A claim by the Sri Lankan envoy that the Sinhalese are descendants of Odias and Bengalis and therefore deserve Indian support has angered Tamil Nadu groups who have accused him of trying to divide Indians and sought his expulsion.
“Today, India seems to be concerned only about the 12 per cent Tamil population in Sri Lanka who share ethnic links with Tamil Nadu. But Sinhalese too have similar but ancient links with Odisha and north India,” Prasad Kariyawasam, the Sri Lanka high commissioner to India, has said in a statement.
“It is believed that 75 per cent of the Sinhala race in Sri Lanka originated from in and around Kalinga (modern-day Odisha). Therefore, the people in Odisha and Bengal consider the Sinhala population in Sri Lanka as having its origins in India. The strong links that existed were torn asunder by Moghul and British invasion.”
Kariyawasam’s statement came in response to the prolonged protests in Tamil Nadu against Colombo’s alleged war crimes against Lankan Tamils.
According to the Mahavamsa, an ancient chronicle of Sri Lanka’s kings written in Pali, a king from Singhapur in Rarh (southwest Bengal) named Vijaya sailed on eight ships to Sri Lanka with 700 of his people in 543 BC and established the kingdom of Sinhala. Legend describes the Sinhalese as descendants of Vijaya and his people, who would have lived in parts of today’s East Midnapore, close to Odisha.
Some scholars believe that today’s Singur — which changed Bengal’s political climate a few years ago — is where Singhapur was located and that Singur derives its name from that ancient town. The Mahavamsa mentions another town in Rarh called Banganagar.
In a quirk of history, Mamata Banerjee, who owes her electoral triumph to her Singur agitation, has been the first non-ally to openly offer support to the Centre’s by and large pro-Colombo foreign policy while expressing sympathies for the Tamils.
Bhaktiprasad Adhikari, who was an aide to former Bengal agriculture minister and Trinamul member Rabindranath Bhattacharya, has written a book, Singur Theke Singhal — Banglar Bismrita Adhyay (From Singur to Sinhala — A Forgotten Chapter of Bengal), which has articles on Vijaya. In Vijaya’s days, the people of Bengal had a reputation for seafaring and, according to legend, the Saraswati river flowed through the Singhapur area.
While some scholars feel that the Bengal-Odisha-Sri Lanka link is little more than folklore, some others said not all of it might be wrong.
“What the high commissioner has said may be possible,” said T.K.V. Subramanian, historian and former Delhi University teacher.
“Buddhism spread in eastern India during the period (third-century BC) of emperor Ashoka. There is a theory that Buddhism spread to Sri Lanka skipping Tamil Nadu. This suggests that people from the eastern coast would have gone to Sri Lanka.”
Kariyawasam’s statement said: “In addition to ethnic links with Kalinga, the Sinhalese speak and write an Indo-Aryan language based on Sanskrit which is linked to Hindi, Odia and Bengali. India must be concerned about the rights of the Sinhalese too and must not allow Sinhala leaders to be isolated in India.”
Historian P.S. Dwivedi, former head of history at St Stephen’s College, confirmed that the Sinhala language belonged to the Indo-Aryan family. “Going by the language, there is a likelihood that the Sinhalese would have migrated from India. But I have no information that they were originally from Odisha and Bengal,” he said.
Gaganendranath Dash, former head of linguistics at Barhampur University, Odisha, said there were similarities between the Sinhala and Odia languages. He pointed out that Pali, in which Mahavamsa was written, was prevalent in the eastern parts of ancient India.
Indeed Ashoka of Magadha, also in eastern India, provides another Lanka-Odisha link. It was his bloody conquest of Kalinga that drove him to remorse and to Buddhism, whose message he spread to the island nation.
The Cambridge History of India says Ashoka sent Buddhist missionaries, including his son Mahendra and daughter Sanghamitra, to convert the Lankans.
Kariyawasam’s statement said: “Tamil separatism and Tamil nationalism in Tamil Nadu is a concern for Sri Lanka, which cannot be allowed to be divided on ethnic lines. And India must allay the fears of the Sinhalese. The violent separatism that affected Sri Lanka for three decades was defeated by the government of President Rajapaksa. He must be congratulated since he eliminated a Tamil terrorist group, LTTE, that had killed former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.”
Tamil groups view the statement as an attempt to rally the support of non-Tamils in India at a time Tamil Nadu politicians are united in trying to isolate Sri Lanka.
On Wednesday, the Tamil Nadu Assembly passed a resolution asking New Delhi not to describe Sri Lanka as a friendly country and demanding a referendum among Tamils in Sri Lanka and other countries about the establishment of a Tamil Eelam (homeland).
Tamil Nationalist Front leader P. Nedumaran accused Kariyawasam of a brazen effort to divide Indians, who he said were united in their anger against Colombo’s war crimes against Tamils.
“That the high commissioner has sent this email only to the chief ministers of north Indian states and journalists in Delhi proves his intent to cause fissures in India,” Nedumaran said in a statement. “Since this is against all diplomatic norms, he must be expelled at once.”
MDMK leader Vaiko alleged that Kariyawasam “has tried to instigate the people of north India, Odisha and Bengal” with “concocted, unbelievable stories”.
Vaiko has written to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that the high commissioner “has blatantly violated his diplomatic immunity, crossed his legal limits and circulated the most atrocious narrative to pour venom into the minds of” north Indians and “instigate them against not only Eelam Tamils but also the people of Tamil Nadu”.
He has demanded that Kariyawasam be prosecuted for sedition under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code. (The Telegraph, India)