TAMIL NATION LIBRARY: EELAM
Most Western scholars and journalists have interpreted Sri Lanka as a tropical island paradise, ruled by 2,500-year-old Buddhist ideals of peace and compassion. Maintaining the entrepreneurial and profit-motivated capitalist system, yet stridently pursuing non-alignment, Sri Lanka is seen as a respectable working model of a Third World democracy, changing governments in classic style, with modernization uniquely facilitated by superimposition of the modern on the indigenous. Only occasionally do “race” riots and bloodshed, in the words of Ian Jack, “stain the face of paradise”. (Sunday Times, London, 18 October 1981.)
One scholar wrote: “The political system provides a better model of a participatory democracy than many states of Europe or America … The ethnic minorities were preoccupied with protecting their interests against undue domination by the Sinhalese-Buddhist majority.” The Economist (London, 13 June 1981), in a special 20-page Sri Lanka: A Survey, in its desire to cater to the world’s multinationals and assure them that peace prevailed, sacrificed facts, compromised with objectivity and even presented the rioting in Sri Lanka as one by its Tamil community (the reverse of the truth). The opening paragraph stated:
However interpreted, behind the romantic veneer and political facade lies the reality of deprivation of basic rights to citizenship, franchise, and the language of the Tamil ethnic nation of nearly four million people; three decades of national oppression; military occupation; police and army repression; and, today, a mandated Tamil genocide.
Bourgeois scholarship possessed no analytic tools to expose and come to grips with these social conflicts. The stark unreality of this inadequate bourgeois analysis, totally disregarding social formation, class conflict and socioeconomic crises, was first revealed when the JVP revolution broke out in 1971.
When the seemingly secure and enduring state structure portrayed by these scholars crumbled and virtually collapsed, when thousands of Sinhalese teenagers resorted to armed insurrection and a revolutionary attempt to seize power to resolve the socio-economic crises generated by the reactionary policies of the ruling class, bourgeois scholarship was baffled. Similarly, these scholars have ignored the more than three decades of national oppression of the Tamil people. This is so even today, when national oppression has reached the most acute stage of genocidal repression: incarceration of Tamil intellectuals, Catholic priests, human-rights activists; and when armed revolutionary struggle for Tamil national liberation is engaging the total energies of the degenerate bourgeois state.
From 1971 state power has been maintained only by frequent national emergencies, by rifles and bayonets, deliberately provoked Sinhalese chauvinism, and a servile, sycophantic state-controlled press. Chauvinism has become an article of faith and to give it teeth President Jayewardene said in 1977: “If the Tamils want war they’ll have war, if they want peace they’ll have peace.” The national question and even the legitimate struggle of the Tamils for justice is thus denied as non est. Patriotic liberation fighters are branded as “terrorists” and confronted by state terrorism.
In the absence of any properly grounded scholarly study and freely available information, the facts of the Tamil national question in Sri Lanka have been concealed from the Sinhalese, the Tamil people and the world community. Hence this attempt to bring together the several dimensions of this struggle, which David Selbourne has properly described as “a true national question, if ever there was one”. My analysis is grounded on materialist, historical bases in order to expose the issue’s complex historical causes and to correct grave misconceptions surrounding it.
In a memorandum to the Constituent Assembly in 1972, the late Handy Perinbanayagam, veteran nationalist, distinguished educationist, uncompromising social revolutionary and unrepentant Gandhian who, in the 1920s, was the first to admit “low”-caste people into his home, reflected the thinking of the concerned Tamils:
Handy Perinbanayagam’s organization, the Jaffna Youth Congress, in 1928, was the first in the country to demand independence for the people of Sri Lanka. For nearly 50 years he represented Sinhalese-Tamil unity. His commitment was so strong and his politics so principled that he declined the FP’s nomination as its candidate in three elections to parliament in the 1950s and 1960s; standing as an independent he lost each time.
He was the only Tamil to hold a clear position on the national question. I had many private discussions with him and his forthright formulation of the Tamil national question was that linguistic and cultural rights and equality are of fundamental importance, and that from those spring equality between two nations of co-ordinate status in a unitary state. He considered that ethnic and cultural loyalties override class interests, political party or any other group loyalty in society when a people is threatened and oppressed by another, and that unless equality is conceded, national self-determination of the oppressed nation would be the result. But until his death in 1977, he hoped for, and strived to achieve, the reversal of the “Sinhala-only” law and gain recognition of Tamil too as an official language.
The Tamil bourgeois FP and TC politicians never understood the national question in these terms and their political discourse was so conservative and reactionary that they alienated concerned socialist-oriented Tamils, and also the progressive Sinhalese, by their sterile romantic demagogy and collaboration with the conservative UNP. They possessed no political coherence and advanced no strategies or tactics that took account of the class forces at work in the country.
If they had shed their conservatism and sacrificed their bourgeois in reality, petit-bourgeois – class interests, and from the beginning engaged in revolutionary socialist struggle, the Tamil people could never have been driven into the captive situation to which the politics of personal power brought them.
The politics of revolutionary socialist struggle were advanced by the first Tamil Marxists, C. Tharmakulasingham and V. Sittampalam, in the mid-1930s and early 1940s, and in the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) at that time they were the pioneers who correctly formulated the national question, class struggle and the course of the proletarian revolution. They challenged G.G. Ponnambalam’s bourgeois communal politics, and Sittampalam wrote the famous tract Communalism or Nationalism … A Reply to the Speech Delivered in the State Council on the Reform Despatch (1939).
The LSSP and these Tamil party leaders correctly saw the plantation Tamil proletariat as the vanguard revolutionary force. In the mid-1940s Sittampalam organized them for the revolutionary socialist struggle. But unfortunately, both for the Tamils and for the revolutionary cause, Tharmakulasingham and Sittampalam died in 1945 and 1946 respectively, and the vacuum they left was never filled.
After 35 years, the Eelam Liberation Tigers have today come to advance the revolutionary struggle for Tamil national liberation.
Again in 1979, along with some progressive Sinhalese socialists, including LG. Herat Ran Banda and the famous political scholar bhikkhu (Buddhist monk) Panjaasara Thero, I launched the Podu Jana Party (Ordinary People’s Party), which stood for equal rights for the Tamils and socialist advance. But each time it proved a Herculean task to fight the forces of reaction and the parties floundered.
On the last occasion, as soon as the party was launched, the Prevention of Terrorism Act was passed and President Jayewardene sent the army with a mandate, as he put it, to “wipe out” the Tamil “terrorists” demanding a separate state. More than 10 young Tamils were killed by the army. I was driven to the conclusion that national oppression had reached such a level that life in a unitary state was impossible and national unity could no longer be advocated as a sensible political goal.
Sri Lanka, from the mid-1970s, degenerated into racist violence. Despite the paucity of writings on the subject, the publicity by Amnesty International (AI) of “racist” murder, detention and torture of young Tamils contributed to international awareness of the Tamil national question and freedom struggle, The AI report by Louis Blom-Cooper QC in 1975 stated:
The subsequent annual reports of A1 from 1976 on contained details of young Tamils, often held incommunicado and tortured for their political beliefs. The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), stated in 1977:
The Tamil struggle for independence by secession in a separate state of Eelam was internationalized when, in May 1979, the House of Representatives of the State of Massachusetts passed the Eelam Resolution calling for the creation of the Tamil state of Eelam. In 1981, several British MPs sent letters and telegrams to President Jayewardene calling for an end to imprisonment of Tamils without trial and for their release. Addressing the Commonwealth Parliamentary Seminar, held in Colombo in June 1981, Jayewardene angrily reacted, in these words:
Yet three months later, in August 1981, when the Sinhalese rioting against the Tamils broke out, Jayewardene stated:
Because of the rioting against the Tamil people, in August 1981 the Tamil Nadu State Assembly, in India, passed a resolution unanimously condemning the violence and expressing sympathy with the Sri Lanka Tamils. The Hindu (Madras, 22 August 1981) reported:
And the Indian Express (New Delhi, 13 July 1981) correctly summed up the Tamil national struggle in these words:
In all my writings, past and present, I have steadfastly held to the dictum enunciated by C.P. Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian for 50 years: “Facts are sacred, comment is free.” In fact, comment has been kept to a minimum, to let the facts and events speak for themselves.
As with my previous book, in this work too I am greatly obliged to Robert Molteno of Zed Press, my publishers, for his constant encouragement, from the time he became aware that I was engaged in writing this book, and for his critical assessment of the manuscript. Lastly, once again I record my appreciation for the keen interest taken by my wife Vasantha in my writing of this book, and for her constant pressures to get back to writing, when I had, on the way, so often stopped writing because of my onerous duties on the Bench.
Sri Lanka is the name of the island earlier known as Ceylon. The new name was bestowed by the Republican constitution on 22 May 1972. “Ceylon” is the name by which the island came to be known to the outside world after Portuguese mercantile penetration in the early l 6th Century.
To the Tamils and the Sinhalese, the indigenous people, the country had various appellations. Its earliest name, among the aboriginal Tamils, was Tamaraparani, the name of a river in Tamil Nadu, south India. The island is referred to by this Tamil name in Emperor Asoka’s 3rd Century BC Rock Edict in Girnar, western India. Tamaraparani became Taprobane to the Greek travellers at the time of Alexander the Great. The early Indian Sanskrit works refer to the island as Lanka, its name in the Sanskrit language. The name Tamaraparani fell into disuse by the 1st Century AD and a new Tamil name, Ilankai, came into use. The island is referred to by that name in the Tamil classical Sangam literature (lst-4th Century AD). And so it continued until the 1970s, when Tamil consciousness led to the naming of the north and east of Sri Lanka, the traditional Tamil homelands from time immemorial, as Eelam.
There has been no name for the island in the Sinhala language, then or now. The present name Sri Lanka is its Sanskrit name, meaning “the resplendent island”. The closest Sinhala name is Sihala, used just once in the Dipavamsa and twice in the Mahavamsa. Generally, Lanka has been the Sinhala name used. Sri Lanka has been variously described by the early travellers. “Ceylon is undoubtedly the finest island of its size in the world,” said Marco Polo. Others have enchantingly described it as “the pearl of the Orient”, ‘the pendant on the chain of India”, “this other Eden, this demiparadise”, “the land without sorrow”.
Sri Lanka is situated at the southern extremity of the Indian subcontinent, separated from it at its narrowest point by only 22 miles of sea called the Palk Strait. It lies between six and 10 degrees north of the Equator, and on the longitude of 79 to 81 degrees east. Sri Lanka is a medium sized island charmingly and strategically situated in the Indian Ocean. It became a trading post in the age of early European maritime adventure and a strategic naval base in the age of imperialism.
The island has an area of 25,332 square miles (16.2 million acres)— almost the size of Ireland or Tasmania. It has mountainous terrain in the central part, with an average elevation of 3,700 feet, surrounded by an upland area ranging between 1,000 to 3,000 feet. The rest of the country comprises a coastal plain, broad in the north and narrowing in the east, west and south. There is an abundance of rivers, all starting in the central hills and flowing outwards to the Indian Ocean. More than three quarters of the land area is arable, and the climate is admirably suited for most tropical crops .
Sri Lanka is a country of heterogeneous culture, with two separate and distinct ethno linguistic nations (Sinhalese and Tamils), five communities (the Tamils of Indian origin, Sri Lankan Muslims, Indian Muslims, Burghers, and Malays) and four great religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam). According to the last population census, at the end of 1971, Sri Lanka had a population of 12.7 million, and it is now estimated to be about 15.5 million.
For reasons of history, the Sinhalese live in the west, south and centre, and the Tamils in the north and east. Until the administrative unification of the country by the British in 1833, this pattern of distribution was one of mutual exclusiveness. This was a result of differences in language, religion and culture and of political organisation in the past under separate Sinhalese and Tamil kingdoms. The areas the Sinhalese and the Tamils occupied were their traditional and exclusive homelands, to which they owed their first loyalty.
The Tamils were the aboriginal people of Sri Lanka, and, in this writer’s contention, the Sinhalese came with the introduction of Buddhism in the 3rd Century BC. The Muslims arrived to trade from Arabia or India, or even from Arabia via India, around the 10th Century; the Tamils of Indian origin after the opening of plantations by the British in the 1840s; the Malays from Malaya as mercenaries of the Dutch in the 18th Century; and the Burghers are the relic of the Portuguese and Dutch conquest, in the 16th and 18th Century respectively.
According to the 1971 census, there were 9,146,679 Sinhalese, constituting 71.9% of the population. The Sinhalese are divided into the low country Sinhalese and the up country, or Kandyan, Sinhalese. The former comprise 42.8% and the latter 29.1% of the population. The Tamils numbered 2,611,935, or 20.5% of the population. The Tamils are divided into the Sri Lankan Tamils and the Tamils of Indian origin. The former comprise 11.1 % and the latter 9.4% of the population. The Muslims are divided into the Sri Lankan Muslims (6.5%) and the Indian Muslims (0.2%). The Muslims are Tamil speaking. Hence 27.2% of Sri Lanka’s people are Tamil speaking. The Malays constitute 0.3% and the Burghers a similar figure.
Buddhism is the ancestral religion of the Sinhalese and is professed by 67% of the people, all Sinhalese. Hinduism is the ancestral religion of the Tamils and is professed by 17.6%, all Tamils. Christianity is professed by Sinhalese, Tamils and Burghers and is the religion of 7.7%; and Islam, professed by Muslims, is the religion of 7.1% of the population.
As stated earlier, the Sinhalese and Tamils are separate and distinct nations. Because of their particular historical past, and because of national ethnic differences and the occupation of separate homelands, each possesses separate and distinct national consciousness and owes its loyalty first to its own homeland. and then to Sri Lanka.
The British were the colonial rulers of the country from 1796. Having brought the Sinhalese and the Tamil nations together in 1833 for purposes of administrative convenience, after a century of colonial rule and colonial plantation economy the British withdrew at independence in 1948, leaving the two nations yoked together under a Westminster model constitution in a unitary state structure.
Earlier, in 1946, the Sinhalese and Tamil political elite had arrived at a constitutional settlement for independence, the Sinhalese upper middle class political leadership promising just and fair government and power sharing on the basis of partnership to reap the benefits of freedom and self government. Both the Sinhalese and Tamil leadership, in perfect amity and unity, adopted the independence constitution as representing “the solemn balance of rights” between the Sinhalese and Tamil peoples.
The independence constitution contained an entrenched and inviolable non discriminatory safeguard, in Section 29(2), based on a provision in the Northern Ireland constitution. As in Northern Ireland, it proved ineffective in safeguarding the rights it intended to preserve inviolate. That constitution bestowed by the British at independence, contained no law on citizenship franchise or on individual and communal rights in a multi national state.
After independence, the Sinhalese bourgeois political leadership, via the arithmetic of the ballot box and gerrymandering, denied citizenship and franchise to one half of the Tamil people the million Tamil plantation workers of Indian origin, long settled in the island. It then set half a million of them on a course of compulsory repatriation to India, a country most of them had never seen. The plantation Tamils of Indian origin were the largest component in the organized working class in the country and had already engaged in working class struggle, displayed unexpected class solidarity and voted for the Marxist parties, who relied on them to advance their revolutionary struggle. This was the first line of attack by the upper middle class to keep power in its hands.
The Sinhalese governments, by a policy of aggressive state financed Sinhalese colonization and resettlement of the traditional Tamil areas, sought to end the Tamils’ exclusive occupation of their homelands in the north and east . Under this programme, which was accelerated after 1948, over 200,000 Sinhalese families were resettled in colonized enclaves, organized in clustered villages in over 3,000 square miles of the Tamil homelands. As a result, one third of the Batticaloa district in the eastern province—in the Tamil heartland—was taken into the new Sinhalese Amparai district. The Trincomalee district and the Batticaloa district (reduced in size because of the carving out of the Amparai district), formerly exclusively Tamil, were according to the 1971 census 28.8% and 17.7% Sinhalese, respectively
Then, in violation of the policy of governments from as early as 1930 to make Sinhala and Tamil the official languages of the country, Sinhala was made the only official language by the government of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. The Tamils were administered in another’s language and given the oppressive stamp of a subject people. The doors of government employment, on which the Tamils had principally relied for employment and economic advance, were closed to them. This forced Tamil government employees to study and work in Sinhala or leave employment. Tamil officers were given three years to learn Sinhala or face dismissal. This discrimination was extended to the security services, public corporations and other services, and to the private sector, where proficiency in the official language was an obvious premium.
Tamil parents and educationists resisted the teaching of Sinhala to their children, although often in the past they had done so voluntarily. Now they resisted, afraid they would lose their separate national ethnic identity as Tamils and would face assimilation. Still worse was the government’s decision that children should be taught in their mother tongue: Sinhalese children in Sinhalese and Tamil children in Tamil. This led to an anomalous situation: Tamil children were supposedly “educated” without knowing the official language of their country. They became alienated and could find no role outside their own regions. Hence their patriotism was directed towards their own homelands.
The younger generation of Sinhalese and Tamils became strangers to each other, and, to the Tamils, the unitary state became a monstrous irrelevance, which served only to perpetuate their disadvantaged condition. In short, the state not only failed to safeguard their interests, their language and culture, but actively discriminated against them because of their Tamil birth. In fact, they had no state; hence the urge to create a state, called Eelam, in their own homelands .
From 1956, the Tamils did not participate in the government of Sri Lanka. They were ruled by the Sinhalese. And the Sinhalese acted in their own interest, not in the interest of the Tamils. Hence the discrimination against them in employment and education. For the benefit of the Sinhalese, the government introduced lower qualifying marks in the competitive examination for entrance to the university. This eliminated competition. The merit system no longer existed. Yet various stratagems of “standardisation”, “district quotas”, etc. were used to favour Sinhalese students, thereby removing a large number of Tamil students who had qualified for university admission.
It is these students, who were so flagrantly and unjustly excluded from university and prevented by the state from achieving their aspirations, who are today in the vanguard, providing the groundwork and leadership of the armed liberation struggle for the secession of the state of Eelam.
Of the four prevailing religions, Buddhism at first became the de facto state religion of Sri Lanka. Then the 1972 Republican constitution directed the state to give the “foremost place” to Buddhism and to “protect and foster” it. The 1978 constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic went further and directed the state “to protect and foster the Bud&a Sasana”, i.e. to include not only the religious doctrine but also the Buddhist sects, monasteries and bhikkhus. Hindus, Christians and Muslims have only private rights of worship. The argument was advanced that, in the old Sinhalese monarchical society, the king was advised by the Sangha. In this manner, Sri Lanka was made a theocratic state.
From independence, the Sinhalese governments totally isolated the Tamil homelands from all economic development programmes and projects undertaken with massive foreign aid from Western donor countries. As a result, over the last three decades, while the Sinhalese people and their homelands have prospered and flourished, the Tamil people and their homelands have suffered and become the backyard colony of the Sinhalese.
There occurred four major anti Tamil “race” riots, in 1956,1958,1977 and 1981; each time the Tamil people living in Colombo and the Sinhalese areas of the south had to assemble as refugees and withdraw to their homelands in the north and east. The last two riots were well organized and specifically directed against the plantation Tamils, many of whom abandoned the plantations and fled to the north and east. Previously mute, exploited, miserable coolies in the plantation enclaves, on resettlement they are becoming a new political force uniting with their brethren of the north and east. This is a development of great importance, not only for the Tamil national liberation struggle, but also for the proletarian revolution and socialist reconstruction.
In all these riots, hundreds of Tamil people were killed, many Tamil women raped and countless numbers of Tamil homes looted and burnt. After the 1958 riots, Professor Howard Wriggins wrote:
All these methods were used by the Sinhalese rulers to avoid and divert the class struggle, common to both the Sinhalese and Tamil oppressed and exploited classes, fuelled by the reactionary economic policies adopted to benefit their class and to consolidate power in their hands. So they resorted to Sinhalese Buddhist propaganda. Their objective was to let national ethnic forces divide, contain and smother class forces.
We shall see how the working class was betrayed, in crucial revolutionary Situations, by its leaders, who were of the same social class as the rulers and by their “Marxist” parties, because they could not advance a revolutionary Proletarian programme. Since the leaders betrayed them, the proletariat failed subsequently in its historic task of fighting the oppression of the Tamil nation and supporting their right to self determination. I shall come to these matters shortly, when I deal with the national question.
Hence the goal of the Sinhalese ruling class, pursued and consummated within a relatively short period of ten years, was to achieve the conquest of the Tamil nation and its lands by the force of majority legislative power, executive edicts, military repression to quell peaceful political protest, anti Tamil rioting and state financed colonization. To these have now been added frequent states of emergency, the Prevention of Terrorism Law and “Tiger” hunting to maintain that conquest.
As a result of the reactionary economic policies of the ruling class, the dependent capitalist agro export economy has been in continual decline and perennial crisis. Whenever it is about to sink, it is kept afloat by foreign aid, IMF loans and World Bank organized “Paris Club” Aid Consortium commodity import credits. The conditions for these included the devaluation of the rupee, cuts in welfare expenditure, removal of food subsidies and a general willingness to transfer the accumulating burdens on the poor. At the same time, to benefit the rich, both local and foreign, the government encourages an “open economy”, liberalised imports, removal of exchange controls, incentives for foreign capital, tax holidays, constitutional guarantees for foreign investors, etc.
Yet, after 30 years of this type of policy, the economy today is in its deepest crisis ever. Sri Lanka, two years ago held out as the “IMF’s success story”, is today yet another “IMF disaster”. While heaping the burdens on the poor, President Jayewardene stated in 1983:
The revolutionary pressures are contained by frequent states of emergency. Power frequently alternates between the political and the military. When it gets power, the military is not accountable to the politicians. The only connection is the family ties linking the two—at the top. But at the bottom, for soldiers and people, there is the same stark reality of brutality and suffering. This structure is maintained by guns and by a servile and sycophantic press. But the class question is about to come to the surface, as the national question already has done, in the form of revolutionary armed struggle for national liberation.
We have seen that national oppression of the Tamils started in the very first year of independence, with the enactment of the Citizenship Act of 1948, which denied a million Tamils their basic right to citizenship, rendering them stateless. This was followed by their disfranchisement the following year.
We have also seen how national oppression then extended to the Sri Lankan Tamils. The denial of their language rights seriously affected their political, economic, social, educational and cultural life. We have also seen how their lands were colonized and taken over by the Sinhalese. We have also seen how there were riots against them, and how both the Sri Lankan and the Indian Tamils were driven to their homelands. We have seen how life in a unitary state was made impossible and irrelevant to them. We have seen that, in reality, the Tamils had no state to protect and advance their interests. In that context, what was obviously and urgently needed was their own state, comprising their homelands in north and east Sri Lanka. The United States Declaration of Independence in 1776, in a similar situation, stated:
For about a quarter century, the Tamil people and their bourgeois nationalist leaders attempted peaceful political dialogue, non violent agitation and behind the scenes negotiations, and they entered into open or secret pacts with their Sinhalese counterparts to win recognition for Tamil as an official language or, as an alternative, regional autonomy. They even collaborated to win tangible concessions to soften the rough edges of their deprived status.
But each time pacts were broken, laws and regulations were not implemented, and they could not win a single concession. The Tamil people were second class citizens even in their own homelands. They were given their children’s birth certificates, their land titles, their tax certificates, their passports, in Sinhala. Mrs Bandaranaike, as prime minister from 1960 to 1964 and from 1970 to 1977, set her face resolutely against any political accommodation or modus vivendi. In 1964, she said that the Tamils “must accept” the place that she had allotted them. In the 1970s, with a six year emergency in force, her army resorted to institutionalised repression of the Sri Lankan and Indian Tamils and the Tamil speaking Muslims. Her Republican constitution removed the meagre safeguards against discriminatory legislation contained in Section 29(2), and the Tamils were reduced to their lowest position since 1948.
Because of the level of oppression, secession became the inevitable political goal of the Tamils, and at their insistence the Tamil bourgeois nationalist leaders formed the Tamil United Front (TUF). In 1975 its leader Chelvanayakam declared secession to be the goal of the Tamil people. In 1977, the TUF was Reformed as the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), and in the subsequent general election asked the Tamil people for a mandate to secede as the separate State of Tamil Eelam. The TULF stated in its election manifesto:
What the TULF was asking, in terms of the national question, was a plebiscite on secession. The people understood it as such and overwhelmingly expressed their collective national will to secede. They expressed, through the democratic political process, their thirst for self determination. This was their answer to a quarter century of national oppression. It was thus the task of the leadership to translate that will into reality.
This was a turning point. The Tamils no longer wanted to live in union with the Sinhalese but decided to organize themselves as a political state, separate from them. The historic significance of this decision was that the union, devised for the Sinhalese and the Tamils by their British overlords in 1833, had failed to be satisfactory or workable, after 115 years of British rule and 30 years of independence.
There was an important political dimension to this decision to seek secession. This was the role of young Tamils in the 1977 election. They had become the worst sufferers because of the “Sinhala only” law, their educational disadvantages, the employment impasse, the economic stagnation of the Tamil areas and other forms of national oppression.
From 1972, they were subjected to arbitrary arrests, and often to beatings by the police, whenever they protested against the various discriminatory measures employed by the United Front government to shut them out of the university, and whenever they organized black flag demonstrations against visiting ministers. These led them to form themselves as the “Tigers” to oppose and resist national oppression.
They were the leading force behind the TULF’s decision to secede. In fact, the TULF had simply to endorse their position, because theoretically, as we shall see, they had become familiar with Marxism-Leninism and with all of Lenin’s tracts on the “Right of [Oppressed] Nations to Self Determination”.
Just as in the 1970 election the young Sinhalese JVP had campaigned and secured victory for the United Front coalition, principally because of the UF’s socialist programme in the Joint Election Manifesto, in the 1977 election the young Tamil “Tigers” campaigned and secured victory for the TULF, principally because of the TULF’s programme for secession.
In the 1970 election, for young JVP supporters, unemployment, the high cost of living and income disparities were predominant issues which needed resolution, in the 1977 election, for the “Tigers”, national oppression, questions of education, employment, language rights, cultural discrimination, Tamil self respect and other aspects of the national question were the key issues.
Because of the role of young Tamils, the TULF won all 10 seats in the Jaffna peninsula, where it received 71.8% of the votes. Jaffna is the heartland and the intellectual capital of the Tamils, and such an absolute victory on the question of secession was decisive. Jaffna had given the lead in all political and social questions among the Tamils since political unification in 1833. The TULF won the four other seats in the northern province mainland, and in the eastern province it won Trincomalee, Batticaloa (lst member), Paddirippu and Pottuvil (2nd member). The young Tamils were active mainly in the peninsula and in the important town constituencies of the eastern province. The results indicated that they had won a “yes” vote in a democratic referendum. They were aware that Lenin had described the referendum as follows:
That the young Tamil “Tigers” based their ideology and strategy for national liberation on Marxism Leninism and Lenin’s theses could be seen in Towards Socialist Eelam, a popular theoretical work published in Tamil by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, in 1980. This book is a Marxist-Leninist analysis of national struggle and class struggle and of the proletarian revolutionary strategies to be advanced concerning the Eelam national question. The second part of the book explains the failure of the young JVP revolution of 1971.
After 1977, legalized national oppression of the Tamils became the goal of the Sinhalese governments. The Proscribing of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam Law was passed in 1978, and the following year, it was repealed and replaced by the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the most draconian law ever to enter the statute book of Sri Lanka. This law did not define “terrorism” and treats every Tamil who commits “any unlawful act”, at home or abroad, as a “terrorist” liable to be detained by the police for 18 months without trial. It authorized hitherto unknown powers of entry, search, seizure and interrogation, including keeping the arrested incommunicado by the police.
The provisions of this act clearly violate the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It has been condemned by the International Commission of Jurists and its repeal has been called for by Amnesty International.
Immediately after the passing of this act, a state of emergency was declared in the Tamil areas on 11 July 1979, and President Jayewardene dispatched one of the four battalions of the Sri Lanka army to Jaffna, with a mandate, in his own words, to “wipe out” the “terrorists” demanding secession. More than 10 Tamils were arbitrarily arrested in their homes on the very first day, and the bodies of two of them—Inpam and Selvaratnam—were put on public display.
As a member of a delegation of MIRJE, a human rights organization, I subsequently interviewed the families of both and received first hand reports of how the army and police had come in, in civilian dress, and requested them to come to the gate of their houses and had taken them away for no known reason.
The army then resorted to arbitrary arrests of innocent young Tamils, detained them and engaged in systematic torture. David Selbourne, of Oxford University, poignantly described the torture the young Tamils were subjected to by the Sinhalese army in an army camp in the Tamil area:
In November 1982, repression was for the first time extended to Tamil intellectuals and Catholic priests. The only law that has been applied to the Tamil people by the Sinhalese government from the time of the 1979 declaration of the state of emergency, is the Prevention of Terrorism Act. And, according to the scope of this act, every Tamil is a possible “terrorist”. The armed patriotic resistance offered by the “Tiger” movement will be dealt with in Chapter 6.
The Tamils differ from the Sinhalese in language, religion, culture, customs and traditions. The Sri Lankan Tamils are a separate nation with their Tamil language, Hindu religion, Tamil Hindu culture and heritage, and a history of independent political organisation, in separate sovereign kingdoms m the north and east, for centuries. Equally, the Sinhalese are a separate nation with their Sinhala language, Buddhist religion, Sinhalese Buddhist culture and heritage and history of monarchical rule, in a number of Sinhalese kingdoms in the west and central areas, for centuries.
The fact that they are two ethnic nations is beyond dispute. As late as 1799, Sir Hugh Cleghorn, the first Colonial Secretary of Ceylon, wrote in the famous “Cleghorn Minute”:
Both the Sinhalese and the Tamils were subjugated in battle by the Portuguese at different periods. The Portuguese, then the Dutch and until 1833 the British ruled the Sinhalese and Tamil areas as separate domains. In 1833 they were brought together by British fiat. During the colonial period, they lived in “union but not unity” (to borrow Dicey’s phrase describing the relations between the French speaking and English speaking Canadians). The two peoples lived in concord and discord, amity and enmity, but were held together by a common master, a common language and an impartial rule .
The important fact is that, in the colonial period, they co operated and combined and yet retained their freedom to live their own life, without let or hindrance. That Tamils and Sinhalese had an equal share in the national patrimony was accepted as axiomatic. But a strong common national bond with a common culture, traditions, heroes and saints, and a common national ideology to hold the two nations together, failed to develop.
This was the case even at a time when, except at the level of the elite, the social organization of both Sinhalese and Tamils was basically non competitive and non acquisitive. Social emphasis was not on the individual but on the group, the village community. Progress or success was not the aim, and both groups, as we know today, suffered. Both were basically peasant agriculturists and the activities of the government did not touch them. The caste society of both provided considerable social cohesion, as each caste group was functionally related and dependent on the other.
All these no longer exist and competitiveness for scarce resources, and acquisition of wealth and influence, have become the objectives of a bourgeois society. These could have been held in check, or even satisfied, by a properly organised socialist society, but that was not what the ruling class wanted. The upper class, and its middle class allies, have, by their policies and propaganda, brought about the break up of the nation. These developments must be fully appreciated before we proceed to formulate the national question. In their act of self determination, through the democratic referendum of 1977, the Tamils expressed their collective desire to secede. It was a historic democratic decision but the Sinhalese political leaders were unwilling to concede the right of self determination, in the sense of its secession and political independence. The UNP, in its election manifesto of 1977, had
Yet when it came to power, with a five sixths majority, it betrayed its pledge to the people, both Tamils and Sinhalese, and took no action to solve the problems of the Tamil people. Hence, it is reasonable to assume that the 35 year old subjugation of the Tamils will continue.
President Jayewardene demonstrated this when, in October 1982, he told David Selboume:
This clearly showed that he had no comprehension of the national question. It also showed that the “Tigers” were right in their belief that there would be no peaceful, political resolution of the national question.
Hence, to achieve secession, the Tamil nation was left with no alternative but armed struggle. Basing themselves on Marxist Leninist theory, the patriotic Eelam Liberation Tigers viewed the Tamil national question, and their armed struggle, in terms of Lenin’s theoretical analysis. In a letter to Prime Minister Premadasa, released to the local press, foreign high commissions and and embassies, the Liberation Tigers declared on 20 July 1979:
We have seen that the principal factor that generated the demand for secession is national oppression by the big Sinhalese nation of the small Tamil nation. Theoretically, Tamil nation, as an oppressed nation has the right to self determination, and on the basis of a democratic referendum resolved upon secession. Some self styled Marxists in Sri Lanka, lacking in theoretical clarity, while conceding that the Tamil nation as an oppressed nation has the right to self determination contend that self determination does not include secession. The correct theoretical position has been precisely and clearly stated and restated by Lenin that self determination of nations is nothing but secession and the formation of an independent state. To clear up the theoretical muddle it is necessary to quote some passages from Lenin:
Again, Lenin formulated:
Lenin advanced the freedom of an oppressed nation to secede as a universal socialist principle of workers’ democracy. He viewed the struggle of an oppressed nation to secede as a revolutionary mass action and a necessary part of the proletarian attack on the bourgeoisie. In the case of the Tamils too, since their historic decision in the 1977 elections, the struggle for secession needs historical fulfilment, and the revolutionary struggle advanced by the Eelam Liberation Tiger Movement has been on the basis of socialist democracy and proletarian revolution. Hence it is a classic and authentic attempt to resolve the national question, and one that is sui generis and needs to be supported by all freedom lovers, liberationists, Tamil patriots and genuine Marxist Leninists.
One last point needs to be adverted to. Many readers may be left with the question as to how in the face of such genocidal repression by the state terror machine secession could be achieved and the Eelam state established. I could do no better in answer than refer to Lenin, again:
Sri Lanka presents a rich diversity of peoples and cultures, some ancient and indigenous, others modern and transplanted. From the early centuries of its long history, Sri Lanka has been a diverse society, the components of diversity being ethnicity, language and religion. l The island’s geographical proximity to India, its strategic location on the east west sea route and the mercantile and territorial encroachments of the European powers contributed to the ethno linguistic and religious make up of the country.
Every great change that swept India had its repercussions in the island and, until the beginning of the 16th Century, Sri Lanka was a pawn in the power struggles of the south Indian Tamil kingdoms of Pandya, Chola and Chera. During the four and a half centuries of European rule, beginning with the Portuguese conquest of maritime areas in 1505, the elements of diversity have kept increasing. And by the time of the British conquest, in 1796, the island had acquired its multi ethnic structure, the two well developed ethnolinguistic cultures of Sinhalese and Tamil, and the four great religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. While the island as a natural geographical unit imposed a certain unity on the people, their diverse cultures, which are a residue of history, dictated separate collective identities and solidarities.
The outstanding fact of Sri Lanka’s nationality structure is that, from ancient times and continuously over the last two millennia, two major ethnic people—the Sinhalese and the Tamils—have lived in and shared the country as co settlers This shared descent is traceable to the 2nd Century BC. The history of the people before that time has not been unravelled on a valid historical basis and is wrapped up in myths and legends invented by the Pali chronicles of the Sinhalese—the Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa—written in about the 4th and 6th Centuries AD, respectively.
Both these chronicles are verse compositions in Pali, the Buddhist scriptural language, written by Buddhist monks, not in the historical tradition but as being the words of Mahanama, the author of Mahavamsa, “for the serene joy and emotion of the piously They were written unabashedly from the Sinhalese Buddhist Standpoint, lauding the victories of the Sinhalese kings over the Tamil kings, treating the former as protectors of Buddhism and saviours of the Sinhalese, While deriding the latter as invaders, vandals, marauders and heathens.
In an effort to establish that the Sinhalese are the original occupiers of the island, the chronicles misrepresent the aboriginal Nega and Yaksha (or Raksa) Tamil people as non humans, and validate their version by creating myths about the past. yet these chronicles and their stories have been relied upon by historians for the reconstruction of the early history of the island, and this mythological history has been retold in later Sinhalese historical and literary works, and repeated in the Buddhist rituals, so that they constitute the current beliefs of the Sinhalese. They exert a direct influence on present day ethnic relations in Sri Lanka. As Walter Schwarz, a perceptive writer on the national question in Sri Lanka, has observed: “The most important effect of the early history on the minority problem of today is not in the facts but in the myths that surround them, particularly on the Sinhalese side.”2
It is not established on valid historical grounds when and how the Sinhalese emerged as an ethnic people in the country. There exists no historical evidence for a Sinhalese presence before the 2nd Century BC. The place of evidence has been taken by the Vijaya legend, invented by the authors of the chronicles. The Dipavamsa, literally “The Story of the Island” (probably written in the 4th Century AD), purports to narrate the story of the island from the earliest human times.
It introduces Vijaya, as the first occupant and founder of the Sinhalese, in these words: “This was the island of Lanka called Sihala after the lion. Listen to this chronicle of the origin of the island which I narrate.” According to the chronicle, Vijaya, the grandson of a union between a petty Indian king and a lioness, on being banished for misconduct by his father Sinhabahu (the lion armed), came with 700 men by vessels and landed on the west coast of Lanka, at a place called Tambapanni, in 543 BC, on the day Buddha died, i.e. passed into nibbana. Vijaya’s men were lured into a cave and captured by a demoness (Yaksha) queen named Kuveni. Vijaya rescued his men, married Kuveni and had a son and daughter.
Vijaya later told Kuveni that before being crowned king of Lanka he should marry a human princess. He therefore banished Kuveni and the children into the jungles, sent his ministers to the Tamil king Pandyan, who ruled the Madurai kingdom in south India, and took the king’s daughter as his wife. His men also obtained their wives from the Madurai region. Kuveni was later killed by the demons. In the jungles, the children married incestuously and had many children, from whom, the chronicle states, the Veddas3 of Sri Lanka arose.
Vijaya is said to have held his coronation and made himself the king of Lanka and ruled for 38 years from Tambapanni, his capital. He and the Tamil princess had no children and hence, on his death, his brother’s son Pandu Vasudeva came from Bengal and became the king of Lanka. This story has been re told with greater embellishment in the Mahavamsa, literally “The Story of the Great Dynasty” (written in the 6th Century AD), the source of the present day early history of Sri Lanka.
There is no historical evidence whatsoever for the arrival of Vijaya and the related story. There is no trace of a place named Sinhapura or of the petty king Sinhabahu in Bengali history. But because of their inability to account historically for the emergence of the Sinhalese, historians follow the lead of the Vijaya legend.4 Thus K.M. de Silva, Professor of History at the University of Sri Lanka, states:
On the basis of this legend, the present day Sinhalese claim that they are the first settlers and are of Aryan origin. The foremost propagandist of the Sinhala Buddhist “revival”, Anagarika Dharmapala, wrote in 1902 on the origin of the Sinhalese:
The chronicles introduce the mythical Vijaya and his men as the first settlers and proceed to misrepresent the settled Tamil Naga and Yaksha people as non humans. The former are described as “snakes” and the latter as “demons”. This has also been uncritically repeated by modern historians according to whom the Nagas and Yaksha are non humans of prehistoric times .
But it is an undeniable fact that, in the proto historic period of the island to (c.1000-100 BC), there were two Naga kingdoms, one in the north called Naga Tivu in Tamil, and called Naga Dipa in the Indian Sanskrit works, and the other in the south west, in Kelaniya. Even the Pali chronicles mention them in a different context, in connection with the purported visits of Buddha to the island. The Mahabharata and Ramayana, the two great Indian epics written in Sanskrit before the 6th Century BC mention the Naga kingdoms and their conquest by Ravanan, the Tamii Yaksha king of Lanka. So does the Greek astronomer and geographer Ptolemy, writing in the 2nd Century AD, who locates Naga Dipa in the north, covering the territory from Chilaw in the west to below Trincomalee in the east.
According to tradition, the Tamils of India and Sri Lanka are the lineal descendants of the Naga and Yaksha people. The aboriginal Nagas, called Nakar in Tamil had the cobra (Nakam, in Tamil) as their totem. The Hindu Tamils, to this day, continue to worship the cobra as a subordinate deity in the Hindu pantheon and there are many temples for the cobra deity all over north Sri Lanka.7 Equally, the Yakshas were not demons but worshippers of demons, as shown by the still prevalent practice among the Hindu Tamils of propitiating the demons, which arose out of primitive fear and belief in the destructive power of demons.
Ptolemy describes the Tamil Yaksha people:
The wearing of ear rings by both men and women is a custom still extant among the Tamils in the villages of north Sri Lanka and in south India, and the poor, unable to purchase gold ear rings, wear rolled palmyrah leaves instead. That the ancestors of the present day Tamils were the original inhabitants of Lanka is well brought out by the historian Harry Williams:
Another writer states: ” . . . long before the coming of the Sinhalese there would have been long periods when the island was inhabited by the ancestors of the present Tamil community”.9
Recent archaeological excavations of burial mounds in the old Naga Dipa area, which covered a region from Chilaw up to Trincomalee through Anuradhapura, have shown skeletal remains of a people of megalithic culture who practised inhumation as a mode of burial in the proto historic period. The artefacts found within, such as rouletted pottery with graffiti symbols, iron nails, bronze seal rings, arrow heads, spears and daggers, show that those people had a settled and civilized life. The Sangam literature (lst- 4th Century AD), reflecting the indigenous cultural tradition of the Tamils of south India, mentions inhumation as a custom then prevalent. These finds have, on paleographical reckoning, been dated to not later than the 4th Century BC 10 and the skeletal remains classified as those of south Indian type.11The north western urn burial site (Pomparippu) is said to offer many parallels with those found on the Coromandel coast of Tamil Nadu, south India. 12
Ptolemy refers to Naga kingdoms on the Coromandel coast, and towns with toponyms like Nagar Koil and Naga Patinam, appearing from the earliest times, confirm that Naga people of the same origin occupied the Tamil areas of south India and Sri Lanka. The latter may have migrated from south India in early times, when Sri Lanka was certainly joined to mainland India through the shallow ridge of sandbanks called Adam’s (or Rama’s) Bridge in the Gulf of Mannar. Furthermore, the important find of a statuette of Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of good fortune, in the Anaikoddai excavation (1982) confirms other evidence that the Naga people were Hindus and that Hinduism was the religion of the people of Sri Lanka before the introduction of Buddhism.13
The conclusions that could validly be drawn from the new historical data clearly establish that the ancestors of the present day Tamils were the original occupiers of the island, long before 543 BC, which the Pali chronicles date as the earliest human habitation of Sri Lanka.
How, then, does one explain the emergence of the Sinhalese as an ethnic entity in the island? In the 3rd Century BC (the date usually assigned is 247 BC), Buddhism was introduced into the island by missionaries led by Bikkhu (Buddhist monk) Mahinda, possibly the son of Asoka, the great Emperor of India (c 273 – 232 BC), who became converted to Buddhism and was determined to spread the religion far and wide.
Devanampriya Theesan the Tamil Hindu king of Lanka at that time, accepted the missionaries from Asoka and became converted to Buddhism. Since, in those days, the religion of the ruler became the religion of the people, and because Hinduism has always been infinitely flexible and little given to rigorous dogma, Buddhism, being an offshoot of Hinduism, spread fast in the island.
Mahinda brought not only the religions message but also the Pali canon, i.e. the scriptures as preached by Buddha in Pali, a language of Aryan people who overran India in ancient times, driving the Dravidians—the pre Aryan people of north and central India—southwards. The Buddha dhamma (the doctrine comprising the moral order), or at least the basic “five precepts” were taught to the people in Pali, and they are still recited by the Buddhists in Pali. The Sangha (the order of Buddhist monks), whose prerogative it was to know and preach the doctrine, learnt Pali in order to understand the dhamma as well as the Vinaya (rules of discipline for the Sangha). In this way, with Buddhism came Pali, a new language, and it was learnt by the bhikkhus to preach the dhamma as well as for the writing of books, just as Latin was used by the Christian clergy in medieval Europe.
In the course of time, the Sinhalese language as well as the alphabet and the script grew from the Pali language. With the spread of Buddhism and the growth of the Prakritic Sinhalese language, there occurred a religio linguistic division of the people into those who remained Hindu Tamils and the emergent Buddhists speaking the Sinhalese language. This development can be inferred from a number of Sinhalese Buddhist features in Sri Lanka. Firstly, there is no evidence whatsoever of the Sinhalese as a people, or of Sinhala as a language, before the introduction of Buddhism in 247 BC. The earliest cave inscriptions are in the same Brahmic script as the famous Rock Edicts of Asoka in western India. The Encyclopaedia Britannica states:
Secondly, the Sinhalese Buddhists, in the practice of Buddhism, have not quite succeeded in freeing themselves from their Hindu past. They continue to worship the Hindu deities, although Buddha revolted against the worship of gods and Buddhism opposes idol worship.15
Thirdly, the caste system, the central feature of Hindu society, prevails among the Sinhalese Buddhists, although Buddhism is opposed to caste. This again is a vestige of the Hindu past.
These, taken together with the historical and archaeological data outlined earlier, lead one to the irresistible conclusion that Sinhalese emerged as a result of the ascriptive cleavage consequent upon the spread of Buddhism in the Pali language. The Sinhalese, then, in terms of their origin, are not an Aryan people as popularly claimed, but Tamil people who adopted a language which developed from Pali, an Aryan dialect.
Even the pioneer Sri Lanka historian Dr G.C. Mendis, although he uncritically accepted the Vijaya legend of the chronicles, was left in doubt about its validity and observed:
” . . . it is not possible to state whether they [the Sinhalese] were Aryan by blood or whether they were a non Aryan people who had adopted an Aryan dialect as their language”.16
Equally, Dr S. Paranavitana, the former Archaeological Commissioner, stated:
There is, however, no single origin of the present day Sinhalese, as over the centuries diverse people have merged to form the Sinhalese ethnicity. The Tamils, living among the Sinhalese in the south, “gradually adopted the Sinhalese language, as some of them still do in some of the coastal districts, and were merged in the Sinhalese population”.l8
Between the 14th and 18th Centuries, large numbers of Dravidians, mostly from Malabar, south India, came over and settled and were assimilated as Sinhalese. So did the Colombo Chetties, whose ancestors came from the Chettiar community, in Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu, owing to a great famine there in the 17th Century.
Furthermore, in 1739, since Sri Narendrasinghe, the Sinhalese king of the Kandyan kingdom, had no suitable progeny to succeed him, the brother of his Tamil queen, from the Nayakkar royal dynasty in Madurai, ascended the throne and took on the Sinhalese name Sri Vijaya Rajasinghe. This line of Tamil kings continued until the Kandyan kingdom was ceded to the British in 1815. The kings of the Nayakkar dynasty took on Sinhalese names and professed Buddhism to please their subjects. So did their families, courtiers and retinue, who came over in substantial numbers.l9
Hence, in reality, as Dr N.K. Sarkar has put it: ” . . . no matter what the racial origin, little remains of the original stock, except a belief in it”.20 Broadly speaking, in terms of present day identification and self image, a Sinhalese is one who bears a Sinhalese name and speaks the Sinhala language, whatever his origins may be.
The Sinhalese people and the Sinhala language are found only in Sri Lanka. The Sinhala language is the mother tongue of the Sinhalese, who are 71.9% (69.3% in 1953) of the Sri Lankan population, today a little over 15 million. In 1953, Sinhala was the only language spoken by 58.9%, Sinhala and Tamil by 9.9% and Sinhala and English by 4.29 of persons three years and over. The Tamils (both Ceylon Tamils and “Indian” Tamils) constitute 20.5% ( 22.9% in 1953) of the Sri Lankan population. The Tamil language is the mother tongue of the Tamils and also of almost all Ceylon Muslims (or Moors) who form 6.5% of the population, and the Indian (or “Coast”) Muslims who form 0.2%. Tamil was the only language spoken by 21.6% and Tamil and English by 2.9% of persons three years and over.21
The Sinhala language grew out of Pali and is not connected to the present day Indo Aryan languages of northern India, which are all related, with varying degrees of kinship, to Sanskrit language. The vocabulary consists basically of Pali words with many Sanskrit and Tamil loan words. The long vowels of the Pali words are shortened and the double consonants reduced to single ones. Dr W.S. Karunatillake admits:
Sinhalese is written in a variation of the Pali script, but in rounded letters like those of the Dravidian language scripts, closely resembling Telegu letters. In the first century AD, the Sinhalese alphabet showed a sudden deviation from the letters inscribed in the rocks and resembled those in the inscriptions of the Andhra kingdom, and was probably introduced from there. At that time, Andhra was a great centre of Buddhism, with the famed Amaravati and Nagarjunikonda, on the river Krishna. And, according to Benjamin Rowland, in his Art and Architecture of India, the Nagarjunikonda “monasteries included one building specifically reserved for resident monks from Ceylon”.
Until the 6th Century, the Sinhalese language remained in its Prakritic stage, and it was only by the 10th Century that the language and script developed almost to its present form. Pali died out in India by about the 12th Century but is used as the standard language of Theravada Buddhism, which prevails in Burma, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Kampuchea.
The earliest Sinhalese literary works were produced towards the end of the 10th Century. Much literature was produced in the 13th and 14th Centuries, all by bhikkhus, and this is considered to be the classical period of Sinhalese literature. They were all of Buddhist religious inspiration, comprising commentaries on sacred texts and elaborations of the Jatakas (the tales of previous births of Buddha). As the premier work of Sinhalese poetry, Kavsilumina, states: “The choicest flower of the tree of scholarship is the portrayal of the grandeur of Buddha.” Secular literature began only in the 20th Century.
Buddhism and Hinduism were the only religions of the Sinhalese and Tamils, respectively, until, following upon the Portuguese conquest of the littoral areas in 1505, Catholicism was introduced by the Portuguese and a minority of the Sinhalese Buddhists and Hindu Tamils became converted to it Later, under the British conquest and occupation (1796 – 1947), there were further conversions to Protestant Christianity by both Sinhalese and Tamils, particularly the English educated elite. Today, 67.4% are Buddhists (all Sinhalese), 17.69 are Hindus (all Tamils), 7.1% are Muslims, 6.4% are Catholics and 1.4% are Protestant Christians. 93.5% of the Sinhalese are Buddhists and 6.5% are Catholics or Protestant Christians. Of the Tamils, 81% are Hindus and the rest are Catholic or Protestant Christians.
Religious division has taken place in such a way that being a Buddhist implies being a Sinhalese, and being a Hindu implies being a Tamil. Despite this contrasting ethno religious configuration, there has been no conflict between the two on religious grounds. Between the Buddhists and Muslims there have been conflicts, such as the 1915 riots, and also sporadic fighting in recent times over religious differences. There were also clashes between the Sinhalese Buddhists and Sinhalese Catholics in the early 1960s over Catholic dominance of the public and defence services, over education and over what the Buddhist chauvinists then objected to as the Catholic clergy “representing a foreign power” and engaging in “Catholic action”, i.e. insidious priestly intervention in the recruitment and promotion of Catholics in government jobs.
The Mahavamsa links the story of the landing of Vijaya, the “origin myth”, to a series of religious myths regarding the place of Buddhism in Lanka, as ordained by Buddha. According to the chronicle, Vijaya landed on the day Buddha passed into nibbana (death and enlightenment). Both these events are recorded as having occurred in 543 BC. The chronicle states:
In this way, the chronicle vests the “origin myth” with a religious significance. Even more important is the assertion in the chronicle that Buddha, just before his death, summoned Sakka, the king of gods and the divine protector of the sasana (the dhamma doctrine as taught by Buddha), and instructed him:
By such injunctions of the Master, the chronicle represents Vijaya and his supposed descendants the Sinhalese Buddhists—as a chosen people with the special mission of preserving the Buddhist religion in Sri Lanka.
These are reinforced by further myths of visits of Buddha to the island, to make the “pious” believe that the island has been consecrated by Buddha. His first visit is set out thus:
According to the chronicle, this visit was to Mahiyangana, in the south east, where Buddha is said to have quelled the heathen Yakshas. His second is said to be to Naga Dipa, in the north, where he quelled the Nagas. On his third visit, Buddha is said to have gone to Kelaniya and several other places, including Anuradhapura, and “left traces of his footprints plain to see on Sumanakuta”. i.e. Adam’s Peak.
In the 1960s, when the renowned archaeologist Paranavitana (himself a Buddhist), in an attempt to demythologize these tales, declared that the chronicle’s account of Buddha’s visits was pure legend, the bhikkhus raised a hue and cry. These myths haunt the minds of the people and prevent honest scientific inquiry into Sri Lanka’s antiquity.
In their myth making endeavour, the chroniclers falsified not only the early history of the island but even the great historical event of Buddha’s nibbana. They wrongly took 543 BC as the year of Buddha’s nibbana and made the supposed arrival of Vijaya coincide with it.
Wilhelm Geiger and Mabel Bode the eminent scholars of Pali Buddhism, date Buddha’s nibbana in 483 BC. According to the views of such scholars as General Cunningham, T.W. Rhys-Davids, Max Muller, Vincent Smith, Percival Spear and H. Parker, Buddha’s nibbana could not have occurred before 486 BC. D.C. Sircar, the epigraphist of the government of India, convincingly calculates nibbana to have occurred in 486 BC.23 This is 57 years subsequent to the date stated by the Mahavamsa.
When such a great historical and religious event of international importance could be distorted to suit the whims of the author of the chronicle, could any reliance be placed on the other stories of the chronicle? That they were written as panegyrics “for the serene joy and emotion of the pious” has been forgotten. On the distortion of historical events by Mahavamsa, H . Parker in Ancient Ceylon observes:
Regarding Buddha’s visits, there is no evidence whatsoever, not even legends in India or any of the Buddhist countries, to support them. This genre of Mahavamsa stories is nothing but a tangled web of cleverly contrived fictions purely for “the serene joy and emotion of the pious”.
But because of their unquestioned repetition in later historical and literary works (Culavamsa, Pujavaliya, Thupavamsa, Rajavaliya, etc.), all of religious inspiration, and on being orally transmitted from generation to generation in the Buddhist rituals they occupy a revered place in present day Sinhalese Buddhist popular beliefs. Sinhalese scholars have represented these myths and fictions as the early history of Lanka. In 1956, Dr Walpola Rahula, the scholar monk wrote that “for more than two millennia the Sinhalese have been inspired that they were a nation brought into being for the definite purpose of carrying the torch lit by Buddha”.25
Contemporary Buddhism in Sri Lanka has little of the doctrinal and philosophical goals of the ancestral religion. The doctrine’s prime non worldly goal of striving for salvation, by withdrawal and ascetic renunciation of worldly craving, has been drastically transformed in recent times by selfstyled “revivalists” under the slogan of a “return to righteousness”.
As such, the Buddhism of the urban elite vigorously pursues the goods and wealth of this world. It is also markedly anti Buddhist in being aggressively intolerant of other religions and ethnic entities, and is encrusted with grand visions of Sinhalese Buddhist domination of the island. Village Buddhism, on the other hand, is steeped in magic and exorcism, folklore and myths, pilgrimages and pageantry. While the belief in the truth of the doctrine certainly prevails and iconic images of Buddha are ubiquitous in Sri Lanka, the knowledge of the doctrine and the practice of the Buddhist ethical way of life are conspicuously absent at all levels. Surveying the scene, Dr E.W. Adikaram, a lay Buddhist scholar, recently protested:
Though Buddhism infinitely values human life as being the one and only condition from which nibbana is attainable, Sri Lanka is reputed to have the highest murder rate per capita in the world. The Mahavamsa made a virtue of killing in defence of Buddhism, in its panegyric of the victories of the Sinhalese prince Dutugemunu over the Tamil king Ellalan, in the 2nd Century BC war in which thousands of Tamils were killed.
The chronicle capriciously states that Dutugemunu’s war cry was: “Not for kingdom, but for Buddhism.” According to the chronicle, Dutugemunu, in repentance over the lives lost in war, addressed the eight arhats (saints):
The arhats replied:
This 2nd Century BC war was recalled by Sinhalese Buddhist chauvinists and, in 1956, Dr Walpola Rahula characterised it as the “beginning of nationalism among the Sinhalese”.27 on the perpetuation of this myth, Professor Gananath Obeyesekere states:
The Sinhalese Buddhist collective consciousness is symbolized in pilgrimages and pereheras (religious processions), bana (sermon preaching), sil ( meditation), pirit (reciting of sacred texts to exorcise evil spirits), vesak (celebration of the birth, enlightenment and passing away of Buddha), dana (giving of alms), tovile (devil dancing) and other ceremonies.
The Sinhalese are broadly divided into the low country and up country (or Kandyan) Sinhalese. This division is not ethnic, but came about as a result of the European occupation of the littoral and the rise of the Kandyan kingdom, which prevailed from the 16th Century till its cession to the British in 1815.
The low country Sinhalese are now 40%, and the Kandyans 29%, of the total Sri Lankan population. The former occupy the western and southern coastal, mainly urban, areas and were subject to European influence continuously from the time of the Portuguese conquest. The latter live in the central highlands and the north central plains, mainly rural areas, and had a traditional social structure and way of life centred around the monarchy, feudal aristocracy and Buddhist monasteries.
Both the low country and the Kandyan Sinhalese are predominantly Buddhists. Of the Sinhalese Christians, the low country Sinhalese are about 62% and the rest are Kandyans. Although the cultural differences between the two were slight, the Kandyan traditional elite opposed the early British attempts to administratively integrate the Kandyan with the low country regions. And in the 20th Century constitutional reform representations, the English educated Kandyan elite stridently asserted that they were a “nation” separate and distinct, for fear of domination by their more articulate low country brethren.29
The personal laws of the Kandyans are their own customary laws, whereas the low country Sinhalese come under Roman Dutch law, introduced during the Dutch occupation of the littoral from 1656 to 1795. The low country Sinhalese were the first to take advantage of the political and economic changes which colonialism brought about. They serviced the coffee plantations established by the British as building and cart transport contractors, artificers, arrack and toddy renters and retail traders, and with the profits earned they bought coffee, coconut and later rubber estates.
It was also from the low country Sinhalese that the British recruited the local intermediaries for the consolidation of colonialism. Those who played this role soon abandoned the Buddhist religion and embraced Christianity, put on Western dress, repudiated traditional customs, values and food, and adopted European customs, consumption patterns and life styles.
Their leaders were soon co opted as nominated members into the Governor’s Legislative Council, and they advanced politically through the Ceylon National Congress, founded in 1920. Since independence, the low country Sinhalese have provided the leadership of all Sinhalese political parties, with the exception of Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike (nee Ratwatte), who, being born into a Kandyan feudal aristocratic (Radala) family, married S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, a scion of a low country Sinhalese family, which received great rewards and patronage from the British.
There exist significant internal differences within the Sinhalese on the basis of caste. A caste society has endogamous kinship groups, with hierarchical ordering of occupations and services on a hereditary basis. Caste divisions were integral to, and a surviving remnant of, ancient Hindu society. There is no certainty as to how it arose but has been perpetuated by the old Hindu conception of the group as the basic unit of organization, and by the belief in karma, i.e. the state of life a person is born into is due to his actions in his previous birth.
But, although Buddhism and Christianity are theoretically opposed to caste divisions, such divisions prevail among the Sinhalese, low country and Kandyan, Buddhists and Christians, alike. But the Sinhalese caste divisions are not as deep, nor their influence so pervasive, nor their observance so rigid, as among the Hindu Tamils. In particular, there are no Brahmin priestly caste and no “untouchables” among the Sinhalese.
The conventional “highest” caste are the Goyigama caste Sinhalese, in origin agriculturalists, and they predominate among both the low country and the Kandyans. They form about 51% of the low country Sinhalese and nearly 85% of the Kandyan Sinhalese.30 Within the low country Sinhalese, the Karava come next (about 17%), followed by the Salagama (about 8%) and the Durava (about 6%). Those who constitute the last three castes are mainly Tamils and Malayalis who came from south India between the 14th and 18th Centuries as fishermen, cinnamon peelers, etc. and were not socially accepted by the Goyigama, although they became Sinhalised by acculturation. The “low” or “depressed” castes among the low country Sinhalese are the Batgam, Wahumpara, Berava, Hina, Rajaka, etc.
Traditional Kandyan society was one of status based feudal relations between the landowning aristocracy, or the Radala (Kandyan Goyigama), and the landless who rendered various obligatory services to the former. The landless comprised a number of Goyigama sub castes placed lower down in the ritual hierarchy. There were also a few non Goyigama low caste groups. Professor Bryce Ryan, in his study of Sinhalese caste patterns, observed:
The caste division among the Sinhalese is most evident in endogamy, cross caste marriages being rare compared to inter ethnic marriages and marriages outside one’s religion. In the rural, particularly Buddhist areas, caste and class boundaries often coincide: the rich and the dominant are the Goylgama; the poor and the oppressed are of low caste.
During the British colonial period there were considerable factional rivalries for political and economic ascendance between the elite of the low country Goyigama and the Karava; and between the low country Goyigama and the Kandyan Goyigama. The Tamil Vellala (the equivalent highest” caste to the Goyigama) elite always combined with the low country Goyigama and against the Karava, on the basis of upper caste exclusiveness and loyalties.
It must be remembered that inter dining and intermarriage between castes was taboo. With the bourgeoisie, loyalties were based first on class, then on caste, and ethnicity at that time did not seem a likely framework for domination. Because of this, the Goyigama always treated the Karava with contempt, while it freely coalesced with the Tamil Vellala.
This was to have its repercussions later on, when, mainly in order to crack this low country Goyigama Tamil Vellala alliance, the Karava elite created the “Sinhala only” law and became its most unrelenting agitators. Nearly all the front line “Sinhalese only” zealots, and the bhikkhu campaigners of the Ramanya sect, were Karavas.
From that time to the present, it has been the Karava pressure group that has determined the course of the Sinhalese Tamil ethnic conflict in the country. Briefly stated, it has a powerful vested interest, for it is also basically a lower middle class group and earlier found itself in competition (in education, employment, etc.) with the Tamils, predominantly a functional lower middle class community. The Karava took a head start in servicing the plantations and serving the colonial administration, and were initially in the ascendance, but were ousted from about 1920 by the low country Goyigama elite .
Sinhalese collective identity, in terms of self ascription, is not an ethnic identity but an ethno religious identity—Sinhalese Buddhist. The dominant distinguishing mark is Buddhist religious culture, which is central in the self perception of the Sinhalese Buddhists. The emergence of the Sinhalese Catholics and Protestants brought about a cleavage in Sinhalese identity. To the Sinhalese Buddhists—in particular, to the Kandyans the Sinhalese non Buddhists are as much non Sinhalese as Tamils or Muslims, for their point of reference is religion and not linguistic identity.
Professor Gananath Obeyesekere pointed out that this self image resulted from the conversion of some Sinhalese to Christianity.
This religious centrality in the self perception of the Sinhalese Buddhists is not something new; it was so in the pre colonial times. Professor Obeyesekere states:
The Catholic and Protestant Sinhalese, too, define themselves more in terms of their respective religion than their linguistic culture. It is their religious sub culture that is critical in their self ascription. In fact, when English held sway, i.e. before the “Sinhala only” law in 1956, the Sinhalese Christians found more in common with the Tamil Christians than with the Sinhalese Buddhists. And up to the “Sinhala only” law, there was considerable religious tolerance between the Sinhalese Buddhists and the Tamil Hindus.
But today the Tamils, be they Hindus or Christians, view the Sinhalese as a monolithic entity united in a single endeavour to subjugate and destroy their identity as a distinct ethnic entity in the country.
The Sri Lanka Tamils of today are the lineal descendants of the original inhabitants of the island. To this ancient ancestry, the latter day invasions by the armies of the south Indian Tamil Pandyan, Chola and Chera kings, and those raised by the usurping Sinhalese kings, made successive additions. In the proto historic period of the island, the early totemistic Tamil tribes migrated from their homelands in south India and settled in the north, in the south west around Kelaniya and in the south east around the river Walawe Ganga. In the north, they founded a sovereign kingdom called Naga Dipa. In the 2nd Century AD, Ptolemy located the earlier Naga Dipa kingdom as covering the territory from Chilaw in the west to below Trincomalee in the east. The ancient Tamil name of the island was Tamaraparani. From those ancient times of the Naga Dipa kingdom, the Tamils have occupied the northeastern littoral, which is their exclusive homeland.
At the time of the introduction of Buddhism (3rd Century BC), Tamil kingly rule was centred in Anuradhapura, the ancient capital which the Tamil kings founded. Devanampriya Theesan, the Tamil king at that time, was followed by Senan and Kuddikan (177 155 BC) and by Ellalan (145 101 BC). With the defeat of Ellalan by the Sinhalese prince Dutugemunu, in 101 BC, which is a historical fact, Anuradhapura became the seat of the Sinhalese dynasty.
The popularized Sinhalese version of Sri Lanka history, however, represents Devanampriya Theesan as a Sinhalese king (which is wrong, for, as was earlier contended, Sinhalese emerged subsequent to the introduction of Buddhism), and Ellalan (called Elara in Sinhalese) as “a Chola prince, who invaded Ceylon . . . captured the [Sinhalese] government at Anuradhapura and ruled for about forty five years”.33
The fact that Tamil kings ruled from Anuradhapura before the rise of the Sinhalese kings is borne out by Mahavamsa itself, which in Chapter 24, with its usual mystification of kings and events, states that when Dutugemunu informed his father Kavantissa, ruler of the southern principality of Ruhuna,that he was going to declare war against the Tamils, his father replied: “Let Tamils rule that side of the Maha Ganga [now Mahaweli Ganga] and the districts this side of the Maha Ganga are more than enough for us to rule.”
The chronicle goes on to say that Dutugemunu’s first battle was with a Tamil petty king Chathan, who was ruling Mahiyangana in the south east, and thereafter he is said to have fought 31 Tamil petty kings from Mahiyangana to Anuradhapura, before he met Elara in battle.
These episodes from Mahavamsa clearly indicate the location and area the Tamils occupied, and contradict the notion that Ellalan was a Chola invader from India. Even after the passing of Anuradhapura into the hands of the Sinhalese kings, a number of Tamil kings at various times ruled over the Rajarata kingdom.
The history of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka after Ellalan’s death is lost in obscurity as, for the next 1,000 years, the Pali chronicles describe only the struggles of the Sinhalese king with the invading south Indian Tamil forces. Hence there is no continuous history of the fortunes of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka until 1214, when an independent Tamil kingdom, with its capital in Jaffna, came into existence.
From that time, Sri Lanka was divided into two ethno linguistic nationstates; the Tamils in the north and east, and the Sinhalese in the south and west the two effectively separated by impenetrable jungle. These two ethno linguistic nations remained separate and isolated by reason of separate political loyalties and differences in language, religion, culture and customs.
According to Ibn Battuta, a North African Muslim traveller who visited Ceylon in 1344, the Tamil king Ariya Chakravarti, who had his royal palace in Jaffna, was a powerful ruler who owned sea going vessels and a cultured man who could converse in Persian.34
Then, in 1505, the Portuguese conquered the maritime Sinhalese kingdom of Kotte, near Colombo, and for over a century attempted to conquer the Tamil kingdom, but met the Tamil military forces in losing battles. The Tamil king Sankili gave great assistance to the Sinhalese king of Kandy by obtaining reinforcements from south India in the latter’s war against the Portuguese. This made the latter determined to conquer the Tamil kingdom.
In 1621, the Portuguese finally won the war of conquest, thanks to their superiority in steel and gunpowder, captured the Tamil king Sankili and took him as captive to their headquarters in Goa, India, where he was hanged. For a few years thereafter, the Tamils continued their resistance to foreign rule, under the leadership of a coastal petty king, Varnakulathian, but were subjugated.
The Portuguese administered the Tamil “Jaffna Patnam”, as they called it, as a separate domain from their Sinhalese maritime possession. So did the Dutch, who captured it from the Portuguese. In 1802, by the Treaty of Ancient Holland ceded her possessions in Sri Lanka to the British, who also Continued to retain the separate identity of the Tamil areas until 1833, when, for the first time, for administrative convenience, the British unified the low country Sinhalese, the Kandyan and Tamil areas, and brought them under a Single unitary political authority—the government of Ceylon.
In this way, the Tamils and the Sinhalese were defeated, severally and at different times, in battle with the Portuguese conquistadores. Their separate collective identities and political loyalties were extinguished by conquest and were brought within a unitary Ceylonese nation state.
Sir Robert Brownrigg, an early British governor of what were then the separate (Tamil) Jaffna Patnam and the low country Sinhalese region, wrote in his despatch dated 10 July 1813 to the Secretary of State for Colonies:
Throughout the British colonial period, the Sinhalese and the Tamil people remained equal in their subordination to the British raj. Both Sinhalese and Tamil languages were also equal in their subordination to English, and so were Buddhism and Hinduism to Christianity.
According to the 1971 census, Ceylon Tamils numbered 1,415,567, or 11.7% of the population, and the Indian Tamils, who were recruited as labour for the British plantations in the l9th Century and settled in Sri Lanka, were 9.4%. Tamil is also the mother tongue of almost all the Muslims, who are 6.7% of the population. As such, Tamil is the mother tongue of 27.8% of the people of Sri Lanka.
In India, Tamils number 50 million and live in Tamil Nadu state, extending from Pulicat Lake to Cape Camorin, and from the Western Ghats to Coromandel coast—the homeland of Tamils in India. There are substantial settled Tamil communities in Malaysia and Singapore, and in smaller numbers in Burma, Fiji, Mauritius, South Africa, Jamaica, Trinidad and Guyana; their forefathers were recruited in south India under the indentured labour system, by the British in the 19th Century, to work in the plantations that were then being opened up. Although the Tamils have one generic culture, because of this diaspora there are variations in dialect and distinct sub cultural characteristics.
From 1956, large numbers of educated Sri Lanka Tamils have emigrated as a direct result of Sinhalese being made the only official language, of escalating violence owing to ethnic conflict and of government discrimination of Tamils in employment and other fields. Today, these Tamil emigrants constitute sizeable numbers in Britain, the United States, Canada and Australia They have chosen to live in these countries, amidst alien cultures, racial discrimination and low social status, rather than submit to indignities and humiliation in their own country. From the mid 1970s, a number of political activists and freedom fighters demanding a separate Tamil state of Eelam, comprising the north and the east, have fled from police and army repression instigated by the Sri Lanka government and found asylum in India, Britain, France and West Germany.
The Tamils are Dravidians, an ethnic division (earlier believed to be only a linguistic division from the Aryans) which includes the Canarese, Malayalis and Andhra people who occupy the whole of south India. Tamil is the oldest and the principal Dravidian language; in fact, “Dravida” and “Tamil” are two forms of the same word. The Tamils claim that the word “Tamil” means sweetness. Karl Graul, the eminent German philologist, says:
In fact, the greatness of the Tamil language, and its antiquity, has been proclaimed not only by Tamils but by foreign philologists such as Pope, Caldwell, Ellis (British) Zeigenbalg and Fabricus (German), Roberto di Nobili and Constantine Beshi (Italian) and Kamil Zvelebil (Czech).
The Tamils have an ancient literary and cultural heritage. The first Tamil grammar, Tholkapiyam, was compiled as early as the first millennium BC. The classical Sangam literature dates from the 1st to the 4th Centuries AD and consists of a collection of poems including the Eight Anthologies (Ettutogai) and Ten Idylls (Pattupaatu) and a number of literary works dealing with war, love, religion and society. To these were added, in the 6th Century, the lyrical epic works Silapadikaram and Manimekhalai and the two didactic works Thirukkural and Naladiyar. The Ceylon Tamils have maintained their own separate and distinct linguistic and cultural continuum in the island for so many centuries that in reality the Tamil literary and cultural heritage of south India operates only as a source of historical inspiration, particularly in the present context.
As noted earlier, Hinduism was the only religion of the Tamils until the advent of European powers led to the introduction of Christianity and the conversion of a minority of Tamils to Catholic or Protestant Christianity Hinduism is the traditional religion of India and contemporary Hinduism is a synthesis between Aryan Brahamanistic Vaisnavism and Dravidian Saivism (a cult exalting Siva as the Supreme Being) and Hindu practices. The latter alone prevails among the Sri Lanka Hindus.
Hindu religious practices consist, in the main, of the worship of deities and a host of rituals. Hinduism is a religion without missionaries, and is not an “organized” religion. Conversion to it is technically difficult because a Hindu is born into a particular caste, which the Hindus believe is predetermined according to one’s Karma, actions in a previous life which influence the present and future. These notions greatly influence both the religious and social life of Hindu Tamils.
The Tamil ethnic identity remains a linguistic and cultural identity, unlike the all inclusive ethno religious identity of the Sinhalese Buddhists To the Tamils, it is the language culture index that is dominant and commands loyalty, not any particular religious adherence. The Sri Lanka Hindus faced no such religious problems as the Hindu Muslim confrontation in India. The original link between Tamil ethnicity and the Hindu religion has come to be severed, and the Sri Lanka Hindus effectively regard religion as a matter of private conscience. The Hindus have never called for any official position for their religion in the affairs of state and do not exert any religious political
The introduction of Christianity did not cause any split in Tamil ethnicity or self perception, nor lead to the emergence of any perceptible antithesis between Tamil Hindus and Tamil Catholics or Tamil Christians. This is so despite the fact that 81% of Tamils are Hindus. And the Hindu revivalist movement initiated by Arumuga Navalar (1829 1870) to denounce Christianity and regenerate Hinduism did not evoke much public enthusiasm.
The strongest attack on Christianity was by the Buddhist and not by the Hindu revivalists. This ethno linguistic primacy in Tamil collective identity is evident in the acceptance of S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, a Christian, as the leader of the (Tamil) Federal Party (FP), and later of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), and also in the comfortable majorities he won from a predominantly Hindu electorate from 1947.
At the same time, G.G. Ponnambalam, the veteran leader of the rival Tamil Congress (TC), although a Hindu, suffered defeat at the hands of Alfred Durayappah, a Christian, in 1965, and C.X. Martyn a Catholic, in 1970, in Jaffna, another predominantly Hindu electorate. On the contrary, a non Buddhist Sinhalese rarely contests a Buddhist seat and no Christian has been the leader of any of the Sinhalese political parties, for Sinhala Buddhist identity is a sine qua non for leadership of political parties, including even the “socialist” Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), the radical Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Communist Party (CP).
An important facet of Tamil collective identity is that, owing to centuries of an insular linguistic and cultural way of life and a shared historical experience, the Sri Lankan Tamils possess and assert an identity distinct and separate from both the Tamils of south India and the Indian Tamils.
They almost consciously cut themselves off from the former because of their desire for a unified polity in which they felt their future laid. They also prided themselves on speaking “pure” Tamil, in contrast to Madras (south Indian) Tamil; which is heavily laden with Telugu and Mayalalam words. With the plantation Tamils, the Sri Lankan Tamils had no connection whatsoever until recent times, and then it was a tenuous political link at leadership level. This link led most of the Tamil bourgeois MPs to join in the campaign of the Sinhalese political class, soon after independence, to deprive working class plantation Tamils of their Sri Lankan citizenship and franchise.
This orientation of the Sri Lankan Tamils has driven them into such a critical situation that, even in the face of the gravest threat to their continued survival as a nation, they are unwilling to compromise with their separateness from the Tamils of mainland India, or to break with their integration (scarcely more than a century old) with the rest of the island.
Tamil political consciousness has always been innately conservative, and Tamil leadership has lacked the perspicacity to comprehend, and the dynamism to come to grips with, the nature and sweep of Sinhalese policies.
Hence the Tamil political leadership has evinced no genuine desire to recreate an independent Tamil state. And the alternative of seceding, with a view to confederating with the Tamil Nadu state or federating with the Indian federal union, has not even entered the realms of political debate.
Tamil society, from the earliest times, was caste based, but not on the lines of the familiar fourfold division of the Aryan caste system. Caste stratification among the Tamils has a variation of its own. The “highest” caste are not the priestly Brahmins but the Vellala, who form about 75% of the Tamils. Caste and class boundaries among the Tamils coincide, and the Tamil “bourgeoisie” and political elite are the Vellalas. The Karayars, equivalent to the Sinhalese Karava, are the next in size and importance. There are then several lower castes, descending in order of importance of the services required by the Vellala in the traditional society, and affected with increasing degrees of pollution in the eyes of the Vellala. The lowliest are the “untouchable” Pariah, the scavengers.
Much of the early sharpness of caste differences has now been blunted by mobilisation and agitation at the political level and changed socioeconomic conditions Rules of endogamy continue to be rigidly observed, but concepts of purity and pollution, and the hierarchical ordering of occupations, are a thing of the past. “Untouchability” and its attendant degradations have virtually ceased to exist, and discrimination in public against lower castes is banned by the Prevention of Social Disabilities Act, 1957.
Traditionally, the Tamils lived by agriculture in the “dry” or “arid” zones less favourably endowed by nature than the “wet” zones occupied by the Sinhalese. As a result, the Tamils took advantage of the colonial government’s decision to open the administrative service to locals proficient in the English language. They studied English in the Christian missionary colleges established in Jaffna, and, in open competition with the rest of the population, entered the civil, clerical, technical and professional services in significant numbers.
This avenue of employment gave increased incentive for English education, which the Tamils came to venerate, and government service became their biggest—indeed their only major—industry. Fortified with English education, some Tamils emigrated to Malaya and found employment in the then Federated Malay States government service. At independence in 1948 Tamils occupied about 30S0 of the positions in the government service and an equal percentage of places in the University of Ceylon. The attractions of white collar employment weaned later generations away from agriculture, dependent as it was on the vagaries of the weather.
These made the Tamils virtually a lower middle class community in the island. And, in the competitive context in which they found themselves they developed the middle class virtues of hard work, thrift, loyalty and single minded devotion to duty, and the conservative traits of security, narrow individualism and slow advancement. These developments tied them firmly to the government and the nerve centre in south Sri Lanka, where the Tamil political leaders, mainly lawyers, made their money and reputations and had a personal interest in remaining.
Hence their policy of seeking to protect future interests of the Tamils within the existing political structure. This has today come under fire from the new generation of young Tamils in Jaffna, who, feeling the brunt of discrimination, deprivation of language rights and the indignity of living as aliens in their own country, have taken up arms in the struggle for liberation and for a Separate Tamil state of Eelam in the north and east of Sri Lanka.
The so called Indian Tamils are in the main the descendants of the workers imported from the Tamil areas of south India by the British planters, with the assistance of the colonial government, from the 1840s, as cheap labour for the large scale coffee and later tea plantations in the hill country areas. They arrived in gangs of 25 to 100, each under a kangany (leader) as the recruiting agent. Beginning with about 3,000 in 1839, the arrivals increased to 77,000 in 1844. With the establishment of tea plantations in the 1880s, more workers, men and women, arrived. Although in the coffee era they came mainly as migrant workers for seasonal coffee plucking, with the establishment of tea plantations which required intensive labour they came as immigrant workers and settled in the island.
In the 1911 census, when they were separately enumerated as Indian Tamils, they totalled 530,983 and outnumbered the Ceylon Tamils (528,024). On arrival, they were hired by the estates but continued under the kangany, who then became their labour contractor and supervisor They were paid a pittance of a wage and housed in barrack like ghettos, back to back 10 by12 feet “line” rooms within the estates. Nearly all of them were poor and illiterate and often belonged to lower caste groups, accustomed to social inferiority, discrimination and oppression. In Sri Lanka, they had no contact with the world outside the estate and lived wholly alienated from the surrounding Sinhalese villagers, separated from them by ethnicity, language, culture and religion. Their collectivized working life and their presence in alien surroundings made them hold on to their Indian roots.
To the Sinhalese, they were a slaving Tamil community, and the Sri Lanka Tamils regarded them with condescension. Their enslaved and miserable plight lowered the esteem of Tamils in particular, and India and Indians in general, in the eyes of the Sinhalese people. Although their enterprise and toil opened up the forests, hills and valleys of central Sri Lanka for coffee, tea, rubber and cocoa, and their cheap labour laid the foundations of the island’s prosperity based on those exports, in human terms they remained a classic agricultural proletariat and, as a class, little better off than bonded slaves.
The Indian Tamils do not express their collective identity in terms of language, culture or religion. It is their class identity that is always in the forefront. From the 1930s, they came to be organized into trade unions and, by the 1950s, every Indian Tamil was a member of a union, often allied to the left wing political parties. Their distinctive position as the largest proletarian force and their unionisation, resulting in class solidarity and militancy, brought about substantial improvements in their previously exploited working life.
But soon they came under trade unions organized by second generation leaders of their own community, and their strength came to be dissipated in inter union rivalries and attempts to bolster the self image of their leaders. The Ceylon Indian Congress (CIC), which in the 1940s was the representative union and political wing of the Indian Tamil workers, splintered in the 1950s into the Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC) and the Democratic Workers’ Congress (DWC), with the leadership of both allied to capitalist interests.
In 1927, the Donoughmore Constitutional Reform Commission estimated that 40% to 50% of the Indian Tamils could be regarded as permanent residents of Sri Lanka. In 1938, the Jackson Report on Immigration estimated that 70% to 80% of them were permanently settled. It is therefore reasonable to assume that at independence in 1948 nearly all of them, numbering about 900,000 were permanently settled in Sri Lanka. The Indian Tamils voted in the 1931 and 1935 elections for the colonial State Council and in the 1947 election for the first parliament, to which power was transferred at independence. In the 1947 election, eight Indian Tamil members of parliament, of whom six were from the CIC, were elected, and their strength bolstered the Tamil representation to 24 of the 95 elected members.
But soon after independence, the government of D.S. Senanayake enacted the Ceylon Citizenship Act, 1948, which made the Indian Tamils non citizens. In the following year, by the Ceylon (Parliamentary Elections) Amendment Act, they were disfranchised. In this way, they became not only voteless but also stateless, for Articles 5 and 8 of the Constitution of India defined citizenship in terms which excluded persons of Indian origin settled outside India
The origins of the Muslims (also called “Moors”) of Sri Lanka remain obscure. Though the presence of some Muslims who came as traders to the island can be traced to about the 10th Century, the Muslims became a settled community only from about the 12th Century. They came to the island for trade but it is not certain whether they are of Arab or Indian descent
Just before the creation of Muslim representation in the Legislative Council in 1889, there arose a controversy as to their origin and ethnicity, as the Tamil member had hitherto been considered their representative, an arrangement in which the Muslims had acquiesced. P. Ramanathan, the then Tamil member contended that the Muslims originated in south India and were Tamils who had embraced Islam.35 Professor Vijaya Samaraweera states:
The Muslim spokesmen sought to make out that their ancestors came as traders or were the Hashemites who left Arabia in the 7th Century on account of persecution by a new ruling dynasty.
Tamil is the mother tongue of nearly all the Muslims, but they do not seek their collective identity in language or culture but in their religion Islam. They possess religious unity but lack a common ethno cultural unity and therefore do not make a distinct ethnic entity. From early times they have been dispersed all over the island and do not have a defined territory in the island as their homeland.
An early 20th Century impression of them is as follows:
Although they are a predominantly trading community, in the eastern province they are a large peasant community, constituting about a third of the population of the area, and in Colombo a large number of them are workers. Since the 1911 census, Muslims born in the country have been classified as Sri Lankan Muslims and those who acknowledged that they came for trade, and would return to India, as Indian Muslims. In the 1971 census, Sri Lankan Muslims numbered 824,291, or 6.5% of the population, and Indian Muslims 29,416, or 0.2%.
The Muslims were persecuted by the Portuguese both for their trading activities and for religious differences. The Dutch too kept them out of their traditional occupation. As a result, many Muslims moved to the areas of the Sinhalese Kandyan kingdom. There occurred a Muslim revival in the last quarter of the 19th Century. It took the form of laymen, learned in the Koran and in Arabic, challenging the authority of the religious mullahs over doctrinal matters. These lay activists were of the view that “the community became mullah ridden and men and women were led into a state of blissful ignorance in the name of religion”.
They criticized the manner in which the mullahs and ulama managed the mosques. By their constant attacks they confined the religious leaders to a narrow spiritual role. They regarded themselves essentially as a business and religious community, became inward looking and did not participate in the rising “nationalist” movement in the country. Their withdrawal was perhaps also due to the Sinhalese Muslim riots of 1915, when Muslims were subjected to brutal attacks by rioting Sinhalese in the Kandyan areas. This led them to look to the colonial government for protection and to collaborate with it. In fact, throughout the whole constitutional process leading to independence, the Muslim voice was hardly heard.
Even in the post independence period, the Muslims have displayed a Conservative political profile, never confrontational, but always looking for advantages in the shifting political landscape. Their principal concern has been to maintain their entrenched role in the wholesale and retail trade. There have been long standing Muslim “notables” in the conservative United National Party (UNP) and the centrist Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and they have been getting the best out of both. There have been Muslim ministers in the cabinets of all governments since 1948, and between 1965 and 1970 there were 12 Muslim MPs although as a community they were a majority in only six electorates in terms of today’s politics of personality and charisma, the Muslims are reckoned as important in winning elections for they are everywhere in Sri Lanka.
The Burghers and Malays are two small ethnic communities. The Burghers constituted 0.6% of the population in 1953 but are now 0.3%. They are a relic of the Portuguese and Dutch occupation of the island. With the British conquest, they adopted English as their language and are divided between Catholics and those belonging to the Dutch Reformed Church. The Portuguese Burghers are entirely Catholic and some of them still speak Portuguese Most of them speak Sinhalese, and the Portuguese Burghers in Jaffna speak Tamil.
Although small in number, the Burghers are not homogeneous. There are divisions between those of pure European descent, registered by the Dutch Burgher Union, and the rest. During the British period, they occupied a favoured position and were an influential community, important in the professions, politics and government, and the mercantile services. But with the dethronement of English by the Sinhala only Act in 1956, about half the Burgher population emigrated, mainly to Australia. The 44,000 who remain today, 31,000 of them in Colombo district, are learning Sinhalese and will eventually become assimilated.
The Malays number 43,000, or 0.3% of the Sri Lanka population. Nearly all of them live in two areas, one in Slave Island, a municipal ward in Colombo, and the other in Hambantota. The Malays are regarded as Muslims since their religion is Islam, but they are distinct from the other Muslims in that they speak the Malay language. They have a separate collective consciousness and during the process of constitutional reform in the 20th Century Some Malays asserted a separate identity from the Ceylon Muslims. The Malays possess a high degree of adaptability, for most of them in Colombo Speak English, Sinhalese and Tamil as well as Malay.