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Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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  • Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism - A Study of its Origins
    by Murugar Gunasingham Ph.D.
    ISBN 0646381067.
    published by MV Publications,  P.O.Box 271, Kingswood, Sydney, NSW 2747, Australia

[See also by the same author - Primary Sources for History of the Sri Lankan Tamils - World Wide Search and Tamils in Sri Lanka - A Comprehensive History (C.300 B.C. - 2000 A.D.)]

From the Preface and the Conclusion


"The Tamil/Sinhalese problem in Sri Lanka has been a particularly inflammatory issue since 1970. From 1950 onwards the problem has been interpreted by scholars, politicians and others as being a 'communal' one. However, the conflict between the Sinhalese and Tamils from 1970 onwards clearly reveals that the issue is not communal but a national problem. In recognition of this, the problem has been analysed and discussed in terms of Tamil nationalism.

Those who have studied this phenomenon previously have unanimously agreed that Tamil nationalism originated with the introduction of the Donoughmore Constitution (1927-31), which paved the way for the majority Sinhalese population to gain greater power in the state assembly. But it is argued that Tamil nationalism had already emerged with the first rift appearing between the Tamils and the Sinhalese during the 1920's. At this time the Tamils walked away from the Ceylon National Congress and formed their own national party (the Tamil Mahajana Sabhai).

If we accept this as being the case then the formative phases of Tamil nationalism must have occurred before this period. Therefore, an attempt is made to explore and investigate just when and how these formative stages took place in relation to Sri Lankan Tamil history and how these developments fused with the origins of Tamil nationalism.

From the sixteenth century Sri Lanka was dominated by Western powers. However, during the period of British rule the revival of the Saiva religion and the arousal of Saiva Tamils against Christian missionaries saw the beginning of a very active period in the growth of Tamil self-consciousness. Initially, the historical background of the Tamils in Sri Lanka is discussed.

Their predicament during the early period of British rule is then explored in order to show explicitly how the Tamil situation developed. The introduction of Protestant Christianity, Western education, a commercial economy and the creation of a new Tamil elite is then examined. In the initial stages this elite group was the driving activist force, but later on the Tamil community more generally was aroused to preserve and defend the values and traditions of their religion and culture against Western incursions. Combined together, these endeavours served to awaken the Tamils, strengthening their sense of solidarity and consciousness as a separate and distinctive community.

In addition, various economic factors contributed to the growth and strength of the Tamils, further stimulating their political aspirations.

All these factors finally led the Tamils to more forcefully demand the kind of political influence and power that they had once held in the past. The political awareness and activism of Tamils had steadily grown since the latter part of the nineteenth century, but it became very powerful during the phase of constitutional reform in the first two decades of the twentieth century. It is this period that is identified here as marking the birth of Tamil nationalism.

From the Conclusion:

"....(The) phase of Tamil nationalism, from the hazy Tamil Akam of P. Arunachalam, through the 'Fifty-Fifty' of G.G. Ponnambalam and the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (1944), the Tamil Arasu of S.J.V.Chelvanayakam and the Federal Party (1949), to the Thamil Eelam of the TULF (1976) and the Tamil militant organisations (1980's) remains an area in need of deeper study. While there have been many writings on Tamil nationalism during this phase, the focus has been on the period after 1948, the year that the British granted independence to Sri Lanka.

    It is appropriate here to recommend for further research the critical intermediate period between 1923 and 1948. This would not only fill a gap in our understanding and help to complete our knowledge of the development of Tamil nationalism, but it would also, perhaps, lead to a better understanding of current Tamil political problems.

    Finally, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam took over the leadership of the Tamil nationalist movement and have dominated the politics of the Tamils since 1983. It cannot be denied that Tamil nationalism reached its peak in this period. At this juncture we may conclude our discussion with the views of Prof. James G. Kellas, professor in politics, University of Glasgow. He says:

'Nationalism is both an ideology and a form of behaviour. The ideology of nationalism builds on people's awareness of the nation ('national self- consciousness') to give a set of attitudes and a program of action. They may be cultural, economic or political. Since 'nations' can be defined in 'ethnic', 'social', or 'official' senses. So nationalism can take these forms also.'

Further, he adds:

'In all cases, nationalism seeks to defend and promote the interest of the nation. The political aspect of nationalism is seen most clearly in the demand for 'national self-determination', or 'home rule'.'

    In the light of Kellas' statement we, of course, are able to validate our whole argument that various strands in the formation of Tamil self-consciousness paved the way for the emergence of Tamil nationalism. Kellas defined a nation as follows:

'A nation is a group of people who feel themselves to be a community bound together by ties of history, culture, and common ancestry. Nation has 'objective' characteristics, which may include a territory, a language, a religion, a common descent (though not all of these are always present) and 'subjective' characteristics essentially a people's awareness of its nationality and affection for it. In the last resort it is 'the supreme loyalty' for people who are prepared to die for their nation.'

'The supreme loyalty' of the people, especially the ultimate loyalty of the Tamil youth, 'who are prepared to die for their nation' under the banner of the Liberation Tigers of Thamil Eelam, led by V. Pirabaharan, recognised as one of the most powerful militant leaders in the world today, is what is seen in the current phase of Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka. It will be a long time before any deep and objective study of this phase is attempted by scholars."



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