Migrants and Minorities in Ceylon: Lessons for the Present


Sri Lanka was just about recovering from a devastating civil war and its aftermath when it plummeted into an unprecedented economic and political crisis. Mass protests beginning in March, in response to alarming inflation and shortages of food, fuel, medicines, fertilisers, and other essential items, forced President Gotabaya Rajapaksa into brief exile. His replacement, Ranil Wickremesinghe is hardly popular.

In many ways, the current economic crisis and the consequent political chaos can be seen as a long-term consequence of colonial and post-colonial majoritarian politics and policies, the seeds of which were sown with the economic recession in the 1930s. The disruptions set off by the Great Depression of 1929 marked the peaking of xenophobia and ethnocentric politics in which Ceylon’s ethnic minorities and migrants suffered heavily. Post-colonial Sri Lankan politics and bilateral relations between independent India and Sri Lanka continue to bear the mark of the developments of the 1930s. 

Anti-Indian politics

When Ceylon became independent in 1948, Tamils of Indian origin – called Estate Tamils or Upcountry Tamils – formed slightly over half of Sri Lanka’s Tamil population. (The rest were the Eelam or Jaffna Tamils, said to be the descendants of Tamils of the old Jaffna Kingdom and east coast chieftaincies called Vannamials.)….