Inheritance of divisive politics in modern Sri Lanka

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Sri Lankan Muslim workers throw soil over the coffin of Fauzul Ameen, the victim of an anti-Muslim riots, during a burial ceremony in a Muslim cemetery in Nattandiya on May 14, 2019.LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI / AFP

by Dr. Chandra Prakash Singh 24 January 2020

In course of time Sri Lanka became a mosaic of cultural, religious, ethnic and logistic diversities. Sinhalese and Tamils are the most dominating communities. The heterogeneous nature of Sri Lanka is instrumental in generating a plethora of internal and external threats to the nation. Since 1833 the first legislative assemblies were entirely communal in composition. This gave opportunity to the communal leaders to take different postures in politics. In the 1920s while the Sinhalese favored territorial principle in representation in the legislature, the Tamil preferred communal principle. Further the introduction of territorial representation and universal adult franchise by the Donoughmore constitution in 1931 completely changed the carefully adjusted ratio of representation  of the Sinhalese and the Tamils from 2:1to 5:1. The Tamils reacted force- fully by  boycotting the general election under the Donoughmore constitution and as a result four Tamil constituencies in the Northern province did not return members to the first State Council. As the independence of the island approached, the Tamils became communally  conscious and fervent by the time Soulbury Commission arrived in 1944 to prepare a new constitution. Although the commission did not agree with the fifty- fifty scheme of representation put forward by the newly formed Ceylon Tamil Congress, it provided for certain safeguards under which seats were distributed in the nine provinces. The Sinhalese on the other hand, wished to consolidate their political power over the island because they saw the Tamils as constituting a direct threat to the survival of Sinhala Buddhism and the Sinhalese language. But the moderate Sinhalese are willing to share the country with the Lanka Tamils, provided the latter learn Sinhalese and accept the fact that Sri Lanka is and will always be, a Sinhalese Buddhist country.

Communal division around Independence

The independence of Sri Lanka was followed by the rising tide of Sinhalese nationalism and the process saw the revival of Buddhism and traditional culture that had already been started by a second layer of elite-the Ayurvedic physicians, the Sinhalese school teachers and the bhikkus of the Sangh who formed a link between the modern. Sri Lankan polity and pre-colonial Sinhalese kingdoms. They were sore that their language, religion and culture were relegated to a secondary place. In the mid-1950s a Sinhalese revivalist movement which had developed over several decades emerged forcefully on to the political stage. Initially it had begun as a protest against Westernisation and the use in public institutions of the English language which was spoken by only a small elite minority of Sinhalese, and may of these anti-Western pro-vernacular sentiments were shared by the predominantly Hindu Tamil minority. But during 1955 and 1956, the Sinhalese movement grew increasingly chauvinistic and required feature ever since.  Further Sinhalese chauvinism has intermittently proved a major threat to social cohesion and national integrity sparking major out bursts of anti Tamil violence in 1958,1977,1981 and, most savagely, in 1983. The chauvinistic view of the Sinhalese majority as a nation, indeed as the nation, means in clear contradiction to the concept of Sri Lankan a as a modern, pluralistic nation-state. The Sinhalese are equally proud of their culture, religion and language. They consider themselves to be the first settlers and Sinhalese Buddhism as the native religion of the island since the third country B.C.They are acutely aware that as a distinct linguistic and ethnic group Sri Lanka is the only place for them. But on the other they are psychologically disposed to seeing themselves in the minority because of the presence of Tamil in South India with whom the Lankan Tamils have a strong sense of ethnic affiliation.

Effects of Sinha less dominance

The Sinhalese paradigm of one country, one nation , one language and one people compelled Tamil youths to rise against Sinhalese chauvinism. Though the Sinhalese and the Tamils were self-conscious about their differences and where mutually suspicious, they were not intensely hostile prior to the language agitation of 1955-1956. Language was central to the self identification of both Sinhalese and the Tamils, and was deeply embedded in the sub nationalist sentiments of both communities. Like the Sinhalese, the Tamils of Sri Lanka take pride in their ancient culture and languageand the more zealous among them point to their distinct Tamil dialects as opposed to the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. They considered themselves the authentic bearers of the pure Tamil tradition, and constitute a Dravidian race. Tamil extremists reject the notion of a Sinhalese Buddhist theocratic state, and are convinced that until the Sinhalese are driven out of the Tamil-majority areas there can be no peace. Laying equal claim to the island as their homeland, they refuse to concede to Sinhalese majority tyranny. Soon both the communities became rivals in establishing their cultural superiority and the administrative hegemony over each other.

The present tragedy is the result of political and cultural rivalry between the two communities and the ineptitude of the national leadership in reconciling their differences. In the early post-independence phase, some attempts were made by the premier conservative politician among the Sinhalese, D.S.Senanayake to forge a measure of unity among the middle and upper classes of the various groups in Sri Lanka’s multi-communal society. But a rift developed between the two groups with the enactment of the citizenship laws of 1948 and 1949 and it was the immediate pretext for the formation of the strongly Tamil nationalist Federal party (FP) in 1949.The Ceylon Citizenship Act No-18 which came into operation on 15 November 1948 laid down that a person would be entitled to the status of a citizen of Sri Lanka either by the right of descent or by virtue of registration, Likewise the next enactment, Indian and Pakistani Residents (Citizenship) Act No-3 of 1949 an Indian or Pakistani Residents of Sri Lanka was to be granted the Citizenship status of the country through registration. The Federal party which was formed in 1949 to look after the interests of Sri Lankan Tamils, concentrated on three objectives. (a)an autonomous region for the indigenous Tamil-speaking peoples comprising the northern and eastern provinces linked to the rest of the island under a federal set up” (b)Parity of status for the Tamil language with the Sinhalese language and (c)citizenship rights for all Indian Tamils who wish to make the island their permanent home.

Alienation of Tamil masse in politics

The alienation of Sri Lanka Tamils not only initiated but also matured in 1955-56 when island’s government took a number of decisions to spark their sentiments and requirements as well. The two main political parties of the country- Sri Lanka Freedom party (SLFP) and United National party (UNP) had changed their language policy to Sinhala only as the official language of the island from the two languages policy for which they had stood since the State Council resolution passed in 1944. It led directly to a reaction from the Ceylon Tamils who saw the legislation as a threat not only to their culture and their identity but also to their means of livelihood. However, to contain the communal killings that followed the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam  pact was signed in 1957 but soon thereafter the former had abrogated the pact. This resulted in the swing of Tamil opinion more firmly behind the Federalists. The Tamil demonstrations led to counter-riots and ultimately to the island wide holocaust in the 1958 and the declaration of emergency.The voice of Sri Lankan Tamils, the Federal party allied itself briefly with the ruling party’s National Government formed after 1965 general elections till 1968 to maximize gains for the Tamil, but it was never done by the government due to the pressure of  SLFP and the Federal party resigned from the cabinet in 1968.

These events had a number of grave consequences. Since the Sinhalese leadership reneged on its commitments each time, the Tamils lost confidence and began to view the negotiated settlements  with Sinhalese as futile exercise. The failure of these negotiated settlements which would have partially ameliorated the cultural, economic and political grievance of the Tamils,  led to a strong resurgence of Tamil nationalism by the end of the sixties and to significant shifts from moderate to militant sentiments within Tamil ranks since then. Even under the new constitution the government of Mrs. Bandaranaike in 1973 introduced standardization in education that facilitated Sinhalese admission to universities but prevented many qualified Tamil students from seeking university admission. It was done at a time when massive unemployment was already an issue. There was also widespread discrimination against Tamils in government appointments. The issues of discrimination responsible for bringing tussle and bickering were language administration, education, employment, colonization of land and the power devolution . With Tamil political leaders failure in political bargaining and power politics, Tamil youths raised arms against the government .The armed uprising gave birth to political violence as the only means. The armed uprising gave birth to political violence as the only means. The Tamil youths sought the means of armed struggle for the establishment of Tamil Eelam- a separate Tamil state. During this period, Tamil militancy emerged in Tamil  areas with plenty of Tamil militant organizations to fight for their rights against the oppressive rule of Sinhalese. The ethnic conflict has become a central problem in Sri Lankan politics, which led to the emergence of political terrorism of LTTE.