Brothers in alms, alas !

We left last week when the Dutch left and the British landed, circa, 18th century. Here’s a quote of 1796 vintage from a British official that I lifted from some books I have been reading: ‘Two nations from the very ancient period had divided between them the possessions of the land. The Sinhalese inhabiting the southern and western parts and the Tamils in the northern and eastern districts. The two nations differ entirely in their religion, language and manners’. The British, relying on Sinhalese records, which were the only available ones, ignored the greater antiquity of the Tamils, (Ravana was a Saivite ruler of all of Ceylon!) but they did discern two distinct cultural and geographic entities.

Though the British were witness to this fact during their rule, they acted against this wisdom. First, in 1833, through the Colebroke Cameron reforms, they merged the entire traditional Tamil homelands with the rest in the name of administrative convenience, instead of governing them as a distinct unit. This deprived the Tamils of their historical identity and permanently queered the pitch for a separate State. For, this imposed template, of a superficially sovereign Sri Lanka as against an intrinsically dual nation, is what is still being bandied about in all global fora. Many such colonial nails followed, all sealing this non-existent unity, ending with the final fatal one in the 1940s: The Soulbury Commission, mandated to make recommendations for the inevitable independence and transfer of power.

To cut a sordid story short, this Commission ended up strengthening and sanctioning the well-set stereotype of a Sinhalese nation with a ‘Tamil minority’. To be sure, there was lip service about securing the interests and welfare of the Tamil minority, but this was wholly at the mercy and discretion of the Sinhalese! So when Ceylon got Independence in Feb, 1948, it had a typical British Westminister Constitution liberally littered with federalism but absolutely no scope of a separate homeland. The political parleys and powerplays indulged in by street-smart Sinhalese politicos like Dissanayake, pre and post Independence, ensured that even the 50:50 formula was a non-starter. In this, the Sinhalese were ably aided by many self-seeking Tamil leaders who abandoned their core cause for a few posts in the new federal Government. This when they had the numerical leverage to get a better bargain for their battered brethren! The sell-out of the original sons of the soil was complete.

The ruling Sinhalese elite were quick to consolidate their hold. Through a combination of Constitutional violations and calculated violence, they enhanced their stranglehold over Tamils. For instance, the Indian Tamils, who were not original inhabitants, but plantation settlers of the 19th century were stripped of citizenship and disenfranchised. The loss of this vote bank reduced Tamil representation in Parli. Then came the Sinhala-only policy that overnight pushed Tamils to economic misery and political isolation. Through all this, the colonisation of Tamil lands by Sinhalese people was also rampant: After all, demography dictates democracy. There were many a pact, and tall leaders like Selva, but nary any relief for the Tamils. And after 25 years of sustained subjugation, came Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s new constitution in 1972 that put paid to all hopes of reconciliation or redemption. Ceylon became Sri Lanka, a name that had a distinct Sinhala ring to Tamil ears. Buddhism was declared State religion. Many other monstrous provisions took roots. So did the ideas of militancy in the Tamil psyche, hitherto passive, as official oppression touched a new high. And by the late Seventies, democratic resistance went totally out of fashion as fiery youths took over from feeble veterans. The bloody die, cast then, lasts to this day ….

Let me now take a tangent. Such Hanuman-like leaps across time and topics is unavoidable because my allotted space and your attention span, though as narrow as the Palk straits, still cannot wait for painstaking Sethus! Three plus centuries of colonial rule did yield a positive result. Incessant missionary mischief and conversions kindled the Tamils’ cultural pride and paranoia. Having lost lands, lives and livelihoods to the white men, the prospect of losing their long cherished Saivite faith was a matter of deep distress. The advent of Arumuga Navalar and his likes in the 19th century was a watershed. He used the Missionaries’ very tools like schools, hospitals and publications to revive and revitalise Saivism.

In fact, Tamil nationalism was born as a Saivite response to the colonial rulers and this character was evident even in 1948. When the new flag was to be hoisted on Independence day, the Tamils insisted on having the image of Nandi on it, but the Sinhalese got away with their lonely lion. Post independence, owing to various factors, Saivism was gradually replaced by ‘secular’ Tamil linguism so much so that when in 1972 Buddhism was made State religion, there was hardly any clamour for such status for Saivism from the Tamils! One wonders what is meant by SL Tamil culture if Saivism is taken out of the equation! Anyway, a religious response to Buddhism, an oriental version of the classic clash of civilizations, was ruled out!

The fate of SL Tamils is precariously poised. All solutions seem sans sense as sure dissolution stares at them this second. Their cause has suffered much due to blood-letting and betrayals by their own brethren. Their core Saivite faith, though still of the majority and a unifying foundation, has to give way to secular or atheistic or other religious sponsors who extract a cultural price. Leadership is now extinct. Their genuine champions are either dead or disparate. On the contrary, there are dubious ones, particularly in TN, who have literally and politically encashed the Tamil cause. Though sympathy and support here is sometimes natural, often it is a simulated show. Students particularly have to be wary of many mercenary agent provocateurs on a ‘campus recruitment’ spree now.

To the media here, SL has been a jolly venue for junket journalism: Many scribes have their bread buttered by both warring sides of the battered island. For the scattered Tamil diaspora, distanced by time, diverted by modern offerings and diluted by exposure to different cultures, the issue is no longer a life or death obsession but a matter of occasional guilt that can be addressed by a few dollars more to whoever utters the T word. The Tamils’ only source of succour, India, supervised their decimation instead, for imagined geo-political gains, not once but many times, in the very company of the tormentors. To the global community SL Tamil issue is just a UN resolution on a piece of paper, filed away in the archives of formal, soul-less history. All these have left SL Tamils totally at the mercy of a murderous State whose gory, genocidal display of ‘ahimsa’ will certainly not make the Buddha smile !

Indeed, these unfortunate people, cheated by history, geography and politics, and indeed by the whole of humanity, now have only one homogeneous status: Refugees. At their home, here and everywhere!

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Jawahar T R