Some Reflection on the Life and Times of S.J.V. Chelvanayakam
(100th Birth Anniversary Commemoration)
31 March 1997
The New Kathiresan Hall, Bambalapitiya, Colombo
Meiji Gakuin university
I am happy to be able to participate in the proceedings today. I wish to thank you Mr.Sivasithamparan, President of the Tamil United Liberation Front, and the members of the TULF for the opportunity you have given me to say a few words as we celebrate the birth centenary of one of the outstanding leaders of our times in this country. Leaders who make history, especially political personalities must be subjected to critical appraisal, without bitterness and rancour, by their supporters and opponents. But on an occasion like this it is but appropriate that we focus on the positive aspects of the life and work of Mr. Chelvanayakam. As an observer, student and to some extent a participant in the unfolding events in Lanka, I was beginning to get the feeling that Mr.Chelvanayakam was being forgotten expect for token expressions of respect. This occasion today and your plans to have a yearlong programme to commemorate and celebrate his 100th birth anniversary have dispelled any such notions. I wish to congratulate the TULF, its members and leadership, and specifically its leader Mr.Sivasithambaram, who is today an elder statesman not only to the Tamils but to the whole country, for organizing these events, and thereby helping to place in perspective the ideals and achievements if both the FP and the TULF.
My earliest recollections of the revered and much respected leader Samuel James Velupillai Chelvanayakam go back to 1947. It was that historic, glorious and memorable day in world history, August 15 1947 – when India became free. The occasion was the opening ceremonies of the exhibition and carnival at Union College, Tellipallai, under the principalship of Mr.I.P.Thurairatnam. Mr. Chelvanayakam unfurled the tri-coloured flag of Independent India and delivered a short speech. He was at that time in the midst of the election campaign and was a candidate for the KKS seat which he won with a comfortable majority a few days later, thereby launching a long, eventful and in some respects a controversial political career which is now history. Nevertheless, as far as this country is concerned, and specifically the Tamils and Muslims of this island are concerned, an unfinished history.
Several years later, when my family lived at Tellipallai, where my father was pastor of the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India (the members of the Chelvanayakam family were members of this church), I had the privilege of being one of the volunteers working for Mr.Chelvanayakam at the 1952 parliamentary election. We were then students in the university entrance classes at Jaffna College. As students of government and politics we had read and studied federalism. One of the popular books then was a text book written by A. Jeyaratnam Wilson, then a young, bright and upcoming Assistant Lecturer in the University of Ceylon. Among the 40 students in the HSC hostel at Jaffna College only two of us (V.Kanapathipillai – presently Dr.V.Kanapathipillai of the Dept. of History, Peradeniya University and I) were supporters of the FP. We were both from Tellipallai and worked for the F.P. We lost, and when we returned to the hostel the rest of the students welcomed us with a big hoot. They were mostly students in the science classes, were totally ignorant of the ABC of politics and were under the misconception that federalism was a division of the country and would adversely affect their prospects of employment in the rest of Ceylon. Many of them today are abroad and are passionate Tamil nationalists – rather late – comers to the world of politics. These then are some of the ironies of contemporary history!
As mentioned above it is not my intention today to make a critical appraisal of the life and times of Mr.Chelvanayakam. That is being done even as the history of this country is being recorded and interpreted by numerous scholars, if various hues and colours. In this context I recall a comment I made in the University of Jaffna. It is the custom in our university for all the heads of departments to say a few words of welcome to the new entrants at the beginning of the academic year. In the Faculty of Arts we had about 10 departments in 1983. The speeches were made in the order of numerical superiority – that is the head of department with the largest number of students addressed the gathering first – usually Economics, followed by Tamil, Geography etc. history was the last even after Sanskrit. As Head of the Dept. of history my turn was the last with only seven students among a total of 500 having opted to study history. Speaking in Tamil I said “Many among the Tamils in Jaffna are today talking about and passionately discussing and interpreting history and several are even writing history. But hardly anyone wants to subject him or herself to the discipline of studying history for four years!” I do not want to comment on this aspect any further, except to say that among the Tamil speaking peoples of this country there is a need, a crying need for accomplished scholars in the field of history, politics and international relations especially among the younger generation, who have a commitment to the land and people here and are prepared to spend time and participate in the educational and public life of this country. We are already paying a heavy price for this vacuum in our society and are likely to do so in the decades to come.
A Tribute to the Party
We remember on an occasion like this the long list of devoted members of the federal party and the TULF, from unknown and less known names to the several office -bearers and members of parliament in a history that spans nearly five decades. I had the privilege of interacting closely with several members of the FP/TULF from the 1950s. As a student a Jaffna College I came to know Mr.Amirthalingam and continued to have a personal relationship right until his sad demise. I learnt Tamil politics in diligently listening to his speeches when he was the star attraction at the 1952 election meetings. He was not only an eloquent speaker in English and Tamil, but was also an outstanding debater with a through grasp of the facts and issues. I must confess at this juncture that I was a political opponent of Mr. Amirthalingam and the FP in the Vaddukoddai electorate in the 1960 March/July and the 1965 elections - being an active supporter of the left movement, the LSSP and CP at that time. This change occurred during my period in the University of Ceylon. Mr.Amirthalingam of course won these three elections with ease. I may add that when I finally decided to vote for him in the 1970 election he lost his seat, placing me always on the losing side! He nevertheless received me with utmost courtesy and kindness whenever I called on him. I have had the privilege of organizing visits to him and other leaders by several delegations from the south and from abroad, such as from the SCM and CWF, the Christian Conference of Asia and the World Council of Churches, journalists of the caliber of Dr.David Selbourne and human rights activists, in the late 70s and 80s. This continued when I called on him every year in Madras from 1984 to 87. On one occasion in 1970 I asked him whether he had made any serious mistakes in his political career. He admitted that in 1957 much against the advice of his respected leader he decided to erase the Sinhala ‘Sri’ on the number plates of the buses that had been sent to Jaffna, replacing them with the Tamil ‘Sri’. This, as is well known created further anti-Tamil tensions in the country. Every delegation I took to him came back utterly impressed with his life style, the hospitality of his home and his intellectual flair. These students confessed to me that in their own electorates in the South they dare not step into a MPs house and raise the kind of questions they raised and have the kind of frank discussion they had with him in spite of the fact that he was at that time Leader of the Opposition. One meeting with him was enough to dispel the negative image that had been tenaciously cultivated in the South. This was true of not only Mr. Amirthalingam but several parliamentarians of the FP/TULF – their way of life and easy accessibility. This quality perhaps was imbibed from their leader.
What we owe to Vettivelu Yogeswaran will have to be recorded elsewhere. Many have mourned and wept over the death of Yogeswaran and I for one will remember for the rest of my life for his selfless service, at tremendous risk to his own life, to us the citizens of Jaffna, and especially for Tamil youth. On behalf of Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality (MIRJE) some of us interacted with Mayor Viswanathan and Senator Nadarajah. Mavai Senathirajah was the TULFs representative in the committee of the Jaffna Branch of MIRJE founded in 1979. Mrs. Amirthalingam participated in the first Satyagraha that MIRJE organized in Jaffna in December 1979. Dr.S.A.Dharmalingam was a regular and active member of our committee. Some of us also participated in a monthly study group that met in the home of Mr. Kathiravetpillai. Here we had heated and controversial discussions with the then members of the TULF Kovai Mahesan and Eelaventan. I may also add that I have known several members of the Chelvanayakam family. These included his sons Chandrahasan and the late Vasiharan. Vasiharan was a brilliant man of intellectual honesty and integrity who stood by his convictions, and with whom I had the privilege of having long and meaningful discussions in the Chelvanayakam home in Alfred House Gardens… Prof. A. Jeyaranam Wilson, Lanka’s respected and leading political scientist is well known. His writings whether one agree with him or not are a mine house of information, providing an insider’s view of men and events… I was able to call on him in August last year in Toronto. We wish him a speedy recovery from his illness
The 1951 Trincomalee Resolution
I intend to focus today on Chelvanayakam’s role as a peace-maker. While he was firmly committed to compromise in the larger interests of the whole country, he had both the vision and the commitment to compromise in the larger interests of the whole country. This approach is clearly evident from his earliest speeches. In fairness to him and his place is history, in the context of the adverse propaganda carried out against him, it is but right we highlight his role as peace-maker. His speeches - choice of words and expressions - were that of a moderate, statesmanlike, and I believe consciously drafted to provide space for compromise. The resolution read as follows:
Inasmuch as it is the inalienable right of every nation to enjoy full political freedom without which its spiritual, cultural and moral stature must degenerate, and inasmuch as the Tamil-speaking people in Ceylon constitute a nation distinct from that of the Sinhalese by every fundamental test of nationhood, firstly, that of a separate historical past in this Island at least as ancient and as glorious as that the Sinhalese, secondly, by the fact of their being a linguistic entity entirely different from that of the Sinhalese, which makes Tamil fully adequate for all present day needs, and finally by reason of their territorial habitation of definite areas which constitute over one third of this Island, this first National Convention of the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi demands for the Tamil-speaking nation in Ceylon their inalienable right to political autonomy and calls for a plebiscite to determine the boundaries of the linguistic States in consonance with the fundamental and unchallengeable principle of self-determination”
The resolution further stated that:
“The I.T.A.K recommends to the Tamil-speaking people the feasibility and desirability of establishing the autonomous Tamil linguistic state within the framework of a Federal Union of Ceylon, as the rational and natural culmination of centuries of close association between these two nations it this their common motherland and with a view to promoting and maintaining national goodwill and close co-operation with the Sinhalese people.” The resolution was not worded in belligerent and confrontational language. On the contrary the tone is one of moderation and conciliation, reflecting the values of the vast majority of the people of this country. Some of his followers may have in their public utterances used provocative language. That is inherent in the nature of politics. A political movement, however, must be judged primarily on its official declarations and statements made in parliament.
Firstly the resolution speaks of political autonomy and not separation. The adverse propaganda carried out against the FP both in the south and in the north, I repeat by hostile forces in the north, by Tamils in Jaffna itself - was to deliberately distort the demand for political autonomy as separation long before the secessionist demand. Secondly the resolution refers to the historical past as ancient and as glorious as that of the Sinhalese. There is no bitterness or attempt to denigrate the achievements of the Sinhalese and their civilization, but a genuine and sincere acknowledgement of their remarkable history about which the Sinhalese people are legitimately proud of. Thirdly the resolution focuses attention on the centuries of close association between these two nations in this their common motherland. Yes, close association and not enmity and conflict. It is a fact of history that the Sinhalese and Tamils have lived together in peace for by far the greater part of their history. We have NOT been at war. It is fashionable these days for some foreign scholars with a superficial understanding of the history of this country, and for international news agencies to state that the Sinhalese and Tamils have been at war for centuries. The wars of certain periods, it has been documented by reputed historians, were dynastic wars and not between peoples. Mr.Chelvanayakam and the FP were correct in affirming the close association in this their common motherland - emphasis again on common motherland. And finally the resolution concludes with a view to promoting and maintaining national goodwill and close co-operation with the Sinhalese people. Goodwill and co-operation - not ill-will and hostility. From its inception the party under Mr.Chelvanayakam’s leadership in adopting this resolution adopted a realistic and rational view of the situation. There was no bitterness and animosity, or extremist posturing. On the contrary the F.P demonstrated willingness to compromise - providing space for meaningful dialogue and negotiations.
The Bandaranaike – Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957
The B-C Pact as it has popularly become known is a tribute to the vision and statesmanship of these two great leaders. Concise and to the point it laid the basis for all future negotiations leading to agreements, accords and proposals. The main provisions of the B-C Pact are well known and do require repetitions here. Both Chelvanayakam and Bandaranaike exhibited their extra-ordinary negotiating skills and a capacity for compromise, in what was and continues to be a complex and intricate problem. Every subsequent agreement or proposals placed before the people of this country derive their basic and fundamental principles from this pact. These include the Dudley Senanayake – Chelvanayakam Pact of 1965, the Development Councils Act No.35 of 1980, Annexure ‘C’ of 1983, the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987, and the Devolution Proposals now before the country.
The B-C Pact incidentally was one of the shortest among these pacts and agreements, less than three pages. Every subsequent document (with exception of the Dudley - Chelva Pact) had become longer and longer running into several pages. The longer these documents become the problem itself becomes more intractable and complex, providing more scope and space for evasion and procrastination. It must be said in fairness to both statesmen that they sincerely desired a solution within the parameters and limitations that their politics had imposed on them. It is now possible to discern continuity in the approach of the Federal Party and the subsequent TULF in consistently sticking to the principles as enunciated in the B-C Pact.
On the other hand one can also discern a similar trend in the SLFP, now the major partner in the Peoples Alliance under the leadership of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. One must however admit that the two governments led by Mrs. Bandaranaike made little or no effort to seek a solution based on the principles laid down by Mr. Bandaranaike. The Dudley-Chelva Pact couched in different terms sought to establish a framework for a solution. It however fell far short of the principles enshrined in the B-C Pact. The subsequent UNP leadership ignored even this limited advance made by their party at great cost to the country, until forced by powerful forces both internal and external to arrive at the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987. These are events of recent history. Four issues figured in the B-C Pact. The Official Language question and the question of Citizenship for the up-country Tamils have now been legally resolved though on matters of implementation fall far short of the expectations of the Tamil people. The unresolved issues are those of regional autonomy and the matter of land settlement schemes.
Part B section two and three of the B-C Pact sum up the core issues at stake: (2) that the Northern Province is to form a regional area whilst the Eastern Province is to be divided into two or more regional areas. (3) Part (b) section two and three of the B-C Pact sum up the core issues at stake. That the Northern Province is to form a regional area whilst the eastern Province is to be divided into two or more regional areas. Provision is to be made in the Bill to enable two or more regions to amalgamate even beyond provincial limits; and for one region to divide itself subject to ratification by parliament. Further provision is to be made in the Bill for two or more regions to collaborate for specific purposes of common interests.
The Dudley Senanayake – Chelvanayakam Pact of 1966 did not go as far as the B-C pact on District /Regional Councils. It was primarily pre-occupied with the question of language and land, taking into account the fact that the Srimavo Bandaranaike government of 1960-64 had done irretrievable harm to the Tamils. However it did spell out important principles on the land question. In section 4 Mr. Senanayake agreed that granting of land under colonization schemes the following priorities be observed in the Northern and Eastern provinces. (a) Land in the Northern and Eastern provinces should in the first instance be granted to landless persons in the district. (2) Secondly, to Tamil –speaking persons resident in the Northern and Eastern provinces. Thirdly, to other citizens in Ceylon, preference being given to Tamil citizens in the rest of the Island.
Linguistic States, Democratic Rights and Autonomy
In seeking to establish an autonomous unit on a linguistic basis Chelvanayakam was focusing on an issue that had relevance for the whole of South Asia. We have seen in the period after the Trincomalee resolution the map of India redrawn and in 1971 the birth of Bangladesh. In India the Constituent Assembly refused to endorse proposals to constitute states on a linguistic basis. Nehru was initially opposed to the concept of linguistic states on the grounds that such a provision would endanger India’s unity and integrity.
He was forced to revise his position in 1953when the Telugu-speaking state of Andhra emerged as the first such state. The Commission constituted to Re-organize States in the Indian Federation while reiterating that the Union of India was the basis of their nationality conceded the criterion of language as the basis for constituting a state and said:
“Linguistic homogeneity provides the only rational basis for reconstituting the state, for it reflects the social and cultural pattern of living obtaining in well defined regions of the country.” The process of creating linguistic states initiated in 1953 culminated in 1960 and resulted in re-drawing the map of India. This was a major development as Muni suggests toward incorporating cultural identities into political and administrative units. The federal devolution of power strengthened this expression of cultural diversity.
(S.D.Muni, “Ethnic Conflict, Federalism and Democracy in India,” in Ethnicity and Power in the Contemporary World. Ed.Kumar Rupasinghe & Valery A. Tishikov, United Nations University Press, Tokyo 1996.)
We would do well to remind ourselves at this juncture that autonomy is desirable even in the absence of linguistic, religious and cultural diversity. It is increasingly being realized in the contemporary world that there is a vital need for autonomy to guarantee democratic rights and good governance to the vast masses of people. This is the position taken by the left movement and human rights and peoples movements. As Hurst Hannum has pointed out, “the development of autonomous arrangements to serve the interests of a territorially based group (which is often, although not necessarily, ethnically and culturally distinct from the dominant society) may respond to three primary needs. In its broadest sense, autonomy may be an expression of the self-determination of a people or society, where that people’s choice falls short of independent statehood. Autonomy may also be a means of ensuring that a state is truly democratic, so that all significant segments of society are able to participate effectively in the political and economic decisions which affect their lives. Finally, autonomy may be viewed primarily as a means of ensuring that fundamental human rights are protected, by ensuring that a larger polity can only intervene within the autonomous community within certain specified limits.
We have to analyse “autonomy as a component of democratic governance, In this context, autonomy can exist within a wide variety of structures from classic federalism to arrangements of confederation, devolution, or decentralization … ensuring that issues are considered by the lowest appropriate level of government has long been thought to be politically desirable.” We have also got to remember that “autonomy is not a panacea,” and that there is a need for solutions based on mutual respect “plea for pragmatism” and that is a need for solutions based on mutual respect and tolerance and that these should remain the ultimate goal of attempts at meaningful conflict resolution.” (Hurst Hannum, “The right to Autonomy: Chimera or Solution.” in Ethnicity and Power in the Contemporary World. Ed.Kumar Rupasinghe & Valery A. Tishikov, United Nations University Press, Tokyo 1996.)
I do not intend going into the several agreements in the post Chelvanayakam period. It is however as mentioned above possible to discern a continuity right up to the present moment, first under the joint leadership of Mr.Amirthalingam and Mr.Sivasithanparam, and subsequently of the TULF under Mr.Sivasithamparam’s leadership and other Tamil political parties. The broad based People’s Alliance today enjoys the backing of nearly all the Tamil members in parliament and a large segment of the Muslims. The chances of establishing a similar alliance occurred in 1960 and again in 1964, when the left movement was still strong in this country. These attempts unfortunately failed. The SLFP has from its inception, historically, represented the forces of Sinhala nationalism. Mr.Chelvanayakam being the representative of Tamil nationalism was right both in 1957 and in 1960 in seeking to resolve the outstanding problems facing the Tamils with the SLFP – the authentic representatives of the forces of Sinhala nationalism. We have waited for three long decades to see a similar alliance emerge that has given priority to a resolution of the outstanding problems facing this country. Any lasting solution must take into account the legitimate aspirations and fears of the Sinhala people, the Tamils of the North and East and in the UP-Country, the Muslims and other ethnic groups. When Bandaranaike was assassinated Principal Selliah of Jaffna College paying a tribute to him at the College Assembly said that Bandaranaike was a leader who was capable of solving this problem. In saying so he gave expression to a sentiment that was widely prevalent among the Tamils. Whether that was right or wrong we can say that Bandaranaike grasped the essence of the problem and made an effort which no other Sinhalese leader since then has demonstrated until 1994. Where Bandaranaike was not able to succeed we hope his daughter will.
These are days with a proliferation of writings, speeches, centres, institutes, seminars and discussions of ethnicity. In fact there is an epidemic in this field, and it is not confined to this country. I have myself been infected by this epidemic! It is a global phenomenon. We have also witnessed the speed and ease with which Tamils who have left the country in the last fifteen years – leave alone those who left much earlier – have lost their cultural identity in the white man’s world. It is a complex world of rapid changes. In this context I wish to conclude with a true life anecdote.
Time: Sometime around 1942-43. Place: Primary school at the St.Paul’s Institution in Seremban, Malaysia, then Malaya under Japanese occupation. A Japanese officer walked into our classroom to take a head count of the racial break-up of the students in the classroom. He asked the Chinese students to stand up and the Chinese did. There were no Malays (Muslims) in this Catholic school run by Italian and French priests and brothers. (The Italians and conquered French were allies of the Japanese regime and were allowed to run this school. American and British missionaries and teachers were under detention.) Next he called on the Indian students to stand up and they did as required. We, the Ceylon Tamil students who were the second largest group next to the Chinese remained seated. He shouted at us and asked why we did not stand up. We naturally replied that we were Ceylonese. Visibly angry he ordered us to stand up and screamed, “No Ceylon, only India.” We were hardly eight years old but had a clear and strong sense of a Ceylonese identity.
In 1987 I happened to be in Singapore in the month of August. Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s annual national day address was on the air. It was a speech marked by his intellectual flair and he dealt at length on the state of the economy and the challenges faced by the country. He ended his speech with personal reminiscences. I recall from memory. In the 1930s, he said, we were citizens of the British Empire and we sang “God Save the King.” Then came the Japanese and we sang “Kimigayo” the Japanese national anthem. Japan lost the war and it was back to “God Save the King.” This soon became “God Save the Queen” when King George VI died. Then Singapore became free and we had our anthem. Then we became a part of Malaysia and we sand the Malaysian national anthem. In 1965 Singapore was forced to quit Malaysia and we had our own national anthem. He concluded his speech with the question “What Next?”
We have not reached that point in our history to be able to ask what next? The big question facing us twenty years after the passing away of S.J.V.Chelvanayakam is what now? Will his aspirations and vision be ever realized? Will we have peace with justice which we can accept with honour and self respect? Can we hope that this will be realized in this the fiftieth year after decolonization in Lanka and even as we celebrate the hundredth birth anniversary of Samuel James Velupillai Chelvanayakam.
Extracts of this speech were published in Sri Lanka News, Wednesday, April 23, 1997 and in the Daily News of the same week. It was also relayed over the English Service of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation.
Speakers at the meeting included Prof. Sitrampalam of the University of Jaffna, Prof. Sandrasekaram of the University of Colombo, Mr.Rauf Hakeem M.P and of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, Mr. R. Sambandan of the TULF, and Chairman Mr.Sivasithamparam, leader of the TULF. The short but eloquent speech that evening was delivered by Mr.Bernard Soyza, Cabinet Minister in the Government of the day and leader of the LSSP sending out a powerful message favouring justice and equality. It marked a return of the LSSP to its pre 1972 days, and on this occasion underlined the just demand by the minorities for devolution/autonomy. Unfortunately his death robbed the country of one of its last statesmen and a stalwart of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party.
Also worth noting is that having lived abroad and not in contact with many that I had known and interacted with prior to 1983, I received a warm welcome at this meeting, among others, from Neelan Tiruchelvam M.P., Thangathurai M.P and Mrs.Yogeswaran, (briefly Mayor for Jaffna) widow of Yogeswaran, one time M.P for Jaffna and assassinated by the LTTE in 1989. Sad, tragic and unforgettable since this was the last occasion I met them – all three brutally assassinated shortly after this event.