April 22, 2020

Examining the Sinhala-Tamil Conflict in the Historical Context of Colonialism

By Harsha Senanayake


Post-colonial conflicts trace their roots to the colonial encounter. The policies adopted by colonial governments shaped, to a considerable extent, the nature of the present-day conflicts. The story is similar across post-colonial South Asia. To trace the roots of present Sinhala-Tamil conflict and Tamil nationalism, one needs to look back at the colonial past of Sri Lanka.

Historically, Sinhalese dominated the island of Sri Lanka from the 5th century onwards. Various overtures by South Indian Kingdoms in the island sown seeds of suspicion between Sinhalese and Tamils.

To investigate the conflict, the paper is divided into two broad parts. Firstly, the economic dimension of the conflict is investigated. It will approach the conflict from perceived material gains from the conflict. Secondly, the identity-related grievances between the two communities arising from cultural pride and the perceived outside attack on the community from both political and societal institutions.

The paper further looks at the opportunities for arriving at the permanent peace to the decades-long conflict, taking cues from the established precedents.


War is a costly exercise. It requires money, material, and human resources. The civil war has to be feasible in economic terms for it to be prolonged. Also, the economic pay-offs in the post-conflict period must be lucrative for individuals to get involved in the civil war (Collier and Hoeffler 2004). Thus, it is important to understand the political economy of the civil war along with identity issues. The Sri Lankan economy developed in the British colonial period (1796-1948) as an export-oriented economy with a focus on three plantation crops, i.e., rubber, tea and coconut (Samarsinghe 2003). In the initial phase of the British colonial regime, the colonial government focused more on extracting resources from the established feudal economic system of Ceylon. From the 1830s onwards, the British introduced the plantation estates in Ceylon which transformed the existing Sri Lankan feudal economy to some extent but failed to bring the overall capitalist transformation of the economy (Cameron and Wickramasinghe 2005). The colonial government intervened extensively to provide cheap land and labour for the plantation estates. The cheap labour for the plantations estate was provided by Tamils from India who were forced by the British to work in a foreign land. In the initial period of establishment of Estates, Sinhalese were not interested in the plantation work as more lucrative economic opportunities were present. At the same time, the prevailing economic conditions in South India helped in the supply of cheap labour. The migration of Tamil labour from India (mainly from districts of Tirunelveli, Madurai, and Tanjore) started in 1819 and continued till 1839 when the government of India banned the emigration of labour to Ceylon. In 1847, this ban on emigration was lifted on the understanding that these labourers would be treated on par with the local population.  The famine during 1876-78 affected an area of 74,000 square miles containing a population of 16 million in Madras Presidency. This led to a high number of unemployed landless agricultural labourers. Initially, the colonial government was also involved in the transportation of these labourers (Cameron and Wickramasinghe 2005). An exploitative system of bonded labour emerged known as Kangany system.

The Tamils as a group are a diverse community. As noted above, the Indian Tamils who came as tea plantation workers faced extreme hardships due to the presence of Kangany system in estates. Not only this, in 1948, but the Ceylon Citizenship Act also passed by the Ceylon Parliament denied citizenship rights to Indian Tamils, which was in direct contradiction to the equal citizenship rights promised in 1847 when the ban on emigration was lifted.  It must be noted that the conflict of interests exists within the Tamil and Sinhala communities. Although Indian Tamils share the same language and religion with the Ceylonese Tamils, the difference in history, caste, and economic conditions have proved a major obstacle in achieving unity. Here, the economic aspect is important. On one hand, while the Indian Tamils or Estate Tamils form an underprivileged community; the Sri Lankan Tamils (thanks to divide and rule policy of British Colonial government which pitted one community against the other) were disproportionately represented in the civil services and judiciary at the time of Independence. The Ceylon Citizenship Act (1948) was also supported by the Tamil Congress Leadership (DLIFLC 2011). The youth from the disenfranchised sections within each community were far more radical in their aspirations. They had the major stake in attacking the established political system which was dominated by the stronger sections within each group (Abeyratne 2002). After 1987, only LTTE (out of all Tamil militant groups) carried out the secessionist war against the state.

As a result of plantation estates, at the time of independence, Sri Lanka was relatively prosperous when compared to other decolonized countries. This allowed the Sri Lankan government to pursue welfare-oriented development policies in the post-independence period (Abeyratne 2002). But things didn’t go as scripted. The country adopted inward-looking, welfare-oriented, centralized economic policies from the 1950s onwards till 1977 when it liberalized its economy. The welfare schemes, while contributing to the rise of average life expectancy, declining infant mortality rate and increased levels of education failed to absorb the newly educated sections of the society due to lack of industrialization. This also exhausted the Sri Lankan government of its resources. Sri Lanka experienced slow economic growth during this period of autarky. This coupled with an increase in population led to a high rate of unemployment, which resulted in a supply pool for the civil war. Besides, the Sinhala only language policy in government jobs and university education meant that the job opportunities for Tamil youth became severely low.  The language act was not only an attack on the culture and identity of Tamils but it also directly threatened the employment opportunities of Sri Lankan Tamils who were well represented in civil services during the colonial period. In the 1970s, these youths were going to challenge the established political system of Sri Lanka (Abeyratne 2002).

To conclude, the estate Tamils who were brought from South India during the colonial period were exploited under the Kangany system. Still, a majority of estate Tamils live their life in miserable conditions in the plantation estates. They were never accepted by Sri Lankan Tamils owing to economic, historical and caste differences. Secondly, the colonial government favoured Sri Lankan Tamils in securing jobs in the judiciary and civil services which meant that at the time of independence Tamils were disproportionately represented in the government jobs. The Sinhala only Act of 1956 was a direct attack on the employment opportunities of the Tamils. Thirdly, Sri Lanka maintained its welfare state system in the post-independence era by exhausting resources earned during the colonial period. The increase in population (a result of welfare programs) and lack of industrial development meant a job crunch, which resulted in a pool of disillusioned youth, ready to be tapped by militant outfits during the civil war.


It is said that every man is at the crossroad of identities. These identities play up according to the situation and the identity which is specifically under threat is asserted accordingly. The decade-old ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka to traces its root to the centuries-old clash of identities. The identity conflict between the two largest groups- Sinhala and Tamils that witnessed widespread violence also encompass the cultural and linguistic dimensions with an overarching Indian influence especially from the state of Tamil Nadu. The identities took various forms. We can witness different identities playing up against the dominant Sinhala Buddhist identity on the island. Sometimes it is the Tamils that follow Shaivite Hinduism, sometimes it is the Tamil Christians or even the Tamil Muslims. There were also identity clashes between the Jaffna Tamils and the Ceylon Tamils. Thus, there had been an extensive interplay of identities that need to be taken into cognizance to understand the present-day ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. Over the years, however, the presence of LTTE has fused almost all the identities and it is now purely on linguistic lines- the Tamils against Sinhalese.

Glimpses from the past and its different stories

As per the Sinhala version of ancient history goes, the Sinhalas claimed their lineage from the North Indian Aryan ancestors and the language later turned into Sinhala. A great Sinhala Buddhist civilization flourished on the island which was under a constant threat from the Tamil speaking South Indian Hindu kings. The Sinhalas were forced to retreat further south and the descendants of the invader Tamils could be seen in today’s North and the Eastern provinces. (Spencer 2004:20) Thus, we find the South Indian connect wherein the history the Tamils are considered as ‘outsiders’. The clash of identities starts from ancient history itself. These histories have been instrumental in present-day electoral politics to legitimize the policy prescriptions put forward by dominant Sinhala groups. “In such work, how different state forms depend upon, and in turn generate, different kinds of identity remains unremarked, and because of this theoretical lacuna it has been possible for the dominant political identities of the present-day—identities which we argue have been generated in part by the form of the modern Sri Lankan state—to be imposed upon the past without recognition of their historical specificity.” (Spencer 2004:22)

The advent of colonial power further aggravated this underlying divide amongst the two ethnic groups.  The rulers, make their rule amenable to public discourse used the divide and rule’ policy as they did in the Indian subcontinent.  The British, with their superior capitalistic trade policies, outmaneuvered the other colonial powers such as the Portuguese and the Dutch.  The geographical location too was attractive and with the fall of the Kandy kingdom in 1815, the British started applying their version of capitalism on the island. Tea and Coffee started being produced in large estates on the island. These estates required labourers and as a result, a large number of South Indian labourers arrived on the island. (Spencer 2004:27) These labourers were the causes of widespread dissatisfaction in the island when the levels of unemployment raised in 1927 and the Sinhala trade unions agitated for their deportation from the island. (Spencer 2004:33)

The colonial authorities in Sri Lanka found themselves dealing with a large heterogeneous society just like India. To carry out the humongous task of administering such a society, the colonial authorities tried to categorize the population into different sections. They categorized the island population in terms of ‘race’. In such an exercise, the Tamils were subdivided into the Ceylon Tamils and Indian Tamils. (Spencer 2004:27) Thus, the colonial rule through its categorizations made the different ethnic consciousness come to the surface which perpetuated their inevitability in the island further. In the midst of these, due to the explicit Indian connection made in the official versions, a further sense of alienation permeated. The divide and rule policy were now more easy to practice as more subdivisions started coming up.

The Tamil version of history also gives an outlook into the conflictual relationship between the two groups with strands connecting back to ancient India. The Chola invasion of Sri Lanka forms an integral part of such discourses. Tamil history too had two divergent interpretations. The Trincomalee king was believed to be a fief of the Cholas while the Jaffna kingdom traced it into the Pandya lines.  Even pre-Chola interventions were also talked about to justify the Sinhalese claim to the island. “One went even further back into mythology and identified (on both sides) a famous Cola king, Manuniticolan, with an equally legendary Tamil usurper of the Sinhala throne in the 1st century BC: Elara, who had been defeated by the Sinhala hero Dutugämunu.” (Spencer 2004: 113). However, the fact on the ground remained the same for the dominant Sinhala groups who still considered the Tamils as outsiders as much of these histories had a connection with the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. “Tamil historical consciousness and the resulting Tamil nationalism is not simply ‘reactive’, a product of Tamil responses to Sinhala chauvinism, and the Sinhala emphasis on their history. Tamil nationalism in Jaffna cannot be seen as separate from Tamil nationalism in south India by which it has been influenced and on which it has, to some extent, fed.” (Spencer 2004:118)

Cultural aspect

When we look at the identity issue through the societal lens, cultural and religious identity become an important aspect in the context of South Asian countries. As K. Kalaishapathy remarked in 1982, (cited by Wilson) “It is generally accepted that in many Asian countries political nationalism was preceded by religious awakening that arose in response to Christian missionary activities” (Wilson 2011:460). The same reason can be seen with the awakening of Tamil nationalism which traces its origin during the 19th century and gains its pace against the British for sustaining the Tamil identity under colonial rule. The prominent figure who undertook the task of Tamil revival of national consciousness was Arumuka Navalar(1822-79) who uplifted Tamil identity by contributing in Tamil literature and through large scale development of Tamil literary associations. As mentioned by Wilson in his chapter on Sri Lankan history that Navalar “also launched and organized a Tamil Hindu school system so that Tamil children would not become subject to conversion while attending Christian schools” (Wilson 2011:460). Navalar initiated many works that flourish Tamil culture, and also revised and purified the Saive Siddhant (wisdom of Siva), according to which Ceylon Tamil were purified version of their race, which become one of the reason because of the opposite view of Sinhala community, where they look at them as descendants of South India. Further, Navalar disciples Tamotheram Pillai and other scholars of Jaffna school for their higher education went to the University of Madras, where the Tamil nationalism was also ushering and influence these young scholars.  These Jaffna scholars joined the linguistic associations in Madras: South Indian Tamil Associations (1890) and Dravidian Languages Associations (1879). Pillai in his book Kalikotai (1887) referred to ‘Love of Country’, ‘Love for classical dance form’, Love for language’, which further in words of Wilson become “the basic ingredients of nationalism which has its roots not only in South India but in the native place of Tamotheram Pillai himself- namely Jaffna, the heartland of the Tamils of Sri Lanka” (Wilson 2011:461).  However, the awakening of Tamil nationalism was confined to Jaffna as mentioned by Wilson “Navalar had no occasion, except when extolling the virtues of Saivism, refer to Sinhala Buddhism or other faith. He confined his mission to Jaffna and was not concerned with the rest of the Ceylon. Navalar never identified himself as a Ceylonese, but as a Tamil from Yalpanam (Tamil name of Jaffna) ” (Wilson 2011:463). The Tamil culture flourished in the 19th century and the turning point when its landmark evolution, as mention by Cheran, was with the establishment of the Thamilar Maha Jana Sabhai [Council of the Tamil People] (1921) (2011:463). The leaders of the Sabha, unaware of Sinhalese counterparts, were emerging with the idea of Ceylonese nationalism, on the secular grounds, imitating the Indian National Congress. Under this party come up with varied ideas of National unity, united Ceylon.

Political aspect

The introduction of united adult franchise and electoral politics under the Donoughmore Constitution of 1931changed the political dynamics between the Tamils and the Sinhalese. The profound influence of the Indian freedom struggle can be witnessed here. The successful boycott of elections by the Jaffna Youth Congress, party of young Tamil nationalists, laid the grounds of ethnic tension between two communities. The mobilization of the people for political benefits for establishing self-government was influenced by the Indian National Congress demand of purana swaraj. The conflict further intensified with the mishandling of the Official Language policy after the independence of the Island. The incidence of firing Tamil academics from the university alleged them for imposing Tamil culture and banned scholars to contribute in the journal of Madras, which was the source of flourishing Tamil identity through different literary works. As mentioned in Wilson, “the journal Tamil Culture (1952-66) reflected the new thinking, it contained contributions from Ceylon Tamil academics on the discrimination being practiced which compelled Tamils to pay serious attention to their parlous political situation” (Russell 2011:465). The measures to increasing Tamil cultural influence in Ceylon is been undertaken by organizing conferences on the island as well as outside. The influence of Indian politics also played an important role in the politics of the Tamil nationalism in Ceylon. The politics of South India, where leaders like C.N Annadurai, Karunanidhi and actor M.G. Ramachandram came into power by leading a successful anti-Hindi agitation and renamed Madras as Tamil Nadu become a source of influence for many young Tamil leaders who believe that Official language act of 1956 was a way of dominance by the Sinhala community.  “Ceylon Tamil always felt more integrally a part of ‘mother India’ than the Sinhalese due to the strength of the race, language and religion: the identification of the young Ceylon Tamils with their Indian counterparts is therefore understandable especially at a time of increased political tension and activity.” (Russell 2011:476). The Official language policy of 1956, by S.W.R.D Bandaranaike, has left “the Tamil cultural, as articulated by K. Kaliasapathy (cited in Wilson) nationalism at the crossroad. It is no more a mere question of linguistic and cultural identities. It is the basic question of nationality” (Wilson 2011:467).

However, the political radicalization of the Tamil community started during the boycott of the first election, but before it was the one way. After the Sinhalese official language act of 1956, political involvement increases and demand for self-government. Sinhalese thought that Jaffna was not the part of Island and their leader adopted ‘let the sleeping dog lie’ approach towards the Jaffna and never bother to integrate them.

Influence of Indian freedom struggle

During the early years of the introduction of the Donoughmore constitution, the two leading Tamil parties- All Ceylon Tamil League and Jaffna Youth Congress shared a very different stand on the said constitution.  The former was against the adoption of United Adult Franchisee and other constitutional reforms because of the fear that it would challenge the caste and gender hierarchy already prevalent in society. They were also worried that it would give power to the majoritarian Singhalese community which was highly unacceptable to this radical organisation. The latter, however, were more progressive in their approach. The leaders consisted of the educated who demanded employment and Tamil supremacy overtaking the fears expressed by the former. They wanted the abolition of the dowry system and caste inequalities and also wanted the temples to be thrown open to the lower castes. These measures were the direct influences of the Indian National Congress-led freedom movement where personalities like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhash Chandra Bose took up these issues. Jaffna Youth Congress, hence, drew heavily from their Indian counterpart to take up various issues of their community in the wake of the anti-colonial movement. “Nehru, Satyamurthi, Sarojini Naidu and Mrs Kamaladevi, came to speak at vast concourses organised by the Jaffna Youth Congress between 1926 and 1931, and with their emotional appeal, they became cult figures for the Jaffanese Youth.” (Russell 2011:476)

These socio-cultural and historical similarities between Ceylon and the southern part of India during the colonial period, roughly from circa. 1770 to 1948 shaped the Sinhala – Tamil conflict in Sri Lanka particularly role of Tamil Nadu in national politics of India embraced by the Sri Lankan Tamils to mobilize their voices to demand rights and representation with the national bodies of socio-political culture in Sri Lanka. Later, the Tamil movement shaped by many other reasons yet, the early connections between Sri Lanka and the southern tip of India set the solid foundation to mobilised Tamil movement in Sri Lanka.

About the Author


Harsha Senanayake

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