Sinhalese: A Nation Comfortable in Isolation – Part 2

Conflicts, competition, friendship, love, and hate between Sinhalese and Tamils have been common throughout history. But it was intermittent and limited to Lanka and a few kingdoms of south India.

13 mins read
A postcard image of a Sinhalese man from 1897 [ Photo: Wikipedia]

In part one historical and anthropological factors were discussed to understand their relevance for the present ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka and encourage racial-minded extremists to think differently to achieve ethnic harmony. The detrimental effects of deep-rooted mythical stories and self-centred political ideologies are discussed below.

Effects of Indo- Aryan Notion

A significant part of South India is populated by Ethno-linguistic groups of Dravidian origin, such as Telingu people of Andra-Pradesh and Telangana, Tamil of Tamil Nadu, Malayalam of Kerala, Kannadigas of Karnataka, etc. Also, Singapore and Malaysia have a sizable Tamil population outside India. The World Tamil population is well above 80 million. Further, many Dravidian people, including Tamils, were taken out for bonded labour by colonial authorities or migrated to many parts of the world during the colonial period. As such, the Dravidian population in India and the rest of the world could be more than 250 million. They are a recognised socio-economic and political power with a unique identity in India and many parts of the world today.

Though Sinhalese have been labelled as Aryans, no so-called Aryan Nations or Ethnicities have recognised Sinhalese as a nation that belongs to their racial group. Contrary to that, Sri Lankan Tamils are recognised, accepted, and supported by all Tamils in India and other parts of the world as members of their families.  The wider Dravidians family scattered in many parts of the world also accepts Sri Lankan Tamils as Dravidians.

Sinhalese are genetically different from Indo-Aryans but look much closer to Dravidians in South India. Nonetheless, Sinhalese are wilfully alienated from the much larger Tamil and other Dravidian racial groups due to mythical beliefs and artificial labelling as Indo- Aryans. Consequent to this hypocrisy, Sinhalese became a negligible, frustrated, and isolated minority among the Dravidian groups of South India and Dravidians in the rest of the world.

Sinhala Mentality

Throughout history, Sinhalese suffered the feeling of a minority in the Indian Sub-continent due to several Dravidian Nations with a large population at their doorstep, South India. Sinhalese always lived with the fear of South Indian invasions, especially from Tamil Nadu. Ordinary Sinhala citizens do not see a difference between Sri Lankan and Tamil Nadu Tamils and other Dravidian ethnicities from South India. Therefore, Sinhalese are accustomed to labelling anybody from South India as Tamil. For the 2500 years of recorded history, up to the European colonisation, ‘Sri Lankan History’ means nothing else but playing the defensive role against invaders of South Indian kingdoms. Even today, the above feelings and notions are deep-rooted in the minds of Sinhalese and scared of Tamil domination and aggression in other forms. This fear is reasonable from a historical perspective.

Original Sinhala kingdoms, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, had the best land to cultivate staple food but were abandoned by Sinhalese due to intermittent invasions and colonisation of those regions by Tamil invaders from South India. After losing the Polonnaruwa kingdom, the Sinhalese were forced to cramp into the less fertile hill country and southern wet zoon, which are unsuitable for paddy cultivation. As such, the North and East Tamil Homeland has little validity. It has happened as a historical process after the falling of the Polonnaruwa Kingdom and subsequent invasions by South Indians and Europeans. Therefore, Sinhala Buddhists will never agree to forget the great population centre of the golden era of Sinhala Buddhist civilisation and accept the new concept of Tamil homeland in the North and East. That will antagonise the Sinhala –Buddhist community and widen the ethnic gap.

Co-existence

Ancient Sinhalese rulers had different strategies to face the threats from Southern Indian kingdoms. As much as possible, while maintaining the identity of Lanka as a separate country from India and the identity of Sinhalese as a unique nation, they kept the goodwill, socio-economic and political relationship with different South Indian kingdoms (Dravidian) as a national security strategy. Sinhala kings used to seek military assistance from Dravidian kings whenever there was an invasion by another Dravidian king in South India. They never depend on the large Aryan kingdoms of North India for that purpose.  Inter-marriages between Lankan and South Indian Royal Families were another critical strategy followed during those days to maintain regional solidarity. In several instances, Sinhalese have accepted South Indian Princes as claimants for the Sri Lankan/Sinhala throne through hereditary marriage relationships. Sinhala Kings of Pandiyan Origin (Prakramabahu the Great, Nissankamalla Etc.) have ruled the Sinhala country without dispute about their Dravidian origin. Sinhalese kings also supported some South Indian kings to get protection from their rival opponents of neighbouring kingdoms. Also, they had enrolled well-recognized dignitaries and experts from south Indian Kingdoms in the government administration and various development works, enhancing cooperation and understanding.

After the collapse of the Polonnaruwa kingdom, Sri Lanka became politically weak and unorganised and could not face any foreign g invasion. Vijaya Nagar kingdom was established in 1336 and became a powerful kingdom in South India. Up to the European invasion of the Indian Subcontinent, the Vijaya Nagar kingdom protected South India, including Sri Lanka, from Islamic Invasion. If not for the powerful Vijaya Nagar Kingdom In south India, Sri Lanka could have been subjected to Islamic invasion resulting in conversion to Islam. Intentionally or unintentionally, the Vijaya Nagar kingdom has played a vital role in safeguarding the Sinhala-Buddhist identity in Sri Lanka.

Hypocrisy

Sri Lankan Tamils are very proud of their nationality, language, culture, and religion. They believe they are a branch of the Dravidian family, the oldest civilisation globally and superior to Sinhalese. They are unique in observing cultural values at family and community levels and exhibit the national identity by conduct, behaviour, and appearance strongly and openly. Contrary to this, Sinhalese believe they are a group of Indo-Aryans, and Tamils are non-Aryans and rank below the level of Aryans in nobleness. Therefore, Sinhalese are superior to Tamil. Extremists of both communities use these Tamil and Sinhala hypocrisies to widen the gap, fuel the mistrust, keep the reins in their hands, and manipulate racialism to satisfy their agendas.

Isolation

 Conflicts, competition, friendship, love, and hate between Sinhalese and Tamils have been common throughout history. But it was intermittent and limited to Lanka and a few kingdoms of south India. The Sinhalese are a minority ethnic group in the Indian Sub-Continent, struggling with a significant Tamil Population in South India (next door) to survive as a separate nation with a distinct identity and a particular territory (Lanka Island). During the colonial period of Western powers, there were no invasions by southern Indians. But Tamils and other minority groups became more prominent than the Sinhala majority. After independence, Sinhalese are trying to regain lost opportunities during half a millennium-long colonisation period. But their strategies seem very much based on historical memories, without considering the social, political, and economic evolution that took place during the colonial period and the changes in the new world.

The master minders of the 1983 black July have branded the entire Sri Lankan Tamil community as terrorists fighting for a separate country or supporters of separatism. Also, in local and international media and government literature, the word ‘Tamil and Dravidian’ is synonymous, especially in the Sinhala language.  Most of the Dravidian ethnicities in India are not sympathisers of the Tamil course in general or the Sri Lankan Tamil in particular. But by using the words Dravidians and Tamils synonymously, an inference has been established that Dravidians are being harassed/discriminated against by the Sinhalese/Sinhala-dominated governments in Sri Lanka. Therefore, a substantial Dravidian population has become sympathisers for the Sri Lanka Tamil course, regardless of the validity of a separate Tamil country. Repercussions of the issue expanded beyond the boundaries of Sri Lanka and Tamil Nādu and got it internationalised, while Sinhalese are losing Tamil friends worldwide.

In addition, Sinhala patriots have recently started using the word ‘Sinhala- Buddhist’, creating a sub-ethnic group within the Sinhalese. If they used the word ‘Buddhist,’ it could have enlarged the frontier by enlisting the sympathy of the larger Buddhist population of the world, as the Tamis do. At least if they had used the word ‘Sinhalese,’ much of the Sri Lankan population (75%) could have been retained in the lobby. But using the word ‘Sinhala- Buddhist,’ Sinhala Frontier became small. While LTTE has strategically expanded their network to the Indian subcontinent and the rest of the world, Sinhala patriots are trying to be an isolated smaller group within Sri Lanka.

Under the above circumstances, Sri Lanka has miserably failed to prevent the dissemination of misinformation and prove that the demand for a separate country is unwarranted. Instead of putting the correct facts on the table and demonstrating the commitment and genuineness for co-existence, the Sinhala camp continues to deny the allegations put forward by separatists before the international Tamil sympathisers and justify the LTTE demands.

Under these circumstances, Tamil patriotism became highly relevant and acceptable to much of the world community, while Sinhalese’s sincere attempts and patriotism became unacceptable, isolated, and voiceless.

Swimming the Upstream

As discussed above, there are no tangible or visible social and cultural issues between the two communities to fall apart. Probably this conflict is due to the competition for limited economic opportunities. After the independence, both communities wished to exploit the available narrow economic base (small piece of cake) for the benefit of their communities instead of working together to widen the economic base (make the cake bigger). Against this backdrop, after the independence, a serious animosity with deep-rooted dislike has developed between Sinhala and Tamil communities, especially among political leaders. Gradually this has escalated into an armed conflict between Tamil Tigers, backed by some external forces, and the Sri Lankan government, supported by the Sinhala majority. The government militarily defeated this conflict in 2009. However, now socially and politically, this difference and hatred have become more severe.  It is a politically induced scenario staged by power-hungry politicians of both communities. Their weapons include the fabrication of news favourable for conflicts, misinformation, generalisation of isolated incidents, and exaggeration of sensitive information related to ethnic issues. That is to maintain an emotionally energised society ready to fight with the opposite community, keeping the said politicians in frontiers with reins in their hands.

By this time, most of the core ethnic issues have been resolved by the government legally and constitutionally (devolution of political power, acceptance of Tamil as a national language like Sinhala, development of infrastructure, and provision of welfare facilities without communal or regional discriminations, investment to reduce regional disparities, etc.). However, in general, Sinhalese people are not interested in providing equal opportunities to Tamils. Therefore, the administrative implementation phase of constitutional and legal provisions is prolonged, leading to dissatisfaction among ordinary Tamil people. Tamil politicians also have a very aloof attitude towards seriously implementing such legal and constitutional provisions to do justice to ordinary Tamils who have been suffering for more than three decades. They are happy to sustain a suffering Tamil community in Sri Lanka to justify grievances at the international forums and seek asylums for the well-to-do Tamils in advanced countries for a better standard of living. Therefore, most of the expressions of ethnic conflicts taken into the platform by Tamil politicians looked more like symbolic demands and picked isolated issues attractive to international forums than a representation of deep-rooted core structural issues of the ordinary Tamil people.

Way Forward

  • Sinhala Frontier

If Sinhalese maintains that they belong to Indo–the Aryan race and are entirely different from Tamils and other Dravidian groups and superior to them, the conflict will continue. It is detrimental to the co-existence with the large Tamil and Dravidian populations next door, South India. To ensure the sustainability of Sinhala Jathiya (Sinhala Nation), Sinhala Extremists must understand the world’s reality and investigate the ways and means for co-existence with the Tamils in Sri Lanka instead of suppressing them.  Sinhalese must stop pushing the Sri Lankan Tamils, world Tamils, world Dravidians, and their advocacy groups to a broader frontier of enemies. They must realise that world sympathy has been cultivated in favour of Sri Lankan Tamils and un-sympathy against Sinhalese. It may not be based on correct facts, but it can’t be changed or brought back history through an arrogant and adamant approach or counterarguments. Instead of harping on ancient Sinhala glory, solutions shall be sought based on the present demographic, social, political, and economic structures.

  • Tamil Frontier

Traditional Tami leadership and diaspora should be more concerned about the burning issues of the poor Tamils who live in Sri Lanka and co-exist with Sinhalese instead of harping on the hidden agenda of a separate Tamil country within the small island. Instead of widening the gap between the two communities, they must investigate how they can co-exist with Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. Tamil leaders’ priority must be rehabilitating the war-affected people and areas, correcting past mistakes and injustices, and assisting them in rejuvenating their lifestyle with the assistance of the government.

Next, they must use the devolved political power and the national political representation to benefit Tamils to the maximum possible extent and prove their commitment, integrity, genuineness, and ability for democratic governance. Then request for devolution of power further to fill gaps, if any.  They must understand that any rights lost by Tamils can be availed only by the Sri Lankan government. Also, they should not expect to regain the privileges enjoyed during the colonial period. Base-less concept of the North and East Tamil homeland, which leads to widening the gap between Tamils and Sinhalese, should be dropped from their demands. Entire Sri Lanka is the homeland for all citizens of Sri Lanka. The LTTE has distorted the unique Tamil Hindu culture of Sri Lanka, and the young generation of the Tamil Diaspora is further distorting it. If they do not change their minds to live with Sinhalese cordially, it is detrimental to the sustainability of the unique Tamil-Hindu culture of Sri Lanka.

  • Diaspora

The diaspora is using legally or illegally earned huge assets abroad to cultivate hatred among the young generation, who doesn’t know what has happened in history. Instead, they Should invest in the North and East of the country to generate more employment for their people and to remove the misunderstanding between the two communities. Cultivating hatred among young and future generations of both communities will close all avenues for reconciliation and co-exist forever. It may create another Palestinian- Israel situation on this earth.It is very pathetic, even 14 years after the war; the priority of the Tamil leaders and the international community is illusive accountability, not the issues of the war-affected people. Accountability will satisfy the hateful minds of a limited crowd but not the needs of ordinary Tamil who have suffered for about four decades. The lack of focus on the well-being of the affected people is an obvious indication of the deceitfulness of all parties involved in the accountability agenda. If they are genuine in this process while following the accountability mechanism, very high priority must be placed on the rejuvenation of the economy and lifestyle of the war-affected people on par with the rest of the country instead of allowing them to suffer for many more decades.

  • International Community

Accountability has no meaning if the parties involved /responsible for the action can’t correct/ compensate for the ill effects of their actions.  According to UNHCR s Operational Guidance on Accountability to the Affected People, “accountability to affected people is a commitment to the intentional and systematic inclusion of the expressed needs, concerns, capabilities, and views of persons of concern in their diversity; and being answerable our organisational decisions and staff actions in all protection, assistance, and solutions, intentions, and programs “. As such, without limiting to one party or aspect, the accountability should apply to all stakeholders, including the international partners and cover all aspects.  Accountability should not be narrowly defined as punishing a person or a group for satisfying the hidden agendas of some groups with vested interests.

After the Civil war, even hard-core Sinhala patriots started developing sympathy, compassion, and friendship toward Tamils. Ordinary Tamil people had shown interest in living in Sinhala areas with Sinhalese and rejuvenating their lifestyle and livelihood with the government’s support. The hard-core terrorist also accepted the rule of law in the country and integrated into civilian life after the rehabilitation.  Even traditional Tamil political leaders working for a hidden agenda of a separate Tamil country became more lenient towards the concept of one country. Though they did not participate in the government’s rehabilitation efforts, they kept neutrality without disturbing it.

As such, an environment conducive to a long-lasting solution emerged slowly after the war. However, the unwarranted involvement of UNHCR reversed the whole process at its inception. At present, their cause of action is counterproductive. It gives an unwarranted expectation and confidence for a separate Tamil country, which is the hidden agenda of traditional Tamil political leaders. Also, it cultivates hatred in the minds of the second and third generation of Tamil Diaspora based on a fabricated and unfounded allegation of the Tamil genocide, which will close all available avenues for reconciliation and co-existence forever.

Artificially sympathetic international community towards the Tamil course should understand the above realities and Sinhalese mentality. Undue pressure on the Sri Lanka government will increase the suspicion, hatred, and gap between the two communities resulting in more suffering for ordinary Tamils who live in Sri Lanka. The UNHCR and the UN should be able to put pressure on both the Government of Sri Lanka and the powerful, influential, and adamant Tamil Frontier for reconciliation and co-existence.

Conclusion  

Suppose Prince Vijaya’s legend’s embroidery is removed away. In that case, the core could be that a prince from Odessa or the Bengal region of the Indian subcontinent had invaded Lanka and unified it as one country and one nation in the 6th century BC. Over centuries it has evolved as Sinhala Nation (Sinhala Jathiya) and Sinhala Country (Sinhale). Since then, socio-economic immigrants from South India would have been assimilated into Sinhala Jathiya (Sinhala Nation).

Lanka being an island, its language, the ‘Sinhala’, may have evolved as a unique language as a mixture of local dialects, the language used by Vijaya and groups, and the Tamil language used by their spouses came from Madurai. Subsequently, it may have been enriched from North Indian languages due to the influence of Buddhism and eventually shaped as an Indo-Aryan language. Genetically Sinhalese are not Indo-Aryans. They are a mixture of Indo-Aryans, Dravidians and indigenous people and are genetically closer to Tamils.

Though the war has been concluded by defeating terrorists, the conflict has escalated more than before and is escalating further. Entire processes, including the Hippocratic attitudes of Sinhala/Tamils and their racialist pressure groups/advocacy groups, have caused irreparable damage to both Sinhala and Tamils and blocked the avenues for ethnic harmony.

In this rapidly changing world, the Sinhalese must change their thinking patterns, attitudes, approaches, and behaviours, as mentioned earlier, to ensure the sustainability of the Sinhala nation, which they fought for more than 2500 years. The priority of the Sri Lankan government should be ethnic harmony, national integration, and building Sri Lanka as a nation while enjoying the rights and identities of different ethnic and religious groups. The diaspora and international forces should genuinely cooperate with the government in its efforts for national integration and nation-building for the best interest of Tamils living in Sri Lanka. I am concluding this article with the following remarks.

“Sinhala people are fond of Tamil Films, Tamil dances, Tamil Songs, Tamil music, Tamil foods, Tamil costumes, Tamil professionals, Tamil workers and Tamil girls, but they don’t like the Tamils. The Tamil people live, eat, sleep, work together with Sinhalese, and depend on them for livelihood, but hate the Sinhalese.”

References:

  1. Mahawamsa
  2. Cultural Survival Quarterly Magazine – December 1988; Conflict and Confusion in Sri Lanka
  3. Yes, the Sinhalese have their origin in Bengal Odisha. By Adriya Roy Couwdhury
  4. Sinhala People- Wikipedia
  5. Genetic Affinities of Sri Lankan Population- by Gautam Kumar Kshatriya

Sirisena Amarasekara

Sirisena Amarasekara is a Sri Lankan public servant and diplomat. He is the former Sri Lankan High Commissioner to South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Angola, Botswana, and Eswatin. He had functioned as the secretary to the Prime Minister on two occasions, and as the secretary to the Cabinet of Sri Lanka. Having completed more than 50 years of public service, Amarasekara is one of the most senior Sri Lankan public servants.

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