Opinion

Race, class, and Wigneswaran’s historiography 1

Summary

Unfortunately while many Sinhala scholars are willing to take up cudgels against nationalists spouting historical myths, not many Tamil scholars seem to do so.

Former Chief Minister Wigneswaran made two remarks at the commencement of the 16th parliament. First, he contended that Tamil is the oldest surviving language, presumably in the world. Then he contended that the Tamil people are this country’s original inhabitants.
Regarding MP Wigneswaran’s first assertion, all I can say is there’s much evidence for his view. He is certainly not the first South Asian politician to make such a claim, nor will he be the last. In September last year at the UN General Assembly, for instance, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called Tamil “the most ancient language in the world.”

Spoken by more than 70 million people, including the present CEO of Google, Tamil has gone on record as the first language with its own grammar guide: Tolkāppiyam, reputedly published in 2500 BC. As one scholar remarked, “who can publish a book on grammar when other languages were in trouble [just] to shape out their alphabets?”

Archaeological evidence points at a considerably old, rich history, with different estimates for the age of the language. On the border between Madurai and Sivangangai in Tamil Nadu, for instance, is the village of Keezhadi, where excavations made around seven years ago have been dated by historians to be between the fifth century BC and third century AD.

The remains of earthen urns in Adichanallur and Kodumudi, on the other hand, tell us of a history that goes back 2,000 to 2,500 years. A stone inscription in Thanjavur, more than 160 kilometres from Kodumadi, hints at a linguistic history spanning 10,000 years. There is much debate about which came first, Tamil or Sanskrit, but the popular view is that since it used Sanskrit rather sparingly in its early days, Tamil came first.

Does this validate or vindicate ex-Chief Minister Wigneswaran’s second assertion? It really depends on how you look at it. I assume, given the emphasis he puts on it, that when he talks about Tamils being the original inhabitants of the country, the ex-Chief Minister and now MP is seeing them in racial terms. Thus a long history of 2,500 years, if we are to take the Adichanallur-Kodumadi remains as our foundation, is reduced to a single community, a single race, bearing the same characteristics then as now, and presumably harbouring the same aspirations.

When we make such assumptions, we automatically graft modern day labels and epithets on a past that is as elusive as it is ineffable. This view of the past, paraphrasing R. A. L. H. Gunawardana in his groundbreaking essay “The People of the Lion”, happens to be moulded by contemporary ideology, so much so that popular works of art based on what happened 2,000 years ago use such terms as “demala” and “sinhalaya” broadly, crassly, and carelessly, without accounting for the specific historical context in which they were uttered, written down, and recorded, even by monks and priests.

The writings of those who critique Sinhala nationalism can just as well be used to critique Tamil nationalism. H. L. Seneviratne in a lecture delivered at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies in 2002 (titled “Buddhism, Identity, and Conflict”) observed that contrary to the conventional wisdom, the Dutugemunu-Elara conflict was “more complicated than is generally understood in the nationalist reading of the Mahavamsa.”
Seneviratne cited Gunawardana for this view, having noted earlier that in ancient Sri Lanka, “there were Sinhalas who were not Buddhists and Buddhists who were not Sinhalas.” It is only fair to apply this to the Tamil community as well: after all, Dutugemunu’s army had soldiers of Tamil extraction, just as Elara’s army had those of Sinhala extraction. Unfortunately, for some reason or the other, while many Sinhala scholars are willing to take up cudgels against nationalists spouting historical myths, not many Tamil scholars seem to do so.

It would be better to accept the available historical evidence and go on believing that the evolution and growth of identity and group consciousness in Sri Lanka was less moulded by race and religion than what scholars from both sides of the divide suggest. In the service of historians, nationalism turns out to be a petty bourgeois ideology, representing the interests of a stunted middle class searching for more room in a diminishing economic space. It is this ideology that goes into the production of big budget historical epics, and it is this ideology that both Tamil and Sinhala nationalists alike propound.

To put it briefly, identities never evolved as races; they evolved as lineages, which in turn were rooted in occupations and professions rather than ethnicity. For instance, the Brahmi inscriptions, of which there are many in Sri Lanka and India, emphasise a donor’s station in life: Kaboja, Milaka, Dameda, Barata, and so on. Moreover we have Yaksha, Naga, Vedic, and Puranic inscriptions, and they all allude to the status of their authors, their families, and their occupations. The Puranic inscriptions in particular tell us of pre-Buddhist religious cults that revolved around Vishnu and Siva, which lends credence to G. P. Malalasekara’s view that as a monarch, Vijaya was tolerant of all faiths.

(To be continued…)

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