By Lionel Bopage –
Pre-colonial and colonial rule
Pre-colonial Lanka was a very hierarchical feudal society, characterised by regional kingdoms and a mixture of conviviality between the Tamil and Sinhalese feudal nobility in which caste consideration trumped issue of religion and ethnicity. Tensions arose because of inter dynastic rivalry, not ethnic rancour. Capitalism in the Island did not come out of local conditions but was imposed by the colonial masters to suit their economic and structural interests. The elite of all communities ploughed and consolidated their wealth and social positions on the margins of this colonial enterprise. Hence, they were dependent on the patronage of their colonial masters.
The British in particular were very astute in exploiting the cleavages in the social fabric of Lanka, consisting of long standing caste, commercial and political interests of the elite. Amongst the Sinhalese these were the differences between the more entrepreneurial Sinhalese in the littoral regions and the landed gentry in the ‘up country’. The differences amongst the Tamil elite was that of religious based between the Christian and Hindu elites. It was only when the democratic base of the country was widened that ethnic issues became important, as it became a sure fire means of gaining political office.
It is an indisputable fact that the Tamils did have a large presence in the professions, especially in medicine, engineering and the public service. This is not because of discriminatory policies of the colonial government, which many Sinhala nationalists contend but because of their geographic location and American missionary education. The north and east with no mountains and hardly any rivers belie their verdant fields. The soil is infertile compared to the south, yet many people live and farm there. There are no large-scale industries. Agriculture at the subsistence level is the mainstay. Apart from farming and fishery, the educational industry and establishments really sustained the people in the north and the east, especially its elite, enabling them entry into the coveted public service and the professions.
The Sinhalese elite on the other hand found a lucrative niche in rubber and coconut plantations and trading alcohol, in particular toddy. The Sri Lankan economy largely relied on the plantation sector, dominated by tea followed by rubber and coconut, and on a burgeoning public sector. Post-independence governments were faced with the long-term decline in agricultural prices, increasing population and growing welfare system; this put pressure on the economic well-being and the social fabric of the country.
The solutions offered by the political and business elite were not adequate to meet the expectations of a burgeoning population, festering resentments against the seemingly well-off non-Sinhalese and the political masters in the majority community. These resentments were exploited by the two major parties, the SLFP and the UNP, who shamelessly outbid each other in their commitment to the redressing of Sinhala grievances in order to gain government. Bearing the brunt of this were the Tamils. What follows below is an elaboration and exploration of the consequences of this dismal policy of economic inequity coupled with communal rancour which Dr Godahewa conveniently leaves out of his diatribe/discourse.
The plantation economy
The colonial plantation economy helped develop transport and communication infrastructure. However, it led to many political, economic and social issues that are left yet to be resolved. The plantation economy needed large tracts of land and cheap labour. Land was acquired through the Crown Lands Encroachment Ordinance of 1840, Grain Tax of 1885 and the Waste Land Ordinance of 1897. Land without title deeds were made crown property and sold to British planters. This can be compared with the usurpation of aboriginal land by virtue of ‘Terra Nullius’ law in Australia. Under the Grain Tax regime, the British expelled the impoverished peasants. Using the Temple Lands Registration Ordinance of 1856, the British also acquired Temple and Kovil lands. In the meantime, some feudal chiefs acquired large tracts of land as ‘nindagam’s.
By this time, the colonialists had destroyed the neighbouring South Indian economy and the unemployed were enticed to work on the plantations on false promises. The British colonial masters, who were suspicious of the Sinhala peasants preferred the already subjugated Indian labour. Hence, they brought in a large population of Indian labour to the island and dumped these unemployed among the landless peasants in the upcountry. The emerging pro-colonial capitalist class supported this import of Indian labour to the island. Inhuman methods of transportation, unhealthy living conditions and diseases brought death to many hundreds of them.
In the meantime, the need for administrative labour was satisfied by developing a local subservient class from all communities to serve the British rule. They were willing to follow their mores and traditions and learn English to serve the colonial administration. Consequently, some Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims as well as Burghers did not want to topple the colonial status quo. However, most of the population did not offer the British, the obedience they wanted; for the British to achieve their objectives, the resistance of the ‘natives’ had to be broken.
In the pre-colonial era, Buddhist monks provided education in the temples primarily to a small Sinhala elite in the south. Pirivenas were typically reserved for lay people who wished to become monks. Similarly, Brahmans or educated Vellalars provided education in Hindu Kovils in the north. Both communities had a privileged caste system and families. They received special training in various trades. Knowledge was transferred along caste centric family lines.
With colonization came the European form of education to the island. The aim was to prepare students to serve the colonial administration. Traditional education also continued in the south and the north, yet most people remained illiterate. Despite this limitation, they were capable of being successfully engaged and gainfully employed. During the Portuguese rule, missionaries established about 100 schools for fostering Roman Catholicism in the low country. The Dutch then set up a primary schools’ system to support the missionary efforts of the Dutch Reformed Church. The British, who followed them, closed down many Dutch schools at the beginning, but soon government-funded schools and Christian schools started expanding.
Despite this expansion, the uneven nature of education became more prevalent. Christian organizations dominated the private school system and, English, their medium of instruction, offered the best road for advancement. Being concentrated in the southwest, these schools attracted mostly Christian and Tamil students. Institutions that used Tamil and Sinhala as medium of education continued to function as elementary schools. English exclusive secondary institutions were attractive to males of elite families, who aspired to, and did fill positions in the colonial administration as junior partners in the colonial enterprise.
Language and religion
During the colonial rule, almost all politicians espoused the idea of providing primacy of place to “swabasha” (i.e., indigenous languages Sinhala and Tamil) in the post-independence period. However, even as early as 1944, resolutions to declare Sinhala as the official language had been proposed. At the same time, amendments had also been made to declare both Sinhala and Tamil as official languages and both be the languages of instruction, public service examinations and legislative proceedings. Nevertheless, in spite of having the amended resolution approved and committees appointed to advise on implementation, the policy was allowed to lapse.
In light of the above background information, let us now look at the contentions Dr Godahewa makes and see how they stack up against the historical record.
To be continued…