Professor Emeritus of Sri Lanka History K. M. de Silva, in a detailed email interview with the , challenges the claim that the north and the east are the exclusive homeland of Tamil speaking people. Instead, he said no part of the country could be claimed exclusively by any ethnic group.
Prof. de Silva served at the Peradeniya University from 1969 to 1995. He is also the Director and Executive Director, International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Kandy/Colombo.
QHow valid is the concept of traditional homelands from a historical point of view?
Of the many claims that have been made by the exponents of the concept of the ‘Traditional Tamil Homeland’ (TTH) extending over a part of the island of Sri Lanka, the following extracts could be identified as those that placed this pernicious concept on a formal footing in the political mainstreams of the country. You will note in these extracts that the claimed TTH is an area that stretches as far south along the west coast as Chilaw, and along the east coast down to Kumbukkan Oya.
You should also note the reference in the second extract to this area as the “Exclusive homeland of the Tamils”
“Whereas throughout the centuries from the dawn of history, the Sinhalese and Tamil nations have divided between them the possession of Ceylon, the Sinhalese inhabiting the interior parts 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 TULF resolves that] …Tamil Eelam shall consist of the Northern and Eastern provinces”. (The ‘Traditional Homelands’ of the Tamils, The Separatist Ideology in Sri Lanka: A Historical Appraisal, K.M. de Silva, 3rd revised edition, 2013, p. 12).
From the ‘Vadukoddai Resolution’ adopted at the inaugural session of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) in 1976.
“From this background of alternating fortunes [of the Sinhalese and Tamil rulers of ancient Sri Lanka] emerged, at the beginning of the 13th century, a clear and stable political fact – (i.e.) … the territory stretching in the western sea board from Chilaw through Puttalam to Mannar and thence to the Northern Region, and in the east, Trincomalee and also the Batticaloa Regions that extend southward up to Kumana or the northern banks of the river Kumbukkan Oya were firmly established as the exclusive homeland of the Tamils. This is the territory of Tamil Eelam”.(de Silva, 2013: p. 13)
From the TULF Manifesto for the Parliamentary Elections of 1977
In several of my publications (the most recent among which is ‘Separatist Ideology in Sri Lanka: An Historical Appraisal, 2013) I have shown clearly and categorically that these claims do not conform to well-established facts of history. The thematic essence of these writings is that, while Tamils (More specifically, people whose mother-tongue is one or another of the ‘Dravidian’ languages) have shared with several other ethnic groups the entire island as their homeland (With that “tradition” dating back to various stages of history”) no part of the island belongs exclusively to the Tamils or to any other ethnic group.
QHow do you analyse the evolution of this homeland concept?
Since the term ‘evolution’ connotes “gradual development”, the emergence of the notion of a Tamil homeland in the northern and eastern parts of the island as a contentious issue in the political affairs of Sri Lanka could be regarded as an ‘evolution’ only after the founding of the Illankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK, or the “Federal Party”) in April 1951.
Thereafter, with the increasing estrangement of Sinhalese-Tamil relations in the political mainstreams of Sri Lanka – a process to which campaigns that were based on the TTH concept contributed – there was, indeed, an evolution of the TTH concept which culminated in a secessionist campaign from the late 1970s.
This is not to deny the existence of the idea of Tamils inhabiting the ‘north-east’ constituting a distinctive ‘nation’ prior to the establishment of the ITAK. There is, for instance, a brief reference to the south-west of the island being “inhabited by the Cingalese (sic.), and the Malabars occupying the north-east” in the so-called ‘Cleghorn Minute’̶a report compiled by a British officer, who had sporadic contact with the maritime areas of ‘Ceylon’ during their transfer from the Dutch to the British at the end of the 18th century ̶which has sometimes been cited as evidence for the island of Sri Lanka being the venue of two ‘nations’ at the time of its conquest by the British.
In my writings I have placed this document under detailed scrutiny and have shown that the ‘Cleghorn Minute’ cannot be considered as a reliable source of information. Moreover the British, like the Dutch before them, did take cognisance of the fact that the northern part of the island and certain localities in the eastern littoral were inhabited largely by Tamil-speaking people.
But the pragmatic concessions they made to this demographic and linguistic feature were, in general, not embodied in their administrative devices or structures. Some of Sri Lanka’s ethnic and religious diversities were catered to by the recognition of customary law and through the appointment of officials with knowledge of the languages and customs of the localities. But, there was never a recognition by them, of this “Two Nations Theory”.
The idea that Jaffna Peninsula and the adjacent parts of the northern plains, and parts of the eastern littoral acquired distinctive cultural characteristics was also elaborated by Ponnambalam Arunachalam in the lengthy ‘Introduction’ he wrote to the report of the Census of Population conducted in 1901. This did not evoke a response in the constitutional reforms introduced during the early decades of the 20th century. Similarly the efforts made by C. Sunderalingam (senior administrator, a Professor in the University College in Colombo, and a political activist) both before and in the aftermath of independence to promote this ‘theory’ represented a “lone voice” that had no popular support from the Tamil community. Thus, it was only with the founding of the ITAK in 1951 that the TTH gradually acquired prominence as a major political issue in Sri Lanka.
Thereafter at every national convention of the ITAK resolutions, similar in content and objective but more strident in tone, were adopted until the formation of the TULF and the promulgation of its declarations of 1976 and 1977.
After the emergence of the LTTE in the late 1980s to the status of the “sole representative of the Tamils of Sri Lanka” (as declared by the leaders of the TULF), in Prabhakaran’s annual “Heroes Day Messages” (On 26 November) we find repetitions of the essence of the earlier TULF resolutions. That is how I see what you refer to as the “evolution of the homeland concept”.
QHow did Tamils become the majority in the north and certain parts of the eastern province?
I should preface my response to this question with the observation that there is an acute paucity of historical sources on the basis of which anyone could attempt to trace the changes in the size of the ‘Tamil’ segment of the population in the Northern and Eastern Provinces in the period before the commencement of systematic census enumeration in Sri Lanka during the closing decades of the 19th century.
Tamil connections with the island, though less prominently displayed in the records of the past than those of the Sinhalese, are nevertheless probably as old as those of the Sinhalese. Throughout the ancient period of Sri Lanka’s history, Dravidian kingdoms and empires of South India exerted influences on Sri Lanka including rule over the northern parts of the island over relatively
As several eminent Tamil scholars ̶ for example, Professors S. Arasaratnam (1964) and K. Indrapala (1969) ̶ have also substantiated, following the conquest of the northern plains of the island by Māgha of Kalinga in the mid-13th century which paved the way for the establishment of an independent Tamil kingdom based on Jaffna peninsula, there was a proliferation of Tamil settlements alongside an ascendancy of Tamil cultural elements in that part of the country. On the subject of population change in the ‘North-East’ during this period I should also mention
(a) The semi-independent chieftaincies ruled by the ‘Vanniars’ in the interior parts of the northern plains most of which appear to have been absorbed into this on-going process of cultural ‘Tamilisation’;
(b) the development of Muslim settlements, especially in the littoral of the north-west and the east since the heyday of Arab maritime activity in early mediaeval times; and
(c) The dwindling of the Sinhalese population and Sinhalese cultural elements in this area which continued well into the early decades of the 20th century. The transformations associated with this latter process are vividly portrayed in the following extract from the British ‘Administration Report’ of 1898 on Trincomalee District.
“This part of the district (Kaddikulam Pattu) is inhabited by Sinhalese villagers of Kandyan descent… (who), I fear, are dying out or becoming effaced. This district is most interesting, being dotted over by numerous village tanks, some of which are restored and other abandoned. The villagers retain many of their primitive Kandyan customs, but are rapidly becoming ‘Tamilised’… They inter-marry with the Tamils and many of them speak Tamil as well as they speak Sinhalese.
“Even the Government school master is Tamil, and only that language is taught in the that school, and unfortunately, in some cases the Sinhalese villages have been bought out by Tamils, who now own all the paddy land in some villages. … and even the names of villages are assuming a Tamil dress. This process is not to be wondered at when the interpreters of the court and the Kachcheri, the petition-drawers, and all through whom the villages have access to Government officials can speak nothing but Tamil”.
Thus, by the closing decades of the 19th century, when reliable census data came to be available, the ethnic group referred to as ‘Ceylon Tamils’ accounted for approximately 86% and 52% of the population, respectively, of the Northern Province and the Eastern Province.
Q There is a concept by Tamil historians that both the Sinhalese and the Tamils are descendants of the Yakshas and Nagas. How true is the claim?
Claims concerning Yakshas and Nagas ought to be referred to as popular myths or legends, and not as historians’ concepts. There could well have been tribal groups inhabiting prehistoric Sri Lanka identified by these names.
I prefer to believe that both the Sinhalese as well as the Tamils of modern Sri Lanka consist of genetic mixtures of diverse immigrants to the island, mainly from source areas of the Indian sub-continent.
Q In reference to Buddhist archaeological sites in the north and the east, there are expressions about the existence of Tamil Buddhists in those areas. How true is it?
QHow do you respond to the demand for a Federal form of governance to the north and the east depending on the so called homeland concept?
There is no substantial Tamil presence in the Eastern Province. The question of a federal form of government linking the Northern and Eastern provinces is laughable.
QWhat is your position on the claim that there are inscriptions with Tamil Brahmi letters found in Sri Lanka?
On the contrary Professor Lakshman Perera’s (Three-volume) work on inscriptions shows that Brahmi inscriptions occur in all parts of the island. There are no Tamil Brahmi letters except in a few (very few) places in the island.
The talk of Tamil Brahmi inscriptions is laughable. Apart from by an irrelevance, the use of it in the debate on Tamil homelands is a diversion from the essential issues.