Where Majoritarian Part subsumes the Whole: The Ideological Foundation of Sinhala Extremism

Michael Roberts,  courtesy of Colombo Telegraph

It is a commonplace in reviews of the ethnic conflict at the popular level of web comment for the blame to be heaped on our politicians in the past, and any perusal of web-commentary would turn up criticisms of politician A or politician B, or particular temporal moments/events. This is over-simplistic. Such processes are complex and demand a multi-factorial analysis.

13-Banda & masses for Sinhala Only 14-Fasting-unto-death  24 May 1956 -- FR Jayasuriya 15-Mettananda addreses Sinhala crowd 1956Scenes from the mid-1950s depicting Sinhala activists at ‘work’ — see Roberts: Potency , Power & People in Groups,  Colombo, Marga, 2011.

Besides such singular criticisms tend to obscure or downplay the critical influence of two fundamental causes, the one structural, the other ideological. Let me begin with A the structural before proceeding to B, the ideological.

A. The focus on politicians and ideologues neglects structural factors that contributed substantially to the deepening of pre-existing ethnic identities/loyalties in the post 1945 era [note 1945]. In applying British parliamentary traditions to the island the Soulbury Constitution installed a first-past-the-post electoral system. Though well-meant, this scheme was disastrous in the circumstances of the island’s demographic configuration. By “demographic configuration” I mean the distribution and proportion of the Tamil, Sinhalese (Sinhala) and Muslim Moor communities in space.

It took some time for the major political parties to figure out the implications of this peculiar distribution (“peculiar” in the sense that it is country specific — thus negating so-called comparisons with other countries). By the early 1960s, as such political scientists as Robert N. Kearney have shown,[1] a small percentage swing in the votes created a major swing in the number of MPS for the party with the most votes. This meant that that particular party or coalition could dominate the parliament and the country without reference to the parties representing the Tamils. The 1970 election bringing Mrs Bandaranaike’s United Front coalition into power and its subsequent imposition of a Republican Constitution was the apotheosis of this configuration.

B. That was not all however. Ideological groundings aggravated the growing Sinhala-Tamil divide. The island’s peculiar history, the historical sensibilities nurtured by the vamsa chronicles and the consolidation of the latter in the positivist modes of thinking dominating the world since the expansion of Western power from the 18th century meant that many, many Sinhalese believed that the term “Ceylonese” was equivalent to the term “Sinhalese.”

This slippage, this swallowing of the whole by its major part, was (is) often unconscious, implicit, taken-for-granted. I perceived it residing in Anagarika Dharmapala’s vigorous anti-colonial writings.[2] Dharmapala, as we all know, was the patron saint of the political currents that drove the Eksath Bhikkhu Peramuna and petit-bourgeois forces that advocated the “Sinhala Only ideology” which in turn pitchforked the MEP led by Bandaranaike to power in 1956.

I am, here, underlining the ideological underpinnings of the “1956 Revolution” (a capsule sketch popularized by Mervyn de Silva and others). That transformation has since been carried forward by such ideological forces as “Jātika Chintanaya” and “Mahinda Chinthanaya”. Such ideologues as Gunadasa Amarasekera, Nalin de Silva and Gomin Dayasiri[3] are bearers of these currents. But in the 2000s they were pushed into the sidelines by the populist confederation assembled by a segment of the SLFP under the banner “Mahinda Chinthanaya.”

To those driven by such modes of thinking

Ceylon = Sri Lanka = Sīhalē

Ceylonese = Sinhalese (Sīhala).

This modality of thinking, whereby the majoritarian part subsumes the whole by equation. can be implicit and subterranean …… or, it can be explicit. In both forms it is deadly.

I pinpointed its deadly impact, together with the voting trends identified by Kearney et al, in an article drafted in Heidelberg in 1976 which appeared in 1978 entitled “Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka and Sinhalese Perspectives: Barriers to Accommodation.”[4] I stress here that the seeds of this analysis were laid at Peradeniya in the early 1970s in the course of my studies of nationalism and my work as Director-Dogsbody of the Ceylon studies seminar. One moment in this progression was the all-day conference on “the Sinhala-Tamil Problem” held in Colombo in early October 1973.[5]

That discussion – on top of other events and currents — deepened my pessimism. My 1976/78 article forecast that Sri Lanka would head the way of Lebanon, Cyprus and Northern Ireland.

The ideological groundings of Sinhala supremacist and chauvinist thinking remain today – perhaps all the stronger and deeper because of (a) the defeat of the LTTE in 2009; (b) the persistent propaganda of the Tamil nationalist lobbies abroad, with many seams of fabrications mixed with fact; and (c) the pressures of a Western cabal posing as the “international community” and driven by a form of secular righteousness that is impervious to the double-standards imprinted on its masthead.

So: how does one proceed to undermine the tendency of many Sinhalese to swallow the hole in the Sinhala part? To equate “Sri Lankans” with “Sīhalas”? I press several modalities as a programme that has to be pursued consistently over several generations …. Yes, over 20-40 years. There are no short-cuts.

Saf crowd singing


Ia. Every single member of GSL Reconciliation Committees must sit quietly in a small film studio and absorb (i) a video replay of a Springbok rugger match at home against the All Blacks (or whoever) and take in the panned pictures of the Saf players and the crowd singing the national anthem in three languages; (ii) likewise absorb a rugby international in New Zealand when the All Blacks sing their national anthem in Maori and English.

Ib. Train a professional choir (or several) to sing Namo Namo in both Sinhala and Tamil AND THEN have the CD widely available.

1c. Train all the principal Sri Lankan cricketers in any one year how to sing Namo Namo in both Sinhala and Tamil.

1d. Perhaps re-constitute Namo Namo in a shorter version with Sinhala and Tamil as alternate stanzas – so as to facilitate its use at ceremonies short on time.

1e. Visit Premadasa Stadium before the start of the next ODI cricket match …. Expand your mind and think of the effect of a choir on big screen singing the anthem in both languages with our players on the field participating. Volaarey!! Cantaarey!!


IIa. Decree that all schools must begin to institute the singing of the national anthem in both languages – maybe the short-cut version in alternate stanzas, but perhaps even the longer form. This programme cannot be rushed and must be judiciously and slowly pressed.

IIb: Institute this practice selectively at ceremonial state events, including those of the armed services.

STEP III. I recall that sometime back – circa 2006/08 there was a Rupavahini(?) programme called “One House” (not sure of name) with a moving lyric advocating communal harmony. Resurrect it. Drama, lyric, baila and street theatre must be deployed in encouraging cultural exchanges and cross-fertilization. Such personnel as Dharmasiri Bandaranaike must be made an integral part of the deliberations and planning work of the RCs.


STEP IV. Animation is another mode of re-schooling and re-orienting people towards ethnic tolerance, amity and cross-fertilization. When Kandyan dancing is seen as a threat by some educated Tamil extremists, we know then that cultural practices carry deep significance in heightened political contexts. Thus, re-working culture towards exchange and appreciation is one pathway towards reconciliation.

STEP V. All our citizens must be re-schooled over time. They must be taught to look at the world in a modified nomenclature that adopts and/or recognises hyphenated labels in either self-designation or in attribution. V1. I note that in some parts of the world hyphenated designations are in both popular use or official use – so that one has Italian Australians, Greek Australians, Tunisian French, German Swiss, Italian Swiss, Sri Lankan Australians, etc, etc. Gradually instilling hyphenation is one important process to initiate by … V2. Creating an official nomenclature for implementation in the census, in the NIC (National Identity Card) and in other official documents. Thus, on the understanding and clear-note that the term “Sri” is a normal preface before “Lankan:” and can be dispensed with in the documents for convenience sake, I would insist on the following terminology


Sinhala Lankan

Tamil Lankan

Malaiyaha Lankan [usually known as “Indian Tamil”]

Moor Lankan

Malay Lankan

Burgher Lankan

Colombo Chetty Lankan

Borah Lankan

Sindhi Lankan

Parsee Lankan

Vadda Lankan

Ahikuntaka Lankan

Mixed Lankan

V3. It should be permissible for those who reject sub-categories on principle to denote themselves as “Lankan’ and to refuse an ethnic label [an interesting outcome this].

V4. A vital innovation here is that those of mixed parentage can say “Mixed’ and reject the patrilineal bias in terminology.[6]

***   ***

SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY of my WRITINGS relevant to this project

  • “Stimulants and Ingredients in the Awakening of Latter-Day Nationalisms,” in Collective Identities, Nationalisms and Protest in Modern Sri Lanka, Colombo: Marga Publications, 1979, pp. 214-42.
  • “Problems of Collective Identity in a Multi-Ethnic Society: Sectional Nationalism vs Ceylonese Nationalism, 1900-1940,” in Collective Identities, Nationalisms and Protest in Modern Sri Lanka, Colombo: Marga Publications, 1979, pp. 337-60.
  • “Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka and Sinhalese Perspectives: Barriers to Accommodation,” Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 12, No. 3 (1978), pp. 353-376.
  • The 1956 Generations: After and Before, G.C. Mendis Memorial Lecture for 1981, Colombo, Evangel Press, 1981a
  • “Ethnicity in Riposte at a Cricket Match: The Past for the Present”, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 1985, 27: 401-429.
  • “Nationalism, the Past and the Present: the Case of Sri Lanka,” Ethnic and Racial Studies, 1993a 16: 133-161.
  • “Beyond Anderson: Reconstructing and Deconstructing Sinhala Nationalist Discourse”, Modern Asian Studies, 1996a   30: 690-98. [reprinted in Confrontations, 2009].
  • “Teaching Lessons and Removing Evil: Strands of Moral Puritanism in Sinhala Nationalist Practice,” Felicitation Volume for Professor S. Arasaratnam, edited by Michael Pearson, as  South Asia, sp.issue, Sept. 1996, pp. 205-20.
  • “Sinhala-ness and Sinhala Nationalism,” in G. Gunatilleke et al (eds.): A History of Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka: Recollection, Reinterpretation and Reconciliation, Colombo: 2001 Marga Monograph Series, No 4.
  • “The burden of history: obstacles to power sharing in Sri Lanka”, Contributions to Indian Sociology, n. s., May 2001, 35: 65-96.
  • “Ethnicity after Edward Said: Post-Orientalist failures in comprehending the Kandyan period of Lankan history,” Ethnic Studies Report 2001, 19: 69-98. [reprinted in Confrontations, 2009].
  • “Dakunen sädi kotiyo, uturen golu muhudai,” [The fierce/vile Tamils to the south, the turbulent/unfathomable sea to the north] Pravāda 2001. 6: 17-18.
  •  “Primordialist strands in contemporary Sinhala nationalism in Sri Lanka: urumaya as Ur,” Colombo:Marga Monograph Series on A History of Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka: Recollection, Reinterpretation and Reconciliation, Colombo: Marga Monograph Series, 2002 No 20.
  • “Saivite Symbolism, Sacrifice and Tamil Tiger Rites”, Social Analysis 2005 49: 67-93.
  •  “Pragmatic Action & Enchanted Worlds: A Black Tiger Rite Of Commemoration,” Social  Analysis 2006 50: 73-102.
  • “The Tamil Movement for Eelam,” E-Bulletin of the International Sociological Association 2006 No. 4, July 2006, pp. 12-24 [reprinted in Fire and Storm. Essays in Sri Lankan Politics, 2010, pp. 203-18].
  • “Understanding Zealotry and Questions for Post-Orientalism, I,” Lines May-August 2006,  vol.5, 1 & 2, in http://www.lines-magazine.org.
  • “Tamil Tigers: Sacrificial Symbolism and ‘Dead Body Politics’,” Anthropology Today, June 2008,  24/3: 22-23.
  • “Some Pillars for Lanka’s Future,” Frontline, 24/12, 6-19 June, 2009, pp. 24-27.
  • “Intolerance: Hues and Issues,” Nethra Review, 11/2, December 2010, pp. 20-21.
  • “Mahinda Rajapaksa: Cakravarti Imagery and Populist Processes,” 28 January 2012, http:// thuppahi.wordpress.com/2012/01/28/mahinda-rajapaksa-cakravarti-imagery-and-populist-processes/,reprinted in Asanga Welikala (ed.) Republic at Forty.
  • “Ideological Cancers within the Sinhala Universe: Roadblocks in the Path of Reconciliation,” Groundviews, 10 May 2014, http://groundviews.org/2014/05/10/ideological-cancers-within-the-sinhala-universe-roadblocks-in-the-path-of-reconciliation/


[1] See Robert N. Kearney The politics of Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Cornell University Press, 1973 and Communalism and Language in the Politics of Ceylon.: Duke University Press, 1967.

[2] See Roberts, “Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka and Sinhalese Perspectives: Barriers to Accommodation,” Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 12, No. 3 (1978), pp. 353-376.

[3] As the son of NQ Dias the grey commander in chief of the Sinhalization policy within the administrative services under the Bandaranaikes in the 1950s and 1960s.

[4] Modern Asian Studies, 1978, vol. 12: 353-76. This reading t should be supplemented with a reading of “Ethnicity in Riposte at a Cricket Match,” 1985; “Pillars for the Future,” (2014) and the more recent articles identifying the short-sighted Sinhalaness of Mahinda Rajapaksa and company — namely, “Ideological Cancers within the Sinhala Universe,” (2014) and “Cakravarti Imagery and Populist Processes” (2012).

[5] This gathering had presentations by Chandra de Silva, Minister Nissanka Wijeyeratne and Senator M. Tiruchelvam in the morning; and Neville Jayaweera, V. Karalasingham, Bishop Lakshman Wickremasinghe and myself in the afternoon session devoted to “Bridge-Building”. The discussions and commentary heightened my gloomy readings and I expanded my brief paper into that which appeared in 1978

[6] In magnificent self-denial I have opted not to use the term “Thuppahi Lankan” for this category


Filed under devolution, discrimination, heritage, historical interpretation, language policies, LTTE, plural society, politIcal discourse, power politics, power sharing, Rajapaksa regime, reconciliation, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, the imaginary and the real, truth as casualty of war, vengeance, world affairs

17 responses to “Where Majoritarian Part subsumes the Whole: The Ideological Foundation of Sinhala Extremism

  1. Dear Dr Roberts

    After nearly an year of trying to convince various people from all walks of life of the necessity to change the descriptive label attached to the local Muslim Community from ‘Sri Lankan Muslim’ to ‘Muslim Sri Lankan’ as one critical requirement to strengthen and sustain ‘National Integration’, I was delighted – no, I was ecstatic – to read your article on this subject.

    Our approaches to this conclusion may be different, but the final recommendation that our labels should strongly emphasize what we have in common (that we are all Sri Lankans) and discount what differentiates us (our religious and ethnic groupings) is the same.

    In this regard, I was pleasantly surprised to read the other day, a statement by President Obama where he refers to the Muslim Community in the USA not as the usual ‘American Muslims’ but as ‘Muslim Americans’.

    If you have the time and the inclination, please do read the article in my blog titled “Strengthening the National Identity of Sri Lankan Muslims”.


    Thank you
    Best regards
    Bisthan Batcha

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  9. Sanath de Silva

    WOW, Michael – this inspires me to no end!
    Think intelligently, and not emotionally, is a blessing!
    Great to read your Blog!!

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