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From Ceylon to Sri Lanka

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"When President Junius Jayewardene came to power in 1977, he set Sri Lanka on the road to becoming another Asian economic success. At first, growth rates leapt, foreign companies crowded in....But now the battle between the Tamil minority and the Sinhalese majority has hastened an economic slide."

- The Economist, August 3, 1985

The effect of democracy on the island of Sri Lanka can be compared to that of the iceberg on the Titanic. Though it did not cleave, yet it shivered, the ship of state. For, in view of the fact that some of the Asian successes, too, have experienced riots against an economically dominant minority, and that those riots have not recurred (except recently in Indonesia and for similar reasons), it must be asked: why does racial conflict persist in Sri Lanka? The answer: democracy (and, to use John Keane's memorable expression, democracy's poisonous fruit, nationalism).

In 1956, Ceylon, as it was then known, had a population of 9 million. Of these, 6 million were Sinhalese, 1 million indigenous Tamils and 1 million South Indian Tamil immigrant labourers who had been brought over by the British for cheap labour on the estates. The Sinhalese originally came from northern India and settled in Ceylon some 2,000 years ago, mainly in the North Central, North-western and Southern Provinces. The mighty kings of the Buddhism-inspired civilisation had their capitals in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. When civilisation collapsed, overcome by jungle, the Sinhalese moved south and south-westward towards Kandy and Colombo.

Over centuries, these jungles served to insulate the Tamils from their neighbours. They were a Dravidian people who debouched from South India on to the Jaffna Peninsula, then worked their way south and south-eastward, creating a powerful kingdom. In 164 B.C. an epic battle between the Sinhalese king Dutugemunu and his Tamil counterpart Elara was fought - to be renewed in 1958. When the colonial era began, these two people had been effectively isolated by intervening vegetation.

After independence in 1948, fear and insecurity worked on the nerves of the majority and minorities alike. Haunted by the fear of unemployment, the Kandyan peasants demanded the expulsion of the million Indian Tamils, who, in turn, were haunted by the fear of eviction. Muslims, numbering a little over half a million (mostly traders and businessmen) felt equally threatened, lest they be lumped with the minority, as most of them had adopted Tamil as their mother tongue. The 50,000 or so Burghers - descendants of the Portuguese and the Dutch - identified with the British and had adopted English as their mother tongue; they, too, regarded with horror the prospect of their children being disprivileged on account of their fair complexion and unfamiliarity with the Sinhalese language and culture. They fled to Australia, Canada or Britain. The British largely overcame their anxiety - until the death of D.S. Senanayake. At the same time, politicians viewed with alarm the possibility of 1 million local and 1 million Indian Tamils forming together a mighty minority.

The Tamils were not originally the underdog. Living in the less fertile areas of the north and east, they had invested in education. American missionaries had set up school, teaching them English; in the British period, they, therefore got a disproportionate number of university seats and good jobs. But, as we have remarked, the masses on either side of the cultural divide hardly used to interact, thanks to the jungle border.(This natural segregation, however, broke down with disastrous consequences, under the impact of post-colonial development, sponsored by such well-intentioned programmes as the Colombo Plan.) The middle classes, then, represented the two cultures, and they rubbed shoulders quite amicably - so long as the public and mercantile services provided enough jobs for both groups. But the end of war released thousands of erstwhile fighters into the labour market; and the education system, designed by the British to produce clerks by the hundreds, continued efficiently to do so, though they were completely redundant. The majority found the thought of appropriating the livelihoods of the minority appetising, to put it mildly.

Democracy and a faltering economy were like fire and kerosene. They fused to ignite the burning question: what was to be the official language, now that English had gone with the British? The United National Party, in power for eight years under three Prime Ministers - D.S.Senanayake, Dudley Senanayake and Sir John Kotelawala - refused to fan the flames. But Kotelawala committed a noble blunder: he proclaimed that his government would treat Sinhalese and Tamil on a par. This made the policy official, and backbenchers came under increasing pressure from their constituencies.

S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, the ambitious Oxford-educated aristocrat, campaigned against the status quo in the election of 1956. His election slogan was 'Sinhalese Only'. The Kotelawala government walked into the trap, losing the support of the Tamils and the liberal middle classes. They discarded their policy of parity for Tamil and adopted the Bandaranaike slogan.. Over 12,000 Buddhist monks poured out of temples and monasteries against the Kotelawala regime, which, they claimed, was influenced by Christians, especially Catholics. The Kandyan peasants were won over with the promise that the Indian labourers would be driven out of the tea estates. To secure leftists and malcontents on his side, he promised to nationalise foreign tea estates and mercantile houses and to evict the British from Trincomalee harbour and the Negombo Airfield used by the Royal Air Force.

Bandaranaike's Sri Lanka Freedom Party, heading a coalition of like-minded parties - the Mahajana Eksath Paramuna (People's United Front) - won a landslide victory. S.J.V.Chelvanayakam's Federal Party, which advocated a federal form of government with Tamil equally an official language, swept the polls in the predominantly Tamil areas. The government lost massively.

The Sinhalese Only Act was passed, unleashing racial violence, especially in the Gal Oya Valley, the new colony for reclaiming and settlement of the eastern side of the island. Over 150 people were killed; in August 1957 the Tamils threatened Satyagraha or civil disobedience campaign on a nation-wide scale. The B-C (Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam) pact between the Sinhalese premiere and the Federalist Tamil leader averted the calamity. It was cancelled the next year.

Before that came the 'tar' movement. Determined to symbolise their struggle for linguistic equality, the Tamil Federalists in the north began to erase the Sinhalese character Sri which had replaced the English characters on the number plates of motor vehicles. The Tamil Shri began to replace the officially accepted Sinhalese character. In predominantly Sinhalese areas, this provoked bands of Sinhalese thugs, sarongs held shoulder-high to reveal their genitals, to tar every visible Tamil letter. The police looked on. There was a simultaneous systematic boycott of Tamil-owned kiosks and shops in isolated areas. It was started by a Buddhist monk in Attanagal, the Prime Minister's own constituency. It quickly spread to outlying towns.

Meanwhile the government kept on postponing implementation of the Regional Council's Act and the Reasonable Use of Tamil Act, which were to underpin the B-C pact. Indeed, the pact itself came increasingly under attack, even as the Prime Minister defended it more and more. On April 9, 200 bhikkus (monks) and 300 others camped outside the premier's residence in Rosmead Place to demand the abrogation of the pact. They insisted on a written promise that the pact had been annulled. They got it.

The Federal Party of the Tamils prepared for its Annual Convention, this year by transporting supporters from all over in additional bogeys attached to the train from Batticaloa. On May 22, 500 thugs attacked the Polonnaruwa station, breaking windows of the Batticaloa train to hunt down Convention-bound Tamils. Fortunately, all but one of the passengers had got off earlier at Welikande. On May 24 and 25, escaping Tamils and Sinhalese suspected of harbouring them had their brains beaten out. On the night of May 25, Tamil labourers sheltering in the sugar-cane bushes of Polonnaruwa were flushed out, screaming, by setting the bushes on fire - and then cut down with knives and swords, men, women, and children. Meanwhile, Sinhalese fled from Batticaloa, some seeking refuge in the jungle, only to starve to death or to be devoured by beasts.

The victims of democracy in Ceylon between 1956 and 1958 were, in addition to flesh-and-blood humans, such abstract entities as rule of law, civilian rule, press freedom, constitutional procedure and the very idea of responsible parliamentary government. On the advice of the Prime Minister, the Governor-General proclaimed a state of emergency; he was then required to hand authority back to the PM and Ministers, who thereby had extraordinary powers to deal with the emergency. However, curiously, the PM handed his authority back to the Governor-General. Why? To avoid being associated with the dirty methods that would soon be needed. General Oliver Goonetileke, the Governor-General, curtailed press freedom.

"No news of any incidents or about any aspect of the present situation. No editorials, no comments, no columns, no photographs or cartoons of any kind on the emergency without reference to me".

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Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics. He was born and lives in Dhaka, ├ éČ┼ŻBangladesh. He has contributed to AXIS OF LOGIC, ENTER TEXT, POSTCOLONIAL ├ éČ┼ŻTEXT, LEFT CURVE, MOBIUS, ERBACCE, THE JOURNAL, and other publications. ├ éČ┼ŻHe (more...)
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