By Uditha Devapriya
For Sinhala nationalists, I dare say that the history of Sri Lanka remains the history of the Sinhala people. This raises two questions: first, who are these Sinhalese people, and second, where does their story begin? The typical nationalist response to this would be, first, that Sinhala people form the majority in the country and, second, that their story begins with the advent of kinship, as described in chronicles such as the Mahavamsa.
But such answers ignore important historical considerations, such as the fact that the kings of Sri Lanka, or at least the first of them were from India, or that the chronicles point to a civilization that is believed to have preceded their arrival.
How do nationalists resolve these contradictions? They would probably argue that the island has an eminently different and superior civilization than those created by kings here, while admitting that they also developed the land. Finally, within nationalist circles there are important debates about historiography, which amount to whether we can trace our ancestors back by 2,500 years, to the colonization of the country by Indo-Aryan tribes or by 10,000 years to the formation of a prefecture -Indian, pre-Aryan civilization, which is supposedly free from external influences. While there is no real archaeological evidence to support the latter view, there is no shortage of popular writers to speculate that the Sinhalese are bearers of a culture that predates Indian influence.
It must be pointed out that the concept of race plays a prominent role in both cases. Indeed, for Sinhala nationalists as well as Tamil, Muslim and other nationalists, race remains the primary consideration, the only priority. It is true that, as RALH Gunawardana noted, the word race in European languages âââonly dates back to the 16th century. But for nationalists, history is at best a series of encounters between ethnic groups. So whether it’s a prodigal son from northern India conquering the island of Tampabanni or a ten-headed king ruling the island long before that son’s arrival, they reduce the history of the country to the history of a dominant group. This is an essentialist scholarship in its crudest form.
Nationalists can of course be flexible on these matters. They often are. For example, a prominent intellectual from Jathika Chintanaya claimed at a public seminar that the Nayakkar kings of Kandy could become Sinhalese after being incorporated into the Sinhala social structure, just as Victoria, even though she had no knowledge of English, could turn into one english queen. But for the same reasons, these intellectuals and commentators speak of terms like Singhalathvaya as if they were set in stone. While they willingly accepted that the Nayakkars became Sinhalese because they were kings and had to be benefactors or be considered benefactors of Buddhism, they denied that Muslims could be accepted into Sinhala social structures or participate in Sinhala rituals. According to their logic, Sinhala to âbecomeâ is a domain of a ruling class that other groups cannot be allowed to do.
The case of Wath Himi Kumaraya, popularly known as Gale Bandara Deviyo, shows how this type of essentialism can blind us to the intricacies of our history. While records of his origins are unclear, we can infer from them that a Muslim heir to the throne was killed by a group of nobles only to be worshiped later by followers of Islam and Buddhism. The transformation of a Muslim usurper into a folk deity is, of course, a fascinating historical anomaly in a thoroughly Sinhala Buddhist empire, but one that is appreciated by few, if at all. Certainly a racist historiography would ignore or leave out such details, while those who follow such stories would not know them: I myself realized this the other day when I claimed that Gale Bandara was “Muslim”, a boy of 19 argued passionately that Buddhists should stop worshiping him!
I’m not sure how far local textbooks reinforce racist representations of local history. However, I am sure that these texts do not convey any appreciation to their readers for the many groups that make up the identity of the country. Paradoxically, while strengthening ethnic or religious supremacy, textbook reports adopt concepts imbued with Western ideology. The notion of race is just one example of this, as is the origin of terms like Aryan, which had to do with the identity of a ruling class rather than a hegemonic ethnic community.
This is a paradox that does not bother writers who prefer the racist dimensions of the story: even in their rejection of âWesternâ notions of multiethnic identity, they join other prevalent âWesternâ notions that happen to be equally ubiquitous, if not more so. How can we deal with such contradictions? How can we solve it? A good first step would be to historicize it and find out what you can do with it.
At the beginning of the 20th century, debates and polemics began to emerge over issues of racial identity, territorial rights, ethnic differences, etc., a point that Senake Bandaranayake highlighted in his essay on “The People of Sri Lanka”. The participants in these discussions reverted to the distinctions drawn by European philologists and orientalists between ethnic groups on the basis of certain characteristics such as dialect and type of clothing.
What has been left out of these investigations, what scientific advancement enables us today, are the similarities that bind communities together. As obvious and common as certain biological traits may be within communities, on their own, as Bandaranayake and Gunawardana have noted, they in no way justify the use of categories such as race that are so fluid that they cannot be used as distinguishing marks.
What perhaps gave credibility to such essentialist views was the scheme the early historians adopted in their periodizations of local history. As in India, where colonial scholars made an arbitrary and imaginary distinction between classical Hindu and decadent Muslim phases, in Sri Lanka they drew lines between an unspoiled medieval culture and a decadent pre-colonial phase, the latter usually with the Kandyan period. kings were identified. Other scholars took another step by identifying colonial rule rather than the Kandyan kingdom as decadent, in stark contrast to the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa periods.
Whatever the scholar’s bias, the establishment of chronological divisions along these lines enabled popular writers to later fit their racist accounts of history into such schemes, although history, as Senake Bandaranayake and RALH Gunawardana have shown, rebels against such schemes Chronologies.
The greatest omission of those who viewed history as a race between races was the question of caste, which remains the least understood social phenomenon in Sri Lanka. Supporters of the Marxist left, including Hector Abhayavardhana, pushed into rural society at the height of the Suriya mal and anti-malaria campaigns of the 1930s, allowing scholars to examine social stratifications from a materialist perspective. Over the years, however, discussions about such stratifications have tended to decrease.
For me this is a striking omission. Differences between groups are just as important as those between groups. They emphasize the rifts that exist not only at the racial level between communities, but also at the caste and class levels within the same communities.
Unfortunately, historians and writers, be they âMarxist,â liberal, or nationalist, have largely ignored these considerations. As a result, liberal scholars, while rejecting the racist rhetoric of the nationalists, have resorted to criteria that are no different from those used by nationalist ideologues. Hence, reports of the contributions of Moors, Malays, Tamils ââand even Burghers to Sri Lankan society value these communities in an ethnic light by portraying them as the racial types against which nationalists assert their claims of superiority. Whether they intend to or not, the most advanced Sri Lankan scholars provide ammunition for nationalist debates as they also look at history from an ethnic perspective. Perhaps the best example of this would be the concept of “Tamil Buddhism” raised by social scientists in Sri Lanka and the knee-jerk rejection of such a thesis by Sinhalese nationalists.
I believe the first step in releasing Sri Lankan historiography from its fixation on ethnicity and racism, as Senake Bandaranayake noted, would be to view the history of ethnic education in the country as a complex process that “is the convergence of various pre- and proto-historical developments. âOn the one hand, nationalist historians are adamant about constructing a Sinhala Buddhist identity. On the other hand, the reaction of the liberals summarizes the issue in a racist way and adopts the criteria of their opponents and thereby legitimizes them. Both approaches lead to a dead end, so both should be discarded.
The perfectly reasonable solution from my point of view would be to examine history from the perspective of other social phenomena such as caste. In this way we can create a historiography that emphasizes the differences between the groups as well as the similarities that they have in common. To quote Senake Bandaranayake here:[a] The study of Sri Lankan history, freed from its myths and distortions and free from communalist prejudice on one side or the other, can add much to the historical process of forming an integrated polyethnic modern nation. âWe still have a long way to go, of course.
The author can be reached at [email protected]