Dry zone colonisation and  myth of demographic
displacement of Tamils


"You are entitled to your own opinion. But not your facts" (Daniel Patrick Moynihan)

This paper is based on a Chapter titled " Spatial Dimensions of Ethnicity in Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka at Micro Regional Level" in my Masters Thesis on "Geographical Perspectives on Ethnicity in Sri Lanka" presented to the University of Peradeniya in 1986. The original Thesis is available at the Central Library at the University of Peradeniya. In addition to this preface, only other changes I have done are editorial in nature for better reading.

I began to read for my postgraduate degree in the post-1983 era when the ethnic riots of July that year created a context for the Tamil intellectuals and a group of Sinhalese liberal intellectuals and also a load of foreign scholars to revisit the Sinhalese and Tamil ethonationalism. This emerging ethnonationalist historiography had several identifiable trends.

First, it was overtly and covertly sympathetic to the Tamil ethonationalism and the growing separatism espoused by the Tamil ethnonationalists. Second, these writings were overtly and covertly critical of Sinhalese ethnonationalism. Thirdly, most of these writings uncritically accepted the Tamil ethnonationalist ideological arguments first forwarded by the ITAK, or popularly known as Federal Party in 1949 arguing that Tamils were a distinct nation just as the Sinhalese "in every fundamental test of nationhood". Thus they were dominated with justification of the Tamil ethonationalist grievances (Tamils were discriminated against by the majority Sinhalese in every sphere of activity) at the beginning and as time went on Tamil aspirations (Tamils should have a separate state in their "traditional homelands" to fully express their nationhood) using either selective data and information or twisting the history and geography and Tamilizing them and total falsehoods and fabrications. Mahawamsa, the Great Historical Chronicle which had accurately charted over two and a half millennia of the history of this island were either hated, discarded or were subjected to microscopic scrutiny first to argue how chauvinistic it is and second, ironically, to search for evidence to justify the presence of a historical Tamil nation! Some of the foreign intellectuals made a dashing business out of this exercise.

The libraries around the world received books justifying Tamil ethonationalism at a rate which the bibliographers could not even keep pace with. However, a casual glance at many of these publications reveals that they are nothing but political propaganda in social science clothing. Sadly, some of the well known names in Political Science, History and Anthropology too deliberately sold out their intellectual souls to become the spokepersons uncritically justifying Tamil ethonationalism and supporting the separatist agenda.

Of all the arguments, that there is a traditional Tamil homeland in the areas of the Northern and Eastern Provinces and beyond came to be the core assertion of the both the Tamil ethonationalist politicians and the intellectuals. Both Prof. G.H. Peiris and Prof. K.M.de Silva have beyond any reasonable doubt refuted this argument of course not to the liking of those Sri Lankan and foreign scholars .

One of the main grievances of the Tamil ethonationalism is that this "traditional Tamil homeland" had been invaded by the Sinhalese through the state aided colonization programme and thus the successive "Sinhalese governments" were engaged in a deliberate strategy to make Tamils a minority in their own homeland and thus undermining the concept of the "Tamil nation". The level of political and intellectual buying into this argument is incomprehensible especially as it was not historically verified and empirically supported. As a aspiring political geographer, this question aroused my intellectual curiosity and hence became the base of the thesis of my M.A. research. I asked very simple question from a politico-geographical perspective. What was the ground reality of the ethno-spatial distribution in the so called traditional Tamil homeland before and after the Dry Zone colonization program? As a political geographer, I knew that this requires going down to the lowest possible spatial scale at which official population data were available and to engage in a longitudinal analysis to identify the population trends. The following analysis is the result.

In addition to the analysis based on Census Reports I also wanted to do a deeper assessment of the population dynamics of the area during the 19th century and early 20th century. The Administrative Reports and Blue Books were a gold mine of historical source for this fact finding inquiry as the British (note that they were not Sinhalese) administrators, with their keen sense of observation provided some penetrating analysis of what was happen-spacial distribution in the so called Tamil homeland before and and after the dry zone colonisation programme. As a poitical geographer I knew that this requires going down to the lowest possible spacialscale at which official population data were available and to engage in longitudinal analysis to identify the population trends. the following analysis is the results.

In addition to the analysis based on the Census reports, I also wanted to do a proper assessmentof the population dynamicsof the area during the 19th and the 20th centuries.The administrative reports and Blue Books were a goldmine of historical source for this fact finding inquiry as the British (note that they were not Sinhalese) administrators, with their keen sense of observation provided some penetrating analysis of what was happening at the time.The foregoing analysis also includes these descriptions as well.

I, sometimes, regret that I could not publish my MA thesis during the height of the debate in the late 1980s and early 1990s although I made several presentations at various fora. Tamil and even global intellectual mafia at the time was very hostile to any argument that challenged the Tamil ethonationalist dogma. We were simply discarded as Sinhalese chauvinists and extremists. A number of draft articles that I submitted to a few international journals including some specializing in Asian studies were rejected. Reading between the lines of the referee reports that I received rejecting my papers clearly revealed the signatures of the ethnic Tamils and foreigners who sympathized with the Tamil ethonationalist dogma.

Today ethnonationalist separatist project these intellectuals justified and supported is totally eradicated, and the real truth of their pet organization, the LTTE has been exposed. However, the post-LTTE era may provide yet another opportunity for these dogmatic ethnonationalist intellectuals to raise the same arguments once again in an effort to find a solution to Tamil ethonationalist problem. In this context, it is essential for real social scientists both in the spirit of intellectualism on the one hand and for the sake of future welfare of the Tamil society on the other that is all but destroyed by the LTTE, not to allow the dogmatic Tamil ethnonationalists a second round of intellectual dishonesty and thus more devastation to Sri Lanka in general and the Tamil people in particular.

This is the context for this article.


In Sri Lanka socio-economic and demographic data from official sources are usually presented within the framework of Provinces and Districts. Hence many studies that utilizes such data tend to retain the same spatial framework. The patterns that emerged from the Provincial and District level analysis are all well known. However, since the Provinces and Districts are invariably larger spatial units (in the context of Sri Lanka as a whole, Provincial and District data are liable to conceal the ground realities relating to micro level spatial differentiation ) here, a smaller spatial unit- Village Headman or Grama Sevaka area is employed. Looking at the micro level data is important in view of the popular perception that certain administrative Districts of the country belong exclusively to one or other of the two major ethnic groups.

In this context, it is important to make a brief observation on what Provinces, Districts and Village Headman or Grama Sevaka areas actually are. The system of dividing the country into Provinces and Districts came into being after the establishment of British colonial power in the early l9th Century. Initially the country was divided into five Provinces, each being in charge of a Government Agent. The Provinces in turn were divided into Districts, the areas of authority of the Divisional Revenue Officer. During later times as the population and economic activities expanded, the number of Provinces and Districts were increased to reach the present figures of nine and twenty four respectively. Later the Districts, which were placed under the Government Agents, emerged as the effective administrative unit and the Provinces simply became a collection of Districts. In the demarcation of Provinces and Districts the ethnic composition was not given much prominence as a major criterion. The result is that most of the Provinces and Districts in Sri Lanka are ethnically heterogeneous with the Northern Province with its overwhelming Tamil majority and Southern Province with the Sinhalese majority constituting quantitative exceptions. This is particularly why the sub-District level population patterns are important in an attempt to identify traditional ethnic frontiers.

Statistical data on population, in any case are available only for the period of past hundred years. Any analysis of ethnic population patterns prior to that period had to be based on records less comprehensive in coverage and less precise in content. The following analysis of ethnic population distribution pattern during the pre-modern period is, thus, largely based on materials such as the Returns of the Government Agents, Assistant Government Agents and other government officials and various other descriptive accounts produced by the people who lived during that period.

Politico-Spatial Aspects of Ethnicity during the Pre-Modern Period

Dividing history into periods is a subjective and purposive exercise. The significant events and common agreement by the students of history are the two factors that validate temporal classifications. In this study, ‘pre-modern’ is used as synonymous with pre-British, for the establishment of the British Colonial rule marked the beginning of Sri Lanka’s journey towards becoming a ‘modern’ country. The present political, administrative and economic systems and related institutions, all have their origin in the British era, at the inception of which came the downfall of the last Sinhalese kingdom of the island, and along with that a slow but steady process of ‘modernization’ of the traditional Sri Lankan society. The pre-modern period, thus, extend from the very early periods of the Sri Lankan history to the period between the latter part of the 18th Century and early part of the 19th Century.

A large amount of specific and general works are available on the history of this period, and from them certain basic points relating to the politico-territorial aspects of ethnicity can be discerned1.

Firstly, all the historical works clearly agree on the dominant role played by the Sinhalese in the political process of the island during the pre-modern period. All the rulers, except for a few, hailed from the larger Sinhalese-Buddhist community. They had not only developed an impressive civilization, but also managed to delicately harmonize with it an equally impressive Sinhalese-Buddhist culture. The political authority of the more powerful rulers among them had extended throughout the island during most part of the history. A toponymical study clearly shows that most of the place names in the North and East were actually Tamilized versions of the original Sinhalese names. Toponymy of the Taprobane of Ptolemy is perhaps the clearest evidence for this. (Ptolemy was not a Sinhalese according to Roman literature) The Sinhalese-Buddhist ideology which had a large political component clearly perpetuated the concept of a single political entity covering the whole of the island. Thus, even when the Sinhalese kings could or did not control the whole island, they considered themselves to be the rulers of the entire island. The political power, the Sinhalese-Buddhist culture and stable economic base founded upon the large and small irrigation system led the Sinhalese to achieve not only a dominant, but also a hegeomonic status within the island during a greater part of this period.

The second point on which there is hardly any controversy is that throughout this period, there were all types of South Indian links with the inland. It is not difficult to assume frequent interactions between the two coasts separated by only about 20 miles. That there are literary traditions, e.g. Ramayanaya to extend this argument even to the pre-history in different parts of South India, amply proves this point. They had come to the island as traders, permanent immigrants or as invaders at various times during this period as stated in Mahawamsa and supported by other historical and archaeological evidence.

Continued tomorrow

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