Book Review

Suffering Nation and Alienation

E. Valentine Daniel (1997),  in Kleinman, Das and Lock (eds.) Social Suffering
(Berkeley: University of California Press)

E. Valentine Daniel is a prominent and respected anthropologist whose has done work on various aspects of ethnicity, identity, refugees and violence especially in Sri Lanka and Southern India. Daniel is a Professor of Anthropology and Philosophy at Columbia University in New York City and the Director of it’s South Asia Institute. His previous works have included Fluid Signs: Being a Person the Tamil Way, written in the mid-80s, and, more recently, Charred Lullabies: Chapters in an Anthropology of Violence (1996). A chapter in this second book appears in a revised form in a collection entitled Social Suffering and is reviewed here.

It is not often that Sri Lankan Tamils are the subjects of detailed and balanced research and even rarer for the Tamil perspectives to be presented in mainstream academic literature. E Valentine Daniel has been one author who has for at least two decades written ethnographies of various groups of Tamils – those in South India, upcountry Tamils in Sri Lanka and Jaffna Tamils. In this article, Daniel turns his attention to Sri Lankan Tamils who have found their way to the United Kingdom over the last few decades. Based on research he conducted in London in 1993, he argues that Tamils came to Britain in three phases. According to Daniel, each phase of Tamil migrants have differed significantly in their attitudes towards identity, nationality and nationalism. A brief summary of his typology and conclusions are presented below.

Phase 1 The elite
The majority of the first generation of 'Ceylonese' who immigrated to Britain were from upper class or upper-middle class backgrounds, educated in the elite schools of Ceylon and worked as professionals in the UK. They considered themselves to be special among South Asian migrants and were proud of their fluent English and their cultivated ease with Western ways and tastes. They identified as Ceylonese, united in their shared heritage with the other communities of Ceylon as one Phase 1 Tamil recounts to Daniel: "When I meet my Sinhala friends, I rarely think, ‘Ah, he is a Sinhala and I am Tamil; we are different; I better watch out.’" This group chose to emphasise a common nationality, stressing similarities over differences between Tamils and Sinhalese. This group reacts to the gradual denial of a Tamil identity in Ceylon and the attempts to cast Sinhala identity as the Sri Lankan identity through what Daniel terms ‘absorbed coping’. He compares this ‘absorbed coping’ to the politics of elite Tamil groups back in Ceylon during this time and particularly to that of Mr SJV Chelvanayakam who asked for federalism instead of a separate state because he valued the integrity of Ceylon as a whole.

Phase 2 The students
The second generation of Tamil migrants, who arrived in the UK from the mid-1970s until the mid-1980s, consisted of a wider spectrum of class and caste than the first. This phase was largely made up of young students looking to gain the education in the UK that they had been denied to them in Sri Lanka. They came in greater numbers than the first group and clung together more. This generation had no illusions of belonging to a ruling elite or even of mixing in with the locals. They had also had a very limited experience of a harmonious and united Ceylon and thus this generation constructed their nationalism in a very different way. For them, a divided Sri Lanka, one in which they had already experienced widespread discrimination, had replaced a united Ceylon. A Tamil of this generation recalls a typical attitude:

"Friendships. Yes there are friendships… Some of these Sinhalas are my good friends. But however close we are being friends, I can never forget that he is a Sinhala. And he can never forget that I am a Tamil. That is always there. Fundamental."

This second generation differed from their predecessors in their attitudes to nationalism and identity. Instead of being proudly Ceylonese, they asserted themselves as proud Tamils. Instead of ‘absorbed coping’ in which they emphasised an united Ceylon, this generation of Tamils actively sought and recovered a Tamil national past in the history books and then began celebrating a Tamil nationalist identity. This shift in the attitudes between the two phases of migrants was of course largely reflective of the changes taking place in Tamil politics in Sri Lanka where a younger more radical element had started working towards a separate Tamil state.

Phase 3 The refugees
The next generation of Tamil migrants, mostly refugees from Sri Lanka in the post-1983 period and especially since 1987, has been the most numerous of the three. This group was made up largely of asylum seekers who have come to the UK through legal or illegal means. While Tamils of the first two phases had used education as their route to dignified and comfortable settlement in the UK, for Tamils of this generation education was not the easiest or first choice. Their insecure immigration status and their need to work long hours to earn money for their own survival and of their relatives concentrated most members of this group in poorly paid jobs and in poorer parts of London. They were also far more segregated from mainstream British society than either of the previous two phases.

Daniel argues that for this generation of Tamils a nationalised past was no longer relevant. They certainly did not share the Ceylonese identity of first phasers or even the strong Tamil national identity of the second phasers. Years of hardship and frustration with systems and institutions that had worked against them had left this group cynical of all things ‘national’ whether it be Sri Lankan, Tamil or even British. This group was caught in a fluid state in which they belonged to no country or nation. Indeed, Daniel goes on to argue that Tamil refugees – and all refugees – are representative of a transcendence of or even indifference to the notion of ‘nation’. Whereas Phase 1 Tamils talked of a ‘Ceylonese nation’ and Phase 2 Tamils talked of a ‘Tamil nation’ struggling against a ‘Sinhala nation’, for Phase 3 Tamils the very concept of nation was no longer relevant. As they moved across traditional boundaries, they have shed traditional alliances and adopted new, more fluid and less centralised ones.

If anything, Daniel’s account of the three phases of Tamil migration to the UK makes thoroughly interesting reading, especially from a Tamil person’s perspective. As he correctly notes, there are certainly differences in the backgrounds, interests and possibly even identity between various groups of Tamil migrants. These differences can most easily be seen between groups that have migrated at different times but this may not necessarily mean that time of migration is the major determinant of these differences or at least all of these differences. The background of Tamil migrants has on the whole changed over time and Daniel notes this. Also, the socio-economic status of Tamil migrants seems to correspond to time of migration but this is the case with most ‘ethnic’ migrants from the developing world.

However, the relationship between notions of Tamil nationality and phase of migration seems far more tentative. The most obvious point is that notions of nationality and identity among the Sri Lankan Tamil population, whether in the UK or in Sri Lanka, have been changing over time. The differences at least between Daniel’s first and second phases of migrants seem more to be a result of these wider changes. After all, Tamil nationalism and separatism in its current form only became popularly accepted among Tamils within the last two decades. Over the years even the earliest Tamil settlers have come to share with other, later migrants the same sense of Tamil identity and nationalism and have played important roles in supporting the cause of Tamil self-determination.

Daniel’s major conclusion, that recent Tamil migrants have transcended nation and nationhood is also dubious. While these Phase 3 migrants may have enjoyed a less straightforward nationalised past and have had to endure a more turbulent process of resettlement, this does not necessarily mean that they believe less in Tamil nationhood. Indeed, recent Tamil migrants may even participate in the Tamil national project more than other migrants. A survey of any of the large marches or events held in support of Tamil self-determination or in protest of the Sri Lankan government’s oppression of the Tamil people will surely show that the recently arrived Tamils are just as interested in the Tamil nation as any other Tamil.

Midway through the article Daniel quotes a recent migrant who has heard about the new ‘Little Jaffna’ in Toronto and says: "That is enough of a Tamil nation for me. Wherever there are enough Tamils, there is a Tamil nation." While Daniel has interpreted this and other evidence to indicate the growing irrelevance of a Tamil ‘home’, it could easily be argued that this is simply an indication of the great spread of the Tamil Diaspora. To be sure, these statements could be indications of a Tamil ‘nation-in-waiting’, a tight network of people forced to scatter through the world but who still retain not only a strong Tamil cultural identity but also a strong political solidarity still linked inexorably to a nation – Tamil Eelam.

Review by Puthu Sivaguru