The State against the Tamils A Historical Overview


It has been the sad experience of Asian and African countries that emerged from centuries of western colonialism that the end of the Western rule did not necessarily mean a quick return to all the benefits that freedom bequeaths to a people. That is by no means an argument for the perpetuation of colonialism. On the contrary, it is a telling comment on the fact that the debilitating effects of alien rule could extend well beyond the departure of the colonial ruler. The paradox behind the tragedy that Tamils face in Sri Lanka today is that, more than a half – century of the country attaining self-rule, they are worse off than under British colonialism! The reason being that in the process of quitting, the ex-rulers left behind a colonial legacy that was heavily loaded against a people who were numerically powerless ethnic minority. Both an act of commission and omission contributed to that legacy.

It is an island that once consisted of different kingdoms – Sinhalese and Tamil – inhabited from time immemorial by two peoples who spoke different languages, who belonged to different faiths, with different historical antecedents, and living in exclusive and traditional areas of habitation, the British fused them into one unitary polity for their own administrative convenience. As long as the British rule lasted, the two had reason to believe that they were equals. But once the common ruler departed, the sheer disparity in numbers enabled the Sinhalese to grab political power into their hands. That could have been prevented if the Colonial Office had devised a constitutional mechanism that provided for Tamils to share power at the centre as a matter of right. Having rejected the plea by the then Tamil leader G.G.Ponnambalam for a scheme of “balanced representation” to prevent the domination of any single race, community or class, the Soulbury Commissioners failed to provide in their constitution any fool-proof protection for the minorities that the Tamils hoped for. All what they did was to include a section – Section 29 – which stated:

“No … law shall…make persons of any community or religion liable to disabilities or restrictions to which persons of other communities or religions are not made liable; or … confer on persons or any community or religion any privilege or advantage which is not conferred on persons of other communities or religions”.

The first Prime Minister of independent Ceylon, Don Stephen Senanayake lost no time in trampling on this British-given safeguard for Tamils, by depriving one million Tamils of Indian origin of their citizenship and their right to vote. Eight years after, another Sinhalese Prime Minister, Solomon West Ridgeway Dias (SWRD) Banadaranaike enacted legislation to confer on Sinhala the status of the sole official language of the country, again in defiance of Section 29. State authority having thus effectively passed into the hands of the Sinhalese majority, it would have been idle to expect them to share power with the Tamils willingly.

Using the power of the State, the Sinhalese leaders then began a conscious process of assimilating the Tamils, by denying them separate identity as a people. A multi-pronged policy was adopted in pursuance of that objective:

(1) Denial of language rights (1956)

(2) State-aided Sinhala colonisation in the East, beginning with Gal Oya

(3) Softening of the Tamils into submission by permitting, and conniving at, and later actively promoting mob attacks on them (1956, 1958, 1961, 1977, 1981, 1983); Using the police and army to put down even the passive resistance employed by the Tamils in north and east during the Federal Party’s satyagraha campaign in 1961; Destroying the cultural wealth of the Tamils in Jaffna by using Sinhala hoodlums to burn down the Public Library, bookshops in the town and Jaffna’s only Tamil newspaper, the Eelanadu (1981); framing intimidating legislation such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act (1979) later made part of the permanent law of the land (1982) and used since then exclusively on the Tamil people; Destruction of Hindu temples in the south (1977) and later in other parts of the island; enthroning Buddhism with special status in 1972 constitution, a constitution that was adopted without Tamil consent, and against Tamil opposition.

Once the policy of assimilation failed, the Sinhalese state turned to a policy of subjugation. The ongoing 17-year old war is only a continuance of that policy. As could be seen now, even that objective is nowhere near achievement. It is commonsense wisdom that if something gets stuck in your throat, that you cannot swallow, the sensible solution would be to get it out of your system.

When a State turns against its own people, it can no longer claim authority over them any more. And when the people concerned have all the pre-requisites set out in the United Nations charter to constitute themselves into an independent nation-state, it is futile for an enfeebled country like Sri Lanka to resist it for long.

It was a wise French writer of the 19th century, Victor Hugo, who said:- “There is one thing that is stronger than all the armies of the world; and that is, an idea whose time has come”.

By: S.Sivanayagam



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