Tamils - a Trans State Nation..

"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
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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Selected Writings - Dr. Adrian Wijemanne

Settled or Unsettled?
The political costs of the 50-year "Colonization" (Re-settlement)
Programme in the Dry Zone of Sri Lanka

Symposium on the Plight of the Tamil Nation, London, 29 June 1997


1. The mundane business of irrigation for agriculture occupies an unique and permanent place in the Sinhala psyche. The greatest secular achievements of the Sinhala nation, indeed its only lasting achievements throughout ancient and mediaeval times, were irrigation works. Far greater hydraulic systems existed in other countries of the ancient and mediaeval world but they do not seem to have imprinted themselves on the psyche of their respective nations - in China, in Egypt, in India, in Mexico, in Peru -in quite the same exclusive way perhaps because they were not the dominant elements of the secular, material achievements of those mineral-rich regions. For the Sinhala people irrigation was, seemingly, all.

2. For over a thousand years the physical habitat of the Sinhala people was the RAJARATA - "The Kingdom" - comprising the north-central province. The combination there of climate, geography and geology dictated the very special type of irrigation system that evolved there over time. The impounding of shallow bodies of water behind low earth dams, vulnerable to high evaporation and seepage losses, is a system that is economically unrewarding especially for a crop such as rice which requires large supplies of water. Rice is a crop whose natural and economic habitat is the broad alluvial flood plains of the world's great river systems such as the Huang-ho, Yangtze and Ho Chiang in China, the Indus valley in Pakistan, the Ganges - Brahmaputra basin in the east of India, in the deltaic plains of the Nile, the Irrawaddy, the Euphrates/Tigris system and the Mekong in Cambodia. There rice cultivation is economic, giving a high return for low, or no, investment and thus supplying the surplus value the accumulation of which laid the material foundations for great civilizations. The system of the Rajarata provided too meagre a surplus for such a flowering. It afforded little more than subsistence, but even so it was all that the Sinhala people had. Perhaps, it is that which accounts for its very special place in their psyche.

3. Under the spur of Chola invasion and occupation the slow migration of the Sinhala people to the hilly west and south of the island, with its narrow river valleys, compelled an even more uneconomic form of purely rain-fed rice cultivation. The economic base was so weakened that the newly arriving Western colonial predators had easy pickings. In the instinctive thinking of the Sinhala people deliverance from colonial bondage and a return to the broad plains of the Rajarata, where lay whatever strength they ever had, were easily linked.

4. The British colonial rulers responded to this yearning for the restoration of ancient irrigation works in the Rajarata, in the early years of this century when plantation agriculture in the central hills had begun producing its surplus. Starting with small village tanks they soon graduated into more ambitious projects. They were encouraged in this direction by the growing availability of state land ( then called "Crown land" ) in the dry zone on account of the operation there of the Land Settlement Ordinance which gave the state title to unutilized land. Soon the colonial government was investing in expensive, capital intensive irrigation systems which added value to state land. How best to deal with such lands became a matter of much concern. To resolve the issues and evolve a stable policy the British colonial government appointed in 1930 a Royal Commission on Land. It was a step of seminal importance


5. The Land Commission recommended a socio-economic policy coupled to an unique legal framework. The newly-irrigated lands were to be used to assuage the problem of landlessness; in order to serve as large a number as possible the land was to be parcelled out into small-holdings; the small-holding was to comprise two parcels - first, 5 acres (later reduced to 2 acres) of irrigated land and, secondly, 1 acre of unirrigable highland on which the state would construct a basic house and a latrine. As these allotments were to be given to the poorest of the poor there was no question of recovering from them the capital costs of the land improvements effected. Consequently the state's large investment would continue to be locked up in these allotments permanently. To deal with this situation a new and unique legal title to the land was created under the Land Development Ordinance of 1937. It was a lease in perpetuity, at a nominal annual lease rent. On the death of the lessee succession was restricted to one single nominated successor in order to prevent the fragmentation of the allotment by operation of the normal inheritance law of equal division among all the heirs. The system was unique and in many ways undoubtedly benevolent. It was, however, bureaucratic and worse still, represented the intrusion of bureaucrats into a vital area of the economy - agriculture. In order to administer the system a new, high-prestige, department of government was created, the Land Commissioner's department, headed up from the beginning by one of the ablest members of the then Ceylon Civil Service.

6. By this time the State Council was in existence and with it came the Executive Committee system of government. The Executive Committee of Agriculture and Lands was headed by D.S Senanayake who was destined to become the first Prime Minister after independence. It was a Committee of "go-getters", hell bent upon putting the new system into immediate effect and on as wide a scale as budgetary resources permitted. However, the Committee as well as the bureaucrats who carried out the Committee's policy were both woefully lacking in economic acumen. With hindsight it is now clear as daylight to us what a disastrous policy it was but not even the leading academic economists of that day expressed the slightest unease. I am as guilty as anyone else; perhaps, even more than most for I served for many years in both the Irrigation and Land Commissioner's departments.

7. The system was an extremely capital - intensive system of agriculture implemented through subsistence farming which provided little for the market. The new legal title of perpetual leasehold removed at a stroke the possibility of commercial bank credit which could have spurred productivity and it tied the system to inadequate state-provided credit, subject to severe budgetary restraints and crippled by bureaucratic controls. In the absence of prompt, adequate and technically-supported credit the low possibilities of subsistence agriculture were reduced still further. The new legal title eliminated the possibility of the amalgamation of the small-holdings into larger units by the normal market processes of sale and purchase. Indeed, the entire system was outside the market system of the real world and established in a bureaucratic limbo of its own. In effect it was a non-commercial, bureaucratic form of capital investment under permanent state control and direction. It is little wonder that it soon became a ready-made instrument for political predators who were beginning to emerge on the political landscape.

8. The title Major Colonization Scheme was the one given to the irrigated settlement schemes in the dry zone. Their establishment commenced in the last years of British colonial rule with the Kalawewa Scheme in the Anuradhapura District and the Minneriya Scheme in the Polonnaruwa District and Kantalai and Allai in the Trincomalee District.In the next two decades over 50 such schemes were established mostly in the north-east province. The final stage was the large multi - purpose schemes epitomised by the Mahaweli Scheme which had a significant hydro-power component but where the agricultural settlement systems fell largely within the north-east province.


9. The settlement of landless Sinhala peasants in these schemes was based not on compulsion but on voluntary choice. So a socio-economic rationale had to be presented to them to induce them to move voluntarily to an unknown and distant area of which they knew nothing. The lure of irrigated land, a free house and communal facilities such as schools, dispensaries etc., coupled to a nominal lease rent was held out to landless people in crowded Sinhala villages. No mention was made that most of the lands in question were in Tamil occupied areas with an wholly Tamil surrounding population. The landless Sinhala villagers to whom this offer was made had never been to the areas in question and knew little or nothing about conditions there. They accepted the offer and went trustingly as wards of the state to enjoy (hopefully) the bounty that the state would provide. The publicly declared policy of the state in pushing the system was to alleviate landlessness, increase food production and provide a steady livelihood to unemployed or casually-employed people. These rosy visions were soon exposed as unrealistic dreams entirely beyond fulfilment. Far from alleviating landlessness the system merely moved it from one location to another for since the allotment could go only to one nominated successor the rest of the family became landless agricultural workers just as they had been back home. The hoped-for increase in food production was on a scale wholly incommensurate to the enormous capital invested and the seasonal, low-intensity employment pattern of rice cultivation persisted in the new areas as in the old but with even less opportunities for casual employment in non-agricultural jobs than in the old village areas and urban centres.


10. It is in the economic sphere, however, that the effects of the system were truly devastating. The massive economic implications of embarking on such an horrendously capital-intensive form of subsistence agriculture were all -pervasive especially as this was the chief economic policy of the state in the first 30 years since independence. It diverted urgently needed capital investment away from all other areas of the economy, especially from the public utilities on which broad-based economic growth financed by private capital depends. The state launched into a massive low-return, highly uneconomic capital investment programme and persisted in it for no less than 3 decades and in so doing crippled the normal growth of the economy. It is no surprise that Sri Lanka now has a g.n.p. per capita per annum of US $ 660- whereas The Republic of Singapore is at US $ 26,400- (page 63 of ASIAWEEK issue of April 18th '97) both having started from the same point in 1948.

The human cost of this Himalayan folly has ravaged Sinhala society twice over at a cost in the lives of idealistic young men and women that few other nations have borne.electricity supply, roads, drinking water supply, sewerage systems etc, ) that the ethnic time bomb was set. The colonization schemes did provide a relatively small number of allotments for the landless Tamil population of the north-east province and then only in schemes falling within that province. Far the greater number, however, was reserved for Sinhala colonists from the 7 mainly Sinhalaoccupied provinces.

The movement of settlers was overwhelmingly one-directional, from Sinhala areas to Tamil areas. Into the large Major Colonization Schemes in the Sinhala-occupied provinces - Parakrama Samudra and Kaudulla in the Polonnaruwa District, Raj angana in the Anuradhapura District, Kandalama in the Matale District, Lunuganwehera in the Hambantota District and many others - no Tamil colonists were introduced. The message was clear-colonization was a one-way street and the eventual result would be total ethnic transformation of the north-east province in such a way that the majority Tamil population there would ultimately become a minority there in exactly the same way as the Tamil people already living in the 7 Sinhala-occupied provinces were. For the Tamil majority population of the north-east province the writing was on the wall for all to see.

12. The rising tide of ethnic change in the northeast province is well documented. In the 50 years from 1921 to 1971 a dramatic change took place in the ethnic composition of the Trincomalee and Batticoloa Districts. Michael Roberts gives the following figures at page 75 of his book, "COLLECTIVE IDENTITIES, NATIONALISMS AND PROTEST IN MODERN SRI LANKA" Colombo '79 in percentage terms:-


11. It is in this context of low growth and rapidly deteriorating public utilities and services ( education, health, transport,


  Trincomalee Batticaloa
  Sinhalese Tamil Muslim Other Sinhalese Tamil Muslim Other
1921 3.0 55.2 38.1 3.5 4.5 53.3 39.7 2.3
1946 20.6 44.5 30.5 3.7 5.9 50.3 42.2 1.6
1971 28.8 38.2 32.0 1.0 17.7 46.4 35.1 0.6

The ordinary man or woman is not a statistical barometer but is hyper sensitive to ethnic change, especially one wrought by a distant government to which the psychological preparation of the human beings who would witness and be affected by these changes was furthest from its mind. Thus came about the causal nexus between the colonization programme in the north-east province and the rise of Tamil ethnic nationalism. Ethnic nationalism, we now know, is the fiercest form of nationalism and one which cannot be wished away.


13. As the 20th century draws to a close we witness the irresistible and irreversible globalization of the world's economy. The already rapid rate of this movement will undoubtedly accelerate almost from day to day. However, overwhelming as it is it has not obliterated a seemingly contradictory force - the struggle of nations to preserve or assert their individuality. A floodtide of national identities is arising all over the world, in rich and poor regions alike. In the recent general election in Britain the Scottish National Party, asking for a separate Scottish parliament, envisaged it as "a sovereign parliament for a sovereign people", In other countries and other continents the emergence of nationalism is fraught with the direst possibilities for the peace of the world, largely due to the failure to understand nationalism and to develop a rational, humane, constructive accommodation with it. Indeed, it may not be too far-fetched to say that the principal item on the agenda of humanity in the 21st century is how to reconcile these two seemingly divergent but equally strong movements - economic globalization and nationalism, especially ethnic nationalism.

14. A proper understanding of nationalism has been bedevilled by the popularity and seductive power of internationalist ideologies such as Marxist communism which emerged in the middle of the last century. They dominated the world stage when their theory was translated into practice in two of the world's largest countries, the Soviet Union and China. The former even enjoyed a brief flowering as a "super-power". It was "internationalism" that was on the lips of the avant garde the world over in the first decades of this century. It was but a brief ephemeral supremacy. Nevertheless, it is this longing for an all-embracing, all-explaining world theory which makes it so difficult for its erstwhile adherents to understand the current phenomenon of nationalism. It is this difficulty of understanding which inhibits a rational, peaceful accommodation with nationalism and which has led the two nations on the island of Sri Lanka to war and ruin.

15. Nationalism itself has evolved over time. More recently it has been subjected to semantic subversion. Both have contributed to the prevailing confusion. In its earliest stirring in Sri Lanka in colonial times it took the form of a subject's struggle for freedom from imperial rule. Sinhala and Tamil "patriots" struggled jointly for independence. Nationalism then was the search for freedom from rule by distant foreigners and the re-assertion of cultural equality with those who arrogantly presumed to know what was best for "the natives".

With the arrival of independence nationalism began to change. It passed from the political to the psychological domain. Nationalism of a more authentic kind, which was instinctive and based on ethnic and cultural individuality began to emerge in both Sinhala and Tamil nations. These feelings were heightened by the fact that each of these peoples lived in a separate (even though adjacent) area of domicile in which each constituted the majority. Furthermore the overwhelming majority of each ethnic group knew little or nothing of the other's area of domicile and how the other "lived and moved and had its being".

An attempt is now being made to overlay these manifest realities by a semantic nationalism intended to subvert the existential nationalism of the real world. This is the current attempt to propagate the myth of a trans-national nationalism by asserting the existence of a single Sri Lankan nation upon the island. It is to that nation that allegiance is demanded. But is it a living, felt reality? What is the language of the Sri Lankan nation? What is its culture? What is its religion or distinctive morality? There are no answers to these questions because the assertion which is questioned does not exist in the realm of reality. What exists in the realm of reality are two vibrant nations, each fully equipped with all the trappings of national identity - a separate ethnic composition, a separate territory of domicile, a separate language and alphabet and script. a separate culture, a separate religion, a separate system of personal law and a separate world view. In addition there is a minuscule middle class English culture, the exponents of which are mostly air-borne citizens of the world preparing busily for exodus to greener pastures at the earliest opportunity.

The Sri Lankan nation is a myth concocted by the state to justify and perpetuate its own hegemony over two very real nations which are being driven further and further apart by the refusal to recognize their independent existence.

16. These fast disengaging nations were sundered by a variety of factors without a single counter-vailing force. The colonization programme's ethnic threat brought into sharp focus the "homeland" consciousness. In a threat-free atmosphere one's home is taken for granted, identified by postal address. When forcible intrusion threatens, however, a home is converted into a fortress defended with one's life. That is the element of desperate determination which the colonization programme contributed to Tamil nationalism. The military invasion of recent years, complete with "jackboot" colonization under military protection, reinforces Tamil nationalism's determination to resume and recover its homeland from a neighbour whose predatory intentions are seen as "red in tooth and claw".


17. What of the future? For there is always a future beyond war. Indeed, a vision of what that future might be will contribute powerfully to the attainment of peace. History shows many instances of ethnic change caused by superior external force. The maritime empires - Spanish, British, French, Portugese and Dutch - altered the ethnic composition of North and South America and Australia. The land-based continental empires - Mughal and Russian - had equally profound effects on the Indian sub-continent and Central Asia respectively. The interesting difference between the two is that while the maritime empires totally subverted and transformed the ethnic composition of North and South America and Australia, leaving overwhelming white European majorities in those continents, the landbased continental empires failed to do so and left behind them , at their expiry, only minorities in the countries which they siezed and ruled and colonized. The Mughal empire in the Indian sub-continent left behind a relatively small ethnic (Central Asian) minority and a numerically larger religious minority of local converts to Islam. The Russian empire - both Tsarist and Soviet - left Russian ethnic minorities of varying size in their Baltic, Caucasian, Central Asian and East Asian colonial republics. Kazakhstan has the largest Russian population, but still a minority.

18. The historical record has been just the same with even earlier continental imperialisms. The longest-lasting and most firmly-rooted empire of all, the Roman empire, left few Romans behind and had hardly any ethnic effect. The Norman conquest of England did not alter the existing ethnic balance in any significant way. The Austro Hungarian and Ottoman empires left only small, scattered, German and Turkish settlements in their wake. The historic inhabitants of an homeland have always held their ground and have not been eradicated or swamped. It is the same phenomenon that is manifesting itself in so many theatres of ethnic conflict today - Palestine, the Southern Sudan, Assam, Tibet and, not least, the emergent state of Thamil Eelam.

19. However, it is equally the lesson of history that the ethnic intrusions caused by empires and pseudo-empires have proved irreversible. Imperial efforts leave behind them permanent minorities. The departure of the imperial patron has not been followed by genocide or ethnic cleansing. The imperial implant is not rejected by the body politic but is accommodated within it even if not fully assimilated. The Tamil plantation worker population, implanted by the. British in the very heartland of Sinhala society, is there to stay. The 39-year long effort to dislodge them (1948 to 1987) proved conclusively both its futility and its absurdity. In the long years ahead, in what the French historians call "le longue duree" of history, it is a minority that will unquestionably play a vital role in modernizing and transforming both Sinhala society and the Sinhala state.

20. Minorities and their social, economic and political effects on a body politic are vital catalysts in social transformation and enlightenment. It is a silver thread that runs through human history. The immense contribution to the modernization and liberalization of Britain by both the Protestant Huguenot refugee minority from France and the long-established Jewish minority are now universally acknowledged. Our daily diet of TV shows already the significant contribution the Asian minority is making to British life. It holds an enormous potential for the future of this country. No other European country has such an asset today - it is an asset that will yield riches that greatly surpass all the oil wealth of the North Sea.

21. Unhappily the majority of mankind is unblessed with the French historians' le longue duree of history. Ethnic minorities and the external changes that produced them are easily misunderstood. All too often they are the by-products of war and oppression and so stick in the nationalists gullet. But the bitterness and pain of war are like the pain of childbirth - unpleasant and intense but soon forgotten. Forgotten because a new birth brings a new busy-ness, new demands, new efforts. New states, especially ones like Thamil Eelam with a low ratio of people to land, need every man jack's contribution in the immediate present. It is pragmatism rather than altruism that will dictate enlightened minority policies in a new state and generate a reciprocal response within its new, and chastened, neighbour.

22. I am going to end this address with a little hypothetical play with history - it is a liberty that students of history should permit themselves more often - and I invite you all to join me in this play.

Let us go back to the year 1948, the year of independence. Let us suppose that in that year there were living in the state of Tamilnadu 1 million Sinhala people, men, women and children, who had been settled there by the British. The new state of Ceylon has a real and justifiable interest in their welfare and happiness and prosperity. In that context would the new state of Ceylon have tried to embark on the disenfranchisement and deportation of the Tamil plantation worker population? Or taken any of the other steps, both legislative and administrative, which discriminated against the Tamil population, every one of which could have been reciprocally inflicted upon the 1 million Sinhala minority by the state of Tamilnadu? I am convinced it would not have done so. On the contrary it would have adopted the most enlightened policies towards its Tamil minority in the hope that the state of Tamilnadu would treat its large Sinhala minority likewise. RECIPROCITY - do as you would be done by - is the first foundation of enlightenment even though it is rooted in pragmatism rather than in altruism. It was the absence of the 1 million Sinhala people in the state of Tamilnadu that enabled the follies we now bemoan to be perpetrated.

23. My little play with history is over. There is great ground for optimism in it. The future states of Sri Lanka and Thamil Eelam will contain significant minorities of each in the other - one the product of enterprise and initiative, the other the product of colonization. The existence of these minorities will dictate courses to each state which will be their salvation in le longue duree of history.



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