Sri Lanka

The Singhalese-Tamil Ethnic Tension

Posted on Updated on

Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam, the first President of the Ceylon National Congress, which he helped to establish, found that the chauvinistic group in the Congress failed to keep their word earlier given that a seat would be reserved for the Tamils in the Western Province. He then left the Congress as a result.

He felt that the best solution for the Tamils would be to go back to the administrative set-up that existed during the rule of the Portugese and the Dutch, where the Tamil and Singhalese areas were ruled separately. He did not advocate a separate Tamil state as claimed by some. He still believed in the unitary state. If he had advocated a separate Tamil state, why did his son, Mahadeva join the United National Party, which was formed by DS Senanayake.

Earlier, Tamil legislators had spoken in favour of Singhalese interests. Sir Muthu Cumarasami had spoken about the powers and privileges of the Anglican Church in Ceylon. Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan had got Wesak Day declared a public holiday and he also got the Buddhist Temporalities Bill passed which protected Buddhist properties. He also questioned the excesses of the authorities in Ceylon under martial law after the Singhalese-Muslim riots of 1915. He went to England during the dangerous First World War years to present his case. On his return, Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan was put in a carriage and pulled by grateful Singhalese leaders. Mr. DS Senanayake the first Prime Minister of Ceylon, described Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan as the greatest Ceylonese who ever lived.

Mr. GG Ponnanbalam, a prominent lawyer and Cambridge graduate, proposed 50-50 solution for legislative representation. This may have angered the Singhalese leaders, who may have had hope of living peacefully with the minorities. As the cry got louder, the opposition to this increased.

The Solbury Commission had assured the minorities that their rights under the Constitution would be protected. Section 29 of the Solbury Commission stated that no legislation should be enacted;
1) the prohibits the free exercise of religion
2) makes people of any community or religion liable to disabilities or restrictions for which persons of other communities and religions are not liable
3) confers on persons of any community privilege or advantage which is not given to other communities and religions
4) Alters the constitution of any religious body without the permission of the governing authority of that body.

It also provided for an upper house, the Senate, to which members of unrepresented interests can be appointed. The Jaffna paper, the Hindu Organ, called the 50-50 Proposal a mirage. It is difficult to understand why other Tamil leaders failed to convince Mr. Ponnambalam that his proposal is unattainable. During the discussions of the Solbury Commission, Mr. GG Ponnambalam also failed to support the Kandyan-Singhalese demand for federalism, which would have been good for the Tamils.

The unofficial Buddhist Commission of the 1950s made two important recommendations. One is that only Singhala should be the official language and that Section 29 of the Solbury Constitution should be inapplicable.

The chauvinistic Government of Mrs. Bandaranaike declared Ceylon a republic without consulting the other communities. Earlier, there was the standardization of University entrance. The matter was not handled properly. The minorities, particularly the Tamils felt that it was a discrimination against them. Tension was further increased. There was already a demand by Mr. Chelvanayakam for a Federal Government. It finally led to a civil war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Government. There was destruction in Tamil areas as a result of the war. Houses and farms were destroyed. The civilian population was subjected to daily shell bombardment. There was also bombing which included places of worship and hospitals.

Peace talks were held between the Tigers and the Government, and one sponsored by India. All failed. Later Indian intervention and the Norway-sponsored talks also failed.

In 2009, the Tamil Tigers were finally defeated. India gave radar assistance. Chinese provided arms. Karuna, the former Tiger commander who defected to the Government, gave valuable information. The military was sent to Tamil areas. The civilian population was subjected to all kinds of harassment. The military also interfered with internal trade and all other kinds of social activities.