Skip to main content Accessibility help

Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka and Sinhalese Perspectives: Barriers to Accommodation

  • Michael Roberts (a1)

It is widely recognized that the concepts of ‘state’ and ‘nation’ developed largely out of the history of Europe. In Western Europe the process of state-building preceded and assisted the process of nation-formation. In consequence, the concept of the nation that developed from this process focused on the political community as defined by the institutional and territorial framework. In the tradition of Rousseau, Abbé Sieyes could define a nation as ‘a body of associates living under one common law and represented by the same legislature’. In most lands of Western Europe these developments also produced the model of a single nationality nation or nation-state. In Central and Eastern Europe the process was different: ‘the nation was first defined as a cultural rather than a political entity’ and the underlying theoretical foundation was in the tradition of Herder rather than Rousseau Nevertheless, once nationhood had been achieved in these regions there was a tendency to approximate to the model associated with Western Europe. This was made all the easier in such states as Italy and Germany because the majority of their citizens were from one ethnic group; they, too, were single nationality nations. Whatever the dualisms and amalgams in Europe, the export model has been that associated with that of Western Europe—for the simple reason that the predominant colonizing powers were from this part of the Continent.

Hide All

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Fifth European Conference on Modern Asian Studies held at Leiden in mid-July 1976 and at a seminar of the Centre of South Asian Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, in London, on 3 November 1976. I am grateful to those present at these gatherings for their comments. My thanks, too, to C. R. de Silva, Roland Edirisinghe, C. H. Fernando, Bruce Kapferer, Gerald Pieris and Dietmar Rothermund for their helpful observations.

1 Quoted in Hinsley, F. H., Nationalism and the International System (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1973), p. 44. Also see the description provided by a lawyer named Lacratelle in 1789, quoted in Shafer, Boyd C., Faces of Nationalism: New Realities and Old Myths (New York: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich Inc., 1974), pp. 9, 381.

2 Pflanze, Otto, ‘Nationalism in Europe, 1848–1871’, Review of Politics, Vol. 28, No. 2 (04 1966), p. 140.

3 The comments in the first paragraph have profited from the works referred to in citations 1 and 2 and the writings on nationalism by Arasaratnam, S. (1974), Morris Ginsberg (1961), Paul R. Brass (1974), Lewis Namier (1962), Hugh Seton Watson (1965), Joseph R. Strayer (1963) and Louis L. Snyder.

4 Brass, Paul R., Language, Religion and Politics in North India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974), pp. 57, 432;Roberts, Michael, ‘Variations on the Theme of Resistance Movements: The Kandyan Rebellion of 1817–18 and Latter Day Nationalisms in Ceylon’, Ceylon Studies Seminar, No. 31 (10 1972), mimeo, p. 4.

5 Brass, , Language, pp. 47, 14–15, 432.Cf. Emerson, Rupert, From Empire to Nation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1960), pp. 7, 103.

6 Potter, David M., ‘The Historian's Use of Nationalism and Vice Versa’, American Historical Review, Vol. LXVII, No. 4 (07 1962), p. 930.

7 E.g. Ceylon Daily News, 19 December 1938 and 6 March 1939;Youth Congress, Jaffna, , Communalism or Nationalism…? A Reply to the Speech Delivered in the State Council on the Reforms Despatch by G. G. Ponnambalam, Esq., 1939 (Chunnakam: Thirumakal Press, 1939);The Hand-Book of the Ceylon National Congress, 1919–1928, ed. by Bandaranaike, S. W. R. D. (Colombo: H. W. Cave & Co., 1928), pp. 346ff, 499–516. The latter will hereafter be noticed as Handbook CNC.

8 Kedourie, Elie (ed.), Nationalism in Asia and Africa (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1970), pp. 60–1. Kedourie's excessive acidity must not be allowed to cloud the validity of this point.

9 Potter, , ‘Historian's Use of Nationalism’, p. 931.

10 Pyle, Kenneth B., ‘Some Recent Approaches to Japanese Nationalism’, Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. XXXI, No. 1 (11 1971), p. 9.

11 Ibid., quoting from Thomas C. Smith.

12 Gupta, Jyotirindra Das, Language Conflict and National Development (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970).

13 Brass, , Language, p. 40, summarizing Lijphart's, Arend, The Politics of Accommodation: Pluralism and Democracy in the Netherlands (University of California Press, 1968).

14 de Silva, K. M., ‘The Ceylon National Congress in Disarray, 1920–1; Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam leaves the Congress’, Ceylon Journal of Historical and Social Studies, new series, Vol. II, No. 2 (1972), pp. 97117; L. A. Wickremeratne, ‘Kandyans and Nationalism in Sri Lanka: Some Reflections’, Ibid., Vol. V (1975), pp. 49–67.

15 Quotation from F. A. Obeyesekere's speech at the annual sessions of the C.N.C. in the editorial in the Ceylon Morning Leader, 10 December 1924. C. E. Corea: advocate, Low-Country Sinhalese and Goyigama Christian. His family had been headmen in Chilaw District for several generations and they were the leading force in the Chilaw Association which emerged as a relatively vociferous critic of British rule from the 1890s. The Chilaw District bordered Moor and Tamil areas. It is possible that this influenced the outlook of the Coreas.

16 See Handbook CNC, 1928, pp. 661–4 for full text. Apart from C. E. Corea, the other Sinhalese in the delegation were C. E. Victor S. Corea (his brother), George E. de Silva, R. S. S. Gunewardene, M. H. Jayetilleke, and P. de S. Kularatne. The other Congress delegates were M. A. Arulanandan, T. B. Jayah and Dr S. Muttiah.

17 Handbook CNC, 1928, p. 686. Also see pp. 700–8. Francis de Zoysa: advocate, Low-Country Sinhalese, and Salagama. Married to a Catholic. His son, Stanley de Zoysa, also entered the C.N.C. in 1939–40 as a staunch critic of ‘communalism’; but was a founder member of the S.L.F.P. and Finance Minister in the 1956–60 administration.

18 Information communicated by Dietmar Rothermund. Also see Gordon, Leonard A., Bengal: The Nationalist Movement, 1876–1940 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974), pp. 168–9, and 194–6;Broomfield, J. H., Elite Conflict in a Plural Society: Twentieth-Century Bombay (University of California Press, 1968), pp. 238–9, 245–6, 153–6, 330. The Hindu-Muslim Pact was rescinded in 1926.

19 Handbook CNC, 1928, pp. 692–701, quotations pp. 700–1.

20 Ibid., pp. 701–2. Also see Victor Corea's comments, pp. 702–8 and 771–3.

21 In a series of six articles, Ceylon Morning Leader, 19 May to 30 June, 1926.

22 Wickremeratne, L. A., ‘Kanydans’, pp. 55, 59–67;Kandyan National Assembly, The Rights and Claim of the Kandyan People (Kandy: Miller & Co., n.d. (1928)).

23 Memorandum from the President, All-Ceylon Tamil Conference, to the Secretary of State for the Colonies,14 July 1937, in CO 54 series. Also see the Ceylon Daily News,12 April, 1937, for reports on a meeting of theAll-Ceylon Tamil Conference.

24 Citations above and other documents printed in Roberts, Michael (ed.), Documents of the Ceylon National Congress, 1929–50, and Nationalist Politics in Ceylon (Colombo: Dept of National Archives, in press), pp. 2113–53, 2483–97, 2381–98. For some C.N.C. reactions, see Ibid., pp. 1317ff.

25 Roberts, Ibid., pp. lxxxviii, clv-clvii, 561–76, 596–601, 1294–5, 1346–51.

26 Bandaranaike, S. W. R. D., Towards a New Era: Selected Speeches… made in the Legislature of Ceylon 1931–1959 (Colombo: Dept of Broadcasting and Information, Government of Ceylon, 1961), pp. 50–1. This was on 21 March 1939. The same argument was reiterated at the annual general meeting of the Sinhala Maha Sabha on 30–31 December 1939 (see Ceylon Daily News, 1 01 1940,or Roberts, (ed.), Documents, pp. 566–70) and at subsequent S.M.S. meetings as well (see citation 28 below). It was also emphasized in the defence he presented at an Executive Committee meeting of the Ceylon National Congress on 17 January 1940 (Roberts (ed.), Documents, pp. 564–5).

27 For some comments, see my ‘Meanderings in the Pathway of Collective Identity and Nationalism’, in Roberts, Michael (ed.), Collective Identities, Nationalisms and Protest in Sri Lanka during the Modern Era (Colombo: Marga Publishers, in press). This will hereafter be abbreviated to CINP.

28 Bandaranaike, S. W. R. D., Speeches and Writings (Colombo: Dept of Broadcasting and Information, Government of Ceylon, 1963), p. 87; also pp. 90–1, 95–6, 102. From this self-perception, Bandaranaike was even able to attack G. G. Ponnambalam's organization as ‘communal’ and a body of ‘local reactionaries’ seeking the ‘entrenchment of imperialism and exploitation, and the protection of vested interests’ (Ibid., pp. 96, 98, 104–5).

29 See Ceylon Daily News, 1 01 1940, or Roberts, (ed.), Documents, pp. 566–70.

30 The Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact was rescinded unilaterally after agitation from Sinhala Buddhist pressure groups. For details and the general background, see Wriggins, W. Howard, Ceylon: Dilemmas of a New Nation (Princeton University Press, 1960), passim, esp. pp. 265–8;Smith, Donald E. (ed.), South Asian Politics and Religion (Princeton University Press, 1966), chapters on Sri Lanka; Kearney, Robert N., Communalism and Language in the Politics of Ceylon (Durham N.C.: Duke University Press, 1967), esp. pp. 85–6, 107–9, 117–19, 144–6.

31 Brass, , Language, pp. 12, 18–19, 426–31.

32 Arasaratnam, S., History, Nationalism and Nation Building: The Asian Dilemma (Inaugural Lecture at the University of New England, Armidale, 1974), pp. 20–1. Also noted in Wriggins, W. H., ‘Problems of Communalism in South Asia’, in Sri Lanka since Independence, ed. by de Silva, K. M., Wilson, A. J., Wriggins, W. H. and Woodward, Calvin A. and appearing as Vol. IV, Nos. 1 and 2 in the new series of the Ceylon Journal of Historical and Social Studies (0112 1974), pp. 136–7 (hereafter cited as SL since Independence).

33 For elaboration, see Bechert, Heinz, ‘The Beginning of Buddhist Historiography in Ceylon: The Mahavamsa and Political Thinking’, Ceylon Studies Seminar, No. 46, 1974;Malalgoda, Kitsiri, ‘Millennialism in Relation to Buddhism’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 12, No. 4 (10 1970), pp. 424–41.

34 Indrapala, K., ‘Dravidian Settlements in Ceylon and the Beginnings of the Kingdom of Jaffna’ (University of London: Ph.D. dissertation in History, 1966).

35 Information conveyed personally by A. Liyanagamage. I am indebted to him and Lakshman Perera for comments which helped me in formulating this paragraph.

36 Pieris, Paul E., ‘Appointments within the Kandyan Provinces’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Ceylon Branch, Vol. XXXVI, No. 99 (1945), pp. 114–15. See also Roberts, , ‘Variations’, p. 19.

37 Obeyesekere, G., ‘The Sinhalese Buddhist Identity’, in George, de Vos and Lola, Romanucci-Ross (eds.), Ethnic Identity, Cultural Continuities and Change (Palo Alta: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1976), pp. 239–41.

38 Dharmadasa, K. N. O., ‘The Sinhala Buddhist Identity and the Nayakkar Dynasty in the Politics of the Kandyan Kingdom, 1739–1815’, in CINP.

39 Wickremeratne, L. A., ‘Religion, Nationalism, and Social Change in Ceylon, 1865–1885’, JRAS, GB & I, No. 2, (1969), pp. 135–9.

40 Return to Righteousness, ed. by Ananda, Guruge (Colombo: Ministry of Education and Cultural Affairs, 1965), pp. 501–44; also pp. lxvi–lxvii, lxxivff.

41 Roberts, , ‘Problems of Collective Identity in a Multi-Ethnic Society: Sectional Nationalism vs Ceylonese Nationalism, 1900–1940’, in CINP.

42 The S.L.F.P. also included elements from the C.N.C. ‘Rump’ of 1946–50 and several political notables who had left the United National Party previously for various reasons; while some former members of the L.S.S.P. (e.g. Somaweera Chandrasiri and W. Dahanayake) and of the Republican Party also moved in during the 1950s (see the introductory monograph in Roberts, (ed.), Documents, pp. clxii–clxvi and Figure 2; and Wriggins, Ceylon, passim).

43 Kearney, , Communalism, Ch. 2 and Sinhalese Nationalism and Social Conflict in Ceylon’, Pacific Affairs, Vol. XXXVII, No. 2 (Summer 1964), pp. 125–36;Farmer, B. H., ‘The Social Basis of Nationalism in Ceylon’, Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. XXIV, No. 3 (05 1965), pp. 431–9.

44 Kodikara, S. U., ‘Communalism and Political Modernization in Ceylon’, Modern Ceylon Studies, Vol. I, No. 1 (01 1970), pp. 100–3.

45 de Silva, K. M., ‘Nationalism and Its Impact’, in SL since Independence, pp. 67–8. Quite independently, James Jupp has made much the same point (‘Modernization and Pluralism: Ceylon and Malaysia’, in Leftwich, Adrian (ed.), South Africa—Economic Growth and Political Change (London: Allison and Busby, 1974), p. 200).

46 Wriggins, W. Howard, ‘Impediments to Unity in New Nations: The Case of Ceylon’, American Political Science Review, Vol. 55, No. 2 (06 1961), p. 314, and his Ceylon, pp. 229–70, esp. 233–6, 263.

47 Quoted in Kearney, Robert N., The Politics of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1973), p. 164.

48 Quoted in Kodikara, ‘Communalism’, p. 103.

49 Firm personal impressions, but something observed by others as well: see de Silva, C. R. and Samaraweera, Vijaya, ‘Leadership Perspectives, 1948–1975: An Interpretive Essay’, and Samaraweera, ‘The Role of the Bureaucracy’, both in SL Since Independence, pp. 29 and 39 respectively. For a summary of figures provided by some Tamil leaders, see Schwarz, Walter, The Tamils of Sri Lanka (London: Minority Rights Group, Report No. 25, 1976).

50 SL Since Independence, pp. 25, 31–9, 47–8;Kearney, , Politics of Ceylon, pp. 7984.

51 Wilson, A. Jeyaratnam, Electoral Politics in an Emergent State (Cambridge University Press, 1975), provides a good analysis of the electoral framework.

52 de Silva, C. R., ‘Weightage in University Admissions: Standardisation and District Quotas in Sri Lanka’, Modern Ceylon Studies, Vol. 5, No. 2 (07 1974).

53 Tribune, 7 May 1967.

54 E.g. Cader, M. B. A., ‘Reforms, Reformers and Minorities: A Muhammadan View’, National Monthly of Ceylon, Vol. V, No. 4 (02 1918), pp. 70–2;de Silva, K. M., ‘The Formation and Character of the Ceylon National Congress 1917–1919’, Ceylon Journal of Historical and Social Studies, Vol. 10, Nos. 1 and 2 (1967), pp. 70102, and his ‘CNC in Disarray’, Ibid., 1972.

55 The mercantile sector in Sri Lanka and employment in U.N. agencies, African states, U.S.A., U.K. and elsewhere have provided alternatives, but it is doubtful whether they could have met the growing demand.

56 Personal communication from Jane Russell, (who has just completed a Ph.D. dissertation at Peradeniya Campus on the history of Tamil politics before 1948 and has the benefit of recent field experience in the Jaffna Peninsula).

57 The Case for a Federal Constitution for Ceylon: Resolutions passed at the First National Convention of the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi (Colombo, 1951).

58 de Silva, K. M., ‘The Transfer of Power in Sri Lanka—A Review of British Perspectives’, in SL Since Independence, p. 13;Arasaratnam, S., ‘Nationalism in Sri Lanka and the Tamils’, in CINP.

59 Wriggins, , ‘Problems of Communalism’, p. 139.

60 Ibid., p 142.

61 Cook, M. A. reviewing Kedourie's book in the Journal of African History, Vol. 14, No. 1 (1973), pp. 167–8.

62 These have been emphasized and illustrated in Kodikara, ‘Communalism’. Also see Ch. 4 in Wilson, Electoral Politics; Kearney, Politics of Ceylon.

63 The latter figure is only an approximation and is from Kearney, Ibid., pp. 143–4.

64 Yapp, M. E., ‘Language, Religion and Political Identity: A General Framework’, a seminar paper at the Centre of South Asian Studies, S.O.A.S., University of London, 19 May 1976.

65 By Bennett, George (referred to and supported by B. H. Farmer, ‘Social Basis’, p. 433).

66 Kohn, Hans, The Habsburg Empire, 1804–1918 (New Jersey: Van Nostrand & Co., 1961), p. 27.

67 For brief comments on the abandonment of the district councils scheme by the U.N.P., Under internal and outside (the U.N.P.) pressure, see Wilson, , Electoral Politics, pp. 31–2, 36–9, and his essay in SL Since Independence, p. 47.

68 Arasaratnam, , ‘Nationalism in Sri Lanka and the Tamils’, in CINP.

69 An article by the ‘Political Correspondent’ (Fernando, J. L.) in the Ceylon Daily News, 22 and 23 August 1940. G. C. S. Corea's reply was published on 24 August.

70 Ceylon Daily News, 23 August 1940: editorial entitled ‘Political Bargaining’.

71 Information conveyed by Jane Russell.

72 This is only too evident on reading Wilson, , Electoral Politics in an Emergent State.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Modern Asian Studies
  • ISSN: 0026-749X
  • EISSN: 1469-8099
  • URL: /core/journals/modern-asian-studies
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed