Who are indigenous people in Sri Lanka?
The leader of Vedda community, Vanniyala Aththo made a thought provoking request at a ceremony held to mark international indigenous people’s day. He has demanded the government to mention in the identity cards of the Vedda community that they are adivasi meaning, indigenous people. This is in fact an announcement of the triumph of a conspiracy initiated by Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) that had been active for the last 10 years. Mass media also played a crucial role in this conspiracy without their knowledge by confirming the term adivasi for the Vedda community.
The people who lived in a country when the present majority community arrived there are known as ‘indigenous people’. Accordingly, Red Indians in North America, Aborigines in Australia, Maori in New Zealand and Maya in Mexico belong to this category. Most of the indigenous communities got extinct as a result of cruelties perpetrated on them by the invaders. Some were able to survive shifting their habitats to thick jungles or hardy rocks. The story of our Vedda community is entirely different.
The Ravana-Bali-Taraka era, which is known as golden era of Sri Lankan history, is more than 10,000 years old. The technological advancement in Sri Lanka during this period has been explained in detail in the Ramayanaya, an Indian epic. Ramayanaya has elaborated a set of events that took place 5,000 years ago. Human habitats established by the Balangoda Man or Balangoda Manawaya are 38,000 years old. Our great civilization in the pre-historic period is further established by ruins and fossils found in the Horton Plains and Pahiyangala.
The written history of Sri Lanka commenced with arrival of Aryan Prince Vijaya from India which took place 2,600 years ago. When he arrived, local Princess Kuveni who belonged to Yakka tribe was spinning cotton. It is another evidence for the great civilization that flourished in Sri Lanka before arrival of Aryans. Sirivastu and Kelaniya were main cities in that era. There were different tribes in Sri Lanka such as Yakka, Naga, Deva and Raksha. They were commonly known as ‘Hela’. Princess Kuveni supported Prince Vijaya to assassinate the entire royal family including the king who was her maternal uncle as she fell in love with him. Although Prince Vijaya was able to conquer the locals and to become ruler of Sri Lanka, this massacre triggered clashes between Aryan and Hela communities. This dragged on until the era of King Pandukabhaya. The mother of King Pandukabhaya was Princess Unmada Chithra who was the only daughter of King Panduwasdev. His father was Prince Deegha Gamini.
According to the Mahavamsa, Prince Deegha Gamini was the son of Prince Deegayu who was a brother of Queen Bhaddakachchana, the Queen of King Panduwasdev. However, according to alternative sources, Dheega Gamini was a Hela. Therefore, when the mother of King Pandukabhaya was an Aryan, his father was a Hela. For Aryans the king was one of them because of his maternal Aryan heritage. Similarly, he was one of them for Hela, because of his paternal Hela origin. Hence, both communities wholeheartedly accepted King Pandukabhaya and united under his leadership. This assimilated community was referred to as Sinhalese and their unique language was named Sinhala.
In light of the above, Sinhalese are not only the race which established a great civilization in Sri Lanka but also the indigenous people of the island. This explanation generates a question as to who the Vedda community is. As explained above, Princess Kuveni assisted Prince Vijaya to conquer the kingdom because of their romantic relationship. Prince Kuveni became a mother of two children, namely, Jeevahatta and Disala as a result of their cohabitation. In the end, Prince Vijaya decided to marry an Aryan princess from India before his coronation. Being helpless, she decided to return to her clan with her children. Upon arrival, her relatives, being angry of her betrayal, killed her. Her two children decided to escape to the thick jungle to save their life after the loss of the mother. Their incestuous cohabitation gave birth to the Vedda community.
As Buddhism respects pluralism, Sinhalese never thought that it was their burden to ‘civilize’ the Vedda community as thought by Westerners with regard to the rest of the world during last five hundred years. They were not forced to embrace Buddhism or to assimilate to the Sinhala culture. Instead, they were made an essential co-partner of Sinhala society. Some Buddhists opt for eating meat although they abstain from killing. Being hunters, the Vedddas undertook to supply the meat required by the Sinhala villagers.
They further undertook to supply honey which was essential at that time for both sweet preparations and medicine. Another great service provided by Veddas was supplying rare medicinal plants from the thick jungles. The Veddas were experts in handling bows and arrows as they hunt daily. Hence, they played an indispensable role in wars waged by Sinhala kings. The Vedda community’s role in the Freedom Struggle of 1818 has been well documented by both British officers and Sri Lankan historians.
Both Sinhala and Vedda versions of the origin of the Vedda community is one and the same. They admit the fact that they are descendants of Sinhalese.They still venerate Princess Kuveni and refer to her as Maha Loku Kiriammila-aththo, meaning ‘the great grandmother’. In spite of this background, the Vedda community has been tactfully labelled as the indigenous people of Sri Lanka by Non-governmental Organizations with ulterior motives. International organizations and philanthropists allocate a lot of funds for conservation and welfare of indigenous communities. Being greedy for these funds, some NGOs have baptized the Veddas as indigenous people without considering the long term adverse repercussions.
Looking after the welfare of the Vedda community is praiseworthy. I am not against keeping a slice of funds by NGOs which they brought for the welfare of the Vedda community. After all, they are also bringing much needed foreign currency to the country. However, grabbing indigenous status from the Sinhalese and crowning the Vedda community with it is a crime that warrants a punishment.
The Sinhala nation is not an exclusive tribe united by blood. Not only Indians but also Malays and Chinese have migrated to Sri Lanka and got assimilated to Sinhala nation. Sinhala is a distinctive nation with a unique language, religion and culture. Sinhala civilization in Sri Lanka which was known as Sinhale worldwide has spread over tens of millennia. However, Tamil separatists claimed in the recent past that they arrived in Sri Lanka before the Sinhalese in order to pursue their separatist agenda. Despite the fact that they do not have any evidence to establish their claim, they repeatedly tell the same lie relying on Goebbels’ theory. Historical records of different nations along with antiques and ruins in Sri Lanka speak against their claim. However, if the pre-historical heritage can be credited with the Veddas, the Sinhalese will become another migrant race such as the Tamils and the Muslims instead of recognizing them as the historical nation. That will be the greatest forward leap of Tamil separatists in the ideological sphere.
In this backdrop, indigenous status in the national identity card should not be granted to the Vedda community as demanded by the Vedda chief. As an intelligent leader, Vanniyala Aththo would understand the danger associated with such an action. Further, both the media and the NGOs should stop identifying the Vedda community as an indigenous people (Adivasi) to avoid another disaster in the future.