In my previous post, I had touched upon the origin of Srilankan Tamils. In this serving, I’ll outline some of the reasons behind the simmering ethnic strife. But, first I’d like to lay some lies & disinformation to rest.
Srilankan Presidency and Disinformation
Any armed struggle uses a variety of tools to incite the masses & hi-jack them emotionally. Circulating malicious rumors is their stock in trade to get rabid supporters. Disinformation that denigrates the government would be propagated, to decrease hope & increase paranoia. Recently, this lie was stuffed down the throats of the gullible by LTTE supporters:
According to the constitution of Srilanka, only a Sinhala Buddhist can assume office as the President.
I was appalled by the number of intelligent people that bought this, hook, line & sinker. The best way to slay a rumor is to go directly to the source. I reviewed Chapter VII of the Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Srilanka, which lays down the laws governing the President of the country. There are NO clauses that mention Buddhism or Sinhala as a prerequisite for assuming office. Neither religion nor ethnicity is mentioned in any of the relevant clauses.
Buddhism is the State Religion of Srilanka & all the presidents thus far have been adherents of that faith. That’s not the same as claiming non-Buddhists cannot aspire to be presidents. I’ll be glad to eat my hat if someone can direct me to an article in the Constitution of Srilanka that contradicts my understanding.
Now, let’s go back to a point in history where all the rancor started.
Divide & Rule Policy
While we must agree that the British did not initiate cruel inquisitions like the Portuguese, they still caused Srilanka irreparable harm with their handiwork – the “Divide & Rule” policy. They created a subaltern elite, comprised of Burghers, Srilankan Tamils and the upper caste Sinhalas. Yes Virginia, there’s a caste system in Srilanka
Burghers are Srilankans with European blood. The British were especially partial to Burghers that professed loyalty to the Anglican Church. The land-owning Sinhala Govigama community & its Tamil equivalent – the Vellalas – were amongst the anointed. The British meted out preferential treatment to these 3 communities. They occupied most of the Civil Service jobs, received an excellent English language education & in general, enjoyed a position of power & privilege.
Divide & Rule is a very useful policy. It promoted people that were willing to kowtow to the British. It ensured that very little power was vested in the locals – and even then, it was concentrated to a handful of “elite”. In the end, it fostered resentment & animosity in the locals towards the chosen few. In any case, it ensured that the Srilankans were fragmented & couldn’t band together against the rulers. Slam Dunk for the British.
Setting the Stage
Srilanka became independent via non-violent means in 1948. For the 1st few years, both Sinhala & Tamil languages were treated equally. But this uneasy peace was short-lived. Tamils were a mere 15% of the population, but they were economically & socially far ahead than most of the Sinhalas. A disproportionate number of Tamils enrolled in medical and engineering schools, practically guaranteeing them lucrative careers.
Consider this. In 1948, Tamils occupied 31% of the university seats. In 1956, 60% of Technical & Professional jobs – Doctors, Engineers and University Professors – were held by Srilankan Tamils. In the same year, they also occupied 30% of the top bureaucratic positions & 50% of clerical jobs in Civil Services.
This caused resentment among the majority Sinhalas & resulted in soaring Sinhala Nationalism. There was a strong feeling that the balance of power & position had to shift in favor of the Sinhalas. Many good English language schools were in the Tamil dominated Jaffna peninsula. English language fluency was seen as a ticket for growth for the Srilankan Tamils & the Sinhala elite – and a stumbling block for progress for the non-English speaking Sinhala majority, most of whom were poor.
Sinhala Only Bill
Unemployment among the Sinhala youth & their hankering for prosperity exerted tremendous political pressure in post-independent Srilanka. As a crowning event, in 1956, the “Sinhala Only” Bill was passed. This made Sinhala, the language spoken by 74% of the population, the National language.
The horrified Tamil community was jolted into action. Tamil leader Chelvanayagam & his Federal Party colleagues staged a Satyagraha protest in the Galle Face Green in Colombo, demanding parity status for Tamil. Their protest was broken up brutally & violently by hooligans. While the peaceful agitators lay bruised, writhing in agony, the Srilankan government watched, a mute spectator to the deplorable event. This provided the spark that ignited an inferno 2 years later, in 1958, as a gory communal riot between Sinhalas and Tamils, with each side marauding & retaliating. The Black July attack in 1983 was the pinnacle of this pissing contest.
Once Srilanka’s official language became Sinhala, the bottom fell out of the English Language. In one fell swoop, Tamils lost their head-start on Sinhalas. And for the 1st time, they faced stiff competition in the job market. In the meantime, many Sinhala Medium schools were started through-out the country to educate the masses. English was relegated to 2nd language status in schools.
Due to a groundswell of pressure from the still influential Srilankan Tamil community, the “Sinhala Only” Bill was amended in 1958 to “Sinhala Only, Tamil Also”. But, for the next 10 years, most of the government forms and services were only in Sinhala. This made life exceedingly difficult for the Tamils.
Once Sinhala became the defacto official language, Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike ordered the Tamils in Civil Service jobs to prove their proficiency in that language. They better clear the stage-wise test over a period of 3 years, or else! What else – the Damocles sword of dismissal hung over the heads of Srilankan Tamils. Unable to clear the tests, many had their increments suspended. Some were forced to quit their jobs & make way for Sinhalas.
So in reality, the battle for the “Official Language” status was a battle for economic prosperity, for gainful employment. The law’s resounding impact was very visible by the 70s: Most of the Civil Service employees were Sinhalas by then. The Tamils had either quit or were not hired.
The law was repealed in 1987. Now, Chapter IV of the Srilankan Constitution gives parity to both Sinhala and Tamil. Both are official and national languages.
It is inconceivable to me that a minority living in a country half the size of Tamil Nadu will not take the effort to learn the language of the over-whelming majority. With all due respect, it seems parochial & idiotic.
I find the narrow-mindedness of the Srilankan Tamil leaders deplorable. Srilanka was their nation! Why didn’t they take the unemployment problem of the Sinhala youth to their hearts? They did not try to improve the lot of their Sinhala brethren. They could have been the leaders of Srilanka. Instead, they were content to lead a mere 15% of the population, the Tamils.
I’ve realized over the years that we cannot be happier than those around us. Sooner or later, they’ll pull us down. The Tamils were pleased when they were well placed – granted, through their hard-work; And started whimpering when they were no longer the top dogs, when they were relatively worse off than before. I find their callousness unpardonable. If the Tamils had played their cards right, if they had attempted to help the Sinhalas, if they had been empathetic, things wouldn’t have come to such a sorry pass.
As for the bungling Srilankan government, their objective may be laudable, but their execution stunk. They could not resist playing into the hands of the zealots who painted the program in ugly communal colors. Nor could they control the sordid ethnic clashes that erupted.
Even though English is a 2nd language, English language proficiency is very low in Srilanka – around 10% of its population, mostly the urban elite that enroll in International Schools. Painful awareness that most Srilankans are ill-prepared to compete with India in IT, BPO & KPO sectors, primarily because of their inadequate English skills – is sinking in.
Many Sinhalas are threatened by the mere presence of 60 million Tamils, a spitting distance across the pond in India. This insecurity will only deepen if our politicians scream for an end to Srilanka’s “unjust” war against LTTE. Indian politicians will do well to remember that.
What are the other fundamental problems that exacerbated the ethnic strife & converted it to a crisis? All that & more in my next post.