Sri Lanka: Whither a Community of Principled Men and Women?

by S Sathananthan, 20 September 1997

The making of a national tragedy

In a recent article titled "Professionals and the fear of getting involved" (Island, 6 August 1997), Mr Stanley Jayaweera lamented that "the country is in shambles".  According to Mr Jayaweera, the primary manifestation of this "tragedy is that society as a whole has failed to throw up a community of principled men [and women] who can stand up to our rampaging politicians and put them in their place."  He attributed numerous reasons for this appalling state of affairs.  They ranged from educational institutions which "miserably failed", the prevailing "I-don’t-want-to-get-involved" syndrome adversely affecting public life, to "[negative] child-rearing practices" in Sri Lankan homes.  With much breast-beating he called for "men who can think deeply and feel deeply".

The reasons he identified may have some relevance.  But his analysis, I would argue, does not reach the roots of the problem.  We must know where we came from in order to understand where we are going.  The "tragedy" he bemoans did not materialise overnight out of thin air.  It has a tortuous history, which began in the early 1950s with Mr SWRD Bandaranaike’s disastrous policy of making the Sinhala language the sole official language of the country, popularly known as the Sinhala Only policy.

The shattering impact of that policy upon the Tamil community over the past four decades is well known.  The economic marginalisation and political alienation of Tamils (with the exception of a few individuals and families of the Tamil political elite who benefited from, and collaborated with, the Sinhalese-dominated State), the strengthening of Tamil nationalism, the emergence of non-violent Tamil agitation for the decentralisation of political authority through District Councils, the metamorphosis of non-violent resistance into armed struggle by Tamil militant groups committed to the creation of an independent Tamil State of Tamil Eelam, and the ongoing civil war could all be traced historically to the politically bankrupt Sinhala Only policy.

But what is relevant, in the context of Mr Jayaweera’s article, is the impact of the Sinhala Only policy upon the Sinhalese people.  During the campaign for the 1956 parliamentary elections, Mr Bandaranaike addressed a public meeting in Colombo.  In the course of his address he flatly declared: "We will make Sinhala the official language in twenty four hours."  And he added with a flourish: "after that even the white men (suddho) who come to our land must first learn Sinhala to do business here".  In other words, the Sinhalese people need not learn the English language to communicate with the world; the world would learn the Sinhala language to reach out to the Sinhalese!  The Sinhalese crowd went delirious and cheered Mr Bandaranaike non-stop for several minutes; and his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) won the elections and secured an unprecedented parliamentary majority.

The rhetoric, of course, pandered to Sinhalese linguistic nationalism.  But the Sinhala Only policy conveyed a potent multi-faceted message to the Sinhalese people, especially to its youth.  They were made to believe that the hegemony of the English language - the kaduwa (literally, the sword) - is over.  More specifically the policy encouraged the vast rural Sinhalese middle class to interpret Sinhala Only to mean the following.  The youth could learn in the Sinhala language medium, safely forego a knowledge of the English language, and study virtually any subject (excluding English language) in school or university.  Thereafter the world would be their oyster!

English language was removed from the list of compulsory subjects students are required to pass at the General Certificate of Education (Ordinary Level) Examination.  The programme for the teaching of English language in government schools was all but dismantled.  Numerous teachers of English language, most of whom possessed decades of valuable experience, were made redundant and many migrated to countries as diverse and Brunei and Zambia in search of employment.  Private schools, which cater to the educational needs of the children of the elite, of course continued the teaching of English language.

The first post-Bandaranaike generation of Sinhalese rural youth, those who came out of schools and universities during the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, found to their horror that the promised Sinhalese Only utopia did not exist.  They were dismayed at being confined to the non-English speaking underclass.  They confronted the reality that lucrative economic opportunities and upward social mobility pivotally depended, as before, upon a working knowledge of the English language; that it was too late in the day for them to acquire competence in English; and that they are hopelessly trapped in the Sinhala Only ghetto.  In short, they were condemned to be the next generation of victims of the kaduwa, to be ruled over as ruthlessly as ever by the anglicised upper class.  They deeply resented the betrayal by the Sinhalese upper class, which had made sure that its own next generation would be proficient in English.

Consequently, in the late 1960s the first post-Bandaranaike rural Sinhalese generation went to the wall.  The politicised segments of its middle class saw no alternative but to overthrow the domination of kaduwa, which symbolised to them the economic exploitation and social exclusion of the non-English speaking Sinhalese population.  They began organising for armed struggle against the State under the banner of the Jathika Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).  They launched the 1971 Insurrection.

During the Insurrection, the United Front (UF) regime led by Mr Bandaranaike’s widow, Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike, put to death a conservatively estimated twenty thousand young Sinhalese men and women.  Their only crime was to have honestly believed in the Sinhala Only utopia cynically sold to them by her late husband in return for votes.  The UF killed the politically conscious and intellectually active cream of the first post-Bandaranaike generation who, if not for the folly of Sinhala Only, would in all likelihood have blossomed into the "community of principled men [and women]" Mr Jayaweera yearned for.

Liberalisation of the economy from 1978 onwards attracted more foreign entrepreneurs.  They, rather than learn Sinhala as Mr Bandaranaike had expansively predicted, demanded instead literacy in English from Sri Lankans as a necessary condition for employment in whitecollar jobs, especially at managerial levels.  National entrepreneurs seeking to exploit new business avenues in the export-oriented open economy preferentially employed Sri Lankans possessing a knowledge of English, who could communicate with, and function in, the fast integrating global economy.  In short, the post-1978 economic changes underlined the utter centrality of English language for Sri Lanka’s tiny, underdeveloped, export economy.

Still no attempt was made by Government to alter the Sinhala Only policy or to implement a programme of teaching aimed at achieving universal English literacy in the country.  Consequently the vast majority of the second post-Bandaranaike generation, of the 1970s and early 1980s, also lacked a working knowledge of English.  They too were educated into the non-English speaking underclass.  And they were virtually excluded from access to the sought-after employment and career opportunities, and compelled to survive on the fringe, of the expanding open economy.

So the second post-Bandaranaike generation of Sinhalese (non-English speaking) youth went to the wall in the mid-1980s.  The politically active strata of the marginalised and deprived majority of that generation regrouped under the JVP.  They groped for an explanation for, and a way out, of their Sinhala Only ghetto.  But they stumbled upon Jathika Chinthanaya, a supposedly enlightened national (read Sinhalese) ideology allegedly rooted in the consciousness of an idealised (Sinhalese) people supposedly unsullied by British colonial indoctrination.  The assumed existence of a pristine Sinhalese population possessing an uncorrupted consciousness is, of course, a populist myth.  It was employed to mask the fact that Jathika Chinthanaya is nothing more than gross Sinhalese chauvinism.  Predictably the moribund Jathika Chinthanaya, rather than politically liberate that generation of Sinhalese, instead sucked them deeper into the same linguistic ghetto.  They drank deep at the twin streams of anti-English linguistic nationalism and anti-Indian Sinhalese nationalism (since New Delhi had by then overtly intervened in the Sri Lankan Tamil Question).  They sharpened their political teeth on two popular political platforms.  The anti-kaduwa rhetoric carried an undercurrent of class-based antagonism to foreign capital and its national collaborative elements.  The anti-Indian sentiments in effect expressed the hostility to Tamil Nadu, which has been synonymous with India in Sinhalese folk memory: thus many Sinhalese nationalists demanded the rapid withdrawal of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in order to prevent the Indian soldiers (Sikhs, Gurkas. etc) from forming sexual liaisons with Tamil women to spawn Tamil "Chola pattau [cubs]".  These political elements combined to form, in the Sinhalese nationalist mind, an emotive but confused amalgam of anti-imperialism and anti-Indian (Tamil) expansionism.  The mobilised rural Sinhalese flexed their political muscle and demonstrated their street power between 1985 and 1988, when they frequently brought commercial activities to a standstill in many parts of the country.

The regimes of Presidents JR Jayawardene and R Premadasa struck back viciously between September 1988 and January 1990.  Between them, they eliminated a conservatively estimated sixty thousand to hundred thousand young men and women, almost the entire core of the politically and intellectually committed Sinhalese youth of the second post-Bandaranaike generation.  Arguably, most of them, had they lived, would have matured into the "community of principled men [and women]" which, said Mr Jayaweera, the country desperately needs.

The conditions facing the third post-Bandaranaike rural generation of Sinhalese youth (from mid-1980s through the 1990s) have hardly changed for the better.  They, too, have been educated to take their place in society as the non-English speaking underclass, to be socially excluded and economically exploited.  If recent news reports of the resurgence of the JVP are reliable, this generation too is preparing to go to the wall.  It is unlikely that Mr Jayaweera will set eyes on the "community of principled me [and women]" he ardently seeks.

But, one may ask, what of the rest of the Sinhalese intelligentsia in each generation?  Why did they fail to throw up men and women of the calibre sought by Mr Jayaweera?  One (by no means the only) reason is the so-called "standardisation" of admission to university, introduced two-and-half decades ago (in 1972).  It engineered preferential admission to the advantage of Sinhalese students and restricted the opportunities for higher education for Tamil students.  In other words, "standardisation" is an expression of the rationale underlying the Sinhala Only policy - that the Sinhalese (including those proficient in English) are entitled to preferential access to opportunities in education, employment, and so on.  The excluded Tamil men and women formed the core of activists who established the militant groups in the mid-1970s and launched armed resistance.  In effect, then, the Sri Lanka Government acted as the recruiting agent for the Tamil militant groups.

What was the impact of "standardisation" on the Sinhalese youth?  In the academic field, "standardisation" turned out to be the proverbial double-edged sword.  It no doubt enabled the entry of a considerably greater number of Sinhalese students into universities than would have otherwise been possible.  But a majority of these students owe their academic success primarily to State intervention.  Consequently the intellectual calibre of Sinhalese graduates in general is suspect not only in the eyes of the community of scholars, but also crucially in the perception of the Sinhalese graduates themselves.  So Mr Jayaweera is overgenerous in assuming that "competent engineers, doctors, academics, lawyers, teachers, administrators, we have in plenty."

The political impact of "standardisation" is devastating; it crippled the capacity of Sinhalese youth to engage in critical activism.  Because, most Sinhalese graduates know that their academic achievement is not the result solely of their intellectual prowess.  They are fully conscious that, if not for the bureaucratically managed "standardisation," many of them would have failed to qualify for admission to any university in the country.  Most importantly, they consequently are grateful to the State.  Anti-State agitation does take place within universities.  But that should not detract from the fundamental reality that, generally speaking, most university graduates of the past twenty-five years and many of the faculty members are obliged to the State for their professional advancement.

Therefore, the majority of Sinhalese intellectuals woefully lack the unshakeable self-confidence and unflinching self-image which are products of achieving success solely on one’s own merit.  It is futile to expect this psychologically emasculated intelligentsia, which includes most of those who were not eliminated in, but were intimidated by, the State repression in 1971 and 1988-90, to "stand up to our rampaging politicians" as Mr Jayaweera would wish.

A few Sinhalese intellectuals were refreshing exceptions to the rule.  They courageously stood up to be counted, but were starved of lateral political support by a Sinhalese intelligentsia largely subservient to the State.  Some of the intellectuals were isolated and cornered into silence by the State; others emigrated to saner environs and most of their names adorn the numerous appeals made for an end to the war by Sri Lankans resident abroad.

Thus the tragedy Mr Jayaweera bemoans is entirely and deliberately self-inflicted.

The most insidious effect of "standardisation" is the debasing of inter-ethnic relations.  Over the years, the practice of "standardisation" educated more than two generations of Sinhalese into believing that their social advancement necessarily depends on the social marginalisation, if not exclusion, of the Tamil community as a whole.  A similar population of Tamils were in turn induced by "standardisation" to view the whole Sinhalese community as obstacles to upward social mobility.  In other words, healthy competition between individual students was replaced by the debilitating confrontation between the ethnic groups.  The rapidly deteriorating inter-ethnic relations were exploited by opportunistic politicians from both sides of the deepening ethnic divide for electoral gain.  The lofty exercise in post-colonial "nation-building" therefore stood revealed as an unconscionable deception foisted upon the Tamil people.

The cul-de-sac of Jathika Chinthanaya

The primary response of Sinhalese nationalism to this catastrophe was to produce its lunatic variant.  The irrational reaction is illustrated by the article titled "The Tamil Problem" (Island, 24 August 1997) by Mr Gunadasa Amarasekera, an enthusiastic practitioner of Jathika Chinthanaya.  The article is the text of the evidence he presented a week earlier to the Sinhala Commission, constituted to document and assess the rights Sinhalese people claim to have lost.  He employed the almost three-decades old Centre-Periphery jargon in a desperate but wholly unsuccessful bid to attribute Tamil militancy to rural-to-urban surplus extraction by the "Tamil middle class" that migrated from the Jaffna peninsula to Colombo.  Unable to admit to the lasting contribution of Sinhalese chauvinism to the radicalisation of Tamils and the growth of Tamil armed struggle, Mr Amarasekera blindly lashed out at "the Tamil political leadership…for making their youth the easy prey [sic] of Tamil fascist indoctrination from South India"!?

He succumbed to the Jathika Chinthanaya knee-jerk reaction when he claimed that Tamils in the north received a better English-medium education under colonial rule.  This Goebellsian "big lie" has been the stock-in-trade of Sinhalese chauvinists who justify educational discrimination against Tamils in general as compensating action to remedy imbalances in the past, on the grounds that Tamil students had benefited disproportionately more from allegedly "superior" educational facilities set up in the Jaffna peninsula by American missionaries in the late 19th century.  It is a "big lie" because at least one-third of the Tamil population in the peninsula, the so-called "low castes", were denied access to all avenues of education; and because the vast majority of Tamils - sixty percent of Ceylon Tamils and all Up-Country Tamils - live outside the peninsula.  It is a "big lie" also because the British colonial administration concentrated in Colombo, the capital of then Ceylon, the most advanced infrastructure and facilities for education, trade, business and government for at least a century; Kandy, the "plantation capital", came second with respect to the concentration of resources and opportunities.  The Royal-Thomian is the oldest cricket match in the country played annually for more than a century between the two most prestigious schools - Royal College and St Thomas College - both of which are situated in the south.  It is very unlikely that a school from the Jaffna peninsula would be included in an objective list of the ten most prestigious schools in the country.

Indeed, the dream of most Tamil parents in the north has always been to educate their children in the superior "Colombo Schools"; this was an important "pull factor" which induced Tamil migration to Colombo during this (20th) century.  And young Tamil men educated in "Colombo schools" routinely commanded bigger dowries at marriage than their counterparts who were educated in Jaffna schools!

It follows that the so-called "over-achievement" of Tamil students in securing admission to universities has little to do with differences in the provision of educational facilities between schools in Jaffna and Colombo.  The alleged existence of superior educational facilities in the Jaffna peninsula is nothing but an excuse manufactured to justify discrimination against Tamils in the country as a whole.

Mr Amarasekera also alluded to the "over-representation" of Tamils in public sector employment and service professions (medicine, law, etc.) to substantiate the alleged advantage, according to Sinhalese chauvinists, Tamil people are supposed to have enjoyed in the economy as a whole.  But employment in the public sector and service professions, it must be noted, is the concern primarily of the middle class Tamils and Sinhalese.  Significantly, at no point was any allegation made that Tamil are over-represented among the upper, property-owning class.  The reason is simple.  The Sri Lankan upper class, composed predominantly of land owning and business interests, is virtually monopolised by the Sinhalese as revealed, for example, by the data on estates and agency houses released by the Plantations Ministry when the estates were nationalised in 1972 and 1975.

The cynical manoeuvre by the Sinhalese propertied classes to re-direct hostility of Sinhalese working classes towards the vulnerable Tamil population in the south is a further reason for emphasising Tamil "success" at the middle class level.

Moreover, Mr Amarasekera and fellow chauvinists imbued with Jathika Chinthanaya have also alleged that Tamils were privileged by the British colonial State as an integral part of the strategy of "divide and rule" in Ceylon.  They glibly supported this assertion with illustrations from many other British colonies where the colonial State in each instance co-opted the minor ethnic groups and pitted them against the major ethnic group in order to neutralise any nationalist challenge to British colonial power.

However, Ceylon was the prominent exception.  The British proudly called it the "model colony" for good reason.  The Sinhalese and Tamil elite collaborated utterly with the colonial State.  Anti-colonial sentiments were expressed by the Jaffna Youth Congress in the north and the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) in the south; but neither significantly threatened the colonial State.  In fact the Tamil and Sinhalese elite never posed a credible nationalist challenge; they never attempted a freedom movement in the country.  Independence was granted unexpectedly, and the ruling United National Party (UNP) did not have a national flag ready to be hoisted at independence.  The elite were thoroughly confused by the gratuitous offer of "fully independent status" (left tantalisingly vague) made by Britain, with the British monarch continuing to hold office as the Head of State.  So the UNP played safe and flew both the Union Jack and a temporary Lion Flag together at the farcical independence celebration on the 4th of February, 1948.  Three years lapsed before the national flag was designed and adopted in 1951.

At no point was British colonialism compelled to rely on Tamils to keep the Sinhalese at bay.  The supine Sinhalese elite simply gave no cause for the British to favour the Tamils.  The much talked of "communal representation" in the legislative bodies under British rule had almost everything to do with rewarding the most accomplished Sinhalese and Tamil collaborators and virtually nothing to do with "divide and rule".  In the "model colony" that was Ceylon, Britain ruled without dividing!

If the alleged historical advantage enjoyed by Tamils is largely a myth, repeating that groundless assertion today is positively obscene.  The Tamil people in the NorthEast Province (NEP) have been victims of war for almost two decades, from the counter-insurgency campaign of "collective punishment" launched by Brigadier Weeratunga in July 1979 to the ongoing "war for peace" [sic] unleashed by President Chandrika Kumaratunga in September 1995.  Tamil civilians have been decimated, property has been destroyed and many libraries and schools reduced to rubble with the evident intention to pauperise the Tamil people.  Almost half the Tamil population in the NEP are condemned to live as refugees within Sri Lanka; and many hundreds of thousand Tamils have been driven to seek refuge in other countries.  Human rights violations against Tamils are legion.  Ceylon Tamils living outside the NEP were once widely distributed in the south.  But successive anti-Tamil pogroms from 1956 to 1983 ensured ethnic cleansing; and the Ceylon Tamil populace is today essentially reduced to a stump in and around the city of Colombo.  And those Tamils living in Colombo live in mortal fear of the "midnight knock" on the door; they are subject to indiscriminate arrest and detention - and some have "disappeared".  Up-Country Tamils employed on plantations were held under slave labour conditions for more than one and half centuries.  Yet Sinhalese chauvinists steeped in Jathika Chinthanaya repeatedly mouth the shibboleth, and Mr Amarasekera quoted it approvingly, that "Tamils are one of the most privileged minorities in the world".

Kaduwa re-visited

"English", Mr Amarasekera conceded, " has remained the `Open Sesame’ to the wealth and privileges that could be acquired in the Ali Baba’s cave of Colombo from the colonial to the contemporary period."  And it has dawned on him, four decades too late, that "in a modernising trading economy that cannot be changed by the mere adoption of Sinhalese, Tamil and Arabic as official languages."  But he could not climb out of the reactionary political rut of Jathika Chinthanaya; for he simultaneously condemned "English linguistic hegemony", as do other supporters of Janthika Chinthanaya, for the "cultural and economic deprivation among the Sinhala swabasha intelligentsia".

Mr Amarasekera made no such claim in respect of the Tamil swabasha intelligentsia.  His omission is partly attributed to his grudging awareness of the contrasting tactics of the Sinhalese as opposed to the Tamil politicians.  "SWRD Bandaranaike and Philip Gunewardene" he explained, "roused the exploited and deprived Sinhala vernacular constituency, with the promise to replace English with Sinhala as the official language, in order to emancipate the vernacular constituency from their economic and cultural enslavement in the chains of [sic] English linguistic hegemony.  On the other hand the Tamil swabasha intelligentsia in the North and East never received the kind of leadership that the Sinhala swabasha intelligentsia received."  But he avoided an examination of the reasons why the Tamil intelligentsia found it wise to behave differently.

The point Mr Amarasekera emphasised most was "the failure of the ruling Anglophile establishment to impart a knowledge of English to the swabasha educated intelligentsia.  Swabasha education and Sinhala as the official language has been made the excuse[s] for the failure."  It is refreshing to observe that an inkling of the enormity of the blunder perpetrated by the Sinhala Only policy is beginning to sink in.  The belated and embryonic realisation of the importance of universal English literacy is also evident in the decision of the Department of Education to re-start the teaching of English language in government schools beginning with Grade One in January 1998.

However, the road ahead is long and arduous.  Building- up a cadre of effective teachers and ensuring universal English literacy is but the first small step.  The elimination of "standardisation" and a reform of educational policy to give political expression to the ethnic diversity in the country would be the next and more important steps.  They are preliminary tasks in an ambitious agenda which must seek to de-fang Jathika Chinthanaya and catalyse the emergence of "a community of principled men [and women]".  Given the reactionary history of Sinhalese nationalism, the formulation of the agenda and its success are by no means guaranteed.

Published in Hot Spring, October 1997 and posted on the Sangam website at http://www.sangam.org/ANALYSIS_ARCHIVES/Satha1.htm

About the author

Dr Sachithanandam Sathananthan read for the Ph D degree at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge.  He was Assistant Director at the Marga Institute, Colombo.

His publications and research interests cover national movements, democratization and nation-building in South Asia.  He is the Producer of two documentary films on nationalism in South Asia. "Where Peacocks Dance" (1992) is a one hour long film on the cultural roots of Sindhi nationalism in Pakistan.  "Suicide Warriors" (1996) is a half-hour long film on the Tamil national struggle which explores specifically the role of women in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka.  Both films were broadcast by Channel Four Television, London.

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Posted May 9, 2005