Evolution of ethnic identity in Sri Lanka


Dr. Rajkumar Singh
In response to evolution of ethnic identities in Sinhalese, the Tamils of island felt threatened. In the line of Sinhala thinking, Tamils, Muslims Christians or other non-Sinhalese did not have a place. Although decades before independence there was no such feeling and initially educated Sinhalese and Tamil elites worked together for constitutional reforms. 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 constitutional reforms 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 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.
Ethnic segments of Sri Lanka
The Sinhalese and 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 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 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, 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 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 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.
Developments after Independence
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 Only’ policy was adopted by the then government. Earlier the Sinhalese and 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.
Soon after independence, the island nation had adopted a Presidential system which was found unsuitable to the heterogeneous nature of Sri Lankan society pushing the country into ethnic mess. In fact, the unitary system in Sri Lanka had completely failed on account of the parochial and inhuman attitudes of the Sinhalese political society in satisfying the preserved aspirations of the multi-ethnic people and therefore, the demand of decentralisation and democratic processes had been raised continuously in order to accomplish socio-political equity. The Tamils claimed that due to Sinhalese majority, the Tamil minority cannot get access in the political activities and participation in the governance and the decision making process of the country.


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