Three events of the thirties that made the post-independent era — Part 1
Posted on October 18th, 2020

H. L. D. Mahindapala

H. L. D. Mahindapala

Taking an overview of  the 20th  century it can be argued that the seeds of the major forces that shaped the political landscape of post-independent era were sown in the thirties. Three events in particular stand out from the thirties as defining points of departure from the semi-feudal, semi-colonial, semi-capitalist past into the tumultuous future struggling to be born: 1. democratisation of the  political system under the Donoughmore Constitution with universal franchise in 1931  — a daring political experiment which was unique for the time: it transferred political power from the elite to the powerless enabling them to influence the political process according to their will; 2. the birth of LSSP and Sinhala Maha Saba in 1935 and 3. G. G.  Ponnambalam’s anti-Sinhala-Buddhist speech in Navalapitiya in June 1939. The impact of all three events unravelled in their own  spheres sometimes intertwining, sometimes going their separate ways and sometime  clashing with each other, with, of course, all three collectively leading / dragging the nation  to where we are now in the 21st century.

Let us take the last one  first. With one  speech in the late thirties Ponnambalam shattered the inter-ethnic peace that had lasted for centuries. The impact of that anti-Sinhala-Buddhist speech still reverberates in the political highways and byways of the nation. It was an ominous event that cast it dark shadow right across the remaining decades of the 20th century and to this day. In fact, the Hindu Organ, the leading Tamil voice of the day, wrote a prophetic editorial titled, Writing on the Wall, forecasting the coming events that bedevilled the nation. 

It was a time when the old aristocratic elite of Jaffna, led by the distinguished brothers, Sir. Ponnambalam Ramanathan and Sir. Ponnambalam Arunachalam, had faded  out  of the national political scene. The last of that turbaned elite, Sir. Ponnambalam Ramanathan, passed away in 1931. The field was wide open for the new-comer, G. G. Ponnambalam, to step in and take command of Jaffna politics. It was also a time when anti-Jewish racism of the Nazis was at its zenith. He  had seen how it had worked for Hitler. As a student  in UK he had visited Germany couple of times and when he returned he did not bring in his baggage the fashionable Marxists ideology that captured the imagination of the Sinhala returnees from Western universities like Philip Gunawardena, Dr. N. M. Perera, and Dr. Colvin R de Silva. He took to casteism and communalism like duck to water– the two deep-rooted evils of Jaffna.

His politics ran counter to the anti-caste, anti-racist ideology of the Tamil youth who were inspired by Gandhi. The powerful Tamil Youth Movement of the day was also against Ponnambalam, and he could not even contest in Jaffna. But he returned triumphantly to ride the waves of casteism and communalism. He was the first to define and exploit the subterranean force of communalism that ripped the nation apart. Besides, when Ponnambalam stepped into the political vacuum left behind by his aristocratic predecessors he had no progressive or modern ideology to mobilise and lead the Jaffnaites into modernity. His commitment to feudalistic casteism and political communalism was incurable. Nor was Jaffna, hidden behind the ubiquitous cadjan curtain, ready to receive and follow 20th century ideologies of social change. It was stuck too deep in casteist conservatism. It was the most sacred religious tenet of the elitist Saivites of Jaffna. It was the sole lifeline of the ruling Vellala elite. Their supremacy, which they guarded with all their might, depended on casteism which had been ordained as the divinely anointed social order. Furthermore, Vellalaism, which was a combined force Hinduism, casteism and politics, was a political ideology that was incrementally transiting into mono-ethnic extremism. Each one of these factors locked into the other seamlessly, inseparably. Jaffna was held together by the superior force of Vellalaism. Ponnambalam arrived on the political scene at the right time to lead Vellala middle-class, competing mainly for government jobs and political power, with the rising middle class of the Sinhalese in the south.  So, when he took to anti-Sinhala-Buddhist communalism he became an integral part of the  prevailing political culture of the English-speaking Saivite Jaffna Vellalas (SJVs) who dominated the British public service with a disproportionate share of jobs at all levels. This enabled the Vellalas to maintain a cosy relationship with the ruling colonial masters. This, in turn, enabled them to retain their Vellala casteist power, privileges, perks and positions derived from the preceding feudal age with the least resistance from the colonial masters.

The SJVs who were rising as the new middle class of Jaffna formed the formidable and indispensable base for all political leaders. The SJVs derived their strength as a collective force dominating the public service. The Government Clerical Service Union headquarters in Maradana was a bigger political center than any place in Jaffna. So much so that S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, the father of Tamil separatism, launched his Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchu (aka Federal Party) on December 14, 1949 at the GCSU Hall in Maradana. Their security and future prospects, particularly in the  marriage market, depended on government jobs. The discretionary administrative power that trickled down to them as the go-between subalterns of the British Empire – an essential secondary tier to run all empires — armed the SJV elite  with the power to initiate, direct and implement the political contours of Jaffna with no rivals from within to challenge their supremacy in all socio-political matters, and even personal lives, from the womb to the tomb. Ponnambalam’s arrogant personality too dove-tailed neatly into the reigning supremacist ideology of the SJVs who ruled the  peninsula with an iron-fist from the feudal ages.

The grab  for disproportionate power in the public service and the legislature was a peculiarity confined only to the SJV elite of Jaffna.  Hence Ponnambalam’s cry for 50-50” – fifty per cent of power for 11 per cent Tamils of the North. Trying to grab  power both in the administration  and in the legislature was not a characteristic of the other layers of Jaffna Tamil society which consisted of the low-castes, or the Batticoloa Tamils, or the Indian Tamils, or the Tamil-speaking Muslims. All the issues raised by Ponnambalam in packaging his 50-50” demand, from discrimination in the public service jobs to power-sharing at the centre, concerned essentially the English-speaking Saivite, Jaffna, Vellalas and no other Tamils.  The Batticoloa Tamils, the Indian Tamils, and the Tamils-speaking Muslims had their own political agendum which were not related to white-collar jobs in the public service or a 50% share of seats in the legislature.  This explains why S. J. V. Chelvanayakam’s Thamil Payasoom Makkal (Tamil-speaking people) Movement failed. The non-Vellala Tamil-speaking people resented the hegemony of the Vellala supremacists.

Besides, the SJVs were obsessed with the fanciful belief that they had descended from a superior culture wrapped in the Tamil language which, they believed, would make them the equal to the Sinhala-Buddhists,  if not  superior. The Tamils could claim 50” of power only if they could prove to the British that they were equal to the Sinhalese.  In the absence of a great and glorious historical past that could match that of the Sinhala-Buddhists, claiming the legacy of the Tamil culture and language created in S. India has been the only defensive position they could take in order to claim equality with the Sinhalese. It was  the mainstay of Tamil pride and  politics. Basking in borrowed feathers make them feel superior. It is a hollow claim of a sterile culture that produced only ant-hills compared to monumental achievements of the Sinhala-Buddhists. The Tamils of Jaffna could find refuge only in the greatness of the Tamils of S. India. They failed to produce anything great that could make them stand out as a noteworthy civilising  force.

So, they were forced to claim greatness not on any achievements of their own but on the genius of Tamils in another country. The Sinhalese take credit for the genius of their ancestors who created a new civilisation, new culture and a new language on Sri Lankan soil, overcoming all the challenges of time and nature. Americans, Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders, for instance do not claim to be great and  take pride in the culture made in Britain. They claim greatness for turning the virgin land into a new civilisation and a new culture and to some extent a new language. Churchill put it elegantly when he said that America and England are two nations divided by one language. The Tamils cannot even claim to have made a substantial contribution to the Tamil language. They never made an original contribution to enrich the Tamil language. Their biggest boast is about Arumuka Navalar and V. Thamotherampillai rediscovering some of the forgotten Tamil texts and reprinting them in Jaffna. On this count, some Jaffna Tamils  even claims to be superior to the S. Indian Tamils, the founding fathers of the Tamil language. Jaffna Tamil bragging about their culture and language is full of sound and no substance.

Other Tamil-speaking groups  resented the arrogance  of  the  SJVs posing as a superior breed of human beings  descending from a glorious Tamil culture articulated in one  of the ancient languages. Finding sanctity in antiquity has been their last resort. This is a fallacious argument. Other modern languages which had  risen to greater heights as a civilising force are dismissed as not being in the same class as Tamil because they lack antiquity. Well, what’s the difference between an old snake and a baby snake? What matters is the sting not the age.

All this is symptomatic of the desperate search of Jaffna Tamils for greatness. Unable to provide any evidence of their monumental achievements they are wont to chant mantras of their imaginary greatness.  This is pure Tamil show-vinism”. Ponnambalam’s attack on the Sinhala-Buddhists and lauding Tamil greatness in the same breath is typical of cheap Tamil show-vinism”. He took to Tamil show-vinism”  because he had no other viable and progressive policy to offer the oppressed Tamils. He was also aware of the rising resentment of the oppressed castes against the SJVs. Tamil show-vinism” was a tactic to deflect the blame on to the Sinhalese to cover up the evils of the Jaffna society ruled by the SJVs. Besides, the bankrupt Tamil show-vinists” took to demonising the Sinhalese and downgrading  the Sinhala-Buddhist history as their main plank, partly to claim a superiority over the others and partly to garner votes in the peninsula. Ponnambalam’s show-vinist” legacy lasts to this day. C. V. Wigneswaran and Ponnambalam’s grandson survive in peninsular politics by selling Ponnambalam’s Tamil show-vinism”. All this began with GG’s” speech in June 1939 in Navalapitiya. His legacy has been a powerful force in determining the form and direction of Jaffna Tamil politics. Tamil politics since the been within the framework drawn by Ponnambalam. Other variations of Tamil politics has been either an extension or and adjustment of his anti-Sinhala-Buddhist greatness of Tamil mediocrities.

Tragically, the  thirties saw the decline of Jaffna Tamil Youth who, inspired by Gandhism, rejected both casteism  and communalism. History would not have taken the route it did if the  Jaffna Youth of twenties succeeded. Instead Ponnambalam of the thirties spun the theory of Tamil superiority to make-believe that they are not only equal to the Sinhala-Buddhists but also superior. That was the gist of his provocative speech at Navalapitiya. 

The second event was the birth of the Sinhala Maha Sabha in 1935 which will be explored in the next article. It was a counter to the rising wave of Tamil show-vinism”. The Tamils who broke away from the Ceylon National Congress, which consisted of the elite drawn from all communities, established the first communal party, Tamil Mahajana Sabhai, in 1921. This Tamil elite was in the forefront  of demanding more seats and more power for the Tamils to be on  par with the Sinhalese. The first decades of the 20th century was marked by constitutional changes in which the Tamils launched their campaigns to grab an equal share of power on the fake claim that they were not a minority but a majority community. Though they constituted only 11 % they claimed, believe it or not,  that they too were a majority community.

Prof. K. M. de Silva, Sri Lanka’s foremost historian, has documented this claim in his scholarly analysis of the break-up of the Ceylon National Congress. He wrote that … Arunachalam shared the prevailing opinion that the Tamils were not a minority but were one of two majority communities.” (p.115 – The Ceylon Journal of Historical and Social Studies, July-December 1972). It is this kind  of hallucinatory politics that led to divisive politics on communal lines. Distorting the known historical and political facts has been a prime necessity for the Tamils to sustain their exaggerated claims for an equal share of power. Claiming to be a superior breed because they speak the Tamil language, claiming to be founders of Sri Lankan  history from the dawn of time”,  claiming to be makers of a culture  far superior to that of the Sinhalese, claiming to be a majority” community equal to that of the Sinhalese, claiming  to be  intellectually superior because they occupied a disproportionate share of jobs in the public service and professions, claiming to be divinely chosen by God to be at the top of the casteist hierarchy in Jaffna, claiming to be the trusted favourites of the colonial masters because they knew the art of sideling up to the colonial masters etc., gave them the illusion of being a superior breed standing way above the rest of their fellow-citizens. It made them inordinately arrogant and treat some of its own people as unworthy pariahs not fit to be members of the Tamil community. The Tamil supremacists spat on  their own Tamils. The low-castes were kicked out of Tamil society as a subhuman species that should not be seen or heard. In one tragic incident when the low-caste Hindus demonstrated non-violently at Maviddipuram Temple in 1968, pleading for the right  to worship the same God/s in the Vella-managed temples,  the organised Vellala gangs enforcing Vellala taboos,  cracked their heads with iron rods and bottles filled with sand.  It is these supremacists that go around the world saying that the Sinhalese had discriminated against them – the most privileged elite in Sri Lanka.

The Tamil tendency to wallow in their own myths has been one of the primary causes that led them to their political misery. Wanting to be  the greatest, wanting to be superior to the rest, wanting to be the makers of history because they do not have a great history of their own are some of the political tools they use to pursue their political goals. In the process they also tend to denigrate and downgrade those who  are projected as their enemies. Fabricating myths against their rivals have been the  usual tactic to gain political mileage. Ponnambalam was the first to fabricate the myth of discrimination against the Tamils when he went before the Soulbury Commissioners  – a cry which claimed that the Sinhala state” had not been fair by the Tamils in the public service. This cry was raised to appease the SJVs who were fixated on government jobs, with a pension, three railway tickets per annum for the family, and a big fat dowry. This was not an issue that affected the other Tamil-speaking communities. The major issues that divided the North-South communities – job discrimination, language, power-sharing, colonisation – were not common to all Tamil-speaking communities island-wide. All these issues concerned only the SJV elite in the North. These issues did not relate to even the low-castes in Jaffna. They were not fighting  for jobs in government service because the public servants were, by and large, the English-speaking Saivite Jaffna Vellalas.

The Soulbury Commissioners who listened to Ponnambalam for nine hours dismissed his accusation of discrimination as having no substance. Clearly, the cry of discrimination was launched in British colonial times. It did not begin with Bandaranaike’s Sinhala-only policy, as touted by the anti-Sinhala-Buddhist propagandists. But this mythology has become a truth among to the hired academic and NGO pundits. It became one of the key accusations against what they called the Sinhala state”.  The accusation persisted and it is still in circulation.  Apart from Soulbury Commission in the forties a study on this  issue of discrimination was made in 1985. The date is important because it was after the Tamil leadership had declared war in the Vadukoddai Resolution in May 14, 1976  on this issue, in particular. The study was made by the Citizens Committee and MARGA an independent think-tank engaged in social research. After examining in detail the claims of discrimination” against the Tamils, their report, titled Inter-Racial Equity And National Unity in Sri Lanka MARGA Institute, Jan. 1985, authored by Godfrey Gunatilleke, revealed, inter alia :

1. ˜the average levels of living of the Tamil community are in no way inferior to those of the Sinhalese community.  p. 10

2. Both communities are, more or less, of the similar levels of well-being and face similar problems of social and economic development — p.10

3. The Sri Lankan Tamil community of approximately 600,000 working in Sinhala areas, particularly in the South-West enjoys a relatively higher level of well-being than the average Sinhala households in these areas, as the Tamil segment falls largely into the lower-middle class, middle and upper-middle income levels.– p.9

4. The Tamil politicians have expressed the view that the problem of language in so far as it applied to the Tamil-speaking areas has already found satisfactory solutions in the more important areas. For all practical purposes, Tamil has now become the language of the administration and the courts in the Tamil-speaking districts. — p.12.

5. In 1980 the schools in the Jaffna District had approximately 6,202 students in grade 12 of the science stream as compared with the total of 45,979 for the whole country. This accounts for approximately 13.5 of the total number of students at this level. The share of the population of the Jaffna District in the total population is only about 5.5. per cent.– p. 18. Clearly, 5.5 per cent of the student population occupying 13.5 per cent isn’t discrimination, is it?

6. The welfare state which was expanded in the post-independence period reached out to all parts of the country and to all Sri Lankan citizens, irrespective of community or creed. The facts and figures as well as the socio-economic changes that have taken place over the past 30 years validate this position beyond any serious doubt.–   p.10/

It also listed the facilities available in Government schools in 1980.  

Educational District                                          No of schools                                Library                                Science Labs

Colombo                                                                     251                                            126                                        128

Jaffna                                                                          559                                             116                                       100                                                                                                                                 

(p. 18 Inter-Racial Equity And National Unity in Sri Lanka, MARGA.

The evidence is there to arrive at rational conclusions. But not all the mountains of evidence can convince those who prefer to  believe in their comforting myths. In  other words, it is possible to take all horses to water but no one can make all of them drink it. They prefer to wallow in their own myths which leads them to their own misery.

To be continued

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