The Early Phase of Sinhala-Tamil Rivalry in Ceylon, 1931-70s

Michael Roberts[1]

The factors promoting political agitation among the Sri Lankan Tamils since the 1920s, particularly the developments after Sri Lanka secured independence in 1948, have inspired a large literature.[2] Three turning points in the temporal progression of this agitation have often been marked: one in 1956 when an electoral transformation helped enshrine Sinhala as the language of administration and placed the majority Sinhalese peoples in a dominant position in the political dispensation; secondly, in the early 1970s when militant Tamils placed secession at the forefront of their demands; and, thirdly, in July 1983 when an anti-Tamil pogrom in the Sinhalese-majority regions that involved state functionaries as well as people from many walks of life alienated the mass of Tamils and sparked an expansion in the militant separatist struggle.[3]

  Bandaranaiake in rhetorical mode

Professor FR Jayasuriya’s Fast in favour of Sinhala Only Bill

The reviews invariably insert more fine-grained temporal markers in identifying specific measures of commission or omission which generated Sri Lankan Tamil anger and led the principal Tamil party called, by the 1970s, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), to proclaim in May 1976 that their ultimate goal was a separate state, identified as Thamilīlam (Eelam in short).

Invariably, too, there is debate among analysts about the degree of discrimination that the Tamils faced in independent Sri Lanka. That the Sinhala-Only Act had a serious economic impact and reduced the opportunities for Sri Lankan Tamils to enter or advance in the administration services in subsequent decades is undoubted.[4] The political weight of this disadvantage was deepened by two factors: (a) by the pernicious influence of chauvinist Sinhala administrators (e.g. N. Q. Dias[5]) and politicians within the new administrative order, ramifying patronage actions that favoured Sinhalese personnel from their own political parties or kin networks;[6] and (b) the enormous– and quite absurd — degree to which the Sri Lankan middle classes from all ethnic groups valued jobs in the government sector – at least till the 1980s.

This culturally-rooted leaning towards governmental jobs informed popular Tamil assessments of privilege and power defined in ethnic terms. Whatever the economic indices carefully worked out by scholars (e. g. Sriskandarajah 2005, Peiris 2006, chap. 18), it was the experiential world of everyday interaction that informed perception and the political exploitation of   these sentiments. In the Sinhala-majority districts the high proportion of Tamils in high visibility departments such as Public Works, Railway and Survey,[7] the Ceylon Civil Service and even the clerical rungs of the administrative services during the 1940s and 1950s was the phenomenon that coloured comment[8] and served as the foundation for the political agitation that led to the primacy given to the Sinhala language.

One must not forget that the upsurge of Sinhala linguistic nationalism occurred within thrusts directed against the overwhelming predominance of the English language in island society and the hegemonic position of the Westernized English- speaking classes. Thus, the pressure developed within a broader movement in the 1950s by the marginalised underprivileged classes seeking to dethrone the privileges of the English-educated classes. The socialist hues within the language politics of the 1950s gave the Sinhala Only programme a wider legitimacy that it may have otherwise lacked.

The transformation effected in 1956, as we know, gave advantages to Sinhala speakers, while affirming the hegemonic position of the Sinhalese in the island polity.[9] This in turn generated Tamil grievances – not only because of the reduction of job-opportunities in the public sector, but because of the symbolic primacy accorded to the Sinhala language in a context in which “status” and “power” were intimately conjoined; and a context where the Sinhala nationalist agitation was underpinned by the conviction that they were the island’s original inhabitants so that Sinhalese primacy was regarded as a natural right. It is for this reason that the sense of “betrayal” and humiliation displayed by Tamil spokesmen during the course of political cross-talk in the period 1956-61 must be given weight (De Votta 2004: 88- 89, 109, 115, 120).

I have been among those who have stressed the significance of discriminatory policies in leading to the emergence of Tamil separatism (Roberts 1988: 43, 46). But I have also noted that the young Tamils who moved to an extreme position, insisted that the Colombo-based Tamil leaders had let the Tamils down and then concluded that the Tamils residing in the south were of no consequence to the needs of the hour were far too hasty.[10] These Tamil young men were as dedicated as they were obdurate. Hence, their stance in effect implanted a condition of polarization. That is, this tiny minority inexorably committed the Tamil people to war, aided and abetted by the remarkable indifference to Tamil sentiments and their explosive potential displayed by Mrs Bandaranaike’s government (1970-77). I stress here that the implications of such extreme militancy were clear to me (and a few others) as far back as 1973/74 and led to a pessimistic evaluation of the Sri Lankan political scene.[11]


One of the pieces of ethnographic information that led me towards concern and pessimism while at Peradeniya University in 1972/73 was the fact that some Jaffna youth had told Jane Russell (then a Ph.D candidate at Peradeniya University under Professor KM de Silva) that as far as they were concerned the Tamil leaders and others in Colombo could die. In brief, they had moved to the extreme pole. There were no limits to their political action. Since I knew that there were Sinhala extremists at the opposite pole, while some intellectuals at Peradeniya University with close links to the United Front government had told me the country only faced an economic problem and that there was no such thing as an ethnic problem, the conclusion I reached was straightforward: Sri Lanka was in deep shit.

A FURTHER NOTE: Jane Russell was researching the politics of the 1920s-to-1940s and spent some time in the Jaffna Peninsula in 1972/73 delving into its stores of library material and also getting info about the Jaffna Youth League of the 1920s/30s. When she provided me with that ethnographic gem, I did not seek further details because I respected her privilege. And my own soundings among Tamil students and staff at Peradeniya led me to place great weight on this ethnographic nugget. Anticipating possible questions let me stress that she did not meet Pirapaharan or any well-known youth activists. She made that clear much later (in London?) when I asked her whether her youthful informants were subsequently of some importance.



Jane Russell: Reflections on Caste Disabilities in the Jaffna Peninsula in 1973 and Movements towards the Present,” 19 May 2015,

Jane Russell:Jane Russell on Sri Lankan Political History in Debate with Kumarasingham’s Readings,”  24 May 2017, Russell on Nationalist Extremism on Both Sides in the 1970s et seq,” 28 May 2012, Roberts: “Hardline Ethnic Mind-Sets: Jane Russell’s Findings and Reflections,” 28 April 2016,

***  END  ***

 Ponnudurai Sivakumaran with Chelva …. the former being the fits instance of cyanide suicide on behalf of the Tamil liberation cause

***  END  ***


De Silva, K. M. 1986 Managing Ethnic Tensions in Multi-ethnic Societies. Sri Lanka 1880-1985, Lanham: University Press of America.

 De Votta, Neil 2004 Blowback. Linguistic Nationalism, Institutional Decay and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Jayaweera, Neville 2008 “Into the Turbulence of Jaffna,” chapter in his Reminicenses,” unpub. book in preparation.

Kearney, Robert N. 1967 Communalism and Language in the Politics of Ceylon, Durham, N C: Duke University Press.

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

Peiris, Gerald H. 2006 Sri Lanka: Challenges of the New Millennium, Kandy: Kandy Books. Peiris

Phadnis, Urmila 1976 Religion and Politics in Sri Lanka, Delhi: Manohar.

Rāgavan 2009a “Interview with Rāgavan on Tamil Militancy (Early  Years),”āgavanon-tamil-militancy-part-i/

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

Roberts, Michael 1978 “Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka and Sinhalese Perspectives: Barriers to Accommodation,” Modern Asian Studies 12: 353-76.

Roberts, Michael 1979 “Meanderings in the Pathways of Collective Identity and Nationalism,” in M. Roberts (ed.) Collective Identities, Nationalisms and Protest in Modern Sri Lanka, Colombo: Marga Publications, pp. 1-90.

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

Roberts, Michael 1988 “Sri Lanka: Ethnic Conflict and Political Crisis,” A Review Article, Ethnic Studies Report 6: 40-62.

Roberts, Michael 1996 “Filial Devotion and the Tiger Cult of Suicide,” Contributions to Indian Sociology 30: 245-72.

Roberts, Michael 2006 “The Tamil Movement for Eelam,” E-Bulletin of the International Sociological Association, July 2006, 4: 12-24.

Roberts, Michael 2012 “Inspirations: Hero Figures and Hitler in Young Pirapāharan’s Thinking,” 13 February 2012, http://thuppahi.wordpress. com/2012/02/13/inspirations-hero-figures-and-hitler-in-youngpirapaharans-thinking/.

Sabāratnam, T. 2003 Pirapāharan, [a biography in chapter segments] serialised in http://www.

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

Samaraweera, Vijaya 1974 “The Role of the Bureaucracy,” Ceylon Journal of Historical & Social Studies n.s., 4: 31-39.

Wriggins, Howard 1960 Ceylon. Dilemmas of a New Nation, Princeton: Princeton University Press.


1      The text below is taken word-for-word from the first three pages of a chapter entitled “Inspirations and Caste Threads in the early LTTE,” in Roberts, Tamil Person and Sfate, Essays, Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2014 … ISBN 978-955-665-230-7. It is placed here as a separate essay so that readers can focus on its implications. It should also put to rest those views that see the roots of the present conflict in July 1983. Quite incidentally it indicates that the early currents of Tamil extremism had a chequered history in terms of continuity. In this chequered character the stream of consciousness linking the Pulip Padai to the TNT and other associations of the 1970s has some similarities to those linking the Jatika Chintanaya of the 1980s through to the Hela Urumaya, Sihala Urmumaya and BBS in the period 1980s -to-2010s.

2    This article was originally drafted in 2009 and was inspired by the writings of T. Sabāratnam, Rāgavan, Tekwāni and DBS Jeyarāj; and was materially assisted by the information conveyed by email and/or phone by the following: S. V. Kasynāthan, T. Sabāratnam, Rāgavan, Nalliah Suriyakumāran and Dayān Jayatilleka. Kasynāthan also commented on a draft paper and made valuable suggestions. All errors remain my responsibility. More recently, the improvement of this article has benefited from information and comments from (1) Robert Siddharthan Perinpanayagam, a sociologist whose experience spans the 1940s-2000s and (2) Arun Ambalavanar who brings to this topic his experience as a young man of lower-middle class status who lived in the Jaffna Peninsula in the 1980s.

3.  Kearney 1967; K. M. de Silva 1986; Roberts, Ethnic Conflict, 1988; Sabāratnam 2001; De Votta 2004 and Roberts, Tamil Movement, 2006.

4    K. M. de Silva 1986: 365; Roberts, Ethnic Conflict, 1988: 43, 46; MerrilGunaratne 2001: 18; De Votta 2004: 122-30; Sriskandarajah 2005: 350-51.

5  For a brilliant bio-sketch of   N.Q. Dias, see Neville Jayaweera, “Into the Turbulence of Jaffna,” chapter  in his Reminiscenses,” unpublished book, 2008.

6 Samaraweera 1974 and De Votta 2004: chap. 5.

7 As emphasised in Roberts, Ethnic Conflict, 1988: 46. Peiris, too, identifies “daily interactions” involving the “ordinary people,” other than perhaps the “city working class,” as the arena that generated interpretations of relative privilege (2006: 437-38). Note, too, that the Burghers were disproportionately prominent in such areas as Customs, Excise, Police, Army, etc during the 1940s and 1950s.

8 The ethnic distribution of government servants could also be counted readily by academics and others (e.g. Tambiah 1955) to highlight the large shares held by Tamils in the early years of independence, whereas the large share of coconut and rubber plantations in Sinhalese hands was not that readily measured (see Roberts 1982 and 1979 for the British period).

9 See Wriggins 1960; Kearney  1967; K. M. de Silva 1986; Phadnis 1976; and especially De Votta 2004: 128, 135, 142 & 167.

10  Roberts, Ethnic Conflict, 1988: 50-51; Biographical Epilogne, 1994b: 335; and “Tamil Movement,” 2006: 12-14. Note, too, that in retrospective and introspective analysis, Rāgavan has this to say about his universe of being in the early 1970s: “Due to the lack of political commitment from the TULF leadership a political gap was created and inexperienced adventurous middle class youths took up the role to fill the gap, which in turn created Tamil militancy” (in Kadirgamar 2009).

11 As one of the organising hands in the Ceylon Studies Seminar at Peradeniya University, I was among those who set up a whole-day seminar in Colombo on “The Sinhala Tamil Problem” in early October 1973. This event deepened my pessimism and led to a black concluding note in an essay drafted in Germany in the summer of 1976 (see Roberts, Sinhalese Perspectives, 1978a). This article has been reprinted in the collection organised in Volume II  of the five-volume series edited by Subrata K. Mitra, Politics of Modern South Asia. Critical Issues in Modern Politics, London & NY: Routledge, 2009 et seq.




Filed under British colonialism, education policy, governance, historical interpretation, island economy, land policies, language policies, Left politics, life stories, LTTE, modernity & modernization, political demonstrations, politIcal discourse, power politics, prabhakaran, racist thinking, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, Tamil civilians, the imaginary and the real, welfare & philanthophy, zealotry

4 responses to “The Early Phase of Sinhala-Tamil Rivalry in Ceylon, 1931-70s

  1. The following time I read a weblog, I hope that it doesnt disappoint me as a lot as this one. I mean, I do know it was my choice to learn, however I really thought youd have one thing attention-grabbing to say. All I hear is a bunch of whining about one thing that you could repair should you werent too busy on the lookout for attention.

  2. Pingback: Peradeniya Practices: Face-to-Face in Debate | Thuppahi's Blog

  3. Maravanpulavu K. Sachithananthan

    There was a memorandum from a Jaffnaman during the nineteen thirties to the Governor General of India, seeking annexation of the Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka (Ceylon) with India or to treat the Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka as an independent unit. This (many paged) document, a copy of which I have seen myself, should be available somewhere and /or in the archives of the then Governor General’s office in Delhi.

    • So — Tell us more about this person: his name, occupation, caste, and village. Assuming he was NOT a nut case such entiments are signiifcant even if he was a spokesperson for a tiny sliver of Jaffna and/or SL Tamil society. Such sentiments must be placed alongside (B) the admiration for Gandhi in many Ceylon circles and (C) the links forged between the Samasamjists of the 1930s and 1940s and some Lefists/bolsheviks in India.
      With the advantage of hindsight the QUESTION we must address is this: don’t such strands of political thinking indicate incredible NAIVETE and a failure to comprehend the implications of political geography as well as the implications of the island’s location in the Indian Ocean and its shipping lanes? …. Michael Roberts/Editor, Thuppahi

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