Leslie Gunawardana, a leading historian, currently vice-chancellor University of Peradeniya, in an exclusive interview with ‘Communalism Combat’
Your work has repeatedly suggested that scholars have been coming under increasing pressure in Sri Lanka to develop a representation of the past which lends legitimacy to the claims of either the Sinhala or the Tamil nationalist projects. Since when has this trend been clearly visible?
If you survey the type of writings that have been published since the mid-80s, you see this trend gathering strength. It is the tendency of taking sides in the ethnic conflict that is still raging within Sri Lanka. A good example of this is a statement made by an influential speaker at a gathering of archaeologists in Colombo on July 7, 1992. He compared the role of the archaeologist in the field to that of the soldier in the ongoing war in the North, commenting that the contribution of the latter was no less important.
You have also repeatedly observed in your works that the worst impact of the Orientalists’ categorization of the South Asian peoples into ‘Aryan’ and ‘Dravidian’ has been felt in Sri Lanka. Could you elaborate?
The impact of Orientalism in South Asia seems to take varying forms. It has had its lasting impact in India, too. But out there, there has been a greater emphasis on religion. In Sri Lanka, this Orientalists’ categorisation can be identified as the single most divisive root of the current ethnic divide. Today people think that ethnic identity is the determining criteria little realizing that this is a post-19th century phenomenon.
The impact can be weighed especially if one looks back to see the way in which relations between the Sinhala and the Tamil communities in particular were friendly and mutually accommodative before this categorisation came to be accepted.
If you go back to the Kandyan period, we find the Sinhala nobility choosing an external South Indian dynasty – the Nayakkar dynasty – to govern them. This is not to present people of today in a negative light and the people of the past in positive terms but to emphasise and to remind people that the ruling ideas of different periods of history can be so different.
During the Kandyan period, caste was a much more important factor than ethnic identity. Between South Indian people and Sri Lankan people, the Sinhala people and the Tamil people, the same ideas and notions of caste prevailed.
Could you tell us a little more about this pre-19th century Sinhala nobility?
We had this very unusual phenomenon of kings being invited and placed on the throne, that is, South Indian rulers being invited here and placed on the throne. The lead in this was, ironically, always taken by the members of the nobility in consultation with members of the Buddhist clergy.
In fact, the first Nayakkar king was proposed to the throne by the chief incumbent of the Navaddha Vihara, a revered figure among Buddhist monks, the Samaka Sangha Rajja; this particular dynasty that was thus invited remained in power for about four generations and they formed close alliances with the local nobility.
There were much closer links between the Nayakkars and the local nobility and severe divisions between / within the local nobility.
What are the other main components of the communalist projects, both Sinhala ethno-nationalist and the Tamil ethno-nationalist one?
The Eelamist interpretation of history and the Sinhala interpretation of history, I see, as two sides of the same coin. They in fact support each other, socially and politically.
The historiographical project undertaken by some Sinhala ethno-nationalists has been the construction of a past in which the Sinhala language and the Sinhala ethnic identity has always been present. In this imagined past, all the Sinhala ethnics are Buddhists while their enemies who invade, create disruption and occupy their land are Tamil speaking Hindus.
On the other hand, the Tamil ethno-nationalist project is nothing less than the invention of a “classical age” for the Tamils of the Jaffna Peninsula. It is presented as a time when the peninsula was united under a Tamil kingdom centred on Kantarotai, independent from “Sinhala hegemony”.