Gradual Sharpening Of Ethnic Rivalry In Modern Sri Lanka – OpEd


The ethnic peace is eluding in Sri Lanka as divergence exists in trying to date the ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese majority community and the Tamil minority community. The country is multi–ethnic in nature with varied racial and religious groups inhabiting the island.

In Sri Lanka, there is no Christian or Buddhist ethnicity: there are Sinhalese and Tamil ones. It is also an interesting part of the history of Sri Lanka that the two principal communities, Sinhalese and Tamil, originated from India.

The first to come in the island were the Sinhalese. Later the Tamils attacked the Sinhalese and ruled a part of Sri Lanka and maintained there supremacy in the northern part of the country. The rivalry between these two communities has not died out yet and has an important bearing on the political life and history of the country. Thus, the root of the present long ethnic conflict that the nation has been in recent times is the result of historical competition and enmity.

Points of divergence

The two major ethnic communities of Sri Lanka–the Sinhalese and the Tamils are poles apart from language, religion and cultural points of view. The Sinhalese are a distinct ethnic group speaking the Indo–Aryan language Sinhala. They trace their origin to north India, claiming to be the earliest civilised inhabitants on the island.

Most of the Sinhalese practice a variant of Theravada Buddhism which had received continuous support from the rulers since it was introduced on the island in the 3rd century B.C. Most Sinhalese consider themselves today to be the protectors of Buddhism.

While the Tamils as a minority group have a distinct identity in racial and cultural terms. They trace their ancestry to the same period as that of the Sinhalese arrival. They are mostly Hindus and speak the south Indian Dravidian language Tamil. A significant number of them have converted to Christianity after the arrival of European powers. However, they both had the same legal status in Sri Lanka during the British rule.

The Sinhalese and the Tamils are not separated by ethnic divide only but educationally, psychologically and geographically too. A recent study on the subject of national harmony revealed that there is no school in Ceylon where there is a positive, well–integrated and gradual programme for racial integration, working hand in hand with the community agencies, for the realisation of the aim of making the children better Ceylonese citizens

Under the psychological factor the Sinhalese tend on occasion to group the indigenous Tamils with the Tamils of south India and view them in their entirety as ‘the Dravidian peril. Geographically Tamils, in general, reside in the northern and eastern part of island and the latter are conservative and community–conscious.

Even when opportunities for employment and commerce took them to the Sinhalese areas, they developed there flourishing self-contained settlements of their own. These parting tendencies in both the communities developed and strengthened further due to the defective or biased progress in constitutional history of the nation.

Even culturally, the island Sri Lanka is divided into two nations, namely, Tamil and Sinhala. They have been rivals in the past; they are rivals in the present; and are likely to continue to be rivals in future. It is a mosaic of self aware communities distinguished from one another along ethnic, religious or linguistic basis.

The political life of Sri Lanka has been closely bound up with these communal and other social differentiations. These traditional groupings formed the basis of politically most significant loyalties, interests and demands. The Sinhalese and Ceylon’s Tamil communities could associate these loyalties with past kingdoms and with specific territories.

Because of the force of historical traditions there emerged within Sri Lanka forms of identity among the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamil communities of the country.

Although the policies of the British were guided by the objective of creating a homogeneous society in the island, advancement of social mobilisation generated new aspirations and demands and widened concerned with educational opportunities, urban employment and government services heighting the potential for communal conflict. In fact, the nation building experiment in Sri Lanka was based on the language of the majority community, namely Sinhala and religion of the majority, namely Buddhism that further paved the direction of nationalism on the basis of communal identity.

Historical Development

The origin of ethnicity can be traced back in the 1920s when the Indian Tamils started first in the form of a cooperative movement and later under the Jaffna Youth Congress a social movement against caste distinctions in Sri Lanka.

It was the result of the reluctance of the Sinhalese to take to the regimented life of the estates. The period also witnessed arising of a political question relating to the representation in legislature. It posed a threat to the Sinhalese who were opposed to giving the large numbers of Indians the right to vote as recommended by the Donoughmore Commision in 1928.

From the view of Sinhalese it meant i. a dilution of the electoral strength of the Kandyan Sinhalese in most of the constituencies in the Kandyan areas; ii. the possibility of Indian Tamils being returned as representatives of Kandyan Sinhalese constituencies in the event of the splitting of the Kandyan Sinhalese vote between rival candidates ; and iii. the likelihood, especially at the time of the Donoughmore reforms of British planters, and/or Indian state Kanganies herding the Indian vote in favour of the candidate of their choice.

Later in 1929 the report of the Commission was debated in the Ceylon Legislative Council and the provision relating to the franchise of the Indian immigrants was modified by imposing several restrictions and the communal character of representation continued even thereafter.

In the history and politics of Sri Lanka the Sinhalese and the Tamil communities are fragmented through customs and separate higher from lower orders. There is nearly a complete absence of inter–caste marriages. Several members of the lower status caste groups have seized the opportunities provided by the modern economic system, and have become wealthy.

These differences in wealth have created wide class cleavages that cut across boundaries of caste, religion, and language. Because of all these divisions, Sri Lankan society is complex, with numerous points of conflict. The uneven capitalist development that was characteristic of the plantation raj created serious socio–economic divisions within the Sri Lankan society.

Development of ethnic identity

The ethnic identities in Sri Lanka strengthened especially in response to the growing influence of Christian religion and English language in matters of social and cultural living in the middle of 19th century. In the period Buddhist revivalist movement started in the country as it is the only nation in the world where Theravada Buddhism had the largest following.

There was a Buddhist cultural movement to assert the rightful place of Buddhism and it established a special relationship between Buddhism, the Sinhalese people and the island. The central theme of the movement was that Sinhala Buddhists alone had the original rights to Sinhaladvipa and Dhammadvipa–the land of the Sinhalese and the land of Buddhism respectively.

By the time of independence this type of Sinhalese–Buddhists ethno–nationalism had become a part of the popular thinking. This apart, a fear of Indian domination, particularly of being swamped by the Tamils from across the Palk Strait, figured prominently in the Sinhala–Buddhist discourse.

It all started in early 1920s although in 1919 they came together under the banner of Ceylon National Congress whose first president was Sir Ponnambalam, a prominent Tamil. But soon the differences between the two communities surfaced in 1920 following the constitutional reformers which introduced territorial representation.

These differences centered on the question of communal representation.

While the Sinhalese insisted upon representation according to population strength, the Sri Lankan Tamil wanted representation in excess of their numbers. The divergent racial–religious–linguistic congruence of the two communities of Sinhalese and Tamils is further accentuated by a territorial factor. The northern Tamil district being proximate to Tamil Nadu provided for easy inter–state contact and to worsen ethnic strife. This factor may lead to Tamil secessionist demands which posed a threat to the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. Inevitably along with such domestic factors that influenced the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, external forces have played a critical role in aggravating the conflict.

Clash for ethnic identity

The deterioration of relations between the two communities of Sri Lanka continued as before after independence of the island nation in 1948, but especially after 1956 when the ‘Sinhala i policy was adopted by the then government.

Earlier the Sinhalese and the Tamils were self–conscious about their differences and were mutually suspicious, they were not hostile prior to the language issue. It was the political controversy surrounding the language dispute in the first decade of independence that generated the most severe regional feelings among the Ceylon Tamils.

Consequently, communal antagonism became sharper than they had been for generations. After the language controversy the Federal Party (FP) became the principal spokesman of the Ceylon Tamils, replacing its rival the Tamil Congress (TC) which had advocated responsive cooperation with United National Party (UNP) government. Years after independence the government of the day initiated discriminatory policies harming the interests of Tamils at large creating vacuum for conflicts and antagonism between Sinhalese and Tamils. The issues of discrimination responsible for bringing tussle and bickering were language, administration, education, employment, colonisation of land and the power devolution.

*Dr. Rajkumar Singh, Professor and Head of P.G. Dept. of Political Science BNMU, West Campus, P.G. Centre, Saharsa-852201, Bihar, India.

Dr. Rajkumar Singh

Dr. Rajkumar Singh is a University Professor for the last 20 years and presently Head of the P.G. Department of Political Science, B.N. Mandal University, West Campus, P.G. Centre,Saharsa (Bihar), India. In addition to 17 books published so far there are over 250 articles to his credit out of which above 100 are from 30 foreign countries. His recent published books include Transformation of modern Pak Society-Foundation, Militarisation, Islamisation and Terrorism (Germany, 2017),and New Surroundings of Pak Nuclear Bomb (Mauritius, 2018). He is an authority on Indian Politics and its relations with foreign countries.

One thought on “Gradual Sharpening Of Ethnic Rivalry In Modern Sri Lanka – OpEd

  • August 6, 2019 at 6:59 am

    This article reflects a very poor understanding of ‘ethnicity” as a British colonial and spurious racial construct that was institutionalized in the Census, and the fact that the main real difference between Sinhalas and Tamils is a linguistic difference: Tamil being a Dravidian language and Sinhalese an Indo-European language. However, that this linguistic difference was racialized in the British Colonial period, also to Divide and Rule.
    Please refer the co-edited books “Ethnic Futures: the State and Identity Politics in Asia” and “Identity of the Borderline: Multiculturalism in a Moment of Danger.”
    Further, the statement made by Dr. Singh that ” The two major ethnic communities of Sri Lanka–the Sinhalese and the Tamils are poles apart from language, religion and cultural points of view. ” is factually incorrect as Buddhists and Hindus share gods and cosmologies in Sri Lanka although most Sinhalas are considered Buddhist and Tamils Hindus, with overlapping Christian, and there are many multi-religious sacred sites in Sri Lanka – Katharagama, Madhu Church, Adams peak etc and long established patterns of co-existence and inter-marriage among the island’s diverse and plural ethnic and religious communities, but religion and ethnicity has been periodically weaponized by external big powers trying to control the strategically located and geopolitically important Indian Ocean Island, in collusion with local politicians and ethno-religious entrepreneurs.
    Further, the attacks of churches by Islamists on Easter Sunday were clearly organized by foreign forces that are trying to set up military bases in Sri Lanka


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