Constitutional Reform, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Reconciliation

Sri Lankan Tamil Destiny is Inextricably Grounded Within Sri Lanka: A Response to D.B.S Jeyaraj

Picture courtesy anjanaOn


This is a belated response to D.B.S. Jeyaraj’s article titled Tamil Destiny is inextricably intertwined with that of the Sinhalese,” which I noticed only a few days ago. I not only endorse every point he makes but also go further and include the other communities comprising Sri Lanka, especially the Muslims (Moors and Malays) and the Indian Tamils (as they are incorrectly designated in the national census. I also point out that the Tamil leadership had firmly and consistently upheld this position till at least the mid 1970s. Those interested in exploring the historical and ideological background could refer to a wealth of literature on the subject including my monograph titled “Tamil Nationalism” (Marga Monograph Series, 2001). Perhaps I should start with a reference in that monograph to the Jaffna Youth Congress (JYC), which was the dominant voice in the North during the 1920s and 30s.

The Jaffna Youth Congress

Jaffna, widely identified as a centre of Sri Lankan Tamil consciousness all through the twentieth century, also produced the earliest and most militant all-island oriented nationalist movement. The JYC, which peaked in the early thirties, campaigned against the caste system, opposed federalism (for unstated reasons – perhaps this option was not seriously explored), demanded quick independence for a united Sri Lanka, and rejected the Donoughmore reforms as too litt1e too late (Kadirgamar,1980). Their allies across the Palk Straight were the Indian National Congress led by Gandhi and Nehru and not the Dravidian movement of Tamil Nadu; their closest partners within Sri Lanka were the radical nationalist leaders of the South including Kannangara, Kularatne and Mettananda and the Marxist leaders rather than the anglicised ‘moderate’ leaders of the Ceylon National Congress and the United National Party (UNP). The JYC was totally alienated both from Dravidian sectarianism in India and from local Tamil sectarianism sponsored by those who, in the mid-thirties, formed the Tamil Congress.

The ideology of the JYC is reflected in several documents including the following extract from a 1945 publication titled the “Mother Tongue in Education” of one of its leading activists:

Ceylon has a recorded history reaching back to at least the famous sixth century-before Christ. But the two main streams of tradition that have irrigated her historical development go further back and derive their source from India, and are in fact drawn from the same great cultural reservoir from which the Eastern half of the world yet draws its inspiration. Of these two streams of tradition the one owes its birth to Siddharta Gautama Buddha, India’s great spiritual genius and one of the world’s greatest sons. The other tradition is older still and represents Hindu Culture as developed in the schools of Southern India. Each of these traditions developed a distinctive individuality in Ceylon; and in fact the Buddhist tradition attained to such perfection here, both in its philosophy and its practice, that when Buddhism disappeared as a separate faith from the land of its birth, Ceylon came to be regarded by all Buddhist lands as the spiritual home of the religion of the Middle Way .

.. . Sinhalese literature entered upon its golden age in the fifteenth century in the spacious times of King Parakrama Bahu VI. Princes, priests, and peasants contributed towards this renaissance but pride of place belongs to the author of the immortal Kavyasekharaya, Sri Rahula of Totagamuwa ..

The Hindu tradition was no doubt connected both with early Buddhism and the early history of the Sinhalese, but its characteristic development in Ceylon, as in South India, was in the Saiva Religion and the Tamil language. This language is one of the earliest of the known speeches of man and the vehicle of a literature that is among the highest literary achievements of the human race … The fifteenth century witnessed not only the greatest epoch of Sinhalese poetry but also the most flourishing period of Tamil poetry in Ceylon, of which Arasa Kesari’ s epic translation of Raghuvamsam was the greatest work (Nesiah, 1945: 1,2).

To make anything of the future we must possess the confidence that can only be born of a consciousness of our priceless inheritance. . .. a willingness to enter into harmonious relationship with members of all communities as is shown by the fact that Sinhalese and Tamils, Moors and Burghers, live side by side and show a toleration for one another that is hardly equaled in many other parts of the world (Nesiah, 1945: 6,7).

The JYC sought to overcome the limitations of its peninsular base by incorporating or establishing links with those outside. National leaders associated with the JYC included D.B. Dhanapala (involved in the founding), P. de S. Kularatne (elected President at the 1925 Annual Sessions), Swamy Vipulananda (elected President at the 1928 Annual Sessions), G.K.W. Perera, A.E. Goonasinghe, George E. de Silva, E.W. Perera (elected President at the 1929 Annual Sessions), Peri Sundaram, D.B. Jayatilleke, T.B. Jayah, C.E .Corea, Francis de Zoysa, S.W. Dassanaike, S.W.R.D. Bandaranayake, N.M. Perera, Philip Gunawardena, Colvin Silva, Leslie Gunawardena, S.A.Wickremasinghe, W. Dahanayake, J.R. layawardena, D.S. Senanayake and Selina Perera (who was charged for sedition on account of a speech that she delivered at the 1941 Annual Sessions) (Kadirgamar, 1980).

The emergence of Tamil Nationalism

Up to the time of Independence, the Tamil leadership was virtually unanimously and uncompromisingly in favour of a unitary Sri Lankan state. Even the Tamil Congress, which effectively marginalised the JYC and was promoting Tamil consciousness did not favour federalism. Perhaps they were not far sighted and only feared that federalism would limit their professional opportunities. The concept of federalism was introduced to the community only after independence and was resoundingly rejected, even in Jaffna, in the 1952 general elections. It was with the Sinhala only movement of 1956 that the Sri Lankan Tamil population opted for federalism. In due course, the political factors that united the Sri Lankan Tamil population gradually gained ascendancy (in the political field) over caste and other prejudices that had kept the population divided. Eventually this nationalism acquired a separatist component but this component remained peripheral up to the mid-70s; every candidate advocating secession suffered demoralising defeat at every election to every parliamentary seat.

The Sri Lankan Tamil sectarianism communalism that surfaced with the Tamil Congress in the thirties was stridently narrow and ideologically primitive – vide agendas such as the 50-50 proposal – but not separatist. The Federal Party too was Tamil nationalist but not separatist. Despite the progressive defection of the non-Marxist parties, followed by the Marxist parties, into Sinhala only, Tamil separatism received no electoral backing till the mid-70s. As late as 1970, when an ex-Federal Party MP, Navaratnam, voiced his advocacy of separatism (ie, secession), the FP challenged him by nominating K.P. Ratnam to contest him. Navaratnam campaigned vigorously on a secessionist platform and Ratnam on a federalist platform; Ratnam won handsomely.

Even as late as 1972, in the wake of the traumas of Standardization of University admissions and the blatantly majoritarian 1972 Constitution in the drafting of which the Tamil leaders were effectively excluded, a group of community leaders of Jaffna published the following document expressing the sentiments yet upheld by a very significant section of the Tamil population:

Granville Austin in his book in his book on The Indian Constitution ascribes the secret of that “successful constitution” to the fact that the fathers of the Constitution first turned the Constituent Assembly into an “India in microcosm” ensuring that even the small minorities were well represented, and then applied with great effectiveness the characteristic Indian concepts of consensus and accommodation.

We too in Lanka have inherited the self-same values. If Lanka is to be true to herself, those who are charged with the solemn duty of writing her Constitution should pay heed to our heritage both in the approach to constitution making and in what they write into it. Our children and our children’s children should be able to say, with one voice-Lanka is our great motherland, and we are one people from shore to shore; we speak two noble languages, but with one voice; and this Constitution which our fathers fashioned together in times of yore shall serve as the nation’s charter for the years to be (Nesiah, 1981:152).

The statement of S.J.V Chelvanayakam on winning the Kankesanthurai by-election in February 1975, marks a fateful turning point:

We have for the last 25 years made every effort to secure our political rights on the basis of equality with the Sinhalese in a united Ceylon … It is a regrettable fact that successive Sinhalese governments have used the power that flows from independence to deny us our fundamental rights and reduce us to the position of a subject people … I wish to announce to my people and to the country that I consider the verdict at this election as a mandate that the Tamil Eelam nation should exercise the sovereignty already vested in the Tamil people and become free.

That statement and the Vaddukoddai resolution of 1976 in favour of separation must be seen in the context of many painful and humiliating reverses including the adoption of the scheme of “Standardisation” of University admissions and the 1972 Constitution. In the context in which it was adopted in 1971, many Sinhalese leaders may have seen “Standardization” of university admissions as a politically compelling measure. They failed to understand (or were indifferent to) the traumatic impact it would have on the Sri Lankan Tamil community. In turn, the Sri Lankan Tamil leaders failed to understand (or were indifferent to) the political pressures on the Sinhalese leaders on account of the growing ethnic imbalance in university admissions. Negotiations between the political leaders of the different ethnic groups on this issue may have led to an acceptable solution – but such dialogue has not been part of Sri Lanka’s political tradition. Similarly, the drafting of the 1972 Constitution was widely seen by the minorities, especially the Sri Lankan Tamils, as an exercise undertaken by the Sinhalese leaders with little heed to the concerns of the minorities.

The alienation of the Tamil leaders (and, in consequence, the Tamil people) arising from the lack of any attempt to accommodate or even consider their views in the framing of the constitution was a major contributory factor to the emergence of the Vaddukoddai resolution of 1976. Even at that stage it appears that many who voted for that resolution or refrained from publicly opposing it saw it as a token of protest against oppression or a strategic bargaining position rather than an expression of their aspiration. But they miscalculated the impact of that resolution. On the one hand the youth at that assembly took it seriously and embarked on a separatist struggle that, within a decade, developed into a civil war. On the other, it provided explosive ammunition to those of the Sinhalese leaders who organized the anti-Tamil violence of 1977, 1979 and 1981, and the island-wide pogrom of 1983.

Despite Chelvanayakam’s statement of February 1975 quoted above and the Vaddukoddai Resolution of 1976 arguing for secession, it was clear that the top leaders of the Tamils were not seriously interested in it. They were pushed in to it by the Tamil militants who were rapidly growing in strength and were committed to secession. The political leaders were willing to settle in 1981 for District Development Councils (DDCs) that had virtually no element of devolution, and the Thirteenth Amendment of 1987 that had some elements of devolution but far short of Federalism. In fact the Tamil militants recognized this contradiction and consistently opposed the Thirteenth Amendment and the functioning of the Northeast Provincial Council created under the Thirteenth Amendment. They went on to assassinate some of the Tamil leaders who had accepted the Thirteenth Amendment and were working on drafting a Federal Constitution under the direction of President Chandrika Kumaranatunga in the 1990s. Those assassinated included Amirthalingam, Yogeswaran and Neelan Tiruchelvam. Sivasithamparam and President Chandrika were among those who survived assassination attempts.

In my opinion secession was never seriously promoted by the Tamil leadership nor accepted by the majority of the Tamil population. Moreover its attainment was never feasible and, even if it was attained, it was clearly unsustainable. It was a project opposed by every other country. I know of no example of any successful secession that did not have the backing of both the vast majority of the local population as well as at least one powerful country in the neighbourhood. The Eelam project was a non-starter, and was recognized as such by the Tamil political leadership, though it is possible that some of the more naïve among the Diaspora may have thought otherwise. Today there are no Tigers within Sri Lanka, and even in the Diaspora, the band of true believers is shrinking towards extinction.

Finally, D.B.S. Jeyaraj is careful to balance his call for unity and integrity of Sri Lanka and her population with highlighting the imperative to strive constantly for justice equality, peace and amity. These features are conspicuously lacking in Sri Lanka today. Also lacking are significant initiatives to achieve these goals. The State seems to be indifferent; Civil Society seems to be resigned to be impotent. But do we need to remain impotent? Indeed we cannot remain indifferent or impotent but need to mobilize locally and globally for greater awareness, concern and effective corrective action. We need a new political dispensation based on a new constitution reflecting the concerns of our diverse population. Should we not as quoted earlier work towards a situation in which “our children and children’s children should be able to say with one voice – Lanka is our great motherland. We are one people from shore to shore; we speak two noble languages with one voice; and this constitution which our fathers fashioned in times of yore shall serve as our nation’s charter for the years to be?”