by S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole (Colombo Telegraph)
- These are terrible times for ethnic and religious reconciliation
- Religious reconciliation seems distant in Jaffna
- Despite contrary records, the Navalar myths will continue
These are terrible times for ethnic and religious reconciliation. The Siva Senai was launched 09.10.2016 with TNA footprints. Its leader Maravanpulavu Sachithananthan is on the Federal Party Central Committee. His Co-Coordinator, Seeniththamby Yoheswaran, is a TNA parliamentarian. Siva Senai’s pogroms have focused on Muslims and Tamils too in Bombay.
According to Sachithananthan, the Siva Senai was started because Hindus here face problems from Sinhala-Buddhist colonisation, Muslims being funded by countries like Iran and Iraq, and Christians receiving Western missionaries’ support, while “Hindus alone have no support.” Sachithananthan seemed blind to the hundreds of Hindu temples coming up on encroached state and private lands using Diaspora money.
The TNA in Caste Oppression
Religious reconciliation seems distant in Jaffna. The TNA’s Mavai Senathirajah hides behind “conservative Hindus,” telling southern officials that they do not want Christians holding high university office. Is he for or against minorities being put down?
Madam Chandrika Kumaratunga’s Office of National Unity and Reconciliation lists as Governor Mr. Nilakandan who told the Virakesari that the Jaffna VC has to be a Hindu. What is Madam Chandrika’s position? Why and how is Nilakandan a Governor of ONUR? What is the TNA’s and Mr. R. Sampanthn’s position on TNA leaders supporting the oppression of caste and religious minorities? On Navalar as a national hero?
Madam Kumaratunga, Hon. Lakshman Kiriella and the UGC
Government policy on reconciliation is being obstructed by the UGC Chairman Mohan de Silva’s new communalist requirements to teach engineering. When I was rejected for the post of Senior Lecturer at the University of Jaffna, one of the reasons de Silva gave Madam Kumaratunga who kindly queried why, was my writings on Arumuga Navalar, “an iconic figure” to Hindus. Professor Carlo Fonseka swears to this in an amicus curiae brief. Refraining from critiques of popular figures is now a majoritarian requirement for university recruitment! It is sad that the UGC has become a tool in the hands of Jaffna’s Caste Establishment in putting down religious minorities and keeping us out of the university.
Does Madam Kumaratunga who stands for National Unity and Reconciliation, and Minister of Higher Education, Hon. Lakshman Kiriella, who stands for Good Governance, support these new UGC requirements to teach engineering?
“The Assisted Schools and Training Colleges (Supplementary Provisions) Act No. 8 of 1961” explicitly provides that religious celebrations should not take place in nationalised schools unless those celebrations were, at the time of takeover, associated with the institution that owned the school. Yet, in this past month, Jaffna has seen Navalar Day celebrations which have also been attended by the Chief Minister and the Siva Senai. There were attempts to plant the statue of Navalar at nationalised Christian schools during these ceremonies. In doing so, they break this protective law.
At the two formerly Methodist Jaffna schools, Jaffna Central College (JCC) and Vembadi Girls’ College, JCC vigourously said “No thanks” to Navalar statues. Vembadi’s Principal Venuka Shanmugaratnam pushed ahead, planting a Navalar statue ready for the ceremony, and demanding the Church cede more lands. However, strong letters citing the law from Methodist Conference President Asiri Perera and the St. Peter’s Methodist Church Pastor, The Rev. C.N. Ravishankar, aborted the move.
Ambivalence Towards Navalar
JCC’s position evinces Jaffna’s ambivalence towards Navalar. In 1969, when the Federal Party was elevating Navalar, Mr. Shanmugathasan (CP-Peking) orchestrated protests with the objection that Navalar was a caste revivalist. In 2011 when high caste Hindus took a statue into Karaiyar Valvettithurai, villagers came out and blocked entry.
The division is this: the high caste and those aspiring to high caste want Navalar elevated. The vast majority of Jaffna who are oppressed caste Hindus want nothing to do with him, calling him chaathi-veriyan or caste-crazed. The exaltation of Navalar is considered an intimidation of the oppressed castes.
Imagine the psychological and social impact on oppressed caste children to see a man who openly despised them being glorified in their schools!
Navalar on Caste
In “Jaffna’s State of Religious Affairs,” Navalar excoriates those who drink the kitchen Paraya’s coffee (kusinip Parayandai copiyai kudichukkondu) while visiting missionaries. He objects to missionaries sitting down to eat with the oppressed caste and ruining the two rules (aasaaram) he always saw as one – rules on religious and caste practices.
Navalar’s most egregious act was at the Rev. Peter Percival’s JCC which was opened in Oct. 1934. Navalar joined at the age of 12. The episode which I discovered in the Church Archives is found in the Morning Star of 25.11.1847. Percival had admitted Gabriel Jeroni of the toddy-tapping caste. Navalar is described as the leader of the high caste schoolboys, or “lads,” “The boys”, including Navalar,wanted Jeroni dismissed and when refused wanted him to be seated at the back. Percival refused. Navalar then walked off with 50 boys to found a school for upper castes. Navalar, unfortunately had not yet graduated since joining JCC after primary school 13 years earlier in 1834. When the teaching at the Navalar school was found deficient, therefore, most students returned.
Sri Lankan histories are notoriously unreliable. Tamil histories, especially on Navalar, are likewise. The written down history is that Navalar was brilliant and handsome. He applied for admission to Central College at age 12, telling Percival that he would come only if he could wear holy ash (prohibited at mission schools) and criticise the Bible. Percival agreed, recognising Navalar’s value to the school. Navalar taught Tamil to Percival. Knowing Percival wanted a Tamil Bible, Navalar undertook the translation, and when Percival asked for his help, he pulled it out of his coat pocket and presented it to Percival to claim as his own. After leaving JCC, he helped Percival in going to Madras to defend the translation before the Bible Society’s Madras Auxiliary which held rights. Percival was shivering because he did not know how to defend it. But Navalar reassured Percival that he would defend it and not to worry. After Navalar’s defence, the Madras Auxiliary accepted the translation which was praised as the best (an admission there were other translations). Percival therefore developed ten times the awe he had of Navalar. This awe led Percival to lose his Christian faith.
From historical records:
The Wesleyan Methodist Magazine of 1835 carries Percival’s letter to his parent mission dated 7.1.1835:
“In October , my intention to open [note open] an English school in Jaffna, for native pupils principally, was very extensively circulated in Jaffna and its vicinity; … During the month of October upwards of one hundred and fifty boys were entered upon my book … The first class, consisting of forty two boys, contains several boys who have … picked up considerable knowledge of the English language. With this class I spend upwards of an hour every morning, in reading the New Testament in English, with a Tamil translation [Nota Bene].”
Central College was founded in 1834 as proven by Percival’s letter and the Centenary Celebrations book of 1934. (President Sirisena was tricked into attending the Second Centenary Celebrations this October and the post office into issuing a stamp). The Tamil Bible was available in 1834 as seen from Percival’s letter. Methodist records show that missionaries going abroad had to study the relevant language. Percival learnt Tamil from the Rev. Elijah Hoole who had retired in England after years in Madras. Percival’s first posting was in Trinco where he studied Tamil further. After a posting in Bengal he came to Jaffna in 1834 and founded JCC and Vembadi. He undertook Bible translation with a committee of missionaries. From Harvard archives I obtained a rare copy of A Brief Narrative of the Operations of the Jaffna Auxiliary Bible Society in the Preparation of a Version of the Tamil Scriptures, Strong& Asbury Printers, 1868. Percival’s endeavours as Secretary were mainly in printing and their translation efforts were stymied by the Madras Auxiliary. John Murdoch (1865) says that a proposal from Jaffna to prepare a new version was agreed to only in 1848. In a letter to the parent society dated 06.07.1849, Percival himself records that he was gifted a mahogany desk with a brass inscription:
“Presented to the Rev. P. Percival, on the occasion of his completing, after three years of unwearied labour, his Translation into Tamil of the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament, by his affectionate friend and brother, John E. S. Williams. Jaffna, July 5th, 1849.” I.e., the translation was approximately from July 1846 to July 1849. Navalar had certainly left Percival by 1847 and was calling missionaries Mleccha and Christianity the Foreign Devil Religion. Navalar knew neither Greek nor Hebrew from which the Jaffna Bible was revised. With relationships so broken, Navalar could not have gone to Madras to defend Percival’s translation. It was The Rev. Pandit Elijah Hoole of Jaffna (who took on the name of Percival’s Tamil language tutor). The CMS archives in Birmingham have Hoole’s testimony prior to ordination:
In 1847 Mr. Percival removed me to Jaffna, where he expected to make me useful in several ways. In 1849 I accompanied him to Madras, where I assisted him in the Revision [note the word revision] of the Tamil Version of the Holy Scriptures and [returned] to Jaffna in 1850.
I.e., Percival merely revised an existing translation – hence the short three years. The missions in India refused to use it. Its use was mainly confined to Jaffna for 50 years after which we began using the Indian Bower version. Percival did not lose his Christian faith. He and his disciple Hoole were caught up by the Anglo-Catholic wave of the time and became Anglicans. Percival left Jaffna in 1850 and thence to Madras as an Anglican Priest where he baptised his own grand-children.
Minority Histories and Reconciliation
Comparing the official record with our stories, we see that our history is not history as it was, but history as we wish it to be. Despite contrary records, the Navalar myths will continue. Reconciliation includes honouring the contributions of minorities (including Christians and oppressed castes), being willing to engage truthfully with our history, and keeping dialogue open. When we persist in discriminating against minority groups and holding on to our nationalistic apprehensions, however, our communities lose their chance to move forward.