Forging a New History, for a New Future – The Island


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, and second, where does their story begin? The typical nationalist response to these would be, first, that the Sinhalese are the majority in the country, and second that their history begins with the advent of kinship as described in chronicles like the Mahavamsa.

But such answers ignore important historical considerations, such as whether the kings of Sri Lanka, or at least the first of them, were from India, or that the chronicles make reference to a civilization that is believed to be earlier. upon their arrival.

How do nationalists resolve these contradictions? They would probably argue that the island had a distinctly different and superior civilization to that which the kings spawned there, while conceding that the latter also developed the country. After all, there are important debates about historiography within nationalist circles, boiling down to whether we are to trace our ancestors to 2,500 years ago, to the colonization of the country by the Indo-Aryan tribes, or to 10 000 years ago, to the formation of a pre-Aryan Indian pre-civilization supposedly free from outside influences. Although there is no real archaeological evidence for the latter point of view, there is no shortage of popular writers who speculate that the Sinhalese are carriers of a culture that predates Indian influence.

It should be noted that the concept of race occupies a preponderant place in both cases. In fact, for Sinhala nationalists as well as Tamil nationalists, Muslims and others, race remains the primary consideration, the only priority. It is true that, as RALH Gunawardana noted, in European languages ​​the word race “only dates from the 16th century or so”, when neither Sinhala nor Tamil has a satisfactory equivalent for it. Yet for nationalists, history is at best a series of ethnic encounters. So whether they are talking about a prodigal son from northern India conquering the island of Tampabanni or a ten-headed king reigning on the island long before this son arrived, they are reducing the story. from the country to the history of a dominant group. This is essentialist scholarship at its crudest.

Nationalists, of course, can be flexible on these issues. They often are. For example, a prominent intellectual from Jathika Chintanaya claimed in a public seminar that the Nayakkar kings of Kandy could become Sinhala after being absorbed into the Sinhala social structure in the same way as Victoria, although she did not master not English, could become into an English queen. But for the same reasons, these intellectuals and commentators speak of terms like Sinhalathvaya as if they were set in stone. While they would readily accept that the Nayakkars became Sinhalese because they were kings and had to be benefactors or be seen as benefactors of Buddhism, they denied that Muslims could be absorbed into Sinhala social structures or take part in them. Sinhala rituals. According to their logic, “becoming” Sinhala is the prerogative of a ruling class which cannot be authorized for other groups.

The case of Wath Himi Kumaraya, known as Gale Bandara Deviyo, shows how this type of essentialism can blind us to the intricacies of our history. Although the records are not clear on its origins, what we can deduce is the account of a Muslim claimant to the throne killed by a group of nobles, only to be revered by followers of both Islam and of Buddhism. The transformation of a Muslim usurper into a popular deity is of course a fascinating historical anomaly in a deeply Sinhala and Buddhist kingdom, but one that seems to be appreciated by few, if at all. Certainly, a racist historiography would ignore or omit such details, while those who subscribe to such stories would ignore them: I realized this myself the other day when, after suggesting that Gale Bandara was “Muslim.” , a 19 year old boy passionately argued that Buddhists stop worshiping him!

I don’t know to what extent the local textbooks reinforce racist narratives of local history. I am sure, however, that these texts do not instill in their readers an appreciation of the many groups that form the identity of the country. Paradoxically, while reinforcing ethnic or religious supremacy, textbook accounts borrow concepts steeped in Western ideology. The notion of race is only one example, 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.

It is a paradox which does not bother writers who privilege the racial dimensions of history: even in their rejection of “Western” notions of multiethnic identity, they subscribe to other dominant “Western” notions, which are turn out to be so ubiquitous, if not all the more so. How to deal with such contradictions? How can we solve them? A good first step would be to historize and find out what can be done with them.

At the start of the 20th century, debates and controversies had begun to arise on questions of racial identity, territorial rights, ethnic distinctions, etc. Those who took part in these discussions fell back on the divisions that European philologists and orientalists had drawn between ethnic groups on the basis of certain characteristics such as dialect and type of dress.

What these reviews left aside, and scientific advances have enabled us to see today, are the commonalities that unite the communities. As obvious and common as some biological traits may be within communities, these by themselves, as Bandaranayake and Gunawardana have noted, do not in any way justify the use of categories like race, which are so fluid. that they cannot be used as markers of distinction.

Perhaps what gave credence to such essentialist views was the pattern that 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 a pristine medieval culture and a decadent pre-colonial phase, the latter generally being identified with the Kandy period. kings. Other scholars have gone one step further in identifying not the kingdom of Kandy but colonial rule as decadent, in stark contrast to the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa periods.

Whatever the scholar’s prejudices have been, establishing chronological divisions in this sense has enabled popular writers to integrate their racist accounts of history into such patterns later, although history, as Senake Bandaranayake and RALH Gunawardana have shown it, rebelling against such timelines.

The biggest omission made by those who saw history as an ethnic struggle was the issue of caste, which remains the least understood social phenomenon in Sri Lanka. Pillars of the Marxist left, including Hector Abhayavardhana, made a foray into rural society at the height of the Suriya Mal and malaria campaigns of the 1930s, allowing researchers to examine social stratifications from a point of view materialistic view. Yet over the years, discussions of such stratifications have tended to fade.

For me, this is a striking omission. The intra-group differences are as important as the inter-group ones. They highlight the divisions that exist, not only at the racial level between communities, but also at the level of castes and classes, within the same communities.

For the most part, unfortunately, historians and writers, whether “Marxists”, liberals or nationalists, have ignored these considerations. This has led to a situation where, while rejecting the racist rhetoric of nationalists, liberal academics have fallen back on criteria that do not differ from those adopted by nationalist ideologues. Therefore, accounts of the contributions of Moors, Malays, Tamils ​​and even Burghers to Sri Lankan society value these communities from an ethnic perspective, portraying them as racial types against which the nationalists raise their claims of superiority. Whether they like it or not, then, the most progressive Sri Lankan academics provide ammunition for nationalist debates, given that they also see history through an ethnic lens. Perhaps the best example would be the notion of “Tamil Buddhism” in Sri Lanka, raised by sociologists, and the instinctive rejection of such a thesis by Sinhala nationalists.

I think the first step towards freeing Sri Lankan historiography from its fixation on ethnicity and racism would be, as Senake Bandaranayake noted, to view the history of ethnic formation in the country as a process. complex involving “the convergence of various pre and proto-historical elements. developments. On the one hand, nationalist historians persist in constructing a Sinhala Buddhist identity. On the other hand, the Liberals’ response frames the question in racial terms and takes up the criteria used by their opponents, thus legitimizing them. Both approaches lead to a dead end, and therefore both should be ruled out.

The solution, which makes perfect sense in my opinion, would be to start looking at history from the perspective of other social phenomena, such as caste. In doing so, we will be able to arrive at a historiography emphasizing the differences which separate groups as much as on the commonalities which unite them. To quote Senake Bandaranayake here, “[a] Studying the history of Sri Lanka, stripped of its myths and distortions and free from communalist biases on one side or the other, can do a lot to contribute to the historical process of nation-building. modern integrated polyethnic. We obviously have a long way to go.

The author can be contacted at [email protected]


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