30 November, 2023


The Early Stages Of The Sinhala-Tamil Rift, 1931-1970s

By Michael Roberts

Dr. Michael Roberts

The factors promoting political agitation among the Sri Lankan Tamils since the 1920s, particularly the developments after Sri Lanka secured independence in 1948, have inspired a large literature.[1] Three turning points in the temporal progression of this agitation have often been marked: one in 1956 when an electoral transformation helped enshrine Sinhala as the language of administration and placed the majority Sinhalese peoples in a dominant position in the political dispensation; secondly, in the early 1970s when militant Tamils placed secession at the forefront of their demands; and, thirdly, in July 1983 when an anti-Tamil pogrom in the Sinhalese-majority regions that involved state functionaries as well as people from many walks of life alienated the mass of Tamils and sparked an expansion in the militant separatist struggle.[2]

The reviews invariably insert more fine-grained temporal markers in identifying specific measures of commission or omission which generated Sri Lankan Tamil anger and led the principal Tamil party called, by the 1970s, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), to proclaim in May 1976 that their ultimate goal was a separate state, identified as Thamilīlam (Eelam in short).

Invariably, too, there is debate among analysts about the degree of discrimination that the Tamils faced in independent Sri Lanka. That the Sinhala-Only Act had a serious economic impact and reduced the opportunities for Sri Lankan Tamils to enter or advance in the administration services in subsequent decades is undoubted.[3] The political weight of this disadvantage was deepened by two factors: (a) by the pernicious influence of chauvinist Sinhala administrators (e.g. N. Q. Dias[4]) and politicians within the new administrative order, ramifying patronage actions that favoured Sinhalese personnel from their own political parties or kin networks;[5] and (b) the enormous– and quite absurd — degree to which the Sri Lankan middle classes from all ethnic groups valued jobs in the government sector – at least till the 1980s.

This culturally-rooted leaning towards governmental jobs informed popular Tamil assessments of privilege and power defined in ethnic terms. Whatever the economic indices carefully worked out by scholars (e. g. Sriskandarajah 2005, Peiris 2006, chap. 18), it was the experiential world of everyday interaction that informed perception and the political exploitation of these sentiments. In the Sinhala-majority districts the high proportion of Tamils in high visibility departments such as Public Works, Railway and Survey,[6] the Ceylon Civil Service and even the clerical rungs of the administrative services during the 1940s and 1950s was the phenomenon that coloured comment[7] and served as the foundation for the political agitation that led to the primacy given to the Sinhala language.

One must not forget that the upsurge of Sinhala linguistic nationalism occurred within thrusts directed against the overwhelming predominance of the English language in island society and the hegemonic position of the Westernized English- speaking classes. Thus, the pressure developed within a broader movement in the 1950s by the marginalised underprivileged classes seeking to dethrone the privileges of the English-educated classes. The socialist hues within the language politics of the 1950s gave the Sinhala Only programme a wider legitimacy that it may have otherwise lacked.

The transformation effected in 1956, as we know, gave advantages to Sinhala speakers, while affirming the hegemonic position of the Sinhalese in the island polity.[8] This in turn generated Tamil grievances – not only because of the reduction of job-opportunities in the public sector, but because of the symbolic primacy accorded to the Sinhala language in a context in which “status” and “power” were intimately conjoined; and a context where the Sinhala nationalist agitation was underpinned by the conviction that they were the island’s original inhabitants so that Sinhalese primacy was regarded as a natural right. It is for this reason that the sense of “betrayal” and humiliation displayed by Tamil spokesmen during the course of political cross-talk in the period 1956-61 must be given weight (De Votta 2004: 88- 89, 109, 115, 120).

I have been among those who have stressed the significance of discriminatory policies in leading to the emergence of Tamil separatism (Roberts 1988: 43, 46). But I have also noted that the young Tamils who moved to an extreme position, insisted that the Colombo-based Tamil leaders had let the Tamils down and then concluded that the Tamils residing in the south were of no consequence to the needs of the hour were far too hasty.[9] These Tamil young men were as dedicated as they were obdurate. Hence, their stance in effect implanted a condition of polarization. That is, this tiny minority inexorably committed the Tamil people to war, aided and abetted by the remarkable indifference to Tamil sentiments and their explosive potential displayed by Mrs Bandaranaike’s government (1970-77). I stress here that the implications of such extreme militancy were clear to me (and a few others) as far back as 1973/74 and led to a pessimistic evaluation of the Sri Lankan political scene.[10]


One of the pieces of ethnographic information that led me towards concern and pessimism while at Peradeniya University in 1972/73 was the fact that some Jaffna youth had told Jane Russell (then a Ph.D candidate at Peradeniya University under Professor KM de Silva) that as far as they were concerned the Tamil leaders and others in Colombo could die. In brief, they had moved to the extreme pole. There were no limits to their political action. Since I knew that there were Sinhala extremists at the opposite pole, while some intellectuals at Peradeniya University with close links to the United Front government had told me the country only faced an economic problem and that there was no such thing as an ethnic problem, the conclusion I reached was straightforward: Sri Lanka was in deep shit.


De Silva, K. M. 1986 Managing Ethnic Tensions in Multi-ethnic Societies. Sri Lanka 1880-1985, Lanham: University Press of America.

De Votta, Neil 2004 Blowback. Linguistic Nationalism, Institutional Decay and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Jayaweera, Neville 2008 “Into the Turbulence of Jaffna,” chapter in his Reminicenses,” unpub. book in preparation.

Kearney, Robert N. 1967 Communalism and Language in the Politics of Ceylon, Durham, N C: Duke University Press.

Narayan Swamy, M. R. 1994. Tigers of Sri Lanka, Delhi: Konark Publishers Pvt Ltd.

Peiris, Gerald H. 2006 Sri Lanka: Challenges of the New Millennium, Kandy: Kandy Books. Peiris

Phadnis, Urmila 1976 Religion and Politics in Sri Lanka, Delhi: Manohar.

Rāgavan 2009a “Interview with Rāgavan on Tamil Militancy (Early  Years),” http://kafila.org/2009/02/16/interview-with-Rāgavanon-tamil-militancy-part-i/

Rāgavan 2009b “Prabhakaran’s Timekeeping. Memories of a Much-mythologised Rebel Leader by a Former LTTE Fighter,” Sunday Leader, 24 May 2009.

Roberts, Michael 1978 “Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka and Sinhalese Perspectives: Barriers to Accommodation,” Modern Asian Studies 12: 353-76.

Roberts, Michael 1979 “Meanderings in the Pathways of Collective Identity and Nationalism,” in M. Roberts (ed.) Collective Identities, Nationalisms and Protest in Modern Sri Lanka, Colombo: Marga Publications, pp. 1-90.

Roberts, Michael 1982 Caste Conflict and Elite Formation. The Rise of a Karāva Elite in Sri Lanka, 1500-1931, Cambridge University Press.

Roberts, Michael 1988 “Sri Lanka: Ethnic Conflict and Political Crisis,” A Review Article, Ethnic Studies Report 6: 40-62.

Roberts, Michael 1996 “Filial Devotion and the Tiger Cult of Suicide,” Contributions to Indian Sociology 30: 245-72.

Roberts, Michael 2006 “The Tamil Movement for Eelam,” E-Bulletin of the International Sociological Association, July 2006, 4: 12-24.

Roberts, Michael 2012 “Inspirations: Hero Figures and Hitler in Young Pirapāharan’s Thinking,” 13 February 2012, http://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2012/02/13/inspirations-hero-figures-and-hitler-in-youngpirapaharans-thinking/.

Sabāratnam, T. 2003 Pirapāharan, [a biography in chapter segments] serialised in http://www.sangam.org/index_orig.html.

Sabāratnam, T. 2009 “Beginnings of Violence,” draft chapter from his book in press — kindly sent to me.

Samaraweera, Vijaya 1974 “The Role of the Bureaucracy,” Ceylon Journal of Historical & Social Studies n.s., 4: 31-39.

Wriggins, Howard 1960 Ceylon. Dilemmas of a New Nation, Princeton: Princeton University Press.


*The text above is taken word-for-word from the first three pages of a chapter entitled “Inspirations and Caste Threads in the early LTTE,” in Roberts, Tamil Person and Sfate, Essays, Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2014 … ISBN 978-955-665-230-7. It is placed here as a separate essay so that readers can focus on its implications. It should also put to rest those views that see the roots of the present conflict in July 1983. Quite incidentally it indicates that the early currents of Tamil extremism had a chequered history in terms of continuity. In this chequered character the stream of consciousness linking the Pulip Padai to the TNT and other associations of the 1970s has some similarities to those linking the Jatika Chintanaya of the 1980s through to the Hela Urumaya, Sihala Urmumaya and BBS in the period 1980s -to-2010s.

1. This article was originally drafted in 2009 and was inspired by the writings of T. Sabāratnam, Rāgavan, Tekwāni and DBS Jeyarāj; and was materially assisted by the information conveyed by email and/or phone by the following: S. V. Kasynāthan, T. Sabāratnam, Rāgavan, Nalliah Suriyakumāran and Dayān Jayatilleka. Kasynāthan also commented on a draft paper and made valuable suggestions. All errors remain my responsibility. More recently, the improvement of this article has benefited from information and comments from (1) Robert Siddharthan Perinpanayagam, a sociologist whose experience spans the 1940s-2000s and (2) Arun Ambalavanar who brings to this topic his experience as a young man of lower-middle class status who lived in the Jaffna Peninsula in the 1980s.

2. Kearney 1967; K. M. de Silva 1986; Roberts, Ethnic Conflict, 1988; Sabāratnam 2001; De Votta 2004 and Roberts, Tamil Movement, 2006.

3. K. M. de Silva 1986: 365; Roberts, Ethnic Conflict, 1988: 43, 46; MerrilGunaratne 2001: 18; De Votta 2004: 122-30; Sriskandarajah 2005: 350-51.

4. For a brilliant bio-sketch of   N.Q. Dias, see Neville Jayaweera, “Into the Turbulence of Jaffna,” chapter  in his Reminiscenses,” unpublished book, 2008.

5. Samaraweera 1974 and De Votta 2004: chap. 5.

6. As emphasised in Roberts, Ethnic Conflict, 1988: 46. Peiris, too, identifies “daily interactions” involving the “ordinary people,” other than perhaps the “city working class,” as the arena that generated interpretations of relative privilege (2006: 437-38). Note, too, that the Burghers were disproportionately prominent in such areas as Customs, Excise, Police, Army, etc during the 1940s and 1950s.

7. The ethnic distribution of government servants could also be counted readily by academics and others (e.g. Tambiah 1955) to highlight the large shares held by Tamils in the early years of independence, whereas the large share of coconut and rubber plantations in Sinhalese hands was not that readily measured (see Roberts 1982 and 1979 for the British period).

8. See Wriggins 1960; Kearney  1967; K. M. de Silva 1986; Phadnis 1976; and especially De Votta 2004: 128, 135, 142 & 167.

9. Roberts, Ethnic Conflict, 1988: 50-51; Biographical Epilogne, 1994b: 335; and “Tamil Movement,” 2006: 12-14. Note, too, that in retrospective and introspective analysis, Rāgavan has this to say about his universe of being in the early 1970s: “Due to the lack of political commitment from the TULF leadership a political gap was created and inexperienced adventurous middle class youths took up the role to fill the gap, which in turn created Tamil militancy” (in Kadirgamar 2009).

10. As one of the organising hands in the Ceylon Studies Seminar at Peradeniya University, I was among those who set up a whole-day seminar in Colombo on “The Sinhala Tamil Problem” in early October 1973. This event deepened my pessimism and led to a black concluding note in an essay drafted in Germany in the summer of 1976 (see Roberts, Sinhalese Perspectives, 1978a). This article has been reprinted in the collection organised in Volume II  of the five-volume series edited by Subrata K. Mitra, Politics of Modern South Asia. Critical Issues in Modern Politics, London & NY

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Latest comments

  • 0

    M Roberts is born anti- Sinhalese elite . All his an essays that fact searching in favors to Tamil Ethnic race to be promoted that partition of Island for Separatist State…..for .Tamils?
    Roberts want makes this return of the Tamil Nation-state in the heart of Indian Ocean. So it will be complicated is that you cannot leap from Tamil dictatorship and no experiences of arm’s-length administration through Political-Constitutional maneuvering that almost automatically be ” Tamil homeland” being into NORTH -EAST…….Sri lanka..

    Indeed moderately democratic an opposed Tamil Eealm, while but Roberts know very well that “Tamil Homeland” cannot do all of that by overnight. The process was long path of “Tamil homeland” for Western Road map the very foundation laid by time British colonial rulers since exit from our mother land in 1948?
    The Roberts has been penetrated into that Road map, will be long the Center of Tamil national aspiration which is near Tamil Nadu of that in location of South tip of Indian Republic. For those of Tamils who are not part of Indian Republic. But it is easy to feel the depth emotion Tamil in Nadu that provoke inside Tamils in that Republic of Indian

    And so they are caught up “Tamil Homeland” in dramas that many Western White Nation and their countries put behind them a Several decades ago!
    What we are now experiencing after 30 war launch by Tamil LTTE that Ruthless terrorist is not therefor a little blip of Tamil nationalism or a deathbed revival of LTTE-TNA new revival encouraging by Roberts.

    This is 70 years of Separatist of Tamil which an attempts has turn into currently that full Constitutional process that undertaken by new political task leadership of so-called “legal opposition” of TNA!

  • 9

    “the Tamil Diaspora is of course a Sinhala extremist creation. It is the direct product of the anti-Tamil riots of 1958 and 1983. If not for those attacks, the Tamil middle and upper middle classes would not have wished to migrate and the doors of the West would not have been opened for them. ” Dayan Jayatilleka

    “Without the Sinhala Only, the Tiger may have remained unborn. Without the Black July, the Tiger may not have grown exponentially. If the B-C Pact and the D-C Pact did not miscarry (thanks to the midwifery of Sinhala extremism), the LTTE, even if it was born, would have remained a fringe group” Tisaranee Gunasekara

  • 3

    Sinhalese politicians started cheating Tamils from around 1920 and it continues.

  • 7

    In 1956, at the age of 17, after passing the then English medium G.C.E. (O.L.), I applied to join a closed Government department. I was one of the 1200 odd candidates who sat for the open competitive examination. I was called for viva in Colombo and was only questioned about my Sinhala knowledge and why I had not studied Sinhala.. Subsequently, I got my appointment letter and I joined the Department. Later, I learnt that I came first in the written test, but was ranked 8th, after the interview, 7 Sinhalese candidates overtaking me in seniority. I continued to work in the same Department, until my retirement – but facing discrimination at every level. I was denied increments for failure to pass Sinhala proficiency tests, purposely failed in the Departmental examination, when it was held for the first time in Sinhala also (Up to then it was in English only) and even denied my due promotions on the due dates. In selection of Officers to go on scholarship and higher studies, I was not selected though I was the most qualified. Even after my retirement, my pension was delayed for flimsy reasons by those who had worked with me. All this, because I am a Tamil. I also suffered severely in the hands of Sinhala goons in 1958, 1977 and 1983. After suffering in silence, while in Sri Lanka, I have now migrated and living peacefully. Am I wrong in leaving my native Country?


    • 6


      First of all, you are not wrong in leaving your native country and you should not feel guilty. You are not the first, and you won’t be the last. This country did not value you, and did not deserve your selfless service. Moreover, you are not the only one.

      I know first hand of the many despicable acts that were committed against innocent people in the late forties and fifties, and I remember the one question that was posed in my peer group after the terrible events of May 1958; how long can our Tamil brethren suffer these injustices?

      It is to our eternal shame that our Tamil community had to endure the indignities visited on them. Further, to hear the constant accusation that the Tamils created the problem is to absolve the devious Sinhala politicians who manipulated events and thrived on the chaos that followed when elements of the Tamil community responded in the way they did. Sinhala politicians and their leaders created discord in the Tamil community to suit their ends; they thrived on chaos, knowing full well that the feral element of the Sinhalese community will always follow them blindly.

      Even today, when ‘war’ is absent, there is at best an uneasy peace. Sinhala politicians and their leaders are replaying all the old cards that led to all the earlier anguish. The number of politicians who look to a future of true reconciliation and harnessing ALL of national human resources are in the minority.

      More people from ALL our communities will continue to leave this land taking their talent, and that of their children to enrich other more welcoming countries. Most of those who return will only do so to spend their pensions and have the satisfaction of drawing their last breath in the land of their birth. What a damning verdict!

      Vela, enjoy your well deserved retirement wherever you have chosen; the guilt for those leaving must lie with the despicable uncaring politicians of Sri Lanka.

  • 3

    In the Department where I had worked since 1956, when a good number of Tamils, though not majority, had worked in different cadres, the recruitment of Tamils to different cadres had been intentionally reduced over the years and now stands at much below the percentage of Tamils in Sri Lanka. I understand that this is the case in almost all Government Departments in Sri Lanka.

    • 5

      Vela, the first institution to start discriminating Tamils in promotions was Education department. My father though a brilliant officer and sought after for advice by the higher officers and ministers was discriminated at every turn when promotions came up. Junior less competent Sinhala officers were promoted above him and he suffered in silence. In 1961 when he was appointed the head of Kandy regional office, Sinhalese protested and his appointment was cancelled. This is how Tamils were treated.

  • 2

    Dear Author and all readers,
    Even today the thinking of the top executives in the Yahapalanaya Government from 2015 has the same old mentality towards the Tamils. They only made a twist in January 2015 to save their friends found to have committed crime and for getting an momentary benefit. If they are true to their commitment they made for coming to power, they would have promptly saved the Country and stopped further corruption and crime. Instead they themselves are promoting crime and corruption. There is no reason other than the same old ulterior tendencies for allowing more crime and corruption. You can be well assured they are bound to continue the same treatment they give Tamils because the politicians are the same and the Police, Army, Navy, and Air force are the same specially trained for their bad purpose. They are bound to continue with the same crime until and unless they get overturned with an intervention of the International community.

  • 0

    Michael Roberts is treading the same path walked by several others.
    The conflict was not between Sinhalese and Tamils but between Sinhalese and Sinhalese in which the hapless Tamils were the punching bags.
    After some seventy years an exclusive Sinhala Armed services and near exclusive police service has come about. All positions of importance mainly in corruption are exclusive. Why the hell are the Tamils getting punched now?
    The answer is there Michael. It was always a home vs home game with several self-goals scored with impunity.

  • 0

    Actually, at the dawn of the 20th century people like Ponnambalam Ramanathan had ambitions of a separate state, along with ideas of gender inequality and casteism (even though the most senior local government servant was accepted as a national leader). His brother Ponnambalam Arunachalam, a liberal in comparison also chose the communal approach later in life igniting the term ‘Tamil Eelam’ !!

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