2 March, 2024


Identity & The Island’s Political Order: The Existential Question

By Dayan Jayatilleka

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

“The struggle, a real and bloody struggle that arises here, requires a different chain of thought and a different intellectual constitution…” – Carl Schmitt, ‘The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy’, 1923.

It is not without reason that Graham Greene once said “never trust anyone with a return ticket”. Dr. Siri Gamage is playing a game that an expatriate academic can afford to. Those of us who have opted to live here cannot afford such rootless cosmopolitanism and intellectual dilettantism.

The question of definition is a serious one. The question of nationhood is a deadly serious one. I am concerned with the political consequences of definitions, not with academic quibbling about them. There can be academic definitions brought in the service of everything and its opposite. I care little for those. The question of Sinhala, Tamil, Sri Lankan nationhood or otherwise is not an academic question. At the least it is a strategic question but in its deepest sense it is an existential question. The claim of Tamil nationhood and the Tamil denial of the status of national minority pose an existential threat to the Sinhalese whose only country it is, and to the state formation on the island.

There is no bi-national, multinational or pluri-national state in Sri Lanka, and there must not and cannot be. There can only be a nation–state in Sri Lanka. The only debate is which nation that is: Sri Lankan or Sinhalese. I’d say both. In a civic and diplomatic sense it is a Sri Lankan nation and a Sri Lankan national identity, the best example of which is our cricket team and the phenomenon of ‘cricket nationalism’. In the political and ethno-national sense there is only one nation in Sri Lanka and that is the Sinhalese nation. In a cultural sense we are a multiethnic, multicultural, multilingual society, with the Sinhala Buddhist civilization as the main axis of the island’s civilization. Thus in a civic and cultural sense our nationalism and patriotism must be pluralist. However in a political sense, our ideology must be monist and unipolar. Culturally we can be ‘federal’ (and the North can enjoy ‘cultural autonomy’); politically we must be unitary.

Nationhood and nationality are issues of identity. Identity does not take place in a vacuum. Identity is at least in part, tied to space and time i.e. place and time. People fight and die over identity.

Our lives, those of us whose destiny or choice are to live and die here rather than to run and hide as strangers in a strange land; the lives of those of us who serve this country even while overseas –writing for the media back home, fighting diplomatic battles in foreign lands—are bound up with the destiny and long history of this place, this island.

Our personal narratives are part of the larger longer narrative of this country, this island. This place is no abstraction. It is a relatively small island off the tip of the huge landmass of India, with south India as its neighbor. The destiny of the country and its people has been determined by the two facts that it is an island strategically placed in the Indian Ocean and off the tip of South India which contains at last count, seventy million people of a specific ethnic, linguistic and religious origin. Those people have co-ethnics in the North and East of our island.

The history, the narrative, the destiny of this island – our story—does not derive from petty academic treatises, but precisely from the struggles for power for the island and its various areas. This struggle for power has a North-South vector or axis. The principal motor force of the history of this island has been the struggle for power between the North (the internal North and the External North; the near North and the Far North) and the South. It is the South that has resisted the hegemonic incursions from the North, including the global North.

The claim of Tamil nationhood is the flip side, the other way, of the expressing the refusal to accept that on this island the Tamils are a national minority. The Catholics of Northern Ireland never had a problem in accepting that they were a minority in the North. They simply did not wish to be treated as second class citizens; to be oppressed. The Tamil delusion is that on this island they are entitled to the same political status, weight, space and share of power as the Sinhalese who are a vast majority. The Tamils cannot have the same weight and space in the island’s political order; in the structure of power relations and ruler-ship of this island. This is undemocratic and unrealistic.

It is the Tamil refusal, indeed their state of psychological denial that their struggle should be for equal rights as citizens and safeguards against discrimination as minorities, that has been at the root of the bloodshed. This refusal and denial stems from a misplaced sense of superiority which equates a majority and a minority. According to this expatriate academic Dr. Siri Gamage’s definition there are no majorities and minorities in any society; any country; any state. He and his ilk have just abolished such definitional distinctions and geopolitical realities upon which they are based.

My insistence that the Tamils are a national minority is not in the least Sinhala racist. I belong (though I am not a parishioner) to the Catholic community. I have no problem in recognizing that it is – we are—a religious minority in Sri Lanka. I would have to be a lunatic to pretend that the Catholics of Sri Lanka who are around 6% of the population have an equal status as a collective as the Buddhists who are 67%. I am not one. I would and do however, fight hard against any attempt at the oppression of religious and any other minorities. Tamil nationalism believes in such lunacy which turns a majority and a minority into equals and abolishes in their collective mind, the fact of being a minority. Tamil nationalism acts upon it. Fellow travellers such as Siri Gamage, Brain Senewiratne, Laksiri Fernando and their junior league dress up that lunacy in threadbare academic vestments (which incidentally ignore the UN landmark documents on Minority Rights).

The recognition of Sinhalese as the majority and Tamils as the minority does not imply a conception of Sri Lankan society or state which is hierarchical i.e. is an inverted pyramid. The Sinhalese are not on top; the Tamils at the bottom. My realist conception is of Sri Lanka as a series of concentric circles, in which the Sinhalese Buddhists are the large core of the formation, with the Sinhalese being the next concentric circle. In the alternative it can be seen as a pie, in which the Sinhalese naturally get the larger slice of power because they constitute the largest stakeholder.

I am not such a dupe that I do not know the implications of pretending that the Tamils are a nation. This opens the door to the idea of national self-determination and thereby that of a separate state. This means the carving up of the island. I suggested that any experiment in Tamil nationhood be conducted where there are seventy million Tamils and an affordably large landmass, indeed a subcontinent. Sri Lanka being an island does not have the geopolitical space to even consider such a dangerous claim. Either there is one Sri Lankan nation or there is a Sinhala nation as the political core of such a Sri Lankan nation. There aren’t two nations on this our island.

The history of this island is that of a struggle over what Nietzsche so famously called the Will to Power. It is the struggle between on the one hand, those whose only home this is and can be; those whose destiny is inextricably linked with the island, the Sinhalese – living in the Southern two thirds—and those who are not and yet seek a share of power far in excess of their numbers or their commitment to a united Sri Lanka. It is a struggle over who will win (Lenin); a struggle to prevail (Nietzsche).

Sri Lanka is too small for two states; two kingdoms—especially not with Tamil Nadu next door and a modern history of colonial conquest from the West. It is too small and vulnerable to experiment with loose centrifugal forms of state. Sri Lanka needs a strong single state which covers the natural borders of this island. Fighting against a formidable foe which rootless cosmopolitans and liberals had seen as undefeatable, Mahinda Rajapaksa restored these borders to the state. Once more our borders ran from seas to sea. This is why I stood with him even while criticizing his errors; why I still do and shall continue to—and am proud of it. At this concrete moment the destiny of the Sinhalese and of the island lie with the popular-democratic forces of vitality, resistance and national liberation mobilizing in the Mahinda Movement.

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Latest comments

  • 15

    Dayan Jayatilleka


    There was a guy called Chandrapaeuma who was a spokesperson of Gotha and I am sure he is also a colleague of yours. He once wrote an Article before CHOGM admitting that GOSL carried out extra judicial killing ginving names of those killed and justifying the killing. I was incensed by that and wrote to all the World authorities including UN and Mr.Cameron to take it up and we have not heard from Chndraperuma since. I think he was banished by Gotha.

    As for your Racist venom I have copied the last three articles and will be sending it to UN , British American and European authorities inviting them to analyse the RACIST message which amounts to inciting Racial Violence which is banned in the Western Countries. I will be asking them to impose a Travel Ban just like America banned the BBS chap.
    You should now be confined to Sri Lanka and should not be allowed to travel oustside Sinhala Lanka.
    Just imagine if you came to UK and USA you will asked to deliver a speech by the Racist Elements and that will be relayed in back to Sinhlala Lanka and the harm it will cause.

    You should be stopped in your tracks before it is too late.
    Make no mistake.

  • 9

    Thanks Mr Jayatilleka. I know you generally do not like to respond to specific questions raised by individual readers of your writings in CT. I can understand why, but in this instance I will appreciate if you would respond.

    I am personally not too bothered about semantics and definitions etc. The reality is that we are talking of Groups of people who have lived in that little island for centuries. Conflict between these Groups from the 70s onwards – the time my political awareness dates back to, has led to the death of countless Sinhala and Tamil people. By all estimates between 1987-1991 alone there were about 60,000 Sinhala boys and girls – most of them from rural Buddhist backgrounds, killed and burnt in mass pyres……..this too was a spin off of the National question – You remember the ‘Deshapremi Janatha Viyaparaya’……and its links to the arrival of the IPKF. Then, another 20,000 odd – again rural Sinhala boys and girls, died fighting VP’s formations. All in all, to my mind 100,000 + Sinhala boys and girls have died since the early 70s. I am not going to quote a figure for the corresponding figure on the Tamil side, as I suspect you know them better than I do……it is certainly higher, much higher as you know and acknowledge – albeit indirectly. In this context, I think we can agree that there is a problem that needs to be settled. Leaving it unsettled, to my mind is bad for the Tamils but perhaps worse for the Sinhalese – and as you say as ‘an existential issue’. Prolonged conflict in SL will spill over to involve the wider Region and at a Regional level, the winners and losers are rather unpredictable……I think.

    So the issue is how do we solve the problem in such a way that the Tamils can be made to feel that SL is their home, they will be safe in this home, they will be able protect their language, culture and way of life in this home of theirs. You only have to see the demographic ( and linguistic ) changes in the Eastern province and along the coastal belt extending from Puttalam to Chillaw to understand the fears and anxieties of the Tamils in relation to loosing their language, culture and way of life within the current arrangements………..so in the very least we have to agree that there is a problem that deserves a solution.

    To my mind the 13A (within a Unitary constitution) is a very pragmatic solution that needs the support from the likes of you. In your emotional speeches supporting the return of MR, you owe it to yourself, your learned Father, your own intellect and learning to articulate very clearly that full implementation of 13A is the way forwards in protecting the interests of SL. You cannot afford to portray yourself – through association, as the Champion of a right wing agenda that denies the right for equality for Tamils/Muslims. If the agenda is to set in motion a process to impress upon the minorities that somehow they are “lesser Sri Lankans” their loyalties will inevitably shift towards India. That is what the likes of Nalin de Silva and Gunadasa Amarasekara did and we – all of us, have paid the price. This is clearly detrimental in the long run term interests of ALL Srilankans – including the Sinhalese. Such a strategy will convert the SL issue into the next ‘Arab-Israeli conflict’ and your prophesy of an ‘existential threat’ will come true.

    So please…….oh please, back off from your current strategy of trying to define ‘Nations’ and ‘States’ and focus on creating a stable Government in SL that has the necessary electoral legitimacy to deliver on the promises made to the Indian Central Government and the IC……..I.e Full implementation of 13A within a Unitary constitution. The power of the BTF, Aanandi Sasidharan, Suresh Premachandran, Sivajilingam, G Ponnambalam etc. etc. really stems from their ability to say, in ever increasing decibels, that ‘moderation’ will never deliver. Full implementation of the undertakings already given is absolutely essential to wean the mainstream away from the above group. Not allowing the likes of Mr Sambandan, Sumandiran……and perhaps even the GTF ( based on some their recent writings) to wean the Broader sections of the Tamils away from the ‘Sivajilingam/Aanandi mindset’ by being able to deliver an honourable settlement, will be a historical mistake of gigantic proportions………..you will come to regret it when you are called upon to judge yourself in that ‘ultimate court of once own conscience’
    Thanks and best wishes
    Dr Mahesan Nirmalan
    Manchester Medical School.

    • 8

      Mahesan Nirmalan

      “I can understand why,”

      Sorry what do you understand?

      Could you define unitary and united states in your words and tell us why you think a Unitary constitution is a very pragmatic solution?

      • 7

        Belgium with all languages to be studied by all is a panacea.- where all are equal in the eyes of state. It’s Hora_Oru refugees that create problems- (same as the guest who stays too long as uninvited in your home or vicinity- they have the time because of their insecurity to create religious/race conflicts)
        The first, unitary constitution- The Belgian constitution.
        (alas the influx of french speaking skin heads muslims from north Africa created by erratic EU regulation caused a time of industrious flemish requesting for separation but the king has finally settled it temporally)

        The commission appointed by the Provisional Government had prepared a project, which was debated in the National Congress from 25 November 1830. On 7 February 1831, the National Congress had completed its discussions and approved the Belgian constitution.

        The Belgian constitution was a balanced synthesis of the French constitutions of 1791, 1814 and 1830, the Dutch constitution of 1814, and of English constitutional law. However, it did not become an amalgam. On the contrary, it became an original piece of work. The most important elements are still in force.

        Belgium became a parliamentary monarchy. The core principal of the constitution was the separation of powers. The three powers were: the legislative, executive and judicial powers.

        The legislative power was assigned to the House of Representatives and the Senate, who have to approve the legislation, and the King, who had to proclaim and ratify them. The Members of Parliament and the Senators were elected with an electoral process based on the payment of taxes. This meant that a person had to pay a certain amount of tax to be eligible to vote. Therefore, although they were elected by a very limited number of voters, they were deemed to be the embodiment of the will of the people.

        The legislature therefore became the highest instrument of power in Belgium. To be eligible to stand for election to the Senate, even larger amounts of tax had to be paid, and a minimum age of 40 applied. It was established to stop any ill-considered decisions by the House of Representatives.

        Executive power was assigned to the King and his ministers. However, the responsibility for government policy came to rest with the ministers. It was decided that no document signed by the King would be legally valid, unless it was also signed by a minister. The ministers on their part, were accountable to the parliament (the House of Representatives and the Senate).

        The exercise of judicial power was assigned to the courts. It was determined, that court sessions had to be public in principle. The judges could only be removed from office by a court judgement. A jury system was established for criminal and political offences, and offences by the press.

        Also central, were the rights and freedoms that each Belgian was entitled to enjoy. All Belgians were equal before the law. The citizen could not be deprived of his or her freedom in any way, except as ordered by a court. Property rights and the confidentiality of the mail became inviolable. Everybody was free to express their opinion on whatever subject and to practice any religion they chose to. Freedom of education and the press was guaranteed. Finally, it was enshrined in the constitution, that everybody was free to conduct a meeting and establish an association.
        The one page UK constitution.It has been suggested that the British Constitution can be summed up in eight words: What the Queen in Parliament enacts is law.
        (Parliamentary sovereignty may now be called in question given the combined impact of Europe, devolution, the Courts, and human rights)

        An uncodified constitution creates two problems. First, it makes it difficult to know what the state of the constitution actually is. Second, it suggests that it is easier to make changes to the UK Constitution than in countries with written constitutions, because the latter have documents with a ‘higher law’ status against which ordinary statute law and government action can be tested, and are only amendable via elaborate procedures. The flexibility of the UK constitution is evident from the large number of constitutional reforms since 1997, including the abolition of the majority of hereditary peers in the House of Lords, the introduction of codified rights of individuals for the the first time in the Human Rights Act 1998, and devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Arguably, however, these recent constitutional reforms may have made the constitution less flexible in some respects: it is debatable, for instance, whether the devolution settlements could ever be repealed.
        Finally, because the British Constitution cannot be found in any single document, politicians and lawyers have relied on constitutional authorities to locate and understand the constitution.

  • 2

    “In the political and ethno-national sense there is only one nation in Sri Lanka and that is the Sinhalese nation.”

    Dayan has mixed up nationhood with ethnicity. In Sinhala, the word for nationhood and ethnicity are the same – Jathiya. I do not believe that Dayan thinks in Sinhala. St Joseph’s in the 60s. Pardon me Dayan if I am wrong, but I believe that you belong to a generation that thinks in English. For you to mix up ethnicity and nationhood, are you being blind-walked by someone?

    I agree that “there is only one nation in Sri Lanka”. That is the Sri Lankan nation. In Sri Lanka, there are many ethnic and religious communities, of which Sinhalese are the majority. Being the majority does not bestow, upon the Sinhalese, exclusive rights to Sri Lankan nationhood so that you can qualify nationhood with Sinhalese. So there cannot be a “Sinhalese nationhood” as long as there are non-Sinhalese minorities in Sri Lanka, as much as there cannot be a Tamil nationhood in Sri Lanka.

    If we are to talk about a Sinhalese nationhood, that needs to co-exist with a Tamil nationhood, and of course Muslim, Burgher, etc., etc., nationhoods. To do that, we need to shift to a federal system under which the smaller ‘nationhoods’, other than Sinhalese and Tamil will not be viable. This would be a shift away from the present unitary system to a non-unitary system. Those who aspire to an Eelam have reasons for promoting the concept of a Tamil nationhood, but Dayan identifying with a Sinhalese nationhood is totally unexpected. May be sleeping with pigs has made Dayan want to eat the same stuff as pigs!

    Let us analyse Dayan’s statement.

    (i) According to Dayan, in a political sense, there is only one nation in Sri Lanka and that is the Sinhalese nation. This is illogical. Dayan himself has said that the minority vote was responsible for Mahinda’s defeat. If so Dayan’s ‘political’ Sinhalese nation is, at best, insignificant. What’s more, by this statement, Dayan attributes ‘policial superiority’ to the Sinhalese. That is racism combined with majoritarianism. The worst thing is that this gives legitimacy to those Eelamists who claim that for the Tamils to be equal to the Sinhalese they have to set up their own country.

    (ii) Regarding the ethno-national sense, what exactly do you mean? Ethno-national is race, isn’t it? When did you move over to nationhood based on race? Remember what happened to S L Gunasekara? He was a great preacher about nationhood based on race. Just when he was to become an MP someone decided that we can have nationhood, not only in a racial sense, but in a religious sense too. Do you want to take the same route as SLG?

    As I advised you earlier Dayan, shed the wolf’s cloth and be yourself.

  • 2

    It was refreshing to read Mahesan Nirmalan. I too think the best bet is to implement fully the 13th amendment including land and police powers although they would have to be limited. We did not have a centralized police until 1865. before that there were separate police services. Britain has village constables.
    As for land powers they would have to be implemented within the existing laws relating to land. What is required is trust between the Sinhala and Tamil leaders at the Center and the co-option of the Tamil leaders at the Center.
    DJ unfortunately has joined the racist lobby of Gunadasa Amerasekera, Nalin De Silva etc

    • 3


      I am very sorry to disagree with you on this point. Any solution that will be acceptable to the Tamils should carry clauses that will prohibit future interferences based on whim and fancy of the majority. Any future amendments must be subject to reaching consensus of all concerned. The TNA have reservations about the 13A and powers vested with the Governor. TNA argues that the executive powers must rest with the people.

      You talk about trust between the Sinhala and Tamil leaders. It is all well and good but no one can predict as to how the future leaders will behave. I agree that the Centre must retain powers concerning the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the nation but must not interfere with the local matters. I am not a constitutional expert but the Centre can retain the higher judicial authority.

  • 1

    I am really happy at least there is one person to defend our country, Sri Lanka, where Sinhalese are the rightful owners of the country while tamils and muslims are minorities. we have no problem as long as tamil politicians and other extremist tamils do not claim for tamil nation in Sri Lanka.
    I like to draw attention to definition of Englishman as per Oxford Dictionary.
    Which define Englishman as man from England.what does it imply, the true owners of England ,the so called greatest democratic country in the world , recognise only Englishmen as only true owners of England. Not even scotish or people from wales and Ireland, who have lived there for generations, are considered as true owners of England. Are our Tamil or any other ethnicities are recognised as Englishman ,certainly not. This is the reality, despite preaching us of discriminating of Tamils In Sri Lanka.

    It was the divide and rule perpetated by British which in fact had caused immense damage to Sinhalese . I can remember when we entered to Faculty of Engineering at Peradeniya in 1973 batch, in our final year batch majority were tamils ,Sinhalese were very much less than 50%.Out of one District in SriLanka ,that is from Jaffna more than 40% had entereed Faculty.Mean methods had been used to manipulate the System (Practicals etc) to get undue advantage.To correct this system only, Government at that time introduced District Basis.
    this was not a system to discriminate tamils but to correct the grave injustice that happened to Sinhalese. Still I can remember out of 150 more than 30 were tamils were in our Batch,that is 20% of places for less than 10% tamils ( out of about less than 10% percent of Sri Lakan tamil polulation .

    subsequent to this rectification of unfair system that was prevalent at that time in 1972 by Government by Mrs Bandaranaike Sinhalese got their due and rightful place in education.This was misrepresented by tamil politians and other tamil elite and roused communal feelings of common tamils and this largely gave birth to LTTE for which caused immense damage to country and to innocent so called ‘low caste’ tamils as they had to pay the price with their children’s lives while elite guys made use of the situation to migrate to overseas .
    I sincerely hope that ordinary Tamil people will understand this and will accept to live as one country without being misled by tamil politians who like to arouse racial feelings for their survival as vigneswarn is doing now who had enjoyed all benefits in Colombo and ‘discriminated” by Sinhalese Government to be appointed as supreme Court judge and offspring married to genocidal Sinhalese.

    these so called elite Tamils from Jaffna while rousing communal feelings for their own mean advantages severely discriminate their own kind from Mannar ,Batticaloa and upcountry.This I personally experienced as an engineer in charge of Road project in north when I had to defend and look after my Tamil staff from Mannar from elite Jaffna guys.

    • 8

      “”Which define Englishman as man from England.what does it imply, the true owners of England ,the so called greatest democratic country in the world , recognise only Englishmen as only true owners of England.””

      your imagination is a devils workshop from night school- night soil.
      90% of the land is owned by 10% because they don’t need to sell.

      Today’s English don’t live in the oxford dictionary- anyone born at England is english; you are a classic buro/buruva BIGOT> Basta sihala modya pig shit.

      England has a very powerful law for racist and sexist comments- you are former servitude so behave like the west indies slaves.

    • 3


      Obviously you are ignorant and deluded!

      Ceylon as a country came into being because of the English colonial rule. Three kingdoms within Ceylon was amalgamated to form a single administrative structure in 1838. It was deemed with English as the medium of administration, there was no need to keep them separate. It was a marriage of convenience if you like!

      England was not formed like that. So it is extremely disingenuous of the Sinhala to claim the whole country as theirs alone using their majority position. You should know that it was the Kandiyans who first demanded a federal structure. The demand dwindled because the Bandarnayakes married Ratwettes and they were able to claim elite status. You cannot call the Tamils a national minority on the basis that the Sinhala own the country. This is exactly why the Tamils want recognition of their rightful status as a nation. You need to understand this reality and try and find a way to integrate the people under a common Sri Lankan identity where all are the owners of the nation.

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