Robert Sidharthan Perinbanayagam was a senior at Ramanathan Hall when I walked through its portals at Peradeniya Campus in 1957. He pursued an Honours Degree in Sociology and went on to secure his Ph. D. in Anthropology and Sociology at the University of Minnesota. He taught at Hunter College in New York and has a clutch of books with respected publishers on symbolic interaction and the sociology of knowledge, with The Karmic Theater: Self, Society and Astrology in Jaffna, Sri Lanka (1982) serving as the principal work relating to his home ground.
Robert’s father was Handy Perinpanayagam, an erudite and respected teacher in Jaffna, who was a moving spirit behind the Jaffna Youth Congress in the 1930s (see Russell 1982 & Rajan Philips 2012). Perinpanayagam Senior was a Leftist whose activism placed him outside the reaches associated with GG Ponnambalam and the Tamil Congress and also at some distance from the Federal Freedom Party led by SJV Chelvanayakam.
Given this lineage one can safely say that Robert Perinbanayagam is not a Tamil chauvinist and that his affinities with Pirapāharan and the Tamil Tigers are nil or minimal. I recall, here, that on one occasion he expressed agreement with my sharp criticism of another colleague, A. Jeyaratnam Wilson for blatant dissimulation in his review of the concept of “traditional homelands” within the seminal work on Tamil nationalism for Hurst & Company (2000).
Thus Robert and I share interests in the academic realm. When I visited New York way back in the 1990s, we met on at least two occasions to chew over common interests. In my mind he was “Sid” because that was the manner in which all his pals at Ramanathan Hall called him.
So, he is a professional colleague and a friend. In this capacity we have sometimes communicated with each other in recent times by email. Sid aka Robert is usually direct. When I circulated an extended memo by one Ken Dharmapala, who had responded to my essay “Secular Fundamentalism in Overkill” in Colombo Telegraph in February 2016, Robert sent a sharp criticism in an extended memo. This was for private circulation and sent, he stressed later, in “sadness not rancour.” However, the “Michael” disappeared from his opening address.
I have been thinking of addressing that particular response, placed under a pseudonym, in the public realm because it (a) raised important issues about specific tendencies within the forms of righteousness driving the humanist civil rights agenda in the West (selectively applied as it is) that I consider problematic and because it (b) intertwined with that thoughtful comment from Ken Dharmapala (whom I know not and whose location is also unknown to me). Other tasks intervened and delayed my planned exercise.
However, now, Robert S. Perinbanayagam’s sharp pen has appeared again – this time in public after I circulated the essay entitled “Where Ratwatte and CBK stood strong: Coping with the Elephant Pass Debacle in April-May 2000.” The item was chain-mailed to those from pu….firstname.lastname@example.org to S…..ama at ed@….lk. Robert Perinbanayagam’s reaction (to the chain group) on 25th July runs thus: “It has been said that retired generals are always fighting the last war. It has also been said that history does not repeat itself, only historians do! In the case of the renowned historian Michael Roberts both these predicaments seem to be operation: he seems to be not only fighting the last war but is also repeating himself!! More power to him: there is no doubt a special joy in keeping the embers of the war glowing. RSP.”
Yes, sharp writing. Punching. Clever denigration. With rancour. Clearly an instance of twisting the knife in the body after it has been thrust in. Perhaps deemed deadly eradication thrusts?
But that verdict has to be tested has it not? That is what I am doing here. Presenting a response for the public to ponder over, join in and take sides.
My initial reaction was to think “how carping has Robert become”! That evaluation remains. Let me, now, undermine the carping cleverness and deflect eradication thrusts.
To assert that “history does not repeat itself, only historians do” is an aphorism of sorts. To imply that generals do not profit from revisiting their last war is another clever stratagem within this riposte. However, to my mind it seems a matter of common-sense for military academies to study ancient and past battles in considerable detail. It is not that history repeats itself exactly, but that one has to train the mind to numerous possibilities and stratagems. It is the ability to think flexibly on one’s feet in new and different circumstances that can be inculcated in this manner. Retd Major-General Lalin Fernando, however, tells me that British common sense did not adhere to this dictum in his time –way back – in Sandhurst. Though Stalingrad and Dien Bien Phu may have been mentioned in chats, those events were not deciphered. However, he himself delved into these struggles in his private time.
Robert Perinbanayagam also seems to believe that the detailed history of the Elephant Pass episode in 2000 is irrelevant. The details, I stress, were new to me. These details and the sum total of that episode in history also point to something else – thereby providing one raison d’etre for my attention to that episode. The episode displayed the importance of strength of character in dire politico-military circumstances. In this instance it was the strength of character revealed by General Ratwatte and Madame Chandrika that served as one of the central factors in saving the day for the Sri Lankan Army and thus for the Government of Sri Lanka – just as Mahinda Rajapaksa showed strength of character in overturning the crass imperial bombast of the British Foreign Minister David Miliband in late April 2009.
Their strength of character was allied with political acumen. The loss of the government’s footholds in the Jaffna Peninsula in mid-2000 would have been a catastrophic political disaster. That reading fortified their fortitude.
Needless to say, there were other elements in the story of debacle overturned: for instance, the rapid support coming from Pakistan and the logistical work of numerous personnel in ensuring that the MBRLs were delivered quickly to the Jaffna Peninsula. Here, too, history kicked in: as I indicated, the support given to Pakistan by Mrs. Sirmavo Bandaranaike’s government in 1971 – when Pakistan needed refueling rights for their military airplanes to and from what was then East Pakistan – was probably one factor that encouraged Pakistan to render whole-hearted support towards the CBK government’s request for military aid. History can count.
Again, I cannot see how anyone today can tackle the issues of reconciliation without a historical excursus that deciphers the principal causes of the Sinhala-Tamil conflict. Few Tamils re-visiting such an issue would avoid mentioning the mini-pogroms of 1958 and 1977 and the major anti-Tamil pogrom of July 1983. Whether the latter in July 1983 was a case of history repeating itself (1958, 1977) is a moot point – perhaps leading to the answer “Yes, up to a point,” but “No; much worse and much more consequential in deepening the divide beyond redemption.”
The Robert Perinbanayagam
The carping note from pal Robert immediately raises the question: why such a tone? The answer must necessarily entail surmise, mind-reading in conjectural thrust.
It could be the presentist leanings of the sociologist in Perinbanayagam aiming his guns at the historical delving of the historian in Roberts. Maybe so. One possible answer, but one which I do not weight much. Rather I would place his reaction more fruitfully within the broader realm of the sentiments of Tamil migrants in the West as the LTTE slid to defeat in 2009 and, thereafter, within the ongoing aftermath of this momentous event.
We know only too well that pro-Tiger Tamils assembled en masse in histrionic mode in the early months of 2009 to agitate against the Sri Lankan government’s successful military campaign. Lies and exaggerations circulated by the efficient LTTE agit-prop activities were an integral part of this campaign. The term “genocide” which had cropped up in Jaffna Peninsula circles as early as 1995 was a central theme in this campaign. It has been pursued to this day by Tamil activists of various shades and even by Western liberals mired in their net.
Set thus in context, Eardley Lieversz’s summary exposition of the thinking of Sri Lankan Tamil migrants on the basis of his experiences in Sydney and elsewhere is pertinent:
“… they all attached themselves to the Tamil cause, because when your side goes to bat and creates havoc, it makes you feel strong. I heard stories of Tamil expatriates celebrating the anticipated fall of Jaffna in 2000. They didn’t seem to care for the suffering of Tamils caught in the conflict…. Prabakaran didn’t know when to stop. And Tamils supported him out of a false sense of invincibility…. If you go for broke and lose you cannot expect sympathy. Tamils are bitter because of the hubris generated by LTTE victories on the ground. That hubris made them blind to Sinhalese sentiments and the Sinhalese anger/fear at the possibility of a divided country” (email note, 1 August 2016).
I would not extend this reading blindly to Robert Perinbanayagam. But it provides partial possibilities. Thus, I believe – in explicit conjecture — that there may be two factors generating Roberts’s ire.
ONE: It is probable that he has linked this particular essay from my pen to other articles and placed me in the box of Sri Lankans in triumphant mode celebrating the defeat of the LTTE. This is rather a stretch for an article about the year 2000. However, I have certainly indicated elsewhere that, in 2008/09, faced with Pirapāharan’s single-minded goal of Eelam or death, Sri Lanka was faced with a Hobson’s Choice and had no option but to defeat the LTTE militarily.
TWO: I conjecture that, deep down, Perinpanayagam is driven by a Tamilness that cannot abide by the defeat of a force (however questionable in his assessment) representing his people – sentiments powered also by a profound bitterness about the conditions of his people back home in Sri Lanka (people he has not visited for decades perhaps?). Whatever distaste he had (has?) for the LTTE would seem to pale before the dislike of the Sinhala-dominated state … and thus the quiet satisfaction when the LTTE seemed invincible. When that bubble burst, then, it seems, the defeat underlined his Tamilness because tales of celebration in Sinhala-land added salt into the wounds of defeat. It was not just a ‘match’ lost by the Tigers, but a ‘match’ lost by the Tamils.
If valid, this set of conjectures is of some consequence. There are many Sri Lankan Tamils in the diaspora who were not, and are not, Tiger supporters, but who are nevertheless totally disenchanted with the various Sri Lankan governments and with the situation of their people today in Lanka. This is a factor – a powerful animating force in fact – that we must heed and must attend to. Now, today.
Robert Perinbanayagam is not a Tiger activist like Victor Rajakulendran (Roberts 2012). For precisely that reason his depth of anger and sadness in combination is of great significance. When Tamils of his philosophy are so embittered, that means that reconciliation is a task that is that much more difficult and daunting. Ultimately, however, reconciliation has to reach to ground level among the peoples in Sri Lankan –not those abroad.
So this conjectural exploration here attempts to link history – the history of sentiments – to the tasks of reconciliation and political adjustments we face today. History is not necessarily farce, though it can certainly be tragic …. .as the people residing in Sri Lanka know only too well.
Finally, let me note that Perinbanayagam is an octogenarian. As I am nearly one myself I can understand his impatient, irascible response to my article – given his political standpoint and his Tamilness. Aging embitters perspective. I perceive it in myself. Coupled with the bellicose spirit of Australian lifeways, aging leads me too into sharp writing. Bugger friendship. The empirical facts and analytical concerns of topic studied must trump that sort of benign relationship.
So, now, new battle lines are hereby drawn.
*** end ****
Robert S. Perinbanayagam BOOKS
- The Karmic Theater: Self, Society and Astrology in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, University of Massachusetts Press
- Discursive Acts, John Wiley and Sons, 2011
- The Presence of Self, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000
- Games and Sport in Everyday Life: Dialogues and Narratives of the Self, Routledge, 2007
SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY for essay
Amarasinghe, Y. Ranjith 2000 Revolutionary Idealism and Parliamentary Politics: A Study of Trotskyism in Sri Lanka, Colombo, SSA.
Bavinck, Ben 2014 Of Tamils and Tigers. Volume II. A Journey through Sri Lanka’s War Years, Colombo, Vijtha Yapa Publications.
Bavinck, Ben 2016 “II–Ben Bavinck’s Personal Stance: Extracts from his Diaries,” 5 May 2016, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2016/05/05/ii-ben-bavincks-personal-stance-extracts-from-his-diaries/#more-20847
Bavinck, Ben 2016 “IV. Bavinck on Life in Jaffna, 1994-2004: People Caught in the Middle of Two Awesome Forces,” 2 June 2016, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2016/06/02/bavinck-on-life-in-jaffna-1994-2004-people-caught-in-the-middle-of-two-awesome-forces/
Grant, Trevor 2014 Sri Lanka’s Secrets. How the Rajapaksa Regime Gets Away with Murder, Melbourne: Monash University Publishing.
Handy Perinbanayagm Memorial Volume and the Jaffna Youth Congress, 2012, 2nd edn following that ed. by Silan Kadirgamar in 1980
Hoole, Rajan 2016 “Federal Party: Gain and Loss of the Moral High Ground,” 20 April 2016, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2016/07/31/an-exemplary-man-mangala-moonesinghe-appreciated-in-two-essays/
Nessman, Ravi 2009b “Satellite shows Sri Lanka shelling says rights group,” 13 May 2009, http://mg.co.za/article/2009-05-13-satellite-shows-srilanka-shelling-says-rights-group
Philips, Rajan 2012 “Handy Perinpanayagam and the Jaffna Youth Congress,” 26 February 2012, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2012/02/26/handy-perinpanayagam-and-the-jaffna-youth-congress/
Roberts, Michael 1977 Elites, Nationalisms and the Nationalist Movement in British Ceylon,” in Documents of the Ceylon National Congress, within Volume One of Documents of the Ceylon National Congress, Colombo: Department of National Archives,
Roberts, Michael 2005 Narrating Tamil Nationalism: Subjectivities & Issues, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, which appeared earlier in a journal.
Roberts, Michael 2012 “Victor Rajakulendran’s Tirade at the Exposure of Pirapaharan’s Admiration for Hitler,” 20 February 2012, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2012/02/20/victor-rajakulendrans-tirade-at-the-exposure-of-pirapaharans-admiration-for-hitler/
Roberts, Michael 2013 “BBC-Blind: Misreading the Tamil Tiger Strategy of International Blackmail, 2008-13,” 8 December 2013, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2013/12/08/bbc-blind-misreading-the-tamil-tiger-strategy-of-international-blackmail-2008-13/#more-11221
Roberts, Michael 2013 “Towards Citizenship in Thāmilīlam: The Tamil People of the North, 1983-2010,” South Asia Research, 33: 57-75.
Roberts, Michael 2014 “The War in Sri Lanka: Ravi Nessman’s Slanted Story for USA on the Tavis Smiley Show, 18 February 2009,” 31 January 2014, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2014/01/31/the-war-in-sri-lanka-ravi-nessmans-slanted-story-for-usa-on-the-tavis-smiley-show-18-february-200/
Roberts, Michael 2014 “Generating Calamity, 2008-2014: An Overview of Tamil Nationalist Operations and Their Marvels,” 10 April 2014, http://groundviews.org/2014/04/10/generating-calamity-2008-2014-an-overview-of-tamil-nationalist-operations-and-their-marvels/
Roberts, Michael 2014 “Ideological Cancers in the Sinhala Universe: Roadblocks in the Path of Reconciliation,” 10 May 2014, http://groundviews.org/2014/05/10/ideological-cancers-within-the-sinhala-universe-roadblocks-in-the-path-of-reconciliation/
Roberts, Michael 2014 “Truth Journalism? Marie Colvin hoist on her own Petard,” 5 November 2014, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2014/11/05/triuth-journalism-marie-colvin-hoist-on-her-own-petard/
Roberts, Michael 2014 Tamil Person and State. Essays, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2014
Roberts, Michael 2014 Tamil Person and State. Pictorial, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2014
Roberts, Michael 2015 “A Drama in Four Acts: A Drama in Four Acts: Dishonest Reportage by Amnesty International and Aussie Journalists remains Unmasked,” 2 September 2015, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=17560&action=edit&postpost=v2
Roberts, Michael 2015 “One-Eyed Zealousness: Extremist Australians For and Against the Tamil Cause in Lanka,” 1 October 2015, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2015/10/01/one-eyed-zealousness-extremist-australians-for-and-against-the-tamil-cause-in-lanka/
Roberts, Michael 2016 “Where Majoritarian Part subsumes the Whole: The Ideological Foundation of Sinhala Extremism,” 28 July 2016, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2016/07/28/where-majoritarian-part-subsumes-the-whole-the-ideological-foundation-of-sinhala-extremism/
Roberts, Michael 2016 “A Puzzle: When Weiss, Amnesty International and Aussie Greens LIE,” 16 June 2016 , https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2016/06/16/a-puzzle-when-weiss-amnesty-international-and-aussie-greens-lie/
Roberts, Michael 2016 “David Miliband’s Imperious Intervention in Lanka left in Tatters,” 5 July 2016, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2016/07/05/david-milibands-imperious-intervention-in-lanka-left-in-tatters/
Russell, Jane 1982 Communal Politics under the Donoughmore Constitution, 1931-1947, Colombo, Tisara Prakasakayo.
SMH 2009 “Tamils protest outside Kiribilli House,” 27 April 2009, http://www.smh.com.au//breaking-news-national/tamils-protest-outside-kirribilli-house-20090427-aknf.html
Tamil Guardian 2009 “Diaspora Tamils protest, fast in increasing numbers; call for ceasefire,” 15 April 2009, http://www.tamilguardian.com/article.asp?articleid=2281.
Tamil Guardian 2012 “Hundreds of Australians protest against Sri Lankan Cricket Tour,” http://www.tamilguardian.com/article.asp?articleid=6665.Wilson, A. Jeyaratnam 2000 Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism: Its Origins and Development in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, London, Hurst & Co.
 I thank Godfrey Gunatilleka (in Colombo) and Eardley Lieversz (in Sydney) for comments on the first draft of this article. They are not responsible for its contents of course.
 The Tamil rendering of the b and the p overlap.
 See Roberts, Narrating Tamil Nationalism: Subjectivities & Issues, 2005.
 An aphorism …. is a terse saying, expressing a general truth, principle, or astute observation, and spoken or written in a laconic and memorable form. Aphorism literally means a “distinction” or “definition”. The term was first used in the Aphorisms of Hippocrates.
 This summary is based on a priori assumptions on my part without any experience in Defence Academies.
 Telephone chat 2 August 2016.
 This determined strength, I am now told by Red Major General Lalin Fernando (personal communication), was also displayed by numerous soldiers and sailors in Jaffna who expressed disagreement with the decisions taken by Generals Perera and Fonseka.
 Pakistan was trying – unsuccessfully in the end – to suppress a separatist insurgency in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).
 Note one of Ben Bavinck’s diary entries at PutturJ “It is very striking that in conversations with people here more than once I heard people say that they would be exterminated as Tamils” (13th July 1995) and a subsequent note when the SL Army and LTTE were battling it out at Elephant Pass: “Today I read in a paper the pronouncement by one of the Tamil MPs: “If you want to see Hiroshima, please go to Chavakachcheri!” This forms a good example of the complete lack of proportions in some of the Tamil statements. Earlier I was offended more than once by the use of the word “holocaust” to describe what is happening in Sri Lanka to the Tamils. Having a vivid memory of the Second World War and the fate of the Jews in my native Holland I can only feel disgusted by these immoderate and totally inappropriate comparisons” (17th April 2002, Maruthanarmadam) … See Bavinck 2014.
 See Nessman 2009; Roberts, “BBC Blind,” 2013; Roberts, “Nessman’s Slanted Story…,” 2014 and “A Puzzle: When Weiss, Amnesty International and Aussie Greens LIE,” 16 June 2016, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2016/06/16/a-puzzle-when-weiss-amnesty-international-and-aussie-greens-lie/
 For illustrations of what Lieversz is talking about, see SMH 2009, Tamil Guardian, 2012, Grant 2014 and Roberts, “One-eyed Zealousness,” 2015.
 My thanks to Godfrey Gunatilleke for pointing me in this direction.
 See Roberts “Towards Citizenship in Thāmilīlam,” 2013 and TPS. Essays, 2014. Note that Lieversz makes the same point independently.
 I have ventured on some suggestions in this regard aimed at the ideological foundations of Sinhalaness in its Lanka-threatening form: see Roberts, “Where Majoritarian Part subsumes the Whole,” 2016. This memo reiterates a position stressed earlier in 2014 and 1978—see “Ideological Cancers in the Sinhala Universe,” 2014.