Caste in Modern Sri Lanka Politics

Michael Roberts

This essay first appeared in on 24 February 2010 and readers will see blog comments therein.


In a recent intervention in the web-site (10 Feb. 2010), Lakruwan de Silva has conjectured that caste rivalry between the Govigama and Karāva contributed in a secondary manner towards the rift between the Rajapakse clan and General Fonseka.[1] In his broad survey of caste undercurrents in the history of the Sinhalese, he also refers to the Kara-Govi rivalry that surfaced during the contest for the “Educated Ceylonese Seat” in the Legislative Council in British times in December 1911. In serendipitous coincidence a gentleman named Nadesan recently alluded to this famous occasion when the Govigama elite of that day is said to have backed Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan’s candidature and helped him defeat Dr. Marcus Fernando for this coveted post.[2]

Let me begin by clarifying the background to this contest. A coalition of Ceylonese activists from the Burgher, SL Tamil and Sinhalese communities had begun to exert pressure on the British rulers from circa 1906 seeking devolution of power. The British authorities responded in miserly fashion in 1910 with the Crewe-Macullum reforms conceding a modicum of expansion in the advisory Legislative Council and introducing the electoral principle for the “Burgher Seat” and the newly-created “Educated Ceylonese Seat;” while still maintaining the existing nominated seats.

Members of the Orient Club, circa 1907 Amadoris Mendis & the Senanayakes in relaxed mood, latter photo courtesy of Kumari Jayawardena

Voting rights for both these new seats were determined by property and educational qualifications so that the electorates were tiny. Within the body of 2938 who exercised their votes for the Educated Ceylonese seat, the “Ceylon Tamils” made up 36.4 per cent of the voters and Sinhalese 56.4 percent.[3] The Karāva elite made up a significant proportion of the Sinhalese voters because of their success in both the educational and entrepreneurial paths of mobility.[4] Therefore, they were able to field Marcus Fernando from a brilliant scholastic family that had secured twin-marriages with C. H. de Soysa’s daughters, thereby rendering the Fernandos part of the Warusahännadigē clan that commanded fabulous wealth. In this situation those Govigama activists who were Govigama-minded “did not consider themselves strong enough [to field a candidate] and took the pragmatic course of supporting … Ramanathan’s candidature.”[5] This emphasis needs a caveat. As Kumari Jaywardena has shown, not all the Govigama rich supported Ramanathan; he was so much a conservative that they preferred the mildly liberal Fernando.[6]

This caste alignment did not emerge out of the blue. There had been a long history of Kara-Govi rivalry in diverse quarters and at various social levels from the 1860s if not earlier. Let me detail some facets without claiming that this brief review is comprehensive.

Those with the closest affiliations with the British ruling class in Ceylon in the mid-nineteenth century were the educated Burgher elite and Govigama aristocrats from the mudaliyar class in the Low-Country, especially the Obeyesekere-Bandaranaike clans. But the Warusahännadigē de Soysas had amassed such wealth and prestige by the 1860s that they snaffled the right to feast the Duke of Edinburgh when he visited the island in 1870. The first-class Govigama were so miffed that they attempted to boycott this function. [7]

However, these Govigama families enjoyed other eminences: the British invariably appointed one of their educated sons to represent the Sinhalese as Nominated Member in the Legislative Council – a post that was re-designated “Nominated Low-Country Sinhalese Member” after the Kandyan aristocracy were given a nominated seat in the 1890s.

This monopoly was quickly challenged by the ambitious Karāva. In 1894/95 they mounted a series of public meetings at the little towns of the south west quarter which presented the British with petitions supplicating the selection of James Peiris for this nomination.[8]

At the same time one witnessed electoral competition for seats in the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) between Govigama and Karāva gentlemen cultivating electorates defined by restricted property/educational qualifications. Among those who entered the CMC in the 1890s were the Jayewardene brothers, Hector and Justus on the one hand, and, on the other, C. M Fernando, younger brother of Marcus Fernando. Subject to correction I believe that one will find that Hector Jayewardene and C. M. Fernando contested each other for the post of President of the Law Students Union in the 1890s. It was Hector Jayewardene in fact – more than the Senanayakes, correcting Lakruwan de Silva – who is said to have marshalled Govigama votes in favour of Ramanathan in 1911.

All this, of course, was elite-level politics that might seem rarified folly to those attached to grass-roots advocacy. They should pause awhile. Caste jostling for status had deep roots. From the mid-nineteenth century Karāva and Salāgama personnel challenged the conventional claims to superior ritual status attached to the Govigama.  These challenges were mostly in the Sinhala medium and generated a pamphlet ‘war’ at different moments in the period 1868-1911. While several were written under pseudonyms, it is known that Itihāsa (1876) was the work of the Karāva monk, Weligamē Sri Sumangala thera and that the Govigama reply in 1877 was composed by a collective that included Hikkaduvē Sri Sumangala thera and some lawyers.

The respectability of the authors did not constrain them from the use of vituperative, and even filthy, language. The vernacular-educated intelligentsia, among them the journalist, G. D. Pälis Appuhāmy, were at the centre of these writings in pamphlet and newspaper.[9]

Such contestation was not a product of the British period. Malalgoda has revealed that the questioning of Govigama hegemony and exclusiveness began in the eighteenth century in response to a royal decree in 1765 that restricted higher ordination to the city of Kandy and its chapters. Non-Govigama laity and monks combined to effect upasampadā ceremonies in the lowlands in 1772 and 1795. Then, between 1799 and 1813 five caste-specific parties went to Burma and returned with ordained monks of unquestionably authenticity. Three of the groups were Salāgama, one Durāva and the other Karāva.[10] The preponderance of Salāgama is no accident. Their clout in the cinnamon trade in this era meant that they had both the economic means and political networks to initiate such moves.

These examples of caste rivalry – within an incomplete survey on my part – would seemingly give weight to Nadesan’s scathing criticism of one of my recent short essays on the ground that “CASTE was more important than RACE and religion” in the British period (see fn. 2). Not so. Nadesan’s bizarre misreading of my essay on “The Sinhala Mind-Set” is guilty of oversimplification[11] and subsumed by a form of either/or reasoning. The political arena is a complex one, involving many strands and many alliances that could shift according to context. Jostling, competition and hostility between the different religious collectives on the one hand and, on the other, between ethnic communities (usually known then as “communities”) co-existed with caste competition within the Tamil and Sinhalese communities.

Within such a situation at any point of time particular sets of actors in a specific context may be directed strongly by Factor or Identity X, say the caste factor. This does not mean
that Factors and/or Identities Y and Z are weak or non-existent; rather they are on hold – a metaphor from the world of air-traffic control – because deemed irrelevant to that specific context. Indeed, for a good part of the twentieth century (and the centuries before) one became Sinhala by being Govigama, Durāva or whatever, just as one became “Thamil” by being Vellālar, Karāiyar, Koviyar etc (though Pallar and Nalavar were occasionally deemed “not Thamil” in the pure sense[12]). For a good part of the twentieth century it would have been rare for a Govigama family to seek a Vellālar spouse, so that cross-caste marriages of this type – or any type – arose as exceptions among the highly Westernised ‘decaste-ified’ elements of society, or in the urban slums and shanties or in the malaria-ridden backwoods.

The interlacing complications can be seen in the manner in which the mobilisation of caste fraternities within the Sinhala Buddhist world energised the resistance of Buddhists to the evangelical imperialism of the Christian orders in the British period. Their ‘training’ in caste polemics during the late Dutch and early British periods stood them in good stead when they had to face up to the missionary challenge on platform as well as print. Indeed, to follow Malalgoda, the presence of energetic Buddhist chapters organised on caste lines provided a multifaceted basis for Buddhist revitalisation.

Thus, in the late nineteenth century one sees Buddhist monks who had espoused the superiority of their caste working together with monks from other castes in movements directed against Christian privileges. Likewise, in the 1890s and 1900s the jostling for political position between the Fernandos and the Jayewardenes did not prevent their cooperation in the polite agitations of the Ceylon National Association – an elite political grouping that challenged notions of white superiority and the racial bar by pressing for the Ceylonisation of the Ceylon Civil Service.

In opposition to Nadesan, I note that the movement of Buddhist revival did not derive inspiration from Arumugar Navalar’s sturdy programme of Hindu revitalisation. Young & Jebanesan are firm on this point: “There is … no evidence at all of a pan-Lankan, Ceylonese … reaction to Chritianity at any time in the history of the island’s encounter with that religion.”[13] Both movements of religious revitalisation were reactions to the denigration heaped on native “idolatry” by Christian missionaries, disparagement that was sharpened by the general circumstances of political subordination and White racism.[14]

Many people today are aware of the movement of Buddhist revival that developed from the mid-nineteenth century and are familiar with the ardent attempts of Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933) on this front. It is also known that what were called the “riots of 1915” – involving assaults on the Muslims in the south western regions – erupted as a result of disputes surrounding religious processions.[15] Similar disputes had generated a clash between Catholics and Buddhists at Kotahena in 1883.[16]

Such incidents have enticed some scholars to downplay the significance of Sinhala-Tamil competition and the collective identities which sustain such rivalry in the decades before universal franchise (1931) and/or independence (1948).[17] The historians’ overwhelming focus on the activities of English-speaking Ceylonese elites who pressed for constitutional devolution in the vocabulary of liberalism has compounded this leaning.[18] As a result, the force of Sinhala nationalist thinking in the six decades 1870 to 1931 has not received adequate weight in many writings.

I delineate this period because of the availability of printed material in Sinhala in newspapers, pamphlets and books; and on the foundations provided by my research work on this type of material in the period before 1915. There was a recurrent discourse among the vernacular intelligentsia that was alarmed by the degree to which Westernised lifeways were threatening Sinhala culture. The dangers were regarded as both cultural and economic. The reliance on Western imports was adversely remarked upon. The widespread adoption of a Westernised life style and the diffusion of Christianity among the Sinhala people were seen as marks of their degeneration as well as instruments which furthered this process—undermining their gunadharma (religious virtues), kulacaritra (traditional customs) and bhāshava (language).[19]

The tone of the articles, pamphlets, novels and plays which exhorted the Sinhalese varied from the didactic to the biting satire of the zealot. An index of the convictions that drove these ideologues is provided by the consistency with which they birched the Sinhalese themselves—indeed to such a degree that one can speak of self-flagellation. Perhaps the sharpest diatribes were directed against those Sinhalese who were aping the Westerner. In Piyadāsa Sirisena’s writings such Sinhalese are even rendered into a distinct ethnic category: the samkara (mixed) and/or the tuppahi (low and mixed).[20]

Indeed, the titles of Sirisena’s early novels, Apata Vecca Dē [1909] and Maha Viyavula [1916], capture this anxiety in capsule form.  The Api here, in his thinking, are the truly indigenist Sinhalese of the hinterland, the people of the rata as distinct from the people of the thota. Numba ratay da? thotay da? asked the hero Jayatissa from Rosalin[21] when he fell in love at first sight [first novel in 1906]. That is, the Sinhalese of the littoral, significantly Westernised and/or Christian, are not authentic natives of the soil. They are potentially para and tuppahi. Therefore, we see here the early makings of Jātika Hela Urumaya thinking.

Piyadasa Sirisena

Anagarika Dharmapala

Diatribes were not confined to the inauthentic Sinhalese. Abuse was also heaped on the ultimate source of threat, the paradēsakkāra (low and vile   foreigners). These foreigners included the British, the kocci (Malayālis), the hamba (Indian Moors), the marakkala (all Moors), the hetti (Chettiyars), the   javo (Malays), the bhai (Borahs), and the para demala (low and vile Tamils).[22]In one of Anagārika Dharmapala’s essays in 1911 there is even a polemic directed against the kocci demalā.[23]

Nor should one forget that at the same time as Dharmapala’s campaign there was a strand of Sinhala patriotism that concentrated on the purification of the Sinhala language, identified specifically as the Hela language. Munidāsa Kumarātunga (1887-1944) may have been its modern-day flag-bearer, but this emphasis had several forerunners as well as others (e.g. Jayantha Weerasekera) who bore the torch into the post-1948 era.[24]

Sinhala nationalism, in other words, had many strands and was not confined to a Sinhala Buddhist revivalist thread. Sinhala Christians participated in some currents of the nationalist awakening such as the Sinhalese National Day campaign of the 1910s. Nor were all the Westernised Ceylonese who pressed for constitutional reform by knocking at British doors, such men as D. B. Jayatilaka and D. S. Senanayake, wholly removed from nativist ideals and their associated prejudices. Though it has yet to be documented in thorough ways, there are suspicions that threads of communalist thinking resided within the Senanayake clan.

However, when Buddhist activists approached Senanayake as Prime Minister in the early 1950s to complain about undue Christian influence in high politics and the decline of Buddhism, he is said to have dismissed this contention in his pragmatic style. Such a response laid DS and his successors open to the charge of being “brown sahibs” catering to the Westernised Ceylonese. The epithet “tuppahi” (pronounced thuppahi) was part of the effective weaponry wielded against these elements of society.[25]

This line of nativist ideology coalesced in the mid-1950s with the vociferous hostility to the brown bourgeoisie presented by Leftist parties and those underprivileged. Thus, as we know full well, in 1955-56 one saw the upsurge of the underprivileged marshalled within the coalition headed by SWRD Bandaranaike’s SLFP under the umbrella MEP. The targets were the privileged English-speaking community, Christians and the UNP.[26]

This combination drew its energies from a fusion of nativist thinking and radical socialist currents. In the result it attracted the vernacular speaking petit-bourgeoisie and even Tamils disposed towards the vernacular and/or the underclass. However, the cry of Sinhala-Only privileged the Sinhala language over the Tamil and had economic implications. Therefore the political transformation by ballot in 1956 was seen by many Tamils as disadvantageous to their interests – as indeed it was. In this manner Sinhala nativism and Sinhala linguistic nationalism moved to the front reaches of power on the basis of a democratic process and numerical weight compounded by a first-past-the-post electoral scheme.

Significantly, many motifs paraded by the Sinhala activists in the 1950s echoed themes that had been raised since the late nineteenth century. There was a considerable measure of continuity both in content of political expression and the type of personnel in the intermediary layers of society who were in the forefront of agitation.[27]

I do not need to dwell upon the consequences of this moment in Sri Lanka’s history, the “revolution of 1956” as it is sometimes referred to. The processes unleashed then, as we know full well, contributed substantially to the sharpening of the ethnic divide and the outbreak of a series of wars.

As vitally, the currents of Sinhala nationalism were sustained in subsequent decades by those generational cohorts associated with the upsurge in the 1950s and 60s as well as new generational forces. Two examples suffice. The JVP youth of 1967-71 who launched an insurrection in April 1971 were a new generation that was a product of the changes in the educational order that began in the 1940s; but in ideological terms they were both children of the “Old Left” and children of “1956.” Thus, as a “New Left” they shared ‘kinship’ with the Leftists who were part of the alliance that brought the MEP-led-by-the-SLFP to power in 1956.

The anti-Tamil strains of thinking that resided within the JVP of Stage One were muted in the second stage of this party’s history from 1977-1983 when it attempted to entice Tamil radicals to their cause through political activity directed by Lionel Bopage and others. But, after the Presidential election of 1983, Wijeweera’s nativist and chauvinist leanings surfaced in full measure so that the period 1987-90 revealed this Sinhala ideological virulence in a powerful manner.

At the same time, the 1980s and 1990s witnessed the flowering of a strand of political rhetoric identified as “Jātika Chinthanaya” (Nationalist Thought). Two individuals linked to this stream of consciousness were middle class professionals who had been associated with Leftist circles in the 1950s and 1960s and can thereby be placed directly within the 1956 generations. One was Gunadasa Amerasekera, a dentist and frontline Sinhala novelist. The other was Nalin de Silva, a mathematician and university lecturer. Both were competent in Sinhala as well as English.

Serviced by such forces, these currents of Sinhala nativist thinking – ideologies that shaded both imperceptibly and in glaring fashion into chauvinism — emerged strongly under the aegis of the new SLFP during the presidential election of 2005. The manifesto known as “Mahinda Chintanaya” presented itself explicitly as the heir to the political triumph of 1956 at a moment when the strength of the LTTE was deemed a severe threat to the existence of state and people.

In one swoop Mahinda Rajapakse and his team stole the clothes of the JVP at the same time as they allied with the latter to win the Presidency stakes.[28] They also had the Jātika Hela Urumaya as one of their allies. Thus a revamped SLFP, JVP and JHU in 2005 represented a powerful fusion of Sinhala bhumiputra thinking.

Having vested themselves with some of the JVP garments, once in power the Rajapakse family and their SLFP were able to entice some members of the JVP into the fold — together with umpteen others from all parties snared by pork-barrel patronage. Today, the core JVP is alienated from the Rajapakses and outside this combination, but has been severely weakened by the process. The presence of Champaka Ranawake and Upali Gammanpila in the corridors of power, however, implies that the engine room and masthead are both Sinhala populist and nativist – in short, that the governing SLFP regime is hardline bhumiputra. The horses of 1956 are riding the summits of the rata again.

* * * *

The caste factor may well have been relatively insignificant in the Presidential and parliamentary elections of the recent past. I have limited knowledge in this field, but I speculate that it has a bearing at the local level in the selection of parliamentary candidates and in sustaining some clusters of caste voting-blocs. I think that those who criticised Lakruwan have to attend, with provisos, to the blogger Rashan’s slashing note: Cast [sic] is still a major factor in elections in Sri Lanka, go to Mathara Ambalangoda.”[29]

Lakruwan’s main contention, however, is that Karāva personnel figure disproportionately among the military officers who have been interjected by the government. DBS Jeyaraj’s marvellous work of investigative journalism has identified some of these men.[30] We now need their ge names (the genitives) and locality of origin so that Lakruwan’s suggestion can be evaluated in empirical terms. On a priori grounds, however, one would think there is an operational logic in such a caste clustering. IF – note the stress on the “if” in the manner Jeyaraj — one mounts a subterranean revolutionary movement or coup plot, trust and loyalty are critical criteria in recruitment. This assemblage could be on a class basis as in the elite club-set involved in the failed officer/gentlemen coup of 1962.[31]

But such clandestine groupings could be based upon kin networks or school friendships. Where there is localised caste clustering, as in the Jaffna Peninsula and in some parts of the south, kin-affiliations and schoolmates at peer generational level are often weighted towards a caste core. The JVP leadership of the years 1967-71 seems to have contained a strong Karāva core and in such areas as Elpitiya and Kegalle clusters of youth from the more depressed Wahumpura, Batgam and Rajaka castes were prominent. However, we can probably follow KM de Silva in seeing the caste factor as “secondary to the class factor” and the centrality of a “revolutionary ideology” as motivational inspiration forthis failed uprising.[32]

When a resistance mushroom known as the Tamil Liberation Organisation assembled in 1969 its key personnel seem to have been Karaiyar from the Valvittithurai locality, namely, Thangadurai, Kuttimani, Periya (Big) Sothi and Sinna (Small) Sothi, besides young 15-year old Velupillai Pirapāharan.[33] This cluster seems to have transmuted into the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO) led initially by Thangadurai (aka Nadarajah Thangavelu), and Kuttimani (aka Selvarājah Yogachandran).[34]

From the outset the LTTE seems to have been sustained by a Karaiyar caste and peer-group network;[35] while the disappearance (by death, eviction or withdrawal) of capable Vellālar seniors[36] in the years 1984-87 sustained the Karaiyar weightage within the top rungs of the LTTE in subsequent decades.[37]

To my mind, however, Lakruwan’s article is more significant for the commentary it has attracted from various quarters. These blogs indicate that there are several people of various age ranges for whom caste is irrelevant if not abhorrent. However, a few swallows do not make a summer. One must be cautious about sociological generalisations relating to subterranean and interstitial currents of activity, namely caste networks which, for instance, operate in the organisation of Buddhist pilgrim groups heading from localities to hallowed sites.

What remains on the surface and hardly subterranean, however, are the virulent thoughts expressed in response to Lakruwan. Many of the bloggers hostile to his article seem to be products of the 1956 ideology. Their hostility to the caste factor has been aroused because they read it as a threat to the unity of the Sinhalese.[38] Sinhala patriotism impels their vituperative reaction, including bile directed at Fonseka. They seek to protect the unitary state. In speaking as Sri Lankans they subsume the whole within their Sinhala sentiments. The issue of the part//whole relationship that I have underlined in my essay on “The Sinhala Mind-Set” resides below the surface … as powerfully as dangerously.


Amunugama, Sarath 1997 “Ideology and Class Interest in One of Piyadasa Sirisena’s Novels: The New Image of the “Sinhala Buddhist” Nationalist,” in M. Roberts (ed.), Sri Lanka. Collective Identities Revisited, Vol I, Colombo: Marga Institute, pp. 335-53.

De Silva, K. M. 1973 “The Reform and Nationalist Movements in the Early Twentieth Century,” in History of Ceylon. Volume 3, ed. by K. M. de Silva, for the University of Ceylon Press Board, pp. 381-407.

De Silva, K. M. 1981 A History of Sri Lanka, Delhi: Oxford University Press.

De Silva, Mervyn 1967 “1956: The Cultural Revolution that shook the Left,” Ceylon Observer, Magazine Edition, 16 May 1967.

Dharmadasa, K. N. O. 1992 Language, Religion and Ethnic Assertiveness: The Growth of Sinhalese Nationalism in Sri Lanka, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Dharmapala, Anagarika 1965 Return to Righteousness, ed. by A. Guruge, Colombo: Ministry of Education & Cultural Affairs.

Hellmann-Rajanayagam, Dagmar 1992 “Arumukar Navalar: Religious Reformer or National Leader of Eelam?” Indian Economic and Social History Review 26: 235-57.

Hellmann-Rajanayagam, Dagmar 1993 “The Jaffna Social System: Continuity and Change under Conditions of War,” Internationales Asien Forum 25: 251-81.

Horowitz, Donald L. 1980 Coup Theories and Officers’ Motives: Sri Lanka in Comparative Perspective, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Jayawardena, Kumari 2001 Nobodies to Somebodies. The Rise of the Colonial Bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka, New Delhi: Leftword Book.

Jiggins, Janice 1979 Caste and Family in the Politics of the Sinhalese, Cambridge University Press.

Malalgoda, Kitsiri 1973 “The Buddhist-Christian Confrontation in Ceylon,” Social Compass 20: 171-200.

Malalgoda, Kitsiri 1976 Buddhism in Sinhalese Society, 1750-1900, Berkeley: Uni of California Press.

Narayan Swamy, M. R. 1994. Tigers of Sri Lanka, Delhi: Konark Publishers Pvt Ltd.

Nissan, Elizabeth & R. L. Stirrat 1990 “The Generation of Communal Identities,” in J. Spencer (ed.) Sri Lanka. History and the Roots of Conflict, London: Routledge, pp. 19-44.

Pfaffenberger, Bryan 1994 “The Political Construction of Defensive Nationalism,” in C. Manogaran & B. Pfaffenberger (eds.) The Sri Lankan Tamils, Boulder: Westview Press, pp. 143-68.

Ragavan, 2009b “Prabhakaran’s Timekeeping. Memories of a Much-mythologised RebelLeader by a Former LTTE Fighter,” Sunday Leader, 24 May 2009.

Roberts, Michael 1974 “Problems of Social Stratification and the Demarcation of National and Local Elites in British Ceylon,” Journal of Asian Studies, 23: 549-77.

Roberts, Michael 1973 “Elites and Elite Formation in Ceylon, c. 1830-1930” in History of Ceylon, Vol. III, pp. 263-84.

Roberts, Michael 1979 “Stimulants and Ingredients in the Awakening of Latter-day Nationalisms,” in M. Roberts (ed.) Collective Identities, Nationalisms and Protest in Modern Sri Lanka, Colombo: Marga Publications, pp. 214-42.

Roberts, Michael 1981a The 1956 Generations: After and Before, G.C. Mendis Memorial Lecture for 1981, Colombo, Evangel Press.

Roberts, Michael 1982 Caste Conflict and Elite Formation: The Rise of a Karāva Elite in Sri Lanka, 1500-1931, Cambridge University Press.

Roberts, Michael 1983 “‘Our Duty to Act’: Brown Sahibs in Universal Suits”, South Asia, 6: 62-77.

Roberts, Michael 1989 “The Political Antecedents of the Revivalist Elite within the MEP Coalition of 1956,” in C. R. de Silva & Sirima Kiribamune (eds.) K. W. Goonewardena Felicitation Volume, Peradeniya University, pp. 185-220.

Roberts, Michael 1994a “The Imperialism of Silence under the British raj: Arresting the Drum,” in Roberts, Exploring Confrontation. Sri Lanka: Politics, Culture and History, Reading: Harwood Academic Publishers, chap. 7.

Roberts, Michael 1994b “Mentalities: Ideologues, Assailants, Historians and the Pogorm against the Moors in 1915,” in Roberts, Exploring Confrontation. Sri Lanka: Politics, Culture and History, Reading: Harwood Academic Publishers, chap. 8 [reprinted under different title in Roberts, Confrontations, 2009].

Roberts, Michael 1997 “For Humanity. For the Sinhalese. Dharmapala as Bosat Crusader,” Journal of Asian Studies, 56: 1006-1032.

Roberts, M., Ismeth Raheem and Percy Colin-Thome 1989 People Inbetween. Vol. 1. TheBurghers and the Middle Class in the Transformations within Sri Lanka, 1790s-1960s, Colombo: Sarvodaya Book Publishing Services.

Sabaratnam, T. 2009 “Beginnings of Violence,” draft chapter from his book in press — kindly sent to me.

Sirisena, Piyadasa 1906 Vasanāvanta Vivāhaya hevat Jayatissa saha Rosalin, Colombo: ??, but reprinted by Gunasena & Co. in 1971.

Sirisena, Piyadasa 1954 Apate Vecca Dē, Colombo: Gunasena & Co. First edn. originally in 1909.

Sirisena, Piyadasa 1982 Maha Viyavula, 9th edn., Colombo: Gunasena & Co. First edn. originally in 1916.

Sirisena, Piyadasa 1958 Sucaritādarsaya [An Exemplary Biography] Colombo: Gunasena (?).

Somaratna, G. P. V. 1991 Kotahena Riot, 1883.. Religious Riot in Sri Lanka, Colombo: Deepanee Printers.

Young, R. F. & S. Jebanesan 1995 The Bible Trembled. The Hindu-Christian Controversies of Nineteenth-Century Ceylon, Vienna: Sammlund De Nobili Redaktion.

Young, R. F. & G. P. V. Somaratna, 1996 Vain Debates. The Buddhist-Christian Controversies of Nineteenth-Century Ceylon, Vienna: Sammlund De Nobili Redaktion.

[1] The initial representation by De Silva is as conjecture but he subsequently adds this note: “Reports suggest that [the government] deftly and subtly played the caste card within the military to deny Fonseka the military vote. The President succeeded. In the ensuing post-poll purge of the military, the Karave have disproportionately been targeted. Other Karave generals have been sacked from the armed forces. Karave Buddhist monks had been arrested. Much to my chagrin, caste may still be alive in Sinhala Buddhist society, albeit as an undercurrent.”

[2] See “comment” in

[3] See Table 3 in Roberts in History of Ceylon, 1973, p. 283. Also see Jaywardena 2001: 335.

[4] See Roberts 1973 and Karāva, 1982 for illustrations of these processed of social and economic advancement

[5] Roberts, Karāva, 1982: 116.

[6] Jayawardena 2001: 336 referring to the Hewavitarnes and EG Jayawardene as examples.

[7] Some members of the Govigama aristocracy pursued this course, but those holding official position could not do so. For details, see Roberts et al, People Inbetween, 1989: 93.

[8] Roberts 1974: 561-64.

[9] For details, see Roberts, Karāva, 1982: 159-65; and for a list of pamphlets, pp. 336-40.

[10] Malalgoda 1976. Also Malalgoda 1973, Roberts 1982: 133-40, and Young & Somaratna 1996.

[11] My article was a brief Memo that did not attempt to survey the 19th and 20th centuries.

[12] “In the early 1970s some Vellalars expressly denied thatNalavrs and Pallars were Tamils” (Pfaffenberger 1994: 149).

[13] Young & Jebanesan 1995: 33.

[14] On Navalar, see Young & Jebanesan 1995 and Hellmann-Rajanayagam 1992.

[15] On the issues that provoked such clashes, see my “The Imperialism of Silence,” in Roberts 1994: chap. X and the details on the 1915 in chap. 5 [which latter is reprinted as chap 00 in my Confrontations, Colombo, 2009].

[16] Somaratna 1991.

[17] One instance being the article by Nissan & Stirrat 1990.

[18] For the constitutional agitation see K. M. De silva 1973 and 1981. Also note Jayawardena 2001.

[19] Roberts et al, People Inbetween, 1989: 10-21, 80-81.

[20] Sirisena, Apate Vecca Dē, 1954 [1909]: 9ff and Sucaricādarsaya, 1958: 126, 130.

[21] Jayatissa saha Rosalin was Sirisena’s first novel published in the year 1906. See Amunugama 1979 and Roberts et al, 1989 for fuller analysis.

[22] See “Ratē tibena ävul, apatama ve tävul” in Sinhala Jātiya, 1 June 1913. Sinhala Jātiya 30 March 1915: Sinhala Bauddhayā, 2 Jan 1915: translation of article by WDA Gunatilaka in the Sinhala Jātiya, March 1915 in Dowbiggin 1915b and Roberts et al, People Inbetween, 1989: 10-21.

[23] Kocci Demalā (Malayālam Tamil) is the title of his piece too (Sinhala Bauddhayā),14 Jan. 1910.

[24] See Dharmadasa 1992: 261-86.

[25] Roberts et al, People Inbetween, 1989.

[26] See Roberts, 1956 Generations, 1981 and “Political Antecedents,” 1989; and  Mervyn de Silva 19

[27] See Roberts, 1956 Generations, 1981 and “Political Antecedents,” 1989.

[28] In effect they replicated the tactic of John Howard’s Liberal Party in the 200s when t it stole the platform of Pauline Hanson and her One Nation party.

[29] A blog comment within the Lakruwan article in transcurrents.

[30] Major General Jammika Liyanage; Major General Jayanath Perera; Major General Samantha Sooriyabandara; Major General Mahesh Senanayake; Brigadier Bimal Dias; Brigadier Duminda Keppetiwalana; Brigadier Janaka Mohotti; Brigadier Athula Hennedige; Brigadier Wasantha Kumarapperuma; Lt.Colonel L.J.M.C.P. Jayasundera; Captain R.M.R. Ranaweera; Captain B. Krishantha.

[31] See Horowitz 1980 & Roberts 1983.

[32] KM de Silva 1981: 342. Also Jiggins 1979: 127-36. My comments are also informed by diluted memories of conversations with Paul Caspersz, Victor Ivan and Gamini Keerawella.

[33] Sabaratnam 2009. Varatharāja Perumal [not Karaiyar] was also a key figure.

[34] It was probably this locality-cum-Karaiyar affiliation that enabled Pirapāharan to join TELO circa 1981 when he briefly split from the LTTE after a clash with Uma Maheswaran (who was Vellalar).

[35] Hellmann-Rajanayagam’s early review of the LTTE concluded that it was “a Karaiyar-led and dominated group” (1993: 274). Besides Pirapāharan, Baby Subramanium, Seelan, Victor, Mahattayā, Thilakar, Kittu and Kumārappā were Karaiyar.

[36] for e. g., Rāgavan, Radha, Tileepan, Ponnammān, Curdles and Rahim,

[37] For e. g. KP, Castro, Soosai, Nadesan. But note that Bhanu and probably Pottu Ammān are Civiyar.

[38] Ironically, but not surprisingly, the early LTTE leaders, Rāgavan and Pirapāharan, also expressed some distaste for caste divisions and stressed the need for cross-caste unity in the Tamil struggle (Rāgavan 2009 and Narayan Swamy 1994: 69).


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6 responses to “Caste in Modern Sri Lanka Politics

  1. Mudiyanse

    Prof. Roberts,
    Could you kindly send me some refs. re prejudices of Sir DBJ and
    also about the writers who used diatribes in describing the Tamil Hindus and Sinhala Buddhists in the past.
    I have made the request via Crosscurrents. If you do not want to extend that conversation, could you please send the references to my above address.
    I really appreciate your time for this request and thank you for same.


    • I am heading for Lanka and am rushed.
      No specific info on Sir Baron. For diatribes vs Hindus and tamils and paradesakkarayo in general see my PEOPLE INBETWEEN 1989 and also the recent book CONFRONTATIONS (Yapa 2009) —
      –the articles on Dharmapala and the one on the Marakkala kolahalaya.

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  3. I like the article.

  4. Dash de Soysa

    This may be a bit of an exaggeration as the Wickramasuriya cousins of the Rajapaksas (aunt) who have a pedigree of nobility or regional royalty and the contributors of Carlton House are from the said clan.

    However, memories of past conflicts and lost opportunities are a true factor. The wiining candidate of the 1909 election went on to become the father of Tamil seperatism and opposed universal suffrage. (He was ushered in from retirement pilgrimage in India by a bigoted uncle of JR Jayawardena. JR’s role and irresponsibility in dealing with the riots of 1983 that bought shame and calamity to Sri Lanka is well documented).

    The candidate that lost the 1909 election had campaigned on a manifesto proposing a progressive programme towards industrialisation. He supported the Donoughmore Constitution enabling the exercise of universal suffrage via general elections and was largely responsible for devising wider representation to the Northern Tamils and Eastern Muslims.
    (His nephew, CHZ Fernando was a founder of the Young Lanka League, abolished the poll tax and campaigned even for the plantation Tamils).

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