An often repeated lie is that the British systematically favored the Tamils over the Sinhalese as part of a sinister ‘Divide and Rule’ campaign. This has been used as a justification for the systematic and structural discrimination against the Tamils since the early days of Independence. Unfortunately this lie has found its way into outside media outlets as well. The recent Tehelka report and yesterday’s Tamilnet response on this topic can be found here.
British ruled. Not divided.
There is no evidence to suggest that British followed a policy of discrimination against the Sinhalese.
It is a flawed logic to assume that a numerically smaller people achieving a bigger share in any employment sector is so because they were systematically favored by those in power. It is rather racist to conclude that way without analysing the socio-economic background of each ethnic group in the right context. It is far worse and dangerous to suggest that people should be held back to their ethnic percentage of the population. And to do so while the permanent ethnic majority is vested with all the powers. The British were focused primarily on administrative efficiency. An administrative system that worked to optimize trade. Their investments within the colonies were primarily on infrastructure such as paved roads, railways helping to move goods efficiently. On a per capita or as a percentage of GDP, they spent very little on the education and medical needs of the subjects. While the previous rulers, Portuguese and Dutch, also focused on trade, they put religious conversion on par as a priority. And they employed violent methods to prevent the locals from practising their own religion. On the other hand, The East India Company discouraged the work of the missionaries both in India and in Ceylon fearing the backlash of the locals. Influenced by this, successive British Governors Robert Brownrigg and Alexander Johnstone, prevented the American missions from working in the Sinhala areas at their first arrival, but sent them to work among the sparsely populated and numerically smaller Tamils instead.
As a result, Americans, specifically missionaries from the Boston area, played a major role in the socio-economic development of the Tamils during the early British rule. The New England missionaries poured a lot of money and effort into developing the educational and medical care facilities of the Tamil region. Tamils had a head start in English education, making that the path for upward mobility through employment in the Civil Service. The British selected their candidates for the civil service on a merit basis through an open civil service exam without an ethnic quota.
No doubt the missionaries were very much focused on converting the “heathens” to Christianity through education. But the uniquely American pragmatism came through with a secular and diverse curriculum but set within a religious environment . The American missionaries who were in the Tamil regions were unique in many ways. Their work in the Tamil regions and the impact it had on the Tamil psyche deserve an in-depth study.
These missionaries were products of the American revolutionary era. The individual members of the mission were part of the abolitionist movement in the America. A few worked among the Black slaves in the southern states (way before the Civil War) for 6 years (1) before going to Ceylon to work among the Tamils. It cannot be an accident that the anti-British agitation and demand for total independence first came from Jaffna and not from the Sinhala regions. And they also brought with them a strong sense of social reform and succeeded, after persistent effort, in getting students of multiple castes to study together(2) and in getting a large number of girls into schooling, a feat all by itself for that era. It is no coincidence that the Tamil sense of justice was shaped by dissenting and nonconformist puritans of the newly emerged America. Tamils were further beneficiaries of an American approach to education and social reform along the lines of the Calvinist tradition of Ivy league schools in the Northeast of United States.
Numbers don’t Lie.
The American mission worked in close collaboration with the Wesleyan and Church of England missions. By the mid to late 1800’s, the proliferation of schools in the Tamil region was impressive. For a population of about 300,000,
1) Christian missions alone had more than 100 schools teaching over 4000 students.
2) This does not take into account the parallel, competing, effort by the Hindu Saiva revivalists such as Arumuga Navalar in establishing schools teaching secular subjects but in a Saiva environment.
3) So great is the desire for education, that people were willing to pay the full cost. (3)
4) The ratio of total available schools to the student aged population would have been in the single digits. A very impressive statistic.
Writings of the American missionaries in the late 1800’s show the quantity and quality of the graduates are such that many, having exhausted employment opportunities in Ceylon, sought employment in all parts of India, Singapore and Rangoon (4). Supply exceeded the demand.
Now fast forward to 1944. At the time of discussions for full independence, the Soulbury Commision is having to address the same complaint leveled against the Tamils by the Sinhala leaders. Note the Sinhala leaders, knowing the fact, did not accuse the British of favoring the Tamils (That accusation only came after the British left Ceylon), but that the Tamils took up Government employment un-proportionally. The same argument was repeated again in the 1970’s on the topic of education as a justification for the elimination of merit advancement. The poor governance of the Sinhala leaders has, historically, led to the scapegoating of the Tamils as a deflection mechanism.
1944 educational statistics submitted by the Commision show the explosive growth of the vernacular schools between 1931 and 1944 at the expense of the English schools (5) , a harbinger for the language issue 20 something years later in 1958. But the increased spending in the vernacular schools is correlated to the transfer of power to the Sinhalese under the 1931 constitution which the Tamils boycotted.
1) The increase in schools between 1931 and 1944 did not result in a literacy level capable of passing the literacy test (6) had one was implemented to give franchise. The earlier Donoughmore Commission did hear arguments for and against such a literacy test for voting eligibility. Since the implementation of the 1931 constitution, the government spending has skewed towards the religious Buddhist schools and not towards a diverse curriculum.
2) Having enjoyed an educational infrastructure without the support of a government prior to the transfer of power to the locals, Tamils were right to complain that the new government spending on education was not equitable.
3) The Soulbury Commission acknowledges Tamils “..benefitted for over a century from first-rate secondary schools founded and endowed by missionary effort..” (7)
3) In 1938, Tamils held 19.4% of the various government department jobs as a result of this investment in education and not because of favor from the British. This is not necessarily an outrageous percentage worthy of legislative level correction. The Soulbury Commission notes if ethnic proportionality is what Sinhala leaders were worried about then they should be equally worried about the percentage of the Burgher community in the Public services, which they were not.
4) Tamils highlighted to the commission the manipulation of the Sinhala ministers of the selection board for the Public services and the elimination of Arithmetic as a compulsory subject in 1931 for the General Clerical Services exam as eliminating merit and being discriminatory towards the Tamils
5) The Soulbury Commission dismissed this as “small acts of Discrimination,” little realizing the beginning of the structural nature of the discrimination by the “permanent and unassailable majority”.
Such is the case of Ceylon and then Sri lanka that this permanent majority would continue to, to this day, seek legislative, constitutional and judicial means to choke out even a reasonable political space for the Tamils people in that island. And then use their monopoly on violence to deny even the means to advocate for such a political space. This abuse of the system started in the 1920s, progressed to employment in the 1930’s, to language in the 1950’s, and to education in the 1970s, all along justifying it as somehow correcting an unfair advantage by Tamils. This lie still continues. The British should own up to their catastrophic failure in Ceylon. While keeping for themselves an accommodative and devolved political system in the U.K ( Scottish, Irish) and supporting one in the region ( India, Burma), they sided with the Sinhala leaders against the Tamil wishes in propagating an unfair governance in Ceylon. And they justified it in 1944 as balancing the benefit Tamils received under the missionaries. Even when the Sinhala leaders demonstrated their narrow intent repeatedly, the British continued to place their trust in what became a Sinhala Budhhist system not accountable to anyone else.
That in not in any way a systematic favoring of the Tamils but the complete opposite.
(1) Seven years in Ceylon: Stories of mission life by Mary and Margaret W.Leitch. pg 124:
(2) Seven years in Ceylon: Stories of mission life by Mary and Margaret W.Leitch. pg 16
(3) Seven years in Ceylon: Stories of mission life by Mary and Margaret W.Leitch. pg 106
(4) Seven years in Ceylon: Stories of mission life by Mary and Margaret W.Leitch. pg 110:
(5) Ceylon Constitution 1945. pg 149: http://archive.org/stream/CeylonConstitution-1945/CeylonConstitution#page/n161/mode/2up
(6) Ceylon Constitution 1945. Pg 49
(7) Ceylon Constitution 1945. pg 49