The National Question and the Tamil Liberation Struggle – 1

*Sri Lanka : The National Question and the Tamil Liberation Struggle
by Satchi Ponnambalam

– published jointly by the Tamil Information Centre and Zed Books Ltd, London – 1983

Copyright Satchi Ponnambalam, 1983 from the back cover to the first edition…

Sri Lanka: The National Question and the Tamil Liberation Struggle is the first book by a Sri
Lankan on a conflict that has now escalated into wide-ranging violence and becomes the
dominant issue facing the country. Its author, Satchi Ponnambalam, has written a scholarly
but committed history of relations between the island’s two distinct nations – Sinhalese. and
Tamils – which goes back over 2,000 years.
He concentrates on the post-independence period and provides a detailed record of the
discriminatory measures successive governments have taken against the Tamil population.
This hostility on the part of a section of the Sinhalese has arisen, he argues, not because of
any inevitable antagonism. Rather, its roots lie in the determination of the Sinhalese ruling
class to divert the struggle common to both the Sinhalese and Tamil oppressed classes, a
struggle inherent in the nature of Sri Lanka’s neo-colonial, capitalist economy (an economy
which benefits only the ruling class itself).
These upper-class Sinhalese politicians, the author argues, are manipulating a myth of
Sinhalese Aryan supremacy – at the cost of abandoning true Buddhism – so as to keep power
in their own hands. Ponnambalam outlines the Tamil people’s struggle over the past quarter
of a century for equality, justice and dignity. With the failure of these demands, Tamil
organizations are now fighting for national freedom from internal colonialism and
oppression and demanding a separate state of Tamil Eelam in the northern and eastern parts
of the island. To contain this separatist ground-swell, the Government has subjected the
Tamils to a state of emergency since 1979, unleashed the armed forces, imposed press
censorship, and used its Prevention of Terrorism Act almost indiscriminately against its
This book provides a real understanding of Sri Lankan politics and social conflict. As the
author makes clear, the refusal of the ruling class, supported by its ethnic middle class and
casts allies, to recognize the just rights and national equality of the Tamil people, threatens
the country’s tenuous retention of the democratic process and civil liberties, as well as its
Social peace.
Neither the class question nor the national question is now capable of solution by the present
ruling class. It is this line of analysis that makes this book throw light more generally on the
national question in the Third World, a question which is one of its most intractable and
unrecognized political problems.
Satchi Ponnambalam is a Sri Lankan lawyer who was educated at the Universities of Ceylon
and London. Now a judge, he is the author of Dependent Capitalism in Crisis – The Sri
Lankan Economy, 1948-80 (Zed Press, 198l) which was published simultaneously in Sri
Lanka, India, and the United Kingdom.
1. Introduction
The National Ethnic Conflict
The National Oppression of the Tamils
The National Question
2. National Ethnic Structure and Early History
Sinhalese and Tamils: Origin, Myth and Truth
Sinhalese Ethnic Identity
Tamil Ethnic Identity
“Indian” Tamils
Sri Lanka and the “Indian” Muslims
Burghers and Malays
3. Colonial Rule and Sinhalese Tamil Responses
Politico Socio-Economic Changes
Separate National Loyalties Predominate
The Early Inter-Ethnic Elite Unity
Early Anti-British Agitations and “Revivalist” Propaganda
Early Inter Caste Rivalry
Early Inter-Ethnic Elite Conflict
The Donoughmore Constitutional Commission
Internal Self Government and Upper-Class Ascendancy
The Two Languages Resolution of the State Council
Beginning of Class Conflict
Consolidation of the Bourgeoisie
Bandaranaike Forms Sinhala Maha Sabha
Constitutional Reform Negotiations
The Soulbury Constitutional Commission
Ponnambalam’s “Fifty Fifty”
Towards Self Government
Class Conflict Hastens Transfer of Power
Independence and Constitutional Hiatus
4. Sinhalese Buddhist Ethnocentrism
National Flag Issue
Nature of the Post Colonial Government Structure
Indian Tamils Lose Citizenship
Indian Tamils Lose the Vote
“Sirima Shastri Pact”
Citizenship Franchise Case in the Privy Council
Founding of SLFP and Its Two Languages Policy
The 1953 General Strike and Fall of Dudley Senanayake
Kotelawala as Helmsman
Dharmapala School of Propaganda
Kotelawala’s “Parity of Status”, and a Somersault
History of Two Languages Policy
Sinhalese Politics of Manipulation
The 1956 MEP Election Victory
“Sinhala Only” Act of 1956
The 1956 Tamil Satyagraha and Sinhalese Rioting
The 1956 National Convention of the FP
Bandaranaike’s Proposals for “Reasonable Use of Tamil”
“Bandaranaike Chelvanayakam Pact”
The 1958 “Race” Riots
Bandaranaike’s Murder: Chaos and Confusion
5. Tamil Subjugation and the Birth of Separatist Nationalism.
March 1960: Anti Tamil Campaign
July 1960: Anti Tamil Campaign
First Military Occupation of Tamil Areas
Nationalisation of Schools
Kodiswaran Language Rights Case
New Alignments for Continued Upper-Class Rule
Birthpangs of Tamil Separatism
Dudley Senanayake Forms a “National” Government
Senanayake Chelvanayakam Pact
Crux of the Conflict
New Sinhala Buddhist Ideology
Not Majority Minority, But Two Nations
The 1966 Tamil Language Regulations
6. Heightening Conflict
The 1970 Election Campaign
Mrs Bandaranaike Takes Power
The 1971 JVP Revolution Attempt
The 1972 Republican Constitution
Sinhalese Gains and Tamil Losses
Tamil Educational Disaster and Employment Impasse
Formation of the Tamil United Front
Tamil Black Flag Demonstrations
Police Atrocities at the Fourth International Tamil Conference
Chelvanayakam Calls for Separate Tamil Eelam State
Formation of Tamil United Liberation Front
7. The Tamil Liberation Struggle
The 1977 Election
The 1977 Anti-Tamil Riots
UNP’s Betrayal of Election Pledge
The 1978 Constitution
Proscribing of the “Tigers” of Tamil Eelam
The 1979 Prevention of Terrorism Act
Jayawardene’s Mandate for Tamil Genocide
Police Army Rampage in Jaffna
No Confidence Motion on the Leader of the Opposition
The 1981 Anti Tamil Pogrom
The Aftermath
The Eelam Liberation Struggle Matures
July 1983: The Slaughter Escalates
8. Conclusion
Falsehoods and Mystifications
Buddhism, Bhikkhus and the Sangha
Language, Culture, Nation
Statistical and Documentary Appendices
1. Population of Sri Lanka by Ethnic Communities
2. Population of Sri Lanka by Religion
3. Bandaranaike’s 1955 Statement on Tamil Language Recognition
4. Bandaranaike’s 1957 Proposals for “Reasonable Use of Tamil”
5. The “Bandaranaike Chelvanayakam Pact”
6. The “Senanayake Chelvanayakam Pact”
7. The 1966 Tamil Language Regulation
8. Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam Memorandum to the Seventh Summit Meeting of Non
Aligned Nations held in New Delhi, March 1983, entitled Tamils Fight for national Freedom
9. Tamil Tigers of Tamil Eelam
10. The World Tamil Diaspora
Select Bibliography
Most Western scholars and journalists have interpreted Sri Lanka as a tropical island
paradise, ruled by 2,500-year-old Buddhist ideals of peace and compassion. Maintaining the
entrepreneurial and profit-motivated capitalist system, yet stridently pursuing non-alignment,
Sri Lanka is seen as a respectable working model of a Third World democracy, changing
governments in classic style, with modernization uniquely facilitated by superimposition of
the modern on the indigenous. Only occasionally do “race” riots and bloodshed, in the words
of Ian Jack, “stain the face of paradise”. (Sunday Times, London, 18 October 1981.)
One scholar wrote: “The political system provides a better model of a participatory
democracy than many states of Europe or America … The ethnic minorities were preoccupied
with protecting their interests against undue domination by the Sinhalese-Buddhist majority.”
The Economist (London, 13 June 1981), in a special 20-page Sri Lanka: A Survey, in its
desire to cater to the world’s multinationals and assure them that peace prevailed, sacrificed
facts, compromised with objectivity and even presented the rioting in Sri Lanka as one by its
Tamil community (the reverse of the truth). The opening paragraph stated:
Until 1977 it [Sri Lanka] was best known as a leading member of the non-aligned movement;
a democracy that had voted every one of its governments out of office; a poor country that
somehow avoided the harshness of its neighbours’ poverty; an island of gentle beauty marred
only by occasional riots by its Tamil minority. [Emphasis added.]
However interpreted, behind the romantic veneer and political facade lies the reality of
deprivation of basic rights to citizenship, franchise, and the language of the Tamil ethnic
nation of nearly four million people; three decades of national oppression; military
occupation; police and army repression; and, today, a mandated Tamil genocide.
Bourgeois scholarship possessed no analytic tools to expose and come to grips with these
social conflicts. The stark unreality of this inadequate bourgeois analysis, totally disregarding
social formation, class conflict and socioeconomic crises, was first revealed when the JVP
revolution broke out in 1971.
When the seemingly secure and enduring state structure portrayed by these scholars
crumbled and virtually collapsed, when thousands of Sinhalese teenagers resorted to armed
insurrection and a revolutionary attempt to seize power to resolve the socio-economic crises
generated by the reactionary policies of the ruling class, bourgeois scholarship was baffled.
Similarly, these scholars have ignored the more than three decades of national oppression of
the Tamil people. This is so even today when national oppression has reached the most acute
stage of genocidal repression: incarceration of Tamil intellectuals, Catholic priests, human rights
activists; and when the armed revolutionary struggle for Tamil national liberation is
engaging the total energies of the degenerate bourgeois state.
From 1971 state power has been maintained only by frequent national emergencies, by rifles
and bayonets, deliberately provoked Sinhalese chauvinism, and a servile, sycophantic state-controlled
press. Chauvinism has become an article of faith and to give it teeth President
Jayawardene said in 1977: “If the Tamils want war they’ll have war if they want peace they’ll
have peace.” The national question and even the legitimate struggle of the Tamils for justice
is thus denied as non-est. Patriotic liberation fighters are branded as “terrorists” and
confronted by state terrorism.
In the absence of any properly grounded scholarly study and freely available information, the
facts of the Tamil national question in Sri Lanka have been concealed from the Sinhalese, the
Tamil people and the world community. Hence this attempt to bring together the several
dimensions of this struggle, which David Selbourne has properly described as “a true
national question if ever there was one”. My analysis is grounded on materialist, historical
bases in order to expose the issue’s complex historical causes and to correct grave
misconceptions surrounding it.
In a memorandum to the Constituent Assembly in 1972, the late Handy Perinbanayagam,
veteran nationalist, distinguished educationist, uncompromising social revolutionary and
unrepentant Gandhian who, in the 1920s, was the first to admit “low”-caste people into his
home, reflected the thinking of the concerned Tamils:
The “Sinhala only” Act and the change in political climate that ushered it in came about at a
time when it seemed that Ceylon politics had outgrown the racialist approach and that
ideological alignments were taking shape. When “Sinhala only” was made the law of the
land, not the slightest effort was made to temper the wind to the shorn Tamil lamb. The self-esteem
of the Tamil-speaking community was trampled underfoot. The law was stark, blunt
and without any recognition of the fact that there was in Ceylon another sizeable linguistic
group to whom their language was just as vital and precious as Sinhala was to the Sinhalese.
With the passing of the “Sinhala only” Act, the entire Tamil community became frustrated,
unreconciled and psychologically uprooted. They despaired of human help and sought divine
aid. Pilgrimages, fasts, Yagas were resorted to. The self-respect of the Tamil people was
more precious than national unity … anyway there could be no national unity as long as the
Tamils and their language were condemned to perpetual inferiority …. The Tamil-speaking
people of Ceylon will never be reconciled to an inferior status in their homeland.
Handy Perinbanayagam’s organization, the Jaffna Youth Congress, in 1928, was the first in
the country to demand independence for the people of Sri Lanka. For nearly 50 years he
represented Sinhalese-Tamil unity. His commitment was so strong and his politics so
principled that he declined the FP’s nomination as its candidate in three elections to
parliament in the 1950s and 1960s; standing as an independent he lost each time.
He was the only Tamil to hold a clear position on the national question. I had many private
discussions with him and his forthright formulation of the Tamil national question was that
linguistic and cultural rights and equality are of fundamental importance and that from those
spring equality between two nations of co-ordinate status in a unitary state. He considered
that ethnic and cultural loyalties override class interests, political party or any other group
loyalty in society when a people are threatened and oppressed by another, and that unless
equality is conceded, national self-determination of the oppressed nation would be the result.
But until his death in 1977, he hoped for and strived to achieve, the reversal of the “Sinhala only”
law and gain recognition of Tamil too as an official language.
The Tamil bourgeois FP and TC politicians never understood the national question in these
terms and their political discourse was so conservative and reactionary that they alienated
concerned socialist-oriented Tamils, and also the progressive Sinhalese, by their sterile
romantic demagogy and collaboration with the conservative UNP. They possessed no
political coherence and advanced no strategies or tactics that took account of the class forces
at work in the country.
If they had shed their conservatism and sacrificed their bourgeois in reality, petit-bourgeois –
class interests, and from the beginning engaged in revolutionary socialist struggle, the Tamil
people could never have been driven into the captive situation to which the politics of
personal power brought them.
The politics of revolutionary socialist struggle were advanced by the first Tamil Marxists, C.
Tharmakulasingham and V. Sittampalam, in the mid-1930s and early 1940s, and in the Lanka
Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) at that time they were the pioneers who correctly formulated the
national question, class struggle and the course of the proletarian revolution. They challenged
G.G. Ponnambalam’s bourgeois communal politics, and Sittampalam wrote the famous tract
Communalism or Nationalism … A Reply to the Speech Delivered in the State Council on the
Reform Despatch (1939).
The LSSP and these Tamil party leaders correctly saw the plantation Tamil proletariat as the
vanguard revolutionary force. In the mid-1940s Sittampalam organized them for the
revolutionary socialist struggle. But unfortunately, both for the Tamils and for the
revolutionary cause, Tharmakulasingham and Sittampalam died in 1945 and 1946
respectively, and the vacuum they left was never filled.
After 35 years, the Eelam Liberation Tigers have today come to advance the revolutionary
struggle for Tamil national liberation.
The Sinhalese politicians were never willing to concede that the state structure agreed at
independence was an alliance of the Sinhalese and Tamils to live under one central
government with equal rights. On becoming fully aware of Tamil subjugation, and the blind
alley into which the policies of Sinhalese chauvinists and Tamil conservatives were taking
the Tamil nation, in 1969 I formed the Tamil Socialist Front, to join with any genuine
socialist forces among the Sinhalese.
Again in 1979, along with some progressive Sinhalese socialists, including LG. Herat Ran
Banda and the famous political scholar bhikkhu (Buddhist monk) Panjaasara Thero, I
launched the Podu Jana Party (Ordinary People’s Party), which stood for equal rights for the
Tamils and socialist advance. But each time it proved a Herculean task to fight the forces of
reaction and the parties floundered.
On the last occasion, as soon as the party was launched, the Prevention of Terrorism Act was
passed and President Jayewardene sent the army with a mandate, as he put it, to “wipe out”
the Tamil “terrorists” demanding a separate state. More than 10 young Tamils were killed by
the army. I was driven to the conclusion that national oppression had reached such a level
that life in a unitary state was impossible and national unity could no longer be advocated as
a sensible political goal.
Sri Lanka, from the mid-1970s, degenerated into racist violence. Despite the paucity of
writings on the subject, the publicity by Amnesty International (AI) of “racist” murder,
detention and torture of young Tamils contributed to the international awareness of the Tamil
national question and freedom struggle, The AI report by Louis Blom-Cooper QC in 1975
. . . 42 young members of the Tamil community … arrested for their agitation (generally
peaceful, so AI understands) for greater autonomy for the Tamils, who feel that the
provisions in the 1972 constitution regarding language and religion discriminate against
them. They had been detained without trial under the Emergency Regulations for periods
ranging from one year to two and a half years . . .
The subsequent annual reports of A1 from 1976 on contained details of young Tamils, often
held incommunicado and tortured for their political beliefs. The International Commission of
Jurists (ICJ), stated in 1977:
It would be a pity if Sri Lanka’s leadership waited for bombs to explode and for prisons to fill
up again, before conceding that the Tamils need reassurance that they have a place in the
future of the island.
The Tamil struggle for independence by secession in a separate state of Eelam was
internationalized when, in May 1979, the House of Representatives of the State of
Massachusetts passed the Eelam Resolution calling for the creation of the Tamil state of
Eelam. In 1981, several British MPs sent letters and telegrams to President Jayewardene
calling for an end to the imprisonment of Tamils without trial and for their release. Addressing
the Commonwealth Parliamentary Seminar, held in Colombo in June 1981, Jayawardene
angrily reacted, in these words:
… These telegrams and letters accuse this government of imprisoning people without trial,
even murdering them…. There is one district in our country in which we are having some
trouble with terrorists . . . I cannot release people without trial, who have been put into jail
under the normal laws of the land. If I may say so, they are talking through their hat. When
you meet your colleagues, please tell them that I said so. [New Internationalist, November
Yet three months later, in August 1981, when the Sinhalese rioting against the Tamils broke
out, Jayawardene stated:
A few days ago in several estates in the Ratnapura District, estate labourers had been
subjected to violence and merciless harassment … by, I am ashamed to say … people of my
own race . . . I am ashamed that this sort of thing should have happened in this country
during my government. [Ceylon Daily News, 21 September 1981.]
Because of the rioting against the Tamil people, in August 1981 the Tamil Nadu State
Assembly, in India, passed a resolution unanimously condemning the violence and
expressing sympathy with the Sri Lanka Tamils. The Hindu (Madras, 22 August 1981)
The Finance Minister and Leader of the House, V.R. Nedunchezhian, who moved the
resolution, and the Leader of the Opposition, M. Karunanidhi, and other party leaders who
extended unqualified support to it, said they did recognize the dictum that no country had the
right to interfere with the internal affairs of another nation. Where human and minority rights
were at stake, everyone had a right to demand justice, they contended.
And the Indian Express (New Delhi, 13 July 1981) correctly summed up the Tamil national
struggle in these words:
… the cause for Eelam has picked up pace now and what it lacked in world propaganda in the
1950s and 1960s has been effectively achieved in the 1970s and the present decade.
In all my writings, past and present, I have steadfastly held to the dictum enunciated by C.P.
Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian for 50 years: “Facts are sacred, comment is free.” In
fact, comment has been kept to a minimum, to let the facts and events speak for themselves.
As with my previous book, in this work too I am greatly obliged to Robert Molteno of Zed
Press, my publishers, for his constant encouragement, from the time he became aware that I
was engaged in writing this book, and for his critical assessment of the manuscript. Lastly,
once again I record my appreciation for the keen interest taken by my wife Vasantha in my
writing of this book, and for her constant pressures to get back to writing, when I had, on the
way, so often stopped writing because of my onerous duties on the Bench.
Satchi Ponnambalam London
15 July 1983
Sri Lanka is the name of the island earlier known as Ceylon. The new name was bestowed by
the Republican constitution on 22 May 1972. “Ceylon” is the name by which the island came
to be known to the outside world after Portuguese mercantile penetration in the early l 6th
To the Tamils and the Sinhalese, the indigenous people, the country had various appellations.
Its earliest name, among the aboriginal Tamils, was Tamaraparani, the name of a river in
Tamil Nadu, south India. The island is referred to by this Tamil name in Emperor Asoka’s
3rd Century BC Rock Edict in Girnar, western India. Tamaraparani became Taprobane to the
Greek travellers at the time of Alexander the Great. The early Indian Sanskrit works refer to
the island as Lanka, its name in the Sanskrit language. The name Tamaraparani fell into
disuse by the 1st Century AD and a new Tamil name, Ilankai, came into use. The island is
referred to by that name in the Tamil classical Sangam literature (lst-4th Century AD). And
so it continued until the 1970s, when Tamil consciousness led to the naming of the north and
east of Sri Lanka, the traditional Tamil homelands from time immemorial, as Eelam.
There has been no name for the island in the Sinhala language, then or now. The present
name Sri Lanka is its Sanskrit name, meaning “the resplendent island”. The closest Sinhala
name is Sihala, used just once in the Dipavamsa and twice in the Mahavamsa. Generally,
Lanka has been the Sinhala name used. Sri Lanka has been variously described by the early
travellers. “Ceylon is undoubtedly the finest island of its size in the world,” said Marco Polo.
Others have enchantingly described it as “the pearl of the Orient”, ‘the pendant on the chain
of India”, “this other Eden, this demi-paradise”, “the land without sorrow”.
Sri Lanka is situated at the southern extremity of the Indian subcontinent, separated from it at
its narrowest point by only 22 miles of the sea called the Palk Strait. It lies between six and 10
degrees north of the Equator, and on the longitude of 79 to 81 degrees east. Sri Lanka is a
medium sized island charmingly and strategically situated in the Indian Ocean. It became a
trading post in the age of early European maritime adventure and a strategic naval base in the
age of imperialism.
The island has an area of 25,332 square miles (16.2 million acres)— almost the size of
Ireland or Tasmania. It has mountainous terrain in the central part, with an average elevation
of 3,700 feet, surrounded by an upland area ranging between 1,000 to 3,000 feet. The rest of
the country comprises a coastal plain, broad in the north and narrowing in the east, west and
south. There is an abundance of rivers, all starting in the central hills and flowing outwards to
the Indian Ocean. More than three quarters of the land area is arable, and the climate is
admirably suited for most tropical crops .
Sri Lanka is a country of heterogeneous culture, with two separate and distinct ethno
linguistic nations (Sinhalese and Tamils), five communities (the Tamils of Indian origin, Sri
Lankan Muslims, Indian Muslims, Burghers, and Malays) and four great religions
(Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam). According to the last population census, at
the end of 1971, Sri Lanka had a population of 12.7 million, and it is now estimated to be
about 15.5 million.
For reasons of history, the Sinhalese live in the west, south and centre, and the Tamils in the
north and east. Until the administrative unification of the country by the British in 1833, this
pattern of distribution was one of mutual exclusiveness. This was a result of differences in
language, religion and culture and of political organisation in the past under separate
Sinhalese and Tamil kingdoms. The areas the Sinhalese and the Tamils occupied were their
traditional and exclusive homelands, to which they owed their first loyalty.
The Tamils were the aboriginal people of Sri Lanka, and, in this writer’s contention, the
Sinhalese came with the introduction of Buddhism in the 3rd Century BC. The Muslims
arrived to trade from Arabia or India, or even from Arabia via India, around the 10th
Century; the Tamils of Indian origin after the opening of plantations by the British in the
1840s; the Malays from Malaya as mercenaries of the Dutch in the 18th Century; and the
Burghers are the relic of the Portuguese and Dutch conquest, in the 16th and 18th Century
According to the 1971 census, there were 9,146,679 Sinhalese, constituting 71.9% of the
population. The Sinhalese are divided into the low country Sinhalese and the upcountry, or
Kandyan, Sinhalese. The former comprise 42.8% and the latter 29.1% of the population. The
Tamils numbered 2,611,935, or 20.5% of the population. The Tamils are divided into the Sri
Lankan Tamils and the Tamils of Indian origin. The former comprise 11.1 % and the latter
9.4% of the population. The Muslims are divided into the Sri Lankan Muslims (6.5%) and
the Indian Muslims (0.2%). The Muslims are Tamil speaking. Hence 27.2% of Sri Lanka’s
people are Tamil speaking. The Malays constitute 0.3% and the Burghers a similar figure.

Buddhism is the ancestral religion of the Sinhalese and is professed by 67% of the people, all Sinhalese. Hinduism is the ancestral religion of the Tamils and is professed by 17.6%, all Tamils. Christianity is professed by Sinhalese, Tamils and Burghers and is the religion of 7.7%; and Islam, professed by Muslims, is the religion of 7.1% of the population.

As stated earlier, the Sinhalese and Tamils are separate and distinct nations. Because of their particular historical past, and because of national ethnic differences and the occupation of separate homelands, each possesses separate and distinct national consciousness and owes its loyalty first to its own homeland. and then to Sri Lanka.


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

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