Feature Article

New Delhi academic comments in Colombo on diaspora transnationalism

[TamilNet, Tuesday, 03 August 2010, 06:31 GMT]
“Nationals settled in distant lands often nurture identities that may well be historically untenable and outdated in the culture of the home country. But they are a source of solace to the migrant in an alien culture and underline a claim to connectedness. Such identities frequently deny the plurality of South Asian civilisation and the intersections within it. The replacement of these becomes a problem of transnationalism,” said Romila Thapar, emeritus professor of Jawaharlal Nehru University, delivering on Sunday Neelan Thiruchelvam Memorial Lecture of the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Colombo. Responding, an academic in Jaffna said, the Eezham Tamil diaspora is not settled but forced, carrying contemporary historical memories to which India was a party.

Romila Thapar, considered to be a long-standing academic think-tank of New Delhi, especially during Congress regimes, was speaking “Of Histories and Identities” at the memorial lecture.

The timing, topic and venue of her lecture was an act of politics, observers pointed out, citing that she had never said anything against the war while the war, actively abetted by the 'modern Mauryan Empire', had been tilting the balance of history and identity in the island, killing more than a hundred thousand people and incarcerating several thousands.

“The Eezham Tamil diaspora is not from the past history, nor it is made of fortune seekers like that of the Indian diaspora. It is a forced diaspora of living history that is transnationally making an effort for the edification of systems that failed human civilisation in the island. Obviously this diaspora’s efforts of transnationalism is an embarrassment to India that as a regional power failed in upholding political justice in the island but now busy in burying skeletons keeping them confined to its backyard”, commented the academic in Jaffna.

“The diaspora’s transnationalism also causes alarm in the guilty-filled New Delhi circles whether the West will make use of the diaspora for entry into the region. Academics like Romila Thapar need to be more pragmatic in the historical approaches to the crisis in the island where practical political solutions are long overdue. They should do it at least for the benefit of India, if not for the sake of a just society in the island”, the academic in Jaffna further said.

Talking of transnationalism the academic in Jaffna was quick to add that he didn't mean those who jumped at the idea to sit on it.

Romila Thapar in her address was deconstructing some of the criteria for identity in South Asia. Excerpts from her address follow:

“I am concerned with those identities where the label claims to have an accepted historical and cultural origin. I would like to assess the validity of this connection by re-examining these historical claims”.

“Nationalism also born from a historical condition, builds itself of necessity on a single, focussed identity that aspires to be inclusive of the entire society. But it can sometimes be more limited when it represents elites or majoritarian groups seeking dominance”.

“Among our current identities in South Asia the more prominent ones go back to colonial times and were usually constructed with links to pre-modern history. Examples of this are identities of race and language, caste and tribe, religion and a permanent economic poverty and inequity, as the heritage of large segments of the population. Interestingly these were issues widely discussed in Europe in the nineteenth century. They became the prisms through which Europe viewed the past of South Asia”.

“At the same time it was argued that there was an absence of historical writing in South Asian cultures. Therefore a history had to be constructed for the region by colonial scholars.”

“Let me turn to some identities that emerged from these studies and are now being questioned in current historical work”.

“Among the more prevalent identities has been that of being Aryan. The notion of an Aryan race has been held the stage for almost two centuries. [...] The notion of two separate Aryan and Dravidian racial identities had no basis in history but became axiomatic wherever local populations were believed to have descended from one of the two.”

“The origins of the Dravidian race were traced back imaginatively to the mythical Lemuria where Tamil culture was said to have had its locus. [...] Each of the two so-called races made exaggerated claims to having founded world civilization”. Thapar discussed at length on the identity of ‘Aryan’ changing rapidly from a supposed race to language to status to caste.

Discussing caste from the point of the four-fold classification upheld by Brahmanical texts [social historians differentiate the origins and functions of four-fold Varna and Jati even though English has only one word caste to deal with them], Thapar said: “ It was presumed that the pattern of the four castes was uniform in the sub-continent. But in fact it differed from region to region and occupational castes were often prominent”.

“Thus in the Punjab the dominant caste has not been that of brahmans but of khatris or traders. [...] An on-going debate among historians of South India concerns the vellalas as a dominant caste at various times which is doubtless of interest to Sri Lankan historians as well”.

“Colonial scholarship saw the connection between caste and religion but this did not lead to the recognition that religions in South Asia followed a pattern different from the Judeo-Christian; nor did they observe distinct, monolithic identities at the popular level. They are better viewed as juxtaposed sects that formed a mosaic. Harmony or discord between them, both of which feature in early texts, referred itself to sects and communities rather than to an over-reaching religious identity of Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim or Christian. Conflicts therefore were localized, were on a smaller scale and were easier to resolve”.

“Another difference was that all religions – indigenous or immigrant – internalized caste. Those who were converted to religions promising social equality ended up by carrying the baggage of caste with them. […] Matrimonial columns in the newspapers with requests for a Brahmin Christian bride can be puzzling. […] Muslims claiming ancestry from West Asia are of a higher caste than the local converts. […] Dalit Muslims who like their Hindu counterparts were denied entry into the more sacred mosques and burial in the Muslim graveyards”.

“For obvious reasons neither the Brahmanical codes nor the construction of caste in the nineteenth century captured the functioning of castes on the ground. This is also applicable to the way religion was projected as an identity”.

“The construction of religious identities emerged from the textual bias of Orientalist scholarship. [...] From the colonial perspective Hinduism and Islam were two separate monolithic religions, [...] This may have been applicable to sections of the elite, such as court circles and heads of religious institutions. However, for the vast majority of people religion was an open-ended experience”.

“There was no label earlier for all that was placed together beneath the umbrella of what later came to be called Hinduism. [...] The single identity was also inapplicable to the Muslims who by now had fragmented into many communities differentiated by the imprint of local culture. Buddhism too became variegated over time, ranging from Theravada to the complexities of Ge-lugs-pa. The internalisation of religion in South Asia was not the same as that of the Judeo-Christian tradition”.

“And then there was the insistence that poverty had been endemic to South Asia. It was attributed to the political system of Oriental despotism said to characterize pre-modern Asia and which left little alternative. In contesting this view Indian opinion argued that poverty was recent and resulted from wealth was being drained away to fuel British industry”.

“We seem to have come round full circle. The globalized market economy has been described as a form of neo-colonialism. The wealth produced in the developing world goes to enrich the national and multinational corporates. It cannot therefore stem the increasing impoverishment in the developing world”.

“The latest predators [in the tribal land of India] are the corporates demanding huge areas for mining and timber. They claim to be introducing the benefits of civilization but the identity of the forest dwellers remains that of the ‘Primitive Other’. [...] The rights of the forest tribes having been reduced to a minimum they are now caught in a condition of continuous violence. The Naxals or Maoists claiming to speak for the tribes are battling it out with government administration in the forest habitats”.

“I have tried to argue that those condition our lives in South Asia should be re-assessed to ascertain their validity. [...] If the premises of the identity are no longer valid can we continue to use the same label?”

“A nation needs identities that are broad, inclusive and that support its essential requirements of democracy, secularity, equality, rights of the institutions of welfare and to social justice. If we continue to make identities of colonial origin a part of our thinking they will continue to be the quicksand that prevents us from even aspiring to leave alone reaching, the utopias we had once visualized”.

Commenting on the points discussed by Romila Thapar, the academic in Jaffna who was in agreement with most of them said, “but beneath all the seemingly sane historical presentation lies the idea of safeguarding the Sri Lankan state which itself is of colonial origin”.

“The Sri Lankan state has constantly proved its incapability of observing any of the points discussed by Romila Thapar and the practical solution is to deconstruct it to avoid further tragedies following in, the academic in Jaffna said.

“The liberation struggle of Eezham Tamils has been attending to many of the issues discussed by Romila Thapar, but imperial interests of powers overlooked them. Now it is already evident that the Sri Lankan state, with the abetment of powers of vested interests, is conspiring to re-introduce all the forms of social conflict in the Tamil land and exploit them to blunt the liberation question for its chauvinistic aims and to alienate people from their land for the benefit of ‘national’ and multinational corporates”, the academic in Jaffna said, adding that concrete political justice to the chronic national question could only be the basis of all social progress in the island and the state having the ‘Sri Lankan’ identity is historically impotent of it.

The Jaffna academic cited what another Indian academic A. R. Venkatachalapathy wrote while reviewing Prof. K. Indrapala’s valuable historical work ‘The Evolution of an Ethnic Identity’ which was dedicated to “The innocents who lost their lives as a direct consequence of misinterpretations of history”:

“One can only speculate on the course of Sri Lanka's recent politics if such a non-sectarian and composite vision of history had been accepted by the post-colonial Sri Lankan state and had been incorporated in school textbooks and official history. […] Historians are at best conscience-keepers and alas, can scarcely undo the injustice done 'to the innocents who lost their lives as a direct consequence of misinterpretations of history' to whom this book is dedicated”, Venkatachalapathy wrote.

A student of Romila Thapar is cultural advisor to Mahinda Rajapaksa. Another New Delhi academic S.D. Muni received Sri Lanka Ratna award along with N. Ram of The Hindu during the regime of Chandrika Kumaratunga Bandaranayake for his services to the island.



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