Opinion Article
Development, Multiculturalism and Ethnonationalism in Sri Lanka - Part II

Eezham Tamils' development: myths and realities

[TamilNet, Sunday, 07 December 2008, 23:03 GMT]
A development-oriented analysis originated from the West and often exploited by the Sri Lankan state to justify its ethnic chauvinism is that the Tamils were far advanced in ‘development’ under the British and the crisis was a result of independent Sri Lanka equalizing development to all people. One can understand Sri Lankan state and its intellectuals harping on the theme. But it is utter ignorance of history, lack of serious research and wrong application of analytical tools in judging development on the part of the intelligentsia outside, in creating a misleading picture of the crisis in Sri Lanka through their 'model-based' approaches, writes Opinion Columnist Chivanadi in the second part of the article, 'Development, Multiculturalism and Ethnonationalism in Sri Lanka.'

The 'Tamils who were ahead in development' is obviously a reference to the Jaffna Tamils, especially to the elite among them, who migrated to Colombo and were seen as competitors by the Sinhala elite.

The vast majority of Eezham Tamils in Mannaar, Vanni and in the East have never seen any development. The upcountry Tamils are the least developed community in Sri Lanka.

Even in the case of the Jaffna peninsula, the British period only marked a decline in actual development.

The last occasion when Jaffna attracted people from outside was the Dutch times. For instance, a Dutch census taken in 1790 tells us that out of roughly 45,000 males who paid the poll tax in Jaffna at that time, about 2000 were Malayalis.

The British period only saw people going out of Jaffna, which continued in post-independence times, because there was no region-based development.

Communication, an index of development was neglected in the Tamil areas in the British times. It is an irony that many roads in Jaffna are still found to be called 'Dutch Roads'.

The coastal trunk route traversed until Dutch times between Jaffna and Colombo was abandoned in the times of the British.

The East coast highway, from Point Pedro in Jaffna to Kathirkaamam, which was traditionally used by Eezham Tamils for their social, economic and cultural links until early British times, was never developed by the British and became non-existent in the independent Ceylon.

While railway came to the south of Sri Lanka in 1864, it was only in 1905 Jaffna saw the railway.

The foreign trade of Jaffna through its ports declined under the British.

The ports were also closed for official communication of people with India by 1910, citing spread of epidemics.

This happened when thousands of Jaffna Tamils were using the Kaangkeasanthu'rai - Naakappaddinam - Penang - Singapore sea route for migration, employment and economy.

The tobacco cultivation and trade, which was the lifeline of Jaffna's economy since Portuguese times, declined under the British in the 1930s and no substitute was provided. Textiles, another important source of economy nurtured by the Dutch, collapsed in the early British time itself.

The achievements in the field of education in Jaffna, often cited as a strong case for unequal development, was not essentially a British contribution. It was an initiative of the American missionaries. The British were not happy of their arrival in 1816. It was in a way to obscure them they were sent to Jaffna, a region considered unimportant by the British.

It is of course true that through the American Missionaries Jaffna was benefited tremendously by receiving a modern, non-colonial or post-colonial model of education when many parts of Asia and Africa were at the height of colonialism.

This was a rare and unique privilege for Jaffna at that time. The Jaffna model was more liberal and independent-spirited than the Macaulay model of India that was conceived two decades later.

The result was not only many firsts in Asia in the field of education but was also a strong native revival movement in the island, a forerunner even to that of the Sinhala-Buddhist revival.

The revival had its impact even in Tamil Nadu as the pioneers who brought out the Tamil classics in print were from Jaffna. One may note that this act, which served the emotional foundation of the Dravidian Movement later, was entirely an effort of the native scholars unlike the Orientalist contributions for Sanskrit and Pali.

Conventional analyses may project these achievements as markers of development. But, if one considers the fact that all those who were educated in Jaffna had to end up only in service professions and had to go away to the south of the island or to far away places such as the British Malaya and Singapore, then it could be realized that there was no actual development in Jaffna to make use of their education.

The educational potentiality of Jaffna, which initiated ventures such as the first medical education in the island, never found the logical reward or encouragement from the British by getting any institution of higher learning in Jaffna in their times.

The University College, Medical College and the Ceylon University, started by the British, were all exclusively Colombo-centric. The educational institutions of Jaffna, which thereto were functioning like university colleges, became schools in the British time itself, through a policy of 'government aid'.

Another important marker for development in modern times, the urbanization also never took place in Jaffna despite all its inherent potentialities of having a mercantile social formation.

Colombo was the only city in its true sense developed by the British and all capital accumulation was only around Colombo. Whoever remaining in the aristocracy, if there were any, and the elite of Jaffna were attracted to Colombo and became Colombo Tamils. The Coomaraswamys and Ponnampalams were a typical example.

A census taken in 1911 for the purpose of electing a representative among the Educated Ceylonese shows that half of the educated among Tamils were living in Colombo.

This happened to Batticaloa also as the trade and export of tea, which was initially carried out through Batticaloa, became a monopoly of Colombo.

As pictured by many of the shallow researches, education, government service and petty trade are not indexes of development of a region. Even that small group of Tamil elite was in reality became not a match to the Sinhala elite developed under the British, especially among the Coastal Sinhalese identity known as Karava.

This is a fact acknowledged even by the British of the times. Donoughmore, who headed the commission that drafted the 1931 constitution for Ceylon, says the Coastal Sinhalese were the most progressive of all the communities of Sri Lanka.

Donoughmore dismissed considering suggestions for a federal model either saying that it was not needed for a small country like Ceylon. In fact a federal model would have promoted equal regional development and would have protected the Tamils considerably from the deprivations resulted from the introduction of universal suffrage in the constitution.

The universal adult enfranchisement, introduced for the first time in a colony and was considered a great feat of progress and development at that time, turned out to be the misery of Tamils at the outset itself.

The British policy as early as in those days was not to transfer power to the weakened Tamil bourgeoisie of Colombo but to the Coastal Sinhala aristocracy and elite, which they did in 1948.

One who may wonder at the British policy and development strategies in Ceylon has to understand them against the backdrop of the utmost concern of the British to keep Ceylon separate from the Raj of India ever since they acquired it as a Crown Colony, and to keep it away from the trends of the powerful national movement developing in India.

Development of the Tamil region with a political / economic centre at the North would have served an easy conduit for the Indian National Movement to get into Ceylon through Tamil contacts.

The British also achieved their diplomatic aims through Colombo based Tamil politicians who were prepared to denounce any association with the Indian National Movement as not conducive to Ceylon’s interests.

It was only in 1927, the Youth Congress of Jaffna, the first-ever leftist movement originated in Sri Lanka, countered the strategy by inviting Mahatma Gandhi to Jaffna.

The scholars who identify a divide and rule policy of the British in Ceylon should note that the Eezham Tamils were divided on either side: from the Sinhalese as well as from the Tamils of India.

These are for the thoughts of those who still believe the Sinhala nationalist propaganda that the Tamils were the pets of the British and were better developed than the Sinhalese in the colonial times.

(To be continued...)


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