Dry zone colonisation and myth of demographic displacement of Tamils
Sinhalese assimilated into Tamil society in Dry Zone periphery
by Prof. Shantha
K. Hennayake
Department of Geography
University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka


It is clear the process of depopulation of the Sinhalese in sparsly populated Dry Zone had started even before the advent of the British and continued well into the early years of the 20th century. This was followed by the simultaneous infiltration of Tamils and Muslims from their populous pockets located along the eastern coast and also from Jaffna in the case of the former.

One of the most significant, yet hardly investigated or discussed facts about the changes in the ethnic population in the sparsely populated periphery is not one of spatial but sociological. It is a striking feature to observe, contrary to the popular and cultivated view held by both the Sinhalese and Tamils, that Tamils have been acculturated into the Sinhalese society, that the Sinhalese peasants who remained behind in the isolated rural villages in the Dry Zone periphery were in fact increasingly getting assimilated into the Tamil community. Then Assistant Government Agent Mr Lushington lucidly elaborated this process in his 1898 Administration Report:

This part of the District (Kaddukulam West) is inhabited by Sinhalese villagers of Kandyan descent forming an outlying community which is, I fear rapidly dying out or becoming effaced.

This District is most interesting, being dotted over by numerous village tanks, some of which are restored and others abandoned„ The villagers retain many of the primitive customs of the Kandyans, but they are rapidly becoming ‘Tamilized’, which is a great pity. They inter- marry with Tamils and many of them speak Tamil as well as they speak Sinhalese. Even the Government School Master is Tamil and only that language is taught in the only school and unfortunately in some cases lands in Sinhalese villages have been bought out by the Tamils, who now own all the paddy lands of some villages. The Sinhalese have given up their patronymics and adopted the Tamil custom of perfexing father’s name instead of the usual patronymic and even the names of the villages are are assuming a Tamil dress.

This perhaps not to be wondered at when the interpreters of the court and the Kachcheri, the petition drawers and all through whom the villagers have access to Government officers, can speak nothing but Tamil.

This is also the self admission by the British rulers that they were using the Tamils over the Sinhalese in government positions in these areas.

It can be safely argued that this process of assimilation was not limited only to the villages that came to the attention of the AGA in 1898. This process perhaps had been happening all along the interior and maritime areas of the north and east. At the same time, it can be confidently argued that this process might have started several centuries prior to Lushington’s observations and no doubt that it continued even after that. Although we lack documentary evidence for the earlier period, even as late as 1911, Denham (1912) observed: "The Sinhalese villagers of Kaddukulam Pattu appears to be decreasing in number or to become merged in the Tamil population."

Thus one can identify three mutually related processes happening in the sparsely populated Dry Zone periphery, which includes most of the present Eastern Province and southern Districts of the present Northern Province.

1. Economic Processes:

The Tamils and the Muslims who were concentrated in the economic centres of the Northern and especially the Eastern Province and to the same extent in Colombo have bought both the developed and undeveloped lands in the interior parts of the periphery, especially in the Eastern Province. Some of these lands were earlier in the possession of the Sinhalese.

2. Spatial Demographic Processes;

More and more Tamils from the Jaffna peninsula and other concentrations in the Eastern Province moved into the interior areas that had been traditionally owned and occupied by the Sinhalese.

3.Sociological Processes:

The Sinhalese living in the isolated settlements or those that came to be located among the Tamil settlements were increasingly getting assimilated into the Tamil culture or being ‘Tamilized ‘.

What comes out of this discussion of the facts, i.e. that there were Sinhalese settlements dotted over most parts including the fartherst corners of the present Eastern Province and certain parts of the southern Districts of the present Northern Province; that almost all of the area of the present Eastern Province and some parts of the Mannar, Vavunia and Mullaitivu Districts came under the political authority of the Kandyan Kingdom during the greater part of its existence; is that these areas do not qualify to become a"historical homeland’ of any one ethnic group and certainly not the Tamils in terms of historical facts. It has been an ethnically heterogenous region ever since the Sinhalese began to drift south-westward. The social and economic processes during the last few centuries witnessed a large increase of Tamils and simultaneous decline of the Sinhalese in certain parts of this region. This evidence is in direct contrast to the Tamil ethonationalist argument that it was the Sinhalese who were forcibly brought into this area. By the end of the first quarter of the 20th century a clear and a new ethnic distribution pattern had emerged.

Modern Period

Given the population distribution pattern discussed in the previous section, by the beginning of the 19th Century, there was a stretch of territory over which the ethnic frontier was blurred. The political controversy as to whose homeland it was, arose during the mid 20th century, it has now escalated to become the most crucial politico-geographical issue faced by Sri Lanka. In this section I will be analysing ethnic population data from the censuses taken in 1921 and 1971 in examining the population dynamics in the controversial stretch of territory and the time period within which the Dry Zone colonization programme was started and completed. In the analysis of sub-Provincial and sub District demographic patterns during this period, I use two units - the Assistant Government Agent or Divisional Revenue Officer (AGA/DRO) division and the smallest unit for which demographic data are available - the Village Headman (VH) or Grama Sevaka (GS) area.

The area of the analysis does not cover the Jaffna peninsula and the mainland section of the Jaffna District as these areas had long been almost exclusively Tamil. Thus the present analysis covers Mannar, Vavunia, and Mullaitivu Districts and the whole of the Eastern Province and the areas of North-Central Province that border the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

The time period’ considered in the analysis in this section is 50 years, from 1921 in the pre-independece era up to 1971 in the post-independece era. The rationale for selecting this period is it was during this 50 -year period that most of the changes in the spatial distribution pattern of ethnic groups took place in the area considered. The 1920s marked watershed in the evolution of the demographic pattern in the area identified earlier for this analysis. By 1920s the increase of the Tamil population had reached its climax and the Sinhalese population had reached a very low level in the aforesaid area. The Tamil separatists have conveniently selected this period as the norm, as it best supports one of their crucial arguments, that the whole of the East is predominantly a Tamil region. Taking 1920s ethnic population composition, as the ideal, the separatists argue that any population change in this region should conform to the pattern of 1920s. Any deviation from 1920s ethnic composition, that subsequently took place was criticized by the separatists using various types of political rhetoric i.e. ‘invasion of Tamil homeland’, ‘making the Tamils a minority within their own homeland’ etc but that is just the Tamil ethonationalist opinion and the reality is different.

From the perception of our study 1920s period represents a turn in the tide of the demographic change in the Dry Zone. It was during this time that the rehabilitation of irrigation works of the Dry Zone and resettlement of peasants came into the forefront of government sponsored strategies of economic development of the country, especially the Dry Zone. Thus it is expected that the comparison of the two censuses of 1921 and 1971 would capture most of the population shifts that took place during this period. The analysis is done at various spatial scales.

Northern Province: Mannar District.

Mannar had been the most thinly populated District of the island . All three DRO/AGA divisions in the District had a Tamil majority from the turn of the century to the late 1970s (Maps 5.1 - 5.5). In 1981 the newly created AGA division, Musali - a part of the Musali division of 1971, had a Muslim majority. The island of Mannar and the southern divisions bordering the Puttalam District seemed to have a sizable Muslim Population. At the VH/GS area level, a more detailed pattern can -be identified. The most significant feature with respect of the distribution pattern of the Sinhalese and Tamils in 1921 is the nonexistence of a single VH/GS area in which the Sinhalese constituted the majority. Thus the distribution pattern in the Mannar District is largely confined to the two ethnic groups - the Tamils and the Muslims. The concentration of Muslims in the GS/VH areas in the island of Mannar and in the southern parts of the District is very high and in fact in most of these VH/GS areas the Muslims form the overwhelming majority (TABLE 2).

Only three VH areas in the Mannar District had a Sinhalese population even above 10%: Talaimannar and Pesalai on the island of Mannar had respectively 16.2% and 10.2% Sinhalese., In the mainland, in Musali DRO division, Puliyadi Irakkam had a Sinhalese population of about 18%.

The general pattern of distribution of the various ethnic groups in the Mannar District had not changed noticeably over the 50 year period from 1921 to 1971. The VH/GS areas of the northern parts of the District were overwhelmingly Tamil. The Muslims being the largest minority in the District as a whole, continued to be the majority in the GS areas located in the southern part of the District and in three areas in the Mannar island. However, in certain areas i.e. Kokkuppadayan, Silavaturai and Tottaveli the Muslim proportion has increased showing a trend of increasing concentration.

The Sinhalese population in the District was concentrated in a few areas, mainly on the island of Mannar. The two GS areas, Talaimannar (192) and Pesalai (191) had the largest Sinhalese concentration, although they did not constitute the majority in both 1921 and 1971. There was a slight decrease in their relative proportion in both GS areas by 1971. The Tamils had the majority status in most of the GS areas in the district. What becomes clear from the above analysis is that the 1921 position with regard to the pattern of distribution of various ethnic groups in the Mannar District had remained more or less unchanged even by 1971.

Northern Province: Vavunia District

Vavunia is also a District with a very small population and low density. When we examine the population patterns at the District level, Vavunia was concluded as a predominantly a Tamil District, However, the sub-District level population distribution reveals a different picture in which one can clearly identify regions dominated by ethnic groups other than the Tamils.

In 1921 Vavunia District had four DRO divisions, of which Vavunia South Sinhalese (VSS) had a Sinhalese majority. In areal extent this division was very much smaller than other DRO divisions in the District. The VSS division was- curved out of the Vavunia South Tamil division, encompassing the Sinhalese areas located at the southern end of the District bordering the Anuradhapura District. The VSS division remained as a division with a Sinhalese majority even in 1981. Thus within the 50 year period between 1921 and 1971 this division did not undergo any significant change with respect of its pattern of ethnic distribution.

The VH/GS level analysis of ethnic distribution in Vavunia District only confirm this pattern. All the VH areas within the VSS division had a clear Sinhalese majority in 1921