Sri Lankans Agitate for Political Reform Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Sinhalese majority in Ceylon fomented a nationalist movement in 1971, resulting in a new constitution in 1972 and a renaming of the country as Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese-Tamil divide persisted into the early twenty-first century.

Summary of Event

The political and civil affairs of Sri Lanka reached a crisis in 1971. In that year, punctuated by the revolution of April, 1971, a number of discontented groups pressured the government to make changes in the structure of society, culminating in the adoption of a new constitution in 1972 and the renaming of the country, which was formerly known as Ceylon. Racial and ethnic conflict;Sri Lanka Tamils Sri Lanka;government Revolutions and coups;Sri Lanka [kw]Sri Lankans Agitate for Political Reform (Apr., 1971) [kw]Political Reform, Sri Lankans Agitate for (Apr., 1971) [kw]Reform, Sri Lankans Agitate for Political (Apr., 1971) Racial and ethnic conflict;Sri Lanka Tamils Sri Lanka;government Revolutions and coups;Sri Lanka [g]South Asia;Apr., 1971: Sri Lankans Agitate for Political Reform[00250] [g]Sri Lanka;Apr., 1971: Sri Lankans Agitate for Political Reform[00250] [c]Independence movements;Apr., 1971: Sri Lankans Agitate for Political Reform[00250] [c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;Apr., 1971: Sri Lankans Agitate for Political Reform[00250] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Apr., 1971: Sri Lankans Agitate for Political Reform[00250] Bandaranaike, Sirimavo R. D. Wijeweera, Rohana De Silva, Colvin R.

The events of 1971 manifested the political currents that had been building since the early 1950’s, when Ceylon was a newly independent country. This country was almost unique among the panoply of emerging nations, since the nationalist movement was circumscribed by a constitutional framework and was hence exceptionally peaceful. Politics were dominated largely by the elite Tamil minority, who kept close ties to the language, education, and culture of their colonial power, England. Involvement of the “masses” in politics grew during the late 1950’s, and a number of political groups were formed in addition to the dominant United National Party (UNP), composed of the Western-oriented elite. Most influential among these groups was the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), largely Sinhalese Buddhists, led by S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike. In 1956, the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna(MEP, or People’s United Front), composed of the SLFP, the Viplavakari Lanka Sama Samaja Party (VLSSP, or Revolutionary Ceylon Equal Society Party), and the Sinhala Bhasha Peramuna (Sinhalese Language Front), won a great number of seats in an elected house. Political parties;Sri Lanka Members of the MEP began to put pressure on the UNP to sever colonial ties and end the rule by the elites, who still valued their cultural attachment to England. The coalition led by Bandaranaike represented the growing Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism. The parties favored indigenization and socialization in domestic affairs and nonalignment in foreign affairs. The system of two major parties, and competition between the UNP and the SLFP, thus began in 1956.

When Bandaranaike was assassinated in 1959, his widow, Sirimavo R. D. Bandaranaike, took over the SLFP. She was elected in 1960 and reelected in 1970 and 1994. The 1970 election brought a dual-level polarization in the political system of the country, both at the center, between the two major parties and their affiliates, and between the center and the regions. Sinhalese-Buddhist sentiment strengthened and put enormous pressure on the government to change the fabric of Sri Lankan society and to recognize officially the Sinhalese-Buddhist nature of the culture. Great debates took place as to how to rewrite the constitution.

The Sinhalese-Buddhist coalition in government shifted its stance more toward the communist world to eliminate obvious connections to England. It vowed to establish a more egalitarian, socialist form of government, based on traditional values held by the majority in Sri Lanka.

Extreme demands were put on the government by radical groups touting their Buddhist heritage. An extreme leftist group, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP, or People’s Liberation Front), established by Rohana Wijeweera in the late 1960’s and comprising Sinhalese and Buddhists, started agitating against the government. Supported by students and poor Sinhalese youth, the party had voted for the SLFP and then planned to overthrow it. The group led an armed uprising in April, 1971, that resulted in the deaths of as many as ten thousand at the hands of government security guards. Historian K. M. de Silva called the 1971 JVP insurrection “perhaps the biggest revolt by young people in any part of the world in recorded history, the first instance of tension between generations becoming military conflict on a national scale.” The JVP symbolized the aggregated aspirations of the younger and less-accommodated section of the Sinhalese masses and disenchantment with the so-called centrist character of the government. The uprising made apparent that the government was paying mere lip service to the true economic needs of the poor.

The second constitution, adopted in 1972, was an attempt on the part of the SLFP-led United Front coalition to create new political institutions reflecting more indigenous values than did the original constitution. Changing the name of the country from Ceylon to Sri Lanka, the constitution abandoned the notion of a secular state and designated Sinhala as the national language, replacing joint use of English, Sinhala, and Tamil. The constitution declared that the Republic of Sri Lanka would give Buddhism a foremost place as the country’s religion. It would be the duty of the state to protect and foster Buddhism while assuring religious freedom for non-Buddhists. The constitution established a republic devoted to the creation of a “socialist democracy.”

The founding of the Civil Rights Movement of Sri Lanka Civil Rights Movement of Sri Lanka in 1971 marked the beginning of a public consciousness regarding the rights of the citizens of Sri Lanka, as well as political detainees and prisoners, and served as an active check on the government’s abuse of power. Composed mostly of lawyers and supported by the conservative UNP, which had dominated politics before the SLFP obtained power, this organization worked actively against the government’s attempts to exploit its powers, recognizing that only an organized and articulate pressure group could act as a brake on the inroads into fundamental freedoms contemplated by the government. The group was one of many protective associations formed during the early 1970’s to lobby against many aspects of the new constitution that they believed gave too much power to the government, failed to honor the rights of citizens, and leaned too far toward totalitarianism or communism.

The Civil Rights Movement of Sri Lanka argued against the establishment of the Constitutional Court, which was to provide a final opinion on the constitutionality of the efforts of the government to implement its socialist policies and was thought to be a mere appendage of the government. The movement presented evidence before the parliamentary select committee on the revision of the constitution, insisting that the functioning of the Constitutional Court did not inspire confidence in that institution, and announced that it would never again appear before the court. The movement unsuccessfully attempted in the early 1970’s to prevent Bandaranaike from establishing a press council to control and censor the press in Sri Lanka; it kept a vigilant eye on the operation of the supreme court, which was required to provide its opinion on bills “urgent in the national interest” within a period not exceeding three days; and it provided free legal advice and aid to citizens who believed that their rights were not being safeguarded properly in the legal system, which had been established primarily to support the actions of the government, not the people. The Civil Rights Movement continued its work for decades, publicizing human rights abuses and writing monographs and books regarding mysterious deaths and torture of political prisoners.


The nationalistic fervor that gained a strong political force in the early 1970’s had both positive and negative impacts on Sri Lankan society. The positive impacts related to the indigenization of the Sri Lankan society and to the official recognition of the predominant Buddhist heritage. The society turned inward after breaking its colonial ties. The nationalist movement also succeeded in ending the domination of society by the minority Tamil elite who maintained their alliance with England.

The establishment of the Civil Rights Movement of Sri Lanka in 1971 heralded an enhanced consciousness of the rights of citizens in general and of political prisoners and detainees in particular. It acted as an international window on the abuses of the government and mustered international support to pressure the government to conform to standards of just and humane treatment of such prisoners. The movement, however, was criticized as being an elite organization, commenting mostly on issues affecting the privileged and more affluent social groups.

The nationalist fervor of the early 1970’s, although advancing an indigenous culture, also served to alienate the Tamils and to catalyze a radical reaction to the Sinhalese-Buddhist government that would create havoc, violence, and ethnic disputes into the early twenty-first century. The government of the early 1970’s established policies that discriminated against the Tamil minority, which had enjoyed a privileged position in Sri Lankan society until that time. One such policy governed university admissions. Prior to the early 1970’s, the Tamils were greatly overrepresented in the ranks of professional faculties at the university as a result of the fact that they generally had a higher educational level than the Sinhalese. For example, in 1969, 50 percent of the students in the faculties of medicine and 43 percent of all engineering students were Tamil, in spite of the fact that they represented only 12 percent of the overall population of the country. The government passed a preferential admissions system known as the “policy of standardization.” This was a geographically based criterion, but because the two ethnic communities tended to be regionally segregated, such a policy increased Sinhalese enrollments. The scheme established quotas for 70 percent of university places on the basis of revenue districts, including a special allotment of 15 percent reserved for the educationally underprivileged. By the early 1980’s, the result of such policies was striking: Only 22 percent of medical students and 28 percent of engineering students were Tamils.

These admissions policies also were reflected in the numbers of Tamils in the professional ranks of government. State-employed Tamil physicians declined from 35 percent in the 1966-1970 period to 30 percent in 1978-1979; engineers from a 38 percent average in 1971-1977 to 25 percent in 1978-1979; and clerical workers from 11 percent in 1970-1977 to about 5 percent in 1978-1979. By 1980, only 12 percent of employees in the public sector were Tamils.

The Sinhalese Buddhists also established a discriminatory hiring policy in the public sector, called the “chit system.” Under this system, legislators had to write a memorandum or “chit” to personnel authorities recommending their candidate of choice. These favored the legislators’ own supporters, who were by and large Sinhalese.

Government-sponsored settlement schemes also exacerbated the ethnic tensions. The government planned to resettle the Sinhalese in the northern or eastern parts of the island, which traditionally had been Tamil. For example, there was a scheme to settle thirty thousand Sinhalese in the dry zone of the northern province, giving each settler land and funds to build a house and each community armed protection in the form of rifles and machine guns. Tamils accused the government of a new form of colonialism and organized themselves into the Tamil United Front (later known as the Tamil United Liberation Front, or TULF), which would become more powerful and aggressive during the following years. Tamil organizations, primarily the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), retaliated by attacking government institutions and the military. On July 23, 1983, Tamils killed thirteen Sri Lankan soldiers, sparking a civil war that continued into the early twenty-first century. Racial and ethnic conflict;Sri Lanka Tamils Sri Lanka;government Revolutions and coups;Sri Lanka

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Civil Rights Movement of Sri Lanka. Death in Custody. Sri Lanka: Author, 1988. Report exposes the mistreatment of political detainees in Sri Lanka and some of their mysterious deaths.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gamage, Siri, and I. B. Watson, eds. Conflict and Community in Contemporary Sri Lanka: “Pearl of the East” or the “Island of Tears”? New Delhi: Sage, 1999. Examines the causes of the fifty-year conflict in Sri Lanka. Includes maps and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gunaratna, Rohan. Sri Lanka: A Lost Revolution? The Inside Story of the JVP. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Institute of Fundamental Studies, 1990. An important book on the radical JVP movement. Includes bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jayasuriya, D. C. Mechanics of Constitutional Change: The Sri Lankan Style. Nawala, Sri Lanka: Asia Pathfinder, 1982. Discusses the constitutional changes in Sri Lanka, in particular the “Second Republican Constitution” enacted in 1972. Describes the emergence of civil rights movements in Sri Lanka.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kearney, Robert N. The Politics of Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975. Provides almost minute-by-minute coverage of the development of politics in Sri Lanka. Written during the period covered by this article.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Richardson, John. Paradise Poisoned: Learning About Conflict, Terrorism, and Development from Sri Lanka’s Civil Wars. Kandy, Sri Lanka: International Centre for Ethnic Studies, 2005. Comprehensive work examines the sources of conflicts in Sri Lanka and applies the same methodology to other developing nations with similar conflicts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Saran, Parmatma. Government and Politics of Sri Lanka. New Delhi: Metropolitan, 1982. Provides a critical study of the various aspects of government and politics in Sri Lanka, including the foundations of government, constitutional development, and party and group politics.

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Categories: History