaty and the myth of a ‘Jewish-Communist
Conspiracy’. Where facts challenge the memory, it is necessary to excise
In Sri Lanka we have seen this happening among Tamil
ultra-nationalists. The myth is of a ‘Sinhala state’ unrelentingly
repressing and committing ‘genocide’ against the Tamil population. That
this version is not completely accurate can be seen by looking at the
history of the ‘ethnic problem’.
Palestinian refugees in 1948
Before the early 20th century, the overwhelmingly important issue was
not ethnicity, but caste. Trans-ethnic marriages by people of similar
caste (especially Vellala-Goyigama) were common enough.
In 1911, Ponnambalam Ramanathan was elected to the Legislative
Council, defeating Marcus Fernando. The issue was not ethnicity, but
Vellala/Goyigama Sinhalese and Tamils voted for Ramanathan, others
for Marcus. The modern conception of the ‘Sinhalese’ came about among
the emergent bourgeois (mainly so-called lower-caste elites), through
attempts to unite people of different castes.
It is notable that, at the time, ‘Cingalese’ referred to a native
inhabitant of ‘Ceylon’ - hence GB Shaw’s character ‘Sir Jafna Pandranath’,
visibly a Tamil, is nevertheless referred to as a ‘Cingalese gentleman’.
The term ‘Ceylonese’ was used to indicate all Sri Lankans, including
Burghers and Britons.
The ‘Ethnic Problem’ came to be primarily because of jostling among
members of the native elites for places in the government service. The
British colonial masters, true to their opportunistic policy of ‘Divide
and Rule’, had given more than their fair share of these appointments
first to Burghers and then to Jaffna Tamils.
In 1928, Sydney Webb, Colonial Secretary in Britain’s Labour
government established the Donoughmore Commission to map out Sri Lanka’s
future political structure. The depositions of many leaders of the
elites of the ‘Kandyan’ and ‘Low-country’ Sinhalese make it clear that
they thought of themselves as separate ethnic groups.
Universal franchise, which was introduced as a result of the
Commission’s report, this was opposed by many of the leaders of the
elite, in particular by the leaders of the Tamil elite. In response to
the introduction of democratic elections, the Tamil elite leadership
responded with a demand of ‘Fifty-Fifty’: half the parliamentary seats
and half government service appointments were to go to Sinhalese, half
of each to members of the minorities. This was a virtual apartheid.
The elite nature of this demand is exposed by the fact that nowhere
was there a provision for use of the Tamil language - the elite were
perfectly happy to see English continuing as the Official language, to
the detriment of both Sinhala - and Tamil-speakers.
It was left to the Leftists to begin talking about the use of the
vernaculars in the State Council in 1936. Not until 1944 did members of
the elite introduce a bill for the vernaculars to be the official
languages. In fact, only under the Mahinda Rajapaksa government is the
1944 bill being implemented fully!
The 1956 ‘Sinhala Only’ policy was a mistake, but it was rectified
partly by the ‘Tamil Also’ provision in 1958 - to which the Tamil
political leaders also agreed. Tamil has since had a status in Sri Lanka
still rare for a minority language: for example, in Britain Welsh and
Scots Gaelic are official only regionally (the latter only became an
official language of Scotland in the 21st century) and Urdu/Hindi has no
place at all.
It was in 1959 that Chellappah Suntharalingam, a former minister in
DS Senanayake’s Cabinet, first used the term Thamil Eelam or Eylom. In
1963, he called for ‘the partition of Ceylon’ and a ‘fight for the
Freedom and Independence of the Eyla Thamil Nation’.
‘Thamil Eelam’ remained mainly a theoretical construct, mainly
confined to émigré circles in Britain until 1972. It gained ground after
the introduction of media-wise standardisation (which was similar to the
affirmative action legislation in Tamil Nadu - which enabled
under-privileged Dalit caste people to enter universities); a cohort of
young educated Tamils was galvanised into supporting the establishment
of an independent Tamil state.
Unfortunately, the JR Jayewardene government which came to power in
1977 gave the moribund Tamil terrorist movement a shot in the arm
through a combination of anti-Tamil pogroms (including the destruction
of the Jaffna library) and lackadaisical enforcement of the law.
It was the events of ‘Black July’ 1983 that became the abiding memory
used by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to justify their
expulsion of Sinhalese and Muslims from majority Tamil areas.
Since then the LTTE attempted time and again to goad the Sinhalese
masses into anti-Tamil riots, but to no avail. The LTTE rump in the
Diaspora (with not a little help from foreign media) has painted the
last months of the recent civil conflict, particularly in the Mullaitivu
district, as ‘genocide’.
The best way to prevent the LTTE rump from achieving its aims is to
pursue fully the policies of reconciliation inaugurated by President
Rajapaksa. We need no more ‘memories’. It is vital to displace our
consciousness of being ‘Sinhalese’, ‘Tamil’, ‘Muslim’, ‘Burgher’,
‘Malay’, ‘Veddha’, ‘Bharatha’, ‘Memon’, ‘Sindhi’, ‘Bohra’ or ‘Parsee’
with the consciousness of being ‘Sri Lankan’.