The sum of its parts: Questioning the history of Sri Lanka’s island state | Sunday Observer

The sum of its parts: Questioning the history of Sri Lanka’s island state

23 September, 2018

In 2015 the President of Sri Lanka, Maithripala Sirisena, proposed that the Government begin a process of constitutional reform. The most prominently debated of Sirisena’s proposed reforms was a move to devolve power to the provinces, giving for instance, Tamil-majority areas in the North and East of Sri Lanka, such as Jaffna and Batticaloa, control over the use of land, police powers and a guarantee that powers will not be taken back unilaterally. While power-sharing measures have a long history, supported by actors as diverse as pre-independence Kandyans to President Chandrika Kumaratunge, who proposed a ‘union of regions’ during the civil war, this most recent attempt has seen vehement and persistent opposition. In the eyes of opponents, such reforms threaten the integrity of a unitary, Buddhist country.

In response, many commentators highlighted the importance of an interdisciplinary critique of the nation-state.[1]That is, in order for the reform process to be meaningful, one needed to engage with Sri Lankans’ ‘social’ understanding of themselves and their state, a question which does not “take its answers...from constitutional theory.”[2] This essay aims to partially answer this call, using both historical and geographical approaches to critique the idea of a unitary, Buddhist island-nation.

In Sri Lanka, this concept of unitary rule is naturalised to the point where power-sharing systems of governance are often seen as a direct violation of the territorial integrity of the nation, even when the central government remains firmly in control of what kinds of power are being devolved. The fear of secession clouds the collective imagination when conceiving of how power can be distributed in equitable and empowering ways. Wary of what the taste of self-governance could lead to, the Sinhalese majority often frames these efforts as a challenge to the sacrosanct unitary Sri Lanka.Political understanding of space is influenced by natural morphology. Many understand the island to be the best bounded state – so why complicate it with more lines and borders, when its natural morphology lends itself to unitary governance? Unification of a nation state does not involve expansion, but rather consolidation of a bounded natural entity. There is no need for the messiness of boundaries and the subsequent violence of partition as with India and Pakistan, because the island is the obvious homeland to an ethnically homogenous group of people.

In Sri Lanka, the source of anxieties about devolution comes not only from inhabiting a bounded island space, but out of a sense of insecurity about the size and significance of that space on a global scale. Opponents of devolution might argue that the logistical benefits of federal states come to fruition only when governing large land masses with diverse messy populations as in the case of India or the USA (This argument conveniently ignores other countries which use federal state systems such as Belgium).

Globalisation has made the Sinhalese majority conscious of their ethnic exceptionalism, breeding an insecurity about that the lack of a wider, transnational ethnic community and binding them linguistically to the island. Newly minted expressways magnify the time-space compression of colonial railways and roads, and as travel times are sliced in half, the physical space of the island becomes more evident to its countrymen. Self-conscious about their insignificance in a globalised world, many Sri Lankans may feel that a tiny country cannot afford to further fracture itself.

One King to Rule Them All

However, it is worth critiquing this sense of smallness. Space and size are inherently relative, and it is only by comparing different places and objects that we can get a sense of size and scale. The scale of nation states has no arbitrary hard and fast rules. From Micronesia to China, states of various sizes function under various arrangements, and their success is dependent on a socio-political fit, history, economic prosperity etc. Despite being the twenty-fifth largest island in the world and having a population roughly equal to Australia, and outstripping New Zealand, Norway etc, Sri Lanka and the Sinhalese remain insecure.Awkwardly juxtaposed next to the behemoth of India, and a wider subcontinent that is dotted with cities more populous than itself, Sri Lanka’s insecurity and uncertainty about dividing itself into smaller less powerful fragments must be understood in context of how it situates itself at a regional and global scale.

The current approach to elected leaders in Sri Lanka draws much from historical legacies of masses-sanctioned monarchies. A far-reaching and unchecked executive presidency fits in more neatly with a narrative of a benign king, as opposed to an autocratic dictator. The majority desire for a centralised ruler as a source of security and economic prosperity also undermines the relationship they have with the other levels of representation, and the extent to which they are willing to trust the intermediaries between the ruler and the people. The recent local government elections were spun by some as a referendum, in which people cast their vote to express dissatisfaction with highest tiers of leadership, rather than to deliberate the best representatives for their communities and neighbourhoods. This reliance and faith in centralised rulers comes at the expense of the representative nature of constituencies.

The narrative of a glorious and prosperous kingdom has a modern avatar in the authoritarian efficiency of Singapore, Sri Lanka’s ‘gold standard’ in terms of its vision for the future. It is highly disturbing that autocratic rule is seen as a panacea for all the messy side-effects of democracy such as protests, minority rights and free press. It is worth noting that perhaps scale comes into play again: the fact that Singapore is a minute city-state has not stopped Sri Lankans from assuming that the same structures of efficiency and governance would be perfect forSri Lanka.

Some have questioned if the popularity of the former populist and nepotistic Rajapakse regime was a result of “[a] model of political power [which] matches the power and dignity of the pre-colonial Sinhala-Buddhist monarch.”[3]It is true that akin to Christian states in Europe, Buddhism and political power have had a long marriage in Lanka.[4] Buddhism legitimised and gave credence to rulers. But recent work has emphasised that the royal guardian of Buddhism need not be Lankan, or indeed, start out as Buddhist. For example, on the last Kandyan Kings, the Nayakkars, one historian writes that “One of the key riddles of [the late Kandyan] period is how the last kings, despite sponsoring fantastic spectacles of Buddhist piety and learning, could at the same time have been born as Hindus of South Indian descent, who took the European label ‘Malabar,’ the earlier term for people who later became identified as Tamil.”[5]

The Nayaks appealed to Sinhala-ness, “manufacturing” their image, for instance, frequently referring to themselves as continuations in the line of Vijaya.[6]That foreign kings could take over Lankan thrones and leaders of polities shows how notions of Sri Lankan-ness can be manufactured through the political process. ‘Stranger Kings’took power in many other global royal contexts. For example,in England, figures now decidedly incorporated into ‘English history,’ came from other cultures: Welsh Tudors, Scottish Stuarts, German-origin Hanoverians and Windsors.[7]To assume the mantle of Lankan leadership did not necessitate being Buddhist or Sinhala, although these were useful legitimisers to rely on and manufacture.[8] Unfortunately, the manufacture and replication of these identifiers of Buddhist rulers has entrenched the necessity of Buddhist rulers in contemporary Sri Lanka, even if its legacy is constructed and nominal at best.

Constructing Sri Lanka

As the case of Kings shows, history in Lanka is particularly fraught, and often used in the service and manufacture of politics.[9]A glance through the visitor comments at any of Sri Lanka’s historical sites or museums reveals a discourse focused on pride in ‘’Sri Lanka’s glorious Sinhala inheritance.”[10] What can a critical account of history offer to nuance the notion of unified, Sinhala Buddhist ascendant Lanka?

In the first place, history can show how differently past historical actors thought of themselves in the ‘physical space’ of Lanka. It may seem intuitive to us today to view Sri Lanka as a unitary administrative, political unit—but it is not historically accurate. ‘Sri Lankan’ was not an overriding identifier until the twentieth century. So, how did historical actors think of themselves in space, before the invention of the concept of nation-states?

For much of history, true political and social “territorial integrity” in Lanka was non-existent. The dominant narrative that pervades most Lankan’s ‘telling’ of history involves appealing to great past kingdoms, with the implication that these were absolute centres of control.There certainly were moments in time when the island was ruled by a single monarch (Parakramabahu I) even though these were largely symbolic. Pre-European sources known as kaidam pot (boundary books) shows the division of the island into many distinct regions. Each of these would have their particular identity which individuals most strongly identified with. As historians are fond of pointing out, for much of human history, individuals identified with regions that were either larger (oceanic basins, trade routes, empires) or smaller (villages, city-states, local polities) than the nation.[11]

Until the nineteenth century, Sri Lanka is best seen as a set of “segmentary” or “galactic” states or kingdoms.Anuradhapura was the strongest amongst many competing Northern plain kingdoms and existed alongside other kingdoms in the Malaya and Rohana regions.The mythologised Dutugamini, for instance, subdued several other regions and kingdoms in the South such as Soma, Seru or Giri. Elara’s North, likewise, was similarly fractured and contested. Political affiliations were far smaller and more fractured in the territory they encompassed. The entrenched importance of these regional kingdoms is also evident in how Europeans encountered Sri Lanka. Rather than approaching it as one administrative unit, their approach varied with region, acknowledging different polities. The Portuguese, for instance, managed relations with Jaffna from Mannar or South India before the conquest of Jaffna in 1619.[12]

During the medieval period and certainly before the 1600s, the political understanding of the space of the island expanded to include the Indian Subcontinent.‘The history of Sri Lanka’ was not exclusive to the geography of the island. Instead, a regional view should take the Indian continent and the island into the context of warring dynasties where polities were exchanged between competing powers, whether these were ‘local’ dynasties or Pallava or Chola.[13] Brief periods of unification of Lanka are best viewed as violent, successful attempts of some galactic states to outdo others, and extend their domain as far as possible, rather than ‘local/Sri Lankan’ kings protecting their island nation against outsiders. For even earlier historical periods, such as from the eighth to the twelfth centuries, some scholars have even gone so far as to suggest reading ‘Sri Lanka’ as a sort of frontier state, which was peopled by iterant, mendicant characters including religious pilgrims and traders who were passing through this space. The settled polity, Sri Lanka, and Sri Lankan belonging, are modern inventions.

The territorial integrity of Sri Lanka and the subsequent delineation of citizenship was in flux well into the twentieth century. A telling example comes from the early decades in 1927, when that famed leader, Mahatma Gandhi, wrote in his periodical Young India that “I have no territorial ambitions for India of my imagination. I should be content to regard Ceylon absolutely as an independent state; but I should not hesitate to accept Ceylon as part of free India if the islanders express their wish to be so in an unmistakable language.”[14] Once again, the natural island borders of Sri Lanka did not necessarily designate what the nation state would look like, since it could well have included India as we know it and Lanka into one nation.

Not only was Sri Lanka not a unified administrative unit, but those who lived in this island did not identify with its physical bounds, or feel a sense of unity, simply because they occupied the same space that would later become the nation. Instead, Lankans’ understandings of themselves have varied over time, including and not limited to affiliations with various regional kingdoms, up-country versus low country Sinhalese, and, importantly, caste lines (Karawe, Govigama, Vellalar, etc.). The travails of granting (and denying)citizenship for estate ‘Indian Tamils’ into the 1980s in Sri Lanka are proof of how like her shoreline, the boundaries of “Sri Lankan-ness” are unstable and constantly changing.

So if the island was never (or exceedingly rarely) the starting point for politics here, when did Sri Lankans come to see themselves as Sri Lankan?

First, colonial presence often firmed up concepts of nation, ethnicity and belonging. The British in particular developed an imperial “discursive and intellectual way of thinking and writing about this space [Sri Lanka] as a romanticised and sexualised island, a lost Eden, and a place which was very different from the barren and Hindu mainland.”[15]Many historians have articulated how imperial tools such as the census crystallised notions of difference by introducing new terms such as race, nation and ethnicity according to which people could be classed and differentiated. This argument should not be taken to mean that prior to European intervention people saw themselves as equal and similar.

‘One’ Sri Lanka

A social element of the historical mythologising of ‘Sri Lanka’ is worth noting. Modern catch-phrases which draw on historical memory including “One Sri Lanka” or a “One People under One Flag” suggest that Sri Lankan Kingdoms were experienced in the same way by all those who lived in it. In fact,the economic, social and political practices in these kingdoms were conducive to deep inequities. Within each Lankan Kingdom, say, Kotte or Kandy, the polis is best understood not as a unified place where all those living within its bounds received equal resources, wealth and rights. Instead, a model of ‘centre and periphery’ is better suited. In truth, the broad rice-growing peasant base of society had no more meaningful interaction with the “state” than paying an oppressive and forcibly extracted levy. These kingdoms relied on devolved and symbolic rule where the power of the ruler was felt through symbolic headmen or appointed local rulers.[16] Most communities existed in relative isolation from the capital.[17] So much for ‘One Sri Lanka’.

Additionally, devolved rule also drained resources from the periphery to the centre. In periods of a stronger ruler, the draw on resources was greater, and the periphery generally did worse, whereas in times of weak rulership, the periphery was able to retain more resources for themselves.[18] Society was exploitative and deeply unequal. There was no sense whatsoever of legally enshrined rights simply by virtue of belonging to a political entity. The ‘glory of Lanka’ may have been true, but it was enjoyed by a select few, whose destinies were decided at birth, not through constitutionally enshrined rights.

A second reason we think of Sri Lankan history as hermetically sealed and limited to the nation is that a generation of post-independence historians(like their counterparts all over the world) were also pre-occupied in writing ‘national’ histories.An example will perhaps help illustrate this: the search for ‘original/Ur’ inhabitants of the country has much to do with both nationalist and colonial objectives. For the colonisers, it supported an Aryan-colonisation thesis, linking Lanka broadly to Greco-Roman civilising-teleology. This meant that scholars often disregarded or gave scant attention to evidence to the contrary. For example, although there are existing traces for Dravidian settlements which existed pre-Vijayan settlement, these are not taken as seriously as they might be if we were to really search for counter/alternative narratives.[19] In much of academia, this ‘regionalisation’, that is, the writing of national histories, has entirely fallen out of fashion, with historians choosing to prioritise oceans (the Pacific or Atlantic, for instance) as distinct social, cultural and political spaces.[20] The fact that the imposition of national history backwards is a new concept seems lost on most Sri Lankans, hence the need to emphatically stress our difference from India.

What distinguishes nation states from one another is often arbitrary historical chance and very rarely (in non-island states) the result of abiding in the arbitrary boundary-lines drawn in the earth.

Early modern maps of Ceylon like this one rarely conform to the sense of a bounded island as one administrative unit. Instead, they broke the landmass down into different regions which should be conceived of as politically separate.

The nation of Sri Lanka and the way we understand belonging to it today is a very recent invention that has scant (if any) historical and political precedent. History “is as much about the production of the present as it is about the reproduction of a past,” Nira Wickramasinghe writes. Perhaps we all have a role in rectifying the myths that we continue to propagate or leave un examined.Examining these myths is the first step to questioning narratives that determine how Sri Lankans see themselves as citizens and how they conceptualise their relationship with power.

In status quo, devolution of power may only replicate the same patterns of feudal autocratic role, feeding grassroot despots instead of empowering communities to represent and govern themselves. In our quest for kings, Sri Lankans may continue to remain serfs.