Geography is thicker than blood: Prabhakaran (North) - Karuna (East) feud in context

by Dr. Shantha K. Hennayake
Visiting Professor, University of Kentucky, Lexington, USA

Continued from Saturday

Although we cannot define with any certainty on the dates, we can assume that the Tamils may have migrated into Batticaloa region from the early stages of island history. Mahawamsa itself states the existence of Tamil garrison posts all along Mahaweli in the eastern Sri Lanka around 6th century A.D. The process of migrating from Jaffna to Batticaloa may have accentuated after the Sinhalese kingdom began to drift south westward and with the establishment of permanent Tamil settlements in Jaffna after the 11th century.




1881 6004

1891 7257

1901 9969

1911 10666

1921 10564

1931 11585

1946 13037

1953 17439

1963 22986

1971 36696

1981 42934

Source: Sri Lanka Census Reports- 1921, 1931,1946, 1971 and 1981

However, Batticaloa, being an isolated place from Jaffna, developed its own unique social and cultural traditions from the early days. The Tamil society in Batticaloa is divided into several caste groups. Two dominant castes can be identified; Vellalas (cultivators) and Mukkuwas (lagoon fishermen). Although Canagarathnam argued that "nearly half the intelligent Tamil inhabitants are Vellalas and next in number came Karaiyars (Karawas) and Mukkuwas. D. B. McGilvray (1974) in the essay on Tamils and Moors: Caste and Matriclan Structures in Eastern Sri Lanka provides a detailed account of the caste system in Batticaloa. C. B. Denham (1912), writing Ceylon at the Census of 1911 stated that "Batticaloa is still called Mukkuwatesam" (the country of the Mukkuwas). Unlike in Jaffna where the Mukkuwa caste is almost insignificant, in Batticaloa they constitute a statistically a significant segment of the Tamil population. Batticaloa Mukkuwas have over the years gained significant inroads into the cultural, economic and political life in the region.



Ethnic Group % of Total Population

Sinhalese 5.1

Sri Lanka Tamils 80.5

Indian Tamils 0.8

Muslims 8.6

Burghers 4.7

Source: Batticaloa District Report, Census Report 1981

A theme that is commonly believed although not historically established with hard evidence regarding the origin of the Mukkuwa Tamils is that they are the descendents of Malabar Mukkuwas who fled to escape the forcible conversion to Islam, according to Canagarathnam. Simon Cassey Chitty (1834) writing The Ceylon Gazatteer also contemplated that Batticaloa Malabars (Tamils) may have come from the opposite coast of Corramandal. The original places where Mukkuwas had settled could be northern Sri Lanka but they may have migrated to the east to avoid the caste domination and discrimination by the Jaffna Vellalas.

The origin of the Muslims in the region is also not documented and thus vague. Canagarathnam pointed out that a Mohammadian community in the area was founded by Arab traders who came during the 8th century. Most Muslims writers such as A.M. Shukri (1986) who have written on the history of Muslims also accept this thesis. Some Muslims have migrated in from the coastal regions of South India. These Muslims traders have married Tamil women in Batticaloa regions and the present day Muslims in Batticaloa are said to be their descendents to a large extent.

One of the significant events in the regions was the liaison between Tamil Mukkuwas and the Muslims. Although the exact time of this occurrence is not clear, it is a dominant folklore in the regions. The Mukkuwas who arrived in Batticaloa had not been welcomed by the local Tamils. The Mukkuwas then with the help of the local Muslims were able to overcome the opposition of the Tamils and they paid their debt to the Muslims by giving their women in marriage. Today there are Tamil as well as Muslim Mukkuwas in Batticaloa indicating a strong possibility of a historical alliance between the two groups. Ethnoncentrism of the two groups, especially the Muslims has led to deliberate playing down of this historical link as the latter does not want to be identified with the Tamils ethnically or otherwise.

By the time the Portuguese arrived in Batticaloa in the first half of the 17th century, all three major ethnic groups were living in the region; the Sinhalese were scattered in the interior and the Tamils and Muslims were living along the coastal belt and around Batticaloa lagoon. The Report of the First Delimitaltion Commission (1946) reported the population distribution pattern as follows:

The concentration of population are mainly to be found along the coast. The Ceylon Tamils and the Moors constitute the larger part of the population in the Province. The other races are numerically insignificant. The Kandyan Sinhalese adre to be found mainly in the southern portions of the Province and in the Bintenna Pattuwa which were formerly dividions of the Kandyan territory.

A few isolated groups of Kandyan and Low Country Sinhalese inhabit the country north-west of Trincomallee.

This spatial pattern of ethnic distribution has continued largely unchanged in the subsequent years. The Sinhalese population in the former Sinhalese area however increased rapidly due to the Dry Zone colonization schemes.

Indian Tamils were introduced to the Batticaloa region during the British era. A few Indian Tamils had been brought by the British to the town of Batticaloa to be employed as sanitary laborers. They have faced some resentment from the local low caste Tamil groups who had monopolized the sanitary works but the conflict had gradually eased out and the permanent Indian Tamil settlements emerged in the town in the late 19th century.

One of the fascinating features about the spatial distribution of ethnic populations along the Batticaloa coastal strip is the prevalence of a ‘sandwich pattern’ with Tamil and Muslim villages constituting various layers. The Report of the First Delimitation Commission pointed out with reference to the Muslim villages in Batticaloa that "they are found in smaller concentrations interspersed among the more densely populated Ceylon Tamil villages. This spatial pattern of distribution is repeated many times along the coast both to the north and south of Batticaloa town. The pattern is visible even today.

Batticaloa grew rapidly during the 20th century as an administrative, service, and a trading center. It became the most populous township along the eastern coast even surpassing Trincomalle, the largest seaport in eastern Sri Lanka (Table 1).

By the beginning of this century, the population in Batticaloa town represented all the major ethnic groups in the island. By 1981 the Tamils constituted the overwhelming majority (T able 2) and today it is exclusively Tamil due to the ethnic cleansing practices of the LTTE. However, no official statistics are available to decide the relative share of Mukkuwas.

Another important development during this period was the emergence of Batticaloa as the preeminent Tamil cultural center in the east coast. The identity of eastern Province Tamils thus became inextricably linked to Batticaloa. In the end eastern Tamils and Batticaloa Tamils became synonymous and continued to be used so both by them as well as those outside.

Jaffna-Batticaloa Divide

The uniqueness of Batticaloa Tamils becomes obvious when they are contextual zed within the framework of Jaffna-Batticaloa divide. Batticaloa has been in the periphery of the major political, cultural and economic centers of the island throughout its history. The geographical isolation of Batticaloa from the rest of the island has been a major cause for its peripheralization. Emerson Tennet writing a book titled Ceylon as early as 1860 observed some of the basic differences between Jaffna and Batticaloa:

The peninsula of Jaffna competes with Batticaloa in this species of cultivation. Each locality has facilities peculiar to itself, but whilst Jaffna has the advantage in population and labor, I am disposed to believe that Batticaloa enjoys peculiarities of climate and position, they entitle it to the preference....

Until the British built the rail and road network in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Batticaloa region remained a distant periphery of the Kandyan Kingdom linked only by foot paths through vast tracks of thick forests. Batticaloa region did not have any overland transport links to the North prior to the British road development exercise. Batticaloa was separated from Jaffna, the major Tamil center in the north by a vast and continuous track of forests and the little interaction that existed has been confined to the sea links. Even when it was established it was not a direct link between the two areas but a detour going through either the Sinhalese or ethnically mixed areas. (MAP 1). The links Batticaloa had with the Kandyan Kingdom of which it was an integral part was limited primarily to maintaining its suzerainty and surveillance. In addition to that salt produced in the eastern coast may have been sold in the Kandyan Kingdom. Substantial socio-cultural and economic links between Batticaloa region and the north as well as rest of the country began only during the British era with the development of the transport network. Compared to the rest of the country, Batticaloa is one of the remotest places from either Colombo of Jaffna even today.

This relative isolation has led the Batticaloa Tamils to retain most of their historical heritage. K. Sivathamby (1988) writing a manuscript titled Tamils of Sri Lanka: An Anthropological Introduction argued that Batticaloa Tamils represent the more authentic Tamil culture and points out that Batticaloa




Historically speaking.... had come under the Kandyan Kingdom (from about the 16th centaury to 1815), thereby it has a completely different geographical and historical environment. Jaffna was close to South India and was able to found a kingdom of its own. Two factors have determined the politicality of Jaffna when compared with Batticaloa. Batticaloa had been exclusive and has therefore been able to preserve many of the traditional institutions which the much "exposed’ Jaffna has lost. Even under British rule, Batticaloa was not "modernized" as comprehensively as Jaffna was

He further argues that "uneven development arising out of years of exclusivist existence have sharpened the dis-similarities" between Jaffna and Batticaloa.

Batticaloa Tamils have different social system from that of Jaffna. To give a few examples, the matrilineal inheritance system found in Batticaloa was influenced by the Mukkuwas; Jaffna is a patrilineal society. Mukkuwa laws are more prevalent in Batticaloa than in Jaffna as pointed out by SJ Tambiah (1986)- a Tamil anthropologist living in Boston, USA. The caste system which is very rigidly practiced by Jaffna Tamil is much less in intensity in Batticaloa. The untouchability, which discriminate a caste grouping in most deplorable ways is strongly practiced in Jaffna as explained by K. Balasingham (undated) in his Speeches Delivered by the Hon. Mr. K. Balasingham, Member of the Executive Council of the Legislative Counsil of Ceylon. The Kudis (a wider clan group) into which different castes are organized in Batticaloa is simply not found in Jaffna. More interestingly, the Kudi system, most possibly a Mukkuwa tradition, is not limited to the Batticaloa Tamils but can be observed among the eastern Muslims thus substantiating the historical cultural links between these two groups in the eastern Sri Lanka.

The intermarriages between Jaffna Tamils and Batticaloa Tamils is also relatively limited. In the not so distant past, the Batticaloa Tamils were treated as inferior by the Jaffna Tamils and anyone who married a Batticaloa Tamil was also seen as a deviant as reported in Saturday Review (August 4, 1984)a daily which was published in Jaffna.

Some have argued that there are linguistic and dialect differences between Batticaloa and Jaffna. Hinduism too has its own uniqueness in Batticaloa. Sivathamby illustrates the difference between Jaffna and Batticaloa:

Sanskritization, which is a characteristic feature of Jaffna Hinduism is very much absent in [in Batticaloa]. Religious practice in Batticaloa is mainly non-Agmic (Agams are the Sanskrit hierarchic texts dealing with the practices in rituals and religious behavior. They prescribe how the rituals are conducted). In fact there is only one major Sivan temple - Kokkatticcolai Tantonri Isvaran Koyil.

According to Sivathamby, there is also a marked difference between Jaffna and Batticaloa in terms of the deities of the Hindu pantheon worshiped by the people.

Another explanation for the difference between Jaffna and Batticaloa is the significant Muslim influence on the latter. Historical Tamil folklore in the region has intimately involves Muslims (e.g. the historical alliance between Mukkuwa Tamils and Muslims). The socio-cultural differences between Batticaloa and Jaffna Tamils are so significant that Sivathamby concludes that the "average Jaffna man has never comprehended the system and considers the Batticaloa man somewhat alien to this own social system"

Even in the economic sphere, the Batticaloa Tamils are different from Jaffna Tamils in a number of ways. The growth of Batticaloa is not a phenomenon independent of the development of the Batticaloa region in general. In fact it is most useful to characterize the town as the regional service center in the east because the growth of the town is directly linked to the demographic and economic base of the region. Batticaloa is undoubtedly the economic center in the region and the eastern Tamils perceive Batticaloa town to be the expression of their unique regionality.

Batticaloa has always been less developed compared to Jaffna. The resolution submitted by Batticaloa Tamils to the First Delimitation Commission in 1946 stated that " .. the Eastern Province Tamils were backward and politically undeveloped ..... they were a minority community in the island" (Sessional Papers XIII, 1946) Batticaloa Tamils in general are more agricultural and rural than Jaffna Tamils. The agricultural resource base (the soil, climate, the availability of water resources) and the agricultural practices (e.g. crop types) of Batticaloa are very similar to those found in the adjacent Sinhalese areas of the Dry Zone than to those in Jaffna. Both Batticaloa Tamils and the Dry Zone Sinhalese farmers specialize in paddy farming. Until recently both groups, in contrast to the Jaffna farmers have neglected the subsidiary food crops, cash crops and fruits.

The closed economic policies adopted by the SLFP government during the mid 1970s led to an agricultural boom in Jaffna but the open economic policies adopted by the UNP government since 1977 brought an end to it. This downturn in agricultural economy has been exploited by the Tamil ethnonationalists to solicit support for separatism among the rural farmers. However, the more even trend in agriculture in the Batticaloa agricultural economy has made it difficult for the Tamil ethnonationalists to extend the same argument to Batticaloa farmers.

The Batticaloa agricultural economy specializing in paddy farming has been more stable than that of Jaffna which has always depended on a service economy - providing white color labor to serve in the Sinhalese areas. This was the result of the British educational and colonial policies. The Jaffna economy has been described as a "postal order economy" indicating its heavy dependence on financial support from those employed in Colombo and other Sinhalese areas. Since 1980s it can be identified as an international postal order economy as Jaffna came to heavily depend on those who fled to the West under the pretext of "ethnic persecution" in Sri Lanka and claimed political refugee status. Batticaloa has been less affected by external factors since it is very largely a local economy with less external dependence. Paddy has always had a stable demand and a stable market in Sri Lanka.

Given the rural agricultural economic base, the Tamil ethnonationalist arguments with respect to discrimination against state sector employment, entry into higher education did not resonate the same appeal in the east as it did in Jaffna.

In terms of educational facilities, Batticaloa is far behind Jaffna. Jaffna and Colombo have been the most developed centers of education in the island ever since formal western style education was introduced to the island primarily by the British. In the 19th century, Batticaloans were overwhelmingly poor farmers with little formal education while Jaffna became one of the finest centers of education in the country. Christian missionaries (Weslyan, Methodists, Roman Catholics and Church of Ceylon according to the Administrative Reports of 1915 and 1930) who were responsible for the development of education facilities in both Jaffna and Batticaloa spent most of their energies in Jaffna thus creating a wide gap which has not been bridged even today in spite of the efforts of the post independent governments to increase and expand educational resources in poor and rural areas.

The differential impact of education is well reflected in levels of literacy. While Jaffna has one of the highest literacy rates - 93.4%, it is only 68% in Batticaloa which is one of the lowest in the country. The difference in educational facilities is further apparent in secondary education. Secondary education in Batticaloa is very largely limited to Batticaloa town and a few other small towns in the District. At the district level, Batticaloa has only 16 secondary schools (one for every 20,645) while Jaffna has 80 (one for every 10381). The education department has designated Batticaloa district as a ‘difficult area’ or "remote area" (oqIalr m<d;), a clear indicator of the lack of general educational facilities in the Batticaloa district.

The backwardness in education prevails most significantly at the higher levels. Fro example, until very recently, only a very few students entered the universities from Batticaloa district. Those who entered came almost exclusively from the few schools in Batticaloa town. The inadequate educational facilities in Batticaloa has led to two processes that have made Batticaloa politics take a very different route from those of Jaffna. First Batticaloa has been unable to produce a large educated elites of its own. Second, as a consequence of the first, most of the government employees such as doctors, engineers, administrators, school teachers etc. serving in Batticaloa has always come from Jaffna. This has created a certain degree of resentment among the Batticaloa Tamils against Jaffna Tamils. Batticaloa Tamils described this as a form of Jaffna or "Yalpani domination" as pointed out by K. Sivathamby (1984) in his article on "Social Composition of the Tamils" published in Saturday Review. This is precisely why the Batticaloa Tamils took a lukewarm attitude toward the standardization of the University entrance which although restricted the students entering universities from centers such as Colombo, Jaffna and Kandy, increased the university intake from backward districts such as Batticaloa. The resentment against Jaffna domination is greater among Tamil speaking Muslims in Batticaloa who have been increasingly demanding the replacement of Jaffna or any other Tamil teachers with Muslim teachers in school attended mostly by Muslim students. Ever since Jaffna University was opened, Batticaloa Tamils have been demanding a university for their own region and in the early 1980s the Eastern University was opened. At this point the eastern Muslims began to demand a University for the Muslims in the east and it too became a reality in the early 1990s.

The distinction between the Batticaloa and Jaffna Tamils has been the product of their different physical, cultural, social and economic environments. The relative geographical isolation of the two places from each other and the lack of interaction between them has been very largely responsible for this divide. However, Tamil ethnonationalists have argued that these internal differences among the Tamils have dwindling in significance and in expression as the "threat from the Sinhalese- Buddhists" increased. In the democratic era of Tamil ethnonationalist politics, while the Jaffna centered Tamil ethnonationalists have tried to negate the existence of these differences Batticaloa Tamils have strongly differed. Batticaloa politics have been a special brand from the early days of democracy. As became evident from Prabhakaran-Karuna feud nothing much has changed in the Jaffna-Batticaloa divide even during the terrorist era of Tamil ethnonationalism.

Politics of Batticaloa

The political history of Batticaloa is fundamentally different from the Tamil political history often popularized by the Tamil ethnonationalists and both local and expatriate Tamil intellectuals. Both Jaffna and Batticaloa regions were parts of the ancient Sinhalese kingdom during most of its existence. During the south-west drift of the seat of the Sinhalese kingdom both became peripheral regions of the Sinhalese Kingdom. A separate Tamil kingdom emerged in Nallur in Jaffna peninsula briefly during the 13-16 centuries. However, Batticaloa had not been a part of the Jaffna based Tamil Kingdom but it continued as an integral part of the Sinhalese Kingdom. At different times during the colonial era Batticaloa was ruled by the Portuguese, the Dutch as well as the Kandyan Kings. With the fall of the Kandyan Kingdom in 1815, Batticaloa which formed a part of it also came under British control. In 1833, Batticaloa became part of the modern Eastern Province and in 1877 it became the seat of the Eastern Province.

In the 19th century, caste differences became the dominant political issue among the Batticaloa Tamils. The introduction of limited adult franchise in 1921 gave a new significance to caste differences. Jane Russell (1982) writing a monograph titled Communal Politics under the Donoughmore Constitution: 1931-1947 argued that people voted for the candidate of their own caste, and if the contenders were from the same caste, the personal popularity of the candidate and his local network connection become the determining factor. Ethnic politics has not yet infiltrated into Batticaloa.

Until the mid 1950s, Batticaloa Tamil politics operated largely independently of Jaffna and Colombo Tamil politics. This was primarily due to the lack of interest in Batticaloa in the political calculations of Jaffna and Colombo Tamils. As a result, form early 20th century, Batticaloa Tamils nurtured their own brand of political leaders who have always put the interests of Batticaloa Tamils over and above the general interests of Tamils as presented by the Jaffna centered Tamil politicians.

In the first election ever held in this region on the basis of limited sovereignty in 1921, E. R. Tambimuttu, a storng advocate of the interests of Batticaloa Tamils was returned uncontested from the Eastern Province electorate. In the legislative Council election in 1924, he decisively defeated another Batticaloa Tamil.

However, the exclusively Tamil political dominance of Batticaloa began to change with the introduction of universal adult franchise in 1931 which gave Muslims an opportunity to contest the elections in Batticaloa for the first time. This marked the beginning of ethnic politics in Batticaloa.

In the national arena, the Tamil political leadership drawn exclusively from Jaffna and Colombo Tamils opposed the introduction of universal adult franchise arguing that it would reduce their representation, which of course was artificially raised in the legislative council by the British as a subtle strategy of their divide and rule policy. The Jaffna Youth Congress which was the breeding ground of future Tamil ethnonationalists, organized a successful boycott of the first State Council elections in 1931 in protest against the introduction of universal adult franchise! However, E. R. Tambimuttu, a Batticaloa Tamil, was the only Tamil legislative council member to vote for the Donoughmore Reforms which introduced the universal adult franchise. The political divide between Jaffna and Batticaloa was thus present at the very moment of introduction of democracy to Sri Lanka. Tambimuttu also refuted Jaffna and Colombo Tamils politicians who spoke on behalf of the Muslims in Batticaloa.

Batticaloa Tamil refusing to join in with the boycott organized by the Jaffna Tamils contested the election in 1931. The Batticaloa South electorate was contested by E. R. Tambimuttu and a Muslim - Marcan Marker who won the seat in the closely fought election. The significance of this election lies not in the fact that it was won by a Muslim, but that a Batticaloa Tamils contested it in defiance of the boycott organized by the Jaffna Tamils. This election marked a critical point in Batticaloa political history as it started a trend in which ethnicity was to become a major factor in voting for a candidate. The other seat in the Eastern Province - Trincomallee-Batticaloa where the Tamils constituted an overwhelming majority was also contested by three local Tamils. This independent political behaviour of Batticaloa Tamils sent very early a clear message on the distinctiveness of Batticaloa to the Tamil politics defined by Jaffna-Colombo axis but unfortunately the latter does not seem to have learnt it under democratic politics as well as terrorist politics. Jaffna Tamils realizing the fatal mistake of not contesting the first election eagerly contested the second election held in 1936 and Batticaloa Tamils returned their two favourte sons E. R. Thambimuttu and S.O. Canagarathnam.

1947 is the first ever election in which formal political parties contested. Tamil Congress, the Sri Lanka’s first ever ethnic political organization turned political party whose leadership came exclusively from Jaffna and Colombo Tamils, however did not contest any of the electorates in the Eastern Province at this election. Dominated by Jaffna and Colombo political elite, Tamil Congress made no attempt to build a political base in the east where the Tamil problems and interests differed fundamentally from those of the former. The only political party that contested the Eastern Province is the United National Party; other candidates were independents. In spite of the fact that the majority of the people of Batticaloa electorate were Tamils (50.57%) the Muslim candidate nominated by the United National Party won the seat defeating the four independent Tamil candidates. In the adjacent seats in the Eastern Province the voting behavior closely followed the ethnic lines. Most of the members elected to the Parliament from Batticaloa district supported the government to the great annoyance of the Tamil Congress members who expected the Batticaloa Tamils to support the Tamil nationalist cause as outlined by the former.

Gate Mudaliyar Karaiapper, clashing with a Tamil Congress political leader, SJV Chelvnayakam argued

....the Batticaloa District never formed a part of the Jaffna Kingdom. We were in the enjoyment of full autonomy under the overlordship of the Kandyan Kings. I may say that we do not find ourselves by the side of our brethren in the North because it is not that we love them, but because we love our country more (Parliamentary Hansard, 1&2, 1947-48).

These differences in the political aspirations between Jaffna Tamils and Batticaloa Tamils continued in various forms and intensities at every election since independence and it appears that it has continued even under the authoritarianism of LTTE although they were never allowed to be surfaced.

By 1952 all the electorates in Batticaloa district including the urban electorate of Batticaloa itself returned members of the majority ethnic groups in that electorate. The political parties were conscious of the voter behaviour and fielded candidates on the ethnic basis. Thus by the first election held in independent Sri Lanka, the electoral behaviour of Batticaloa had decisively taken an ethnic turn. Ethnic factor and the caste factor in politics had already become facts of political life in Jaffna.

Although people have shown an overwhelming preference to vote for a candidate of the same ethnic group in the early elections in Batticaloa, this did not necessarily mean political polarization along ethnic lines. The early process can be more correctly described as ethnic favoritism. Candidates did not make ethnicity the only defining criteria of their campaign. Instead other local issues, personal issues such as charisma and local social standing and popularity became central and defining issues in the early days.

Ethnonationalist Politics in Batticaloa

The Tamil Ilankai Arasu Kadchi (TIAK), the founder and the champion of Tamil ethnonationalism from 1948 to 1977 did not field a single candidate for any of the electorates in Batticaloa at the elections in either 1947 or 1952. The TIAK and the Batticaloa Tamils may have realized from early on that their interests are fundamentally different. Tamil ethnonationalism espoused by Jaffna Tamils did not arrive in Batticaloa until mid 1950s.

The 1956 election campaign took decisively an ethnopolitical turn with the two major political parties, the United National Party and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party campaigned to make Sinhala the official language of the country for the sole purpose of winning the Sinhalese vote. The TIAK armed with this "anti-Sinhalese" stand used its potential to politically mobilize minorities in general and Tamils in particular with a strong demand for "parity status for Tamils with Sinhalese". The TIAK had decided that the 1956 election as golden opportunity to enter into the eastern political theater and solicit the support of not only the eastern Tamils but also the Tamil speaking Muslims in the east as well.

TIAK was successful in recruiting Batticaloa elites into its rank and file before the 1956 election. Batticaloa politicians convinced of the potential of emerging political trends that political party is becoming essential to be elected and that exclusive ethnocentric and chauvinist pro Tamil and more importantly anti-Sinhalese propaganda were becoming more popular among Tamils- took advantage of the offer from the TIAK. C. Rajadurai, a Batticaloa Tamil contested the Batticaloa seat on TIAK ticket and was returned with only a 51% margin defeating the Muslim candidate who had received almost all the Muslim votes in the electorate. However, the Batticaloa’s association with the TIAK has been a cautious one primarily because of the long held view of "Jaffna domination".

The most significant development during the 1956 election in the east was the birth of a separate political party - Batticaloa Tamil Speaking Party (BTSP) in opposition to TIAK dominated by the Jaffna Tamils. The BTSP was trans-ethnic in composition with both Tamils and Muslims contesting on the same party ticket. However, BTSP received only 7.1% of the vote in the Batticaloa electorate. BTSP also contested two adjacent electorates and was successful in defeating the Jaffna dominated ITAK in one electorate.

However, the most revealing development in Batticaloa politics of 1956 election was the two of the ITAK Members of Parliament defecting to Sri Lanka Freedom Party government and later becoming ministers in the government. This political cross over of the two Batticaloa Tamils from ITAK was not only a political embarrassment and a defeat to ITAK but it also indicated a more deeper facet of eastern Tamil politics - opposing Jaffna Tamil domination and a commitment to eastern Tamil interests over and above the larger "Tamil" interests invented by the TIAK. In short, for Batticaloa Tamils the Batticaloa has always been the first priority, first concern. The trend is to continue into the future with ebbs and lows.

Ethno-politicization of Batticaloa also became evident from the fact that both the two main parties UNP and SLFP did not field a single candidate in the 1956 election for any of the electorates in the Batticaloa district. Although UNP nominated a candidate in 1960, the SLFP did not do so until the 1970 election.

Batticaloa politics thus operated at two levels in the 1950s and 1960s. First, Batticaloans were taking a pro-Tamil and anti-Sinhalese position as both the two major parties- UNP and SLFP led by "Sinhalese’ leaders were taking a pro-Sinhalese position on the language policy. The support for the ITAK by the Batticaloa Tamils can be largely explained though this phenomenon. Second, but not second in importance, Batticaloans were also taking a pro-Batticaloa and anti-Jaffna Tamil politics as expressed by the ITAK and its Jaffna leadership. The emergence of BTSP is the clearest manifestation of this trend and the cross over of the ITAK members to the governing party is the strongest manifestation of this trend. This trend has continued unchanged into the 1970s. The majority of the Batticaloans have always rejected the ITAK by voting for the ethnically Tamil candidates of the two main political parties which had a Sinhalese leadership. In short, Batticaloa Tamils were behaving as Batticaloans over and above any other considerations.

During the late 1950s, the ITAK organized various extra-parliamentary and extra-legal protests in Tamil areas including the two dominant Tamil centers of Jaffna and Batticaloa against the bill that made Sinhalese the official language of the country. These dramatic and popular and sometime destructive events helped the ITAK to successfully broaden its power base among the mass citizenry of the Batticaloa. ITAK continued its presence and pressure on the electorate on the anti-Sinhala propaganda during the 1960s ever expanding its power based. Thus, in July 1960 election, the ITAK was successful in winning four of the seven electorates they contested.

However, during the same time, the ITAK was fast loosing the Tamil speaking Muslim support base. ITAK became conscious of this trend and refrained from fielding its own candidates in any of the electorates with a Muslim majority in Batticaloa district. Similarly the Muslims increasingly declined to run on ITAK ticket; only one Muslim contested under ITAK. In any case he turned out to be an unreliable for the ITAK both within and outside the Parliament and the ITAK later alleged that he had simply used the party to come to power. The majority of the Muslims in Batticaloa supported either of the two major political parties. The United National Party became the biggest beneficiary. For example, in the multi-member Batticaloa electorate, the UNP secured the second member by fielding a Muslim candidate; the first member was from ITAK.

As revealed by these election results, the ITAK has not been hugely popular among Batticaloa Tamils. Although the ITAK won the Batticaloa urban electorate itself they did not perform well in the outline electorates. The reason for the ITAK success in Batticaloa electorate since 1956 was primarily due to the charisma and personal popularity of the candidate whom the ITAK made sure to be a prominent Batticaloa Tamil. In the two adjacent electorates the ITAk performance was not as commanding as that in Batticaloa.

The Sinhala-Tamil animosity had largely disappeared from the national political scene by early 1960s specially with the passing of legislations making Tamil also an official language in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The UNP had entered into an agreement with the ITAK in common opposition to the SLFP government. Although the ITAK was becoming popular among the Jaffna Tamils during this period due largely to its activities aimed at popular mass appeal and anti-Sinhalese rhetoric , the party was loosing its appeal among both the Batticaloa Tamils and Tamil speaking Muslims in Batticaloa.

In 1965 the two member Batticaloa seat once again returned its "favorite sons": C. Rajadurai contesting on the ITAK ticket and a Muslim on the UNP ticket. In Kalkuda, the ITAK lost to UNP candidate, K.W. Dewnayagam another prominent Batticaloa Tamil who had been a strong and outspoken advocate of the needs and interests of Batticaloa Tamils. In Kalmunai, the ITAK lost to an independent candidate, MSK Kariapper, who too was a strong promoter of Batticaloa Tamil interests. What the 1965 election results revealed was the contested nature of "Tamil politics’ in Batticaloa. The ITAK, the principle advocate of Tamil ethnonationalism was in fact defeated in many of the electorates in Batticaloa district in favour of the UNP and SLFP. Even when the ITAK won, it was not because the Batticaloa Tamils agreed with the message of Tamil ethnonationalism as advocated by ITAK but it was because it fielded prominent Batticaloa Tamils as candidates.

In the 1970 election, Tamil ethnonationalism once again became a central issue in Tamil politics at large as well as in Batticaloa politics. This was very largely a result of the new alliance (led by the SLFP), the United Front’s (UF) appeal for a political mandate to change the constitution of the country. The UF actively campaigned in all electorates in Batticaloa. The Tamil parties, especially the ITAK realizing the potential opportunity this election has created in their attempt to resolve the Tamil ethnonationalist problem as defined by the Jaffna Tamil leadership in the party, aggressively campaigned in all electorates in Batticaloa region to strengthen their bargaining power at the upcoming constitutional deliberations. Once again, repeating history, C. Rajadurai was returned from Batticaloa electorate on the ITAK ticket and an independent candidate secured the second membership. However, repeating the history again, the ITAK loss to the major political parties in the four electorates in the vicinity of Batticaloa.

During the greater part of post-independence history of Sri Lanka, Batticaloa region has not being aligned with the Jaffna led ITAK politics championing Tamil ethnonationalism. If the majority view of the electorates is taken as a criterion of people’s judgment, then it becomes quite apparent that Batticaloa Tamils have opposed if not rejected the Tamil ethnonationalism as proposed by the Jaffna centered ITAK. Although Batticaloans share similar views with respect to the language policy, they significantly digress from the Jaffna Tamils and the ITAK on its strategies and aspirations which were increasingly taking an isolationist ethnonationalist route. Batticaloans certainly wanted their problems - ethnic and otherwise - to be resolved; yet they equally certainly did not want to be dominated by the politics of the Jaffna Tamils and their primary political vehicle - ITAK. The overwhelming majority of Muslims in Batticaloa has never endorsed the ITAK politics. The few Muslims who did contest on ITAK ticket defected to the governing party at the time soon after they were elected.

The electoral politics of the Batticaloa Tamils clearly suggest that they have not aligned with the Jaffna Tamil politics dominated by chauvinist ethnonationalist politics based on anti-Sinhala propaganda. The Tamil Congress (TC) one of the popular political parties in Jaffna nominated candidates only twice (1960 and 1965) in Batticaloa. Both times they were defeated. Although the ITAK continued to contest in Batticaloa its performance declined steadily while its anti-Sinhala chauvinist Tamil arguments intensified into the 1970s..







1960 March


1960 July








Source: Compiled from GPSHDe Silva (1979)

The clearest expression of Tamil ethnonationalism of Batticaloa Tamils was exhibited at the 1977 election. All the Tamil political parties led by the ITAK at the time came under the banner of Tamil United Liberation Front which campaigned in all electorates in the country with a Tamil majority including those in Batticaloa district with the slogan of demanding a separate state for Tamils in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The TULF did campaign in Tamil electorates with extreme anti-Sinhalese rhetoric igniting the local population into an anti-Sinhalese frenzy. TULF campaigned through, unorthodox extremist yet politically popular acts such as burning Sri Lanka flags and constitutions and displaying the newly invented flag and the map of the so called state of Tamil Eelam. TULF rallies were widely attended by the Tamils and the Tamil youths indoctrinated and intoxicated by the separate state fewer formed into Tamil youth groups who took the separate state aspiration too seriously by violently opposing those who did not agree with it. The Tamil youths, primarily from Jaffna, began to pressurize and intimidate the Tamil citizens, political leaders and intellectuals who did not support the TULF. The Mayor of Jaffna city who opposed TULF was assassinated by the Tamil youths and the TULF encouraged these acts simply by keeping silence. This was the first assassination of a Tamil political leader in the name of Tamil ethnonationalism. In fact TULF election platform used the incident to warn the Tamils who are not supporting their separatist agenda. Given the euphoria the TULF enjoyed in the Tamil areas including Batticaloa it predicted an overwhelming victory.

However, the 1977 election returns in Batticaloa and the subsequent party cross overs by the prominent Batticaloa Tamils who won the election on a TULF ticket challenged the TULF’s claim that they have received a mandate to establish a separate Tamil state in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. In Batticaloa electorate, C. Rajadurai as in the past contested on the TULF ticket and won the first membership but with a reduced majority in comparison with the 1970 election and the second TULF candidate in Batticaloa lost the election. The second membership was won by the UNP, and UNP together with the SLFP both opposing the separate state demand, jointly polled an absolute majority of 53.3% of the votes in the electorate, 10% more than the TULF. One of the most prominent Batticaloa Tamil politicians, K. W. Dewanayagam won the Kalkuda electorate with a Tamil majority on a UNP ticket.

When analyzed within the context of these electoral results, the message from the eastern or Batticaloa Tamils is a clear rejection of the separatist demand as proposed by the TULF led by Jaffna Tamils. The TULF failed to secure an absolute majority in any one of the electorates with a Tamil majority. It received only 32.14% of the votes of the District as a whole. Strangely, the ITAK which was in alliance with the TULF did contest separately with a non-separatist agenda in Batticaloa and polled 13.07% of the votes of the district. Taken together all the political parties opposing TULF and its separatist agenda polled 53.85% of the total votes in the district.

Post election development further demonstrated the gap if not the rift between the separatist TULF and the Batticaloa Tamils. The most outspoken TULF politician in the Eastern Province , the first member of Batticaloa electorate, C. Rajadurai defected from TULF and joined the ranks of UNP and later became one of its cabinet members. This is not just a symbolic act but it is a manifestation of a much deeper reality - the uniqueness of Batticaloa politics that did not endorse the separatism defined by the TULF dominated by Jaffna Tamils.

Although four elections were held 1977-1990 they do not provide adequate and reliable information for a useful analysis of electoral behaviour. The presidential election in October and a referendum in December 1982 by their national orientation did not provide an opportunity for the Batticaloans to express their specificities. 1988 presidential election and 1989 parliamentary elecions were conducted in the east under very turbulent political atmosphere leading to very low voter turnout. By late 1980s the democratic phase of Tamil politics comes to an end and is replaced by terrorism led by the LTTE. Although there were members of parliament officially representing Jaffna and Batticaloa during this period there was no real mechanism to correctly assess their representativeness as elections were not physically held in most of these electorates and the people in the LTTE held areas were denied their free and democratic expression at the elections.

In the absence of evidence from ground, many a Tamil nationalists and intellectuals have simply assumed that since mid 1980s the internal social and cultural differences among the Tamils have disappeared. Yet the political behaviour of Batticaloa Tamils have proved otherwise.

When the Tamil ethnonationalist thought that every Tamil is behind the separatist demand for a Tamil state of Eelam, a prominent Batticaloa Tamil who served in the 1977-1982 cabinet expressing the stand of Batticaloa Tamils argued as follows.

I only want to bring out the unrealism of a separate state, because in the Eelam cry we of the Eastern Province are also put into this basket. I do not know how we can fit into it because from Pottuvil to Amparai and down to Tennamarawaddi it is often said that it is like a pittu bamboo coconut, pittu, coconut, pittu, coconut, pittu; Tamil, Muslim, Tamil, Muslim, Tamil, Muslim. How on earth are you going to draw the dividing line of Eelam in the Eastern Province I do not know. Because of this unrealism and impracticability this cry of Eelam has caused so much distress. IT is a matter of great regret. It is evidenced by the fact that in the Eastern Province out of twelve seats ten seats belong to the United National Party. There fore it is impossible to consider us as forming any part of that Eelam.

Even the terrorist era of Tamil ethnonationalist politics has not escaped from the reality of uniqueness of Batticaloa. For example Tamil terrorists took much longer time to establish their bases in the East. Every time when the government launched an offensive in the east, Tamil terrorists fled to Kilinochchi forest in the north where they felt more secure. LTTE headquarters and all important terrorist bases are located in the North. Batticaloa Tamils have been somewhat apprehensive about the Jaffna led LTTE. Some Batticaloa Tamils argued that LTTE is in Batticaloa not as a brotherly force fighting for a common cause but as a force of intimidation to keep any potential dissenting voice in check. Weather in peacetime or under terrorist war fare the Jaffna dominance in Tamil ethnonationalism seem to continue so does the challenges to it from Batticaloa.

Prabhakaran (Jaffna) - Karuna (Batticaloa) Feud (added in March 2004)

The terrorist era of Tamil ethnonationalism led by LTTE has been one of further consolidating and affirming the monolithic Tamil nation. Under the authoritarian and zero tolerance policy of the LTTE leadership any dissent from its own interpretation is eliminated using the extreme measures including physical elimination of the dissenters. The fear of life has prevented the ordinary people to maintain silence. A large number of hypocritical Tamil academics, intellectuals, professionals however at least openly affirmed, legitimized the LTTE versions from the safety and comfort of their luxurious life in the western cities. The latest group that joined these hypocrites are the TNA politicians who have become nothing but external organs of the LTTE terrorist organization. Together the LTTE, the Tamil intellectuals, and Tamil politicians indicated to the world that monolithic Tamil nation is a job accomplished by early 2004.

Then came the Prabhakaran- Karuna feud fundamentally shattering the myth of a monolithic Tamil nation and affirming the reality of Jaffna-Batticaloa divide which had been kept suppressed and hidden during the terrorist era of Tamil ethnonationalism. Given that power could be expressed only through terror and violence during the terrorist era of Tamil ethnonationalism, even regional expression or dissatisfaction within Tamil nation could become possible only through these very same means. Thus, Karuna, a powerful eastern Tamil leader form Batticaloa taking on the northern Tamil LTTE establishment should not be a surprise to those who could see through the evolution of Batticaloa Tamil politics from its inception in 1948. But unfortunately, as Tamil intellectuals including some anthropologists who once argued that people live in geographically small and different socio-cultural complexes were blindly supporting the LTTE defined monolithic Tamil nation since the mid 1980s, there is hardly any academic or intellectual work on the social or cultural complexities of the Tamils. It was assumed all Tamils think and behave equally as ‘anti-Sinhalese’. The failure of Tamil intellectuals to study Tamil society in depth have left us with no choice but to quote the only person who has done it during the terrorist era of Tamil ethnonationalism - Karuna the former LTTE leader of the eastern province.

What were the justifications for Karuna to defy the LTTE. The entire episode can be only explained through the Jaffna-Batticaloa or North-East divide.

The infamous letter of Karuna to Prabhakaran is a classic statement of Jaffna domination in the LTTE leadership and the strategies and the subservient and secondary role of the Eastern or Batticaloa Tamils.

"None can forget the fact that the young cadres of Batticaloa and Amparai have rendered tremendous service and made much sacrifice in the struggle. Up to no nearly 4550 Batticaloa-Amparai cadres have sacrificed their valuable lives. Among which 2248 of fighters obeying your orders died in the Yalpanam and Vanni areas".

Two interesting points emerge here. First is that they have been self conscious of the fact that they are from Batticaloa even as they were fighting as LTTE cardre. The eastern cardre seems to think that dying in Yalpanam and Vanni as different from dying in eastern theater - which is their home. The second the maintenance of separate records for the eastern Tamils in the LTTE cardres and having precise information at hand indicate a much deeper political commitment and intention.

"You are fully aware the our boys underwent lot of hardship there in Vanni. Because of our trust and confidence in you we refrained from making any complaints. I adjusted myself to all the hardships that I experienced during my stay in Vanni. But the problems have increased. So I now must inform you of these problems...".

The first interesting points here is that Karuna referring to cadre from Batticaloa as our boys indicating the difference between them and the Jaffna or Vanni cadre. The second interesting point emerging out here is that eastern cadre have been receiving a different treatment in the past although they maintained silence over it.

"In your appointment of officers to head 30 Tamil Eelam organizations and departments, no one is from the Batticaloa-Amparai region. The people and the cadres did not make an issue of this during the period of war. But in the present situation they are fully conscious of this and are raising questions. We are unable to answer to various questions posed by the people".

The important points in this statements are first that Eastern Tamils have been discriminated against 100%in the appointment of high status jobs and that people were conscious of this discrimination and second that even the terrorist leaders in the east pay attention to and identify with the issues of the people of their own region over and above that of the Tamil nation as a whole.

"More importantly, when outside persons come here to discharge their function, there is a lot of problems and unpleasantness arising due to their lack of knowledge. These officers from outside the region cannot understand the grievances of the local people of Batticaloa -Amparai and of our local cadres. The have no knowledge of our land. There is also a lack of sensitivity. They cannot even understand the feelings of our people. So how can they do the administration here".

In the context of Tamil ethnonationalist politics of LTTE this is the argument the LTTE and other extremist Tamil ethnonationalists have leveled against the Sri Lankan government officers in the northern and eastern provinces. It is ironic that eastern Tamils are making the same allegation against the northern Tamils at the height of Tamil ethnonationalist politics. But it underscores the point of Yalpani domination and the socio cultural uniqueness of Batticaloa. But the most significant point here is not that yalpani domination exists but how it is perceived by the eastern Tamils. For example, Vanni Tamils are seen as "outsiders" who doesn’t have the "local knowledge", "cannot understand the grievances" and "lack sensitivity". In short Vanni/Jaffna Tamils are perceived as a completely a different group or outsiders. From the eastern Tamil’s point of view the only link between them and the Vanni Tamils seem to be the language and everything else is different between them. Geography have certainly become thicker than ethnicity.

"While these administrators are moving about freely in Kilinochchi in Luxury vehicles, more than 400 young men from Batticaloa- Amparai are performing guard duties in the Vanni undergoing much hardship. Is this justice and fair ply? At a peaceful time like this, it is natural that our young men want to be back in their own homes along with their kith and kin rather than live in bunkers"

The differential treatment that Jaffna Tamils receive in contrast to the eastern Tamils seem to continued even under the LTTE and the latter has seen this as unjust and unfair. More interesting point here is that the eastern Tamils have been deprived of the peace dividends that the northern Tamils have been enjoying. In short, Karuna’s resentment is history repeating itself. A history of Yalpani domination over the eastern Tamils.

I firmly believe that the failure of the Tamil intellectuals to study the complexities of the Tamil society during the terrorist era, and their blind acceptance of ethnonationalist ideology over and above the pragmatic ground realities is wholly responsible for the feud. Had this divide been a topic of discussion or at least had it been brought to the notice of the leaders it is possible that remedial measures would have been taken well in advance to correct the regional grievances. This is yet another occasion, where the Tamil intellectuals, specially those who live comfortable lives in the west have betrayed the Tamil people in their blind justification of LTTE defined Tamil ethnonationalism. Ironically these Jaffna Tamil intellectuals at Eastern University had to pay the prize for their own mistakes. They were the first group along with Prbahkaran loyalists that had to leave the east to the safety of the north! The Tamil intellectuals in the west may be feeling a sigh of relief on the knowledge that they live far away from Batticaloa.


Ethnonationalist studies have been entrenched in nationalist ideology through the uncritical acceptance of the existence of a monolithic nation. In this context, a more appropriate engagement of monolithic nation which has overwhelmed nationalist historiography in general and that of Tamil ethnonationalism in particular requires us to turn inward by digging deeper into actual ethnonationalist politics. The task of this article has been precisely that. The conclusion arrived at in this article is that monolithic view of Sri Lankan Tamil ethnonationalism as projected by Tamil ethnonationalist leaders democratic and terrorist, and also the Tamil intellectuals both in Sri Lanka and in the west is not supported by ground realities. Jaffna and Batticaloa are two different Tamil localities with their own specific and unique socio-economic, cultural and political histories and thus their aspirations too are different. Geography is indeed thicker than blood. The latest Prabhakaran-Karuna feud is the manifestation of this reality. It will probably be not the last.

The last point I want to make is to point out to the Sri Lankan Tamil citizens of this country that democracy - a genuine democracy not guided democracy- as a political system is more geographical in that it allows through the elections and political parties for the regional expressions. Democratic freedoms also allows others like us to bring regional issues into the open discussions. In this process democratic societies also find ways to resolve geographical grievances and aspirations of the people. If nothing else, Tamil ethnonationalist should realize that Tamil ethnonationalism has become possible only in a democratic Sri Lanka. On the other hand, dictatorship, terror, intimidation, massacres and all other forms of violence and intolerance can only suppress the expression of regional identities, grievances and aspirations; never can they be eliminated. This is a time tested social reality and it is unlikely that Sri Lankan Tamil society will be the first to defy this.

Taking the current crisis as a positive and an inevitable message, the Tamil ethnonationalists should try to redemocratize its society. The pseudo Tamil politicians who have become puppets of the LTTE should also need to act responsibly and honestly by representing the view of the people and not that of guns. Tamil intellectuals both in Sri Lanka and abroad who have uncritically justified the LTTE defind Tamil ethnonationalism and its violent strategies should also need to be intellectually honest, ethical and responsible and help create a more just, peaceful and a democratic Sri Lankan Tamil society. The ordinary Tamils have to come out of the "anti-Sinhalese" trap and try to be responsible for their own future generations by demanding and helping democratization of their own society. They should understand that expression of regionality in this process is not anti-Tamil. In fact nothing can be more Tamil and more democratic than expressing their own regionality, truthfully.