Rt Rev Jebanesan, now 78, served as the third Bishop of the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India [1993 - 2005], which was previously known as the American Mission.
The interview mostly paints a dim and bleak future for Eezham Tamils in a defeatist sense.
However, it gains significance as Jebanesan's responses bring the crucial issues to shape the thinking among the Eezham Tamils.
Some of these issues need to be scientifically addressed by those attempting to set the direction of the future course without deviating from the fundamentals of secular, inclusive and positive aspects of the civilisational Tamil discourse.
The interview is significant to realise the hotspots, which the alternative institutions such as the Tamil Peoples’ Council (TPC), have failed to address.
One of the proposals emerging from the defeatist sections, especially among the academic circles of the Jaffna University, is the proposal of dividing the current Eastern province into three different ethnic provinces. This is similar to the Gazafication of the occupied Palestinian homeland in the Middle-East.
Those unable to take a bold step towards North-East merger through efforts to bring Tamil-Muslim unity, come up with similar solutions to short-circuit the territorial contiguity of the Tamil homeland by shrinking its territory.
Jebanesan is also advocating the creation of three ethnic provinces in the East.
At a time when the NPC Chief Minister Justice C.V. Wigneswaran is holding the key to determine the direction of the future discourse, it is of paramount importance that these matters get correctly addressed by the concerned parties.
The NPC CM seems to realise, as his speeches imply so far, the significance of holding on to the well-established fundamentals of the struggle for Tamil justice. However, action-oriented approach is lacking in this regard.
In the Bible translated by the Dutch, one of the European kingdoms that colonised the island [1640-1796], the introduction states that the majority of the people in this island spoke Tamil, he observed describing the situation at the beginning of the colonisation.
However, towards the end of colonisation, and through the post-colonial conflict management, the Sinhalas have taken the upper hand in this island, Jebanesan said.
The same kind of the majority of the tyranny is also witnessed in Bangladesh, Pakistan and the Philippines, he said.
There is a Buddha shrine under every Bo tree in the North. This is the programme promoted by the sections of Sinhala Buddhists. Nobody can prevent this, he said.
The Catholic Archbishop [in Colombo] has accepted the ‘foremost place to Buddhism’ policy, Jebanesan observed.
The SL Minister Rauff Hakeem has also stated that there was no problem [on the part of Muslims] in giving foremost place to Buddhism in the island.
As such, it has become an “accepted principle,” he said.
“We can't claim equal rights. The Hinduism and the Islam may have their places in the North and the East. But, on the whole, the Buddhism has become very powerful. The Buddhist monks have become more and more serious about making the whole island a Buddhist country. So, how are we going to prevent when some of the religious leaders have already compromised,” he questioned.
The Sinhalas have their vast majority, and they go ahead with putting up a Buddha shrine under every Bo tree in the North.
“They have the presence of the Army and the Police. How are you going to prevent it? They have come in a big way,” he said.
Also, the language of the North is changing, he observed.
The former Bishop also pointed out that the Police, Army, the [Sinhala] university students and the [Sinhala] government clerks have come in a big way into Jaffna which was once monolingual Tamil-speaking.
“It is like the opening of the Kandyan Kingdom.”
The Sinhalas have their agenda, and they are doing it, systematically and cleverly. Nobody can prevent it.
The interview with the former Bishop of the CSI also brings the issues that should be addressed by the Tamil diaspora, which seems to think that by running elementary Tamil schools, it contributes to advance the Tamil identity, language and the heritage.
The Tamil diaspora is yet to conceive programmes and institutional spaces to foster academics and scholars, who could carry on the exemplary lineage, which was set by the scholars at the calibre of Professor K Kailasapathy and Rev Xavier S. Thani Nayagam in the past. They excelled in bi-lingual scholarly work to the advancement of Tamil culture, language and the heritage.
A fundamental question is also raised about the modern day Tamil Nadu in this regard.
The language Tamil is not even the preferred medium of education among the masses in Tamil Nadu. As such, the Indian state of Tamil Nadu has also failed to create scholars to fill the bi-lingual lacuna.
The younger generation of Tamils need to be appropriately convinced of the significance of their culture, religion and the language.
Unfortunately, most of them who went abroad are forgetting Tamil, Jebanesan says.
“When I visited a foreign country, I witnessed the following. The grandmother speaks Tamil, and she writes Tamil. The mother can speak, but she would not be able to write and read. The grand-daughter cannot read, write or speak in Tamil. This is the pattern, and it is going to be the same in the years to come. There may be some Tamil enthusiasts, who will start Tamil schools. But, I don't think it would be a great success because the children think that it is an additional burden,” Jebanesan observed. “They have to study the science, mathematics and biology.”
In some countries, such as Canada, they give some points if the children do well in Tamil. But, in other places, Tamil is not studied with seriousness.
Also here in the island, Tamil is being neglected. After entering the universities, the people do not show much interest in the study of Tamil in the North and the East. “Very few people do Tamil special courses.”
Tamil Nadu is also in the same plight. “In Tamil Nadu, a person can get a degree and post-graduate qualification without knowing a word in Tamil.”
There is a real danger of Tamil education disappearing, he said.
“We must tell the present generation the greatness of Tamil culture, the civilisation, the language and literature and keep them well-informed and they must understand that they belong to a very great and important heritage that has been given to them by their ancestors. That is why I always support the Tamil Sanghams,” he said.
“All over the world, the Tamils must be taught about their culture and civilisation.”
“But, whether we can make them study for university degrees and whether we can make them into scholars like Professor Kailasapathy and Thaninayagam, is a question. I think it will take some time. They were outstanding in English and Tamil. Because of that, they were able to mark and make a solid contribution to the development of Tamil.”
The situation now is precarious and alarming.
“The Sinhalas are good in social sciences. Unfortunately, we Tamils don't study social sciences. Their [the Sinhalas] best brains go to study social sciences also. We lack social scientists. They knew the weakest points of Tamil nationalism is the grievances prevailing in the East with regards to the northerners, the regionalism. They made the best use of it, and they were able to get Karuna and other people to break the backbone of the LTTE. With that, the Tamils became very weak.”
The forced displacement of Muslims from the North is a sad history, Jebanesan said.
At one time, there were prominent scholars among the Muslims in the North, he observed.
A fundamental question is whether Tamil political leaders are now capable of restoring Tamil-Muslim unity like in the days of S.J.V. Chelvanayagam, he said.
Also the Muslims, despite getting their establishments destroyed by the Sinhala chauvinism, lack leaders who show interest in working with the Tamils, he observed.
To a question on how the Tamils should be advancing their cause without compromising their principles of the traditional homeland, distinct sovereignty in the North-East and the right of self-determination, the former Bishop was responding in a defeatist manner.
“The Sinhalas have taken the upper hand, especially after the defeat of the LTTE,” he said.
“The Sinhala diplomacy is brilliant. We have been playing into their hands,” he further observed.
Jebanesan was observing this trend right from the times of the European colonialism.
“The Sinhalas were able to bring the Dutch to send the Portuguese out; then they brought the English to send the Dutch out. Cleverly, they were also able to get rid of the IPKF,” he said.
“The Sinhala diplomacy, I would say, had been very successful and they are going on succeeding.”
Due to the current level of the Chinese influence, even India cannot intervene in a big way as it did in the past, he implies.
The present predicament is that the Tamils are not in a position to ask for a federal state nor the merger of the North and the East, he said.
In this context, one should look at the TPC draft proposals, that failed to specify the genocide and demand repeal of the 6th Amendment. The TPC proposals, despite mentioning ‘self-determination’ proposed to concede the dangerous power of dissolving the federal government at the mere pretext of citing secessionism. The move was nothing else than reconfirming the 6th Amendment.
Although Jebanesan is not involved in the TPC discourse, the points he makes in the interview describe how the thinking is shaping among the sections of academics in Jaffna.
Also, with regards to the future of a merged Tamil homeland, Jebanesan was suggesting a model of three different ethnic provincial units for Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalas in the East.
His suggestion was based on the thinking that the Muslims would not be backing the merger and by carving out a Tamil provincial unit in the East, there might be a chance for at least a future merger of the Tamil province in the East with the North.
Also here, Jebanesan's outlook is not different to what was being advocated by other defeatist sections of the academics at the University of Jaffna. The TPC without ideological leadership is again set to take a turn in the wrong direction in this regard as many of them seem to perceive Tamil-Muslim unity as a foregone opportunity.
Those who advocate this model do not realise that they recognise the Gazafication of the East and that they denounce the concept of the traditional homeland.
Instead of demanding a negotiated benchmark for determining who to be regarded as the valid Sinhala settlers in the East, carving out a Sinhala province is nothing else than recognising it.
A similar outlook is also being advocated by Hindutva-induced sections among Eezham Tamils, which are even prepared to join hands with extremist Sinhala-Buddhist sections.
At the moment, whether one likes it or not, Justice Wigneswaran holds the key to direct the course towards a positive and inclusive Tamil nationalism without succumbing to the corrupt ideas originating from certain ‘academic’ sections in Jaffna.
When asked to narrate the significant contribution of the American Mission, the retired head of the American Mission Church in Jaffna, passionately explained the two theories behind the arrival of the American Mission to Jaffna in 1816.
The first theory was that the policy of the British Governor Robert Brownrigg, who didn't wish the Americans to have any foothold in Colombo, sent them to Jaffna. It could also have been a choice made by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) if they were aiming to open their missions in South India through Jaffna. One needs to study it carefully, he said.
Citing the remarks from an editorial of Mr N. Sabaratnam, who was a former Jaffna Hindu College principal and an editor of the Eezha-naadu daily, Jebanesan observed that the most significant contribution of the American Mission in Jaffna was the education of females.
Another notable result of the English education initiated by the American missionaries resulted in the emigration of the so-called white-collar workers from Jaffna to Malaya in sharp contrast to those who went from Tamil Nadu to work as plantation workers, he said.