By Reggie Siriwardena

We are presenting an article by Reggie Siriwardena (March, 1992), because the example he used [Education Policy in Sri Lanka] is illustrative of the erroneous path postcolonial Ceylon chose with ruinous consequences. While other reasonably successful postcolonial countries with ‘plural societies’ took to nation-building on secular lines, Ceylon (later renamed Sri Lanka) chose a mono-ethnic (Sinhala-Buddhist) superiority and hegemony. Starting with the choice of its national flag, to a language policy, to mono-religious pre-eminence, to bigotry and misuse of political power, it created a chunk of its population which now feels no loyalty to it. If Sri Lanka were to remain as one country, with citizens of ‘every color’ willingly saluting its flag with pride, a radical restructuring is a sine-qua-non.


‘History May Be Servitude or History May Be Freedom’.

For history as servitude we can go to the popular images of our history projected and in the language readers used in schools.

In the weeks after the eruption of July 1983, the English language press in Sri Lanka carried a number of readers’ letters and articles placing the responsibility for ethnic conflict on the educational system. Two recurrent points of view emerged from them:

a.     The segregation of schoolchildren into separate Sinhala and Tamil language‑streams has widened the gulf between the two ethnic groups;

b.    The adoption of the Swabasha (national languages) as the media of instruction in schools has imposed a communication barrier between children of different ethnic groups and deprived English of its former role as a unifying factor.

It is apparent that many of these writers (probably in their fifties or older) look back nostalgically to their own childhood when they claim a sense of common nationhood transcending ethnic differences given by education through the English medium. A similar viewpoint was expressed three months after the July violence by Mr. Justice D. Wimalaratne, speaking as the Chief Guest at the prize‑giving at S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia. Looking back on his schooldays, Mr. Wimalaratne said:

“Whether one was a Molamure or an Abeysekera, a Saravanamuttu or an Abdulla, a Mugabe or an Arndt, all were equal and no one was considered superior to the other except, of course, when a boy showed his superior talents in the classroom or in the playing field.”

It so happened that I too went to the same school as Mr. Justice Wimalaratne and at the same period, and can confirm that the state of affairs he describes admiringly did obtain there. But what was the precondition for this obliviousness to ethnic differences? The fact was that children attending such schools as S.Thomas’ during the colonial era were not only taught in English but came from homes that were English-speaking and, therefore belonged to a specific-social strata. The letter-writers and authors of newspaper articles (referred to above) were also probably educated in English in the colonial period or its immediate aftermath; both generationally and class-wise, therefore, they belonged to a particular group with a distinct social and cultural outlook. What is striking, however, is the unawareness these writers seem to share of the fact that their experience was not characteristic of the entire nation. In some of these passages, indeed, there is an underlying assumption that at one time everybody was educated in the English medium and that ethnic conflict began after and as a result of the ‘shift’ to the national media. The facts are very different.

The Turning Point

The turning-point in the history of our educational system is constituted by the “Report of the special Committee on Education in 1943” which recommended the adoption both of free education and of the Swabasha media of instruction in primary classes. At this time, according to the figures given in the report itself, the distribution of pupils between different types of schools was as follows:

English 92,049
Bilingual 15,917
Vernacular 650,910

It should be evident from these figures that linguistic segregation of children did exist in the colonial period on a different basis from that which obtains today. There was a threefold division between those who were taught in English, in Sinhala and in Tamil. However, the main dividing line was between those who belonged to the first group and those who fell into the latter two, since this division corresponded to a class differentiation, related to the capacity to pay for education. What is also evident from the figures is that the great majority of children were even at that time educated in Sinhala and Tamil (that is, if they were educated at all). This last reservation is necessary because there were many children who had no access to education before the wide dissemination of schooling in the post-independence period. However, of the children who actually went to school those who were educated in the English medium constituted a little over 12%; a small, and unrepresentative minority, therefore, though their parents and families constituted then the socially and politically influential elite.

It should be apparent that when writers in the English language press idealized the happy ethnic harmony of their schooldays, they were unwarrantedly assuming that what was true for them was true for the entire nation. Moreover, they failed to recognise that the ‘common identity’ which they remember sharing was less a common national identity then a class identity, which transcended their ethnic identity as Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims or Burghers. Fluency in the English language and their Western-style dress were distinguishing marks of that class identity, which was in many ways defined through differentiation from the rest of the nation, the majority of whom, who spoke Sinhala or Tamil, went barefoot and wore sarong, verti or cloth and jacket.

Link Language/s

This historical context must be borne in mind when considering the argument that the promotion of English as a ‘link language’ between communities would be a way of easing ethnic tensions. The fundamental assumption behind this proposal comes, as it seems to me, from people who remember the role of English in the past as a link between members of different ethnic communities and who, however, belonged to the same social class. Such people imagine that the function that English performed in a different era for a social minority can be resuscitated in the present in respect of the whole nation. To state the proposal in that way is to bring out the fallaciousness of the thinking on which it is based. This is all the more evident when one notes that the possession of a common medium of communication in the English Language hasn’t prevented racism from spreading among the English-speaking strata in recent years, and that those among them who are involved in the rat-race of competition for jobs or for places in higher education for their children, are often as racist as anybody else.

Those who advocate the development of English as a ‘link language’ are also usually oblivious of the fact that it simply isn’t practicable, with our present resources, to give every school child an effective knowledge of English. In fact, we yet don’t have adequate teaching skills and other facilities even to give every child, who will reach the stage of tertiary education, a sufficient command of English to enable him to use the language as a means of access to wider knowledge. That is the useful and necessary function which English language teaching should serve; but if the solution of our ethnic problems has to await the day when Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims can talk to each other freely in English, then God help us all!

The alternative proposal in respect of a ‘link language’ which has been mooted is that Sinhala and Tamil-speaking children should be taught each other’s languages. In the atmosphere of euphoria which followed the UNP’s election landslide of 1977 and the party’s election promises to uphold national unity, this proposal was even adopted as part of the Government’s educational policy. It was, however, never implemented on any significant scale, and seemed abandoned. The official reasons given for jettisoning it were: (a) that Jaffna schools had not co-operated to teach Sinhala, and (b) that more time was needed for English-language teaching.

The idea of Sinhala and Tamil as mutually supportive link languages was, in principle, a useful contribution to communication between Communities, and it was not open to technical problems of the same order as any endeavour to teach every child English. The political problems are another matter. Unfortunately, one has to conclude that what might still have been made acceptable in 1977, if energetically and persuasively promoted, now would meet with greater resistance in the atmosphere of intensified ethnic conflict today; and that the adoption of Sinhala and Tamil as link languages requires as a precondition a different political climate.

There is, however, a more fundamental point which must be made in respect of the very concept of a link language as an answer to ethnic problems. It assumes that linguistic diversity and segregation of schoolchildren in different language streams is the heart of the problem, and that the problem would be, if not totally solved, at least substantially solved if schoolchildren had a common language in which to communicate: This assumption is questionable. In a survey of ethnic perceptions among schoolchildren of Grades 11 and 12 in which I participated, my colleagues and I observed that the presence in the same class of children of different ethnic groups who were being taught in same language did not necessarily make for more enlightened or tolerant attitudes. We even had the experience of hearing Sinhala children making derogatory statements about Tamils in the presence of Tamil children who were being taught in Sinhala in the same class. On a larger scale, there is no reason to think that possession of a common language as a medium of communication, ipse facto guarantees harmonious ethnic relations. Catholics and Protestants have been fighting each other in Ulster for a long time although they have no linguistic difficulty in talking to each other.

Diversive Contents in Text Books

What is taught is more important than the medium in which it is taught, in determining schoolchildren’s ethnic perceptions.

The exploitation of history as an instrument of divisive ethnic ideologies has long‑standing precedents in our schoolbooks. For instance the Kumarodaya, the most widely used Sinhala school reader in the era of private publication, began by plunging the kindergarten child into the cesspool of racial hatred with a lesson on the young Dutugemunu in which his father warned him that the Tamils were ‘very cruel’. The only set of Sinhala readers of the immediate post-independence era which was designed to promote a sense of a larger identity transcending ethnic consciousness was the Nava Maga series by H.D. Sugathapala. Their content bears out in a large measure their author’s claim.

“Those books have been prepared so as to create in the child a good understanding of his country and its people, and to help him to live with them free of communal hostilities, in affection and co-operation.”2

On the Tamil language readers of the same period I shall like to quote the observations of Professor K. Indrapala:

“Until the introduction of common text-books published by the state, the language text-books in Tamil were not, as a rule, directed towards creating an understanding of and a respect for the way of life and culture of ethnic groups other than the Tamils. There was hardly a lesson on the Sinhala people, culture and society, or on Buddhism. Even lessons on Sri Lanka were conspicuously missing. On the contrary, most of the text-books fostered in the Tamil child a special feeling for his or her community and language and helped to strengthen communal attitudes. What is even more significant is that there were lessons which helped to foster a kind of patriotic feeling, not towards Sri Lanka, but towards Tamil Nadu. Many of the hardened attitudes regarding race and language among the Tamils who received their education exclusively in the medium of Tamil in the fifties and sixties could be attributed to some extent to the text‑books they had used in their schools.”3

In the 1960s, however, the state took over the publication of all basic text‑books. The language readers on which I am going to comment on are the fruits of that policy and are all published by the Educational Publications Department, which is a state organisation, for compulsory use in schools. There are two sets of Sinhala Readers one, originally produced in the 1970s under the previous administration but reprinted and used in schools until the end of 1982; the other, introduced from the beginning of 1983. I shall refer to these as the (Sinhala) Old Series and New Series respectively. In Tamil, on the other hand, a single set of readers has been in continuous use throughout this period.

Eliminating Sectarian Ideology

It is evident from these books that the state take-over of textbook publication has had different effects in respect of Sinhala and Tamil readers. In the case of the Tamil readers, it has served to eliminate all traces of the sectarian ideology that Prof. Indrapala described as having been dominant in the era of private publication. What has replaced it is a recurrent concern for the projection of a national identity bridging ethnic differences. The keynote is struck already in the kindergarten reader, which has on two facing pages pictures of a Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim family, and then of the fathers, the mothers and the children of the three families in friendly postures. The accompanying text reads.

We are Tamils
We are Muslims
We are Sinhalese
Ilankai (Lanka) is our land
We are all people of this land
We are friends.
The land of Ilankai is our land
it is our sweet motherland.

Lessons in later readers include themes relevant not only to Hindus but also to the Christian and Muslim minorities. There is material presenting relations of friendship between Tamil children on the one hand and both Sinhala and Muslim children on the other. Stories are drawn not only from Hindu but also from non-Hindu, including Buddhist culture. The festivals portrayed cover all four major religions of the island, while the major secular festival of the country the indigenous New Year is identified as the Sinhala and Tamil New Year. There are lessons on both Sinhala and Tamil anti‑imperialist national heroes.

How well do the Tamil readers promote the purposes for which they have been designed? I hesitate to offer an answer because I can judge them only from translations, but it seems to me that the methods adopted are too often overtly didactic (it is hardly likely that kindergarten children will be influenced by preaching national harmony). The Nava Maga readers could have provided useful models of more oblique and imaginative methods of communication. But, well or ill done, what is most significant about the Tamil readers is that they provide a total contrast with the parallel Sinhala books.

Mono-Cultural Character

Taking the old Sinhala Readers first, one notices that they maintain a solely mono-cultural context, and this means not merely a Sinhala culture but a specifically Sinhala-Buddhist culture. The readers in the early grades are based on the experience of a family, its friends, relations and neighbours; and the characters, way of life, festivals and practices presented in these readers are confined to a Sinhala-Buddhist milieu. Even the existence of Sinhala-Christian children, of whom a large number study these books, is ignored. In fact, if a child’s knowledge of Sri Lanka was confined to these readers, he would not even be aware that there were any people in Sri Lanka who were not Sinhala-Buddhists. The opportunity presented by the New Year for bringing out a certain commonality between Sinhala and Tamil cultures is cast aside. The New Year is simply the Sinhala New Year, and there is even a lesson which starts with the rituals and observances of Sinhala New Year and goes on to describe corresponding festivals in India, Laos, Kampuchea, Japan, Burma and Germany. But nowhere is there even a mention of the fact that Tamils in Sri Lanka observe the New Year on the same day as the Sinhalese and with broadly similar practices.

In the higher grades (3-9) the readers don’t shed their mono-cultural character, but they begin to acquire a further and more disturbing element. They project an image of a Sinhala-Buddhist identity, which is defined fundamentally through opposition to and struggles against Tamils in past history.

Some of this material is extremely sinister in its potential effects on young minds. Thus, one lesson on Gajabahu starts by reminding the child that parents frighten naughty children by threatening to hand them over to the ‘billo’ (bogeymen). It then asks: Who are these ‘billo?’ It goes on to explain that the Chola king wanted to kidnap Sinhalese to make them work for him and sent a group of fierce people of the ‘billa’ race to Sri Lanka. The lesson goes on:

“The ‘billo’ who entered the Sinhala land by force began hunting the Sinhala with bundles of ashes in one hand and strands of rope in the other. As soon as they saw an isolated Sinhalese approaching, they thrust a bundle of ashes into his mouth and straightaway bound him hand and loot with the rope they had and sent him to a Chola ship.”

What this lesson does is to evoke the child’s memories of being frightened by his parents with threats of the mysterious and fearful ‘billo’, to identify these bogeymen as Tamil agents, and thus to enlist the deep-seated irrational fears of early childhood for the purpose of creating apprehension and hatred of Tamil.

Finally, in respect of more recent history, the readers project an image of an exclusively Sinhala struggle for Independence (all the national heroes celebrated are Sinhala Buddhists). This trend culminates in a lesson which presents the freedom gained in 1948 as a liberation of the Sinhalese. It does not seem to have struck the authors that if this was true, no further argument would be needed to justify Tamil separatism. In the entire range of ten readers (Old Series) there is only a solitary lesson - a poem of Sagara Palansurlya - which expresses a sense of shared experience common to Sinhalese and Tamils, and which is entirely at variance with the general character of the Series.

The New Series of readers is not essentially different in character; although all the books have been re-written, the pattern of the Old Series is maintained. Thus, the context of the first three readers, based on family life and experiences, is again mono-cultural. By looking at the living styles of the main characters and the religious and cultural activities in which they participate, one can easily infer that those are Sinhala-Buddhist children, living in a Sinhala-Buddhist environment. All the names of the characters are clearly Sinhala, except for one boy who is named Raja. Raja is a name common to both Sinhala and Tamil communities, although the Raja in the lessons is not identified as Tamil. But this ambiguity is dangerous because of all the characters in the lessons it is only Raja who is identified as a ‘bad boy’. This could easily have been avoided.

Some Fundamental Problems

In the depiction of history the New Series sustains the Sinhala-Buddhist ideological interpretation of the Old Series. The lessons drawing on Sri Lankan history relate either to ‘great’ kings who saved the island from Tamil invaders (e.g. Dutugemunu and Vijayabahu) or to recent personalities ‘who saved the Sinhala language’ (Munidasa Kumaratunga) or ‘restored the self‑respect of the Sinhalese’ (Ven. Hikkaduwe, Sri Sumangala Thero).

What appears to be an innovation in the form of a lesson on Deepavali turns out to be less liberal-minded than superficial examination might suggest. Having described the ritual of Deepavali, the lesson goes on to identify it as ‘a festival of the people of India’ as well as one which is celebrated here by ‘those descended from the Tamils of India.’ If the intention was to give Sinhala children some understanding of Tamil culture, the effect is negated by giving an alien character to Sri Lankan Tamils. One wonders whether in a lesson on Vesak the writers could have thought of describing it as a festival celebrated by those who are descended from the Bengalis of India.

Again, there is a lesson which describes a trip by a party composed predominantly of Sinhalese, but there is among them a girl called Harriet, who is described in these terms, ‘Although Tamil, she was a pretty girl, who in appearance and speech seemed really Sinhalese.’ Obviously this is the ideal by which Tamil girls are to be judged!

The New Series raises the same fundamental problem as that posed by the Old: Why is there this immense gulf in attitudes, outlook and objectives between the Sinhala and Tamil readers produced by the same state institution? Why must a sense of common nationhood be taught only to Tamil children, and why must Sinhala children be infected with a sense of Sinhala-Buddhist dominance? There are, no doubt, people who think this is as it should be. To them I would like to quote the words I have written at the end of a critical study of school textbooks:

 “A system of education that encourages and fosters ideas of racial superiority and domination among the majority community is no basis for national unity, or even for national peace... To adopt or sanction a two‑faced educational policy by giving Sinhala and Tamil school children different conceptions of the relation between the two communities and their place in the national life is, in fact, to promote continuing discord, conflict and bitterness and to foster divisiveness and separation.”4

“One pre‑condition for any effort to build a sense of national identity is the rewriting of school books. In the same study I have suggested that such a reform should be based on ‘a new perspective on our history, culture and national life, free of unscientific racial myths and obsessions with the invasions and wars of another age and another society, and a recognition of the common elements that link the peoples of this country in shared experiences and mutual assimilation of elements from each other’s cultures:’5

(The text of this article is an amalgam of extracts from two separate papers of Mr. Reggie Siriwardene, which he had presented on two different occasion at the Marga Institute and also at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies in May and August 1984 respectively).


1. H. D. Sugathapa, Nava Maga Reader for Grade 3, Preface.
2. Reggie Siriwardena, K.Indrapala, Sunil Bastian and Sepali Kottegoda, School Text Books and Communal Relations In Sri Lanka (Council for Communal I Harmony through the Media, 1982). (Refer P.35)
3. Reggie Siriwardena, et al., op.cit., p.62
4. Ibid., p.61
5. Ceylon Daily News, 27.8.83.

Courtesy: “Beyond Ethnic Logos”; Vol. 31 # 1&2; March 1992; Published by ‘Centre for Peace’, 281 Dean Road, Colombo 8, Sri Lanka.

Sangam Research(C)  (04 March 2002)