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An untold history of Sri Lanka’s Independence

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By Uditha Devapriya

In Sri Lank, as in every other colonial outpost, resistance to foreign domination predated Western intervention by well more than two centuries. Surviving numerous onslaughts of South Indian conquest, the Anuradhapura kingdom gave way to the Polonnaruwa kingdom in the 11th century AD. The latter’s demise 200 years later led to a shift from the country’s north to the north-west, and from there to the south-west. It was in the south-west that the Sinhalese first confronted European colonialism, a confrontation that pushed the Kotte and the Sitava kingdoms to the last bastion of Sinhalese rule, Kandy.

The shift to Kandy coincided with the commencement of Portuguese rule in the island. Both Portuguese and Dutch officials emphasised, and sharpened, the line between the Maritime Provinces and the kanda uda rata. The Sitavaka rulers, in particular Rajasinghe I, had fought both Portuguese suzerainty and Kotte domination. These encounters more or less breathed new life into the country’s long history of resistance to foreign rule.

The Kandyan kings inherited this legacy and imbibed this streak. But under them resistance to colonial subjugation acquired a new logic and a fresh vigour. That was to define the island’s struggle against imperialism for well more than three centuries.

Sri Lanka’s confrontations with European colonialism took place in the early part of what historians call the modern period. The social, political, and economic transformations inherent in this period had a considerable impact on the trajectory of European imperialism and anti-imperialism. For that reason, any examination of Sri Lanka’s fight against colonial rule and its eventual independence must evaluate a broad array of historical trends. While the island’s lunge into statehood in 1948 followed a long period of peasant, elite, and radical struggles against foreign domination, the analysis would be incomplete without reference to how European colonialism itself influenced the course of such struggles.

The period between the British annexation of the island and the declaration of independence (1815-1948) unfolded in four successive but interrelated stages. In the first stage between 1815 and 1848, British colonialism was compelled to reckon with the reality of an unending series of peasant uprisings, beginning in Uva-Wellassa in 1817 and culiminating in Matale three decades later. In keeping with similar insurrections in other colonial societies, these were essentially Janus-faced: on the one hand, they sought liberation for a repressed group, the Kandyan peasantry, while on the other they envisaged a return to a pre-colonial polity. Yet, whatever their motives, they wanted to free the country of foreign rule.

The British government realised too late, the folly of assuming that its political-military grip over the island would weaken, and prevail over, peasant resistance. Since the annexation of 1815, the colonial government had drawn and redrawn the country’s borders, breaking up the former Kandyan kingdom into Central and North-Western provinces and separating the Kandyan kingdom from its Sabaragamuwa and Wayamba peripheries. With these measures, officials hoped for the breakup of Kandyan unity. The aim of these processes, notes K. M. de Silva, was “to weaken the national feeling of the Kandyans”.

However, for obvious reasons, none of these reforms could quieten or dispel the spirit of resistance among the peasantry. The Kandyan peasantry never accepted the notion of Sri Lanka as a unitary and united administration overseen by the colonial government. Indeed, when the subject of constitutional reform came up in the 1920s, the Kandyan delegation demanded federal autonomy, predating Tamil nationalist claims for a separate homeland by three decades. This showed very clearly that the British policy of amalgamating the Kandyan provinces with the rest of the country had not really worked out.

To complicate matters further, while dealing with peasant rebellions colonial officials had to put up with the growth of an assertive, and often radical, middle-class. To give one example, the Matala Uprising was never limited to Matale and Kurunegala: it erupted in Colombo as well, where Sinhalese, Tamil, and Burgher middle-classes protested the government’s tax policies. K. M. de Silva observes that attempts by these middle-classes to influence Kandyan agitation “achieved little impact.” Yet that such an attempt was made at all showed that the colonial government had to reckon with two distinct dissenting groups.

The middle-classes may not have been revolutionaries, but as their interventions during the Matale Uprising showed, they could combine their dissatisfaction with the way things were with popular hatred of the government, to make their own demands. As a way of resolving this issue, between 1848 and 1870 – the second of the four periods pertinent to this essay – the colonial government began hiring and empowering a subservient elite, drawn from “the second echelon of the Kandyan nobility” as well as a low country bourgeoisie.

Newton Gunasinghe has noted the paradox underlying these reforms. While putting an end to the monopoly of the Kandyan aristocracy, the British government reactivated the very social relations that had undergirded traditional Kandyan society. By reviving rajakariya in modified form, feudal production relations in temple lands, and a network of gamsabhas, colonial authorities grafted archaic social customs and practices on what was, essentially, a capitalist mode of production. This had the effect of building up a class of subservient elites and reducing the revolutionary potential of the peasantry.

For a while, the strategy worked. However, while it kept the Kandyan peasantry in check and in control, it backfired when the same intermediate elite the government had employed to their ranks began demanding further reforms.

Here it’s important to clarify exactly what these elites wanted. In rebelling against the government, neither the newly co-opted aristocracy nor the middle-classes promoted the overthrow of the British government. They did not want a radical transformation of colonial society, largely because by then they had grown too dependent on that society to envisage, or desire, a Ceylon falling outside the British orbit. This is why, while clamouring for greater representation for themselves, they very carefully, and consistently, opposed the extension of the franchise. As Regi Siriwardena has noted, none of those celebrated as national heroes today – with the important exception of A. E. Goonesinha – wanted universal suffrage vis-à-vis the Donoughmore Commission. Such reforms had to be imposed on them.

Despite this, though, the British government’s policy of engaging with local elites worked fairly well. Colonial officials now had local emissaries through whom they could mediate potential peasant uprisings. Yet the policy necessitated the retention of archaic and quasi-feudal social relations, which in the long term stunted capitalist development. On the other hand, the new strategy paved the way for the revival of various art forms, most prominently the Dalada perahera. As scholars like Senake Bandaranayake have noted, the government defined the perimeters and the contours of cultural artefacts and objets d’art, ensuring that they were in line with the broader aim of legitimising colonial rule.

These reforms led, in the third period (1870-1915), to a Buddhist revival whose exponents alternated between championing opposing to and cooperation with colonial officials. These two lines were promoted, respectively, by the two Buddhist institutions of higher learning established in the late 19th century, Vidyalankara and Vidyodaya. While it’s rather difficult to draw a line between these two universities and their representatives, it is true, as H. L. Seneviratne suggests in The Work of Kings, that significant disagreements prevailed within the Buddhist clergy over the issue of British domination.

From their side, colonial authorities, especially governors like Henry Ward, William Gregory, and Arthur Gordon, sought closer cooperation with a conservative Buddhist bourgeoisie, legitimising British rule while implementing cultural and political reforms. Very often these reforms antagonised groups like Evangelical missionaries. Yet colonial officials ignored their concerns; endearing themselves to revivalists, orientalists, and moderate nationalist opinion to maintain the colonial administrative structure became the bigger priority.

The effect of these developments was to turn the Buddhist elite to the forefront of the reforms being supported by the British government. Towards the end of this period, the bourgeoisie, who were too entrenched economically in colonial rule to advocate radical change, yet too underrepresented politically to be content with the way things were, began to take the lead in these reforms through the Temperance Movement.

The Temperance Movement provided an impetus for a number of other organisations. K. M. de Silva has argued that none of them – not even the ambitious Ceylon National Association – fulfilled the aims for which they had been set up. Ranging from communal outfits like the Dutch Burgher Union to commercial groups like the Plumbago Merchants Union, these organisations, for the most, preferred gradual to radical change, dispensing with the sort of agitation politics that would come to define the Indian National Congress.

Moreover, Hector Abhayavardhana has noted that the bulk of the Sinhalese elite leadership consisted of “small men with narrow vision” who wanted to bring religion into politics. Any hopes for a multicultural alliance faded away with the establishment of Mahajana Sabhas, which campaigned for Buddhist candidates. However highly one may have thought of outfits like the Jaffna Youth Congress, the lack of enthusiasm for such alliances, among the colonial bourgeoisie, paved the way for their inevitable and tragic demise.

Meanwhile, the colonial bourgeoisie faced a more formidable foe, or competitor, in the form of nationalist firebrands like Anagarika Dharmapala. In a bid to blunt the fervour of such firebrands, who they viewed with much distaste, the Sinhalese bourgeoisie toed the Vidyodaya line, promoting change within the framework of a plantation economy while seeking more representation for themselves. This was necessitated by expedience: by the early 20th century a working class movement had begun to emerge in the country, as the Carters’ Strike of 1906 showed, and though it lacked proper leadership, it nevertheless concerned the bourgeoisie. Their rather ambivalent response to these developments had the unfortunate effect of stunting the rise of a mass struggle in the country.

The comprador bourgeoisie shot to fame, so to speak, with the 1915 riots. A point often forgotten in contemporary reconstructions of the riots is that none of the elites arrested by the British government posed a direct threat to colonial rule. As Kumari Jayawardena has pointed out, it was a case of official overreaction to the faintest threat of an anti-colonial uprising. Much like the J. R. Jayewardene government proscribing the Left after the 1983 riots, there was no link between the riots and the causes attributed to it, be it the supposed agitation of Buddhist elites or the politics of the Temperance Movement.

Kumari Jayawardena and K. M. de Silva point out that the period after the 1915 riots – the fourth period relevant to our discussion – witnessed the dulling down and fading away of the Buddhist revival. This is indeed what happened. In the person of Anagarika Dharmapala, the revival had brought together both reformist and radical streams. The Sinhalese elites, obviously cooperating with British authorities, marginalised him to the extent of excluding him from political activity. Yet Dharmapala’s departure from the island gave rise to newer parties and forms of struggle, many of them inspired by his vision. Among these, the most prominent was the Labour Party, founded in 1928 by A. E. Goonesinha.

Naturally enough, working class unrest dominated much of the post-1915 period, leading to the formation of a broad, radical Left. The newly formed Left identified the limitations of Goonesinha’s politics and sought to transcend them. To this end the establishment of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), in 1935, marked a pivotal turning point in the country’s lunge towards independent statehood. Envisioning a complete, radical transformation of society, its representatives and ideologues broke with the dominant political outfit of the day, the Ceylon National Congress, charting their own course.

The LSSP’s original objectives, as radical in their time as in ours, included the socialisation of the means of production, the attainment of complete independence, and the abolition of all forms of inequality, including caste. Given the state of the economy at the time – it was a plantation enclave heavily dependent on a few sectors – no other programme would have sufficed for an organisation calling for a mass struggle against colonial rule. It goes without saying that it was the stalwarts of the Marxist Left – specifically Philip Gunawardena – who first advocated complete independence for Ceylon.

In the meantime, the colonial bourgeoisie managed, rather dismally, to turn the Ceylon National Congress into a pale echo of what it had once aspired to. With the departure of Ponnambalam Arunachalam in 1921, there came an end to an era where, as K. M. de Silva and Hector Abhayavardhana have observed, Sinhala and Tamil communities constituted in unison the majority of the country. In the hands of a predominantly Sinhalese bourgeoisie the Congress became a little more than a communal organisation, a point reinforced by the decision of its leaders to disenfranchise estate Tamils. In this they were occupied more than anything else with the preservation of their economic interests.

All these developments led to a situation where the Left could claim, very validly, that the ruling elite had not won independence, but had secured it on a platter from Whitehall. The elite themselves were not unaware of the inadequacy of their campaign for freedom: when the masses reacted vociferously against the cosmetic reforms they had obtained from the British government, the Congress bourgeoisie quickly went back and pressed for what was being demanded. Yet tied to three agreements which made the defence, foreign policy, and civil service blanks of the government subservient to British interests, Ceylon could become free only through a radical transformation of its political structures.

In breaking off all remaining ties with the colonial government, the 1972 Constitution sought to give effect to such a transformation. By then even the Sinhalese bourgeoisie had come to realise the folly of maintaining the status quo and the inevitability of change: whereas John Kotelawala could support Ceylon remaining a Dominion, Dudley Senanayake could a decade later support the idea of it becoming a Republic within the Commonwealth.

I believe we need a new account of our country’s emergence as an independent state. The accounts we have at present, barring very few, glorify one set of leaders over all others, marginalising and excluding everyone else. Conventional narratives depict the colonial elite as national heroes. This was not always so, though important differences did exist within the bourgeoisie. What we have learnt about our own independence is hardly adequate to the task of helping us understand our past. We badly need a new history.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com



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Thomians triumph in Sydney 

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Nothing is happening for us, at this end, other than queues, queues, and more queues! There’s very little to shout about were the sports and entertainment scenes are concerned. However, Down Under, the going seems good.

Sri Lankans, especially in Melbourne, Australia, have quite a lot of happenings to check out, and they all seem to be having a jolly good time!

Trevine Rodrigo,

who puts pen to paper to keep Sri Lankans informed of the events in Melbourne, was in Sydney, to taken in the scene at the Sri Lanka Schools Sevens Touch Rugby competition. And, this is Trevine’s report:

The weather Gods and S.Thomas aligned, in Sydney, to provide the unexpected at the Sri Lanka Schools Sevens Touch Rugby competition, graced by an appreciative crowd.

Inclement weather was forecast for the day, and a well drilled Dharmaraja College was expected to go back-to-back at this now emerging competition in Sydney’s Sri Lanka expatriate sporting calendar.

But the unforeseen was delivered, with sunny conditions throughout, and the Thomians provided the upset of the competition when they stunned the favourites, Dharmaraja, in the final, to grab the Peninsula Motor Group Trophy.

Still in its infancy, the Sevens Touch Competition, drawn on the lines of Rugby League rules, found new flair and more enthusiasm among its growing number of fans, through the injection of players from around Australia, opposed to the initial tournament which was restricted to mainly Sydneysiders.

A carnival like atmosphere prevailed throughout the day’s competition.

Ten teams pitted themselves in a round robin system, in two groups, and the top four sides then progressed to the semi-finals, on a knock out basis, to find the winner.

A food stall gave fans the opportunity to keep themselves fed and hydrated while the teams provided the thrills of a highly competitive and skilled tournament.

The rugby dished out was fiercely contested, with teams such as Trinity, Royal and St. Peter’s very much in the fray but failing to qualify after narrow losses on a day of unpredictability.

Issipathana and Wesley were the other semi-finalists with the Pathanians grabbing third place in the play-off before the final.

The final was a tense encounter between last year’s finalists Dharmaraja College and S.Thomas. Form suggested that the Rajans were on track for successive wins in as many attempts.  But the Thomians had other ideas.

The fluent Rajans, with deft handling skills and evasive running, looked the goods, but found the Thomian defence impregnable.  Things were tied until the final minutes when the Thomians sealed the result with an intercept try and hung on to claim the unthinkable.

It was perhaps the price for complacency on the Rajans part that cost them the game and a lesson that it is never over until the final whistle.

Peninsula Motor Group, headed by successful businessman Dilip Kumar, was the main sponsor of the event, providing playing gear to all the teams, and prize money to the winners and runners-up.

The plan for the future is to make this event more attractive and better structured, according to the organisers, headed by Deeptha Perera, whose vision was behind the success of this episode.

In a bid to increase interest, an over 40’s tournament, preceded the main event, and it was as interesting as the younger version.

Ceylon Touch Rugby, a mixed team from Melbourne, won the over 40 competition, beating Royal College in the final.

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Marked stress on Asia in US foreign policy

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US President Joe Biden disembarks Air Force One as he arrives at the Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea May 20, 2022

US President Joe Biden’s recent tour of some Asian powers is indicative of a renewed and enhanced interest the US is beginning to take in the Indo-Pacific region. In this his first Asian tour the President chose to visit Japan and South Korea besides helming a Quad meeting in Tokyo and there is good reason for the choice of these venues and engagements.

The first phase of these bridge-strengthening efforts by the US began in late August last year when US Vice President Kamala Harris visited South-east Asia in the wake of the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. Besides being driven by strong economic compulsions, the US intention was also to ensure that too much of a power vacuum did not open up in the region, following its pull-out from Afghanistan, since China’s perceived expansionist designs are a prime foreign policy concern of the US.

However, the US President’s recent wide-ranging tour of East Asia seems to have been also prompted by some currently intensifying trends and tensions in the wider stage of international politics though the seeming power vacuum just referred to has a significant bearing on it. The immediate purpose of the US President’s tour seems to have been to bolster his country’s backing for Japan and South Korea, two of the US’ closest allies in East Asia. This is necessitated by the ‘China threat’, which, if neglected, could render the US allies vulnerable to China’s military attacks on the one hand and blunt US power and influence in the region on the other.

While Taiwan’s airspace has reportedly been frequently violated by China, sections in Japan have reasons to be wary of perceived Chinese expansionist moves in Japan’s adjacent seas. Moreover, many of China’s neighbours have been having territorial disputes with China, which have tended to intensify the perception over the decades that in the Asian theatre in particular China is a number one ‘bogey’. For historical reasons, South Korea too has been finding the increasing rise of China as a major world power considerably discomforting.

Accordingly, the US considers it opportune to reassure South-east Asia in general and its allies in the region in particular of its continuous military, economic and political support. Though these are among the more immediate reasons for Biden’s tour of the region, there are also the convulsions triggered in international politics by the Russian invasion of Ukraine to consider.

Whereas sections of international opinion have been complacent in the belief that military invasions of one country by another are things of the distant past, the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine in February this year proved them shockingly wrong. We have the proof here that not all authoritarian rulers are prepared to adhere to the international rule book and for some of China’s neighbours the possibility is great of their being attacked or invaded by China over the numerous rankling problems that have separated them from their economic super power neighbour over the decades. After all, China is yet to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and is increasingly proving an ‘all weather friend’ of Russia. Right now, they are the strongest of allies.

The ‘China threat’ then is prime among the reasons for the US President’s visit to East Asia, though economic considerations play a substantive role in these fence-strengthening initiatives as well. While South-east Asia is the ‘economic power house’ of the world, and the US would need to be doubly mindful of this fact, it would need to reassure its allies in the region of its military and defense assistance at a time of need. This too is of paramount importance.

President Biden did just that while in Tokyo a couple of days back. For instance, he said that the US is ‘fully committed to Japan’s defense’. Biden went on to say that the ‘US is willing to use force to defend Taiwan.’ The latter comment was prompted by the perceived increasing Chinese violations of Taiwan’s air space. After all, considering that Russia has invaded Ukraine with impunity, there is apparently nothing that could prevent China from invading Taiwan and annexing it. Such are the possible repercussions of the Russian invasion.

Meanwhile, North Korea is reportedly carrying on with its development of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. On this issue too, South Korea would need to have US assurances that the latter would come to its defense in case of a North Korean military strike. The US President’s visit to South Korea was aimed at reassuring the latter of the former’s support.

However, as mentioned, economic considerations too figured prominently in the US President’s South-east Asian tour. While being cognizant of the region’s security sensitivities, bolstering economic cooperation with the latter too was a foremost priority for the Biden administration. For example, the US is in the process of formalizing what has come to be referred to as the Indo-Pacific Trade Treaty. The US has reportedly already inducted Japan and South Korea as founding members of the Treaty while, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand are mentioned as prospective members to the treaty.

The perceived threat posed to Western interests in South-east Asia by China needs to be factored in while trying to unravel the reasons for this region-wide endeavour in economic cooperation. It needs to be considered a Western response to China’s Belt and Road initiative which is seen as having a wide appeal for the global South in particular.

While the Russian invasion of Ukraine is having a divisive political and economic impact on the world, international politics will increasingly revolve around the US-China stand-off on a multiplicity of fronts in time to come. Both sides are likely to try out both soft and hard power to an exceptional degree to exercise foremost influence and power in the world. As is already happening, this would trigger increasing international tensions.

There was a distinct and sharp note of firmness in the voice of the US President when he pledged defense and military support for his allies in Asia this week. Considering the very high stakes for the US in a prospering South-east Asia, the US’ competitors would be naive to dismiss his pronouncements as placatory rhetoric meant for believing allies.

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A Majoritarian Constitution

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1972 Constitution in Retrospect – II

By (Dr) Jayampathy Wickramaratne, President’s Counsel

In this the second part of a three-part article on the 50th anniversary of Sri Lanka becoming a republic, the writer submits that the 1972 Constitution paved the way for constitutionalising majoritarianism in multi-cultural Sri Lanka.

The unitary state

Although Tamil parties expressed their support for the Constituent Assembly process, they were to be disappointed by the substance of the new constitution.

Basic Resolution No. 2 proposed by the Government called for Sri Lanka to be a unitary state. The Federal Party (FP) proposed an amendment that ‘unitary’ be replaced by ‘federal’.

In a memorandum and the model constitution that it submitted to the Steering Committee of the Assembly, the FP proposed that the country be a federal republic consisting of five states made up as follows: (i) Southern and Western provinces, (ii) North Central and North Western provinces (iii) Central, Uva and Sabaragamuwa provinces (iv) Northern Province and the districts of Trincomalee and Batticaloa and (v) Ampara district. The city of Colombo and its suburbs were to be administered by the centre. A list of subjects and functions reserved for the centre, with all others going to the states, was included. Interestingly, law and order and Police were to be reserved subjects.

However, Assembly proceedings show that the Tamils were clearly for a compromise. Dharmalingam, who was a main speaker of the FP under Basic Resolution No. 2, stated that the existing constitution had failed as it was not designed for a multi-ethnic country. He pointed out that in ethnically heterogeneous countries where unitary constitutions had been in operation, concessions to the federal principle have been made to meet the demands and aspirations of the minorities. Where there has been a refusal to concede the federal principle, there have been movements for separation. The FP distanced itself from secessionists such as C. Sunderalingam and V. Navaratnam, referring to them by name, and stated that it was not asking for a division of the country but for a division of power.

Dharmalingam made it clear that the FP’s draft was only a basis for discussion. Stating that the party was only asking that the federal principle be accepted, he suggested that as an interim measure, the SLFP, LSSP and CP should implement what they had promised in the election manifesto, namely that they would abolish Kachcheris and replace them with elected bodies. He stated: “If this Government thinks that it does not have a mandate to establish a federal Constitution, it can at least implement the policies of its leader, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, by decentralising the administration, not in the manner it is being done now, but genuine decentralisation, by removing the Kachcheris and in their place establishing elected bodies to administer those regions.”

Sarath Muttetuwegama of the Communist Party, the first political party in the country to propose federalism, in 1944, followed Dharmalingam and stated that ‘federal’ had become a dirty word not because of the federal system of government but because of what the FP had advocated. He was clearly referring to the FP’s association with the UNP and the conservative policies it had followed, such as voting against nationalisations, the takeover of private schools and the Paddy Lands Bill. Seemingly oblivious to the offer that Dharmalingam had made, he asked why the FP had not used the phrase ‘regional autonomy.’ Speakers from the UF who followed Muttetuwegama made it clear that the UF was in no mood to consider the FP’s offer to settle for much less.

Consequently, Basic Resolution No.2 was passed, and the FP’s amendment was defeated in the Steering and Subjects Committee on 27 March 1971.

Dr Nihal Jayawickrama, who was the Secretary of the Ministry of Justice, under the UF Government, and played an important role in the constitutional reform process, has said that the first draft prepared under the direction of the Minister of Constitutional Affairs did not contain any reference to a ‘unitary state’. However, Minister Felix Dias Bandaranaike proposed in the Ministerial Sub-Committee that the country be declared a ‘unitary state’. The Minister of Constitutional Affairs did not consider this to be necessary and argued that while the proposed constitution would have a unitary structure, unitary constitutions could vary a great deal in form. Nevertheless, the proposed phrase found its way to the final draft. ‘In course of time, this impetuous, ill-considered, wholly unnecessary embellishment has reached the proportions of a battle cry of individuals and groups who seek to achieve a homogenous Sinhalese state on this island’ Dr Jayawickrama observed. ‘Reflections on the Making and Content of the 1972 Constitution: An Insider’s Perspective’ in Asanga Welikala (ed), The Sri Lankan Republic at 40: Reflections on Constitutional History, Theory and Practice vol 1 (Centre for Policy Alternatives 2012) 43.

It is significant that the FP continued to participate in the Constituent Assembly even after its amendment was rejected. Records show that its leader, S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, regularly attended the meetings of the Steering and Subjects Committee.

With the advantage of hindsight, it could be said that acceptance of the FP’s proposed compromise for a division of power would have proved to be a far-reaching confidence-building measure on which more could perhaps have been built later. Moreover, such an acceptance would have ensured the continued participation of the FP in the Constituent Assembly. Even had the FP, as the UNP eventually did, voted against the adoption of the new constitution, their participation in the entire constitution-making process would have resulted in greater acceptance of the 1972 Constitution by the Tamil people.

Although they discontinued participation at a later stage, Federal Party MPs nevertheless took oaths under the new Constitution. Tamil parties soon united under the banner of the Tamil United Front (TUF), which later became the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). At the famous Vaddukoddai conference of 1976, the TULF embraced separatism and adopted a resolution calling for a separate state called ‘Tamil Eelam’ in the Northern and Eastern provinces. At the 1977 elections, the TULF contested on a separatist platform and swept the Tamil areas.

The place of Buddhism

According to Dr Jayawickrama, Dr. de Silva’s original proposal called for the guarantee of freedom of thought, conscience and religion to every citizen. However, the Prime Minister requested that this proposal be added with a provision for the protection of institutions and traditional places of worship of Buddhists.

Basic Resolution No. 3 approved by the Constituent Assembly was for Buddhism to be given its ‘rightful place’: ‘In the Republic of Sri Lanka, Buddhism, the religion of the majority of the people, shall be given its rightful place, and accordingly, it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster Buddhism, while assuring to all religions the rights granted by Basic Resolution 5 (iv).’

Basic Resolution 5 (iv) referred to read: “Every citizen shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have and adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”

But by the time the final draft was approved, the proposal had undergone a further change. Article 6 of the 1972 Constitution is as follows: ‘The Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster Buddhism while assuring to all religions the rights granted by section 18 (1) (d).’ Section 18 (1) (d), in the chapter on fundamental rights, assures to all citizens the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

To the question of whether constitutionally guaranteeing special status to Buddhism not available to other religions of the land might adversely affect the non-Buddhists, Dr de Silva retrospectively responded in the following manner: “The section in respect of Buddhism is subject to section 18 (1) (d) and I wish to say, I believe in a secular state. But you know when Constitutions are made by Constituent Assemblies they are not made by the Minister of Constitutional Affairs. I myself would have preferred (section 18(1) (d)). But there is nothing…And I repeat, NOTHING, in section 6 which in any manner infringes upon the rights of any religion in this country. (Safeguards for the Minorities in the 1972 Constitution (Young Socialist 1987) 10.)

Dr Jayawickrama has been more critical. ‘If Buddhism had survived in the hearts and minds of the people through nearly five centuries of foreign occupation, a constitutional edict was hardly necessary to protect it now’, he opined. (‘Colvin and Constitution-Making – A Postscript’ Sunday Island, 15 July 2007).

Language provisions

Basic Resolution No.11 stated that all laws shall be enacted in Sinhala and that there shall be a Tamil translation of every law so enacted.

Basic Resolution No.12 read as follows: “(1) The Official Language of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala as provided by the Official Language Act No. 32 of 1956. (2) The use of the Tamil Language shall be in accordance with the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act No. 28 of 1958.”

Efforts by the FP to get the Government to improve upon Basic Resolutions Nos. 11 and 12 failed. On 28 June 1971, both resolutions were passed, amendments proposed by the FP having been defeated. S.J.V. Chelvanayakam informed the Constituent Assembly that they had met with both the Prime Minister and the Minister of Constitutional Affairs, and while the meetings had been cordial, the Government had refused to make any alteration to the Basic Resolutions. He stated that the FP would therefore not attend future meetings. “We have come to the painful conclusion that as our language rights are not satisfactorily provided in the proposed Constitution, no useful purpose will be served in our continuing in the deliberations of this Assembly. By taking this step, we mean no offence to anybody. We only want to safeguard the dignity of our people.” There was not even a dramatic walk out. ‘We do not wish to stage a demonstration by walking out’, he added.

That Dr Colvin R. de Silva, who prophetically stated in 1955, ‘one language, two countries; two languages, one country’, should go so far as to upgrade the then-existing language provisions to constitutional status has baffled many political observers. In fact, according to Dr Jayawickrama, the Prime Minister had stated that it would be unwise to re-open the language debate and that the better course would be to let the ordinary laws on the subject operate in the form in which they were. By this time, the Privy Council had reversed the decision of the Supreme Court in A.G. v Kodeswaranthat a public servant could not sue the Crown for breach of contract of employment and sent the case back for a determination on other issues, including the main issue as to whether the Official Language Act violated section 29 (2), as the District Court had held. Dr. de Silva did not wish the Supreme Court to re-visit the issue. ‘If the courts do declare this law invalid and unconstitutional, heavens alive, the chief work done from 1956 onwards will be undone. You will have to restore the egg from the omelette into which it was beaten and cooked.’ He had, however, resisted a proposal made by Minister Felix R. Dias Bandaranaike that Sinhala be declared the ‘one’ official language of Sri Lanka.

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