“On the specificity and relevance of Sri Lanka in the history of modern South Asia” by Eric Meyer, Inalco, Paris

This unpublished paper was read at the International conference on Sri Lanka, Peradeniya, 23-25 February 1998.

There has been and still is an ‘insular’ tendency among historians of Sri Lanka (especially those writing on the ‘modern’ period), who often take it for granted that historical developments in the island are strongly specific and little connected with those of the rest of South Asia, except in the remote past or during short periods usually depicted as traumatic. In that respect historians (and in some measure other social scientists) inherited a colonial approach which insisted on the specificity of Ceylon. On the other hand, historians of the Indian subcontinent have hardly paid any attention to the island, implicitly recognizing its separatedness, or possibly considering it as an minor appendix unworthy of study. It is significant that when the Economic and Political Weekly (Febr 17, 1996, pp. 395-398) published a previous paper of mine on the comparative history of Sri Lanka and India during the modern period, they chose to add a caption of their own which read thus: “A comparative history of India and Sri Lanka reveals that there is more to be gained by recognizing the specificity of historical developments in Sri Lanka rather than by regarding it as a microcosm of India” – which was not exactly what I had in mind when writing that paper – And when the Lanka Guardian shortly aferwards reproduced it on their own initiative, they retained that caption as a matter of course.
Before revisiting and revising for the conference some of the arguments developed in that paper, I thought it useful to briefly review a few well known general histories of both countries, and to explore the reasons behind these enduring representations.

The standard History of India originally published under the British raj by V.A. Smith (Oxford, 1919), regularly reprinted and revised afterwards, is quite explicit on the matter: “Ceylon, although geologically a fragment detached from the peninsula in relatively recent times, always has had a distinct political existence, requiring separate historical treatment, and its affairs will not be discussed in this work, except incidentally” (1958 ed. p. 1). Smith actually uses Ceylon historical data to discuss the chronology of ancient India (one of his major concerns), and for the rest treats the island as a foreign country visited by Mahinda, Fa Xian, Indian, Greco-Roman, and later Portuguese traders, and occasionnally invaded by South Indian armies; there is not a single mention of Ceylon after the 16th century, not even of its annexation first by the East India Company, then by the British Crown.
V.A. Smith’s guidelines were implicitely adopted by well known Indian nationalist historians such as R.C. Majumdar (An advanced history of India , 1946, with subsequent revised editions). Although the theorician of a ‘Greater India’ in the 1930’s, Majumdar significantly enough does not include Sri Lanka in his study of what he calls ‘Indian colonies’ which he restricts to South East Asia countries (see for example his treatment of maritime trade where “commercial intercourse with China, the hellenic world, Ceylon, and Farther (sic) India” are on the same level (1978 ed., p. 129). In the other allusions to the island (starting with the Ramayana myth), Sri Lanka is always represented as a far off country. And it disappears after the 17th century. Smith and Majumdar’s biasses could be attributed to their focussing on North India. But take Nilakanta Sastri’s own Advanced history of India (1970): although the author of a classical History of South India, and a contributor to S. Paranavitana’s History of Ceylon vol 1 (1959, part. repr. 1993) with valuable chapters on South India, he does not devote to the history of Sri Lanka more significant developments than his predecessors – except to mention the problem of stateless Tamils after independence.
Romila Thapar’s History of India (vol I) first published in 1966 was undoubtedly the best informed and most perceptive general study of ancient India, and remains so in its revised version published in 2003 under the title Ancient India. Out of the 14 occurrences of ‘Ceylon’, one mentions the Ramayana as proof of the Arya penetration in the Peninsula, two associate Ceylon with Burma and other South East Asian countries as strongholds of Theravada Buddhism, one notes the importance of the Pali canon recorded in Ceylon together with Chinese writings as sources on Indian Buddhism; two point to the foreign relations between the Mauryan and Gupta empires with Ceylon; two deal with trade across the Bay of Bengal and put Ceylon and Burma on the same level; and the rest concern the relations (wars or alliances) between the Pandyas, the Cholas, the Pallavas and Ceylon (note the use of the term Ceylon and not the Sinhalas). In volume 2 of the same history by Percival Spear, Ceylon is practically absent: when dealing in three pages with the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean, the author never mentions their presence in Ceylon; the Dutch merchants fare a little better with two occurrences, and the English merchants with one. Afterwards, the island altogether vanishes from the picture as if it was never taken over by the British, nor emancipated from them, just to reappear together with Nepal and Burma as a country with which Nehru’s India relations “were not always happy” (sic).
Finally turning to American histories with a political science outlook, Stanley Wolpert’s New History of India (Oxford University Press, 1977) almost totally ignored Sri Lanka until Tamil Eelamists forced their way into its third edition (1989), compelling the author to belatedly admit that “India’s importance to Sri Lanka the tiny independent island suspended like a tear below Tamilnadu (sic) has always been enormous” (p. 431). One may speculate that a future revision will recognise that the importance of Sri Lanka to Rajiv Gandhi’s India was also significant.

The long standing Indian representation of Sri Lanka as a very distant country has certainly been fostered by the Ramayana myths, by the negative image of the sea-to-cross in the brahminical views (even in the Mahavamsa myths travel by air was preferred…), and by the northern origins of all these cultural traditions, including Buddhism. Other well known interconnected factors must have been at work, such as the fact that cultural links with North India vanished after Buddhism disappeared from Bengal, and that the empires centered in the Ganges valley, the Panjab or northern Deccan never extended to Sri Lanka.
Descriptive historical/geographical writing in/on India was until the XIXth century little valued and hardly practiced among Indian literati. It was generally left to outsiders from the West, Al Biruni (XIth century) being among the first and most brilliant: for them, developments in Sri Lanka were hardlyrelevant: what they constructed as ‘events’ was only what happened in the area between central Asia, Persia, Bengal and northern Deccan. The Southern part of the peninsula was seen as the locus of culture rather than history.
When the British established their raj first in Bengal and afterwards in the rest of India, they upheld that tradition for intellectual as well as practical reasons: orientalists such as William Jones (and the Frenchman Anquetil-Duperron before him) opened the field of Indian/sanskrit studies through Persian; and their successors such as Bopp and Max Müller were busy establishing or imagining Indo-European links rather than considering South Asia as a linguistic area by itself. On the other side, utilitarians such as James Mill were mainly interested in studying the predecessors of the British with a view to legitimise the new raj as the triumph of civilisation over barbarism. They complained of the lack of historical material for their reconstruction, attributing it to the mythical mentality of the Indians which they condemned as primitive. They adopted a periodisation which overstressed the advent of Islam and the British take over, and a geo-strategical approach which focussed on the North-west frontier and secondarily on the Indian Ocean, leaving the South of India and South East Asia as dark corners to be studied by locals (and in the case of Ceylon, to be administered by the Colonial Office).
On the other hand, the orientalist reconstruction of the history of Buddhism starting with Eugène Burnouf in the 1840s was a long drawn-out affair, which soon followed a specific course with the extensive use of Chinese, Tibetan and other Central Asian material. Contrary to Indian Brahmins, Buddhist monks from Sri Lanka were always as keen to preserve written records as their Chinese, Tibetan, Siamese and Burmese brothers, for a variety of reasons among which uncertainty about the survival of the Sangha is commonly stressed. There was a wealth of documents, contrasting with the dearth of evidence as regards India which historians had to cope with. The western production of knowledge about Buddhism and its history therefore adopted a multicentric view which may have reinforced the distinctiveness between India and Sri Lanka.
When Indian historians such as R.C. Dutt and R.C. Majumdar undertook to emancipate themselves from the British influence, they actually retained an ‘All-India’ representation which fitted with their nationalist outlook, and tended to underplay regional specificities. After Independence, historians of the ‘Aligarh school’ who recovered the history of Mughal India similarly sustained a north-indocentric view, and marxist historians focussing on socio-economic systems were more interested in aggregates than in specifics.
With the development of regional studies especially since the late 1960s, and the growing influence of the school of ‘Subaltern studies’ in the Indian intellectual landscape in the 1980s (which are contemporary with the crisis of the central state in India), the stage was set for a reappraisal of specifics. But as yet the outlook with a few exceptions remains indo-centric and turned inwards, as if an interest in comparative history could be interpreted as an interference with the affairs of an independent state.

If we now turn to the historians of Sri Lanka, the picture is apparently quite different: most of them have an acute awareness of the importance of India; but at the same time most of them stress separatedness from the so-called big brother – or rather the big ma-bap . They tend to historicise it by admitting close contacts in earlier periods and denying them in later times.
An exception to that tendency is found in the works of G.C. Mendis, who first developed the theme of Ceylon as ‘a miniature of India’. Mendis had a fair knowledge of Indian historiography and Indian historians, as well as a deep interest in the first fifty years of British rule in the island. For example in his widely read Ceylon today and yesterday, first published in 1957 and revised in 1963, he devotes several pages to sketch the political and cultural relations between the two countries, and insists that these relations had always been much closer than the relations between Ceylon and South East Asia and between India and South East Asia; according to him, Sri Lanka was culturally ‘a unit of India’ until the 16th century (p. 29 of the 1963 ed.). He nicely delineates the slow and progressive de-linkage of Sri Lanka from India: first the development of Muslim states in North India and the Deccan would have cut Sri Lanka from the great northern tradition, then Portuguese and Dutch rule in Sri Lanka would have distended links with South India and limited the Islamic influences, without however deeply affecting the Indian characteristics in its culture and social organisation. According to him it is paradoxically when both Sri Lanka and India were under the British rule that the gulf widened between them, notably as the result of the so-called Colebrooke-Cameron reforms (1833).
After Mendis, the emphasis is put on growing specificity rather than on enduring similarity. The standard History of Ceylon volume I of the University of Peradeniya edited by S. Paranavitana (1959, partly reprinted in 1993), devotes extensive developments to the religious and political history of India, but in juxtaposition to rather than in combination with the history of the island: the authors of these chapters (among whom are R.C. Majumdar and Nilakanta Sastri) are not familiar with Sri Lanka. In that work and in its shorter version (C.W. Nicholas and S. Paranavitana, A Concise History of Ceylon, 1961), the relations with India in the earlier periods of Ceylon history are depicted as a great heritage from the North, while their role during the so-called ‘period of decline’ is represented as destructive, or at best as introducing from South India a less valuable ‘little tradition’.
In the volume II of the Peradeniya History of Sri Lanka edited by K.M. de Silva in 1995, relations with the continent are not dismissed as irrelevant, but the focus is more on the history of the Portuguese in India and on the history of maritime trade in the Indian ocean than on the relations with inland India. In the index the 46 entries on Goa contrast with 17 entries on Tanjore, a single entry on Madurai, the absence of Vijayanagar and only 2 entries on the Mughal Empire.
Volume III covering the ‘British period’ appeared much earlier in 1973. K.M. de Silva wrote the opening and closing chapters of the book, on the two periods during which the question of the links with India arose (the first and the last years of the raj). He stresses(p. 11) that the importance of Trincomalee for the control of India which appeared vital at the start to the British policy makers (Pitt and Dundas) soon receded in the background after Nelson’s victories; but the interest in a comparative study in the historical evolution of both countries seems to recede as well. In his own History of Sri Lanka (1981), K.M. de Silva shifts the emphasis towards the inside history of the island, and attributes the delinkage, contrary to the wishes of Wellesley, to the failure of the experiment to administer Ceylon from Madras with South Indian methods and agents, especially in the matter of fiscal policy. India reappears during the last phase of the British raj, with a few pages contrasting the courses taken by the Indian and Ceylonese national movements, and interpreting the nomination of a Ceylon Government representative in New Delhi in 1943 as proof of the emancipation of Ceylon from the British tutelage in diplomatic matters, rather than as a guarantee that the island would not be included in an Indian confederation.

The resilience of Buddhism in Sri Lanka as compared with its extinction in India, the length of the colonial impact in the coastal areas of the island, and the apparently smooth transition to independence in Ceylon have usually been stresssed as the major distinguishing factors between the island and the sub-continent. But there are other particular features more or less linked with them, such as the taxation structure, the extension of the plantation system, the impact of Roman-Dutch law on society, the early development of communications and education, etc., which are no less important. On the other hand, the severance of the links between the two countries since the XVIth century has been generally overemphasized and has led to underestimate certain elements of continuity in migration patterns or socio-religious influences and behaviour.

The beginnings of the modern period in Sri Lanka are signalled by the rise of the maritime trade from the XIVth century onwards under the impulse of Muslim merchants. The next phase involved the expansion of the European demand for spices (a market eventually captured by the Portuguese in the XVIth century). The development of coconut and arecanut cultivation, cinnamon peeling, gem digging and pearl diving provided important export resources for new States which came into existence along the western coast in interaction with South-west India, such as the kingdom of Kotte. The west-east routes of trade linking Sri Lanka with the Middle East and Europe on one side, South East Asia and the Far East on the other, became more important than the north-south axis linking the island with the peninsula. But south Indian groups especially from Kerala such as weavers, fishers and agricultural labourers continued to trickle in and were integrated into the caste system of the Sinhalese if they settled in the South-West.
After the annexation of Kotte and of Jaffna by the Portuguese, the channels of exchange with India were kept open by the new Sinhala kingdoms established in the interior at Sitawaka and Kandy. Even under the Dutch who expelled the Portuguese in the middle of the XVIIth century and attempted to cut Kandy from access to the coasts, the Indian connection was maintained through the north and east. The Kandyan kings married princesses from Madurai and in the XVIIIth century a Nayakkar dynasty of South Indian (telugu) origin came to power in the highlands. As protectors of the Sangha, these rulers played an important role in the revival of Buddhism. By the end of the XVIIIth century however, they were finally cut from the mainland by the British conquest, and their authoritarianism intensified by the British intrigues made them unpopular.
The establishment by the successive European powers of a system of direct rule in the coastal regions left a deep imprint on the economy, society and institutions, which distinguished Sri Lanka from India and brought it closer to the Javanese experience, especially under the Dutch. The island was integrated, together with Kerala and the Indonesian archipelago, into a network which linked it with the world market of agricultural products, whereas the larger part of India under the Mughals was the major world centre of textile manufacture and exports. As a result, Ceylon was much more dependent on a limited range of products over which it had no control. The Salagama, a South Indian weaver caste turned into cinnamon peelers, produced under a system of compulsory labour the main article of export, which was exceedingly profitable for the Dutch Company. But these profits were imperilled by frequent revolts encouraged by the Kandyan authorities.
In areas controlled by the Dutch, the Roman civil law was imposed much earlier and more efficiently than under the British in India. Individual land rights became the rule, instead of the traditional undivided rights in a family share of the village land. Personal and familial law tended to erode status hierarchies, although the Dutch recognised the hegemony of high caste Goyigama and bestowed honorific titles upon their headmen, the so-called Mudaliyar of the Low country, who formed a kind of landed gentry. The courts of law became the focal point of public life, and a class of lawyers, generally recruited among the Burghers of Dutch or mixed descent, became very influential. Together with the Mudaliyar, they formed the backbone of a new élite in the XVIIIth century. The early development of western education ensured the continuing power of these groups imbued with a colonial and urban culture, to an extent which is not found in any XVIIIth century European settlement in India.
As a result, at the turn of the XIXth century, when the British took over from the Dutch, western influence was by no means a new thing in Sri Lanka. What the British did was to extend it to the interior and generally make it more pervasive. Unlike in India, they had not to deal with the legacy of a vast imperial system, nor with the dynamism of an autonomous trade economy, nor with the intricacies of a highly caste-conscious peasant society. While they returned Indonesia to the Dutch after the Napoleonic wars, they reinforced their control on Ceylon between 1796 and 1815, because of the strategic value of its ports (Trincomalee, Galle) for ruling the South Indian coasts. But as soon as they found themselves unpopular as a result of a succession of political mistakes, they delinked the Ceylon administration from that of Madras and made it a separate Crown Colony. Afterwards the British undertook to rule the island like any other colony, with administrators who had made their careers in Africa, South East Asia or the Caribbean rather than in India; but a glance at the biography of Ceylon civil servants suggests that many of them were the sons, brother or cousins of Company servants and officers of the Indian army. Moreover, the British could not ignore that Ceylon, with its ancient civilisation deeply influenced by India, was not just another “sugar island” which they could fill with slaves or coolies and govern at will.
Instead of transforming Kandy into a tributary ‘princely’ state as so many upland areas of India, they attempted to conquer it in 1803: the war ended in failure. They then added fuel to court intrigues so as to destabilise a young king, until then rather popular, and eventually succeeded in annexing the kingdom in 1815. The cession was recognized by the aristocracy and the Sangha in a written convention by which the British undertook to protect the Kandyan traditions and privileges, including State protection of the Sangha – a very uncommon feature in South Asia. But the Kandyans were soon disillusionned and in 1817-1818 they joined en masse a rebellion stirred up by the appearance of a pretender. This rebellion can be compared to the great upheaval of 1857-1858 in India, in that it involved people who had lost faith in the fairness of the raj. But there are also obvious differences: it flared immediately and not long after the annexation; and its repression weakened the Kandyan aristocracy to such an extent that it could never recover. While the British chose after the Mutiny to come to terms with traditional forces and pamper the princes, in early XIXth century Ceylon, where they felt the legitimacy of their rule to be more secure, they did not hesitate to foster the missionaries and openly denounce the contents of the Kandyan convention by severing the links between the State and the Sangha. The missionaries gave a major impulse to the development of English medium education in Colombo, Jaffna and to a lesser extent Kandy and Galle, and they insured the formation of an anglicised elite conforming to the program proclaimed in India by Bentinck and Macaulay.
But an exclusive focus on the elite, which has been a general tendency in the historiography of modern Sri Lanka, leaves in its shadow deeper enduring features in the ‘subaltern’ stratas of society, which can be glimpsed at in the works of social anthropologists. The study of popular upheavals such as the 1817-18 rebellion and subsequent pretender appearances, the analysis of ‘mentalités’, of medical and bodily practices, the history of religious revivalist movements, of rituals and pilgrimages (such as Kataragama), now a major field of research in India, have not received in Sri Lanka a comparable attention. A better knowledge would probably show more time continuity and more space proximity with India than usually made out.

The economic strategies developed by the British in the early XIXth century were parallel in both countries. They aimed at dismantling the impediments to free enterprise. Until 1832, the East India Company retained the cinnamon monopoly and manipulated prices to suit its interests on the continent. The Colebrooke-Cameron commission of enquiry pointed out this anomaly and on the basis of its report the monopoly was abolished together with the corvée system which supposedly hindered the development of free enterprise, while private appropriation of uncultivated land was encouraged shortly afterwards. These measures enabled European adventurers and speculators to lay hands more easily than in India on a substantial part of the highlands and open coffee estates; but the reluctance of the local villagers to accept working conditions akin to slave labour led the planters to attract coolies from Tamilnadu, first on a temporary basis, and later when tea replaced coffee as the major crop, as permanent labourers.
At that stage, the evolution of Ceylon radically deviated from that of India, in spite of similarities with some regions of the sub-continent such as Assam, Coorg and Travancore. The strength of the plantation economy model was such that when the coffee estates were abandoned in the 1880’s as a result of a leaf disease and of South American competition, the island was so dependent on that system that tea was promptly adopted as a substitute, soon followed by rubber. Contrary to a common view, the plantation and the subsistence sectors did not operate in watertight compartments but were linked, so that any crisis in one sector affected the other. Enterprise was by no means limited to Europeans: in the latter part of the XIXth century, Ceylonese invested in estates (especially coconut) the wealth amassed in their indirect involvement in the plantation economy: between 1868 and 1906, 72 per cent of the land areas sold by the Crown were acquired by non-Europeans. The estates eventually provided a large amount of various resources to the local population: regular employment in coconut and rubber estates, casual employment on tea plantations; arrack, coir and latex manufacture; carpentry and wood products; transport, building, trade in agricultural produce, and derived activities in towns and roadside markets. The rising standard of living on the island at the beginning of the XXth century stood in clear contrast with the continuing subsistence crises on the continent and contributed to attract Indian immigrants whose numbers eventually exceeded that of the indigenous Tamils of the North and East.
The colonial state backed the planters’ interests because its budget depended on custom duties paid by that sector. For want of a survey and settlement on Indian lines, the administration was unable to lay the basis for a general land tax. The only taxation based on agricultural production was the very unpopular paddy tithe, levied by tax farmers or commuted to a fixed payment, which was finally abolished in 1892. This is in obvious contrast with India, where the taxation of agricultural produce was the mainstay of the budget and a decisive factor in the development of rural discontent and of the nationalist movement.
The ‘plantocracy’ was very influent in government circles just as in ‘sugar islands’ (at the beginning civil servants were quite often involved in the planting industry, and later, the Planter’s Association became the most powerful lobby in the country). They successfully agitated for cheap land, public roads for their private use and an abundant supply of cooly labour. The government devoted a substantial part of its budget and of the labour provided by poll tax commuters to the building of roads and later railways in the plantation areas. It promulgated in 1840 an ordinance proclaiming as Crown Land any uncultivated or irregularly cultivated land (such as by slash-and-burn cultivators) for which nobody could furnish a written grant, and sold it for a song to the prospective planters. When these Crown lands became scarce, European and Ceylonese middlemen entered the game and prompted the villagers to part with the remaining lands. A new legislation establishing a system of land settlement failed to arrest land alienation, which restricted the living space available for village subsistence cultivation. Moreover, indiscriminate deforestation by plantations led to soil erosion and silting of paddy fields, drying of springs, scarcity of fuel wood, and scarcity of grazing grounds for cattle. Thus landhunger and environmental problems in Ceylon were much more the result of plantation expansion than in India, where agrarian relations were closely intertwined with the various taxation systems.

The supply of stable and obedient South Indian cooly labourers, very often from untouchable castes, was ensured through the activity of kanganies, usually elder labourers who were given advances by the planters to recruit new workers whom they controlled through indebtedness (and not under an indenture system like longer distance migration to Mauritius and the Caribbean): in that respect only, Indian as well as Ceylonese colonial authorities considered that Sri Lanka belonged to India as much as Assam. The travel and working conditions were appalling until the end of the XIXth century, when the conversion to tea and the intervention of the colonial authorities slightly improved the situation. From 1901 onwards, population growth was more rapid than elsewhere in South Asia; until the 1930s, the continuing immigration of Indians, either supervised by the planters, or spontaneous (notably in urban employment) was an important contributing factor. A comparative study of Indo-Lankan migrations in the long term would probably suggest that there was more continuity than commonly supposed with the movements of the pre-plantation period, when at the request of the kings, the aristocracy and the monasteries, coolies and skilled workers came over to work in the fields and the workshops of the Kotte and Kandy kingdoms. The big difference during the British period was that the new masters openly discouraged the integration of the immigrant workers in the local rural society, and eventually decided to organise their mobility to suit their own needs. The final turning point occurred in 1939-1940, when India decided to ban the free flow of migration to and from Ceylon in retaliation for discriminating measures against Indian workers in Government employment in the wake of the great depression.
In the British imperial system centered on India, Ceylon occupied a marginal place, but the economic links with the continent were significant, through the activities of the same banks, managing agencies and export-import firms. Indian businessmen were present in the rural credit market (the Nattukottai Chettiar from South India), the rice and the textile trade (the Borah and the Sindhi from Western India) and the retail of imported goods (Muslim merchants from Kerala). Their competition was resented by the Sinhala traders, especially the Karava from the west coast, and contributed to tensions including severe anti-muslim riots in 1915. Communal violence was until then almost unknown in Sri Lanka, and in any case less common than in India. The 1915 events, caused by conflicting economic interests as much as religious differences, were a portent of things to come.
The exclusive emphasis on plantation agriculture led to the neglect of peasant subsistence agriculture. Paddy cultivation suffered from the lack of concern for irrigation and the abolition of corvée labour by which the reservoirs and channels used to be cleared and repaired. Any attempt at restoring the hydraulic works of the dry zone was foiled by the persistence of malaria until the 1940’s, and the competition in the town and plantation rice market of cheap paddy produced in India and Burma. Even the abolition of the paddy tax in 1892 did not substiantally improve the condition of the subsistence peasantry, nor increase rice productivity. As a similar stagnation occurred in the heavily taxed paddy producing areas of eastern India (in contrast with the development of Punjabi agriculture), the responsibility of the plantation system on one side, and the zamindar system on the other, are probably not the only factors responsible.

There is a tendency to overstress the rationality of the British raj in South Asia. Recent research has shown that there was a large amount of improvisation, expediency and contradictions in the colonial practice both in India and Ceylon. But in the latter country the authorities had at their disposal a much denser network of civil servants, better communications and information systems, and therefore more efficient tools to impose their policy. The nationalist answer to British raj has been constructed as the major trend in XXth century India’s history, until some Cambridge-based historians started to question that exclusive emphasis on the basis of local level studies in political mobilisation. In comparison, Sri Lanka’s path to freedom has usually been described as relatively smooth, uneventful, and rather parochial: but if the emphasis is put on India’s regional and not national history, the difference is less obvious.
In both countries there was an attempt by a section of the British administration in the second half of the XIXth century to restore the authority of the traditional elites. The services due to temples and to Kandyan chiefs were registered and caste hierarchies were acknowledged by some officials, especially in Jaffna (although they were never recognised in censuses as in India). A conservative brand of Buddhism was encouraged and an attempt at ‘moralising’ social practices was made by condemning polyandry, and exposing corruption in the administration of temple properties. The decay of the Kandyan aristocracy was attributed to alcoholism (which the British had themselves fostered by encouraging the opening of taverns up-country for fiscal reasons), and Government Agents, like Revenue Officers in rural India, imagined they could restore the ‘natural leaders’ of the people to their former position.
At the same time the dynamism of the westernised low-country élite was censured exactly like that of its Bengali counterpart. Its economic success was condemned as speculative and exploitative of the peasantry, and its pretensions to represent the nation were denounced as unauthentic. Its members were barred from access to the higher administrative posts while at the same time English missionary schools and the professions were liberally open to these so-called ‘brown sahibs’. Members of this new bourgeoisie were ethnically diverse and divided into rival coteries, but had much in common: English was their second or often first language, coconut or rubber property their favourite investment, law or possibly medicine the career to which they destined their children.
As in India (and more especially Bengal), religious revivalist movements were started by members of the élite in an attempt to counter missionary influence in education. As early as the middle of the XIXth century, Arumugam Navalar tried to recreate a Hindu saivite tradition in Jaffna; by the end of the century, the Anagarika Dharmapala played a major role in the development of a Buddhist revival first supported by the theosophists (who were also active in India during the time of Annie Besant and B.G.Tilak) and later emancipated from their influence. Dharmapala kept close links with Eastern India where he spent a large part of his life restoring the sacred places of Buddhism.
Again as in India, the period of the First World War witnessed an upsurge of nationalist militancy and a stiffening on the part of the colonial authorities, a face to face which could erupt into open conflict. The first centenary of the cession of Kandy in 1915 provided such an opportunity, but it is rather the panic of the colonial authorities than any intentional plot which was at the basis of the troubles. The execution of rioters and the emprisonment of the main Sinhala leaders of the nationalist movement aroused the sympathy of large segments of the population, including Tamil moderates, at a period when in India the Congress and the Muslim League came together against the raj; but it did not lead to a vast non-cooperation movement comparable to that which challenged British rule in India after the 1919 Amritsar massacre. In the early 1920s, the colonial authorities in Ceylon were able to manipulate the potential rivalries between the communities to break the movement, by imposing for a decade a communal system of representation more or less modelled on the system set up in India at the same time, where they similarly manipulated on a wider scale communal differences.

These events are not very different from those which encouraged the growth of the Indian mass movement. Among the deeper causes for the different trajectories of the national movements in India and in Ceylon, the length and depth of the colonial impact may be a contributing factor, as also the lack of leaders as determined and cohesive as the westernised Indian brahmins. The gap between the anglicised elite and the local dominants was possibly wider in Sri Lanka, and the kind of mass mobilisation which made the non-cooperation movements so impressive in India might have beeen more difficult to organise in Ceylon. Finally, Colombo was certainly not a place where political debates as lively as in Calcutta or Bombay would normally take place, and the Ceylon National Congress founded in the aftermath of the 1915 repression remained a weak organisation, riven with factional rivalries. Coterie was also a characteristic of local Indian politics, as shown by the recent studies of the ‘Cambridge school’ of historians of India, but the national leadership of the Indian Congress proved able to rise above parochial interests.

Four specific factors in the Sri Lankan situation require special mention. The first is that the British chose to make Ceylon a showcase of gradual home rule. The second is that even if Ceylon welcomed Gandhi and Nehru, its élites generally regarded developments in India with some diffidence lest they should impinge on Ceylon’s independent ways; in the 1930s and 1940s, the group led by D.S. Senanayake who was to become the Prime minister at independence, was quite clear on this point. Moreover, anti-Indian sentiments were fuelled by the national-populist propaganda of party and union leaders such as A.E. Goonesinha, who accused immigrant workers of being responsible for the large scale unemployment in urban and plantation areas during the depression, and Indian traders (especially the Chettiar) of depriving Ceylonese owners of paddy, coconut and rubber properties of their lands. These developments are exactly parallel to those which led to the separation of Burma (another Buddhist country) from India, but they never took in Ceylon a violent turn as in Burma, probably because the Ceylonese élite had then chosen the parliamentary way which gave them better prospects for political advancement than crisis and confrontation.
The third factor is the lack of social tensions in the rural world comparable to those which underlay Gandhi’s mass mobilisation. After the abolition of the paddy tax, in spite of the repression of slash-and-burn cultivation, of the persistent depressed state of paddy cultivation, and of the landhunger resulting from plantation expansion, there was until the depression no widespread peasant discontent, because most peasants could draw some advantages from the opportunities created by agricultural expansion in the plantation sector, especially in small holdings. When the depression set in, the villagers whose numbers had been inflated by an early population growth found themselves deprived of these opportunities or even thrown out of employment. The dramatic malaria epidemic of 1934-35 owes its deadly character to the fact that many peasants were undernourished. To counter the prospect of an impending crisis, both the colonial government and Ceylonese leaders such as D.S. Senanayake were quick to revise the land policy hitherto biassed towards the estate sector, along the lines suggested in 1929 by the Ceylon Land Commission. Land redistribution to peasants in the wet zone, and later the large scale restoration and creation of hydraulic works for paddy cultivation in the dry zone, with at the same time, the first lines of a Welfare State being set up, with free dispensaries and schools, all that succeeded in defusing peasant unrest to an extent unheard of on the continent.
The fourth distinguishing factor is that in Sri Lanka the British upheld a taxonomy based on so-called ‘racial’ and linguistic categories, while they reinforced in India a taxonomy based on caste and religious categories. Some of the reasons behind this choice are obvious – the fact that Buddhism gave no legitimacy to caste distinctions, and the weakening influence of traditional elites notably in the Kandyan regions after the repression of the 1817-18 rebellion. But it should be noted that even if in Jaffna the British actually upheld caste discriminations (notably under the ‘proconsulates’ of Dyke and Twynham who administered the peninsula during most of the XIXth century), they never gave it an official sanction. In a country where education was more encouraged than in most parts of India, and where the colonisers entertained serious hopes to convert to Christianity a significant section of the population, language was seen by the rulers as a more immediate marker of identity than religion; but at the same time the use of English relativised that marker. The construction of ‘race’ as the major category provided a convenient way out, not only because it fitted with the European ‘xenology’ of the time, but possibly because its very imprecision allowed inclusive or exclusive manipulations under a pretence of scientific formulations.

The transfer of power by the British to the Sri Lankan élite was a long drawn out exercise. A Legislative Council established during the XIXth century had been opened to unofficial representatives elected on a narrow and communal basis. The enlargement of the electorate in the 1920’s under Governor Manning had left the communal system intact, the colonial motto being then ‘divide and rule’ in Ceylon as well as in India. But in the late 1920s, the Donoughmore Commission, sent to the island about at the same time as the Simon Commission to the sub-continent, suggested a different course: the abandonment of separate electorates, the universal franchise and a system of limited home rule and dyarchy. While the Governor retained law and order, justice, finance and foreign relations, a Board of Ministers (without a Prime Minister) elected by a State Council was to manage home affairs, education, health, agriculture, industries and communications. The reforms were adopted in 1931 – well before the provincial devolution of 1935-37 in India. Sri Lanka thus served as a test case of gradual decolonisation, possibly to show the Indian nationalists the benefits they could gain from a collaboration with the raj.
The political class reluctantly accepted the new system. Universal suffrage compelled them to play the electoral game, without giving them full responsibility, and even its supporters such as the trade unionist Goonesinha lost their influence when confronted with the emergence of a marxist movement led by the Lanka Sama Samaja Party. The communal system of representation died hard and led many politicians to revive caste, religious or ethno-linguistic loyalties to ensure vote banks for themselves. The rise of communal politics in the 1930s was in a way the outcome of the majority rule implicit in a representative system in which the institutions did not provide for a measure of federalism. Some leaders of the Tamil minority in Jaffna induced their people to boycott the elections for two years, and they later advocated an equal representation for all the minorities (about 30% of the population) and the majority. On the other side of the deepening divide, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike started a communal movement, the Sinhala Mahasabha, reminiscent of the Hindu Mahasabha in India, without hovewer acknowledging any filiation.
But at that stage there existed in Ceylon no separatist movement comparable to that advocated by Mohammed Ali Jinnah. During the Second World War, whereas the collaboration of the Muslim League with the British, in contrast with the Quit India movement of the Congress, paved the way for Pakistan, the good relations of D.S. Senanayake with the British and his ability to integrate the Jaffna Tamils into the political system, ensured the independence of Ceylon as a unitary state. On the other hand, the Ceylonese leadership (mainly Low-Country Sinhalese), partly in order to gain the support of the Kandyans, excluded the Indian immigrants (especially the plantation Tamils) from land distribution and from some government jobs. India retaliated with a ban on migratory movements, and a serious crisis developed in the plantation sector in 1940. At independence, most of the immigrants were disenfranchised and became stateless; their fate remained for decades a major bone of contention between India and Ceylon.
Furthermore, the movement towards complete independence of Sri Lanka followed a path very different from that of India and Pakistan: the new opportunities created by the war had practically opposite effects. After 1942, the island became the headquarters for the anti-Japanese war in Southeast Asia. The economy benefitted immensely from various contracts, from the demand for rubber and graphite. In addition, a planning apparatus was set up which laid the basis for a welfare state which was to become a hallmark of the Sri Lankan polity after independence: agricultural prices were guaranteed for the producer and controlled for the benefit of the consumers; public services were better organised, the health and education systems were given a sounder footing, malaria was partly eradicated by systematic spraying of DDT.
On the political side, the extensive powers given to the military, far from arresting the march to independence, encouraged it: the unfailing support given by D.S. Senanayake to the war effort made him appear as the perfect partner in view of the transfer of power, at the very moment when the Quit India movement threatened the British raj on the continent. In a way, Ceylonese independence from India was guaranteed by the same circumstances which provided for the creation of Pakistan, and was prepared by the same man who presided over the August 1947 transfer of power. As early as June 1944, Lord Mountbatten, then commander in chief, persuaded the war cabinet to examine a draft Constitution submitted by D.S. Senanayake. The report of the Soulbury Commission sent to Ceylon by the end of 1944 served as a basis for a negociation which lasted for three years – not because there were actual obstacles, but because the Attlee government chose to give priority to the burning Indian issue. Ceylon independence was therefore proclaimed only in February 1948, although it had matured during a longer period than on the continent.
Compared with the violent conditions that prevailed in India, Pakistan and Burma, the transfer of power in Sri Lanka appeared as a transition as smooth as had been the take over the Low Country in 1796 and that of Kandy in 1815. Defence and cooperation agreements ensured that Britain kept an influence on foreign relations and economic affairs. The more radical nationalists such as Bandaranaike, and the marxist leaders who were becoming popular, could therefore describe the operation as a case of non-genuine decolonisation.

A comparative study of the history of Sri Lanka and India is relevant not only for the understanding of modern developments in the island. The study of Sri Lankan history can also shed some light on certain aspects of Indian history and contribute to its critical examination. If one considers India as a unit throughout the modern period, the history of Sri Lanka appears as basically specific: the limited relations between India and Sri Lanka have always been of a nature different from those between the centre of India’s power (be it Delhi or Calcutta) and any of its peripheral parts. If on the contrary the focus is on the regional aspects of the Indian world, there are more similarities for example between Kerala and Sri Lanka than between Kerala and Rajasthan. Again in the words of G.C. Mendis (op. cit. p. 17), ” as far back as 1831, Colebrooke (…) considered a knowledge of Ceylon helpful for an understanding of India.”: although hardly fulfilled, the project remains valid.

To quote this article:

Meyer E., 2013, “On the specificity and relevance of Sri Lanka in the history of modern South Asia”, in Sri Lanka & Diasporas, http://slkdiaspo.hypotheses.org/1756 


Laisser un commentaire

Votre adresse de messagerie ne sera pas publiée. Les champs obligatoires sont indiqués avec *

Ce site utilise Akismet pour réduire les indésirables. En savoir plus sur comment les données de vos commentaires sont utilisées.