We must get to the root of the larger matter. The larger matter is the political dynamics of this island: the dialectics of Sri Lankan politics as it were.
These dialectics have, in the Socratic-Hegelian sense, a thesis, an anti-thesis and could yield a synthesis. What is the thesis, the pre-existing starting point? I submit that the record shows the emergence of a hardline Tamil political consciousness in the political mainstream.
Speaking as far back as 1922, Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam said at the meeting of the Ceylon Tamil League:
“…It has far higher aims in view, namely to keep alive and propagate these precious ideals throughout Ceylon, Southern India and the Tamil Colonies, to promote the union and solidarity of Tamilakam, the Tamil Land. We should keep alive and propagate these ideals throughout Ceylon and promote the union and solidarity of what we have been proud to call Tamil Eelam… All this requires heavy outlay of money for which I trust the Tamil Community, and especially its wealthier members here and in the Federated Malay States, will contribute liberally.”
" It is not unnatural that a national minority should have fears of discrimination against it especially on a question like language. In order to build national unity it is therefore the duty of the majority to be not only just but generous in order to remove the fears of the minority. However, in the situation existing in Ceylon there was a complication arising not only from the fact that a consciousness of Ceylonese nationality had not yet developed, but also from the very history of the country."
Firstly this strident mono-ethnic pan-Tamil project, with its latent expansionism, was not a reaction to stultifying Sinhala rule. It was the British who ruled Ceylon at the time and for a good quarter century after this.
Secondly this was not a robust response to aggressive Sinhala–Buddhist chauvinism. The Anagarika Dharmapala movement was hardly at the centre of Ceylonese or even Sinhala politics at the time. It had been marginalized by a multi-ethnic, elite Ceylonese nationalism in the form of the Ceylon National Congress, which was at centre stage. The discourse of the Ceylon National Congress was hardly one of Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism.
Thirdly, Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam was not a figure on the fringe of politics nor was he a vernacular nationalist. He was a sophisticated, Western educated man, very prominent in national life.
Fourthly, this was not an imitation, echo or spillover of Tamil Nadu nationalism. Indeed Tamil Nadu nationalism could be said to have been a later development. Sir Ponnabalam Arunchalam’s strident statement of purpose antedated Tamil Nadu nationalism. Thus the source of pan-Tamil nationalism could be said to have been Northern Ceylon, rather than Tamil Nadu.
Thus I confidently contend that the thesis, the starting point, was the strident, pointed pan-Tamil, proto-expansionist political project enunciated at the formation of the Ceylon Tamil League in 1922. This was the birth or conception of the project of and for Tamil Eelam—and it is no accident that the term itself appears, probably for the first time in this founding speech by Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam.
What was the antithesis? What is the rock of reality that this burgeoning consciousness came up against? It was the existential, I might even say ontological situation of the Sinhalese. This Sinhala collective perception was most objectively articulated not by a Sinhala Buddhist but precisely by an LSE educated (and French speaking) Marxist who happened to be a Sinhalese from a Methodist Christian background. This was Leslie Goonewardene, arguably the sharpest theoretical mind of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), who wrote in 1960 that:
“…It is not unnatural that a national minority should have fears of discrimination against it especially on a question like language. In order to build national unity it is therefore the duty of the majority to be not only just but generous in order to remove the fears of the minority. However, in the situation existing in Ceylon there was a complication arising not only from the fact that a consciousness of Ceylonese nationality had not yet developed, but also from the very history of the country. Although in the state of Ceylon, the Sinhalese constituted the majority and the Tamils the minority, the Sinhalese considered themselves to be the minority in the region, when one counted also the tens of millions of Tamils in South India. With a history of constant wars with the Tamils in the pre-colonial era, the Sinhalese considered that it was the Sinhala language and not Tamil which needed special protection and special guarantees to safeguard the position of the Sinhalese and their language. However unfounded these fears may have been, they were both widespread and deep among the Sinhalese population.” (‘The History of the LSSP in Perspective’)
Note that Leslie Goonewardena categorized the Tamils of Sri Lanka as “a national minority”, going on to say that “in the state of Ceylon the Sinhalese constituted the majority and the Tamils the minority”. Is he to be denounced as a Sinhala racist on that score?
Comrade Leslie was only giving detached, not uncritical expression to a perspective first articulated more full-bloodedly within the LSSP by Philip Gunawardena, who in the words of Mervyn de Silva in an early 1960s Political Portfolio published by Lake House (with photographs by Joe Perera) was “Ceylon’s first modern revolutionary…Philip fathered the Marxist movement”. Mervyn wrote in his ‘pen sketch’ of Philip entitled ‘The Defiant One’, that “His sense of history and his deeply engrained nationalism drove him to the idea of giving Marxism a local habitation and colour. Philip’s attempt to liberate Marxism from its red tie and ‘European’ suit …was denounced by his erstwhile comrades as ‘opportunism’ and ‘chauvinism’ but Philip has lived to see his critics veer round to his views.”
Philip Gunawardena’s ‘nationalist turn’ impacted on the Communist Party resulting in the breakaway of a group which included T.B. Subasinghe, later a Minister known for his integrity and progressive views. Interestingly the Communist Party had always contained a militantly anti-imperialist, patriotic current tinged with nationalism, in its branches in the island’s South. This tendency always had more respect for Dr. S.A. Wickremesinghe than for Pieter Keueneman. This is the ideological milieu that produced Rohana Wijeweera.
Decades before Wijeweera’s emergence within the island’s Communist movement, it was the razor sharp intellect of G.V.S. de Silva, perhaps the best mind I had encountered on the Sri Lankan Left (and I had met them all from boyhood, up close), that saw the progressive, anti-imperialist potential of majority nationalism. G.V.S. de Silva belonged to the Kandy Group of the Ceylon Communist Party, which was ‘purged’ for its ‘nationalist deviation’. The Kandy group contained Joe de Silva, husband of the US Marxist and stellar columnist Rhoda Miller De Silva. GVS, like T.B. Subasinghe, was to join Philip Gunawardena.
So much for the political and intellectual history of the Lankan Left, patriotism and nationalism. To return to the far more important substantive point, the ‘thesis’ of a heightened, even exaggerated sense of Tamil self-consciousness encountered the ‘anti-thesis’ of the Sinhala sense of existential threat, collective selfhood and special relationship with the island. (Hence my phrase “The Island and the Lion”, in Ceylon Today and The Island, March 9, 2015)
The clash between this ‘thesis’ and ‘anti-thesis’ has been the driving force and determining context of modern Sri Lankan political history and derives, arguably, from a very much longer history reaching back through millennia.
The question may be raised as to why the ‘thesis’ of an exaggerated, indeed hyper-inflated Tamil consciousness could not have been met and cannot be met by a cosmopolitan Sri Lankan consciousness instead of by a variety of Sinhala nationalism. Here the answer has been provided albeit in a different setting by Jean-Paul Sartre. Defending Frantz Fanon and the earlier tradition of Negritude of Aime Cesaire from the charge of the Western, largely white Left, which denounced it as petty bourgeois nationalism-- even reverse racism-- and posited instead a proletarian internationalism, Sartre argued that the thesis of white racism could not be opposed by the anti-thesis of proletarian internationalism but by one precisely of Negritude, pan-Arab nationalism etc. Sartre went on to argue that it is perhaps only through the transition and intermediation of the nationalism of the majority, such as Negritude and Pan–Arabism, as antithesis, that the desired synthesis of proletarian internationalism could be reached.
So it is in Sri Lanka. Popular nationalism i.e. majority nationalism is a necessary “detour” (in the Althusserian sense). The thesis of pan-Tamil expansionism can be met only by the anti-thesis of defensive Sinhala nationalism, which is the only realistic transition to the desired synthesis at a higher level of the dialectical spiral, of a pluralist Sri Lankan patriotic identity which accommodates Tamil (sub) nationalism within a united country and a strong, unitary state.