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Pawns in Balance

The Norwegian assessment of their own failed peace process, one of 21 failures or so, they’ve been involved in, or led, called Pawns of Peace, just doesn’t say very much, I’m afraid. It’s really hard point, is a frightening one: Norway is a soft power, and so couldn’t enforce its will. Hard power -- I think this used to be called gun boat diplomacy in the bad old days, when people actually said what they meant – might have worked better they say. Well, let’s leave that there, thankfully and hopefully.

Its other central point, is now an academic cliché; I’d like to take it apart, and try to put it back together, as I worry about Ceylon and Ceylonese. The state is ‘incomplete’ they say, and two competing ‘ethno-nationalist state building projects’ are ‘pitted’ against each other. It’s not Norway’s fault, they are quick to say – this is really the point of the exercise, ‘its not our fault’ – these natives have been this way for ever; incomplete and ‘pitted’ against each other. This is common academic wisdom, and as a common academic, I’ve come across it many times. In fact, a book I edited is cited few pages later, instantiating this point, supposedly.

While I certainly agree that whatever happened in Sri Lanka didn’t have a whole lot to do with Norway – they could have just said that, without writing a needless report – I’ve always thought this idea, that there are two or three of something, and then they started fighting, to be a bit of an aesop's fable. In fact, these explanations beg the question about how began to think of ourselves as ‘Sinhala’ and ‘Tamil’ in the first place, because when they start the story, it’s always, ‘Once upon a time, in land far, far away, there were these nasty Sinhala and Tamils.’ If you start like that, the animals are going to fight before bed time, for sure.

These ideas are not old. No, they didn’t come about in 1956 either. They came about in 1833 with what are called the Colebrook Cameron reforms. While the historical facts are well known, we’ve never really interpreted them well at all. At this time, Ceylon was a possession of the British crown; the great innovation in government in 1833 was the legislative council, a group of six appointees, who were supposed to be a check and counter weight to the executive council comprised of officials. This was at the time, unprecedented in the non white colonies, and even today, in our own understanding of history, we simply celebrate this early British carrot, and applaude ourselves and moves on.

What we miss is how the council was made up; its logic of constitution. Three Europeans, one Burgher, one Tamil and one Sinhalese. Well, all that seems just so ordinary perhaps, but it was not. This was the first time in all the history of this island, that we know anything about at all, that a communal logic of representation was ever used. This is where what seems like self evident common sense today, came into being in representative government, for this legislative council become, pretty much, the embrio of our parliament.

In Early times, yes, there were well known distinctions perhaps between Sinhala and Tamil; but Tamils ruled Sinhalese, Sinhalese ruled Tamils and it was legitimate. Multi lingual south Indians, like the Nayakkara kings sat on the throne of Kandy, and were thought to be legitimate for hundreds of years. Indeed, they took to Buddhism, but that’s the point, they were not born into it, like you are supposedly born a Tamil, like me.

This idea of communal representation, which is, pure and simple, a racial one – where Sinhala and Tamil are taken as races, was crude in 1833. Over the rest of century, its hold over us grew, as the theory itself became more complex. We are still in its unyielding grip, unable to become, Ceylonese or Sri Lankans. It is this grip that is the fundamental cause of our misery; to say we have two competing ‘ethno-nationalists’ projects, is to start the story that matters, half way into it.

It is like looking one of those old fashioned balance weighing scales, (a thatadiya), that meat vendors use to have, and saying, well, it isn’t quite balanced. Of course it isn’t;  have you ever seen one of those balance? The real question is, who taught us to weigh; who gave us the scales, and who held it for hundreds of years.

(written for my column in Ceylon Today, Ceylon and Ceylonese, and published in print, in that newspaper)

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Reader Comments (1)

Over the rest of century, its hold over us grew, as the theory itself became more complex. We are still in its unyielding grip, unable to become, Ceylonese or Sri Lankans.
I like to read about the history of the development of a nation. I live in Canada, a Commonwealth nation that was also impacted by British colonization.
I like your article on this subject.
February 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGuja Minor

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