Feature Article

Gananath review shows nations divided in perception

[TamilNet, Thursday, 23 February 2012, 01:44 GMT]
“I will confess that, as I write this essay, many do see him [Rajapaksa] as someone who “saved” the nation from the brutal LTTE. Surely such a view is not without its truth. But that truth cannot excuse human rights violations that currently afflict the nation as a whole; or for that matter obscure the looming threat of the cultural and political colonisation of the north by the Sinhala Buddhist majority,” writes Gananath Obeyesekere, in reviewing a recent book on Sri Lanka. Commenting, a Tamil academic said Gananath’s reference to ‘nation’ in singular confines to the Sinhala nation, for despite differences of opinion on ways and tactics, many Eezham Tamils see the LTTE as something that was checking brutal genocide by the Sinhala state. The divided perception is sign of nations in plural, justifying their separation even for reconciliation in future, the Tamil academic said.

Further comments from an Eezham Tamil academic in Jaffna follow:

Gananath Obeyesekere
Gananath Obeyesekere giving an interview in 2003
The divided perception is striking, especially when it comes from a veteran Sinhala scholar like Gananath Obeyesekere, pointing to no way other than separation to the affected nation of Eezham Tamils, even to stop the “cultural and political colonisation of the north by the Sinhala Buddhist majority,” referred to by him.

Conspicuously, Gananath left out the East, where the process was going on for a long time, preceding the current structural genocide in the north.

Professor Gananath Obeyesekere’s book review on “The Sri Lanka Reader: History, Culture, Politics”, edited by John Clifford Holt and published by the Duke University in the USA, appeared in Mumbai-based Economic and Political Weekly, dated 28 January, with the title “Biased and Prejudiced Collection on Sri Lanka.”

The editor of the book, Professor John Clifford Holt is a leading historian of religion in the USA.

Gananath Obeyesekere, now 82-years old, is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University in the USA. Hailing from a village in southern Sri Lanka, he left the island permanently after the JVP insurrection of 1971. Before that he served in the University of Ceylon at Peradeniya in Kandy.

In the review Gananath didn’t fail to make a comparison between the genocidal war and the state’s suppression of the JVP insurrection:

“Violence in recent times is not simply confined to the long war and its suppression, but also relates to the brutal Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna insurrection of Sri Lankan youth in the late 1980s and the equally brutal suppression by the then government of President Premadasa in which it is estimated that about 60,000 people were killed. Even if we reduce this official estimate to 20,000 dead, we are confronted with a searing commentary on violence by Sinhalas against Sinhalas, an issue that Holt does not discuss,” Gananath says.

But the stereotype comparison brought out by many Sinhala and Indian academics, keen in state reformation by keeping state as one in the island, misses the qualitative difference between a protracted genocidal war by a majoritarian state and the state of the Sinhala nation handling an insurrection within its nation.

The comparison makes little justice to the future plight of the nation of Eezham Tamils facing sure annihilation, if nothing appropriate to the national question is done right now.

Even in making a comparison, many other Sinhala academics and journalists (not Gananath), have a habit of describing the events related to JVP as ‘insurrection,’ but calling the LTTE’s resistance as ‘terrorism’– once again exhibiting the difference in the perceptions in the nations.

This review to the review has nothing to say on the book in question. Many books come nowadays from publishers in the USA and New Delhi, aiming at the orientation of students of South Asian Studies.

But the responses of Gananath, the professor of anthropology known for his psychoanalytical approach, gain particular significance in gauging Sinhala elite opinion – what the most reasonable of them think on accepting Eezham Tamils as a nation needing its own right of self-determination.

Eezham Tamils also carefully watch what Gananath’s Tamil contemporaries like Prof Sivathamby had finally concluded with the ‘Kohomba Kangariya’ model, but in contrast, what the sceptics of the university academics like the creative writer S.Ponnuthurai (Es Po) continue to say on the issue.

* * *

Leaving apart the one-nation-outlook, which itself is a colonial legacy, Gananath has come out with many other valuable observations in the review.

The review points out that alongside the brutalities, “Sri Lanka is proud to be the first or the near first in other areas: it has maybe the highest rate of suicides in the world, followed by equally horrendous homicide rates. And if one can rely on official statistics the nation’s Sinhala and Tamil males are among the largest consumers of alcohol in the world, assuming, of course, that most Muslims and women in general abstain from alcohol or are only moderate consumers. Violence against women, sexual abuse of children and multiplying cases of incest (owing to absent women working in west Asia) that have been highlighted in recent times do not merit mention anywhere in this collection.”

Gananath’s review exposes the kind of NGO ‘development’ that are promoted in the West as solutions to the problems in the island:

“The editor has chosen an essay “Sarvodaya in a Buddhist Society” by Ariyaratne, the Sarvodaya chief, who attempts to produce a Buddhist version of socio-economic and political development. Ariyaratne, in his numerous publications, seriously believes that, prior to western contact, Sri Lankan villages expressed Buddhist ideals and lived harmonious lives where inequalities did not prevail. Such an idealised model of village life simply did not and could not exist in Sri Lanka or elsewhere in the world. I doubt that Sarvodaya has made the slightest impact on the issues that I have highlighted, including matters relating to peace and human rights violations following the end of the long war,” the review observed.

“The editor believes that the Vädda hunters or “people like them” had lived here for perhaps “millennia” without offering a scrap of evidence to substantiate this vision of history and without examining whether such groups or so-called tribals, like many other south Indian peoples, continued to migrate into Sri Lanka from the neighbouring subcontinent. All of us after all have been “aborigines” at some point in our unknown pasts,” Gananath said.

Prof. Obeyesekere made a revealing observation on the British historiographical version on the last king of Kandy, Sri Vikrama Rajasinha of Tamil–Telugu origin.

“It is as if the editor has accepted uncritically Davy’s account, including the king ordering the wife of his enemy Ähälepola to pound her infant child on a mortar, a myth that the Sri Lanka historian P E Pieris has effectively deconstructed, pointing out its colonial origins in “The Tragedy of Ehelepola’s Family” (pp 175-85 in Tri Sinhala: The Last Phase).”

“There is no doubt that this was a time when a great deal of brutality prevailed on both sides of the warring divide, but one must remember that the last king built the beautiful “palace of the tooth relic” and the adjacent lake in Kandy and that he was popular with many sections of the Sinhala population,” Gananath observed.

“The story of the English rule in the Kandyan country during 1817 and 1818 cannot be related without shame. In 1819, hardly a member of the leading families, the heads of the people, remained alive; those whom the sword and the gun had spared, cholera and smallpox and ¬privations had slain by hundreds,” Prof. Obeyesekere cited a British judge writing in 1896, to show inadequacies in Holt’s book when it deals with the British colonial period.

Gananath, admitting his own prejudices against colonialism, says in the review, “The Pax Britannica that followed the rebellion [Kandyan rebellion] was initially erected on a terrifying base in Sri Lanka as it was in other lands that the empire subjugated”.

Even though unsaid, Prof. Obeyesekere brings in here the parallels to be understood on what is taking place in the country of Eezham Tamils, enacted by the agent state of Sri Lanka and by its imperial masters.

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