Tamil Question in Sri Lanka: A Tale of Hope and Bloody Past

Jaffna is a forgotten story now, though its root penetrates deep in India. It was because of Jaffna that India-Sri Lanka relations got strained and the idea of separate Tamil nation was envisaged.  Our former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated and our best commandos of the Peace Keeping Force had to sacrifice their lives. What’s the current situation of that Jaffna? To search the answer I flew from New Delhi to Sri Lanka. Jaffna is crying for freedom and Government of India and Sri Lanka dwell deep into this deep-routed problem. Jaffna is looking for Independence and identity. People of Jaffna have seen the result of armed struggle and associated bloodshed. It is hard to name their plight though discussions continue to identify these. Both Sri Lanka and India are terrified from Jaffna. Little fuel can add to the fire of Jaffna which is burning from within. Eventually it can take the shape of an independent Tamil nation. In this case India’s Tamil Nadu and  Sri Lanka’s Jaffna will get added to it. Let’s have a look on the Jaffna struggle.

By Santosh Bhartiya

In Sri Lanka, especially in the northern and eastern Sri Lanka, inflow of Tamil people started at the same time when the Sinhalese started to settle there. The second round of Tamil migrant inflow started around 200 years ago during colonial rule. They were brought here from Tiruchi, Madurai, Thanjavur of Tamil Nadu to work in Tea, coffee and rubber plantation. These people are settled mainly in the hilly region of central Sri Lanka, and they are not directly related to this issue. They do not talk about independent nation or political freedom. They are known as people of Indian origin. They reside in Kandy region. Eastern Sri Lanka is Tamil dominant region of Sri Lanka. Batticaloa, Trincomalee  are the biggest cities of the country.

Imposing Sinhalese Language And Unemployment Ignited Tamil Struggle


Northern Sri Lanka is inhabited by Tamils since Sinhalese people settled here. The initial Buddhists of Sri Lanka also included Tamil monks. During that time Buddhism reincarnated in Tiruchi and Madurai which is why it included Tamil in large numbers. The impact of Tamil can also be seen in Sangam literature. Sangam is one of the world’s oldest literature. It mentions about a poet of Jaffna. Initially, this region was captured by Portuguese then by Dutch and finally by English. Even under British rule people of Jaffna breathed freedom. According to them they are the original natives of Jaffna and feel proud of their identity. Hence they claim right to equality. During Imperialism Britishers arranged for the education of Tamil laborers but those efforts were nominal. Education remained neglected. Likewise the Tamils of South Africa also suffered the ouster. Various missionary schools were opened which led to the education of Tamils and they took up the profession of law. These people basically belonged to financially weak classes.

Sri Lanka became independent in 1948. Under British rule most of the jobs belonged to the Tamils of northern Sri Lanka as they knew English well. Right from the post office to lawyers and government agents, Tamils were dominant. However tensions cropped up after independence. After Sri Lanka became an independent nation in 1948, within 48 hours Sinhalese was adopted as official language. This meant, in order to seek the government job knowledge of  Sinhalese was a mandatory. Whereas, people of Jaffna were ignorant about newly adopted official language. Gradually, the students of north Sri Lanka failed to make the cut. They became ineligible for most of the vacancies. Meanwhile number of Tamils in government jobs started to reduce. Sinhalese became the guarantee for government jobs. This ignited dissatisfaction among Tamil.

In order to seek their rights Tamils started the struggle for equality and right to education. During 1970 government prepared the standard for admission in various universities. This was done to avail the chance of higher education to financially backward Sinhalese people. While in higher education Tamils were found to be good in numbers. To serve the purpose cut off marks were implemented so that Sinhalese from rural areas can get admission. Language and percentages were set as standard for entry in higher education institutes. It gradually resulted in fall in number of Tamils getting admission in various universities. In order to seek their rights Tamils started armed revolutions.

First ever Tamil Revolt  

Initially Tamils peacefully demonstrated for seeking their rights. This included hunger strike and demonstrations. These demonstrations were headed by leader of federal party S.J.V. Chelvanayakam. He was demanding federal system for the country. S.W.R.D. Bandaranike was the then Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. He did his law from Oxford University. He himself belonged to Sinhalese community so was well aware of these issues. He talked to Chelvanayakam and both reached to an agreement. This agreement is known as Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam agreement. If this agreement would have implemented Tamil unrest would not have cropped up. However opposition crushed the agreement. This was same as it happens in India when BJP rules Congress opposes all its move and vice a versa. Tamil unrest is the result of political grudges. In the beginning United National Party (UNP) opposed the agreement with Buddhist monks and it could not get implemented. When Dudley Senanayke of UNP became the Prime minister he too entered into agreement with Chelvanayakam. This agreement was named Dudley-Chelvanayakam agreement. This was a better agreement, however it met the same fate as opposition party was against it. This too was blocked with the support of Buddhist monks.

When both of the agreements could not get implemented an era of disappointment and dissatisfaction started for Tamils. Till 1970 Sri Lanka was a dominion State. In the year 1972 Sirimavo Bandaranaike presented the constitution after which Sri Lanka too too became a republican state like India. However Tamils were hardly given any rights in the constitution. This kicked off a series of peaceful protests from Sri Lankan Tamils. Sirimavo Bandaranaike had majority in Parliament. Opposition party had only 8-9 members. Probably this was the reason behind not considering the two agreements.Consequently Tamils were deprived of their rights by the constitution.

Emergence of Prabhakaran and Armed Revolution

After constitution became effective, Prabhakaran and other youngster were in a view that peaceful protest will prove to be of no help. Thereafter they opted for armed struggle. Here we need to clarify that Prabhakaran is not the first person to start the armed battle. Uma Maheshwaran was the one who started it. During his initial days Prabhakaran too was working under his directions. Uma Maheshwaran founded People’s Liberation of Tamil Eelam. However Prabhakaran was the one who murdered mayor of Jaffna Alfred Duraiappah. He accepted his crime. This was the first political killing committed by LTTE. Duraiappah was about to participate in a function organized in Jaffna temple. He belonged to the party of Sirimavo Bandaranayke which was in power at that time. This was right after formation of LTTE. Prabhakaran, Maheshwaran, Kuttimani and other leaders jointly founded LTTE. Thereafter they got separated and constituted different other organization. There was a time when around 16-17 groups were active in Srilanka to fight for Tamil cause. They even received help from our former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Armed groups like Telo, EPRL were trained in India. Initially they received arms and ammunition from our country. Later they purchased arms via sea route from other countries as well. These were imported from different countries of Europe. An interesting fact is that an organisation from Palestine was also involved in the training. George Habash of Democratic Front For Liberation of Palestine arranged for several training camps for Tamil. LTTE was trained in Tanjavur and Madurai in India. During that time Sirimavo was in power. After winning from majority Jayewardene became the President in 1977. Till then India was not in favor of solving this issue. Indira Gandhi was not prepared for the face off. At that moment Tamil rebellions decided to continue the war. Meanwhile American arms group entered the war in favor of Sri Lankan government.

Jayewardene Took The Whole Issue Lightly

India was standing with the Tamils. Tamil Nadu’s then Chief minister MG Ramchandran openly came to aid Tamils. On the other hand, Indira Gandhi gravely disliked Jayewardene. She shared warm relations with Mrs B. (Sirimavo Bandaranaike). They were like family friends. Like Nehru Bandaranaike went for studies abroad. While Jayewardene who was a seasoned strategist failed to maintain good terms with Indira Gandhi. Personal relations play vital role in diplomacy. On the other hand Sirimavo had warm relations with Indira Gandhi. During India-Pakistan war, Sri Lanka gave permission to Pakistan for refueling which was the reason behind Indira’s dislike for Jayewardene. In order to avoid such instances in future Indira maintained cozy terms with Sirimavo. Before that, status of Sri Lanka for India was nothing more than a plateau island. After Bangladesh came into existence Tamils started fighting for their rights. Jayewardene took all these incidences non-seriously. Right before coming in power he announced after winning he would call an all party conference. At that time number of rebellions was no more than 100. His policy was nothing short of hit and run. During that time revolutionaries did not have automatic weapons so it was easy to deviate them in all party conference. This issue was easy to resolve by taking into confidence Tamil political leader A. Amrithalingam but this was hardly done. Jayewardene thought he can manage the situation by misguiding Tamilians. His irresponsibility opened Pandora’s box for island nation.

These irresponsible steps added fuel to Tamil fire and day by day added to their power. This marked the beginning of struggle in which LTTE played vital role. There were other leaders who believed in political discourse for the solving this issue but they preferred to remain silent. Consequently LTTE opted for policy of bloodshed and started to kill the leaders of the Tamil organisation. They wanted to be the sole custodian of Tamil problem. As a result they assassinated other Tamil separatists. Prabhakaran forgot that other leaders were also fighting for the same cause. He got Uma Maheshwaran killed in Colombo. He was the same Maheshwaran under whose guidance Prabhakaran worked in his initial years. LTTE even killed world renowed liberalist and Tamil leader Amrithalingam. Amrithalingam was also the leader of opposition. Prabhakarn did not want anybody to question his move not even Tamils. This contributed to its downfall.

One may think that LTTE had great support in Jaffna and eastern region? Perhaps the reality is bit different from what it seems. LTTE dragged away the other Tamil organisations from this region. They initiated guerilla war which became the tradition war form for the rebellions. They  had modern weapons which led to the attack. Besides that,  international network, a full fledged naval power and ships contributed to their strength. In their last days they even constituted their airforce.

Indira Supported Tamils

We need not to forget that LTTE’s greatest sin was Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. The death of Rajiv Gandhi proved to be the nail in their coffin. Let’s go back a bit. It is clear that Indira supported the Tamils of Sri Lanka. After her death in 1984 her son Rajiv Gandhi took over as the Prime Minister of India. Rajiv too aided Tamils like her mother. He not only continued the earlier policies but also entered into a treaty with Sri Lanka. As per the treaty he sent Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF) to Sri Lanka. However his move angered LTTE. Though IPKF was meant to revive the peace but it infuriated LTTE. In order to counter the forces LTTE striked them with bullets, bombs. Commandos were trickily killed. In the meantime Sri Lankan Navy arrested 12 fighters of LTTE. They were kept in Jaffna. LTTE was demanding the release of its fighters. On the contrary Sri Lankan government wished to investigate them. In between the whole progression detainees got the access of potassium cyanide and each one of them committed suicide. After the event LTTE openly targeted and attacked IPKF.

Orders Issued From New Delhi

Nevertheless this was a limited face off. LTTE complained that it did not get the enough support which was expected from India. After the arrival of IPKF in Sri Lanka every armed group surrendered except LTTE. They only surrender their dilapidated weapons. Modern weapons were still with them. Subsequently they lauched strike against IPKF. It kicked off the war. For LTTE it was fierce fight though a limited struggle for IPKF. If India would have launched an all out war as it did to Pakistan LTTE’s end was guaranteed. Unfortunately IPKF could not withstand the fight. Suddenly a time came when Indian army besieged Prabhakaran. This incident would have surely resulted in Prabhakaran’s arrest or death but Indian army wasn’t allowed to take any action. It received orders from New Delhi to let him escape. Neither Indian army was allowed to use heavy weapons in the war nor it was suppose to arrest Prabhakaran. If this would have done Prabharan’s arrest and IPKF’s victory was indisputable.

Before the fight with Indian army Prabhakaran was only popular in north and east Sri Lanka. Afterwards he became the hero for Indians residing in Kandy region. Tamils of this region were standing with LTTE. Prabhakaran’s popularity among them can be judged by the fact that they still believe that he is alive. But this isn’t true. If he would have been alive Sri Lankan army would not have removed its barrack from the infested region. In the present time people can fearlessly visit north Sri Lanka but this was not possible during Prabhakaran’s regime.

China, Pakistan And India Aided Sri Lanka

In 2009 Prabhakaran was killed in President Rajapaksa’s regime. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother Gotabaya Rajpakse played vital role in Prabhakaran’s defeat. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was a heartless defense secretary. Vigorously he prepared war strategy and started operations.  He was supported by India, China and Pakistan. During those days India was under the rule of Congress government. Sonia Gandhi was party’s chairperson. She openly came in support of Rajapaksa. Perhaps the reason was his husband’s assassination,  who was killed by LTTE. She did not have any soft corner for LTTE. In its last war against LTTE, India besieged it in ocean. It even shared intelligence input about LTTE with Sri Lankan government. India helped Sri Lanka in identifying LTTE’s ships after which these were struck by Sri Lankan government. India even blocked the routes of ammunition supply for LTTE.  Due to limited capacity this was not possible for Sri Lankan government. Without India’s support it was hard for Sri Lankan government to win this war. According to the experts LTTE’s naval capacity was far better than that of Sri Lanka. LTTE opted for guerrilla war even in sea and attacked from double engine gun boat. Arms and ammunition were brought from huge ships. In order to counter them Sri Lankan government had to import high speed gun boat from Spain. They also received help from China. Pakistan was supporting them as well.  India  aided Sri Lanka’s radar technology. Though, India was in the state of confusion during the last war. Supposedly, as Pakistan and China were playing major role,  so India’s lethargy could have resulted in decline of its effect in the region. Finally it decided to go with Sri Lanka. Rajiv Gandhi’s death helped it to reach the conclusion easily.

Government Unwilling To Support Tamils

Undoubtedly armed struggle ended after Prabhakaran’s death but the issues continue as it is. Issues which were raised by Chelanaykan still prevails. Not a bit of those have been resolved at the moment. Unemployment is the biggest problem. Lack of education and political freedom is still a miss. Their demand of federal liberty continues. It is not for separatism but asks for participation in politics. Likewise India, they are demanding uni-federal structure. whenever Tamils raise their voice for their rights Sri Lankan government considers it demand for separation. Government isn’t ready to give Tamils a bit of it. Sri Lanka has total nine provincial councils. They are neither under the control of police nor they come under the jurisdiction of courts. Government fears to give them rights. As per the government this will push them nearer to Indian state of Tamil Nadu and fuel the demand of Greater Tamil Land. This move can also threat New Delhi. People of Jaffna does not possess equal people’s right. This kind of demand did not appear in rest of the eight province. Only people of Sri Lanka are demanding their political rights. Rest of the provinces only two main Sinhalese parties are dominant. They contest and rule the region. The only problem prevails in north-eastern region. In former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s regime India entered into a pact with Sri Lanka. As a result provincial council came into existence. Here we need to know that India pushed for two separate province. Jaivardhane created nine province so that eastern region can be kept  afar from northern part. Sri Lanka’s nine province include Jaffna (Northern), Kurunegala(nort-western), Colombo(Western), Anuradhapura(North-Central),  Kandy(Central), Ratanpura(Sabragamua), Trincolamalee(Eastern), Badula(Uva) and Galle(Southern).

Trincolamalee is a natural port in eastern region. Strategically it holds a great importance. During second war Britishers used this place to store oil. They got constructed 99 oil tanks at this place. This is known as tank farm. India holds great interest in this tank farm. On the contrary China dislikes it. India frequently demands operational rights of Trincolamalee port and tank farm. The pact which was done under Rajiv’s regime also mentions the same.

Tamil Nationalism Again In Talks

The prominent political party in north is Tamil National Alliance. This is the alliance of four different political bodies. They have their representatives in Sri Lankan parliament. Currently they have 17 sitting parliamentarians. CV Vighneshwaram is the Chief Minister of Jaffna. Earlier he was Chief Justice of appeal court. During the assembly elections of Jaffna Mahinda Rajapaksa wanted a liberal person to become the Chief Minister of province as it was difficult to manage.  Ultimately he found Vighneshwaram to be perfect for the job. He was not a politician. In his spare time he did lectures of Tamil literature. Hence he was chosen for the Chief Ministerial post and people voted for him open heartedly. He too have started to talk about Tamil Nationalism now and is demanding uni-federal structure. Mahanayak is the highest Buddhist monk of Sri Lanka. In recent days his activities have peaked. Also his political power is increasing. Amid this development CV Vighneshwaram has met the current Mahanaike Tibbetatuvave Sri Sumangala Tera. In this meeting he kept his demand for federal structure. He said federal structure is an ideal situation. We can learn it from India.

Expectation of Sri Lankan Tamils From India

Sri Lanka is financially ailing. According to the present government,  under Rajapaksa’s rule, former government committed financial frauds. Corruption was at its peak. Repayment of foreign debts was outstanding. Hence Sri Lanka could not focus on economic growth. Arrival of new government attracted foreign invest at large scale. However western power raised questions about human right violations. They want information about people who went missing.  Now the foreign investment is dependent on the fulfillment of this condition. America has hardly invested in Sri Lanka. However Sri Lanka was hopeful for America’s support to boost up its economy. China is the biggest investor in Sri Lanka and that too because of India. China is currently working on modern silk route and has chalked out the plan for One belt One Route (OBOR).  The contract of Hambantota port which is strategically vital, has gone to China. On the contrary, interest rates in China are comparatively high. Recently American diplomat was heard saying that India provides soft loan, while China provides normal loan that too dictate its own terms. In Srilanka now the fight for economic dominance is between India and China.

Textile, Tourism and Tea still continues to be the backbone of Sri Lankan economy. Large number of tourists come to the country for holidaying in Hambantota. On the other hand foreign tourists prefer to visit Kandy. Beaches of Sri Lanka are world known. Subsequently Tourism is the largest source of revenue. Unemployment rate is high here. Though the government is willing to generate two to three million jobs in next 2-3 years but there are plenty of obstacles to achieve this target. Human Rights it the major problem. Present government is better than the previous rulers but it is bound to please the Sinhalese community as they are dominant. Whenever government talks of minority rights it has to face the fire from majority population. Minority population mix is formed by Tamils and Muslims. While, Sinhalese Buddhist form majority in Sri Lanka. Their population contributes to 73% in the total density. Tamil and Muslims are politically together. Present government came in power with the help of minority votes. Jointly they voted for President Matripala Sirisena.

As far as corruption is concerned Sri Lanka suffers like India. Sinhalese population of Sri Lanka migrated from India. Historically they were the natives of Bangladesh. Socially there is no tussle between majority and minority population. When it comes on to political struggle that is entirely different. Tamils of north Sri Lanka still hold high expectations from India. People of the region gave warm welcome to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. They look towards India for resolving this issue. For instance during India-Pakistan match they openly support India.


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