Jaffna Tamils trapped inside their historical vacuum

By H.L.D Mahindapala

Dr. Murugar Gunasingam is a path-breaking and indefatigable Tamil historian who earned his doctorate based on his exploratory history of the Jaffna Tamils of Sri Lanka. He undertook this mission of discovering the history of Jaffna when he “first realised that no one had ever written a truly comprehensive history of the Tamil nation in Sri Lanka.” (Preface – Primary Sources For The History Of The Sri Lankan Tamils, World-Wide Search, 2005.). In 1995 he was awarded a scholarship by the Sydney University, Australia, “to undertake research for a doctorate in history”.

He was guided in this mission by leading Tamil historians like Prof. S. Arasaratnam. He was also inspired by Prof. K. Indrapala, the controversial Tamil historian who like most Tamil historians endeavoured to write a Jaffna-centric history. He shocked his admirers and students of history when he recanted his earlier doctoral thesis documenting the history of the Tamils starting from the 12th century. This thesis did not sit well with the Tamil who thought they had made history from “the dawn of history”. In his new thesis written after he was virtually driven out of his Chair in History at the Jaffna University he fell in line with the political agenda and the Tamil “history” laid out in the Vadukoddai Resolution of 1976 – the ultimate manifesto ever of the Jaffna Tamils. The conventional political mission of Tamil historians has been to claim that they were the original pioneers, as stated in the Vadukoddai Resolution, who laid the foundation for the evolution of the history of Sri Lanka.

Armed with the Sydney University scholarship Dr. Gunasingam went on a world-wide search for evidence of the role played by the Tamils in building “a truly comprehensive history of the Tamil nation in Sri Lanka”. Though his mission is commendable there is an irony in it. History by its intrinsic nature is found in the soil on which it is made. But he goes around the world to look for it. At the end he wrote that “no overall or comprehensive history of the Tamils in Sri Lanka has yet been written.” (p, 25 – Primary Sources For The History Of The Sri Lankan Tamils, World-Wide Search, 2005.).

Tamils are a proud community obsessed with history. They believe fervently and somewhat arrogantly in a glorious past of their own. Of course, their imagined past is far in excess of the historical realities. In fact, they base their modern politics for a separate state / self-determination /federalism etc., on their imagined history. So far, their attempts to rewrite a Jaffna-centric history have ended up as a lame exercise in trying to make a mountain out of a mole hill. So the news that they do not have an “overall or comprehensive history of the Tamils in Sri Lanka” is not surprising though it must be upsetting and threatening their imagined history from which they derive political sustenance for an Eelam, a separate state, etc.

Jaffna-centric history has been written essentially to advance their politically motivated thesis which claims that they are the inheritors of a grand past from “the dawn of time”. This raises a critical question: If they do have the tangible glorious past why is it that they do not have a comprehensive history put together by anyone even as late as 2005? Can a nation/community have a great past without anyone documenting the existence of it? Is the vacuum in their history because the gap between the imagined past and the known historical realities cannot be filled with the kind of credible evidence needed to substantiate their claims of greatness? Isn’t this search for a past driven by current politics labouring incessantly to establish a separate state?

In the post-Vadukoddai Resolution period the re-writing of Jaffna-centric history has grown into a kind of semi-industry to boost the contemporary political ego filled with yearnings for the glorification of a history that never existed. Like most other Tamil and pro-Tamil theoreticians Dr. Gunasingam’s writings confirm amply that his research has been to find evidence of a past that would give credibility to a new Tamil identity that would elevate their status to justify their imagined history. Like Prof. Indrapala he is looking for “the affirmation of a positive Tamil Identity” and he pleads “with the entire Tamil community and especially expatriate Tamils across the world, to act on the matter without any further delay.” But nothing substantial has been dug up from the past since he presented his research to fill the vacuum in the history of the Tamils.

Coming from a leading Tamil scholar who had searched almost all the available sources of the world for evidence of the Tamils in Sri Lanka – Portugal, Holland, India, UK, USA etc– his statement must be taken as a definitive judgement. After his global search his conclusion is startling. He says categorically that “the most important single shortcoming at this time is that no historian, or archaeologist or even a social scientist, whether Sinhalese, Tamil or Western scholar has written complete or comprehensive account of the history of the Tamils in Sri Lanka.” (pp. 20-21 – Ibid). He admits that there were bits and pieces written about Jaffna but no one has written an overall history giving a panoramic view of their past. This news is bound to explode and deflate the heads of the Tamils like a bloated balloon pricked by the point of a needle. Bang!

The reverberating sound must be unnerving because, like all records of history, this revelation has serious political implications. The perennial problem of the Tamils is that their scanty history pales into insignificance when pitted against the monumental achievements of the Sinhala-Buddhist civilisation, or the classical Tamil history of S. India. When they go for self-determination they realise that they do not have the requisite history, either in quality or the quantity of the Sinhala-Buddhist history, to justify their exaggerated claim for a separate state.

Historian Gunasingam puts it starkly in the following paragraph: “Sri Lankan Tamils possess their own language, religion, culture and tradition and a glorious past which should enable them a strong national identity. However, to achieve self-determination successfully, they lack a sense of historical identity to support their claims for political rights. So, again, why is that the Tamil people have failed to preserve and promote their history as the Sinhalese people have so successfully accomplished?” (p.14 – Ibid).

Why, indeed! Unlike the Jaffna Tamils the Sinhalese do not have to labour that much to discover their past. Nor do they have to dig deep, or run around the world looking for their history. It is there almost on the surface for anyone to see. Whatever is found out in the world merely corroborates the visible, recognisable, and monumental history of the Sinhala-Buddhists. The failure of the Tamils to match their scanty history with that of the grand history of the Sinhala-Buddhists makes them feel inadequate. So they have been consistently filling the grim vacuum with their imagination, or denigrating the Sinhala-Buddhist history, or claiming that the Sinhala-Buddhist history is in reality the history of the Tamils.

The lack of an impressive and a credible history first hit them during the British period when pioneering British archaeologists, surveyors and explorers discovered the monumental achievements of the Sinhala-Buddhist buried under the jungle tide. Each discovery of the Sinhala-Buddhist culture, civilisation and heritage elevated the achievements of the Sinhala-Buddhist founding fathers to new heights. Oriental scholars from West were scrutinising every ola leaf found in temples, every page of history they could lay their hands on to study minutely the glories of the Sinhala-Buddhist past.

The Tamils had no comparative history or records in Jaffna. Their scholars like Arumuka Navalar and C. V. Thamotherampillai went to the Madras (Tamil Nadu) to unearth the hidden treasures written in Tamil. If they had a recorded history in Jaffna they would not have gone to Madras and ferreted old texts from house to house. Dr. Gunasingam followed in the footsteps of Arumuka Navalar and Thamotherampillai looking for Tamil history and glory outside Jaffna because they could not find it inside Jaffna. The first two Tamil explorers earned a reputation by discovering the hidden literature of the Tamil classical era and publishing them in Jaffna with the first printing press. With the dawn of the 20th century Jaffna Tamils discovered that they had neither Tamil classics to their credit coming out of their run-of-the mill past nor new dazzling creations of their own in contemporary times.

The usual excuse of Tamil historians / researchers is that there are gaps in the Jaffna-centric history because not enough of research has been done to re-discover their glorious past. But a substantial degree of research has been done to discover their glorious past and to date they have drawn a blank.

In the absence of a great classical past the Saivite Jaffna Vellalas (SJVs) – the supreme masters who ruled Jaffna with an iron fist — took to boasting about the slight variations in the Jaffna Tamil accent which they consider to be purer than the S. Indian variety. The Jaffna Tamils like to claim superiority over the Tamil Nadu Tamils with their quaint accent leaning towards the traditional past. They also take pride in the overall linguistic culture which is not corrupted by the pop culture of Tamil magazines and the cinematic vulgarisms of Tamil Nadu. Other than that the Jaffna Tamils have been dwarfed by the gigantic achievements of the classical Tamil culture of the S. India and the Sinhala-Buddhist civilisation in Sri Lanka.

What is absolutely clear from the judgment of Dr. Gunasingam on the Jaffna-centric history of the Tamils of Sri Lanka is that they have gone around the world in search of a history to boost their contemporary politics. The lack of a comprehensive and authoritative history of Jaffna Tamils has left room for imaginative versions to take root in the minds of the Jaffnaites, especially among the SJVs. The Tamil historians are faced with the serious problem of not finding any monumental material buried in their past to back up their claims for a grand history in Sri Lanka. So they are scouring all the world-wide archives / libraries for evidence. It is an urgent need to justify their claim for a separate state. Dr. Gunasingam wrote: “It is now clear that the exploration of primary sources relating to Sri Lankan Tamils throughout the world is crucial given the current political situation of Tamils in Sri Lanka.” (p. 28 – Ibid).

This clarifies the relationship between Tamil politics and their history: they need history to boost their politics. In the absence of a past that could match either the Tamil classical period or the monumental achievements of the Sinhala-Buddhist civilisation the Jaffna Tamils, sandwiched between the two, have come to accept the Vadukoddai Resolution of 1976 as their genuine history. It is simple. It is concise. It is easily digestible and, above all, politically oriented to justify their mono-ethnic extremism with wild distortions of the available records.

By and large, Jaffna-centric history aims to justify the manufactured rationale outlined in the Vadukoddai Resolution. It is the most significant declaration of the Jaffna Tamils filled with overblown nationalistic rhetoric. It reveals mostly the imaginative capabilities of the SJV elite than the hardcore realities of the history of Jaffna. It is a pure political document spiced with distorted perspectives and historical inaccuracies put together to demonise the Sinhala-Buddhists as enemies of the Tamils. It glorifies an imaginary past — “from the dawn of time”, it claims –with the sole aim of downgrading the pioneers of the mainstream. The lack of a creditable history of Jaffna is a thundering blow to the inflated egos of the SJVs who have been the main authors of their exaggerated history.

In this background the first mission of the Jaffna University should have been to provide an authoritative history to (1) give the world a comprehensive and scholarly account of the Tamils of Jaffna and (2) guide the thinking of the Jaffnaites to prevent them from running wild with the likes of Prabhakaran – the modern reincarnation of Sankili who had killed more Tamils than all the others put together, according to Tamil leaders. A nation / community that hero-worships “a pathological killer” (James Jupp of ANU) like Prabhakaran must consist of like-minded political animals with no respect for humane or civilized values. Great societies and histories were not built on the perverse politics of Hitlers, Pol Pots or Prabhakarans. The Germans and the Cambodians have rejected their evil past. But the Jaffnaites continue to cling on to the killer cult of Sankili who massacred 600 Tamils simply because they were Christians who owed allegiance to the King of Portugal.

Elevating Prabhakaran to the pinnacle of the political culture of Jaffna is a sad reflection of the dehumanised values of the Jaffnaites. The South also had their Prabhakaran in the evil figure of Rohana Wijeweera, the JVP fascist killer. But he has been cast into the dustbin of history. His successors are still struggling to regain respectability from the victims of the evil politics of JVP killers. But Jaffnaite political culture continue to consider the Sankilli cult of Prabhakaran as a liberating force. The fundamental flaw in the history of Jaffnaites is the absence of a respectable hero. That is the tragedy of Jaffna. The towering figures of their history consists of unrepentant killers like Sankilli and Prabhakaran. They revel in the cult of death and hatred of the other.

Prabhakaran is the spit image of Sankilli. Sankilli is on record of being the first mass murderer of Tamils. He also put on record the first ever ethnic cleansing by driving out the Muslims and the Sinhalese. Prabhakaran followed his example. Sankili institutionalised mono-ethnic extremism. He relentlessly consolidated fascist tyranny as the way of life in Jaffna. He established violence as the supreme political culture eliminating all opposition / diversity in the name of Tamil supremacy.

It is this history that the Jaffna University refuses to confront. It is also aware that it has to deal with the subhuman casteist culture of the Vellalars. If my memory serves me right, it was Prof. Ratnajeevan Hoole who exposed the heinous academic crime of Jaffna University suppressing research on the evils of Vellalar casteism. It is also the only university that evicted a Vice-Chancellor because he was from a low-caste. As stated earlier, it has the notoriety of driving out its first professor of history for authoring a history that did not justify their political agenda. It also has the scandalous reputation of promising female students an “A” for a lay.

This, in many ways, explains why the Jaffna University has failed to produce an authoritative history. It was established in 1972 by Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Nearly fifty years have gone by and Jaffna University has yet to produce a history of their own people. Why? Obviously, they are scared of facing the grim record of their past. So they resort to their usual game of diverting attention to the Sinhalese. Their favourite game is to blame the history of the Sinhala-Buddhists.

Jaffna jingoism has been the primary force driving the SJVs to power in peninsular politics. There is no politics in the peninsula without Jaffna jingoism. In this tradition attacking the Mahvamasa has been their usual tactic.

When will the Jaffnaites grow up and face their past that frightens them so much?

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