COLOMBO: One of the much commented upon outcomes of the November 16, 2019 Sri Lankan Presidential election is the sharp ethnic division in the voting pattern. While the Sinhalese majority South, Central and Western Sri Lanka massively pitched for Gotabaya Rajapaksa of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP)-led alliance, the Tamil and Muslim dominated Northern and Eastern Provinces went equally massively for Sajith Premadasa of the United National Party-led alliance.

This is seen by commentators as being both unusual and highly divisive with long term consequences. The charge is that it was triggered by the “communal Sinhala-Buddhist politics” of the Rajapaksas. Those who make the charge predict that the Gotabaya administration will necessarily be anti-Tamil and anti-Muslim. In Tamil Nadu, TV stations and political leaders are talking about the possibility of “genocide”, prompting SLPP leader Namal Rajapaksa to issue a statement asking the Tamil Nadu leaders not to fan trouble in Sri Lanka for petty gains in Tamil Nadu politics.

Sri Lankan Tamil parties are whipping up anti-Sinhala and anti-government passions with an eye on the coming Northern Provincial elections. One writer in a leading Lankan Tamil daily recalled that the Sinhalese South voted for extension of parliament in the 1982 referendum while the Tamils did not and then added that the divide intensified the Colombo regime’s animosity towards the Tamils.

The voting pattern has caused worry in the Rajapaksa camp too, forcing President Gotabaya to declare that he will be President of all Sri Lankans, not just for those who voted for him. He had openly invited the Tamils and Muslims to attend his inaugural ceremony in Anuradhapura and expressed regret that there was no response. Nevertheless, he invited the minorities to join him in his journey towards peace and progress of all Sri Lankans.

While the voting pattern was very striking, there is no evidence to argue that it was unusual. In elections other than the Presidential one, the three communities have mostly voted for communal parties. Even the so called national parties are actually Sinhala parties. The majority of Muslims have voted for Muslim parties. The Tamils have always voted for a Tamil party – the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) to begin with, and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) thereafter. Therefore, a communal political divide has always existed.

Sri Lankan Presidents are elected by all the eligible voters of the country which means that all communities participate in the election of a President. In a Presidential election Tamil voters have had to choose between one Sinhalese leader and another because the major political parties, which put up winnable candidates, are predominantly Sinhalese. But even here, when all the winnable candidates are Sinhalese, people vote on a communal basis. Candidates are identified as “pro-Tamil” or “anti-Tamil” and voting takes place accordingly. It was the same in the November 16 election.

The special alarm sounded in the latest case is due to what happened in the final phase of Eelam War IV in 2009 and Gotabaya’s alleged complicity in the “war crimes” allegedly committed by Sri Lankan troops at a time when he was Defense Secretary.

No Room For Permanent Divide

However, attempts to divide the Sinhalese and Tamils on a permanent basis are not likely to succeed given the history of Sinhala-Tamil relations since the pre-Christian era. The two communities have fought each other at times and lived peacefully with each other most of the time. According to historians K Indrapala, Sriyan Deraniyagala, Leslie Gunawardena and Sudarshan Seneviratne, Sri Lanka has been multi-ethnic and multi-cultural from prehistoric times.

They point out that both the Sinhalese and the Tamils are from the same South Indian-Sri Lankan gene pool. They reject the invasion theory and say that people, cultures, languages, religions, artifacts and technologies moved in small ways from place to place over long periods of time. And these movements have not always been in one direction.

Invasions were there, but they have not been the dominant mode of movement. Trade, cultural, religious and political movements have played a more important role in social transformation. Historian Romila Thapar rejects the theory of the displacement or annihilation of local populations by foreign ethnic groups. There have been "language replacement" but rarely ever physical annihilation or replacement of populations Thapar says.

In his seminal work, The Evolution of an Ethnic Identity: The Tamils of Sri Lanka: C 300 BCE to C 1200 BCE (The South Asian Studies Centre, Sydney 2005), Prof. K. Indrapala says the present-day territories of Sri Lanka and South India comprised a single region in which the pre-historic ancestors of the modern Sri Lankans and South Indians roamed freely with the sea dividing the two land masses acting as a unifier rather than a divider.

"The earliest inscriptions and the early Pali chronicles attest to the presence of the Tamils (Damedas/Damelas) in the EIA (Early Iron Age)," Indrapala says. The Ila or Hela moved back and forth between Sri Lanka and South India just as the Demeda or Demela (Tamils) did.

The account of the war between the Sinhala hero, Duttagamini and the Tamil prince, Elara, in the Mahawamsa, was not a Sinhala- Tamil conflict, Indrapala and other modern historians assert. They point out that the Mahawamsa had portrayed Elara as a just ruler. He was admired greatly by Duttagamini who even built a memorial for Elara and asked Sinhala Buddhists to worship at it.

It was not uncommon for a Sinhala king of Anuradhapura to seek the help of a Tamil prince in South India in war or to gain a throne. Sinhala kings routinely recruited Tamil mercenaries from South India. Many of these settled down in the island. Likewise, Sinhala princes aligned with Tamil Nadu rulers in their internecine wars.

When the Sinhala king Sena II ruled (853-887 AD), a Sinhala army sided with the Pallavas and defeated the Pandya king. The Sinhala king placed his favorite Pandya prince on the throne in Madurai. Later, the Sinhala kings sided with the Pandyas to contain the aggressive Cholas.

In times of peace, the Sinhalese of Sri Lanka and the South Indian Tamils cooperated in a variety of activities including the building of the irrigation tanks in Anuradhapura.

Unifying role of Sanskritisation

Sanskritsation, which is the adoption of North Indian Sanskritic linguistic, religious, cultural and social traits, has been a unifier both in South India and Sri Lanka. But Sanskritisation had affected the Sinhalese very much and the Tamils not so much.

According to Indrapala, the harbingers of Sanskritisation were the Brahmins and Kshatriyas. At first, these immigrants had clashed with the local elite. But later, they established their dominance through reconciliation, intermarriage, cultural co-option and other non-confrontational means.

The pattern was: the local ruler would adopt Sanskrit names, trace his dynasty's links to a North Indian ancestor; make Brahmins his spiritual and political advisors; and give them gifts of land. Buddhist rulers of Anuradhapura unwittingly aided the Hindu/Tamil Saivite movement through the patronage of the Brahmins. Buddhist kings had begun to look after Brahmins and setting up Brahmin villages called Brahmadeyas. They also renovated temples.

Buddhism was also a unifier. In the period before aggressive Chola Saivism, when Buddhism was a major religion in South India, including Tamil Nadu, many Tamil Buddhist monks, with knowledge of Prakrit and Pali, were closely interacting with Sri Lankan monks and contributing to the corpus of Buddhist literature. In a major Buddhist university in Hikkaduwa, knowledge of Tamil was considered essential.

According to Indrapala it was not until 1200 AD that the Sinhalese and Tamils emerged as distinct ethnic groups identified with distinct territories - the Tamils identified with the North and the East, and the Sinhalese with the rest of the island.

Eventually the geographic proximity of the North and East of Sri Lanka to South India had resulted in South India having a greater influence in the Sri Lankan North East than in the South.

The Tamils who lived in the southern parts of the island were assimilated into the Sinhalese population. This is a process that has continued until modern times. In a parallel movement, the Sinhala speakers living in the North and East, were assimilated by the dominant Tamil ethnic group.