The Real History of Srilanka – Part 2

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.

Summing Up

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.


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    There are 6+ tamil political parties are now there for Sri Lanka Tamil’s representation at parliament. There are several local political parties out there to take control of North and East, once SL army took out final LTTE hideouts, but still i’m skeptical about it. Karuna was the key in East. But i think it would take several years(possibly decades) to heal wounds of Tamil people in east and north, because of 25 years of civil war, the road to recovery is long way to go.


  2. Quote

    Ganesh – Well said. This is exactly the problem India should take a stance on – instead, clowns like Karuna Nidhi want to end the war, because continuing the ethnic strife in Srilanka is politically beneficial to him. We should think about tomorrow & the day after.

    And I think Srilanka should not just care for the displaced – It would also redeem itself greatly if it has plans for the many, many Tamils that live in refugee camps in India.

    I think right now, the govt is fighting a civil war with single-minded focus. The Defense Secretary is the President’s brother – so, they are operating in unison.

    And they are trying their best to help the displaced & the trapped civilians. UN was stationed in the North East, but they had to leave because of impending war. Norway, which has cordial relations with Srilanka, has offered to help the displaced – and they’ve been welcomed by President Rajapakse. Here is where I feel India should be doing some more.

    In all fairness to Rajapakse’s govt, they are trying to establish a stable govt in the reclaimed territories. Whether this will provide lasting peace remains to be seen.

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    Vamsi – Sensible suggestion. It may shorten the war & reduce casualties. Especially since many Tamils, including many “Tigers” are tired of the war. They just want to lead a normal life. Srilankan army recently intercepted radio messages from the LTTE top command to it fighters: The morale was flagging & the leaders had to work very hard to keep the fighters motivated.

    So, a propaganda might work. But, the govt & the Tamils have to work very, very hard to re-establish trust. Srilanka has a long & difficult road ahead.

    There may be a feeling that a deadly battle will be a fitting end to this civil war. In a way, it is cathartic. Plus, a decisive win boosts pride in the nation. Not that I fully agree.

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    Vishnu – Yes, it is ridiculous to say Buddhism is evil. People have evil streaks & they’ll use any conduit to express it. Religion is one of them.

    Senthil is a regular visitor of this blog & he’s of the opinion that every religion except Hinduism is evil. He also has quaint notions on the Caste system (he loves it) & blames the British for most ills in India. Since the authors of this blog disagree with him on almost everything, his comments are especially strident. Most of our readers have a similar reaction to his views.

    I have a feeling Thiru Kural is based on Hinduism, but that’s a separate discussion altogether. Its even organized on the Purusharthas of Hinduism – Dharma, Artha, Kama, Moksha. The 4th tenet is missing, probably because the author wants to focus on what can be practiced in this life.

    But all in all, I agree with you that Thiru Kural is neutral enough for people of any religious persuasion.

    I believe that, for the sake of security & peace in the Eastern sea-board, India should play a bigger role in reconstructing Srilanka after the war is over. Not the biggest role, not the starring part, but a bigger role. But apart from that, I’m with you. We should keep our nose where it belongs.

  5. Quote

    I believe that Mr. Senthil has his freedom to state his opinion, as do everyone else.

    Looking forward to your article on Affirmative Action. As a Malaysian affected by such a policy, I’m quite eager to see what your opinions are on this.

    For an inspiring view into India, and even Hinduism and Tamil culture, may I suggest that you (and anyone else who is of Indian origin) get a hold of “The Story of India by Michael Wood” on DVD. It’s a recent 6-part BBC documentary tracing Indian history. At the end of it, you will either be very proud to call yourself an Indian, or very ashamed depending on how you digest the facts.

  6. Quote


    Your utter disdain for what Priya writes is obvious. You won’t even address her by name, but would address everyone else. Since you have some deep seated prejudice, why bother commenting in a civil forum. If there’s an ounce of introspection in you, I’d urge you to use that fully to analyze what you say.

  7. Quote

    Vishnu – Thanks for the recommendation. Is this DVD available in stores in Malaysia or Singapore? We’ll be in SGP next month, would love to buy it then, if its available.

    Affirmative Action – Yep, as a Brahmin living in Tamil Nadu, I’ve tasted it aplenty. I’m gearing up to write a post on it.

  8. Quote

    NK – Thanks for your comment.

    I think Senthil is simply filibustering, as always. Works well when you have a set of stock points & some relevant data, but not enough to trounce the opposition in a logical, clear-headed debate.

    What you see isn’t his disdain for me, its sheer bile & blind hatred for what I stand for. And fear at a deep seated level that he won’t be able to defend his position to himself. Which is what is making him uncivil. Introspection may actually force him to change some of his views & he can’t bear that.

    Think Sarah Palin.

  9. Quote


    Interesting post. I got the synopsis of it from the last post and the comment 🙂 My thought is this – As the Sinhalese considered themselves being oppressed under British rule and not getting the right opportunities, they associated the tamils with the out-going Brits. Yes, like you said the tamils could have done more to mingle better during the British period, but did not. The Sinhalese didn’t do enough to figure out that the language (English) could be useful. Utter idiots on both sides.

    I don’t understand why the same minority dominance doesn’t raise a big issue in the US. Members of Indian origin are a minority, as are many others, yet, they dominate the high paying tech jobs. Why isn’t there intolerance? Is it because of the people, or does the approach by the Government got anything to do with it. I wonder if the politicians could have handled the situation in SL differently.

  10. Quote

    NK – Thanks. Tolerance is easier when there are enough opportunities for everyone. Plus in the US, the majority isn’t wallowing in poverty. Not counting the current down-turn, I mean.

    Many countries chose to go to town with their mother tongue in those days. Japan, China – long list. India couldn’t stuff Hindi down too much, because Hindi speakers aren’t an **over-whelming** majority. Our disunity in diversity helped us save the day & English stayed on as the link language.

    Yes, the politicians could have certainly handled the situation in SL differently. Simply keeping English on indefinitely would have helped them, but it would have made the progress of the majority slower.

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    I don’t think you can get it in this corner of the world. I got a friend of mine to buy it from the UK. You can buy it online at, Amazon or HMV UK but I can’t remember if the DVD was region-free or limited to Region 2( i.e. UK/Europe only). Best if you can get one of your friends/relatives to get you a copy. I paid about 15 pounds for it. Trust me, it’s worth the wait. In the meantime, I think you can catch some snippets on YouTube. It’s not much, but it’ll give you an idea on what to expect.

    Yes, Affirmative Action sucks. The sad part is how it has left a negative resonating influence across the region.

  12. Quote

    Vishnu – Thanks for the clarification.

    Hmm – See, I actually think affirmative action isn’t such a bad idea. I can’t say more – Please wait for Part-4, where I plan to outline it.

  13. Quote
    pk.karthik said November 17, 2008, 12:48 pm:


    I dont agree with you on the statement,that Buddhism is intolerant ,some budhists have been intolerant.

    No religion ever takes about killing people or persecuting or punishing people.Over a period of time oppressors have moulded the religions rightly for their convienience.

    Islam /Christianity/Vaishanism/Saivaism/ etc never talk of evil and violence they all talk of love and compassion.

    As Karl Marx said religion is indeed the opium of the masses…so rulers keep using to rule the crowd.

    I would suggest you oppose Priya’s views rather than opposing her,

    But all said and done ..I really appreciate your resiliance…..If you open up a bit you will be able do wonders

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    Karthik – Senthil will tell you that he branded the post, not the author. One can state their opinion without branding the post, the author, alien cultures & religions. That’s what is called being civil.

    I don’t think he’s doing this unintentionally. Since we tend to pooh-pooh his rather extreme views, he’s incensed & he simply vents in his comments.

    The funny thing is, he gets mighty offended if any of us use strong words in our rebuttal. He can only dish out insults, he can’t take the return shot 🙂

  15. Quote

    I am sorry… I was under the impression that you were a Srilankan Tamil… And Vishnu from Malaysia is a close personal friend of mine… The DVD which he had recommended has been downloaded by another friend and I should have it sometime by the end of this month… Please let me know if you wish to have a copy of it…

    Looking fwd to your post on affirmative action…

  16. Quote

    Nivas – No problem. Glad to know that you are Vishnu’s friend.

    Thanks for the offer – that’s very kind of you. I’ve already requested my friend in UK to buy me a copy of the DVD, if its available. She has promised to send it to me soon.

  17. Quote

    Once the end of LTTE came, i revisited this blog, it was informatic & iam glad that most of my doubts are cleared.
    Thanks Priya for you valuable facts & figures.

  18. Quote
    Karthikeyan said June 26, 2009, 4:17 pm:

    I am also a tamil living in Bangalore….Even i was a blind supporter of Srilankan Tamils… I came to know many historic things from the posts…. Thanks for enlightening me Priya…. Keep up the good work….

  19. Quote
    lakshman Dalpadado said December 10, 2009, 8:28 am:

    Priya Raju

    Excellent review of Sri Lankan history and the origins of the Sinhalese. A must read for every Sri Lankan – (which says a lot about about your depth of knowledge and grasp of essentials).

    Simhapura( Singhapura or Sinhapura) kingdom in the upper and lower Indus valley is thought to be the origins of the Sinhala. Hence the Lion emblem shared by Gujaratis and Rajputs and the Sinhalese. Sinhala Kings attire is very similar to Rajputs and Mughals including the turban like head gear and a dagger worn around the waist. This maybe as a result of Rajput domination of northern India including the Indus valley circ 200BC. Sinhala Royal names ending RajaSinghe ( lion King) Lion- Singh in Punjabi and Rajasthani – all hints to a Rajput link. Also Rajput clan names- Arya Vansa, Soma Vansa , Chandra Vansa( lunar clan) Soorya vansa( sun clan)- are common names amongst the Sinhala people.

    Buddhas introduction to Sri Lanka was probably via Gujarat. During Mayura empire Buddism travelled not only towards east but also to the west including Sindh province and Afghanistan( Bamiyan). ThambaPanni – was in reference to the copper coloured beaches in the north-west- Mannar and Puttalam.

    Jaffna and the surrounding areas were some of the most developed in Sri Lanka at the time of independence. Missionaries from all over the world set up missions and schools in the north- east. They found , as a minority’, the Tamils more receptive to christianity than the majority Buddhist. Jaffna had some of the best schools in the island as a result. Most Tamils converted to Christianity- a prerequisite under the Jesuits. Missionary educated Tamils ( and the Sinhalese who converted to Christianity) were much favoured by the British for their religious affinity and proficiency in English.

    Because of the high standard of education in Jaffna illegal immigration from Tamil Nadu became the norm. Which led the SL government to introduce Photo- ID cards in 1972, one of the first countries in the world to use photo ID, to address the problem. This became a hotly contested issue in Jaffna because this interfered with the Human smuggling operation of the gangs- the progenitors of the LTTE.

    All important documents- certificates of birth, marriage, death and other government documents( including stamps) – were in all three languages since independence. All Sinhalese government employees had to learn Tamil if they are get increments – this was strictly adhered to when I was working in the health department.

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