How We Came To This Pass – IV

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By Sachithanandam Sathananthan

Dr. Sachithanandam Sathananthan

Scapegoating “minorities”

The fear that “minorities” are a “threat” to the wellbeing of Sinhalese, especially of Sinhalese-Buddhists, has been fabricated by extremist Sinhalese factions over the years.

Part I[i]in this series explored how the Muslim community has been invented as the most recent national “threat” by extremist Sinhalese-Buddhists.

In Part II[ii] we saw how the feudalist Sinhalese elite, to protect and entrench its retrograde class interests, adopted two retrogressive strategies. First, it opposed broad based industrial development to retard the growth of a modern, industrial working class; the flip side of this strategy in effect simultaneously suppressed the growth of an industrial entrepreneurial class.

Second, it promoted regressive peasant proprietorship, characterised by low labour productivity and feudalist values; and it preserved the ramshackle plantation economy, in which many of the elite’s members have invested heavily.

There are individual businessmen who sprouted through who, however, fall short of the critical mass of a coherent social class. In other words, the elite effectively blocked the emergence of a capitalist entrepreneurial class that is a sine qua nonto the structural transformation into a dynamic market economy.

In these ways the feudalist elite perpetuated rural poverty and further deepened the underdevelopment colonialism had imposed on the country.

One result is the “land question”, that is, the access to land as the main source of employment and livelihood, became the central issue. Since the land area available is by and large fixed, there is a clear limit to the number of land holdings that could be distributed to mop up the landless, especially in an expanding population.

The Sinhalese elite dredged up the Lebensraum [iii] ideology to justify why LDO land should be distributed first to the Sinhalese (see Part II). Inevitably extremist Sinhalese conjured up Tamils citizens claiming equitable access to the same land as the next “threat”.

Before the 1931 Donoughmore Reforms members of this elite, handpicked by colonial rulers, huddled together in the virtually toothless Legislative Assembly. They were essentially glorified chief clerks tasked by their colonial master to keep order in the colony; those who served loyally were rewarded with knighthoods, titles and perks. That was hyped as the British tradition of “indirect” colonial rule.

As unemployment increased in the early 1930s, aggravated by the post-1929 Economic Depression, the Sinhalese elite came under intense political pressure from its own people. It did what incompetent elites do everywhere and always: its members deflected hostility from subordinate classes by pointing an accusing finger at the smaller, vulnerable social groups as the culprits, as ones who are lunging at the patrimony of the majority.

So the feudalist Sinhalese elite extended the Lebensraumideology to justify favouring the Sinhalese middle classes in urban employment. Their members bayed “Sinhalese-have-only-Ceylon” (in pre-WW2 Germany Nazis had cried Germans-have-only-Germany) and pushed to exclude and repress non-majority groups. The early victims were the Malayalees.

The national tragedy is that this “minority scapegoating” has not solved the social problems facing the Sinhalese masses over the past seven decades; and it will not solve them in the foreseeable future. In fact it is very likely, as in the past, to exacerbate their plight.

Threat from the North

The subsistence agriculture and peasant proprietorship that the elite encouraged were incapable of absorbing most of the rural unemployed. The miniscule urban society, where the largest employer was the government, could not accommodate the rapidly expanding educated unemployed.

As the cry for jobs intensified, the Left began championing the cause of the educated unemployed people. The feudalist Sinhalese elite, implacably opposed to the Left, swiftly sold the Malayalees down the river.


The Malayalees (originally from Kerala) had been living and working in Ceylon legitimately as subjects of the British Crown, as were all other communities in the colony. When confronted with rising unemployment, however, the elite almost overnight redefined Malayalees as foreigners.

It is customary to accuse the Sinhalese elite of prejudice and even racism against the Malayalees. The primordial tendencies towards hate and ethnic hostility are ever present in all societies; but they do not automatically and always generate conflicts.

By themselves the presence of the idiosyncratic antagonisms reveal little about the causes, such as joblessness and spreading poverty that impel one or more sections of the elite to manipulate (so-called instrumentalise) the tendencies. Among their many objectives, the relevant one here is to justify unjust and/or sectarian actions that exclude and oppress non-majority peoples.

As the number of educated unemployed among the Sinhalese middle class shot up, the elite served up the small and vulnerable Malayalees as sacrificial goats.

In 1936 “A.E. Goonesinghe…urged the government to deport all the Malayalees in government service and give local Sinhalese their jobs.” In 1939 Senanayake’s State Council resolution called for “the deportation of 15,000 Indians and to deport all Indians appointed to government service after April 1, 1934 and to discontinue all Indians with less than 10 years of service.”[iv]

That, of course, is standard operating procedure of myopic, opportunistic politicians. Similar shenanigans abound. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s Neo-Liberal economic policies in the early 1980s virtually eviscerated the British Welfare State for the benefit of the rich and the super-rich. When social distress – rise in unemployment, fall in real incomes, etc. – intensified she conjured up the bogey of immigrants taking British jobs and stridently demanded tighter immigration controls and fuelled white racism in order to deflect criticisms of her economic policies.

Not surprisingly, the Sinhalese elite too had sought to control immigration of “Indians” in the mid-1930s; and Goonesinghe urged Sinhalese to boycott Malayalees’shops, boutiques and restaurants.[v](Sound familiar?)

In short, the feudalist Sinhalese elite is incapable of modernizing the country’s ramshackle colonial plantation economy. It has only entrenched feudalist values in Sinhalese society and so has only one survival tactic: to scapegoat non-majority ethnic groups by pointing to them as the main cause of the economic misery of the majority Sinhalese people. It has honed that to a fine art!

Up-Country (Malaiyaha) Tamils

The Up-Country Tamils – the backbone of the country’s planation economy – were the next scapegoats. They were said to be occupying land that had belonged to the Kandyan peasants and nonsensical claims were made about deporting them wholesale to India, supposedly to remedy a colonial injustice.

That is hogwash; their labour is indispensable to the plantation owners – British and Ceylonese – who together robbed Kandyan peasants of their best land. The Sinhalese elite owned large slices of plantations and were not about to endanger their investments, to kill-the-goose-that-laid-golden-eggs, by repatriating “Indian” labour.

The palpable reasons behind the pressure to repatriate were of course the Sinhalese elite’s twin fears: that (a) most Up-Country Tamils and especially plantation workers could join forces with the Left and (b) their large number could dominate Kandyan Sinhalese electoral politics.

So, Up-Country Tamils were first demonised as potential subversives serving the Big Neighbour, India (read, Tamil Nadu). That was a clever move; it forced the Left to back off from defending plantation workers, to avoid being labelled “Indian Agents” and to retain the vote base among Sinhalese.

Their disenfranchisement began when Up-Country Tamils were denied the right to vote in Village Council elections in the early 1930s.

India’s Jawaharlal Nehru reacted to the odious hysteria against “Indians” by banning the migration of unskilled labour to Ceylon in 1939.

The ban and the damaging prospect of labour shortages on the plantations alarmed the Sinhalese elite. In two subsequent bilateral conferences in 1940 and 1941, the Ceylonese delegation led by Senanayake, Bandaranaike and G.C.S.Corea attempted without success to negotiate a trade-off between granting Ceylonese citizenship to a section of “Indians” in return for India lifting the ban on emigration to Ceylon.

The Second World War intervened and the negotiations dribbled into the sand. Thereafter the Senanayake-led UNP disenfranchised them in 1948 under legislation enacted expressly for that purpose in the same year.

The “elegant” solution Senanayake implemented is similar to the West European countries’ deplorable practice of denying citizenship rights to foreign workers, irrespective of their period of residence, who were put to work on post-WW2 economic reconstruction. Turkish workers are an example; they were classified as Guest Worker – Gastarbeiter– in Germany and Austria [vi]to deny them political rights so their labour could be freely exploited.

The 1948 citizenship legislationarbitrarily converted domiciled Up-Country Tamils into essentially guest workers. The plantation workers were thus politically neutered and prevented from joining forces with the Left. They were denied legal recognition and made utterly subservient so that plantation owners/managers, both British and Ceylonese,[vii]could continue to economically exploit and sexually abuse them to the hilt without fear of legal action or political repercussions.

Up-Country Tamils were legislated out of existence and some 600,000 were forcibly repatriated under the 1960 Sirima-Shastri Pact followed by the 1974 Indira-Sirimavo Agreement. The apparently anti-colonial action placated nationalist Sinhalese, especially in the post-1971 Insurrection milieu; it also reduced the comparative political weight of Up-Country Tamils to the relief of Kandyan Sinhalese. All cheered while ignoring the massive dislocation it caused the plantation economy

Their emancipation came out of an unlikely set of events. The scapegoating of Ceylon Tamils dragged the country into a prolonged civil war that opened the door to Indian intervention. Quite suddenly, in the late 1980s, Sinhalese nationalists woke up to an unsettling scenario: the presence of “stateless” Up-Country Tamils of Indian origin presented a convenient excuse – both legally and morally – for “Indian expansionism”, as JVP put it, for New Delhi to intervene in Sri Lanka’s domestic politics, ostensibly to protect “Indians”.

So most Up-Country Tamils were granted citizenship rights post haste.

Threat from the other North

During the 1948 parliamentary debates on the citizenship Bill, Dr Colvin R de Silva (ethnically Sinhalese) cautioned: “The moment the government starts applying an anti-racial principle against a particular group, this would lead to discrimination against other minorities, who are today accepted as Ceylonese.”[viii]

Tamil leader SJV Chelvanayakam presciently recognised the disenfranchisement of Up-Country Tamils as a vicious precedent. He too grasped that it was a matter time before other vulnerable groups would be redefined as legitimate targets for exclusion and repression: “He [Senanayake] is not hitting us directly, but when the language question comes up…we will know where we stand. Perhaps that will not be the end of it.[ix] So he began building a case for power sharing to protect the rights of Tamils.

Nationalist Sinhalese have not forgiven Chelvanayakam to this day for anticipating 1956 and the events to follow. They incessantly accuse him of inventing communalism!

By 1956 the political culture of targeting “minorities” to supposedly mitigate misfortunes and heal the majority – a ghoulishpoliticalThovil(Devil Dance)[x]– orchestrated by the anglicised Sinhalese kattadiya[xi]elite had taken firm root.

When the “Sinhala-Only” law was enacted,the progressive Member of ParliamentEdmund Samarakkody (ethnically Sinhalese) pointed out the government was “adopting a deliberate policy of setting up one section of the people against another.”[xii]

The Ceylon Tamils are the next non-majority group victimised by this elite’s political exorcism, which then became a bloody national ritual.

Ceylon Tamils

Ceylon Tamils, with historical roots in the island, could not be repatriated to India; nor could their civic rights be made to “disappear”. So the Sinhalese elite manoeuvred to demote them to second-class status.

Several instruments were used to effect the demotion. Sinhala-Only and anointing Buddhism as the State religion in all but name made non-Sinhalese Buddhist groups the new Untermenschen(inferior people).The third major tool is the rewriting of history.

We reiterate, shallow explanations that allege Sinhalese are prisoners of a so-called Mahawamsamentality, that they are innately racist towards non-Sinhalese Buddhist groups is little more than pointless abuse.

It is more relevant to recognise that the feudalist Sinhalese elite, from the time of Senanayake’s 1930s land colonisation, has been blinded by its archaic class interests and become utterly incapable of reforming the derelict plantation system, of building a modern industrial economy and providing solutions to the day-to-day issues of employment, education, health, etc.

Instead the only avenue for survival open to that moribund elite is to extend Lebensraumideology to scapegoat one “minority” after another, as Colvin Silva and Chelvanayagam had anticipated in 1948 (see above). Not because the elite consisted of bad people; on the contrary, it was the elite’s obstinate attachment to its dysfunctional feudalist class interests that foreclosed the path to modernity for the whole country.

In a nut shell, the central motifof Sri Lanka’s “development” model is scapegoating non-majority peoples as former President J.R.Jayawardene had helpfully explained in 1983, on the eve of Black July, when he sanguinely declared: “The more you put pressure in the north, the happier the Sinhalese people will be here… really if I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhala people will be happy.”[xiii]

This odious ethnic exorcism caused colossal damage. The immediate cost is the rise of ethno-religious fratricidal violence, civil wars and militarisation of society. In the longer term, unsuspecting generations of Sinhalese internalised the exclusivist values inherent in the duplicitous scapegoating and associated racism, which thereafter have acquired a independent, communalist momentum of their own.

The most destructive aspect of the duplicity is by far the rewriting of history.

Sinhalese Historiography: reconstructing memory

After the British transferred power in 1948, the nationalist Sinhalese historians artificially cleaved the intermeshed history of Sinhalese and Tamils into separate ethnic streams. At the risk of caricature, historiography (writing of history) projected an unbroken 2,500-year history for Sinhalese-Buddhists; the Tamil-Saivaites are alleged to have a shorter history, supposedly beginning around the 10thcentury CE when they were a component of the Chola Empire.[xiv]

In other words, the historians imputed that Sinhalese have been Buddhist from day one and Tamils have been Saivaites from day one (excepting some Christian influences upon both during colonial rule). Common sense is enough to discern that the “theory” of parallel streams of ethnicised history is sheer nonsense.

Naturally this bizarre historical narrative is fragile at best; a passing mention of Tamil Buddhism[xv]would throw these nationalist Sinhalese into a flat spin!

A Tamil leader, for example, contended that the Tamil king Devanainampiya Theesan, the first ruler to adopt Buddhism in the 3rd century BCE, was “a Demala Baudhaya”(Tamil Buddhist).[xvi] The obvious implication is that the Tamil Buddhist king spread Buddhism in the island. That contradicted the nationalist Sinhalese-Buddhist narrative’s claim that Sinhalese kings received and propagated Buddhism.

A virtual pandemonium broke out; his post attracted a record 473 comments, with many insisting on using the king’s Sinhalized name Devanampiya Tissa. The extreme disquiet in the comments by Sinhalese is not their fault; they too are victims of the nationalist Sinhalese historians’ fictitious history of separate but parallel evolution.

Another example of the fragility of the nationalist Sinhalese narrative is the tug-o-war over the Vallipuram Plate,[xvii]discovered in 1991 at the Vallipuram Temple in the Jaffna peninsula. Nationalist Sinhalese flaunted the inscription on the gold plate, dating back to the 1stcentury CE, as evidence that a Sinhalese king ruling from Anuradhapura exercised suzerainty over Nagativu(Jaffna). Their celebrations came to a screeching halt, probably after someone pointed out the plate is evidence also of a separate Jaffna Kingdom[xviii]or Chieftainship at least from the 1stcentury CE, which contradicted the nationalist Sinhalese narrative that dates Tamil settlements to the 10thcentury CE. So the plate became an inconvenient fact and was virtually shelved.

Similarly when news broke of the discovery of a Buddha statue of similar antiquity in the same location, initial jubilation that it was evidence of a Sinhalese-Buddhist presence in northern Jaffna peninsula rapidly evaporated when found that the statue is carved in the South Indian sculptural style and points to a Tamil-Buddhist settlement.[xix]

Our concern here is not to explore the revision of history; everywhere and always power invariably revises history to its own convenience.

What’s relevant is how the revision (a) virtually erased the history of Tamils Buddhism to project Tamils as aliens to Buddhist society and (b) down played the contribution of Tamils and thereby sought to delegitimise their claim to equal citizenship in the island.

An emblematic case is writing Tamils entirely out of the history of the irrigation civilisation. It is common knowledge that in ancient Ceylon specialised castes performed their tasks defined by tradition. But nationalist Sinhalese historians would have us believe that the irrigation works – tanks, canals, etc. – were constructed and maintained by Sinhalese “engineers”, implying that our ancients had set up universities to train the specialists!

This semantic subterfuge virtually erased the name of the Tamil casteKulangkatti(Tank Builder).[xx]But a Ceylonese surveyor and historian of an earlier era, Dr. R.L.Brohier noted that members of this caste constructed and maintained major tank irrigation works as well as minor anicut-and-channel irrigations systems. He surmised that inspiration was drawn from South India since the caste members had at first been imported from there.[xxi]

The outlandish ethnicised historyserved three important political purposes. First, it hierarchically ordered cultural groups based on the imputed time of their appearance on the island. That is not a benign, academic search for a so-called “truth”. On the contrary, it is an intensely political project of claiming the Sinhalese-Buddhists, as the bhoomi putra, are entitled first to access national economic resources– land, employment, education, etc.

Second, it buttressed territorial claims by the nationalist Sinhalese-Buddhists over every nook and cranny of the island with Buddhist archaeological remnants, including Tamil-Buddhist sites, as being exclusively Sinhalese-Buddhist settlements. This made Tamils’ claim to ancient historical roots in any part of the island illegitimate.

Third, it bestowed an aura of legitimacy to Sinhalese elite’s scapegoating of Tamils by portraying the Tamil-Saivaites as descendants of alien Chola aggressors and, therefore, who forfeit any moral and, by implication, legal right in the country.

This fake history has monstrously distorted popular perceptions among Sinhalese, including the well-meaning ones. Many years ago a colleague at a Colombo “think tank”, which is known less for thinking and more for tanking, in all sincerity helpfully explained to us the so-called “Tamil problem”: “after a landlord [Sinhalese] generously allows a tenant [Tamils] to rent a part of the house, how can that tenant claim a share in the house?”

It is unfair to blame the Sinhalese colleague, a product of Moscow’s Lumumba University, for being unable to see through the fictitious history that converted co-owners of Sri Lanka into landlord and tenant.

By that yardstick, Muslims probably qualify as little more than squatters!

As George Orwell succinctly put it, “The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth.”[xxii] The bizarre landlord-tenant allegory became the unvarnished truth!

This tragically distorted worldview is, in our view, the most serious mental obstacle among Sinhalese to resolving the National Questions in Sri Lanka.

The ethnicised history slurred over the actual political history that gave rise to the island’s three main kingdoms, clearly evidenced by the treaties they signed as sovereign powers with colonial rulers: the 1597 Malwana Convention, between the Portuguese and Sinhalese nobles of Kotte; the 1616 Nallur Convention, between the Portuguese and Tamil nobles of Jaffna; and the 1815 Kandyan Convention, between the British and Kandyan nobles.[xxiii]

In his youthful sincerity Bandaranaike in 1925 championed a federal structure. He notedthe three kingdoms, which had organically taken shape over the preceding millennium,and stated emphatically: “in view of the existing differences among the people of our country, the only solution to the problem will be the adoption of a federal system of government”.[xxiv]

By the late 1940s, however, the feudalist Sinhalese elite succumbed to the allure of monopolizing power through the colonizer-imposed unitary State. The above political history did not serve that elite’s interest and so it became inconvenient facts.

The nationalist Sinhalese historians fell in line behind their elite. They smothered the political history with an artificial ethnicised history; they continue to do so in part carried high by nationalist sentiments as well as with one eye firmly fixed on their career advancement.

What next?

The feudalist Sinhalese elite, hamstrung by its regressive class interests, has dragged the country down to this pass. It promoted backward peasant agriculture. It could have promoted industrial development in agriculture (as in Australia and New Zealand) and in manufactures (as India and Singapore did successfully). But it couldn’t and didn’t.

Indeed when the 1977 UNP government accelerated the Mahaveli Development Programme, the government’s Minister of Agriculture took pains to underline the persisting feudalist approach: he declared, the “policy of this government is to create a nation of peasant land owners and not a nation of labourers.”[xxv]

Consequently the country forfeited the opportunity to build a dynamic manufacturing and entrepreneurial class. Instead the Sinhalese elite saddled the country with crony capitalists, who have grown fat on patronage, corruption and the war economy.

The new economic elite and its corresponding political class are by and large the products of stultifying Language Apartheid of the Sinhala-Only milieu (see Part III).[xxvi]They are incapable of making the crucial course corrections to nurture a dynamic class of domestic capitalist entrepreneurs the country desperately needs.

Political thovil (exorcism) to neutralize the “minorities” has not and will not deliver the economic and political rewards the feudalist elite has promised: namely, the so-called “peace dividend”. The perceived ineffectiveness of the underlying Lebensraumideology has merely intensified “Buddhist Anger”[xxvii]and stoked irrational fears of what the future holds.

An understandably confused Sinhalese writer lamented: “When the civil conflict … was brought to an end in 2009 … we believed that that was it…We began to hope again…And yet we do not have that promised peace any more.” After recounting the post-2009 repeated pogroms against Muslims and the Easter Sunday tragedy, that writer worried deeply: “So once again we live in fear and the uncertainty of when and where violence will come to us.”[xxviii]

That’s not surprising. In 1948 Dr Colvin Silva had predicted “minorities”, one after another, would be victimized. After May 2009 the current target is the Muslims. Since the elite cannot pull the economy up by its bootstraps, it has no option but to continue the pernicious practice; the next in line are likely to be “minorities” within the Buddhist majority. That would only accelerate the slide down into anarchy.

To arrest this catastrophe, the first and indispensable step is to learn the single most important lesson from the country’s general decline over the past seven decades: that the more the non-majority people are hit, the deeper the country as a whole will sink into lawlessness, indebtedness, militarization and abject misery.

To be continued…….

[i]Sathananthan, Sachithanandam, “How we came to this pass – I”. Colombo Telegraph, 11/jun/19.

[ii]Sathananthan, Sachithanandam, “How we came to this pass – II”. Colombo Telegraph, 27jun19.

[iii]Holocaust Resource Teacher Center. “Lebensraum: Living Space for the German Race”.

[iv]Rajasingam, K.T., “Sri Lanka: The Untold Story, Chapter 13”. Tamil Sangam, 22/may/19. Republished from Asia Times.



[vii]Government of Sri Lanka, “Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Agency Houses and Brokering Firms”. Sessional Paper no. XII– 1974.

[viii]Rajasingam, K.T., Op. Cit.

[ix]Ibid. Cited from Navaratnam, V, The Fall and Rise of the Tamil Nation, pages 47-49.

[x]Ipalawatte, Siri,“Marvellous world of healing rituals – thovil – in Sri Lanka”. The Island, Colombo, 25/mar/16.

[xi]Ria Rameez, “Of Devils, Death Omens And Mohini: The Superstitious And The Supernatural In Sri Lanka”. Roar Media, 28/mar/16.

[xii]Parliamentary Hansard, vol.24, no. 13, (1956), col. 1358-59.

[xiii]Ian Ward, “Interview with J.R. Jayewardene”. Daily Telegraph, London. 11/jul/83.Cited in: Thambu Kanagasabai, “Dictatorial & Discriminatory Democracy of Sri Lanka”.Ilankai Taml Sangam, 28/nov/18.

[xiv]Wikipedia, Chola Dynasty.

[xv]Wikipedia, Buddhism amongst Tamils.

[xvi]Wigneswaran, C.V., “My Explanation To The Devanampiya Tissa Controversy”. Colombo Telegraph, 8/dec/17.

[xvii]Schalk, Peter, “Vallipuram Buddha Image”. Undated. Circa 1992.

[xviii]Revolvy, History of the Jaffna Kingdom.


[xx]Leach, E.R., “Hydraulic Society in Ceylon”. Past and Present, No. 15 (Apr., 1959)

[xxi]Brohier, R.L.,Food for the People.  Colombo: Lake House Investments Ltd, 1975. p.7; pp. 45-46.

[xxii]Orwell, George, 1984. p.95

[xxiii]Sabaratnam, T., “Sri Lankan Tamil Struggle.” Tamil Sangam, 27/aug/10.

[xxiv]Vivekananthan, C.V., “When Sinhalese supported and Tamils opposed federalism”. Sunday Times, Colombo, 19/jan/03. Citation unavailable.

[xxv]Senanayake, E.L, Ceylon Daily News, 29/dec/77.

[xxvi]Sathananthan, Sachithanandam, “How we came to this pass – III”. Colombo Telegraph, 15/aug/19.

[xxvii]Dibbert, Taylor, “Buddhist Anger Could Tear Sri Lanka Apart”. Foreign Policy, 20/may/19.

[xxviii]Mendis, Padmani, “What Do We Want? Armed Security Or Human Security?” Colombo Telegraph, 30/aug/19

Source:Colombo Telegraph

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