Jane Russell on Sri Lankan Political History in Debate with Kumarasingham’s Readings

From London the historian and scholar  Jane Russell has entered an extensive set of comments on Harshan Kumarasingham’s Heidelberg essay of 2013 –reprinted in Thuppahi in 2014. Given its length and Russell’s background (see below) it deserves wider exposure in the hope that debate will be promoted. I am therefore deleting its original location and posting it as a separate item.

 Russell  Kumarasingham

  1. HARSHAN KUMARASINGHAM”s “The Deceptive Tranquillity surrounding Sri Lankan Independence: ‘The Jewel of the East yet has its Flaws’,”  is an interesting paper with which I broadly agree, despite a tendency by the author to sacrifice judgement in favour of rhetoric. However, Dr. Harshan Kumarasingham has gone for the elegant historical narrative rather than seeking to explore and analyse some of the more nuanced, underlying factors that may help to understand the spiralling of Ceylon, cited by the British as ‘ the Premier Crown Colony” at independence in 1947, into Sri Lanka, characterised by the west at the turn of the 21st century as a terrorist-riven semi-failed state. I hope the following will help to redress this.

2 First, to the rhetoric. Kumarasingham is prone to hyperbole. For example, his claim that the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict was “one of the bloodiest and longest-running civil wars in the world” surely deserves rejoinder. While it is true that the civil war in Sri Lanka dragged on for 35 years, (taking the 1983 riots as the starting point) and did result in a (disputed) 60,00-120,000 deaths, this is very small beer compared to the 2 to 5 million persons massacred, (figures differ according to who is doing the claiming), and up to half a million women raped, in India/Pakistan during Partition and the 0.5 to 2.5 million persons (again figures differ according to which side is being cited) who died during the Bangladesh/Pakistan war of 1971.

3. Outside the sub-continent, there were the 1.5 – 3 million people (25 % of the entire population) who died during Pol Pot’s blood soaked rule in Cambodia. Among these, between 327,000 and 541,000 members of religious and ethnic minorities were simply exterminated. Then an estimated 800,000 persons were hacked to death in a matter of weeks during the Ruwandan civil war. A little further back in time, there were the 100,000 military casualties and between 0.5 to 2 million Biafrans who died of starvation during the Nigerian civil war; and lest anyone should think present-day Europe is too ‘civilised’ to countenance religious/ethnic wars, we have the 100,000 persons killed during the Yugoslav civil conflict together with countless rapes. Finally, and possibly the most tragic scenario of all because it appears the most hopelessly intractable, there is the current Syrian civil war which has so far resulted in between 200,000 (UN figures in 2014, after which time collection of death statistics ceased) and 1.9 million deaths, (Syrian Policy Research Centre, February 2016). This war has also created 3.8 million refugees, that is almost 1 in 3 Syrians.

4. The above litany of man’s inhumanity to man (which leaves out at least two other recent, notable civil conflicts in Lebanon and Somalia) puts the Sri Lankan civil war, horrible though it was, into clearer perspective. Some commentators at the time referred to it as an “ongoing low-level intensity ethnic conflict” and generally that was how it felt for many inhabitants of Sri Lanka during much of those 35 years. Yes, there were periods of savage fighting, and outbursts of bombing (aerial and suicide) producing wide-scale murder of civilians – by both sides – but for most of those 35 years, Sri Lankan civil society went about its daily tasks of education, retailing, agriculture, marriage, birth and death, import/export and legal disputation.

5.The Sri Lankan state continued to provide food and medical aid to most parts of the Northern and Eastern provinces claimed by the Tamil Tigers as their ‘homeland”. It was only in the very last phase of the war that a less compassionate State, bent on ending the war at all costs, withheld humanitarian aid from the Tamil -speaking population, herded by the Tigers into their last redoubt in the Eastern Province. The fact that Tamil voters in the Northern and Eastern Provinces came out in such large numbers in the 2015 Presidential election to elect a Sinhalese candidate promising a constitutional settlement indicates that the Tamil community as a whole (as opposed to the small segment with the loudest megaphone ie the Tamil Tigers) trusted their fellow islanders enough to enter into dialogue via a parliamentary democratic system.

6. Another of Kumarasingham’s rhetorical flourishes appears in his characterisation of SWRD Bandaranaike’s appeal to the Sinhalese electorate in 1956 as one of “Blood and Buddhism”. Bandaranaike was indeed widely supported by politicised members of the Buddhist Sangha in the ’56 election. The resurgence of Buddhism was an influential factor in Ceylon’s politics post-independence and its importance was underlined in the 1972 Constitution where Buddhism was given the imprimatur of being the “state religion” . But it was not Buddhism but Bandaranaike’s promise to replace English with Sinhala as the Official Language of the State which caused the massive landslide for his Sri Lankan Freedom Party

7. As for the idea of appealing to a Sinhala-speaking community on the grounds of “Blood” – this is plainly laughable. The Sinhalese community, far more so in 1956 than now, was divided into rigorously observed caste groups. Although less rigid and hierarchical than caste groups among the Tamil community where caste is reinforced by Hindu precepts, the Sinhalese (Buddhist and Christian) caste system was nevertheless in rude health in ’56. Caste, as has been noted by anthropologists, is based on belief that there are significant genetic differences between castes which makes exogamy such a forbidden fruit.

8. There is no sense at all of a blood-linked ‘volk’ in Sinhalese Buddhist culture: there is however an all-pervasive insecurity that this small community, a remnant of an ancient Sanskrit-based linguistic group bound together by a belief in Theravada Buddhist doctrine, are about to be “swamped” by a Tamil-speaking Hindu community 5 times its size a few miles across the Palk Straits in Tamil Nadu. Moreover, this vast neighbouring Tamil Hindu population already has a “fifth column” in situ in the highlands of the Central Province (Indian Tamils who were brought to Sri Lanka as bonded labour by the British planting sector in the late 19th and early 20th centuries), and their distant cousins (Sri Lankan Tamils) have a justifiable claim to a homeland in the Northern and parts of the Eastern Province.

9. Given this scenario, it is perhaps understandable why the Sinhalese should be so beset by the fear of being surrounded by a Tamil Hindu community whose diaspora is bent on casting them as racist aggressors . It was therefore this sense of insecurity which motivated a caste-riven Sinhala-speaking community to vote almost to a man/woman in favour of “Sinhala Only” in ’56, which as Kumarasingham rightly observes, seeded the inter-communal strife which flowered so nastily in the ’58 riots, the first of many inter-communal bouts of violence whose final fruit was a prolonged civil war.

10. In his article, Kumarasingham provides as his explanation of the civil war, the scourge of “communalism”. When I wrote the book “Communal Politics under the Donoughmore Constitution” over 40 years ago (first presented as a Ph.D. thesis to the University of Peradeniya in 1976), I was regarded by some of my Peradeniya/Colombo campus colleagues as a colonial throwback – incapable of recognising the Marxist-driven modernising tendencies in Sri Lanka’s politics. After 4 decades of reflecting on Sri Lanka’s politics, many of those years spent in Sri Lanka with even a few days incarcerated in Bogambara and Welikada prisons for publishing anti-establishment opinions in the English medium press, I have come to a different viewpoint about Sri Lanka’s recent history.

11. On the surface, it seems that creeping Sinhalese-Buddhist majoritarianism, extant from the late 19th century onwards, gradually provoked a more and more defensive/aggressive communal response from the Tamil-Hindu minority until it blew up into a full-scale civil war. But there may be a deeper, less obvious cause –-an unprcecedented population explosion. With the virtual eradication of malaria by aerial spraying of DDT after the 2nd world war plus a welfare system of free education, health and subsistence food rations funded by massive profits accruing from slaughter-tapping of rubber estates before and during the Korean war, the population of newly-independent Ceylon ballooned.

12. In a country which was overwhelmingly agricultural, which had no cities worthy of the name, whose population was primarily settled in rural villages and small market towns, whose export-led economy depended entirely on plantation crops of tea, rubber and coconut largely owned by non-Sri Lankans, the pressure on land from 1950 onwards became intense.

13. It is no mere chance that DS Senanayake, the ” Father of the Nation”, was a “bluff old farmer” (Ivor Jennings), “the George Washington of Ceylon” (US State Department), “this bucolic Sinhalese squire” (Kumarasingham): Senanayake, whose schooling barely exceeded a few passes at the School Leaving Certificate, understood more clearly than the university-educated lawyer-politicians around him that that the native landowning population of Sri Lanka, Tamil as well as Sinhalese, with their acre or two of paddy or chena, their gardens of coconut, jak, betel vines, vegetable and tobacco plots, their one cow and calf –this smallholding class — was the backbone of the island’s culture. Robert Knox’s famous report in his memoir of 1681 “An Historical Relation of the Island of Ceylon” that “it is a usual saying that if they want a king, they may take any man from the plough and wash the dirt off him and he by reason of his quality is fit to be a king” was still relevant to Ceylon’s political culture in the 1950’s and 60’s.

14. When the Sinhalese baby-boomer generation rose up in a “youth insurgency” led by Rohan Wijeweera and his Maoist JVP cohorts in 1971, the response of the left-wing United Front coalition government was a drastic land reform programme which capped Sri Lankan land ownership at 50 acres for plantation crops and 25 acres for paddy lands. The foreign-owned, company estates were nationalised and a land redistribution programme undertaken between 1972 and 1977 , the likes of which have never even been thought of, let alone tried, in any other country in Asia.

15. Significantly, the North and Eastern Provinces were largely excluded from this massive transfer of assets since land ownership in those drier, less productive provinces rarely exceeded 20 – 50 acres. So when Vellupillai Pirabaharan, founder of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), shot dead Alfred Duriappah , the nominal Christian Mayor of Jaffa and supporter of the TUF government in Colombo, in front of his daughter in the precincts of a Hindu temple in 1975, was this a sign that the virus of Maoist youth insurgency, born of population pressure on agricultural land coupled with a demographic skewed dangerously in favour of the under 25’s, had spread from Sinhalese to the Tamil community? I remember thinking at the time, “Uh, oh! This is the beginning of something big!!”

16. But gut feelings need evidence behind them: so let’s look at the figures. With a land area of 63,000 square kilometers, almost the same as the Republic of Ireland, Sri Lanka’s population grew from 6.6 million to 14.8 million between 1946 and 1981, a rise of 124%. (The peak years of population growth were 1959 – 1968 – a significant fact in the historical context of the Sinhalese youth insurgency of 1971 and the start of the Tamil youth insurrection in 1975) .

17. Compare these figures to those of India which, during a similar period (1951 -1987), saw its population grow by (only!) 84% with much of that excess population drifting to its megapolises of Bombay, Madras and Calcutta. By comparison, the Irish Republic has never in all its turbulent history had a population exceeding 8 million: in 2017, its population of 4.6 million results in a population density of 65 persons per square kilometer. In Sri Lanka, population density has risen from 104 persons per sq. km.(1946) to 166 per sq.km (1963), 234 per sq. km. (1981) and 350 per sq. km. (2017).

18. Sri Lanka’s population is due to peak around 2022. After that, its population will begin to fall and by the middle of the 21st century, Sri Lanka may be in the enviable situation of having a population down to levels last seen in the 1980’s. Population growth has already dropped dramatically from the 2.4% annual increase in peak years to 0.47% over the past 5 years.

19. India, on the other hand, is only now starting to experience the explosive levels of population growth which Sri Lanka has already emerged from, scarred but still in one piece. India, with its multiple large cities and an industrial base capable of absorbing large populations, may, as in the case of England (which had 406 persons per sq. km. in 2012), easily accommodate a rapid growth of population density, from 325 persons per sq. km. (2001) to 382 persons (2011), in a way that was not possible for rural Sri Lanka. But there is no guarantee that the civil conflict, which disfigured Sri Lanka’s politics for the past 40 years, may not yet bubble up in an India where the dangerously communal notion of Hindutva is taking hold .

PS. Re the above: Dr. Kumarasingham’s characterisation of Sri Lanka in his introduction as a country where ” tensions remain across all communities with many unresolved issues, grievances and injustices simmering at all levels and little significant rebuilding or reconciliation to allay fears of future discord. News reports on Sri Lanka over the past thirty years showed a state beset by intractable problems and unrelenting violence with little hope of lasting peace” appears a gross rhetorical exaggeration, based more on communal prejudice held by Kumarasingham himself than actuality.To underline the above point : – yesterday, a terrorist blew himself up in the foyer of the Manchester Arena , killing 22 children (mainly young girls) and their parents and injuring scores more, who had come to see an American female pop singer. This is the second (Islamist-related) terrorist incident to strike the UK in the past three months. Together with the incidents in France and elsewhere in neighbouring countries in the past two years, it would be feasible for a prejudiced observer to characterise western Europe as a place of “unresolved issues, grievances and injustices simmering …….and shows a state beset by intractable problems and unrelenting violence ….etc etc”.
P.P.S. When I first went to Sri Lanka to study political history in 1973, Don Spater Senanayake seemed an odd figure to be the Father of the Nation. There were those days only two statues of DS in Colombo. One, outside the old Parliament on Galle Face, shows him in socialist realism-style, standing one foot on a rock, gesturing manfully for the nation to move forward. The other, in Independence Square, shows a square-shouldered, unsmiling ‘grumpy old man’ character, feet planted firmly apart at “ten to two”, a bushy drooping moustache hiding his mouth, jug-handle ears sticking out, wearing an unflattering old-fashioned three piece suit, with the left hand firmly jammed placed in a baggy coat pocket, the other by his side. How unlike Nehru, Gandhi and Jinnah! But how very Sri Lankan!

DS’s father had christened him “Jungle John” as his youngest son appeared uncouth and wayward. To many he was just “the Old Man”. He had his faults – one was not allowing SRWD Bandaranaike to take over the UNP leadership before he died (characteristically by falling off his horse while riding on Galle Face Green, presumably having had a heart attack or stroke) . But he was gloriously non-PC.

Anyway, by 1978, I had become so enamoured of “the Old Man” that I wrote a poem about him – and here it is:

The Don

The Don, the Father of the Nation,
manipulated all the machinations
of hydrologists in Irrigation,
made speeches at funerals, perorations
over corpses and coconut plantations

He demanded facts, not theories, from engineers
and plainer lingo from bi-focalled seers;
a man not given to fantasies nor tears –
he didn’t give a bugger for other men’s careers!

Sipping whiskey in a club armchair,
he reclined and mused, smoothing his moustaches,
“Me – resign?. Preposterous!
Stealing power is no crime!”,
pulled his fobwatch from a waistcoat pocket
and shouted “Time to dine!”

Smoking later in the games room,
he leaned to make shot:
smiled grimly –
then snookered the whole gin-rummy lot!

Jane Russell, Camberwell, London

BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE: Jane Russell received her doctorate from Peradeniya University under the supervision of Professor KM de Silva. “Communal Politics under the Donoughmore Constitution” was eventually published by Tisara PrakasakayoDuring her researches she spent a considerable amount of time in the Jaffna Peninsula and some of her comments on recent politics have been informed by that experience. She also provided me with a vital piece of ethnographic data which led me to the conclusion that the Tamil-Sinhala divide was extremely sharp and on the path to violent conflict (see  “A Man Inspired” below).


KM de Silva: The Life Of D S Senanayake – 1884-1952, Kandy, ICES, 2016

Michael Roberts: “Hardline Ethnic Mind-Sets: Jane Russell’s Findings and Reflections,” 28 April 2016, https://thuppahis.com/2016/04/28/hardline-ethnic-mind-sets-jane-russells-findings-and-reflections/

Michael Roberts: “A Man inspired, A Man who inspired: Bishop Lakshman Wickremasinghe,” 18 April 2012, https://thuppahis.com/2012/04/18/a-man-inspired-a-man-who-inspired-bishop-lakshman-wickremasinghe/

Jane Russell on Nationalist Extremism on Both Sides in the 1970s et seq,” 28 March 2012, https://thuppahis.com/2012/03/28/jane-russell-on-nationalist-extremism-on-both-sides-in-the-1970s-et-seq/

Anushka Perinpanayagam: Perinpanayagam’s Study of the LTTE Strand of Tamil Nationalism,” 4 May 2017, https://thuppahis.com/2017/05/04/perinpanayagams-study-of-the-ltte-strand-of-tamil-nationalism/

Thuppahi: KM de Silva’s New Book on Sri Lanka’s Political History,”  25 October 2015 https://thuppahis.com/2015/10/25/km-de-silvas-new-book-on-sri-lankas-political-history/

  Harshan with Ranil at the book launch hosted by the Centre for Policy Alternatives at the Orient Club in Colombo on 19th December 2015 for The Road to Temple Trees: Sir Ivor Jennings and the Constitutional Development of Ceylon: Selected Writings, edited by Harshan and published by CPA.


Filed under communal relations, economic processes, education policy, governance, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, island economy, language policies, Left politics, life stories, LTTE, nationalism, politIcal discourse, power politics, power sharing, prabhakaran, reconciliation, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, social justice, sri lankan society, teaching profession, the imaginary and the real, world events & processes

5 responses to “Jane Russell on Sri Lankan Political History in Debate with Kumarasingham’s Readings

  1. Jay

    It was only in the very last phase of the war that a less compassionate State, bent on ending the war at all costs, withheld humanitarian aid from the Tamil -speaking population,/////

    is Jane Russel correct in her statement here? Did not Micheal roberts himself prepared a an article on how the MR government took efforts to send food and medical aid to Tamils.

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