Chapter 4: Ethnonationalism, Class Formations and Majority Hegemony in Postcolonial State-Building in Sri Lanka

Sisira Pinnawala

*Sisira Pinnawala is a Senior Fellow at the Pathfinder Foundation, a non-partisan think tank in Colombo. He was Professor in the Department of Sociology and Consultant to the Postgraduate Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences of the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka. He was a Senior Fulbright Fellow in the Peace Studies Programme of Cornell University and was Director of Sri Lanka Foundation in Colombo. He holds a Ph.D. from the Australian National University. His research interests are ethnic relations, peace and conflict studies, governance, and democratic institutions in South Asia.


The postcolonial state is a socio-political type with a regional character defined by its own dynamics or specificities. A colonial past redefined their indigenous core. The focus of this chapter is on understanding the class and ethnic dynamics that shaped state-building in postcolonial Sri Lanka, with a focus on minority participation in the state-building process. It examines the forces that shaped state institutions and structures of post-independence Sri Lanka and how class formations and ethnic loyalties interacted, shaping the postcolonial state-building. It questions the dominant discourse on Sri Lanka’s postcolonial state-building, which sees this as primarily driven by ethno-nationalist forces, and argues that class formations working in tandem with ethno-nationalist loyalties formed the central dynamic in postcolonial state-building in Sri Lanka. The chapter argues that the two constituted interacting and mutually reinforcing forces, leading to the creation of a deeply divided society, and that the divisions are built into state structures and practices in the contemporary state.

Ethno-nationalist loyalties-based state-building emerged only in the mid-1950s as part of the political mobilization of the masses that effectively combined the interests of class formations within ethno-nationalist groups with deep-rooted ethnic sentiments and divisions. Analysis of Sri Lanka’s state-building in the postcolonial era has been characterized by four state-building perspectives. Of these, the Sinhala Buddhist state-building perspective and the Tamil ethno-nationalist state-building perspective were the most important. The former demanded primacy for the majority Sinhalese in all affairs of the state, while the latter was an exclusively minority project that originally advocated a regional autonomy-based arrangement for minority participation in the state, but later pushed for separate statehood from the Sri Lankan polity. Together, they laid the foundation for the restructuring of the postcolonial Sri Lanka state, with far reaching repercussions not only for the state itself, but also for the entire polity and minority-majority relations within it.

The Sinhala Buddhist national project that came into being in the mid-1950s with Mr. Bandaranaike’s election victory was therefore not just an ethnic project, as is commonly believed. It was a class project as well. One cannot therefore understand the Sinhalese Buddhist project initiated by Bandaranaike in the 1950s and its later developments without understanding the role of the new class formation that was behind it and benefited from its policies.

On the one hand, unlike the postcolonial elite that became leaders in the early period of the postcolonial society, who were from the wealthy strata of a society, the group that came into power in 1956 was not in possession of economic power before it acquired political power. The exploitation of the state power for social position in general and economic power in particular required control of public service institutions and armed forces. The first step in this direction was the Sinhala Only Policy introduced immediately after Bandaranaike came into power in 1956.

On the other hand, Mr. Bandaranaike’s alternative state-building project, therefore, began as an attempt to mobilize the grievances of a section of the non-elite segment of society that shared class interests and had not been given a political voice until then. Though it had ethnic undertones, it was not a sectarian movement in the beginning. It became a political force only later in the course of time. It was broadly a class alignment united also by ethnicity.

Mr. Bandaranaike’s rule not only heralded the ascension of Sinhala nationalists to state power, but also marked the establishment of a new leadership that represented a hitherto politically unengaged social formation and a new form of statecraft to suit it. It thus constituted the beginning of a new path in the state-building ventures in Sri Lanka, with a new nation-building ideology and a new state-building agenda. It was a blend of Sinhala nationalism and socialism promoted by identity needs and class needs, respectively.

State-building in postcolonial Sri Lankan society can be seen as driven by two dominant perspectives. First, there was an exclusionary state-building perspective of the Sinhalese that was driven by a class formation of the suburban and rural middle classes. Second, opposing them was a state-building perspective of a similar class formation among Tamils. Ethnicity was the rallying point, but class was the driving force of both movements. Interactions and confrontations between these two forces determined the nature and strategies of the state-building projects in postcolonial Sri Lanka. The future of the postcolonial Sri Lankan state will depend on the ability of the present leadership to understand the forces behind this crisis and confront the challenges posed.