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Sril Lanka: Political Marginalization Of Tamils Continues – Analysis


By V. Suryanarayan

The recent announcement that the number of members of parliament to be elected from the Jaffna electoral district will be reduced to six is another illustration of the policy of marginalization of Tamils assiduously pursued by successive Sinhala dominated governments. In a letter to the Speaker of Parliament on August 8, 2011 the leader of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) R. Sampanthan rightly pointed out that it would only mean “the reduction of effective Tamil representation in Parliament and the denial of equal treatment and political justice to the Tamil people”.

One of the important fallouts of the prolonged ethnic conflict had been the involuntary migration of Tamils. Large number of them moved out of the island and sought asylum in different parts of the world. In the State of Tamil Nadu alone, there are nearly 1, 50,000 Tamils, which comprise of refugees in camps, non-camp refugees and Sri Lankan nationals who have come with valid travel documents. There were others who were forcibly evacuated by the Tigers following the military capture of Jaffna by the Sri Lankan armed forces in 1994. When the Sri Lankan armed forces began to expand, large chunks of territory in the Northern Province came under High Security Zones and the people living there were displaced Many, unable to make both ends meet, and, what is more, to escape the rigours of military occupation, moved to Colombo and other parts of the South. The cumulative result of these developments had been substantial reduction of Tamil population.

Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka

The last census in the Northern Province was held in 1981 and the demographic statistics is naturally not up to date. Many born after 1981 have not been registered; many do not have identity cards and other documents. In the normal course, the government’s top priority, after the end of the war, should have been to restore normalcy, reduce the military presence, speed up demining and dismantle the high security zones. While some progress has taken place in this direction, the Government is also simultaneously expanding the armed forces, high security zones continue to exist and Sinhalese, with Colombo’s encouragement, have started settling down in both sides of the A9 highway.

A proper census in the northern province is the need of the hour and naturally the census operations can taker place only after normalcy is restored and the displaced return to the their original homes. Heavens will not fall if the question of electoral representation is kept in abeyance till complete normalcy is restored. The announcement made by the Prime Minister DM Jayaratne in Parliament that the Election Commissioner has made the decision in line with the electoral regulations smacks of expediency and vendetta,

The cumulative result is the creation of an anomalous situation. While in predominantly Sinhalese areas, electoral representation to Parliament has increased, the Tamil representation from the Jaffna electoral district has declined. As Sampanthan has pointed out, in 1947, one year before independence, the total strength of Parliament was 101 and the representation of Jaffna electoral district was 7. Today, the total membership of Parliament is 201, but the representation of Jaffna electoral district, if the government announcement is to be implemented, will go down to 6. The Sinhalese leaders fail to understand the problem in proper perspective. The exclusion of minorities in the power structure and the denial of autonomy to them will only aggravate their sense of alienation. That had been the lesson of post-independent Sri Lankan history.


The first victims of political marginalization in independent Ceylon were not the Sri Lankan Tamils, but the people of Indian origin They went as British subjects to Ceylon and according to British authorities should enjoy the same rights and privileges as the Sinhalese and the Sri Lankan Tamils. The Sinhalese leaders did not agree with this formulation. They considered the Indian Tamils to be Indian nationals. They wanted to absorb only a small fraction of them as Sri Lankan nationals and wanted to prescribe rigid tests to prove their “abiding interest” in the island. Herein lies the seeds of “absorbable minimum” put forward by successive Ceylon Governments since independence. The Indian diplomat Girjia Shankar Bajpai summed up the apparent discrimination, “The Indian who has worked in Ceylon is to be thrown back to India as a squeezed lemon”.

Despite the restrictions on franchise, in the 1947 elections held under the Soulbury Constitution, the Indian workers elected six representatives of the Ceylon Indian Congress (CIC); where no CIC candidates were fielded they voted for Marxist candidates and tilted the balance in Marxist favour in about nine seats. The leftward swing of the plantation workers’ votes made the conservative UNP leadership determined to debar the vast majority of Indian Tamils from Ceylonese citizenship after independence. If the Government could restrict the citizenship and, therefore, the franchise of the Indian Tamils, the leftist influence could be reduced and the ruling party could strengthen itself in the plantation areas. Also conjured up was the bogey of Indian “expansionism” with the Indian Tamils as its “fifth column”.

The Ceylon Citizenship Act of 1948 and the Indian and Pakistani Residents Act, 1949 not only disfranchised the Indian Tamils, but these acts also made them stateless. The provisions of the citizenship Act were so complicated and cumbersome; naturally the Indian workers were not able to produce certificates to the satisfaction of Ceylonese authorities. The net result was the Indian Tamils were ostracized from the political mainstream. Speaking on the Ceylon Citizenship Act, Colvin R de Silva pointed out the “moment the Government starts applying a racial principle against a particular group, it would lead to discrimination against other minorities, who are today accepted as Ceylonese”. .


After independence the Indian Tamils were reduced to the status of a merchandise to be divided between Colombo and New Delhi in the name of good neigbourly relations. To the ruling elite in New Delhi and Colombo, they represented an agonizing and embarrassing set of statistics; for the estate management, they constituted cheap, docile labour to be exploited to the hilt; for the fanatics among the Sinhalese, they were easy and defenceless victims in times of ethnic conflict. By the Sirimavo-Shastri Pact of 1964 and the Sirimavo-Indira Gandhi Pact of 1974, New Delhi agreed to confer citizenship on 6, 00,000 (plus their natural increase), whereas Colombo agreed to confer citizenship on 4, 00, 000 (plus their natural increase).

The cumulative result was the Indian Tamils, who were more in number than the Sri Lankan Tamils at the time of independence, were politically sidelined and did not have any electoral representation in the parliament. The Sri Lankan Government made provision for nomination and, at various times, Aziz and Thondaman, articulated the Indian Tamil interests in the parliament. Equally tragic, since the majority of Indian Tamils did not have any voting rights, even the left parties began to ignore this significant working class segment. The situation changed only in 1977 elections, when S. Thondaman was elected to the Parliament from the Nuwara Eliya constituency. If the stigma of statelessness has been removed today and the Indian Tamils are playing an effective role in the political life, the credit should go to Thondaman and his colleagues. This politically astute leader, by a combination of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary struggles, compelled the reluctant Sinhalese leadership to confer on the Indian Tamils citizenship of the country.


The 1978 Constitution which ushered in the proportional system of representation had its defects and benefits. It introduced the Presidential system of Government; the parliament was devalued and the many acts of omission and commission paved the way for the exacerbation of ethnic conflict. For a long time, until the recent parliamentary elections, no party could muster majority by itself and, therefore, it had to rely upon smaller parties for forming the Government. This development enhanced the political clout of the Tamil speaking Muslims and the Indian Tamils, who could, under the proportional system, get more candidates elected to parliament.


In the present political scenario, where a vibrant debate should take place as to the nature of political and electoral system which Sri Lanka should have, the minorities will have to play their cards carefully. The sad aspect of Sri Lankan politics is that despite the affinity of Tamil language, the Sri Lankan Tamils, the Indian Tamils and the Tamil speaking Muslims have taken parallel and occasionally even contradictory courses. The perceptive observers of the Sri Lankan political scene recall that when the Indian Tamils were rendered stateless after independence, the chief advisor to the Prime Minister was a Sri Lankan Tamil Sir Kandiah Vadiyanathan. In his book, Outside the Archives, the Indian diplomat YD Gundevia mentions that Sir Kandiah Vaidynanathan was more Sinhalese than even DS Senanayake. In the Muslim memory, the ethnic cleansing resorted to by Prabhakaran and the LTTE in 1989 when the Muslims were ordered to leave Jaffna peninsula within 72 hours still lingers. So also the massacres of innocent Muslims who were offering prayers in the mosque in Kathankudy. Except for a brief interlude in the early 1970’s when the Indian Tamils and the Sri Lankan Tamils came together under the Tamil United Front, the story of their political interaction had been very dismal.

The emerging political situation, as far as minorities are concerned, provide a rare opportunity to come together and take a joint stand on issues of common interest. Sampahthan has repeatedly stated that the TNA does not subscribe to a separate state of Tamil Eelam and the party is willing to work for a political solution within a united Sri Lanka. From an Indian perspective, the need of the hour is for the TNA leadership to open a dialogue with the political leadership of the Tamil speaking Muslims and the Indian Tamils on issues of common concern. Political representation of the minorities in Parliament, including the representation of non-contiguous minorities like the Indian Tamils and the Tamil speaking Muslims, should form the subject matter of a healthy debate. Sri Lanka will have to evolve innovative institutional structures so that participatory democracy gets strengthened at all levels. In another essay I shall touch upon this significant dimension of Sri Lankan political system.

The lesson of Sri Lankan history is very clear. If the minorities do not unite, the Sinhalese-dominated Government will continue to sow the seeds of discord among them and marginalize them still further. The minorities should reflect over the pregnant statement made by Thantai Chelva when the Indian Tamils were rendered stateless soon after independence. To quote Chelva, “Today justice is being denied to Indian Tamils. Some day in the future, when language becomes the issue, the same would befall the Sri Lankan Tamils”.

Dr. V. Suryanarayan, former Director and Senior Professor, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras is currently Senior Research Fellow, Center for Asia Studies, Chennai. His e mail address:[email protected]

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