Sri Lanka; Religiously, Divided


Religiously, Divided

  1. Sathiya Moorthy  The Sunday LeaderColombo 23 April 2017
  • Whatever the intention and purpose of the pollsters and the publication, ‘The Telegraph’, at least in Sri Lanka’s case, it should give and insight into the way the people and polity perceive religion
  • The Sinhala-Buddhist majority often takes the blame for allowing religion to influence political decisions, especially on the ethnic issue
  • All forms of communal discourse in and on Sri Lanka would be a non-starter if the Tamil angle is not taken into account and addressed in some detail 
  • An overseas newspaper polls has claimed that 99 per cent all Sri Lankans surveyed have said they are religious. In this, the country ranks at the top for having the ‘most number of religious people’, along with four others, namely, Ethiopia, Malawi, Niger and Yemen. Burundi, Djibouti, Mauritania and Somalia have all come a very close second with 98 per cent of their population polling thus.

Whatever the intention and purpose of the pollsters and the publication, ‘The Telegraph’, at least in Sri Lanka’s case, it should give and insight into the way the people and polity perceive religion. It should also explain how and how far religion(s) influence people on every front. Such influence cuts across ethnic lines. In turn, it’s also the cause and contributory factor to the unending ethnic strife in the country.

The Sinhala-Buddhist majority often takes the blame for allowing religion to influence political decisions, especially on the ethnic issue. No one can deny it. The influence of the various chapters of Buddhism’s high priests in the country, the Theros and their ‘temples’ in interior villages, is all too visible and all so predictable.

Long ago, the nation gave all pretences of ‘secularism’ as commonly understood in the English language and nearer home stopped being relevant decades ago. The presence of Buddhist priests at the all Government functions, big and small, and the unending sight of most Buddhists wearing the ritualistic ‘pirith’ thread around their wrists all most without break stopped being symbolic long ago.

It is true that Hinduism, Islam and Christianity, the other three major religions are also represented in all Government functions, again big and small. More than as a right, these are only gestures of accommodation, if not outright suffering of the ‘minorities’ by the ‘majority’.

In national discourses from time to time, such common-place practices are cited to argue as to how all religions get the right place in the constitutional scheme, even while majority Buddhism continued to command the status of being the ‘State religion’. It’s more in form than content. Rather, it is all in form with little in content.

If despite all this, some communal amity does exist in neighbourhoods, it is despite the system, despite the religious leaders, and despite the political class. Where the neighbourhood amity fails or becomes flawed, then alone ethnic disturbances arise.

It has the potential to upset the political apple-cart more than anything else. The politicians are well aware of it. From time to time, ‘communal incidents’ keep reminding them of the same. The ‘Weliweriya incidents’ (though only up to a point) and the BBS-centric, anti-Muslim campaign (all through), both culminating in physical attacks of some kind, were the deciding factor(s) in the presidential polls of 2015.

In both these cases, for instance, the Sri Lankan State got involved in one way or the other. At Weliweriya, the army beat up unarmed civilians, mostly Christians, protesting water contamination. In the BBS-related affair, the Muslim community continued to believe that the then Rajapaksa Government was hand-in-glove against their tormentors.

The Government leadership’s efforts at sorting out the concerns of the victim-communities were seen either as half-hearted or worse. At least the Weliweriya incident was a one-off affair, and even the ownership of officials who had summoned the army remained unclear. It cannot be said of the BBS attacks on Muslims. Rather than handling it as a law-and-order issue, the Rajapaksa regime sought to balance it out as a ‘communal incident’, which it was not. The approach was entirely political, but based on misplaced communal concerns of the wrong kind. It did not help anyone, then or since.

Political exploitation

Episodes apart there is no denying the religiosity of both Christians and Muslims in the country. The reported survey does not seem to mention if any co-relation was made in the choice of responders, from among the co-religionists of the majority Buddhists. Even assuming that it was not done, non-Buddhists in Sri Lanka are no less religious than the majority community. It remains a detailed study if the strong religiosity of all communities in the country was/is being continually and continuously exploited for political ends. It was a simple thumb-rule. If one community can be exploited, then the rest too can.

It has always been the case everywhere. Sri Lanka was/is not the exception. It was and continues to be within the rules of the game. If the game is bad, you cannot blame the rules. The game has to be stopped. Tinkering with the rules alone would not help.

To cite the more recent issues of Weliweriya and BBS attacks, the Rajapaksa camp had begun talking about the same months before they had happened. Citing previous voting figures and the like, they began arguing that for upsetting them in future presidential polls, both Christians and Muslims needed to be turned against them. According to them, if and only if such a thing happened, incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa would lose a presidential poll in the years to come.

No pushing back?

Election-2015 happened. Rather, Mahinda and the Rajapaksas invited it upon themselves when there was no constitutional compulsion or political need. He, they lost. But their theories held good. As they had claimed, majority Buddhist-Sinhalas (or, is it Sinhala-Buddhists) stuck with them.

Though there was a minor shift on the ground between the presidential polls and the parliamentary polls eight months down the line, in August 2015, there is nothing to suggest that there is any major shift of sway against the Rajapaksas in the majority Sinhala constituency. The incumbent Government’s unwillingness to hold the local government elections and also go in for a referendum-centric Constitution is an expression of their apprehensions still in the matter.  In the end, the incumbent leadership of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, jointly and severally, seem to be counting on legal means to stall the Rajapaksas on their track. The fact is that the Mahinda roller-coaster stopped on its track long ago. But they have not been able to push it back. Or, they seem to be conceding all the time.

Striking ironies

All forms of communal discourse in and on Sri Lanka would be a non-starter if the Tamil angle is not taken into account and addressed in some detail. The Sri Lankan ethnic issue, as commonly understood, is all about the Tamils, by them – and yes, for them. They have ensured as much, and the world too has branded it as such.

The Muslims and the Upcountry Tamils, acknowledged as separate ‘ethnic identities’ as such, too have played up to it, all along.  If anything, the Upcountry Tamils, or ‘Indian origin Tamils (IOTs), do not even get a passing mention in any of the ‘ethnic discourses’ involving Sri Lanka, both outside the country and inside. Their leaders have left it as such, left it at that.The irony is striking. Rather, there is more than irony – ironies. The Sri Lankan issue is not about ethnicity, as understood and acknowledged. It is not about religion. It is not even about language. It is a selective application of this, that and everything. It goes by the dictum that only a cry baby gets milk.

There are Sinhala-speaking Catholics, the Burghers. They number about five per cent of the population, maybe less. They are conveniently included within the majority 75 per cent of the population in any ‘ethnic discourse’. The Upcountry Tamils and Muslims are also Tamil-speaking. But they are conveniently or inconveniently given separate ‘ethnic tags’, different from the loud-and-clear ‘Sri Lankan Tamil’ (SLT) ethnic stock.


One-up on the rest

It does not stop there. The Upcountry Tamils, like the SLT are mostly Hindus. Religion does not count here. They both speak the same language, but the diction is varied. The diction of the Eastern Tamils from that of the Northern Tamils is different. As always, the Northern Tamils consider themselves one up on all the rest.

But merger and re-merger of the North and the East is among their top political goals – still. Not all Eastern Tamils want it. The ‘Karuna rebellion’ within the monolith LTTE flowed from such inherent, non-reconcilable differences. Granting the personality differences that had erupted between Prabhakaran and Karuna, or Vinayagamoorthy Muralidharan, and other issues of discipline/indiscipline, the cadre-support that the ‘Karuna rebellion’ indicated owed it only to the North-East differences.

There are Christian Tamils, mostly Catholics but there are also Protestants, especially belonging to the CSI denomination. Christian Tamils or ‘Tamil Christians’ are an influential lot, both within the country and outside. But they are bunched together under the larger ‘Tamil ethnic identity’, but confined only to the SLT. Then, it is language, not religion.

Not in this birth

Within the Muslim community, too, there are differences between the ‘majority’ in the Eastern Province and those living outside, especially peopling the capital city of Colombo. Even in the East, ego-clashes between leaders have kept the community split, village by village, interspersed between those of Tamils and Sinhalas.

The Northern Muslims have had their identities. Over the past two-plus decades, they are merged in those of the Western Muslims, rather Muslims from the country’s Western Province. This happened after the LTTE hounded them out of their centuries-old homes and decades-old businesses in the North.

This happened even as the LTTE was killing and maiming Muslims in the East, and silencing them. Yet, even the victimised communities of Muslims in the North and the East could not find a common cause between them, leaving aside the Muslims left out of the LTTE net. What LTTE could not achieve, the BBS did in a shorter time. Yet, it was a vote an anti-incumbency vote, not in favour of anyone but oneself – that is the divided Muslim leadership. They would still not come together. Nor do they want to come together, in this generation and birth of theirs.


The internal differences within these respective communities are lesser known, especially to the outside world in contemporary terms. These are among the deciding factors, especially when an over-arching national or inter-ethnic issue does not present itself. One problem for the nation if it finds an all-embracing negotiated settlement to the multiple aspects of the ethnic issue is that the old, unhealed wounds would be opened. Or, they would be prised open by the players of the time.

Before the ethnic issue flared up, the internal divisions within the broad-spectrum Sinhalas and Tamils were deep-rooted and deep-seated. Democracy, and even autocracy, inherently provides for the leadership making conscious efforts to distribute favours among various interest groups. It is sad that such efforts were never ever conscientious, instead. What was/is true of Sri Lanka is true of every other nation, democracy or no democracy.

In the Sri Lankan context, within the majority community, the upper class, upper caste Govigamas would have none of the rest. Even within the upper class, upper caste, the Kandyan, ‘hill-country’ Govigamas believed that were the god’s very own creations destined to rule the nation for ever. The present-day ‘Colombo Seven’ elite still hold on to such beliefs, not always sustainable – but still recoverable from time to time.When the late S W R D Bandaranaike to walk out of the monolith UNP that had spearheaded the nation’s freedom movement, he may have been motivated as much by ideological preferences as personal ambitions. It was a coincidence of birth and post-Independence socio-political history that SWRD was a Govigama from the plains while his wife and successor Prime Minister, Sirimavo, was from the hill country.

Bandaranaike’s arrival on the side of the political left, post-Independence sustained the movement, and also gave it a new direction and political acceptance but under the SLFP tag. Yet, they were all Govigamas still and urban elite, still. When a new Left had to be born, it had to be different in every which way, from leadership component and political methods.

It was not surprising that the JVP was born it had to be militant and had to appeal to the masses, in every which way – yet, with an ‘elitist’ halo matching that of the traditional left, too. Party founder Rohana Wijeweera was a drop-out medico from Russia and fashioned himself after Che Guvera, the contemporary mass-icon of the global Left. The JVP was seen as the party of the forgotten ‘Karava’ caste of the Sinhala-Buddhist fishermen.

It was again an inevitable coincidence that when the JVP had outlived its utility, it had to go back to the SLFP staple, first under CBK and later on under Mahinda R, a Govigama from ‘deep South’ than even the rest of the ‘plains Govigama’. Less said about the caste divisions within the UNP rival the better.


There is no denying the fact that the dominant ‘Jaffna leadership’ of the Sri Lankan Tamil society and polity are ‘Saiviites’, or worshippers of the Hindu god Shiva. The Sinhalas also worship the ‘Hindu God’ Vishnu. It is another matter that in Sri Lanka, only Buddhist places of worship are called ‘temples’, otherwise reserved for Hindus in India and wherever else Hindus reside. Here, Tamil places of worship have to go only by the Tamil language names, ‘kovil’, even in government circles and the national media.

Back home in India, from where both ethnicities acknowledge their religions and language originated, there used to be a time that Saiviites and Vaishnaviites would not see eye-to-eye. It is of course a coincidence that in the eastern Indian State of Odhisa, or Orissa, in present-day India, Lord Buddha is believed to be the ninth avatar of Lord Vishnu while elsewhere, Krishna is the ninth avatar. Buddhism came to Sri Lanka from Kalinga, the present-day Odhisa/Orissa.

There is no truth in arguments that the ethnic divide in Sri Lanka flowed from the religious-divide in neighbouring India. But there is truth in the arguments that the ‘ethnic issue’ divided the Tamil-speaking ‘minorities’ as three separate ‘ethnicities’ at different periods since Independence. This was so even as the issue sought to unite the SLT communities in the North and the East, and within the Jaffna Peninsuala and the outlying islands.

But even Prabhakaran, with his far-sightedness and fearsome personality could not succeed in eradicating these differences. He only contributed to institutionalising the emerging divisions by targeting the Muslims, long before the BBS was possibly thought of, or it had thought of such a scheme.

Such divisions are even more pronounced within the SLT community on the one hand and the Upcountry Tamils on the other – though no one wants to acknowledge them to the outside world and act against the pernicious practice.  That way, has any leader, SLT or Upcountry, Muslims or even Sinhalas, sought all the details of the 2012 Census figures, which the Rajapaksa regime had hidden from their view? Even multiple leaderships of the Muslim community, who are worried about an ‘ethnic solution’ without involving them, seem to care.  

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email: [email protected])

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N Sathiya Moorthy is Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai A double-graduate in Physics and Law, and with a journalism background, N. Sathiya Moorthy is at present Senior Fellow & Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. Starting his journalism career in the Indian Express – now, the New Indian Express – at Thiruvananthapuram as a Staff Reporter in the late Seventies, Sathiya Moorthy worked as a Subeditor at the newspaper’s then sole publication centre in Kerala at Kochi. Sathiya Moorthy later worked in the Times of Deccan, Bangalore, and the Indian Express, Ahmedabad. Later, he worked as a Senior/Chief Sub at The Hindu, Chennai, and as News Editor, The Sunday Mail (Chennai edition). He has thus worked for most major English language national newspapers in the country, particularly with the advent of Tamil Nadu as the key decision maker in national politics demanding that all newspaper had a reporter in Chennai that they could not afford to have full-time. This period also saw Sathiya Moorthy working as Editor of Aside magazine, Chennai, and as Chief News Editor, Raj TV. In the new media of the day, he was contributing news-breaks and analyses to since its inception. Later, he worked as the Editorial Consultant/Chief News Editor of the trilingual Sri Lankan television group MTV, Shakti TV and Sirasa. Since 2002, Sathiya Moorthy has been the Honorary/full-time Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. In the course of his job and out of personal interest, he has been studying India’s southern, Indian Ocean neighbours, namely Maldives and Sri Lanka, as well as the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC). He regularly writes on these subjects in traditional and web journals. He has also authored/edited books on Sri Lanka, and contributed chapters on India’s two immediate southern neighbours. His book on Maldives is waiting to happen. As part of his continuing efforts to update his knowledge and gain greater insights into the politics and the society in these two countries in particular, Sathiya Moorthy visits them frequently. Among other analytical work, he has been writing a weekly column for over 10 years in the Colombo-based Daily Mirror, first, and The Sunday Leader, since, for nearly 10 years, focusing mainly on Sri Lankan politics and internal dynamics, and at times on bilateral and multilateral relations of that nation. Expertise • Indian Politics, Elections, Public Affairs • Maldives • Sri Lanka • South Asia • Journalism and Mass Media Current Position(s) • Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai Education • BGL, Madras University • BSc, Madurai University