A Tamil Nation in the Island of Ceylon
Prior to the arrival of Western powers in the 16th century, there were three kingdoms in the island of Ceylon, one of which in the North belonged to the Tamils. The Kandyan Kingdom in the central hills was the last to fall to the British in 1815. In 1833, the British unified the three kingdoms for administrative convenience and from then on Ceylon became one entity.
Constitutional safeguards at independence
At the time of independence from colonial rule in 1948, the colonial government enacted a unitary type constitution with simple majoritarian rule. This included a prohibition on the passage of legislation making persons of any community or religion liable to any disabilities or restrictions which did not apply to persons of other communities or religions, or from conferring on persons of any community or religion any privilege or advantage which was not conferred on persons of other communities or religions. [S 29 (2) of the Constitution granting Independence]
The call for a Federal Constitution
In 1949, a sizeable number of Tamils of recent Indian origin were disenfranchised and in 1956, Sinhala was made the only official language of the country, although this was what the prohibition in Section 29(2) sought to avoid. This was also contrary to the policy that prevailed prior to Independence. During this time, the State also aggressively pursued a policy of state-sponsored Sinhala colonisation (the Eastern Province in particular), to radically change the demographic composition of preponderantly Tamil-speaking territory. In this background in April 1951, the lankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK) articulated its claim that the Tamil People in Ceylon were a distinct nation from that of the Sinhalese by every test of nationhood and therefore, entitled to the right to self-determination.
As a necessary corollary to the exercise of this right, we demanded a federal arrangement in the North and the East, where the Tamil Speaking Peoples are a predominant majority. Various peaceful agitations were organized between this time and the late 1960s by the ITAK to win back the right to self-determination that was lost first through foreign conquests, and later due to a system government not accepted by the Tamil People that reinforced majoritarian hegemony.
The ‘Banda-Chelva’ Pact
After the passage of the Official Language Act, an agreement was entered into between the then prime minister of Ceylon, S.W.R.D Bandaranaike and S.J.V Chelvanayagam, the leader of the Tamil People in 1957. This agreement envisaged the creation of regional councils by which governmental power was to be devolved with exclusive power over state land. Bandaranaike, however, did not implement this, ostensibly because there was opposition to it from the majority community.
The Dudley-Chelva pact
Later in 1965 a similar agreement for autonomy, including provisions ensuring that the policies relating to the alienation of state land would not alter the existing demographic compositions of the North and the East, was signed between S J V Chelvanayagam, the Tamil leader and prime minister, Dudley Senanayake. The ITAK joined the government in 1965 upon the faith of this agreement but resigned three years later because no progress was shown in the implementation of the agreement pertaining to the granting of autonomy.
The systematic state-sponsored colonisation carried out since independence in 1948 with a view to changing the demographic pattern of the North and the East gravely agitated the Tamil People, who consider this their ‘traditional homeland’ with the right to exercise self-determination. Colonisation schemes in the Eastern Province between 1940 and 1980 along with policies designed to alienate state land changed the composition of the Sinhala population from 9% in the Eastern Province at the time of independence to 25% in 1981, which is the last available census for the North and East. Between 1947 and 1981, while the national increase in the Sinhala population was 238%, the Sinhala population in the Eastern Province increased by 883%. This agenda of changing the demography of the North and the East has continued actively to date. In addition, apart from the irrigation schemes for cultivation, which largely benefited the new colonists who were not Tamil Speaking People, no other significant developmental work was undertaken in the North and East for the last 60 years and our People and our Land were totally neglected by successive Sinhala governments in the post-independence era.
Standardization of University Admissions
A standardization scheme for University admissions was introduced, resulting in Sinhala students with lower marks entering Universities, while Tamil students with higher marks were being left out, effectively ending the hope of higher education for Tamils and exacerbating the frustration of Tamil youth. In the 1970s, through emergency powers, over 40 Tamil youth who participated in peaceful protests were arrested and detained for some years without trial.
Tamil people’s non-participation in republican constitution making
In 1970 a Constituent Assembly was formed to enact an autochthonous constitution. ITAK also participated in this exercise and asked for certain principles to be agreed upon. That proposal was defeated by a majority vote and the Members of the ITAK left the Constituent Assembly. Similarly, we did not grant our consent to the enactment of the 1978 Constitution. The first and second republican constitutions entrenched the idea of a unitary state, continued with Sinhala as the only official language, and gave Buddhism the foremost place. They also left out Section 29(2) prohibition found in the Soulbury Constitution. The 1972 and 1978 constitutions were enacted without the consent of the Tamil people.
The call to restore lost sovereignty
The ITAK and the other Tamil parties came together under a banner called Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), and in 1976 passed a resolution calling for a restoration of our lost sovereignty in the background of the continued denial of the right of the Tamil People to self-determination by ignoring their democratic verdict at every election since 1956. Agreements signed by the Sinhala Governments with Tamil Leaders were not honoured, while oppression and discrimination of the Tamil People continued unabated. The TULF asked the Tamil People for a mandate to work towards regaining lost sovereignty at the general elections held in July 1977 and won in all but one of the predominant Tamil constituencies in the North and East.
Negotiations with the LTTE
While no progress was being made on the political front to solve this pressing national issue, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) continued its armed struggle. Though initially there were several military outfits, from 1987 the LTTE emerged as the sole military outfit fighting for a separate homeland for the Tamils. Successive governments entered into negotiations with the LTTE and in 2002 the LTTE and the Government of Sri Lanka signed a ceasefire agreement. Later both parties agreed on a set of principles called the Oslo Communiqué, which is as follows: “[T]o explore a solution founded on the principle of internal self-determination in areas of historical habitation of the Tamil-speaking Peoples, based on a federal structure within a united Sri Lanka.”
Military onslaught and its aftermath
However, the ceasefire did not last and hostilities broke out between the government forces and the LTTE with the military confrontation ending on 19th May 2009. The 30-year-old war has ravaged the Tamil homeland and left our people destitute. Around one million Tamil people have fled to other countries for safety and another half a million have been displaced within the country. Over one hundred and fifty thousand Tamil people have been killed over the years of conflict and it is estimated that over 30,000 civilians were killed in the last stages of the military onslaught. Many more have been maimed and grievously injured and suffer from traumatic disorders. In addition, in the Vanni, over 300,000 Tamil people were rendered homeless and were later interned in detention camps against all civilized and international norms. A large number of them are still languishing in those camps. An equal number of People were displaced in the East consequent to military action. Over 11,000 persons have been detained for alleged involvement with the LTTE. Others who were ‘released’ have not been granted any relief measures or any kind of livelihood. Many even lack basic shelter. The planned resettlement and rehabilitation of these people and the reconstruction of our homeland has become the prime need of the hour. Several Tamil places of worship, both Hindu and Christian, have also been defiled and destroyed. Complaints made to government at the highest levels have not resulted in appropriate action.