Ideological Blindness at Peradeniya in the Early 1970s: Inattentive to the Emerging Tamil Storm

Michael Roberts

Recent mail exchanges with a British gentlemen seeking information on British plantations led me to Tom Barron and his stay at Peradeniya University and to the Ceylon Studies Seminar of the late 1960s and early 1970s. While my essay on the latter has been aired before, the emphasis then was directed towards highlighting the inspirations behind this intellectual activity and identifying the many hands involved in the ‘works’. However, it has dawned on me — today — that there is a subsidary stream within my review that demands emphasis …… in fact a gasp of amazement and exasperation. When leading intellectuals with substantial input within the governing circles of the day could be so blind, is it a wonder that the ethnic split between Tamils and Sinhalese developed astronomically!


Sam  CR Gerry … every one of them alive to the developing undercurrents of ethnic hate

ORIGINAL TITLE: “Nationalist Studies and the Ceylon Studies Seminar at Peradeniya, 1968-1970s” ….

The years 1966 to 1975 were heady days in Ceylon. Especially so for some of us in Peradeniya University where the CEYLON STUDIES SEMINAR was launched in November 1968 by a few members of the Arts Faculty assisted by the facilities provided by Professor Gananath Obeyesekere at the Sociology Department – located then on Lower Hantane Road away from the centre of teaching. Not least among these facilities was the service provided by the Sociology Department peon Sathiah[1] who cyclostyled the written seminar papers beforehand for circulation so that those who were keen could read any presentation beforehand if they so wished a procedure that also maximized discussion time. This background service was seconded by the typing services of Mrs Hettiarachchi in the History Department and Mr Kumaraswamy in the Sociology Department.

This momentous series, the Ceylon Studies Seminar, was launched on 20th November 1968 by Professor AJ Wilson’s presentation of a paper on “Sinhalese-Tamil Relationships and the Problem of National Integration.”  In the course of 1968 and 1969 these were followed by papers presented by Gananath Obeyesekere (2), Kitsiri Malalgoda, Rainer Schickele, Michael Roberts (3), Shelton Kodikara and DM Kannangara.

At the same time in the late 1960s Gerald Peiris and Leslie Gunawardena kicked up a fuss at the Arts Faculty sessions about the moribund sate of the University of Ceylon Review and the University’s publication record. They were able to activate the Faculty and the Senate to support the launching of a new journal called the Modern Ceylon Studies. Peiris and PTM “Tissa” Fernando were its first Editor and Managing Editor respectively… and had to labour intensely to overcome arcane printing processes that lacked word-processing.

Vijaya Samaraweera marshalled the CSS meetings when I was away from Peradeniya on a Fulbright Fellowship from September 1970 till August 1971. The CSS activity seeded some of the articles that went into Modern Ceylon Studies. Ananda Wickremeratne (at Vidyodaya University) and I joined the Modern Ceylon Studies team in 1971/72 and my role increased when Tissa Fernando migrated to Vancouver.

At about the same time, in the early 1970s several of us were also marshalled and dragooned by Professor Kingsley de Silva in the Department of History at Peradeniya to write chapters for the History of Ceylon (Volume 3 on the British Period). This large tome appeared in 1973 – and involved research endeavours that stimulated thought and guided the direction of our scholarship.

As central to the lively intellectual activity of Peradeniya University Campus was the architecture of the place – not least the Staff Common Room servicing the lecturers in Arts with tea and providing a meeting point for teachers from different disciplines.

Cross-disciplinary exchange was the nuts and bolts of the CSS exchanges – sometimes involving individuals from the Agriculture, Engineering and Science Faculties (especially when it involved “politics” or “Marxism”).

The political turmoil of the late 1960s and early 1970s, needless to say, was one grounding for the excitement and sharpness of debate. Further spice and variety were injected by the periodic visits (both brief and longer term) of such foreign scholars as Rainer Schickele, Robert Kearney, Patrick Peebles, Hans-Dieter Evers, Ronald Herring, Dennis McGilvray, RL Stirrat, Tom Barron, Bryce Ryan, James Jupp, etc, etc.

By the early 1970s, this climate of debate amidst sharp tensions fed into my developing interest in the study of nationalism in its worldwide context as background to my own research on the subject within Sri Lanka over time. I had returned from a year at Chicago in late 1971 and launched a course on “Nationalism and Its Problems” in the Arts curriculum in 1972 with every encouragement from my head, Professor Karl W Goonewardena.

The ideological climate in Sri Lanka in the first half of the 20th century was such that any corpus of thought favouring the Sinhala collectivity or the Tamil collectivity or the Muslim Moor collectivity was deemed “communal” rather than “national/nationalist” – and thus denied legitimacy. However, the upsurge of the Sinhala Buddhist movement and its commanding electoral triumph in 1956 quickly provided a legitimacy to the Sinhala movement that converted that ‘formation’ into a corpus crowned with the cap of ”nationalism” – that is, gave it a legitimacy that was denied to the political claims of the other communities.

By way of illustration let me note that in 1970 Shelton Kodikara (a colleague in the Political Science section of the Economics Department at Peradeniya at one point) was able to present a sympathetic review of the grievances of the “Sinhala nation” at the same moment that he referred to the “Tamil communal programme.”[2] Again, no less a person than A. Jeyaratnam Wilson, the son-in-law of SJV Chelvanayakam,[3] referred to both the Sinhala and Tamil programmes of the mid-twentieth century as “sub-nationalisms.”[4] These yardsticks signal issues of political legitimacy [or the lack thereof].

The point, here, is that we are considering sensibilities and ethics which attributed different values to collective subjectivity. In the Indian and Sri Lankan context of the first half of the 20th century “communalism” had been deemed bad and divisive; whereas the all-island Ceylonese loyalties or pan-Indian sentiments were a GOOD.

In contemplating this issue, and the different grades of legitimacy attached to group identities, I crafted the term “Collective Identity” during the 1970s to embrace subjectivity attached to a body of people linked by kinship or caste or ethnicity or political affiliation. This was a catch-all omnibus term and thus not tarnished with value.

It was this all-embracing concept that I eventually used when the Marga Institute financed and produced a collection of essays on the ethnic politics of Sri Lanka in 1979 under my editorship. That book had a long gestation period and was but the stub of a much larger enterprise that I initiated in early 1973 in tandem with a bosom pal[5] and fellow historian, Ananda Wickremeratne (who was lecturing at Vidyodaya University then in 1973). This was entitled “Nationalisms and Nationalist Movements in Sri Lanka” and envisaged 32 articles as chapters.

The list of potential authors and potential titles is highly significant and heightened further by the revised lists compiled by me (acting alone now[6]) on the 25th June 1974 and then again in early 1975. They indicate the range of scholarship in History and Politics reposing in the four universities of Sri Lanka then. That several of these personnel have not produced any essays and others just one or two generates sadness: what a waste. Each of these intended chapters rested on dissertation work that is buried in university libraries or stores.

The project launched by Wickremeratne and Roberts was meant to promote the work of these individuals in ways that sharpened the debate around “collective identity” in Sri Lanka studied in the light of trends in the world at large. This issue, needless to say, is still with us: “Oh Yes! And How!” one might exclaim.

Political Division in the Peradeniya Fold in the 1970s

The campaigns leading up to the General Elections in Sri Lanka in May 1970 were marked by sharp rivalry and considerable hostility. Party loyalties had an impact on academic exchanges at Peradeniya campus though a few firm friendships cut across party lines. Several Peradeniya dons moved into high positions in the new United Front government, while several others were staunch supporters.

These UF activists in the 1970s (for example, Wishwa Warnapala, Ranjit Amerasinghe, WI Siriweera, PVJ Jayasekera) looked upon the Ceylon Studies Seminar circle with some suspicion and most of them (but not Siriweera) rarely attended seminars if my memory serves me right. At one point in 1973 their pressures were such that we permitted one or two of them to become part of the planning core. It was at one such planning session in 1973 that I suggested the organisation of a conference in Colombo on the “Sinhala-Tamil Problem” because relations were moving into a danger zone. At this point, Siriweera actually stood up and presented a conclusive diktat: “there is no Sinhala Tamil problem. Our problems are economic.[7]

Siriweera was not alone in misreading the swirling political currents in the country at large. A few years earlier, as Gerry Peiris recalls, “at the end of a highly successful CSS presentation and discussion AJ Wilson declared THAT ‘ethnic conflict in Ceylon could well become a thing of the past.’ This was in jubilant anticipation of a Leftist government following the union of the SLFP and the main Marxist parties. In hindsight now, Peiris adds: “So much for his ‘political science’.”

Siriweera’s assertion is but one example of the closed minds encouraged by the forms of Left thinking prevailing at Peradeniya then in the early 1970s (though that charge does not embrace all those on the Left). Another instance – an “ethnographic encounter – was more striking because quite unexpected and emanating from one of our brightest intellects and distinguished scholars: Ian Goonetileke, who had been one of the inspirations behind the launching of the journal known as the Ceylon Journal of Historical and Social Studies in 1958 and who had encouraged and participated in the Ceylon Studies Seminar in its early years.[8]

Ian was one of the Assistant Librarians and a friend. As one of the principal hands in the CSS, I used to deliver the cyclostyled CSS papers to him from time to time. When I did this one day, placing the documents on his desk and sitting down to chat, he addressed me sternly and raised objections to the string of foreigners “invited” to present talks and/or papers at the CSS. I forget precisely when this was, but believe it was around 1972 or 1973 and one of the talks had been by Bryce Ryan.[9]

I dissented immediately, though I cannot recall precisely what I said. I remember his reaction vividly. Ian stood up, grabbed the CSS papers and threw them into the corridor.

That was that.

It was Marxism and United Front loyalty in the early 1970s become xenophobia.

There is something about the phrase “frog in the well” that illuminates such actions as well as the astounding blindness displayed by Siriweerawho was unaware that we were sitting on an ethnic time-bomb ticking away among the Sri Lanka Tamils.[10] They were not alone. When around 1972, as an active worker for the journal Modern Ceylon Studies, I asked my colleague PVJ Jayasekera to convert one of his dissertation chapters, say on the temperance movement or the 1915 anti-Moor riots, into an article for consideration by the MCS referee process, he confessed to me: “I do not believe in that sort of thing.”

That was another stunning ethnographic moment: here was the rejection of earnest empirical research pursued in good faith in the archives in the United Kingdom by new-found political bondage.

The presentation of these details has been facilitated by Iranga Silva’s (ICES, Kandy) ready cooperation in scanning and typing up the original plans as well as the final chapter list of Collective Identities, Nationalisms and Protest in Modern Sri Lanka, (Colombo, Marga, 1979) and information provided by CR de Silva, Gerald Peiris and SWR de Samarasinghe.

CR and Sam took charge of the Ceylon Studies Seminar when I left the island in mid-1975 and sustained its operations till 1988 or so. All the CSS papers were deposited in the Department of National Archives by CR when he left the island for USA in 1989. A separate essay will be presented soon on the workings of the CSS enterprise from within Peradeniya Campus from 1975 till 1988 together with a complete bibliographical list of paper titles.


[1] Sathiah was as genial as steady in his services. I recall that I dedicated my Congress documents book to him.  He hailed from the Indian Plantation Tamils in the Kandy-Peradeniya locality and I was subsequently informed that his younger brother entered the Engineering Faculty of Peradeniya. Such tales are elevating: amidst the various strands of pollical madness and economic chicanery that has been a part of Sri Lanka’s history, they evidence the opportunities of social mobility that are some recompense.

[2] See Kodikara, “Communalism and Political Modernisation in Ceylon,” Modern Ceylon Studies, 1970, Vol 1: 100-03.

[3] The venerable founder and leader of the ITAK or “Federal Freedom Party.” (for the text of the p original ITAK founding statement, see Roberts, Tamil Person and State. Pictorial, Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2014, pp. 271-92.

[4] See Wilson, “Religion, Language and caste in the Subnationalisms of Sri Lanka,” in Roberts, Collective Identities, Nationalisms and Protest in Modern Sri Lanka, Colombo, Marga, 1979, p. 462.

[5] Ananda Wickremaratne was a batchmate at Ramanathan Hall in the late 1950s and I often stayed at his place in Kandy during my undergrad years because he was also an Honours course batchmate in History.

[6] My memory on these events is blank and I was not even aware of Ananda Wickremeratne’s collaboration at the outset or the various details till I came across the chapter listings at the back of the 1979 Marga publication.

[7] The key members of the CSS waited a while for Siriweera and Company to lose their vigour and organised such a conference in Colombo in October 1973 with aid from the Marga circle and Mark Cooray at Law College.

[8] This line of information is largely from Gerald Peiris as my memory is blank (perhaps because one of the incidents took place when I was in USA. This tale is when Ian Goonetileke had raised a storm at a verbal CSS talk by the University of Sussex Professor, Michael Lipton, – challenging the latter’s stance and contending that Ceylon was no longer “Lipton’s tea garden”.

[9] Bryce Ryan had authored the book Caste in Modern Ceylon. The Sinhalese System in Transition  in 1953 (Rutgers University Press) and was visiting the island after a long absence. His presentation at the CSS was verbal and not a written paper. Given the limited research in this field, it was a rare opportunity for us in Peradeniya.

[10] Several of us in Peradeniya University were alive to the undercurrents of ferment among the SL Tamils because of (a) the vibes in Peradeniya Campus circles; (B) the widely-displayed dissent among Tamils during the making of the 1972 constitution and, (c) in my case, information conveyed to me by the Bishop of Kurunegala, Lakshman Wickremasinghe who had many fingers on the political pulse. Moreover, a young historian working on her Ph.D in the archives at Jaffna, Jane Russell had told me that she had met some youth in the Peninsula who informed her that “as far as they were concerned, all the Tamils living in Colombo could die.” That piece of evidence was momentous: some Tamils had moved to the polar extreme and there was no limit on their course of action.

These readings on our part induced CR de Silva, myself and others at Peradeniya to combine with Godfrey and Chandra at Marga and Mark Cooray at the Law College and proceed with the organisation of an all-day conference in Colombo on the 6th October 1973 focusing on THE SINHALA-TAMIL PROBLEM.


Filed under accountability, centre-periphery relations, chauvinism, communal relations, education, fundamentalism, historical interpretation, island economy, language policies, Left politics, life stories, LTTE, politIcal discourse, power politics, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, slanted reportage, sri lankan society, Tamil civilians, teaching profession, the imaginary and the real, unusual people, world events & processes

4 responses to “Ideological Blindness at Peradeniya in the Early 1970s: Inattentive to the Emerging Tamil Storm

  1. Pingback: Jehan Perera seeks Inclusive Nationalism amidst Pluralism from the Preset Regime | Thuppahi's Blog

  2. Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

    There seems to have been at least one demonstrable exception among the intelligentsia, to that blindness at the time. Perhaps literary criticism and world affairs make for a better sensibility than does academia.

    ‘…I recall a “Daily News” editorial written in July 1972 that caused much excitement among youths in Jaffna then. Here are a few extracts –
    “…The emergence, however hesitant or faint, of a militant youth group in the peninsula is a phenomenon about which we have written before. If the observation is correct, it is a factor of enormous significance – especially to the government. It is tempting these days to make a fetish of youth movements and youth politics. In Lanka, the temptation is almost irresistible after last year’s holocaust. In any case, this is not only a young nation but a country of young people, as the relevant statistics prove.”

    The frustrations of the educated young Tamil at a time when even science graduates cannot find suitable jobs do not require much explication. The fact that these frustrations are universal and that they are shared by his Sinhala counterpart does not make the Tamil youth’s psychological load lighter. And if he feels, in fact, that the educational system and system of recruitment to the public sector have been deliberately contrived to reduce his chances, he has more reason for anger. An anger that reaches the limits of tolerance makes inflammable material for a certain kind of politics.

    …A movement of militant youth rooted in the soil of Jaffna and nourished by material frustration, a feeling of humiliation and bitterness could be another kettle of fish.”

    With the wisdom of hindsight one realizes how perceptive and how prophetic Mervyn was so many years ago. It is indeed sad to see that much of the agony, bloodshed and destruction suffered by the Country could have been avoided if the situation had been correctly gauged then and remedial measures taken. Sadly the lessons remain unlearnt yet but I digress.’ (DBS Jeyaraj)

    Mervyn de Silva: reminiscences about a journalist colossus

  3. Pingback: cialis professional ingredients

  4. Chandra Maliyadde

    I read the paper with a lot of interest. The Sinhalese-Tamil issue is not an ethnic problem. It is basically economic. No single Government since independence in 1948 has had a have clear and concrete economic policy or a program.The result was a dividing of the cake among more. Naturally Sinhala Buddhist got the larger share. with the rising population their share became smaller. They were given the idea that it is a result of Tamil getting a part of their share. This was a cause for division rather than unity. Politicians used this for their benefit.
    There have been many irrigation schemes launched by the Sinhala Government. Diversion stops at the border of the Northern Province. Tamil farmers were enterprising and used ground water for cultivation. this water turned saline and calcium rich — making impossible to use the land for either for cultivation or consumption. As the founder DG of Office for National Unity and Reconciliation, we launched a rain water harvest program in the North and East.

    During the civil conflict Tamils lost their ancestral homes, land and property. They were piled into IDP camps. Their children were born bred and married within the camp. Their world is the camp. They gaze at their ancestral property across the road while suffering in the camp.
    The Bureaucracy has added to the woes of the Tamils. Tamils were discriminated in employment as well as in receiving delivery services. I joined the Ministry of Industries in 1964 as a clerk. The Entire Finance Division was manned by Tamil Officers.They came well before the time and left after finishing day’s work. No overtime was claimed; no fraud was reported. They spend the whole day in office with a glass of plain tea and a Wadey.
    PS: Incidentally Tom Barron was sharing a Chummary in Colombo 1969/70 with us.

Leave a Reply