The emergence of totalizing ideologies

by Gananath Obeyesekere

Excerpts from the Address by Gananath Obeyesekera on the death anniversary of Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam, July 29, 2004 at the ICES Auditorium on ‘The Matrilineal East Coast, Circa 1968’: Nostalgia and Post-Nostalgia in our Troubled Time.

It seems that successive Sri Lankan governments as well as the LTTE failed to understand the uniqueness of the Batticaloa region largely because of the developing ideologies on both sides of the divide that saw Tamil and Sinhala as oppositional categories that submerged all other forms of identities and cultural differences. These oppositonal categories have had the effect of self-fulfilling prophecies owing to the well-known truism that if people define things as real they are real in their consequences.

In Sri Lanka then two conventional labels for identifying large broad based populations have had a long historical run but they had become radically essentialized over the last hundred years or so. Nevertheless, even today neither Sinhalas nor Tamils in this newly developed sense of ethnic differentiation constitute a unified entity. Beneath these imagined and real unities are serious differences of religion and caste, the latter a persistent phenomenon both among the Sinhalas and Tamils even as people try to deny their reality.

And then there is the unusual case of Tamil speaking Muslims whose ethnic identity is not Tamil, but Muslim, thus differentiating them from the other imagined communities. To complicate matters even further are the so-called estate Tamils brought by the British as cheap labor for the tea plantations. Thus by the end of the 19th century there was a visible presence of "Tamil," in the midst of the Sinhalas, whereas the older Tamil communities were physically separated in the north and the east and for the most part outside the physical and communal reach of the Sinhalas, unless of course they were public servants, professionals and merchants living in Sinhala areas.

The French scholar Eric Meyer believes with some justification I think that ethnic suspiciousness commenced when the newly emergent Sinhala nationalists beheld alien Tamil-speaking communities in their midst or during their pilgrimages to the Sacred Footprint via the tea country.

We now know that the middle 19th to the early 20th centuries saw the birth of religious reform movements both in the Sinhala and the Tamil areas. The Sinhala-Buddhist reform under the leadership of Anagarika Dharmapala created a new Sinhala-Buddhist identity and an ideology of nationhood that treated Tamils, Muslims and Christians as somehow alien and not quite a part of the imagined nation.

In the Tamil areas also a somewhat different movement got started under the leadership of Arumuka Pillai, later given the cognomen Navalar or "Able-tongued." The leaders of both movements were educated in Protestant mission schools and unsurprisingly they reacted strongly against the missions and Christianity in general.

Both leaders reified an imagined great tradition, that had for Dharmapala a wish to produce a reform Buddhism adapted to both modernity and to Buddhist nationalism and for Navalar to a similar reification of Hindu Saiva Siddhantha, an extremely sophisticated religious tradition based on the philosophical work of Sankara and later Tamil mystical saints such as Manikkavacakar. Both reformers had little respect for the operative popular traditions that worshiped local deities and both were openly contemptuous of Pattini-Kannaki and the rituals associated with the cult.

Needless to say, both ideologies appealed to the new intelligentsia emerging from the mission school especially so in Jaffna that produced, along with colonialism, a highly educated and bilingual elite. What is striking about these changes is that there was little spillover to the East Coast that remained committed to the rituals of Dravidian folk religion. If at all, the elites of the Batticaloa region were much more influenced by the Ramakrishna movement.

On the local level what I saw during the time of fieldwork was the progressive incorporation of Sanskritic deities into the local temples and a gradual change to a Vedic style ritual calendar in some of the East Coast temples originally dominated by the goddess cults. I do not know the fate of these popular forms of worship after the LTTE domination of these areas.

Though I believe that Saiva Siddhantha was a more genuinely religious and ethical movement than Dharmapala’s, Navalar’s own reform, quite unlike the broad-based nationalistic Buddhism of Dharmapala, had the greatest impact on the educated Vellala caste that not only was numerically dominant but, given the small land area, could exercise that dominance through the control of temple trusteeships and till very recently in the control of Parliamentary seats and jobs in government and the professions.

If the Karaiyar communities had important roles as sailors and mercenaries in the times of the Jaffna kings and if they were further favoured during Portuguese times, the picture changed with the Dutch so that, as Young and Jebanesan, put it "the peninsula became a Vellala domain ... in the sixteenth century when the coastal Karaiyar caste, the bulk of which had become Catholic in the sixteenth century, was dispossessed from positions of power by Vellalas (Protestant and Hindu) of untainted loyalty."

The denigration of the Karaiyar and the enhanced empowerment of the Vellala were fostered the vicissitudes of colonialism. Being Catholic and "fishing" communities, the lower subcaste of the Karaiyar or Kiloni were not permitted to wear the upper garments up to around the early twentieth century. All of this meant that the Karaiyar (quite unlike the southern Karava) became in Dutch and early British times alienated from the economic, ritual and political power structure of the North.

It should be noted that parliamentary elections until 1960 did not produce a single Karaiyar representative; and then one representative was chosen by the delimitation commission through some adroit gerrymandering. In other words, the second numerical largest group in Jaffna was virtually unrepresented in parliament for a long time, quite unlike the situation in the Sinhala south. Writing about the conditions in Jaffna in 1972 Perimbanayagam wrote that in spite of internal divisions among the Vellala, "[in] any challenge for power and status the entire Vellala community would unite and vote for the leading Vellala candidate to ensure the defeat of no-Vellala.... Hence until very recently every parliamentarian was drawn from the Vellala caste."

Perhaps one could see the emergence of the LTTE with its Karaiyar Hindu cum Catholic leadership and its emancipatory agenda as a challenge to the hegemony of the dominant Vellala caste, its displacement as it were from the power structure of the north. Obviously this is not all there is to it. This historic socio-political development of Karaiyar-Vellala antagonism was much more muted in the East Coast as it was among the Sinhalas.

On the Sinhala side the alienation of the Batticaloa Tamils need not surprise us, given the threat felt by all Tamil speaking peoples after the Sinhala only Act and the increasing presence of what in effect was a Sinhala army in the region. Practices of torture and harassment during the early period of the military presence compounded that alienation.

But there is a more problematic issue as far as Sinhala-Tamil relations in the East Coast are concerned and that is the mass-scale movement of Sinhala people to the East Coast during the regime of D.S. Senanayake and the implementation of the Galoya project, resulting in the Amparai District becoming primarily a Sinhala area, drastically altering the demographic composition of the Eastern Province with about one-third Sinhala-Buddhists who along with the Muslims began to own a larger land area than that of the Tamil populations.

Moreover, the recent Sinhala settlers outnumbered the older Sinhala villages living in what are known now as purana gam, that is, ancient villages. These older Sinhala residents everywhere in the East Coast as well as the Vanni had better relations with Tamils with whom they had interacted over a long period of time. Not so the new residents who were chosen from all over the nation and were susceptible to the adoption of an uncompromising Sinhala-Buddhist ideological consensus. It seems to me that whatever political unities that existed in pre-colonial and early colonial times have now been irretrievably severed. It should not surprise us that the Batticaloa Tamils could react sympathetically to the LTTE when their totalistic ideology of Tamilness and the ‘fictions of homeland ultimately traceable to the Indus Valley civilizations were beginning to be invented.

But whether this ideological consensus is going to last is anybody’s guess; or whether the existence of totalizing ideologies will in turn produce another social phenomenon, what Foucault called "the insurrection of subjugated knowledge." My guess is that it will, not only in the East but also in the Jaffna district, if free elections eventually develop and representative government. But the return of the repressed whether in the neuroses or in polities, does not mean the "eternal return" mentioned by Nietzsche. The repressed comes back but in a different guise, sometimes very scary, sometimes ennobled as we know from the new caste formations in contemporary Sri Lanka that affirm caste but deny inequality. "Sometimes, however, local knowledge and local structures can be subject to such repression, politically speaking, that they will have no opportunity to return at all. Hence the rationality of violence in totalistic ideologies: one can squash all forms of subjugated knowledge and dissent through the rationality of violence in modern political movements, even when the intention is "liberation," that wonderful sounding word for bourgeois intellectuals.

One must not forget that both the rationality of terror and liberation coexisted in the model liberation movement, the French Revolution. I think it is this paradox that Yeats highlighted in respect of the Irish question when he said: "a terrible beauty is born."