Tamils Protest Discrimination in Ceylon

In an effort to stem the erosion of language rights for the minority Tamils, the Federal Party organized a civil disobedience movement to pressure the government.

Summary of Event

When the multiethnic island of Ceylon gained independence from Great Britain in 1948, it was hoped that the Sinhalese majority would be able to coexist peacefully with the Tamil minority, which made up about 20 percent of the island’s population. Such hopes were, however, dashed. Sinhalese politicians soon revealed little hesitation to use communalism for the political mobilization of their constituencies. Racial and ethnic discrimination;Ceylonese Tamils
Civil rights;Ceylon
Civil disobedience
[kw]Tamils Protest Discrimination in Ceylon (Feb., 1961)
[kw]Discrimination in Ceylon, Tamils Protest (Feb., 1961)
[kw]Ceylon, Tamils Protest Discrimination in (Feb., 1961)
Racial and ethnic discrimination;Ceylonese Tamils
Civil rights;Ceylon
Civil disobedience
[g]South Asia;Feb., 1961: Tamils Protest Discrimination in Ceylon[06830]
[g]Sri Lanka;Feb., 1961: Tamils Protest Discrimination in Ceylon[06830]
[g]Ceylon;Feb., 1961: Tamils Protest Discrimination in Ceylon[06830]
[c]Social issues and reform;Feb., 1961: Tamils Protest Discrimination in Ceylon[06830]
[c]Language, linguistics, and philology;Feb., 1961: Tamils Protest Discrimination in Ceylon[06830]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;Feb., 1961: Tamils Protest Discrimination in Ceylon[06830]
Chelvanayakam, S. J. V.
Bandaranaike, S. W. R. D.
Jayawardene, Junius Richard

The polarization of the two communities worsened over time to the point that in the 1980’s the country would be engulfed in open warfare. Many events led to this disaster; one of the key turning points came in 1961, when it became clear to the main Tamil political party, the Federal Party, Federal Party, Ceylonese that more serious action had to be taken to stem the erosion of the Tamils’ rights. In order to understand the significance of the Tamils’ massive 1961 civil disobedience movement and its impact, it is essential to look at the developments preceding it.

The most obvious differences between the Sinhalese and the Tamils were linguistic Languages;cultural importance and religious. Each group had its own language, and the Sinhalese were predominantly Buddhists, while Tamils tended to be Hindu. The Tamil population was concentrated in the northern and eastern provinces of the island. The Sinhalese and Tamil areas represented distinct cultural entities and for most purposes had all the characteristics of separate nations.

Although Tamil concerns came to encompass the entire spectrum of economics, politics, and culture, it was over language that the first clash occurred. The question of language had become central during Ceylon’s transition from a colony to a postcolonial nation. It was deemed imperative to replace English, the language of the colonizers, as the national language. This need, however, raised the sensitive point of how to treat the two indigenous languages. All the important Sinhalese parties across the political spectrum had begun by advocating parity for Sinhala and Tamil, but this equality proved to be illusory.

The Sri Lanka Freedom Party Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), formed in 1951 by S. W R. D. Bandaranaike, was the first to appeal to Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism to gain power. The SLFP, founded twenty-one years before the nation of Ceylon would change its name to Sri Lanka, found its main opposition in the United National Party United National Party, Ceylonese (UNP), which was formed in 1946 and led by the nation’s anglicized elite. In a bid to gain ascendency over the UNP, the SLFP in 1955 advocated primacy for Sinhala as the sole official national language.

One factor lurking behind this move was Sinhalese apprehension regarding the potential relationship between the fifty million Tamils in neighboring India and the Ceylonese Tamils. From the viewpoint of the minority Tamils, however, it represented a dangerous and chauvinistic move at their expense. In reaction, the Tamil Federal Party (FP), which had been formed in 1949 by S. J. V. Chelvanayakam based on notions of the loose federation of Tamil areas with Sinhalese, stated its resolve to defend the status of the Tamil language and culture. This defense could include the creation of an autonomous Tamil linguistic state, if that became necessary.

The Federal Party’s stand became more compelling as the SLFP won at the polls in 1956 and within twenty-four hours passed “Sinhala only” legislation. The Official Languages Act Official Languages Act, Ceylonese (1956) did provide the Sinhalese masses with a voice, but in doing so it threatened to shut out the voice of the Tamils. The FP responded with a peaceful sit-in before parliament but was met with violence from Sinhalese mobs and a lack of government protection. In a conciliatory meeting after months of negotiations, the ruling SLFP leadership and the FP finally entered into what appeared to be a good-faith agreement designed to stave off rising ethnic tensions.

This agreement, the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact (1956)[Bandaranaike Chelvanayakam Pact] , recognized the validity of major Tamil grievances and conceded the position of Tamil as the national language of administration in the north and the east. It also agreed in principle to devolve regional autonomy and end Sinhalese colonization of Tamil areas. Had the pact been implemented, much of the later bloodshed between the Tamils and Sinhalese might have been avoided. As it was, the out-of-power UNP fanned communal flames and jeopardized progress. Junius Richard Jayawardene, a top UNP official who was later to become the country’s leader, and a group of Buddhist monks staged a pilgrimage on behalf of a Sinhala-Buddhist polity, marking the beginning of outright chauvinistic political plays by the two key Sinhalese parties, with Tamils as the most convenient political targets.

Revocation of the pact in 1958 was viewed by Tamils as a terrible betrayal. The only recourse for the FP was seen as direct action, and at the party convention in May, 1958, plans for mass civil disobedience were discussed. Sinhalese extremists disrupted the convention, however, and what began as stoning of buses and trains carrying Tamil delegates ended in the random massacre of Tamils in many areas, especially in Colombo, the country’s capital. Tamil businesses and properties were ransacked and set on fire. Worse, Tamils were singled out in buses and cars, in many instances by their inability to read Sinhala or recite a Buddhist hymn, and killed. This historically unparalleled violence led to the flight of nearly twelve thousand Tamil refugees from their homes in the south to safe havens in the north and east. The 1958 riots demonstrated graphically how fragile communal harmony had become.

The FP still held a final shred of hope that its demands could be met through regular parliamentary means, especially because at the time it held a potential swing role. In the March, 1960, elections, it briefly appeared that the FP’s votes would be critical enough for the SLFP, which won only a plurality, to resurrect the provisions of the dormant pact. Potential Tamil influence was quickly undercut, however, when fresh elections were announced and the SLFP won a landslide victory. The turn of events was to prove ominous in terms of Tamil political clout; in general elections after 1965, the two largest Sinhalese parties managed to garner sufficient votes within the majority community to take away the Tamil minority’s power as a true political force.

The new SLFP government failed to recognize Tamil as a regional language and decreed that Sinhala would be the language of administration even in Tamil areas. Legislation making Sinhala the language of the courts was also introduced despite Tamil protestations. At the same time, the government declared that the main teacher-training college would be reserved for Sinhalese teachers. An extreme but influential group of Buddhist monks even called for postponing public examinations for persons educated in English or Tamil for a period of ten years.

These moves constituted a blow not only to the cultural rights of Tamils but also to their basic welfare. The language issue was a volatile one because of its impact on education and therefore on employment. The Tamils traditionally had concentrated on highly competitive professions such as teaching, engineering, law, and civil service. They chose this route because of lack of viable alternatives—the terrain of the north was arid and extremely unproductive, and capital for business purposes was in short supply in the Tamil community.

This was the general backdrop to the largest Tamil civil disobedience movement since independence, the satyagraha, launched in February, 1961. The immediate catalyst was the Official Languages Act’s coming into full force in January, 1961. The FP had been preparing for such an eventuality since the abrogation of the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact. For example, volunteers had been recruited to teach nonviolent protest techniques, and classes had already started. The movement managed to draw in the other Tamil parties on the political scene as well.

The overwhelming majority of Tamil public servants stopped working in the official language in response to individual letters appealing for a boycott. Beginning in Jaffna, the principal city in the north, the civil disobedience campaign spread to every town in the two Tamil provinces. The movement expanded to embrace alternative public services, such as a postal system. Plans were also drawn up to distribute public lands and organize a police force.

This show of resistance failed to bring the central government to the negotiating table; rather, it responded with force. Tamil leaders were arrested, and the FP was banned. On April 18, the government declared a state of emergency. Members of army units that were rushed to Jaffna harassed and assaulted peaceful demonstrators and innocent bystanders. The FP leaders were released only in October. The emergency itself lasted 743 days, during which time the Tamils of Jaffna experienced army rule for the first time.


The crackdown on the peaceful agitation and the two-year emergency led to a complete lack of progress in negotiations and to a false lull in ethnic tensions. Anti-Tamil passions were rising dramatically among Sinhalese, giving the government less room to negotiate, even half-heartedly. For example, in 1966, when the UNP-dominated government attempted to implement limited concessions on the official-language law, the attempt led to bloodshed. In that case, three thousand Sinhalese protesters led by Buddhist monks rallied outside parliament against even the smallest reforms being proposed. For the third time since independence, a state of emergency was declared, and the government’s promises to the FP were swept aside.

The central government appeared to give up even the semblance of communal impartiality when it shepherded a new constitution Constitutions;Sri Lanka through the parliament in 1972. The new constitution changed the name of the nation from Ceylon to Sri Lanka. It also made Sinhala the sole official language and conferred a special role on Buddhism, with the state obliged to protect and foster the religion. This explicit constitutional privilege for the majority religion served to highlight the potential vulnerability of the other three religions on the island—Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. The government also introduced a “standardization” scheme in education whereby students studying in Sinhala required a lower academic standard for admission to college than did their counterparts being taught in Tamil.

In addition, Tamils received an unexpectedly rude reminder of their vulnerability in January, 1974. The World Tamil Congress World Tamil Congress (1974) , an international conference on Tamil language and culture, was held in Jaffna, with scores of eminent writers, scholars, and artists in attendance. On the last day of the meeting, many of the participants mingled with the thousands of interested persons gathered on the esplanade outside the conference hall. With shocking impunity, the police charged the crowd with tear gas and batons, citing unauthorized public assembly. In the melee, nine people were killed.

This unprovoked attack on the cultural gathering outraged the Tamil community and proved to be a turning point in terms of political tactics. Thus far, despite the odds, the leading Tamil politicians had attempted to strike parliamentary deals with the SLFP and UNP, threatening at most civil disobedience when spurned. A new generation of disillusioned Tamil youths who had grown up in the increasingly communalized country and whose futures were at stake viewed the FP as ineffective. Arguing that a more revolutionary approach using guerrilla tactics was needed to pressure the Sinhalese government, they formed the Tamil New Tigers Tamil New Tigers , the forerunners of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who took up arms to fight for a separate state.

The cycle of violence between the Tamils and Sinhalese in many ways can be traced to the successive Sinhalese-led Ceylonese and Sri Lankan governments’ inability or unwillingness to provide reasonable concessions to the Tamil minority within the parliamentary setting. In retrospect, the 1961 Tamil disobedience movement was a signal event, in that it revealed the inevitable limitations of such measures in a country where communal passion and its manipulation had become a fact of the political system. Racial and ethnic discrimination;Ceylonese Tamils
Civil rights;Ceylon
Civil disobedience

Further Reading

  • Ganguly, Rajat, and Ray Taras. Understanding Ethnic Conflict: The International Dimension. New York: Longman, 1998. This volume includes a chapter on the Tamil-Sinhalese conflict.
  • Kearney, Robert. Communalism and Language in the Politics of Ceylon. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1967. Valuable for its detailed exposition of language as the key dividing issue between Sinhalese and Tamils. The politics of language is carefully linked up to the broader question of cultural identities. Bibliography and index.
  • Peebles, Patrick. The Plantation Tamils of Ceylon. London: Leicester University Press, 2001. Peebles presents a history of the Tamils. Bibliography.
  • Ram, Mohan. Sri Lanka: The Fractured Island. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1989. A highly readable book by a foreign correspondent who has covered Sri Lanka for more than a decade. Provides a sweeping overview of the roots of the Sri Lankan conflict and explains the various issues that will have to be worked out before there can be lasting peace. Bibliography and index.
  • Sabaratnam, Lakshmanan. Ethnic Attachments in Sri Lanka: Social Change and Cultural Continuity. New York: Palgrave, 2001. The author explores the impact of ethnic identity throughout the history of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) with attention paid to the minority Tamils. Includes short bibliography.
  • Sivanandan, A. “Sri Lanka: Racism and the Politics of Underdevelopment.” Race and Class 26 (Summer, 1984): 1-37. Written in a rather polemical style. The author provides sharp criticism of the government’s role in the ethnic conflict. Focuses on the interconnections between political and economic aspects of the conflict. Bibliography and index.
  • Vittachi, Tarzie. Emergency ’58: The Story of the Ceylon Race Riots. London: A. Deutsch, 1959. A firsthand account of the key 1958 ethnic violence, written in journalistic style. Provides detailed descriptions and evidence of the atrocities that occurred.
  • Wilson, A. J. Politics in Sri Lanka, 1947-1973. London: Macmillan, 1979. A comprehensive book covering history, politics, economics, administration, and foreign policy. Useful as an introductory text to Sri Lankan politics. Bibliography and index.

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