Colombo Telegraph

What Is A Nation? How Different Is It From Nation-State?

By Siri Gamage

Dr. Siri Gamage

In a recent article by Dayan Jayatilleka (Colombo Telegraph, March 3 2015) has stated that Tamils in Sri Lanka are an ethnic minority but not a nation. However, Sinhalese are a nation within the broader Sri Lankan nation. The basis for his argument is that the Sinhalese are the majority in demographic terms whereas the Tamils are a numerical minority. In essence, he is using the demographic factor to define a nation. This is not only quite misleading but also goes against the developments in the international law, minority rights, UN deliberations in regard to indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities around the world during the last few decades. I believe the confusion here can be partly eliminated by employing the distinction between a nation-state and a nation.

Jayatilleka further states that ‘One may well ask, “what is wrong in the claim of Tamil nationhood?” Probably nothing, except for the fact that the claim is made here in Sri Lanka. The Tamils may or may not be a nation, but if they are, it would be in Tamil Nadu, not in Sri Lanka’ (CT March 3, 2015). This is a quite interesting but also a concerning argument coming from a political scientist of repute who should know that this is not a feasible option for Sri Lankan Tamils.   Sri Lankan Tamils, though having close cultural and ethnic relations with those in Tamil Nadu, are for all intents and purposes citizens of Sri Lanka –Not Tamil Nadu. If they are seeking nation status within the Sri Lankan nation-state, then their claim should be assessed on its own merit.

Jayatilleka seems to recognize that there is a broader, emergent nation called Sri Lankan nation but his criteria applies only to the Sinhalese –not the Tamils who he considers as ‘ethnic or national minority’ (CT March 3 2015). This is a highly discriminatory criteria to use in this day and age when the discourses about nation-state vs. nation have progressed so much to the extent that there is absolutely no place for this sort of misleading and biased criteria in the broader community of international scholarship or in the international law field.

The article by Jayatilleka raises several pertinent questions also. Firstly, is the use of demographic factor to define a nation widely accepted in international law, political and social sciences, by governments and by those ethnic and indigenous minorities seeking nation status around the world? In other words, where does this idea derive its authenticity or legitimacy perhaps other than in his own imagination? Secondly, using this definition how many other majorities in various countries could be considered as nations? For example, are Brahmin Hindus in India a nation but the Tamils in Tamil Nadu or other linguistic minorities not a nation? Thirdly, are there characteristics of a nation other than the demographic factor? Fourthly, is it possible to define a nation in Sri Lanka purely by what the Sinhala and Tamil political leaders have said in the past without giving due regard to the developments in the global context, in particular within the UN and its agencies plus in international law? Fifthly, is it possible to discard two-nation theory merely because it has ‘become a dirty word in neighbouring India’ (Colombo Telegraph, March 3, 2015)? Sixthly, do ethnic and indigenous minorities with historical, cultural, and territorial connection to a given land have the right to seek nation status within a nation-state even though the governments in the nation-states may reject such rights?

A cursory glance at any reputed dictionary shows that the definition of a nation varies considerably from the demographic definition used by Jayatilleka. For example, the Oxford Dictionary defines nation as ‘a large body of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular state or territory’. The Free Dictionary gives several meanings to nation: 

1) a. A relatively large group of people organized under a single, usually independent government; a country. b. The territory occupied by such a group of people.

2). The government of a sovereign state.

3). A people who share common customs, origins, history, and frequently language; a nationality. It also defines Native Americans as a nation (

The Collins dictionary defines nation as 1. An aggregation of people or peoples of one or more cultures, races, etc, organized into a single state   ⇒ “the Australian nation”. 2. A community of persons not constituting a state but bound by common descent, language, history, etc   ⇒ “the French-Canadian nation” 3. A federation of tribes, esp American Indians, b. the territory occupied by such a federation.

These definitions in widely used dictionaries highlight the difference between nation-state that is a political entity with international recognition and those tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities as well as indigenous peoples who are seeking nation status within a nation-state. Yet Jayatilleka’s criterion for defining a nation gloss over this distinction seemingly to proclaim Tamils in Sri Lanka are not a nation but the Sinhalese are? This is the same argument that ultra Sinhalese nationalists including governments of the day during the 30 year war used to deny the Tamils certain rights on the basis of their historical, cultural, linguistic commonality. One must acknowledge that this claim to nation status was diluted in the concerted attempt by the LTTE to claim a separate state in the northern and eastern provinces through an armed struggle against the Sri Lankan nation-state. Yet in this post-war era, we have to be open to developments and models available in the global context that guarantees certain group rights for ethnic and indigenous minorities. In particular, one has to examine the concept of nation these minorities utilize as their flag post to seek equal rights, non-discrimination, self-determination and legitimacy.

There is a plethora of literature available on how the nations and nation states emerged in Europe. Interested readers can access this vast literature on the subject. However, if we focus on how the nation-state concept emerged through the UN in the aftermath of the decolonisation and emergence of independent states, it is highly informative. It is also highly informative to look at Covenants such as the Civil and Political Rights where the concept of ‘peoples’ is used. The United National Declarations and Covenants are important instruments that define the status of ‘peoples’ while providing legal definitions of rights and responsibilities applicable to international law. UN Declaration of Human Rights is another key document. Depending on how states define who the ‘people’ are, the consequences on the rights of Ethnic Nations can differ. Norwegian government has allowed certain rights for the Sami people including a parliament in areas where they inhabit providing a degree of self-rule.

In countries like Canada, there were many Indian nations inhabiting the country prior to the arrival of the Europeans. ‘By the time the European explorers arrived in Canada, the boundaries marking each Nation’s territories had been in the process of definition for thousands of years. Within their territory, each nation evolved with its own language, laws, history and spiritual practices’ (Mandel, L 1986: 102). This article examines the way these Nations were delegitimised and Indians were dispossessed by the European/British settlement starting from the 14th century. There are similar accounts of over 200 Nations existing in Australia among the Aborigines before the British settlement. These are referred to as First Nations. Examples abound from various parts of the world about First nations in many countries subsumed under nation-States. The struggles of these First Nations are to be recognised as original inhabitants of their lands by the respective governments –not simply as ethnic minorities. In Sri Lanka’s case, Veddas occupy a similar status to the First Nation concept. Whether Sri Lankan Tamils qualify to be a First nation is questionable because they are not considered, according to historical records, as the first inhabitants of the country or northern and eastern provinces. Nonetheless, their long history of living in a certain part of the country preserving linguistic, cultural and ethnic features distinct from the majority Sinhalese deserve to be adequately considered along with the developments that have taken place in world fora and in international law pertaining to the definition of ‘Peoples’, ‘Nations’etc. in comparison to the rights of nation-states. Though the world is governed by nation-states, which exercise self-determination, sovereignty etc. it does not mean minority groups or ethnic nations cannot seek their legitimate rights within such states.

The main claims and demands by First nations are for self-determination. It includes self-government, autonomy, territorial integrity and exclusive enjoyment of their lands and resources. Universal Declaration of Indigenous People’s Rights adopted by the UN is a significant milestone in the struggle of indigenous peoples seeking equality, self-determination and other rights. It has been ratified by many governments by now.

Australian Aborigines are seeking First Nation status within the Australian nation-state. Their campaign is linked to the worldwide campaign by indigenous peoples.

One notable factor in regard to the Tamils in Sri Lanka in comparison to Canadian Indians or Australian Aborigines is the absence of a clear-cut assimilation policy adopted by governments led by the Sinhalese majority.

Nations Within States and Stateless Nations

According to Wegnar (2008),

The possibility of legitimating various forms of political autonomy is not necessarily uniquely limited to indigenous peoples. Examples can be found from around the world where other types of national minorities also have long lasting historical connections to specific parts of a state’s territory, which may very well give them a justifiable claim for political autonomy.

The Nation concept has been enlarged in the last few decades to not only includes indigenous peoples but also to include distinctive peoples within states and Stateless nations, e.g. Tibetans. Within states there are groupings or communities –though minority compared to the majority- claiming specific group rights like self-determination rights rather than individual rights offered by liberal democracies. A key feature in the contemporary political and legal discourses on the subject is if they are treated by the states and/or the majorities as ethnic minorities they forego their group rights.

Some use the concept of national minorities to differentiate specific groups from ethnic minorities. ‘For example Kymlicka (1995:27) argues that national minorities have a right to autonomy; that is, they have a right, as far as possible, to keep their traditional social institutions intact and to govern themselves. Ethnic groups, on the other hand, cannot claim a right to..political autonomy’ (Weigard 2008:181-182).

The fact that states and majorities in certain states resist claims of self-determination by Peoples/Nations within states or stateless Peoples/Nations does not mean that their agitations and campaigns are invalid or less significant. It is a continuing struggle between peoples or nations as defined by these groupings and the states and majorities holding political power. Whether a claim by a given national minority or a Nation is justifiable depends on a range of contextually specific factors. However, universal norms are being developed by member states of the UN to address situations like this specifically to do with indigenous peoples and to a lessor extent national minorities claiming equality and self-determination. The self-determination claims by such nations and/or national minorities are mostly for ‘internal self determination’ (without separation from the state) rather than ‘external’. However, as can be seen frequently in the Sri Lankan political discourse pertaining to this matter, the two are mixed and presented as if they are one and the same. This can have serious consequences for reconciliation and coexistence.

The question of nationalisms also arises from the majority and national minority political behaviour. According to Craigie (2010),

Majority nationalism is especially dangerous for political state-wide cohesion if the minority group begins to feel that a) their way of seeing things is different from the majority, b) that this is generally not understood or recognized by the majority, and c) the majority is not willing to alter forms of debate to accommodate this difference and the minority is being systematically unheard, its voice unable to penetrate public debate (Taylor 1998: 204).



Craigie, A. 2010. “Unionism and Pan-Nationalism: Exploring the Dialectical Relationship between Minority and Majority Sub-State Nationalism”, in André Lecours and Luis Moreno, Nationalism and Democracy: Dichotomies, Complementarities, Opposition.  Routledge studies in Nationalism and Ethnicity

Mandell, L 1986. Indian Nations: Not Minorities, Les Cahiers de Droit, Vol.27, No. 1, March, pp. 101-121. (Accessed on 06.03.2015).

Taylor, Charles 1998. “Nationalism and Modernity” in John A. Hall (ed) Ernest Gellner and the theory of Nationalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Weigard, J. 2008. Book Chapter, in Minde, H et al(ed) Indigenous Peoples: Self-determination, Knowledge Indigeneity, Eburon Delft, Netherlands.

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