Seventy Years of Independence and Tamils of Sri Lanka

  • A significant section of the Tamils was in the vanguard of a freedom struggle against the British.
  • The nearest to an anti-British, pro-freedom struggle, in the country came from the North
  • The south…was generally quiet during British rule
  • The dominant Sinhala political class preferred to cooperate with rather than confront the British 

By D.B.S. Jeyaraj

Three score and ten years have passed since Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon, gained Independence from Britain on February 4, 1948. The Island nation had been under colonial bondage for a very long period. The Portuguese rule came first in 1505, followed by Dutch rule in 1658. Finally came the British rule in 1796 that lasted until 1948.

It was the British who unified the Island under a single administration in 1833. They also introduced universal franchise and electoral representation through the State Council in 1931.

Sri Lanka will celebrate her seventieth anniversary of Independence tomorrow February 4th, 2018. Completing 70 years of freedom is indeed a significant milepost. Independent Sri Lanka, or Ceylon, has faced many challenges and problems in the past 70 years. We have had military coup attempts, communal riots, pogroms, armed revolts, external military intervention, assassinations of Heads of State, terrorist violence and above all a long secessionist war that threatened to tear apart the country.
What Sri Lanka can be proud of as Asia’s oldest democracy is the fact that despite many formidable challenges and crises the country continues to be democratic. Flawed but Democratic! More importantly, perhaps Independent Ceylon/Sri Lanka has succeeded tremendously in improving the quality of life for her people in areas such as education, higher education, healthcare, nutrition, infant mortality, life expectancy, family planning, rural electrification, roads, transport facilities, housing and worker rights.

An illustrative example of the progress made would be life expectancy. When Independence dawned life expectancy for a male was 46 years and 44 for a female in Sri Lanka. After 70 years of Independence, it has risen to 72 years for a male and 78 years for a female.

While Sri Lanka’s post-independence record is certainly impressive, what is saddening -and somewhat maddening – is the realisation that we could have achieved much, much more but for political mismanagement. Had our post-independence governments ruled wisely, Sri Lanka could have been an economic power in Asia. Our political class -selfish and short-sighted – has through various acts of omission and commission reduced the country to a sorry state. Looking at the prevailing political situation of today, it appears that no effective lessons have been learnt even after seven decades of independence.

An example of the progress would be life expectancy. When Independence dawned life expectancy for a male was 46 years and 44 for a female. After 70 years, it has risen to 72 and 78 years for a female.

As stated earlier Sri Lanka has certainly progressed in many directions. However, it has failed in the key area of nation-building. Ethnic relations between the Sinhala and Tamil people deteriorated due to a series of blunders by politicians on either side of the ethnic divide resulting in what was termed as South Asia’s longest war.

The separatist war waged by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is now over and the country has been unified militarily but whether the country has been united politically remains an unanswered question.

Notwithstanding optimistic assertions by those in power the stark reality today is that of the Sri Lankan Tamil people being alienated from the State and estranged from mainstream consciousness.

13th amendmentArchipelago of Communities
Paradoxical as it may seem, I have in the past often referred to Sri Lanka as both an Island nation and archipelago of communities. Given the raucous cacophony of strident cries of race and religion, it does seem unlikely that this polyphony of voices can ever be blended into a harmonious symphony.
It is against this backdrop that this column intends to focus reflectively on the recent past of post-independence Sri Lanka and ponder over its future while drawing extensively from earlier writings of a similar nature.

For anyone being free of colonial bondage, Independence Day would be a day of joy and happiness. But that has not been so for the Tamils of Sri Lanka for many, many years. They remain estranged and alienated from the Sri Lankan state still. Many Tamils are not part of the freedom day festivity emotionally and spiritually.

To many Tamil people whether in Sri Lanka or abroad the future for Tamils in Sri Lanka seems bleak and dreary. This despondency is not one which envelopes sympathisers and supporters of the LTTE alone. It is prevalent more widely, regardless of political affiliation.

There was a time when Independence Day on February 4th was observed as a day of mourning by many Tamils. The advent of the Ilankai Thamil Arasuk Katchi (ITAK/Federal Party) and the rise of Tamil nationalism in the fifties and sixties of the last century, saw the Tamil polity being asked to treat Freedom Day as a day of mourning. The rationale was that independence from British had only resulted in bondage under Sinhalese. There was only a change of masters. So, Independence Day was nothing to celebrate, but only to be observed as a black day, it was argued.

These symbolic protests underwent a change after the Republican Constitution of 1972. Thereafter, May 22nd too was observed as a black day. February 4th lost a little of its significance. The symbolism of black flags on Independence Day however continued. The escalation of the conflict and resultant suffering made the very concept of independence meaningless to Tamils. Years of perceived oppression and suppression had inculcated among Sri Lankan Tamils a feeling of alienation in the land of their forefathers.

 The dominant Sinhala political class preferred to cooperate rather than confront the British. They worked for self -rule through negotiation rather than agitation. As a result of this nation never had an anti-colonial struggle as what was conducted in India by Mahatma Gandhi or Netaji Subash Chandra Bose.

Tamil Political Psyche
The Tamil political psyche too had changed over the decades. Tamils saw themselves as being on par with the Sinhalese as a founding race of this nation during the Ramanathan-Arunachalam era; the G. G. Ponnambalam period saw Tamils thinking of themselves as the premier all island minority; S. J. V. Chelvanayagam years saw the Tamils regarding themselves as a territorial minority of the north-east; the Amirthalingam years and the emergence of the TULF saw Tamils perceiving themselves as a distinct nationality with a separate homeland and the right of self-determination. Veluppillai Prabhakaran and other Tamil militant organisation leaders led an armed struggle to liberate this ‘homeland’ on the basis of the mandate for Tamil Eelam obtained by the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) at the July 1977 elections.

Tamil perception of sovereignty too differed. The Jaffna Kingdom had lost its sovereignty on the battlefield to the Portuguese in 1619. It was then ceded to the Dutch in 1658; the British took over from the Dutch in 1796. It was only in 1833 after the Colebrooke Reforms of 1832 that pre-dominantly Tamil territories were integrated into a unified Ceylon. Until then they were administered separately.
In 1948, the British transferred power to the Sinhala majority. It was the Tamil position that the 1947 Dominion Constitution that paved the way for Independence in 1948, the 1972 and 1978 Constitutions were imposed on Tamils without the consent of the majority of their elected representatives. Tamil sovereignty, therefore, lies within the Tamil nation still and the Sinhala majority has no right to dominate. This position often stated on political platforms was argued brilliantly by Murugeysen Tiruchelvam in courts at the Amirthalingam trial-at-bar case of 1976.

However, Post-independence political problems should not blind us to the fact that a significant section of the Tamils was in the vanguard of a freedom struggle against the British.

Sadly the pioneering role played by Tamils in the quest for Independence is now forgotten. From Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam’s famous lecture on Our Political Needs which laid the foundation for the National Congress to the activities of the Jaffna Youth Congress, Tamil efforts have been commendable in this regard.

The south after the heroic and historic 1818 and 1848 rebellions was generally quiet during British rule. The dominant Sinhala political class preferred to cooperate with rather than confront the British. They worked for self -rule through negotiation rather than agitation. As a result of this nation never had an anti-colonial struggle as what was conducted in India by Mahatma Gandhi or Netaji Subash Chandra Bose.

Jaffna Youth Congress
The nearest to an anti-British, pro-freedom struggle, in the country came from the north. It emanated from the now forgotten Jaffna Youth Congress led by the likes of Handy Perinbanayagam, Orator Subramaniam, C. Ponnambalam. Fired by the ideals espoused by Mahatma Gandhi the Youth Congress demanded Poorana Swaraj (Complete Independence) and urged a boycott of the first State Council elections in support. It was the Jaffna Youth Congress which called first for Poorana Swaraj or complete self-rule from the British and rejected the limited reforms proposed by the Donoughmore Commission.

It is recorded that hundreds of Jaffna youths ran about the town streets shouting Swaraj after listening to a lecture by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya. The 1931 boycott was observed only in Jaffna.

The rest of the country did not follow suit and the boycott ultimately ended in failure. British scholar Jane Russell compared the Jaffna boycott to parallel developments during the Indian freedom struggle and observed that it was like the turkey-cock trying to imitate the dance of the peacock.
Later, southern historians tried to distort the boycott call and depicted it as a communal cry. That, however, was untrue. The Youth Congress boycott was inspired by nobler motives. So praiseworthy was the impact of the Youth Congress, that Philip Gunewardena, the ‘Father of Marxism in Sri Lanka’, wrote glowingly in the Searchlight journal that Jaffna had given the lead and asked the Sinhalese to follow suit. Prof. Wiswa Warnapala reviewing the book written by Santhaseelan Kadirgamar on the Jaffna Youth Congress expressed his admirataion of the Jaffna Youth Congress openly and chastised Sinhala political leaders of the colonial period as ‘Bootlickers of Imperialism’.

The Youth Congress also conducted several meetings and satyagraha, in support of freedom. Two noteworthy feats were the boycott of a visit to Jaffna by then Prince of Wales and the hoisting of the Nandhi (Crouched Bull) flag in place of the Union Jack.

It was in Jaffna that the erstwhile Jaffna Kingdom’s Nandhi flag was hoisted defiantly instead of the Union Jack on the Empire Day. It was Jaffna that boycotted the visit of the then Prince of Wales during colonial rule.

Tragically, political vicissitudes in the post-independence years compelled Tamils to demonstrate with black flags on Independence Day.

The roots of this development and the emotive background to it are understandable. It is to be hoped that a satisfactory resolution of the Tamil national question would bring about a remarkable change in Tamil attitudes towards Independence from the British in the future.

National Anthem In Tamil
The singing of the national anthem in Tamil at the official Independence Day Celebration was made possible by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government. After several decades Namo, Namo Thaayae was sung at an official Independence Day Celebration.

It was a highly commendable move and welcomed by most Tamils. Yet it was only a silver lining in a dark cloud. What is important to note is that unequal relations between the numerical majority community and other numerical minority communities still exist.

The nearest to an anti-British, pro-freedom struggle, in the country came from the north. It emanated from the now forgotten Jaffna Youth Congress led by the likes of Handy Perinbanayagam, Orator Subramaniam …

This is particularly so in the case of the Sri Lankan Tamils who have been struggling to achieve equality on the Island for decades. The Tamil Eelam demand was a desperate manifestation of the Tamil state of mind. This state of mind is likely to continue until genuine unity is achieved through the creation of a plural and egalitarian society.

The tragedy of independent Sri Lanka has been majoritarian hegemony. Majority rule is a democratic principle. Here it has been interpreted as the majority of the numerically largest ethnicity.

Sri Lanka is a modern State with an ancient civilisation, but the attempt to define Sri Lanka as a modern Nation State has led to conflict and strife. Power is concentrated with the majority ethnicity leaving the others out in the cold. It is a case of Maha Jathiyata Kiri, Sulu Jathiwalata Kekiri. (Cream for the majority, bitter-fruit for the minorities)

The idea of Ceylon was a colonial construct. The British unified the country into a single administration. Sri Lanka was not the only one in this respect. Most countries ruled by the British were their creations in a modern sense.

Ethnic conflict and strife erupted in many countries after the British left. From the Indian sub-continent to Fiji Islands and from Nigeria to Malaysia, there are many instances of this. Sri Lanka too can be classified as an example of post-independence conflict within pre-independence boundaries.
Some ex-colonies have reduced and managed ethnic tensions by evolving new forms of power sharing. They have reinvented themselves as ‘new’ nations on the basis of equality and forged a strong sense of common identity. In the final analysis, the unity and integrity of a nation do not depend on its military strength or structures of governance but on the will of its people. The nation-state is essentially a state of mind.

Some ex-colonies have reduced and managed ethnic tensions by evolving new forms of power sharing. They have reinvented themselves as ‘new’ nations on the basis of equality and forged a strong sense of common identity. 

The idea of a single Sri Lankan nation has been under severe threat. In reality, we are a divided nation today and military conquest and domination by itself is no answer. If we are to resolve these divisions and create a strong nation on the basis of equitable power-sharing, the structure of the state needs to be radically transformed. There is no consensus on that so far.

Sensible and Pragmatic  
The need of the hour is for Tamils to evolve a sensible and pragmatic approach to the situation they are in. What is necessary now is not confrontation but cooperation. Cooperation is not submission. Conciliation is not surrendered.

Those continuing the old politics of sabre-rattling must realise there is no sword or blade in the scabbard or sheath to “scare” the enemy. Instead, these vocal warriors make laughing stocks of themselves without perhaps realising it.

This inability or unwillingness to recognise the tragic plight of the Tamil people and adopt a practical approach rather than continuing with an unrealistic confrontational mode is not something which evolved in a vacuum. There is a history behind this emotive content in Tamil politics. It has been prevalent ever since the Tamil polity began experiencing political anxiety over the perceived threat of Sinhala majoritarian hegemony.

What is required now is the creation of a just, egalitarian and plural society. There must be equitable power-sharing based on principles of devolution. If one were to simplify the ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka and its potential solution one may say that it is a contest between three “ideas”. Broadly, three schools of thought have been clashing, namely hegemonism, secessionism and pluralism.

The Sinhala hardliners want Sinhala-Buddhist domination and look upon this country as theirs alone, excluding or reducing others to subservient status in this ‘Chinthana.’

They interpret numerical superiority as a divine right to dominate other ethnicities who are treated as children of lesser Gods. Their numerical strength has afforded them the ability to exercise this control through “democratic” procedures.

They want a Unitary State where the pecking order is clearly established.

The Tamil hardliners want a separate State for the North-East known as Tamil Eelam. Just as Sinhala hawks say Sri Lanka is for the Sinhalese, these Tamil hawks say Tamil Eelam is for the Tamils. The Tigers may have been destroyed militarily but the ideology of “tigers” still exists. It is fuelled by funds from tigerish elements in the global Tamil Diaspora.

A state for the dominant ethnicity within excludes by definition, other ethnicities living within these real or imaginary borders. Both these Sinhala and Tamil “hawkish” ideas have brought about disunity, violence and destruction. The nation bled profusely and the country diminished drastically.

Amity and Fraternity
The third idea is that of establishing an egalitarian and plural society where all children of this country can live together in amity and fraternity. It incorporates a vision where no one will claim superior rights on the basis of belonging to the majority race/religion or claim exclusive rights to their historic habitat.
Power will not be confined to Colombo but shared with the periphery. All people regardless of race, religion, caste or creed will have their say and have a role to play.

Sri Lanka will belong to its people from Paruthithurai to Devinuwara and Mannar to Mullaitheevu. At present, this ‘vision’ seems unrealistically impossible and Utopian!

In spite of the adverse politico-military environment, this is the vision that should ultimately triumph..‘Visionaries’ of this nature are an endangered species. They are under attack by hawks on either side of the ethnic divide.

They are dubbed derisively as ‘jokers’ and ‘traitors.’ It is, however, this vision that will ultimately salvage Sri Lanka. Hegemonic and secessionist dreams have turned into cruel nightmares. The call for the third option between the hegemonistic one-State and secessionist two-State schools of thought is a voice of sanity and sensibility. It is presently inaudible amidst the raucously divisive cries.
I, however, firmly believe that it will be heard and heard effectively one day. Sri Lanka will then be alive with the sound of concord.

In the clash of ideas, it is the superior one that will triumph. Dialogue and discussion, not bloodshed and destruction, will prove to be final arbiters of our destinies. The current situation is depressing but there is certainly a light at the end of the dark tunnel.

Our Destiny Is Inter-twined
However, estranged and alienated the Tamil people may feel at present, there is no denying the fact that we are an integral part of the Sri Lankan nation. Our destiny is intertwined with those of others living on the Island.

The future lies not in pursuing unrealistic political goals but in struggling together with people seeking justice and peace to forge a brave, new, inclusive nation. It is up to right-thinking members of the majority community to extend their hand of friendship in a spirit of fraternal amity towards like-minded “others”.
When India gained freedom at midnight, Jawarhalal Nehru spoke of its “tryst with destiny.” India’s southern neighbour has been awaiting its true destiny for 70 years. The Sri Lankan State needs to be re-structured and the Sri Lankan nation re-invented for its inevitable tryst with destiny. Sri Lanka at 70 faces the unfinished yet challenging task of building a NEW nation! Let me conclude with three verses from the poem “Call to Lanka” which is one of my favourites. It is by Rev. W.S. Senior. Walter Stanley Senior was a scholar, pastor, teacher and poet who served in Sri Lanka for many years as Vice –Principal of Trinity College, Kandy and Vicar at Christ Church, Galle Face.

Inspired by the landscape and people of the Island then called Ceylon, W.S. Senior poetically envisaged a future Lanka of unity and tranquillity where the races had blended and marched to a single drum.
Call To Lanka
Here are three verses from his Call to Lanka-
“But most shall he sing of Lanka
In the bright new days that come
When the races all have blended
And the voice of strife is dumb.
When we leap to a single bugle,
March to a single drum.
March to a mighty purpose,
One man from shore to shore;
The stranger becomes a brother,
The task of the tutor o’er,
When the ruined city rises
And the palace gleams once more.
Hark! Bard of the fateful future,
Hark! Bard of the bright to be;
A voice on the verdant mountains,
A voice by the golden sea.
Rise, child of Lanka, and answer
Thy mother hath called to thee”
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at  

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