24th October 1999

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Convivencia: Jaffna-centric notion of living together

REIMAGINING SRI LANKA — Northern Ireland Insights

Edited by M. Somasundram (ICES)

Reviewed by H. L. D. Mahindapala

It is not fair to judge a book by its cover but in some cases the publisher's trade mark on the cover reveals the contents. For instance, the imprint of ICES on the cover guarantees that it will be an anti-Sinhala-Buddhist publication.

The latest book of ICES, "REIMAGINING SRI LANKA", confirms this. Its editor, M. Somasundram, fulminates against those who refuse to go all the way with him to his tribalistic "homeland", or to its nearest "concentric circles". The main contribution from Somasundram undermines even the vaunted "peace package" produced with the blessings of the ICES. The Peiris-Tiruchelvam package, which introduces the federal system of government, was touted as the answer to the vexed race relations. Now that the Tamils have reached as far as federalism, the ICES is escalating it to the next stage of "confederation" based on the Thimpu demands.

Confederation has serious implications — one of which will be to keep the ethnic violence burning well into the next millennium. This doesn't concern Somasundram. Nor is he concerned about reconciliation and peace within parameters that would satisfy the aspirations of all. Instead he is bent on heating up the political temperature to a searing degree by adding his verbal fuel to the fires of ethnic hatred.

Somasundram doesn't stop at confederation tied to Thimpu demands either. He stretches the limits of Jaffna Tamil politics (like Chelvanayakam) to "factor in South India" (xxv) as well. Mark you, not INDIA but Tamil Nadu. What is the place of Tamil Nadu in the Sri Lankan political equation? What next?

The message in the ICES publication is clear: everyone must "reimagine Sri Lanka" through its "politically lensed" focus, homing in only on a Bantu-style ethnic enclave carved out exclusively for Jaffna Tamils. Despite Somasundram's hyperbolic metaphors, interspersed with cultural and political symbols (Picasso's "Guernica", Hobbe's Leviathan, Helen of Troy, Sisyphus and even Viagra), he comes out as a virulent propagandist for extreme racist demands that would keep the ethnic pot boiling.

This ICES publication does not deviate from its tradition of demonising the Sinhala-Buddhists, on the one hand, and sanctifying the Jaffna Tamils as innocent angels trapped in the vice of the south. Somasundram's sanctimonious line says it all: "The Tamil politicians were unaware that they were stuck in a structural impossibility, the Kerensky trap of liberalism, when facing a mobilising Sinhala-Buddhism which had state power in its control"(xiv). That's his bombastic way of saying that the Tamil babes could never have got anything from the bad Sinhala-Buddhist state.

But consider how Prof. A. J. Wilson, the pro-Tamil political scientist, contradicts Somasundram's anti-Sinhala-Buddhist distortions: "Gandhi politicised the non-violent principles enshrined in religion to promote reforms and reconciliation to unite deeply divided India. The TULF leaders faked Gandhi's non-violence for the inculcation and reinforcement of racism and separatism."

Besides, Prof. Wilson has recorded that Chelvanayakam personally endorsed the violence in the Vaddukoddai Resolution, which was a declaration of a racist war by the Jaffna elite against the Sinhala people. Even earlier, leaders like Amirthalingam have been spewing hell-fire and thunder urging the "boys" to be ready when the time comes to massacre the Sinhala people in their holy war. Did Gandhi ever endorse violence when he was fighting the British raj? Isn't the "non-violence" of the TULF a mask to hide its violence against its own people and non-Jaffna Tamils? Isn't this latest ICES publication a part of its consistent campaign to deny the truth by perpetuating the myth?

Somasundram is "politically lensed" to expunge and, consequently, exonerate the Jaffna Tamil racism as a prime cause that led to the worsening of inter-ethnic relations. In this, he has proved to be a worthy pupil trained in the Hate School of History. This school has been working overtime to denigrate the Sinhala-Buddhists. The common strategy of this Hate School is to turn a blind eye to the "pathological ethnicity" (xxv) that has governed the politics of Jaffna. This school also produces, en masse, "entrepreneurial manufacture(rs) of implacable (ethnic) enmities" (xv) whose trade mark is to blame the Sinhala-Buddhists for everything that went wrong in the post-independent phase, encouraging thereby the Jaffna-centric racists to kill and destroy anything that smacks of Sinhala-Buddhism.

Of course, Somasundram could argue that his book is about "Convivencia", or "living together", and not separation. Excited with his discovery of the word "Convivencia", he draws examples from two Catholic countries — Spain and Ireland. These are two pathetic examples for "Convivencia" because it is common knowledge that the Catholics, wherever they went, did not honour the basics of "Convivencia", let alone the pacifist principles of Christ.

Spanish history, in particular, has been the antithesis of "Convivencia". Its Inquisition marked one of the most evil periods of Christian history. And when they converted our people at the point of a sword where was the "Convivencia"? Obviously, Somasundram was looking for a new word to express an old idea and he picked "Convivencia" from the wrong place.

Ireland is no better. In the words of Cardinal Newman, whom he quotes: "Oh, how we hate one another for the love of the same God". He makes an unconvincing and sickly attempt to draw parallels between the "Irish-dwipa" (yuk!) and Sri Lanka. The Irish Catholics and the English Protestants have been at each other's throat for over three centuries — from 1688 onwards. On the contrary, Somasundram acknowledges that we were governed by "Convivencia" before the coming of the Portuguese and the Dutch (1505 - 1798).

Without using the word "Convivencia" once in our vocabulary, the Sinhala-Buddhist culture avoided the bitter histories of Catholic Spain and Ireland. Going by the logic of events narrated by him, it becomes apparent that our communal tensions did not surface until the last phase of the British raj. An objective narrative of the communal debacle will reveal that the tensions were raked up by the Ponnambalams and the Chelvanayakams in the thirties and the forties — long before "1956".

That unfortunately, is the year when (to use a Sinhala idiom) the Sinhalayos poked the eye of the Tamil man who was about to cry. Though the intellectuals have orchestrated the propaganda of the Jaffna-centric lobby, blaming only the "Sinhala-Buddhist governments", the Tamils have had their "grievances" addressed substantially each time they decided to engage in "Convivencia" in the coalition governments.

Since the ICES intellectuals seem ignorant of the benign results of post-independent "Convivencia" they should read Prof. A. J. Wilson who has proclaimed that "Dudley Senanayake's National Government, 1965-1970, marked the golden years of Sinhala-Tamil reconciliation." (p.111 - A Political Biography of S. J. V. Chelvanayakam). S. M. Rasamanickam, president of the FP, addressing the annual convention in 1969, spoke of the rewarding relationship: "During the last four years we were able to gain some rights, if not all of what we expected, through the method of cooperation." (Ibid - p.111).

In other words, all the possibilities and probabilities were there for the "rewarding relationships" in "Convivencia" to avert this bloody crisis if the Tamil racist extremists had not rushed headlong, like lemmings, to declare war on the Sinhala people. Historical examples chosen by Somasundram are relevant to this argument. It took 300 years for the Irish to find a solution of sorts. In Sri Lanka the Federal Party announced that it had gained "all what we expected" in twenty years!

If the editor was not so racially "lensed" he could have seen this fact rather than my pointing it out to him. Trying to disentangle the arguments of this complex conflict can run into volumes. But let me briefly deal with one salient aspect that has mysteriously escaped the attention of our social scientists. There are three Tamil-speaking communities in Sri Lanka: Jaffna Tamils (which can be subdivided into Batticoloa Tamils), the Tamil-speaking Muslims and the Indian Tamils. If the ICES thesis is that Sinhala-governments' policies are responsible for the current crisis how come the other two Tamil—speaking communities refused to take up arms jointly with the racist extremists of Jaffna?

The Muslims and the Indian Tamils, on the contrary, have been a part of the "Sinhala-Buddhist governments" distancing themselves from the Jaffna Tamils. As against these facts, Somasundram states: "The Sinhala politicians, of both parties, have to take responsibility for this tragic turn of events" (xvii). If the Sinhala politicians are responsible why didn't the events turn so tragic with the other two Tamil-speaking communities? Clearly, there is a missing link in the argument of the ICES and its fellow-travellers.

Could it be that the primary causes are in the internal racist dynamics of Jaffna and not with the Sinhala-Buddhists? Is that the reason why NGO intellectuals are scared to look into the introverted racist politics of Jaffna driven by casteist fascism? The failure to examine these racist imperatives of Jaffna-centric politics has made our social scientists prisoners of their own limited conceptual framework. They would rather hang on to the fictitious claims contained in the opening paragraph of the Vaddukoddai Resolution rather than re-imagine the possibilities of a new world without the manufactured myths that have been the root cause of Jaffna Tamil violence.

If the Sinhala-Buddhists have succeeded in "Convivencia" with the other two Tamil-speaking communities shouldn't there be a closer examination of the Jaffna-centric politics to find out what went wrong only with this community? Somasundram doesn't want to even think about it. There are contributors other than Somasundram who seem to be there more for cosmetic reasons. It's a pity that he has wasted his talents in repeating the same old clichés of the Tamil racist lobby in his bloated language which swings from "Irish-dwipa" to "refugeeised"! Perhaps, the only way to avoid books like this is to be "refugeeised" in far-away "Irish-dwipa", eh?

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