The Politics Of History: Mahindapala’s Version
By R S Perinbanayagam –
History is written by scholars as well as others claiming to be scholars, by selecting events from the past and subjecting them to interpretations and then composing a narrative. The selecting process and the interpretation of the events selected depends on the philosophy as well as the prejudices and commitments of the writer. This is true of academic histories as well as those written by journeyman commentators. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that such writings are often objective enough and while others are tendentious and even filled with malice and misrepresentations.
Recently one H.L.D. Mahindapala has come to write the history of Sri Lankan politics in the early part of the last century. In an article published in an internet journal he has written about the way the political leadership of Jaffna evolved and changed the course of both the politics of Jaffna and corrupted the politics of Sri Lanka itself. In the course of his essay, he makes the following points:
a) in the early 20s 30s of the last century a very progressive nationalistic politics emerged in the peninsula as the Youth Congress.
b) this movement was led by the young men, and they were heavily influenced by the movement for independence that was firing up India.
c) the leaders in this movement, which had begun to attract great deal of attention both in the peninsula as well as among some the Sinhalese political and intellectual leadership in the South.
d) long before anyone in the South did so, they demanded full independence from Britain
e) finally, in a truly revolutionary move, they also agitated against the caste system.
All of this was sabotaged by G. G. Ponnambalam, who put forth a radically communalist program demanding special privileges for the Tamils and making hostile and demeaning remarks about the Sinhalese. In short, Mahindapala argues, that GGP and his followers are responsible for the deterioration of the relationship between the Sinhalese and Tamils that has characterized Sri Lankan politics ever since.
There is no doubt these claims are valid except the last claim. Mahindapala, I suppose as a true historian, systematically overlooks certain other events that occurred during this time period. To begin with, GGP did run a rankly communalist election campaign and his party swept the northern electoral seats in the 1947 elections. However, soon after Sri Lanka obtained independence in 1948, GGP and his political party, the Tamil Congress, abandoned its communalist stand, offered “responsive co-operation” and joined the UNP government of D. S. Senanayake and even became a minister. Some members of his party led by S. J. V. Chelvanayakam broke away and formed the Federal Party.
In the elections that ensued in 1952 GGP’s party fielded its own candidates as well as supported the candidates that the UNP put forth on its own. The Federal Party had its own candidates in opposition to both the reformed Tamil Congress candidates as well as the UNP candidates. In that particular election the Congress and the UNP won nearly all the seats in the north except for one which was won by the Federal Party by a very small margin. Even Chelvanayakam lost his seat to the UNP candidate S. Natesan. It could safely be claimed that the more nationalist program put forth by the new Tamil Congress and its new ally the UNP essentially wiped out the communalist rump that was the Federal Party.
Indeed, it seemed that Sri Lanka was well on its path to becoming multinational modern nation without any ethnic or communal confrontations. However, sadly enough, this changed radically in a few years when some segments of the Sinhalese political leadership as well as members of the intelligentsia – to use the word loosely – began to agitate for special considerations and priorities for the Sinhalese community in the demand to make “Sinhala Only” the official language of the island. This was a radical repudiation of a policy that all political parties of the country had accepted until then of making Tamil also as the official language of the country. This move to make Sinhalese the only language of administration of the country was canvassed with a vigor, if not with venom, by increasing members of not only the political leadership but also the sections of the intelligentsia.
The “Sinhala Only” movement was seen by the Tamil community not only as language policy but as the thin edge of a larger scenario to undermine the legitimate interests of the Tamils as a whole. The political discourse was in fact conducted by the likes of F.R Jayasuriya, L.H. Mettananda K.M.P. Rajaratne, and of course Solomon West Banadaranaike and his followers and many others. Even Phillip Gunewardena, the father of the Marxist movement in Sri Lanka and champion of the international working class joined this cause! Jayasuriya even started a movement in Colombo asking landowners to refuse to rent houses to Tamils! Little did he realize that by excluding and expelling the Tamils from the Western Province he was in fact laying the foundations of a separate state!! These moves by Jayasuriya and his allies make them the primary separatists!
These moves eventually led to the election of a rankly communalist party to government in Colombo in 1956.Suddenly, all the good will and nationalist sentiments that was created by the UNP/Tamil Congress government was dissipated and the Tamils began to feal that they were about be victimized. Suddenly again, the Federal Party with its communalist programs won nearly all the seats in the Northern province and emerged as the voice of the Tamils. Discredited only a few years earlier they were now being treated as heroic defenders of the Tamils. That is how Sri Lanka came to its present pass: The claim to Sinhala exceptionalism in terms of rights and privileges in the middle of the 1950’s led to the emergence of Tamil separatism and undermined the emergence of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious modern state insofar it is the case that many ethnicities and religions live in the country. Indeed, Sinhala communalism and Tamil communalism fed on each other. Among the Tamils the separatist ideology became stronger and stronger and ended up with Prabhakaran. The Prabhaharan phenomenon is as much a creation of the Sinhala chauvinists as that of Tamil panic.
In conclusion, I want to quote one of Mahindapala’s lines from another of his Damila-phobic diatribes in the Sunday Observer:
…the great Handy Perinbanayagam – the outstanding liberal and enlightened Tamil leader who pioneered the path to peaceful co-existence, the path to the future. At a time when Jaffna was wallowing in the two evils of communalism and casteism he led the very first movement to abolish both evils. …What Jaffna, and the nation needs now is a Handy Perinbanayagam.
Not a chance in hell of such a leader emerging as long Mahindapala and his ilk keep writing the stuff that they keep producing with such energy. Need I mention the names of these Damilaphobes? The way to stop a Prabhakaran, or for that matter other separatist leaders, emerging again is to stop putting into practice the policies presented by these unabashed neo-nazis. What Jews were to Hitler, the Tamils are to these writers and politicians.
Some actions in socio-political systems have an equal and opposite reaction…