Mahinda’s Tamil avatar.
In his post marking the 36th birth anniversary of the LTTE, DBS Jeyaraj said something striking – “Today the battered and shattered Sri Lankan Tamils reduced in numbers to being the fourth largest ethnicity in the Island are slowly struggling to pick up the pieces and get on with life.” I think what he’s saying here is that the races in Sri Lanka would now be Sinhalese, Muslims, Indian (Estate) Tamils, and then Sri Lankan Tamils. Which sounds crazy, but it may be true.
If you look at the 2001 Census data (PDF) this is undoubtably true, but that was during the war years and excludes most of the north from the counting. According to that measure the population is 82% Sinhalese, 7.9% Muslim, 5.1% Indian Tamil and 4.3% Sri Lankan Tamil. But, as mentioned this excludes the places where perhaps half of Sri Lankan Tamils live, or at least one would think.
Prabha Ganesan cites this number to say that Indian Tamils outnumber Sri Lankan Tamils. While this may be true, I don’t think we’ll really know until this years census results are out, covering the whole island. Therefore, I’m not sure that Sri Lankan Tamils are the fourth largest ethnicity in Sri Lanka, but they could very well be the third or fourth. Which is surprising. DBS had some more to say on the demography:
The worst impact has been on demography. Tamils have left the country in very large numbers. Equally large numbers have moved to areas outside the north and east. Only 42% of Sri Lankan Tamils are said to be living in the north east now.
Some years ago at a seminar in Colombo , retired Indian Judge V. Krishna Iyer stated that Tamils be given full autonomy. Former Central Bank Governor N.U. Jayewardena wrote to the newspapers in response
N.U. made three observations. Firstly, he said the Sri Lankan population would stabilise to zero growth in 2025. Secondly, he said that the high rates of Tamils leaving the country indicated that the Tamils would only be 1.9 % in 2025. Thirdly, he said that 1. 9% was a “manageable minority that need not be given autonomy.”
Thanks to comparatively higher educational standards and social problems like dowry, late marriages, aversion to female children, etc., the Tamil birth rate has been on the decline even before 1983.
Census figures of 1963, 1971 and 1981 show gradual decrease percentage wise. If a proper census is taken now, the Tamil population percentage would be much less. It may not be 1.9 % as N.U. said, but it could certainly be less than 5%.
How Did This Happen?
One explanation is that this is part of a coordinated genocide by the Sri Lankan state against Sri Lankan Tamils. Which I don’t think is true, and neither it seems does Jeyaraj. He seems to lay the blame on the scorched earth policy of the LTTE, willing to sacrifice the Tamil people for the ‘Tamil cause’. Writing four years ago, while the LTTE still existed, he said:
In short, the LTTE’s growth in the past 25 years has been phenomenal. It is perhaps the only enterprise run ‘for, of and by’ the Tamil people in Sri Lanka that has registered a ‘success’ of this magnitude after July 1983.
This successful growth has come at immense cost to the Tamil people of Sri Lanka . Vertically the LTTE may have gone up, but horizontally the Sri Lankan Tamils have gone down. This is the unpleasant and inconvenient truth that the LTTE and acolytes often deny and do not like to hear…
The Tamils may have proved a point by taking up arms against the state dominated by the numerically larger Sinhala people. But ultimately, demography would defeat the Tamils.
If the prolonged armed struggle for Tamil Eelam is leading to a gradual decline of the Tamil population in Sri Lanka , then the ultimate losers will be the Tamils themselves.
The Sri Lankan state certainly hasn’t been helpful, but the LTTE took effective control of the North and East and essential gambled on Eelam or bust – with other peoples lives. I’ve argued that the same unemployed youth population wasn’t there to support an insurrection in the 2000s, but it also seems that there wasn’t enough population at all. Demography is often destiny, it seems.
What Are Sri Lankan And Indian Tamils?
One thing to be noted here is that Sri Lankan and Indian Tamils are separate categories, and why. Tamils have been on this island at least as long as the Sinhalese, what with it being a difficult swimming distance from India. Tamils that have been here for yonks and settled in the North, East AND South are called Sri Lankan Tamil. Tamils that were brought down more recently by the British to work on the plantations (cause they couldn’t get the natives to do shit) are called Indian Tamil. And many were shamefully disenfranchised post-Independence. But they’re Sri Lankan now, and I personally prefer the term Estate Tamil.
The more relevant question is why they and Sri Lankan Tamils aren’t grouped together. Largely because there isn’t a coherent Tamil identity like that. I think that most Jaffna Tamils wouldn’t group themselves with the up-country Tamils and, indeed, any liberation movement under the LTTE didn’t include Hatton. When Estate Tamils were disenfranchised, Sri Lankan Tamil politicians also played along.
Are Muslims Number Two?
Another interesting issue is that the decline of Sri Lankan Tamils makes mostly Tamil speaking Muslims the second largest ethnic group in Sri Lanka. They are ignored in more analyses of Sri Lanka, but recent events like the shameful shuttering of a Dambulla mosque have drawn Muslim relations to the forefront of public attention.
It’s obviously not a contest, and I think that the 2012 census will show Sri Lankan Tamils as the number three ethnicity and not number four, but it’s still a sad and heady decline, and quite contrary to the general perception we have of the country. If you asked me I’d guess that Tamils were like 17%, but if you look at the numbers it’s more like 4%, and if you assume double in the uncounted north it’s still only 8%. Which is crazy. Read DBS for some more background and insight, but that’s just some food for thought.
Actually, I’d like to close this another way. However it happened, this is really sad. I’m no stickler for demographic consistency, but that so many Sri Lankans had to leave their country or died is just terribly sad.