With statehood came the challenge of defining who belonged to the new nation and in what language its laws and customs would be communicated. Sinhalese speakers were by far the largest group in Sri Lanka and so began, through national policy, to shape what would become Sri Lanka in their image. Following the election of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in 1956, the Government attempted, through the Sinhala Only Act, to make Sinhalese the national language of Ceylon. This was one in a long line of policies that were seen to have a particular impact on Tamils in the North and East. Education standardisation, though reversed in 1977 after strong political pressure, required Tamils to score higher marks than Sinhalese students in order to access university (Hoole, et al.).

Tamil politicians protested against these controversial laws, forming parties with the aim of protecting Tamil rights. The long tradition of non-violent protest, in the form of satyagraha, was employed by the Federal Party to influence public opinion. Police action followed and as a result, these struggles increasingly spilled over into daily life, in the form of discrimination, violent riots against Tamils –
the largest of which occurred in 1958, 1977 and 1983 – and war. Resistance intensified with calls for an independent Tamil nation emerging from some sections in society and many joining armed movements in the North and East. The sum total of these effects created a situation where being Tamil mattered more and more, both as a source of pride for Tamil people and as a target of violence. Here, people talk about the evolution of conflict and their resilience through extraordinary circumstances.


So I knew there was this discrimination and especially my father experienced it.
I mean he retired from a very good job all because they told him, ‘You want a
promotion? If you want to become Chief Inspector of Art, you must learn
My father said, ‘No, I can speak Latin, Tamil, English, and that’s
good enough for me.’


‘…My son was six months or eight months at that time. This happened in ’56, no.
So I took him in the car. I was feeding my son. So my sister would keep him in
the car. So I used to be on the street. We did that campaign on the streets.
We stopped all the cars and changed the Sinhala shri [to Tamil language license
plates]. So I used to feed him in the car, go and feed him in the car and come
out, and along with the other ladies, I used to join in the campaign. So like that
we did that. We had ready-made number plates and we stopped the cars and
changed it. One or two people, they didn’t want because the opposition, they go
with the Government. They didn’t allow it. So the boys who were there, the
volunteers, they were so upset and they said…There were dogs also in the car.
So there were dogs going and so on and they were shouting. You know, some
volunteers were very much, they would shout and they made the people angry.
Like that also sometimes the leaders suffer. They would go and plead and they
would say sorry and all these things. So that thing ended. After that, they
removed it and then the Government stopped it. And also Thanthai Chelva was
in Batticaloa prison… 
The Sinhala buses were coming and going.’


‘Mobs were – you see, if there was open fighting between one man and another
man, that’s different – here, mobs were getting together and hammering you,
causing all kinds of discomfort and disrespect. Even in ’58, there were people
who were set on fire and all of that, ’58.’


‘It was a baptism of fire. It was the shock of the whole thing. I was such a
cosmopolitan, I suppose…And I couldn’t take the injustice, I suppose in the
same way I couldn’t take the injustice of the bank manager, injustice of my father
when he asked me not to marry. He taught me to fight injustice and I turned it
against him. So not that he taught me to fight injustice, he was an example of
fighting for his peers and people like that. So when this happened,I began to
look at my Sinhalese friends as Sinhalese because they are not saving any Tamils.’


‘Whilst we were studying they started the satyagraha movement in the 1960s
at schools. We were sitting in Jaffna at the Mutavelli [open grass field] during
one of the satyagrahas. It was organised through our school. The Thamil Arasu
Kachchi [Federal Party] made a call for school students to participate and we
all went there in our white uniforms and sat down there at the Mutavelli…Then,
we were all patriotic. We had the will to sit down and struggle. Later, large
protests were happening but I never really went there. There was a sense of
fear then, and I retreated more and more.’


‘And the ‘77 riots must have been very bad because when the thugs in the lane had told my father – because he was respected because he spoke Sinhalese fluently and we had no difference, we mixed very well – ‘We protected you all, we didn’t allow any thugs to come down this road this time. But if this happens soon, next time we won’t be able to protect.’ Just like that, people have turned and are seeing you like not Sri Lankans, different…and then of course ‘78 I go, so the discussion is all about maybe we shouldn’t have our own house, not in that particular area anyway. My father had to sell it for nothing, really… So that’s the time I felt, though I was not in the middle of the riots there, that ‘OK, we are different and we could be hurt. We won’t be protected, we won’t have the same protection from our leaders, from our politicians, because we are different.’’


‘One day I got in a bus at Kotahena…When the bus came to the Armour Street, the Armour Street police blocked the bus. We get down and he sees my Batticaloa identity, no problem, no questions [laughs], he just brings me to the Armour Street police guardroom. When I went there, the [Sinhalese police officer] of that guardroom – he’s not my age, my father’s age, nearly my father’s age – he questioned somebody else and he called me and I went there. He asked me, ‘Where are you working?’ ‘I don’t have any work.’ ‘So what are you doing? Why?’ ‘I just returned from India. I just was studying there. My family is over there but anyhow I…’ ‘What are you doing in India?’ ‘I have done my degree over there.’ ‘Why didn’t you do it here?’ And I said, ‘No, I got these marks but that’s not enough to get into the university.’ Very next question, he told me, ‘No, no, no, no, you are wrong, my own daughter has the same marks but she’s in the university.’ Then I said, ‘That was the problem.’


‘Sri Lanka was declared as Democratic [Socialist] Republic of Sri Lanka and a Buddhist country. I remember, yeah, at that time, my memory was the Constitution was burnt in a public place by, actually my father lit the Sri Lankan Constitution, he set fire to that with other leaders standing beside him in Navalar Hall…I was there, I was there but the meeting was organised in a public place. Then police refused to give permission because at that time you had the emergency in place after the JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna) thing, the emergency continued…That was very fresh in my mind…Dr N. M. Perera, Felix Dias Bandaranaike and in a way my father’s background, when he was in the Colombo University, he used to go and listen to the lectures of Dr N. M. Perera; he was a fan of Dr N. M. Perera. And when the LSSP (Lanka Sama Samaja Party) joined with the SLFP (Sri Lanka Freedom Party) to form the government, my father, I don’t know whether how he felt that, but he must have thought highly about Dr N. M. Perera and Felix Dias Bandaranaike. When they drafted that constitution, they were part of it and our rights were taken away and he [Mr Amirthalingam] must have felt really bad about it because the people who taught him politics and the people who spoke about equality and humanity, rather than in politics, still everything was taken away. The whole Tamil people were left in a limbo at that point. So he was, he must have been upset about it.’


‘So ‘82 I came home, ‘83 we moved, lost everything in six months’ time, brand-new house, whatever we saved for generations, including paintings and everything, were burnt right in front of our eyes…Mrs Perera who was teaching us, Mrs Perera or somebody, she asked me am I a Tamil because I didn’t wear this thing or long hair or anything. I said, ‘Yes.’ ‘Go home quickly,’ she said. When I was going on the road, Ananda College and Nalanda College, Royal College boys in white trousers, and some were in shorts, came with sticks and I saw everywhere burning on Galle Road and High Level Road…Another Kandyan Sinhalese came and said, ‘Look, we can’t keep you here. There is an order that we can’t keep you here. You have to go.’ So we went out on the road and came near my house. There was this man, he rode a motorbike. He opened the petrol cap. Somebody was throwing paintings and everything from there – and we had a lawn. He rode a motorbike, set it on fire and jumped out, so everything burned quickly. So I’m pretending that I am not living in this house, we are just watching because if you said you were Tamil, end of story…’


‘Well my grandparents, they’ve told me for a few years about their stories and accounts but I was more interested later on so I asked them a lot more. And
so like some of my extended family had to flee a house because the Sinhalese mob, which was sponsored by the Government, burnt down their houses and that street, and a mob came to the house that my family would normally stay in…So our family were very much involved in this. And so my grandparents have stories of the riots and friends and stuff…Thinking about it, it was really these atrocities that really kind of made me really think about my identity.’


‘What happened was all these youths went and joined the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) or any other organisation, all the militant organisations. J.R. Jayewardene government also banned all the opposition organisations such as all the communist parties, Sama Samaja Party, as well as TULF (Tamil United Liberation Front). So the TULF leaders had to go to India and they also lost their political base. That was a serious problem because it was…so they couldn’t do anything in Sri Lanka as well. That political space was filled by the militant movements. And people also, especially after the riots, people also became, you know, they thought that these groups can only do something for us. They truly believed these militant groups. You know we had full support.’