Sri Lanka as an island republic is blessed with less
diversity and therefore has fewer minority communities as compared to
other countries in the SAARC region. The principal minorities are the
Tamils who constitute 9.4 per cent and Muslims, 8.2 per cent of the
population respectively, according to the 2001 census. There are also a
negligibly small minority of indigenous people, the Veddahs, who are not
found in mainstream life in Sri Lanka.
As you all know, the minority cliché is more of a
post-colonial construct. As minorities in the pre-colonial period were
more of a homogenised people in the social fabric of the past. Evidently
in Sri Lanka, and in pre-partitioned India, in the pre-colonial days
minorities were not singled out as an entity either for empowerment or
discrimination since they were highly homogenised and naturalised by the
very nature of the social fabric inherently Asian. It is the coming of the
colonialists and their consequent divide and rule politics that
identified, marginalised, discriminated and surrogated groups, effectively
manipulating colonial powers in Asia.
Distinctively Sri Lankan minorities, both the Tamils and
the Muslims, are not the residue of a Portuguese, Dutch or British colony.
The Tamils have been here from time immemorial and the Muslims have been
here since Islam came in the sixth century and before that the Arab
traders had domiciled here in Sri Lanka. So the attitude of the Sri Lankan
state towards these minorities should not be like the British, French or
other colonial powers’ attitudes towards their residual minorities who
migrated from their colonies.
Today there is a lack of clarity about the definition of
what ‘minorities’ is. This writer is of the opinion that the connotation
of ‘minorities’ should be viewed with a background study of the society in
Unfortunately, the brown sahibs who succeeded the colonial
master knowingly or unknowingly did continue the sociopolitical structure
that the Britishers left them with at the time of independence. Their lack
of understanding of the numerically small groups belonging to the same
nation has created a broken social fabric as opposed to nation building.
So today, almost 60 years after independence, our nations
are grappling with the issues of minorities as fragmented groups, as
opposed to homogeneity. We failed to learn lessons from pre-colonial
history which had a harmonious and homogeneous social fabric.
In the Sri Lankan social fabric, the Tamil and Muslim
minorities are unique since both of them share the Tamil language as a
common language but religion-wise, Tamils are both Hindus and Christians
whereas Muslims are adherents of Islam. The North and Eastern provinces
are contiguous regions. The North is predominantly Tamil and the East,
dominated by Muslims but with similar Tamil and Sinhalese population
concentrations. Larger concentrations of Tamils are found in the central
hilly regions, in the tea estates, and similarly, the rest of the Muslim
populations are spread out and living mostly with the majority Sinhalese.
The issues of empowerment and equal opportunities for
minorities emerged on the threshold of independence from Britain in 1948.
During the British Raj, their divide and rule culture of administration
was tilted in favour of the Tamils, some Sinhalese and evidently the
Christian elites who came from colonial schools. The majority of Sinhala
Buddhists and the Muslims were more marginalised. During this period, the
Sinhalese Buddhists were more confined to agriculture and trade while the
Muslims were confined to trade alone. This state of affairs created
disproportionate recruitment of Tamils in the bureaucracy and the majority
Sinhala Buddhists were craving for a change in the status quo, which
culminated in the ‘Sinhala Only’ vision of the late prime minister, SWRD
Bandaranayake, in 1956. This effectively disfranchised the Tamil dominated
bureaucracy and created openings for the majority Sinhalese to dominate
all machineries of the state. Today’s cycle of violence among communities
in Sri Lanka – whether attributed to ethnic rivalry or inequity in share
of the economy – the root goes back to 1948.
Since 1948 successive governments led by both the rightist
United National Party and the Left oriented Sri Lanka Freedom Party were
for more consolidation of majority power and hence used the issues of
language, race and ethnicity and people of Indian origin and religion at
times as tools for dispossessing the other. Some of the other
majority-centric mechanisms are as follows:
1. Admissions to universities are based on the population
ratio and hence the quota of admission is not commensurate to the level of
qualified persons in a particular community. If Tamils are taken as 10 per
cent, their community output to enter university is more than this and
hence quite a few are left in the lurch. Similarly, if the Muslims’ quota
to enter universities is eight per cent, from 1948 to date the Muslim
output to enter universities has not exceeded three per cent due to poor
general educational infrastructure provided by the state in respect to the
2. Economic policies of successive governments, cronyism,
the chit system in recruitments and the quota system in licensing for
trade, etc were majority-centric and therefore minorities were severely
disadvantaged due to the absence of a level playing field in the arena of
trade and commerce.
3. Issues of religion and religious freedom: The
Constitution beautifully elaborates the freedom of religion and its
practices. But very often the state has failed to uphold this
constitutional right of the minorities when trespassed upon by the
majorities thus infringing constitutionally guaranteed rights and making
the minorities feel like aliens in the country.
4. In the 1940s the ethnocentric mind-set was found only
among the political elites of all communities. Today this has incubated
over a period of 60 years and percolated down and permeated the whole
social fabric to the extent of polarising its once homogeneous people.
Thus localisation of ethnic rivalry dispossesses the weak, whoever it may
be, of the other counterpart. This creates suspicion, segregation and
ghettoisation that does not augur well for a healthy nation. In this state
of affairs, equal opportunity and empowerment is the first victim.
Of late, some enlightened leaders of the majority
community and some in the minorities have realised the folly and the
danger of being community-centric when they wish to build a wholesome
nation for all to live in. However, this positive notion of nation
building with nation-centric policies, by accepting diversity and
realpolitik, is also anathema to those who strongly believe in ethnic
hegemony over the other. Such astute leaders with nation-centric views
were spurned by radicals in both communities.
The majority, over a period of 60 years since independence
from Britain, have consolidated their powers in the gamut of politics and
society in Sri Lanka and never want to share with others a fair share of
the cake, not knowing that in the long run the country we all cherish will
be a pariah state in the world.
The nation-centric parliamentarians on August 3, 2000
presented the Equal Opportunity Bill in Parliament, aimed at solving the
problems of disproportionate care of citizens but this was rejected by the
If equal opportunity is not guaranteed by the Constitution
and the laws of a state then axiomatically it is expected that the state
will not evolve into a nation that is for one and all. The problems of
minorities in Sri Lanka are problems of the majority since an
underprivileged, illiterate, disadvantaged or unemployed minority
population poses a severe threat to the whole nation in respect to
development goals, crime and other negative trends. Insulating the
majority community against such negative impacts from the minority
community would be hyperexpensive. The cheapest way to success for the
majority community is to share the nation’s wealth equitably and justly so
that the minorities will be an extension of the majority and a part of the
social fabric, free of assimilation.
Finally, I believe that very often the minority in one
country is the majority in another and therefore justice and equity in all
affairs have to be upheld with due diligence, as finally we are all
humans, the sublime creation of god almighty.