Monday, February 20, 2012

And Jaffna belongs to…

Published in my column in The Nation on February 19, 2012 
By Darshanie Ratnawalli

Sometimes a geographical space acquires an equation of predominant association with a certain identity and when this happens it enables an alien motif to come into existence in the plane of perceptions and take the other identities under its shadow. For example;
"The inhabitants of Jaffna consist of a collection of various races. The greatest number are Malabars of Moorish extraction, and are divided into several tribes, known by the names of Lubbahs, Belalas, Mopleys Chittys, Choliars, and a few Brahmins… There is also a race of Malabars found here somewhat differing in their appearance from those on the continent. These different tribes of foreign settlers greatly exceed in number the native Ceylonese in the district of Jaffna. The Malabars are employed in manufacturing cotton cloths, &c. The Chittys and the Lubbahs trade in cloths, calicoes, handkerchiefs, &c. The Lubbahs are Moors and Mahometans. The Choliars. and Chivias do the hard work; are porters, palankeen bearers, and water carriers; All these in some measure partake of the Ceylonese habits and customs of life, mingled with their own " (p.47) .... Those that I mentioned first were induced many years ago, by the encouragements held out to them by the Dutch, to pass over from the Coromandel coast and carry on here a variety of manufactures..." (p.48).
-Robert Percival; An Account of the Island of Ceylon (London, 1803)-

I detect two pulse spots within this passage. One is an insidious and powerful tendency to treat Ceylonese and Sinhalese as synonyms. The other is the taken for granted, thus insidious and powerful manner in which the alien/foreign motif is inserted into ‘the district of Jaffna’ to encompass the 'Malabars of Jaffna'. The first one is pretty commonplace in the colonial narrative both British and pre-British; whereas the second one is much more intriguing. Less than 200 years ago from Robert Percival, ‘the chronicler of Portuguese Sri Lanka par excellence’ Fernao de Queiros writing about Jafanapatao was guilty of the same hegemonic act of alienation. What Queiros did was to see all the other collective identities of Jafanapatao under the shadow of an alien motif or through a glass darkly of un-belongingness while seeing the Chingala identity more vividly in the powerful aura thrown off by that dominant brand.

This caused him to commit the fairly significant slippage of treating Jaffnese and Chingala as synonyms, equating part of Jaffna (the Sinhalese part; e.g. Boccaro writing in 1632 notes that the Portuguese in Jaffna employed two interpreters, one Tamil and one Sinhalese) with the whole. In page 366 of ‘The Temporal and Spiritual Conquest of Ceylon’ (Trans. 1930), the Portuguese walk into a fortalice, which the king of Jafanapatao had just abandoned to find among other things a block with12 heads, which are of course not just any heads but Chingala heads. Just 3 pages before, in page 363 those heads had been12 Modeliares who the King had had arrested because they ‘had represented to him the complaints and losses of the natives’. In fact Queiros seems unable to mention nonspecific characters in Jaffna without calling them Chingalaz. In Chapter 28; ‘The Conquest Of Nelur Described’ “…the Prince of Jafanapatao instructed a Chingala and he came to have speech with the Viceroy and…” as a result of that speech two Portuguese sailors go ahead as scouts and “…landed with all precaution, but were at once surrounded by the Chingalaz within sight of the Manchua in which they went…”

This didn’t mean that Queiros was blind to other identities or that there was no discernible distinctiveness between the different ethnic identities. He could totally classify. He could and did register the gradations of power and dominance presented by the different identities; “As for the character of the Chingalas, they are generally proud, vain and lazy…because of the antiquity of their Kingdom and nation and the liberty in which they were always brought up…In obeying their native Kings they have always been various and inconstant, but most stubborn in not admitting foreign domination, and when the Portuguese entered Ceylon..they did not hesitate to submit to any bold rebel, in order to recover their liberty…their greatest occupation is soldiering, and they enjoy peace only as an accident, and war is the custom.” (Vol 1, pg 21-3). Now compare; “They are very poor people and extremely weak, because they are Balalaz, a race different from that of the Chingalas, and they are said to originate from Bramenes of the continent a people who never fared well at arms, because they never professed them … and neither in language nor in religion are they at all like the Chingalas, though they are equally superstitious…”. (Bk I, Chap.7, p.50).

Hegemony is a nice word but still it does not explain everything. When a certain identity is disassociated from a geographical space, it is also because there is a lack of bonding, an absence of belongingness in that identity’s equation with that geographical space. For, not all Portuguese treated Jaffnese and Chingalaz as synonyms. Some of them committed an au naturel act of hegemony and equated part of Jaffna; the majoritarian part in its demographic configuration, with the whole of Jaffna. And said that the Jaffna man was fraco. “The defence arrangements the Portuguese made for Jaffna were greatly influenced by the assessment made by the leading Portuguese officials in that kingdom on the nature and character of the native inhabitants of Jaffna. Oliveira considered the Jaffna man as generally passive or weak (fraco). His successor as captain-major, Lancarote de Seixas, came to the same conclusion: he found the Jaffna man “quiet and mild, without any military training” and therefore unlikely to rebel unless instigated by outsiders. To them, the post-conquest history of Jaffna bore this out clearly. Luis de Freitas de Macedo, with many years of experience in Jaffna, came to a similar conclusion about the Jaffna man’s nature, as did the chronicler Fernāo de Queiros, basing himself on the observations of those who knew Jaffna well. The result of this assessment was that in Jaffna fortification was begun later, proceeded more slowly, and when it was completed, Jaffna, for its population and area, had fewer forts than was the case in the southern territories the Portuguese held in the island.” – (Jaffna under the Portuguese, T.B.H Pg. 17)

Now watch the sands of time. Watch the transformation of this identity. Watch the emergence of a powerful brand. Watch how this has caused the alien motif to undergo total transmutation in this region within the relatively short span of about 300 years. 200 years after Percival, 330 years after Queiros, watch Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka in 2010 June 13 Lakbima, not because it’s the loudest or the most strident expression of the transformed alien motif but because it’s so taken for granted and thus insidious and powerful. “In respect of the North-East the Rajapakse Government is committing in toto the same mistakes George Bush committed re Iraq. We don’t have a clear program of action regarding the salvaged areas of the N/E or the people there….. The world sees the GOSL as an alien invader.” (my translation).

In this critical conceptualization, the aftermath of an intervention, which was indisputably foreign is equated with the government of Lanka’s intervention in the ‘North-East’ aftermath. This act of lumping together is presented in a taken for granted manner thus creating the alien motif insidiously and powerfully. The world is then brought in as an impartial attester to confirm and endorse the alien motif. Neat.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A Sri Lankan celebrates Sri Lanka’s Independence from Chechnya

Published in my column in The Nation on February 04, 2012 
By Darshanie Ratnawalli

Being Sri Lankan means different things to different people, which I think is totally fine. The only aspect of Sri Lankanness worth insisting upon is that all persons, stories, theories and analyses should place their contexts within the actual, real Sri Lanka which exists in reality not in dimension –X. A lot of people are simply not acquainted with this Sri Lanka as evidenced by the analogies they deploy. For example, Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka is fond of talking about the Chechen solution. He’s made himself much clearer in 'Hostage to the past. The Devolution Debate and Historicism'.
“His diagnosis of why the bulk of the international community urges a solution of territory based political autonomy, leads him to three conclusions: Eelamist agit-prop, Marxist intellectual influence and politicians with a “here-and-now” perspective. None of these explain India’s secular state, quasi federalism and linguistic regions, Chechen autonomy, Spain’s autonomous Basque region, or Mindanao’s autonomy in the Philippines, to name just four disparate examples.”

In this critical conceptualization countries that incorporate into their polity regions that are powerfully, undeniably, unambiguously, unmistakably, inalienably and historically associated with a particular collective identity are equated with Lanka. This act of lumping together is presented in a taken-for-granted manner, thus, insidiously and powerfully in an attempt to impose on Lanka, an equity dictated obligation for political autonomy via forced association. Sri Lanka’s remarkable points of divergence from this segregated territory model (these areas-these people, those areas-those people) are ruthlessly denied mental house room. 

While a Chechen may have much to celebrate in his historically entrenched, uniform and consistent association with Chechnya, I hold that he is also poorer because he is deprived of the experience of being part of a region with diverse and multi-cultural associations such as our Northern Province. He will never know the experience of living in a land whose identity exists in layers, where the earlier layer still peeks through the current layer as enticingly as a camisole does through a sheer blouse. (“The place-names in the peninsula indicate that it was held by Sinhala inhabitants at no very remote date”- Chapter VI, A Short history of Ceylon by H. W. Codrington)- 

Conditions of severe multiculturality that can cause the terms Chechen and Russian to be used interchangeably and as synonyms by informed and specialist sources will forever be outside the cultural legacy of a Chechen. Not so our Northern Province or more specifically the region corresponding to the kingdom of Jaffna. On 15 March 1634, the King of Portugal addressed a letter to his viceroy laying down the decision of Lisbon regarding certain innovations suggested for Jaffna. This was based on their conceptualization of the Jaffnese as Sinhalese and as such their assessment of the character of the Sinhalese. Remarkably this decision was preceded and influenced by consultations with “two old Asia hands, one of them being Belchior Botelho da Silva, who counted at least a decade of experience as a captain in many parts of the island”. “A principal factor they took into consideration in arriving at their decision was the possibility that the implementation of the two proposals would lead to rebellion. This is clear from a statement in their letter of 15th march 1634 “…se nāo deve fazer novidade….porque de outro modo escandalizar junta tanta gente e de animos tāo inquietos e pouco fieis…” (no innovation ought to be tried…because otherwise people of such restless spirit and little faith will be scandalized…) But in referring to people of restless spirit and little faith, the Lisbon authorities were thinking of the Sinhalese of the Kotte Lands and not of the Tamils of Jaffna, as the phrase “como sāo os chingalas” (as are the Sinhalese) which follows the extract quoted above makes clear. Three decades of rebellion in the Kotte lands had implanted among the Lisbon authorities a wholesome fear of attempting anything likely to cause unrest among the Sinhalese.” Apparently “such misintelligence was not confined to Lisbon. The Count of Vidigueira, after serving as viceroy at Goa for 7 years (in two terms) and after a term as President of the India Council in Lisbon, still believed in 1626 that the inhabitants of Jaffna were Sinhalese”.– (See 'Jaffna under the Portuguese', T.B.H Abeyasinghe pages 24, 25, 26, 27). 

I hold that a Chechen’s horizons are narrower because his life world holds no frame of reference to enable him to comprehend conditions that led ‘the chronicler of Portuguese Sri Lanka par excellence’ to use Chingala as a generic term for Jaffnese, a term of primary reference to be used when describing Jaffnese contexts (much the same way he would use ‘Negro’ when describing Africa). So we have “These terms [written] in the Portuguese and the Chingala languages, were signed and authenticated and the Prince was handed over and sent in a ship with the Modeliar in good custody…..” in page 371 of Queiros’ work describing a treaty between the Portuguese and the King of Jafanapatao. 

There is nothing intrinsically superior (nothing intrinsically inferior either) about the Chechen experience in relation to the Sri Lankan experience with the region centred around the Kingdom of Jaffna. They are just different. Let Chechnya celebrate the homogenous uniformity of the Chechen association with Chechnya within Russia. Let us celebrate an association which is infinitely richer, more exciting and diverse (more intellectually challenging too to judge from the inability of certain people (who shall remain unnamed) to comprehend it.). There is no reason whatsoever to resort to naked lies to establish cultural homogeneity in the region along a temporal axis like Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka did in his Lakbima interview of 13 June 2010. Lack of cultural homogeneity is nothing to be ashamed of. It may render the Chechnya analogy facile. But so what?