The Jaffna Youth Congress and its Legacy
Handy Perinbanayagam 100th Birth Anniversary Commemoration
The Kokuvil Hindu College Old Students’ Association
Ramakrishna Mission Hall, Colombo
March 28, 1999
I consider it a great privilege to be able to participate in today's proceedings on this historic occasion. It is in many ways appropriate that this function is organised by the Kokuvil Hindu College Old Students' Association. Handy Perinbanayagam found fulfilment in his final years as a teacher in this college. I have observed the devotion and enthusiasm with which you have organised this function not only here but also in Jaffna and London. I have no doubt that his name will be honoured for generations to come at Kokuvil Hindu College. We have to make sure that the ideals he stood for are also passed on to coming generations. It is also appropriate that we meet in this hall. Handy Perinbanayagam belongs to a great tradition in Indian and Lankan history that has roots in the legacies of the great emperors Asoka and Akbar, the reform and revivalist traditions associated with Rajaram Mohan Roy, Ramakrishna, Vivekananda and Gandhi. This is a tradition that is based on compassion and understanding among persons of all faiths, the pursuit of reality without narrows bigotry, intolerance and violence that is endemic today. Swami Vipulananda of the Ramakrishna Mission was an active participant in the activities of the Youth Congress. Handy Perinbanayagam paying a tribute to him (in the Kesari 25.9.47) said that he was a person to whom they turned instinctively for leadership and guidance.
This is an occasion on which we remember not only Handy Perinbanayagam and his multi-faceted contribution to this country, but a whole generation of his comrades that constituted the Jaffna Youth Congress. They have all passed away with only one exception Mr. Duraisingam. He remains the last and vital link with that unforgettable generation of leaders who made a vital contribution to the task of education, and the social and political life of not only Jaffna and the Tamils of this country but to the whole Island to which they rightfully belonged and served with distinction. They made a remarkable contribution to Jaffna's intelligentsia and shaped the thinking of a whole generation of men. The indelible stamp of the Youth Congress was evident in the men of this generation who had come under its influence. In 1933 the students of Jaffna College paid this tribute to Handy Perinbanayagam.
Already many homes in our country and many walks of life are filled with men who have loved you, followed you, and honoured you, learned your great language, caught your clear accents and made you their pattern to live and to die. Your example is ever a call to the generations to come to live the good life. (see K. Nesiah. S. Handy Perinbanayagam - A Valedictory Tribute. Edited by S. Sivanayagam and S. Ratnapragasam. Ceylon Printers, Colombo. May 1960).
I had the privilege of knowing and interacting with several members of that generation. In fact the name Handy Perinbanayagam as mentioned above was a household word in our time. I heard his name as a child in my Seremban days, during the Second World War in Malaysia under Japanese occupation, then the Federated States of Malaya. Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose had strengthened the Indian Independence League and had built up the Indian National Army. The cadres of the IIL marched through the streets of the major cities of Malaya shouting Gandhijiku Jai, Nehrujiku Jai, and Netajiku Jai. My father, though a pastor of the Methodist Church, was a member of both the Ceylonese Association and the IIL in Seremban. He had been a founder member of the Jaffna Youth Congress in 1924 (then the Students' Congress) and had been the editor of the Ceylon Patriot, a secular weekly (founded in 1861 in Jaffna) which became the voice of the Youth Congress. It was published by the Lankabhimani Press. The paper having ceased publication in the 1930s, the press continued to provide service to the people of Chavakachcheri and the Thenmaratchy division under the able managership of Abraham Moses (from Kerala) until the early 1960s. Francis Kingsbury also knew as Alagasundra Thesihar, Lecturer in Tamil at the University College, and his successor the first Professor of Tamil in the University of Ceylon, Dr. Kanapathipillai published most of their books in this press. The Thirumakal Press published the Eelakesari under the ownership of Mr. Ponniah. He was popularly known as "Eelakesari Ponniah" and was a close friend of Handy and the Youth Congress members. The Eelakesari, a weekly, for all practical purposes became the voice of the Youth Congress in Tamil, and remains an important and vital source for historical information on this period. In publishing the Handy Perinbanayagam Memorial Volume in this press the editors consciously acknowledged the support given by this press to the work of the Congress. In addition the Hindu Organ and the Morning Star also gave wide coverage to the activities of the Congress, at times critical but very much positive and fair in their reporting.
In our Seremban days in the frequent narrations of events and personalities in India and the Lanka of the 1920s and 30s, we heard stories of the Youth Congress and Gandhi's visit to Jaffna in 1927. In these narratives the name Handy Perinbanayagam figured prominently. Books and pictures of Gandhi, C. F. Andrews, Tagore and Vivekananda found an honoured place in our home. I myself went to the Vivekananda School to study Tamil, and we participated in festivals in the Hindu temple in Seremban. In my family we have had a long tradition of Hindus becoming Christians and in one prominent case a return to Hinduism. C. W. Thamotherampillai and his son Francis Kingsbury are notable examples. Hence I need not say how deeply I value this occasion and my presence here. It brings back profound memories of persons and events that shaped our lives.
I once had an interesting exchange with the Revd. Celestine Fernando who was university chaplain in my university days and a good friend in later years. He had some harsh words on some southern politicians who had discarded Christianity and changed religions. I asked him what he thought of Handy Perinbanayagam. He got visibly angry and said that there was no comparison and emphasised that Handy did it with integrity over a period of years.
I myself once engaged Handy Perinbanayagam in a discussion on his religious views and found it enlightening. Without going into further details we would do well to recall what three men who knew him best, Orator Subramaniam, A. S. Kanagaratnam and N. Sabaratnam said on behalf of the Handy Perinbanayagam Commemoration Society.
He was born of Christian parents and as he went through college and adult life he took great interest in the Student Christian Movement. As a thinker he could not agree with the orthodox Christian churches and in time drifted away from them towards the religion of his forefathers. To the end he held that the tenets of Christianity and Saiva Siddhanta were close enough to be regarded as one.
We returned to Lanka in April 1946 in the very first ship the "Arundale Castle" a troop-carrier improvised to carry the first batch of returnees, categorised as war refugees from Malaya. Contemporary times are not the first time when our people have been rendered refugees. The schools in Jaffna opened their doors freely to the Malayan returnees. I went to Jaffna College where the name Handy Perinbanayagam was writ large. Practically every teacher here had been associated with the Youth Congress under Handy's leadership, though he himself had quit the college to pursue a brief career in the legal profession and a brief fling at parliamentary politics. At Jaffna College I met Siddarthan and Saravanapavan, Handy's sons who have remained close friends since then. Several years later when I got married by some happy coincidence I found that my wife was not only a contemporary of Selvi Thiruchandran, Handy's daughter, but also a close friend of hers and also of Orator Subramaniams' daughter Gnana, presently Mrs. Puvanarajan. Mr.C.Subramaniam (popularly and affectionately known as Orator among students and friends alike) was the other stalwart of the YC, who together with other former members of the YC formed the Handy Perinbanayagam Commemoration Society. They published in 1980 the Handy Perinbanayagam Memorial Volume that included the history of the YC and selections from his speeches and writings.
In the early 1970s Mr. Perinbanayagam expressed an interest in writing the history of the YC. He invited me to help him in this task. He was at that time residing in Colombo. I was travelling between Colombo where I was teaching and Jaffna where my family resided housing then as now being a major problem in Colombo. He dictated his reminiscences on the few occasions we met. I have used the notes from these sessions and a later handwritten piece by him in writing the history of the YC. I had to leave for Japan in 1973 in pursuit of my higher education. By the time I returned he was too ill for any further reflection. But I remember one comment he made when I asked for documents hand written or published. He had none and his answer was as follows: "All my life I have practically lived a camp life, moving from place to place, from house to house." This was true of most members of that generation. Yet we know how well read and educated they were. They did not seek material advancement or the comforts of life that have become common place today, but gave all that they had to students, fellow teachers and the community.
Today even the few documents that were preserved have been lost in the never ending war that we have been through. Many of us have lost a life times collection of valuable books, documents, letters, pictures and audio-tapes painfully collected over the years in our homes in Jaffna at the hands of anti-social elements from a variety of political persuasions, who have scant respect for learning, culture and the pursuit of what is good, true and of lasting value to society.
Sometime after Handy Perinbanayagam died, a memorial meeting was held at the Vaidheeswara Vidyalayam in Jaffna, at which I had the privilege of speaking representing the younger generation. Orator Subramaniam presided and the speakers included the late Prof. Arasaratnam from Australia. In 1980 we released the Handy Perinbanayagam Memorial Volume at a well attended meeting at the Vembadi Girls' College. Once again Orator presided. That meeting was probably the last occasion when the surviving stalwarts of the YC met under one roof. Senator Nadesan another founder member of the YC was the key speaker. He was so carried away by the occasion and the contents of the book that he held forth for an hour and a half. So much so that the two other main speakers the late Prof. Kalilasapathi and I had to cut down our speeches to a brief five minutes each. I am happy to have been given substantial time to make-up for what I lost on that day nearly 20 years ago! I no longer represent the younger generation! But we do have a message for them. Today it is about the lives and times of the first youth movement that emerged in Jaffna, and the endeavours of persons who left a lasting legacy of permanent value. What then is that legacy?
That legacy has to be seen in the context of the events, ideals and achievements of the men and women of the YC generation. Handy Perinbanayagam is best remembered by the gathering here today as the principal of Kokuvil Hindu College, and for the outstanding contribution he made to education and public life not only in Jaffna but in the whole country. I do not intend to dwell on the contributions he made to numerous causes. I focus today primarily on Handy Perinbanayagam as the founder-leader of the Youth Congress and his place in history in this capacity. The Jaffna Youth Congress originally named the Students' Congress was founded in 1924. It remained a potent force in the political and cultural life of the Tamils for over a decade. The YC was primarily Jaffna's response to the Gandhian nationalist movement in India. The influence of the Indian National Congress and Gandhi were felt most in Jaffna.
In June 1924 Handy Perinbanayagam sat the BA examination and assumed duties as a teacher at Jaffna College. Prior to this he and a few friends had planned the founding of an organization for national independence and the Students Congress came into existence in December 1924. From the very beginning the SC had an all-Island perspective, rose above parochialism of any sorts, was committed to national unity, political independence, and the social, cultural and economic betterment of the whole of Lanka. A conscious effort was made to embrace young people of all races, creeds and castes. The aims of the congress were clearly laid down in the resolutions passed at the very first sessions in 1924.
The congress should work for the betterment of the motherland, that no distinction be made on religious or racial grounds, that annual sessions consist of representatives from all races and creeds, that no sectarian issues be raised, that members strive to remove the curse of untouchability, to cultivate the study of national literature, art and music and to develop and promote writings and publications in the national languages of fiction, history, biographies and works in the sciences. It was resolved following Gandhian practices to patronise as far as possible locally manufactured goods and eschew foreign products. Though no resolution was made on dress the above resolution implied the wearing of the national dress, preferably khaddar. Several members of the Youth Congress wore the national dress for the rest of their lives. The others did so as frequently as possible. National resurgence among the English educated class, with a few exceptions, in its social, cultural and linguistic dimensions happened in the south in 1956 and thereafter. Even then it happened for public consumption several members of this class having a dual life style, one for political purposes and the other for their domestic life aping the west. In Jaffna and among most Tamils there was no need for a 1956 upsurge with its donning of the national dress, kiributh breakfasts and high profile visits to temples. A genuine national and cultural revival free of hypocrisy had taken place in Jaffna in the 1920s. Some of these men had discarded their western attire, as students, in the Gandhi led bonfire of western clothes in 1921.
Handy Perinbanayagam once related a memorable event in his life. In 1922 he had passed the London Inter-arts and was given the singular honour of delivering the prize day oration at Jaffna College, that year also being the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Batticotta Seminary the precursor of the college. Handy persisted in wearing the national dress. Principal Bicknell to whom he was deeply attached insisted that he wear suit and tie. Handy refused to do so. Very early in life he demonstrated his commitment to his convictions. It was, he said, a painful decision to make. The honour went to Lyman Kulathungam who incidentally wore the national dress for the greater part of his life.
Annual sessions of the congress were held spread over three days in different parts of the Peninsula. The 1924 sessions were held in the city of Jaffna, at Keerimalai in 1925, 1926 and 1928, at KKS in 1929, and at Thirunelveli (Thinnaveli) in 1930. The seventh annual sessions in 1931 - the year of the boycott - was a colourful and grand affair. The annual sessions were held in a specially erected pandal on the Jaffna esplanade. Srimathi Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, the chief speaker and president-elect for the sessions was taken in a procession from the Thattartheru junction to the venue in a carriage drawn by three white horses headed by several bands of musicians and youth clad in khaddar and wearing Gandhi caps. They carried the red, green and saffron flag of the YC symbolising the unity of all communities in the island. The 1931 sessions witnessed the largest ever gathering at any annual sessions. The proceedings began with the singing of 'Bande Mataram' and renderings of Subramaniya Bharathi's songs of freedom.
The name change from Students' Congress to Youth Congress took place at this
sessions. In 1931 the YC reached its zenith in moulding public opinion in Jaffna. Sessions were held in 1932, 1933 and in 1934 which was the last well attended sessions. Thereafter sessions and meetings were held periodically until the early 1940s.
Lectures at the annual session and meetings of the YC were delivered by eminent scholars, educationists, writers and persons with cultural attainments. These included prominent personalities from India such as Gandhi, Nehru, Rajaji, Satyamurti, Kalyanasundra Mudaliyar and Kamaladevi Chattopadyaya. At practically every session Sinhalese young men who were to become future political leaders graced the occasion with their presence and speeches. These included D. B. Jayatileke, P. de S. Kularatne, G. K. W. Perera, A. E. Goonesinha, George E. de Silva, E. W. Perera, Francis de Zoysa K.C., C.E. Corea, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike and S. W. Dassanaike. Even J.R.Jayewardene is known to have participated at one meeting. Leaders from other communities included T.B.Jayah and Peri Sundaram. In later years prominent leaders from the left movement such as Dr. N. M. Perera, Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, Leslie Goonewardene, Selina Perera and others appeared on the YC platform and frequently interacted with Handy and his colleagues. Among Tamil participants were many notable scholars, teachers, writers and persons involved in public life. The list consisting of a galaxy of personalities is too long to be included here. (See Handy Perinbanayagam: A Memorial Volume, Thirumakal Press, Chunnakam, 1980. Second edition edited Santasilan Kadirgamar, Kumaran Printers, Colombo, 2012.)
Mahatma Gandhi in Jaffna
It was the YC that invited Gandhi to visit Ceylon in 1927. In the south older men took over once Gandhi responded to the invitation. In Jaffna it was Handy and the YC that organized the visit which witnessed the first mass gatherings of people in tens of thousands which according to eye-witnesses were unprecedented and included celebratory scenes of enthusiasm free of divisive and partisan politics, the likes of which were not seen for decades to come.
Mahatma Gandhi arrived in Jaffna on the 26th of November 1927 in the Governor's saloon attached to the Jaffna train to be welcomed by a "seething mass of humanity" outside the railway station. In his farewell speech in Colombo, Gandhiji had said, "Somehow or other I feel that I am going to a different place in going to Jaffna." At his very first meeting in Jaffna he again said, "Having come to Jaffna I do not feel that I am in Ceylon, but I feel that I am in a bit of India. Neither your faces nor your language is foreign to me." He touched on the burning issues of the time such as caste, prohibition, revival of ancient culture, Hindu-Christian relations, the place of Jesus among the great teachers of the world, communalism, problems of aping the west and nationalism. His dominant theme was however to draw attention to the starving millions in India. "I know that all the monies I have received from boys and girls, will bear greater fruit than the monies received from old and wise men. Your money comes with the stamp of innocence upon it, and it goes also to some of the millions of men and women who are innocent, not deliberately perhaps, but because they cannot be otherwise." (Santasilan Kadirgamar, The Jaffna Youth Congress in Handy Perinbanayagamk : A Memorial Volume, Thirumakal Press, Chunnakam, 1980.)
Commenting on the religious controversies of the times he emphasised that the "purpose of men of all faiths should be to become better people by contact with one another, and that if that happened the world would be a much better place to live in ... I plead for the broadest toleration, and I am working to that end. I do not expect the India of my dreams to develop one religion, that is, to be wholly Hindu, or wholly Christian, or wholly Mussulman, but I want it to be wholly tolerant, with its religions working side by side with one another."
Dreams and Visions
Speaking at Gandhiji's 25th death anniversary remembrance meeting Handy said, "Gandhiji was in politics then; so were we in Ceylon. Today India and Ceylon are steeped in politics. But there is a difference between the politics of those times and of today. The politics of those days were aspirational. Visions and dreams loomed large then. Today's politics are factional and pragmatic. They are also grosser and grimmer. The post-independence history of the two countries bears witness to this truth."
Delivering the welcome address at the reception to Shri Jayaprakash Narayan in 1969, Handy having apologised for linking his name with that of the distinguished visitor said, "We dreamt dreams and saw visions. Our dreams and our visions were focused on the freedom of our countries and the rich blessings that it would bring to their peoples."
The question of communalism figured prominently at the 1928 sessions of the Youth Congress. Nadesan reflected the dominant sentiment in his address. In attempting to meet the argument that the Sinhalese majority is likely to dominate and further their own position at the expense of the other races under conditions of self-government, Nadesan said that after long years of subjection to foreign rule the chances were that the majority community at the beginning of self-government would use power for narrow and selfish ends; but some years of experience in self-government would teach them that the strength of the nation required that every community in the country needed to be developed to maximum power. He ventured to express the hope that the parochialism would cease and that people would think of the nation first. Self-government, he said, was the only remedy for their ills.
In the 1930s the ideal set before the country by the Youth Congress and nationalists in the South was a free and united Lanka. The Youth Congress was fully committed to a Ceylonese nationalism. When 1956 came it brought to the men who once belonged to the Youth Congress more than to anyone else in the country, a sense of defeat and disillusionment. Handy noted with regret that they had looked forward to "a land teeming with goodwill and blessedness." He added:
Language which is the bone of contention today was peacefully settled by both Sinhalese and Tamils. Before long however bloodshed, premeditated murder and migration were the order of the day ... All this was the vision of an idealist yesterday. What of tomorrow? A peaceful Sri Lanka no longer dreaming of fantasies but wanting the present travail to end is the urgent need.( Handy Perinbanayagam: A memorial Volume.)
The Jaffna Boycott of 1931
I wish to use this opportunity today to place on record as forcefully as possible, though briefly, one issue on which the YC has been unfairly and in some cases maliciously misrepresented - that is the Boycott in Jaffna of the first elections to the State Council in 1931. A comprehensive piece on this must await another occasion.
The following resolution was unanimously adopted by the annual sessions in 1931.
This Congress holds Swaraj to be the inalienable birthright of every people and calls upon the youth of the land to consecrate their lives to the achievements of their country's freedom." This was followed by an amendment to the resolution which read, "And whereas the Donoughmore Scheme as embodied in the recent Order-in-Council militates against the attainment of Swaraj this Congress further pledges itself to boycott the scheme and authorises the executive committee to devise ways and means for enforcing the boycott. (The Jaffna Youth Congress in Handy Perinbanayagam: A Memorial Volume.)
Following an enthusiastic campaign the leaders of the Youth Congress succeeded in persuading prospective candidates and senior and seasoned politicians in not submitting nomination papers for the four seats in Jaffna.
Several well-known historians and political scientists both Sinhalese, Tamil and foreigners having made a superficial study of what happened have either misrepresented or failed to place on record effectively the real reasons for the boycott and the context in which it happened. Most of them did not go into the primary sources available in English and Tamil, nor took the trouble to visit Jaffna and interview the men of the Youth Congress who lived right into the 1980s. These men could have enlightened them on this highly publicised event. I hope contemporary historians will take note and never again repeat a canard that has been picked-up again and again by interested parties to vilify the 20th century history of the Tamils in this country, from the perspective of subsequent events. 1924 to 1934 constitutes a remarkable, bright and spectacular decade in the history of this country when the Tamils under the leadership of Handy Perinbanayagam and the Youth Congress took a strong anti-imperialist position, stood for freedom from British rule, the eradication of social-disabilities, and for national unity rising above communal, sectarian or parochial issues. As late as 1966 Handy himself placed this on record.
Many responsible Sinhalese leaders have persistently read a communal significance into this decision, and the boycott that followed. I remember I had to put the late S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike right, when, at a conference where both of us were present, he suggested that the boycott was inspired by communal motives. The latest offender in this regard is Mr. H.A.J. Hulugalle, who in his biography of D.R. Wijeyawardene, repeats the slander. Nobody who has watched our lives and noted the price that we have paid for our consistent devotion to the ideal of a United and Free Ceylonese Nation, can accept this view. The boycott was launched because the Donoughmore Reforms fell far short of complete independence. (A Tribute to C. Subramaniam. The Skantha, April 1966, p.31. Thirumakal Press, Chunnakam.)
The Daily News, all along a supporter of the Youth Congress and a strong critic of the Donoughmore Reforms welcomed the boycott in Jaffna. Having criticised the candidates in the rest of the country for lack of political principles, the editorial on nomination day commented that the "one relieving feature in this soporific performance is contained in the news from Jaffna … Public opinion in Jaffna" said the editor, "is a potent thing. Those who defy it do so at their peril. Ever the home of virile politics, Jaffna is determined to see that the public spirit of her citizens is equal to any crisis." (Ceylon Daily News, 4 May 1931) The historians who have misrepresented the above boycott failed to grasp the strength of public opinion in Jaffna as understood by the Daily News, which at this juncture brief though it may have been was staunchly behind the Youth Congress.
Philip Gunawardene from London wrote,
I longed for the day when the youth of Ceylon would take their place by the side of the young men and women of China, of India, of Indonesia, of Indo-China, of Korea and even of the Philippine Islands in the great struggles of a creative revolution against all the mighty forces of old-age, social reaction and imperialist oppression. During the last few years the Jaffna Students' Congress was the only organisation in Ceylon that has been displaying political intelligence ... Jaffna has given the lead. They have forced their leaders to sound the bugle call for the great struggle for freedom, for immediate and complete independence from Imperialist Britain. Will the Sinhalese who always display supreme courage, understand and fall in line? A tremendous struggle faces us. Boycott of the elections was only a signal. It is the duty of every Sinhalese now to prepare the masses for a great struggle ahead." (Searchlight, 20-27th June 1931 and quoted in The Jaffna Youth Congress in Handy Perinbanayaga: A Memorial Volume.)
At the height of the language debate in 1956 when it was becoming fashionable for Sinhalese spokesmen to attack the Tamils as reactionary and as opposed to the national struggle for independence it was Pieter Keuneman who on behalf of the Communist Party of Ceylon put the record straight in parliament. He recalled the role that the Jaffna Youth Congress had played and denied the allegation that was made that the boycott took place because the new constitution granted political power to the Sinhalese. "It was" he said "the weakness of the movement in the South that was responsible to a very great extent for the breakdown of the developing national movement in the North."
We have to distinguish between the anti-imperialist purpose of the boycott and whether it was a wise decision in terms of political tactics at that juncture. The latter is debatable. The former cannot. There has been a tendency to denigrate the men of that generation on account of the boycott in crass and indecorous language, by scholars, journalists and nondescript contributors to the press who never shared the anti-colonialist nationalist aspirations and the cultural ethos of that era or in subsequent times. Their aims were noble and the boycott was only one episode, though a much publicised one, in the history of a movement that embraced a variety of aims and ideals that were of lasting value.
Handy Perinbanayagam's career from 1931 did not go smooth. Many were the sacrifices he had to make to stand by his convictions be they political or religious. As one of his admirers put it
"Handy Perinbanayam was essentially a maker of men. From Vaddukoddai via Law to Kokuvil is a long story. The path was strewn with endless controversy, and the field proved fertile for both his detractors and admirers who delighted in the doubtful pastime of assessing his worth in terms of victories and defeats. But the unassailable idealist that Handy always was, he was able to inure himself to any vilification. True to the ideals of the Gita, he acted according to the dictates of his conscience and left the outcome in the hands of Providence" (N. Sabaratnam, "A Maker of Men, the Builder of Kokuvil Hindu" Homage to Guru: S. Handy Perinbanayagam. Edited by S. Sivanayagam and S. Ratnapragasam. Ceylon Printers, Colombo. January 1978).
More touching was the tribute paid by his Tamil Congress opponent at the parliamentary election of 1947. Mr. K. Kanagaratnam said:
He contested the Vaddukoddai seat in the first parliament along with five others including me and lost. I must confess that he was undoubtedly the most qualified of the lot both in point of political knowledge and long training for public service but the party slogans and mass hysteria snatched the seat from him." (K. Kanagaratnam in S. Handy Perinbanayagam - A Valedictory Tribute. Edited by S. Sivanayagam and S. Ratnapragasam. Ceylon Printers, Colombo. May 1960).
Liberalism and the right to dissent
In evaluating his life and work I do not go into Mr. Perinbanayagam's role as teacher and educator, except to make a brief comment. I leave that topic to Prof. Sandrasekeram. The one time members of the Youth Congress in later years were educators in the fullest sense of that term. They were makers of men. They were also committed members of the Northern Province Teachers Association and the All Ceylon Union of Teachers. I have titled this presentation as the Youth Congress and its Legacy. A liberal tradition persisted in Jaffna and the rest of the island, among the Tamils from the 1920s through the 1980s as the men of that generation passed away one by one. It is a tradition that persists to this day, in the country and within the Tamil diaspora globally. But it persists with diminished strength, as more and more people take the easy option of falling in line with dominant trends and forces. This tradition which stood for liberalism and the right to dissent is rooted in the history of the Youth Congress and is a legacy of their contribution to education and to public life in Jaffna. Sections of the Marxist left once dismissed this as bourgeois politics and culture only to fall back on this tradition with the demise of the Soviet Union.
Orator Subramaniamr, A. S. Kanagaratnam and N. Sabaratnam who shared the values of this tradition, apparently bore this in mind when they put together the selections from the writings and speeches of Handy Perinbanayagam in the Memorial Volume. These deserve to be translated and published in Sinhalese and Tamil. Some benefactor should take up this appeal. The issues he deals with range from topics such as "Whose Schools", "Parents, Teachers and Schools" to "A Free Press in a Democracy." His writings and speeches include great personalities with an international stature like Gandhi, Jayaprakash Narayan and Ananda Coomaraswamy, to lesser known personalities. His comments on men and matters were devastating, but without rancour and bitterness, tinged with a sense of humour. He had the courage to take on powerful men in politics and in society, including managers of schools and hierarchies of organised religions. At the same time he did not hesitate to criticise the leaders of the left who were personal friends and with whose politics he often sympathised. His comments always projected values that are humane, universal and permanent. He was a regular contributor to the Ceylon Teacher’ the Journal of the ACUT, the Kesari published in the 1940s, the Cooperator in the 1960s and occasionally in the mainstream news papers.
His views are best summed-up with this quote from one of his writings titled "The Right to Think and Speak." He wrote,
We have seen that those who believe in free thought also believe in the inherent vitality of truth which must prevail in the end; the struggle may be bitter, tragic and long-drawn out; sooner or later truth is vindicated. Those who live for truth and fight for truth and refuse to bow their heads to mobs, governments or priestly hierarchies often rely on posterity to do them justice. (The Right to Think and Speak. The Ceylon Teacher - Journal of the ACUT Oct. 1953).
In the 1920s and '30s he was a committed anti-imperialist. In the 1940s and '50s he engaged himself eloquently in the debate on the national languages as the medium of instruction, on free education and teachers rights. In the 1950s when the language controversy dominated the headlines his was a strong and determined voice demanding equal status to the Tamil language in the face of the Sinhala only cry. He did this with restraint and dignity refusing to fall in line with the opportunism and emotional rhetoric that characterised politics on both sides. On the contrary he could have easily joined the band-wagon and entered parliament. In the 1960s and '70s he defended press freedom and made representations to the Constituent Assembly. This liberal approach to politics and the great issues of the times, the capacity to dissent and disagree and put forward alternative proposals, to consistently uphold the fundamental, human and democratic rights of the people is the vital and treasured legacy left behind by Handy Perinbanayagam and the generation that belonged to the Youth Congress. This is a tradition that we affirm today. It is a tradition worth preserving. That is the greatest tribute we can pay to that generation of our parents, teachers and educators.
As we honour the cherished memory of Handy Perinbanayagam - teacher, educator, social reformer, statesman, leader and maker of men - I wish to sum up with my concluding passage from my work on the JaffnaYouth Congress in the Handy Perinbanayagam Memorial Volume published in 1980, at the risk of some repetition.
The achievements of Handy Perinbanayagam and the Youth Congress lay in the cultural and educational fields and in the eradication of social disabilities. The elevation of the Tamil language to a place of honour happened in Jaffna as early as in the twenties. The practice of having lectures and meetings in Tamil on not merely subjects of literary interest but on secular and political matters as well, began with the Youth Congress. The young men of Jaffna though English educated restored national customs, festivals and dress to a place of honour in the social life of the community. The uncompromising stand taken on removing the humiliations imposed by caste was one of its major achievements.
Above all out of the Youth Congress came a whole generation of eminent teachers, principals, administrators and builders of schools. Their efforts in the mid-decades of this century made it possibly for Jaffna to enjoy the pre-eminent position that it occupies in the sphere of education with schools that could be the pride of any nation. They remained a dedicated band of teachers nationalist to the core. Dressed in their spotless white national costume, they were seen and heard on every big occasion in Jaffna. They gave a distinct flavour to public life in Jaffna and brought qualities of integrity and sincerity to several public causes to which they gave of their time and talents.
Sunday Observer, Colombo, 11 April 1999
Tamil Times, London, 15 May 1999 vol: XVIII No.5 (p.19-26)