28 February, 2024


Communal Politics In Sri Lanka: The Pot Calling The Kettle Black – Part I

By Lionel Bopage

Dr. Lionel Bopage

I had the opportunity to read the article, SJB A Cat’s Paw Of Communalistic Political Parties, written by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, targeting the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB). For a moment, I wondered whether the author has forgotten the country’s history and the history of the political parties the author has been associated with.

In Sri Lanka, anti-Muslim riots of 1915 between the Buddhists and Ceylon Moors were the first occurrence of communal riots in the last century, which the British colonialists brutally suppressed. In general, religion played an important role in people’s lives following tolerance towards different cultures and traditions but there was no assertive communal ideology or communal politics. The modern phenomenon of intolerance and hatred towards the other can be said to have arisen as a result of British colonial influence and the reaction of Ceylonese social classes. The British utilised their policy of “Divide and Rule” to sustain their power, which the post-independence political elite stoked shamelessly for electoral gain.

The author refers to political parties that cater to a single ethnic or religious community that only looks after the narrow interests of that group and considers other communities to be outsiders or even enemies. I have no disagreement with this definition, though I differ in his application of that definition to brand only some organisations as communalist. A skewed application of the definition of communalism is used here to appeal to voters to grant “an overwhelming mandate exceeding even that of the presidential election of 2019”, ostensibly to “put an end to narrow minded communalism”. This appears to be a significant intervention made by conflating only some incidents from their general historical context.

Historical episodes

Let me explain some historical episodes during the British colonial rule when nationalism was quite strong.

The Thamilar Mahajana Sabhai (Tamil People’s Council – TPC) was established in 1921. The Indian freedom struggle led by the Indian National Congress heavily influenced their demands, like establishing self-government. The TPC’s leaders were the first in Ceylon to bring forward the concept of a secular Ceylonese nationalism following the model of the Indian National Congress. Sinhala leaders at the time did not even contemplate of such an eventuality.  Thus, it was under the auspices of the TPC, the concept of a united Ceylon emerged, based on unity of all communities. However, introduction of electoral politics under the Donoughmore Constitution guided the political dynamics of the Sinhalese and Tamils in a different direction.

Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam

Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam showed interest in politics while he was studying at the University of Cambridge. He had a strong career in civil service and was a member of the Executive Council of Ceylon, and later in the Legislative Council of Ceylon. He was known as the “father of Ceylon University”, because he led the campaign to establish a university in Ceylon. While he was still in the civil service, he agitated for political reform. In his retirement, he founded and chaired the Ceylon National Association and the Ceylon Reform League. He was one of the founders of the Ceylon National Congress, a nationalist Lankan political party, and became its founding president.

As the first President of the Ceylon National Congress, Arunachalam was able to unite under its umbrella a spectrum of political organisations, such as the Ceylon National Association, the Ceylon Reform League, the Chilaw Association and the Jaffna Youth Association. This collective made a joint request for political reform. The Jaffna League joined the Ceylon National Congress on the condition that in a reformed Legislative Council a special seat will be made available for the Tamils of the Western Province. The reformed Legislative Council was set up in 1921.

At the elections that followed, many expected that Arunachalam, the first President of the Ceylon National Congress, to whom its creation was also owed, would be elected the Member for Colombo, while Sir James Pieris would be elected to represent the Low Country Products Association. However, the Low Country Products Association elected Sir Henry de Mel to represent it. Sir James Peiris, brother in law of Sir Henry de Mel, was elected for Colombo unopposed. No provision was made for Tamil representation. This was the first blow to the national unity. This dispute about Sinhala and Tamil representation in the Legislative Council of Ceylon was a result of the Sinhalese conniving together, to which Arunachalam opposed. Two years later, Arunachalam founded the Ceylon Tamil League in 1923.

The United National Party

DS Senanayake

The Ceylon National Congress later led to the formation of the United National Party, and at that stage, Mr D.S. Senanayake resigned from the Congress. He disagreed with the objective of achieving full freedom from the British Empire and preferred Dominion status for Ceylon. Though the name Arunachalam graces a statue in Colombo and a residential hall at the University of Peradeniya, he is no longer remembered as the first person in the island who tried to bring the diverse communities together to form a unified nation.

This build-up of the communal mistrust between the Sinhala and Tamil communities ultimately led to the culmination of the two and a half decades war that the Sinhalese won and rejoiced, while the vanquished Tamils are still looking for a fair and just solution to their problems. This was the start of the communal disharmony that led to the current impasse which continues to devastate Sri Lanka. Such was the nature of the communalism of the Sinhalese at the time led by the Senanayakes, Bandaranaikes and the rest of the elite families privileged by the British colonialists, who were employed to keep the British in control.

Communal disharmony

Sir James Peiris

Later with the staunch support of the Senanayakes, Sir James Peiris was elected the President of the Ceylon National Congress. This led to two political communal tendencies – Sinhalese and Tamils inwardly focused on ways and means of uplifting their own communities socially and economically. This paved the way for the unpalatable political tendency of separate identities based on language, culture, religion and ethnicity. This is what led to the political ideologies, which the author of the piece has played a large part in perpetuating. In order to unify the communities of Ceylon as a nation, those elected to power should not have catered for providing special privileges and status to some communities over the rest. Instead, they could have worked towards suppressing such privileges that led to the distinguishing of some communities from the rest.

However, since the episode I mentioned before, all political leaderships, except for those of the Left during the period ended in the sixties, worked towards destroying the harmony that existed by pitting one community against the other. By promoting caste, language, religious and ethnic differences, the regimes from the forties to the present day advocated for intolerance and hatred of the other, and thus, divided and ruined our society. Adding to that volatile political mix, was the disappointment and disaffection among the youth due to the stagnant agricultural sector, the lack of modern industrial development and inadequate employment opportunities, religious revivalist movements, and the teaching of the distorted views of history, that lead to the colonisation projects in the north and east, and the rise and growth of communal feelings.

Discriminatory politics

For example, in 1948, the Ceylon Citizenship Act denied citizenship rights to the Indian Tamils, in direct contradiction to the equal citizenship rights promised to them prior to independence. Despite the lack of humanity and empathy towards the victims of that legislation, the meanness of the then UNP regime was also supported by the Tamil Congress Leadership. Prior to 1956, all communications of the state were carried out in English, following the colonial practice of using English as the island’s language of administration. Many Sinhalese and Tamils had to find somebody conversant in English to demystify government communications. It is in this context that both Sinhala and Tamil-speaking communities wanted to develop a ‘swabasha’ (indigenous languages) policy to address the issues that prevailed.

However, this consensus between Tamil and Sinhala political leadership was violated in 1956, by implementing the Sinhala Only policy. Now Sinhala and Tamil-speaking people received government communications in Sinhala. What was the Tamil people supposed to do but for asking for their rights to use their mother tongue for communicating with what they considered, at the time, to be a government of theirs also? They asked for their rights, as to be expected, through peaceful protests and civil disobedience. But rather than addressing the issues through negotiations, Mr Bandaranaike and his government and subsequent governments, used armed state violence against them.

To be continued..

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comments

  • 5

    This article is typical of an academic giving an overview of the history and drawing broad conclusions. There were so many micro-incidents that contributed to the broad conclusion. The reality, even today people openly preach that it is uncivilized to discriminate along ethnic, religious, caste and other social classification. But the reality is that in the preacher’s heart something else is working. They are a failure in uniting people. Even in electoral politics today in Sri Lanka, the caste counts, whether it is the North or South of the country. Some years back Mr. X asked an authority on caste as to what are the chances of he getting nominations from the political party as against Mr. Y. The answer was “It is true that for this area a man of Caste Q would be selected and you are one of them. As you know the Caste Q has sub-castes R and S. You and your wife are from the same sub-caste. On the contrary Mr. and Mrs. Y belong to different sub-castes. The party will prefer Mr. Y against you as he can command the votes of both the sub-castes but not you.”. WHAT MORE CAN ONE ADD?

  • 6

    Flawless work on history.
    I just want to mention two points.

    1). Leftist supposed to be border-less politicians. That was not the history of Lankawe leftists. LSSP which was the only political party talked for upcountry workers. But even that LSSP leader NM or Colvin didn’t live to the promise in race relations. It is worthless to talk about Tamil lefts. But Sirijeyathunga, Wickramabahu, even Kumaratuna tried to bridge between the communities.

    2). English is a foreign Language. It is was not going to come automatically. But Singapore has broken this barrier. Tamil Nadu doing ok. I would have made for any job with o/l, must have both local languages competence. Anything at college level, English is must. So there is a time to catch up the third language between o/l and college end.

  • 0

    Dear Mr Bopage

    It is called evolving to do better through lessons learned. Without taking away the credit due to those good people you mentioned at that time it is good to know but we need to differ based on what has transpired thereafter is how others have progressed and we have not?? stuck in the past.

    There was no need for the violence we have seen since 1970’s be it by the JVP or the FP/TULF to suit matters right as we had lots more issues required correction within each community and the elected needed qualifications to fix them in their respective constituents within the framework that existed that we failed to do…….the existing power balance that existed/provided by the elected governments over the times were not all that bad either….is all about how we interpreted them or rather misinterpreted them for the respective community by their elected who had miserably failed in their respective job scope but focused on matters that would have fallen into place as part of our journey/transition after Independence to become a mature country Nation anyway?

  • 0


    Why should Hon MR should revisit 1956 today please?? I noted he is saying based on what has transpired and what we are capable of doing to each other it is best we keep the country together?? what is wrong with that principle please………the only problem with narratives/writings like yours is it fails to look at what has happened when people were given freedom to express (not my experience in Jaffna) and should you give this how that will be used in those enclaves too further undermining the human rights one set out to solve in the first place?? therefor it is best we resolve this discussion once and for all now we are in on the same page that is all need to be treated equally??

    So where is the positivity in what MR have stated and why do you bot have that positivity and trust please?? Have you all done any kind of risk analysis as to what the outcome would be should we all be falling apart in our own ghettos which is Avery likely scenario is what has been proven beyond reasonable doubt since 1970 a peace time tuned into hell by us all??

  • 0

    Should we achieve this change and focus on other important matters such as economics our future generation be better off and also the best way to pay respect to all those who died too due to the race/language/religious bigotry too??

    Thank you for the article.

  • 0

    dear Sir

    It is time all the minorities learn something from the Sri Lankans with Indian origins. Can India help other minorities to think like this for a brighter future without the provincial councils?


  • 2

    It is fashionable among Sri Lankan academics to refer to a “divide and rule policy” which the British is alleged to have used to sustain their power and this writer does that too. Looking through the article, I don’t see any evidence cited to back up that assertion and I would appreciate if this writer or any reader savvy with Sri Lankan history gives concrete examples to justify this oft-repeated claim.

  • 1

    Lionel Bopage,

    You address a long felt need that was hidden among the majority for a long time. They thing that it is past, but it is not so;

    Communal politics in Sri Lanka led to a divided nation .A divided nation will never prosper.

    Only a united country could prosper.

    If a section of a country is dissatisfied, however small their number is, they become permanent enemies and do everything possible to sabotage the majoritarians.

    This will lead to a cold war and the country as a whole suffers.

    The most important activity is nation building and no one community should feel excluded.

    An inclusive policy will always succeed in the long run.

Leave A Comment

Comments should not exceed 200 words. Embedding external links and writing in capital letters are discouraged. Commenting is automatically disabled after 5 days and approval may take up to 24 hours. Please read our Comments Policy for further details. Your email address will not be published.