62 Race & Class 51(3)
From then on the pattern of Tamil subjugation was set: racist legislation followed by Tamil resistance, followed by conciliatory government gestures, followed by Opposition rejectionism, followed by anti-Tamil riots instigated by Buddhist priests and politicians, escalating Tamil resistance, and so on – except that the mode of resistance varied and intensified with each tightening of the ethnic-cleansing screw and led to armed struggle and civil war.
I do not want to go into the details of that sequence here.1 It is enough to note the key acts of successive Sinhalese-dominated governments that led to the spiralling cycle of repression and resistance. If Mr Bandaranaike had cut out the mother tongue of the Tamils, it was left to Mrs Bandaranaike to bring the Tamils down to their knees – by using the language provision to remove and exclude Tamils from the police, the army, the courts and government service generally, further colonising traditionally Tamil areas of the north-east with Sinhalese from the South, repatriating the already disenfranchised Indian Tamil plantation workers and, more crucially, requiring Tamil students to score higher marks than their Sinhalese counterparts to enter university – on the grounds that Tamils should not continue to be over-represented in higher education and the professions.
At one stroke, Mrs Bandaranaike had cut the ground from under the feet of Tamil youth. At one stroke she had blighted their future. You take away a people’s language and you take away their identity. You take away their land and you take away their livelihood. You take away their education and you take away their hopes and aspirations. They had seen their parents try reason and reconciliation, but to no avail. They had seen them try non-violent resistance only to be met with violence. They had seen their representatives in the Federal Party running between the government and the Opposition with their electoral begging bowl. And they had seen the Left, the Trotskyists and the CP, who had once stood square against racist laws and for the parity of language, succumb at last to Mrs Bandaranaike’s blandishments of nationalisation in exchange for dropping their call for parity, and join her United Front government.
The Left in Ceylon, and the Trotskyist LSSP, in particular, had hitherto had a noble history. Formed in the 1930s, during the malaria epidemic and led by doctors, they had set up people’s dispensaries in the villages to treat patients free of charge. They had, along with the CP, politicised the urban working class and engendered a flourishing trade union movement. And in 1953, when the UNP government withdrew its subsidised rice ration at a time of rising food prices, they brought out the country in a hartal (cessation of all work) and drove a beleaguered cabinet into the safety of a ship in the harbour. But 1953 also marks the Left’s failure – for instead of pressing home the advantage, a middle-class leadership took fright at the enormity of its own success, agreed to talks and called off the hartal. The moment of revolution had passed, and from then on Parliament became the Left’s pitch – landing them, as I mentioned before, in Mrs Bandaranaike’s racist government. But the final degradation was yet to come. Asked to frame a new constitution in 1972, Dr Colin R. de Silva, LSSP historian, now made constitutional provisos for the repatriation of disenfranchised Tamil plantation workers and, strangely for a Marxist, the establishment of Buddhism as the state religion.