THE British Crown Colony of Ceylon is in the throes of constitutional change. Many people think that this great island is part of India. In fact, its administration is wholly separate from that of India and its status is quite different.

Communal differences are not as sharp in Ceylon as in India, but they are serious; and the prospect of the virtual disappearance of British control over the internal administration has produced vociferous demands from the minority groups for constitutional safeguards. According to racial origin, the population of Ceylon was classified by the 1931 census as follows: Sinhalese, 3,473,030; Tamils, 1,417,477; Moors, 325,913; Burghers and Eurasians, 32,315; Malays, 15,977.

The Sinhalese -- descendants of warriors from the north of India who overcame the aborigines of the island -- are seen to comprise roughly two-thirds of the population of approximately 6,000,000. The Tamils, who came from south India, are divided into "Ceylon Tamils" and "Indian Tamils." The former, numbering now about 700,000, have been in the island almost as long as the Sinhalese, and centuries ago had their own kings. They have eagerly taken advantage of educational opportunities and are strongly represented in the learned professions and the public services. Of the Indian Tamils, the majority are estate laborers; the remainder are found in nearly all walks of life -- skilled labor in factories and workshops, domestic servants, contractors and financiers.

The Moors, the most numerous of the smaller communities, are probably the descendants of Arab traders who intermarried with the Moslems of south India and Ceylon. They are engaged in trade and agriculture. The Malays are descendants of the soldiers of the Malay regiments employed by the Dutch and the British. The Burghers -- descendants of the officials and employees of the Dutch East India Company -- were until recently predominant in the professions and in the government service. The British community controls the larger commercial, financial and industrial enterprises. Exclusive of the members of the armed forces temporarily stationed on the island, the British community numbers about 15,000.

No less important than the racial communities are the religious divisions. The 1931 census classified the population of Ceylon according to religion as follows: Buddhists, 3,267,500; Hindus, 1,158,500; Christians, 523,100; Moslems, 356,900. The great majority of the Sinhalese are Buddhist, but among them is a large Christian minority. The Ceylon Tamils are predominantly Hindu, though among them, too, are many Christians. The Indians are mainly Hindu. The Moors, Malays and a small number of Indians constitute the Moslem community. The larger part of the Burghers are Protestant Christians.


The present constitution, which came into force in 1931, has some unique features especially designed to train a people for complete internal autonomy. It provides for a State Council composed of 50 elected members and eight nominated by the Governor. There is also a Board of Ministers -- a "Cabinet" in embryo -- chosen by a somewhat complicated process from among elected members of the Council and appointed officials, in a way which gives several places on the Board to racial minorities. The Board of Ministers has no collective responsibility except as a finance committee. While the 1931 constitution gave the Governor substantially the powers he enjoyed under the previous constitution, namely, the power of veto, and of referring bills back for further consideration or reserving them for the Crown, it was expected that his rôle would be supervisory rather than executive. And indeed, Sir Andrew Caldecott, who served as Governor from 1937 to 1944, tried to act in this spirit, giving the Ministers a rather free hand and speaking of them as "my Ministers," as a constitutional governor would do.

However, shortly after this constitution went into effect, the Ministers and the Council of State demanded dominion status and a new constitution based on the principle of Cabinet responsibility. The Ceylonese members of the Board were not unanimous in this demand; three Ministers, members of minority communities, objected to the change. When the Secretary of State for the Colonies replied that he would favorably consider a request for a new constitution only if it were made by a united Board of Ministers, the Ceylon National Congress (composed almost exclusively of Sinhalese and Buddhists) resolved to obtain a Board composed wholly of Congress members. It achieved this object in the 1936 general election. In 1937 Sir Andrew Caldecott recommended the establishment of a government with "a Cabinet of the normal type." But the formation of a homogeneous ministry had greatly alarmed the minorities, and their representatives began to demand even more safeguards than the present system provides. The pan-Sinhalese finally saw the wisdom of a different policy. In 1942, the Sinhalese majority of the Executive Committee of Home Affairs elected a Tamil as its chairman, thus automatically making him Home Minister. But since this Minister has frequently taken positions unacceptable to the Tamil community, he no longer possesses its confidence.

The outbreak of the war eclipsed the question of constitutional reform, but only temporarily. Colonel Oliver Stanley, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, assured the Board of Ministers that the British Government fully recognized "the urgency and importance of reform of the Constitution." He added, however, that "before making decisions upon present proposals for reform, concerning which there has been so little unanimity but which are of such importance to the well-being of Ceylon, His Majesty's Government would desire that the position should be further examined and made the subject of further consultation by means of a Commission or Conference. This cannot be arranged under war conditions, but the matter will be taken up with the least possible delay after the war." Soon the Board of Ministers raised the issue again, and on May 26, 1943, the Secretary of State for the Colonies made another declaration giving "greater precision" to the 1941 assurance. The reexamination of the constitution, he said, would be directed toward the grant of "full responsible government under the Crown in all matters of internal civil administration."

The declaration in effect gave the Board of Ministers permission to proceed at once to the drafting of "a complete constitution scheme," but it also made it very clear that such a document as the Ministers might draft would be accepted by the British Government only if it were satisfied that the scheme complied with requirements laid down in the declaration, and that the Ministers' proposals had received the approval of three-quarters of the members of the Council of State. The constitutional draft proposed by the Ministers would then be examined, after the war, "by a suitable commission or conference."

The Ministers lost no time in acting on the invitation of the Secretary of State. An exchange of statements between the Board of Ministers and the British Government followed. There were differences about the interpretation which the Board had put on the Colonial Secretary's declaration, but the various communications eventuated in another statement by the Secretary, in which he assured the Ministers that he had not found in their interpretation "anything which must be regarded as essentially irreconcilable with the conditions contained in His Majesty's Government's statement." He expressed the hope that the Ministers would not delay formulating a draft constitution.

But the new constitution which the Ministers then drafted satisfied no one. The Secretary of State for the Colonies noted that the Ministers contemplated "a radical departure from the Declaration of His Majesty's Government" of May 26, 1943, in that the Ministers had left "crucial questions" to be considered otherwise than by the commission or conference required by the declaration. The crucial questions are whether the new legislature shall have a second chamber, instead of one only as at present, and the knotty question of the method of representation. These are the issues in dispute between the Sinhalese-Buddhist majority and the racial and religious minorities.

The question of including a second chamber in the new legislature is so controversial that the Ministers later confessed that no plan which regulated its composition could be expected to receive a three-fourths majority in the Council of State. They evaded the issue by proposing a unicameral legislature, but added the proviso that the constitution would authorize the new legislative body to establish a senate by "ordinary" legislation, i.e., by a simple majority vote.

The problem of representation revolves about the effort to avoid a return to communal representation, which prevailed before 1931, and yet meet in some fashion the demand of the minority communities for representation greater than they would be entitled to on the basis of population. The Ministers tried to solve this problem by giving representation to areas as well as to population. But they apparently had little hope that their scheme would prove acceptable, for they proposed that if the articles embodying this plan failed to receive the three-fourths majority, or if this majority could not be obtained for any alternative proposal, they would move in the State Council that a commission be appointed by the Governor to determine the electoral districts. Mr. Mahadeva, the sole non-Sinhalese member of the Board of Ministers, asked to have this question in its entirety settled by a Royal Commission.

The Ministers' constitutional draft contained no provisions relating to the franchise, another controversial topic. Universal suffrage was introduced in 1930, and many in Ceylon assert that the premature enfranchisement of the uneducated masses has been responsible for an alarming growth of corruption in public life. However, few believe that universal suffrage can be withdrawn now that it has been granted.

In July 1944, the British Government announced that a Commission would be appointed to visit Ceylon toward the end of the year for the purpose of providing "full consultation to take place with the various interests, including minorities, concerned with the subject of constitutional reform in Ceylon and with the proposals which the Ministers have formulated." Disgruntled at the decision that the Commission would consult with various interests, including the minorities, the Ministers withdrew their proposed constitution. But then a little later they reintroduced it, with important modifications, for acceptance by the State Council. In the new draft all safeguards stipulated by the declaration of 1943 were removed, and some of the Ministers now began to talk of independence and "severance from the British Empire."

On September 20 the appointment of a Royal Commission was announced, under the Chairmanship of Lord Soulbury, the former Mr. Herwald Ramsbotham, President of the Board of Education, with these terms of reference: "To visit Ceylon in order to examine and discuss any proposals for constitutional reforms which have the object of giving effect to the Declaration of His Majesty's Government on that subject dated May 26, 1943, and after consultation with various interests in the Island, including minority communities, concerned with the subject of constitutional reforms to advise His Majesty's Government on all measures to attain that object." The Commission arrived in Ceylon on December 22, 1944 and began to hold public hearings a month later. It was well received in spite of an early effort by some Sinhalese political leaders to start a movement to boycott it.

Meanwhile, the Sinhalese political leaders had put through the Council of State, by a vote of 26 to 3, a resolution directing the Board of Ministers to bring in a draft bill providing for a free Ceylon with a constitution of the recognized dominion type. This action, however, would have been impressive only if accompanied by an agreement with the minorities on representation. No such agreement was achieved. An informal conference of Ministers and State Councillors broke up in failure on November 9. Later, an All-Parties Conference called by the Ceylon National Congress was no more successful.


The Soulbury Commission returned to London in April of this year, and has not yet published a report. It will not be easy for the Commission to find solutions acceptable to both the majority and the minority communities. The minorities fear enlargement of the powers of the government. Their attitude was clearly stated by Mr. Ponnambalam, political leader of the Tamils, as follows: "If there is to be a transference of power we would like to know how precisely that power is likely to be distributed." He expresses little faith that the reserve powers of the Governor will fully protect the rights of minorities, as he does not believe that governors will act. He, and all the leaders of the minorities, are convinced that the only safeguard against domination of the legislature by any one community is weighted or balanced representation. They speak of this as "the principle of democratic equality." Specifically, Mr. Ponnambalam demands a fifty-fifty ratio; that is, 50 percent of the seats in the Council of State to be reserved for and distributed among the minority communities. The Sinhalese have, of course, not been slow to point out that a principle which assigns 50 percent of the seats of the legislative body to 35 percent of the people, and limits 65 percent of the population to only half of the seats, is hardly a democratic principle.

While the minorities are united in their fear that the major community wishes to make Ceylon a Sinhalese and Buddhist country, the influence which the minorities might exert is sadly weakened by internal divisions. There are, in nearly every case, minorities within the minorities. The Tamils are divided into Ceylon and Indian Tamil groups and also into religious and caste groups. There is, for example, the All-Ceylon Minority Tamils Congress, which demands full rights for the depressed classes. It asserts that it is "illogical and unreasonable" for the All-Ceylon Tamil Congress to raise the cry of "Sinhalese domination" and demand equal representation while they continue to oppress a large section of their own countrymen. It declares that so long as the high-caste Tamils continue oppressive practices, the depressed classes will stand aloof as a separate body and fight for emancipation. The Catholics are likewise indifferent to balanced representation, since as a minority in the majority and a minority in the communities, communal representation based on race would not safeguard their rights.

The position of the Indians in Ceylon is peculiar, and in some respects not too happy. The Sinhalese fear Indian domination and are determined to restrict Indian immigration as much as possible. They complain that though Indians have obtained a leading rôle in the island's commercial life, they do not become assimilated, even after they have lived in Ceylon for decades, but continue to feel that their permanent interests lie in India. Whatever the justification for the Sinhalese attitude, it has produced serious friction within Ceylon and has caused Indo-Ceylon relations to deteriorate. The Indians already suffer certain civic disabilities under existing legislation: the Sinhalese say that full citizenship rights should be accorded only to Indians who have proved a permanent interest in Ceylon. For all these reasons, the leaders of the Indians in Ceylon demand a guarantee of "the equality of civic and political status of Indians resident in Ceylon," and protection of "the vested interests of non-resident British subjects."

Most of the plans put forward by the minorities involve a return to communal representation. The earlier national leaders desired its abolition, as they believed that it tended to perpetuate racial cleavages. The Donoughmore Commission, which visited Ceylon in 1927-28 and laid the basis for the present constitution, was aware that the representatives of the various communities did not trust one another, but believed that the only way to create mutual confidence was to abolish communal representation. However, the minority leaders contend that 14 years of experience with territorial representation has demonstrated that it leads to "the most arrant communalism" in the form of Sinhalese domination. Yet not all minority leaders desire a return to outright communal representation. Sir Mohammed Macan Markar, for example, a leader of the Moors, favors a system of "reserved" seats, with representation on a territorial basis from multiple-member constituencies.

Ceylon has enjoyed a large measure of prosperity during the war. Ceylonese products, such as tea and rubber, have been in great demand, and the prices have been high. The government has had no difficulty in balancing its budgets. Moreover, the large British expenditures in the island, and the lesser American ones, have developed considerable foreign exchange credits. But with the end of the war, Ceylon, like every other nation, faces difficult economic adjustments. Since it is likely that the Soulbury Commission has helped prepare the way for a much-increased measure of autonomy for the country, the Ceylonese people will be faced with a test on both political and economic fronts in the years immediately ahead.

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  • AMRY V ANDENBOSCH, Professsor of Political Science, University of Kentucky; recently a research assistant in the Department of State.
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