Pre-Independence Demands for Federalism in Sri Lanka

Pre-Independence Demands for Federalism in Sri Lanka

Shamara Wettimuny

Shamara Wettimuny

June 23, 2020

I recently stumbled upon some fascinating facts about ‘federalism’ in Sri Lanka in the course of reading about our twentieth-century history. The idea has a negative connotation today, and is often associated with ‘separatism’. However, it has an interesting history in Sri Lanka. This article explores who the unlikely early proponents of federalism in Sri Lanka were.*

SWRD’s Proposal

In the 1920s, the first proponent of federalism stepped forward. An aspiring politician, freshly returned from Oxford, proposed his vision for Sri Lanka’s future.[1] S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike advocated ‘a federal political structure for Sri Lanka as a means…of bringing about better understanding among the island’s several ethnic groups’.[2] According to K.M. de Silva, Bandaranaike’s proposal ‘should be viewed as a serious attempt to introduce some new ideas into a debate that had continued on very conventional lines up to that time’.[3] Up until this point, Sinhalese and Tamil elites had articulated visions for greater self-government within a centralised governance structure. The Sinhalese-dominated Ceylon National Congress pushed for territorial representation within such a structure, whereas minority groups ‘led by the Tamils’[4] preferred communal representation.

In six articles published in the Ceylon Morning Leader between May and June 1926, SWRD shared his vision on ‘Ceylon’s ‘internal status’. He recommended an ‘internal federation’, yet offered no further detail on how it would be implemented. In July 1926, SWRD delivered a lecture in Jaffna to the Students’ Congress on ‘A Federal Government for Ceylon’ where he further outlined his proposals. The Ceylon Morning Leader on 17 July 1926 summarised his proposals: ‘In Ceylon each Province should have complete autonomy. There should be one or two assemblies to deal with the special revenue of the island…some form of federal government would be the only solution…The three main divisions in the island were the Kandyan Sinhalese, the Low Country Sinhalese and the Tamils.’[5] SWRD’s suggestions were met with scepticism, by both the Sinhalese and Tamil political elite. Tellingly, the Ceylon National Congress delegation (including SWRD) did not reproduce such proposals on federalism in their representations before the Donoughmore Commission in 1927.

The Kandyan Demand

John Rogers notes that the Kandyan Sinhalese, ‘who resented the dominance of low-country Sinhalese in national politics, claimed a distinct ethnic status and threw in their lot with the other “minorities” such as the Tamils and Moors’.[6] The Kandyans’ perception that they were distinct from the Low Country Sinhalese eventually fed into a demand for federalism.

Before I discuss Kandyan demands for federalism there are a few historical facts worth recalling. First, the Kandyan Provinces were the last independent region in Sri Lanka prior to the island’s occupation by the British in 1815. Second, the Kandyan nobility negotiated a settlement with the British to depose the last King of Kandy, Sri Wickrama Rajasinha, in exchange for certain guarantees. That settlement is known as the Kandyan Convention. Third, the British established the Legislative Council of Ceylon in 1833, and allocated three seats to the locals: to the Sinhalese, Tamils and the Burghers. In 1889, the Kandyan Sinhalese were allocated a separate seat on the Council — this seat was separate to the Low Country Sinhalese seat.

By the 1920s the Legislative Council was expanded. In 1928, a group representing (elite) Kandyan interests, the ‘Kandyan National Assembly’ advanced the idea of federalism in their representations before the Donoughmore Commission. These proposals should be understood within a broader context of political competition between the Kandyan and Low-Country Sinhalese at the time. Nira Wickramasinghe notes that in the 1924 Legislative Council Elections, four out of seven seats reserved for Kandyans were actually won by Low-Country Sinhalese. According to Wickramasinghe the fact that Low-Country Sinhalese had won seats in Kandyan areas became a ‘catalyst’ for the Kandyans to become more active in politics.[7]

The Donoughmore Commission Report notes that the Kandyan National Assembly presented:

[A] scheme for dividing the island into three self-governing areas (1) the Northern and Eastern Provinces in which the Tamils predominate; (2) the Kandyan Province; [and] (3) the Southern and Western Provinces peopled mainly by Low Country Sinhalese. Each of these three communities would thus be granted a government of its own…[and] be united in a Federal Government, thus ensuring that no one section would be in a position to dominate over the others.[8]

Legal scholars observe that it was the Kandyan Sinhalese, and not the Ceylon Tamils, who were the first champions of a federal Ceylon, as well as the merger of the North and East.[9] However, the Donoughmore Commission rejected the Kandyan proposals, and instead proposed a system of provincial councils, and local government bodies.[10]

Kandyan demands for greater autonomy did not, however, recede into oblivion. In the early 1940s, state councillor Bernard Aluvihare published a manifesto of demands called ‘The Kandyan Convention and After’.[11] Aluvihare argued: ‘it is now necessary…to preserve the very existence of the Kandyans in their own territory and to vest adequate political power in the Kandyan people.’[12]

Figure 1 Michael Roberts Collection: B.H. Aluvihare, The Kandyan Convention and After (1942?).

Aluvihare’s manifesto contained the following demand for Kandyan autonomy:

In the last resort, under any Government, the best help and a never-failing resort is self-help. Especially is this so in any country pretending to Democracy. To remedy injustice however there must be a will to Justice; it is no use a section of Kandyans wishing for freedom to perpetuate an aristocracy, nor should we make ourselves a party to keep an oligarchy in power. The mass whose strength we have now to rally will have no interest in that. The Kandyans have all along been a territorial and not a communal unit: the Muslim, the Portuguese and the Indians living with us and owing loyalty to our unit have been admitted to our fold.[13]

It is not clear how resonant Aluvihare’s views were among the broader Kandyan population, or how they were received by the British. Nevertheless, following Independence, Kandyan demands for federalism faded into the background. The substance of Kandyan grievances persisted (particularly those of the peasantry); but these grievances were largely subsumed within broader Sinhala-Buddhist political discourses. Meanwhile, S.W.R.D Bandaranaike eventually advanced a political agenda along ethnolinguistic lines. Within this overarching context, Tamil politicians began to adopt the language of federalism, resulting in the birth of the Federal Party in 1949.

In the context of ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, ‘federalism’ became intrinsically associated with ‘separatism’ and was widely regarded as posing a danger to the country’s ‘unitary’ character. This glimpse into our recent history, however, serves to remind us that ‘federalism’ was once embraced by Sinhalese leaders and communities. It, therefore, suggests that ideas viewed as ‘dangerous’ in contemporary political contexts often have complex histories and unlikely champions; and these champions saw these ideas as beneficial, rather than detrimental, to the country.

Shamara Wettimuny is a historian and researcher at the University of Oxford.

* I am grateful to Gehan Gunatilleke and Dr Asanga Welikala for reviewing this article and their helpful comments.

[1] M.C.W. Prabhath de Silva, Leonard Woolf as a Judge in Ceylon, 2nd ed.(2016), p.12.

[2] S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike and K. M. De Silva. Devolution in Sri Lanka: S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and the Debate on Power Sharing (1996), p.5.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., p.4.

[5] Ceylon Morning Leader, 17 July 1926, quoted in K. M. De Silva. Devolution in Sri Lanka, p.7.

[6] John Rogers, ‘Post-Orientalism and the Interpretation of Premodern and Modern Political Identities: The Case of Sri Lanka’, The Journal for Asian Studies 53(1), (Feb. 1994), p.18.

[7] Nira Wickramasinghe, ‘The Return of Keppetipola’s Cranium: Authenticity in a New Nation’ Economic and Political Weekly, 32(30) (Jul-Aug 2007), p.PE-88.

[8] Report quoted in K. M. De Silva, Devolution in Sri Lanka, p.8.

[9] Rohan Edirsinha, Mario Gomez, V.T. Thamilmaran and Asanga Welikala (eds.), Power-sharing in Sri Lanka: Constitutional and Political Documents 1926–2008 (2008), p.56.

[10] K. M. De Silva, Devolution in Sri Lanka, p.8.

[11] The original document belongs to the Michael Roberts Collection.

[12] B.H. Aluvihare, The Kandyan Convention and After (1942?), p.1.

[13] Ibid., p.14.

Shamara Wettimuny


Historian, doctoral candidate working on identity and religious violence in Sri Lanka, at the University of Oxford

About editor 3016 Articles
Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist.

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