The debate on India’s role in Sri Lanka, the civil war caused by Sinhalese-Tamil fault-lines and the spill-over into India has led to a discussion on the nature of Tamil nationalism. This is a short note on the topic.

Tamil Nationalism in Tamil Nadu had its genesis not in the Dravidian movement, as many understand it, but in the Tamil Separatist movement ( Thani Thamizh) movement of the landed Vellala castes who couldn’t reconcile with the rising profile of the educated Brahmin clerical class (Gumasta) under the British Imperialists. The works of missionary schismists like Robert Caldwell and their theories on linguistic difference, and fostered antagonism between Northern and Southern language groups gave impetus to this movement.

The movement was solidified by the coming to power of the non-Brahmin landlord class in the form of the Justice party. But, even proponents of this movement never advocated secession-ism or spoke against Hinduism. They only claimed that what passes of as Hinduism is nothing but native Dravidian faith which was usurped by the invading Aryan Brahmanas.

The real challenge to Dharma came much later in the form of the Dravida Kazahgam which challenged the very basis of the Hindu society and the South’s cultural, religious and social relationship with the North. It has to be borne in mind that this movement did not give a damn about Tamil language or society. If anything, Periyar wrote derisively about Thirukkural, Silappadhikaram, Tholkappiyar and other icons of the pure Tamilists and ran down time honored mores of the Tamils like the respect attached to chastity (“karppu”) etc.

At one level it was an out and out nihilist movement which was never destined to perform well at polls. After its initial delusions that it will find takers in other three southern states turned out to be a complete cropper, it was forced to become a “Tamils’ movement” As the Dravidianist scholar MSS Pandian himself once acknowledged DMK had to carefully calibrate a bit of “Hinduness” in some sense to even become a viable political force.

Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism

If this was the history of the Tamil Nadu based Tamil Nationalist movement, the one in Sri Lanka was far from anti Hindu. In fact, the first strains of Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka were indistinguishable from the Saivite reformation ushered in by the orthodox Vellala Vidwan Arumuga Navalar.

One noteworthy point here is that right from its inception this strand of “Shaiva Tamizh Neri” didn’t have any strain of Anti Brahmin or anti Sanskritism. It was directed against the Christian missionary activity in Yazhpanam (Jaffna) The most plausible reason could be that unlike in Tamil Nadu where the Brahmins took to English education and soon monopolized the British services and gained ascendancy, in Sri Lanka, the non-Brahmin elite were both the religious as well the political elite. The Vellalas were the first to take to British education there.

Further, it must also be noted that savants of the Tamil movement, at least up until the late Amirthalingam never made the Aryan versus Dravidian argument with respect to the Sri Lankan conflict. On the contrary, this was the constant refrain of the Sinhala revivalists since the days of their pitAmaha – anAgarika Dharmapala. The Buddhist revivalism under Dharmapala had a Semitic spirit in it. In its quest to rid the island of Christianity, it semitized itself with respect to other belief systems in the island. For instance, the Pattini cult, centred on the worship of Kannagi, once had a massive following among the rural Sinhalese peasantry. The Sinhala Buddhists nationalists sought to negate these syncretic belief systems and attempted to build an island exclusively for the Buddha Dhamma, as they perceived it.

In their world view, Sri Lanka was to be preserved as a pure land of the Buddha, to that extent they saw the preponderance of deva worship not just in the Tamil dominated north, but even among their own rural folk with suspicion and contempt. This strain keeps recurring again and again in the Sinhala nationalist narrative. Scores of Sinhala hardliners have always teased Sri Lankan Tamils to “Go back to India, their original motherland – which has all their temples and speaks their language”. This establishes two things –

1) Sinhalas never prided too much on their obvious connection with India as it would negate their self-perception as the pure refugee of the Dhamma

2) Sinhalas suspected Sri Lankan Tamils of nurturing emotional ties with India centred on their religion.

The above was not entirely baseless as August 15th – India’s independence day was always celebrated in Tamil speaking areas while leaders like Netaji, Bhagat Singh et al were almost deified as demi-gods. Even today, it’s not uncommon to hear a Sri Lankan Tamil speaker speak of the “Sudhandira Porattam” (India’s) as if it was their own.

The Dravidification of the struggle happened during Pirabhakaran’s time and mostly under the influence of missionaries and the ultra-Tamil Nationalist groups and freelance ideologues from DK stable, as Pathamanathan clearly attests.

Here’s the thing with the Dravidianist element of the Sri Lankan Tamil Movement : it started off as a porattam (struggle) against missionaries and then changed course to being anti Sinhala (yet not anti Arya).

With LTTE being eliminated, it’s India’s duty to safeguard the interests of the vast majority of Tamils who are Hindus and their political leadership that is largely Shaivite or secular but definitely not anti-Hindu.

To recollect:

1) Tamil Nationalism in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka had different roots.

2) Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism started off as Saiva reformation. It never was anti India or anti-Hinduism until the late 1980s.

3) Sinhalas are necessarily not pro India. In fact, their self-identity as the island of Pure Dhamma precludes having any attachment to India.

4) While we don’t know how a Dravidianized Tamil Nadu country would look like, the nearest equivalent could be the Sinhalized Sri Lanka which constantly emphasizes its differences with India and seeks to perpetuate those differences.