8 June, 2023


Politics Getting Nuttier – II: The Impact Of War On Demography And The Implications For Women

By Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

The two drivers of a country’s population are natural increase (the difference between births and deaths) and migration increase (the difference between immigration and emigration). While it should be obvious that Sri Lanka’s population has been affected by both natural and migration changes throughout its history, it is also useful to keep in mind that enumerating the island’s population began only under British rule in the 19th century. The first recorded estimates show that in 1827 there were 895,000 people leaving in the island. While again mentioning the obvious that the population has since burgeoned by nearly 25 times, I would also point out that our historical memories could benefit from more than a modicum of modesty if we realize how much fewer people would have been living in the island at the time of the arrival of European imperialists.

Even though British administrators quite cavalierly divided the island’s population into about 100, what they called, “racial” groups, the broad geographical distribution of the population in 1827 showed that 595,000 people were living in the Maritime Provinces (400,000 in “Sinhalese districts” and 195,000 in “Tamil districts”) and 290,000 in the Kandyan Provinces. When the first modern census was undertaken in 1871, the island’s population had grown to 2.4 million people. Starting from mid-19th century till independence in 1948, Sri Lanka’s population changes have been significantly affected by migration increases. In fact, migration increase exceeded natural increase during two decades in the late 19th century: 1871-1881 and 1891-1901. This was primarily due to the influx of Tamils from South India to work on the tea plantations. The influx gradually declined and totally ended by the time of independence. There were two significant phases of outmigration in the 20th century. The population of Indian Moors declined from 239,000 in 1931 to 36,000 in 1946. The expatriation of the Indian Tamils began after the 1964 Sirima-Shastri Pact and about a half of them (750,000) were expatriated to India and the rest have finally been given citizenship in Sri Lanka. Natural increase and not migration increase has been the driving factor in the expansion of the Sinhalese population – from 2.3 million (65%) in 1901 to over 15 million (75%) today. As I pointed out last week, the majority status of the Sinhalese in the island is under no threat and there is no need to bandy the bogey of Muslim expansion.

What is more pertinent to the discussion I started last week are the demographic changes that have come about after 1981, which was the last ‘stable year’ for census enumeration. The riots of 1983 and the 25 years of war that followed have led to the out-migration of a significant number of Sri Lankan Tamils. The war and the tsunami of 2004 caused unusually high number of deaths and internal displacements of people. The war has also destroyed the physical resources and the social fabric in the northern and eastern provinces. The large numbers of war widows and half-widows (women whose husbands are considered missing as there has been no confirmation of their death), physically and visually impaired women and men, the gender imbalances, and children without parents or in single-parent households, have created their own social and demographic consequences.

The demographic changes after 1981 have not been properly documented or analysed and the blame for this omission should be laid against the present government more than any of its predecessors. After the end of the war in 2009 the government has exclusively focused on the economically questionable and socially irrelevant development of the physical infrastructure, while neglecting the more urgent need of repairing the tattered social fabric in war affected areas. The government has been singularly reluctant, much of the time even refusing, to account for the human effects of the war, which is necessary to fulfill the humanitarian obligations of the state and to systematically carry out the task of rebuilding the war-affected Northern and Eastern Provinces. Worse, the government has done everything to frustrate and undermine the elected Northern Provincial Council, and in so doing has prevented the first elected body of the Tamils in the Northern Province from doing even the most basic humanitarian work among its people. Instead, the government is continuing to rule the north through the army in what is turning out to be the continuation of war by other means. Politics in these circumstances becomes nutty without humour, speculative without purpose, and cynical without convictions. The musings over population and polygamy are to be seen in this light rather than as manifestations of some farfetched nationalist project. The people in the Northern and Eastern Provinces are more in a state of nature than on a nationalist march. Where Tamils are matters more than how they got there, calling for empathy and understanding rather than hectoring and self-righteous critiques.

The implications for women

If women’s burdens are extraordinary in ordinary times, they become even more extraordinary in extraordinary times. In war affected societies women are forced to bear the brunt of war’s disruptions as widows and in single-parent households. There are close to 90,000 widows and 40,000 households headed by widows and ‘half-widows’ (women with missing husbands) among the Tamils in the North and East. 20,000 of these households are in the Jaffna District alone. These numbers are proportionately more staggering than the 680,000 widows that France was left with at the end of the First World War when its population was 40 million. What is remarkable is that in dealing with the plights of war widows and children without parents, France laid the foundation to becoming an exemplary modern welfare state. The women themselves became organized and active and went on to spawn even broader progressive initiatives towards achieving female suffrage and feminist equality. Children became “Wards of the Nation” and were looked after by the State not only because it was considered to be the State’s sacred duty, but also because it was recognized as necessary to reconstituting the nation’s professional elite. Other European countries have also had similar experiences. The continent that allowed itself to be ruled on the premise that war is a continuation of politics by other means for much of its history, had instituted a system of pensions for war widows going back at least to the 18th century. Admittedly, these were wars between states and the winners and losers were still left with the support of their respective states to recuperate from the disruptions of war.

What happens after an internal war when the state that won the war refuses to attend to the social and political issues facing the side that lost the war? And when that state arrogantly asserts that poverty is a countrywide phenomenon and war victims are entitled to basic poverty alleviation measures only and not the restoration of their properties and livelihoods that were taken away from them during the war? Or when it ignorantly insists that war victims should learn to look after themselves from the dubious spinoffs of state-led developments – building roads, hotels, tourist resorts, and fancy restaurants and shopping malls? The reality is that development initiatives are not benefiting the people of the area, but outside contractors and commission agents while feeding state corruption. The irony is also that crimes are multiplying after the war that ended without war crimes. Abductions, rapes and killings continue despite, or because of, the entrenched presence of the military. Freedom fighters turned government supporters are making money doing pimp service for the military. Suicides, prostitution and child labour have become the social responses to life’s challenges.

There are no magic answers to these questions. And looking for a separate state is not an option for people suffering on the ground; it is the escape route for long distance day dreamers. Even imagining a way out of the present crisis is impossible without involving the agency of the elected Northern Provincial Council. Without the material and institutional resources that are sorely needed for substantial reforms, would it be possible to envisage and enable cultural changes and shifts that would at least symbolically alleviate the miseries of women? Changes that we could envisage are those promoting tolerance, eliminating the stigma and shame associated with widowhood, and fostering opportunities and forums for women to speak their own mind and assert their own priorities. Promoting these changes will also put an end to wild and ill-informed speculations by men about polygamy, polygyny, or polyandry.

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  • 1

    Thank you Rajan Philips for the write-up. I could not have articulated so well. Hope someone with authority will take note.
    daya thevi

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