Tamil Racism is Older than 1956

by Thomas John Pulle

(September 04, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) Sri Lanka is at war for the past 25 years. There hasn’t been any let up in fighting as killings continued irrespective of ceasefires. Various theories claim that the war and its root causes date back to 25, 35, 52, 84, etc. years. The year 1956 is regularly quoted and misquoted in literature about the conflict. However, there are undeniable facts that are either omitted or ignored in discussing racism in Sri Lanka. While all forms of racism is baseless and detrimental to the continuation of the human race which is the only race on earth, it is still interesting to look into the facts.

It all started within

Sectarianism takes many facets; racism is only one manifestation of it. Sectioning the society based on race, religion, skin colour, caste, gender, economic prosperity, etc. is an advance symptom of sectarianism. In Sri Lanka the caste system has been very strong and still holds sway in the minds of some people. However, Tamils and Sinhalese responded differently to caste discrimination. While the former followed a harsher approach, the latter followed a softer one.

It was reported that in 1847, Arumuga Navalar - a Sri Lankan national hero - left the Jaffna Central College where he was a teacher because a low caste Tamil student (according to some accounts he was from the Eastern Province) was admitted to the school! He came to the limelight again approximately 30 years later when a famine hit the Peninsular. He worked tirelessly to provide food and medicine to the Jaffna high caste (Vellala) people only. His actions angered not only low caste Tamils but also a cross section of the society. However, as the most prominent leader of the northern people at that time he made a strong statement by his conduct. Discrimination to this extent was never observed among the Muslims and the Sinhalas. In 1929 caste riots broke out again in the north in response to the ‘equal seating directive’ of the government which was applicable to schools. Under this directive low caste students were ‘allowed’ to sit on the bench as they sat either on the floor or outside the classroom until this time. Resultant riots bunt a large number of houses mainly of low caste Tamils. Their children en masse were stopped from attending schools. Repeated petitions were made to the government begging it to cancel the directive!

Race-based demands

In 1890 Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan - again, a Sri Lankan national hero - claimed that Muslims were part of the Tamil community which claim was strongly rejected by the Muslims. This came at a time when it was clear that the number of Muslims in the East were on the increase vis-à-vis the Tamils. LTTE still holds on to this view and at all rounds of Peace Talks it has repeatedly rejected separate Muslim representation. However, addressing separate Muslim issues in the East and the North has become critically important today.

The year 1918 marked the advent of race based demands. Contrary to popular belief, the infamous 50:50 demand was not made in the 1930s; it was made in 1918 by the Jaffna Association. This was for the election of members to the Legislative Council. For the first time in Sri Lanka, race was brought up as a bargaining tool 39 years before 1956. Unfortunately it has made a very long journey which none would have expected then. In 1921 this demand was advanced by the Tamil Maajana Sabhai gently giving it a further dose of race consciousness.

In 1931 Sri Lankans were awarded universal adult suffrage. Members were to be elected on a regional (electorate) basis rather than a race base (which is found nowhere). Tamil communalist elements were furious about this and called for a boycott of the election. Resultant clashes injured many innocent people. For the first time in Sri Lanka blood was shed while making race-based demands from the government. Further demands on a race-based election system was made but were repeatedly rejected by the British rulers. In 1944 All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) was formed. This is the first race-based political party to enter national politics. Its founder GG Ponnambalam agitated people along racial lines to secure political power for his party. Sinhala extremists formed the Sinhala Maha Saba but couldn’t sustain it as a political party and it become a constituent party of the UNP and SLFP. It never contested or won a seat at elections. Muslims also refrained from fielding race-based political parties. At the 1947 election, Sinhalese and Muslims voted for the UNP and communist parties. Interestingly none of these parties followed a racial line and fielded candidates of many ethnicities. In direct contrast the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) fielded only Tamils and represented only Tamils. It still does so.

Race based political parties

ACTC joined the UNP to form a government and found itself vulnerable to the race-based political stream that was put in motion. A more radical political party by the name Illankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (Ceylon Tamil State Party) was formed in 1949 advocating the separation of ‘Tamil areas’ from the rest of the country and for the formation of the Tamil State. It was formed by SJV Chelvanayakam who was born in Malaysia. The party name was translated into English as ‘Federal Party’. However, the Sinhalese and Muslims still rejected race-based political parties and continued to rally around national political parties which were based on alternative global economic policies.

The journey started by the All Ceylon Tamil Congress continued through Illankai Thamil Arasu Katchi and the baton was passed to an even more radical Tamil political party by the name Tamil United Liberation Front in the 1970s. It openly advocated the creation of ‘Tamil Elam’. This demand was carried forward by the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam). LTTE has spun a Tamil political party by the name Tamil National Alliance in the year 2000.

Owing to unthinkable acts of cruelty unleashed upon the Muslims by the LTTE and due to perceived inaction by governments, regional Muslims formed into Sri Lanka Muslim Congress in 1987, 33 years after the formation of the continuing Tamil race-based political party ACTC in 1944. However, SLMC as the name goes has stuck to Sri Lanka. Since then most of its members have joined the government in power. Much the same about Up-Country Tamil political parties that have always followed a more participatory approach. Their names, Ceylon Workers’ Congress, Western People’s Front and Upcountry People’s Front denote no racial bias and their membership constitutes people of all races.

Race based Sinhala political parties were formed at various times including the Sinhalaye Maha Sammatha Boomiputra Party and the Sihala Urumaya. These parties were categorically denied by the Sinhala people. The present Jatika Hela Urumaya has no racial meaning as Hela (Elam) was used to refer Sri Lanka although they follow a hard line Sinhala extremist approach which is not at all different to the TNA and its predecessors.

Bandaranaike, 1956 and riots

Racial riots were reported in Sri Lanka way back in the 19th century. The 1915 Sinhala-Muslim riots were a watershed in Sri Lankan history. Many Sri Lankan ‘national heroes’ were imprisoned following the riot but the riot had nothing to do with intolerance or animosity between the two races. It was rather a simple rift about a religious procession. Therefore sustained violence between the two communities was not seen. Following the Sinhala Only Act in 1956 and once again in 1958 there were Sinhala-Tamil riots. These continued in the 1960s, 1970s and culminated in 1983. However 1956 was not the start of the manifestation of Sinhala-Tamil racial intolerance which raised its ugly head in 1931 and again in 1948 in much smaller scales. However, by 1956 the atmosphere was already created by Tamil political forces that rejected regional (electoral) representation and demanded race-based representation.

As a result Bandaranaike had to take up the matter with none other than Illankai Thamil Arasu Katcchi (Ceylon Tamil State Party) that was already demanding a separate Tamil state! Both extremists agreed without consulting the people that the solution lies in the mid point of their respective extremist demands! If the mid-point of two problems can be the ‘solution’, most human problems would have been ‘solved’ by now. Unfortunately at the mid-point of two problems is a problem-child which is race-based federalism. Race-based federalism envisages continuing with racism and race based demands which are at the heart of the problem. Since 1958 every so called ‘moderate’ upholds this ‘solution’. Instead what this country needs is racial integration in one nation. As proven throughout the world only unity can bring unity and division breeds further division.

The Bandaranaike affair of the Sinhala Only Act came into being because of democracy. If not for him another politician would have come up with this lucrative political promise to lure votes. Strangely this phenomenon is seen right throughout the world. Australia, the United States and Malaysia have only one national language each and it has integrated people of many different races. They were not without problems though. While blaming Bandaranaike for invoking cheap popularity to win an election by way of arousing racial identities, one may also argue that had the Sinhala Only Act was implemented as state/national languages were implemented in Australia, the United States or Malaysia, people of Sri Lanka would have been better integrated! In fact most Tamils and Muslims living in Sri Lanka today have a good command of the Sinhala language and they have integrated very well into the society in ‘Sinhala majority’ areas. Interestingly, while a very large number of non-Sinhala speaking Tamils have emigrated, the percentage of people without the command of the Sinhala language is getting smaller and smaller even after making Tamil a national language in 1987. Either the two are not relted or inversely related.

Forgotten minorities

Due to overwhelming preoccupation of Tamil demands, the other minorities have been ignored in Sri Lanka. Muslims, Malays, Colombo-Chetties, various Indian ethnic groups, various European communities, the Veddha community, the Chinese community and other minor communities have been overlooked by the government. Their valuable cultures must be revived before it is too late. They have integrated very well into the Sri Lankan society and made no race based political demands. Mainstream political parties have become their very own parties. Interestingly some of these smaller groups (e.g. Muslims, Colombo Chetties) have gradually moved away from the Tamil identity over the years.

The myth about Tamil domination

There is a big myth about Tamils dominating the others in profession and industry before 1956. This is a total fabrication as nothing of the sort ever occurred. It is true that Tamils numerically dominated the administration and clerical service but the professional stream (doctors, engineers, lawyers, armed forces personnel, university lecturers) was numerically dominated by the Sinhalese and other small minority groups than Tamils in Sri Lanka. However the most important economic contribution was made by the smaller minorities, Muslims and the Sinhalese that made up the business community of Sri Lanka. Unfortunately Tamils especially Jaffna high caste Tamils’ contribution to this most important sector of the economy was comparatively little at that time although they have turned the tables since then.

Another myth exists that claims comparatively favourable education opportunities available to Tamils during the British reign. If the distribution of schools is considered, the Sinhalese were actually unfairly advantaged during the British times! Not only did various Christian schools spun up in large numbers throughout “Sinhala majority areas” than “Tamil areas”, many Buddhist schools were established by foreigners for the special benefit of Sinhala Buddhists after they were moved by Buddhist teachings. This is a phenomenon not seen in Tamil areas. On top of that severe discriminatory practices were used in Tamil areas by Tamils themselves against low caste Tamils (who obviously outnumbered high caste Tamils) that kept most low caste Tamils away from schools. Children were never denied education en masse in “Sinhala majority areas” based on caste, race or other differences. In fact Sinhala literature works dating back to the turn of the nineteenth century pride them in allowing people of all castes access to education.
The equitable tertiary education system of the 1970s allocated equitable number of free university education opportunities to all the districts of the country. Obviously this resulted in a reduction in the number of students getting into universities from the Jaffna district. However, it similarly affected Colombo, Galle, Kandy and Matara districts that were Sinhala majority. On the other hand the system allowed higher number of opportunities to students in Batticaloa, Vavuniya, Mannar, Trincomalee, Nuwara Eliya and Mulaitivu that are Tamil majority areas. Today there are Tamil (students) only universities in the country but there aren’t any Sinhala (students) only universities! Also it is no secret that the percentage of Tamil undergraduates (excluding Upcountry Tamils) in universities is far higher than their population percentage. Amidst the war the government has spent a disproportionately larger amount of taxpayers’ money (than collection) on North-East education. Thankfully these good deeds have not been looked at from a race-based point of view.

Racial demands and demarcations cannot be retained in the modern world. Its time to lay to rest the 90 year old race-based representation demand made by all successive major Tamil political forces. Even proposed power sharing solutions follow this line of thinking and hence are not solutions at all. It couldn’t be accommodated via democracy and now it is clear that it cannot be championed by force either. Parliamentary representation is territory based and people have the right to live anywhere in this little island. We should either learn to co-exist without racial boundaries or go where racial boundaries still exist.

( London based writer can be reached at trjohnpulle@yahoo.co.uk )
- Sri Lanka Guardian