Sri Lanka’s conflict: culture and lineages of the past

 Nira Wickramasinghe, Courtesy of Community Mental Health and Wellbeing Bulletin, Summer 2010, vol.3, No. 1.

 There are two ways to lose oneself: by a walled segregation in the particular or by a dilution in the universal.—Aimé Césaire

Walter Benjamin famously wrote, “History is the object of a construction whose place is formed not in homogenous and empty time, but in that which is fulfilled by the here-and-now.”1 Few would contest Benjamin’s critique of historicism and his argument that what is properly historical only reveals itself to a future generation capable of recognizing it–a generation possessing developers strong enough to fix an image never seen before and never to be seen again. In spite of this, many scholars and practitioners in the field of conflict and conflict resolution in Sri Lanka resist acknowledging the need to historicize their reading of the present. This paper will argue that understanding the fractured state of the Sri Lankan polity today and evolving reconciliation in any form is not possible without a rhizomatic approach to history–a situation where the future and past are constantly in the process of becoming each other. It is nothing new that the colonial graft has shaped the post-colonial state of Sri Lanka. Nationalist historians have recognized the colonial traces in the political system, bureaucracy, education and other sectors and have critiqued the traditional root causes approach to understanding historical events. This paper’s approach is different and based on the belief that origins of ideas and events are sometimes less interesting than how they reverberate throughout history. It looks specifically at how culture has been conceived in the colonial and post-colonial states. Rather than attempting to find causes of modern conflict or distrust in events of the past, it will explore how the epistemological position on culture of conflict resolution among practitioners has predetermined how civil war was resolved in the country and, in a sense, precluded other frames for reconciliation. The paper will first look at the lineages between colonial modes of political representation and modern day multiculturalism. The second part of the paper will analyze the links between the popular perception of the state today as a provider of welfare and the regime of entitlements put in place under colonialism. The third section will explore how by contrasting it with a looser and more flexible colonial approach to territory, both the new nation-state and proponents of imaginary homelands are permeated by the idea of culture-based territoriality. 

The Importance of Culture: Colonial Modes of Political Representation  

Much debate on how to resolve the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka is dominated by a faulty epistemology that assumes each group has some kind of culture and that the boundaries between these groups and the contours of their cultures–namely the Sinhalese and the Tamils–are specifiable and easy to depict.2 How we think inequities among groups should be addressed–and diversity and pluralism furthered–has been influenced by this approach. The solution to the sovereignty claim according to Tamil separatists, is for believers in the distinctness of cultures to divide the country on ethnic or cultural lines, instituting a more or less advanced federal constitutional arrangement.3 Multiculturalism is the theory behind this seemingly self-evident resolution of a nearly thirty-year conflict. The paradox is that in spite of the efforts of experts, the country remains in a state of war. Until now, reconciliation has been premised on a faulty reading of society as composed of clearly delimited communities. This leads to an unquestioned understanding of multiculturalism and federalism as panaceas for the current impasse. One can argue that the colonial epistemological graft has in many ways inflected how attempts at reconciliation between conflicting parties have been shaped over the past thirty years. In the same way, the past has been read as being made up of cultural groups locked in a contest for power. 

Culture and Groups: Lineages of the Past 

There are many similarities between the practices of the British colonial state in Sri Lanka and those of the post-colony. In its institutions and bureaucracies, traces of the colonial mold are still present. The urge to classify groups according to distinct cultural traits is at the center of the liberal state that grew from the shards of the colonial state. From the 1947 election campaign to the first independent parliament, D.S. Senanayake mentioned “several racial elements” existing in the country and praised each of them for their intrinsic qualities: “the thrifty Tamil,” the “Muslim trader,” the “adventurous European” and the “friendly Sinhalese” would all join “to build a great nation.”4 

The imperative of enumerating groups in society through the census mode persists in the decennial censuses of the independent state. The official status of cultural groups are captured by the national identity cards citizens carry with them, the forms they fill for state and non-state institutions to enter their children into schools, applications for scholarships, employment and bank loans. Individuals frequently evaded these colonial divides, attempting to either bridge these imposed divisions or, in an even more subversive fashion, to foster hybrid moments. Defiance to or derision of colonial rule was displayed in the dress of some Sinhalese chiefs who chose to wear a sarong over Western trousers.5 But in the official sense, identities lost the substantial quality, the many forms and shapes they had in practice, and became objective features of people that could once and for all be delineated. Enumerations themselves would not have changed the shape of the varied and contextual identities of the peoples of the land, but their currency contributed to the gradual imposition of the idea–promoted by nationalists as well–that identities were like institutions: fixed and gelled. E.J. Livera, while applying for the post of systematic botanist in 1924, started his application signing, “I am a Ceylonese of the Burgher community and 27 years of age.”6 One of the conventions in the census even today is the “impermissibility of fractions, or to put it the other way round, a mirage like integrity of the body.”7 Multiculturalism, as it is practiced in 21st century Sri Lanka is a legacy of the colonial idea of society as cultural groups rather than a legacy of a sincere and principled approach to equity and justice. The modern Sri Lankan state does not incorporate any of the subtle practices or complex theories that inform the shape of multiculturalism in states such as Canada, the Netherlands or the United States. It is still the colonial frame that distinguishes the Sri Lankan understanding of multiculturalism.8 

People saw potential entitlements under colonial rule in identifying themselves as one ethnicity or another. This further moored this perception of identities as embodying inescapable features of being. Colonial knowledge did not imagine identities or construct them; rather, it opened up a new realm for political identities to blossom.  

Political Representation and Culture 

The British bestowed political representation and cultural group identity upon persons they acknowledged as leaders of their community. The census was the basis for determining race-based representation in the colonial state and political representation was first distributed equally to selected racial groups. In 1833, a legislative council composed of British and natives (Ceylonese members) was established. In the selection of the natives, the governor nominated one low-country Sinhalese, one Burgher and one Tamil. During the seventy years that followed, the only change made to the constitution of the council was the addition of two unofficial members to represent the Kandyan, Sinhalese and Muslim communities.9 At the beginning of the 20th century, when the first cracks between the various ethnic groups started to form, Sinhalese, Tamils, Indians, Muslims, Burghers, Malays and Europeans all formed separate political associations which the British encouraged to jockey for power.10 Groups that were outside the colonial frame of cultural groups and who could not use the representation system in place to forward their demands–caste groups, regional groups, small linguistic groups–frequently used the petition to express their uncivil or barbaric claims.11 

The adoption of a culture-based system of representation had double-edged consequences.

Firstly, it provided a platform for the new multicultural elite to express its discontent. But as seats in the legislature were determined on the basis of the cultural affiliation of the councilors, many of the pressure groups that sprang up were consequently culturally exclusive. This was the case in international organizations such as the Dutch Burgher Union as well as in regionally based societies such as the Jaffna Association and the Chilaw Association. The Jaffna Association was composed of Tamils, who mostly resided in Jaffna and engaged in commercial and professional pursuits. The Chilaw association was an association of wealthy Sinhalese landowners of the district of Chilaw in the Northwestern Province.12 Pliant and prone to compromise from its inception, this association never included the destruction of the colonial state a part of its project. The liberalism it professed rarely exceeded the half-hearted initiatives of reform issued from the colonial administration. 

During the period between 1927 and 1928, its members were not in favor of universal suffrage but obtained it in 1931 nevertheless. Ranajit Guha, writing of a similar group in India, spoke of “mediocre liberalism.”13 

Majorities and Cultural Rights Discourse  

The colonial institution of race and culture-based representative government, as a prelude to self-government and citizenship for natives, invented distinctively modern forms of political identity and conflict in Sri Lanka, as well as in other colonies. Race, culture and later, nationality-based representative government, also resulted in the generation of new names and concepts including residents and aliens, indigenous and immigrants, majorities and minorities, to deal with perceived differences among communities. Representative politics spawned the concept of majorities.14 

The three constitutions of post-independence Sri Lanka helped demarcate and define a majority from within the citizens, pitting them against non-Buddhists and non-Sinhala speaking minority communities. However, unlike the openly discriminatory legislation passed to determine who was a citizen and who was an alien in the late 1940s, it was under the guise of a rights-and-entitlement discourse that groups became stultified as minorities in a political sense and marginalized in the nation-state. Rajasingham-Senanayake has shown how rights mechanisms like positive discrimination or affirmative action were paradoxically used to the advantage of the ethnic majority.15 Thus, the rights discourse, and later multiculturalism, helped consolidate the majority community and gel minorities in a sometimes dependent and subaltern situation. 

In fact, the focus on rights privileged the consolidation of the two larger communities: the Sinhalas and Tamils. As opposed to culture, caste was not accepted as a legitimate sphere of political action and mobilization. In actuality, there is a clear denial and delegitimization of caste-based discourses and practices against inequality and injustice, even in the discourse of multiculturalism. As Rajasingham- Senanayake forcefully argues, “democracy, the first ingredient for the legitimate modern nation-state, in practice perpetuated blindness to numerically insignificant groups.”16 Brow’s ethnography of a Vedda village in the Anuradhapura district shows how Veddas have been pressured into identifying themselves with the Sinhalese people. 17 In recent years, there has been a change in the official attitude toward cultural minorities. While many of the smaller groups, such as Veddas and Rodis, have been “forgotten, marginalized or assimilated with the consolidation of a bi-polar ethnic imagination in post-colonial Sri Lanka, the Tamils of Indian descent and the Muslims have been politicized as a distinct ethnic group since 1983.”18 

In more recent times, the 2000 draft constitution, which was put forward and then shelved, constituted a bold attempt at a more sensitive approach to group rights. But it rested on the assumption that the multiple identities that existed in the nation-state were fixed and stable and therefore, a possible basis for territorially determined strategies of power-sharing. A Muslim is a Muslim, a Tamil a Tamil and a Sinhala a Sinhala. On this basis, for instance, the Eastern Province was to be carved into enclaves.19 

If one accepts that all identities are forms of identification and “that a social agent must be conceived not as a unitary subject but as the articulation of an ensemble of subject positions,” the formation of cultural enclaves is troubling.20 The curse of multiculturalism is that while it provides more freedom and recognition to the group or community, it is also constrictive in that it denies the fluidity of identity.21 Multiculturalism cannot help but make the fragment essential. 

A Regime of Entitlements: The Culture-Welfare Nexus  

Colonial rule had in many ways entrenched the principle that different communities were entitled to different degrees of rights, dues and representation according to criteria that varied over time. Later, with universal suffrage and the newly independent country’s commitment to the welfare state, it was the citizen who was bestowed with certain privileges such as a free education and free health services– privileges citizens still partly enjoy. 

The war in the North and East was partly caused by a perception among Tamils of discrimination in the distribution of welfare benefits such as places in universities and, more generally, state investment in developmental schemes. Since independence, people defining themselves as cultural groups vied for the spoils given by a benevolent state through their representatives in formal politics before eventually taking up arms against the state. The nexus between culture and welfare successfully deepened differences between communities, which existed at the political level, and brought divides into the domain of subaltern politics as well. The following section will suggest that the popular understanding of the state as welfare state–a notion that grew out of the regime of entitlements put in place by the British–gives room for cultural biases in distribution of resources and benefits on the part of state organs and competition for these resources among communities and cultural groups.22 

The Citizen’s Sinhalese Peasant: Targeted Welfare Measures 

When the colonial state distributed economic entitlements to cultural groups, they tended to coincide with occupational groups such as the Kandyan Sinhalese peasantry, the Tamil estate laborers and the Indian urban workers. In a similar fashion, after independence, the welfare state did not ostensibly target one community but focused on occupational groups, such as the peasantry, or social groups, like the poor or underprivileged. The section of the peasantry that received most from the benevolent state was the Sinhala peasantry. Welfare measures in the educational sector became a means to correct imbalances that existed between regions and communities, giving the Sinhalese underprivileged more redress than others, like the Plantation Tamils. The Kandyan peasantry in particular was regarded by colonial authorities as particularly deserving. British provincial agents and the British in general regarded the Kandyan region as the epitome of tradition, and they often displayed a patriarchal and protective attitude towards the Kandyans, who they regarded as less touched by modernity and as bearers of an authentic culture. In spite of this romantic vision of the Kandyan peasant, his welfare was recognized and given pride of place only in late colonialism. But from the 195Os, the plantation sector was less successful, as larger companies left the island, owing largely to the increasingly aggressive demands of an organized labor force. The early 1970s witnessed the nationalization of land and the larger tea, rubber and coconut plantations. The impact on agrarian relations was not felt as much as expected, as the state placed three-quarters of the restituted land under its control and only redistributed a quarter. 23 Twenty years later, the management of most of these plantations was handed over to private, mainly Indian, companies. Tea, rubber and coconut remained significant features in the economy of the country, but in keeping with the demands of the world market, underwent many mutations. 

During the colonial period, peasant agriculture was neglected as the British encouraged the import of Indian and Burmese rice. But during the Donoughmore years (1931 to 1947), the Sinhala political class began to favor giving the peasant greater state assistance. The Donoughmore commissioners exemplified the new position of the late colonial state vis-à-vis the rural population, who they conceived of as in need of help and protection. The fact that peasants represented the majority of the population was clearly stressed. 

‘It seems hardly necessary to observe that His Majesty’s Government is the trustee not merely of the wealthier and more highly educated elements in Ceylon but quite as much of the peasant and the coolies and of all those poorer classes which form the bulk of the population.”24 

The colonization of new land in the dry zone from the 1930s onwards was very much aimed at ushering in a new era in peasant welfare, together with the avowed aim of increasing the production of paddy. A few years after independence, a Kandyan Peasantry Commission was formed under the chairmanship of N.E. Weerasooriya to inquire into the social and economic condition of the Kandyan peasantry in the Central and Uva provinces. This report upheld the nostalgic image of the peasant economy centered on the eternal peasant: “From time immemorial the Kandyan peasant has lived in small villages or ‘gamas’ and he continues to do so today.”25 The language was one of affirmative action, where equal citizenship entailed justice for some. “Rehabilitation is a different process and requires special treatment and a different approach.”26 The culprit was named Indian labor: 

The peasant’s main occupation is agriculture, but his holding is too small to permit him to earn his livelihood from its produce. He is ready to take subsidiary employment, agricultural or otherwise, but the avenue of employment on the plantations is blocked by Indian labor.27 

The efforts made in the late colonial period and in the decade after independence yielded some results. Between 1952 and 1985, the production of the paddy multiplied fourfold, while a near 90 percent rate of self-sufficiency was attained as a result of subsidized grain and fertilizers to producers. The extent of paddy land doubled as a result of investments in hydraulic works, an interest that had originated in the British period, which involved restoring ancient irrigation tanks in the North Central areas; constructing new dams in the South East (Gal Oya and Welawe Ganga); and finally, the large-scale project of organizing the Mahaweli river and its affluents. 

The communal tensions that arose from the 1950s around development programs such as the Gal Oya scheme lend credence to the image of a partisan state. Later, the takeover of land from farmers of non-Sinhala communities in the Amparai and Trincomalee districts for sugarcane cultivation led to open hostility between settlers and other communities.28 Among the larger projects, the Mahaweli project stood out: It started in 1968 and aimed at irrigating 365,000 hectares of land in the dry zone and adding 500 megawatts of hydropower to the national grid. 

The purpose of the project was not purely economic. The developmental discourse was enmeshed with nationalist underpinnings that emphasized the centrality of the Sinhala peasant, which became a “sublime object” in the popular ideology. 29 In the state ideology, development through irrigated agriculture achieved a prominent place: as a reincarnation of the ancient, indigenous and Buddhist culture of Sri Lanka’s golden age. The Minister of Mahaweli Development Gamini Dissanayake declared quite candidly in 1983, “The soul of the new Mahaweli society will be the cherished values of the ancient society, which was inspired and nourished by the Tank, the Temple and the Paddy Field.”30 This created the perception that the Sinhala peasant represented the authentic son/daughter of the land more than the urban worker did. Unlike the urban workers, the Sinhala peasants had no political party to represent their interests or fight for their rights. Unlike the Muslim or Tamil peasants, they had no party or union that would take up their specific problems. It was thus the state that would shoulder the responsibility of the peasant’s welfare.31 

The actual dismantling of the welfare state occurred after 1977, when the United National Party government introduced a new economic policy based on economic liberalization and an export-led economy. However, only part of the welfare state package was dismantled. Although the health and education sectors were not seriously affected, a dramatic shift took place in the nature and emphasis of welfare policies. The most important change was that welfare was now targeted and selective rather than a right enjoyed by every citizen. Furthermore, while welfare expenditure was 10 percent of Gross National Products between 1970 and 1977, it fell to 4 percent in 1981. This drop was mainly due to the complete withdrawal of the food subsidy and to the reduction of consumer subsidies on certain products such as sugar and flour. Underpinning the overall strategy of international aid agencies was that food subsidies and welfare schemes were for the needy. 

For the people of Sri Lanka, this meant privatization of public utilities such as transport and health care services. At the same time, there was an attempt to modernize the rural sector through social programs such as rural housing and electrification. For the poorest, the Janasaviya program, which was implemented from 1989 to 1995 following the food stamp scheme, provided a family allowance of 2,500 rupees combined with a self-help element. The emphasis of welfare had shifted. The purpose was no longer to provide social mobility, or even equal opportunities, but to give people access to the market. The Samurdhi scheme that replaced the Janasaviya program differed little from its predecessor and tended to display a similar political patronage. Unlike the early decades of independence, in which entitlements were directed in an implicit manner to differentiated communities, welfare schemes created other divides and spawned new identities based on economic factors that crisscrossed cultural identities. Concepts such as the “poorest of the poor” or “Samurdhi recipients” entered the political discourse as new forms of identification. They were, however, identities that people would not be proud to claim. 

A Non-Participatory Citizenship 

Partha Chatterjee has pointed out that the ideas of participatory citizenship that were so much a part of the Enlightenment notion of politics have fast retreated before the triumphant advance of governmental technologies that have promised to deliver more well-being to more people at less cost.32 In Sri Lanka, the dominant idea of citizenship, from its inception, was never conceived as an active political identity, nor was it conceived as a regime of participation in the affairs of the state. 

A number of reasons can be adduced for this, among which the identification of the archetypical citizen with the paddy cultivator, a member of a depoliticized target group, is central. The fact that formal political groupings in the country appealed to cultural belonging rather than to common values meant that the emergence of a universal citizen was quite improbable. Even the Left fell prey to these politics. 

The creation of nostalgia for a bygone age, where the peasantry was proud, prosperous and embodied all the values that the modern age has destroyed, is an ongoing process. This vision is still dominant in the state education texts read by children and parents in popular TV shows, advertisements and the speeches and policies of populist political parties, although proud peasants are today portrayed as a community in need of help. The idea of the citizen remains tied up in this representation of the Sinhala man as peasant, a vision that stemmed from its early framing as the “other” of the migrant plantation worker. Furthermore, the citizen is unambiguously a man, the woman being relegated to the role of mothering future citizens. The state’s refusal to conceive a form of citizenship that is not haunted by the past and shaped by myth has led to a complete rejection of alternative visions. Until the state conceives of a process of unlearning and forcefully unleashes it in the entire country, relations between communities will be plagued by prejudice and devoid of respect.  

Culture and Territoriality/Spatiality as the Basis of Rights 

Proponents of a federal solution to the national crisis often see the centralizing unitary state installed during late colonialism as the precursor and direct ancestor of the new independent state, flawed and partial to majorities.33 This paper argues that on the contrary, the colonial state is based on a tightly centralized conception of power but is nevertheless different from the new nation-state. It was not founded on a cultural understanding of territoriality; rather, it grew out of a new wave of thought influenced by the reformist political ideology of Jeremy Bentham and James Mill, which promised to fundamentally change Britain’s relationship to its colonies.34 These philosophical abstractions were put into practice with the recommendations of a Royal Commission led by W.M.G. Colebrooke and C.H. Cameron, which the British Colonial Office deployed in 1829 to assess the administration of the island. The reforms that followed ended culturally-based administrative divisions in the country and placed the country under one uniform administrative unit. The model was clearly based on European states and the result was a homogenizing of the island’s territory by incorporating all differences into a single society and space.35 Thus, if the colonial state had, by various policies, contributed to strengthening differences between what they perceived as distinct cultural groups, a spatial division following such lines did not follow. As de Silva has succinctly summarized, “The pragmatic concessions they made to the demographic and linguistic diversity of the island were generally not embodied in administrative devices or structures.”36 One of the rationales for a looser understanding of territory was the wider circle of belonging constituted by the empire, which was promoted by various symbolic, as well as practical, measures. The empire was strengthened by celebrations of Empire Day, the renaming of streets and public spaces in the colony as well as a series of acts that reaffirmed the power of the empire; in 1905, if a Ceylonese subject posted a letter to any part of the British Empire except the Commonwealth of Australia, he or she would pay six cents for the stamp, while to Australia and all other foreign countries, the cost was fifteen cents, nearly three times higher. It was through such everyday acts and practices that the empire was made real for its subjects–rich, poor, colonized and colonizers.37 

Furthermore, modernity in the colony came with a sense of outwardness rather than inwardness. This perception of the outside world was not limited to reaching out to the Empire at large but infused older currents with new energies. In the late 19th century, the awareness among Buddhists of a worldwide community of their co-religionists was sparked by the movement spearheaded by a lay preacher named Anagarika Dharmapala to protect and restore Buddha Gaya, the holiest Buddhist shrine. The Maha Bodhi Society established in that same year had a clear, pan-Buddhist approach. Dharmapala traveled the world to mobilize public opinion against the destruction of the holy site and even raised money from Buddhists of Ceylon and Burmese Buddhists to purchase the Maha Bodhi village at Buddha-gaya.38 Newspapers made frequent allusions to other Buddhist countries such as Siam. 

People’s consciousness of being Buddhist in a modern world was shaped by the outwardness of it new bourgeois propagators, such as Anagarika Dharmapala, who traveled the country in an automobile to convey the message of Buddhism for the new age. Thus, the colonial state was not a closely bounded unit; it encouraged its subjects to feel for the empire but also allowed them to develop other supranational ties. This was also the case among Tamils in Jaffna who had close ties with Southern India through economic and cultural networks. 

One can argue that the focus on culturally based territoriality by the principal minority group, the Tamils, in the 1950s and 1960s was largely motivated by the loss of specific privileges that Tamils had enjoyed in the colonial period. Language policy and colonization schemes were mainly how employment and development were bestowed upon members of the majority community. 

In Sri Lanka, the term “colonization” meant the creation of agricultural settlements in the interior of the island. By the late 1960s, the government had alienated more than 300,000 acres of land to 67,000 people in major colonization schemes. The issue of colonizing of the Eastern and Northern provinces, with the alleged purpose of Sinhalising areas that Tamils perceived as their homelands, was an issue even before independence. In the language of the state, colonists were equated with the peasantry of the mythical Sinhala past while colonization was portrayed as a policy meant to redress perceived inequalities. Understandably, Tamil politicians did not partake in the enthusiasm for colonization. The Tamil Congress had made complaints to the Soulbury Commission as early as 1944 of Sinhalese settlements in Tamil majority areas in the Eastern province such as Gal Oya, Allai and Kantalai. Claims and counterclaims were made then and are still made with figures and maps to prove the growth of the Sinhala population in certain districts created by land colonization schemes. Tamil claims to a Tamil homeland were also made on the basis of their own ethnic myths.39

Colonization became a political issue for the Federal Party and eventually led to separatist demands. The state was aware of the problem: Both the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957 and the Senanayake-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1965 recognized the special rights of Tamils in colonization schemes in the Northern and Eastern provinces. Scholars disagree on the impact of colonization on the ethnic distribution of the Eastern Province. A comparison of the ethnic composition of districts between 1911 and 1981 indicates a marginal increase in the percentage of the Sinhala population in Northern districts and a marked increase of the Sinhala population in the Eastern Province. The colonization schemes of Weli Oya and Maduru Oya not only skewed the demography of certain areas in favor of the Sinhalas; their impact was further strengthened by the creation of electorates, such as the 1976 Seruvila electorate and Ampara electorate, to ensure that Sinhalese obtained representation in the Eastern Province.40 Clearly, the increase in the density of certain districts of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Batticaloa and Amparai resulted primarily from the settlement of Sinhalese and their natural increase.41 Some scholars have argued that Tamil politicians had no right to criticize the settlement of Sinhala landless farmers in the Eastern Province when Tamils were free to settle in any province of the island and have done so. Few would contest that it would be unjust if the beneficiaries of state-sponsored colonization belonged to only one ethnic group. The exclusivist ideology that privileged one ethnic group in a particular territory–an ideology that has never been that of the state even in its most idiosyncratic incarnations–has not been similarly questioned since it means redefining the sacrosanct right of self-determination to include duties towards others. 

In the last fifteen years, two important attempts were made to rethink the nation-state model and power-sharing between communities: the first was the passing of the thirteenth amendment or the constitution in 1987 under trying circumstances; the second was the attempt by the government of Chandrika Kumaratunge to introduce a draft constitution that would devolve considerable power to regions in a bid to solve the question of Tamil aspirations for security and autonomy. In both cases, however, the premise was the idea of carving the island along cultural lines and the assumption that only a territory based on self-determination would bring justice and security to minority groups. Although the thirteenth amendment and the 2000 constitution strove to give a constitutional response to Tamil demands, there were no attempts to change the vision of Sri Lanka as a land where clear-cut cultures coexisted.42 

On 29 July 1987, President J.R. Jayawardene of Sri Lanka and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India signed an Indo-Sri Lanka Accord. This accord declared for the first time that Sri Lanka was a “multi-ethnic and multi-lingual plural society” and endeavored to provide an institutional framework for the power sharing between all communities in Sri Lanka. 

The thirteenth amendment to the Constitution, which was an integral part of this accord, was also the first significant measure to address the issue of the rights and grievances of a plurality of communities rather than of individuals or of a majority and a single minority. The distinct character of the Northern and Eastern provinces as “areas of historical habitation of the Tamil-speaking people” was recognized. According to the provincial council scheme still in force today, legislative and executive authority is devolved to eight provincial councils elected on the basis of proportional representation. 

From the beginning, the provincial council system was in difficulty due to the opposition it met from both the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE), the dominant politico-military formation in the northeast that denounced the lack of real power devolved to the provinces, and the People’s Liberation Front (JVP), the radical youth movement in the South, which viewed the provincial councils as an imposed structure by an interventionist Indian government.43 When elections to the provincial councils were held in April and June 1988, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, the main opposition party, did not participate. Elections to the North Eastern Provincial Council were marred by difficulties owing to the LTTE opposition. Thus, due to historical circumstances, the provincial councils suffered from their very inception. The absence of compromise at the center contributed to further downgrading the powers of the provincial councils. Indeed, the constitution of the republic still affirmed the unitary feature of the state. The assumption was that the central government, dominated by the executive presidency, and the parliament were the prime actors in this framework.44 

The state initiated the creation of provincial councils with little drive from the provinces. For the past two decades, they have been functioning nolo volo but are little more than institutions of political patronage. Partisan allocation of public resources and state intervention has paralyzed the provincial councils in the South. The central government, via a governor, has administered the North Eastern Provincial Council for the past ten years. The council was dissolved in 1990 after three years of functioning.45 The uncertainties in the peace process and the de facto LTTE control of large expanses of land in the North and East have given the state reasons to postpone the holding of elections. 

In 1994, the United National Party lost the elections to the People’s Alliance, a conglomeration of left, left-of-center, and minority parties. One of the promises of the new government was to transform Sri Lanka’s 1978 constitution into a liberal-democratic constitution that would protect the freedom of the individual while recognizing community rights. Three types of reforms were apparent in the proposals enunciated since 1995–first, provisions directed at democratizing the institutions of the state; second, provisions to strengthen fundamental rights and the institutional safeguards of rights and justice in the judiciary; and third, provisions to increase the power-sharing mechanisms between the center and the regions and within the regions themselves.46 The idea was to solve all the problems in the South at once–corruption, poverty, lack of economic drive and inequality, as well as to draw a framework of power-sharing with the North and East. The proposals for constitutional reform released on 3 August 1995 redefined the nature of the state as a “union of regions” Sri Lanka was further described as a united and sovereign Republic.47 

Deepening the process initiated with the thirteenth amendment, the draft constitution sought to give real power to specific communities by devolving power to all regions. This contrasted with the post-independence strategy of bestowing rights upon state-demarcated minorities. According to some authors, power-sharing constituted a paradigm shift.48 But it was also based on the perennial idea of regionally delineated cultural divisions as a basis for territorial delimitation and development.

It was no longer simply Sinhalese and Tamil territories that would be carved out, but smaller units such as the Western, Central, Southern, North Central, North Western and Sabaragamuwa Uva regions. The LTTE rejected the package of proposals in 1996. Anton Balasingham is reported to have stated they were “limited and inadequate, failing to address the political aspirations of our people.”49 In August 2000, the set of proposals further reconditioned and modified after extensive deliberations of a Parliamentary Select Committee were presented to Parliament in the form of the Bill to Repeal and Replace the Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (Bill No 372). After three days of debate against it, the bill was indefinitely shelved with the dissolution of Parliament on 18 August 2000.50 

Minorities in Majoritarian Regions 

In the post-independence years, the state adopted the framework of entitlements for communities that had prevailed throughout the colonial modes of representation and gave it a new garb through the discourse of rights. The focus on rights in fact privileged the two larger communities, Sinhalas and Tamils. Caste in particular, as opposed to ethnicity, was not given acceptance as a legitimate sphere of political action and mobilization. There has been in fact a clear denial and delegitimization of caste-based discourses and practices against inequality and injustice even in the discourse of multiculturalism. The draft constitution that was put forward and then shelved constituted a bold attempt at a more sensitive approach to group rights. 

Sri Lankan Muslims redefined their strategy regarding minority rights when the secessionist war began in the North and East. The displacement of large numbers of Muslim families and their relocation in refugee camps, the forcible eviction of Muslim communities by the LTTE from the North and the repeated massacres of Muslim villagers in conflict areas have created new tensions between Tamils and Muslims. The LTTE was responsible for four massacres of Muslims in the Batticaloa district between 1987 and 1990. The sense of insecurity among Muslims reached a climax when they made demands that went far beyond the rights discourse of previous decades. With the creation of a Muslim unit in the Sri Lankan armed forces and the arming of Muslim youth, the right to self-protection was a demand that could be read as a significant departure from the strategies of the earlier decades. Sri Lankan Muslims also redefined their rights with respect to the new constitutional schemes put forward after 1995. Muslim leaders were opposed to the idea of a merger between the Eastern and Northern provinces, which they believed would reduce their strength from thirty percent to seventeen percent, making them an “insignificant political minority.”51 The issue at stake today concerns the fate of minorities if power is to be shared between the two larger communities–Sinhalese and Tamils–on a purely territorial basis. Eric Meyer has shown that the distribution of communities varies from one region to another. He highlights three types of districts: 

Areas with over 80 percent majority: the far north, Tamil majority; the farsouth, north central and central west, Sinhalese majority areas with approximately 25 percent minority population (national average): Colombo and surrounding areas and Kandy regions, Sinhalese majority with large Tamil and Muslim minorities; the Northwest and Eastern coast, Tamil majority with substantial Muslim and Sinhalese minorities areas with approximately equal representation between groups: the plantation district of Nuwara Eliya and the Trincomalee and Amparai districts in the east.52 

Untouched by the complexity of the population distribution of Sri Lanka and by the overlapping of identities and cultural practices, Colombo-based think tanks continue to adopt a technocratic approach to the Sri Lankan conflict through an aggressive advocacy for a federal reorganization of the state. They are implicitly supported by the European Union, the United States, Norway and Japan, who see federalism as the crucial and dramatic political change that will bring about peace in the country.53 

Minority communities today quite rightly fear the powers of a majoritarian state that moves unambiguously towards promoting Sinhalese culture and Buddhism while paying lip service to multiculturalism. The challenge today is to revitalize citizenship as an alternative to multiculturalism in a way that reaches further than legal rights and entitlements and within a state structure that recognizes multiple identities through multiple acts of identification. This would mean acknowledging the limits of pluralism by accepting the fact that all differences cannot be accepted and through devising criteria to determine what is admissible and what is not. Mostly, it means sapping the cultural exclusiveness of our schools, offices, clubs, associations and political parties. It means recasting our past and deeply probing pathways taken and pathways missed, while at the same time acknowledging that the past is the past although it permeates our present. “The past,” wrote Lefort, ”is not really the past until it ceases to haunt us and we have become free to rediscover it in the spirit of curiosity.”54 The graft of the past is not inevitable or embedded in unbreakable cement. It is important to read it anew and reinvent the present in the spirit of curiosity. Reconciliation does not simply signify dividing territory according to cultural identities with the view to devolve powers. Autonomy for the “other” is only part of the solution, as one can think sadly of two federal units, mirror images of each other, each practicing similarly exclusivist policies, each fostering dreams of authentic cultures and pure races. The focus on culture has disabled all other transformations that need to be enacted to create a better state. Devolving power is necessary, but a parallel strategy is needed, one that aims at radically transforming the existing state to ensure that common values of equity and justice for all its citizens are respected, and even more importantly, to nurture pride in cultural mélange and hybridism rather than in purity and authenticity of cultures. 


Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” ttp://

2Seyla Bensahib, The Claims of Culture, Equality and Diversity in the Global Era (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004), 4.

The advocacy campaigns of Colombo-based non-governmental organizations such as the National Peace Council, the Center for Political Alternatives and the Berghoff Foundation are all motivated by a single pedagogical aim, which is to spread the gospel of federalism among the Sinhalese majority population.

“UNP Manifesto,” (Public Record Office, Kew, CO 54/992/1).

Nira Wickramasinghe, Sri Lanka in the Modern Age: A History of Contested Identities (London:C.Hurst, 2006), 69-72.

Sri Lanka National Archives, Colombo, Lot 5/334.

Benedict Anderson, The Spectre of Comparisons. Nationalism. Southeast Asia and the World (London:Verso, 1998), 36.

See Bensahib for a critique of Kymlicka’s multicultural citizenship. Kymlicka uses culture as “synonymous with ‘a nation’ or ‘a people’…that is, as an intergenerational community, more or less institutionally complete, occupying a given territory or homeland, sharing a distinct language and history”; Steven Seidman and Jeffrey C. Alexander, The New Social Theory Reader (London: Routledge, 2001), 235.

On the idea of race and political representation in the early 19th century, see Nira Wickramasinghe, Ethnic Politics in Colonial Sri Lanka (New Delhi: Vikas, 1995), 1-28.

This period has been dealt with in the works of K.M de Silva. See K.M. de Silva, “The Formation and Character of the Ceylon National Congress 1917-1919,” Ceylon Journal of Historical and Social Studies. 4 (January/December 1974); R.A. Ariyaratne, “Communal Conflict in Ceylon Politics and the Advances towards Self-Government,” (unpublished doctoral thesis, Cambridge, England: Cambridge University, 1973).

Nira Wickramasinghe, “La Pétition Coloniale. Objet de contrôle, Objet de Dissidence,” Revue historique de l’Océan Indien 07 (forthcoming).

SWRD Bandaranaike, ed., The Handbook of the Ceylon National Congress 1919-1928 (Colombo, Sri Lanka: H.W. Cave and Co., 1928), 39-47.

Ranajit Guha, Subaltern Studies VI: Writings on South Asian History and Society (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994), 214.

Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake, “Diaspora and Citizenship: Forgotten Routes of Identity in Lanka,” in Culture and Economy in the Indian Diaspora, ed. Bhinkhu Parekh, Gurharpal Singh and Steven Vertovec (London: Routledge, 2003).

Darini Rajasingham Senanayake, “Democracy and the Problem of Representation: the Making of Bipolar Ethnic Identity in Post/Colonial Sri Lanka” in Ethnic Futures: The State and Identity Politics in Asia, ed., Joanna Pfaff Czarnecka et al (London: Sage, 1991), 120.

Ibid., 119.

James Brow, Demons and Development: the Struggle for Community in a Sri Lankan Village (Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1996).

Rajasingham-Senanayake, 123.

Rajat Ganguly, “Sri Lanka’s Ethnic Conflict: At a Crossroad between Peace and War,” Third World

Quarterly 25, no. 5 (July 2004).

Chantal Mouffe, The Return of the Political (London: Verso, 1993), 71.

Ibid., 76.

Laksiri Jayasuriya, Welfarism and Politics in Sri Lanka: experience of a Third World Welfare State (Perth, Australia: University of Western Australia), 2000.

See K.M de Silva, A History of Sri Lanka (London: C.Hurst, 1981), 540-556.

“Report of the Special Commission on the Constitution of Ceylon,” (command paper 3131, His Majesty’s Stationery Office, Ceylon, Sri Lanka: 1928), 32.

Kandyan Peasantry Commission (report, Government Publications Bureau, Colombo: 1951), 75.

Ibid., 16.

Ibid., 5.

Yuvi Thangarajah, “Ethnicization of the Devolution Debate and the Militarization of Civil Society in North-Eastern Sri Lanka,” in Building Local Capacities for peace: Rethinking Conflict and Development in Sri Lanka, ed. Markus Mayer, Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake, Yuvi Thangarajah (New Delhi: Macmillan, 2003), 24-28.

Slavoj Zizek, Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1989).

S.N. Tennekoon, “Rituals if Development: the Accelerated Mahaweli Development Program of Sri

Lanka,” American Ethnologist 15, no. 2 (1988): 294-310.

In general, the development of the agricultural sector slowed down after the 1980s. This sector represents today only one fifth of the GNP while only 38 percent of the active population lives off agriculture. There is in fact a dearth of labor in this field, which has been partly remedied by mechanization. Since the 1980s there has been a change in the structure of the economy, marked by a shift from agriculture to employment in industry and in the service sector.

Partha Chatterjee, The Politics of the Governed. Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World (New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2004), 34.

See Rohan Edrisinha and P. Saravanamuttu, “The Case for a Federal Sri Lanka,” (report, The Center for Policy Research and Analysis, University of Colombo, Colombo, Sir Lanka: 1994); Ram

Manikkalingam, A Unitary State, a Federal State, or Two Separate States (Colombo, Sri Lanka: Social Scientists Association, 2000).

See G.C. Mendis, Ceylon under the British (Colombo, Sri Lanka: Apothecaries’ Co. Ltd., 1944); Colvin R. de Silva, Ceylon under the British Occupation, 1795-1832 (Colombo, Sri Lanka: Colombo

Apothecaries’ Co. Ltd., 1941-42).

Nihal Perera, Decolonizing Ceylon: Colonialism, Nationalism and the Politics of Space in Sri Lanka

(New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999), 41-48.

K.M de Silva, ‘Traditional Homelands’ of the Tamils. Separatist Ideology in Sri Lanka: A Historical

Appraisal (Kandy, Sri Lanka: International Centre for Ethnic Studies, 1995), 17.

Ferguson’s Ceylon Directory 1905 (Colombo, Sri Lanka: Ceylon Observer Press, 1905), 249.

Ananda Guruge, ed., Anagarika Dharmapala. Return to Righteousness: A Collection of Speeches,

Essays, and Letters of the Anagarika Dharmapala, Guruge (Colombo, Sri Lanka: Government Press, 1965), 615-626.

“Report of the Commission on Constitutional Reform” (command paper 6677, Ceylon, Sri Lanka: 1945), 47; G.H. Peiris, “An Appraisal of the Concept of a Traditional Tamil Homeland in Sri Lanka,”

Ethnic Studies Report 9, no. 1,(1991): 13-39.

C. Manogaram, “Colonization as Politics. Political Use of Space in Sri Lanka’s Ethnic Conflict,” in The Sri Lankan Tamils: Ethnicity and Identity, ed. C. Manogaram and B. Pfaffenberger, (Boulder CO: Westview Press, 1994), 93-99; For a critique of this interpretation, see Patrick Peebles, “Colonization and Ethnic Conflict in the Dry Zone of Sri Lanka,” Journal of Asian Studies 49, no. 1 (February 1990), 30-55.

Peebles, 38.

International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Sri Lanka: The Devolution Debate (Colombo, Sri Lanka: International Centre for Ethnic Studies, 1996); M. Somasundaram, ed., Constitution 2000:

Parliamentary Debates (Ethnic Affairs and National Integration Division, Colombo: 2000).

See Shelton U. Kodikara, ed., Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of July 1987, (Dehiwala, Sri Lanka: Sridevi

Printers for the International Relations Program, University of Colombo, 1989).

Neelan Tiruchelvam, “The Politics of Federalism and Diversity in Sri Lanka,” in Autonomy and Ethnicity: Negotiating Competing Claims in Multi-Ethnic States, ed. Yash Ghai (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 197-218.

For an insider’s view of the North Eastern Provincial Council, see Dayan Jayatilleka, The Indian Intervention in Sri Lanka, 1987-1990: The North-East Provincial Council and Devolution of Power (Kandy, Sri Lanka: International Centre for Ethnic Studies, 1999).

Dinusha Panditaratne and Pradeep Ratnam, eds., Draft Constitution of Sri Lanka–Critical Aspects (Colombo, Sri Lanka: Law and Society Trust, 1998).

Tiruchelvam, 211.

Ibid., 210.

S.L. Gunasekere, A Tragedy of Errors. About Tigers, Talks, Ceasefires and the Proposed Constitution (Kelaniya, Sri Lanka: Sinhala Jathika Sangamaya, 2001), 45.


M.H.M. Ashraff, cit. in Jayadeva Uyangoda, Questions of Sri Lanka’s Minority Rights (Colombo, Sri Lanka: International Center for Ethnic Studies, 2001), 129.

Eric Meyer, Sri Lanka, Biography of an Island: Between Local and Global (Negombo, Sri Lanka: Viator Publications, 2003), 47.

Jayadeva Uyangoda, “Peace in Peril,” Frontline 23, no. 13 (14 July 2006): 10-13; “USAID, CPA Hold Symposium on Federalism,” TamilNet (6 February 2006).

Claude Lefort, The Political Forms of Modern Society: Bureaucracy, Democracy, Totalitarianism (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1986), 123.


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3 responses to “Sri Lanka’s conflict: culture and lineages of the past

  1. Perinbanayagam

    Nira Wickremesinghe writes,”At the beginning of the 20th century, when the first cracks between the various ethnic groups started to form, Sinhalese, Tamils, Indians, Muslims, Burghers, Malays and Europeans all

    formed separate political associations which the British encouraged to jockey for power.”
    I don’t know whether the British encouraged this too,but this kind of “seperatism” was carried over into the organization of amateur sports too.There was then the Singhalese Sports Club,The Tamil Union and Burgher Recreation Club,the Malay Sports (?) and various other clubs that were exclusivey English. Was a cricket match on a Saturday between the SSC and the Tamil Union in the forties a mimesis of the struggle that was then being waged between the Tamil Congress and the Sinhala leadership (the Sinhala Mahasabha) about “fifty fifty”?Or a precursor of things to come?I can still remember headlines in local papers saying”The Tamils Defeat the Sinhalse” referring to a cricket match!
    I believe that in order to undermine the ethnicising of sports(and clubing) the Nondescripts Sports Club (and the Twentieth Century Club)was formed for whom N.M. Perera was a star bowler…

    I don’t kmow whether anyone has written on this. Perhaps, Micheal Roberts has.

  2. Robert

    You will have to scour the following essays I have written and so will I to recover details

    Michael R

    2005a “Sri Lanka: the Power of Cricket & Power in Cricket”, Cricket and National Identity in the Post-Colonial Age: Following On, ed. by Stephen Wagg, London: Routledge, pp. 132-58.

    2006 Forces and Strands in Sri Lanka’s Cricketing History, Colombo: Social Scientists’ Association.

    2009 “Wunderkidz in a Blunderland: Tensions & Tales from Sri Lankan Cricket,” in Dominic Malcolm, Jon Gemmell and Nalin Mehta (eds.) Sport and Society, vol. 12, nos. 4/5, special issue on Cricket; International and Interdisciplinary Approaches, 2009, pp. 566-78.

  3. I recall commenting – as a surmise –that the Nondescripts CC was so named as a comment on the ethnic names and the snobbery of some clubs. However note that the NCC was initiated in 1888 well before the Tamil Union (1890) and SSC (1899). Again there were other clubs such as Bloomfield (1890) Notts (1910) and Melbridge (??).

    More pertinent is the challenge to the local Europeans by a Ceylones team in 1882 and the inauguration of a “Test series between “Ceylonese” and “Europeans” in the same period the 1880s.

    The fact is that the westernised bourgeoisie and middle class who provided the key personnel in the cricketing arena were both ethnic and Ceylonese; and relatively distanced from the Sinhala Maha Sabha (though Banda was not).

    I wondered b if the contest between Sathasivam and FC de Saram or captaincy of the Ceylon side to play Bradman’s Australians in 1948 had an ethnic flavour. the latter was senior in the historical order but Satha was chosen by a Cttee which was headed by one of the Saravanamuttus. However Chandra and Schaffter tells me that it was not an ethnic issue

    As an amusing aside Neville Jayaweera told me that when he watched the match as a wee lad someone shouted at Sathasivam when he was near the boundary: “fifty/fifty” This generated a good laugh and was clearly not in ethnic spite.

    As I have stressed in my article on Wunderkidz “In the period stretching from the 1940s to the 1970s the SL Tamils [in cricket] were both Tamils and Ceylonese.” Needless to say, t is holds true for the earlier eras. When John Rockwood {Tamil] organised a tour of Bombay in 1919 the squad was one Malay, 2 Tamils, 5 Burghers and 7 Sinhalese.

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