Tuesday, October 2, 2012

History, Historians and the dustbins of History

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

The DPhil (Oxon.) who lent me his copy of ‘The Evolution of an Ethnic Identity’ by K.Indrapala had written with a scornful pen on the last page of the preface; “So: Indrapala is NOT a charlatan, a political animal. Indrapala seeks intellectual rigour.” This is the impression the author seeks to create by marshalling, in his preface and introduction, a colourful arsenal of invective against historians who slip up. These ‘charlatans and pseudo scholars’ we are told, are ‘political animals’ who ‘have not only compromised the very fundamentals of intellectual decency but are now in the process of subverting the study of history for personal ends and political expediency’. ‘Such lumpen intellectuals’ do not ‘want the real past, but only a past that suits their purpose’ and undoubtedly ‘belong in the dustbin of history’. ‘Now, I’, Professor Indrapala seems to say, ‘am above all that’.

But he hasn’t been above all that at all. The real past remains unexplored in ‘The Evolution…’. Even the past that has been explored by the author in 1965 and 1969 is blocked out, not because the findings are out of date or have been superseded by better research, but merely to make way for a past that suits his purpose in 2005. The bitter struggle in ‘The Evolution…’ between the real past and the past that suits the purposes of K. Indrapala of 2005 will inspire many future writers to attain unmatched heights of caustic wit.

What drew me to ‘The Evolution…’ was the following email from Dr. Michael Roberts, sent in response to ‘Communal claims on common land’;
“The use of the Dutch map, supported by Codrington, to reveal the fact that the “traditional homelands” of the Tamils in their heartland were also Sinhala homelands at one stage was both innovative and useful. You should develop the theme further.

But also attend to the “preceding prologue” (and Indrapala’s failures and sleight of hand in this regard.)

1. Given the ancient provenance of Tamil in southern India in the last centuries B.C. and the narrowness of the Palk Strait it is probable that there were Tamil speakers in JP and northwest THEN.

2. But with the development and expansion of the Anuradhapura kingdom from the 1-2nd Century B.C. and especially in the millennium A.D. it is probable that these peoples were Sinhala-cized and absorbed into the demographic majority (though south Indian trading communities emerged newly or remained in Mannar and such places).

3. From memory what I find striking in Indrapala’s work is the ABSENCE OF PROOF THAT TAMIL-SPEAKERS WERE found in JP in the first millennium A.D.; and the total neglect of the indirect evidence from the Sigiiri graffiti. Instead he spends (1) an inordinate amount of time on archeological evidence from the first millennium B.C. – which by its nature says little about linguistic practice and thinking; and (2) Paranavitana bashing –an easy target if you select work from Paranavitana’s lunatic phase.”
The almost staggering scope presented by ‘The Evolution…’ for the exploration of a professional historian’s odyssey from the heights of research acuity to the depths of a lumpen intellectual’s dustbin, remains, as yet, largely unexplored. One person who explored it, was Bandu de Silva (History Writing in an Ethnic Debate Environment. Indrapala on Evolution of Tamil Identity, in The Island). Now on the eve of having a more academic review of ‘The Evolution…’ published in the JRAS, DGB reminisced about the writing of that newspaper article;
“After the article, I had an email from KNO to say that I had done something that our University men do not do. I sent my Newspaper Draft to several historians. None even replied except the late Dr Karl Goonewardene asking me to go ahead. The point is I am no accredited historian though I studied history and taught history at the University of Ceylon for a time. I had to be careful as I was taking on a reputed research scholar. Now I am well equipped to meet Indrapala. I was so annoyed with our historians that I addressed an email circular letter to them…”
“Look, what Sri Lankan historian has written during the past 10 years, except Nira Wickramasinghe? K. M. de Silva had been incapacitated and Leslie Gunawardana died” snapped Michael Roberts to this writer re the silence of the professional historians. Nira Wickramasinghe, of course couldn’t be expected to write on this subject, it being outside her period (which is the British and the modern) and Leslie Gunawardana had his own problems, the most publicized of which was the readiness to assign a late date (12th century A.D.) to the development of the Sinhala identity at the drop of a hat, without doing even the basic home work. ‘Dampiya Atuva Gatapadaya’ a 10th century work setting out the chapter and verse of the Sinhala identity being, literally, a closed book to this ancient period historian was exposed by K. N.O Dharmadasa.

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