Accounting for Change in Diverse Societies

Majoritarian Politics in Sri Lanka:
The Roots of Pluralism Breakdown

Publication Date: April 2017

Neil DeVotta

Neil DeVotta is an Associate Professor in Politics and International Affairs at Wake Forest University. His research interests include South Asian security and politics, ethnicity and nationalism, ethnic conflict resolution, and democratic transition and consolidation.  He is the author of Blowback: Linguistic Nationalism, Institutional Decay, and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka (2004) and editor of Understanding Contemporary India, 2nd edition (2010), and An Introduction to South Asian Politics (2016).  He has consulted for a number of organizations, including the United States Agency for International Development and Bertelsmann Stiftung.

Under British colonial rule, the Tamil minority in what is now Sri Lanka occupied a privileged position over the Sinhalese majority. After independence, Sinhalese politicians leveraged their new powers of majority to address the widespread inequality by denying Tamils equal language and citizenship rights. This systematic exclusion from the Sri Lankan state eventually culminated in a civil war that lasted more than 20 years. To redress majority disadvantages, early governments created new systems of exclusion that favoured the majority instead. What were the crucial pivot points that pushed Sri Lanka towards exclusion rather than towards more inclusive citizenship at the end of the colonial period? How did ideas of nationhood drive these decisions?