A premise of the structural change – “nation-building” – the nationalist Sinhalese elite set out to achieve was to re-order the hierarchy of cultural groups or peoples, whose elites had been notionally equal in Ceylon’s society under British rule. It excluded in stages sections of the variegated non-Sinhalese populations by re-classifying each as an “outsider”. The exclusionary push re-cast Malaiyaha Tamils, on whose labour the plantation economy was built and rests today, as “Tamils of Recent Indian Origin” or “aliens” and disenfranchised them in 1948. That served two further purposes: it alleviated the Kandyan Sinhalese elite’s angst of being electorally swamped and cut the political Left off at its knees (large sections of Malaiyaha Tamil workers backed the Left in the 1947 parliamentary elections). For good measure the political class expelled an estimated 280,000 to India under the 1964 Sirima-Shastri Pact in violation of their fundamental rights.
Ceylon Tamils, by implication, became “Tamils of Ancient Indian Origin” or “quasi-aliens” in the re-ordered communal hierarchy whilst Muslims, reduced simplistically to “descendants” of alien Arab traders. So far, the Sinhalese and Tamil Christians have not been redefined as descendants of European invaders.
A scion of a feudalist Sinhalese family, a product of the fabled Lumumba University and a one-time academic colleague sincerely attempted to dispel our seeming confusion over the emergent hierarchy with a touching metaphor: how could a [Tamil] tenant claim ownership of the front room that the [Sinhalese] home owner so kindly rented out?
The dominant narrative of the nationalist Sinhalese elite contended that they and their people – the bhoomi puthras (“sons of the soil”) – are the sole “nation” on the Island who by that right deserved to perch at the top of the food chain. The other two elites and their peoples, re-defined as “minorities”, are entitled at best to formal equality under the law.
The elite’s celebration of bhoomi puthras of course did not bring tears to eyes at the plight of their suffering middle and working classes, including peasant farmers. Rather an objective was to mobilise their mass support in the street, where political power is actually rooted. The Kandy March led by J.R. Jayawardene and Ranasinghe Premadasa against the 1957 Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam (BC) Pact was the elite’s a demonstration of street power, of muscle-flexing crafted to intimidate and cow down the Tamil and Muslim elites as well as to sabotage the rudimentary efforts of an upright group mainly in the political Left to resolve the crisis that necessitated the BC Pact.
The Burghers, of European colonisers/settlers’ descent, were ostracised next. They were branded as proxies of the colonial Master, whom the landed classes had cozied up to and the nationalist Sinhalese elite lacked the temerity to battle against. After the Master’s departure in 1948, the newly-brave nationalists belatedly vented their frustrations on the defenceless Burghers and goaded them to foreign shores. As our long-time Burgher friend quipped in jest, “they [Sinhalese] didn’t have the good sense to hold our women back”.
If Burghers lacked the demographic heft to resist their subordination in the maturing communal hierarchy, Tamils and Muslims on the other hand challenged the Sinhalese elite’s emergent new order.
We examined how the nationalist Sinhalese elite manipulated the criterion of language to buttress their hegemony and justify their new hierarchy. The authoritarian political culture inevitably extended to re-structuring religious groups in a descending order that highlighted the fault line between the Buddhist and non-Buddhist Sinhalese elites. The Sinhala-Buddhist faction, with practiced élan, swiftly cemented their hegemonic position over Hindus, Muslims and Christians (both Sinhalese and Tamil) in their 1972 Constitution by decreeing Buddhism – that meant, in practice, the Sinhala-Buddhist elite – shall occupy the “Foremost Place”.
Their mainstream intelligentsia cheerfully extended a not inconsiderable assistance by revising the Island’s history to petrify the new communal hierarchy by drawing on Mahawamsa accounts. Evidently they found the cultural attributes not sufficiently strong to support the re-ordered communal hierarchy; so, research at the Departments of Pharmacology and of Human Genetics Unit in the Faculty of Medicine, Colombo dragged genetics into the fray. The genes must have seemed a stubborn lot. Every test over time repeatedly came up with almost identical results: that the Sinhalese genome is not only closely similar to the Dravidian Tamil genome but apparently is at best a variation of the latter.
The nationalist elite are of course free to continue testing, if they so wish. The results, however, are very likely to be the same: the Sinhalese and Tamil and Muslim genomes are predominantly South Indian with minor infusions of other groups since the Island was historically a transhipment port servicing West Asian and East Asian seafarers, traders and mercenaries. The findings will confirm time and again the well-known fact that Sinhala-speaking and Tamil-speaking populations are extensions of the South Indian demographic just as the Island has been part of the South Indian geographical land mass in which the rising sea filled a low-lying valley, now the Palk Strait, after the last Ice Age.
In fact, the contrasts between Sinhalese and Tamils are overwhelmingly cultural. Our long time Burgher friend’s rhetorical question succinctly put across the distinction.
“What does a Sinhalese man and a Tamil man do when they go bald?
The Sinhalese man buys a wig; the Tamil man sells his comb.”
The structural (communal hierarchy) and legislative (official language, Buddhism) frameworks facilitated commandeering larger and still larger share of national resources (land, employment, education, etc.) by politically subordinating Tamils, Burghers and, later, Muslims. The re-ordered hierarchy strongly implied that, in return for their electoral backing, the Sinhalese middle and working classes would receive their share of the sequestered resources.
In reality, however, the Sinhalese elite consumed most of the wealth and left their masses mired in poverty.
The strident call for devolution arose against the above backdrop.
The proponents of devolution are animated by the urgent need to dilute the power concentrated by the Sinhala-Buddhist elite who fabricated, brick by bleeding brick, the communal hierarchy of cultural groups or peoples.
The Tamil elite presciently sensed the coming deluge. The All-Ceylon Tamil League, for instance, worried that universal franchise proposed by the 1931 Donoughmore Commission would mean “death to the minorities“. The composition of the 1936 State Council’s Second Board of Ministers, with 9 Ceylonese Ministers and a token Tamil, appeared to confirm their trepidations.
The political leadership foresaw the general danger but, as individuals, the Tamil elite were more concerned with the specific obstacles to the exercise of their power. Perhaps G.G. Ponnambalam the first to raise the alarm when he advocated “balanced” parliamentary representation in 1939, a “50:50” share of seats in the State Council between the Sinhalese elite and elites of the rest.
The Sinhalese elite feared Ponnambalam’s constitutional reform would weaken their grip on political power and derided it as “communalism”. Nevertheless, he brought into sharp relief the importance of challenging and reversing the increasing centralisation of power that began when the British colonial State imposed, following the 1833 Colebrooke-Cameron Commission’s directions, what is seen today as the unitary State that the Sinhalese elite have been consolidating after the 1931 Donoughmore Commission Report.
The SJV. Chelvanayakam-led faction of Tamil elite in his Ilankai Tamil Arasuk Katchi (ITAK), known as the Federal Party in the south, made a similar but more substantive efforts to replace the vertical hierarchy with a federal structure of two horizontal linguistic states. The Sinhalese elite accused his faction of putting the Sinhalese language and religion in “danger” by “dividing” the country, a metaphor that alluded of course to a risk to their own inherited near-monopoly of political power.
The Sinhalese political class drummed the “loss” into the consciousness of the Sinhalese middle, working classes and peasant farmers and made them believe that a federal system would place large parts of national resources (“two thirds of the coastline”) beyond their reach and undermine economic security. The elite’s deception gained political traction among their economically-stressed mass base.
While Muslims’ business-oriented western leadership faction continued a working relationship with Sinhalese nationalists, the eastern faction of the Muslim elite, led by M.H.M. Ashraff, foresaw the threat posed by the Sinhalese elite’s near-monopoly of power and mobilised their own agrarian social classes. Ashraf first allied with Chelvanayagam; but the Tamil elite’s ploy to subordinate the Muslim leadership by conflating both communities as one Tamil-speaking people perhaps disappointed Ashraff, who In 1981 formed his Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) to champion a federal structure with three horizontal units – two linguistic and one religious (in the south east).
He grieved the 1985 violence between Tamils and Muslims stoked by the Jayawardene administration in Kalmunai. During our discussions with Ashraff on the side lines of a conference in Colombo in the middle or late 1990, he elaborated his vision: that his Party would link a Muslim autonomous unit in the South-East to large Muslim-majority pockets in the rest of the Island through a Swiss-style Cantonment structure.
The communal re-ordering of the social hierarchy has been radicalising a new generation of the Up-Country, Malaiyaha Tamils (or Malaiyahath Thamizhar) and the violence inflicted during the July 1983 Pogrom and after steeled them to imagine a political unit of their own. Unsurprisingly their Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) party has proposed the creation of a “Non -Territorial Community Council”.
The different federal initiatives in essence sought to reverse the colonial State’s centralising juggernaut, which had arrested the historical evolution that gave rise to three pre-colonial polities composed of largely coherent cultural formations that received recognition under three international treaties. They are:
1. The Malvana Convention of 1598, between the Portuguese colonial administration and the Kingdom of Kotte;
2. The Nallur Convention of 1616, between the Portuguese colonial administration and the Kingdom of Jaffna and
3. The Kandyan Convention of 1815, between the British colonial administration and the Kandyan Kingdom. (Daily Mirror, Colombo, 15/feb/10).
Sections of the nationalist Sinhalese scholars have questioned the existence of the treaties or their validity.
However, it is very likely the memories of the historical-political formations led the young S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike to advocate federalism in 1926 for the Kandyan Sinhalese, the Low Country Sinhalese and the Tamils; he concluded, ‘a thousand and one objections could be raised against this system, but when objections were dissipated some form of Federal Government would be the only solution’ (Ceylon Morning Leader, 17/Jul/1926).
On the other hand, Bandaranaike’s Tamil contemporaries opposed a federal system for two important reasons. The Colombo-based faction that coalesced around Ponnambalam’s 1944 Tamil Congress feared for their investments and professional advancement in the south while the Jaffna-based faction led by S.H. Perinpanayagam’s Jaffna Youth Congress worried that a federal system may shunt them off to the sidelines of national politics.
A comparative overview of the Indian and Pakistani experiences may be useful when wading through the politics of devolution in Sri Lanka.
[Next: Systemic change]
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*Dr Sachithanandam Sathananthan is an independent researcher who read Political Economy for the Ph.D. degree at the University of Cambridge. He was Assistant Director, International Studies, Marga Institute, Visiting Research Scholar at the Jawaharlal Nehru University School of International Studies and has taught World History at Karachi University’s Institute of Business Administration. He is an award-winning filmmaker and may be reached at: email@example.com