The British colonial rule that began in the 1796 in Sri Lanka ushered in changes and new enterprises in the island generally and the Tamils and their regions in particular. The British, like their two predecessors, showed a keen interest in propagating Protestantism with the help of their missionaries who used education to spread their religion. As a result, the Tamils gave English education and Tamil education a primary place in their lives.
The prevailing caste discrimination, socio-economic disparities, lack of land and the oppressive dowry system in the Tamil regions, particularly in the Jaffna peninsula, impelled the Tamils to seek education. Parents invested in their children's education in the hope and expectation that their success in examinations would open up employment opportunities for them in the public and private sector in Sri Lanka as well as in foreign countries such as India and Malaya (Malaysia and Singapore).
True to their expectations, educated Tamils were able to acquire government and private employment in Sri Lanka, India and Malaya and earn a permanent income. This advancement in turn brought social development and progress in various spheres and Tamil society was gradually transformed into an educated society. However, this opportunity was not widely available in the undeveloped Tamil regions.
The dedicated interest shown by the British in the field of education resulted in the establishment of hundreds of primary and secondary schools in the Jaffna peninsula with various missionaries functioning as their driving force. The Tamils also, just as the missionaries established Christian English schools, opened up Saiva English schools. Saivaism and the Tamil language experienced a renaissance while Saiva temples and halls were built in great numbers due to the religious tolerance of the British rulers. This progress in education contributed immensely to various positive developments in the fields of religion, arts, culture, language, literature, socio-economics and politics.
The establishment of the infrastructure of finance, justice and administration and the efficient functioning of these structures in the early British rule helped develop the country economically as well as consolidate its administration and law and order. The population began to increase in this peaceful and thriving atmosphere. Roads and bridges were built and health services improved remarkably. This progress in turn paved the way for the Tamils in the north and east to establish contacts and develop mutual understanding with the Sinhalese in the south.
The Tamils, particularly the English-educated Tamils, already disturbed by conversion to Christianity by the missionaries and the spread of western culture among them, rose in protest and reacted against steps taken by the British government. These protest activities relating to culture and economics in turn became factors that kindled the consciousness of the Tamils. The spirit of protest manifested itself in the spheres of society_ religion, culture and language and resulted in the politically motivated rise of Tamil nationalism. The British constitutional reforms and political activities connected to them were the fundamental reasons for the rise and growth of Tamil nationalism.
The Colebrook constitutional reforms introduced in 1833, brought the north and east regions of Sri Lanka, hitherto administered as a separate unit. under a single centralised administrative system based in Colombo. This disoriented the longstanding territorial integration of the Tamils and threatened their national identity.
The 1921-24 Manning constitutional reforms among others that followed were the first to create a permanent divide between the Tamils and Sinhalese ethnic communities. The Donoughmore constitutional reforms introduced in 1931 added their share to compound the situation by implementing universal franchise, abolishing the system of territorial representation and replacing it with communal representation. This resulted in more representatives from the Sinhalese community securing seats in the State Assembly and caused great antipathy and rage among the Tamils and their political leaders. The Soulbury constitutional reforms introduced in 1947 were also partial to the Sinhalese majority representatives. They were drawn up in keeping with the draft proposals submitted by their Board of Ministers and passed in the House of Representatives with the majority of Sinhalese representatives voting in favour. The British ruling powers forcibly implemented this political constitution modeled on the Westminster Parliamentary system as practised in Britain on a country consisting of two Nations, the majority Sinhalese nation and a minority Tamil nation.
In the 1947 general elections held under the newly introduced constitution. the Sinhalese political parties secured the majority representation in Parliament and thereby became the rulers of the country. When the British finally granted independence to Sri Lanka they handed over the government to the Sinhalese majority community leaving the Tamils with a refugee status. The fundamental cause for the loss of thousands of Tamil lives and the destruction of their property in the 60 years following independence was the British government's violation of the trust placed in them by the Tamils. Sinhalese political leaders, by compiling and submitting erroneous statistics to the British rulers, were able to secure sole sovereignty over the whole country, their numerical majority being the only claim.
The Tamil political leaders, due to their dearth of political foresight and propelled by self-promoting motives sought political refuge with the majority Sinhalese political leaders. Safeguards in the form of special Acts in the Soulbury constitution aiming to protect the political rights of the minorities were blatantly abandoned by the Sinhalese majority government within a few months of Sri Lanka gaining independence in 1948.
From 1948 onwards, the Indian Tamils were stripped of their citizenship and their right to vote. Pre-planned Sinhalese colonisation in the traditional Tamil territories was vigorously and systematically implemented. These activities of the government most severely affected Tamil representation in the House of Representatives and the traditional territories of the Tamils.
The `Sinhala Only' Act implemented in 1956 which made Sinhalese the official and national language of the State and granted Buddhism the status of State Religion posed serious threats to the national status and identity of the Tamils in relation to their language and religion. Employment opportunities in considerable numbers were denied to Tamils by the partial activities of the government. Tamil students were denied opportunities in higher studies by the introduction of biased schemes such as 'Standardisation' and the 'Quota System' that were implemented to select candidates for universities.
All fundamental democratic rights such as the freedom to congregate and freedom of expression were largely denied to Tamils. Whenever the Tamil political leaders engaged in passive non-violent protest demonstrations demanding their political rights, the armed forces were used to crush them by attacking demonstrators, forced dispersal of their gatherings and the arrest of Tamil political leaders.
The various pacts the Tamil political leaders entered into with the Sinhalese political leaders following negotiations were all eventually abrogated by the Sinhalese signatories. The Sinhalese regimes, exploiting their majority strength and the power in ruling the country they thereby achieved, used its three armed forces designed to protect the government, to effectively crush the Tamils, their political leaders and their just struggles for their lost rights, in several ways. Above all, they unleashed continuous pogroms on the Tamils from 1958, killing thousands of Tamils, subjecting Tamil women to sexual violence, setting fire to their houses and property, reducing them to the status of refugees in their own country.
The Tamil political leaders, on realising that the Sri Lanka Sinhalese majority regime would never recognise the Tamil right of self-determination, in 1976 united and arrived at a firm decision that establishing Tamil Eelam was the only way open to the Tamils. This seems to be a belated decision. They contested in the 1977 general election on a mandate for Tamil Eelam. The Tamils responded with overwhelming support of the Tamil political leaders in their demand for Tamil Eelam. Following the demise in 1977 of S. J. V. Chelvanayagam who fought tirelessly for more than 30 years, the Tamil political leaders, led by Amirthalingam, opted to pursue moderate political activities. These leaders who had been elected to establish Tamil Eelam, following the 1977 election victory, tried to solve the Tamil political issue by negotiating with the government.
The young Tamil men and women who had already been pushed to the brink of utter frustration due to the denial of educational and employment opportunities, rose in protest against the activities of the Tamil political leaders who believed they could continue their politics and pacify the Tamil youth. Finally, the Tamils again whole heartedly mandated the Tamil political leaders to establish Tamil [clam in the general election that followed. The government which schemed to crush the demand for Tamil Eelam implemented an Act which called for the loyalty of the members of the Parliament to the national integrity of Sri Lanka as a unitary state. The Tamil leaders found themselves in a precarious situation caught between the intensified demand of the Tamil young men and women and this Act. Unable to go against the mandate they were elected to establish Tamil Eelam, the Tamil political leaders had to forgo their membership in Parliament.
The Tamils, already denied all their democratic rights, were now deprived of their right to representation in the Parliament. Meanwhile, the state terrorism unleashed against the Tamils in 1983 killed thousands of Tamils of all ages specially the youth . Tamil women were sexually assaulted in public. Tamils' property worth millions of rupees were looted and set ablaze. Tamils in their thousands went to Tamil Nadu as refugees while thousands sought refuge in America, Australia and European countries. Those who were not so fortunate were fled to the north and east. Tamil youth specially were arrested and tortured.
These events can only lead to one conclusion. It is that the Tamils and the Sinhalese are two different and separate nations that are unable to live together. These events were a message and open declaration by the Sinhalese nation to the Tamil nation as also the international community that the Tamils should go to the north and east and live there.
The Tamil young men and women took up arms when they realised that this was the language of the Sinhalese majority government and it was the only language that it could understand. The Nanthi (cow) symbol of peace was the emblem of the national flag of the Jaffna Kingdom of the Tamils. The Portuguese as foreign invaders robbed the Tamils of their kingdom and brought the Nanthi flag down.
The British, who were the last foreign rulers of Sri Lanka should have handed Tamils the right to rule their territory when they finally left Sri Lanka. It is tragic that they did not do so. Now, the national flag of the Tamil Nation, with its Tiger emblem of an animal that is totally different to the passive Nanthi, flies in the Tamil nation. It is the Sinhalese government that should bear the responsibility for this. The Sinhalese majority government and the Sinhalese political leaders should consider the Tamils' demand for the right to self-determination with sincerity, humanity and political foresight and act at the earliest to recognise it. Failure to do so will inevitably lead both comminutes to face more blood shed and devastation.