Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for April 24th, 2009

On a train journey last month in Denmark, my wife engaged our neighbour in conversation while I hid, as usual, behind a magazine. On learning that we lived in Sri Lanka, he turned to me and asked, ‘So are you Sinhalese or Tamil?’ I hesitated, and replied: ‘Tamil’. ‘You can’t be,’ he shot back, ‘Tamils are dark-skinned.’

Stereotypes die hard. I shall return to my hesitancy later.

Most Europeans, unless they happen to move in specialist scholarly circles, cannot begin to fathom the sheer complexity of Asian societies, their histories and their politics. It is easy to settle for the ‘sound bytes’  of the popular media. So I was impressed by our companion’s knowledge. In Britain it is customary for all those from the Indian subcontinent to be  lumped under the general purpose category of ‘Asian’, while in the US the latter term designated (until fairly recently) Koreans, Japanese and Chinese. Events since 9/11 have forced some people, however, to break free from their Anglo-/Euro-centric views of other peoples and to actually read their histories in order to understand their own.

Ever since the civil conflict in Sri Lanka first came to the attention of the global media in July 1983, it has been routinely described as an ‘ethnic conflict’, and even at times a ‘religious conflict’ (as most of the majority ethnic group known as Sinhalese are Buddhists, and most of the minority Tamils are Hindus). But conflicts in the complex societies of Asia are rarely this simple.

Tamil is primarily a language, one of the oldest in the world. There are three Tamil-speaking communities in Sri Lanka: the ‘Sri Lankan Tamils’, living predominantly (but not exclusively) in the north of the island, who assert the historical reality that they are no less ‘sons of the soil’ than their Sinhala-speaking fellow citizens (an independent kingdom in the north existed continuously from 1215 for about four hundred years); the ‘upcountry Tamils’ who were brought as indentured labour in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century by the British colonial rulers to work on the tea and rubber plantations; and the ‘Muslim Tamils’ of mixed Malay and Moor descent (comprising ten percent of the population) who stress their distinctive religious identity while speaking the same language as the other Tamil peoples.

It is only the first group of Tamil-speaking people, and again not all of them, who embraced the demand for a separate Tamil state in the north of the island. The movement for a separate state became more popular and more violent after the anti-Tamil pogrom in the south in July 1983. It splintered over the next decade into several factions warring with each other over strategy, as well as deep-seated differences based on caste, region, and personalities. The Tamil Tigers emerged as the most powerful and best-known internationally among the various Tamil militant factions. They quickly and ruthlessly asserted their dominance over all other groups They perfected the art of suicide-bombings and assassinated several prominent Tamil public figures who dared to question their methods or political agenda.

It is unlikely whether the Sinhalese-speaking people of Sri Lanka ever thought of themselves as ‘Sinhalese-Buddhists’ until the dawn of the colonial era. The last king of the ‘Sinhalese’ kingdom in Kandy was a Tamil, and the most bitter conflicts within that kingdom were based on caste and dynastic loyalties, rather than ‘religious’ or ‘ethnic’ differences. Today, among many middle-class Sinhalese, the Indian ‘holy man’ and ‘miracle-worker’ Sai Baba enjoys a popularity that far exceeds that of the Buddha. Politicians, business leaders and army officers make regular treks to his ashram in Bangalore, for Sai Baba gives them what they want- religion without repentance, power without morality.

The biblical understanding of sin gives us insights into the nature of human conflict. We make ourselves and our desires the centre of things. Trapped in such aspirations to deity, we see others as competitors to be suppressed, or as simply means to further our own ends, or as threats to our well-being. We have an innate bias towards defending and advancing our own interests. Consequently, we tend to speak of the wrongs we have suffered at the hands of others, but very rarely of the wrongs we have ourselves done to others. This estrangement often turns inwards, so that we even become strangers to ourselves, not understanding our motives and passions, let alone the true ends for which we exist.

In the Sri Lankan context, many Sinhalese intellectuals continue to blame the suffering of the nation on European colonial powers, the IMF/World Bank nexus or ‘Tamil nationalism’; rarely on their own political mismanagement and lack of a pluralist vision for Sri Lankan society. The vociferous Tamil ‘diaspora’ in the West, including many intellectuals, have been silent on the disgraceful ways Muslims were treated by the Tigers or the greater suffering of poor Southern Sinhalese villagers and the plantation Tamils.  Discussion of the terrible discriminatory practices within communities is always suppressed.

Why did I hesitate to answer my traveling companion’s question? My ancestry on both sides is Tamil, but I grew up speaking English as my first language. While I read and understand Tamil very well, there is a huge gap between literary and spoken Tamil. So I speak Sinhalese better than I do Tamil. There are many anomalies like me around, here and abroad: people who live on boundaries, not being ‘at home’ in any one culture.  Where do we fit into the ‘peoples-group’ classifications that some (usually American) missiologists are promoting? (One reason, among others, to be cautious about such methodologies).

We all have multiple, overlapping identities. Which we consider primary or basic depends on how we integrate the different stories that our ‘selves’ indwell. My integrating centre is Christ, which makes my primary identity Christian. But since that term too is so misunderstood today, using it publicly conveys very little. So, who am I? I think I know, but cannot say it. Perhaps I can only show it.


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