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?