Discrimination of Tamil Nation in Sri Lanka and Struggle for Recognition
By Dr G K Nathan
The Island at the Southern tip of Indian subcontinent is known by different names: Sri Lanka, Ceylon, Eelam etc., where Sinhala and Tamil people have lived for many millennia, but Sinhala language is the latest of the two in comparison with Tamil language, which is one of the few oldest living languages. Looking back, Indian subcontinent, Australia and Sri Lanka were part of the Lemuria continent in the Indian and Pacific Oceans; it is also called Kumari Kandam in Tamil. The Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004 revealed, along Tamil Nadu coast, part of archaeological remains that were swallowed by the rising ocean, many thousands of years ago. Also emerging recent archaeological evidence of old Tamil civilization in the West coast of Indian Sub-continent and in current Tamil Nadu at Keeladi , prove the antiquity of Tamil Nation and Language. Beyond any doubt, it is comparable to Mohenjo-Daro Indus Valley civilization. The links given here are sufficient evidence to prove the ancient heritage of Tamils and their language.
The Tamils have become a global community that has been recognized, widely. Initially, brought about by large scale migration of Tamils to Malaysia, Singapore, Fiji, Mauritius and South Africa, mostly from Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, during the British colonial era. In post-Independent Sri Lanka, the discriminatory policies practised by successive governments and repeated pogroms, forced Tamil Nation to follow a migratory route to distant lands, like many other Nations in the world. The most successful group that comes to mind is Jews, in many ways there are some similarities, after many hundreds of years, the Jews established their homeland in Israel following the end of 2nd World War. Discriminatory policy of successive governments of Sri Lanka against Tamils has indirectly strengthened the Tamil Diaspora and helped the Diaspora to expound and strengthen our language and culture worldwide. Also, Tamil Diaspora has become economically strong, following the footsteps of forbearers who achieved economic success in their new homelands during colonial era. Tamil Diaspora is duty bound, like the Jewish Diaspora, to assist the people in their former homeland, to become economically independent. Tamil Diaspora’s political contacts in their new homelands can be made use for economic advancement and to promote political resolution in our old homeland in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka has been under occupation at different periods for about two thousand years, initially it was under the Tamil kings of Pandya and Chola dynasty of South India at various periods throughout the history. Also, occupied by European colonial powers for about half a century, from the beginning of 16th century. At that time, there were three Kingdoms in different parts of Sri Lanka. One in the South and the other in Central Sri Lanka both were Sinhala Kingdoms, the third one was a Tamil Kingdom in the North. The Central Sri Lanka Kingdom finally had Tamil Kings because of marital links between South Indian Royals. Southern part of the Island came under the occupation of Portugal and later expanded to include Northern Sri Lanka after the conquer of Tamil Kingdom.
Holland took over from Portugal and finally ended up with Great Britain. British unified the Island when the Kandyan Kingdom in the Central part of the Island came under their control and the surrender document was signed in Tamil.
Island of Sri Lanka that has been a divided land most of the time, became united country and part of British empire that ruled the Island for about 140 years. On the 4th of February 1948, Sri Lanka became an independent country, at the time of independence there were different nationalities, Sinhalese, Tamils (Ceylon and Indian), Muslims (mostly Tamil speaking) and Eurasians (Burghers) etc. The proclaimed constitution did not fully protect the rights of different groups made up of multilingual (Sinhala, Tamil, English), multi-ethnic (Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Burghers etc.) and multireligious (Buddhism, Hindus, Christians, Islam) people.
Sri Lanka was a success story at the beginning of post-colonial era in the field of education, economic activities etc. First Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew of the small Island of Singapore that was too a multilingual, multiethnic and multireligious country like Sri Lanka; Mr Lee wanted to emulate Sri Lanka’s success story. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka’s communal and short sighted policy of domination of minorities by subsequent governments took Sri Lanka, downhill all the way to the bottom of the heap of countries that became independent after colonial occupation.
Today Sri Lanka is standing with a begging bowl. In contrast, Singapore recognizing everyone’s rights became a success story and a fully developed country in the world. Sri Lanka can learn a lesson from Singapore to put the country in the right path to regain the past glory. Faltered History of Post Independent Sri LankaSri Lanka’s adversarial politics between majority Sinhala Buddhists and minority Tamil Hindus dominated the post independent era. Both the majority and the minority communities who were only used to monarchist rule could not make the necessary adjustment to a democratic rule, where majority power is exercised with the consent and/or accommodating the minorities rights and wishes.
The political parties of the Sinhala majority community to capture power against their opponents in the Parliament, promised more to the Sinhala population at the expense of rights of minority communities that led to peaceful protests followed by repeated communal violence and pogroms. This is contrary to the understanding between different communities prior to granting of Independence to Sri Lanka under a unitary constitution by the British colonial power. To prevent the discriminatory laws being enacted against the minorities, Soulbury commission provided a safeguard which became Section 29(2) of the Soulbury Constitution.
At the time of first Parliamentary election, Sinhala community had 63.3% of the parliamentary representation, thus denying them two third majority to make amendments that would be adversarial to minority communities. Following adversarial acts passed by the Parliament and actions taken by majority Sinhala Buddhist governments, it gained almost 80 percent of parliamentary representation. The domination of parliamentary representation resulted in proclamation of a new constitution and further denial of rights of the minorities. Major acts of unilateral declaration by the Sinhala majority led to the following:
1) Disenfranchisement of large sections of Tamils who were brought as indentured labour from India by the British to work in the plantation industry, they provided economic backbone to Sri Lanka;
2) The large scale deportation of Tamils to India helped Sinhala majority to reach two third majority in the parliament, removal of section 29(2) and imposition of unwelcomed constitution by Tamils;
3) State aided colonisation of traditional Tamil homeland with Sinhala people from other parts of Sri Lana, denied the land rights to people who have been inhabiting the lands from time immemorial;
4) Contrary to understanding, prior to Independence, both languages Sinhala and Tamil will remain the official languages, “Sinhala Only” bill was passed in 1956, thus began the peaceful protests;
5) Deprivation of higher educational opportunities to Tamil youth in 1973 with the introduction of standardization of university entrance examination results, contrary to universal practice; led to beginning of Tamil youth armed militancy against the State;
6) Tamils on mass uprising against the denial of their legitimate rights followed by youth militancy resulted in number of pogroms against Tamils in 1956, 1958, 1977-1978 and 1983; led to successive wave of migration to foreign countries, worldwide;
7) Historical Vaddukottai resolution of 1976 called for Independent Tamil Eelam homeland, that resulted in military conflict, supported by Tamil Diaspora against the Sri Lanka armed forces that ended on 18 May 2009, with deaths of many thousands of innocent people and depravation of economic activities to sustain life in war affected areas.The coming together of the two major Sinhala parties, the United National Party and Sri Lanka Freedom Party and forming a united government and with Tamil National Alliance taking the role of opposition party in the current Sri Lanka parliament, has provided hope for the country.
The UNHRC resolution unanimously passed on Sri Lanka, March 23, 2017, remains unfulfilled. The Joint Parliamentary committee attempt to draw a new constitution that will bring people together has already getting opposition from various sections of Sinhala community. Recent, denouncement of the “proposed new constitution” from Mahanayaha Theras of the three Nikayas, is it the death knell to the new constitutional process? President Maithripala Sirisena says no new constitution without the approval of Mahanayaha Theras and this position has been endorsed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Tamils’ struggle can continue, but political resolution in Sri Lanka looks only a distant possibility for the present. After many decades of struggle and deprivation, should the Tamil Diaspora’s focus be on bringing economic certainty to suffering people in our old homeland, either individually or collectively? This would bring economic strength and happiness to our brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka to safeguard Tamils’ ancient heritage in Sri Lanka, forever. Knowing that “history repeat itself”; there is fresh hope for the future to regain the loss rights!