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Anti-Federalism: An Exercise in Political Bankruptcy

Dr.Sachithanandam Sathananthan
First published in the Lanka Guardian, vol 15, nos 12-13
28 September 1992

1. Introduction - 1.1 Nationalities and the State | 1.2 Traditional homeland and the federal alternative | 2. On the inapplicability of a federal system | 2.1. Federalism and the Constitution | 2.2. Federalism vs secession | 3. On the federal situation | 4. Whither "higher nationalism" | 4.1. Citizenship rights | 4.2. National Anthem | 4.3. National Flag  | 4.4. Sinhala as Official Language | 4.5. "Reasonable use" of Tamil | 4.6. The "Sri" campaign | 4.7. From Sundays to Poya Days | 4.8. From Lanka to Sri Lanka | 4.9. The "foremost place" for Buddhism | 4.10 On two official languages | 4.11 From Sri to Shri | 5. Irrelevance of a unitary State | References


1. Introduction -
1.1. Nationalities and the State

The British colonial State created its social base in the comprador classes drawn from all nationalities in Sri Lanka. The upper most position in the social hierarchy, engineered by colonialism, was occupied by this multi-nationality social stratum. An implicit parity was maintained between the nationalities whilst the comprador fraction of each nationality separately negotiated the terms of exploitation with the alien colonial State. An early political expression of this clientalist relationship was the 1833 Legislative Council, in which the British apportioned seats between different nationalities to ensure so-called "balanced representation".

After Independence in 1948, the Sinhala-speaking (Sinhalese) fraction of ruling classes inherited control of the post-colonial State. They set out to establish a social base for the State among the Sinhalese (major) nationality in order to strengthen their own grip on political power as well as to ensure the legitimacy of the new State. Towards these ends, the Sinhalese ruling fraction used their virtual monopoly exercise of State power to effect two important changes.

Firstly, they re-ordered in stages the hierarchical social position (Kapferer, 1988) of the Tamil and Muslim (minor) nationalities (who speak Tamil) to place them more and more subordinate to the Sinhalese. This was symbolically expressed by elevating Sinhala language to the position of sole official language in 1956 (whilst denying the same status for Tamil language); and by reserving the "foremost place" for Buddhism, the religion of most Sinhalese, in the 1972 Constitution in contrast to Hinduism, practised by most Tamils, Islam and Christianity. The actual social and economic subordination of minor nationalities occurred simultaneously (Wilson, 1988).

Secondly, the Sinhalese ruling fraction set out to create a "national" society, which in fact was conceived narrowly in the cultural-religious image of Sinhalese society. The Lion Flag of (Upcountry) Sinhalese was adopted as the national flag in 1952, with the addition of two vertical stripes - one Saffron and the other Green to denote Tamils and Muslims - outside the Lion Flag proper and at the less important pole-end of the flag.

History was re-written to define Sinhalese as bhumiputra ("Sons of the soil"); whilst Tamils and Muslims were portrayed as "recent arrivals" whose claims on the country and government, therefore, are subordinate to the rights of Sinhalese. Together with the superior status accorded to Sinhala language and Buddhist religion, these changes further re-inforced the "equivalence" (Sheth, 1989:618) between the State and Sinhalese (Buddhist) nationality. They also legitimised the dominant position of Sinhalese in relation to Tamils and Muslims and justified discrimination against minor nationalities.

A corollary of Sinhalese domination was the re-definition of minor nationalities as "minorities": in the words of a Sinhalese Member of Parliament (MP), Mr Nimal Karunatillake, "there is one nation in this country, and that is the Sinhalese nation, and all other groups...are national minorities" (Hansard, vol 24, 1956:1720). Consequently POLITICAL POWER, which is inseparable from nationalities and the restructuring of which is at the core of the nationality question, was kept out of the political agenda. Instead, political debate was structured around the issue of POLITICAL RIGHTS, which are more relevant to ethnic groups or minorities.

During early negotiations between Sinhalese and Tamil leaders under the 1957 Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact, attempt was made to partially compensate for the subordinate status imposed on Tamils and Muslims by providing for the administration of the Northern Province as a single Tamil linguistic region and the Eastern Province as two or more regions.

But the agreement was aborted in the face of opposition from Sinhalese chauvinism. In 1963, regional administration at provincial level was abolished; and limited administrative authority was decentralised at the level of districts within each province, ostensibly "to bring administration closer to the people". In reality, this change was aimed at further centralising policy-making powers in Government and eliminating any scope for provincial-level administration of either province as a Tamil linguistic region.


1.2. Traditional homeland and the federal alternative

Attempts at domination were resisted by Tamils and gave rise to the defensive claim that the Northern and Eastern Provinces constituted the "traditional homeland" of Tamil-speaking peoples. In 1976, the goal of establishing a separate Tamil State, Tamil Eelam, in the two provinces was formally adopted by the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). In the late 1970s conflicts sharply intensified. Tamil militant groups and particularly the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) launched guerrilla struggles in the two provinces to create a separate State, Tamil Eelam.

Among the Muslim nationality, resistance to Sinhalese domination crystallised when the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) demanded in 1988 the creation of a "Muslim homeland" in the Eastern Province. Very quickly the bi-polar conflict between the Sinhalese-controlled State and the Tamils was transformed into a three-cornered struggle, which included Muslims, for control of territory and access to political power.

The increasingly authoritarian response of the State produced a multi-dimensional political crisis: civil society was militarised, political institutions and traditions were emasculated, and freedom of dissent and protest was diluted in the extreme. This was explained by the then President, Mr J R Jayawardene, in one sentence: "In times of war, laws are silent". A further consequence was the rapid centralisation of political power in the office of an Executive President under the 1978 Constitution. A measure of the intensity of crisis in southern Sri Lanka was the resurgence of guerrilla struggles by the Sinhalese Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) in the mid-1980s and the abortive attempt to impeach the President in September 1991.

The political crisis has reached a point now where it is clear that attempts by the Sinhalese ruling fraction to administer the country through domination of Tamil and Muslim nationalities are tragically dysfunctional. In this context, it has become obvious that the introduction of a federal system of government is the only available political solution within the framework of a united Sri Lanka which could

(a) reverse the centralisation of power and democratise political structures and
(b) address the question of power-sharing between the different nationalities.

The importance of a political solution based on a federal structure is underscored by the growing militancy among Upcountry or Kandyan Tamils, who are culturally distinct from north-east (Low Country) Tamils and are emerging as the fourth nationality. They are seeking political autonomy for defined territories in Central and Uva Provinces where they constitute the majority.

Leading Tamil politicians have championed the concept of federalism for more than four decades. The more enlightened Sinhalese have also begun to realise the relevance of a federal alternative. The repeated anti-Tamil pogroms of 1977, 1979, 1981 and the Holocaust of July 1983, the reluctance of security forces - which are manned almost exclusively by Sinhalese - to protect Tamils and indeed the blatant participation of security forces in pogroms revealed the increasing congruence between the unitary State and the Sinhalese nationality. Simultaneously, the federal alternative gained greater legitimacy in the eyes of Tamil and Muslim nationalities.

But any reference to the introduction of a federal system of government, which would emasculate domination by the major nationality, provoked hostility from Sinhalese opposition. Before the 1980s, anti-federalist responses were expressed in rudimentary terms: the better known arguments are that Sri Lanka is too small a country to require federalism; that it is too poor a country to afford federalism; and that the alien Dravidian Tamil people, allegedly being descendants exclusively of "invaders" from southern India, have no right to expect or receive equal status with the bhumiputra Aryan Sinhalese people.

The decentralisation of authority to the two provinces, merged into the North-Eastern Province (NEP) under the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord, through an elected Provincial Council (PC) was far from successful; which made the introduction of a federal system all the more compelling. But Sinhalese opposition further refined its anti-federalist positions to defend the retention of the unitary State. Arguments against federalism based on "environmental rationality" were examined earlier (Sathananthan, 1992). The present essay will examine arguments against federalism based on so-called "legal rationality".


2. On the inapplicability of a federal system

The arguments based on "legal rationality" and directed against the introduction of a federal system of government were marshalled in An Appraisal of the Federal Alternative for Sri Lanka (de Silva, 1991). The author, Mr H L de Silva, is a Sinhalese and an Attorney-at-Law who was a member of the Government of Sri Lanka (GSL) delegation to the 1985 Thimpu Talks. The publication was a response primarily to views expressed at a seminar on Sri Lankan conflicts conducted in June 1991 by the Centre for South and South-East Asian Studies, Madras University.

The Appraisal (p.1-2) referred to statements by Mr K P Menon (Former Foreign Secretary of India), Mr Thomas Abraham (Former High Commissioner for India in Colombo), Mr N Ram (Editor, The Hindu) and Mr R Sampanthan MP (TULF), all of whom supported the introduction of a federal system as the solution to "ethnic conflicts" in Sri Lanka. The statement of Mr Subramaniam Swamy was especially forceful: "If [the GSL] cannot offer a truly Federal Constitution, then we may have to force them to act" (p.2). Moreover, the Preface noted the emergence of "a body of opinion" in Sri Lanka (that is, among Sinhalese), which considered the introduction of a federal system as a possible solution to the political crisis. In reply, the Appraisal put forward a series of arguments against a federal system in Sri Lanka.


2.1. Federalism and the Constitution

It was claimed that a federal structure cannot be introduced because the unitary Constitution does not provide for a federal system (p.20). The vulgar legalism of this position defies the imagination.

Moreover, since a Constitutional amendment for introducing a federal system should be passed by a 2/3rd majority in Parliament and requires approval at a Referendum, this route was also considered virtually closed. But the Constitution was made twice within six years (in 1972 and 1978) to satisfy the ambitions of the Sinhalese ruling fraction and aspirations of the Sinhalese nationality. It could surely be re-written a third time - for which the government has the necessary parliamentary majority and which does not require approval at a Referendum - to incorporate the demands of Tamil, Muslim and of the emerging Kandyan Tamil nationalities. The Appraisal failed to explain why this could not be done.


2.2. Federalism vs secession

Federalism was rejected because, it was alleged, a federal system does not necessarily and always contain separatist tendencies by serving as an alternative to secession. In the Preface, readers were "cautioned against the acceptance of such a facile idea". Referring to the "threatened disintegration" of Yugoslavia, it was implied that a federal structure caused and/or intensified secessionist movements because it "encourages regional loyalties and fissiparous tendencies leading to destabilization" (p.14). The obvious answer is that there is no causal relationship between federal systems and secessionist movements.

Secessionist movements are found in countries with unitary as well as federal systems. The common cause for such movements is a political condition where rights of peoples as nationalities are abridged or denied by a State (Blaut, 1987), irrespective of whether the State is unitary or federal.

It is unfortunate that the Appraisal did not seek inspiration in more successful examples of federal systems. Even references to India ignored the creation of linguistic states, which protect the territorial expression of identities of different nationalities. Instead, the concern was more to show that imposition of Presidential Rule in some Indian states "is sufficient evidence that constitutional mechanisms and legal devices alone do not necessarily guarantee either peace or stability" (p.3).

This observation is equally true for the unitary State in Sri Lanka, where constitutional and legal provisions have tragically failed to stem the rising Tamil and Muslim nationalisms and spreading civil war. Therefore, the Appraisal advocates implicitly a two-pronged REGRESSIVE approach to the nationality question: it suggests that (a) the unitary State should be retained with a minimum of modifications whilst (b) political movements struggling for a federal alternative must be contained militarily by the State.


3. On the federal situation

Fundamentally, and perhaps deliberately, the Appraisal neglected the primary function of a federal system: that of creating politico-institutional space in which different peoples could exercise and defend their rights as nationalities and, therefore, could remain united as one country. Consequently, the existence of nationalities and the relations of power between them were ignored.

It was considered inappropriate to introduce a federal system under conditions where "inter-ethnic rivalries have come to the fore" (p.11). In other words, a political condition of inter-nationality conflicts - a federal situation - which necessarily invites a federal alternative was considered to be detrimental to federalism!

The Appraisal admitted that a "federal situation" existed in Sri Lanka (p.23). But it formulated three further arguments to deny the applicability of a federal alternative. Firstly, it alleged that a federal system was unnecessary since under the 13th Amendment and in the PCs "we have the substance of federalism while maintaining some of the forms of a unitary constitution"; and, therefore, viewed concrete federal structures as "superfluous" (p.40).

However, the Supreme Court had held that the 13th Amendment respected in form AND substance the unitary character of the Constitution (Sri Lanka Law Reports, 1987 (2), 312-410). But the author unwisely disputed the decision of the Supreme Court and engaged in an exercise of constitutional schizophrenia: he persisted in the confused and groundless claim that the imaginary "substance of federalism" existed in the absence of the "superfluous" concrete federal structures.

Secondly, the population mix of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims in eastern regions of NEP was claimed to present a "formidable obstacle" (p.24) to the territorial demarcation of the proposed Tamil and Muslim federal states. However, a precedent had been established when the District of Vavuniya in the Northern Province was carved up by Government into a Tamil Assistant Government Agent (AGA) Division and a Sinhalese AGA Division. Moreover, Tamil and Muslim villages in some eastern regions of NEP (e.g., Katankudi, Eravur) have been administered as separate AGA Divisions. Clearly, the application of such administrative mechanisms to the entire eastern region to demarcate federal states is feasible and is more a question of political will.

Thirdly, the Appraisal was concerned about "the majority perception of unfairness" arising out of the belief that the introduction of a federal system would mean "the future reservation of [NEP] for Tamil speaking people only" (p.27). It is of course nonsensical to claim that a citizen of a federal State would be prevented from living and working in any part of the country.

But, the Appraisal misrepresented the specific opposition among Tamils to State-sponsored Sinhalese colonisation of land in the NEP as a general opposition to Sinhalese living and working in the NEP. It alleged mischievously, and without any basis in political theory, that a bizarre situation would arise under a federal system where the Tamils (a) would enjoy "exclusive use" of the NEP and (b) would simultaneously have access to every other part of the country. From this political fiction the Appraisal deduced that Sinhalese would be unfairly deprived under a federal system.


4. Whither "higher nationalism"

National unity based on a "higher nationalism" (p.7), argued the Appraisal, is the only way forward. It was readily admitted that "the majority among the Sinhala people, while professing national unity have not pursued it with sufficient seriousness" (p.8). And it was glibly assuaged that "given a proper recognition and respect for the rights, traditions and the separate identity of all groups in the State a unitary system of government gives greater cohesion" (p.14). But here precisely is the problem: what is supposed to be "given" in fact is non-existent. The following are some of the more prominent instances where "higher nationalism" among Sinhalese failed to materialise.


4.1. Citizenship rights

Kandyan Tamils, then known as "Indian Tamils", were arbitrarily stripped of their Sri Lankan citizenship in 1947. Their position as "stateless" persons remained unresolved until the growing involvement of India in Sri Lankan ethnic conflicts in the mid-1980s. Indian intervention underlined the urgency of giving back Sri Lankan citizenship to Kandyan Tamils whilst repatriating those among them who sought Indian citizenship, so that India could be pre-empted from intervening in Sri Lanka on the pretext of "protecting Indians". The question of "statelessness" was settled by implementing the 1964 Indo-Ceylon Agreement in stages in the late 1980s.


4.2. National Anthem

The National Anthem was composed by a Sinhalese person, Mr Ananda Samarakone, in 1952. It was adopted by the Cabinet without consulting Tamil and Muslim leaders and without debate in Parliament (Hansard, vol.11, 1952:1175). Clearly, Tamil and Muslim opinion on the subject was treated as irrelevant by the Sinhalese ruling fraction.


4.3. National Flag

When it was proposed in 1948 that the Lion Flag of the (Kandyan) Sinhalese kingdom be adopted as the new national flag, Tamil leaders suggested a different design which could reflect the aspirations of Tamil and Muslim peoples too. But a Sinhalese MP, Mr A E Goonesinha, defended the proposal and rejected any accommodation of Tamil and Muslim interests: "if...we must appease the minority communities, where is the limit to this appeasement?...If we were to give in on this question of a National Flag, I do sincerely feel that we will have no end of trouble".

In contrast, a Tamil MP, Mr S J V Chelvanayagam, emphasised the importance of "a proper and higher step" and the need for "a new turn of mind" (that is, "higher nationalism") among Sinhalese to design a genuine national flag. Compromise suggestions by Tamil and Muslim leaders to modify the Lion Flag so as to represent Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims on equal footing were also rejected. A progressive Sinhalese MP, Dr Colvin R de Silva, criticised the imposition of the Lion Flag as national flag as a projection of Sinhalese political domination: "it is a covert effort by communalist elements...in a majority community...to ram its own desires down the throats of others along communal lines" based on "the assumption of a majority right". And a Muslim MP, Mr T B Jayah, too regretted that the interests of Tamils and Muslims were ignored (Hansard, vol.2, 1948:3446-83).

Nevertheless, when the design of the national flag was finalised in 1951, it contained the Lion Flag unaltered but with two vertical stripes, of Saffron and Green, placed OUTSIDE the Lion Flag at the LESS IMPORTANT pole end of the flag to signify the Tamil and Muslim peoples. A Tamil MP, Mr C Suntharalingam, dismissed the flag as a "fraud flag" and pointed out the derogatory implications of placing two coloured stripes outside the Lion Flag proper and at its pole end. He quoted Sinhalese MPs who had voiced their intentions to tell their electoral supporters: "if you fellows don't like this flag, just roll round the Green and Saffron coloured stripes on the pole"; and, in utter disregard to Tamil and Muslim opinion, the Ceylon Daily News later on the 1972 Republic Day (22 May) for example printed the national flag on its front page with the two offending stripes tucked out of sight behind the Lion emblem.

The Tamil MP, Mr S J V Chelvanayagam, criticised the lack of "high ideals" and regretted the "medieval conception of nationality" prevalent among Sinhalese, who "propose to have the Lion Flag unaltered, undamaged, unchanged, as the main portion of the flag. Outside its pale, there are certain markings to indicate the tolerated presence in this country of [Tamil and Muslim] people". A progressive Sinhalese MP, Dr N M Perera, described the flag as a "fraud...perpetrated on the minorities. They [Sinhalese] are going to have the Lion Flag and these stripes are purely for the outcasts" (Hansard, vol 9, 1951:1565-1684). The flag was adopted as the national flag in 1951. It was marked by a series of protest meetings in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

The anthem and flag remain issues of dispute to this day. Indeed in the 1985 Draft Framework of Terms of Accord and Understanding, which was formulated after the end of Thimpu Talks, the GSL was compelled to spell out that one condition for its implementation was the acceptance of National Flag and Anthem by "all persons engaged in the current dispute with the GSL" (p.21).


4.4. Sinhala as Official Language

In 1955, the two major Sinhalese political parties, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), declared as policy that Sinhala would be legislated as the official language. The Tamil MP, Mr C Suntharalingam, condemned the emerging policy of "one [Sinhala] race, one [Sinhala] language" in the country and warned that if this new policy is implemented "there would be no united Lanka". In reply, a Sinhalese MP, Mr I M R A Irriyagolla, callously predicted cultural genocide: he declared that disunity would not arise because "we [Sinhalese] want to absorb you [Tamils] into our community" (Hansard, vol 22, 1955:1754-55).

The progressive Sinhalese MP, Dr N M Perera, argued that a law which imposed Sinhala as the sole official language upon Tamils was morally unjustified and drew chilling parallels with the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany. He predicted that it will become necessary to send an "army of occupation" to the Northern and Eastern Provinces if Tamils are to be compelled to "swallow" the Sinhala language. He warned that such actions will result in "rioting, bloodshed and civil war" and will force Tamils to demand a separate State (Hansard, vol 23, 1955:572-623). The stunning accuracy of these predictions made in October 1955, more than two decades before the TULF adopted the demand for Tamil Eelam in 1976, requires no elaboration.

When a Bill to make Sinhala the sole official language was introduced in Parliament in 1956, a Tamil MP, Mr G G Ponnambalam, warned that the enactment of the Bill as law was "likely to result in a rupture [between Tamils and Sinhalese] so deep that it cannot be healed". He also placed on record that schools in Jaffna (in the Northern Province), which "on the basis of friendship" (that is, "higher nationalism") had taught Sinhala to Tamil students, "have decided to discontinue those classes as a protest against the iniquitous...legislation".

A progressive Sinhalese MP, Mr Leslie Gunewardene, reasoned against the proposed legislation and warned that it could result in Tamils "deciding...to break away from the rest of the country". Another progressive Sinhalese MP, Dr S A Wickremasinghe, condemned the language policy as "Hitlerism".

A Tamil MP, Mr P Kandiah, had this to add:

"what is in dispute is the right I have to use my language in the business of living and government. When you deny my language you deny me everything that I, as a Tamil national of this country, have and can have. You present me with a decision you have arrived at in you own wisdom, that I and my people should cease to exist, should cease to be. You will not be surprised, therefore, that I refuse to efface myself until with your superior strength, not of logic, not of reason, but of might and weapon, you remove me and my people from the face of this fair land".

If Mr Kandiah obliquely referred to cultural genocide, a Sinhalese MP, Mr Sagara Palansuriya, was more forthright: he told Tamil MPs (reported in translation), "we want to absorb you. Why do you resent that?". By way of explanation, he added: "because there are 40 million people speaking the Tamil language across the Palk Strait, you people give up the Tamil language and get absorbed, get assimilated". He thus believed that Tamils in Sri Lanka should not grieve unduly if their culture is destroyed since the same exists in Tamil Nadu!

On a saner note, a Tamil MP, Mr C Vanniasingam, declared that the Bill, when it became law, would be "the beginning of the end of a Unitary System of Government...This Bill is memorable in that the foundations have been well and truly laid...for a Tamil State for the Tamil-speaking people". The progressive Sinhalese MP, Mr Colvin R de Silva, was even more graphic: he predicted that if Sinhala was made the sole official language, "two torn little bleeding States may yet arise out of one little State" (Hansard, vol 24, 1956:942-1917).

However, the Sinhalese ruling fraction ruthlessly pushed the legislation through Parliament and enacted Sinhala as the sole official language. Sinhalese chauvinism cannot complain that it was not adequately warned of the consequences of its actions.


4.5. "Reasonable use" of Tamil

After enacting Sinhala as the sole official language, the Tamils were granted "reasonable use" of Tamil language under the 1956 Official Language (Special Provisions) Act. What constituted "reasonable" for Tamils was of course defined by Sinhalese leaders.


4.6. The "Sri" campaign

In 1957 the Government replaced English alphabets by the Sinhalese letter "sri" in the registration numbers of all motor vehicles. This was done against the wishes of Tamils. It led to widespread protests by Tamils in the Northern and Eastern Provinces; and they were brutally put down by security forces. But in 1991, the Government removed the letter "sri" from registration numbers for administrative reasons, with hardly an apology to Tamils.


4.7. From Sundays to Poya Days

In 1965, as part of the drive to remould the country as a nation of Buddhists, the weekly holidays were changed from Sundays to Poya days, based on the lunar calendar and allegedly in accordance with Buddhist traditions but with scant regard to the sensibilities of other religious communities. The four phases of the Moon naturally did not uniformly fall on the same days each month. The consequent alterations in the work-week each month massively dislocated the export economy of the island and the initiative became too "expensive"; and it collapsed in disarray by 1970, when Sundays were re-instituted as weekly holidays.


4.8. From Lanka to Sri Lanka

In the 1972 Constitution, the name of the country was changed from Ceylon, the name coined by European colonial powers, to the indigenous Sri Lanka. However, Lanka was the name by which the island was known in pre-colonial times. The prefix "Sri" was added in 1972 by the ruling SLFP in a crass attempt to name the country after that Sinhalese party (Seneviratne, 1992). Predictably, Tamils and Muslims were left unimpressed.


4.9. The "foremost place" for Buddhism

The failure to switch over to the lunar calendar did not deter the demand for a change in the secular nature of the Sri Lankan State. The secular State was transformed when the 1972 Republican Constitution accorded Buddhism a "foremost place". The meaning of this phrase was explained by a leading Buddhist monk and Mahanayake of Malwatte Chapter, Ven Sirimalwatte Ananda Mahanayake: "Buddhism should be given priority and other religions be given reasonable prominence" (Ceylon Daily News, 18 March 1989, p.1). What constituted "reasonable prominence" for other religions was of course decided by Buddhists.


4.10. On two official languages

A long-standing Tamil demand has been that the Tamil language must be an official language. In response to pressure from India under the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord, the GSL amended Article 18 of the Constitution in 1987 to make Tamil the second official language. But even at this late stage, the Sinhalese ruling fraction lacked the wisdom to give gracefully that which cannot be held by force; they lacked "higher nationalism". Their cultural myopia led them to amend Article 18 in such manner as to retain the primacy of Sinhala language; the amended Article read as follows:

"(1) The official language of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala.
(2) Tamil also shall be an official language".

In Article 18, the subordinate position of Tamil is emphasised by specifying that Sinhala is THE official language whilst Tamil is AN official language. The subordination is further underlined by inserting the word "also" when referring to Tamil. More importantly, the words "Sri Lanka" were excluded in (2) above. This could convey the impression that the Article does NOT specify that Tamil shall be an official language of the whole of Sri Lanka. If Tamils and Muslims were given "proper recognition and respect", then Sinhala and Tamil languages should have been given equal status. And the Article should have simply said: "The official languages of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala and Tamil". Today, Article 18 continues to do violence to the minor nationalities.


4.11. From Sri to Shri

During the past year (1991/92), the Sinhalese ruling fraction unilaterally proceeded to replace the word "Sri" by "Shri". The stated reasons are that the latter pronunciation is phonetically more correct and that a four-letter word is more auspicious (Seneviratne, 1992). However, the actual reason is probably a desire to Sanskritise the pronunciation in keeping with the myth that Sinhalese are of Aryan origin. In any event, the word "Shri" is being introduced without any regard whatever to Tamil and Muslim opinion.

In short, the Appraisal's assertion that Sinhalese did not pursue national unity "sufficiently seriously" is a gross misrepresentation. The unitary State controlled by the Sinhalese ruling fraction has deliberately and systematically denied precisely the "proper recognition and respect" to Tamil and Muslim nationalities which the Appraisal implied could exist and the lack of which was well documented (Jayawardena, 1985).

Despite the absence of "higher nationalism" and the unlikelihood of its emergence, the Appraisal claimed that the demand for federalism and, as a last resort, secession made by Tamils is premature and inappropriate (p.7,10). But Sri Lanka is a textbook example where a minor (Tamil) nationality explored over more than three decades numerous ways of resolving the nationality question through negotiations and non-violent agitation within the framework of a unitary State.

All such initiatives were repeatedly frustrated by the refusal of Sinhalese leaders to compromise (Wilson, 1988). Indeed, the willingness of Tamil leaders to compromise was misunderstood by Sinhalese leaders as a sign of weakness: thus the Sinhalese MP and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Finance, Mr Nimal Karunatillake, advised the Parliament that in respect of the

"Jaffna [Tamil] community...probably the best attitude that should be adopted to all these loud protests is to regard them with a certain amount of indifference, because leaders of their community seem to choose on every occasion to ask for 100 per cent and be satisfied with 25 per cent" (Hansard, vol 33, 1958:1140).

Sinhalese chauvinism could not have tried harder to pave the way for the emergence of liberation struggles by Tamils.


5. Irrelevance of a unitary State

The Appraisal defended the unitary State on the grounds, firstly, that "ever since 1815 there has been a strong tradition of centralism" (p.16). However, the British in 1815 established the authoritarian colonial State in Sri Lanka to facilitate unchallenged rule over "natives" and undisturbed plunder of resources (Sathananthan, 1988). To describe the centralised colonial State as a Sri Lankan "tradition" is a gross misreading of history.

The Appraisal believed that an advantage of a unitary State is its "efficiency" (p.14). But it should be amply evident by now that the inability to manage conflict has revealed the tragic inefficiency of the unitary State in the context of the multinational society in Sri Lanka.

Moreover, the Appraisal described a federal State as "a much too expensive a luxury for a small State" (p.14). This is nothing new. During Parliamentary debates on the 1956 Official Language Bill, a Sinhalese MP, Mr D P R Gunawardena, claimed that by adopting Sinhala as the sole official language, the State would "save unnecessary expenditure of money" and "unnecessary duplication of officials for various types of work" (Hansard, vol.24, 1956:1731), which would otherwise have to be incurred if Sinhala and Tamil are both official languages. Thus, measures necessary to protect the language rights of, and ensure justice to, minor nationalities were trivialised as "unnecessary" expenditures.

The subsequent staggering social and political costs of the undemocratic language policy - the economic dislocation caused by anti-Tamil pogroms, non-violent resistance and guerrilla struggles by Tamils and the their growing political alienation - are well known. But more than three decades later, the Appraisal mindlessly repeated that "a unitary system makes for the avoidance of unnecessary expenditure" and "prevents the duplication of establishment costs" (p.14).

This assertion is laughable in the face of escalating costs of retaining a unitary State: military expenditure has spiralled over the past few years as the State battled to crush the LTTE; and the allocation of about Rs 12.5 billion for military expenditure in the 1990/91 national budget almost doubled to Rs 25 billion (US$ 0.6 billion) in 1991/92.

The social and economic costs of creating many hundreds of thousand refugees and disruption of economic activities in the NEP, the political costs nation-wide of authoritarianism and violation of human rights, and the geo-political costs of the abridgement of Sri Lanka's sovereignty under the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord are beyond estimation.

Indeed, to say that a federal system is too "expensive" is to admit that the Sri Lankan unitary State is incapable of ensuring justice to the minor nationalities; that it has no legitimacy in the eyes of Tamils and Muslims. This confession can only further justify the demand for a separate Tamil State.

A review of The Appraisal was published as a newspaper article titled "Is Federalism the answer" (Peiris, 1990), written by a Sinhalese academic, Prof G L Peiris (Law Faculty, and Vice Chancellor of University of Colombo). The author agreed that the unitary Constitution does not permit a federal system and thereby shared the vulgar legalism of the Appraisal. He concurred with the fallacy that federalism is a luxury Sri Lanka cannot afford. And he subscribed to the alarmist and erroneous claim that a federal system would lead to the future reservation of the NEP for Tamil-speaking peoples only.

In conclusion, he wrote in a moderate and reasonable tone to describe "a sensible idea: let the present constitutional set up have a fair trial". However, before Independence Tamil political leaders had worried that there would be little scope for Tamils to exercise and defend their rights as a people within a unitary (Soulbury) Constitution. They anticipated that Sinhalese would exploit the unitary Constitution to establish political hegemony over Tamils.

But in 1945 a Sinhalese member of the State Council, Mr Francis Molamure, also had spoken in a moderate and reasonable tone and requested "the Tamil community...to give us [Sinhalese] a fair chance; to give us a fair trial" and he invited Tamils "to come in with us and enable this Constitution which is offered to us to be given a fair trial...After all let them see, when we have more power in our hands, whether the majority community is going to, as they say, dominate over them or whether the majority community is going to be fair to them" (Debates of the State Council, 1945:7004). Prof Peiris repeated the almost identical invitation and implicit assurance to Tamils and Muslims today. He surely cannot expect his invitation to be taken seriously. 



Blaut, James M, 1987. The National Question. London: Zed Books.
de Silva, H L, 1991. An Appraisal of the Federal Alternative for Sri Lanka. Dehiwala: Sridevi Printers.
Government of Sri Lanka, 1985. Draft Framework of Terms of Accord and Understanding. 30 August 1985.
Jayawardena, Kumari, 1985. Ethnic and Class Conflicts in Sri Lanka. Colombo: Centre for Social Analysis.
Kapferer, Bruce, 1988. Legends of People, Myths of State. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Peiris, G L, 1991. "Is federalism the answer", Ceylon Daily News, 24 July 1991. Colombo.
Sathananthan, S, 1988. "The Liberal Democratic State: Myth and Reality in Sri Lanka", Lanka Guardian, 1 March 1988.
---------------, 1992. "Ecology of the nationality question in Sri Lanka", Lanka Guardian, 15 July - 15 August 1992.
Seneviratne, H L, 1992. "`Shri' is a 4 letter word", Lanka Guardian, 1 January 1992.
Sheth, D L, 1989. "State, Nation and Ethnicity", Economic and Political Weekly, 25 March 1989.
Wilson, A Jeyaratnam, 1988. The Break-up of Sri Lanka. London: C Hurst and Company.


Dr.Sachithanandam Sathananthan read for the Ph D degree at Wolfson College, Cambridge. He was Assistant Director at the Marga Institute, Colombo where he was a co-ordinator of research into South Asian regional co-operation conducted by the Committee on Studies for Co-operation in Development (CSCD) in South Asia. He is Chairperson of Mandru (Institute for Alternative Development and Regional Co-operation, Colombo which he co-founded in 1989. His publications and research interests cover national movements, democratisation and nation-building in Sri Lanka and South Asia. He is Visiting Research Scholar at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Dr Sathananthan is a film-maker and the Producer of two television documentaries on nationalism in South Asia: "Where Peacocks Dance" (1992) is a one-hour long documentary film on the cultural roots of Sindhi nationalism in Pakistan; and "Suicide Warriors" (1996) is a half-hour long documentary on the Tamil national movement which explored specifically the role of Tamil women in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka. Both films were broadcast by Channel Four Television, London. "Of Mothers, Mice and Saints" (1994) is a one-hour long documentary he produced for ZDF, German Television, which takes a social anthropological journey into the lives of childless women who seek divine intervention to attain motherhood at the shrine of the 16th century Sufi Saint, Shah Dauley Shah, the Pakistan Punjab.

Dr Sathananthan is the Founder-Secretary of The Action Group Of Tamils (TAGOT) in Sri Lanka.


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