DISCRIMINATION IN EDUCATION IN
SRI LANKA IN THE PAST 50
by Professor C Jeyaratnam Eliezer,
at a Symposium on the 'Plight
of the Tamil Nation' organised by the International
Tamil Foundation, United Kingdom, in June 1997
Squeezed out of Higher Education and
Hundred Tamils of 20th Century - Christi Jeyaratnam
Ceylon was my home for the
first 40 years of my life from 1918 to 1959. During the
final decade of these years, I was Professor of Mathematics,
and for a period, Dean of Science at the University of
Ceylon. I was one of the lucky ones of my generation of
Ceylonese. I was taught by, and moved with, some outstanding
academic liberals in Ceylon, Cambridge, Princeton and
It was a time of vision. Advances in science and
technology were transforming the world, especially Third
World countries. One was filled with hope that Ceylon, when
it attained Independence in 1948, would follow the way of
development and advance in leaps and bounds. Certainly
scientists and engineers got into this mindset. But
political problems that emerged arrested any development.
II. History Teaching
At our regular Student
Christian Movement meetings, people from various ethnic
backgrounds were expressing alarm about threats to national
unity. After one meeting, Rev. Celestine Fernando took me
aside and suggested I read some of the horrible things
Sinhala language newspapers were saying about us Tamils. I
was surprised by the tone of hatred and deliberate
inaccuracies in the reports. The logical step was to ask
what did schools teach on these matters? I had imagined most
educators would have concurred with Dr Ananda K.
Coomaraswamy, that Cambridge educated friend of all
communities and later curator of the Boston Museum, USA, who
often quoted from a German work (Ref
" Human culture is a unitary whole, and its separate
cultures are the dialects of one and the same language
of the spirit."
However, a new emphasis of Sinhalese Buddhist history
encouraged racial superiority and a hatred for the
non-Buddist. This view came from the Pali Chronicle, The
Mahawansa, discovered by English civil servant George
Turnour in a Buddhist monastery near Tangalle (in the south
of Ceylon) in 1826. The book is believed to have been
written by Buddist monks about 600 A.D and permeated by a
strong religious bias. Some of the events it described were
several centuries old. The book is a mixture of legend and
history. It encouraged racial superiority and hatred of the
non-Buddhist (Ref 2).
Written history alone is insufficient for us to grasp the
total elements in the life of a multiracial society. It has
to be supplemented and corroborated by other sources such as
oral traditions, epigraphy, inscriptions and archaeology (Ref
3). In a paper read at a conference on the teaching of
history (1957), Mr K Nesiah, a lecturer in education, said (Ref
" To represent history as mainly the story of war and
conflict, or even as a series of political events, not
merely makes history a divisive force but may be a gross
distortion. It becomes fateful when unscientific racial
groupings - e.g. 'Aryans and Dravidians, - are imported
into the story. For example, to elevate the spells of
fighting between military adventurers and their small
armies in the early days of pioneering and colonization
in Ceylon into racial and national wars and to give
disproportionate place in history books to these is both
bad education and bad history. On the other hand, giving
due place to progress in social and cultural history
makes a truer tale of human relationships as essentially
one of peace and co-operation. Naturally emphasis on the
cultural contribution of different groups will tend to
bring them together today."
Sadly, the education provided in Ceylon did not follow
this emphasis. It ignored the history and historical
contributions of the people in the North and East. It did
not promote racial harmony and understanding. It made it
difficult for two nations who had lived as neighbours for
centuries to evolve into one nation.
I expressed my concerns in my Prize Day address at
Trinity College, Kandy. Many in the audience afterwards
congratulated me. I particularly remember Mr. Aluwihare, the
much respected Sinhalese Inspector General of police, warmly
shook my hand and commented I had made an important
Some of the next day's newspapers gave a positive
coverage. I remember one reporter commending my historical
theme to his readers. However, before I could follow it up,
pogroms of 1958 - when armed Sinhalese hoodlums attacked
Tamil homes and persons - flared up. A year later I left the
country for what I thought was a two-year assignment in
Malaya. I was not to know I would never return except on
occasional visits, as things continually worsened in Ceylon.
In 1969, Prof. Sarathchandra of the University of Ceylon
led a delegation of eminent educators at a meeting with the
Minister of Education to ask for a curriculum review to
eradicate the inconsistencies, bias and lack of balance of
history taught in schools. Nothing seemed to come out of it.
In 1982, Mr. Nesiah again urged (Ref
" An inquiry, not less urgent into the books,
especially the history text books, in use in schools. If
the people of this country have to learn to live
together in peace (whatever be the political
settlement), the growing children should be freed from
the prejudiced misinformation about their fellows in
other parts of the country which books (and newspapers)
are seeking to give. We would do well to enter into the
mutual revision of history books which started with the
call of Anatole France at the end of World War I, 'Burn
the books which teach hatred, burn them all'."
A disturbing trend is the continuation of intolerance
towards any historical analysis that differed from the
official version. Recently, a historian, Dr. Jane Russell,
was arrested in Colombo and deported. Apparently, the
results of her researches on ancient Sri Lankan history had
not suited the powers that be.
III. Medium at University
'Sinhala Only' bill was passed in 1956 I got involved in
the question of the medium of instruction at the University.
The Minister of Education, Mr. W Dahanayaka, sent a letter
to the Vice-Chancellor, Sir Nicholas Attygalle that
basically asked what the University proposed to do in the
wake of the bill.
The Vice-Chancellor consulted the University senate,
which passed on the letter to the different Faculties and
Departments. After some months of discussion, the reports
from the Faculties were sent to the Senate.
A few days before the Senate meeting to discuss these
reports, I was in the Registrar's office when Father Peter
Pillai, a Roman Catholic educator and also a member of the
Senate, came in. He asked what was being done at the
meeting. I replied that the Faculties' reports were up
before the Senate, and these would be discussed then.
He said, " My dear fellow, you do not leave things like
that. You should all get together and prepare some
While we were talking, another Senate member, Prof B L T
de Silva, came in. We asked him what he thought about the
idea of resolutions. He thought it was a good idea. So we
started drafting some resolutions, which would summarise the
consensus view of all the Faculties. We decided to meet
again. After that second meeting, at which a few others were
also present, we finalised five resolutions. The meeting
requested me to propose these at the Senate, and Mr. Julius
De Lanerolle, of the Sinhalese Dictionary project, agreed to
Briefly, the resolutions aimed to ask the University to
make various preparations; that in two years' time, students
taught in Sinhala and Tamil mediums will be sitting the
University Entrance examinations, and there was a need to
conduct the Entrance examinations in Sinhala, Tamil and
Noting that English would have been studied as a second
language, English should continue as a medium of instruction
at University with progressive change to Sinhala and Tamil,
as and when departments report feasibility. The University
would be assisted to improve their capacity in Sinhala and
Tamil and prepare books, and staff and students be assisted
to have a working knowledge of the official language.
The resolutions were discussed in Senate and approved
with something like unanimity. So it was a shock when it
went to Council. Mr. H V Perera, QC, started off: "The
Senate and Professor Eliezer seem to have misunderstood the
He was among those hoping that English be continued
indefinitely. But if a change had to be made, it had to be
Sinhala only. Tamil did not come into it. The Chancellor,
Mr. Dudley Senanayake and Mr. N E Weerasooria, QC and others
supported the view that Tamil should be a medium at
At one stage I asked, "what about students who come up
through the Tamil medium?" There was no response.
Senator A M A Azeez, an educator at a Muslim college who
was sitting next to me, reminded me that when the prime
minister (Mr. S W R D Bandaranayake) introduced the Sinhala
Only bill in Parliament, he had emphasized that it would
only apply to the administration of Ceylon and not to
education. Senator Azeez asked me to mention this to
Council. I did so, adding that this meant that Sinhala and
Tamil would become dual mediums at the University. Justice
Keuneman agreed with this view. After some discussion, it
was decided that the Prime Minister be asked if the
Government's policy synchronized with my understanding of
The resultant meeting initiated by the Vice Chancellor
was held in the Prime Minister's office in the city on
January 14, 1957, a public holiday.
The Prime Minister began " Let me at the outset deal
with a matter which has concerned the Council, before going
on to details - the role of Tamil in the University."
He spotted a copy of Hansard, which I had placed on the
top of my papers. He turned to me and asked. "Does that copy
of Hansard contain my speech?" When I replied, "yes", he
asked me to read the introduction.
The introduction clearly said that the Bill would apply
to administration only, and would not affect the language of
Space prevents me from detailing the rest of the
meeting. But, I will say that Prime Minister Bandaranaike
brilliantly summed up in five sentences or short paragraphs
the steps the University had to take. They were similar to
the five resolutions I had earlier proposed at the
University Senate. I formed an admiration for the ability of
the Prime Minister.
Forty years later, when I look back at the events, I am
reminded at how the determined leadership of the Prime
Minster thwarted attempts by the University Council to
discriminate against Tamil.
The debate in the Council and the advance information
about the meeting with the Prime Minister led to interviews
with the Times of Ceylon newspaper. There were photographs
of Mr. Dudley Senanayake and Sir Nicholas Attygalle on one
side insisting on Sinhala only, and Senator Azeez and myself
standing up for Sinhala and Tamil. After the story was
published, a Buddhist dignitary commented, "Eliezer is
trying to destroy the Sinhalese!"
Another incident, which may not have been related to the
above, took place in the Mathematics Department. Students
working towards the 'Honours' degree became close friends
with the staff as we worked closely in our specialized field
of study. They knew they could walk into our offices if they
had a problem. A student, now a Professor of Mathematics,
said to me, " Sir I was very shocked last night when my
father asked me, " Is it true that the Tamil professor is
cruel to all Sinhalese students?" The son had told his
father that the Professor and his staff treated all students
as though they were their own children. So the father then
said, " What are all the Sinhala papers going on about
IV. University Entrance and Standardisation
The establishment of the Ceylon University college in
1921 in Colombo, and affiliated to the University of London,
was a landmark in the history of education in Ceylon. It
prepared students for the external degree of B.A and B.Sc of
the University of London.
Admission to the University College was based on the
performance of the students in the Cambridge Senior or
London Matriculation examinations. In those days there was
no distinction between Tamil and Sinhalese students.
Admission was on merit alone, and competition was not very
keen in the early days.
The notion of a University was not foreign to the Tamil
community of Ceylon, particularly to students from Tamil
capital of Jaffna in the North. As early as 1823, American
missionaries had set up the Batticotta Seminary there. It
created what Bishop Kulendran proudly described as " A
tremendous intellectual upsurge, the like of which has never
been seen in the country before or after." The eminent
British historian Sir Emerson Tennent judged the Seminary
equal in rank with many an European university.
It produced some internationally renowned scholars, the
most acclaimed being C.W Thamotharamapillai, High Court
Judge in Madras and Regent in the Indian state of Puthokotai
in 1892. Sadly, the seminary closed after a few decades when
the Mission Board could not find funds for its continuation.
When the University College founded in Colombo in 1921
by the British, it was expected it would become a university
in a few years. It took twenty. During that time,
competition for places got keener. The two-year HSC classes
were introduced, with university taking responsibility for
conducting the HSC examinations and basing on its results
admission into the University. Despite more Universities
being created, they could not cope with a greater demand for
Tamil students took many places, especially in Science,
Medicine and Engineering. They came from a tradition of
learning, serviced by first-rate schools set up by various
religious missions and boards. Not surprisingly, those from
the Jaffna peninsula (which had a high concentration of
population) were greater in proportion to its geographical
The Tamil students received two serious blows. The
Sinhala Only act of 1956 made it difficult for them to
secure employment. A policy of standardisation made it much
more difficult to get admission to a university. In the
original form in 1971, discrimination was on the basis of
language and the region the student came from. The system
that has prevailed since 1977 is as follows: 30% are filled
on island-wide merit; 55% by allocation to revenue districts
in proportion to their population, and filled within each
district on merit; 15% are given to districts deemed
educationally underprivileged. How this operated against
Tamil students can bee seen from the following quotation (Ref
" Students in the North (almost certainly Tamils) and
those in Colombo (two-thirds Sinhalese and one-third
Tamils) continue to suffer serious discriminations. In
1983/4, 530 students who had the necessary grades for
admission to the Faculties of Medicine, Science and
Engineering were excluded, to accommodate 519 who had
lesser marks. Of the excluded students, over 50% were
Such discrimination contradicts U.N policy.
Article 26.1 of the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:
"Every one has the right to education - higher
education shall be equally accessible to all on the
basis of merit."
Similar provisions are contained in the Covenant On Civil
And Political Rights, and the Covenant on Economic, Social
And Cultural Rights.
Article 2 (2) of the Elimination of All Forms of Racial
Discrimination permits "Affirmative Action" under certain
circumstances where a disadvantaged minority group may be
helped. Such action, however, shall not be continued after
the objectives have been achieved.
Those who support standardization in modern day Sri
Lanka argue it was introduced to correct past inequalities
and to bring about a balance. Clearly, this process of "
balancing" has gone too far and must be terminated.
I end this section by quoting from the
report by the
International Commission of Jurists in 1981:
" The Government should re-examine its policies on
university admission with a view to basing admissions on
merit rather than on racial grounds. Tamil and Sinhalese
young people alike will then have equal rights to
university education on the basis of capacity rather
than on race. One of the major points of tension among
Tamil youth has been the implicit racial quota imposed
under present university admission policies which have
barred many competent persons from pursuing higher
V. Education of Tamils in Estates
I make a
brief note on this subject. The Tamil workers in the tea
estates are a very under-privileged community. They
descended from those brought from India by the British in
the 19th century to work in the up-country plantations. They
are often referred to as 'Indian Tamils', to distinguish
them from the Sri Lankan Tamils who have lived in the North
and East of the Island for thousands of years.
Through their labour, they have contributed enormously
to national income. But they are severely deprived in
matters of housing, health and education. Their position
were deprived of their citizenship (despite many having
been born in Ceylon) by the Ceylon Citizenship Act of 1948,
and of their franchise by the Ceylon (Parliamentary
Elections) Amendment Act of 1949.
In the census, they constituted 5.8% of the population.
They had earlier formed a much higher percentage, but many
were forcibly repatriated to India. With more acquiring
citizenship, they have the means to have their presence
In the early years, the 'Indian Tamils' were educated in
estate schools, founded and run by the Tamil Church Mission
(TCM) with financial support from the British estate
superintendents and Ceylonese Christians in the upcountry
and Maritime Provinces. But with the changing political
situation in the estates, and shrinking funds, the TCM has
ceased to function and the schools have come under the
responsibility of the Government. These schools have a long
way to go before they enjoy the quality of education enjoyed
by the rest of the country.
The Sinhala Only Act and the
standardization for university admission brought a serious
reduction in employment opportunities for Tamils. The
quotation below reflects the trend (Ref
" The discrimination has been serious and
progressive. For example, the unemployment rate (1980)
among educated Sinhalese youths was 29% and among the
Tamils 41%. Between 1977 and 1981, 9,965 vacancies in
the Government clerical services (the forte of the
Tamils) were filled by 9,326 (93.6%) Sinhalese and only
492 (4.9%) Tamils."
The statement is made that Tamils got preference in
employment during British rule. This is not so. The British
recruited people to help in the administration through
public examinations, using index numbers. Examiners
therefore were not aware whether the candidate was a
Sinhalese or Tamil. The Tamils had educational advantages,
which they used in securing employment.
That the so-called "balancing" through discrimination,
had gone too far is proven in the '1984 Statistics' by a
committee set up by the Sri Lankan Parliament. The
percentage of Sinhalese in university populations, in
recruitment to the work force, and in the total work force
already exceeded the population figure of 75%. It is time
that a more equitable system was devised. It is ludicrous
that this generation of Tamil students should be penalised
because their parents and grandparents did well in their
Burning of the Jaffna Public Library
Writing about past discriminations has been a depressing
experience for me. The most shattering of all to a highly
literate people as the Tamils was on the night of June 1,
1981, when the Jaffna Public Library was burned down by
members of the predominantly Sinhalese Police force. About
100,000 priceless work-most of them irreplaceable- went up
in flames. For Tamils, it was an act of destruction
comparable to the Arabs' torching of the great library of
What greater act of discrimination against Tamils in
education can there be? It cut the heartstring to the
records of an ancient past. It denied access to valuable
educational resources, not only to the thousands of school
children who used the Library daily, but also to
international scholars of Tamil research.
The architectural splendour of the building had been a
source of pride for the people of the North, as much as for
the passion with which its planner and his assistants built
up such a magnificent collection.
The building has been left an empty shell. It was
pleasing that the city fathers speedily arranged alternate
housing for the children's section and for the periodical
and newspaper sections.
The act of conflagrations also blurred the line for
Tamils in the police force, as custodians of law and order
and arsonists! There is no doubt that they had been directed
by higher officials. Watching the building burn from the
Government Rest House across the road, were two Government
Ministers, Gamini Dissanayake and Cyril Matthew, supposedly
in Jaffna to oversee the district council elections. Let us
hope that another library will soon be built, and may it be
what a great library should be. According to Mr. Nesiah (Ref7):
" A city's public library is the eye of the city by
which the citizens are able to behold the realness of
their heritage, and behold the still greater greatness
of their future."
1. Alfred Jeremias:
"Handbuch der Altorientalschen Gerstekultur", Berlin
1929, p 508.
2. S Sivanayagam: "
The Ethnic Crisis in Sri Lanka: A Historical
3. D J Kanagaratnam: "
Tamils And Cultural Pluralism in Ancient Sri Lanka".
4. K Nesiah: "
Education and Human Rights In Sri Lanka" (1983) p 113.
5. Ibid, p 74
6. Brian Senewiratne:
" Sri Lanka, A Synopsis Of the Racial Problem", p 3
7. K Nesiah: "
Education And Human Rights in Sri Lanka ", p 197