Understanding The Demographic Decline Of Tamils In Sri Lanka

Understanding The Demographic Decline Of Tamils In Sri Lanka

Dr. Krishna Kalaichelvan

Dr. Krishna Kalaichelvan

“A virtuous wife should never do anything displeasing to the husband who took her hand in marriage when he is alive or dead…When her husband is dead she may fast as much as she likes, (living) on auspicious flowers, roots, and fruits but she should not even mention the name of another man. She should be long-suffering until death, self-restrained, and chaste, striving (to fulfil) the unsurpassed duty of women who have one husband” – The Laws of Manu, verse 156-158.

Since the destruction of the LTTE in May 2009, the Eelam Tamil polity’s constant solicitude is all about its lost collective power projection.  The crisis was exacerbated by Mahinda regime’s deliberate policy of instilling insecurity in the post-war Tamil regions by continuing military occupation. Also the Tamil public space has been inundated with the troublesome prospect that the Tamil population is on the decline in Sri Lanka, especially in the North and East. In the backdrop of Tamil nationalists’ claim of ‘Structural Genocide’, they view the shrinking of Tamil population as politically ominous to their project.

It is in this context, the Jaffna Science Association organized “popular talk” titled “Future of Tamils: A demographic perspective” by Dr. Murali Vallipuranathan was held at the University of Jaffna campus on 26/06/2014. Though the transcript of the speech was not available on the Internet, but few online Tamil media outlets reported that speech in detail. The UK based Global Tamil News (GTN) website originally reported Dr Vallipuranathan’s speech, and few other Tamil websites had reproduced that reportage. Dr. Vallipuranathan, a distinguished public health professional attached to the Ministry of Health, has provided links to these websites favourably in his Facebook, therefore I presume that the GTN reportage on the speech as accurate since he didn’t claim of any erroneous reporting by the GTN.

The primary objective of Dr Vallipuranathan’s presentation seems to be to ring alarm bells on the declining trend of ‘Sri Lankan Tamils’ (hereafter Tamils) population size and the risk of ‘Sri Lankan Tamils’ being pushed down to third place by the continuously growing ‘Sri Lanka Moor’ (hereafter Muslims) population. He provides us with population trajectories for each ethnic group based on current growth rate by utilizing the historically available census data.

Pic1According to this projection, by 2031, the Tamils population will be 10.3% and the Muslim population will be 10.8% of the total population. In other words, Tamils are facing the prospect of being pushed down to third place in Sri Lanka’s demographic ranking. Obviously, this has many political implications, and likely to complicate the balance of power in the North and East. However, I cease the discussion on the political ramifications of this demographic shift and continue to focus on Dr. Vallipuranathan’s presentation.

Muslim Demographics YouTube video

At the very beginning itself, Dr. Vallipuranathan’s presentation clearly indicates that the main thrust of it to give a sense of alarmism and urgency in relation to growing size of the Muslim population in Sri Lanka. One cannot avoid comparing similar concerns raised by the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist groups. Interestingly, the title slide of Dr Vallipuranathan’s PowerPoint presentation depicts the picture of a traditional Hindu/Saivite couple.

To my disappointment, Dr. Vallipuranathan relies on the infamous ‘Muslim Demographics’ YouTube video to substantiate his claim of growing Muslim population [1]. By a combination of clever usage of numbers and alarmist projections, this video, tinged with Islamophobia, depicts an alarming future of a Muslim dominated Europe. The reason behind this claim is that the “native” women’s Fertility Rate (FR) is far less than immigrant Muslim women’s FR; hence the Europe will become a Muslim majority region in few decades time. The problem with this video’s claim is that there is no way of confirming the authenticity of the data used in that video. However there had been serious efforts to debunk these wild claims, for example, More or Less programme of the BBC Radio Four, through a robust methodological analysis, exposed the video’s claim that in the Netherlands “50% of all newborns are Muslim” as “implausible” [2]. This video is part of a plethora of literature – generally called Eurabia: emerging of a Muslim dominated Europe from the mid century onwards – by several western commentators in the last decade [3]. Pew Research Center, the reputed US based “fact tank”, through its ‘Religion and Public Life Project’ carried out an in-depth research titled “Future of the global Muslim population” and its findings poured water on the wild claim of Eurabia [4].

The report notes:

“The growth of the global Muslim population, however, should not obscure another important demographic trend: the rate of growth among Muslims has been slowing in recent decades and is likely to continue to decline over the next 20 years, as the graph below shows. From 1990 to 2000, the Muslim population grew at an average annual rate of 2.3%. The growth rate dipped to 2.1% from 2000 to 2010, and it is projected to drop to 1.7% from 2010 to 2020 and 1.4% from 2020 to 2030 (or 1.5% annually over the 20-year period from 2010 to 2030, as previously noted).”

A 2009 Harvard University working paper by Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris notes:

“As we demonstrate, cultural cleavages do exist. They are not monolithic. The largest differences between Muslim and Western societies are found in religiosity, gender roles and sexual norms. This does not mean that migrants are constructing a sub‐culture that is entirely separate from the mainstream national cultures of Western societies; instead, Muslim migrants living in Western societies are located roughly in the center of the cultural spectrum, located between the publics living in Islamic and Western societies…In the long‐term, the basic cultural values of migrants appear to change in conformity with the predominant culture of each society.” [5]

These findings give credence to the Pew Research Center’s prediction of declining trend in Muslim population growth rate in coming decades. Hence we can conclude that the alarmist Eurabia claim is wildly exaggerated and has no scientific basis for that claim.

More than anyone else, I would expect Dr Vallipuranathan, a distinguished medical professional with regular teaching commitments at the Postgraduate Institute of Medicine (PGIM) – University of Colombo, to check the authenticity of ‘Muslim Demographics’ video’s alarmist and Islamophobic claims on the growth of Muslim population, before using that video to backup his claim. That doesn’t mean his calculation of projected ethnic composition in Sri Lanka by 2031 is flawed, in fact his projection is most likely to be right. My contention is that he doesn’t have to rely on this discredited Islamophobic video to back up his claim in Sri Lankan context.

Based on the figures provided in the presentation, I have calculated the annual population growth rate of Tamil and Muslim populations for the period of 19 years covering from 2012 to 2031; they are 0.63% and 2.25% respectively.

Analysing the declining Tamil population growth rate

Dr Vallipuranathan identifies the Islamic practice of polygamy and the Muslim women marrying at an early age as reasons for the fast-growing Muslim population in Sri Lanka. And he juxtaposes the aforesaid Muslim practices with factors purported to be causing near-negligible Tamil population growth rate. He attributes following factors for declining Tamil population growth rate:

(1) In the past few years, there has been a campaign of “forced contraception” [Kaṭṭāya Karuttaṭai1] in the North and East, Dr. Vallipuranathan notes with sadness that the Northern Provincial Council representatives have issued misleading statements about this issue. He provides the testimonies of the affected women from Kilinochchi to back up his claim of “forced contraception”.

Pic3According to the government statistics, in 2012, 2877 Sinhalese, 1035 Tamils, and 450 Muslims had undergone sterilization. However, the number of Tamils had undergone sterilization was above the Tamils’ proportion in ethnic ratio.


Dr. Vallipuranathan has highlighted the practice of systematic campaign of sterilization in the areas of Hill-Country-Tamils, and the cash incentive of 500 rupees to undergo sterilization. On the other hand, since 2009, the Sri Lankan government is multiplying the [Sinhala] ethnicity by encouraging the members of the armed forces to have a third child through a cash incentive of 100,000 rupees.

The Kilinochchi incident happened August last year and it was reported widely in the local and international media. It was alleged that mothers with children under the age of five from three villages in Kilinochchi district were deceptively asked to attend vaccination/nutrition clinic and then they were coerced to accept the insertion of Jadelleâ subdermal implant, which contains synthetic progestogen, levonorgestrel. The Jadelleâ implant belongs to the category of Long-acting Reversible Contraception (LARC): it can provide effective contraception for up to five years, and a woman’s fertility returns to normal upon its removal.

I have no intention of discussing of this incident in detail, simply because it deserves a detailed scrutiny on its own. All I can comment is that this was a case of medical malpractice and not part of an elaborate genocidal scheme operated by the Sri Lankan government to reduce the Tamil population in Sri Lanka, as propagandized by the Tamil nationalists. What was lost in the loud cacophony of outrage at this incident is the fact that whether the women from rural Kilinochchi or rural Moneragala or rural Anuradhapura, they are all facing the same predicament of powerlessness: doctors and health service know what is best for them. Whatever the level of coercion applied in Kilinochchi is prevalent in the rural clinics in the Sinhala South as well.

Dr Vallipuranathan raises another issue regarding this incident; in his PowerPoint slide he notes, “consent from husband was not obtained” by the health professionals. In Sri Lanka, doctors are expected to obtain consent from husband only if a woman is seeking a permanent method of contraception – Sterilization. Therefore Dr Vallipuranathan’s insistence on husband’s consent for reversible contraception undermines a woman’s ability to exercise her reproductive rights. It is not clear, what was the basis of his insistence on husband’s consent when a woman is opting for contraception, not sterilization.

(2) The decline in the number of young males in the community is causing difficulties for the Tamil women to find an appropriate partner.

I am inclined to believe that this is a critical factor in the decline of Total Fertility Rate (FTR) of Tamil women. The sex ratio of the Northern Province, for the age group of 20-44, is 89 men for every 100 women2. This figure is almost at the lowest end of the sex ratio spectrum along with countries like Russia and Estonia [6].

(3) Many Tamil women postpone their marriage beyond the age of 30 years, due to higher education. Naturally women’s fertility declines after 30, hence the chances of those women having children are also lesser [than younger women].   

(4) The return of casteism in Tamil community and the increasing demand for dowry, along with displacements and economic deprivation are either increasing the number of unmarried women or leading to late marriages.

(5) The post-war baby booming never took place in Tamil regions because overwhelmingly men who died or disappeared during the war.

The plight of women who have lost their partners during the conflict

According to statistics, in North and East, there are 89,000 women who have lost their husbands [during the conflict period]. The Tamil community is only thinking about providing self-employment opportunities like poultry farming. The social, religious and political leaders are not thinking about facilitating the remarriage of 18 – 40 age group women who have lost their husbands. The Tamil community is refusing to think about the naturally occurring sexual needs of these women. But the community’s indulgence on talking about [some of] these women are being subjected to prostitution by ‘other community persons’ [Māṟṟu Inattavarkal] shows the community’s irresponsible nature.

Tamils faced with the post-war situation should create laws like Islamic laws in order to sustain the community. [The Tamil community] should be thinking about legalising polygamy with adequate [legal] protection for women.

Contrasting Hindu practices with Muslim practices

In Indian history, there are instances of mass Sati by [widowed] women after the defeat of Hindu kingdoms whereas Muslims remarry the women who had lost their husbands during the war. Some historians opine India would have become an Islamic republic, had it not been conquered by the British.

The Tamil political failings

Whilst other ethnic groups are increasing their birth rate [Pirappu Veetam], and keen to protect their ethnic groups, it is unfortunate that those who are claiming to be the leaders of the war affected Tamil community are not concerned about Tamils’ destruction. Neither the Tamil leadership nor anyone else has come forward to incentivize the families to have a third child in order to increase the birth rate of the destroyed Tamil ethnicity.

If this condition continues Tamils will become an endangered species in Sri Lanka like wild elephant, leopard and whale, once proudly lived animals now facing the threat of extinction.

Critiquing the plea for polygamy, manufacturing of refugees and realism

Though I have made a few comments above on some of the issues raised by Dr. Vallipuranathan’s presentation, here in this section I attempt to give a comprehensive critique on the talk “Future of Tamils: A demographic perspective”.

Dr Vallipuranathan has immensely contributed to the ongoing discussion on the declining number of the Tamil population in Sri Lanka by scientifically providing a snapshot of the future demographic landscape of Sri Lanka, albeit with undue alarmism. He has exemplarily demonstrated that how the Tamil intelligentsia should be working to face the post-war challenges of Eelam Tamils.

But I find a critical flaw in his interpretation of this crisis and his suggested action plan.

As we discussed above, the most critical factor is the decline of young male population in Tamil regions. Obviously, as highlighted by Dr Vallipuranathan, the war has eaten the young male population disproportionately. What is not said was the ongoing post-war emigration of young men and women in the form of asylum seeking from all parts of the North and East [7]. To my surprise, Dr. Vallipuranathan didn’t say a word (according to the GTN reporting) on the continuing post-war emigration in the form of asylum seeking. This downplaying of asylum seeking may be due to his personal political conviction since the Tamil refugees abroad are providing enough ammunition for the LTTE inspired Tamil diaspora activists to continue their activism ‘by other means’. In short term, this post-2009 asylum advocacy may help the LTTE inspired Tamil diaspora activism, but in the longer term, this mass emigration will invariably lead to more Sinhalasization of Tamil land. One can’t fathom the prudence of Tamils themselves actively aiding the Sinhalasization of Tamil Homeland.

Dr. Vallipuranathan rightly condemns the Sanskriticed, Manu inspired Hindu moral values – such as negative attitude towards remarriage of widows – prevalent in the Tamil community. However, Dr. Vallipuranathan’s plea for legalising polygamy is problematic in three ways; firstly, though he insists on “adequate [legal] protection for women”, the harsh reality is polygamy undermines the equality of women in the society. The practice of polygamy is not specific to Islamic culture, classical Tamil literature (Sangam period) have many references to the practice of polygamy and socially sanctioned practice of Kazavozukkam. H. W. Tambiah notes, the Tamils in the North and East were practicing polygamy and polyandry in the past [8]. Therefore, Dr Vallipuranathan is not advocating a practice that is alien to Tamil culture and customs. However, it is directly at odds with the very idea of equality of woman and man in the society in spite of whatever the level of legal protection given to women under a polygamous relationship. I hope Tamil women activists comprehensively responding to this call for legalising of polygamy among Eelam Tamils will bring about a better discussion on this topic.

Secondly, the feasibility of legalising and institutionalizing the practice of polygamy in Eelam Tamil life in the Sri Lankan context. It is not clear what does Dr. Vallipuranathan mean by “legalising” in Sri Lankan context. There is no place for a Hindu/Saivite jurisprudence in Sri Lanka’s legal system (in this matter even Indian constitution says clear no), apart from the personal law Thesavalamai that only deals with the inheritance of property amongst Jaffna Tamils. Legally it is clearly a dead end for polygamy in Sri Lanka. Or Dr. Vallipuranathan may be referring to a socially sanctioned informal arrangement, rather than a formal legal sanction.

Thirdly, Dr. Vallipuranathan’s assumption that the practice of polygamy amongst Muslims helps to fuel the growth of Muslim population in Sri Lanka is problematic, since there is no empirical evidence to prove that the polygamy is widespreadly practiced by the Sri Lankan Muslims, especially amongst the younger generation. With women’s education, the practice of polygamy is virtually nil amongst the young middle-class Muslims. Sri Lankan Muslim population growth is also likely to slow down in coming decades, like the trend in global Muslim population forecasted by the Pew Research Center’s study.

Therefore the challenge of how to revive the Tamil population growth has to be realistic as well as a progressive one. A throwback to the medieval practice of polygamy will undermine women’s equality in the society and also it is not feasible to legalise. In fact, there were several failed attempts in Russian Duma to legalise polygamy [9], Sri Lanka too a similarly illiberal democracy with popular cultural revisionism – where the BBS has advocated polygamy – still Sri Lanka is unlikely to legalise the practice.

Irrespective of political situation regarding the national question, a resolute and coordinated attempt to revitalise the Tamil life in the North and East is the need of the hour. Every household, from every village in the North and East, should be empowered to look after themselves with dignity and pride. The Tamil intelligentsia should be thinking creatively in order to attain the goal of self-sustaining Tamil life in the North and East, in spite of an institutionalized discrimination of the governance system. There will be nothing left if we are going to wait for the 100% righting of the so-called systemic wrongs to rebuild the shattered social fabric of Tamil life.


1. The word Karuttaṭai in Tamil is used to indicate both the contraception and sterilization. Here in this context it is meant to note contraception.

2. The numbers from the 2011 census in the Northern Province, ‘Enumeration of vital events’, are used to calculate the sex ratio. http://www.statistics.gov.lk/PopHouSat/VitalStatistics/EVE2011_FinalReport.pdf



[1] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6-3X5hIFXYU

[2] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/more_or_less/8189434.stm & http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/legacy/radio4/2009/08/does_muslim_demographics_abuse_numbers.html

[3] http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/01/04/eurabian_follies & http://www.economist.com/node/7086222?story_id=7086222

[4] http://www.pewforum.org/2011/01/27/the-future-of-the-global-muslim-population/ & http://blogs.reuters.com/faithworld/2011/01/27/will-pew-muslim-birth-rate-study-finally-silence-the-eurabia-claim/

[5] http://pippanorris.typepad.com/pippa_norris_weblog/2009/02/muslim-migrants-and-cultural-integration-into-western-societies.html

[6] https://www.unfpa.org/gender/docs/Sex_Ratio_by_Country_in_2013.pdf & https://www.census.gov/population/international/files/ib96-2.pdf

[7] http://groundviews.org/2012/07/19/troubled-waters-corruption-and-human-trafficking-in-post-war-sri-lanka/

[8] http://archives.dailynews.lk/2002/05/28/fea03.html

[9] http://www.theguardian.com/education/2009/oct/27/polygamy-study-russia-central-asia

Understanding The Demographic Decline Of Tamils In Sri Lanka

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

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