Tamils of Sri Lanka

Alternative names: “Ceylon Tamils”, “Indian Tamils”
Location: north and east: central highlands
Population: Total 2.7 million; Ceylon Tamils 1.9 million; Indian Tamils 825,000
% of population: total 18.2%
Religion: Hindu, Muslim
Language: Tamil

The Tamils of Sri Lanka can be divided into two groups: the indigenous or “Ceylon” Tamils who number 1.9 million, and the 825,000 “Indian” Tamils, plantation workers descended from labourers indentured by the British during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Both groups are mainly Hindu and together they make up about one fifth of the population of 14.85 million, the majority of whom are Sinhalese Buddhists. The Tamils of Sri Lanka are part of a much larger Tamil community — over 50 million strong — in the state of Tamil Nadu, southern India.

Background and history

Both Tamils and Sinhalese have been living in Sri Lanka from as early as the sixth or fifth century BC. The Sinhalese are traditionally believed to be the descendants of migratory Aryans from Northern India. According to tradition, their race was created at the time of the Buddha’s death in order that his message might be continued, and they regard the island of Sri Lanka as a place of special sanctity, enshrining as it does relics of the Buddha’s person. The Tamils are descended from Dravidian settlers who may have reached Sri Lanka even earlier than the Sinhalese. In the sixteenth century Portuguese invaders found quite separate kingdoms of Hindu Tamils in the north and Buddhist Sinhalese in the south, which remained separate under both the Portuguese administration and that of the Dutch, who succeeded them. Only under British rule in the nineteenth century were the two kingdoms brought under a single administration.

During the nineteenth century, the British imported thousands of Tamils from southern India to work on coffee, tea and rubber plantations. By 1911, there were 530,000 “Indian” Tamils, more than the number of indigenous “Ceylon” Tamils of whom there were 528,024. The spread of the

estates around Kandy in the heart of Sinhalese hill country created a shortage of land among the Sinhalese who, in some cases, were financially worse off than the indentured labourers, the latter being for the most part provided with housing, medical care and schools, however minimal.

The British government relied upon English as the language of the administration and this produced a small elite class of English-speaking civil servants and professional people. Because agriculture and industry were less developed in the Tamil areas in the north of the country than in largely Sinhalese regions, proportionally more of the “Ceylon” Tamils entered public service and the professions. At the time of independence in 1948, the “Ceylon” Tamils, who made up 10% of the population, held 31% of university places and in 1956, 60% of professional people (engineers, doctors and lecturers) were “Ceylon” Tamils. Many Sinhalese resented the fact that Tamils had enjoyed disproportionate educational advantages and prosperity, and they were also uncomfortably aware of the presence of the 50 million strong Tamil community across the narrow straits in Tamil Nadu, feeling threatened by its size and proximity.


Before independence in 1948, the Tamil minority had been assured by the future Sinhalese president that it would not be discriminated against with regard to representation and legislation. However, under two Acts passed by the new government, citizenship was granted only to those persons who could prove that they had been born in Ceylon and who had been resident there since 1936. Since most “Indian” Tamils did not have access to relevant documents, the Acts effectively rendered them stateless. The Electoral Amendment Act of 1946 disenfranchized most “Indian” Tamil plantation workers in the uphill Kandyan regions by omitting their names from the revived electoral registers, leaving the onus on individuals to have their names reinstated if they could furnish proof of Ceylonese nationality.

Sinhalese nationalism was growing and as vernacular education gradually replaced English, there was a motion for the adoption of Sinhala as the only official language of Ceylon. The swabasha or “own language” movement became a central part of the nationalist cause and although the government wovered over this issue, it did finally adopt the motion in 1955. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike’s People’s United Front was returned to office in 1956 and, under the Official Language Act, it was declared that the Sinhala language should be the one official language of Ceylon. The new government was the first not to include a Tamil in its Cabinet. After the Tamil Federal Party threatened to launch nationwide peaceful protest, the Prime Minister, in an attempt to restore Tamil confidence, proposed plans for preferential treatment of Tamils in the Northern and Eastern provinces. The Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957 was a statesmanlike compromise; the Tamils gave up their demand for parity between the languages in return for “recognition of Tamil as the language of a national minority in Ceylon”, but agitation by extremist Buddhist nationalists led to rioting in which several hundred people were killed, and the proposals were never implemented.

In 1959, Bandaranaike was assassinated by a leader of the Eksath Bikkhu Peramuna, the Buddhist extremist group which led to the strengthening of the Tamil Federal Party, which called for parity of status for Tamils, citizenship on the basis of residence, and the creation of one or more linguistic states. Elections held in 1960 saw the Federal Party gain most of the seats in the Northern Province and all seats in the Eastern Province. It held the balance in parliament for a short period, but fresh elections were held later in the year, and Sirimavo Bandaranaike, widow of the assassinated leader and head of the United Front, became Prime Minister.

During the 1960s, the previously impartial Marxist LSSP and Communist parties yielded to Sinhalese pressure and abandoned their support for the Tamil Language Act, and the “Sinhala-only” policy was retained and broadened to include court proceedings, previously conducted in English. In 1964, an agreement between Sri Lanka and India provided for the repatriation to India over a period of 15 years of some 975,000 Tamils; 300,000 others would be granted Ceylon citizenship. In 1968, the Federal Party left the government and the new United Front government, which came to power in 1970, wrote a new constitution, enforcing the “Sinhala-only” rule. The Republican Constitution of 1972 did away with the safeguards for minorities in the original section 29.

In the same year a system of “standardization” was introduced in the universities, according to which disadvantaged candidates were given priority. In practice, this meant that the Kandyan Sinhalese were given a better chance of admission than many highly educated Tamils. The Tamils felt that they were being squeezed out of the (admittedly privileged) position they had occupied in the civil service; between independence and 1973 the percentage of Tamil admissions fell from 30% to 6%. State-sponsored colonization schemes put many Sinhalese settlers into Tamil areas.

Gradually, groups from both communities were moving towards extremism. In 1976 the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) passed a resolution demanding complete independence. Among several resistance groups formed at this time was the Tamil New Tigers, later renamed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which claimed responsibility for several killings. Similarly on the Sinhalese side groups were formed to resist the Tamil demands.

The Government of J. R. Jayawardene (1977)

In 1977 the United National Party (UNP), led by J. R. Jayawardene, came to power. The TULF, which was now pledged to achieving a separate state, gained all 14 seats in the Northern Province and three of the 10 seats in the Eastern Province, and thus became the principal opposition party. At first, the change of government seemed to augur well for moderate people of both sides. Standardization in university admission was abolished and Tamil was recognized in the Constitution as a national language; talks were planned on the subject of removing discrimination in employment and education. Within a month of the elections, however, violence broke out in the Northern Province and quickly spread to the south. It was believed by some that the rioting had been deliberately instigated with the aim of preventing agreement between Sinhalese and Tamils, and several known Sinhalese extremists were among the 1,500 people arrested. There had also been an increasing number of attacks on Tamils by Sinhalese police and armed forces. The government extended legislation renewing special police powers; from this time there was a steady erosion of democratic government and human rights protection which affected all communities, but most particularly the Tamils.

During the upheavals the Indian Tamils, who had not previously been involved in the troubles, came under Sinhalese attack and several thousand families sought refuge in the north, where they made their first significant link with the “Ceylon” Tamils. Conditions on the estates had deteriorated sharply after a slump in the export trade and increased domestic inflation. Medical and educational facilities were poor and there was high infant mortality due partly to poor sanitation and lack of knowledge about hygiene. Nationalization of the estates in 1975 had made conditions worse rather than improving them, and many Indian Tamils were now becoming militant.

After the violence of 1977 the Tamil and Sinhalese communities were scarcely on speaking terms. A planned round table conference failed to take place and, on the Tamil side, the ideal of Tamil Eelam, a separate and independent state, became dominant. Yet most Tamils would probably have accepted less than this ideal; a reasonable autonomy in running their own administration, security from the fear of being dominated or overrun as a minority in their own areas through colonization, and a fair share of economic and educational opportunity.

The events of 1983

Between 1979 and 1983 Sri Lanka was severely affected by the continuing world recession and the prices of its principal exports remained low, the effects of which exacerbated communal feeling. A scheme put forward by President Jayawardene in 1981 which offered Tamils some degree of autonomy under an all-island system of district development councils was far too little to satisfy Tamil aspirations. Sinhalese hard-liners opposed any concessions to Tamils and Jayawardene instituted a series of measures which effectively curtailed civil liberties. A State of Emergency and censorship of the press was imposed in 1981 while, in late 1982, a referendum was used to extend the government’s term of office until 1989. Extremist actions had increased and in July and August 1983 inter-communal violence reached a new pitch of intensity in Colombo when Sinhalese mobs turned on Tamils. Government figures state that the number of deaths, mainly of Tamils, was 384, but independent observers believed that it was much higher. By mid-August 100,000 refugees had been evacuated to Jaffna.

Tamil militant groups were formed during the 1970s, but really consolidated themselves in the early 1980s. In 1983 four Tamil militant groups came together under the umbrella of the Tamil Eelam Liberation Front (TELF) with the goal of complete independence. A series of attacks and counter-attacks by security forces and Tamil guerrillas resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians and “disappearance” of several hundred Tamils. Assassination of experienced moderate Tamil leaders only strengthened the position of the militants. Fighting between members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE — commonly referred to as the “Tamil Tigers”) and other Tamil militant groups resulted in deaths and confusion, and the various groups agreed to form a new coalition of Tamil militants from which the LTTE would be excluded. Nevertheless the LTTE gradually assumed a dominant position, aided by its fanatical fighting cadre, support in India and abroad and, it later transpired, financial assistance from the Indian government. As the government tightened its counter-insurgency campaign in the north, all Tamils were seen as suspect, thousands of young Tamil men were routinely detained and tortured; thus increasing the belief among the Tamil population that only the Tigers could protect them.

Indian intervention

Fighting between the security forces and the Tigers continued throughout the first half of 1987. Attacks on guerrilla bases were countered by Tamil attacks on buses and trucks in the eastern Trincomellee district. In May a large-scale offensive against LTTE positions in the north-east resulted in the detention of over 2,500 Tamils and the deaths of between 200 and 1,000 people, many of them civilians. By this time, there were over 130,000 Tamil refugees living in camps in Tamil Nadu, southern India, and the Indian government was coming under increasing domestic pressure to intervene on behalf of the Sri Lankan Tamils. A flotilla of unarmed vessels carrying relief supplies and Red Cross personnel to the Jaffna peninsular set out from Tamil Nadu but was turned back when intercepted by Sri Lankan naval patrol boats. An airlift of supplies was parachuted into the area two days later and complaints by the Sri Lankan government led to talks which resulted in agreement allowing the delivery of relief supplies by sea but not by air. At talks held in New Delhi, Vellupillai Prabakharan, the leader of the Tamil Tigers, rejected settlement proposals put forward by Rajiv Gandhi, but his stance was criticized by four of the Tamil militant groups as being too narrow.

In July 1987, India and Sri Lanka signed an agreement giving autonomy to the north and east of the island. The agreement made provision for the merging of the Northern and Eastern Provinces into one regional council which could later be divided again if the Eastern Province wished to withdraw. Provincial councils were to be largely autonomous and would consist of a governor, chief minister and board of ministers. Tamil, Sinhala and English were to be given equal status as administrative languages. Hostilities would officially cease on July 31, 1987, and an amnesty would be granted to all political prisoners after the lifting of the State of Emergency in mid-August. Three thousand Indian troops, designated Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF), were sent to the Jaffna peninsula to undertake peace-keeping duties and a further 6,000 were reportedly stationed on standby in southern India. Six hundred Sri Lankan troops were moved from Jaffna to Colombo where they assisted police in controlling Sinhalese demonstrators. Detention camps were opened and thousands of Tamil prisoners were released.

The negotiators failed to anticipate the reaction of the Sinhalese community to the accord. It was condemned by the opposition leader and provoked widespread mob violence which was directed mainly at trains, courtrooms and other government buildings. More than 40 people were killed and over 100 injured in two days. Not only did the Sinhalese reject the accord, but the Tamil Tigers, who had at first accepted the proposals, now also resumed their demand for independence. It was later claimed that the Tigers had only accepted the agreement because they had been paid to do so by the Indian government which had also promised economic aid to the Jaffna peninsular if the Tigers would stop imposing their own taxes on the people of Jaffna. The Tigers now felt that the agreement had been compromised by the policy of settling Sinhalese in the east, thereby altering the demographic balance. The LTTE had in any case only agreed to the proposals in view of the threat posed by the Indian army; its members did not believe that the accord went far enough towards meeting their demands, neither did they believe that the changes could be satisfactorily enforced once Indian troops had departed.

In September, Tamil groups failed to heed an Indian warning that they should stop feuding after at least 100 people had died in clashes. In October there was a massacre by Tamils of hundreds of Sinhalese civilians, and Indian troops launched an offensive in Jaffna, gaining almost total control of the region. In one month of fierce fighting, tens of thousands of refugees had been left homeless. The Tigers demanded that the Indian forces withdraw to their original position and cease patrolling the region but instead more Indian troops were brought in. By mid-1988 there were an estimated 70,000 of them including paramilitary police, air force, naval and support personnel, and over 1,000 civilians had died in addition to more than 1,000 troops and guerrillas.

In November 1987, a constitutional amendment granting Tamils substantial autonomy in the north and east gained an overwhelming parliamentary majority, and an administrative link between the two regions was also approved; however, there was still considerable resistance to the moves on the part of many Tamils and Sinhalese. India wished to return 120,000 Tamil refugees to Sri Lanka and elections for the newly merged province were to be put off until they had returned to vote. The Indian government promised withdrawal of its troops from Sri Lanka once the proposals were in operation, but there were doubts about the degree of unity possible between the Northern and Eastern Provinces since in the Eastern Province the Tamils were outnumbered by Sinhalese and Muslims. Since order had not been restored the security forces were allowed greater freedom to protect the population. The District Minister had been assassinated by Sinhalese, and both Sinhalese and Tamil guerrillas carried out numerous attacks, killing several hundred people, many of them civilians.

The 1988 elections

In June 1988, the Indian troops began a limited withdrawal from Sri Lanka although the situation was far from settled. Although initially popular in India, the intervention had begun to turn sour; Indian troops were being killed in large numbers and indiscipline was creeping in, sometimes in the form of violations against civilians. Yet there were also fears that if they were withdrawn fratricidal war would be fully unleashed. Provincial elections were held in November 1988 in the north and the east and, despite boycott calls and intimidation by the Tigers, over 60% of eligible voters turned out. In the north the Tigers’ two main rivals, the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) and the Eelam National Democratic Liberation Front (ENDLF) shared power without a vote, while in the east the EPRLF, the ruling United National party and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress put up candidates. The new Councils had only modest powers but many saw them as a chance to establish peace and stability.

By now, however, the focus had shifted to the south and centre of the country as extremists of the majority Sinhalese community organized armed opposition to the Indian presence. The main organization was the People’s Liberation Front (JVP), an extremist leftist Sinhalese group which used terror tactics against those it claimed had betrayed Sri Lanka, in this case primarily the new government of President Ranasinghe Premadasa, elected in December 1988. Death squads of the JVP and, allegedly, the government began a campaign of killings and counter-killings. By mid-1989 government forces had rounded up at least 10,000 people and killed hundreds of innocent civilians and in June the government re-imposed the State of Emergency. President Premadasa called for Indian withdrawal, which the Indians initially refused to do; eventually, however, it was agreed that the Indians would begin a phased withdrawal of the 45,000 strong Indian contingent, with all leaving by the end of 1989.

The situation in the north and the east was also far from stable. The Tigers continued their attacks against both the Indians and the new provincial government. In early August 1989 troops from the IPKF were alleged to have gone on a rampage in the Tamil village of Valvettiturai, killing over 50 civilians in cold blood; two weeks later Tamil Tigers retaliated by killing 24 Indian soldiers. In Sri Lanka the situation had developed from being a situation of the denial of rights to the Tamil minority to one of conflict between extremists of both minority and majority communities and an embattled and precarious government, itself engaging in massive violations of citizens’ rights. In the year from September 1988 to September 1989, 10,000 people had been killed in Sri Lanka and there appeared to be no end in sight to the violence.