Sri Lanka presents a rich diversity of peoples and cultures, some ancient and indigenous, others modern and transplanted. From the early centuries of its long history, Sri Lanka has been a diverse society, the components of diversity being ethnicity, language and religion. l The island’s geographical proximity to India, its strategic location on the east-west sea route and the mercantile and territorial encroachments of the European powers contributed to the ethno linguistic and religious makeup of the country.
Every great change that swept India had its repercussions in the island and, until the beginning of the 16th Century, Sri Lanka was a pawn in the power struggles of the south Indian Tamil kingdoms of Pandya, Chola and Chera. During the four and a half centuries of European rule, beginning with the Portuguese conquest of maritime areas in 1505, the elements of diversity have kept increasing. And by the time of the British conquest, in 1796, the island had acquired its multi-ethnic structure, the two well developed ethnolinguistic cultures of Sinhalese and Tamil, and the four great religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. While the island as a natural geographical unit imposed a certain unity on the people, their diverse cultures, which are a residue of history, dictated separate collective identities and solidarities.
The outstanding fact of Sri Lanka’s nationality structure is that, from ancient times and continuously over the last two millennia, two major ethnic people—the Sinhalese and the Tamils—have lived in and shared the country as co settlers This shared descent is traceable to the 2nd Century BC. The history of the people before that time has not been unravelled on a valid historical basis and is wrapped up in myths and legends invented by the Pali chronicles of the Sinhalese—the Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa—written in about the 4th and 6th Centuries AD, respectively.
Both these chronicles are verse compositions in Pali, the Buddhist scriptural language, written by Buddhist monks, not in the historical tradition but as being the words of Mahanama, the author of Mahavamsa, “for the serene joy and emotion of the piously They were written unabashedly from the Sinhalese Buddhist Standpoint, lauding the victories of the Sinhalese kings over the Tamil kings, treating the former as protectors of Buddhism and saviours of the Sinhalese, While deriding the latter as invaders, vandals, marauders and heathens.
In an effort to establish that the Sinhalese are the original occupiers of the island, the chronicles misrepresent the aboriginal Nega and Yaksha (or Raksa) Tamil people as non humans, and validate their version by creating myths about the past. yet these chronicles and their stories have been relied upon by historians for the reconstruction of the early history of the island, and this mythological history has been retold in later Sinhalese historical and literary works, and repeated in the Buddhist rituals, so that they constitute the current beliefs of the Sinhalese. They exert a direct influence on present day ethnic relations in Sri Lanka. As Walter Schwarz, a perceptive writer on the national question in Sri Lanka, has observed: “The most important effect of the early history on the minority problem of today is not in the facts but in the myths that surround them, particularly on the Sinhalese side.”2
It is not established on valid historical grounds when and how the Sinhalese emerged as an ethnic people in the country. There exists no historical evidence for a Sinhalese presence before the 2nd Century BC. The place of evidence has been taken by the Vijaya legend, invented by the authors of the chronicles. The Dipavamsa, literally “The Story of the Island” (probably written in the 4th Century AD), purports to narrate the story of the island from the earliest human times.
It introduces Vijaya, as the first occupant and founder of the Sinhalese, in these words: “This was the island of Lanka called Sihala after the lion. Listen to this chronicle of the origin of the island which I narrate.” According to the chronicle, Vijaya, the grandson of a union between a petty Indian king and a lioness, on being banished for misconduct by his father Sinhabahu (the lion armed), came with 700 men by vessels and landed on the west coast of Lanka, at a place called Tambapanni, in 543 BC, on the day Buddha died, i.e. passed into nibbana. Vijaya’s men were lured into a cave and captured by a demoness (Yaksha) queen named Kuveni. Vijaya rescued his men, married Kuveni and had a son and daughter.
Vijaya later told Kuveni that before being crowned king of Lanka he should marry a human princess. He therefore banished Kuveni and the children into the jungles, sent his ministers to the Tamil king Pandyan, who ruled the Madurai kingdom in south India, and took the king’s daughter as his wife. His men also obtained their wives from the Madurai region. Kuveni was later killed by the demons. In the jungles, the children married incestuously and had many children, from whom, the chronicle states, the Veddas3 of Sri Lanka arose.
Vijaya is said to have held his coronation and made himself the king of Lanka and ruled for 38 years from Tambapanni, his capital. He and the Tamil princess had no children and hence, on his death, his brother’s son Pandu Vasudeva came from Bengal and became the king of Lanka. This story has been re told with greater embellishment in the Mahavamsa, literally “The Story of the Great Dynasty” (written in the 6th Century AD), the source of the present day early history of Sri Lanka.
There is no historical evidence whatsoever for the arrival of Vijaya and the related story. There is no trace of a place named Sinhapura or of the petty king Sinhabahu in Bengali history. But because of their inability to account historically for the emergence of the Sinhalese, historians follow the lead of the Vijaya legend.4 Thus K.M. de Silva, Professor of History at the University of Sri Lanka, states:
Both legend and linguistic evidence indicate that the Sinhalese were a people of Aryan origin who came to the island from Northern India about 500 BC. The exact location of their original home in India cannot be determined with any degree of certainty. The founding of the Sinhalese is treated in elaborate detail in the Mahavamsa with great emphasis on the arrival of Vijaya (the legendary founding father of the Sinhalese) and his band in the island.5
On the basis of this legend, the present day Sinhalese claim that they are the first settlers and are of Aryan origin. The foremost propagandist of the Sinhala Buddhist “revival”, Anagarika Dharmapala, wrote in 1902 on the origin of the Sinhalese:
Two thousand four hundred and forty six years ago a colony of Aryans from the city of Sinhapura in Bengal . . . sailed in a vessel in search of fresh pastures . . . The descendants of the Aryan colonists were called Sinhala after their city Sinhapura, which was founded by Sinhabahu the lion armed king. The lion armed descendants are the present Sinhalese .6
The chronicles introduce the mythical Vijaya and his men as the first settlers and proceed to misrepresent the settled Tamil Naga and Yaksha people as non humans. The former are described as “snakes” and the latter as “demons”. This has also been uncritically repeated by modern historians according to whom the Nagas and Yaksha are non humans of prehistoric times .
But it is an undeniable fact that, in the proto historic period of the island to (c.1000-100 BC), there were two Naga kingdoms, one in the north called Naga Tivu in Tamil, and called Naga Dipa in the Indian Sanskrit works, and the other in the south west, in Kelaniya. Even the Pali chronicles mention them in a different context, in connection with the purported visits of Buddha to the island. The Mahabharata and Ramayana, the two great Indian epics written in Sanskrit before the 6th Century BC mention the Naga kingdoms and their conquest by Ravanan, the Tamii Yaksha king of Lanka. So does the Greek astronomer and geographer Ptolemy, writing in the 2nd Century AD, who locates Naga Dipa in the north, covering the territory from Chilaw in the west to below Trincomalee in the east.
According to tradition, the Tamils of India and Sri Lanka are the lineal descendants of the Naga and Yaksha people. The aboriginal Nagas, called Nakar in Tamil had the cobra (Nakam, in Tamil) as their totem. The Hindu Tamils, to this day, continue to worship the cobra as a subordinate deity in the Hindu pantheon and there are many temples for the cobra deity all over north Sri Lanka.7 Equally, the Yakshas were not demons but worshippers of demons, as shown by the still prevalent practice among the Hindu Tamils of propitiating the demons, which arose out of primitive fear and belief in the destructive power of demons.
Ptolemy describes the Tamil Yaksha people:
“The ears of both men and women are very large, in which they wear earrings ornamented with precious stones.”
The wearing of ear rings by both men and women is a custom still extant among the Tamils in the villages of north Sri Lanka and in south India, and the poor, unable to purchase gold ear rings, wear rolled palmyrah leaves instead. That the ancestors of the present day Tamils were the original inhabitants of Lanka is well brought out by the historian Harry Williams:
“Naga Dipa in the north of Sri Lanka was an actual kingdom known to historians” and “the people who occupied it were all part of an immigrant tribe from South India—Tamil people called Nagars”.8
Another writer states: ” . . . long before the coming of the Sinhalese there would have been long periods when the island was inhabited by the ancestors of the present Tamil community”.9
Recent archaeological excavations of burial mounds in the old Naga Dipa area, which covered a region from Chilaw up to Trincomalee through Anuradhapura, have shown skeletal remains of a people of megalithic culture who practised inhumation as a mode of burial in the proto historic period. The artefacts found within, such as rouletted pottery with graffiti symbols, iron nails, bronze seal rings, arrow heads, spears and daggers, show that those people had a settled and civilized life. The Sangam literature (lst- 4th Century AD), reflecting the indigenous cultural tradition of the Tamils of south India, mentions inhumation as a custom then prevalent. These finds have, on paleographical reckoning, been dated to not later than the 4th Century BC 10 and the skeletal remains classified as those of south Indian type.11The north western urn burial site (Pomparippu) is said to offer many parallels with those found on the Coromandel coast of Tamil Nadu, south India. 12
Ptolemy refers to Naga kingdoms on the Coromandel coast, and towns with toponyms like Nagar Koil and Naga Patinam, appearing from the earliest times, confirm that Naga people of the same origin occupied the Tamil areas of south India and Sri Lanka. The latter may have migrated from south India in early times, when Sri Lanka was certainly joined to mainland India through the shallow ridge of sandbanks called Adam’s (or Rama’s) Bridge in the Gulf of Mannar. Furthermore, the important find of a statuette of Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of good fortune, in the Anaikoddai excavation (1982) confirms other evidence that the Naga people were Hindus and that Hinduism was the religion of the people of Sri Lanka before the introduction of Buddhism.13
The conclusions that could validly be drawn from the new historical data clearly establish that the ancestors of the present day Tamils were the original occupiers of the island, long before 543 BC, which the Pali chronicles date as the earliest human habitation of Sri Lanka.
How, then, does one explain the emergence of the Sinhalese as an ethnic entity in the island? In the 3rd Century BC (the date usually assigned is 247 BC), Buddhism was introduced into the island by missionaries led by Bikkhu (Buddhist monk) Mahinda, possibly the son of Asoka, the great Emperor of India (c 273 – 232 BC), who became converted to Buddhism and was determined to spread the religion far and wide.
Devanampriya Theesan the Tamil Hindu king of Lanka at that time, accepted the missionaries from Asoka and became converted to Buddhism. Since, in those days, the religion of the ruler became the religion of the people, and because Hinduism has always been infinitely flexible and little given to rigorous dogma, Buddhism, being an offshoot of Hinduism, spread fast in the island.
Mahinda brought not only the religions message but also the Pali canon, i.e. the scriptures as preached by Buddha in Pali, a language of Aryan people who overran India in ancient times, driving the Dravidians—the pre Aryan people of north and central India—southwards. The Buddha dhamma (the doctrine comprising the moral order), or at least the basic “five precepts” were taught to the people in Pali, and they are still recited by the Buddhists in Pali. The Sangha (the order of Buddhist monks), whose prerogative it was to know and preach the doctrine, learnt Pali in order to understand the dhamma as well as the Vinaya (rules of discipline for the Sangha). In this way, with Buddhism came Pali, a new language, and it was learnt by the bhikkhus to preach the dhamma as well as for the writing of books, just as Latin was used by the Christian clergy in medieval Europe.
In the course of time, the Sinhalese language as well as the alphabet and the script grew from the Pali language. With the spread of Buddhism and the growth of the Prakritic Sinhalese language, there occurred a religio linguistic division of the people into those who remained Hindu Tamils and the emergent Buddhists speaking the Sinhalese language. This development can be inferred from a number of Sinhalese Buddhist features in Sri Lanka. Firstly, there is no evidence whatsoever of the Sinhalese as a people, or of Sinhala as a language, before the introduction of Buddhism in 247 BC. The earliest cave inscriptions are in the same Brahmic script as the famous Rock Edicts of Asoka in western India. The Encyclopaedia Britannica states:
The earliest surviving specimens of the (Sinhalese) language are brief inscriptions on rock, in Brahmi letters, of which the earliest date from c 200 BC. The language of these inscriptions does not appear to be greatly different from the other Indian Prakrits (i.e. chronologically Middle Indo Aryan languages) of the time.l4
Secondly, the Sinhalese Buddhists, in the practice of Buddhism, have not quite succeeded in freeing themselves from their Hindu past. They continue to worship the Hindu deities, although Buddha revolted against the worship of gods and Buddhism opposes idol worship.15
Thirdly, the caste system, the central feature of Hindu society, prevails among the Sinhalese Buddhists, although Buddhism is opposed to caste. This again is a vestige of the Hindu past.
These, taken together with the historical and archaeological data outlined earlier, lead one to the irresistible conclusion that Sinhalese emerged as a result of the ascriptive cleavage consequent upon the spread of Buddhism in the Pali language. The Sinhalese, then, in terms of their origin, are not an Aryan people as popularly claimed, but Tamil people who adopted a language which developed from Pali, an Aryan dialect.
Even the pioneer Sri Lanka historian Dr G.C. Mendis, although he uncritically accepted the Vijaya legend of the chronicles, was left in doubt about its validity and observed:
” . . . it is not possible to state whether they [the Sinhalese] were Aryan by blood or whether they were a non Aryan people who had adopted an Aryan dialect as their language”.16
Equally, Dr S. Paranavitana, the former Archaeological Commissioner, stated:
“Thus the vast majority of the people who today speak Sinhalese or Tamil must ultimately be descended from those autochthonous people of whom we know next to nothing.”l7
There is, however, no single origin of the present day Sinhalese, as over the centuries diverse people have merged to form the Sinhalese ethnicity. The Tamils, living among the Sinhalese in the south, “gradually adopted the Sinhalese language, as some of them still do in some of the coastal districts, and were merged in the Sinhalese population”.l8
Between the 14th and 18th Centuries, large numbers of Dravidians, mostly from Malabar, south India, came over and settled and were assimilated as Sinhalese. So did the Colombo Chetties, whose ancestors came from the Chettiar community, in Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu, owing to a great famine there in the 17th Century.
Furthermore, in 1739, since Sri Narendrasinghe, the Sinhalese king of the Kandyan kingdom, had no suitable progeny to succeed him, the brother of his Tamil queen, from the Nayakkar royal dynasty in Madurai, ascended the throne and took on the Sinhalese name Sri Vijaya Rajasinghe. This line of Tamil kings continued until the Kandyan kingdom was ceded to the British in 1815. The kings of the Nayakkar dynasty took on Sinhalese names and professed Buddhism to please their subjects. So did their families, courtiers and retinue, who came over in substantial numbers.l9
Hence, in reality, as Dr N.K. Sarkar has put it: ” . . . no matter what the racial origin, little remains of the original stock, except a belief in it”.20 Broadly speaking, in terms of present day identification and self image, a Sinhalese is one who bears a Sinhalese name and speaks the Sinhala language, whatever his origins may be.
The Sinhalese people and the Sinhala language are found only in Sri Lanka. The Sinhala language is the mother tongue of the Sinhalese, who are 71.9% (69.3% in 1953) of the Sri Lankan population, today a little over 15 million. In 1953, Sinhala was the only language spoken by 58.9%, Sinhala and Tamil by 9.9% and Sinhala and English by 4.29 of persons three years and over. The Tamils (both Ceylon Tamils and “Indian” Tamils) constitute 20.5% ( 22.9% in 1953) of the Sri Lankan population. The Tamil language is the mother tongue of the Tamils and also of almost all Ceylon Muslims (or Moors) who form 6.5% of the population, and the Indian (or “Coast”) Muslims who form 0.2%. Tamil was the only language spoken by 21.6% and Tamil and English by 2.9% of persons three years and over.21
The Sinhala language grew out of Pali and is not connected to the present day Indo Aryan languages of northern India, which are all related, with varying degrees of kinship, to Sanskrit language. The vocabulary consists basically of Pali words with many Sanskrit and Tamil loan words. The long vowels of the Pali words are shortened and the double consonants reduced to single ones. Dr W.S. Karunatillake admits:
“There have been several linguistic traditions that have exerted varying degrees of influence on the development of the Sinhalese language. Of these Tamil is one of the most important. There is reason to believe that in the past, the study of Tamil language and literature was cherished by the Sinhalese scholars.”22
Sinhalese is written in a variation of the Pali script, but in rounded letters like those of the Dravidian language scripts, closely resembling Telegu letters. In the first century AD, the Sinhalese alphabet showed a sudden deviation from the letters inscribed in the rocks and resembled those in the inscriptions of the Andhra kingdom, and was probably introduced from there. At that time, Andhra was a great centre of Buddhism, with the famed Amaravati and Nagarjunikonda, on the river Krishna. And, according to Benjamin Rowland, in his Art and Architecture of India, the Nagarjunikonda “monasteries included one building specifically reserved for resident monks from Ceylon”.
Until the 6th Century, the Sinhalese language remained in its Prakritic stage, and it was only by the 10th Century that the language and script developed almost to its present form. Pali died out in India by about the 12th Century but is used as the standard language of Theravada Buddhism, which prevails in Burma, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Kampuchea.
The earliest Sinhalese literary works were produced towards the end of the 10th Century. Much literature was produced in the 13th and 14th Centuries, all by bhikkhus, and this is considered to be the classical period of Sinhalese literature. They were all of Buddhist religious inspiration, comprising commentaries on sacred texts and elaborations of the Jatakas (the tales of previous births of Buddha). As the premier work of Sinhalese poetry, Kavsilumina, states: “The choicest flower of the tree of scholarship is the portrayal of the grandeur of Buddha.” Secular literature began only in the 20th Century.
Buddhism and Hinduism were the only religions of the Sinhalese and Tamils, respectively, until, following upon the Portuguese conquest of the littoral areas in 1505, Catholicism was introduced by the Portuguese and a minority of the Sinhalese Buddhists and Hindu Tamils became converted to it Later, under the British conquest and occupation (1796 – 1947), there were further conversions to Protestant Christianity by both Sinhalese and Tamils, particularly the English educated elite. Today, 67.4% are Buddhists (all Sinhalese), 17.69 are Hindus (all Tamils), 7.1% are Muslims, 6.4% are Catholics and 1.4% are Protestant Christians. 93.5% of the Sinhalese are Buddhists and 6.5% are Catholics or Protestant Christians. Of the Tamils, 81% are Hindus and the rest are Catholic or Protestant Christians.
Religious division has taken place in such a way that being a Buddhist implies being a Sinhalese, and being a Hindu implies being a Tamil. Despite this contrasting ethno religious configuration, there has been no conflict between the two on religious grounds. Between the Buddhists and Muslims there have been conflicts, such as the 1915 riots, and also sporadic fighting in recent times over religious differences. There were also clashes between the Sinhalese Buddhists and Sinhalese Catholics in the early 1960s over Catholic dominance of the public and defence services, over education and over what the Buddhist chauvinists then objected to as the Catholic clergy “representing a foreign power” and engaging in “Catholic action”, i.e. insidious priestly intervention in the recruitment and promotion of Catholics in government jobs.
The Mahavamsa links the story of the landing of Vijaya, the “origin myth”, to a series of religious myths regarding the place of Buddhism in Lanka, as ordained by Buddha. According to the chronicle, Vijaya landed on the day Buddha passed into nibbana (death and enlightenment). Both these events are recorded as having occurred in 543 BC. The chronicle states:
“The prince named Vijaya, the valiant, landed in Lanka, in the region called Tambapanni on the day the Tathagatha (another name for Buddha) lay down between two twin like sala trees to pass into nibbana.”
In this way, the chronicle vests the “origin myth” with a religious significance. Even more important is the assertion in the chronicle that Buddha, just before his death, summoned Sakka, the king of gods and the divine protector of the sasana (the dhamma doctrine as taught by Buddha), and instructed him:
“Vijaya, son of Sinhabahu, is come to Lanka . . . together with 700 followers. In Lanka, O Lord of Gods, will my religion be established, therefore carefully protect him with his followers and Lanka.”
By such injunctions of the Master, the chronicle represents Vijaya and his supposed descendants the Sinhalese Buddhists—as a chosen people with the special mission of preserving the Buddhist religion in Sri Lanka.
These are reinforced by further myths of visits of Buddha to the island, to make the “pious” believe that the island has been consecrated by Buddha. His first visit is set out thus:
” . . . at the ninth moon of his buddhahood, at the full moon of Phussa, himself set forth to the isle of Lanka, to win Lanka for the faith, for Lanka was known to the Conqueror as a place where his doctrine should shine in glory”.
According to the chronicle, this visit was to Mahiyangana, in the south east, where Buddha is said to have quelled the heathen Yakshas. His second is said to be to Naga Dipa, in the north, where he quelled the Nagas. On his third visit, Buddha is said to have gone to Kelaniya and several other places, including Anuradhapura, and “left traces of his footprints plain to see on Sumanakuta”. i.e. Adam’s Peak.
In the 1960s, when the renowned archaeologist Paranavitana (himself a Buddhist), in an attempt to demythologize these tales, declared that the chronicle’s account of Buddha’s visits was pure legend, the bhikkhus raised a hue and cry. These myths haunt the minds of the people and prevent honest scientific inquiry into Sri Lanka’s antiquity.
In their myth making endeavour, the chroniclers falsified not only the early history of the island but even the great historical event of Buddha’s nibbana. They wrongly took 543 BC as the year of Buddha’s nibbana and made the supposed arrival of Vijaya coincide with it.
Wilhelm Geiger and Mabel Bode the eminent scholars of Pali Buddhism, date Buddha’s nibbana in 483 BC. According to the views of such scholars as General Cunningham, T.W. Rhys-Davids, Max Muller, Vincent Smith, Percival Spear and H. Parker, Buddha’s nibbana could not have occurred before 486 BC. D.C. Sircar, the epigraphist of the government of India, convincingly calculates nibbana to have occurred in 486 BC.23 This is 57 years subsequent to the date stated by the Mahavamsa.
When such a great historical and religious event of international importance could be distorted to suit the whims of the author of the chronicle, could any reliance be placed on the other stories of the chronicle? That they were written as panegyrics “for the serene joy and emotion of the pious” has been forgotten. On the distortion of historical events by Mahavamsa, H . Parker in Ancient Ceylon observes:
Tissa ascended the throne in 245 BC and is said to have reigned for 40 years; but this cannot be trusted, as the reign of kings who lived about the time have been extended to make the supposed arrival of the first Magadhese settlers under Vijaya synchronise with the very doubtful date adopted by the Sinhalese historians as the time when Buddha attained Nirvana or died, viz. 543 BC.24
Regarding Buddha’s visits, there is no evidence whatsoever, not even legends in India or any of the Buddhist countries, to support them. This genre of Mahavamsa stories is nothing but a tangled web of cleverly contrived fictions purely for “the serene joy and emotion of the pious”.
But because of their unquestioned repetition in later historical and literary works (Culavamsa, Pujavaliya, Thupavamsa, Rajavaliya, etc.), all of religious inspiration, and on being orally transmitted from generation to generation in the Buddhist rituals they occupy a revered place in present day Sinhalese Buddhist popular beliefs. Sinhalese scholars have represented these myths and fictions as the early history of Lanka. In 1956, Dr Walpola Rahula, the scholar monk wrote that “for more than two millennia the Sinhalese have been inspired that they were a nation brought into being for the definite purpose of carrying the torch lit by Buddha”.25
Contemporary Buddhism in Sri Lanka has little of the doctrinal and philosophical goals of the ancestral religion. The doctrine’s prime non worldly goal of striving for salvation, by withdrawal and ascetic renunciation of worldly craving, has been drastically transformed in recent times by selfstyled “revivalists” under the slogan of a “return to righteousness”.
As such, the Buddhism of the urban elite vigorously pursues the goods and wealth of this world. It is also markedly anti Buddhist in being aggressively intolerant of other religions and ethnic entities, and is encrusted with grand visions of Sinhalese Buddhist domination of the island. Village Buddhism, on the other hand, is steeped in magic and exorcism, folklore and myths, pilgrimages and pageantry. While the belief in the truth of the doctrine certainly prevails and iconic images of Buddha are ubiquitous in Sri Lanka, the knowledge of the doctrine and the practice of the Buddhist ethical way of life are conspicuously absent at all levels. Surveying the scene, Dr E.W. Adikaram, a lay Buddhist scholar, recently protested:
The Buddhists who get worked up over real or imaginary wrongdoings of others are injuring themselves first. They are also creating an oppressive atmosphere which is not conducive to any spiritual growth. A person with even a little sensitiveness can feel this oppressive atmosphere in Sri Lanka today . . . if Buddhism is merely an empty shell devoid of love and compassion, the earlier it disappears the better it is for the world.26
Though Buddhism infinitely values human life as being the one and only condition from which nibbana is attainable, Sri Lanka is reputed to have the highest murder rate per capita in the world. The Mahavamsa made a virtue of killing in defence of Buddhism, in its panegyric of the victories of the Sinhalese prince Dutugemunu over the Tamil king Ellalan, in the 2nd Century BC war in which thousands of Tamils were killed.
The chronicle capriciously states that Dutugemunu’s war cry was: “Not for kingdom, but for Buddhism.” According to the chronicle, Dutugemunu, in repentance over the lives lost in war, addressed the eight arhats (saints):
“How shall there be any comfort for me, O venerable sirs, since by me was caused the slaughter of a great host numbering millions?”
The arhats replied:
“From this deed arises no hindrance in thy way to heaven . . . Unbelievers and men of evil life were they, not more to be esteemed than beasts. But as for thee, thou wilt bring glory to the doctrine of the Buddha in manifold ways; therefore cast away care from thy heart, O ruler of men.”
This 2nd Century BC war was recalled by Sinhalese Buddhist chauvinists and, in 1956, Dr Walpola Rahula characterised it as the “beginning of nationalism among the Sinhalese”.27 on the perpetuation of this myth, Professor Gananath Obeyesekere states:
. . . the mythic significance of Dutugemunu as the saviour of the Sinhalese race and of Buddhism grew through the years and developed into one of the most important myths of the Sinhalese, ready to be used as a powerful instrument of Sinhalese nationalism in modern times. Although the justification for killing is unusual, the general message that emerges is everywhere the same: the Sinhalese kings are defenders of the secular realm and the sasana; their opponents are the Tamils.28
The Sinhalese Buddhist collective consciousness is symbolized in pilgrimages and pereheras (religious processions), bana (sermon preaching), sil ( meditation), pirit (reciting of sacred texts to exorcise evil spirits), vesak (celebration of the birth, enlightenment and passing away of Buddha), dana (giving of alms), tovile (devil dancing) and other ceremonies.
The Sinhalese are broadly divided into the low country and up country (or Kandyan) Sinhalese. This division is not ethnic, but came about as a result of the European occupation of the littoral and the rise of the Kandyan kingdom, which prevailed from the 16th Century till its cession to the British in 1815.
The low country Sinhalese are now 40%, and the Kandyans 29%, of the total Sri Lankan population. The former occupy the western and southern coastal, mainly urban, areas and were subject to European influence continuously from the time of the Portuguese conquest. The latter live in the central highlands and the north central plains, mainly rural areas, and had a traditional social structure and way of life centred around the monarchy, feudal aristocracy and Buddhist monasteries.
Both the low country and the Kandyan Sinhalese are predominantly Buddhists. Of the Sinhalese Christians, the low country Sinhalese are about 62% and the rest are Kandyans. Although the cultural differences between the two were slight, the Kandyan traditional elite opposed the early British attempts to administratively integrate the Kandyan with the low country regions. And in the 20th Century constitutional reform representations, the English educated Kandyan elite stridently asserted that they were a “nation” separate and distinct, for fear of domination by their more articulate low country brethren.29
The personal laws of the Kandyans are their own customary laws, whereas the low country Sinhalese come under Roman Dutch law, introduced during the Dutch occupation of the littoral from 1656 to 1795. The low country Sinhalese were the first to take advantage of the political and economic changes which colonialism brought about. They serviced the coffee plantations established by the British as building and cart transport contractors, artificers, arrack and toddy renters and retail traders, and with the profits earned they bought coffee, coconut and later rubber estates.
It was also from the low country Sinhalese that the British recruited the local intermediaries for the consolidation of colonialism. Those who played this role soon abandoned the Buddhist religion and embraced Christianity, put on Western dress, repudiated traditional customs, values and food, and adopted European customs, consumption patterns and life styles.
Their leaders were soon co opted as nominated members into the Governor’s Legislative Council, and they advanced politically through the Ceylon National Congress, founded in 1920. Since independence, the low country Sinhalese have provided the leadership of all Sinhalese political parties, with the exception of Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike (nee Ratwatte), who, being born into a Kandyan feudal aristocratic (Radala) family, married S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, a scion of a low country Sinhalese family, which received great rewards and patronage from the British.
There exist significant internal differences within the Sinhalese on the basis of caste. A caste society has endogamous kinship groups, with hierarchical ordering of occupations and services on a hereditary basis. Caste divisions were integral to, and a surviving remnant of, ancient Hindu society. There is no certainty as to how it arose but has been perpetuated by the old Hindu conception of the group as the basic unit of organization, and by the belief in karma, i.e. the state of life a person is born into is due to his actions in his previous birth.
But, although Buddhism and Christianity are theoretically opposed to caste divisions, such divisions prevail among the Sinhalese, low country and Kandyan, Buddhists and Christians, alike. But the Sinhalese caste divisions are not as deep, nor their influence so pervasive, nor their observance so rigid, as among the Hindu Tamils. In particular, there are no Brahmin priestly caste and no “untouchables” among the Sinhalese.
The conventional “highest” caste are the Goyigama caste Sinhalese, in origin agriculturalists, and they predominate among both the low country and the Kandyans. They form about 51% of the low country Sinhalese and nearly 85% of the Kandyan Sinhalese.30 Within the low country Sinhalese, the Karava come next (about 17%), followed by the Salagama (about 8%) and the Durava (about 6%). Those who constitute the last three castes are mainly Tamils and Malayalis who came from south India between the 14th and 18th Centuries as fishermen, cinnamon peelers, etc. and were not socially accepted by the Goyigama, although they became Sinhalised by acculturation. The “low” or “depressed” castes among the low country Sinhalese are the Batgam, Wahumpara, Berava, Hina, Rajaka, etc.
Traditional Kandyan society was one of status based feudal relations between the landowning aristocracy, or the Radala (Kandyan Goyigama), and the landless who rendered various obligatory services to the former. The landless comprised a number of Goyigama sub castes placed lower down in the ritual hierarchy. There were also a few non Goyigama low caste groups. Professor Bryce Ryan, in his study of Sinhalese caste patterns, observed:
“Where the Radala exists, caste differentiation generally is at its maximum, for around him adhere the various service castes and with him, too, traditional modes of conduct persist.”31
The caste division among the Sinhalese is most evident in endogamy, cross caste marriages being rare compared to inter ethnic marriages and marriages outside one’s religion. In the rural, particularly Buddhist areas, caste and class boundaries often coincide: the rich and the dominant are the Goylgama; the poor and the oppressed are of low caste.
During the British colonial period there were considerable factional rivalries for political and economic ascendance between the elite of the low country Goyigama and the Karava; and between the low country Goyigama and the Kandyan Goyigama. The Tamil Vellala (the equivalent highest” caste to the Goyigama) elite always combined with the low country Goyigama and against the Karava, on the basis of upper caste exclusiveness and loyalties.
It must be remembered that inter dining and intermarriage between castes was taboo. With the bourgeoisie, loyalties were based first on class, then on caste, and ethnicity at that time did not seem a likely framework for domination. Because of this, the Goyigama always treated the Karava with contempt, while it freely coalesced with the Tamil Vellala.
This was to have its repercussions later on, when, mainly in order to crack this low country Goyigama Tamil Vellala alliance, the Karava elite created the “Sinhala only” law and became its most unrelenting agitators. Nearly all the front line “Sinhalese only” zealots, and the bhikkhu campaigners of the Ramanya sect, were Karavas.
From that time to the present, it has been the Karava pressure group that has determined the course of the Sinhalese Tamil ethnic conflict in the country. Briefly stated, it has a powerful vested interest, for it is also basically a lower middle class group and earlier found itself in competition (in education, employment, etc.) with the Tamils, predominantly a functional lower middle class community. The Karava took a head start in servicing the plantations and serving the colonial administration, and were initially in the ascendance, but were ousted from about 1920 by the low country Goyigama elite .
Sinhalese collective identity, in terms of self ascription, is not an ethnic identity but an ethno religious identity—Sinhalese Buddhist. The dominant distinguishing mark is Buddhist religious culture, which is central in the self perception of the Sinhalese Buddhists. The emergence of the Sinhalese Catholics and Protestants brought about a cleavage in Sinhalese identity. To the Sinhalese Buddhists—in particular, to the Kandyans the Sinhalese non Buddhists are as much non Sinhalese as Tamils or Muslims, for their point of reference is religion and not linguistic identity.
Professor Gananath Obeyesekere pointed out that this self image resulted from the conversion of some Sinhalese to Christianity.
This identity simply equates Sinhalese = Buddhist—the two cultural labels are the constituent elements of a single identity . . . The Sinhalese Buddhists today perceive the Sinhalese Christians as not only nonBuddhists, but also in a sense as non Sinhalese, for their Christian cultural markers are viewed as alien.32
This religious centrality in the self perception of the Sinhalese Buddhists is not something new; it was so in the pre colonial times. Professor Obeyesekere states:
Up to the 16th century being a Sinhalese implied being a Buddhist . . . With the advent of the European powers, a split in the Sinhalese identity occurred as a result of the existence of Catholic and Protestant Sinhalese who were clearly not Buddhist. Sinhalese ceased to be an ethnic identity.
The Catholic and Protestant Sinhalese, too, define themselves more in terms of their respective religion than their linguistic culture. It is their religious sub culture that is critical in their self ascription. In fact, when English held sway, i.e. before the “Sinhala only” law in 1956, the Sinhalese Christians found more in common with the Tamil Christians than with the Sinhalese Buddhists. And up to the “Sinhala only” law, there was considerable religious tolerance between the Sinhalese Buddhists and the Tamil Hindus.
But today the Tamils, be they Hindus or Christians, view the Sinhalese as a monolithic entity united in a single endeavour to subjugate and destroy their identity as a distinct ethnic entity in the country.
The Sri Lanka Tamils of today are the lineal descendants of the original inhabitants of the island. To this ancient ancestry, the latter day invasions by the armies of the south Indian Tamil Pandyan, Chola and Chera kings, and those raised by the usurping Sinhalese kings, made successive additions. In the proto historic period of the island, the early totemistic Tamil tribes migrated from their homelands in south India and settled in the north, in the south west around Kelaniya and in the south east around the river Walawe Ganga. In the north, they founded a sovereign kingdom called Naga Dipa. In the 2nd Century AD, Ptolemy located the earlier Naga Dipa kingdom as covering the territory from Chilaw in the west to below Trincomalee in the east. The ancient Tamil name of the island was Tamaraparani. From those ancient times of the Naga Dipa kingdom, the Tamils have occupied the northeastern littoral, which is their exclusive homeland.
At the time of the introduction of Buddhism (3rd Century BC), Tamil kingly rule was centred in Anuradhapura, the ancient capital which the Tamil kings founded. Devanampriya Theesan, the Tamil king at that time, was followed by Senan and Kuddikan (177 155 BC) and by Ellalan (145 101 BC). With the defeat of Ellalan by the Sinhalese prince Dutugemunu, in 101 BC, which is a historical fact, Anuradhapura became the seat of the Sinhalese dynasty.
The popularized Sinhalese version of Sri Lanka history, however, represents Devanampriya Theesan as a Sinhalese king (which is wrong, for, as was earlier contended, Sinhalese emerged subsequent to the introduction of Buddhism), and Ellalan (called Elara in Sinhalese) as “a Chola prince, who invaded Ceylon . . . captured the [Sinhalese] government at Anuradhapura and ruled for about forty five years”.33
The fact that Tamil kings ruled from Anuradhapura before the rise of the Sinhalese kings is borne out by Mahavamsa itself, which in Chapter 24, with its usual mystification of kings and events, states that when Dutugemunu informed his father Kavantissa, ruler of the southern principality of Ruhuna,that he was going to declare war against the Tamils, his father replied: “Let Tamils rule that side of the Maha Ganga [now Mahaweli Ganga] and the districts this side of the Maha Ganga are more than enough for us to rule.”
The chronicle goes on to say that Dutugemunu’s first battle was with a Tamil petty king Chathan, who was ruling Mahiyangana in the south east, and thereafter he is said to have fought 31 Tamil petty kings from Mahiyangana to Anuradhapura, before he met Elara in battle.
These episodes from Mahavamsa clearly indicate the location and area the Tamils occupied, and contradict the notion that Ellalan was a Chola invader from India. Even after the passing of Anuradhapura into the hands of the Sinhalese kings, a number of Tamil kings at various times ruled over the Rajarata kingdom.
The history of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka after Ellalan’s death is lost in obscurity as, for the next 1,000 years, the Pali chronicles describe only the struggles of the Sinhalese king with the invading south Indian Tamil forces. Hence there is no continuous history of the fortunes of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka until 1214, when an independent Tamil kingdom, with its capital in Jaffna, came into existence.
From that time, Sri Lanka was divided into two ethno linguistic nationstates; the Tamils in the north and east, and the Sinhalese in the south and west the two effectively separated by impenetrable jungle. These two ethno linguistic nations remained separate and isolated by reason of separate political loyalties and differences in language, religion, culture and customs.
According to Ibn Battuta, a North African Muslim traveller who visited Ceylon in 1344, the Tamil king Ariya Chakravarti, who had his royal palace in Jaffna, was a powerful ruler who owned sea going vessels and a cultured man who could converse in Persian.34
Then, in 1505, the Portuguese conquered the maritime Sinhalese kingdom of Kotte, near Colombo, and for over a century attempted to conquer the Tamil kingdom, but met the Tamil military forces in losing battles. The Tamil king Sankili gave great assistance to the Sinhalese king of Kandy by obtaining reinforcements from south India in the latter’s war against the Portuguese. This made the latter determined to conquer the Tamil kingdom.
In 1621, the Portuguese finally won the war of conquest, thanks to their superiority in steel and gunpowder, captured the Tamil king Sankili and took him as captive to their headquarters in Goa, India, where he was hanged. For a few years thereafter, the Tamils continued their resistance to foreign rule, under the leadership of a coastal petty king, Varnakulathian, but were subjugated.
The Portuguese administered the Tamil “Jaffna Patnam”, as they called it, as a separate domain from their Sinhalese maritime possession. So did the Dutch, who captured it from the Portuguese. In 1802, by the Treaty of Ancient Holland ceded her possessions in Sri Lanka to the British, who also Continued to retain the separate identity of the Tamil areas until 1833, when, for the first time, for administrative convenience, the British unified the low country Sinhalese, the Kandyan and Tamil areas, and brought them under a Single unitary political authority—the government of Ceylon.
In this way, the Tamils and the Sinhalese were defeated, severally and at different times, in battle with the Portuguese conquistadores. Their separate collective identities and political loyalties were extinguished by conquest and were brought within a unitary Ceylonese nation state.
Sir Robert Brownrigg, an early British governor of what were then the separate (Tamil) Jaffna Patnam and the low country Sinhalese region, wrote in his despatch dated 10 July 1813 to the Secretary of State for Colonies:
“The Tamil language, . . . which with a mixture of Portuguese is used through all provinces, is the proper tongue of the inhabitants from Puttalam to Batticaloa northward inclusive of both these districts. Your Lordship will therefore have no objection to my putting the Tamil language on an equal footing of encouragement with the Sinhalese.”
Throughout the British colonial period, the Sinhalese and the Tamil people remained equal in their subordination to the British raj. Both Sinhalese and Tamil languages were also equal in their subordination to English, and so were Buddhism and Hinduism to Christianity.
According to the 1971 census, Ceylon Tamils numbered 1,415,567, or 11.7% of the population, and the Indian Tamils, who were recruited as labour for the British plantations in the l9th Century and settled in Sri Lanka, were 9.4%. Tamil is also the mother tongue of almost all the Muslims, who are 6.7% of the population. As such, Tamil is the mother tongue of 27.8% of the people of Sri Lanka.
In India, Tamils number 50 million and live in Tamil Nadu state, extending from Pulicat Lake to Cape Camorin, and from the Western Ghats to Coromandel coast—the homeland of Tamils in India. There are substantial settled Tamil communities in Malaysia and Singapore, and in smaller numbers in Burma, Fiji, Mauritius, South Africa, Jamaica, Trinidad and Guyana; their forefathers were recruited in south India under the indentured labour system, by the British in the 19th Century, to work in the plantations that were then being opened up. Although the Tamils have one generic culture, because of this diaspora there are variations in dialect and distinct sub cultural characteristics.
From 1956, large numbers of educated Sri Lanka Tamils have emigrated as a direct result of Sinhalese being made the only official language, of escalating violence owing to ethnic conflict and of government discrimination of Tamils in employment and other fields. Today, these Tamil emigrants constitute sizeable numbers in Britain, the United States, Canada and Australia They have chosen to live in these countries, amidst alien cultures, racial discrimination and low social status, rather than submit to indignities and humiliation in their own country. From the mid 1970s, a number of political activists and freedom fighters demanding a separate Tamil state of Eelam, comprising the north and the east, have fled from police and army repression instigated by the Sri Lanka government and found asylum in India, Britain, France and West Germany.
The Tamils are Dravidians, an ethnic division (earlier believed to be only a linguistic division from the Aryans) which includes the Canarese, Malayalis and Andhra people who occupy the whole of south India. Tamil is the oldest and the principal Dravidian language; in fact, “Dravida” and “Tamil” are two forms of the same word. The Tamils claim that the word “Tamil” means sweetness. Karl Graul, the eminent German philologist, says:
“The Tamil language if well spoken, is extremely pleasing to the ear; like honey it is.”
In fact, the greatness of the Tamil language, and its antiquity, has been proclaimed not only by Tamils but by foreign philologists such as Pope, Caldwell, Ellis (British) Zeigenbalg and Fabricus (German), Roberto di Nobili and Constantine Beshi (Italian) and Kamil Zvelebil (Czech).
The Tamils have an ancient literary and cultural heritage. The first Tamil grammar, Tholkapiyam, was compiled as early as the first millennium BC. The classical Sangam literature dates from the 1st to the 4th Centuries AD and consists of a collection of poems including the Eight Anthologies (Ettutogai) and Ten Idylls (Pattupaatu) and a number of literary works dealing with war, love, religion and society. To these were added, in the 6th Century, the lyrical epic works Silapadikaram and Manimekhalai and the two didactic works Thirukkural and Naladiyar. The Ceylon Tamils have maintained their own separate and distinct linguistic and cultural continuum in the island for so many centuries that in reality the Tamil literary and cultural heritage of south India operates only as a source of historical inspiration, particularly in the present context.
As noted earlier, Hinduism was the only religion of the Tamils until the advent of European powers led to the introduction of Christianity and the conversion of a minority of Tamils to Catholic or Protestant Christianity Hinduism is the traditional religion of India and contemporary Hinduism is a synthesis between Aryan Brahamanistic Vaisnavism and Dravidian Saivism (a cult exalting Siva as the Supreme Being) and Hindu practices. The latter alone prevails among the Sri Lanka Hindus.
Hindu religious practices consist, in the main, of the worship of deities and a host of rituals. Hinduism is a religion without missionaries, and is not an “organized” religion. Conversion to it is technically difficult because a Hindu is born into a particular caste, which the Hindus believe is predetermined according to one’s Karma, actions in a previous life which influence the present and future. These notions greatly influence both the religious and social life of Hindu Tamils.
The Tamil ethnic identity remains a linguistic and cultural identity, unlike the all inclusive ethno religious identity of the Sinhalese Buddhists To the Tamils, it is the language culture index that is dominant and commands loyalty, not any particular religious adherence. The Sri Lanka Hindus faced no such religious problems as the Hindu Muslim confrontation in India. The original link between Tamil ethnicity and the Hindu religion has come to be severed, and the Sri Lanka Hindus effectively regard religion as a matter of private conscience. The Hindus have never called for any official position for their religion in the affairs of state and do not exert any religious political
The introduction of Christianity did not cause any split in Tamil ethnicity or self perception, nor lead to the emergence of any perceptible antithesis between Tamil Hindus and Tamil Catholics or Tamil Christians. This is so despite the fact that 81% of Tamils are Hindus. And the Hindu revivalist movement initiated by Arumuga Navalar (1829 1870) to denounce Christianity and regenerate Hinduism did not evoke much public enthusiasm.
The strongest attack on Christianity was by the Buddhist and not by the Hindu revivalists. This ethno linguistic primacy in Tamil collective identity is evident in the acceptance of S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, a Christian, as the leader of the (Tamil) Federal Party (FP), and later of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), and also in the comfortable majorities he won from a predominantly Hindu electorate from 1947.
At the same time, G.G. Ponnambalam, the veteran leader of the rival Tamil Congress (TC), although a Hindu, suffered defeat at the hands of Alfred Durayappah, a Christian, in 1965, and C.X. Martyn a Catholic, in 1970, in Jaffna, another predominantly Hindu electorate. On the contrary, a non Buddhist Sinhalese rarely contests a Buddhist seat and no Christian has been the leader of any of the Sinhalese political parties, for Sinhala Buddhist identity is a sine qua non for leadership of political parties, including even the “socialist” Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), the radical Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Communist Party (CP).
An important facet of Tamil collective identity is that, owing to centuries of an insular linguistic and cultural way of life and a shared historical experience, the Sri Lankan Tamils possess and assert an identity distinct and separate from both the Tamils of south India and the Indian Tamils.
They almost consciously cut themselves off from the former because of their desire for a unified polity in which they felt their future laid. They also prided themselves on speaking “pure” Tamil, in contrast to Madras (south Indian) Tamil; which is heavily laden with Telugu and Mayalalam words. With the plantation Tamils, the Sri Lankan Tamils had no connection whatsoever until recent times, and then it was a tenuous political link at leadership level. This link led most of the Tamil bourgeois MPs to join in the campaign of the Sinhalese political class, soon after independence, to deprive working class plantation Tamils of their Sri Lankan citizenship and franchise.
This orientation of the Sri Lankan Tamils has driven them into such a critical situation that, even in the face of the gravest threat to their continued survival as a nation, they are unwilling to compromise with their separateness from the Tamils of mainland India, or to break with their integration (scarcely more than a century old) with the rest of the island.
Tamil political consciousness has always been innately conservative, and Tamil leadership has lacked the perspicacity to comprehend, and the dynamism to come to grips with, the nature and sweep of Sinhalese policies.
Hence the Tamil political leadership has evinced no genuine desire to recreate an independent Tamil state. And the alternative of seceding, with a view to confederating with the Tamil Nadu state or federating with the Indian federal union, has not even entered the realms of political debate.
Tamil society, from the earliest times, was caste based, but not on the lines of the familiar fourfold division of the Aryan caste system. Caste stratification among the Tamils has a variation of its own. The “highest” caste are not the priestly Brahmins but the Vellala, who form about 75% of the Tamils. Caste and class boundaries among the Tamils coincide, and the Tamil “bourgeoisie” and political elite are the Vellalas. The Karayars, equivalent to the Sinhalese Karava, are the next in size and importance. There are then several lower castes, descending in order of importance of the services required by the Vellala in the traditional society, and affected with increasing degrees of pollution in the eyes of the Vellala. The lowliest are the “untouchable” Pariah, the scavengers.
Much of the early sharpness of caste differences has now been blunted by mobilisation and agitation at the political level and changed socioeconomic conditions Rules of endogamy continue to be rigidly observed, but concepts of purity and pollution, and the hierarchical ordering of occupations, are a thing of the past. “Untouchability” and its attendant degradations have virtually ceased to exist, and discrimination in public against lower castes is banned by the Prevention of Social Disabilities Act, 1957.
Traditionally, the Tamils lived by agriculture in the “dry” or “arid” zones less favourably endowed by nature than the “wet” zones occupied by the Sinhalese. As a result, the Tamils took advantage of the colonial government’s decision to open the administrative service to locals proficient in the English language. They studied English in the Christian missionary colleges established in Jaffna, and, in open competition with the rest of the population, entered the civil, clerical, technical and professional services in significant numbers.
This avenue of employment gave increased incentive for English education, which the Tamils came to venerate, and government service became their biggest—indeed their only major—industry. Fortified with English education, some Tamils emigrated to Malaya and found employment in the then Federated Malay States government service. At independence in 1948 Tamils occupied about 30S0 of the positions in the government service and an equal percentage of places in the University of Ceylon. The attractions of white collar employment weaned later generations away from agriculture, dependent as it was on the vagaries of the weather.
These made the Tamils virtually a lower middle class community in the island. And, in the competitive context in which they found themselves they developed the middle class virtues of hard work, thrift, loyalty and single minded devotion to duty, and the conservative traits of security, narrow individualism and slow advancement. These developments tied them firmly to the government and the nerve centre in south Sri Lanka, where the Tamil political leaders, mainly lawyers, made their money and reputations and had a personal interest in remaining.
Hence their policy of seeking to protect future interests of the Tamils within the existing political structure. This has today come under fire from the new generation of young Tamils in Jaffna, who, feeling the brunt of discrimination, deprivation of language rights and the indignity of living as aliens in their own country, have taken up arms in the struggle for liberation and for a Separate Tamil state of Eelam in the north and east of Sri Lanka.
The so called Indian Tamils are in the main the descendants of the workers imported from the Tamil areas of south India by the British planters, with the assistance of the colonial government, from the 1840s, as cheap labour for the large scale coffee and later tea plantations in the hill country areas. They arrived in gangs of 25 to 100, each under a kangany (leader) as the recruiting agent. Beginning with about 3,000 in 1839, the arrivals increased to 77,000 in 1844. With the establishment of tea plantations in the 1880s, more workers, men and women, arrived. Although in the coffee era they came mainly as migrant workers for seasonal coffee plucking, with the establishment of tea plantations which required intensive labour they came as immigrant workers and settled in the island.
In the 1911 census, when they were separately enumerated as Indian Tamils, they totalled 530,983 and outnumbered the Ceylon Tamils (528,024). On arrival, they were hired by the estates but continued under the kangany, who then became their labour contractor and supervisor They were paid a pittance of a wage and housed in barrack like ghettos, back to back 10 by12 feet “line” rooms within the estates. Nearly all of them were poor and illiterate and often belonged to lower caste groups, accustomed to social inferiority, discrimination and oppression. In Sri Lanka, they had no contact with the world outside the estate and lived wholly alienated from the surrounding Sinhalese villagers, separated from them by ethnicity, language, culture and religion. Their collectivized working life and their presence in alien surroundings made them hold on to their Indian roots.
To the Sinhalese, they were a slaving Tamil community, and the Sri Lanka Tamils regarded them with condescension. Their enslaved and miserable plight lowered the esteem of Tamils in particular, and India and Indians in general, in the eyes of the Sinhalese people. Although their enterprise and toil opened up the forests, hills and valleys of central Sri Lanka for coffee, tea, rubber and cocoa, and their cheap labour laid the foundations of the island’s prosperity based on those exports, in human terms they remained a classic agricultural proletariat and, as a class, little better off than bonded slaves.
The Indian Tamils do not express their collective identity in terms of language, culture or religion. It is their class identity that is always in the forefront. From the 1930s, they came to be organized into trade unions and, by the 1950s, every Indian Tamil was a member of a union, often allied to the left wing political parties. Their distinctive position as the largest proletarian force and their unionisation, resulting in class solidarity and militancy, brought about substantial improvements in their previously exploited working life.
But soon they came under trade unions organized by second generation leaders of their own community, and their strength came to be dissipated in inter union rivalries and attempts to bolster the self image of their leaders. The Ceylon Indian Congress (CIC), which in the 1940s was the representative union and political wing of the Indian Tamil workers, splintered in the 1950s into the Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC) and the Democratic Workers’ Congress (DWC), with the leadership of both allied to capitalist interests.
In 1927, the Donoughmore Constitutional Reform Commission estimated that 40% to 50% of the Indian Tamils could be regarded as permanent residents of Sri Lanka. In 1938, the Jackson Report on Immigration estimated that 70% to 80% of them were permanently settled. It is therefore reasonable to assume that at independence in 1948 nearly all of them, numbering about 900,000 were permanently settled in Sri Lanka. The Indian Tamils voted in the 1931 and 1935 elections for the colonial State Council and in the 1947 election for the first parliament, to which power was transferred at independence. In the 1947 election, eight Indian Tamil members of parliament, of whom six were from the CIC, were elected, and their strength bolstered the Tamil representation to 24 of the 95 elected members.
But soon after independence, the government of D.S. Senanayake enacted the Ceylon Citizenship Act, 1948, which made the Indian Tamils non citizens. In the following year, by the Ceylon (Parliamentary Elections) Amendment Act, they were disfranchised. In this way, they became not only voteless but also stateless, for Articles 5 and 8 of the Constitution of India defined citizenship in terms which excluded persons of Indian origin settled outside India
The origins of the Muslims (also called “Moors”) of Sri Lanka remain obscure. Though the presence of some Muslims who came as traders to the island can be traced to about the 10th Century, the Muslims became a settled community only from about the 12th Century. They came to the island for trade but it is not certain whether they are of Arab or Indian descent
Just before the creation of Muslim representation in the Legislative Council in 1889, there arose a controversy as to their origin and ethnicity, as the Tamil member had hitherto been considered their representative, an arrangement in which the Muslims had acquiesced. P. Ramanathan, the then Tamil member contended that the Muslims originated in south India and were Tamils who had embraced Islam.35 Professor Vijaya Samaraweera states:
Ramanathan’s thesis caused great consternation among the Muslims. Evidence shows that there was among them equally a tradition that their ancestors were Tamils of South India who had been converted to Islam, at the same time as a tradition that they originated from Arabic migrants to Sri Lanka, but the assertion of the latter tradition took a new immediacy and importance within the context of the political developments of the 1880s …. Given Ramanathan’s stature, within and without the administration, it became imperative that his views should be challenged . . . The critics did not deny that culturally there were points of similarity between the Muslims and the Tamils this was, to them, the result of the inevitable process of acculturation of a minority people. The use of Tamil as the every day language of the Muslims was easily explained; Tamil was the lingua franca of commerce in the region at the time the Arab migrants reached the ports of south India and Sri Lanka and they adopted it for obvious reasons of convenience.36
The Muslim spokesmen sought to make out that their ancestors came as traders or were the Hashemites who left Arabia in the 7th Century on account of persecution by a new ruling dynasty.
Tamil is the mother tongue of nearly all the Muslims, but they do not seek their collective identity in language or culture but in their religion Islam. They possess religious unity but lack a common ethno cultural unity and therefore do not make a distinct ethnic entity. From early times they have been dispersed all over the island and do not have a defined territory in the island as their homeland.
An early 20th Century impression of them is as follows:
“They are an enterprising and speculative race [sic] . Their chief occupation is petty trade and as traders it is difficult to surpass them. They are ubiquitous and active in the metropolis [Colombo] and in the remotest village.”37
Although they are a predominantly trading community, in the eastern province they are a large peasant community, constituting about a third of the population of the area, and in Colombo a large number of them are workers. Since the 1911 census, Muslims born in the country have been classified as Sri Lankan Muslims and those who acknowledged that they came for trade, and would return to India, as Indian Muslims. In the 1971 census, Sri Lankan Muslims numbered 824,291, or 6.5% of the population, and Indian Muslims 29,416, or 0.2%.
The Muslims were persecuted by the Portuguese both for their trading activities and for religious differences. The Dutch too kept them out of their traditional occupation. As a result, many Muslims moved to the areas of the Sinhalese Kandyan kingdom. There occurred a Muslim revival in the last quarter of the 19th Century. It took the form of laymen, learned in the Koran and in Arabic, challenging the authority of the religious mullahs over doctrinal matters. These lay activists were of the view that “the community became mullah ridden and men and women were led into a state of blissful ignorance in the name of religion”.
They criticized the manner in which the mullahs and ulama managed the mosques. By their constant attacks they confined the religious leaders to a narrow spiritual role. They regarded themselves essentially as a business and religious community, became inward looking and did not participate in the rising “nationalist” movement in the country. Their withdrawal was perhaps also due to the Sinhalese Muslim riots of 1915, when Muslims were subjected to brutal attacks by rioting Sinhalese in the Kandyan areas. This led them to look to the colonial government for protection and to collaborate with it. In fact, throughout the whole constitutional process leading to independence, the Muslim voice was hardly heard.
Even in the post independence period, the Muslims have displayed a Conservative political profile, never confrontational, but always looking for advantages in the shifting political landscape. Their principal concern has been to maintain their entrenched role in the wholesale and retail trade. There have been long standing Muslim “notables” in the conservative United National Party (UNP) and the centrist Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and they have been getting the best out of both. There have been Muslim ministers in the cabinets of all governments since 1948, and between 1965 and 1970 there were 12 Muslim MPs although as a community they were a majority in only six electorates in terms of today’s politics of personality and charisma, the Muslims are reckoned as important in winning elections for they are everywhere in Sri Lanka.
The Burghers and Malays are two small ethnic communities. The Burghers constituted 0.6% of the population in 1953 but are now 0.3%. They are a relic of the Portuguese and Dutch occupation of the island. With the British conquest, they adopted English as their language and are divided between Catholics and those belonging to the Dutch Reformed Church. The Portuguese Burghers are entirely Catholic and some of them still speak Portuguese Most of them speak Sinhalese, and the Portuguese Burghers in Jaffna speak Tamil.
Although small in number, the Burghers are not homogeneous. There are divisions between those of pure European descent, registered by the Dutch Burgher Union, and the rest. During the British period, they occupied a favoured position and were an influential community, important in the professions, politics and government, and the mercantile services. But with the dethronement of English by the Sinhala only Act in 1956, about half the Burgher population emigrated, mainly to Australia. The 44,000 who remain today, 31,000 of them in Colombo district, are learning Sinhalese and will eventually become assimilated.
The Malays number 43,000, or 0.3% of the Sri Lanka population. Nearly all of them live in two areas, one in Slave Island, a municipal ward in Colombo, and the other in Hambantota. The Malays are regarded as Muslims since their religion is Islam, but they are distinct from the other Muslims in that they speak the Malay language. They have a separate collective consciousness and during the process of constitutional reform in the 20th Century Some Malays asserted a separate identity from the Ceylon Muslims. The Malays possess a high degree of adaptability, for most of them in Colombo Speak English, Sinhalese and Tamil as well as Malay.
1. The descriptive phrase “plural society” has been uncritically applied by many social scientists to describe the ethnic and community structure Al in Sri Lanka. That phrase, as used by J.S. Furnival to describe and interpret the Burmese and Javanese social patterns of colonial times, is inappropriate to the Sri Lankan situation for it implies cultural minorities ] in a foreign country held together by the political power of the native dominant group. Furnival wrote: “In Burma, as in Java, probably the first thing that strikes the visitor is the medley of peoples—European, Chinese, Indian and native. It is in the strictest sense a medley, for they mix but do not combine. Each group holds by its own religion, its own culture and language, its own ideas and ways. As individuals they meet, but only in the market place, in buying and selling. There is a plural society, with different sections of the community living side by side, but separately, within the same political unit; Even in the economic sphere there is a division of labour along racial lines;” Colonial Policy and Practice, Cambridge, 1948, p. 304. Walter Schwarz, The Tamils of Sri Lanka, Minority Rights Group, London, 1975.
3. The Veddas of Sri Lanka did not originate in the way Dipavamsa makes out. They are the descendants of the Tamil Yakshas and are racially akin to the Toddars, Kurumbars and Pulindars—the Dravidian jungle tribes of south India who still live in Nilgris, Quilon and Coromandel regions. Of the Veddas, the Harmsworth Encyclopaedia states: “The Veddas are the descendants of king Ravana and they are shill living in the jungles of north eastern provinces of Ceylon with their ancient customs. Both the Toddars of Nilagiri and the Vedda are Dravidians.” According to Tamil tradition, Ravanan, the Tamil king of Lanka, conquered the Malaya archipelago and the Tamil people colonized the whole of south Indo China, all of which comprised the Tamil Yaksha empire. Confirmation for this comes from the Hindu customs and beliefs that are dominant in these countries. That may also be due to the expansion of the Tamil Chola empire in the I 1th Century, which covered the whole of south Indo China. Dr G.C. Mendis states: “The Veddas belong to the same racial stock as the pre Dravidian jungle tribes of South India such as Irulas and the Kurumbars, and are said to be racially connected with the Toalas of the Celebes, Batin of Sumatra and the Australian aborigines”; Early History of CeyZon, p. 4 A.C. Burnell, in EZements of South Indian Palaeography, states: “South India was the source of the early civilisation of Java.” He states that Dravidian words occur in Kawi and Javanese and they are apparently all Tamil, and that the architecture in Java is south Indian; ” . . . we might then assume that the legend referred to is simply an allegorical allusion to emigration of some Raksas from South India and Ceylon to the northern coast of Sumatra. This version would appear to receive corroboration from the tradition of Ravana’s conquest in the Malaya archipelago; and should it prove acceptable, we must conclude that Sumatra was originally a country of Raksa empire. At all events the legends deserve consideration, as indicating the sources from where Sumatra received her settlers, or at any rate colonizers”.
4. K.M. de Silva (ed.), Sri Lanka, A Survey, C. Hurst, London, 1977. How far this version constitutes the official as well as the established history of the island can be seen from the following. In Ceylon, a picturesque book published by the government of Ceylon (1952, p. 3), it is stated: “About 500 years before the birth of Christ, immigrants from North India settled in the island and established Sinhalese dynasties of Anurad hapura and later of Polonnaruwa. The ancient Chronicles of Ceylon tell us that the first immigrants were a band of Aryan speaking adventurers from North India, under the leadership of Vijaya who is generally regarded as the founder of the Sinhalese race.” Professor S.U. Kodikara in his Indo Ceylon Relations since Independence, writes: “According to tradition, the Sinhalese . . . are the descendants of settlers who came from North India in the 6th Century BC.” Dr I.D.S. Weerawardena, former lecturer in politics in the University, wrote in Ceylon and Her Citizens: “The Sinhalese . . . came more than 2,000 years ago, probably from the region close to Bengal. You must have read the story of Vijaya and his 700 men. That story illustrates the fact that our Sinhalese ancestors came from North India . . . it is difficult to say exactly when the Tamils came to this country. Some people think that a few Tamils might have been in Ceylon as traders even when the Sinhalese first came, but it is certain that they came in large numbers in the Tamil invasions which began very early in our history. In the 13th Century they were powerful enough to establish an independent kingdom in the North.”
5. K.M . de Silva (ed .), supra
6. Anagarika Dharmapala, History of an Ancient Civilisation, 1902.
7. Having names of gods as prefixes or suffixes to their names has been a long tradition among the Tamils. Since the cobra is venerated, many Tamils have names with the prefix “Naga”, such as Nagarajah, Nagaratnam, Naganathan, Nagamany, etc.
8. Harry Williams, Ceylon, The Pearl of the East, Hale, London, 1950.
9. Zelanicus (pseud.), Ceylon, Between the Orient and Occident, Elek London, 1970.
10. V. Begley, “Proto historical material from Sri Lanka and Indian Contacts”, in K.A.R. Kennedy and G.C. Possehl (eds.), Ecological Backgrounds of South Asian Pre History, New Orleans, pp. 191 196.
11. P.K. Chanmugam and F.L.W. Jayewardene, “Skeletal Remains from Thirukketiswaram”, in Ceylon Journal of Science, 1954.
12. S.K. Sitrampalam, in “Anaikoddai Excavations”, in the Tribune, Colombo,3 April 1982.
13. Four ancient temples for Hindu gods were built centuries before the Christian era—Tirukketiswaram, Muneeswaram, Tirukkoneswaram and Kathirkamam—in the northern, western, eastern and southern directions of the island, respectively, and Tamil tradition has it that Hindu gods are guarding Lanka on all four sides. There are references to these temples in the Mahavamsa (Chapter 34).
14. In Vol. 20, p. 567
15 The Hindu deity Ganesha has been enshrined at the entrance to the sacred pipal tree at Anuradhapura from time immemonal, and Buddhists worship it before going to the inner courtyard of the pipal tree. The pipal tree is venerated as a branch of the tree under which Buddha received enlightenment in Bodh Gaya.
16. G.C. Mendis, The Early History of Ceylon, Calcutta, 1943, p. 9.
17. S. Paranavitana, quoted in 12 supra.
18 Mendis, so pra, p. 10.
19 See L.S. Deveraja, The Kandyan Kingdom, 1707 1760, Colombo,1972.
20. N.K. Sarkar, The Demography of Ceylon, Colombo, 1957, p. 191. And Sir Ivor Jennings wrote: “The Sinhalese ‘race’ is as mixed as the English, if not more so. Any difficulties that this mixture might cause is overcome by the polite fiction that if the father is Sinhalese the offspring are Sinhalese, whatever the mother may be”; The British Commonwealth of Nations, Hutchinson, 1961, 4th ed., p. 107.
21. These statistics are from The Census of Ceylon, Vol. III, Part I; Department of Census and Statistics, Colombo, 1960, p. 604.
22. W.S. Karunatillake, “Tamil Influence on the Structure of Sinhalese Language”, a paper presented at the Fourth International Conference on Tamil Studies, 1974.
23. D.C. Sircar, The Inscriptions of Asoka, p. 9
24. H. Parker, Ancient Ceylon, London, 1909, p. 423.
25. Walpola Rahula, History of Buddhism in Ceylon: The Anuradhapura Period, Colombo, 1956.
26. Quoted in Race Relations in Sri Lanka, Centre for Society and Religion, Colombo, p. 61.
27. Walpola Rahula, supra, p. 79.
28. G. Obeyesekere, “The Vicissitudes of the Sinhala Buddhist Identity through Time and Change”, in George de Vos and Lola Romanucci Ross (ads.), Ethnic Identity: Cultural Communities and Change, reprinted in Michael Roberts (ad.), Collective Identities: Nationalisms and Protest in Modern Sri Lanka, Colombo, 1979, p. 286.
29. John A. Halangoda, Present Politics and the Rights of the Kandyans, Kandy, 1920, also The Rights and Claims of the Kandyan People, Kandy, n.d. (?1929).
30. The census does not classify people according to castes and therefore no statistics of caste are available. R.F. Nyrop, Area Hand book for Ceylon, Washington, 1971, contains a list of castes among the Sinhalese, Sri Lanka Tamils and “Indian” Tamils.
31. Bryce Ryan, Caste in Modern Ceylon, New Brunswick, 1953, p. 99.
32. Obeyesekere, supra, p. 282.
33. Walpola Rahula, supra, p. 79.
34. Ibn Battuta, H.A.R. Gibb, London, 1929.
35. See Hansard, Legislative Council, 1885, Vol. II, p. 234; also Ramanathan, “The Ethnology of the ‘Moors’ of Ceylon”, in Journal of Royal Asiatic Society (Ceylon Branch), Vol. X.
36. Vijaya Samaraweera, in “The Muslim Revivalist Movement, 1880 1915” in Michael Roberts (ed.), supra, pp. 243 276.
37. P. Arunachalam, in “Population”, in Arnold Wright (comp.), Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon, London,1907.
The Portuguese conquest and occupation of the Sinhalese littoral and Tamil areas was followed by the Dutch in 1656 and the British in 1796. After initial control by the British East India Company from Madras, these areas became a British Crown Colony in 1802. The Kandyan Sinhalese kingdom, which withstood the Portuguese and early British attempts at conquest, was ceded to the British by the Kandyan Convention of 1815. The four and a half centuries of European rule effected great changes in the political, economic, religious and social structure, in the ethnic collective identities and in the outlook and life of both the Sinhalese and the Tamil people.
The Portuguese conquest occurred in the early stages of what Marx called the period of primitive accumulation. Earlier, the Arab caravans had taken overland to the eastern Mediterranean the spices, silks, muslins, carpets, etc. of the Orient which Europe’s wealthy classes considered necessities, at a time when trade was draining Europe of its gold and silver. Since the Mediterranean had become almost a Muslim lake, the Portuguese set out to discover an alternative Christian trade route to seek the wealth of the Orient. Following upon Vasco da Gama’s discovery of the Cape of Good Hope in 1498, the Portuguese maritime adventurers made their way to Sri Lanka.l
The Portuguese conquistadores arrived when capitalism was not yet the dominant form of production; the world market and the international division of labour were still to emerge. To them conquest was to acquire a trading post and secure the sea route to the East. Expansion of the realm, or colonization for settlement, was not their objective. They administered the Sinhalese and Tamil areas as separate territories. Conquest was followed by conversion, to extend the frontiers of medieval Christendom. Except for Catholic proselytization almost at the point of the sword, there was no change in the politico socio economic structure.
Much the same is true of the Dutch. They continued the separate administration of the Sinhalese and Tamil areas. In the Sinhalese portion, they introduced Roman Dutch law and effected certain reforms within the interstices. Dutch patronage, in the form of “land grants” to the low country Sinhalese mudaliyar (area headmen) “aristocracy”, signalled the beginning of a contradictory historical dynamic. In the Tamil portion, they codified the thesawalamai (Customary laws of the Tamils) and compiled the tombos (land titles).
The Dutch ruled primarily for commercial gain and expanded the spice trade. Unlike their predecessors, they were not great zealots of religious proselytization .
During this time, for the Kandyan Sinhalese, the monarchy became the focal point of loyalty and the sacred symbol holding society together. The Kandyan social structure became authoritarian and hierarchical, dominated by feudal aristocratic families and temple chiefs. These controlled the royal court but were divided into rival factions. In 1760, they unsuccessfully rebelled against the Nayakkar king Kirti Sri; and in 1815 they succumbed to the machinations of the British governor, deposed Nayakkar king Sri Wikrema and ceded the Kandyan territory to the imperium of His Britannic Majesty.
After the conquest, the British continued to administer the Sinhalese and Tamil areas, and after 1815 the Kandyan areas, as separate entities. But in pursuance of the Colebrooke Cameron Commission recommendations, the separate administrations were abolished and the Sinhalese and Tamil people were brought together in a single politico geographic entity under a centralized government. A nominated legislative council was established in 1833, including three non British members. Thereafter, progress to representative government was through reform of the council and membership of it became the grand prize which the Sri Lankan elite fought for.
By subsequent introduction of representation on ethnic and communal lines, the colonial government kept ethnic differences alive and prevented the growth of cross ethnic all island political identification. For purposes of administration, the island was divided into the western, northern, eastern, southern and central provinces, each under a government agent. Since the northern province, administered from Jaffna, was found to be too large, the north central province was created in 1873. Two additional Kandyan provinces, Uva and Sabaragamuwa, were set up in 1886 and 1889 respectively.
From early times, the colonial government encouraged the study of English as empire builders from Roman times have recognized the great influence language wields over colonized people. Macaulay wrote in his historic minute of 1835 (in a comparable situation in India):
“We must do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions we govern; a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, morals and intellect. ‘
English education was provided mainly by Christian missionary schools, set up to aid Christian proselytization. The government’s policy was one of limiting state schools and granting state aid to private schools. The colonial government recruited local personnel, proficient in English, for junior and middle level bureaucratic positions. Hence English education came to be valued and it spread outwards, particularly to Jaffna, where a number of mission schools was established. English education became the primary means of economic advancement, social mobility and elite status.
In this way, English education, Christianity, Western culture and values became the dominant forces in the country. But they remained the preserve of the upper and growing middle classes. Towards the close of the l9th Century the prestigious civil service, the apex of the colonial administrative structures was opened up to Sri Lankans, and from 1920 rapid “Ceylonisation” of the bureaucracy took place. Alongside government service, the English educated went into the medical, legal and teaching professions, engineering technical and allied occupations, and banking, brokerage and mercantile jobs. This bureaucratic bourgeoisie, having power and privilege Over the local populace and benefiting from colonial rule through various patronage networks, quickly climbed up the hierarchy.
From the 1830s, the estate system of coffee plantations, established by British capital and entrepreneurship, produced fundamental socio economic changes. The new export economy, dominated by the demands of commodity production, was linked to the imperial network and controlled by the metropolis. It was vitally dependent on foreign trade, capitalist production, a permanent labour force and low wages—a structure which was the antithesis of the prevailing self sufficient rice growing village economy. Large areas of the mid and up country highlands, which were used by the Kandyan and low country Sinhalese villagers for slash and burn cultivation, firewood collection and grazing land, were declared crown land and sold to the coffee planters. Being landless and deprived of their traditional means of production, the villagers became tenant cultivators or agricultural labourers.
The importation of a large number of Tamil workers as cheap labour to work the plantations created a human problem of considerable dimensions. They came to be regarded with contempt and resentment by the Sinhalese people in whose areas the plantations were set up. The establishment of plantations, and their linkage by road and rail to the port of Colombo for export, opened many new avenues of profitable enterprise. The low country Sinhalese who went to service the plantations, as forest clearers, building and cart-transport contractors, arrack and toddy renters, retail traders and suppliers of food, accumulated large amounts of money with which they bought coffee and, later, coconut and rubber estates. By 1880, the low country Sinhalese owned 13,500 acres of coffee land.
The low country Sinhalese mudaliyars and maha mudaliyars (chief headrnen), receiving the patronage of the British administration for their services to colonialism acquired “waste lands”, which were then declared crown land and became the landed elite. Between 1860 and 1889, of the 247,500 acres of Crown land alienated, the mudaliyars acquired 83,700, or one third.2
With the extraction and export of graphite becoming important from the 870s, some of the newly rich acquired graphite mine lands and became mine owners. The improvement of communications led to the expansion of the market and to the rise of merchant capitalism. The local bourgeoisie created by plantation capitalism and commercialisation of the economy set up the Low Country Producers’ Association (LCPA) in 1908, as a counter to the European controlled Chamber of Commerce, and declared their interests as follows:
Most of us are planters. Our interests are in many respects identical with those of the [European] planters. It is true that many of them have shown us the way and they deserve the credit for having brought capital into the country and shown us the path along which we may all win prosperity. We have followed in their footsteps and our interests are now the same.3
The political and economic processes at work during the British colonial period restructured society and determined the movement of national affairs. The bureaucratic opportunities, the capitalist mode of production and accumulation, and the avenues of upward mobility for the few, divided society on the basis of economic and social classes. The ethnically divided political society became economically differentiated and socially diversified, giving rise to a new social pyramid.
The old ethnic differences came to be subsumed by class interests which crystallized in the emerging bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie comprised the two main strata noted earlier: one arising from the colonial bureaucratic and professional system, and the other from plantation capitalism and commercialization of the economy.
The interests of the bourgeoisie, in line with its comprador formation, were complementary to those of the metropolitan colonialists. But, as it developed, it sought to consolidate and advance itself, and so came into conflict with the metropolitan ruling class. The expression of this desire by the indigenous bourgeoisie came to represent the Sri Lankan brand of nationalism. The local bourgeoisie expressed no genuine desire to acquire sovereignty or independence in the sense of political liberation. It was “national” only in the sense of being inter ethnic in composition, but dominated by the low country Sinhalese. It was united in its desire for politico socio economic ascendance as a “serving class” along the path of dependent agro export capitalism which the colonial structure ordained.
Despite political unification and class solidarity, the national society was not defined by loyalty to the political state, but involved separate ethno cultural and religious loyalties. What, in effect, took place under colonial rule was political and administrative nation building at the centre. The sectional loyalties often surfaced but were held in check by a common master, a secular state, a shared language (English) and a relatively impartial rule.
While the low country Sinhalese and the Tamils, being long accustomed to foreign rule, acquiesced in British overlordship and sought to make the best of the changing conditions, the Kandyan Sinhalese, coming under foreign rule for the first time, and having vivid memories of monarchical rule and kingly charisma, looked back with nostalgia and steadfastly held on to the traditional norms, ideologies and religious institutions of the old society.
When the Kandyan aristocracy and the Buddhist bhikkhus had ceded the kingdom to the British by the Kandyan Convention of 1815, Governor Brownrigg and the British agreed to maintain the privileges of the aristocracy and support the Buddhist religion. But soon these elements grew dissatisfied as the British showed little inclination to implement the agreement, and in 1817-18 they resorted to a violent rebellion to get rid of the British popularized in Sri Lankan history as the “Great Rebellion”. Though the insurrection was put down with ruthlessness, the British alienated the influential Kandyan aristocracy and the Buddhist sangha.
Again, in 1848, the Kandyan Sinhalese, as well as the low country Sinhalese and the Tamils, rebelled against the imposition of a series of new taxes by the colonial government. The Kandyans attempted to drive the British out of Kandy, but failed. Although British rule was consolidated, the Kandyans continued to resent their amalgamation with the low country areas the establishment of plantations, the influx of low country Sinhalese settlers and Indian immigrant labourers, and the general failure of the British to support the Buddhist religion
Kandyan national consciousness was the central problem facing the colonial administration in the first half of the 19th Century. In 1850 Governor Torrington wrote:
. . . the theory of attempting to break up the so called nationality of the Kandyans by annexing different portions of the Kandyan country to the adjacent districts of the Maritime Provinces has in reality proved a failure and as such it is better to meet and provide for the remnant of the Kandyan nationality, if such it can be called, than to be voluntarily blind to the fact of its existence.4
British rule, in the second half of the l9th Century, was marked by an attempt to alleviate Kandyan grievances. The traditional gansabhava was revived as the unit of village level administration; proselytization in the Kandyan areas almost ceased; and the Kandyan provinces of the northcentral region, Uva and Sabaragamuwa, were created. Governor Gregory the architect of the Kandyan pacification policy, showed sympathy for Buddhist sentiments but emphasized the neutrality of the government in religious affairs. Governor Gordon (1883 1890), who followed him, went even further and revived the old aristocracy with increased power and influence, in order to deflate the growing assertiveness of the Westernized elite.
From the 1890s, the Kandyans became supporters of the colonial government. Professor K.M. de Silva states:
. . . Kandyans between the 1880s and the attainment of independence, took satisfaction in a new role, that of associates of the British, and a counterweight to the reform movement dominated by the indigenous Western educated elite. The leaders of Kandyan opinion seldom showed any sympathy for the political aspirations of the reform movement They stood aloof, hostile and suspicious.5
Even after the establishment of the unified colonial state, both the Sinhalese, low country and Kandyan, and the Tamils, continued to live in their traditional areas, and migration outside their respective areas was limited to employment, professional life and trade. In this respect, the Tamils significantly outnumbered the Sinhalese, since the capital city, Colombo, in the south, was the centre of gravity. The Tamils who moved to Colombo by and large settled there, and the influence the Tamil elite wielded was so great that in 1912, Sir P. Ramanathan, a Tamil, was elected to the first “educated Ceylonese” seat in the Legislative Council. And, in 1920, the Tamil political elite sought nomination from the Ceylon National Congress (CNC) to stand for the Colombo Town seat.
Those were, of course, the palmy days of English educated middle class unity, when the indigenous bourgeoisie was consolidating itself in order to wrest constitutional concessions from a reluctant imperial government. The extent of Tamil migration to the south can be gauged from the fact that, according to the 1971 census, 365,000 (or one quarter) of the Sri Lanka Tamils lived in the Sinhalese areas; and in Colombo city they numbered 103,000.
Under colonial rule, Sinhalese and Tamils participated in the political process, in economic activity and in national life as equal partners. Most Tamils who moved to the Sinhalese areas spoke Sinhalese, and vice versa, though at the upper class level English was the common language and the only language the brown sahibs could speak. There was considerable social intercourse and personal friendship between Sinhalese and Tamils who came into contact with one another. Amity was more pronounced at the level of the ordinary people than at elite level, where jostling for advancement and prestige often brought them into competition.
By the time the Kandyan national question had receded into the background, the low country Sinhalese had become the focus of national political activity. This was so both in terms of informal agitation over specific policies of the colonial government and formal political activity involving the advancement of the bourgeoisie through the legislative council and organisations formed to elect members to the council.
As to specific government policies, the acquisition of land for plantations and the excise policy of licensing taverns for sale of arrack and toddy on a wide scale, became the early issues for anti government agitation. The opposition to the former was spearheaded by the Chilaw Association, an elitist grouping of Chilaw Christians, who later became one wing of the middleclass ‘nationalist” movement. C.E. Corea, the leader of this association described the land acquisition policy as “flagrant shameful robbery” of the sort “which placed British rule in Ceylon on a level with the . . . most barbarous types of government by plunder”.6 Opposition was not widespread, however, and failed to evoke as great a response from the people or the government as the temperance and prohibition issue.
The manufacture, sale and consumption of arrack and toddy increased with the growth of the plantations, the construction of roads and railways to link the plantation areas, the building of the southern railway line to Nlatara, the construction of irrigation works, etc. The liquor business was one of the principal avenues by which many low country Sinhalese, particularly the Karava Catholics, earned their fortunes in the early days of the plantations. It did not call for much investment but the returns were enormous because of the system of “farming” or “renting” which the government adopted for easy collection of revenue.
Beginning as a criticism of government policy by moderate Christians who wanted reform, the temperance movement soon became fairly widespread in the western and southern provinces and caused concern to the government. The movement passed into the hands of Sinhalese Buddhists, who campaigned by portraying liquor consumption as a foreign Christian vice, contrary to Sinhalese culture and the tenets of Buddhism.
Defined in this way, the issue evoked religio cultural and national sentiment and became the springboard for more militant and vociferous Sinhalese Buddhist propaganda against British rule, colonial bureaucracy, the Christian religion and the Western way of life. At the same time the pre colonial Sinhalese past was idealized as a virtuous society and a glorious civilization
This propaganda was initiated by Anagarika Dharmapala, a confused and quixotic Buddhist with a crusading missionary zeal, and carried on by his protege Piyadasa Sirisena, a Sinhalese writer, novelist and publicist, and later by Munidasa Cumaratunga, a Sinhalese grammarian and literary figure. The propaganda was based on distortions, half truths and lies, but, peddled as historical evidence of the glories of the ancient Sinhalese, it called upon Sinhalese Buddhists to reject all that was foreign and to resurrect the past. Dharmapala wrote:
The sweet gentle Aryan [sic] children of an ancient historic race are sacrificed at the altar of the whisky drinking, beef eating belly god of heathenism How long, to how long, will unrighteousness last in Lanka …. Practices that were an abomination to the ancient Sinhalese have today become tolerated …. Arise, awake, unite and join the army of Holiness and Peace and defeat the hosts of evil.7
In order to idealize the Sinhalese past, Dharmapala wrote:
“No nation in the world has a more brilliant history than ourselves …. There exists no race on earth today that has had more triumphant record of victory than the Sinhalese.”8 In 1906, Piyadasa Sirisena wrote: “The Sinhalese nation has for 2,540 years (reckoned on Mahavamsa’s year of arrival of Vijaya in 543 BC) been unsurpassed in virtue.”9 And Cumaratunga wrote: “There is perhaps no other nation older than we. How can we, therefore, accept the theory that everything of ours is derived from outside?”10
Once a “nationalist” note had been struck by his blasts against everything foreign, Dharmapala turned his invective at the Anglicized and Christianized Sinhalese elite, ridiculing them for their Westernized life, foreign dress and European names (such as Perera, Silva, Diaz, Cabral, Gomez). Finally, he turned to the Tamils, Muslims and other non Buddhists in the island. He wrote: “We do not find fresh fields to increase our wealth …. Tamils, Cochins [meaning Indian Tamils], Hambarakarayas are employed in large numbers to the prejudice of the people of the island sons of the soil . . . who belong to a superior race.”11
This propaganda created a new Sinhalese Buddhist ideology, not based on history or pristine Buddhism, but exerting a great influence on the Sinhalese Buddhists—meeting the aspirations of the emerging Sinhalese bourgeoisie and inspiring the dormant Buddhist village intelligentsia. It served to feed the earlier myth and folklore retailed by Mahavamsa, and eventually brought all Sinhalese Buddhists into the Dharmapala mould.
The formal political activity of the indigenous bourgeoisie was conducted in copy book fashion, according to the rules laid down by the colonial rulers. “Several nationalists accepted the idea that they must ‘satisfy the authorities’ regarding their ‘fitness’ for responsible government and their capacity to operate democratic institutions. They were imbued with a strong attachment to British model of parliamentary government.”l2
Since the colony was run by the governor with his mainly European nominated executive council and administered by a British dominated bureaucracy, political activity was directed at achieving constitutional concessions and participation in the government and administration, by seeking representation in the legislative council and securing increased recruitment of Ceylonese to the colonial bureaucracy. In the beginning, the demands were limited to these issues and agitation was the result of disappointment at the slow rate of advance which the British were willing to concede.
In 1911, the legislative council was enlarged to include “unofficial” Ceylonese members and with it a new platform came to be provided for the articulation of demands for further participation. With this political advance, the Sinhalese and Tamil elite came together and intra Sinhalese caste rivalry at that time was so great that national leadership roles fell to the Tamils. They came together as equal partners on a vague platform of proto nationalism engendered by class interest, not on the basis of anti colonialism or a desire for political liberation. Their separate ethnic loyalties and identities were nevertheless held intact but were temporarily subsumed by the desire for political consolidation. At the time, inter caste rivalry among the Sinhalese was of political importance, as the Karava Sinhalese were economically and politically dominant and the Goigama Sinhalese were bent on ending Karava dominance, at least politically.
So in the 1912 election to the legislative council, the Goigama elite supported Sir P. Ramanathan, against Sir Marcus Fernando, a Karava Sinhalese, and the former got elected. This surface level political unity was somewhat cemented when the colonial government, mistaking the 1915 Sinhalese Muslim riots for an insurrection, declared martial law, resorted to repression and imprisoned Sinhalese political leaders including Sir Don Baron Jayatilaka, Don Stephen Senanayake and W.A. de Silva.l3
Sir P. Ramanathan, as a member of the legislative council, lambasted the government for over reacting and successfully called for the release of his compatriots and the lifting of martial law. This strengthened their unity and led to the founding in 1919 of the Ceylon National Congress (CNC). Sir P. Arunachalam, Ramanathan’s brother, was elected as its first president. The CNC, from the beginning a conservative political organisation, dominated Sri Lanka’s politics until independence.
A wedge was driven into the structure of Sinhalese Tamil political unity by the colonial government’s concession of constitutional reform in 1920. It introduced territorially elected representation and enlarged the legislative council to 23 members, with an unofficial majority. This made the Sinhalese think in terms of their numerical strength and, ipso facto, greater representation and the need to appeal to their own constituencies and electors. Hence the Sinhalese leadership went back on an earlier pledge given to the Tamils “to actively support a provision for the reservation of a seat to the Tamils in the western province”, and denied nomination to Sir P. Arunachalam for the Colombo Town seat in the 1920 election. In consequence the Tamil leadership, viewing their counterpart as unworthy and dishonourable political allies, left the Congress and formed a segregated political pressure group called the Tamil Mahajana Sabha on the basis of ascriptive solidarity a pattern that has often been repeated to the present day.
The introduction of territorial representation, the elective principle and Segregated formations gave rise to mobilization of the respective ethnic Communities for political purposes. With the constitutional reform process gathering momentum after 1920, the Tamils took on a new self image as a national minority, vocal and articulate, on the lines of the Scots and the Welsh (but not the Irish) in British politics. They did, in fact, compare themselves to the Scots in their political struggles and bargains with the Sinhalese. The Tamil political leadership then resorted to demanding communally weighted representation and constitutional and legal safeguards, and sought to bargain with the Sinhalese leadership.
By now the CNC had passed into the domination of the low country Sinhalese, and reforming Congress politicians such as E.W. Perera, Paul E. Peiris, C.E. Corea, D.S. Senanayake and George E. de Silva advocated united nation state and a secular nationalism embracing the various ethnic, linguistic and religious communities. Many attempts were made to patch up differences and bring back the Tamils into the Congress. In 1924, C.E. Corea, a moderate Congress politician, was elected president in order to show “proof of Congress’s desire to secure unity and co operation with the Tamils and Kandyans”.
At the time, there was no monolithic Sinhalese entity, but deep divisions within the Sinhalese on the basis of low country/Kandyan, Goyigama/Karava, Buddhist/Christian rivalry and mistrust. In this context the Tamils were quite a major force. The centrifugal forces among the Sinhalese were so great that, in order to appease the Kandyan Sinhalese, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, in 1926, wrote in favour of a federal state structure for Sri Lanka.l4
In 1920, the Kandyan Sinhalese, suspicious of the low country Sinhalese and the Congress, formed the Kandyan Association and asserted the distinctiveness of “the Kandyan nationality”. This association described the reform proposed by the Congress in 1920 as one that “threatens to destroy the present position of the Kandyans”. it accused the Congress politicians of seeking to keep “the whole of the administrative power in their hands to dominate the weaker minorities”.15 By 1925, most of the Kandyan notables had left the Congress and founded their own political organization, the Kandyan National Assembly.
While the Kandyan Sinhalese, with much weaker claims to nationhood, asserted a separate nationality and were soon to demand a federal form of government, the Tamil leadership failed to perceive the Tamil ethnic community as a nation, although it possessed all the attributes of nationhood in full measure and was historically a separate nation state. This was because of their denationalised and deracine outlook and their bourgeois interests, which made them allies of the dominant low country Sinhalese.
Their conceptual view of the state was derived from British history, thought and institutions, their model was multi ethnic Britain; and their perception of themselves was that of the Scots. Hence they were content to demand “minority rights” rather than define themselves as a nation, with rights of autonomy and self determination. The division between low country and Kandyan Sinhalese also made them believe they could strike favourable bargains within a united political structure.
It was only in 1951 that, for the first time, Tamil politicians defined the Tamils as a distinct nation. The first annual convention of the Tamil Federal Party declared:
“the Tamil speaking people in Ceylon constitute a nation distinct from that of the Sinhalese by every fundamental test of nationhood”.l6
The Ceylon Communist Party had, as early as 1944, defined the Sinhalese and Tamil people as distinct nationalities, and recognized their right of self determination, including Lithe right, if ever they so desired, to torm their own independent state”.I7 in order to “unify the different nationalities in the period of the general national movement for freedom” the Communist Party advocated a federal structure of government for independent Sri Lanka
The predominant goal of virtually all the low country Sinhalese, as well as the Tamil political elite, was to forge a unitary state structure and to weld the people into a single political community. But these groups, in particular the Sinhalese leaders, were not inspired by any selfless desire to create a common nationalism out of cultural diversities. They peddled as much Sinhalese Buddhist jingoism as the Dharmapala Sirisena propaganda, based on an exaggerated vision of the Sinhalese past. Dr Michael Roberts states:
The trumpets of Sinhala Buddhist cultural revivalism, moreover, were sounded by a host of Sinhalese political activists among the local elite. There is room to conjecture that in its essentials their thinking centred around the concept of a Sinhalese nation.18
One such activist, E.T. de Silva, wrote:
Ceylon is the home and country of the Sinhalese while the north perhaps is the home and country of the Ceylon Tamils …. With a few exceptions to be found in every country the blood of the Sinhalese race is as pure and unadulterated as it was in the times of their own kings …. 19
Earlier, in 1915, E.T. de Silva proclaimed: “This is a Sinhalese country. I say so boldly.”20 Even the few Sinhalese politicians who believed in an all island Ceylonese nationalism failed to challenge this kind of propaganda. They were all self serving, middle class power seekers engaged in furthering their own interests, with little or no concern for the future of the country or the people.
The 1920-24 constitutional reforms, cumulatively called the Manning Constitution, which created a Sri Lankan majority in the legislative council, brought about a great confrontation between the legislature and the executive The Ceylonese used their majority to convert the legislative council into a court of inquisition to question British civil servants and in general to attack government policies. The pressures exerted in this way were so great, and the deadlock that ensued so paralyzed the administration, that Governor Sir Hugh Clifford openly stated in 1926 that it was “quite impossible for the Government to carry on its administrative duties”.21 He therefore requested the Colonial Office to send a special commission to recommend changes to the Constitutional structure.
In November 1927 the special commission, under the chairmanship of the Earl of Donoughmore, arrived in Sri Lanka with the following terms of reference:
To visit Ceylon and report on the working of the existing constitution and on any difficulties of administration which may have arisen in connection with it; to consider any proposals for the revision of the constitution that may be put forward, and to report what, if any, amendments of the Order in Council now in force should be made.
Many Organisations and public figures sent memoranda and went before the commission. The Ceylon National Congress urged the extension of territorial representation and asked for full responsible government, but opposed the introduction of adult franchise which the commission proposed. The Tamil leadership, on the other hand, pressed for the continuation of communal representation, introduced in 1923, which had brought Sinhalese Tamil representation in the legislative council to a ratio of 2:1. The Kandyan National Assembly requested a federal system of government. Its memorandum stated:
Ours is . . . a claim of a nation to live its own life and realize its own destiny …. we suggest the creation of a Federal State as in the United States of America …. A Federal system … will enable the respective nationals of the several states to prevent further inroads into their territories and to build up their own nationality.22
Many public figures, both Sinhalese and Tamils, went before the commission and declared that their respective castes, creeds and communities would perish if their rights were not safeguarded by special representation in the legislature. In general, everybody wanted the continuation of colonial rule. The Kandyans and the Tamils, in particular, wanted the continuation of British rule as a necessary safeguard against any possible low country Sinhalese domination.
The Donoughmore Commission Report (1928) made many recommendations of far reaching significance. In recommending the abolition of representation, on ethnic and communal lines and an extension of territorial representation, the report said: “Territorial electorates, drawn with no eye to the distribution of communities, mean rule by the majority community with no safeguards for the minorities, while safeguards for the minorities inevitably deepen the division of the nation on communal lines.” It added:
In surveying the situation in Ceylon, we have come unhesitatingly to the conclusion that communal representation is, as it were, a canker in the body politic, eating deeper and deeper into the vital energies of the people, breeding self interest, suspicion and animosity, poisoning the new growth of political consciousness and effectively preventing the development of a national or corporate spirit …. There can be no hope of binding together the diverse elements of the population in a realisation of their common kinship and an acknowledgement of common obligations to the country of which they are all citizens so long as the system of communal representation, with all its distintegrating influences, remains a distinctive feature of the constitution.23
Representation on ethnic lines prevailed from the time of political unification in 1833. From that year to 1889, a Sinhalese, a Tamil and a Burgher were nominated to the legislative council to represent their respective communities. In 1889, the council was restructured and a Kandyan Sinhalese and a Muslim were also nominated to represent the interests of their communities. Alongside it, in 1920, a measure of territorial representation was introduced and expanded in 1924. From the beginning, the council was conceived as a body that would mirror the diverse ethnic and community groups in the island. The reality was that, though the ethnic entities were brought together by the British, their separate loyalties as distinct nations prevailed and national integration failed to take root.
By abolishing communal representation altogether, the commission removed a delicate and pivotal balancing mechanism built into the political system to mirror the nationality structure in the country. The commission’s optimistic assumption that, with the abolition of communal representation, the different ethnic entities would cease to think on communal lines and national integration would take effect was proved totally unfounded. Throughout the 1930s and up to independence, the question of the proper Sinhalese Tamil ratio in the legislature became the central bone of contention in the country. In fact, it further deepened the divisions within the nation .
The ratio of 5: 1, brought about in the 1931 and 1936 elections on the basis of the Donoughmore reforms, was conceded by the Sinhalese as being in their favour and was resented by the Tamils as being grossly inadequate. In fact, in 1944, the Sinhalese leadership was willing to concede a ratio of 57% to 43%, but the emerging Tamil leader G.G. Ponnambalam rejected it and continued his demand for “balanced representation”, i.e.50 seats for the Sinhalese and 50 seats for the other communities.
Whatever the outcome, the abolition of communal representation would have been a progressive step only if suitable institutions, with adequate powers, were brought into being within the unitary structure, for the full development and realization of the aspirations of the separate nations. Perhaps with this in view, the commission recommended limited devolution of power to new district councils. But these were never created and hence territorial representation without devolution of power at once exposed the Tamil nation to the overwhelming majority of the Sinhalese. Hence, subsequent Tamil attempts to redress this imbalance.
The Donoughmore Commission recommended a state council, to be elected on universal adult suffrage and a territorial electoral system. The adult franchise increased the electors in each electorate to about 30,000, compared to about 5,000 in each for elections to the previous legislative council. The new system of head count brought the Sinhalese Tamil representation in the state council, as stated before, to a ratio of 5: 1, whereas in the legislative council it had been 2:1. The state council was to divide itself into seven executive committees, each of which would elect a chairman who would be appointed as minister by the governor. Each committee would be responsible for a particular area of government. Public service, law and finance were placed in the hands of three British officers of state, who would be responsible to the governor but would be non voting members of the board of ministers and the state council.
While rejecting the demand of the CNC for full responsible government, the commission stated:
If the claims for full responsible government be subjected to examination . . . it will be found that its advocates are always to be numbered among those who form the larger communities and who, if freed from external control, would be able to impose their will on all who dissented from them. Those on the other hand who form the minority communities, though united in no other respect, are solid in their opposition to the proposal. A condition precedent to the grant of full responsible government must be the growth of a public opinion which will make that grant acceptable, not only to one section, but to all sections of the the people; such a development will only be possible if under a new constitution the members of the larger communities so conduct themselves in the reformed Council as to impose universal confidence in their desire to act justly, even at a sacrifice to themselves.
The greatest drawback of the Donoughmore scheme was that franchise and territorial representation were to operate at a time when there were no political parties. The commission failed to anticipate that, in the absence of political parties, the dominant rallying point for candidates and constituents would be ethnic or communal loyalty. Hence, as it turned out, territorial representation, instead of rooting out the “canker” of communalism, actually encouraged it. When there were elections with political parties, the politicians perfected and perpetuated this trend. According to Sir Ivor Jennings, the scheme:
far from encouraging the formation of parties, actually discouraged them because it gave the independent member a substantial power as a member of an executive committee and so split up the functions of government that a party policy was impracticable.
The commission failed to come to grips with the all important national question in Sri Lanka. Its starting point was that the people of Sri Lanka are one nation, divided into a number of communities; whereas, in reality Sri Lanka is one country, or politico geographic entity, with two nations (Sinhalese and Tamils) and five communities (Indian Tamils, Sri Lanka Muslims, Indian Muslims, Burghers and Malays). A nation and a community are fundamentally different.
According to Joseph Stalin’s definition:
“A nation is a historically evolved, stable community of language, territory, economic life, and psychological make up manifested in a community of culture” 24
It is generally accepted that a nation possesses a common ethnic identity, a continuous linguistic and cultural tradition, a defined territory as homeland, a common way of life and a shared historical experience. It is all these together that generate in a nation a dominating sense of collective consciousness which gives it the capacity and the will for political organization.
In most cases, where two or more nations live together in a single state, the political structure is federal, each nation having an autonomous state or regional government, with mutually agreed degrees of centralisation or devolution. It is in this autonomy, and in the inviolability of its territory, that a nation in a multi ethnic state finds its security for the preservation of its separate identity, language and culture.
Although the Donoughmore Commission failed to correctly formulate the nationality structure in Sri Lanka, its recommendation for devolution of power to district councils indicates that it addressed its mind to the question. The erroneous majority/minority equation, then advanced by the Tamil leadership, may have prevented the commission from going further and providing for fully autonomous states under a federal system of government.
The legislative council approved the Donoughmore Commission Report by a narrow majority of two votes. Almost every low country Sinhalese member voted for it, while all the Tamils and most Kandyan members voted against it. Based on the report, the Donoughmore Constitution (1931) granted limited internal self government. Under the new constitution, the legislative council that had functioned since 1924 was dissolved, and elections to the state council were fixed for May 1931. This was the first election under adult franchise and with it Sri Lanka became the first Asian country to exercise the franchise .
The 1931 election shifted the political focus, for a time, to Jaffna. The Youth Congress, an amorphous grouping of progressive minded young men in Jaffna, being inspired by the Indian freedom movement and following Mahatma Gandhi’s ideals, had by 1929 resolved to seek complete independence for Sri Lanka. The Youth Congress stood for a free united Sir Lanka and was resolutely opposed to the communal politics of both the Sinhalese and Tamil leadership of the time. It welcomed the Donoughmore reforms abolishing communal representation and extending the franchise, but condemned the failure to grant responsible government.
Hence, when the 1931 election was announced, the Congress, without due deliberation, called for a national boycott of the election, emulating the call of the Indian National Congress for a boycott of the Simon commission in 1928. The Youth Congress expected organizations among the Sinhalese to follow their lead. Although a number of Tamil leaders, who were members of the dissolved legislative council, had earlier announced their candidature and had reservations about a boycott, they did not want to defy the call and decided not to contest the election. Hence there was no election for four Tamil seats in the northern province.
The Jaffna election boycott was hailed in the Sinhalese areas as a great act of protest. The Ceylon Daily News wrote:
“Public opinion in Jaffna is a potent thing. Those who defy it do so at their peril. Ever the home of virile politics, Jaffna is determined to see that the public spirit of her citizens is equal to any crisis.” 25
The All Ceylon Liberal League expressed support for the boycott. A joint telegram from Francis de Zoysa. E.W. Perera and T.B. Jayah to the Congress read:
“Congratulate Jaffna heartily on her brilliant achievement and deplore failure to act likewise here for want of unity and a sufficiently strong public opinion. Endeavouring to mobilize public opinion to attain the common object by best means available.”26
There was still sufficient scope for accommodation and consensus between Sinhalese and Tamil politicians. The Sinhalese leadership was conservative and moderate and aware that consensus was the touchstone for the Colonial Office in Whitehall in deciding whether to grant further constitutional advance and an eventual transfer of power. In the 1936 election, the Tamils contested the northern constituencies and entered the second state council. The election brought into the state council G.G. Ponnambalam, the emerging Tamil leader, and Philip Gunawardena and Dr N.M. Perera, two Marxist socialists from the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), formed in 1935, which called for independence and nationalisation of the means of production.
The question of adequate Tamil representation became the central issue and Governor Sir Andrew Caldecott, in a confidential despatch of 28 October 1939 to Malcolm MacDonald, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, wrote: “. . . all our political fissures radiate from the vexed question of minority representation 27
Governor Caldecott advised that a new delimitation committee be set up to increase Tamil representation in the state council. Earlier, Caldecott had come out in favour of abolishing the three officers of state, who retained control over public service, law and finance, and transferring these functions to the elected ministers, and, above all, for a cabinet government in place of the board of ministers and the executive committee system.
The governor’s views were welcomed by the ministers and, in 1936, a seven member all Sinhalese board of ministers was constituted, avowedly to agree on steps to advance to full self government. By then, the Sintulese political leadership had come under D.S. Senanayake, a cautious conservative politician committed to building a united free Sri Lanka, on the basis of majority minority partnership of the Sinhalese and Tamil nations.
But when the package of constitutional reform proposals had been successfully negotiated between the governor and the ministers, the war broke out and derailed further progress and elections due in 1940 were put off until after the war.
The granting of limited internal self government, and the establishment of a board of ministers under the Donoughmore Constitution, paved the way for the political ascendancy of the upper middle class. It enabled the “notables” in this class to become ministers and membership of the state council was limited to this class and its supporting allies, since the constitution barred the election of anyone who “is unable to speak, read and write the English language”. up until 1931, the mass of the people regarded government as remote. With adult franchise and wider electorates, their interests were aroused and politicians became aware that they needed to identify with the people .
Sinhalese Buddhist propaganda had earlier been directed at the citadels of colonial power: Christianity and Western culture. It now came to be directed at local targets. Munidasa Cumaratunga was quick to make the masses aware of the importance of the franchise. He wrote:
if we do not inquire what those whom we elect and send to the legislature are saying and doing, and if on the other hand we are willing to clap hands and to have processions . . . and to go and vote unashamedly when [someone] who has been doing nothing but disservice for five years comes again before us displaying non existent geniality, expecting to get into the legislature once more, what do we deserve to get except a bolt of thunder?28
Again he wrote: “The power of the vote you have received, O Sinhalese! is a sure weapon to destroy meanness. If, however, you give it away succumbing to force, to sermons or to money, think intelligently, what succour will there be for the country?”29 He revealed his antipathy to the Sinhalese political leadership: “Sinhalese youth! The time has come for you to step forward . our elders are intoxicated with their superiority in age …. They have no use for the ordinary people.”30
As early as 1922, Cumaratunga attacked the de nationalized character of the leaders and pressed the need to use Sinhalese in the affairs of state. “If people whom we send to the legislature cannot come into our midst and speak to us in our language about what is needed for the development of our own country, we will never be able to enjoy the benefits of self government.”31 His fanatical love of the Sinhalese language made him not only discredit the politicians who could not speak it, but write them off as politically irrelevant. He wrote: “At the next general election let us adopt a new policy; let us say beforehand that we shall not vote for a person who will not pledge himself to speak exclusively in Sinhalese in the Council.”32
In this way, Cumaratunga made Sinhalese language a sine qua non for political survival and laid the basis for the later elevation of Sinhalese into the only official language of the country. Cumaratunga’s influence was great, for, according to Dr K.N.O. Dharmadasa, he was usually referred to as Guru Devi (The Teacher God) and reverently called Cumaratungu Muni (Cumaratunga the Sage). Professor G.P. Malalasekera, Dean of the Faculty of Oriental Studies at the University of Sri Lanka, wrote in 1948: “The services rendered by Cumaratunga to the Sinhalese language are so great that his name will be cherished as long as the Sinhalese language will last.”
On account of these attacks, some of the old guard politicians hastened to discover their forgotten past. They learnt the Sinhalese language, abandoned Christianity, re embraced Buddhism, discarded Western attire and donned improvised local attire, calling it the “Aryan Sinhalese” dress.
Solomon West Ridgeway (named after British Governor Sir Joseph West Ridgeway)33 Dias Bandaranaike, who, on his return from Oxford in 1925, apologized to a delegation of his walauwa (manor) for not being able to speak to them in Sinhalese and coming from a Westernized family which had converted to Christianity, soon learnt Sinhalese, re embraced Buddhism and adopted local dress.
These politicians, for the sake of political survival, took upon themselves the task of elevating the Sinhalese language and Sinhalese Buddhist culture from the declasse status to which they had been reduced by the English language, Christianity and Western culture.
In 1932 G.K.W. Perera moved two resolutions in the state council calling for the use of Sinhalese and Tamil in the judicial and civil administration.34 Two years later, at the annual meeting of the CNC, he said: “One of the greatest handicaps the people suffer from is the language of government. It is most absurd for us to fight for rights on behalf of the large majority . . when we deny ourselves the right of conducting our government in the people’s languages .”35
In 1937 Philip Gunawardena of the LSSP moved a resolution in the state council calling for the use of the Sinhalese and Tamil languages in recording entries at police stations and in lower court proceedings.36 in 1939, the CNC demanded that Sinhalese and Tamil be introduced as the official languages.37
This emphasis on the national languages was carried into the educational field. In the 1930s many central schools were established in the Sinhalese rural areas with Sinhalese as the medium of instruction. In October 1945 the state council resolved to introduce “free education” and accepted, in principle, that education should be in one’s mother tongue.
In May 1944, a resolution moved by J.R. Jayewardene was passed in the state council that Sinhalese and Tamil should be the official languages.38 This was followed up by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, who on 20 September 1945 proposed that steps should be taken to effect the transition from English to Sinhalese and Tamil. A select committee of the state council made its report in 1946, entitled “Sinhalese and Tamil as Official Languages” 39
These efforts at reform were used by politicians to mask the class conflict in the country. By the 1930s, new classes had effectively crystallized and a new social synthesis had emerged, with the upper middle class at the apex, exploiting the working class at the base; and a lower middle class, although exploited maintaining the upper class and helping it to reproduce itself. Working class agitation and strikes by trade unions became widespread, particularly in 1939-40.
The Ceylon Labour Party, essentially a trade union, formed by A.E. Goonesinha in 1928, and the LSSP were in the vanguard of organized workingclass struggle. The LSSP, which was opposed to the colonial government’s involvement of Sri Lanka in the war, used the opportunity of labour discontent and called a series of strikes of agricultural workers in the plantations. The hitherto tranquil plantations became a centre of defiance by working men and women, who often resorted to violence.
The European planting community grew frightened. The European owned Times of Ceylon described the situation as a threat to civil order. The local upper class was alarmed as to what was in store after the transfer of power. The battle lines had already been drawn on the basis of classes. Hence the ruling class stumbled upon the language reforms to stifle and divert the class struggle. Its hopes are evident in the following passage from the Report of of the Select Committee of the State Council on official languages:
We trust that our efforts will remove the gulf that now divides the people into two classes, and thus not only afford the vast majority of our countrymen better opportunities of participation fully in the life of the nation but also create a cultural and literary renaissance equalling the golden ages of Lanka’s historic past.40
With political advance and economic consolidation, the interests of the local bourgeoisie came into conflict with its European counterpart. Their spokesmen often alleged that they were denied equal facilities in commerce, banking and business. In 1919 K. Balasingham, a Tamil politician, advocated protectionist tariff policies In 1926 A. Mahadeva, another Tamil politician, stated in the State Council: “something should be done to develop and to promote our interests and also to adopt some system of protection for the Ceylonese”. He attacked the European economic domination as follows:
. . . How much of the enormous profits do we share? What proportion of it goes out of the island …. The profits are mostly distributed among absentee landlords and absentee shareholders. We are unable, in the face of local monopoly that is actually in the hands of the European merchants and the European mercantile community, to contest or wrest from them any share in the commercial development of the island, or any share in the profits. The profits of accumulating capital are entirely and jealously guarded by the European ring 41
Michael Roberts correctly observes: “Whatever share the Ceylonese elite had actually gathered for themselves, clearly, several politicians were not ready to acknowledge this fact on the public platform.”42 In connection with the establishment of institutions to offer greater credit facilities, H.W. Amarasuriya stated in 1937: ‘ Commerce and trade are the life blood of a nation and unless a fair proportion of the island’s trade is controlled by the Ceylonese, the task of achieving economic independence would appear to be futile.”43
These politicians repeatedly called for protective tariffs on imported goods and demanded that local markets be reserved for local producers. Often they voiced the interests of the local coconut plantation capitalists, i.e. their own interests. The Sinhalese Buddhist propagandist Anagarika Dharmapala was also in the forefront, demanding that metropolitan capitalism be replaced by Sri Lankan capitalism. The Buddhist Theosophical Society, to which Dharmapala belonged, consistently pressed the point that it was “the business of the Ceylonese to consider ways of accumulating capital” .44
Thus, in regard to economic nationalism, the bourgeoisie, both Sinhalese and Tamil, and the Sinhalese Buddhist propagandists were united. The CNC even took up with the anti imperialist stand of the LSSP and sought to use it, when the 1939 programme of the Congress stated: “It will be necessary to show [the people of the country] that [they] are exploited, chiefly by the British imperialists, the other Europeans and foreigners.”45
In the political field, a significant development in 1937 was the formation by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike of the Sinhala Maha Sabha (the Great Council of the Sinhalese), a segregated Sinhalese political Organisation. Bandaranaike was then in the CNC and was the minister of local government in the state council.
The Sinhala Maha Sabha was formed not because of any pressing need for a segregated political organization, or in response to the political symbolism necessary to win votes. It was formed, as he himself stated, on account of his own perception of the need for Sinhalese unity. Bandaranaike was dissatisfied with the CNC stalwarts of the time. like Sir Baron Jayatilaka and D.S. Senanayake, and was probably motivated by the desire to set up his own political base. yet continuing within the CNC. It must also be said that he was not giving notice of any preference for purely communal politics. But the Sabha came to fill a vacuum in becoming the meeting point of the culturally subservient Sinhalese elements, who were then the underdogs
Indeed, it would have needed great courage to assemble such an ethnically segregated body, for, at the time, despite Sinhalese Tamil wrangles, any overt pandering to ethnic loyalties was considered parochial, mean and divisive by many of the establishment politicians. In fact, the older gentry in the CNC assailed him for resorting to communally divisive politics, leading Bandaranaike to state the rationale for its founding as follows:
We [the Sinhala Maha Sabha] saw differences amongst our own people caste distinctions. up country and low country distinctions, religious distinctions and various other distinctions—and we therefore felt that we should achieve unity, which is the goal of us all. Surely, the best method was to start from the lower rungs: firstly, unity among the Sinhalese; and secondly, whilst uniting the Sinhalese, to work for higher unity, the unity of all communities.46
On a lighter note, it needs to be added that Bandaranaike was the son of a low country Maha mudaliyar and he married a Kandyan radala, political gossip has it that he deliberately married a Kandyan in order to build a bridge between the two groups. In the same way, D.S. Senanayake’s marriage to a Kandyan is also regarded as a means to link the two divisions of the Sinhalese people.
In the area of constitutional reform, Whitehall’s delay in giving approval to the consensus package presented by Governor Caldecott in 1939 led to considerable disappointment. The unrest arising from the spate of strikes in 1940 led the European community to express fears to the Colonial Office about their future in Sri Lanka.
The Europeans advocated a Royal Commission before any further constitutional dispensation. In 1940, the Colonial Secretary implicitly rejected the package when he suggested that the governor convene a conference of the ministers and representatives of the Tamil minority to negotiate a settlement of existing differences. By then, G.G. Ponnambalam had begun to formulate the “fifty fifty” demand, as it was then popularly called, i.e. 50 seats for the Sinhalese and 50 seats for all other communities in a reformed legislature, and a similar proportion in the cabinet .
The British government was bent on getting the wholehearted support and co operation of the Sri Lanka government and politicians for the imperial war effort With Japan’s entry into the war, Lord Mountbatten’s headquarters for South East Asia Command was established in Sri Lanka. The country became a “strategical base and a source of essential war materials, rubber in particular”. Hence, in order to placate the local politicians, the War Cabinet in December 1942 declared that the constitutional objective was “the fullest possible development of self governing institutions in Ceylon within the Commonwealth”. This, the ministers felt, was “too indefinite” and Governor Caldecott agreeing with the ministers suggested that Whitehall withdraw it and substitute another declaration, in May 1943, committing Britain to the offer of “full responsibility for government under the Crown in all matters of civil administration”. When it was pointed out by the Colonial Office that a more specific constitutional goal might result in the loss of minority support for the war effort, Governor Caldecott replied:
It must be realised that the minority communities are just as keen to be released from Whitehall apron strings as the majority, and that their disagreement with the latter is solely in regard to the allocation of Council seats and share of Government appointments, etc. i.e. in regard to the machinery and not the essential characteristics of the administration which all agree to keep national.47
The May 1943 declaration envisaged a stage of constitutional advance short of dominion status. By 1935 the Marxist LSSP, and in 1940 the Communist Party, founded as the United Socialist Party, had called for “the achievement of complete national independence”.
Inspired by this, some politicians in the CNC, in particular Dudley Senanayake and J.R. Jayewardene, also set their sights on independence and in the 1942 annual sessions voted for “complete independence”. Although the May 1943 declaration was a long way from independence, at the urging of D.S. Senanayake it was accepted by the Board of Ministers, which included Sinhalese and Tamils, of the CNC.
In July 1943 the Colonial Office clarified the declaration as requiring the formulation of a draft constitution by the board of ministers, on condition that, when approved by the Colonial Office, it must receive a three fourths vote in the state council. In effect, what the Colonial Office was seeking was a national consensus for the provisions of the new constitution. The Colonial Office also included a reservation that a constitution so formulated would be examined by “a suitable commission or conference” once victory had been won.
The draft constitution, prepared by the board of ministers, allocated 57 seats for the Sinhalese,15 for Ceylon Tamils, 14 for Indian Tamils and eight for Muslims.48 The draft was sent to Whitehall in March 1944 and in July the Secretary of State, Oliver Stanley, announced in the House of Commons that a constitutional commission would be appointed to visit Sri Lanka to examine the draft constitution and to consult with the various minority interests. The ministers objected to this, on the grounds that the May 1943 declaration requiring a three fourth majority of the state council for the adoption of the constitution was sufficient protection of the interests of minorities.
The Constitutional Commission, with Lord Soulbury as its chairman, arrived in the country on 20 September 1944 to examine the draft constitution and with a specific term of reference iito consult with various interests, including the minority communities, concerned with the subject of constitutional reform in Ceylon”. The board of ministers resolved on an official boycott but “allowed their own scheme to speak for itself”. The commissioners, however, held private discussions with D.S. Senanayake, the leader of the state council, and Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, the civil defence commissioner.
G.G. Ponnambalam, who in the same year founded the Ceylon Tamil Congress, took his demand for “fifty fifty”, or “balanced representation”, before the commission and presented his case in a 10 hour marathon session arguing that Tamils would suffer discrimination at the hands of a numerically predominant Sinhalese majority in the legislature. But the commission was unimpressed and rejected the argument, not because the fifty fifty equation was unacceptable, but because it was opposed in principle to any ethnic balance or ratio of representation.
The commission held that there had been no proven acts of administrative discrimination against the Tamils and was optimistic that there was not likely to be any in the future. It noted that “the growth of left wing opinion already constitutes a potential solvent of racial or religious solidarity” and that there were “definite indications of the growth of a Left Wing movement more disposed to concentrate on social and economic than on communal lines”.49
To prevent discriminatory laws being enacted, the commission provided a safeguard prohibiting the enactment of any law which would make persons of any community or religion liable to disabilities or restrictions to which persons of other communities or religions were not made liable, or confer advantages or privileges on persons of any community or religion which were not conferred on persons of other communities or religions. This provision, which became Section 29(2) of the Soulbury Constitution (1947), proved to be totally ineffectual in preventing either individual discrimination or outright deprivation of existing collective rights of franchise, citizenship language, etc. However, Lord Soulbury later said he felt he had “entrenched all the protective provisions for minorities that the wit of man could devise”.50
In regard to the commission’s scheme of territorial representation, it was led astray by the seemingly attractive territorial stipulation which the ministers’ draft constitution contained. The commission accepted the ministers’ proposed basis of distribution, namely one seat for 75,000 persons and one seat for every 1,000 square miles of territory. The commission believed that the territorial stipulation would work out to the advantage of the minority communities while the other stipulation (one seat for 75,000 persons) benefited only the rural Kandyan Sinhalese areas.
The scheme of representation which the commission approved resulted in 67% Sinhalese representation in the 1947 election. Even this ratio was not written into the constitution but was left to be worked out by a delimitation commission to be appointed after every census. The abhorrence with which both the Donoughmore and Soulbury Commissions viewed ethnic or community based ratios led them to adopt territorial schemes which became one of the principal routes for later governments to gerrymander and bolster Sinhalese representation to 80% by 1970.
The commission virtually rubber stamped the ministers draft constitution. Its attitude was conditioned by several factors. Firstly, the state council had earlier in 1944 passed a resolution that both Sinhalese and Tamil would be the official languages, and in 1945 a select committee of the state council was appointed to suggest the steps necessary to effect the transition. Hence, on the matter of Tamil language rights, the commission was left in no doubt about the equality of Tamil with the Sinhalese language.
Secondly, all Tamil state councillors, notably A. Mahadeva, who was a minister and member for Jaffna, were actively collaborating with the Sinhalese leadership. Sir W. Duraiswamy, a Tamil, was then the speaker of the state council. In this context, G.G. Ponnambalam with his “fifty fifty” was seen as a lone dissenter with unfounded fears of discrimination by the Sinhalese. Professor S. Arasaratnam is very right when he states: “Far from presenting themselves as a communal colossus waiting to crush under their feet the numerous other minorities, the Sinhalese appeared to an impartial observer to be an unorganised, disadvantaged people, relatively backward in education and with large pockets of rural poverty.”51
Thirdly, the commission was faced with an official boycott by the ministers and it was therefore not inclined to mutilate the ministers’ draft constitution submitted on the basis of consensus. Furthermore, D.S. Senanayake and Sir Oliver Gonnetilleke met the Commissioners unofficially and would certainly have supported the draft constitution and pressed its acceptance.
Lastly, the internal government by the board of ministers from 1931 redressed many of the Kandyan grievances and conferred great benefits, so that the Kandyan Sinhalese leadership acquiesced in the provisions of the ministers’ draft constitution. All these circumstances led the Soulbury Commission to endorse all the essentials of the ministers’ draft constitution.
The Soulbury scheme envisaged an intervening constitutional stage before the granting of dominion status or full self government. In fact, the commission considerably restricted the external sovereignty of the country. But with the victory in the war, the Labour Party, which swept to power in the 1945 election, was committed to a quick process of post war dissolution of the empire.
In July 1945, D.S. Senanayake went to London, met the new Secretary of State, G. Hall, and pressed for the immediate granting of dominion status. He came back with an assurance that “His Majesty’s Government will co operate with the people of Ceylon so that such [i.e. dominion] status may be obtained in a comparatively short time”.
The Soulbury constitution was presented as a white paper in October 1945 for acceptance by the state council, with a contingent promise of dominion status if the new constitution worked successfully. The white paper was regarded as the first signal of an early transfer of power and independence. On this assumption the state council debated the new constitution on 8-9 November 1945. In the debate D.S. Senanayake, the leader of the state council, president of the CNC and architect of Sri Lanka’s independence, urged the Tamils and other minority communities to accept the constitution and assured them:
Do you want to be governed from London or do you want, as Ceylonese, to help govern Ceylon? . . . on behalf of the Congress and on my own behalf, I give the minority communities the sincere assurance that no harm need you fear at our hands in a free Lanka.
The Tamils accepted this assurance, and all Sri Lanka Tamil members unanimously voted for the acceptance of the Soulbury constitution. The motion was passed in the state council by 51 votes to three. Two Indian Tamils and a Sinhalese voted against. Thus a constitutional settlement was reached between the Sinhalese and the Tamil leadership to press for independence in unity.
With the unanimous acceptance of the Constitution by the Tamil leadership, D.S. Senanayake’s hand was strengthened to take on the Colonial Office in his demand for self government. In early 1946, Sir Henry Moore became the new governor and in early 1947 Arthur Creech Jones replaced Hall as Secretary of State. In February 1947, independence for India and Burma was announced by the Colonial Office. With these developments independence for Sri Lanka became a clear prospect. Once more, the Colonial Office raised the minority question, but with the Tamils accepting the constitution and supporting the demand for self government the road to independence was clear.
In the meantime, working class agitation and Marxist inspired labour unrest culminated in the general strike of 1946, in which, for the first time, government employees took a leading part. S. Kandasamy, a key trade unionist was shot and killed by the police while heading a procession. A general election was due any time and the Marxist parties the LSSP, the BLP and the CP—were making a strong bid for power, attacking Senanayake’s gradualism and continuation of colonial rule.
In this situation, the granting of self government became a matter of political survival for Senanayake and his men, while the Colonial Office and the governor perceived it as necessary to save Sri Lanka for imperialism and capitalism. Sir Charles Jeffries, then deputy under secretary at the Colonial Office, who handled the negotiations leading to Sri Lanka’s independence, later wrote:
. . . it became clear daily to the Governor Sir Henry Moore and to the Secretary of State . . . that if Ceylon was to be saved for the Commonwealth and the free world, there would have to be something more positive than the policy of gradual evolution contemplated by the 1945 White Paper.52
Hence transfer of power was to be hastened and, in July 1947, the Secretary of State announced in the House of Commons that, upon the signing of “agreements on defence and external affairs” between the two governments, Sri Lanka would be granted fully responsible status within the Commonwealth. Following this, a general election for a new House of Representatives was announced.
The Ceylon National Congress was converted into the United National Party (UNP), with D.S. Senanayake as its leader. The UNP included Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim “notables” of the CNC. The polling for the election was spread over the period 23 August to 20 September 1947.
At party level, the election was a clear left right contest between the three Marxist parties on the one hand and UNP on the other. Ethnic cleavage, caste and religious considerations, patron client linkages and deferential relationships, all played an important part. The UNP won 42 of the 95 seats, the LSSP won 10, the BLP won five and the CP won three, including the 1st Member in the threemember constituency of Colombo City.
The Tamil Congress won all seven Tamil seats in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The Ceylon Indian Congress won all eight seats in the plantation areas, where the Tamil workers predominated. There were 21 independent candidates who were also returned. Since the UNP failed to win an absolute majority, Senanayake wooed a number of independent members and with their support formed the government.
On 4 February 1948, independence was granted to the people of Sri Lanka and power was transferred to the Senanayake government. Sri Lanka thus became the first of the British crown colonies to be granted independence.
The transfer of power was effected by removing the legal limitations on extra-territoriality contained in the Soulbury constitution. This was done by an order in council and an act of parliament conferring “statute of Westminster powers” and by amendments to various UK statutes. No constitution setting out the checks and balances necessary for the governance of a sovereign independent multi ethnic state was framed by the British government. Nor was a constituent assembly set up, as in India and Pakistan, to devise a constitution to suit the particular nationality structure and to meet the needs and aspirations of all the people of Sri Lanka.
In fact, prior to the transfer of power, no examination whatsoever of the Soulbury constitution was undertaken by the Colonial Office to assess the adequacy of the provisions of that constitution in the field of internal government when the country became independent. Yet the important fact is that the Soulbury constitution was designed for a stage in constitutional evolution prior to dominion status and full self government. The questions of crucial importance to an independent state—citizenship, franchise, individual and group rights particularly in a multi ethnic state, were not the concern of the Soulbury commission, as it was not fashioning an independence constitution. At the time, there were no citizens of Sri Lanka, as all were subjects of the UK.
But the British government granted independence on the basis of this constitution, which contained no law on citizenship, franchise and protection of individual and group fundamental rights. These lacunae in the law of the constitution bequeathed by the British to the people of Sri Lanka at independence led a million plantation Tamil people to lose their citizenship and franchise within two years of independence, and another million Sri Lanka Tamils to lose the right to use their own language in the affairs of state. And they opened the floodgates for blatant discrimination of Tamils in employment, education and other areas of national life.
Because of this constitutional hiatus, left as a result of British naivety or irresponsibility or a combination of both, independence was achieved, in effect, only by the Sinhalese and not by the Tamil people. As a matter of fact, prior to the transfer of power, the India Office in London had raised with the Colonial Office the question of safeguards for the Tamils of Indian origin settled in the island, but the matter was brushed aside.
Professor K.M. de Silva points out that, when D.S. Senanayake went to England in July 1945, “he had obtained one vital concession problems relating to citizenship, the Colonial Office agreed, were to be treated as falling within the ambit of the Sri Lanka government’s powers under the new constitution”.53 if this is true, and there is no reason to doubt it, then the British Government is guilty of the gross betrayal of a million people who had toiled and produced the wealth for the British to rule the colony.
The proper course for Britain would have been to bring the question of citizenship of these people, whom British rule had brought to Sri Lanka, and to resolve it before independence was granted to India and Sri Lanka. Because of this failure, one million people became stateless and remain so today. The denial of citizenship, followed by their disfranchisement the following year, not only made them stateless and voteless but altered the whole Sinhalese Tamil ethnic structural balance in the country and paved the way for the deprivation of language and other rights of the Sri Lanka Tamils.
The consequences of the British legacy drove some Tamils,20 years after British withdrawal, to petition the British monarch for redress. They went to London in 1968 with a petition, signed by thousands of Tamils, setting out the plight in which British rule had left the Sri Lanka Tamils, and presented it to H.M. Queen Elizabeth, seeking her intervention as queen of Sri Lanka at that time.
Lord Soulbury, after having served a term as governor general of independent Sri Lanka, in a spirit of repentance for the failure of the British, took the blame upon himself and later admitted: “I now think it is a pity that the Commission did not also recommend the entrenchment in the constitution of guarantees of fundamental rights.”54
1. Rajavaliya, a 17th Century Sinhalese chronicle in the same tradition of Mahavamsa, describes the arrival of the Portuguese: “. . . and now it came to pass that a ship from Portugal arrived at Colombo, and information was brought to the king that there were in the harbour a race of very white and beautiful people who wear boots and hats of iron and never stop in any place. They eat a sort of white stone and drink blood . . . they have guns with a noise like thunder and a ball from one of them, after traversing a league, will break a castle of marble”; Rajavaliya, translated by G. Gunasaekera, Government Press, Colombo, 1960.
2. Patrick Peebles, The Transformation of the Colonial Elite. The Mudaliyars of 19th Century Ceylon; University of Chicago, D.Phil. dissertion, p245
3. Ceylon National Review, No.5, February 1908.
4. Report of the Committee of the Executive Council on the Fixed Establishments of Ceylon, HMSO, 1852, p.175.
5. K.M. de Silva, “Resistance Movements in 19th Century Sri Lanka ‘, in Michael Roberts (ed.): Collective Identities, Nationalisms and Protest in Modern Sri Lanka, Colombo, p.144.
6. C.E. Corea, “The Sinhalese Peasants’ Title”, in the National Monthly oJ Ceylon, February March, 1914.
7. From Anagarika Dharmapala’s writings, in Ananda Guruge (ed ), Return to Righteousness, Government Press, Colombo, pp.484 and 660.
8. Ibid . , p.735.
9. Piyadasa Sirisena, Jayatissa saha Rosalin, Colombo, 1971 edition, p.ii.
10. Quoted in K.N.O. Dharmadasa, “Language and Sinhalese Nationalism: The Career of Munidasa Cumaratunga”, in Modern Ceylon Studies, Vol.3:2, July 1972.
11. Supra, Ananda Guruge (ed.), pp.515 16. Against the Muslims, Dharamapala wrote: “What the German is to the Britisher the Muhammedan is to the Sinhalese. He is an alien to the Sinhalese by religion, race and language. He traces his origin to Arabia, whilst the Sinhalese traces his origin to India and to Aryan sources. To the Sinhalese without Buddhism death is preferable. The British officials may shoot, hang . . . or do anything to the Sinhalese, but there will always be bad blood between the Moors and the Sinhalese.” This is an extract from a letter Dharmapala wrote to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, dated 15 June 1915, soon after the Sinhalese Muslim riots, p.541.
12. Michael Roberts (ed.), Collective Identities .
13. Dharmapala, at that time, was in Calcutta and he was interned there by the Government, and Piyadasa Sirisena was held in custody during the riots .
14. In articles written by Bandaranaike serialized in the Ceylon Morning Leader, 19 May 30 June 1926.
15. Quoted in K.M. de Silva, A History of Ceylon, p 397.
16. The Case for a Federal Constitution for Ceylon. Resolutions passed at the First National Convention of the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi, Colombo, 1951
17. Quoted in Michael Roberts (ed.), Collective Identities, p.42 3.
18. Ibid., p.344.
19. Ibid., p.350.
20. Ibid., p.56.
21. Ibid ., p.372.
22. See The Rights and Claims of the Kandyan People, Miller & Co., Kandy, Sri Lanka, n.d. (?1927).
23. Ceylon Report of the Special Commission on the Constitution, July 1928, London. p.39.
24. J.V. Stalin, Marxism and the National Question, New York, 1942, p.l6.
25. Ceylon Daily News, 4 May 1931.
26. Quoted in Silan Kadirgamar (ed.), Handy Perinbanayagam, A Memorial Volume, Chunnakam, Sri Lanka, 1980, p.81.
27 Quoted in K.M. de Silva, “The Transfer of Power in Sri Lanka: A Review of British Perspectives, 1938 1947”, in Michael Roberts (ed.), Collective Identities, p.422.
28. Quoted in K.N.O. Dharmadasa, Supra, p.l41.
29 Ibid., p.l41.
30. Ibid., p.l42.
31. Ibid ., p. l41.
32. Ibid., p.l42.
33. Governor Ridgeway wrote of the people of Sri Lanka: “They are quiet and law abiding, but impulsive, excitable and often ignorant and therefore credulous”, Administration of the Affairs of Ceylon, Colombo, 1903.
34. Debates of the State Council of Ceylon, 1932, pp.794 and 1641.
35. Quoted in Michael Roberts (ed.), Collective Identities, p.406.
36. Debates of the State Council of Ceylon, 193Z, p.881 and 3090.
37. See Michael Roberts (ed.), Collective Identities, p.406.
38. See Debates of the State Council of Ceylon, 1944.
39. “Sinhalese and Tamil as Official Languages”, Sessional Paper, XXII, of 1946.
40. Ibid. p.l2. Much the same was said by Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike when she was Prime Minister in the 1960s: “We have tried to eliminate the wide gap which existed between the government and the governed, between the elite and the masses. By giving the due and rightful place to the Sinhala language as the official language of the country, we have made it possible for these voiceless millions who spoke only that language to play an effective part in the affairs of the country.”
41. Hansard, Legislative Council,1926, pp.845 46.
42. Michael Roberts (ed ), Collective Identities, p.393.
43. Quoted in Michael Roberts (ed.), Collective Identities, p.389.
44. Ibid., p.65.
45. Ibid., p.400
46. See S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, Towards a New Era, Selected Speeches . . . made in the Legislature of Ceylon, 1931 1959, Government Press, Colombo, pp.50 51.
47. Caldecott’s despatch marked “Personal and Secret” to Oliver Stanley, 17 February 1943.
48. Reform of the Constitution, Sessional Paper XIV of 1944.
49. Ceylon Report of the Commission on Constitutional Reform, London, 1955, paragraphs 262 and 267.
50. Quoted in Walter Swarz, supra.
51. S. Arasaratnam, in “Nationalism in Sri Lanka and the Tamils”, in Michael Roberts (ed.), Collective Identities, p.505.
52. Sir Charles Jeffries, Ceylon The Path to Independence, London, 1962, p.l 12.
53. K.M. de Silva, in “Transfer of Power in Sri Lanka: A Review of British Perspectives, 1938 1947”, in Michael Roberts (ed.): Collective Identities, p.431.
54. Quoted in Walter Swarz, supra.