The First Sinhala-Tamil Riot, 1939
Prior to about 1935, the politics of caste was more important than the
politics of race, and there was little race animosity. Racial
representation was begun by the British, who appointed reprentatives
to the Legislative council, based on race and restricted to the ""highest" castes.
The Sinhalese were
further split into Low-country and Kandyan, an existing division which was exploited
to weaken their power.
The Donoughmore commission (1927) brought in the possibility of Universal Franchise,
which gave a vote to every one, irrespective of Caste, creed ot ethnicity.
The strong political position of the Tamil community was thus threatened.
At first the opposition to the Donoughmore commission, esp. from the
Colombo Tamils, was based on caste elitism and opposition to giving an
equal place to women. This was rapidly replaced by
ethnic parring between the Tamil and Sinhala leaders.
The 1930s were the seed bed of the racist politics that plague Sri Lanka today.
It was also the period when world politics was dominated by the rise of racism (Nazism)
and Marxism (Stalinism in the Soviet Union). These influenced the young
Ceylonese intellectuals as well as their Indian counterparts.
The similarities between Indian and Sri lankan nationalist politics have been discussed
by many authors. For our purpose, the emotively written brief list
by a typical Sinhala nationalist writer, "Ravana's land and Tamil Nadu politicians"
is probabaly sufficient.
The politics of communalism was dominated by the platforms of G. G. Ponnambalam
and S. W. R. D Bandaranaike, while D. S. Senanayake, Baron Jayatilleke,
and Arunachalam Mahadeva tried to forge a "Ceylonese" point of view.
The following article, which appeared in the Lanka Herald (Dec 2008)
discusses the background to the politics of the period, from a largely
pro-Bandaranaike point of view. A detailed discussion of the period is
found in Dr. Jane Russell, "Communal Politics of Sri Lanka in the Donoughmore Era,
1927-1947 (Tissara Publishers, Colombo 1982), and in the Book by
Prof. K. M. de Silva, History of Sri Lanka (Penguin 1995).
We reproduce the following article by Bodhi Dhanapala
Monday, 19 November 2007, Lanka Herald
There is a common misconception that Bandaranaike was primarily responsible
for the present
crisis, and that he donned the national dress and embraced Buddhism soon
after he arrived from London just to power.
At the time when S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike (SWRD for short) came back
to Sri Lanka, the national dress and Buddhism were not respected,
and did not get votes. Voting was restricted to an elite class; but
even the "lower" classes respected the dress of the white master.
People like Bandaranaike, by donning the National dress and taking up Buddhism,
gave prestige to Buddhism and the national.
At that time, the way to get power was not by donning the National dress,
but by copying the British, as most of Bandaranaike's family did. The
Brian Seneviratne types - Australian ""Kotiyas" (Tigers)- are from that section of
Bandaranaike's family which despised everything Sinhalese. They also despised
SWRD for going against the family fold.
Tamil leaders' rejection of the "Ceylonese" model
Bandaranaike and others at first worked in the Ceylon equivalent of the
"Indian national congress" and sought to obtain independence within the
concept of a " Ceylonese" nation which embraced the Sinhalese, Tamils,
Muslims and other groups. The Older Tamil leaders (Ponnambalam Arunachalam
and Ponnambalam Ramanathan) were favorable to this, as long as they controlled
the show. To break their power, G.G. Ponnambalam (GGP for short), an ambitious
young lawyer who did not belong to the super-elite group of the Ramanathans, had to find a
formula to capture the support of the Tamils. Recognizing that the proposal
for universal franchise would reduce the Tamils to a minority, GGP began
the racist cry in the 1930s. The Hansard reports in 1935 (column 3045)
show Ponnambalam claiming that he is a PROUD DRAVIDIAN, and rejecting
the ceylonese concept that embraced all the ethnic groups (The references
are in the book by the British historian Dr. Jane Russell, Communal
Politics under the Donoughmore Constitution, Tissara Publishers, 1982).
Attacks on the Mahavamsa and the First Sinhala-Tamil riot in 1939.
The Tamil Vellalas realized that they would loose their dominant position
if universal franchise was upheld. GGP began a full campaign against
Universal Franchise and the historical position of the Sinhalese.
Jane Russell writes (page 131): "The Ceylon Tamils had no written document
on the lines of the Mahavamsa to authenticate their singular and separate
historical authority in Sri Lanka, a fact which Ceylon Tamil communalists
found very irksome". Because of this, Tamil writers,and budding
politicians like Ponnambalam began to attack the Mahavamsa. He went to political
meeting claiming that the Tamils have always ruled the Sinhalese, and that the
Sinhalese were "a race of hybrids" and an offshoot of the Tamils. The
Dutugamunu-Elara story was used by "Ceylon Tamil agitators" (as) an historical
justification for the sense of grievance which they were so carefully nursing.
It was used to suggest that Sinhalese perfidy in the name of Sinhalese
Buddhism would be the accepted practice in the future as well as in the past"
(Russell, p. 154). Meanwhile, the Tamils continued to insist that they are
effectively a majority community (Morning Star, January 2, 1934). The famous
Peradeniya historian, Prof. K. M. de Silva has cited this fact as a main
cause of the failure of the Ceylon National Congress and the concept
of a united Sri Lanka (University of Ceylon History of Ceylon , p401).
At a meeting in Navalapitiya in 1939, Ponnambalam attacked the Mahavamsa and the Sinhalese
in such extreme terms that the people attacked him, and the first Sinhala-Tamil
riots began, with clashes in Navalapitiya, Passara, Maskeliya and even in Jaffna
(reported in full in the newspaper, Hindu Organ November 1, 1939. This paper is
said to be available at the Jaffna University Library). The British government
rapidly put down the clashes and so they did not become extensive as in the
The formation of the Sinhala Mahasabha.
The anti-sinhala movement of G. G. Ponnambalam made him popular among the Jaffna people.
His Tamil Congress captured power from the moderate Tamils who were led by the Ramanatha
family. ramanathan had been more concerned about caste purity, and regarded upper caste
Sinhalese as being closer to him than lower caste tamils.
S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike had meanwhile
begun to reply G. G. Ponanmbalam. The Sinhala Maha Sabha was founded in 1936, spurred
by attacks on the Sinhalese which were spearheaded by Ponnambalam. They had become
intense in the 1930s. Bandaranaike set up branches of the Sinhala Maha Sabha in
exactly the same cities that G. G. Ponnambalam went to give anti-sinhala speeches.
In establishing the Nawalapitya branch of the Sinhala Mahasabha, SWRD stated thus:
" The Nawalapitiya Sinhala Maha Sabha should erect a statue of Mr. Ponnambalam as
we should be grateful to him for provoking the formation of this Sinhala Maha sabha"
( Hindu Organ, June 19, 1939). It is over Ponnambalam's explicit racism that
Robert Goonawardene came to blows with him inside the State Council Chambers
in the early 1940s.
Bandaranaike and many others took up this more polarized, nationalist position in
reaction to G. G. Ponnambalam's racist program, just as today many Sinhalese have
taken a more polarized position in reaction to the LTTE.
Bandaranaike as the opponent of Tamil racism nursed by Ponnambalam.
G. G. Ponnambalam held that:
- (1)Universal franchise was a mistake. There were roughly equal numbers of "educated upper-caste Tamils"
and "educated upper-caste Sinhalese". So the vote should be restricted and the chamber should be 50%-50%
between the two communities ("balanced representation"). Basically, low-caste Tamils and Indian Tamils,
and also most Sinhalese should not count!
- (2)He upheld the caste system, and agreed with Ponnambalam Ramanathan, who went several times to London
in the 1930s to ask the British government to uphold the caste system by icluding it in the constitution.
- (3)Ponnnamblam held that the Tamils had always ruled the Sinhalese, and that Vijaya was " Vijayan",
Kasyapa was "Kasi-appan", and Parakramabahu was a Tamil whose actual name was Pandya-Parakram.
His favorite attack theme was to begin by bashing the Mahavamsa.
- (4)Ramanathan Ponnambalam, and also G. G. Ponnambalam and others REFUSED to accept that the Tamils are
a minority in a democratic government, and did not attempt to create a political strategy that accepted
the reality of being a minority.
- (5)GGP visited Nazi Germany several times, accompanied by his right-wing British friends, in the mid 1930s,
and probably copied the racist nationalism of Europe, just as N. M. Perera, Philip Gunawardena, Colvin
R de Silva and other intellectuals copied the equally deadly leftist ideology of Marxism. Racism was
fashionable in Europe in the 1930s and GGP imported it to Sri Lanka to replace casteism.
- (6)When D. S. Senanayake managed to get both SWRD and GGP into his cabinet by his adroit political
manipulations, a vacuum was created in the Tamil extremist space, and this was filled by the Tamil
Sovereign party (Tamil Arasu Kachchi), falsely translated as "The Federal party", as every one
knows the real meaning of the Tamil word "Arasu". The name came from the "League of Tamil
federations", which had published a book in 1942 claiming to show that the Tamils were the
main inhabitants of Sri Lanka, and that the Mahavamsa was a recent (16th century), false fabrication.
This writer holds that that SWRD had no option but to oppose the forces unleashed by GGP,
by setting up the Sinhala Maha Sabha etc. The national dress and other things came with
the temperance movement and the Sinhala and Tamil nationalist movements. These were in
turn influenced by the Indian nationalist movements. The early life of SWRD shows that
he was influenced by the Indian nationalist movements in Oxford. He was a sincere,
sensitive politician who overestimated his capacity to control the nationalist forces
and the intrigues of the anti-nationalist forces that were unleashed within the racist
politics of the 1930s.
The rank communalism of the Tamils was made respectable, socially acceptable and nourished by
the Tamil Congress in the 1930-40s. That is why the idea of a Ceylonese nation failed, already
by 1939. The continued program launched by the Federal party was based on a separate Tamil
identity for the Tamils, fully denying the Ceylonese concept of D. S. Senanayake and Oliver
Goonatileke . The Federal party began to invent grievances and organize provocative
"Sathyagrahas" instead of building bridges between the two communities. E. M. V. Naganathan
enjoyed claiming that he was a descendent of a Chola aristocrat. The Federal party leaders
wanted to carve out a North-Eastern fiefdom for themselves, governing it from the comfort
of Colombo. In time to come the local militants in the north realized this and
eliminated the Federal Party-TULF leadership. There was no way of preventing a final
show down as long as the Federal party continued on its path, towards the TULF and
BataKotte (Vadukkoddei), and then to the active support of the armed militancy of
the LTTE and Giranikke (KIllinochchi).