Who did what to whom and when and where are recurring themes that dominate the historical consciousness.
Whether it is in the Pelopponesian Wars (Herodotus) or in the Mahavamsa (Mahanama) it is these common themes that echo in the pages of historiography.
Of course, these themes begin to explode in controversies the moment you ask why events happened the way it did. There is no end to this discourse. Nor is there any consensus on any one of these tangled issues, though there is an overall view of what happened prevailing at various levels, ranging from the conventional wisdom moulded by tradition to sophisticated intellectual theories that can run wild at times into flights of fanciful fantasies.
Historians going in search of the past pursue their own set of principles, their own scope and purposes. Herodotus, known as the Father of History, said that his “purpose is to present the traces of human events from being erased by time and to preserve the important and remarkable achievements produced by both Greek and non-Greeks;…” To preserve the memory of the fleeting moment for posterity he would record the minutest of details.
For instance, he would record that Egyptian women urinated standing while the men did it sitting down!
Historian Mahanama, the Father of Sri Lankan history, too was quite explicit in his mission. He said he compiled his chapters for “the serene joy and emotions of the pious” – a seemingly simple statement loaded with depth of hidden Buddhist meaning.
He records history in all its gory details and at the end of each chapter of human history he suggests, in his subtle way, without being overly religious, that the ultimate salvation is through “Serene joy and emotions of pious” and not in the grand parade of human drama.
In other words, there is no salvation in history which is mired in human folly and misery. In Samsaric history the way out is in finding “serene joy and emotions of the pious” – the path to nirvana.
Where else could one find “serene joy and emotions of the pious”? This quiet refrain which he reiterates at the end of each chapter is, by far, one of the best description of the state of nirvana as understood by the laymen who have not entered the path.
Historians can disagree as fiercely as politicians and their biases cannot be discounted.
At one end, history can be dismissed as a heap of rubbish left behind by our ancestors for us to clean up the mess.
At the other end, it can be embraced as the glorious heritage endowed by our pioneering forefathers for the benefit of successive generations.
Sorting out the essence from the messy mass piled upon us is not an easy task.
Some tend to bracket history into concrete blocks of forces like racism, nationalism, capitalism and other kinds of “isms”. These are pitted against charismatic individuals who battle it out within each framework challenging the status quo.
They pose questions like: “Did Napoleon make history or did history make Napoleon?” The symbiotic relationships between dynamic heroes and historical forces makes it difficult to sieve easy answers.
With an eye towards drawing road maps for the future historians also tend to explore the past to track down commonalities, contradictions, oddities and deviations.
Marx is one of those who drew a neat pattern out of the bits and pieces of scattered history. He periodised the evolution of history into stages – primitive, slave, feudal, bourgeois and socialist — that could lead, step by step, into his stateless paradise on earth.
Marx was the last of the Biblical messiahs who, like all messiahs, painted a heaven on earth as an alternative to the living hell of capitalism. It is a model that captured the intellectual imagination of the 20th century which was disconcerted with the evils of capitalism.
Marx wrote not to interpret history but to change it. Mahanama compiled his classic to find a way out of history which runs in endless samsaric cycles. In his gentle tone he says that there is no way out of history. It can be found only in “the Serene joy and emotion of the pious.” Ultimate salvation is in conquering the mind and not in transient triumphs of ephemeral earthlings.
Arnold Toynbee in his majestic study of civilisation (including the classical Sinhala-Buddhist civilisation) found solace in religion and concluded that the giant wheel of history can be shifted only a little at a time as it grinds its way facing challenges with creative responses. Trotsky, on the other hand, propounded in his theory of Permanent Revolution, the possibility of leaping over stages in history and jumping straight from feudalism to global socialism – a theory that suited the prevailing conditions of semi-feudal Russia.
Mao too believed in his own version of it, with, of course, Chinese characteristics, which, of course, failed in the Great Leap to jump over the evolutionary stages of history.
The more conservative and crafty, Stalin believed in building socialism in one country before going global.
Practitioners of history in particular have attempted to twist the tail of history to suit their immediate political agenda but history has its idiosyncratic way of finding its own path like water flowing down its chosen gradient. In a sense, history has been the Macbethic cauldron boiling and bubbling, brewing its own beastly and bloody concoction.
The Hindus call it the ‘Dance of Shiva’ where the dialectics of the opposite coexist eternally at the cosmic core, holding the balance of forces evenly whenever either the positive or the negative forces tend to tilt one way or the other.
Among the multiple forces that move history there is this one other factor that haunts its domain: “…the tyranny of the dead mind,” as defined by Leonard Woolf. “The dead man’s hand was always stretched out of the grave to control the holding of the land, the sowing of the fields, the building of houses. It requires but little knowledge of history to recognise that there is always a psychological law of the dead hand.
A great deal of the complexity in such ideas as freedom and democracy, much of the difficulty in understanding what they mean, comes from their history….There can be no understanding of history, of politics, or of the effects of communal psychology which does not take into consideration the tremendous influence of this psychological dead hand, the dead mind….” (pp.32 – 40, After the Deluge, Leonard Woolf, Hogarth Press quoted in The Nature of Politics edited by Michael Curtis, Avon Books – pp. 94-95)
Amid all these intermeshing and overwhelming factors, the human obsession has been to fix the moral responsibility on those who had disabled, disrupted and destabilised the past and left it tied up in knots for the successors to sort it out, or, failing which, to make further hash out of it.
In history we generally tend to look back at the past trying to figure out who was responsible for the discontents and/or the misery of the present.
An over-deterministic view of history tend to accept what has happened in history as inevitabilities that could not have been avoided by those who faced the challenges.
But open-ended histories offer grand opportunities for the living to make choices “which taken, at the flood, leads to fortune; /omitted all the voyage of their life / is bound in shallows and in miseries….” (Julius Caesar).
At the cutting edge of history there is always an alternative and the choices we make at this critical juncture are decisive in determining the inevitability or not of the evolving events.
In passing judgment on Sri Lankan history too we have to pause and ask what choices we had in the past and missed them, if any. Did we, for instance, in the course of our modern journey in the colonial and post-colonial 20th century miss the grand opportunities?
To begin with, were there grand opportunities for us to go down a different path avoiding the violence and bloodshed? Or were we doomed to sink in the rivers of blood that flowed unabated periodically?
The boast of our national leaders was that we won independence without shedding a drop of blood unlike most other ex-colonies.
Could it be that history tricked us by lulling us into a smug sense of false security knowing that we too had to go through the baptism of fire to emerge as a fully-fledged nation sharing a common destiny?
But the nagging question that haunts us is this: Were there opportunities for the leaders who spearheaded the forces of history to have chosen a different path? If so who was responsible for missing those opportunities? Who was responsible for misleading the nation into paths of violence and destruction?
The tumultuous events that shaped post-independent history proved that Sri Lanka has been no exception to the rest of humanity who in their folly took the wrong turn, at critical junctures, even when the way forward was staring in their faces.
Nevertheless, it has gone through practically all the possible twists and turns, permutations and combinations and – amazingly! – continues to stand on the original foundations on which it was established carrying, of course, with it the scars of flying shrapnel, bullets, bombs and tragic tales untold in unmarked graves.
There are, undoubtedly, several ways of narrating what happened in our history. There are at least two main narratives (one by the Sinhalese and the other by the Tamils), several interpretations, and many misleading myths perpetuated to keep the flames of hate and communalism burning.
Finding objectivity in this conflicting mental melee is like listening to the fragments of reports related by blind men examining and describing only the parts of the elephant they can feel.
Perhaps, one safe way of avoiding the obvious pitfalls in historiography is to retrace the steps of history the way it happened, step by step, without skipping the logical flow of events which gathers momentum later into an overwhelming force of history.
The possibilities of determining a course in history are in the early stages before the accumulated forces get reified into a formidable and irreversible trend.
The opportunities for alternatives are in the opening stages of events and those who miss those opportunities will be driven by the force of accumulated events later, leading to the inevitable consequences.
Those who miss the early opportunities become prisoners of the consequences of their failure to grab the alternatives. At this stage events become inevitabilities.
So was there a moment in our history when it was possible for us to choose the alternative path that would have taken us away from the bloody path we traversed for 33 years — from May 14, 1976 in Vadukoddai to Nandikadal in May 19, 2009?
The meeting of the Tamil leadership in Vadukoddai in May 1976 was a critical turning point. At this meeting they took the decisive step of declaring war, urging the Tamil youth to take up arms and never cease until they achieve Eelam.
With that decision the Tamil leadership locked themselves into an irreversible inevitability. By 1976 the Tamil leadership had pushed Tamil extremism incrementally over the preceding decades to make-believe that the only solution was to break up the nation into two separate states.
The logic of that ideology led them inescapably into violence because separatism and violence are inseparable.
By 1976 they had abandoned the non-violent democratic mainstream in which they thrived and decided irreversibly, irrevocably to declare war. Declaration of war was a deliberate and conscious act which they committed hoping to impose their will on the course of history.
Besides, the Tamil leadership had ideologically hyped the electorate to the brink of war leaving no alternative. Aggressive anti-Sinhala-Buddhist hate politics had reached its peak.
Ethnic rivalry and violent clashes in the South added fuel to anti-Sinhala-Buddhist propaganda. The language issue, the limited opportunities for higher education, rising unemployment, the stagnant economy are some of the key factors that kept the fires of communal hatred on both sides burning.
The brain-washed Tamil youth, impatient with the failure of the old regime to attain the promised Eelam, were snapping at their heels urging them to get out of the non-violent democratic stream.
The Tamil youth were in a mood of desperate frustration which was ripe for violence. The Tamil leadership which had raised the expectations of the Tamil youth were hoisted by their own petard.
They had ideologically gone as far as they could travel and had reached the end of their promises which they could not keep. They had promised a Tamil Eelam as the way out and there was no way of getting it except through militarism. It was risky gamble. A war could go either way. There was no guarantee that they would win though the Tamil youth were hyped by the rhetoric of the Tamil leadership to take up arms.
Besides, the Tamil youth of the seventies and eighties, who were reared in a world of hate politics, were geared mentally to wage war. Dialectics of North-South politics had boiled to a point of spilling over in a bloody Macbethic broth. In short, it was a moment of sheer collective lunacy.
In declaring war the conservative Tamil leadership which controlled peninsular politics from the Dutch period legitimised and unleashed violence by handing over the guns to the untried and unpredictable Tamil youth who went berserk with the new power that came out of the barrel of the guns.
For the first time the traditional Vellala leadership lost power in handing over the guns to the non-Vellala Tamil youth.
The post-Vadukoddai consequences proved that the Tamil leadership had lost control of events.
Jaffna which was in the stable hands of the conservative Vellala leadership throughout the major part of its history went into the hands of the restless and gun-toting militants who took the Tamils on a wild ride to nowhere.
It was a time when the desperate Vellala leaders were trapped in their extremist ideology which was based on violence. In the Vadukoddai Resolution they were forced to call upon the youth to take up arms to pull their chestnuts out of the communal fires lit by them over the years.
The ageing Vellala leadership were forced to hand over the guns to the youth to achieve Eelam. Instead of guiding the events within the manageable democratic stream they allowed the Tamil youth to take over violence – the weapon chosen by the Tamil leaders at Vadukoddai to achieve Eelam.
Consequently they lost control of the rising events that were spinning out of their control. The Vadukoddai Resolution was a declaration of war against the Sinhalese. But the Tamil youth took the opportunity to first decimate the Tamil leadership.
The Tamil children born out of the Vadukoddai Resolution turned their guns on the fathers who drafted it. Tamil violence neither saved the fathers of the Vadukoddai Resolution nor the children that came out of it.
In the 1920 – 1930s the Tamil youth, but with a different mindset, were pursuing a different course with a different ideal. It was a grand moment in the pages of history opening up for the new post-colonial period. It was a dawn of hope and promise. The Tamils were leading the nation.
They were the leading light of the time. They had mapped the future as an ideal haven of a united multi-ethnic, multi-cultural nation co-existing in peace and harmony.
They had eschewed communal representation and casteism – the two destructive evils bred in the womb of Jaffna. They envisaged a brave new world of one nation, one people with one shared destiny.
Their vision triumphed and ruled the nation for a brief while – just for a decade. It was the most desirable alternative that was available in history. It was there for all to grab it. But the Tamils let it go for another ideology that was just the opposite. Ideologies come with a heavy price.
And the Tamils paid for the Vadukoddai ideology with their blood, sweat and lives achieving nothing. They paid the ultimate price of total humiliation and defeat.
To be continued