The National Question and the Tamil Liberation Struggle – 4

4.Sinhalese Buddhist Ethnocentrism

Freedom came on 4 February 1948, after four and a half centuries of subjugation to foreign rule, without a shot being fired or a life being lost. These centuries were, however, to take their toll with a vengeance in the next three and a half decades, because of the nature of the freedom conferred. The transfer of power from the departing British to the local ruling class, “a tiny educated minority of English speaking islanders”, was marked by “extreme gentility”. While the latter rejoiced in celebrations and festivities with the visiting British royalty and scions of nobility, it was not a ‘tryst with destiny” for the mute millions of ordinary Sri Lankans. At the appointed hour, the Rt. Hon. D.S. Senanayake mounted the podium in pin striped suit and tail coat to symbolically receive the instruments of the transfer of power from the Duke of Gloucester, representing HM King George Vl.

Soon, through the arithmetic of the ballot box and Sinhalese Buddhist sectarianism, this freedom and independence became the prerogative of the Sinhalese; the Tamils, left with assurances, gentleman’s agreements and state council resolutions, witnessed the collapse of them all and were aghast at their betrayal. Starting as equals with the Sinhalese in subordination to the British, the Tamils for a time became “junior partners” and, by the 1960s, had been reduced a subject people under the rule of Sinhalese masters.

Of the social character of the class to whom power was transferred, the sociologist Marshall Singer observes:

When the British made the decision to grant substantial degrees of political authority to the “natives” in 1924, 1931 and finally complete political independence in 1948, they granted that power to those who most closely approximated themselves. In terms of social background, this meant that the group to whom the British first began to transfer political power were (1) broadly Ceylonese, (2) largely Christian, (3) mostly high caste, (4) highly urbanised, (5) highly Western educated, (6) largely engaged in Western type occupations, (7) of the highest economic and social class. More important for the operation of the political process in Ceylon, in terms of self image and world outlook, those individuals possessed a strong sense of identification with the British values, attitudes and perspectives

When independence came, the ordinary Sinhalese people had not been socially emancipated. they were still bound in servility and were subordinate to their economic and social superiors. Their self identification stopped at the level of their primordial loyalties and immediate social group. The Sri Lankan people, in general, had not organized a political society nor developed political consciousness and the capacity to unite at the wider national level.

In 1959 the delimitation commission observed: “The people, we are afraid, have not yet learnt to think sufficiently in terms of principles and policies in preference to race, caste or religion.”2 Contrary to this reality in 1959, and even today, the Soulbury Commission had optimistically asserted in 1946 that “the growth of left wing opinion already constitutes a potential solvent of racial or religious solidarity”.3 we will see how, in the contest between Sinhalese Buddhist chauvinism and left wing Marxism to shape the future of Sri Lanka, the former triumphed and electoral politics drove Marxist politicians to become “Sinhalese Marxists”.

4.1 National Flag Issue

The first expression of Sinhalese Buddhist ethnocentrism was revealed in the designing of the national flag of Sri Lanka, on the eve of independence. It was a time when Sri Lanka was emerging as a modern nation with ethnic, linguistic and religious differences. The flag of the new nation should have been a symbol that would evoke the spontaneous loyalty of all the people of Sri Lanka. In similar circumstances, at independence, India adopted the tricolour and Asokan Chakra. In the historic past, the Sinhalese kings had depicted a lion on their flag and the Tamil kings a bull. The lion represented the origin myth of the Sinhalese, while the bull was the sacred animal of the Hindus.

The question of the national flag became a matter of great controversy. The Sinhalese wanted the lion flag, while the Tamils resolutely opposed it. Some Tamils suggested Adam’s Peak, a mountain in central Sri Lanka and site of a rock bearing a depression resembling an enormous footprint. It is a revered place of Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim pilgrimage. In Buddhist legend, it is the site of Sri Pada (or Sacred Footstep of Buddha), the imprint of Buddha’s last contact with this world. In Sinhalese, it is called Sarpanala. The Hindus call it Sivanoli Patam and they believe it to be the footprint of Lord Siva. In Muslim legend, it is the footprint of Adam. Christians also worship it as the footprint of St Thomas.

The Senanayake government was unyielding in its determination to adopt the lion flag but was willing to add a stripe each to represent the Tamils and Muslims. Hence, the national flag, as adopted by parliament in 1948, comprised the lion flag and two stripes. The lion flag has a highly stylized yellow standing lion, with a sword held aloft in its front right raised paw, against a red background with corners indented by four leaves of the pipal tree, under which Buddha attained enlightenment at Bodh Gaya. And outside the lion flag are a saffron stripe for the Tamils and a green stripe for the Muslims. The whole flag is surrounded by a yellow border, the same colour as the lion.

The national flag is thus essentially the Sinhalese lion flag. Indeed the 1978 constitutions in article 6, states:

“The National Flag of the Republic of Sri Lanka shall be the Lion Flag depicted in the Second Schedule” (emphasis added).

The flag depicted in the second schedule to the constitution is the one adopted in 1948. The very existence or relevance of the two stripes has come to be forgotten by the parliament which enacted this later constitution.

4.2 The Nature of the Post-Colonial Government Structure

The British bequeathed to Sri Lanka at independence a typical Westminster model of parliamentary government. It must, however, be added that this was not entirely a matter of British choice, for this was the scheme contained in the ministers’ draft constitution. It is also a matter of note that the Ministers’ draft constitution, although fathered by D.S. Senanayake, was fashioned by Sir Ivor Jennings, then the vice chancellor of the University of Sri Lanka and the unofficial constitutional adviser to D.S. Senanayake.

There was to be a government and an opposition, elected and constituted on party lines. The legislature was to consist of two houses. The House of Representatives was to consist of 95 elected members and six members nominated by the governor general to represent minority interests not adequately represented by the elected members. The Senate was to consist of 30 members, of whom 15 were to be elected by the lower house and 15 to be appointed by the governor general.

The legislative power of the Sri Lanka parliament was “to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the island”, a hallowed phrase in English colonial law which connotes “the widest law making powers appropriate to a sovereign”. And section 29(2)(b) and (c) provided that no such law shall impose any disabilities, or confer any advantages, on members of any one community only. The executive powers were to be exercised by a cabinet of ministers. The queen was to be the head of state of the dominion of Ceylon, with a governor general performing the constitutional functions of the British monarch.

All these institutions were to operate according to English constitutional law and conventions and parliamentary practices and procedures. On the eve of transfer of power, the British and Sri Lanka governments signed “defence and external affairs” agreements of the widest import, according to which Britain would give military assistance to the latter and the former would be permitted to station and have bases for HM army, navy and air force in Colombo, Trincomalee and Katunayake, as before. It was also agreed that Sri Lanka, as a dominion, would be within the British Commonwealth, as it was known at that time. All this meant that, even after independence, foreign influence was not to end but would increase, with a host of transplanted institutions to be grafted onto the future political structure of Sri Lanka.

After the 1947 election, with the help of the independent MPs, Senanayake formed the government and became the first prime minister. He assembled a cabinet of 14 with two independent Tamil MPs, C.Suntheralingaand C. Sittampalam, and the rest UNP MPs.

His cabinet included his son Dudley Senanayake, Sir John Kotelawala, a nephew, R.G. Senanayake, another nephew, and J.R. Jayewardene, a kinsman. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was the only important member of the cabinet not belonging to the Senanayake family tree. The Senanayake cabinet was a miniature collection of representatives of the highest economic class who had benefited from colonial rule and from plantation and commercial capitalism.

The opposition was led by the Marxist LSSP, BLP and CP, and included, at the beginning, the Ceylon Tamil Congress and the Ceylon Indian Congress, which as a working class organization was allied to the Marxists. Dr N.M. Perera, the leader of the LSSP, was elected leader of the opposition, which included personalities like Dr S.A. Wickremasinghe, leader of the CP and the first Marxist to enter the legislature (in the 1931 election), Philip Gunawardena, Dr Colvin R. de Silva, Pieter Keuneman and 13 other fellow Marxists.

The cabinet and the shadow cabinet presented a picture of pro British “constitutional” conservatives being directly confronted by anti British Marxist “revolutionaries”. These Marxist politicians were attracted by Marxist theory in the cause of national liberation while students in England in the 1930s, and on their return propagated Marxism and founded left wing political parties based on trade unions.

Once independence was granted, they adopted a socialism aimed at electoral acceptance and abandoned the goal of the revolutionary overthrow of the dominant exploitative forces that controlled the post colonial state. Broadly speaking, they were almost of the same social class as their political adversaries. They possessed the means and the leisure to engage in full time parliamentary politics. Most of them, like the UNP “notables”, were not exposed to electoral vicissitudes as they controlled safe “family” seats. Dr S.A. Wickremasighe, for instance, was returned for the same seat continuously from 1931 to 1970.

In the political battlefield, they scathingly attacked the family politics of D.S. Senanayake and Characterised the UNP as Uncle Nephew’s Party. They severely criticized the independence that Senanayake had achieved as a fake, pointing to the continued presence of British military forces. Their reasoned critique of the neo colonial strangehold on the country evoked much response. It was soon taken up by Bandaranaike, in a vague manner, when he quit the UNP in 1951, and was later adopted by the Sinhalese Buddhist propagandists, who diverted it into sectarian channels, eventually degenerating into the fanaticism of the Sinhala only activists in the late 1950s .

4.3 Indian Tamils Lose Citizenship

The Senanayake government directed its axe first against the Indian Tamils of the plantations. By the Ceylon Citizenship Act No.18 of 1948, all Indian Tamils, even those born or domiciled in Sri Lanka, were denied Sri Lankan citizenship. The Citizenship Act laid down the law governing citizenship of Sri Lanka and prescribed qualifications necessary for a person born before or after 15 November 1948 to become a citizen of Sri Lanka. The qualifications deliberately aimed at excluding the Indian Tamils from Sri Lankan citizenship. The relevant sections of the act are as follows:

4(1)Subject to other provisions of this Part, a person born in Ceylon before the appointed date (i.e. 15 November 1948) shall have the status or a citizen of Ceylon by descent, if (a) his father was born in Ceylon, or (b) his paternal grandfather and paternal great grandfather were born in Ceylon.(2). . . a person born outside Ceylon before the appointed date shall have the status of a citizen of Ceylon by descent, if (a) his father and paternal grandfather were born in Ceylon, or (b) his paternal grandfather and paternal great grandfather were born in Ceylon.

5(1) . . . a person born in Ceylon on or after the appointed date shall have the status of a citizen of Ceylon by descent, if at the time of his birth his father is a citizen of Ceylon . . .

These provisions mean that a person born in Sri Lanka before 15 November 1948 shall become a citizen only if his father was born in Ceylon, or if his paternal grandfather and great grandfather were born in Sri Lanka. If he was born outside Sri Lanka before 15 November 1948, then his father and paternal grandfather, or his paternal grandfather and great grandfather, must have been born in Sri Lanka. A person born in Sri Lanka after 15 November 1948 can only be a citizen if at the time of his birth his father was a citizen of Sri Lanka.

The Sri Lanka Citizenship Act is unique in that it denies citizenship to a person born in the country before or after 1948 unless, at least, his father was born in or was a citizen of Sri Lanka. Citizenship is not related to one’s birth in the country but to the birth of one’s ancestors. This crude legal formulation was designed to deny citizenship to the plantation Tamils of Indian origin, not only those living but those still to be born.

With this citizenship law, nearly a million men, women and children of Indian origin, working and living in the country and for whom Sri Lanka is their permanent home, became non citizens. As stated in Chapter I, the 1938 Jackson Report on Immigration estimated that 70% to 80% of them were permanently settled in Sri Lanka. And because the Constitution of India, 1950, treated persons of Indian origin permanently settled in another country as citizens of their respective adopted countries, they became stateless persons.

D.S. Senanayake had for a long time viewed the Tamils of Indian origin with disfavour and argued that they were not permanent residents of Sri Lanka. He took this view on the grounds that some of them used to go to India and come back, and some sent money to their families in India. Senanayake played a dominant role as chairman of the Land Commission in the late 1920s. Its Interim Report of 1927 defined “Ceylonese” so as to exclude the Indian Tamils. The report stated: “by Ceylonese, we mean the Sinhalese, Ceylon Tamils, Burghers, Ceylon Moormen [i.e. referring to Muslims], Ceylon Malays and Europeans domiciled in Ceylon, i.e. those who have adopted Ceylon as their permanent home.”4

Based on this report, the Land Development Ordinance of 1935, framed by D.S. Senanayake as minister of agriculture and lands, excluded Indian Tamils from the benefits of land alienation by the government. As early as 1940, Senanayake is on record as saying:

It is unthinkable that we should give . . . full rights of citizenship to people who have not made Ceylon their permanent home. The vast majority of the Indians in Ceylon consider India to be their home and Ceylon their place of occupation . . . They are here only to earn and to make money and to take it away to India . . . Unless we stem the tide of the growing domination of Indians in Ceylon in our economic and social life, our extinction as a Ceylonese nation is inevitable.5

Senanayake must have known that this was untrue and that he was inventing arguments to achieve a purpose, i.e. to deny citizenship to these Tamils for a variety of reasons: inter alia, they were Tamils who had bolstered the Tamil population to 23% in the island; they had expressed working class solidarity and increasing militancy in 1930-40; they had supported the left wing political parties. The fear of “inevitable extinction”, then of the “Ceylonese nation”, later of the “Sinhalese nation”, has been the only rationale of Sinhalese politicians, for all the denials, deprivations and discriminations which became the only coherent and systemised state policy from 1948.

In much the same way, in refusing to accept Tamil as an official language, alongside Sinhalese, Bandaranaike said in parliament: “The fact that in the towns and villages, in business houses and in boutiques most of the work is in the hands of Tamil speaking people will inevitably result in a fear, and I do not think an unjustified fear, of the inexorable shrinkage of the Sinhalese language . . .”6

So, because of these fears of “inevitable extinction” in the 1940s and of “inexorable shrinkage” in the 1950s, the Indian Tamils were denied citizenship and the Sri Lanka Tamils were denied the use of Tamil as their official language. As Sinhalese statements reveal, the real motive on each occasion was economic, i.e. to prevent the Tamils from earning money and to eliminate them from employment and business.

In truth, however, these Sinhalese positions were adopted, not out of any great love for the Sinhalese people or the Sinhala language, but to divide the working class, both Sinhalese and Tamil, which was united, militant and threatening upper class control of the late colonial and post colonial state. That power to challenge and change the status quo was amply demonstrated by the 1939 strikes and the defiance of the Tamil plantation workers, and the 1946-47 general strike of both the Sinhalese and Tamil working class, reaching its climax in their electoral solidarity with the Marxist parties, and the CIC allied to them, in the 1947 election.

Senanayake’s statement shows that he entertained a xenophobic hatred of the Indian Tamils. He had conceived the idea of excluding them from citizenship as early as 1940; yet he made no public mention of his design until power was transferred. And the Colonial Office either acquiesced in this design or was inveigled by Senanayake’s cajolery and gave the “concession”, as Professor K.M. de Silva sees fit to describe it, that citizenship should be treated as a matter “falling within the ambit of the Sri Lanka government’s powers” after independence.

Though in his 1940 statement Senanayake implicitly conceded that there was, at least, a small minority of Indian Tamils who considered Sri Lanka as their permanent home, yet in 1948 he enacted legislation denying citizenship to every one of them. He was clearly aware of the money these labourers were sending to sustain their kith and kin, but he had no thought for their sweat and toil, which alone made Sri Lanka economically strong enough to be granted independence in 1948. Sir Charles Jeffries stated that Sri Lankan independence was regarded by the Colonial Office as “a special case” justified, among other things, by its “economic strengths” 7

Senanayake also had no thought for one of the worst forms of human degradation—statelessness—that he was inflicting on one million people, whose exploited conditions as later documented by Edith M. Bond in State of Tea (1974)8 and revealed by Granada Television’s documentary on the Plantation Workers of Sri Lanka (1975) were to shake the conscience of the Western capitalist world.

4.4 Indian Tamils Lose the Vote

In 1949 Senanayake successfully wooed the Tamil Congress leader G.G. Ponnambalam to join the government with his six Sri Lanka Tamil MPs. Ponnambalam, being a conservative politician, was from the start ill at ease with the Marxist firebrands seeking to upset the status quo. Ponnambalam was appointed minister of industries in the Senanayake cabinet, and the roles of the Sinhalese and Tamil conservative politicians were almost those of senior and junior partners until 1953, when Ponnambalam resigned.

With Ponnambalam, the most articulate and vociferous Tamil agitator, domesticated in his cabinet, D.S. Senanayake went in for the kill. By the Ceylon (Parliamentary Elections) Amendment Act, No.48 of 1949, which was an amendment to the 1946 order in council on franchise, Senanayake tied the franchise to citizenship and deprived the Indian Tamils of their vote.

The 1949 act, in section 4(1), simply stated: “No person shall be qualified to have his name entered or retained in any register of electors in any year if such person is not a citizen of Ceylon.”

The Indian Tamils had voted in 1931 and 1936, and in the 1947 elections they elected eight Tamil MPs, all belonging to the left oriented Ceylon Indian Congress (CIC). The Indian Tamils elsewhere voted for the Marxist parties and helped the election of LSSP and CP MPs. The 1949 amendment deprived them of their vote and they became a million stateless and voteless people. Both of these steps were taken because they were Tamils who bolstered the Tamils’ strength in parliament and because their working class solidarity with their Sinhalese counterparts was a constant danger to the upper class control of the state.

The problems that later confronted them arose from their statelessness. From then on, their role was to make the plantation agriculture, the backbone of Sri Lanka’s economy, earn the necessary foreign exchange, so that the island’s citizens could enjoy imports, the government could collect the revenue and the British plantation holding companies could reap the profits.

The passage of the 1949 act broke the Sri Lanka Tamil Congress. Two MPs, S.J.V. Chelvanayakam and C. Vanniasingham, resigned from the TC and founded the Federal Party (FP), which from 1956 became the dominant political party of the Sri Lankan Tamils. On resigning in 1949, Chelvanayakam declared with prophetic foresight: “Today it is the Indian Tamils. tomorrow, it will be the Sri Lanka Tamils who will be axed.”

Earlier in 1949, the Indian and Pakistani Residence (Citizenship) Act, No.3 of 1949, sought to offer “citizenship by registration” to persons of Indian origin on proof of (1) 10 years’ continued residence in Sri Lanka prior to 1946, without a break of more than 12 months in the case of unmarried persons, and (2) seven years’ continued residence for married persons. This act fixed a two year time limit (i.e . 5 August 1951) by which applications must be made by those wishing to be considered for “citizenship by registration”.

The Ceylon Indian Congress at first chose to register its opposition by calling upon those of Indian origin not to apply. It demanded that the distinction between “citizenship by descent” in the 1948 act, and “citizenship by registration” in the 1949 act, be removed and that citizenship should be on the basis of “a simple and easily ascertainable factual test of residence and a declaration of intention to settle permanently in Ceylon”.9 There was opposition to this act in India and the Indian government protested at its discriminatory content, causing relations between the two governments to become strained.

Since the government was unyielding, a few weeks before the deadline the Ceylon Indian Congress lifted the boycott and 237,034 applications were made at the closing date. No administrative machinery competent to process these applications was set up until 1962, and by 1964 only 134,188 persons of Indian origin were admitted as “citizens by registration”. As Professor A.J. Wilson has written: “The sum effect of all three Acts was (I ) to disfranchise the overwhelming majority of Indians who had up to date possessed the right to vote, and (2) to make it extremely difficult for those Indian and Pakistani origin people who wished to become citizens to qualify.10

4.5 “Sirima Shastri Pact”

The question of citizenship for persons of Indian origin became a subject of continuing dispute between the governments of Sri Lanka and India. “The government of India made it clear that it would not accept responsibility for those Indians whose applications for citizenship were rejected by the Sri Lanka Commissioner for the Registration of Indian and Pakistani Residents.” 11 Discussions between the two governments continued, and in October 1964 agreement was reached between Sirima Bandaranaike, Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, and Lal Bhadur Shastri, Prime Minister of India, an agreement popularly known in Sri Lanka as the “Sirima Shastri Pact”.

It was agreed that of an estimated 975,000 persons of Indian origin in Sri Lanka who were without citizenship, (1) 525,000 persons would be granted Indian citizenship and progressively repatriated to India over a period of 15 years (together with the natural increase in their number); (2) 300,000 persons (together with the natural increase) would be granted Sri Lanka citizenship during the same 15 year period; (3) both repatriation and granting of Sri Lanka citizenship phased over 15 years would, as far as possible, keep pace with each other in proportion to relative numbers; and (4) the status and the future of the balance of 150,000 persons were to be the subject of separate agreement between the two governments.

This agreement came into effect as the Indo Ceylon Agreement (1964). But the Indian Tamils in the island were very dissatisfied with it.

With the deprivation of the franchise, the Ceylon Indian Congress ceased to be an electorally relevant organization. Forced to confine itself to trade unionism, and no longer needing to look for electoral alliances with the Marxist parties, its interests in building its own membership among the plantation workers brought it into conflict with the trade unions of the LSSP and the CP. Because of the denial of citizenship and deprivation of the franchise, the Indian Tamil workers became distrustful of those trade unions allied to political parties with Sinhalese leadership, although the Marxist parties and their MPs had opposed and voted against those laws.

In the late 1950s, the Ceylon Indian Congress splintered into the Ceylon Workers’ Congress and the Democratic Workers’ Congress. The former, with more than 150,000 members, was led by S. Thondaman, owner of the 1,000acre Medagoda Estate and the 800 acre Wavendon Estate, employing more than 2,000 of the very working class people he was leading. The Democratic Workersn Congress, with about 45,000 members, was led by A. Aziz, a Colombo based business magnate. The Indian Tamil plantation workers trusted their own community leaders, even though they represented estate employer and capitalist class interests. In this way, the largest and the most formidable proletarian force in the country fell into the hands of reactionaries opposed to their class interest and came to be lost to the working class movement and the left wing parties.

The Indian Tamil workers lived in continual fear of the police, the law, government officials and the Sinhalese people around them. These drove them increasingly into the hands of District union officials who were openly corrupt and often deceitful. In fact, the unions became their “government”, a sort of “government within a government”, and the district union officials their “MPs”. They became the unfortunate victims of their leaders, who used the strength of their numbers to bargain with the capitalist parties, the UNP and SLFP, which alternated in power, and had themselves elevated as nominated MPs and their yes men as Senators. They could not obtain any solution to their peoples’ fundamental politico socio economic problems.

The Indian Tamils have been denied local government participation and are barred from seeking employment outside the estates. They have, by law, been made ineligible for land alienated by the government under village expansion and colonization resettlement schemes. And, owing to a continuing fall in export prices of primary produces, they were the victims of periodic retrenchment by the plantation companies. As a result, they were frequently forced to encroach upon jungle “crown” land and, whenever they did, would suffer police brutality and were quickly evicted. Theirs is an acute problem that cries out for redress after 35 years of independence and 50 years of adult franchise, which they once exercised. All their problems are a direct consequence of the denial of citizenship and franchise.

In 1981, HM Queen Elizabeth graced the Republic of Sri Lanka government’s celebration of 50 years of adult franchise by her visit to a country where one million former British subjects have been deprived of citizenship and franchise because of irresponsible British colonial policy.

By making the plantation Tamils stateless and voteless, by denying them participation and representation even in local government, and by debarring them from employment outside the estates, Sinhalese politicians rendered the largest working class force impotent, docile and alien. By co opting their capitalist leaders into the government, they forced these workers to look to them as their “saviours”, and they in turn silenced and imprisoned them in furtherance of their own interests and those of the Sinhalese ruling class.

In this way, the Sinhalese upper class ensured its continued control of the post colonial state, without any serious challenge from a united Sinhalese Tamil working class. In so far as it made the ordinary Sinhalese people feel that they belonged to the ruling ethnic community, they accepted the position of domination conferred on them. That feeling was enhanced when the Sinhalese politicians and their agents instigated riots by the Sinhalese people in the villages and towns against the plantation Tamils, so as to keep them continually in fear of their lives and to remind them of their alien condition in the country.

Apart from the workers of Indian origin there were the Indian traders who had for a long time controlled importing, wholesale and the bulk of the retail trade. While the Indian Tamils, particularly the Chettiars and the Muslims, controlled the food sector, a small community of Sindhi and Borah merchants from Bombay controlled the import and wholesale trade in textiles. The Citizenship Act of 1948 vested in the minister a discretionary power to grant citizenship to not more than 25 persons a year who had rendered distinguished service in various spheres of public life. Most of these traders, by lavishly contributing to UNP funds, obtained their “distinguished citizenship” from the minister.

Although agreement was reached between the Sri Lankan and Indian governments for repatriation and registration, its implementation—involving a million men, women and children; their employment, home and worldly possessions; their past, present and future—was not easy for governments and people. The inter governmental agreement was reached on the assumption that 525,000 persons would be willing to be repatriated to India, while what they wanted was to become citizens of Sri Lanka.

The Sri Lanka government became aware that the departure of more than half the plantation workforce would bring plantation agriculture to a grinding halt. The trade unions found that repatriation of such a large number of members would undermine their strength, and they would lose the “check off’ membership subscription of five rupees per worker per month. The union bosses preferred them to remain in Sri Lanka, even as a stateless, voteless and degraded humanity.

Hence, when Dudley Senanayakes’s UNP came to power in 1965, which made S. Thondaman, the CWC boss, an appointed MP, and formed a broadbased “national” government, with the support of the FP, TC and CWC, the implementation of the 1964 agreement was deliberately slowed down. As a result, at the end of this government’s office in early 1970, only 12,798 persons had been repatriated and 7,316 had been registered as Sri Lanka citizens .

In July 1970, Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike came to power and made A.Aziz, the DWC boss, an appointed MP. She speeded up the process of repatriation and registration and, in July 1974, concluded another agreement with Mrs Indira Gandhi with regard to the balance of 150,000, on the basis that 75,000 would be repatriated and the other 75,000 would be registered as citizens of Sri Lanka. This agreement is popularly referred to in Sri Lanka as the “Sirima Gandhi Pact”.

However, when Mrs Bandaranaike was voted out of office in July 1977, only 211,821 persons had been repatriated and 152,524 had been registered as citizens of Sri Lanka. The others continued to be stateless and voteless, 30 years after denial of their citizenship and franchise, and 13 years after agreement was reached between the two governments.

4.6 Citizenship Franchise Case in the Privy Council

The question as to whether the provisions of the Citizenship Act of 1948 were contrary to Section 29(2)(b) and (c) of the Soulbury constitution, which prohibited the Sri Lanka parliament from enacting any law which would impose disabilities or restrictions on members of any community or religion, came to be decided by the Privy Council in the case of Kodakan Pillai v Mudanayake in 1953.l2

The appellant, an Indian national resident in Sri Lanka for two years prior to June 1950, was first refused registration as a voter under the 1949 franchise law, on the ground that he was not a citizen, by the registering officer. He appealed to the Revising Officer (a district judge), who held that the Citizenship Act, 1948, and the Ceylon (Parliamentary Elections) Amendment Act, 1949, were ultra vires vis a vis the constitution. He also stated that the Citizenship Act was in no true sense legislation to create the status of citizen, but was, with the 1949 act, part of a legislative plan to reduce the electoral power of the Indian community. The Crown appealed to the Supreme Court, which allowed the appeal. Then the appellant appealed to the Privy Council, which, while dismissing the appeal, stated inter alia as its reasons:

It is . . . a perfectly natural and legitimate function of the legislature of a country to determine the composition of its nationals. Standards of literacy, of property, of birth or of residence are, as it seems to their Lordships, standards which a legislature may think it right to adopt in legislation on citizenship, and it is clear that such standards, though they may operate to exclude the illiterate, the poor and the immigrant to a greater degree than they exclude the other people, do not create disabilities in a community as such, since the community is not bound together as a community by its illiteracy, its poverty or its migratory character, but by its race or its religion. The migratory habits of the Indian Tamils are facts which . . . are directly relevant to the question of their suitability as citizens of Ceylon, and have nothing to do with them as a community.

On the legal question of the vires of the acts in question, the Privy Council stated:

The principle that a legislature cannot do indirectly what it cannot do directly has always been recognized by their Lordships’ Board . . . But . . . the court will not be astute to attribute to any legislature motives or purposes or objects which are beyond its power. It must be shown affirmatively by the party challenging a statute which is, on its face intra vires, that it was enacted as part of a plan to effect indirectly something which the legislature had no power to achieve directly.

The Privy Council made a serious error in its formulation of the legislative function of the Sri Lankan legislature. After independence, the Sri Lanka legislature’s competence was limited to determining who its future nationals should be, and could not extend to a power to choose nationals who already composed the state. Any view to the contrary would make the state of Sri Lanka and its legislature, vis a vis its pre existing nationals, not a successor state and legislature but a revolutionary state seeking to repudiate the obligations of the previous state.

But Sri Lanka on independence was not such a state, as it received its law making power as a constitutional grant from a paramount authority. Since, up until independence, all residents were British subjects, on transfer of power their citizenship in the new state simply accrued, by the operation of the law of state succession, as none was excluded nor a specific power vested to prescribe qualifications for pre existing nationals.

These implications were not even referred to by the Privy Council, although they constituted the starting point for the determination of the question of legislative competence. Secondly, the Privy Council failed to ascertain the meaning of the undefined word “community” used in Section 29(2). The word “community” had been used in all official papers and documents in Sri Lanka without ever defining elements of race, religion and culture, and not, as the Privy Council stated, “by its race or religion”. Since 1911, the Indian Tamils had been separately enumerated and officially recognized in the census reports as a community. The Ministers’ draft constitution of 1944 had itself provided 14 seats for the Indian Tamils on the basis that they were a community.

It was not open to the Privy Council to substitute its own conception of the word “community” when it had acquired a specific meaning in official usage, and hence in the constitution. If the Privy Council had ascertained its real meaning, it would have found no difficulty in recognizing that the provisions of the citizenship and franchise laws imposed a disability on one community, and were part of a plan to achieve indirectly what the legislature had no power to achieve directly. What disability is more serious to a community than denial of citizenship, and, based on it, deprivation of the franchise?

The Privy Council went on to declare that a community is not bound together by its illiteracy, poverty or migratory character; yet, in reality, these were the very characteristics that made the Indian Tamils a collective community The Privy Council, in its exposition of the law, and in its inclusion of literacy and property as possible “standards” for citizenship, give one the impression that their Lordships were holding court in another world.

Their interpretation of the legislative power of the Sri Lanka parliament rendered the safeguards in Section 29(2), in legal language, otiose, i.e. serving no useful purpose. The government of Sri Lanka hailed this decision as a great victory, and later governments were encouraged to use other legislative measures depriving Tamils of other rights. This decision provoked widespread disillusionment .

The disfranchisement of the Indian Tamils had two effects. Firstly, it made them a community with no representation in the future legislatures of the country. Secondly, all eight electorates in which they were represented— Nuwara Eliya, Talawakale, Kotagala, Nawalapitiya, Maskeliya, Haputale, Badulla and Bandarawela—came to return Sinhalese MPs to parliament, with very few voters in each of them. This increased the Sinhalese representation in parliament from 67% in the 1947 election to 73% in the 1952 election and, after the l959 delimitation, to 78%. This was considerably more than the proportion of the Sinhalese population, which was 67.3% in the 1953 census and 71.2% in the 1963 census. And, in the 1970 election, Sinhalese comprised 80% of the legislature when their population was only 71.2% in the 1963 census and 72.9% by 1971.

It was a case not simply of the head count and the arithmetic of the ballot box, but of a predominant ethnic majority squeezing out an ethnic minority by every means that the electoral system provided.

4.7 Founding of the SLFP and its Two- Languages Policy

On the political front, in July 1951 Bandaranaike resigned as minister of health and local government from the Senanayake cabinet, and from the UNP, and took with him five other MPs. While in the UNP cabinet, he had kept his Sinhala Maha Sabha (SMS), an ephemeral grouping, as a going concern throughout the 1940s. Bandaranaike occasionally came into conflict with Senanayake for criticizing UNP policies of gradualism, and in 1949 he had to answer charges. In his speech before he crossed the floor to join the ranks of the opposition, he did not articulate any policy fundamentally different from the UNP’s.

In September 1951 Bandaranaike disbanded the SMS and founded the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), on the lines of the earlier CNC and the UNP, with Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. In fact, at its founding, Bandaranaike got two Tamils elected as vice presidents of the SLFP. The SLFP’s founding manifesto, issued in September 1951, included the following under the heading of “National Langauges”.

It is most essential that Sinhalese and Tamil be adopted as official languages immediately, so that the people of this country may cease to be aliens in their own land, so that an end may be put to the inequity of condemning those educated in Sinhalese and Tamil to occupy the lowliest walks of life, and above all that society may have the full benefit of the skill and talents of the people. The administration of the government must be carried on in Sinhalese and Tamil.

Except for the call for an immediate change, there was nothing new in this, for it was the accepted policy of the UNP government, and of politicians of the time, that both languages should officially replace English. In fact, in early 1951, the UNP government had appointed the of ficial Languages Commission on the basis that both languages should be the official languages, as the commission’s name itself indicates

4.8 The 1953 General Strike and Fall of Dudley Senanayake

In early 1952 D.S. Senanayake suddenly died and the UNP was thrown into a state of confusion over who should succeed him. The ultra conservative elements supported Sir John Kotelawala, but Senanayake’s son, Dudley Senanayake, who was minister of agriculture, was preferred by the party stalwarts and Dudley became prime minister. Kotelawala, Dudley’s uncle, then minister of transport, felt cheated and, since he was in charge of the UNP propaganda machinery, he put out the famous “Prime Minister Stakes”, an anonymous leaflet revealing the goings on within the UNP hierarchy. Eventually, however, he agreed to serve in Dudley’s cabinet.

In May 1952, Dudley Senanayake called a snap general election and won an overall majority with 54 members. The SLFP faced the hustings for the first time, and again Bandaranaike did not articulate any policy significantly different to the UNP’s. The SLFP won nine seats.

In the Tamil north and east, the Federal Party also went to the polls for the first time and won two seats, while the Tamil Congress won four seats. The Marxists had by then re grouped as the LSSP under Dr N.M. Perera, the Viplavakari (Revolutionary) LSSP under Philip Gunawardena and the CP under Dr S.A. Wickremasinghe, and won nine, two and two seats, respectively. Even in the 1952 election, the independent MPs emerged as numerically the second largest group. When the new parliament convened, Bandaranaike was elected leader of the opposition, since the VLSSP and CP, owing to differences with the LSSP, refused to support Dr N.M. Perera, a fellow Marxist. This new role gave Bandaranaike the opportunity to confront the UNP with its mistakes.

The UNP governments of the early post independence period failed to discern the vulnerability of the dependent agro export economy that the country had inherited, and were content to perpetuate its imbalances and stagnation. The country’s role on the periphery of the world capitalist system, as an exporter of raw materials and an importer of consumer and luxury goods, was accepted as the natural order of things. Nothing was done to break away from the inherited dependent capitalist system, and to build a new structure capable of satisfying the needs of the people and establishing social justice.

“The political leadership of the day was reluctant to make changes in an economic system with which their own interests were identified. The result was that in the economic structure, as in the political, there was an emphasis on the maintenance of the status quo.”l3 The maintenance of that system was for the benefit of the ruling class and, when it led to inevitable periodic crises, the people were made to suffer by the rulers.

J.R. Jayewardene, finance minister from 1948 to 1953, presented budgets that were in continual deficit. The importation of luxury goods increased sharply, while export earnings remained stagnant. No corrective measures were taken. The economy was kept afloat by running down the accumulated war time foreign reserves. The 1950 51 Korean war boom, for a time, relieved the situation but, with its collapse, the first economic crisis of independent Sri Lanka began to surface. The country’s external assets, which stood at Rs l ,208 million in January 1952, fell to Rs 685 million by the following July.

Jayewardene, presenting his 1953 budget, stated:

We are faced with the collapse of the boom, a heavy fall in our export prices, and rising import prices. A combination of all these factors could contribute to the downfall of the economy . . . I know the solution lay largely in the elimination of the overall deficit but it was not possible to take this step, without removing as well the subsidy on food .

In these words he was preparing the country for drastic cuts in social welfare measures which benefited the lower classes. In early August 1953, Dudley Senanayake abolished the subsidy on rice so that the price soared from 25 cents to 70 cents a measure; sharply increased the price of sugar; abolished the free midday meals for schoolchildren; cut down the public assistance rate; and doubled rail fares and postal rates. The government sought to revamp the economy by cutting down the redistributive expenditure going to the poorer strata of society, while leaving the rich and privileged classes untouched.

The indignation which this provoked exploded in the hartal (general protest strike) of 12 August 1953 the first mass agitation in independent Sri Lanka. The working and lower classes spontaneously erupted and resorted to violent disorder and disturbances all over the country. It was the most remarkable display of militant class solidarity and open class conflict ever to take place in Sri Lanka. The rulers were frightened, and Dudley Senanayake was widely believed to have taken refuge in a ship berthed in Colombo harbour.

A state of emergency and curfew were declared, and repression and terror were let loose to quell the people. The army was called to protect the rulers from the wrath of the people. A number of people were killed by army firing. “Dudley Senanayake had to face these troubles without a loyal cabinet since Sir John Kotelawala had not forgotten or forgiven Senanayake for his being appointed Prime Minister over his own claims.”l4

Being manifestly incapable of facing the situation, Senanayake resigned and was immediately succeeded by Sir John Kotelawala. He restored the rice subsidy, which afterwards became a sacred cow in Sri Lankan politics. G.G. Ponnambalam refused to serve in Kotelawala’s cabinet and withdrew the Tamil Congress from the government. For the next 20 years, no elected Tamil MP became a minister in a Sri Lankan government cabinet.

4.9 Kotelawala as Helmsman

The Senanayake charisma had been an important factor in Sinhalese politics and had welded the UNP into a closely knit conservative party. Although within the Senanayake family, Kotelawala was not personally in the same mould. Whereas the Senanayakes were cautious and moderate, Kotelawala was outspoken, brash, flamboyant. He liked hunting and horse racing, parties and guests. He was also out and out pro British and pro Western at a time when Asian leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Sukarno of Indonesia and U Nu of Burma were evolving the new ideology of neutralism and nonalignment for resurgent Asia. Sri Lanka, under the influence of the Marxist parties, was at that time striving to rid herself of neo colonial ties.

The Senanayakes were closely associated with Buddhist affairs and were patrons of the reformed Ramanya sect, which comprised the largest number of bhikkhus of the low country Sinhalese Karava, Salagama and Durava castes. Though they maintained the image and ideal of a secular state, they were the first prime ministers to pay deference to the Buddhist clergy in public and so opened the door to religious pressure.

Kotelawala, however, was no more than a nominal Buddhist and gave no quarter to the bhikkhus in secular affairs, failing to pay them the customary deference in public and thereby alienating them. In 1954 he went to Nepal and went hunting with the king of Nepal. This infuriated the Buddhist purists.

About the same time, Sir Lalita Rajapakse, minister of justice from 1948 and president of the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress (ACBC), resigned from the cabinet. The ACBC was formed in 1918 as a lay Buddhist organization of middle class professionals to promote the interests of Buddhists. It had as its past presidents such prominent politicians as F.R. Senanayake, D.B. Jayatilaka and H.W. Amarasuriya. In 1955, it became a statutory body by the ACBC Act, which empowered it “to represent the Buddhists and act on their behalf in public matters affecting their interests”.

In April 1954, the ACBC set up a high powered Buddhist commission of inquiry. The ACBC and many Buddhist agitators had long viewed the Christian lead in education as the key to their dominance in national affairs. From the 1930s, they had demanded the take over of all schools by the government and an end to the government’s grant in aid system from which all Christian schools received funds. In 1930, there were 1,353 Christian schools and only 240 Buddhist schools. In the early l950s, the president of the ACBC, Professor George P. Malalasekera, outlined Buddhist dissatisfaction with the Christian dominated educational system. The Buddhist commission of inquiry was set up mainly to produce a report and make recommendations so that the government could be pressured to take over the schools.

4.10 Dharmapala School of Propaganda

Sinhalese Buddhist propagandists have, over the years, won many converts and made significant strides in their cause. Their propaganda became multifaceted—attacks on Christianity and Christians, Tamils and the Tamil past and on Western culture and institutions: the revival of Buddhism, the glorification of the Sinhalese “race”, and the restructuring and purification of the Sinhala language; attacks on political personalities and academics; and so on.

Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1931), whose earlier name was Don David Hewavitarne, took the name Anagarika (in Pali Buddhism meaning “the homeless one”) and Dharmapala (meaning “the guardian of the doctrine”) and founded the newspaper the Sinhala Baudhaya (Sinhalese Buddhist) in 1906.

Piyadasa Sirisena (1875 1946), whose earlier name was Pedrick de Silva, was at first the correspondent of Sarasavi Sandaresa, which according to contemporary impressions was “the mouthpiece of two millions of Buddhists in Ceylon”.15 in 1903 Sirisena founded Sinhala JatEya (Sinhalese Race), a monthly journal in Sinhalese. In 1910 he wrote that Sinhala JatEya had been started to “improve the fortunes of the Sinhalese nation” by spreading “modern knowledge: so long as they do not acquire modern knowledge they will not be rid of unfounded fears and a sense of inferiority: so long as such a sense of inferiority remains the Sinhalese nation will not be rich and powerful.”16

We have, in Chapter 2, seen what “modern knowledge” Sirisena spread, and we will see now who consumed this propaganda and what they did from 1956.

These propagandists evolved the slogan “Rata, Jatiya, Aagama” (“Country, Race, Religion”) and popularized it among the Sinhalese. In his History of an Ancient Civilisation (1902), Anagarika Dharmapala wrote:

Ethnologically, the Sinhalese are a unique race, inasmuch as they can boast that they have no slave blood in them, and were never conquered by either the pagan Tamils or European vandals who for three centuries devastated the land, destroyed ancient temples, burnt valuable libraries, and nearly annihilated the historic race . . . This bright, beautiful island was made into a paradise by the Aryan Sinhalese before its destruction was brought about by the barbaric vandals . . . For the student of ethnology the Sinhalese stand as the representatives of Aryan civilization . . . in the name of Humanity and Progress, we ask the British people to save the Sinhalese race from the jaws of the demon of alcohol and opium let loose by Christian England for the sake of filthy lucre.l7

In 1911 Dharmapala proclaimed: “The Country of the Sinhalese should be governed by the Sinhalese.” In Dharmapala’s view, the Tamils and others had no place in Sri Lanka. Dr Michael Roberts states:

. . . in a pamphlet conveying “A Message to the Young Men of Ceylon”, in 1922, “Ceylon” and “the Sinhalese” are constantly juxtaposed and viewed in synonymous terms: the essay begins by referring to the arrival of “a crisis in the history of our nation” and with a reference to “we the heirs of our beloved Lanka”, and proceeds to exhort readers in terms of “We Sinhalese”; it refers to “the Sinhalese nation” and cautions that they “must look to the future and protect the interests of the coming generation of Sinhalese”. in Dharmapala’s vision, there was hardly any place for the Ceylon Tamils, Moors or Burghers in Sri Lanka.l8

Roberts continues:

. . . Dharmapala even denied a place to the Sinhalese Christians: thus in the very same letter, he referred to “the sons of the soil, the Sinhalese Buddhists” a phrase that is of great significance because in his thinking the concept of “sons of the soil” recurs over and over again and carried a status of near deification . . . nor was Dharmapala an isolated example in early 20th Century Lanka. Not dissimilar notions were echoed by such propagandists as John de Silva, Charles Dias and Walisinha Harischandra.l 9

Professor Gananath Obeysekere states: “In his speeches and in the newspaper he founded, he castigated the Westernized upper class and idealised the glories of the past. The following passage is typical:

My message to the young men of Ceylon is . . . Believe not the alien who is giving you arrack, whisky . . . Enter into the realms of our King Dutugemunu in spirit and try to identify yourself with the thoughts of that great king who rescued Buddhism and our nationalism from oblivion.”

And Obeyesekere also states that in Dharmapala’s perception there is no place for the Tamils and others:

He held up the glories of the Sinhalese past as an ideal worth resurrecting: “No nation in the world has had a more brilliant history than ourselves”. “There exists no race on earth today that has had a more triumphant record of victory than the Sinhalese” . . . The country, as he perceives it, is a Sinhalese Buddhist one, and there is hardly a place in it for Tamils and Muslims, who are viewed as exploiters. The Christians are condemned as meat eaters of “low Caste”. “The country of the Sinhalese should be governed by the Sinhalese.” While on occasion he addresses himself to Sinhalese qua Sinhalese, rather than Buddhists, the general bias in his polemics is for a Sinhalese Buddhist nation.20

On the impact of Dharmapala, Obeyesekere states: “Though his initial impact was on members of the alientaed Sinhalese intelligentsia living in the villages . . . schoolteachers, monks, ayurvedic physicians, various types of government officials, representatives of local bodies (‘village committees’) . . . he later had an impact on all Sinhalese Buddhists.”21

Hence, to say that Dharmapala has been ruling Sri Lanka from his grave since 1948 is in no way an overstatement. It seems that he had been doing so even earlier, for Professor A.J. Wilson states:

Many of the measures adopted in the economic field by the Sinhalese ministers of the 1930s could be traced back to the exhortations of Anagarika Dharmapala in the first two decades of the 20th Century. Anagarika had urged the Sinhala Buddhists to imitate the industrious Muslim traders. He had attacked the Ceylon Tamils, Indian Tamils and Muslims on the score that they were “employed in large numbers to the prejudice of the people of the island”, by which he meant the Sinhala Buddhists.22

Sarath Amunugama writes,

Dharmapala’s propaganda both media and message helped actively to fashion Sirisena’s career. Dharmapala’s public meetings, articles, newspapers, popular organizations . . . all . . . impinged at various times on Sirisena’s life . . . Many young revivalists, including Sirisena, took Dharmapala as their model. Like him they adopted “Aryan” names, changed their dress and devoted their life to Buddhist agitational activity. Though Sirisena did not adopt the lifestyle of an Anagarika, he faithfully emulated the philosophy and propaganda techniques of his mentor. He too undertook speaking engagements, joined various organizations for Buddhist advancement and was a frequent essayist on issues which concerned Sinhala Buddhists. He was also well known as a poet. Later he was to adopt journalism as a career. Though he is better known today as a novelist, it is of significance that journalism remained his principal source of occupation . . . [Besides, Jayatissa saha Rosalin] Sirisena wrote many other popular novels, all dealing with the theme of Buddhist Sinhalese virtues. He became a household name in the island . . .

In the introduction to Jayatissa, Sirisena wrote, “There are many books written by me to put the Sinl1alese people on the proper path.” The novel was dedicated to “the Sinhalese nation wluch for 2,450 years has been unsurpassed in virtue.” Amunugama shows how Sirisena carried his cause into the novel:

A large part of the novel is taken up by a dialogue between Jayatissa and his Catholic adversaries . . . on the Buddhist side, it took the form of ridiculing Christianity with quotations from the Bible and of expounding various aspects of the Buddhist doctrine. There was also an attempt to contrast the glory of ancient Sinhalese civilization with the low level of culture in Europe. The Christians are shown in a bad light, as being dupes of arrogant, pleasure loving foreign priests who keep their flock in bondage with threats of damnation. When confronted with the “truth” as shown by the young crusader Jayatissa, they see their folly and embrace Buddhism 23

According to Michael Roberts, “on one occasion in 1937 Piyadasa Sirisena even argued that it was futile to govern Ceylon with the co operation of Tamils and Moors and that it was preferable to endure British rule if Sinhalese could not win independence for themselves.”24

An equally important propagandist was Munidasa Cumaratunga (18871944). Of him Dr K.N.O. Dharmadasa writes,

Cumaratunga was one of the most outstanding personalities of the Sinhalese literary scene in the period extending from the 1920s to the 1940s. He is remembered today mainly as a grammarian and a literary figure. As a grammarian his contribution was singular, unprecedented and, as yet, unsurpassed. He was moreover, a gifted literary artist and a perceptive critic . . . his career had a significance that extended beyond the literary and linguistic spheres and its impact on Sinhalese society was much deeper than hitherto recognized.

In place of the earlier slogan, “Country, Race, Religion”, Cumaratunga substituted a new slogan in a new trinity: “Basa, Rasa, Desa” (“Language, Nation, Country”). He placed language first, carrying on a consistent campaign for “purity” of the Sinhalese language, i.e. the removal of roots and words borrowed from Pali, Sanskrit, Tamil and English. In his estimation, among all these languages, pure Sinhalese “Helse” as he called it—ranked highest. Answering a query in Helio, the English periodical he edited, he declared, “Please understand that Helse language is older than the oldest of Indian languages.”

Dr Dharmadasa states, “His views, especially on the history of the Sinhalese race and the Sinhalese language, were mostly passionate beliefs based on his own conviction rather than on historical evidence. And the manner in which he criticized those who disagreed with his views sometimes lacked concern for propriety and etiquette.”25

For a time, Cumaratunga was a member of Bandaranaike’s Sinhala Maha Sabha, but left and founded his Hela Havula (“The Pure Sinhalese Fraternity”), which developed into a movement comprising many Sinhalese schoolteachers and Buddhist monks. Cumaratunga subjected the Buddhist hierarchy, both clergy and laity, to virulent criticism. He also attacked Sinhalese university dons for having created “a language of their own which is at once debased, insipid and inelegant”. He attacked Sir D.B. Jayatilaka, the home minister and Leader of the State Council and an accredited Sinhalese scholar, for producing an unsatisfactory Sinhalese dictionary. He characterised Bandaranaike as “the presumptuous leader of the Sinhalese”.

All the political and propagandist currents and cross currents of the Sinhalese came to converge, and received a respectable and, to many, acceptable formulation, in D.C. Wijewardene’s Revolt in the Temple, published in 1953 in anticipation of the forthcoming Buddha Jayanti— the anniversary marking 2,500 years of Buddhism in 1956. Wijewardene, a close relation of the Senanayakes and brother of Sri Lanka’s press baron D.R. Wijewardene, was a Buddhist propagandist who was seeking to be a political messiah. He wrote:

Since English education and Christian faith were the keys to lucrative government jobs, a hybrid class of half educated, Europeanized Sinhalese was soon formed. Buddhism and the Sinhalese language, Sinhalese customs and manners, and even personal names, came to be looked down upon as the contemptible residues of Oriental barbarism . . . Everything English and Christian was at a premium . . . it was the lowest level the Sinhalese as a nation had ever reached.

In this way, having so elegantly and quintessentially vindicated and accepted the whole corpus of the Dharmapala school of thought and of the ACBC, Wijewardene proceeded to open the political Pandora’s box with messianic fervour. He attacked the dominion status and independence which Sri Lanka had received, and asserted that “it does not confer national freedom on Ceylon . . . Our ultimate goal should not be Dominion Status, but independence . . . and a constitution, not imported from Whitehall but drafted by a Constituent Assembly.”

He advocated the replacement of the monarchy by a republic, severing of the Commonwealth connection, and abolition of the Senate. He prescribed a non capitalist, non communist, but democratic socialist—and Buddhist— future for Sri Lanka. Wijewardene argued that Buddhism, democracy and socialism were mutually compatible and called for a democratic state founded on Buddhist religion and governed by socialist concepts. He wrote: “The Buddha himself was a staunch democrat. The Buddhist assemblies were fully democratic and had elaborate rules of procedure, election and debate . . . The task remains to convert the State to a programme of socialism through the conquest of the public opinion.”

He expressly rejected class struggle and idealized political co operation as “the Buddhist ethic and the last word in nationalism”. To Wijewardene, there were only Buddhists in Sri Lanka. The socialism that he was holding out did not include a change of the ruling upper class or in the status quo. It was “socialism” as a catchword designed to perpetuate the existing state power in the hands of the upper class and to confuse and destabilize the working class.

He was advocating co operative socialism, in order to epitomize the Buddhist middle path, when that middle path and all that was cardinal to the Buddhist doctrine had long ago been jettisoned, lock, stock and barrel, by followers of Dharmapala who were grooming themselves as the apostles of the rising Sinhalese bourgeoisie.

Dharmapala, coming from a rich merchant family had written:

We must learn to stand on our own legs and not depend on the alien. We must revive our industries . . . we consume but we do not produce fresh wealth. Our ancestral wealth we squander in luxuries, and we do not find fresh fields to increase our wealth by industries . . . Tamils, Cochins (and others) are employed in large numbers to the prejudice of the people of the island—sons of the soil who contribute to the largest share . . . All Asia and Europe are moving towards progress, and we who belong to a superior race . 26

Wijewardene concluded with a clarion message: “The final solution of the problem . . . will neither be communism or capitalism but something midway between the two, represented by that new social and economic order known as Socialism . . . If Lanka takes the right path, the rest of the world will follow.”27

Bandaranaike, who, since his departure from the UNP, had been at a loss for a political ideology, fell for this nebulous middle path and became the heir to Wijewardene’s vague visionary hopes. This vitiated the class struggle and made national ethnic forces override class factors. Upper class dominance and control of the state was saved, at the cost of ethnic conflict and carnage. We shall return to these issues shortly.

4.11 Kotelawala’s “Parity of Status”, and a Somersault

At the political level, with Kotelawala at the helm, everything began to go wrong, not only for him but also for the UNP in the mid 1950s. In order to placate the rising Buddhist lobby, the party hierarchy made much of Kotelawala’s hunting expedition with the king of Nepal near Buddhist shrines. In 1953, Maithripala Senanayake, an important MP from the North Central Province, resigned and joined Bandaranaike’s SLFP. Kotelawala’s brash manner in keeping the bhikkhus at bay led the Ramanya bhikkhus to turn away from him and from the UNP.

Amidst these shifting loyalties, Kotelawala went on a tour of Jaffna, the homeland of the Sri Lanka Tamils, in early 1955. His last public meeting was in Kokkuvil, presided over by the veteran nationalist and earlier Youth Congress leader Handy Perinbanayagam, who suggested to him that Sinhala and Tamil should be written into the constitution as the official languages.28 Kotelawala readily agreed, since it was the accepted policy of the government that both should will be made in the constitution to give parity of status to Sinhalese and Tamil as the official languages of the country.”

This apparently innocuous statement, reported in the newspapers, was taken up first by L.H. Mettananda, a Buddhist propagandist and principal of Anansa College, the leading Buddhist school. He misrepresented the phrase “parity of status” as necessarily involving the study of Tamil by the Sinhalese, so that the Sinhalese would thereby lose their identity as a Sinhalese “race”. Much publicity was given to his views by the Lake House group of newspapers, founded by D.R. Wijewardene, a devout Buddhist. P. de S. Kularatne, another Buddhist propagandist, soon echoed the same views. They all seized upon the phrase “parity of status”, suggesting that it implied the extinction of the Sinhalese .

Agitation was soon mounted, cleverly orchestrated by the Mettananda Kularatne duo and supported by the Ramanya bhikkhus, for Sinhalese to be the only official language. Mettananda denounced the UNP for betraying the Sinhalese. Bandaranaike knew that the issue had the potential to propel him to power, and, in September 1955, announced that “the language subcommittee of the SLFP had resolved that Sinhalese language be declared the official language of the country with reasonable use of Tamil”.

In this way, the long resolved two official languages policy became a political issue. Because of Bandaranaike’s statement, other political parties soon took up positions. The LSSP and the CP declared for both Sinhalese and Tamil as the official languages, and Dr N.M. Perera pledged the LSSP’s parliamentary support for amending the constitution to make Sinhalese and Tamil the official languages. Philip Gunawardene, who in 1950 had broken away from the LSSP (because of the re entry of the Bolshevik Leninist Party into the LSSP) and had formed the Viplavakari (Revolutionary) LSSP, stated that his party stood for “Sinhalese only”, with Tamil as a regional language .

Meetings were organized to mobilize support for “Sinhala only”. Processions and demonstrations were held by “Sinhala only” enthusiasts and the language issue became heated. Some UNP MPs became supporters of “Sinhala only” for the sake of their political survival. Many rank and file members deserted the UNP. The war against the UNP under Kotelawala came to be waged from within. Some leading Ramanya monks, including Henpetigedera Gnanaseeha, the famous political bhikkhu, approached Dudley Senanayake, who was then in self imposed political exile, to lead a new party. But Dudley “felt that he could not work against the UNP because if had been formed by his father”.29

At the Kelaniya sessions of the UNP in February 1956, Kotelawala himself proposed UNP’s policy as “Sinhala only”. It was a monumental volte face by the very person who, as prime minister just a year before, had said that “provision will be made in the constitution to give parity of status to Sinhalese and Tamil as the official languages”. it was regarded as a betrayal by the UNP, which at its previous sessions, held as late as 21 January 1954, reiterated its accepted policy of making Sinhalese and Tamil the official languages.

Kotelawala did not have the decency to resign with honour. Instead, confident that he had taken the wind out of his opponents’ sails by the Kelaniya resolution for “Sinhala only”, he decided to take the language issue to the electorate. Hence, he called for the premature dissolution of parliament on 18 February 1956.

4.12 History of the Two-Languages Policy

The acceptance of Sinhalese and Tamil as the official languages during the state council period of the 1930s and 1940s was briefly outlined in Chapter 2. As we saw, in May 1944 J.R. Jayewardene, who had just been elected to the state council, proposed a motion to make Sinhalese “the official language of Ceylon within a reasonable time”. V. Nalliah moved an amendment to the motion, that “Sinhalese and Tamil be made the official languages”, which was accepted by the proposer, Jayewardene.

In the debate that followed, D.S. Senanayake declared: “The essential task is to build up a nation, and build up a nation not with one language but with two.” S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike said: “It is necessary to bring about that amity, that confidence among the various communities, which we are striving to achieve . . . Therefore, I have no objection to both languages being considered official languages; nor do I see any harm or danger or real difficulty arising from it.” The amended motion was carried almost unanimously, with 27 votes for with two against.

In pursuance of this resolution and at Bandaranaike’s proposal, on 20 September 1945 a select committee of the state council was appointed, under the chairmanship of J.R. Jayewardene, “to consider and report on the steps necessary to effect the transition from English to Sinhalese and Tamil as the official languages”. The select committee in its report of 1946, entitled “Sinhalese and Tamil as Official Languages”, recommended that by 1957 all public servants should be able to conduct business in both national languages, and that courses in both Sinhalese and Tamil should be provided in secondary schools so that administration on a bilingual basis should become feasible.

After independence, this accepted policy continued until the Sinhalese Buddhist lobby became active in 1953-54. In 1954, a commission on higher education was appointed under the chairmanship of Sir Arthur Wijewardene (a retired Chief Justice). Sinhalese Buddhist propagandists such as L.H. Mettananda went about collecting figures of Sinhalese and Tamil students entering the university and presented evidence to the commission that the proportion of Tamil students was considerably greater than their proportion in the population.

The commission produced a majority report, written by Sinhalese, recommending that “in the interests of equal opportunity” provision for higher education should be available to at least six Sinhalese students for every one Tamil student. The commission was also pressured by the Sinhalese Buddhist lobby to go beyond its terms of reference and question the desirability of having two official languages.

The commission accordingly questioned the need for two official languages. This provoked the governor general, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, to write to the commission as follows: “You are no doubt aware that it is the accepted policy of the Government that Sinhalese and Tamil should be the official languages of the country, and any examination of this policy would be contrary to the terms of reference.”

4.13 Sinhalese Politics of Manipulation

The policy of “Sinhala only”, as adopted by the SLFP and later by the UNP, constituted the high water mark of the Sinhalese “politics of manipulation” that had been adopted from the time of the Manning constitution in the 1920s. From that time to the present, political issues and pressures in the country have generally not arisen from consensus and the considered will of all the people. Nor have there been any proper studies of the pros and cons of the policies to be adopted. On the contrary, they have been generated by manipulative pressures to serve the economic and political interests of the dominant class and to enable it to stay in power.

Since in these fields the middle and lower classes are always the losers, plenty of accommodation is afforded them in the cultural and religious fields, which again are manipulated to benefit the dominant ethnic group. Thus the Sri Lankan state represents and safeguards the interests of the dominant class (the upper class) and the dominant ethnic group (the Sinhalese). This is principally because the upper class politicians have had long experience in the exercise of “power without responsibility”—witness their paralyzing the colonial administration when Governor Clifford had to call for a special constitutional commission because, as he put it, it had become “quite impossible for the government to carry on its administrative duties”; or their role as ministers from 1931 to 1947.

Law is not viewed as the instrument of good and just government aimed at securing the willing compliance, loyalty and respect of the people, but simply as an edict to be made and enforced, come what may. Hence, all manner of devious arguments are advanced, and extraneous pressures exerted, in the making of law. Bandaranaike told parliament in 1957:

. . . although the circumstances of the situation were such that the Sinhalese language had to be declared the official language of this country, there was no intention in fact to cause any undue hardship or injustice to those whose language is other than Sinhalese in the implementation of the Act.

Even in matters affecting the fundamental community rights of the Tamil people, if the deprivation of such rights could be reduced to law by the show of hands of the Sinhalese MPs, then that law acquired such sanctity that the whole Tamil community could be imprisoned for challenging it.

Parliament, government and law are all transplanted institutions which roust work on the basis of unwritten conventions, norms and limitations, and not by the simple show of hands of an ethnic community. They are institutions foreign to the Sinhalese tradition of authoritative monarchical rule whereby people are subjects and are still regarded as such by the present day ruling class. Extolling this tradition, Sam D. Bandaranaike publicly supported a dictatorship in 1964, explaining that “Ceylon was developed during the reign of the Sinhalese kings because they governed the country on autocratic lines”.30 And in the 1960s Felix Dias Bandaranaike was reported to have said that “a little bit of totalitarianism is good”.

The vision of an ideal Buddhist ruler presented in the Digha Nikaya; the advice of king Dhammasoka in his Fourth Pillar Edict; the virtue of magnanimity in the Dasa raja dhamma; the precedent of Parakramabahu the Great (1153 1186), who built temples for Hindu priests and even prohibited the carving of bulls, sacred to the Tamil Hindus, in the ornate threshold stones of his structures, so that their image would not be trodden upon all have been consigned to the limbo of a forgotten past.

In the old Sinhalese society, the king, literature and art were all servants of Buddhism. And in Buddhism it is the prerogative of the saffron robed bhikkhu to know the doctrine and expound it to the laity. The bhikkhu is at once a knowledgeable religious teacher and a holy man. The bhikkhus became highly articulate, employing forceful means of expression, often alluding to parables, fiction and poetry in their communications with the laity, who gathered to listen to them. In the mid 1950s newspapers were rare in Sinhalese villages, and it was the bhikkhu who conveyed the political events to the people. They used old forms and old symbols to serve new ends. Every village had its local bhikkhu, the religious story teller, venerated for his knowledge, service to Buddhism and ascetic life. When such men resorted to religious pressure for political purposes, as they did in the 1956 elections to make Sinhala the only official language, all hell was let loose in the country.

4.14 The 1956 MEP Election Victory

For the May 1956 general elections, an electoral front called the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) (Peoples’ United Front) was formed between Bandaranaike’s SLFP, Philip Gunawardena’s VLSSP and W. Dahanayake’s newly formed Sinhala Bhasa Peramuna (Sinhala Language Front). Bandaranaike was the leader of the MEP. Denzil Pieris described the MEP as “a collection of resentments against the UNP”.31 The MEP also attracted individuals like I.M.R.A. Iriyagolle, a Sinhalese writer, and R.G. Senanayake, who had earlier resigned from the UNP.

Although the MEP election manifesto included “Sinhala only” with ‘ reasonable use of Tamil”, during the campaign Bandaranaike made no mention of the “reasonable use of Tamil”. This was probably because Kotelawalae in order to go one step further than the SLFP and VLSSP, had in the February 1956 UNP Kelaniya Resolution made no mention at all of Tamil. In the circumstances, it would not have been of advantage for Bandaranaike to mention the point when campaigning in the Sinhalese areas. But this kind of electoral politics was to have its effects, once “reasonable use of Tamil” was sought to be put into effect. In the campaign, Bandaranaike promised to make “Sinhala only” a reality “within 24 hours, if elected to power”. The MEP promised the dethronement of the English language, the Christian religion and Western culture from their positions of dominance.

The LSSP and CP campaigned for Sinhalese and Tamil as the official languages. For the UNP, Kotelawala in his election manifesto claimed that he had gone to polls early “to enable me to form a government which will, as its first term of business, seek, by amending the constitution at once by legislative and administrative measures, to implement the resolution that Sinhalese alone should be made the state language.”32

Although previously a few bhikkhus had been members of political parties like the LSSP and CP, but had never engaged in election campaigning, for this election the bhikkhus formed the Eksath Bhikkhu Peramuna (EBP) (“United Bhikkhu Front”), with Buddharakita, the High Priest of the famed Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihare (the greatest of the great temple), as secretary to support the SLFP for “Sinhala only”. At that time, on one estimate, there were more than 12,000 bhikkhus in Sri Lanka.33The Buddhist Commission of Inquiry set up by the ACBC in April 1954 had published its report, The Betrayal of Buddhism, in February 1956.34 The Bhikkhu Front became a mighty political force .

Kotelawala persuaded the Maha Nayake Theros (the Chief Prelates) of Asgiriya and Malwatte to issue an injunction against bhikkhus taking part in electioneering, but they defied their religious heads. This is because Buddha placed every bhikkhu on an equal footing. He did not envisage a hierarchy and absolute authority was not vested in any higher bhikkhu; for the authority is the dhamma of the Buddha.

The Bhikkhu Front presented a ten point programme (the Dasa Panatha) to Bandaranaike at a massive rally in Colombo. The programme called for an SLFP government to be elected to practise non violence, oppose injustice, implement the Buddhist Commission Report, make Sinhala the only official language, defend democracy against fascism and communism and acts of UNP government, give Buddhism its rightful place, promote ayurvedic (indigenous) medicine and withhold state assistance from institutions not promoting communal harmony or peace and equality among peoples. During the election campaign,

every meeting was addressed by members of the Sangha [the bhikkhu monk order], leading and popular bhikkhus went from meeting to meeting, from electorate to electorate. Some of the Privenas (Seminaries) in Colombo and the Provinces were turned into election headquarters. The older monks went from house to house. The small Dz7mnl1erDs (novicesj did other work such as writing of election cards, drawing of posters, flags and other odd jobs.35

The Sinhalese schoolteachers, the ayurvedic medicine practitioners and others who would immediately benefit by Sinhala replacing English organized their own campaigns for the SLFP. These two groups, along with the z /1ikkhus, the feudal remnants and the landlord moneylenders, constituted the traditional power structure in Sinhalese villages. These groups had remained cut off from national political and economic power and from the medium through which to achieve them—English. They were aware that, With Sinhala replacing English and the changes that would flow from this, they would have ready access to national power.

Hence they came forward and delivered their block votes in the villages to the MEP, in the expectation of privileges and patronage. The vast majority of the ordinary poor—the landless tenant farmers, agricultural workers and village artisans—for whom some of these village power groups were oppressors and exploiters, found themselves with no choice but to follow there and vote for the MEP. It was in the wake of this reactionary response, and not on the crest of any revolutionary wave, that the MEP was voted into power.

The MEP polled 39.5% of the votes and won 51 of the 95 seats and so formed the government. The UNP was decimated, gaining a mere eight seats although it polled 27% of the votes. The LSSP won 14 seats, polling 10.5% of the votes. The CP won three seats, with one in the Tamil north, polling 4.6% of the votes. In the Tamil areas, the “Sinhala only” policy made the Tamils vote for the FP, led by S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, which with its call for federalism seemed to be the only party that could fight for the preservation of the rights of the Tamil people. The FP won 10 seats, polling 5.4% of the votes, and G.G. Ponnambalam alone from the TC was returned. For the first time, the Tamils elected a leftist, P. Kandiah of the CP, as MP for Point Pedro.

It is important to note that, despite the massive mobilization of the Sinhalese by the “Sinhala only” politicians and the Buddhist bhikkhus, more than 15% of the Sinhalese voters rejected their call and voted for the Marxist parties with which they identified their interests as a class. Their ability to stand up to Sinhalese chauvinism is the greatest proof that, before “Sinhala only” and the coming to power of Bandaranaike, people were dividing on a class basis and that ideological alignments had clearly taken root and shape. At a time of fanatical electoral campaigning, at least 15% (or 394,000) of the Sinhalese voters had outgrown chauvinism and showed that they eschewed the “racialist” appeals of their political leaders.

In the MEP government formed in 1956, Bandaranaike became the Prime Ministers Philip Gunawardena, the Minister of Industries, and W. Dahanayake, the Minister of Education. Dr N.M. Perera, leader of the LSSP, became the Leader of the Opposition.

From the beginning, both the LSSP and CP adopted a policy of “critical support” for the MEP government, except on its language Policy. Both these parties failed to understand the crucial social conflicts under way, and misread the electoral defeat of the UNP as an important stage in the onward march to socialism. They failed to unmask the real upperclass character of the controlling forces within the MEP. In the process, they even underestimated the 15% electoral support they had received.

Lacking theoretical comprehension of the concrete historical condition, and incapable of advancing a revolutionary programme, they tried to interpret the victory or defeat of two basically upper class controlled parties, in elections to a bourgeois parliament, as acceptance or rejection of socialism. The CP’s view was that “the electoral victory over the UNP and the formation of the new government represented a significant shift in the balance of forces in Ceylon.”

Bandaranaike and others, even some “Marxists”, have often claimed that the MEP victory in 1956 was a “revolution” by the ballot, and that it heralded a “new era” for the common man in the country.36 Nothing like that happened. The leader and his men were from the old ruling class and there was no shift whatever from upper class control of power. When Philip Gunawardena, as Minister of Agriculture, sought to introduce a mildly radical agrarian reform law, the conservative forces got together, staged a “cabinet strike” by 10 ministers and got him expelled from the cabinet. Stanley de Zoysa, the Finance Minister, was the son of Sir Francis de Zoysa, the veteran CNC politician of the 1920s, and R.G. Senanayake, another Minister, was the nephew of D.S. Senanayake.

Dr I.D.S. Weerawardena was right in stating of the MEP government: “From the point of view of education and occupation the preponderant majority of the candidates came from the middle middle and upper middle classes. Parliamentary leadership therefore continues to remain in the hands of this class.”37 The failure to unmask the real class character of the new rulers resulted in the “Marxist” LSSP and CP lending “critical support” to the government.

4.15 “Sinhala Only” Act of 1956

The first important legislative act of the new government concerned the “Sinhala only” promise on which it had campaigned and got elected. On 5 June 1956, Prime Minister Bandaranaike introduced in the House of Representatives a bill to make the Sinhala language the only official language of Sri Lanka. From the day the bill was introduced to the day it was passed, the precincts and approaches to the House were barricaded and armed police and army personnel stood guard outside. The galleries were closed to the public. It was a short bill, with just three clauses, but it gave rise to the longest debate in the annals of Sri Lanka’s legislature.

The bill was supported by the MEP and the UNP and opposed by the LSSP, CP, FP and TC. In commending it, Bandaranaike stated,

“The fact that in the towns and villages, in business houses and in boutiques most of the work is in the hands of the Tamil speaking people will inevitably result in a fear, an I do not think an unjustified fear, of the inexorable shrinkage of the Sinhalese language . . .”

Dr N.M. Perera, the LSSP leader declared:

The LSSP’s demand for Sinhalese and Tamil as the state languages, it should be made very clear at the outset, flows from a very real concern for the interests of the people who speak these languages . . . we have been for Swabasha, that is, for Sinhalese and Tamil, ever since we started in 1935. That was one of our items in our first programme issued by the LSSP, that the administration of the country should be in Sinhalese and Tamil . . . Our Party has taken a consistent attitude ever since . . . we have never faltered or wavered from that position because we felt that that was the correct line to take. That position we still adhere to however unpopular that action might be.

G.G. Ponnambalam, the leader of the Tamil Congress, said:

“The imposition of Sinhalese as the sole official language of this country must inevitably and inexorably put an end, even if that is not your real objective today, to the Tamil nation and the Tamil people as such”.

Leslie Goonewardene, the secretary of the LSSP, said:

. . . We oppose the injustice done to the Tamil speaking people by this Bill. We feel just as the Sinhalese people should have the right to be ruled in the Sinhalese language and conduct their business with the government in the Sinhalese language, so also the Tamils should have the right to conduct their business with the state in the Tamil language and to be ruled in the Tamil language.

Pieter Keuneman, of the CP, said:

I am a communist and I am proud to be a communist . . . [The CP] opposes this Bill. It opposes oppression in whatever form it appears. It is because of this fundamental basis of our political philosophy that we of the CP oppose this Bill with all our strength. We believe that all nationals of this country have a natural and unfettered right to use their language, to govern themselves in their language, to build and develop their language and cultures. This is a right which in the case of any one linguistic group is neither more nor less than in the case of the other linguistic group. No person or linguistic group should, because of his or its language, be placed in a position inferior or superior, in the exercise and enjoyment of the rights and obligations of citizenship, to another person or language group.38

M. Sivasithamparam, of the Tamil Congress, predicted the result of the government’s language policy: “One language, two countries; two languages, one country.”

The “Sinhala only” bill was passed in the teeth of opposition by all the Tamil MPs within the House, protests and Satygraha by the Tamils in the country and rioting by the Sinhalese against the Tamils in the Eastern Province. The “Sinhala only” bill was passed entirely by the MEP and UNP Sinhalese MPs.

The “Sinhalese only” language policy passed into law as the Official Language Act No.33 of 1956, and reads as follows —

An Act to prescribe the Sinhala language as the one official language of Ceylon and to enable certain transitory provisions to be made (Date of Assent: 7 July 1956).1. This Act may be cited as the Official Language Act No.33 of 1956.

2. The Sinhala language shall be the one official language of Ceylon. Provided that where the Minister considers it impracticable to commence the use of only the Sinhala language, for any official purpose immediately on the coming into force of this Act, the language or languages hitherto used for that purpose may be continue to be so used until the necessary change is effected as early as possible before the expiry of 31 December 1960 and, if such change cannot be effected by administrative order, regulations may be made under this Act to effect such change.

3. (1) The Minister may make such regulations in respect of all matters for which regulations are authorised by this Act to be made and generally for the purpose of giving effect to the principles and provisions of this Act. (II) No regulation made under sub section (I) shall have effect until it is approved by the Senate and the House of Representatives and notification of such approval is published in the Gazette.

To make Sinhala the one “official” language, for the benefit of the Sinhalese, was easily achieved. But how would the measure be implemented among the Tamils? To meet this situation, the “Sinhala only” bill had a provision for the use of Tamil, but this was killed by the agitation mounted by the Eksath Bhikkhu Peramuna. A minister later stated that the provision had been dropped because “extremists, opportunists, people who wanted to create chaos . . . took to start an agitation”.39

The proviso to Section 2 gives the minister the power to put off the implementation of the measure if he finds it “impracticable”, and to continue with English until the end of 1960. The proviso was necessary to effect the transition, and was dictated by the practical impossibility of Sinhala becoming the official language of administration of the Tamil people in the north and east.

If, by the proviso, English would continue until the end of 1960, how would the Tamil people be administered after that time? Would the Tamils become Sinhalese or Sinhala speaking after 31 December 1960? Or would Sinhalese officers study Tamil to administer the Tamil people? Or would the Tamil officers study Sinhala and administer their own Tamil people in Sinhala?

However much the Sinhalese may refuse to believe it, the simple fact is that Sinhala cannot be the official language of the Tamils. The Tamil people, in practice, have to be administered in Tamil, as it is their language in the same way that Sinhala is the language of the Sinhalese. When that happens, Tamil will be a de facto official language. And then, as far as Tamils are concerned Tamil will be their official language.

So the injustice of denying official language status for Tamil becomes so self evident that Tamil resistance builds up like internal combustion. In such a situation the writ of the “Sinhala only” government cannot run among the Tamil people

It is important to remember that the constant feature of nationalist movements has been the passionate commitment to one’s language, which often assumes mystic significance. More about this will be said in the Conclusion. Language is very basic to man; it is the very definition of his identity; it is the mirror that reflects his past and determines his present loyalties .

Anthropologist Edmund Leach, after studying the welter of ethnic groups and their language culture and social relations in Upper Burma, wrote: ‘For a man to speak one language rather than another is a ritual act, it is a statement about one’s personal status; to speak the same language as one’s neighbours expresses solidarity with those neighbours, to speak a different language from one’s neighbours expresses social distance or even hostility.”40

The importance of language for each of the linguistic nations of India was quickly learnt by Jawaharlal Nehru before independence, in his work in the Linguistic Provinces Committee. The experience he gained prevented the imposition of Hindi on the non Hindi people, and thus the disintegration of India was averted. Nehru wrote: “The inquiry has been in some ways an eye opener for us . . . Some of the ablest men in the country came before us and confidently and emphatically stated that language in this country stood for and represented culture, race, history, individuality, and finally a sub-nation.”41

To the Tamils in Sri Lanka, the Tamil language represents everything that Nehru referred to. its place as an official language cannot be denied simply because of the numerical majority that the Sinhalese have. Their Voting majority, as we have seen, was secured by manipulation and by depriving the Tamils of Indian origin of the franchise. The imposition of “Sinhala only” is a negation of the independence of the Tamils and represents the subjugation of the Tamils by Sinhalese imperialism.

Since the Section 2 proviso provided for the continuation of English Where the minister found it impracticable to commence the use of Sinhala Only, the measure had an immediate impact on the Tamils living outside the north and east against whom “Sinhala only” was intended to be used from the beginning. Before the law was enacted, the targets of Buddhist propagandists particularly the ACBC, were the English educated Catholics, Christians, Burghers and Tamils—to undermine the elite position they held through ability in English. But they had no ready weapon; so Kotelawala’s pronouncement about “parity of status” was pounced upon, and distorted, to make a case for “Sinhala only” in order to get the jobs and positions the English speakers held.

The underlying cause, however, in the 1953 Hartal and in all the other socio economic conflicts that were to follow, was the reactionary economic policy adopted by UNP governments from 1948, which led to cumulative economic stagnation decline and crisis. While the upper class felt secure in its continued control of the state, the growing middle and lower classes became restive for lack of jobs and opportunities.

In this context, the Tamils became an easy target for they held many jobs, proportionately more than their percentage of the population, and were seemingly prosperous. It was not realized that their seeming prosperity was because of their thrift and saving. Nor was it realized that, in a unitary state with a competitive system, national ethnic communities do not advance proportionately in the different spheres of national life. For if access to jobs, power and scarce resources were to proceed according to population ratios, there would not be competition for socio economic mobility and ascendance—the essential basis of any modern state.

For historical and other reasons, each of the communities advanced in the fields for which they were particularly suited and possessed the right resources. There was no envy or jealousy. The Muslims predominated in trade and business; the Sinhalese in landownership of plantations. In 1952, the Sinhalese owned 88% of all the plantations of more than 20 acres and 52% of the area occupied by such plantations. In the case of plantations under 20 acres, the ownership was entirely Sinhalese, and these produced, in the 1950s, 72% of the total coconut crop and all of the coconut surplus for export. “At the present time [1953], Sinhalese interests and capital predominate in the plantations, and the people who produce for export are better off than those who produce for the local markets.”42

Likewise, the Burghers went into the professions, and mercantile and government jobs, while the Tamils advanced through education into the professions and government employment, mainly because of their inhospitable “dry zone” lands. Except in the higher echelons of the civil service, government employment was the least coveted option and was basically a lower middle class opening. However, because of economic stagnation after 1948, government employment, in which the Tamil middle class seemingly prospered, became a ready object of envy, particularly by the Sinhalese Karava.

The “Sinhala only” policy was created and articulated mainly by the Karava, supported by the Catholics and Christians; the (Goyigama leadership and the people were at first against it and were never very enthusiastic about it. While it united the Sinhalese “racially”, the Catholics and Christians were soon the losers when the “Sinhala only” war cry was later converted into the “Sinhalese Buddhist” battle cry. After the “Sinhala only” act, there emerged the straightforward Sinhalese/Tamil antithesis.

The implementation of “Sinhala only” was placed in the hands of Sam P.C Fernando, the Minister of Justice, a Christian. He issued directives that all public servants, including Tamil officers, in service, and future recruits, must pass a proficiency test to the GCE ‘O’ level in Sinhala within three years in three stages. Failing any stage or the final stage would result in their annual increments being stopped. leading to suspension and eventual dismissal. With this directive, government employment, hitherto the principal avenue of employment and economic advance of the Tamils, became barred. The immediate struggle came to be how those in service and already advanced in age could hold on to their jobs. The English speaking Burghers emigrated to Australia and other English speaking countries, and the proportion of the population declined from 0.6% to 0.3% between 1953 and 1971. We will return to the “Sinhala only” policy, which dominated politics since 1956, after a brief look at the Sinhalese rioting which helped to get the “Sinhala only” act onto the statute book.

4.16 The 1956 Tamil Satyagraha and Sinhalese Rioting

On 5 June 1956, the date the “Sinhala only” bill was introduced by Bandaranaike in the House, as an act of protest Chelvanayakam, the leader of the FP, led a party of 300 Tamil volunteers and staged a sit down Satyagraha (peaceful protest), of the kind popularised by Mahatma Gandhi in the days of the Indian freedom struggle. It was a peaceful sit down protest outside the House, on the Galle Face Green.

On the same day, the Eksath Bhikkhu Peramuna had organized a march to the House to get the “reasonable use of Tamil” clause in the bill removed. The Bhikkhu Peramuna procession converged on the House, followed by thousands of supporters of “Sinhala only”, and when they found the Tamils staging the Satyagraha they set upon them and beat them.

Satyagraha had evolved in British India as a weapon of peaceful protest. The accepted tradition is that the Satyagrahis are not disturbed, even by the strong arm of the law. The protesters invoke suffering upon themselves in order to draw attention to their cause, as a last resort. And the custom is that the police cordon off the Satyagrahis and offer them protection and assistance.

On that day, the police were all around but allowed the Satyagrahis to he beaten up. The Tamil protesters never imagined the bhikkhu holy men would be a party to violence. Some Tamil Satyagrahis were thrown into Beira Lake, near the Parliament House. From that moment, every Tamil seen on the roads of Colombo was attacked. Tamil office employees going home from work in public transport were caught and manhandled. Tamils lead to stay indoors for personal safety, for days on end. Sinhalese hooligans took charge of the situation and went on a rampage of arson and looting of Tamil shops and homes. The rioting and violence were instigated by the government and actively supported by the Sinhalese organisations and  Bhikkhus to frighten the Tamils into accepting the “Sinhala only” act.

The violence and rioting spread to Gal Oya and Amparai, where, under an irrigation and resettlement scheme, thousands of Sinhalese had been resettled in clusters around thinly distributed Tamil villages in the eastern province. “In the ‘race’ riots in 1956 150 people died.”42 This included many Tamil women and children. The 1956 riots were the first of a series of riots to which the Sri Lanka Tamils and those of Indian origin were subjected because of the “Sinhala only” policy and the 1956 language act which divided the people on national ethnic lines.

4.17 The 1956 National Convention of the FP

The initial feeling of frustration and anger that gripped the Tamil nation because of the Sinhala only act soon turned into a grim determination to resist the tyranny of the Sinhala only government. The Tamils, hitherto unattracted by federalism, turned to the Federal Party. With the Sinhala only law on the statute book and the firm resolve of the government not to accord equal right to the Tamils, federalism became the only way out for the integrity and future of the Tamil nation.

The Federal Party summoned its national convention in the naval port of Trincomalee in the eastern province. That convention, held on 19 August 1956, passed the following resolutions:

1. the replacement of the present pernicious constitution by a rational and democratic constitution based on the federal principle and the establishment of one or more Tamil linguistic state or states incorporating all geographically contiguous areas in which the Tamil speaking people are numerically in a majority as federating unit or units enjoying the widest autonomous and residuary powers consistent with the unity and external security of Ceylon;2. The restoration of the Tamil language to its rightful place enjoying the absolute parity of status with Sinhalese as an official language of the country;

3. The repeal of the present citizenship laws and the enactment in their place of laws recognizing the right to full citizenship on the basis of a simple test of residence for all persons who have made this country their home;

4. The immediate cessation of colonization of the traditional Tamil speaking areas with Sinhalese people.

From that time, these became the four major planks of the Tamil Federal Party. “Colonization”, meaning government sponsored resettlement of Sinhalese from the wet zone in the jungle cleared dry zones, mainly in the age old Tamil areas, had been a matter of great resentment in the Federal Party and a source of friction between it and successive governments. The FP regarded the traditional Tamil areas as inviolate and therefore not open for planned government sponsored resettlement of Sinhalese in large numbers. The government believed that, in a united country, no part was the exclusive domain of any one community.

The FP’s objection to Sinhalese resettlement was not only because of loss of territory, but because of the resulting alteration of the ethnic composition of their own areas. From the mid 1930s, jungle clearing, land development and Sinhalese resettlement had been matters of great concern to D.S. Senanayake and, later, to all governments. From that time until the mid 1970s, some 250,000 Sinhalese had been resettled under the various colonization and resettlement schemes.

Between 1947-48 and 1973-74, the government spent no less than 3, 700,000,000 rupees on agriculture, irrigation, land development and Sinhalese resettlement. The settlers were given at first eight, later five, acres ot cleared land, a buffalo for ploughing, a house, a well, seed paddy, and subsistence allowance until the first harvest—all at state expense. They were also provided with irrigated water, free of charge, from river dams constructed at high cost.

The resulting increase of the Sinhalese population in Tamil areas can be seen in the following table:

Table 4.1 Tamil-Sinhalese Population
Change Due to State-sponsored Sinhalese Resettlement in Four Tamil Districts
Tamils – 1953 Tamils – 1971 Sinhalese – 1953 Sinhalese – 1971 Increase of Sinhalese
Jaffna 477,304 673,043 6,183 20,402 14,219
Batticaloa 130,381 246,582 31,174 94,150 62,976
Trincomalee 37,517 73,255 15,296 55,308 40,192
Puttalam 9,010 30,994 31,587 309,298 277,711

Source. Memorandum of the Ceylon Institute for National and Tamil Affairs

A clearer picture over a longer period becomes discernible from the following figures. It must be remembered that planned government sponsored resettlement schemes were started in the mid 1930s and accelerated from the late 1940s.

Because of government sponsored settlement of Sinhalese in traditional Tamil areas, particularly in the eastern province, the government in the early 1960s created a new district, Amparai district, out of what was previously Batticaloa district, in which the Tamils had predominated as late as the 1946 census. The new district appeared as a separate district from the 1963 census, and had an 80% Sinhalese population. At a later distribution of electoral constituencies, Amparai District was given two constituencies by the Delimitation Commission, namely Amparai and Seruwila. Both these constituencies returned Sinhalese MPs, and the Sinhalese representation in the legislature was thereby increased to 80%, although they represented only 71.9% of the population, according to the 1971 census.

Table 4.2 – Ethnic Distribution of Population in
Two Select Tamil Districts of the Eastern Province (in percentage)
Trincomalee – Sinhalese Tamils Muslims Others Batticaloa and Amparai – Sinhalese Tamils Muslims Others
1921 3.0 55.2 38.1 3.5 4.5 53.3 39.7 2.3
1946 20.6 44.5 30.5 3.7 5.9 50.3 42.2 1.6
1971 28.8 38.2 32.0 1.0 17.7 46.4 35.1 0.6

Source: Michael Roberts, in Michael Roberts (ed): Collective Identities, p.75.

These two parliamentary constituencies comprised 1,500 square miles of territory, or two fifths of the land area of the eastern province, where the Sinhalese were a mere 5.9% at the 1946 census. Even more important is the fact that Amparai Town and its adjacent area constitute a strong Sinhalese enclave, breaking up the geographical contiguity of the traditional Tamil homelands in the eastern province. The Tamils living further south of Amparai were cut off from Batticaloa because of the creation of this Sinhalese enclave.

Also, because of resettlement, in Trincomalee district, which in 1953 had a 2: I Tamil/Sinhalese ratio, the Sinhalese were rapidly becoming a larger proportion of the population. The same was true of Vavuniya district. These resettlement policies would soon render the Tamils a minority in their own heartland and obliterate the Tamil nation’s possession of an exclusive, distinct and separate territory as its homeland. This would entail the loss of their claim to separate and distinct Tamil nationhood in Sri Lanka.

4.18 Bandaranaike’s Proposals for “Reasonable Use of Tamil”

To Bandaranaike, “Sinhala only” was a slogan designed to make political capital out of the situation. Of all people, he was most aware that “Sinhala only” was, in practical terms, unworkable in a country with two separate nations where Tamil was the mother tongue of 27% of the population, including the Sri Lankan and Indian Tamils and the Sri Lankan and Indian Muslims.

When campaigning for “Sinhala only”, he never imagined the extent to which he would he held prisoner by the forces he had let loose. Bandaranaike was by conviction a liberal and a democrat. As a skilful politician with a sharp intellect and much foresight, Bandaranaike wanted people to believe he would run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. But that was not to be.

He expected the fanatical pressure groups to withdraw, leaving the politicians to work out a political settlement. He would then resort, in theory, to his balancing act” between “Sinhala only” and “reasonable use of Tamil”, but in effect according equal rights to the Tamil language.

That this was his hope can be inferred from many of his statements. When he first adopted “Sinhala only”, in September 1955, he referred to “Sinhala only” as the official language, but added, “with recognition accorded to the Tamil Language in the Legislature, Administration and Education” (see Appendix 4). He also said: “All citizens shall have the right to transact official business in Sinhalese or Tamil in any part of the island”.

Bandaranaike went even further. In the same statement he declared: “Every pupil should be encouraged (but not compelled) to learn the other language as a second language and, if the parents of one third of the pupils in any school desire to do so, the school shall be compelled to provide the necessary facilities.” That was Bandaranaike’s vision of “Sinhala only”. He held steadfastly to it, but did not have the firmness to enforce it.

A second, even more telling, example is the statement he made in the course of the debate in the House on the Official Language Act. He said that, “except for this sentimental attachment to parity”, he was prepared to concede the same status to the Tamil language. In the “Sinhala only” bill he incorporated provisions conceding full equality to the Tamil language, but the pressures of the Eksath Bhikkhu Peramuna killed these provisions at the bill stage.

Then, when the FP was planning a Satyagraha campaign towards the middle of 1957, he again came forward with proposals, this time rather nervously and tentatively, for “reasonable use of Tamil”. At the end of April 1957, Prime Minister Bandaranaike told the House:

The House and the country know that it has always been the policy of the Government Party that, although the circumstances of the situation were such that the Sinhalese language had to be declared the official language of this country, there was no intention in fact to cause any undue hardship or injustice to those whose language is other than Sinhalese in the implementation of the Act. I wish also to point out that the Government Party prior to the elections in their manifesto gave the assurance that while it was their intention to make Sinhalese the official language of the country, reasonable use of Tamil too will be given . . . I am in a position to make a statement in general terms. . .

Bandaranaike’s proposals, “in general terms”, were as follows:

1. The right of every Tamil to be educated in Tamil up to the highest level of the educational system;2. Tamils would be entitled to sit for public service examinations in Tamil, with the provisions that they acquire proficiency in Sinhalese in a stipulated period after recruitment as probationers;

3. Tamils would be entitled to correspond with the government and receive replies in Tamil,

4. Local authorities in Tamil areas would be given the power to transact business with the government in Tamil.

The nervousness and resulting vacillation that characterised Bandaranaike’s handling of the Tamil national question were evident when he prefaced his proposals thus: “I am in a position . . . to make a statement in general terms —of course. The details will have to be worked out and discussed and Members of the House and others will be given the opportunity of expressing their views in due course [emphasis added] .”

When he concluded his statement he reiterated the good intent of the government and again showed his lack of resolve. He said:

In other words, the policy that the Government intends to follow is that while accepting Sinhalese as the official language, citizens who do not know Sinhalese should not suffer inconvenience, embarrassment or any trouble as a result of that . . . Some of my Hon. Friends opposite who hold an extreme point of view will think differently. There are extremists on both sides. We cannot decide these issues on grounds of extremism whether it be on this side of the House or on that side. We have to take a rational, reasonable attitude in these matters. Of course, Sinhalese has been declared the official language of the country. The Government now propose to take these steps and everybody will have an opportunity to make suggestions.I have only given a broad outline of what we intend doing.

This passage clearly shows that he had lost the courage of his earlier convictions. He had been browbeaten and became overawed by the bhikkhus, who had put him in power and felt he was only a tool in their hands. (This statement of proposals by Bandaranaike appears as Appendix 4.)

4.19 “Bandaranaike Chelvanayakam Pact”

Bandaranaike’s April 1957 statement and proposals brought the government and the FP face to face to iron out their differences by negotiation. A series of meetings was held between, on the one side, Bandaranaike and members of his cabinet, representing the government, and on the other S.J.V. Chelvanayakam and MPs of the FP, representing the Tamil people. Their discussions resulted in an agreement, popularly called “the B C pact”, which was tabled in the House on 26 July 1957.

The cornerstone of the “B C pact” was the regional councils to be established in Tamil areas, almost on the lines of those recommended by the Donoughmore Commission. According to the “B C pact”, the northern province was to constitute one regional council and the eastern province was to be divided into two or more councils. They were to be allowed to amalgamate even beyond provincial limits. Regional councillors were to be directly elected. Parliament was to delegate powers to the regional councils by act of parliament. The regional councils were to have wide powers over specified subjects including agriculture, co operatives, land and land development, Colonisation, education, health, industries and fisheries, housing and social services, electricity, water schemes and roads. In regard to colonization and resettlement schemes, it was agreed that the regional councils were to have the power to select those whose land was to be resettled.

The finances of the regional councils were to come from block grants provided by the government. The councils could raise taxes and borrow. The prime minister also promised to give “early consideration” to the question of Sri Lankan citizenship for people of Indian descent. The FP, for its part, agreed to drop its demand for “parity of status” for the Tamil language provided the proposed legislation (1) recognized Tamil as “the language of the national minority of Sri Lanka”, and (2) the language of government administration in the northern and eastern provinces was Tamil, with provision for Sinhalese speaking people in those areas. This would take place Without infringing on the position of the Official Language Act”. Because of the B C pact, the FP agreed to call off the proposed Satyagraha. (The B C pact appears as Appendix 5.)

The B C pact constitutes the miniature devolution of autonomy to the Tamils within the existing framework of the unitary state. Even before entering the legislature in 1931, Bandaranaike had in 1926 advocated a federal state structure for Sri Lanka to appease the Kandyan Sinhalese, who were then demanding a separate state for themselves.43 As longstanding minister of local government in the state council, Bandaranaike possessed a detailed knowledge of the devolution of powers to decentralized bodies, and was attracted by the English county council system.

Hence, in agreeing to delegation of powers to regional councils, he shared noble of the fears of other Sinhalese politicians. Moreover, the joint statement Which prefaced the B C pact declared that the government had already prepared a draft Regional Councils Bill for the whole country, and that had been examined by both parties “to see whether provision could be made under it to meet reasonably some of the matters in this regard which the FP had in view”. From the contents of the joint statement and the provisions of the B C pact, it appears that Bandaranaike felt that it was “Sinhala only” that the Sinhalese militants were interested in, and that, if he safeguarded this, they would not be concerned about the regional councils and their delegated powers, which in any event was a separate matter of government policy.

But, once again, this was not to be. The “Sinhala only” militants and the Bhikku Peramuna wanted “Sinhala only” and Tamil subjugation. To give expression to these hopes, J.R. Jayewardene of the UNP, who had been defeated by Mrs Wimala Wijewardene at Kelaniya in the 1956 election, led lair famous march to Kandy on 4 October 1957, to invoke the blessings of devales (the gods) for his campaign against the B C pact.

Perhaps because of dissatisfaction and protests by Sinhalese “extremists” against the B C pact, for five months Bandaranaike took no steps to translate the pact into law and gave no indication of his willingness to implement it.

Instead, in December 1957, he tabled a bill in parliament to put the Sinhalese letters “SRI” (i.e. the prefix “Sri” in “Sri Lanka”) in place of the English letters that had hitherto been used on motor vehicle number plates. This was just a cosmetic change; but Sri Lankans are used to such cosmetic changes. At that stage, the FP, as a matter of equality, pleaded that the Tamil equivalent of the Sinhala letters “SRI” be authorized for vehicles registered in the Tamil areas. But this was rejected by Bandaranaike, who in the B C pact had agreed that Tamil should be the language of administration in Tamil areas.

This ambivalence and inconsistency on the part of Bandaranaike gave the FP and the Tamils serious doubts about whether the B C pact would be implemented. At that stage the FP was unwilling to accept that the Sinhalese letters “SRI” should be displayed on motor vehicles in the Tamil areas. Hence, it organized meetings calling for the use of the Tamil equivalent on motor vehicles in the Tamil areas, as from  1January 1958.

According to the Motor Traffic Act, the use of any unauthorized letters was an offence liable to punishment. Accordingly, when the Tamil letters “SRI” were used several FP MPs, including Chelvanayakam, were prosecuted in the courts. Chelvanayakam was convicted and served a sentence of two weeks imprisonment at Batticaloa jail.

Following these events, on 9 April 1958 a group of Buddhist bhikkhus, led by Mrs Wimala Wijewardene, minister of health in Bandaranaike’s cabinet went in procession to the prime minister’s residence in Colombo, squatted in front of it and demanded a written undertaking that he would abrogate the B C pact. Instead of ordering their arrest and removal, Bandaranaike nervously complied with their demands, stating in writing that he abrogated the B C pact with immediate effect.

Walter Schwarz was quite correct in stating that the “BandaranaikeChelvanayakam Pact of 1957 embodied one of the few statesmanlike compromises . . . ever to be attempted in Sri Lanka”. Had it been carried out it would, as the prime minister later claimed, have “safeguarded the position of the Sinhalese while, at the same time, [meeting] reasonably the fears of the Tamils”.

Many observers have been unable to understand why it was not implemented. The reason is simply that Sinhalese Buddhist extremists were, for the first time, claiming the whole of Sri Lanka for Sinhalese and Buddhism. They were beginning to deny any legitimate place for anyone other than the Sinhalese Buddhists, and for any cause other than Sinhala Buddhism. National ethnic rights, national education, public and defence services, Marxism and even business must all serve Sinhala Buddhism. Sri Lankan politics thereafter was the story of how this position was turned into a reality.

4.20 The 1958 “Race” Riots

Thereafter the Tamils defied the law prescribing the Sinhala letters “SRI” and used the Tamil equivalent on their motor vehicles The Buddhist bhikkhus retaliated by leading a campaign to deface Tamil writings on the name boards in government buildings in Colombo and throughout the Sinhalese areas. They also incited the ordinary Sinhalese people against the Tamils. There were sporadic acts of violence against the Tamils in Colombo and other suburban areas. Tamil owned shops were looted and Tamil homes stoned.

Towards the end of May 1958, the Federal Party held its annual convention at Vavuniya, in the northern province, and resolved to “launch direct action by non violent Satyagraha as the ‘B C Pact’ had been abandoned”. Tamil FP supporters from Batticaloa district, returning by train after the convention, were stopped at Polonnaruwa railway junction and assaulted. Some were knifed and killed. Violence against the small number of Tamils in Polonnaruwa became the order of the day.

On 25 May 1958, a Jaffna bound train from Colombo was derailed at Polonnaruwa and Tamil passengers were beaten and their baggage stolen. On the same day, one Senaratne, a Sinhalese ex Mayor of Nuwara Eliya, was shot dead at Kalawanchikudi, in Batticaloa district, as a result of personal rivalry. This was announced over the radio several times to show that a Sinhalese had been killed by Tamils. In this way, the 1958 “race” riots of Sri Lanka, poignantly chronicled by Tarzie Vittachi, then editor of the Ceylon Observer, in his book Emergency ’58: The Story of the Ceylon Race Riots,44 commenced.

Sinhalese mobs went on the rampage, stopping trains and buses, dragging out Tamil passengers and butchering them. Houses were burnt with people inside, and there occurred widespread looting in all areas where Sinhalese and Tamils lived together. Tamil women were raped and pregnant women slaughtered. A Hindu priest performing pooja ceremonies at Kandasamy temple at Panadura, near Colombo, was dragged away and burnt alive.

After two days of rioting, on the 27 May, the Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka contacted Prime Minister Bandaranaike and asked him to declare a state of emergency. But Bandaranaike vacillated. During the next two days the rioting intensified. Hundreds of people were killed, homes burnt and shops looted. The police stood by, not knowing how to control the Sinhalese mobs. Even then Bandaranaike did not want to proclaim an emergency.

On the fourth day of rioting, instead of waiting for the prime minister’s advice, the Governor General, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, with the consent of the prime minister (and therefore technically on “advice”), proclaimed an emergences called in the army and restored order. Before order was restored, however several hundreds of Tamil people had lost their lives and thousands their homes. About 150 Tamils, including the 10 FP MPs, were arrested and detained About 10,000 Tamil people assembled as refugees in Colombo refugee camps, set up by the government, and were sent to Jaffna by commandeered cargo ships berthed in the Colombo harbour. A de facto division of the country and the people, into the Sinhalese south and the Tamil north, had taken place.

Tarzie Vattachi concluded his book with the question: “Have the Sinhalese and the Tamils reached the parting of the ways?”45  But Tamil political leaders were confined in detention until September, hence there was no leadership to decide whether May 1958 represented the parting of the ways.

Professor Howard Wiggins wrote cautiously:

In the event, the majority community succeeded in obtaining the language reform legislation its ardent spokesmen sough.  The alarming riots of 1958, unparalleled in the island’s history, were the direct result of these reforms and of the government’s reluctance to insist that public order be maintained and individuals protected. The memory of these events will retard the creation of a unified modern nation-state commanding the allegiance of all communities.46

4.21 Bandaraniake’s Murder: Chaos and Confusion

With the emergency in force and the FP MPs in detention, the Bandaraniake government, in a desperate attempt to compromise, enacted the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act No.28 of 1958, containing substantially modified “reasonable use of Tamil” provisions regarding education, public service entrance examinations and administration in the northern and eastern provinces. The act did not contain any enforceable right to use Tamil or mandatory provisions directing the use of Tamil, but merely authorized the Prime Minister to make regulations to give effect to the use of Tamil in the areas specified in the act. No regulations were made until 1966, and the act remained a dead letter till then.

In 1966, when Dudley Senanayake’s UNP government proceeded to make the regulations, the SLFP, LSSP and CP, then in opposition, opposed the “reasonable use of Tamil” regulations and called for a demonstration in protest. In the ensuing disorder, bhikkhu Nandasara was shot dead. As a result, though the regulations were made in 1966, seven years after the enabling act was passed, the provisions of the regulations were never put into operation.

In 1959, internal fissures within the MEP government led to a “cabinet strike” when 10 right-wing ministers demanded that Bandaranaike expel Philip Gunawardena from the cabinet. Bandaranaike duly sacked Gunawardena from the MEP government in May 1959. At this, the LSSP and CP withdrew their “critical support” and moved into open confrontation with Bandaranaike’s government. The CP’s statement on that occasion said:

“Now that the right wing has taken command of the Government and set a course that can only lead to an increasing repudiation of the progressive policies of 1956, the CP will not extend to such a Government the critical support it gave the MEP Government in the past.”47

The right wing was always in command; only the CP’s and LSSP’s blinkered view rendered it incapable of taking the correct attitude towards the MEP. From the beginning the intense struggle within the cabinet over Gunawardena’s original draft of a radical agrarian reform law, the Paddy Lands Bill, made him say in exasperation that it was “castrated” by the cabinet .48 Inside parliament the Marxist parties proposed a no-confidence motion against the government. Outside they resorted to a spate of wildcat strikes which paralyzed industry, commerce and the port, and destabilized the government.

In this deteriorating situation, on 25 September 1959 a bhikkhu named Somarama shot and killed Bandaranaike on the veranda of his residence when he was paying obeisance to the visiting monk. This resulted in bhikkhus being chased and stoned on the streets, and for a time they confined themselves to their monasteries. Involved in the conspiracy to murder Bandaranaike were Buddharakita, the Kelaniya temple high priest and secretary of the Eksath Bhikkhu Peramuna, and another. At the trial, the former was convicted of murder and the latter of conspiracy to murder. 49

The assassination of Bandaranaike was not a simple act carried out by a murderous bhikkhu, at the instigation of Buddharakita. It had wider political ramifications. During the trial two ministers, Stanley de Zoysa and Mrs Wimala Wijewardene, and a number of others were mentioned as possible accomplices. Bandaranaike’s murder was the culmination of a running struggle by extreme right-wing reactionaries and Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinists against his eclectic middle-of-the-road policies and his lack of resolve to stand up against the Marxist politicians and their trade-union agitators. With his murder the SLFP seemed to be on the verge of disintegration at the hands of caretaker Prime Minister W. Dahanayake. In the ensuing interregnum the country steadily slipped into a state of political confusion and chaos which resulted in another premature dissolution of parliament in December 1959, with elections fixed for March 1960.

1. Marshal R. Singer, The Emerging Elite: A Study of Political Leadership in Ceylon; MIT, Mass., 1964, p.37.

2. Report of the Delimitation Commission, Sessional Paper XV of 1959, p.13. 3. Ceylon – Report of the Commission on Constitutional Reform: 1946, London, Paragraph 262.

4. Quoted in Vijaya Samaraweera, “The Indian Tamil Immigrant Labour and the Land Problem”, a paper presented at the IVth International Conference of Tamil Studies, 1974.

5. Quoted in Michael Roberts (ed.), Documents of the Ceylon National Congress and Nationalist Politics in Ceylon 1929-1950, 1977, p.1416.

6. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in the House of Representatives in October 1955; see Towards a New Era: Selected Speeches . . ., Colombo, 1961.

7. Sir Charles Jeffries, The Transfer of Power, London, 1960, p.12.

8. Edith M. Bond, The State of Tea, War on Want, London, 1974.

9. A.J. Wilson, The Politics in Sri Lanka 1947 1973, London, 1974, p.41.

10. Ibid.

1 1. Ibid.

12. Kodakan Allai v. Mudanayake et al. (l 953) 2 All ER833 .

13. K.M. de Silva, in “Sri Lanka in 1948”, in the Ceylon Journal of Historical and Social Studies, Vol.4, Jan Dec. 1974, pp.5 6.

14. I.D.S. Weerawardena, The Ceylon General Election, 1956, Colombo, 1959, p.47.

15. Arnold Wright (comp.), Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon; London, 1907, p.318.

16. Michael Roberts (ed.), Collective Identities, p.224.

17. Anagarika Dharmapala, History of an Ancient Civilisation, Colombo, 1902,

l 8. Michael Roberts (ed.), supra, p.343.

19. Supra, p.344.

20. Ibid., p.304.

21. Ibid., pp.302 303.

22. A.J. Wilson, supra.

23. Sarath Amunugama, in Michael Roberts (ed.), supra, pp.314 334. Amunugama further states: “What is most significant about Jayatissa’s character is that it is not the ideal as viewed from the perspective of pristine Buddhism . . . Though he is full of book learning and skills of casuistry he [Jayatissa] is not interested in his personal salvation. He speaks of the degradation of the Sinhalese not because they do not seek salvation but because they are powerless as a political entity . . . Significantly, Jayatissa’s goals are identical to those of the Buddhist bourgeoisie” (emphasis added).

24. Michael Roberts (ed.), supra, p.344.

25. K.N.O. Dharmadasa, “Language and Sinhalese Nationalism: The career of Munidasa Cumaratunga”, in Modern Ceylon Studies, University of Sri Lanka, Vol.3:2, July 1972. Dharmadasa further states: “In elevating Helese to an exalted status he vehemently rejected the accepted theory of its Indo Aryan origin . . . He said, “rhere is perhaps no other nation older than we. How can we, therefore, accepted the theory that everything of ours is derived from outside’.”

26. Ananda Guruge (ed.), Return to Righteousness, Colombo, pp.534 535.

27. D.C. Wijewardena, The Revolt in the Temple, Colombo, 1953.

28. This was quite a well known fact at the time.

29. See James Jupp, Sri Lanka Third World Democracy, London, 1978, p.60, and the sources quoted by him, which included Dudley Senanayake.

30. Times of Ceylon, 14 April 1964.

31. Denzil Pieris, 1956 and After, Colombo, 1958, p.10.

32. UNP Election Manifesto, Colombo, 1956.

33. At the time no official register of bhikkhus was kept, but one was compiled in 1972, according to which there were then 18,000 bhikkhus in Ceylon.

34. The Buddhist Commission of Inquiry, The Betrayal of Buddhism, Sinhalese Buddhist Ethnocentrism Balangoda, Sri Lanka, 1956.

35 “Background to Politics”, in Ceylon Observer, 17 July 1962.

36. Denzil Pieris, supra, wrote: “The Revolution of 1956 worked through the election which put the MEP into power and indicated the shift of political power from the Westernised bourgeoisie into the hands of the national bourgeoisie and petit bourgeoisie w’lo lived in small towns and villages”, p.5 .

Also Howard Wriggins stated: “Bandaranaike drew rural masses into political participation and while evoking the Sinhalese Buddhist ‘revolution’ steered it safe within the confines of national unity”, in Sri Lanka since Independence, University of Ceylon, 1974, p.l 55.

As against these Gunnar Myrdal correctly observed: “Political leader ship remained in the hands of the upper stratum; the only difference was that those who had taken power were more responsive to the aspirations of the educated Sinhalese”, in Asian Drama, p.35 1.

It must be said that many of these partial theorizations fail because they do not discern clearly the nature of the class structure in the country and because of the failure of the “Marxist” parties to advance a revolutionary programme. Under the guise of “class struggle”, the latter struggled to “bourgeoisify” the working class by resorting to “wage struggle” by trade unions.

37 I.D.S. Weerawardena, Ceylon General Election 1956, Colombo, p.95.

38. All these are from House Debates, Official Report 1956, Vol.24.

39. Walter Schwarz, supra, p. 10.

40. E.R. Leach, Political Systems of Highland Burma, London, 1954, p.59.

41. Quoted in S. Harrison, “The Challenge to Indian Nationalism”, in Foreign Affairs, Vol.34, 1956, p.621.

42. Pierre Gourou, The Tropical World, London, 1953, pp.l51 152.

43. James Jupp, supra, p.247 .

44. See Reference 14 in Chapter 2, supra.

45. Tarzie Vittachi, Emergency ’58: The Story of Ceylon Race Riots, London, 1958.

46. Howard Wriggins, Ceylon: Dilemmas of a New Nation, Princeton,1960.

47. The CP’s May 1959 statement is contained in Twenty Five Years of the CommunistParty, p.74.

48. Ronald Herring, in “The Forgotten 1953 Paddy Lands Act”, in Modern Ceylon Studies, 1972, Vol.3, No.2,121. Herring wrote: “The final form of the 1958 Paddy Lands Act is . . . emasculated in several critical respects; this dilution of the Bill, and the isolation of Gunawardena politically as a Marxist in a non Marxist coalition proved fatal to the Act”.

49. See L.G. Weeramantry, Assassination of a Prime Minister, Geneva, 1969.

5.Tamil Subjugation and the Birth of Separatist Nationalism

With the seeming disintegration of the SLFP, then leaderless, and with many MPs deserting it to form numerous small parties to Qght the March 1960 election, Dudley Senanayake re entered national politics to lead the UNP, asserting that “the SLFPis no more”.l

The SLFP campaign was led by C.P. de Silva, the minister of lands. Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike, although not a candidate, was harnessed by the SLFP to appear on its election platforms. She extolled the virtues of her departed husband and lamented the calamity that had befallen her.

With the demise of Bandaranaike and with the middle of the road SLFP in disarray, the LSSP believed that it was the only alternative to the rightist UNP. It therefore fielded 100 candidates, confident of winning the election. If it had understood the MEP victory as being the result of a reactionary upsurge, and had from 1956 advanced a truly revolutionary programme, while opposing the opportunist policies of Bandaranaike, the LSSP would have romped home to victory in the March 1960 election.

The MEP’s middle path was thoroughly discredited and the electorate stood confused. Dudley Senanayake, who had heaped miseries on the ordinary people and been forced out in 1953, was clearly unacceptable, as the election verdict showed. The standard of living had gone down because of the reactionary economic policies followed by the UNP and the MEP from 1948, and these had produced socio economic fissures and conflicts. Class contradictions were once more resurfacing and, as could be expected of the upper class Sinhalese politicians, they were seeking to divert it by further extreme anti Tamil rhetoric and postures and new alignments to secure their rule.

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Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist.

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