18 May, 2022


Sinhalese & Tamils: The Widening Gulf

By Rajan Hoole

Dr. Rajan Hoole

Dr. Rajan Hoole

Southern Perceptions Mid – 1983

What became increasingly conspicuous in the run up to the 1983 holocaust was the widening divergence in Sinhalese and Tamil perceptions. A common standard seemed to have become out of reach. Among the Sinhalese, as seen in press editorials and letters to the editor, the drift was that the Tamils were passively or otherwise supporting the terrorists, and to meet such a situation, anything goes. Perhaps without fully realising where it was leading them to, the Government too encouraged this. It diverted attention from the rigged Referendum of December 1982, the Government’s lack of legitimacy, the violence at the bye-elections of May and its cavalier attitude to democratic norms. There was a two way relationship in extremism in public sentiment as articulated by the media on the one hand and by the Government on the other. Each seemed to feed the intemperateness of the other. By mid-July the obsession with terrorism as Tamil terrorism seemed to supersede everything else. President Jayewardene’s interview to the Daily Telegraph of London (Sect. 4.5) about his no longer being able to take into account the lives of Tamils or ‘their opinion about us’, had the effect of raising the flag for a showdown. The Press and even the SLFP seemed to have swallowed the bait, and were rallying to the standard either vocally or passively. The UNP Government of Jayewardene’s had thus silenced opposition in the South and had secured temporary conformity; but at a disastrous price.

As for Tamil opinion, it seemed to have largely opted out of trying to find expression in the mainline media. The Jaffna-based Saturday Review was perhaps the most spirited exponent of the Tamil point of view. The fact that it was sealed under the PSO on 2nd July 1983 with hardly a whimper of protest from the Southern media was a sign of what the country was sliding towards. It is also notable that on the eve of the July holocaust, Amirthalingam pointed out that the English Press had in recent times failed to publish his letters written to the President in his capacity as Leader of the Opposition. In those times these letters accurately detailed events in the North-East, and offered a different perspective.

We first give a few examples that point to the two-way interaction between public opinion as represented in the media and the rulers.

The Island of 19th May 1983 carried a letter by A. de Silva of Wadduwa on suggestions to stop terrorism in the North. His main suggestions were the following:

Declare Emergency in the North and East. Send Army and Police reinforcements to hunt terrorists and kill at sight. Colonise the so-called Traditional Tamil Homelands with Sinhalese. Declare once and for all that under no circumstances will Eelam ever be given. The cost of maintaining the security forces in the North must be recovered by a special tax on the residents. Pay no compensation to the victims of terrorism [presumably civilian victims of counter-terrorist actions] as the former [i.e. civilians] refuse to give information.

It may be noted that some of the key suggestions became more or less open government policy from mid-1984 under Lalith Athulathmudali as National Security Minister.
Just after the commencement of relatively small scale communal violence in Trincomalee, Colombo and elsewhere, the Sun of 4th June carried an editorial that showed genuine alarm at the prospect of spreading communal violence and the upsurge of lawlessness:

“Besides the careless gibberish that usual rumour mongers resort to, there are also rabble rousers and sinister inciters who seem to be very busy these days. Compounding the crisis are habitual ‘goondas’ who would be in their element to take advantage of communal tension…In fact some of the cowardly acts of violence that have already taken place in some of the provincial towns are the work of these loathsome vermin. The authorities must also keep a vigilant eye on the activities of political bankrupts who can add their mischievous mite to create chaos that may be advantageous to their own anarchical objectives…”

But in the Sun editorial of 14th July there was a sharp change in tone. It made reference to the Massachusetts resolution. The immediate pretext as evident in the contents was President Jayewardene’s interview in the Daily Telegraph with its strong extra-legal thrust. In early June Jayewardene had, however, still been talking about the need for discipline in the Armed Forces. The 14th July editorial titled ‘All out war on Terrorism’ ran as follows:

“Up to now the President’s patience has outdone even that of the much praised Job of the Bible. We shall not quibble on this delay now that he has spoken strongly on the side of law and order and the need – once and for all – to ensure that this sovereign land shall continue to be a unitary state…

“Take the business world, the professional world and the service world. They are all heavily weighted with Tamils in whose name the misinformed representatives of Massachusetts have dared to resolve that this unitary state be bifurcated because Tamils are being discriminated against…

“It is said that a lie often repeated assumes the proportions of truth. Goebbels was a master of this art. Today an insignificant clerk turned lawyer turned a saviour of his race named Krishna Vaikunthavasan residing in London uses vast sums of money gained by ‘extortion’ from law abiding Tamils living abroad and in Lanka to do what Goebbels did for Hitler.

“Only a thin line divides the so-called responsible politicians calling for separation and the terrorists. Both profess the same aim: the treasonous act of dividing this country. The future of this country cannot be left in the hands of such Judases who in their cowardice have opted to hunt with the hounds and run with the hares…”

What is left unsaid in this restatement of popular Sinhalese prejudices are the actual words from Jayewardene’s interview – “Now we can’t think of them [the Tamils]. Not about their lives…” – which was referred to with approval. A part of the prejudice against the lawyer, Vaikunthavasan – a well known Tamil activist at that time – is again class prejudice, that he started life as a clerk. Vaikunthavasan became famous through a historic stunt in the late 1970s. He had spent time in New York getting to know the ropes at the UN, and by some smart foot- work, got into the UN General Assembly just ahead of the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister A.C.S. Hameed. He had delivered a good part of a prepared speech in Hameed’s place before being found out. Vaikunthavasan was largely a one- man-show. There were no ‘extortion’ rackets at that time and accusing Vaikunthavasan of such is extremely unfair.

The references suggesting that the Tamils were so privileged as to have a stranglehold on the economy were totally unfounded. During the violence that followed later in the month, Tamil establishments, particularly in Colombo, were systematically attacked. The Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel frankly admitted that the economy had received a serious setback. But this was more in the way of investor confidence. The immediate reduction in employment estimated by de Mel was 5% (Island 06.08.83).

Similar charges about Tamil privilege, albeit in a very restricted sector of the economy, are made by T.D.S.A. Dissanayaka in his War or Peace in Sri Lanka of 1995. He states that in certain government departments and in junior bank positions where locals were employed, there were more Tamils than Sinhalese at Independence, and charges that the British and their Tamil underlings discriminated against the Sinhalese. With his stated penchant for balance Dissanayaka adds the following (p. 6):

“Some kind of retaliation was inevitable and the first blow on behalf of the Sinhalese was struck way back in the decade of the 1930s by the Leader of the State Council, Mr. D.S. Senanayake…

“As Minister for Agriculture, he was responsible for the rehabilitation of disused tanks, e.g. Minneriya (1932), Parakrama Samudraya (1936) etc. in the North-Central Province. In 1938, when he completed the rehabilitation of the Pavat Kulam in Vavuniya in the Northern Province, and the Kantalai Kulam in the Eastern Province, not unemployed Tamils, but the unemployed Sinhalese from Mirigama and Dedigama [his electorate and that of his son Dudley], and Sinhalese ruffians from Waskaduwa and Gandara, were rehabilitated in Vavuniya and Kantalai. The Tamil community resented this move bitterly. Two wrongs do not make a right…”

If D. S. Senanayake did see the Tamils as being privileged, and this was his way of righting a wrong, it only shows the feudal mindset and flawed vision of the ruling class. For, let us move from impressions to something concrete.

In 1959 the number of schools by centres offering science education at university entrance level were as follows: Galle – 4, Jaffna – 29, Colombo – 54 and Kandy – 15 (see Education and Human Rights in Sri Lanka, by K. Nesiah, 1982). Galle covers a populous region that has been at the head of two Sinhalese youth insurgencies. This was the situation after nearly 40 years of representative government, 30 years of self-rule under universal adult franchise and 15 years of compulsory universal free education. It may also be noted that the majority of the 29 schools in Jaffna offering science rose to that status from small beginnings under dedicated principals; several of whom had been influenced by Gandhian ideals, and were earlier active in the Jaffna Youth Congress. These men welcomed and actively used the 1944 Free Education Act to raise the standard of their schools so that they became second to none other in the country. Earlier science, even in Jaffna, had been the monopoly of a handful of Christian mission schools.

How does one then explain the earlier backwardness of the South (Galle), despite the fact that science teachers from Jaffna were available for any programme to expand science education in the South? The answer is surely that the Sinhalese ruling class could not think otherwise than in feudal terms and had no notion of modernising the economy. Their notions of getting even with the Tamils were therefore populist distractions based on prejudices and partial truths.

*To be continued..

*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power – Myth, Decadence and Murder” published in Jan. 2001. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To read earlier parts click here

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Latest comments

  • 2

    I was in a numerically small school where our classes had Sinhalese and Tamils in the same class. It is certainly true that the Tamil students worked harder. We got on all right, with the Muslim students, too.

    After we left school we became conscious of some Tamils imagining that they were genetically more intelligent than us Sinhalese. It was irritating to hear such talk, but I don’t think that I took it seriously. Motivation and demotivation can be owing to a variety of reasons. My father’s death when I was only 14 certainly shattered me, but it made my sisters, two years and four years younger, determined to succeed. And so it turned out to be.

    As for the mood in 1983, it is certainly true that many Sinhalese felt that the Tamils had an unfair advantage with good schools in the North. My own background did not allow me to agree with such thinking, but by that time I had been a “village school master” for a dozen years, so I was conscious of the hardening attitude; the July ’83 riots did not take me by surprise.

  • 2

    Are yoreferring to the ‘Sinhalaya Modaya, Kavung Kanda Yodaya’ phase of Tamil government servant politics?

    The ones who propagated myth were the mirror image of those on the Sinhala side Dr.Rajan Hoole is referring too.

    I sometimes ask, who are the modayas, where we stand today? I believe that all of us-Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and others, have been made ‘ Absolute Modayas’ by our politicians. We are victims of their dastardly politics.


  • 2

    Sinhala Man.

    I used to often think how on Earth are we going to solve this ever increasing rift between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. Change of attitudes of each group with respect to each other? Constitutional avenues to bring about amity?
    As for one who has seen the best of both worlds-Sinhalese and Tamil as a kid of ten I am now a confirmed pessimist!
    Only hope is Global Warming!

    • 2

      There is hope!
      American consumption and Chinese production will fulfill your wish.

  • 0


    “American consumption and Chinese production will fulfill your wish.”

    It is even better when Hindu rate of growth catches up with Deng Xiaoping’s atheist rate of growth.


    It doesn’t matter whether a cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice.

    – Deng Xiaoping

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