The colonial experience-7: Majority-Minority divisions

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

One of the most depressing features of so many countries that gained independence in the post-colonial age that began with the end of World War II is the inter-ethnic tensions, discrimination, and violence that often occurred.

It must be made clear that tensions between the different ethnic communities were not created by the colonists out of nothing. It is not the case that the different ethnic groups had been living in a harmonious paradise before the arrival of the colonists. The tribal instincts and in-group/out-group thinking that are the bane of existence and the cause of so much violence and hatred all over the world existed long before the appearance of the modern nation state. What the colonial powers did was to take those existing suspicions and animosities and use them as important elements in their divide and rule strategy, thus perpetuating and aggravating them.

The British have a history of using a minority community’s latent suspicions of the majority to woo them as allies against the majority, thus preventing any unified action against the British. They did this in ways large and small. One way they did this in Sri Lanka was to give excessive patronage rewards to the minority Tamil community. For example, the minority Tamil community was far more welcoming concerning the opening of missionary schools and churches, and as a result they ended up learning English in greater numbers and occupying the elite professions and the higher ranks of the administrative and commercial sectors in numbers that far exceeded their proportion in the population.

This had a two-fold benefit for the British. It created a spiral of behavior in which the minority communities felt more grateful to the British and tended to look to them as their protectors from the majority community and to be more ingratiating towards them, and it shifted the resentment of the majority community away from the British and towards the minority, thinking of them as somehow conniving with the British to obtain greater rewards at their expense. As a result of these and similar policies in other colonial countries, the minority communities were the ones most fearful of what would happen to them at the hands of the majority once the colonial power left. After a country gained independence, the lid came off the simmering conflict and often escalated into open-warfare. The roots of the twenty-five year long civil war that has gone on in Sri Lanka, and the insurrection that took place against the government in the 1970s and 1980s, can all be traced to these policies of the British.

Similarly, the Belgians in collusion with the Roman Catholic Church deliberately set about magnifying the extremely minor distinctions between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda and favoring the minority Tutsis, thus setting in motion the train of events that led to the horrendous genocide of 1994 in which over 800,000 mostly Tutsis were killed in the space of a few months at the hands of their Hutu neighbors.

One sees this pattern repeated in almost all the former colonies. In fact, it is hard to find a post-colonial country that has not had such problems. Especially in Africa, the colonial powers often created countries that had not existed as single entities before. But rather than drawing boundaries that separated nations according to traditional ethnic boundaries and thus ensuring relatively homogeneous populations, they would draw lines that divided ethnic communities and forced them into political unions with other communities with whom they had traditional animosities. As a result, we have so many brutal ethnic conflicts going on in so many countries. This was a heinous crime committed by colonial powers that is impossible to excuse.

But the British in Sri Lanka also created divisions in other seemingly minor ways. For example, the social clubs that people join and spend evenings with their friends and families are an English institution. They created such clubs in Sri Lanka too, and which had sports teams that competed with each other, and some of these clubs had explicitly ethnic affiliations with names that reflected them: Sinhalese Sports Club, Tamil Union, the Moors (Muslims) Sports Club, and the Burgher Recreation Club (the Burghers were those people whose ancestry included some Portugese, Dutch, or British). The British had their own exclusive clubs, open to whites only.

It seems incredible to me now that Sri Lankans should have tolerated such blatantly ethnicity-based social clubs for so long, even after independence, and taken them for granted. Although the clubs now have memberships that are open to all ethnicities, the very names are offensive. But they still exist and indicate that abhorrence to tribal sentiment and allegiance is not anywhere near as widespread and as strong as it should be.

POST SCRIPT: Americans are willing to pay more in taxes to improve infrastructure

It has long been treated as an article of faith that Americans hate raising taxes for whatever reason. But Republican pollster Frank Luntz finds that this is not true.

Consider this: A near unanimous 94% of Americans are concerned about our nation’s infrastructure. And this concern cuts across all regions of the country and across urban, suburban and rural communities.

Fully 84% of the public wants more money spent by the federal government — and 83% wants more spent by state governments — to improve America’s infrastructure. And here’s the kicker: 81% of Americans are personally prepared to pay 1% more in taxes for the cause. It’s not uncommon for people to say they’d pay more to get more, but when you ask them to respond to a specific amount, support evaporates. (That 74% of normally stingy Republicans are on board for the tax increase is, to me, the most significant finding in the survey.)


  1. sTreBoR says

    Hi Mano

    Thanks for your very detailed analysis but im afraid you seem to be contradicting yourself, at one point you are saying the British devided the population and then in the next paragraph your are saying they brought together [united] ethnically different nations in an artificially created political identity and left them to fight it out,

    It is the latter that happened in sri lanka and not the former, as you correctly stated in africa as well as in india where many nations existed before the europeans’ arrival in a state of war/peace flux.

    you havent given any explicit examples how they divided but mostly theories of what could have happened, except for 2 cases and as u wrote….

    “One way they did this in Sri Lanka was to give excessive patronage rewards to the minority Tamil community. For example, the minority Tamil community was far more welcoming concerning the opening of missionary schools and churches, and as a result they ended up learning English in greater numbers and occupying the elite professions and the higher ranks of the administrative and commercial sectors in numbers that far exceeded their proportion in the population”
    so here the 1st sentence totally contradicts the 2nd, the reason Tamils got higher positions was due to their eager embrace of the british education system and not special favours.
    this was a myth created by sinhalese nationalistic voices to justify one sided policies.

    And the other social sporting clubs example but again why did the sri lankan created ethnically distinct clubs as opposed to an all sri lankan club for the lankan natives, wence lies the problem not in the british. As the majority existed as socially, culturally and linguistically very different peopleS.

    yes your father’s and my grandfathers’ generation made the mistake of not realising that, we must take responsibility for our OWN mistake instead of blaming the other, so enough of blaming the foreighners, sooner we do that better the country will be.

    So im not saying the colonialism didnt play any part in it but instead how or what aspect of colonialism impacted on the newly independant and artificially created nation states, that is its not the divide and rule myth but the political throwing in togehter of different nations of a political unity without social unity.
    in india the independance movement brought about the social unity but in sri lanka the nationalistic forces did the opposite believing in the fasle favoured position of the minority.

    Devide and rule is a Myth and for a clear analysis please read this

    so what could have be done? one may ask, either revert the colony back to the kingdoms as they were before europeans and make them nation states or a limited democracy[explained below]

    for most parts these countries in pre european time existed as mono cultural kingdoms [Kandy, Kotte & Jaffna] and have no political experience as a true multicultural democratic states. so a ‘1st-past-the-post’ representative democracy such as that gradually evolved in Briton was not a good import.
    The simple numerical majority will always dominate as even the non communally minded intellectuals [DSS & SWRD] will have to bow down to the crude number politics to get elected. universal francise was not suitable to emerging nations perhaps voting by the educated classes-limited democracy- may have prevented this.

    A case in point is Singapore,after seperating from the independant colony of Malaya, had a benovant dictator in Lew kwan yeu who elevated all 3 languages to official state and kept the communities somewhat equal and concentrated on economical development without corruption.and once the socio economic status of the whole country improves a full liberal democracy may be allowed to florish.

    well i believe A limited democracy is what should have happened in sri lanka not universal voting by masses who hardly understood the system and thus were prone to short term manupilators , just apply this theory to the present Iraq situation! As the same mistakes are being made!!

    so it was not the devide and rule but the UNITE and RULE policy was the colonial legacy that led to civil wars in the newly created nation states, well at least in the case of sri lanka !!!

    Many may not like what i said here but facts however harder to swallow are better than simple nice fantasies.

    thank you


    [pls let me know the faults in my theory, it helps me polish it -- pardon my ]

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