June 2008 
Year 14    No.132
Global Minorities
Sri Lanka

Ethnic hegemony

Issues of empowerment and equal opportunity for minorities in Sri Lanka


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 context.

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 Muslims’ education.

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 majority-centric parliamentarians.

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.

(M. Riza Yehiya is the director, Research, Serendib Institute of Research Development, Colombo. Paper presented to the Global Minorities Meet, New Delhi, March 6-9, 2008.)

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