Death of liberal democracy in Jaffna led to national disaster
Posted on April 17th, 2021

H. L. D. Mahindpala 

No Tamil political leader in the post-Donoughmore period had single-handedly constructed an ideology and changed the course of national politics, almost overnight, asGanapathipillai Gangaser Ponnambalam (8 November 1901 – 9 February 1977). Not only that, no one else has left such a lasting impact – albeit a divisive and devastating one — with his ideology on the national scene as the politics engineered by him. He was, in his own way, an exceptional figure whose role has been overshadowed by his junior  partner, S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, a charismatic figure who in reality extended and built on the ideology founded by him. S.W. R. D. Bandaranaike was Ponnambalam’s counterpart but he  did not create the Sinhala-Buddhist ideology. Rather, he adopted what was already there on the ground and gave leadership to the dormant forces that were struggling  to be born. Ponnambalam, on the other hand, gave birth to an ideology which  he fathered, defined and activated giving leadership  to a political force that entered the blood stream of Tamil politics. In doing so, he reversed the liberal-democratic movement in Jaffna and took it back to communalism  — a force that dominates the North to  this day.

Ponnambalam arrived on the political scene just in time to fill the vacuum in the leadership of Jaffna. By the early thirties the old turbaned Tamil aristocracy was fading away. The last of the iconic leaders of Jaffna, Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, passed away in  1930. Jaffna was in  the grip of the English-educated Tamil youth who were  leading Jaffna up the road of liberal democracy and comprehensive nationalism without sectionalism. They were virtually laying down the political agenda of the day. It was a radical movement that went against the  traditional norms  of Jaffna political culture. They were the daring counter force to the dominant Vellala elite which held the reins of power both as loyal subalterns in the British bureaucracy and as the traditional supremacists anointed by the Hindu casteism authored by Arumuka Navalar. It was the Vellalas that dictated and enforced the laws and customs (Tesawalamai) that guided every aspect of the Jaffna way of life, from the  womb  to the tomb. Inside Jaffna the Vellalas ruled with an iron fist to maintain their supremacy.

Outside Jaffna the  Vellala supremacists campaigned to acquire extra seats in the legislature based on allotting seats on a communal basis and not on territorial demarcation of electoral borders.  Getting  seats on communal representation would go to  maintain their disproportionate share of power in the commanding heights of the political and  administrative institutions. Getting seats on a territorial basis would not  only reflect the will of the people which is the ultimate goal in any democratic  system but would also uphold the fundamental principles of democracy. The radical Tamil youth of Jaffna rejected both casteism and communalism and organised their movement to abolish what they considered  to be the two evils of the peninsular political culture. In the mid-twenties the Tamil youth of Jaffna were leading Jaffna out of feudalism, casteism, communalism, dowry-system etc into  modernity. When they talked of nationalism  they meant total swaraj for all without narrow domestic walls” of communalism, or sectionalism”, as the Governor of the day called it

By the late thirties, however, the Jaffna Tamil Youth Congress had lost its grip. Without the old turbaned aristocracy and without the radical youth Jaffna fell into a political vacuum. The political space was  open for Ponnambalam to step in as the anti-thesis of all that was held sacred by the Tamil youth. The political pendulum swung from  liberal-democratic end to naked communalism. Single-handedly, Ponnambalam reversed the libera-democratic trend and took Jaffna back to its communalistic and casteist roots. With that he reigned supreme as the sole representative of Jaffna with no rival in sight until the arrival of Chelvanayakam. The unique characteristic of his politics is that he left an indelible legacy which wound its way, through several twists and turns, until it wound up in its ill-fated historical end in Nandikadal. Chelvanayakam, though he shone brighter than Ponnambalam as a leader, particularly  with his integrity and commitment to the cause, was merely an  ideological pupil of Ponnambalam. In extending and taking Ponnambalamism to a further extreme the pupil outshone the teacher. 

To get a better view of the evolving events, it  is necessary to step back and take a glance at young Ponnambalam as he entered the mainstream. Right from the start he was different from the rest of the pack. To begin with, his contemporaries who went abroad in the twenties and thirties for studies in leading  universities of the West returned home as committed nationalists imbued with either democratic liberalism (S.W. R. D. Bandaranaike and Dudley Senanayaker) or Marxism (N. M. Perera, Philip Gunawardena, Colvin R de Silva, Pieter Keuneman etc). Even the Tamil students like P. Kandiah and A. Vaidiyalingam returned home from Cambridge as communists. They were, in fact, the founding members of the Ceylon Communist  Party along with Pieter Keuneman. Only Ponnambalam was the exception. He went to Cambridge on a scholarship granted by what he contemptuously called the homogenous state” (i.e., the Sinhala state) and returned home without embracing either  liberal or socialist ideals as guiding principles for his politics. He opted for a brand of communal politics minted by him which ran counter to the mainstream politics of  the  time.

Nationalists (Nehru) coming home had to face two enemies : 1. the  imperialists and 2. the separatists (Jinnah) attempting to fragment emerging nations.  Ponnambalam, however,  was not  inspired by either nationalism for the nation, or for the Tamils, or by the ideology of separatism / federalism. In fact, he is on record saying that federalism is bad for Ceylon and worse  for the Tamils.” His formula of 50-50”, or what he called balanced representation”, was his ideology to revise communalism as the determining force of national politics, refusing to go along with the prevailing liberal-democratic politics. His main argument was that 50-50’ would obviate the fears and threats of majoritarianism. Governor Andrew Caldecott rejected it as a crude arithmetical formula”.  Later Lord Soulbury dismissed it as mockery of democracy”. Jaffna Youth Congress was most vociferous in condemning his 50-50 ideology.

Faced with an overwhelming opposition he delivered a marathon  speech on March 15, 1939 to the State Council defending his 50-50” ideology. It was the first time that the Tamil communalism found a mouthpiece to articulate its seminal ideology that was afloat in a vague form demanding extra seats for the Tamils to be on par with the Sinhalese in the Legislative Council. It was seen and rejected as communal representation by the British and the Jaffna youth. There  was a growing  consensus for territorial representation which reflected the democratic will of the nation.

Ponnambalam’s main political theme was to focus on evils of the majority oppressing and denying the  rights of the minorities. But Ponnambalam never referred to how the Vellala majority in Jaffna exploited, oppressed and denied the fundamental human rights of the non-Vellala castes and slaves, particularly the Nalavars and the Pallas. He was exploiting  the majority-minority theme purely on communal lines. His main target was the Sinhalese. He did not extend the same concern for the minority in his own community who were subject to most inhuman forms of oppression by the majority Vellalas. 

To overcome the tag of communalism Ponnambalam made it an issue between the majority and the minority. Instead of demanding one or two extra seats like his predecessors he wrapped the fragmented demands of the old turbaned aristocracy into a consolidated package of 50-50”. It was communalism on a national scale. He wasn’t asking for one or two extra seats in the periphery, either in  the North or Western provinces for the Tamils. He was asking  for a huge share of power at the centre to be on par with the majority. In his speech he explored various theories against majoritarianism and presented his argument as a defence against the abuses of the majority against the minorities. It was this speech that made him a figure  to reckon with in national politics. Needless to say, it enhanced  his stature in the Tamil community.

In May-June 1939 he shot into the limelight again with  his explosive speech at Navalapitiya denigrating the Sinhala-Buddhist culture, its history and the people. In the political heat generated by his 50-50” demand this anti-Sinhala-Buddhist speech was explosive enough to set the nation on fire. But both events – his marathon speech and his virulent speech at Navalapitiya – was sufficient to destroy the communal harmony that prevailed in the colonial and feudal ages. Ponnambalam ignited the first Tamil-Sinhala riots. The nation that began to bleed in Navalapitiya in 1939 never stopped until it ended in Nandikadal in 2009.

Ponnambalam’s main theme was on evils of the majority oppressing and denying the  rights of the minorities. But Ponnambalam never referred to how the Vellala majority in Jaffna exploited, oppressed and denied the fundamental human rights of the non-Vellala castes and slaves, particularly the Nalavars and the Pallas. He was focused on communal politics directed against the Sinhala-Buddhist majority while he was a leader of the Vellalas who never lifted a finger to liberate the oppressed Tamils.  under his very nose.

Ponnambalam’a success in reversing the liberal-democratic trend fostered by the Jaffna Youth Congress was fatal. He was trying to make a case for the Tamils as the victims of the Sinhala majority. But the ground reality was different. The Sinhala masses were in the same boat as the masses of the  other communities though Ponnambalam made it look like a Sinhala vs. Tamil issue. The Jaffna Youth Congress depicted the plight of  the Sinhalese succinctly when they wrote : The Sinhalese peasantry are suffering from a scarcity of land and are becoming rapidly pauperised. The business of the island is in the hands of the Europeans and the Indians. The cocoanut industry is the only industry that remains in the hands of the Sinhalese. Even in this more than seventy-five percent of the estates are mortgaged to Indian capitalists. Even in the professions and the Government service Sinhalese occupy a comparatively inferior place. Whatever the reason for this state of affairs the Sinhalese are becoming sensitive to their inferior position and are crudely attempting to reassert their position. In this delicate state of feeling the granting of the 50–50 demand will make them feel that they are to be reduced to a state of political helplessness, and will call forth the most violent reaction. Communal propaganda will be openly carried on by the Sinhalese… The leadership of the Sinhalese will pass into the hands of avowedly communal elements [like the Sinhala Maha Sabha].” (Communalism or Nationalism? – Reply of Jaffna Youth Congress to Ponnambalam’s speech..)

These two events –his marathon  speech and the Navalapitiya attack on Sinhala-Buddhists,  both coming one after the other  —  coincided with his cry for 50-50” to give birth to a new political consciousness in the North and the South. As pointed out by the Youth Congress, the communalism of one was feeding  the other. In fact, Bandaranaike thanked Ponnambalam for his Navalapitiya tirade against Sinhala-Buddhists because it helped him to mobilise the Sinhalese to his Sinhala Maha Sabha on a larger scale. With  his words and actions Ponnambalam led Jaffna into a political cul-de sac from which  it never came  out. Ponnambalam’s words and actions, when put together, added up to an ideology of the Tamils consisting of three major factors : 1. disproportionate share of power in the centre ; 2. whipping up the cry of victimology and 3. demonising the Sinhala -Buddhists, their history and their culture. Though Ponnambalam did not put all three factors together and spell it out as a cohesive ideology the upshot of his tactics resulted in providing the framework for his successors  to build on this triad to push mono-ethnic politics of the North to the  extreme.

A close examination of Northern politics will reveal that it never  deviated  from  these three factors  identified by Ponnambalam. First, in the post-Ponnambalam period mono-ethnic extremism escalated incrementally heading straight towards the Vadukoddai Resolution which declared war against the democratically elected state demanding a separate state. Tamil extremism encapsulated in the Vadukoddai Resolution has its roots in Ponnambalamism, especially his disproportionate demand for 50-50”. Eelam is an extreme version of 50-50”. Second, the rationale for this demand was the accusation that the Tamils were the  victims of Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarianism and discrimination. In his second length speech to the Soulbury Commission in 1945 he made the same accusation. After examining his claim, the British Commissioners dismissed it as an accusation unsubstantiated by the weight of evidence. Third, for him to make a demand of this proportion he had to buttress it with just not yesterday’s politics but on the entire course of history. To claim 50-50” he had to put Tamil history on par with that of the Sinhalese. Or better still, to denigrate it as being almost inferior to  that of  the Tamils. Demonising the Sinhala-Buddhists and denigrating their history and culture was a primary tool of Tamil politics.

History was an  indispensable element for the Tamils to claim equal  status – i.e., 50-50 at first and then later, separatism. Hijacking history to back their claims was an essential source. A whole new industry sprang up, particularly in academia and the NGOs, to denigrate Sinhala-Buddhist history, culture and heritage. A classic example is Buddhism Betrayed? Religion, Politics and Violence  in Sri Lanka – S. J. Tambiah of Harvard University. Though it came with the with the imprimatur of prestigious Harvard University it lost it credibility because it was seen as a tendentious tract written to  denigrate the Sinhala-Buddhists – a la Ponnambalam. The cover itself betrayed his political bias. In  it  a leading  Buddhist monk was portrayed in a militant pose, indicating clearly the anti-Sinhala-Buddhist mission  of Tambiah. Besides, he begins his book with a stupid question:  If Buddhism preaches nonviolence, why is there so much political violence in Sri Lanka?” And in the following 203 pages he labours to convince the reader that behind all the violence were the Sinhala-Buddhists and their ideology. 

In other words, he produces a mono-causal thesis blaming only the Sinhala-Buddhist ignoring  the complex of history of multifarious factors that converged to create the North-South conflict. He says: …..I have tried to present in narrative form the unfolding of events over a period of about hundred years …The main question to which I shall probe is the extent to which, and the manner in which Buddhism as a religion” espoused by Sri Lankans of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries has contributed to the current ethnic conflict and collective violence in Sri Lanka.” ( p.3 — Ibid). And then he proceeds to detail how Buddhism has contributed in a significant way to the current conflict. He takes a blinkered view as if Buddhism had acted as the sole miscreant that caused the violence. The dialectics of two forces of the North and the South interacting and clashing does not enter into his  account. It’s Sinhala-Buddhism that is blamed all the way. The fact that Sinhala-Buddhists were reacting to an inimical, uncompromising, intransigent force from the North, determined to impose its minority demands at the expense of the rest of the nation, which can naturally provoke a reaction, has been ignored. What is implied is that as non-violent Buddhists their duty was to give in to all the demands of the minority. The crisis could have been avoided if the Buddhist have been more tolerant and compromising, according to him.

By omitting  the roles played by Northern actors Tambiah has  virtually exonerated the Tamils from any responsibility for the violence. In any case, it is against common sense to believe that violence came only from the uncompromising attitude of the majority. It is like believing in the sound of a clap with one  hand. Besides, this claim is factually wrong. For instance, when Ponnambalam was demanding 50-50” the Sinhala Board of Minister offered him 43 per cent. Ponnambalam rejected it. Which majority in the world had given 43% to a minority of 12% on an issue of so fundamental as power-sharing? The Tamil leadership blundered and the blame is put on the Sinhala-Buddhists.

In contrast, A. J. Wilson, son-in-law of the father of Separatism, S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, has commended Sinhala-Buddhist as the force that has sustained democracy in a pluralistic society. Calvin Woodward, in his review of Wilson’s book, Politics in Sri Lanka, 1947 – 1973, states: The uniqueness of Sri Lanka, Wilson points out, is that it (Sri Lanka) has faced challenges without veering from the democratic path. Certainly then, the key  to the future lies in  an understanding of the past. How and why, in other words, has the democratic experiment been able to work so well in Sri Lanka? The author investigates this and concludes that the  political stability so far maintained in Sri Lank is due mainly two factors, one of indigenous origin and the other the result of Western implantation. Primary is the Buddhist ethos and the doctrine of tolerance. This, according to Wilson, has acted to dissuade the majority community from unduly imposing itself on the minorities and encouraged it to respect the fundamental rights and distinctions of others in the plural society.” (p. 72 – The Ceylon Journal of Historical and  Social Studies – Vol III, July-December, 1973, No.1.)

Of course, it didn’t take long for Prof. Wilson to somersault, like most Tamil intellectuals, after the declaration of war against Sinhala-Buddhist in the  Vadukoddai Resolution endorsed by the Tamil leadership in May 1976. Tamil and pro-Tamil intellectuals fell in line with Ponnambalam to denigrate Sinhala-Buddhist history and devalue its culture in order to push their  claim  for  what Bandaranaike called outrageous demands”.  The intellectual fashion was to follow Ponnambalam every inch of the way. A whole school of Ponnambalayas rose in academia, NGOs and among pseudo-Marxist pundits / political scientists to defend Tamil extremism based on the triad outlined above. The irony is that they imagine themselves to be original thinkers when  they are merely aping  Ponnambalam. Dayan Jayatilleka, the self-styled political scientist, for instance, is wondering why there are no Gramsci’s in Jaffna. Where are the Gramscis of Jaffna?” he  wants to know. He can look till the cows of Jaffna come home and he  will not find any for the simple reason that Ponnambalayas do not breed Gramscis.

Of course, in  his latest Gramscian” utterance he has predicted the end of the Tamils if they don’t band together against the armed Dharmapalas”. The Ponnambalayas in the North – there was no one else in the peninsular landscape – always survived by similar kind of calls to arms. Dayan Jayatilleka is a Ponnambalaya of the South raising phobias against the Sinhalese just like the way Ponnambalam did at Navalapitiya in 1939. Clearly, there is nothing original in regurgitating old Ponna”, as he is known in demotic parlance.. But, according to Dayan’s latest prognosis, Ponnambalamism has come to  a dead-end. So why is it that the Marxists, the Gramscian, the ex-JVPers and the political scientists behaving  like Ponnayas? 


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