Monday, March 26, 2012

Can you blame him?

Published in my column in The Nation on March 25, 2012 
By Darshanie Ratnawalli

I wonder if it behoves me to say something about THE CURRENT ISSUE instead of being so stuck in the past and its different presentations. I could, but then there is very little emotional satisfaction to be had in holding up a spotlight to mediocrity. “To employ Pinter’s language, too many Sinhala wives and too many Sinhala children wanted peace, and so we killed as many Tamils as necessary. We just killed them. And for so many today, that’s ok.” That is Sanjana Hattotuwa providing the mediocrity (in his column last week in this very newspaper). And here’s Godfrey Gunatilleke providing the spotlight (in 'Truth and Accountability : The Last Stages of the War in Sri Lanka', an evaluation of the UN panel report on SL);
“…it is difficult to understand how the Panel ignores the facts given in its own account of the LTTE regarding its use of the civilians as buffer. …all clearly indicating that the LTTE deliberately integrated the civilians into the battlefield. The Panel…describes the army action in breaking into the NFZ and dividing it into two to separate the civilians from the LTTE cadres and freeing about 100,000 civilians. (para 109)It also reports how soldiers rescued civilians who escaped the LTTE killings during a mass attempt by civilians to break out. It also accepts that the eventual outcome of the operation was the release of the vast majority of civilians over 290,000 who were held by the LTTE. And after all this evidence which the Panel itself has collected, it concludes that the operation was aimed at the indiscriminate and systematic killing of a large section of the Tamil population and that the release of hostages was not an objective of government. The panel refuses to consider the government position that the military operation was launched with the objective of defeating the LTTE in order to free Sri Lankan citizens from LTTE control. In the panel’s view the government was operating in total disregard of the civilian population.

…There are significant omissions in the report. The report omits all mention of past actions and polices that may provide a more informed approach and better understanding of the actions of government in the Vanni operation than what is provided by the panel. There is no mention of the transformation the army had undergone and their visible improvement in discipline in respect of humanitarian rules of war. There is no reference to the war in the East immediately prior to the Vanni offensive and the very low level of civilian casualties in that operation which also had a hostage situation in Vakeneri. Such an account would have given credence to the government’s policy of “zero civilian casualties”. There is also no mention of government’s uninterrupted delivery of social welfare services to LTTE controlled areas prior to the commencement of the operation.”
Back to Sanjana; “Accountability is most stridently demanded and advocated today by an international community that tacitly supported the present government to treat collateral deaths of Tamil civilians as inevitable and necessary to end the war.” This is an untruth, the result of retrospective projection. There was no tacit acceptance at the time. The particular international community he means, best exemplified by Hilary Clinton were foaming at the mouth, braying for cease fire and pawning the ground preparatory to charging. They would have charged if they could have but were strategically held at bay and checkmated at every step of the way. The next spotlight (Michael Roberts: Realities of war: Frontline: written end April 2009) is switched on to show how.
“On April 22, Hillary Clinton told the world that “a terrible humanitarian tragedy” was taking place in Sri Lanka and demanded a halt in the fighting so that “we could secure a safe passage for as many of the trapped civilians as possible”.
The lady didn’t know it but she stood checkmated;
“Remarkably, for a superpower leader with access to up-to-date information Clinton appeared to have been some 48 hours behind breaking events: namely, the escape of some 107,000 Tamil “civilians” (doubtless including Tiger cadre who had given up the fight) from their hell-hole situation after a commando operation carried out by the Sri Lanka Army on the night of April 19-20. Alternatively, one must conclude that Clinton read this miraculous tale as something that spelt a humanitarian disaster – hence the use of the egg metaphor.”
Today, it may be convenient to forget the totally unexpected and innovative twists that deterred much awaited responses by challenging the stereotypical base on which they were invited;
“As I arrived in Sri Lanka on April 17, I told Kumari Jayawardena that the ground situation facing the army was labyrinthine. I could not, I said, see how it could move forward without generating disastrous death rates. Yet, today, we know that the commando operation was one for the textbook: it resulted in relatively few non-combatant deaths and created a path for streams and streams of Tamils to cross the lagoon and the beach over the next 2-3 days, roughly 110,000 people making this little epic journey. This, for me, was better than the tale of Moses crossing the Red Sea. It was both elevating and saddening.

It was distressing because of the condition of some of these people, displayed so starkly on camera, bespeaking the privation they had undergone in the immediate past. Indeed, as one or two died of dehydration or starvation while being bussed or airlifted by the military to the nearest hospitals in Vavuniya, one knew, now, why “the people of Tamil Eelam” had turned their back on the Eelam demand and the LTTE.”
Then too, the numbers game itself, as played at this stage, held the interventionists at bay.
“Take Nirmala Rajasingam’s passionate appeal in the British newspaper Independent on April 24. … Rajasingam also insisted that the government’s claim that there were few civilian casualties “defy reason,” and spoke of “huge civilian losses through indiscriminate fire”. …But what exactly is the count of those “civilians” killed as against those who have fled the coop in the past 5-6 months? A U.N. report dated April 24 estimated the death toll among civilians at 6,432, with those injured being estimated at 13,946. These figures must be qualified by two sets of facts: (a) they include individuals who stepped on LTTE mines and those shot by Tigers (or killed by suicide bombers) as they fled; and (b) a few of these civilians would be new conscripts who had not been issued with uniforms. Our adjectives must be relative. So, let us place these numbers in a comparative context beside the figure of 1,75,714 people who reached the government lines by April 24, with roughly 68,000 having escaped before April 20 and 107,000 in that remarkable moment between April 20 and 23.

The dead 6,432 make up roughly 4 per cent of those who have survived. Add the injured, some 13,000 according to the same U.N. report, and one has 20,000 casualties [caused by both sides] set against roughly 170,000 freed. While the figures are not to be laughed at, the death score is not “huge” while talk of “extermination” in “Dark victory”, displays mind-boggling bias and/or credulity… If there had been no restraint at all in the army offensive during the past six months, I can assure her that we would have had a death toll in the 30,000-50,000 range. As caveat let me stress that this claim does not mean that there was no cavalier bombing and artillery fire on some occasions.”
Indeed it was only after the war was over that somebody got savvy about the inadequacy of the pickings accruing from the numbers game and belatedly upped the stakes to 40 000 and more to fit the charge of unrestrained violence.

Talking of proportionality, I am sure to be in violation of its rules in using these particular spotlights on this particular mediocrity. Much too powerful for the task. Instead of merely showing up the mediocrity in the target statements, they also reveal the primary source of that mediocrity and end up exposing the dimensions of Sanjana’s mental equipment. Now did we really need to see that? This is why I prefer looking at the distant past. Much more exciting and the exposures are rarely so indecent.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

History from under the carpet

Published in my column in The Nation on March 11, 2012 
By Darshanie Ratnawalli

In 1984, Gamini Iriyagolla accused C. R. De. Silva of suppressing something. Some evidence. Historical not litigious. Probably because Gamini Iriyagolla was a lawyer, it looked a bit convoluted. So that at first it confounded even me. (And I am quite brilliant). But finally I got it. (I always do). The charge was, on the first count, that C. R. de Silva being a historian and in full possession of all the facts, deliberately set out to deceive the public that the Arya Chakravarthi who ruled Jaffna in the mid 14th century enjoyed suzerainty over the king of Gampola and that this is Senarath Paranavithana’s own conclusion, knowing full well but covering up the fact that Paranavithana’s final word on the matter(1961 The Arya Kingdom in North Ceylon JRASCB Vol. VII (New Series) Part 2) was the exact opposite.

Paranavithana had actually shown 10+ years before C.R.’s intervention that force alone could not change vassal-overload equations, that they were much more entrenched and stable because sustained by de-jure convictions and conventions rather than who had the de-facto power advantage of the moment. Paranavithana, basing his conclusion on the Madavala inscription (1359 according his computation) had said;
"A noteworthy point in the Madavala inscription is that Marttandam, the Arya Chakravarti is referred to as a perumal only, while Vikramabahu is styled Chakravarti Svamin. This indicates that the Arya Chakravarti, though he was powerful enough to dictate terms to the Gampola monarch, had not assumed regal titles. The de jure right of Vikramabahu to the sovereignty over the whole island is recognized by the treaty…The Kotagama and Madavala inscriptions are thus witnesses to the utmost expansion of the Aryachakravartis of Jaffna".
On the second count, Gamini Iriyagolla targeted the following statement by C.R, "However, what Iriyagolla does not mention is that in the mid-fourteenth century 'the chieftain of this remote province' was powerful enough to control the Western coast of Sri Lanka almost up to the Kelani river, and to force Vikramabahu III (1357-74) king of Gampola to accept his tax collectors in the Sinhalese king's domains". Iriyagolla charged that C.R. in a deceptive sleight of hand, cited Rajavaliya as the source for the historical information contained in this statement, knowing full well that the bit about Vikramabahu being forced to accept the Arya Chakravarthi’s tax collectors into his domains did not come from Rajavaliya at all, but from the Madavala inscription (which records Vikramabahu III agreeing to have the Aryachakravarti's tax collectors in some of the hill country districts). C.R. de Silva, charged Iriyagolla, intentionally refrained from mentioning this inscription because doing so would let the Chakravarthi Svamin vs Perumal equation out of the bag. The whole sprawling article by Iriyagolla is accessible here

For a long while I thought Gamini Iriyagolla was being paranoid and ungracious. Didn’t he understand the impossibility of suppressing anything while the twin flowers of print and cyber capitalism were in full bloom? But a recent occurrence (not at liberty to disclose) has convinced me that nothing is impossible, that the list of scholarship on Sri Lanka specially foreign based and foreign to whom the Madavala inscription is a closed book would be as long as it is impressive containing DPhil (Oxon.)s from the 1960s as well as the 2000s. 

This practice of artificially compartmentalizing the time stream into periods; the Portuguese period, the Ancient period, the Kandian period, etc? So not working for foreign and foreign based scholarship on Sri Lanka. Among them, especially those whose interest in things Sri Lankan was sparked by topical concerns, we see too much of this parachuting into a period. Their ‘period’ would exist in a vacuum. In reality, there would be roots and threads mooring it to the previous and subsequent periods. But they would not see. A more distressing problem with foreign scholarship is that, some of them in addition to being short of holistic knowledge, are also a little short of analytical skill.

Let me give a telling example. This is a Dennis McGilvray citation from ‘Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province: Land, Development, Conflict Asia Report N°159 – 15 October 2008’ by International Crisis Group (Working to prevent conflict worldwide);
“That Buddhist remains can be found throughout the east is not necessarily evidence of Sinhala political control. Given its coastal location, Batticaloa and Trincomalee regions “would also have been accessible to immigrant traders and settlers from South India, many of whom would have been Buddhists as well, since both Tamil Nadu and Andhra were major centers of Theravada and Mahayana teaching for the third to the seventh centuries CE”. Crucible of Conflict,: Tamil and Muslim Society on the East Coast of Sri Lanka (Durham, 2008)., p. 57.”
This is an example of a foreign scholar’s mind at its most flexible and nimble due to being unencumbered with unnecessary knowledge. The blocks of knowledge that could have weighted down McGilvray’s mind and cramped its acrobatic style are; 1) this region in addition to the Buddhist remains also manifests a pretty hard to miss embodiment of a centre oriented state apparatus and political control, the extensive irrigation network with all that the concept of 'network' implies 2) Buddhist remains that are to be found throughout the east do not exist in a context less vacuum. There is an accompanying lithic record of who built them and why with extensive cross referencing with the chronicles.

Dennis McGilvray is an American anthropologist specialized on the Tamil and Muslim society (along matrilineality, thus kinship, inheritance, etc.) in the eastern province, that is Batticaloa and further south. Since then he seems to have established himself as an all-round expert on the eastern province and cited as such by the Crisis Group. By 2008, when his ‘Crucible of Conflict’ came out D. G. B de Silva’s ‘New Light On Vanniyas And Their Chieftaincies Based On Folk Historical Tradition As Found In Palm-Leaf Mss. In The Hugh Nevill Collection’ had been10 years in print. He has not glanced at it even once and thought that Vanniyars were Vellalas (Crucible of Conflict, op. cit., p. 9). Dennis is in his 60s so that hot headed imprudence of youth is a non issue.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Tales of fusion under a hegemonic umbrella

Published in my column in The Nation on March 4, 2012 
By Darshanie Ratnawalli

Some historians are good people who are ideologically excited by how harmoniously the multicultural motif lies on the landscape of this country’s past. They contemplate the Nayakkar accession to the throne of Sinhale, the medieval incorporation of South Indian immigrants and religious cults and the whole cultural syncretism thing with uncontaminated delight;
“Dravidian influence on Sinhalese society appears quite considerable…The Sinhalese literature of the period, specially works like the Pujavaliya and the Saddharmalankaraya, bear evidence of Tamil influence in so far as Tamil words are identifiable in these works. Indeed certain whole passages in the Dambadeni Asna are more akin to Tamil than to Sinhalese…..A whole range of personal names in use among the Sinhalese such as those which bear the prefix Tenna, Ponna, Alaha and the suffix peruma, koon and the like are distinctly of Tamil origin…….dictum of the sixteenth century Sinhalese poet Alagiyawanna,….a fool he is who has not mastered the Simhala, Tamil, Sanskrit and Pali languages…Throughout the long history of Sri Lanka Buddhism and Hinduism,…coexisted side by side, literally almost, in an atmosphere of harmony and concord. Hindu deities, particularly Siva and Visnu, in addition to an extensive minor pantheon, were housed in the premises of Buddhist temples and continued to be venerated by Buddhists throughout the island. In the medieval Sinhalese court Hindu ritual occupied the pride of place…”
- (A. Liyanagamage, Society State and Religion in Pre-modern Sri Lanka: 106-107)

When they carry on like this it acts as an incitement for other historians to pour some cold water on their euphoria. For, of course, the whole thing is much more layered and a big part of being an adult is being attentive to layers.

You won’t see the cohabitation of Buddhism and Hinduism in pre modern Lanka in its proper perspective unless you viewed it in the contrasting illumination thrown off by the whole ash thing.
“the sangharajjuruvan (Saranankara) and (other) leading monks, having failed in the attempt to preach and persuade the king to give up his heretical practice of anointing himself with ash, declared ‘we cannot sustain the sasana in cooperation with this heretical Tamil,’ and the monks of (the) Malvatte (temple) and radalavaru (“aristocrats”) taking counsel (decided) ‘Let us place some other worthy person as our king…’”
– (Sasanavatirna Varnanawa/K.N.O Dharmadasa 1979).

This ash episode featured in the 1760 rebellion against Kirti Sri Rajasinha, the second king of the Nayakkar lineage . One outcome of the rebellion was that “… the Sangha were reconciled after Kirti Sri gave up his ‘heretical’ practices and continued with added zeal his policy of being the lavish patron of Buddhism…..The king placed the blame for the rebellion upon himself and not only gave up the practice of anointing ash, but went so far as to ban the use of ash in preparation of ola-leaf manuscripts!...”- (K.N.O.-1979).

 Kirti Sri (as well as all the Nayakkar kings) was probably always in a state of dynamic equilibrium between ‘heretical Tamil’ and ‘amhakam sihalindo’ (this is what the author of the late 18th century installment of Culavamsa calls Kirti Sri, meaning ‘our Sihala king’ and ‘our happy, sublime Sihala ruler’), and after getting over the ash hurdle ruthlessly steered the equation towards ‘amhakam sihalindo’. Apparently as a definitive marker of Saivism, ash was a ricocheting, corrosive motif regardless of how many Hindu gods dwelt inside Buddhist temples. It were to surface again in 1815, attached to Sri Wickrama Rajasinha’s Nayakkar relatives who were all “anointing ash and appearing like matured ash-pumpkins” and “having anointed ash like dogs who had lain in (an abandoned) fireplace”-(Kirila Sandesaya/K.N.O 1979).

If you are partial to the incorporation motif present in Lankan history, however you’d like it served, with layers or without, you will always enjoy the Vanniyars. If you are a genuine multicultural fetishist, their story in Lanka will make you writhe in ecstasy. They came;
“It is significant that in the late thirteenth century some of the Sinhala kings appear to have induced a few immigrant chiefs to move across from southern India in order to re-settle specific districts that had been abandoned. The Malavara dignitaries, for instance, are described in one of the documents as having “cleared the jungle when there was no one else” (D G B de Silva 1996: 158, 172-73, 177). The Sinhala kings granted them land rights to these areas or, alternatively, responded to requests for land in this manner. Parakrama Bahu II (1236-70), in particular, pursued a programme of irrigation works and resettlement that attempted to recover the Nuvarakalaviya and Tamankaduva regions so that this migratory influx seems to have been linked with such policies.”
– (Michael Roberts: Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan Period: 74).
They fused;
“What language the Vanniyās used; or customs they followed; and private laws they used could have varied according to circumstance; but as Vanni chieftains they had received Sinhalese names on their investiture. They were supported by a hierarchy of local officials in the Rata Sabhās, when they adjudicated over matters concerning violations of local custom including failure to oblige with duties in respect of maintenance of irrigation work and agriculture. Some of them like the Malalas had fully assimilated into the local social and cultural milieu as seen from the positions they held at the Court and outside; one of them as the leading Vanniyā at Kaluvila; and two of them as the prelates of important places of learning. However, one also finds the Vanniyās retaining their original language (as Knox found at Nuvara väva); and some of their laws of succession, (as Hugh Nevill found existing among the chieftains of Hurulla which were similar to those of Malabārs and the Mukkuvās).”
- (D. G.B de Silva 1996: 190-191).
They remained distinctive;
“… Vanniyās formed a single class or caste intermarrying within their families, irrespective of whether they lived in the king’s territory or outside, whatever language they spoke; or what laws and customs they followed, the only exception being the Mukkuvās of Puttalama area and on the eastern coast.”
- (D. G.B:1996: 191).
And they were loyal;
“The “väddan” and “vannilayō” were among the forces of Rājasinha I of Sītāvaka (SH 1999:v.565); and in describing Rājasinha II’s preparations for battle against the Portuguese in the year 1638, for instance, the Rajasiha Hatana describes how he assembled forces from various regions, including

From Ratdala, Kitulāna, Yāla, Panama and Māgampura; from Wellawāya, Pālugama and Tirukkōvila from the Vädipattu and the great harbour of Kottiārama; and from many a land of the famed Vanniyäs.

P E Pieris’ reference to the “King’s Vanniyās,” albeit a passing remark, is in line with this information (1995a: 45).”
- (Roberts: 74-75)