“A nation which colonizes, a civilization which justifies colonisation, and therefore force, is already a sick civilization, a civilization that is morally diseased, that irresistibly, progressing from one consequence to another, one repudiation to another, calls for its Hitler, I mean its punishment.” ~ Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, 1955
In Sri Lanka, unlike the Portuguese and Dutch who were, respectively, the first and second Western colonial occupiers, the British succeeded in conquering the entire island, and for the longest period than any other power, from 1796 to 1948. Unlike India, Sri Lanka gained Dominion Status within the Commonwealth [which is largely interpreted as ‘independence’] in a relatively peaceful manner. However, this peaceful transition, in many ways, soon turned out to be the calm before the storm. It is not only the successive Sinhalese nationalist governments who are to be blamed for the ethnic conflict. Most significantly, the British were largely responsible for sowing the seeds of lasting ethno-national contention.
The necessity of an Apology
The politics of reparations for past atrocities form a priority area in managing relations between oppressors and the oppressed. Colonisation is a phenomenon based on a logic of exploitation, of looting, of claiming other people’s lands, bodies, waterways and natural resources as one’s own. To reiterate a universal truth, there is nothing positive or constructive in any form of coercive colonisation, or, for that matter, on-going neo-colonial domination.
In the sphere of global governance, what Stephanie Wolf describes as a ‘redress and reparation movement’ is fast becoming an essential element of national as well as international policy formulation. Reparation politics are on the forefront of discussions on large-scale atrocities in the West, such as the Holocaust. In the territory of Turtle Island that we know as Canada, a much-needed discourse on reparations, apologies and redress is taking shape, albeit at a relatively slow pace. The Indigenous communities of these territories faced [and in many aspects, continue to face] high levels of violence, torture, murder, deprivation and systemic discrimination. Apologies, compensation and reparations for atrocities such as the system of ‘Indian Residential Schools’, to give but one example, are very much an ongoing process.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of Sri Lanka securing Dominion Status within the Commonwealth. Ceylon was the first Crown Colony outside the ‘Old Commonwealth’ [white settler-colonial places such as Canada, Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand] to obtain Dominion Status. The paradoxes and contradictions inherent in the socio-political life of post-1948 Sri Lanka are such that we refer to the day on which we were given Dominion Status [with the British monarch continuing to be our head of state] as our ‘Independence Day’. In terms of national sovereignty, it would be more justifiable to consider the 22nd of May, the day on which the Constitution of the First Republic was promulgated in 1972, as Sri Lanka’s ‘Independence Day’, if not ‘National Day’. The 1972 Constitution marked the most poignant expression of ethnic outbidding that came to being as the primary consequence of the British-induced constitution-making and institution-building experiment in Sri Lanka. It was a truly majoritarian constitution that shamelessly shunned minority rights. Not even the namesake minority safeguard in the Soulbury Constitution, namely its Section 29, was spared. In this sense, 22 May 1972 marks the ultimate entrenchment of ‘divide and rule’ tactics on our colonised soil and mindsets. Having that day as National Day would give us more food for thought annually, on the importance of national unity, reconciliation and building solidarities across the diverse mosaic that is the Sri Lankan people.
Most importantly, discussions on ‘independence’, ‘national sovereignty’, and ‘self-government’ in Sri Lanka are totally devoid of any focus whatsoever on the adverse effects of colonialism. We seldom collectively reflect upon the fact that the impact of colonial rule is continuously felt to the present-day and beyond. The consequences of three centuries of Western colonisation, especially the 150 years of British colonisation, are very much of ‘contemporary’ relevance. Colonial mindsets, colonial hangovers, colonially induced stereotypes wield an extremely powerful influence in all aspects of public life as well as in the personal spheres of many of our fellow citizens.
In this article, we contend that the British government and the British monarchy must apologize for its colonisation of Sri Lanka, for their decisive role in raising ethnic tensions that eventually led to a long civil war, and continuing politics of ethno-national antagonism. The apology should be made, preferably, by the British monarch or by the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister or the monarch, in their apology to the people of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, must explicitly mention the role that they played as colonisers in provoking ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka.
Most notably, Britain must apologize for its disregard towards minority leaders of Sri Lanka, whose repeated pleas for adequate minority safeguards were largely ignored in British constitutional experiments.
If the British, in their apology, take responsibility for their role in aggravating ethnic tensions, it can provide a much-needed starting point towards inter-ethnic reconciliation in Sri Lanka. It will be helpful in publicly coming to terms with the fact that Britain’s colonial policies were significantly responsible for setting up the institutions which paved the way for ethnic outbidding in the post-independence era. By way of reparations, Britain could, for example, provide funding directed towards building new homes for Sri Lankans at the lower echelons of the social ladder [especially of ethnic minority communities] displaced by the thirty-year war, while providing assistance to the Government of Sri Lanka in restoring infrastructure in the war affected North and East. However, the reality is that no financial payment is sufficient as reparations for the misery and bloodshed caused by the persistent effects of Britain’s colonial policies in Sri Lanka.
The fact that colonisation in any shape or form is deeply problematic, that it is a process of control and repression, does not require any reiteration here. As we shall highlight below, the evolution of constitutionalism and governance in Sri Lanka is directly intertwined with the oppressive legacy of British colonisation. We cannot talk about constitution-making, law making, or even the ‘mace’ in the Parliament of Sri Lanka without referring to Britain and British rule of the island. Over the years, Sri Lankans as a people have somewhat failed to adequately take stock of the destructive legacy of colonisation, and what it did to the socio-political fabric of the land. Instead, Sri Lankans of all ethnicities and faith traditions, especially those of the socioeconomic and political elite, have been perpetuating colonial structures of oppression that the British introduced, in some cases overtly and in many others covertly, in the guise of conforming to practices of democratic governance.
In the section that follows, we shall engage in a very brief discussion of some aspects of the constitutional and political decision-making-related errors made by the British in the early decades of the last century, which have had a lasting adverse impact on ethno-national politics in Sri Lanka. This discussion is by no means extensive, nor does it encompass a fully comprehensive discussion of constitutionalism, which would be beyond the remit of this article. This article also does not touch upon the multitude of socio-economic, culturally genocidal and highly exploitative aspects of colonisation that imperatively call for an apology. Instead, the objective here is to provide an überblick of the deeply problematic nature of Eurocentric constitutional experimentation on a non-Western socio-political and cultural context. This salient reality alone warrants an abject and unambiguous apology from the colonising power.
Constitutional blunders: a continuing quagmire
After the Cameron-Colebrook reforms of 1833, the British transferred political power to Sri Lanka [then Ceylon] in two main stages: in 1931 via the Donoughmore Commission, and in 1948 via the Soulbury Commission. These two stages of Western constitutional reform were central to setting up the framework for ethno-nationally motivated discrimination against minority communities by successive Sinhala-Buddhist-dominated governments.
A system of ‘communal representation’ was in place from 1915 to 1931, with a certain number of seats assigned to English-speaking elite Sinhalese, Tamils, Moors, Burghers, etc. In 1931, Donoughmore reforms abolished communal representation. This strengthened the hands of the political class of the majority Sinhalese community. The Donoughmore Commission created Executive Committees, where the local population had a considerable role in administration (except in reserved prerogatives such as finance and defence). It extended the franchise and allowed elections based on universal suffrage. Upon abolishing communal representation in executive councils, the Donoughmore Commission turned out to be a failure with respect to the fact that it did not suggest any alternative such as a workable form of federalism to contain communalism and ensure adequate political representation of the minority communities.
To recapitulate a well-known fact, prior to 1931, the Tamil minority were overrepresented in the civil service commensurate to population statistics. Under British rule, Professor Neil DeVotta reports that “the Tamil population held 33% of civil service jobs, 40% of judicial service jobs and 31% of university students, figures that are much higher than their representative share.” The post-Donoughmore constitutional landscape was conducive to what came to be known as ‘Sinhalisation’, which involved more opportunities in the state sector to Sinhalese people. Under British rule, the Tamil minority had a significant economic advantage over the Sinhalese majority, significantly due to educational opportunities in the northern part of the country, where the first Christian mission schools – a core element of physical, social, linguistic, cultural and psychological colonisation – were established. Tamils who had undergone missionary education had more access to “clientelistic networks” set up by the British than the average Sinhalese person. The abolition of communal representation by the British marked the beginning of a gradual process that would significantly threaten to reverse the economic and societal privilege held by Tamils.
Ensuring more opportunities for Tamils in the Civil Service under British rule was not intended at empowering Tamil people. It is also naive to assume the oft-repeated claim that Tamils, especially those from northern Sri Lanka, were better workers than the Sinhalese [or Tamils elsewhere]. The bottom line of this policy was none other than the usual ‘divide and rule’ tactics upon which the entire monstrosity known as the British Empire was built. This is why it is perfectly justifiable to claim that British policies of favouritism towards one group of people over another [in this case one ethno-national group over others] were instrumental in sowing the seeds of long-lasting ethnonational tension and antagonism.
The Donoughmore Saga
The Donoughmore Report was, by and large, exemplary of the way in which the British acted throughout all of its colonies. They imposed policies with a blatant disregard to genuinely incorporate the views of local stakeholders. The report’s condemnation of communal representation on the one hand, and avoidance of adequately addressing the concerns of minority groups on the other, happened to be crucial in bringing repressed ethno-national tensions to the surface.
The Donoughmore dispensation created a situation in which divisive and toxic ethnonational concerns became the primary preoccupation of local leaders. Many Sinhalese politicians, for example, were upset that franchise had been extended to Indian plantation workers [who were force-migrated to Sri Lanka as indentured labourers under British rule] almost on the same terms as the indigenous population. Sinhalese politicians were concerned that an extension of franchise to Indian plantation workers would increase the influence of the European planters, the employers and profiteers of indentured Indian labour. Furthermore, Sinhalese politicians feared that the Indians would henceforth undermine Sinhalese interests in plantation districts where the Indians were by then dominant in terms of demographics. In post-1948 Sri Lanka, Sinhalese politicians took action based on these fears and prejudices, by enacting the Ceylon Citizenship Act of 1948 which made Indian plantation workers stateless. In sum, this Act created two types of citizenship: citizenship by descent and citizenship by registration. In both cases, substantive documentary evidence was required from applicants. However, most Indian Tamil workers were illiterate and very few actually had documentary proof. This requirement of documentary evidence, such as registration of birth, is indicative of how the anglicised Sri Lankan elite had come to consider features of European social organisation as the status quo. Over 700,000 Indian Tamils were thus rejected citizenship, making them stateless.
Minority leaders such as Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, on behalf of Tamils, and T.B. Jayah, on behalf of Muslims, made pleas to the British that the Donoughmore Commission is unacceptable to the interests of their respective communities. The implementation of the Donoughmore reforms effectively removed the “weightage for the minorities to compensate for the numerical superiority of the Sinhalese” and left the nation devoid of any adequate checks and balances to prevent discriminatory majoritarian policies from being enacted by Sinhalese-majority governments. Although the Donoughmore constitution did introduce welfare provisions, a rarity for an exploitative British colony, these provisions are unimpressive considering a backdrop in which adequate political representation among the pluralistic communities was not established in any reasonable measure.
On a par with regional and global developments of the day, Sri Lankan leaders involved in campaigns for self-government began calling for enhanced constitutional provisions by the early/mid 1940s. Subsequently, the British concocted the Soulbury Commission in 1945. The Soulbury Commission Report introduced a model of Westminster-style bicameral government. Once again, the minority protections it offered were far from adequate.
Soulbury Sequence: deeper into the abyss of ethnic outbidding
The Soulbury Report contained a clause which later became Section 29 (2) in the 1946 Constitution, prohibiting any legislation “infringing on religious freedom or discrimination against persons of any community or religion.” It also stipulated that a two-thirds majority was required for any changes in the constitution or any piece of legislation aimed at discriminating against a racial or religious minority. Nevertheless, these minority safeguards were inadequate, in that they did not, in any reasonable measure, correspond to the demands put forth by the Ceylon Tamil and Ceylon Indian leadership. In February of 1944, for example, GG Ponnambalam of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress, voiced a proposal before the Soulbury commissioners that called for balanced representation known as “fifty-fifty” which advocated for an equal proportion of seats between the majority and minority communities.
Despite such pleas, the British ruled that minority communities already constituted “a large and powerful enough block” to counter any extremist legislation. The Soulbury Report ensured that the Governor-General would exercise his discretion on any bill that evoked serious opposition by any racial or religious community and that, in his opinion, was likely to involve oppression or serious injustice to any such community.
Campaigns for self-rule in Sri Lanka, if not anticolonial struggles, were very different from such struggles across the Palk Straits. Unlike India, Sri Lanka lacked a cohesive mass-based national movement. Instead, mobilization for self-rule took place in the form of what has been described as “fragmentary associations”. Subsequently, ‘most political parties [like the United National Party] were formed in anticipation of the 1947 elections.’ In fact, as asserted by constitutionalist Sir Ivor Jennings himself, “the constitution which Sri Lanka had until 1947 was designed to suit a legislature without parties and therefore actively discouraged them.” The British were confident that a political system drafted to conform to Western interests, a system that, according to them, “worked well for centuries in Britain” can be applied to Sri Lanka’s pluralistic society, and that loyal, anglicized Sinhala elites can be trusted to protect minority rights. Speaking of the Soulbury Constitution, SWRD Bandaranaike (who eventually deployed ethnonational politics to make his way to Premiership in 1956), echoed these sentiments, asserting:
“There was no fight for that freedom which involved a fight for principles, policies and programmes which could not be carried out unless that freedom was obtained. No. It just came overnight. We just woke up one day and were told, you are a dominion now.”
Persistent blunders: the reason for the call for a formal apology
In 1948, Sri Lanka gained Dominion status, which was hitherto the exclusive reserve of Old Commonwealth possessions such as Canada and Australia. The Dominion State had to bear the brunt of problematic British policies implemented prior to 1948. The model in place was one that was easily conducive to triggering ethno-national tensions. Very soon, politicians from all ethno-national backgrounds came to terms with a reality that applies to Sri Lankan politics to this very day – that arousing ethno-national antagonisms among the masses is a sure strategy to access and reinforce political power. The entire political saga of the Dominion State, of the Republic of Sri Lanka and of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, has been marked by this inclination to steer, rather than contain, ethnonational tensions. The roots of this political culture of spewing division among the masses lie in the constitutional experiments and fatal political miscalculations of the British. The consequences and ramifications of these problematic policies continue to be felt to this very day, and they will shape the political landscape of Sri Lanka for many more decades to come.
Hence the present call for a formal apology from the British Crown and the British Government, to the Government and the people of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. It is a first step in developing a discourse on reparations, and in recognising the sheer magnitude of colonial atrocities and their present-day ramifications, both of which are some seven decades overdue.
Late, is indeed better than never.
*Pitasanna Shanmugathas is a human rights activist and Director/Lead Curator of the social media group, Stop Human Rights Violations in Sri Lanka and Chamindra Weerawardhana PhD (@fremancourt) is a gender justice activist and political analyst.