Who came first – Sinhalese or Tamils? Part 1
At first sight, the question of who landed first on Sri Lankan soil, repeated in the headline above, may seem silly, futile and irrelevant. But it should not be dismissed lightly because the Tamil ideologues engaged in building up a case to acquire disproportionate power and territory, through military offensives, international interventions and national manipulations, take this historical issue very seriously. They realise that the foundations of the modern Sri Lankan state were laid in the monumental historical achievements that go back to the pre-Christian era. The roots of the nation, as recorded in history, go way back in time beyond 1948 to the landing of the Indo-Aryans encapsulated in the Vijayan legend. Then as now, it was multi-cultural society, with Nagas, Yakkas and Kuveni’s tribe. It was also people-oriented, and welfarist.
Any claim for a separate state against this historical background, therefore, must necessarily challenge the overwhelming historical past of the Indo-Aryans, who were later known as the Sinhalese. The Mahavamsa records that “ …(A)ll those (followers of Vijaya) were also (called) Sihala”. (Mahavamsa – VII: 42). This, it must be noted, is the only time the Mahavamsa mentions the word “Sihala”. Their dominant role subsequently as founders and makers of the Sri Lankan nation stands as unassailable history found in the monumental evidence unearthed by the archaeologists, Indologists, numismatists, savants of Oriental art and culture ( Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy) and historians in various fields, though the Tamil ideologues are labouring to challenge it.
The Tamil ideological endeavours have been to create a Tamil history that pre-dates that of the Sinhalese. They go back to Ravana, or claim Vijaya was a Saivite Hiindu. This throw back to a hazy past is considered a necessary condition for them to justify their claim for a separate state. In the absence of a scholarly or authoritative history of Jaffna, they are compelled to hang on to a history of their own creation. The most popular version of the newly constructed history of the Tamils of the North found its political expression in the Vadukoddai Resolution. This document claims that the Tamils were the founders/co-founders of Sri Lankan history. This claim, going back in time to the dim, distant beginnings of controversial history, is seen by them as a key argument to validate their demand for an ethnically cleansed territory occupied exclusively by the Tamils as a separate state called Eelam.
As seen in the Vadukoddai Resolution, they begin their claim to a separate state on this note of a divided nation, each possessing two separate ethnic states, “from the dawn of time”. It says: “Whereas, throughout the centuries from the dawn of history the Sinhalese and Tamil nations have divided between themselves the possession of Ceylon, the Sinhalese inhabiting the interior of the country in its Southern and Western parts from the river Walawe to that of Chilaw and the Tamils possessing the Northern and Eastern districts……” The Vadukoddai Resolution must be taken as the definitive and ultimate expression of their separatist politics because there is no other political document of this magnitude endorsed by the Tamil leadership. The first legal/political document of historical and political importance endorsed by the Vellala elite was the Thesawalamai in the Dutch period. Fifteen Saivite/Jaffna/Vellala (SJV) mudliyars endorsed it legitimizing the supremacy of the Vellalas in Jaffna. It has been the dominant law of the peninsula since then. This document produced jointly by the Dutch colonial masters and the Vellala elite legitimised the supremacy and the powers of the Vellala caste. It even legalised the status of the Vellalas as slave-owners and their powers to rule Jaffna with the laws embedded in the Thesawalamai.. It became the sacred Bible of the ruling Vellala elite to oppress, suppress and persecute the low-caste who were reduced to subhuman outcasts.
The Vadukoddai Resolution is the second document of historical importance. It is a landmark political manifesto not only of their version of history but also future politics. It should be noted that in the absence of an authoritative and objective history of Jaffna the Vadukoddai version has been accepted by most Tamil ideologues as the official history of Jaffna. However, the arguments of most Jaffna ideologues, claiming chunks of history and territory as their exclusive property, do not pass any critical, objective or academic tests. Their version of history invariably has been tailored to fit into the politicised account narrated in the Vadukoddai Resolution which contains their standard litany of complaints aimed at demonising the Sinhala-Buddhists and their history. Following this pattern C. V. Wigneswaran, Chief Minister of Jaffna Provincial Council, took this habit to another level by passing a resolution accusing all Sinhala leaders from the time of independence as the persecutors and enemies of the Tamils. The Vadukoddai Resolution and Wigneswaran’s resolution are typical examples of how the Tamil ideologues fabricate and distort history to advance their communal politics.
Take, for instance, the claim in their politicised history which states that “from the dawn of history the Sinhalese and Tamil nations have divided between themselves the possession of Ceylon.” This is a sweeping generalisation without any historical substance to prove its veracity. If this is true then why is it that there is no record of Tamils settling down permanently to occupy the divided land between the two communities “from the dawn of history”? This only proves that the Tamils are forced to manufacture grandiose historical claims to justify their claims for power and territory in their current political agenda.
If you take the landing of Vijaya (the Indo-Aryans) as “the dawn of history” then the history that follows debunks this claim because the Tamils are not seen around in history as permanent settlers in possession of territory. After the arrival of Vijaya they surfaced as active participants in history only in the 13th century when the Tamils established permanent settlements in Jaffna. Not before. Of course, they might cite colonial invaders like Elara etc, as a part of their history occupying territory. In this role they were like the Portuguese, Dutch and the British : an occupying force and not legitimate claimants to land. The indigenous makers of the nation, who were the dominant historical forces down the ages, fought all foreign occupiers, including the “Damilas” (Mahavamsa), and drove them out. The sacred soil of this nation has been enriched and fertilized by the blood of the Indo-Aryans who fought “from the dawn of time” to drive out the Dravidian invaders. The history of the nation, from Vijithapura to Nandikadal, has been written in the blood of the Indo-Aryan / ”Sinhala” warriors who fought and won the successive wars against the Dravidians / Tamils.
The migratory, military and the mercenary thrusts of the Dravidian forces from S. India failed each time they attempted to crush the culture and civilisation established by the pioneering Indo-Aryans / ”Sihalas”. Unable to break through the overwhelming historical evidence, the descendants of the Dravidians / Tamils have been struggling, particularly in the post-Independent era, to claim a supremacy that exists only in the domains outside known history. Though the Tamils are wont to boast that they are the founders/co-founders of Sri Lankan history they have not been able to provide incontrovertible evidence to back it up. Even the “historians” who wrote the Vadukoddai Resolution had to jump “from the dawn of history” to the Portuguese era providing no record of Tamil settlers until the 13th century. The vacuum, as seen in known history, was filled exclusively by the classical period of the Sinhala-Buddhists. Clearly, the premise on which the Tamils claim to be the first legitimate owners of the land made history is not substantiated by testable and credible evidence.
Their politicised history claims that “from the dawn of history the Sinhalese and Tamil nations have divided between themselves the possession of Ceylon.” This is a sweeping generalisation without any historical substance to prove its veracity. If this is true then why is it that there is no record of Tamils settling down permanently to occupy the divided land between the two communities from the dawn of history”? Tamil historians agree the Tamil migrants from S. India settled down as settlers only in the 13th century. So if they were missing from the Sri Lankan scene till the 13th century it leaves a gaping hole in the theory of dividing Ceylon between the Tamils and the Sinhalese from the dawn of time. This only proves that the Tamils are forced to manufacture grandiose historical claims to justify their claims for power and territory in their current political agenda.
However, the underlying manipulative strategy of these ideologues promoting this unsubstantiated Tamil version is simple: those who conquer yesterday’s history can be in command of today’s politics. They also act on the belief that powerful myths are more marketable and persuasive than hard historical facts. If, for instance, the Tamils could establish that they were the first to make history then they acquire a moral superiority and legitimacy in modern political theory to occupy territory, or a share an equal measure of power in contemporary times. In any case, this is the wrong argument. Consider the irreversible historical examples of the colonising Westernised Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs). The occupation of land, particularly by the WASPs, in America, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand have determined that the first-comers, though they have a moral and legal rights to their ancestors’ lands, do not have the power to rewrite history and claim their original power to own or occupy their ancestral land, as in the pre-WASPish times, or play a role in the political landscape with equal rights.
But this does not mean that they have lost their natural rights. No. The Tamils, for instance, if they are the first-comers, are entitled to equal rights and dignity like any other Sri Lankan citizen, whether they be Burgher, Muslim or Sinhalese. For this they do not need ethnic enclaves or separate powers. Modern constitutional theories and models are available for a minority communities to gain their rights, if they are denied, by the majority. But the Tamil leadership took to the path of claiming excessive powers at the centre and separate territory later to achieve their “aspirations” on two home-made theories : 1. nationhood and 2. a history of a divided nation from the dawn of history”. Both theories have their origins in their claim to be the first owners/occupiers of land. It surfaced with G. G. Ponnambalam in the thirties when he was pushing for a disproportionate share of power for the Tamils. This was one of the main themes in his marathon speech to the State Council laying out his arguments for 50% of power in the state to 11% of Tamil minority.
One of the strands of Ponnambalam’s overall presentation to the State Council in 1939 was that the first settlers had a superior claim to land than the late-comers. He was aiming to claim “equal partnership” as one of “the two founding peoples”. But he conveniently overlooked in his selective argument the history of “the founding peoples” of Australia, America, Canada and New Zealand who were decimated and denied all their rights by the WASPish late-comers. If his theory is accepted then the histories of these Western democracies will have to be re-written by restoring the original rights of the first-settlers and reinstating them to an equal status of power and privileges with the late-comers. The overwhelming historical fact is that in Sri Lanka the minorities – the later-comers – have been given equal status and dignity which none of the minorities in the countries occupied by the WASPish settlers are entitled to today.
Besides, human history is a record of new migrants constantly moving into new territory and making their contributions to the evolving story of man. If the theory of the first homo sapien originating in Africa / Ethiopia is correct then all nations have been built on migrants who fanned out from Africa to occupy territories in all points of the compass. In any case, how many homelands do the Tamils need – other than their one and only homeland in S. India – to satisfy their insatiable aspirations? Will they also, in due course, claim a homeland in Australia on the bogus theory advanced by some Tamils that they were the first to welcome Captain Cook at Botany Bay with offerings of thosai, vadai and poomalai?
The tensions and conflicts arising from the issue of majoritarianism vs minoritarianism – an issue which plagues the global community today — began in the twenties of the 20th century for the Sri Lankans and it is going to be with us in the foreseeable future. The twists and turns of this issue have dominated the national agenda to this day and will continue to do so as long as the Tamils continue to steer their politics on manufactured history. Historical claims and counter claims have played a key role in dragging the nation to death and destruction. Sri Lanka has proved to be a simmering – and sometimes explosive — cauldron for this issue of minoritarianism vs. majoritarianism. Incidentally, this represents the current trend of the majority in most countries reacting with anger towards aggressive minoritarianism, demanding powers and/or territory that would threaten their established way of life. This trend is running across the Western landscape, from Netanyahu’s Israel to Donald Trump’s USA. “Making America Great” summarises the new trend. It means make the White American majority great!
Sri Lanka experienced the rise of aggressive minoritarianism in the thirties of the 20th century. The fires of confrontational minoritarianism were lit in the thirties by G. G. Ponnambalam when he launched an attack on the Sinhala-Buddhists in Nawalapitiya. In June 1939 it sparked off the first communal riots, that became a repetitive feature in the 50s, 60s, and 70s.
To be continued