Handy Perinbanyagam and the Jaffna Youth Congress
Selected from:[DSS Discussion Group] Rajan Philips Review: Handy Perinbanyagam and the Jaffna Youth Congress
1. Learning lessons from an inspired era:
February 25, 2012, 12:00 pm
(Book Launch:HandyPerinbanayagam Memorial Volume and the Jaffna
Youth Congress 5:30 pm, Sunday, 4 March 2012 at Saraswathie Hall, Bambalapitiya)
The coming week will be diplomatic high noon at the UNHRC session
in Geneva.The Sri Lankan government has reportedly decided to take an ‘ethical stand’ against what it has described as "unethical distortion", by interested parties, of Sri Lanka’s true position that "given the considerable progress that has been achieved in the implementation of the recommendations of the domestic mechanism from the release of the (LLRC) Report to date and the Road Map for further progress, any resolution (at UNHRC) of whatsoever nature is most unhelpful and highly unwarranted." If hearing is believing, the assertion of "considerable progress … to date" and the assurance of a "Road Map for further progress" by our diplomatic champions in Geneva should indeed be believable!
While we wait for the show to go on in Geneva, there will be a
different occasion in Colombo, far less spectacular but a lot more inspiring, for learning lessons from a different era. The occasion will be the release of the "Handy Perinbanayagm Memorial Volume and the Jaffna Youth Congress", in Colombo, on Sunday, March 4. The book is an update of the 1980 publication edited by Silan Kadirgamar, the dedicated historian of the Jaffna Youth Congress. The new edition is sponsored by the India-Sri Lanka Foundation, and the Indian High Commissioner Ashok Kantha will grace the book launch as Chief Guest.
A remarkable achievement of the book project is the simultaneous
release of Part 1 of the book in all the three languages of the land. The parity of language, India’s cultural support and the occasion for learning lessons are all in keeping with the Gandhian inspiration to freedom, the inclusive nationalistic ideals and the emphasis on education and the privileging of national languages that were the hallmark of the Jaffna Youth Congress, Handy Perinbanayagam and his illustrious contemporaries.
The short lived history of the Youth Congress is forever
associated with introduction of universal franchise in 1931. In an act of inspired notoriety, the Youth Congress spearheaded Jaffna’s boycott of Sri Lanka’s inaugural election to the State Council established under the Donoughmore Constitution and involving one of the early exercises of universal voting rights anywhere in the world. The Youth Congress like many others rejected the Donoughmore Constitution for falling short of full independence, but only the Congress translated its rejection into practical action.
The circumstances of the boycott and the intended and unintended
consequences that flowed from it for Tamil politics as well as national politics offer many lessons about Tamil society and politics as well as their creative and destructive tensions with Sri Lankan society and politics. The Memorial Volume chronicles the circumstances and the events of a brief but tumultuous period in the history of Tamil political society without embellishment and faithful to the dictum that "facts are sacred." It is for others to connect the plethora of dots in the subsequent evolution of Tamil politics and develop critical perspectives for historical analysis and prognosis.
At the height of the 1931 boycott, the leading lights of the
Jaffna Youth Congress (JYC), including Handy Perinbanayagam (HP, 1899-1977) were just over or under 30 years in age. Perhaps naming the organization as ‘Youth Congress’, was a reflection of the youthfulness of its founders. It was unique in that it was a youth organization without allegiance to any parent organization. In fact, it was its own parent organization challenging in every way the established orthodoxy of Jaffna society, especially its casteism. The JYC leaders were committed to non-violence and democratic values.
Despite being called the Jaffna Youth Congress, the organization
was anything but peninsular in outlook and stood for a free and united Lanka committed to universal values and ideals. The use of the place name (Jaffna) in the title was mostly geographical identification without political connotations. The linguistic emphasis was on privileging national languages (Tamil and Sinhalese) as opposed to English, and not as the basis for narrow linguistic nationalism. It is also significant that the JYC founders were inspired by Gandhian ideals of all-India nationalism rather than the anti-Brahaminical but pro-colonial politics of the Justice Party in Madras, precursor to South Indian Tamil nationalism.
As Silan Kadirgamar has noted, the boycott activities of the JYC
did not go unnoticed in the South. Philip Gunawardena described the JYC as the only organization "displaying political intelligence" and called on the rest of the country to follow the lead Jaffna was giving. Four years later in the midst of founding the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, Colvin R. de Silva declared that the roots of the LSSP were inasmuch in the JYC in the North, as they were in the Suriya Mal movement in the South.
But whereas the LSSP was able to build a mass base and become a
force to be reckoned with in the South and to a lesser extent in the North, the JYC had disappeared even before the arrival of the LSSP. Counterfactually, it could be asked if the JYC leaders had contested the 1931 election, the course of Tamil politics would have been different. As it turned out, none of the JYC founders was able to win an election and become a parliamentarian. A number of them contested in elections after independence as candidates of either of the two Left parties.
The boycott of the elections in Jaffna reduced Tamil
representation in the State Council, the outcome was not popular in Jaffna after the euphoria over the boycott ended, and the JYC ended up paying the ultimate price for it. In the South, outside of the Left circles, the boycott was misinterpreted as a response to the failure to secure communal representation even though none of the JYC leaders ever had any truck with the school of communal representation. The fact of the matter is that the first State Council, elected through universal franchise, also became the first communal hothouse. This led to the emergence of full throated communal politics in the North and in the South. The JYC had come and gone.
The sudden rise and the rapid fall of the JYC, says more about Tamil society than about the youthful idealism or naiveté of the JYC founders. The numerical size of the community was a factor in the sudden rise of influence of the JYC, and it was equally a factor in its demise. Most of the principal JYC leaders were great teachers and accomplished intellectuals. Even without electoral success, they were held in
high esteem by the people, and even without becoming parliamentarians, they continued to be leaders of the people. We can only contrast the JYC experience with the more recent and tragic experience of the Tamil society involving a new generation of youth neither inspired by Gandhian ideals nor committed to universal values, non-violence, or democratic norms
2. Jaffna — the Making of Political Opinion
HANDY PERINBANAYAGAM.: A Memorial Volume.
Selections from His Writings and Speeches and the Jaffna Youth Congress.
Handy Perinbanayagam Commemoration Society, 1980.
Prof. Wiswa Warnapala
Lanka Guardian April 1982
Politics in Jaffna, as in the Sinhalese areas, was first dominated by the English educated elite, which, irrespective of the nature of the nationalist movement in neighbouring India, thought that political power could be used in the interest of this limited class. This feature of the constitutional movement, because of its failure to identify itself with the people, prevented the emergence of a mass movement committed to the cause of political independence. Jaffna politics therefore came to be dominated by elite-oriented associations like the Jaffna Association (1904) which included in its ranks a galaxy of the Jaffna elite – J. Hensman, K. Balaslngham, H. A. P. Sandarasagara, I. Thambiah, A. Sabapathy and W. Duraiswamy. Similar organisations, though functioned within the Sinhalese polity, were not considered political organisations capable of leading mass struggles against colonial domination. The political docility and the constitutionalism, which the political associations of the English educated elite displayed in the early twenties and thirties disillusioned the younger elements of both the Sinhalese and the Tamils who, through the influence of the progressive political ideas, saw the need to accelerate the process of the struggle against imperialist domination. The dominance of the Jaffna political scene by the English educated elite-oriented conservative politicians disillusioned the young radicals who, disenchanted and discontented with the constitutionalism of the leading lights of the Tamil political scene thought in terms of forming their own political machine, the story of which has been carefully and scholarly documented by Santasllan Kadirgamar.
The inadequacy and the ineffectiveness of such political organizations as the Tamil Mahajana Sabha and the All Ceylon Tamil League convinced the younger elements of the need to form an organisation capable of mobilising and articulating the Tamil community for political independence. Similar organizations came into existence in the Sinhalese areas, and the Colombo South Youth League, from which the Suriyamal Movement, the precursor of the left wing politics, later emerged, was one organisation which derived inspiration from the Jaffna Youth Congress, which by this time, had become the most articulate of the political associations of the Jaffna political scene. The inability of the previous political associations of the Tamil political scene in generating mass enthusiasm for political independence of the Island and deriving inspiration from the Swaraj movement of India led a group of young men - some of whom later played key role in the left wing politics of Jaffna - to form the Jaffna Youth Congress in 1924. Jaffna College, as Ananda College of Colombo for certain nationalist radicals of the Sinhalese, became the epi-centre of the Youth Congress, which drew most of its cadre from Jaffna College and thereby imbibed democratic and nationalist ideas into the already nascent youth movement In Jaffna. The activities of the young men of the Jaffna College, including those of the Servants of Lanka Society, as revealed by Kadirgamar in his piece on the Jaffna Youth Congress, demonstrated the desire on the part of the educated young to bring about social reform in a society, which from times immemorial, has been submerged in traditional and feudal prejudices.
Handy Perinbanayagam, the live-wire of the Jaffna Youth Congress deriving inspiration from the liberal tradition of the College played the key role in articulating the Jaffna Youth Congress in order to convert it into the vanguard of the youth interested in political Independence. Many faceted activities of the Jaffna Youth Congress demonstrated its commitment to a number of issues, which subsequently became burning problems of the day. The 1925 sessions of the Jaffna Youth Congress, and the various resolutions placed before this session, displayed in no uncertain terms the radical posture of this organisation which, irrespective of the backward conservative society from which it sought legitimacy, demanded the abolition of the dowry system, the advocacy of the temple entry to the harijans and the abolition of inequalities based on caste. Such demands, though gave expression to certain issues of parochial importance, were not devoid of all Island national importance since they impinged on the need for social emancipation. The stand of the Jaffna Youth Congress on the question of self government was to invite full cooperation from the Sinhalese, and this, as Handy Perinbanayagam stated on numerous occasions, demonstrated its desire to build Sinhala- Tamil unity as the hallmark of self government. The leaders of the Youth Congress, as some of the pioneers of the Arya Sinhala dress movement among the Sinhalese, advocated the adoption of the national dress, and this, apart from its spirit of anti-imperialism, contained features of both political mobilisation and legitimisation. Such initiatives, as the work of G. P. Malalasekera and P de S Kularatne among the Sinhalese Buddhists, naturally disturbed the imitative life styles of the English educated upper crust of the Tamil community, and it was this process, in my view, which successfully socialised the Tamil commoner to politics during the period of the boycott of the 193 I elections. The early attempts of the Jaffna peninsula derived inspiration from the nationalist movement of India and they, above all owed a lot to the ideas of both Gandhi and Nehru. The use of slogans with an appeal· to national sentiments demonstrated the impact of the forces in neighbouring India on this movement of the Jaffna youth. The harijan movement of Gandhi in the twenties could be recognised as an example. Its activities, since the inception of the Youth Congress, demonstrated its desire to bring about social reform which eventually became a movement for national resurgence (page 14). It has been stated that ‘it is worthy of note that nowhere in these resolutions is there any indication that they were concerned with a purely Tamil revival’ (page 14) and it is this all Island perspective of the Jaffna Youth Congress which needs to be emphasised in the interest of national unity and understanding.
The growth of this movement, which occurred in the period 19251931, was characterised by the political, volatility of the Jaffna Youth Congress, and it was during this phase that it played the most crucial and controversial role in the Jaffna political arena. Jane Russell who made a superficial examination of the role of the Jaffna Youth Congress, saw the issue of the boycott of the elections in 1931 as the major turning point in its history.l The boycott of the elections in 1931, which was considered its main achievement, needs to be examined from the point of view of the major perspectives of the Youth Congress which, unlike many of its counterparts, advocated the attainment of Swaraj. This organisation of radical youths, by 1930, had emerged as one of the powerful platforms of national independence. Kadirgamar, in his study, has made an attempt to highlight this aspect which hitherto remained unexplored by our historians who excel in the glorification of Imperial history. The leaders of the caliber of Gandhi, Nehru and Kamaladevi Chattophadhya , graced its platform as guest speakers, and these fire brand nationalists injected into the ranks of the JYC a new form of militancy with which they, as Kamaladevi Chattophadhya’s presence in 1931 amply demonstrated, entered into the boycott campaign.
The resolution, which the Youth Congress passed on 25th April 1931, stated that the Donoughmore Constitution militated against the attainment of Swaraj. The attitude of the Youth leaders to the Donoughmore deal has been succinctly described by quoting certain statements of Nadesan (page 40). Long before Donoughmore proposals came into operation, the Jaffna Youth Congress had adopted the view that they fell short of self government (page 71). The Youth Congress, which devoted its 1931 sessions to the issue of the boycott of elections wanted the people of Ceylon to boycott the elections. The passage of the resolution calling for the boycott represented the peak point of the radicalism of the Jaffna Youth Congress, and it, in fact became the affirmation of its commitment to Purna Swaraj. This boycott, which certain observers described as an aspect of communalism, created a different political situation, from which the forces of anti-boycott emerged as saviours of the Tamil community. Though, the influence of the Youth Congress declined with the boycott issue and with the emergence of political forces interested in taking advantage of communalism, it established links with the radical political organisations of the Sinhalese areas. The South Colombo Youth League of Terrence de Zylva and the Suriyamal Movement, from which the LSSP was born in 1935, derived inspiration from the radicalism of the Jaffna youth who, without anchoring their activities to the motivating force of an ideology, attempted to bring about total independence for their motherland. Its association with the nascent left wing politics of the country resulted in the emergence of a group of left wing politicians who subsequently played a role in the formation of branches of the LSSP and the CP in Jaffna. The JYC, with its radical posture. socialised such men as P. Nagallngam, S. Nadesan, P. Kandiah, T. Duraslngham into the left wing political process and they began to look at issues from a national perspective. The Handy Perinbanayagam Commemoration Society, in publishing this memorial volume has made an excellent contribution to the political literature of the country at a time when people tend to look at the Jaffna political scene from the narrow perspective of communalism. The role of the Youth Congress, which hitherto remained hidden under a collection of personal papers and memories of its leaders, has now been explained for the benefit of the scholar and the practitioner of the art of politics. Handy Perinbanayagam Memorial Volume has rightly exposed the political issues relevant to the politics of Jaffna and the Youth Congress, in advocating a united Sri Lanka in the early twenties, saw the irrelevance of parochial politics to the achievement of national unity in a developing nation.
This volume, in addition to its timely discussion on the nature and role of the Jaffna Youth Congress contains selections from the speeches and writings of the late Handy Perinbanayagam whose role became part and parcel of the nationalist role of the Jaffna Youth Congress. Handy Perinbanayagam, in his own right as an educationist, wrote and commented on a wide variety of national issues, some of which still remain the burning questions of the day. The second part of this volume has been devoted for this purpose. Forty seven such issues have been discussed in this part of the volume and they, though invite examination and comment, could not be undertaken in a brief review. Yet certain issues, especially those relating to education need to be given attention. It is known that the Northern Province Teachers Association and the All Ceylon Union of Teachers inherited some of the ideals of the Youth Congress, and the issues as free education, a National System of Education and the use of Swabasha as the medium of instruction, for which the Youth Congress fought, later found entry into legislation. Handy Perinbanayagam, as his writings and speeches demonstrated, remained committed to a national system of education from which he expected the social emancipation of the masses. Handy long before others thought of the mother tongue, fought for the right of the child to learn in his mother tongue. K. Nesiah in his Mother Tongue in Education (1945) made a scientific case for the use of mother tongue in education and this work in addition to the exposition of views on the use of the mother tongue, emphasised the need to change the language of the Island’s administration. Handy Perinbanayagam advocating the use of the mother tongue wanted the education system to be modernised on the basis of the existing linguistic context and he, as a member of the Education Commission of 1961, stressed the importance of this aspect of education. The Memorial Volume, taking into consideration the issues to which Handy attached importance, has carefully selected the relevant speeches dealing with the use of the mother tongue and they both in terms of content and emphasis are still relevant to the issues of the island’s system of education. The rest of the collection, when examined from the point of view of the subject matter and the coverage demonstrates the versatility of this educationist-cum-politician who without joining the bandwagon of a political party did a worthwhile service to the social and political emancipation of the masses, particularly those of the North. There is a tendency in Sri Lanka to attach importance to the careers of those politicians who enter the portals of the country’s legislature and others, who found no entry into the hallowed precincts of the legislature, are either forgotten or their careers go unrecognised. Handy Perinbanayagam, irrespective of his contributions is therefore not known and this is especially so among the Sinhalese intelligentsia. The editors of this memorial volume, by unfolding the story of the Jaffna Youth Congress and the versatile career of Handy Perinbanayagam who was its leading light, have provided the reader with an interesting lot of information relating to the politics of the thirties, and it, above all, unfolds the story of a radical group of people who struggled for national independence in the context of national unity. This message, in itself, is a service to this country. People, who see tigers among the Tamils, should read this book to discover that there were Tamil patriots who spoke and also fought relentlessly for Sinhala-Tamil unity and total political independence when certain Sinhalese leaders were licking the boots of the imperialists.
Note1. Russell, Jan.. Th. Ceylon Tamils under Donoughmore Constitution 19311947.Unpublished thesis, University of Peradenlya, 1976.