Many academic articles have been written about the ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka. Many scholars have offered explanations in this regard. And many solutions have been proposed. There has even been a war that has claimed thousands of human lives. But decades later, the Sinhalese and the Tamils are yet to come to an agreement about a solution. The crisis does not seem to have been resolved. What is the real reason for this? This is why we need to find out if there is a problem in our understanding of the causes of the ethnic crisis. It appears Social Science academics who have commented on this have only touched the surface of this issue. Many of them have ignored the root cause of ethnic crisis in the island.
It is in this backdrop, the former Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council and the current Member of Parliament C. V. Wigneswaran, has clearly pointed out the root cause of Sri Lanka’s crisis to everyone. We should be thankful to Wigneswaran for that. But it is a tragedy that many of the things he says do not get the attention they deserve. Many Sinhalese have a habit of dismissing him as a virulent racist. It is a wrong approach.
Wigneswaran points out the root cause of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka very clearly. He states that the Tamils of the northern and eastern provinces, unlike the Muslims and plantation Tamils, “have always occupied the area now roughly covered by the Northern and Eastern Provinces. There had been continuous occupation of the North and East throughout history by the Tamil-speaking people……..In fact, their occupation extended up to Negombo in the Western Province and up to Kathirgamam in the South East. The Sinhalese have never occupied the North and East in large numbers except after 1833 when the country was brought under one administration by the British”.
He further states, “we Tamils of the North and East are conscious of our antiquity, our history, our rights to self-determination and therefore until our intrinsic rights to the right of self-determination is recognized and respected we would find it difficult to march together with the other communities, specially the Sinhalese who have usurped our history and antiquity and trying to falsify those fields of study”.
Wigneswaran claims that the Tamil history of Sri Lanka has been stolen by the Sinhalese people. If this is the case, how can reconciliation be achieved? We can all agree that theft of one’s history and identity by the other is no way to achieve any everlasting reconciliation between the two parties.
He also claims that the Sinhalese people are immersed in a sea of myths about their history. Therefore he considers teaching the true history of the country especially to the Sinhala Buddhist brothers as a service he should fulfill. Accordingly, Wigneswaran has pointed out the ‘true’ history of the Sinhalese people on several occasions. He argues “The Sinhala people have been given a wrong understanding of history based on the fiction written in Pali by a Buddhist Priest in the 5th Century AD. The author says that at the end of every stanza he was writing the fiction for the glorification of Buddhism. If he was writing history he would not have said so!”
Thus, he claims that the reason for Sri Lanka’s ethnic problem is the false history created by Sinhala historians and Buddhist monks. “The Sinhalese historians and others, especially the Buddhist clergy, have set up lots of falsities as history. They say this country is theirs. This is false. The original inhabitants of this country were Saivite Tamils. They say all Tamils were immigrants into a predominantly Sinhala Country. This is also false”.
When Tamils have been living in Sri Lanka for thousands of years speaking Tamil, a very ancient language, he says “Sinhalese came by their Sinhala language only in the 6th or 7th Century AD. That is 1300 or 1400 years ago only. There was no Sinhala Language before that time. Some historians have painted all ancient Buddhists as Sinhalese. That is because since there was Buddhism in Sri Lanka before the Sinhala language came into existence they have identified earlier era Buddhists as Sinhala Buddhists. Those who were Buddhists at that time were Tamils whom Professor Sunil Ariyaratne calls as Demala Bauddayo”.
Wigneswaran also argues that the Sinhalese have been tempted to give the Sinhala language a long history by calling the language found in ancient inscriptions as Sinhala Prakrit. So he says, “There are those who refer to Sinhala Prakrit as proof of the presence of the Sinhalese language from pre Buddhistic times. This is like saying my grandfather lived 100 years ago therefore I lived 100 years ago because I came from my grandfather! There was no Sinhala language until 1300 or 1400 years from now. So how could you refer to Sinhala Prakrit of a by- gone age 2000 years or more ago? The Sinhala language was not even contemplated at that time. The truth would be that those words of ancient times (Prakrit) may have been Pali or Tamil or other dialects in Sri Lanka which later came to make up the Sinhala Language. Sinhala is a conglomeration of languages. At least 40% of the Sinhala words are Tamil. Its alphabet formation is similar to Tamil and South Indian Languages”.
According to Wigneswaran, and Tamil people in general, there was no Sinhala language in the island until around the 7th century and no Sinhalese people lived then. This island was inhabited by the Tamil speaking Shiva devotees who were the first settlers of Ceylon. It was these Tamil speaking Shiva devotees who first encountered the Buddhist missionaries sent by Asoka. Therefore he claims that, Devanam Piya Thissa mentioned in Mahavamsa, who reigned in Sri Lanka at the time when Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka, was actually a Tamil Siva devotee king, named Devanam-Piya-Theesan.
Then his argument is that, the Tamils who inhabited the island built the Rajarata civilization and left ancient stone inscriptions all over the country. According to his theory, only a part of the Shiva devotee Tamils embraced Buddhism, and the Sinhala language was created from the combination of Tamil, Pali and Prakrit languages. And he says that, only after a few centuries had gone by, after this process, Sinhalese emerged in Sri Lanka. If this is the version of history believed by Wigneswaran and shared by the Tamil society in general, then one can imagine their anger at the supposed theft of their history.
Moreover, he claims that Sri Lanka’s Tamil history goes back a long way. He says that even before the island was geographically separated from the Indian subcontinent, Tamils were living in this country. Speaking to the Ceylon Today newspaper in 2017, he said “According to S.U. Deraniyagala Sri Lanka which had been part of the land mass of the Indian subcontinent became an island about 7,000 years ago when it physically separated from Southern India. On that basis the populations of South India and Sri Lanka were of the same ethnic stock prior to and after separation”.
Wigneswaran also comments on a huge continent of Lemuria, which was the homeland of the Tamil speaking people, and disappeared under the sea. He argued that the island of Ceylon is a remnant of the continent of Lemuria. He claims that the Tamils living in the North and East “could trace their ancestry to the inhabitants of the Continent of Lemuria which covered the greater part of the present Indian Ocean in times gone by. The Lemuria Continent which was gobbled up by the Indian Ocean extended from Western Australia to Eastern Africa joining up with the Indian subcontinent. Therefore the present Tamils of the North and East feel themselves to be the descendants of a long line of Tamil speaking people who have been occupying the Northern and Eastern regions continuously from pre Buddhistic times. Recently it has been accepted that Tamil is the oldest living language in the world”.
He also claims that the people of the megalithic era who came to the island with the iron culture were also Tamil speaking Dravidians. Therefore, he is of the opinion that the evidence of an ancient Tamil civilization can be found in the megalithic monuments found scattered across the island. We have to remember, that Tamil Historian, Prof. S. Pathmanathan made a similar remark to Daily Mirror in 2017 (Interview with Kelum Bandara, Tamils have valid claim for homeland Prof. Pathmanathan, 29 March 2017, Daily Mirror). According to Wigneswaran’s argument, there was a very ancient Tamil history in Ceylon. He directly said that it is more appropriate to treat Sri Lanka as a Tamil Shiva state.
Many Sinhalese consider Wigneswaran a racist and tend to ignore his views. But no matter how problematic it is, he points to the viewpoint prevailing in the Tamil society in general about the history of Sri Lanka. This viewpoint or ideology is not limited to Wigneswaran or a fringe of extreme Tamil nationalists. And he was not the first to narrate a Tamil centric History of Sri Lanka in this way. This Tamil viewpoint of the island’s history has been a prominent feature in the comments made by people belonging to all strata of Tamil society regarding the ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka.
For example, Prof. Ratnajeevan Hoole, Rajasingham Narendran, Dr. Murugar Gunasingham, D. B. S. Jayaraj, Prof. K. Sivathamby, Prof. A. Velupillai have also advocated a Tamil-centric history of Sri Lanka. Tamil National Alliance Member of Parliament, A. Sumanthiran who served as the Vice-Chairman of the Sri Lanka Methodist Council, recently installed a Shiva lingam at the Vedukkannari Buddhist archaeological site. How can we understand the rationale behind such a controversial move?
A founding member of the Federal Party, V. Navaratnam has strongly stood for a Tamil centric History of Sri Lanka and says that it is the most important ideology that drives Tamil nationalist politics in Sri Lanka. And historian S. K. Sittarampalam who once functioned as the vice-president of the Ilangkai Thamizh Arasu Kadchi (ITAK), the main constituent party of the TNA, has spoken about a Tamil-centric history of Sri Lanka at several instances. Another Tamil political leader who strongly advocated this is C. Sunderalingam.
It was S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, the founder of the Federal Party, who turned this Tamil Centric history of Sri Lanka into a political concept by forming ‘Tamil Homeland Concept’. It is this concept that drives Tamil politics in Sri Lanka. Prabhakaran, the leader of the LTTE, once said, that the person who lit the flame of Tamil nationalism in his mind, is none other than, his tutor Venugopal Master, a disciple of Sundaralingam and Navaratnam, fierce proponents of Tamil Centric History. Since the 1950s, S. J. Gunasingham, a teacher who taught history in Tamil medium schools, had advocated a Tamil-centric history of Sri Lanka and always accused the Sinhalese of distorting the history of the island. Therefore Tamil-centric history of SL is not something Wigneswaran invented or limited to him.
When reading Wigneswaran’s comments, one is reminded of the debate between J. L. Devananda and Bandu de Silva regarding the history of Sri Lanka in 2011 (Sri Lanka Guardian website). There is no difference between the views expressed by Devananda and those of Wigneswaran. He does not belong to an extreme racist fringe of the Tamil society, but a person who very clearly points out the Tamil viewpoint about the history of this country. He also warned in 2014 that if Sri Lanka’s history is not corrected, there may even be a war again. Accordingly, he shows us, the seriousness of the dispute between the Sinhalese and Tamils, regarding the history of Sri Lanka.
Tamil journalist T. Sabharatnam once said, that the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka has arisen due to the controversy over the history of the island. And Professor K. Sivathamby once said “Both [Sinhalas and Tamils] differ on the extent of the Tamil element of Sri Lanka. Sinhala viewpoint changes from zero to 50% where Sinhala nationalists claim Sri Lanka has zero Tamil element and Marxists/ federalists or Tamil sympathizers claim it is equal to 50% which is as same as the Sinhalese. It can be said the general view of the Sinhala public is Tamil element in Sri Lankan heritage is more than zero but definitely less than 50%. The Tamil viewpoint is Tamil element in Sri Lankan heritage is from 50% to close to 100% by giving a Tamil origin to the Sinhalese people. The crisis in Sri Lanka stems from this disagreement on the extent of Tamilness in the Sri Lankan heritage.” According to Sivathamby, the issue of Tamilness in the island is the root cause of the communal crisis.
As it is evident from the Tamil comments, the Sinhalese and Tamil conflict over the island’s history has created a heated debate over the nature of the post-colonial Sri Lankan state. Disputes over the country’s official language, settlement of farming communities in the Eastern Province, the constitution, the national flag and as shown recently even the logo of the Department of Archeology, have arisen from this controversy about the history of Sri Lanka. Therefore, in order to end the Sinhala and Tamil ethnic crisis, this controversy about the island’s history must be resolved.
It should be noted that although some of the NGOs supported by foreign funds have done research on the ethnic crisis, NONE have paid attention to the main controversy between the two parties, which is the controversy over history. No wonder their attempts at peace have failed! In such a scenario, we should thank Wigneswaran for pointing at the real root cause of the conflict.
Views expressed are personal