Christians form 2.3 percent of India’s population and 2 percent of Pakistan’s, while they account for 7.6 percent of Sri Lanka. But unlike in Pakistan, where Christians have been under siege due to the country’s blasphemy laws or in India, where they have recently been targetted for attacks by Hindu extremists, the relatively well-off Christians of Sri Lanka have managed to achieve a state of equilibrium with the islands Buddhists and Hindus.
Sri Lanka’s Christians are not an elite community but nor are they from the socially deprived groups of tribals and ‘lower’ castes as are the bulk of Christians in India and Pakistan. Upper crust Christians have played a prominent role in Sri Lankan society and politics ever since the 1920s and 1930s when the landed gentry was used as a favoured instrument by the British for the gradual devolution of power to local elites. A disproportionately high percentage of the landed gentry and commercial class was from wealthy Christian clans. The Senanayakes, the Kotelawalas, the Bandaranaikes and the Jayewardenes—all practising a tactical mix of Christian and Buddhist beliefs were among the dominant, anglicised, upper class families to whom the British handed over power on 4 February 1948 when Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) became an independent country.
Their political dominance continues to this day in the figures of President Chandrika Kumaratunga and her mother, Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike. The President’s father, Solomon West Ridgeway Dias (generally known by his initials as swrd) Bandaranaike, converted to Buddhism from Christianity and rose to become Prime Minister in 1956 on a wave of Sinhalese-Buddhist populism generated largely by him. The Trotskyist Lanka Sama Samaja Party and the Communist Party were also dominated by leaders of Christian origin—Colvin de Silva, N.M. Perera and Pieter Keuneman. The Ceylon Tamil parties in the 1950s and the 1960s also had a number of Christians in important positions. (In this sense, the Christians of Sri Lanka have been like the Brahmins of India who have held key positions in parties right across the political spectrum from the BJP, to the Congress party, to the communists.)
A small sub-group of Christians of mixed Eurasian origin, the Burghers, provided eminent personages to Sri Lanka’s civil service, the officer corps of the armed forces, and the literary world. This is in sharp contrast to India and Pakistan, where Anglo-Indians were derided for their mixed parentage and could only aspire to modest occupations.
Historically, the sharp cleavage in Sri Lankan society has been ethnic rather than religious or sectarian as has been the case in India and Pakistan. The 70 percent Sinhalese majority and the 11 percent Ceylon Tamil minority (who are markedly different from the 9 percent Indian Tamil minority whose forebears were brought over as tea plantation labour in the 19th century) have distinct racial memories of conflict whose current manifestation is the fierce war between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan armed forces. Religion is secondary and peripheral in this racial conflict, though Buddhism has been stoked by Sinhalese chauvinists and Hinduism by Tamil separatists to fuel the ethnic fire.
Caste also has a role in Sri Lankan politics, both among Sinhalese and Tamils, though marginal in comparison to the major role of caste configurations in Indian politics or to the severe, Sunni-Shia sectarian schisms in Pakistan’s political battles. The Goyigama caste has generally been regarded as the most significant in intra-Sinhalese politics and the Vellala caste was considered to be important in Ceylon Tamil public affairs. Traditionally, both the Goyigamas and the Vellalas were landowning, cultivator castes. The only person from a humble caste and class background to have reached the very top in Sri Lankan governance was Ranasinghe Premadasa, the country’s president fromjanuary 1989 to May 1993 when he was assassinated. The other person who has got to the top from modest class and caste origins—though in an opposing sphere and by a brutal process—is the Tamil Tigers chief, V. Prabhakaran.