Colombo Telegraph

In Light Of Dr Nalaka Godahewa’s Speech At The UNHRC In Geneva – Part IV

By Lionel Bopage

Dr Lionel Bopage

[Part 3 of this series was published on Monday, the 20th November 2017]

More on the Points Dr Godahewa has raised

Post-independence Sri Lanka offered equal rights to all citizens and communities; no minority is discriminated by any constitutional, legislative or judicial provision in Sri Lanka; all are citizens of equal rights in a unitary state; even after the war, bulk of development expenditure were routed to the north and the east;


Under the colonial rule, English was the language of instruction, the language of the elite[1]. This benefited the English speakers, but the majority could not enjoy the benefits. As mentioned earlier, students in the north and east, mainly Tamils, regardless of their socio-economy strata had access to English-medium education through missionary schools. When universal franchise was introduced in 1931, 84,000 studied in English schools and 476,000 in vernacular schools. On the eve of independence, some 180,000 were in English schools and 720,000 in vernacular schools. The curriculum of English schools included standards and examinations for every grade through to high school, whereas vernacular school standards stopped at the fifth level. 1942 saw the establishment of the University of Ceylon. Many English-speaking Tamil and Sinhala students enrolled in universities, especially in following science, medicine and engineering courses. With a policy to promote universal literacy, education became free in government schools. Elementary and technical schools were set up in rural areas and vernacular education received official encouragement.

In 1946, Minister of Education Late C W W Kannangara introduced government funded free education in all government educational institutions. Free education became available from kindergarten through to the university level. Despite the gross ethnic, geographic, and gender inequalities, the island by 1948 had a well-developed modern education infrastructure. Since independence, a university degree was primarily seen as a qualification to serve the government. The preferred field of study among the small student community was a Bachelor of Arts. By mid-sixties, university exams were held in Sinhala and Tamil. This opened the door to tertiary education to a vast student community, whose medium of instruction had been either Sinhala or Tamil.

Neither the public sector nor the private sector could absorb this increasing number of university graduates. By late sixties, this situation led to three major issues: the difficulty in dealing with an increasing number of university admissions; lack of employability of the graduates; and the consequent barriers for their advancement. This represented nothing but the failure of the policy framework the government has followed. While expanding the opportunities for arts education, no plans were made to find employment opportunities for the new graduates. Sinhala youth became the biggest losers, contributing to the crisis situation in the south.

It is estimated that 80 to 90 percent of students attended vernacular schools over the last fifty to sixty years of the colonial period, speculating that most did not even complete fifth year examinations.[2] It is also said that during the colonial period and the two decades after independence, the number of Tamil students in secondary schools and universities was higher than the number of Sinhala students.[3] With the growing Sinhala Buddhist nationalist influence, employment opportunities for Tamil youth in the public sector declined. However, Tamil schools used their science curricula to better prepare students for engineering and medicine streams. By the 1960s, there were more Tamil students in the engineering and medical faculties looking forward to a lucrative career. Sinhala nationalist forces started agitating for lowering the number of Tamil students in engineering and medical faculties.


In 1953, Ceylon had a total of 6,480 schools and 19 Training Schools. Of them 3,778 schools and 10 Training Schools were Sinhala schools, 2,055 and 8 Tamil, 647 and 1 English. The system was biased towards the English medium and then to Tamils. Adequate resources for science, medical and engineering education were only available in Jaffna, Colombo, Galle and a few other regional cities. Instead of diversifying the fields of education to provide better employment opportunities and providing better facilities in rural areas for science studies, the government choose to discriminate against Tamil students.

Instead of prioritising government expenditure to provide necessary human and physical resources for science education, the SLFP-led coalition instituted a policy of standardising university entrance results as a political strategy. According to Education Minister at the time, Late Badi-ud-din Mahmud, this was an affirmative action to assist geographically disadvantaged students to gain tertiary education. In 1971, university admissions to science streams were made proportional to the total number of students who sat the examination in each language. Obviously, Sinhala students benefitted from this policy, while Tamil students who had demonstrated their ability at the exam had been penalised simply because they were Tamils.

The 1971 results indicated that Tamil students from Jaffna and Sinhala students from Colombo largely benefitted from standardisation. The results were not hard to perceive as Professor K M de Silva put it: “In short, students sitting for examinations in the same language, but belonging to two ethnic groups, had different qualifying marks”. He added that by doing this in such an obviously discriminatory way, the government caused enormous harm to ethnic relations.

In 1972, the government added district quota as another parameter to the language based standardisation formula. This was administered by a parliamentary sub-committee led by Peter Kenueman. As a result, 30 percent of admissions were allocated on an island-wide merit base, 50 percent on a comparative scores base within districts and another 15 percent for students from under-privileged districts. The table below shows the significant effects standardisation[4] had on Sinhala and Tamil student communities.

Engineering Faculty Percentages Medical Faculty Percentages
Reference Year Sinhala Tamil Sinhala Tamil
1969, pre-standardisation 51.7 48.3 50.0 50.0
1975, post-standardisation 83.4 16.6 81.0 19.0

This has obviously favoured Sinhala students as the dominant majority. The system of selecting students according to their individual merit was mostly thrown out of the window. Yet, Tamil students’ admissions continued to be higher than the percentage ratio for some time, and then began to decline. This controversial quota system was more equitable in terms of distribution of educational opportunities population wise, but detrimental to the future of many bright Tamil students that merited to enter university. They saw this as a clear form of discrimination, pausing a challenge to their basic right to prosper and sense of belonging.

By 1977 the issue of university admissions had become a focal point of ethnic conflict, with Tamil youth taking more radical path advocating a ‘bullet instead of ballot’ strategy to establish a separate state of Tamil Eelam. In 1977, the language based standardization of university entrance was abandoned. A new formula for standardisation based on merit and district quota was introduced.

The record of institutionalised discrimination is clear and gives a lie to Dr Godahewa’s claim that there was no such discrimination. If we, Sinhalese, put ourselves in the shoes of Tamil students, wouldn’t we feel that we were being discriminated against? Who then bears the responsibility for pushing the young Tamil generations to the wall? With their political leaders having made powerless and little else to do, they took up arms. This is all the more the reason for genuinely addressing the issues affecting the non-majority communities in Sri Lanka.

To be continued…..

[1] Goonetilleke D C R A 2003, The Interface of Language, Literature and Politics in Sri Lanka: A Paradigm for Ex-Colonies of Britain, In Mair C 2003, The Politics of English as a World Language: New Horizons in Postcolonial Cultural Studies, 337-58, Rodopi, New York, and In Saunders B M 2007, (Post) Colonial Language: English, Sinhala, and Tamil in Sri Lanka: available at:

[2] Brutt-Griffler J 2002, Class, Ethnicity, and Language Rights: An Analysis of British Colonial Policy in Lesotho and Sri Lanka and Some Implications for Language Policy, In Journal of Language, Identity, and Education. 1, 3, 207-34.

[3] Ross R R and Savada A M 2002, Sri Lanka: A Country Study, In Nubin W 2002, Sri Lanka: Current Issues and Historical Background, 169, Nova Science Publishers, New York.

[4] Bopage L 1977, A Marxist Analysis of the National Question, 32, Niyamuwa Publications, Sri Lanka

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