Feature Article

Lankan-ness Vs the Tamilness: thoughts of A.J. Canagaratne

[TamilNet, Thursday, 26 February 2009, 16:48 GMT]
Is it possible in today's context to be both a Tamil and a Sri Lankan? I think it is, provided our leaders are statesmen enough to treat all communities as equal and guarantee this equality both in practice and constitutionally. Only time will tell whether the Sinhala political leadership can stop playing games of one-upmanship and indulging in political manoeuvring. It's high time they stop being fixated on a unitary state and think along the lines of a fully federal set-up to preserve the unity of this country, wrote AJ in 2005, a year before his demise, reviewing a publication ‘ Being a Tamil and Sri Lankan by Professor K. Sivathamby.

AJ: The Rooted Cosmopolitan
Cover page of the book, AJ: The Rooted Cosmopolitan
The review and many other writings of AJ, written over a period of 30 years, along with essays written on him by well-known scholars and journalists have been edited by Professor Chelva Kanaganayakam of the University of Toronto in a festschrift honouring AJ, brought out by Tamiliyal London (info@tamiliyal.org.uk).

Fondly called AJ by everyone who knew him, Aloysious Jeyaraj Canagaratne (1934-2006), writer, editor, critic and one of the finest intellectuals Eezham Tamils have had in contemporary times, taught at the University of Jaffna, since the inception of the university in 1974, until his retirement.

Writing in the festschrift, Professor Sivathamby portrayed him a teacher’s teacher and a Siddha (mystic).

As time runs out for keeping Sri Lanka a single entity, ever since AJ wrote the piece four years ago, TamilNet reproduces the review with due acknowledgements to the publishers.

Lankan-ness Vs. The Tamilness: Mutually Exclusive?

Review article written by AJ on 'Being a Tamil and Sri Lankan' by K Sivathamby, Aivakam, Colombo, 2005

I'd like to begin this review of Emeritus Professor K Sivathamby's book, perhaps the only senior Tamil academic living today, with the possible exception of Prof. Bertram Bastiampillai, with a personal anecdote relevant to the theme of this book. I entered the University of Ceylon (Peradeniya) in 1954. Having obtained the necessary grade in the First Examination I was permitted to read English in 1955. I had the dubious distinction of being the only male and the only Tamil in the batch of four reading English. This was one year before 1956, the year the Sinhala Only Act was presented in Parliament and passed with only the LSSP and CP voting against it. On the day the Bill was presented in Parliament, all the Tamil undergraduates in the various Halls of Residence decided to fast the whole day to protest against the injustice being meted out to our community. I too decided to fast in solidarity with my fellow-Tamils. By this time the debate about the Sinhala Only Act had already started and everyone had become conscious of his or her ethnic identity. This was inevitable, I suppose, in the emotionally charged atmosphere of the time. As a Tamil I felt it was incumbent on me to join my fellow-Tamils in the fast. This surprised my Sinhala friends who thought that as one reading English I would rise above tribal ideology. I was not impelled by any anti-Sinhalese sentiments or by tribal ideology. As far as it was possible under the circumstances prevailing at that time, mine was a rational decision to join in my community's protest against perceived discrimination and injustice.

This seemed to puzzle my Sinhalese friends in Ramanathan Hall where I was residing. They seemed to have assumed that as I was reading English I would rise above this 'tribalism' (in their perception). But my decision was a rational one (to the extent that rationality could be maintained in the highly charged emotional atmosphere prevailing at that time).

Like Prof. Sivathamby I too wanted - and want - to be both a Tamil and a Sri Lankan living on an equal footing with other citizens of Sri Lanka. And I certainly do not want to be treated as a second-class citizen: this is a feeling shared by many Tamils in Sri Lanka.

The articles collected here first appeared in the now defunct North-Eastern Herald. They are grouped here under six headings: Peace Process; Ethnic Divide –Its implications; Writers, Artistes and Intellectuals; Education; Media; Tamil Theatre, Tamil Music and Tamil Cinema; and Political Culture.

In this brief review I shall concentrate on the political pieces. This does not mean that the other pieces are not worth reading. Far from it; all the pieces are meaty and provide the reader with substantial food for thought. I concentrate on the political pieces because, in today's context, that is what most readers are interested in. Professor Sivathamby rightly points out that 'peace' means one thing to the Sinhalese and another to the Tamils. 'Largely speaking peace for the Sinhalese people is within the horizon when bodies of dead soldiers do not come back from the battle-fields of the north-east; when there are no sentry points which impinge on their right to free movement; when the coast of living comes down; when they can rest assured that there will not be bomb blasts in Colombo. For the first time since the war began, most of these have been achieved. It was clearly seen during the Vesak this year (2002). But in the case of the Tamils the situation is completely different. Most of us have lost our homes. We have to repair or build them anew. Our deeds and relevant documents are missing. Many of our public buildings, schools, temples and market squares are gone. Even if one wants to go back to resettle in his village there is very little to look forward to. In Keerimalai anyone who wants to take a bath has to be escorted by soldiers. What we understand by peace is first and foremost an environment in which this should not be repeated. Our people were affected by a complete shut-off of resources ranging from agriculture to education. Who will guarantee unimpeded access to such resources? How credible will that guarantee be? Peace without such guarantees would be meaningless.'

There is an important piece on Sri Lankan Tamil identity where he spells out the distinctiveness of the Sri Lankan Tamil identity. In the course of the piece he remarks pertinently 'If one traces the history of Tamil consciousness, one would see that their early efforts to assert and emphasise their identity was not in relation to other Sri Lankans so much as it was to the Tamils of Tamil Nadu.'

The Tamils have a general feeling that Sinhala Buddhist socieity is a 'therocracy'-ridden one and that [it] is this 'therocracy' which has paved the way for the ethnic conflict and is the biggest obstacle to its solution. This piece 'Sinhala-Buddhist understanding of Tamils: Communication Barriers' makes it clear that things are not that simple.

Referring to the 'community of Bhikkus', he says, 'The Sangha is a very important institution in any Buddhist society. And in the Sinhalese Buddhist society it is considered the moral guardian of the people. If the Tamil people want to know the actual position an ideal Bhikku occupies in that society, he or she should read the section on Asceticism/Renunciation in Thirukkural for, as we know, these concepts speak about a person within a society but completely devoid of worldly ambitions and pressures. An ideal Bhikku or for that matter a Jain monk draws his social power and eminence through renunciation. And this is something that is not met the in the Sanyasi concept of Hinduism. The Bhikku performs his role in society chiefly through the Dhamma Desena (lectures on the Buddha Dhamma). Through the Desenas he shapes public opinion at the village level. It is not left as that point. He oversees the application of his preaching in the day-to-day life of the people. And the more articulate a Bhikku is, the more respected he would be. Even today, audiotapes of leading Bhikkus are very much in demand. The Desena Tradition enables the Bhikku to inform, to persuade, to motivate to act according to the Eight-fold path (right way of thinking, of speaking, listening, etc). But this could mean that the Bhikku was able to persuade people on certain political lines. And being also the institution that legitimates royal authority in traditional society, it had virtually become either a consolidator of State authority or one who repudiates it. Thus the Buddhist monk is the axial factor of communication and culture Sinhala Buddhist Society. Therefore in Sri Lanka, the role of the Sangha became all important since the late 19th century in that its moral guardianship of society inevitably merged with the politicisation of the country, given the position of the Bhikku as the chief communicator in Sinhala society. As all scholars agree, resurgent Buddhism became a political force and was the motivating factor behind the rise of Sinhala nationalism. It is quite interesting to note here that in the resurgence of Buddhism in the late 10th [sic. 19th] and early 20th centuries, the Kandyan Sinhalese did not play as much an active role as the Karawas, Durawas and Salagamas of the low country. The Buddhist identity gave a social power, which they did not get from their traditional position in society. Thus their emphasis on Buddhism was more emphatic.' This passage and the ones that follow reveal his deep insight into Sinhala society and the role Buddhism played – and plays – in it. Some might object that Sivathamby has painted an idealised picture of the Bhikku. The answer is that he has pointed to an ideal type and in all religions (including the secular religion Marxism – a seeming contradiction in terms, an oxymoron; but Marx's fierce indictment of capitalist exploitation makes him sound like and Old Testament prophet. Indeed R H Tawney called Marx the last Schoolman) the ideal has always differed from the reality; in the flux of time the early idealistic fervour disappears and degeneration inevitably sets in. Other important political pieces are 'The Sinhala Percpetions of the South Indian Dravidian Movement'; the piece on Karuna titled 'Tamil Regionlism: Historical causes and Crocodile Tears' where he hits out at some Sinhala intellectuals who see in the Karuna split an opportunity to weaken the Tigers and wipe out Tamil Nationalism. I could go on and on, but I'm afraid I have already used more space than the Editor allotted to me. So I must stop here and make some concluding remarks. All the political articles are characterised by a reasonableness of tone. The author's chosen strategy is one of suasion. This doesn't mean that he pulls his punches or is mealy-mouthed. He is forthright without being needlessly offensive.

Is it possible in today's context to be both a Tamil and a Sri Lankan? I think it is, provided our leaders are statesmen enough to treat all communities as equal and guarantee this equality both in practice and constitutionally. Only time will tell whether the Sinhala political leadership can stop playing games of one-upmanship and indulging in political manoeuvring. It's high time they stop being fixated on a unitary state and think along the lines of a fully federal set-up to preserve the unity of this country.

In the meantime, I commend this book to the Sri Lankans of all communities as it will help to promote mutual understanding, which can lead to harmony. I have one cavil though. By writing in English, Sivathamby is preaching mostly to the converted or those who can be converted.

He should get this book translated into Sinhala and Tamil so that it reaches the readership which really matters, especially the youth, and in whose hands the future destiny of this country lies.


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