Table of Contents

Political polarization is now a global phenomenon, but its roots, dynamics, and drivers are subject to debate and vary based on context. In Sri Lanka, episodes of polarization have been rooted in diverse social, economic, and political cleavages. Class, ethnic, caste, and regional divisions have marked the country’s politics, with different historical conjunctures bringing these cleavages to the fore during different periods. Political leaders and movements have often combined these divides to consolidate a ruling regime, but with time these regimes have unraveled, causing new crises. Furthermore, global dynamics—including economic downturns, geopolitical tensions, and internationalized conflicts—have powerfully shaped the historical conjunctures that engender domestic political change. Most recently, the global coronavirus pandemic has sharpened polarization and intensified the government’s efforts to consolidate power.

In Sri Lanka, episodes of polarization have been rooted in diverse social, economic, and political cleavages.

In the Sri Lankan case, a narrow focus on the role of political parties fails to capture the dynamics of polarization. Rather, a broader analysis that takes into consideration ideological dynamics, social movements, and global political and economic forces provides a far more comprehensive picture of the country’s polarized domestic political scene.


In Sri Lanka, as in many other countries, polarization cannot be reduced to a contest between two competing forces, but instead involves multiple poles of varying levels of power. One key identity-based cleavage that has roiled Sri Lankan politics is ethnic. As far back as the late nineteenth century, nascent Sinhala Buddhist nationalist and Tamil nationalist forces began instigating polarization as a social and political strategy to mobilize their respective communities. These ethnic divisions gained momentum with decolonization in the mid-twentieth century. Importantly, this cleavage is not merely ethnic but also religious and linguistic. The Sinhala community is overwhelmingly Buddhist, while Tamils are predominantly Hindu, and the two groups speak different languages (Sinhala and Tamil, respectively).

Merely analyzing Sri Lanka’s domestic ethnic majorities and minorities in terms of population figures does not suffice. Although the Sinhala Buddhist community represents the majority of the country’s population, its ideologues have constructed a worldview based on being a minority on the Indian subcontinent. Mostly Tamil-speaking minorities—particularly Sri Lankan Tamils, Up-Country Tamils (who are of Indian origin), and Muslims (who claim a separate ethnic identity and not just a religious identity)—represent only about 25 percent of the country’s population of roughly 20.4 million, while the Sinhala-speaking majority constitutes around 75 percent.1 But the neighboring Indian state of Tamil Nadu across the Palk Strait has a much larger Tamil population of about 72 million people, and their proximity is the basis of anxiety and fear on which Sinhala Buddhist nationalism feeds.2

Ahilan Kadirgamar
Ahilan Kadirgamar is a senior lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Jaffna in Sri Lanka. He is a fortnightly columnist for the Daily Mirror in Sri Lanka and regularly writes on the political economy of Sri Lanka and postwar issues in forums such as the Hindu in India. He holds a PhD in anthropology from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Although Sri Lankan political leaders have pushed ethnic divisions to the forefront of their country’s politics, it is crucial to highlight that class interests strongly influence elite politics and that ethnic communities are themselves divided along class, caste, and regional lines. The emergence of a capitalist class and urban working class centered in Colombo, a petty bourgeoisie in peripheral towns, and a vast small-holding peasantry in rural regions has resulted in significant and at times polarizing class divisions.3 Such class dynamics in the past have contributed to the emergence of political regimes in which “intermediate” classes have wielded power in conjunction with the capitalist elite.4 And class considerations continue to shape national politics with the mobilization of rural constituencies.

Movements to address caste and regional differences have also engendered polarization. The construction of a Sinhala Buddhist identity and constituency—despite the regional differences between Up-Country and Low-Country Sinhalese, as well as differences between the Govigama (landowning farmers) and Karava (fishing) castes—was a long process dating back to the colonial period, and it continues to this day.5 The same can be said of the Tamil identity, which was fragmented along caste and regional lines.6 The consolidation of both identities, contributing to identity politics and polarization in the country, was propelled by a nationalist surge in the mid-twentieth century.


Polarization in Sri Lanka has shifted over time as a result of diverse ideological mobilizations linked to political and economic conditions on the ground and societal grievances. Some of the more visible forms of polarization can be categorized as follows.

Late Colonial Rule and Elite Ethnic Politics

In 1931, reforms based on the recommendations of the Donoughmore Commission made Sri Lanka the first country in Asia to adopt universal suffrage, yet these changes also brought about majoritarian politics. Although Sri Lanka’s British colonizers aimed for these reforms to install liberal institutions, particularly robust electoral representation, their actions made politics a numbers game dominated by ethnonationalist forces.7 Another crucial factor that contributed to ethnic polarization in this period was the fact that Sri Lanka, unlike India, never developed a mass anticolonial movement around a common nationalist cause to forge a Sri Lankan identity and unite the island’s different ethnic communities.

Thus, during the late colonial period, the central problem that preoccupied Sri Lankan elites was constructed as the national question, or the problem of addressing the concerns of ethnic minorities after independence and the formation of the Sri Lankan nation-state. By the 1930s, the Sinhala nationalist elite claimed to advocate for the Sinhala peasantry, including their interests on land reform, while expressing anti-Indian sentiments and categorizing the indentured Tamil plantation workers of Indian origin (the Up-Country Tamils) as a fifth column that they wanted to repatriate.8 This Sinhala nationalist elite was worried about the trade union base of Tamil plantation workers and their electoral support for left-leaning parties. These fears later culminated in the disenfranchisement of the Up-Country Tamils in the first major act of discrimination after independence in 1948. Their disenfranchisement met with little protest from the Sri Lankan Tamil leadership at that time; indeed, the Tamil Congress colluded in the process as part of the government.9

Postcolonial Nationalisms and Majoritarianism

After Sri Lanka achieved independence in 1948, the country’s Sinhala elite remained divided over competing visions of economic and language policies. The first party to come to power after independence, the United National Party (UNP), chose to pursue pro-Western economic policies and to continue using English as the language of governance. A particularly important question was whether the new nation would use English as its official language, adopt a bilingual policy that recognized both the Sinhala and Tamil languages, or implement a majoritarian Sinhala-only policy instead.10

The UNP’s economic policies, however, soon precipitated an economic crisis that led to the government’s ouster. The crisis is an illustrative example of how geopolitical forces have shaped Sri Lanka’s political trajectory, and it demonstrates that the country’s polarization cannot be reduced to purely domestic developments. After decolonization, Sri Lanka was firmly aligned with the West and Western institutions like the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization. For example, in 1950, the Central Bank of Sri Lanka was formed with the support of the U.S. Federal Reserve in Washington. Furthermore, a significant mission from the World Bank in 1952 set a problematic trajectory of economic development, including a primary focus on agriculture, a recommendation that served Western interests. The crisis that ensued, with cuts to food subsidies and the Great Hartal (mass protests) of 1953, brought pockets of the country’s left-leaning parties closer to the newly formed opposition, which captured power in 1956.

Once in power, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) replaced pro-Western economic measures with import substitution policies and aligned with the Soviet Union, including through active participation in the Non-Aligned Movement. These moves brought out important contradictions within Sinhala constituencies, including between Colombo-centered elites and regional elites. At the same time, the SLFP promoted Sinhala-only language policies, which accelerated the formation of Tamil nationalist politics and heightened Tamil demands for autonomy under a federal system.

Even as Tamil nationalism began gaining ground in the 1950s and 1960s, major caste struggles brought out new divisions within the Tamil community in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But in the face of overtly majoritarian policies resulting in real and perceived discrimination against Tamils in language, employment, and education, national politics became polarized along Sinhala Buddhist and Tamil nationalist lines.

Descent Into Civil War

In the 1970s, Sri Lanka’s polarized politics escalated into mass armed struggle. In 1971, a Sinhala rural youth insurrection emerged in the south led by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), a movement based on a homegrown mix of Marxism and Sinhala nationalism. Though the government crushed the insurrection, at the cost of thousands of young lives, the movement called attention to the gulf between urban and rural communities and the problem of rural youth unemployment.11

In addition to suppressing the JVP insurrection, the United Front government (1970–1977), a coalition containing the SLFP and the major left-leaning parties, adopted policies that exacerbated ethnic polarization. Once in the governing coalition, the left colluded with the SLFP and its brand of majoritarian politics to advance its economic agenda. In drafting the country’s republican constitution of 1972, the United Front government enshrined the unitary structure of the state, gave Buddhism a newly privileged position, did away with the provision in the 1948 constitution protecting minorities, and entrenched the Sinhala-only language policy constitutionally. In essence, leftist and class politics failed to act as a check on majoritarianism. Such majoritarian national developments greatly alienated Tamil nationalist groups as well as dissenting, left-leaning Tamil constituencies.

From the 1970s into the early 1980s, ethnic tensions rose. After regaining power in 1977 with a sweeping electoral victory, the UNP concentrated power in an executive presidency that was created under another new constitution passed in 1978. In addition, the UNP government shifted Sri Lanka’s external relations toward the West, liberalized the economy, and crushed organized labor in the country. A pogrom targeting Tamils living in the south soon after the 1977 elections, state repression against the Tamil community, and an armed response by Tamil youth in the north escalated the patterns of violence in the country. The government declared a state of emergency and passed the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act in 1979, which undermined human rights and strangled democratic freedoms, particularly in the north.

Following another pogrom in July 1983, in which mobs with state complicity killed thousands of Tamils, Sri Lanka descended into a twenty-six-year civil war (1983–2009).12 India—resentful of Sri Lanka’s alignment with the United States under the UNP government—actively supported Tamil armed groups and eventually intervened militarily following the Indo–Sri Lanka Accord of 1987. The accord provided for the deployment of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (1987–1990), and it paved the way for the Thirteenth Amendment to Sri Lanka’s constitution, which recognized Tamil as an official language and devolved certain powers to provincial councils.

When mobs with state complicity killed thousands of Tamils in July 1983, Sri Lanka descended into a twenty-six-year civil war.

Although these steps created the contours of a solution based on limited regional autonomy, various political constituencies in the island nation opposed the solution from different positions. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the primary Tamil armed formation, initiated a war against the Indian troops in the north; the JVP used the Indian presence to initiate a brutal insurrection in the south; and the government both sought to crush the JVP and colluded shortsightedly with the LTTE to end the Indian presence. After the Indian troops left Sri Lanka, the civil war resumed, with the LTTE demanding a separate state in the north and east.

The ensuing violence created its own dynamics of polarization and consolidation, both nationally and within each community. Amid the onslaught of the war, the LTTE wiped out all opposition within the Tamil community and took sole control, while nationalist and militarized factions ascended within the Sinhala community. The LTTE also unleashed attacks against the Sri Lankan Muslim community, including the eviction of the entire Muslim population from the north in 1990.13

Ending the War and Entering the Rajapaksa Era

During the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa (2005–2015), the government put a brutal end to the war in 2009, as Sri Lankan security forces and the LTTE committed widespread human rights abuses. After the war, media freedom and other liberties remained restricted, and the country was further militarized, particularly in its war-torn regions. Furthermore, a new political problem emerged in the form of anti-Muslim campaigns by chauvinist Sinhala Buddhist forces. This wave of Islamophobia drew on global currents, notably the U.S.-led Global War on Terrorism beginning in 2001, and it gave rise to a narrative that framed Muslims as a dangerous new enemy of the Sinhala community.

In the early 2010s, as the Rajapaksa regime turned authoritarian and the country’s postwar infrastructure development boom petered out, a diverse coalition came together to achieve regime change in the 2015 presidential election. The coalition comprised a range of actors, including the Colombo-centered UNP, dissident pockets of Rajapaksa’s own SLFP, minority parties, and the Sri Lankan intelligentsia. Although 2015 to 2019 saw a considerable opening of democratic space, even in the country’s most heavily militarized districts, the liberal yet fragile cohabitation government was weakened by economic failures and security lapses that culminated in the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks of April 2019.

In the tremendously polarized November 2019 election, Gotabaya Rajapaksa—the brother of the former president—was elected president almost exclusively with Sinhala votes behind the backing of Sinhala Buddhist nationalist groups, retired military leaders, and parts of the business and professional classes. Mahinda Rajapaksa, moreover, became the country’s prime minister. With a renewed grip on power, the Rajapaksas have sought to reconsolidate the majoritarian and militarized policies of the years since the country’s civil war. Furthermore, they have centered their project on ideologically mobilizing constituencies with Islamophobic discourse and a security mindset linked to the Global War on Terrorism.

The Pandemic, Postponed Elections, and Polarized Politics

The coronavirus pandemic has reinforced the Rajapaksa government’s existing push to consolidate power, forestall an economic crisis, and mobilize majoritarian social forces.14 The virus hit Sri Lanka just as the country was preparing for a consequential parliamentary election. In early March 2020, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa dissolved parliament on the earliest date constitutionally allowed, six months before the end of its term. As confirmed cases of the coronavirus slowly increased, however, the Election Commission postponed parliamentary elections due to public health concerns.15

The president aggravated polarization by disregarding calls to reconvene the parliament and address the crisis with the opposition’s support. The legislature remains dissolved, and the ruling party has sought to take sole credit for a relatively successful pandemic response, aided significantly by the country’s free healthcare system. Nonetheless, the crisis has ravaged Sri Lanka’s already fragile and indebted economy, and the government lifted the lockdown in May in hopes of reviving the economy.16 The Election Commission has since announced its intention to hold elections on August 5.17

At the same time, the government’s militarized response to the virus has eroded democratic space and reinforced a polarized political culture. Drawing parallels to their efforts during the civil war, which they billed as a “war against terrorism,” the Rajapaksa regime has given the military a dominant role in the pandemic response, placing the army’s commander in charge of the national coronavirus prevention center.18 Crucially, the government has also promoted a militarized mindset in dealing with the crisis that draws on a nationalist ideology alienating to the country’s minority groups.

In this polarized context, the pandemic has provided fresh fodder for intolerance toward Muslims. The government has mandated the cremation of those who have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and has denied Muslim families the right to bury their dead, contrary to the World Health Organization’s guidelines. In addition, a chauvinist narrative has emerged that scapegoats Muslims for the spread of the virus.19 Through such means, the government and allied nationalist forces have sought to mobilize the Sinhala community in a bid to consolidate support ahead of the parliamentary elections.


Polarization in Sri Lanka continues to be driven by the country’s political leadership, opinion leaders in society, and the media. State leaders who choose to work toward a political solution to the problem and reconcile communities may be able to greatly diffuse polarization. However, Sri Lankan political opponents often strategically initiate new cycles of polarization, frequently with the support of sections of the Buddhist clergy, nationalist groups in the Tamil and Sinhala diasporas, and other chauvinist social bases. Indeed, polarizing discourses continue to spread at the societal level within limited constituencies, sustaining discourses that political actors exploit during times of political change. Sri Lanka’s polarized media landscape, and more recently the country’s social media environment, then provide platforms that can rapidly amplify inflammatory rhetoric. The Sinhala and Tamil media circles often provide diametrically opposed news and opinions on the same national events and issues.

The rise of anti-Muslim discourse and periodic pogroms over the past decade illustrate how political actors leverage and capitalize on discourses constructed by chauvinist movements. Widespread, intolerant public discourses then provide impunity to groups that carry out violent attacks with the complicity of the state’s security apparatus. Furthermore, such ideologically constructed discourses and fears—like those that prevailed after the 2019 Easter terrorist attacks, for example—eventually translate into major electoral gains.

Competing claims over state institutions and resources have also fueled polarization. After independence, the majoritarian belief that the state belongs to Sinhala Buddhists led to slogans like “ape anduwa” (which means “our government”). The country’s 1972 republican constitution entrenched the unitary state structure and gave a privileged position to Buddhism and the Sinhala language. Such ideological and constitutional moves have shaped not only public opinion and the media landscape but also the workings of the state bureaucracy and judiciary. Thus, a majoritarian and unitary vision of the state continues to affect the distribution of contested state resources and the devolution of power to various parts of the country.

Notably, over the past two decades, external influences have had an important and often polarizing effect on Sri Lankan politics. Counterterrorism objectives associated with the Global War on Terrorism provided pressure for peace efforts led by the Norwegian government in 2002; when those attempts failed, this punitive mindset culminated in the calamitous military-driven end to the war, billed in Sri Lanka as a war against terrorism.

Over the past two decades, external influences have had an important and often polarizing effect on Sri Lankan politics.

In addition, the West, led by the United States and using the authority of the United Nations Human Rights Council, applied pressure on Sri Lanka after the war, partly in response to the island nation’s shift toward China. The international push for Sri Lanka to address wartime human rights abuses and achieve political reconciliation has played out in unpredictable ways. Sinhala Buddhist and Tamil nationalists alike seek to capitalize politically on being in the international limelight. In doing so, they deepen polarization in the country between those claiming to defend its sovereignty and those calling for international intervention.

Finally, anti-Muslim and antiterrorism discourses, amplified by the Global War on Terrorism, have been an important driver of polarization. Although Sinhala Buddhist nationalists initially chose to brand the Tamil community with the terrorist label, it was easy to turn the same label against the country’s Muslim population, with various actors once again pushing for a solution based on militarization. Significantly, regime consolidation draws on patterns of discourses focused on terrorism and security, giving prominence to the state’s security establishment. In this way, the fluid relationships among ideological projects, public discourse, state institutions, electoral politics, and geopolitics have influenced the dynamics of polarization in Sri Lanka.


Political polarization and its consequences must be analyzed in light of the long arc of history. The legacy of Sinhala-only policies undermining bilingualism in the 1950s has polarized Sri Lankan society in different ways, even if the Indo–Sri Lanka Accord of 1987 and the Thirteenth Amendment to the country’s constitution sought to redress this problem by making Tamil an official language. In reality, however, Sri Lanka’s state institutions, particularly in Sinhala-majority regions, function in Sinhala and alienate the country’s minority communities. Furthermore, not only the public but also Tamil officials in outlying regions find communication with Colombo difficult, as both Sinhala and Tamil speakers have historically rejected bilingualism. Without the capacity for societal-level communication, Sri Lankans have greatly reduced opportunities for interethnic interactions.

Sri Lanka’s state institutions, particularly in Sinhala-majority regions, function in Sinhala and alienate the country’s minority communities.

Moreover, in recent decades, the social bridges among Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese, Sri Lankan Tamil, Up-Country Tamil, and Muslim communities have weakened. These bridges previously included the English-speaking elite and professional classes, the left-leaning parties and trade unions, and the Christian churches. (There are Christians, at around 7 percent of the country’s population, present within both the Sinhala and Tamil communities.)20 The weakening of these bridges is attributable not only to the language problem but also to political and economic policies that have attacked the left and trade union movement as well as the country’s long, protracted civil war, which undermined many of these institutions and created considerable distance between different communities.

Polarization has undermined the impartiality and effectiveness of Sri Lankan public institutions as well. State institutions, particularly the security forces, increasingly recruited personnel from the Sinhala community during the war, making the provision of services for and interactions with minority communities difficult even when the country’s political leadership is receptive to minority communities’ concerns. Furthermore, Sri Lanka’s protracted conflict degraded state institutions and the country’s political culture, whether that be in the bureaucracy, the judiciary, or even the parliament, where expediency, patronage, and politicization have become prevalent.

Polarizing conjunctures have also placed tremendous pressure on political parties to embrace ethnonationalism.21 The proliferation of explicitly nationalist parties, and the morphing of new parties with nationalist agendas, are worrying tendencies. For example, in recent years, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, the party of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, broke away from the SLFP, engulfed it, and became an explicit vehicle of Sinhala majoritarian politics. In the first half of 2020, infighting within the UNP has left the party on the brink of a complete split. Similarly, the Tamil National People’s Front and the new Tamil People’s Alliance have been vying to consolidate a narrow Tamil nationalist constituency and undermine the historically strong Tamil National Alliance.

At the societal level, polarized worldviews in media outlets, chauvinist social movements, and propaganda networks continue to entrench prejudices and fears, whether through community forums or social media. In recent years, anti-Muslim discourse drawing on global Islamophobic tropes has created constituencies within the Sinhala community that even justify outright violence against Muslims. Mobs led by Buddhist monks, such as those associated with Bodu Bala Sena (the Buddhist Power Force), have attacked mosques and vandalized Muslim-owned businesses.22 Politically polarizing actors have preyed opportunistically on such societal divisions in their short-term campaigns, which in turn undermine Sri Lankan democracy and minority rights over the long run.

Remedial Actions

Progressive forces seeking to counter polarization in Sri Lanka have engaged in a variety of political efforts, patterns of discourse, and forms of mobilization. In the 1950s, as Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism came to the fore with Sinhala-only language policies and Tamil nationalists sought to counter it with asymmetrical federalism for Tamil regions in the northern and eastern parts of the country, the leftists emphasized the need for bilingualism to resolve the national question. Trotskyite leader Colvin de Silva coined the slogan “one language, two nations; two languages, one nation.”23 Similarly, former Sri Lankan anticolonial leader Handy Perinbanayagam dissented from the Tamil nationalists and warned about the separatist and alienating tendencies of territorial federalist demands.24

Other notable efforts to address polarized violence in Sri Lanka came in the 1970s, as activists and intellectuals formed rights groups to check the excesses of the state. The Civil Rights Movement was established in the early 1970s after the JVP insurrection, and the Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality was formed in the late 1970s, as Tamil regions suffered from state repression. Local organizations such as citizen committees and peace committees came together as membership organizations. Additionally, intellectual work in the late 1970s and the 1980s introduced the concept of ethnicity to analyze the rising tide of nationalist and exclusivist politics in the country, including by way of seminars and publications by new organizations such as the Social Scientists’ Association.25

As the country’s lengthy civil war raged on and hopes for a solution with the Indo–Sri Lanka Accord of 1987 waned—particularly after the failed efforts at devolving power through the provincial council system—an important debate over the devolution of state power emerged. Various civic actors sought to provide proposals for constitutional reform as part of the peace efforts in the mid-1990s under the government led by then president Chandrika Kumaratunga.26 Similarly, during the internationalized Norwegian peace efforts between 2002 and 2005, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) advocated for models of federalism. After the country’s 2015 change in government, various voices sought to introduce mechanisms to advance reconciliation and transitional justice.

Locally grounded organizations, including trade unions and progressive religious organizations, were responsible for many of those earlier efforts to address polarization. However, in 1980, the regime of president J. R. Jayewardene crushed a general strike and advanced neoliberal policies. These policy choices dealt a major blow not only to the trade union movement and workers’ rights but also to democratic rights and interethnic relations, which trade unions could play an important role in supporting. Nevertheless, other social movements such as the Movement for the Defense of Democratic Rights emerged in the 1980s out of the remnants of the crushed youth insurrection and the weakened trade union movement. Yet, given the difficulties of organizing in a climate of war and repression, including in light of the brutal second JVP uprising in the late 1980s, many of these social movements grew to resemble NGOs—dependent on external funding and focused on international advocacy—which, in turn, weakened their capacity to mobilize the Sri Lankan people.

State reforms that decentralize power or strengthen protections for minorities also have the potential to play a role in reducing polarization. The state and the uses of state power are at the heart of the polarization that plagues the country, as different regimes seek to consolidate power for the long haul. Many campaigns have attempted to reform the state structure to make it difficult for any one group to consolidate state power. Proposed reforms have included abolishing the powerful office of the executive presidency, weakening the entrenchment of the unitary structure of the state, devolving greater powers to the regions, and strengthening the independence of the commissions that are responsible for governance.

Any such progressive efforts toward state reform, however, must continue to weaken polarizing politics by constructing a progressive national consensus. These steps also require a polity and an economy that are inclusive along ethnic lines and reduce inequalities related to class, regional differences, and the urban-rural divide. Some successes on this front are parity in language policy; efforts to change the workings of institutions; the resolution of the citizenship rights of the Up-Country Tamils; and the work of various commissions relating to human rights, the right to information, and judicial services. Such changes came after considerable struggles and prolonged advocacy by social movements and political actors. The challenge then is sustaining social movements that can galvanize large segments of society to pressure political actors to enact change; there have been moments of success, as with the waves of democratization in the mid-1990s and mid-2010s.

Political polarization is a dynamic process that mutates and draws on historical changes. For example, the root causes and grievances underlying ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka went through great changes during the country’s protracted war, and some would argue that the consequences of the war now overshadow the historical problem that precipitated it. Furthermore, the maneuvers of polarizing actors exploit various divides at different moments.

Efforts to confront polarization also must be dynamic and must deploy new, indigenous discourses and concepts such as coexistence and economic democracy. Alliances across class, ethnic, and regional differences are necessary. This process also must be locally and socially grounded with a democratic ethos. Rigid juridical solutions may not garner social acceptance, and plans to import international frameworks and norms are unlikely to work, particularly in a global moment of increasing polarization. Even as polarizing discourses and movements seek to divide society, Sri Lanka will have to build movements and a national consensus drawing on the country’s own progressive history and discourses advocating coexistence, equality, and justice.


1 Sri Lankan Department of Census and Statistics, “Census of Population and Housing of Sri Lanka, 2012,” 2012, 141,

2 Indian Office of the Registrar General, “Census of India 2011,” 12,

3 Kumari Jayawardena, Nobodies to Somebodies: The Rise of the Colonial Bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka (Colombo: Social Scientists’ Association and Sanjiva Books, 2000); and Kumari Jayawardena, The Rise of the Labor Movement in Ceylon (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1972).

4 Polish economist Michał Kalecki’s theory of intermediate regimes in the Third World—where the presence of a weak bourgeoisie allowed an amalgamation of different classes, including landowners, to assume control of state power—stimulated a vibrant debate in Sri Lanka, led by scholars such as Amita Shastri, Newton Gunasinghe, Sunil Bastian, and Jayadeva Uyangoda. This debate also sought to explain the prominence given to the rural economy by successive regimes, the emergence of robust welfare policies, and the implementation of import substitution policies in Sri Lanka between 1956 and 1977. See Michał Kalecki, “Social and Economic Aspects of ‘Intermediate Regimes,’” in Selected Essays on the Economic Growth of the Socialist and the Mixed Economy (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1972), 162–169; and Amita Shastri, “The Political Economy of Intermediate Regimes: The Case of Sri Lanka 1956–1970,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 3, no. 2 (1983): 1–14.

5 Michael Roberts, Caste Conflict and Elite Formation: The Rise of a Karāva Elite in Sri Lanka, 1500–1931 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1982).

6 Sinnappah Arasaratnam, Historical Foundation of the Economy of the Tamils of North Sri Lanka (Jaffna, Sri Lanka: Thanthai Chelva Memorial Trust, 1982).

7 David Scott, Refashioning Futures: Criticism After Postcoloniality (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999).

8 Vijaya Samaraweera, “Land, Labor, Capital and Sectional Interests in the National Politics of Sri Lanka,” Modern Asian Studies 15, no. 1 (1981): 127–162.

9 A. Jeyaratnam Wilson, Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism: Its Origins and Development in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2000).

10 James Manor, The Expedient Utopian: Bandaranaike and Ceylon (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

11 Nira Wickramasinghe, Sri Lanka in the Modern Era: A History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 246–264.

12 Rajan Hoole, Sri Lanka: The Arrogance of Power (Colombo: University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), 2001).

13 Ibid.

14 For a more detailed analysis of how the pandemic has affected polarization in Sri Lanka, from which this chapter draws, see Ahilan Kadirgamar, “Sri Lanka: Elections, Polarized Politics, and the Pandemic,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 28, 2020,

16 Devaka Gunawardena and Ahilan Kadirgamar, “As the World Bank Puts Aside Past Wisdom on Public Spending, Will Sri Lanka Pay Heed?” Wire, April 20, 2020,; and Meera Srinivasan, “Curfew Lifted in Colombo After 2 Months,” Hindu, May 26, 2020,

17 Waruna Karunatilake, “Sri Lanka Delays General Election for Second Time, Sets August 5 as New Date,” Reuters, June 10, 2020,

18 Meera Srinivasan, “COVID-19 | Sri Lankan Military Is Helping the Country Fight the Pandemic,” Hindu, April 15, 2020,

19 Ramya Kumar, “Free Speech, Hate Speech, and COVID-19: Why Are We Silent?” Daily FT, April 24, 2020,

20 Paul Caspersz, “The Left and Religion,” in Pathways of the Left in Sri Lanka, Marshal Fernando and B. Skanthakuamr eds. (Colombo: Ecumenical Institute for Study and Dialogue, 2014), 109–128.

21 Amita Shastri and Jayadeva Uyangoda eds., Political Parties in Sri Lanka: Change and Continuity (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2018).

22 Farzana Haniffa, “‘Who Gave These Fellows This Strength?’ Muslims and the Bodu Bala Sena in Post-War Sri Lanka,” in Sri Lanka: The Struggle for Peace in the Aftermath of War, Amarnath Amarasingam and Daniel Bass eds. (London: Hurst and Co., 2016), 109–128.

23 Wesley S. Muthiah and Sydney Wanasinghe, Two Languages One Nation, One Language Two Nations: The Lanka Sama Samaja Party on the State Language (Colombo: Young Socialist Publication, 2005).

24 Handy Perinbanayagam, Language in Government and in Education (Chunnakam, Sri Lanka: Thana Luckumy Book Depot, 1956).

25 Social Scientists’ Association of Sri Lanka, Ethnicity and Social Change in Sri Lanka: Papers Presented at a Seminar Organised by the Social Scientists Association, December 1979 (Colombo: Social Scientists’ Association of Sri Lanka, 1984).

26 International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Sri Lanka: The Devolution Debate (Colombo: International Centre for Ethnic Studies, 1996).