The voice of conscience

by S. Thavarajah

(In response to “Determining the appropriate territorial units for the grant of internal autonomy in Sri Lanka” by H. L. de Silva.)

In 1917, when Mahathma Gandhi arrived in Champaran, Bihar, to carry out a survey of the conditions of the peasants, the local authorities served him with notice to quit the district by the next available train. It gave an opportunity to Gandhi put into the acid-test his intrinsic non-obedience concept for the first time in Indian soil. In the trial that followed, this is what Gandhi told the court.

“I have disregarded the order served upon me, not for want of respect for lawful authority, but in obedience to the higher law of our being, the voice of conscience

Gandhi’s ‘voice of conscience’ not only made him triumphant in the Champaran trial, but also as the champion of the independence of India.

It is the same spirit – voice of conscience – that prompted me to write this, after having read the articles written by Mr. HL de Silva..

My conscience urged me not to reply to the points of arguments of H. L. de Silva in the said articles, but, to respond in a manner that would enlighten the writer and the readers alike on the events and causes that have led the Tamils of this country demanding devolution of power in the areas where they have been living and for a power sharing arrangement at the centre as the only viable political arrangement to ensure their rights, equality, honour, and self respect.

Historical Assertion of the Tamils

In the first instance, my conscience spurred me to demonstrate how the Tamils view their history in this country. Instead of referring to history books, I chose to surf the Internet and log on to the “US Library of Congress” website in a bid to see what its “Country Study” says about the Sri Lankan history. This is what I found.

“Confirmation of the island’s first colonizers–whether the Sinhalese or Sri Lankan Tamils – has been elusive, but evidence suggests that Sri Lanka has been, since earliest times, a multiethnic society. Sri Lankan historian K. M. de Silva believes that settlement and colonisation by Indo- Aryan speakers may have preceded the arrival of Dravidian settlers by several centuries, but that early mixing rendered the two ethnic groups almost physically indistinct.”

“Because the Mahavamsa is essentially a chronicle of the early Sinhalese- Buddhist royalty on the island, it does not provide information on the island’s early ethnic distributions. There is, for instance, only scant evidence as to when the first Tamil settlements were established.”

“There is some debate among historians as to whether settlement by Indo-Aryan speakers preceded settlement by Dravidian-speaking Tamils, but there is no dispute over the fact that Sri Lanka, from its earliest recorded history, was a multiethnic society. Evidence suggests that during the early centuries of Sri Lankan history there was considerable harmony between the Sinhalese and Tamils.”

(Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, editors. Sri Lanka: A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1988.)

What I found in a report titled “Historical Background” by Colonel the Right Honourable Oliver Stanley, Secretary of state for the Colonies, who was sent to Sri Lanka as a special emissary in late 1944 to examine proposals on constitutional reform, is also of interest:

“Since the dawn of history, the Island has been subjected to invasions and, for a variety of reasons, the successive waves of invaders who settled there and became the ancestors of the present population have never been completely fused into a united and homogeneous people. The main source of these invaders was naturally India, and it was thence that, according to tradition, the Sinhalese, who are the majority community, came in the sixth century B.C. When their age-long struggle began with the Tamils, the principal minority community, who also came from India, is obscure.”

“The Sinhalese, who number to-day about four millions, and the Ceylon Tamils, of whom there are nearly 700,000 are thus the descendant of the early settlers in the Island.”

Whether the historians agree with these reports or not, the political conscience of the Tamils of Sri Lanka flows from this fundamental conception.

Colonial Era

There is no evidence that until the British consolidated their power and introduced a tightly centralised administrative system in 1833, there is hardly any evidence to suggest that Sri Lanka, as one country, there had been a unitary state. My conscience made me come to this conclusion from what I have found in the following books.

In the book “The Historic Tragedy of the Island of Ceilao” by Caption Joao Ribeiro, who had served in the Portuguese army for about eighteen years, this is what I find.

” There were the seven kingdoms which were usually said to make up the island of Ceilao without including the kingdom of Jafanapatao although it is in the same island; for this does not consist of Chingalas, but is a settlement of the Malavars; and also the other kingdoms which used to exist there in ancient times, such as those of Batecalou, Trequimale and Jaula, which have not been considered as such for many years.”

G.C. Mendis in his book “The Early History of Ceylon” states as follows.

“The system of government during this period cannot be understood unless it is realised that there was very little central control, partly owing to the lack of proper communications. The sub-kings and the chiefs like the village communities were rarely interfered with, as long as they remained loyal and paid the King’s dues.”

I think these two quotations are sufficient to prove my point.

While introducing a centralised administrative system in 1833, the British also introduced a legislative council and nominated three representatives to this body, one Sinhalese, one Ceylon Tamil and one Burgher.

In spite of the fact that this legislative council had very little power and that the nominated representatives belonged to the elite class and they did not represent the respective communities at large, the system had introduced the concept of shared governance by all communities. The later additions to the system were the representatives of the Muslims and low country Sinhalese.

I have not come across any historical records to suggest that up to the end of 19th century during the colonial rule, there had been any semblance of ethnic divide in our country. In fact, the communities have joined hands against the imperial ruler to bring about more constitutional reforms. This notion is well founded in the book, “History of Sri Lanka” by K. M. De Silva in which he states as follows.

“The Tamils have played a major role in inspiring against the British feelings in Sri Lanka.”

The fact also remains that (Sir) P. Arunachalam was one of the founders of the Ceylon National Congress. The ethnic cohesion at that time was so strong that there was a move to start a Buddhist-Hindu College as a counter to Catholic schools.

It is the promulgation of Order in Council in 1920 and in 1923, conceding to the principle of territorial representative system that rang alarm bells for the Tamils. They felt that this promulgation would pave the way for ethno-majority rule in the country.

The negative impact of this promulgation is found in a dispatch by the Secretary of State in January 1924 which states as follows.

“I fear that as long as the several communities in Ceylon remain convinced, as they appear now to be, of the divergency of their interests in many important matters, so long must some provision be made for the maintenance of communal representation in the Legislative Council.”

It was when this promulgation was formulated (Sir) P. Arunachalam quit the Congress and called upon the Tamils to form an island-wide Tamil party for the protection of their interests.

The promulgation of Order in council of 1931 on the recommendations of Donoughmore Commissioners paved the way for the complete replacement of communal representation by territorial representation.

It laid the foundation for absolute ethno-majority rule in this country.

It also sowed the seeds for the emergence of sectarian political parties on an ethnic basis. The rise and fall of the Jaffna Youth Congress in the 1920’s and the emergence of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) in the 1930’s stand testimony to this fact.

The Tamils’ fear was proved correct in the year 1936, when the cabinet was formed with a pan-Sinhalese board of Ministers by (Sir) D. B. Jayatileke. This action was later criticized by Lord Soulbury as, “Showing a singular lack of statementship by Sir D. B. Jajathilaka.”

It is worth, noting the prophetic words of T. B. Jayah in this regard. This is what he said on the 17th of July 1939 in the State Council.

“Where you have a racial majority and not a Parliamentary majority in a council, you are more of a less investing that majority with plenary power for all times and the result is that for all practical purposes the Council will cease to be representative of all sections of the people of the country.”

Another state councillor who had expressed similar fears at that time was R. Sri Pathmanathan. While speaking in the State Council on the 19th of May 1939, he said;

“It will not be possible to work any constitution in this country smoothly until the communal problem is satisfactorily solved. There will always be oppression of one community by another. One community will always try to dominate over the other communities.”

All these statements clearly illustrate minority fears in a system of governance that permits absolute rule by one community.

It is this injustice embodied in the Donoughmore Constitution which resulted in the demand for “Balanced Representation”, by the late G.G. Ponnampalam, the leader of the ACTC. This had the acceptance of the Tamils at large including eminent people like S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, Dr. E. M. V. Naganathan, S. Sivasubramaniam and C. Vannaiasingam.

This demand for ‘Balanced Representation’ has always been misquoted by historians as a demand for fifty percent of the seats in the legislature for the Tamils. What is meant by ‘Balanced Representation’ is unambiguously explained by G.G. Ponnampalam, in his speech in the state council in 1939, as follows.

“The demand, as far as I am aware, of the minorities in this country has been for balanced representation, for representation on the basis that no single community should be in a position to out-vote a combination of all the other communities in the Island. That does not necessarily mean a fifty-fifty basis. It might mean more or less.”

The Soulbury constitution which replaced the Donoughmore constitution in 1946 did not make any attempt to undo the injustice embodied in the Donoughmore constitution, except section 29(2) which gave protection against any legislative enactment that would discriminate against minorities.

In spite of their reservations about the system of governance, all the available evidence indicates that up to the time of gaining independence, the Tamil polity throughout the constitutional evolution of this country, aspired to and relentlessly advocated a power sharing arrangement in the centre. There is no evidence to suggest that they had put forward any formula or demand for the devolution of power to their areas habitation.

Post Independence Era

In contrast to this position, the events that have taken place since independence has made a profound change in the stance of the Tamils. What made them change their political stance so radically? Is Chelvanayakam and Amirthalingam the cause, or something else?

Close scrutiny of the chronology of events since independence provides the answer.

The support extended by the ACTC leader G.G Ponnampalam for the Indian and Pakistani (Residents) Citizenship bill in parliament in 1949, lead to a split in the party. The break away group under the leadership of S.J.V. Chelvanayagam formed the party Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) with the political agenda,

“To work unceasingly for the achievement of a Tamil state within the Federal framework of a united Ceylon, as the only way to ensure that the Tamil-speaking people in Ceylon could live with honour and self-respect.”

This policy statement was put before the Tamil-speaking people at the General Election of 1952 by the ITAK and it failed to get acceptance. Out of the seven candidates who contested on behalf of ITAK in the Tamil areas, only two got elected that was also due to their personal votes, it is said. The leader of the party, S.J.V.Chelvanayagam too failed to get elected. This demonstrates that the majority of the Tamils at that time believed that a Federal Solution was not the way out.

But, political developments between the years 1952 to 1956 made a dramatic change in the stance of the Tamils, resulting in a sweeping victory for the ITAK at the 1956 General Election. What made Tamil people change their stance within this short span of time?

Firstly, the “Sinhala only” movement of the two major Sinhalese political parties.

Secondly, it was the pattern of settlement in the irrigation schemes that started since independence in the Tamil dominated areas. They feared that these schemes were designed in such a way as to change the demography of the area.

The “Sinhala only” Concept

The Sri Lanka Freedom party in its first manifesto issued in 1951 under the heading “National Languages” states as follows.

“It is most essential that Sinhalese and Tamil be adopted as official languages immediately; so that the people of this country may cease to be aliens in their own land, so that an end may be put to the inequity of condemning those educated in Sinhalese and Tamil to occupy the lowliest walks of life, and above all that society may have the full benefit of the skills and talents of the people. The administration of the government must be carried on in Sinhalese and Tamil”

But, in its annual sessions in December 1955, it formally stated that Sinhalese alone should be the official language and the Tamil be made the language of administration in the Tamil areas.

The former Prime Minister of the UNP led government Sir John Kotalawala, when he visited Jaffna in September 1954, in response to an appeal at a public reception at Kokuvil Hindu College, assured that the constitution would be amended to provide for both Sinhalese and Tamil as official languages of the country.

But, on his return to Colombo, when it became the focal point of political debate, he changed his stance and brushed away the whole issue as media mis-reporting.

At the UNP annual conference in February 1956, a resolution recommending that Sinhalese should be recognised as the country’s only official language was passed unanimously.

One month before the adoption of this resolution, the committee appointed by the UNP to draft the agenda for the party conference decided to exclude resolutions on minority rights and parity of status for Tamil.

Disappointed by this turn of events, seven Tamil MPs of the UNP, including one Minister and one Deputy Minister resigned from the party on January 19, 1956. The following day, on January 20th, 1956 all these seven members along with Tamil-speaking members of the opposition announced that they had formed a “united front” to defend Tamil language and culture and to,

“carry on the struggle for the creation of a Tamil state which will offer to federate with the Sinhalese state on terms of complete equality, if acceptable to both nations, or elect to remain independent”.

On October 16, 1955 a meeting arranged by the LSSP at the Colombo Town Hall advocating the retention of equal status for Sinhalese and Tamil was attacked by a mob. Three days later a motion brought by LSSP leader Dr. N. M. Perera in parliament for the amendment of the constitution (order-in council) to give parity of status to Sinhalese and Tamil was opposed by the Prime Minister.

State aided settlements in Tamil dominated areas

During the 1950s, several irrigation schemes were launched in Trincomalee and the present Ampara and Vavuniya Districts. The major schemes were Kantalai and Morawewa – earlier known as Mudalikulam – in Trincomalee District and Gal Oya in the Ampara District. Although Galoya reservoir (Senanayake Samudra) is in the Moneragala District, the majority of the irrigation settlements are in the Ampara District.

The mechanism used in the selection of settlers aroused serious concerns among Tamils that it would change the demography of these districts.

Federal concept as a means to ensure equality, honour and self respect

In the mid-fifties Tamils started to feel that they had lost their battle for ‘parity of status’ in political power sharing. The race between the two major rival political parties in the south to make Sinhala the official language is a good example of this.

Motivated by this shift in policy of the major political parties, the concept of a ‘Federal framework’ put forward by the Tamil leaders as an alternate option, which was negated by the Tamils in 1952, started getting acceptance in the Tamil political arena. A concept in which, they felt, the Tamils would have majority rule in areas where they had been living. In the mid-fifties, this concept was co-sponsored by the ITAK leaders and the seven MPs who left the UNP.

Why the Tamil leaders have chosen the Northern and Eastern provinces as the unit of political power for the Tamil speaking people was for the simple reason that they were the majority in those provinces. A look at the census and statistics data will provide the answer. According to this data, in 1946, Tamil speaking people constituted about 98 % in the North and 87% in the East. If we go back to 1871, when such data first became available, Tamil speaking people were 92% in the Eastern Province. Even if we look at the members of parliament elected from these provinces, up to 1956, they were 100% Tamil speaking.

The Tamil polity, which had now turned to “provincial autonomy” as the best course of action to secure the rights of the Tamils, felt that the schemes of settlement under the major irrigation projects, would in the long term, deprive them of their majority status even in those districts where they aspired to consolidate their “autonomous political power”. Hence, they proposed that the schemes of settlement should be done in such a way that it would not change the demography of the districts.

Consequences of the

‘Sihala Only’ Act

The events that followed the April 1956 General Elections widened the ethnic divide to the point of no return; they made deep wounds in the hearts and minds of the Tamils. They are:

1. Legislating Sinhala as the official language in the House of Representatives on June 5th 1956 while all Tamil members, the LSSP and Communist party members opposed it.

2. About 200 Tamil volunteers led by 12 Members of Parliament who were staging a silent protest outside the Parliament building at Galle Face Green on the same day were manhandled by a mob, while the police looked on.

3. This was followed by rioting in the city with Tamils getting manhandled in buses, trains and on the streets.

4. In 10 days of sporadic rioting, an estimated 150 persons were killed, with the majority of the victims, Tamils.

Consequent to these events, the ITAK reiterated their policy objective of, “Autonomous Tamil linguistic state within a Federal Union of Ceylon” as the only way of protecting the “Cultural freedom and identity of Tamil speaking people.”

Year long political dilly-dallying came to an end with a compromise settlement referred to as the Banda-Chelva pact on July 25, 1957. The concept of devolution of power as a means to ensure the political rights of the Tamil speaking people got its acceptance from the Sinhalese polity for the first time through this accord. Further, the pact implied the need to maintain the demography of the districts in land settlements. On the question of language, it got the ‘parity of status’ as a parallel language of administration in the Northern and Eastern provinces and for ‘reasonable use’ in the rest of the country.

The delay in introducing the necessary legislative enactments to give effect to the agreement was causing concern amongst the Tamils. This vacuum gave impetus to various disobedience campaigns in the North and East.

The intolerance of the Tamil polity for the delay in implementing the pact could be seen from the following expression by Dr. E. M. V. Naganathan on August 13th 1957:

“The policy of political agreement by negotiations appears to be futile, because the government cannot be depended upon; the possibility of carrying on our freedom struggle through civil disobedience may be deemed necessary again.”

Within nine months of signing, on April 9th 1958, Mr. Bandaranayke announced abrogation of the pact unilaterally. The pact finally found its resting place in the archives.

Since then the phrase “betrayal of assurances” became the widely used axiom in the Tamil polity. It is worth recalling what Mr. Bandaranayke is said to have told the Buddhist monks, when he was under pressure to abort the pact.

“If you are against this pact, I would certainly tear it up but it will endanger the future of the country. You have to think about it.”

Provoked by this course of action, the ITAK leadership called upon the Tamil speaking people on April 10th, “to embark on a non-violent civil disobedience movement,” and declared that the only alternative before the Tamils were to, “fight back for sheer survival or to be forever content to remain a subject race.” As announced, the ITAK leadership continued with various forms of disobedience campaigns.

The brewing up of tension as a result of all these developments led to the anti-Tamil riots of 1958. It began with the attack on May 22 on the ITAK delegates by stopping the train in which they were traveling to attend a party convention at Vavuniya. Four of the delegates were killed in the attack. Another train carrying the delegates was derailed the following day. Within a week, the riots spread to all parts of island.

The worst that reverberates in the minds of the Tamils, was the burning of a Brahmin priest alive by pouring petrol on him in Panadura. The other excesses occurred in Polonaruwa and Hinguragoda, where Tamils were chopped with swords and grass cutting knives or burnt alive.

In spite of all these, there was not even an attempt to harm a single Sinhalese out of a total number of about 2,100 who lived in Jaffna at that time.

Instead of arresting the perpetrators of the riots, the Government detained the Tamil leadership. Several Tamil MPs including ITAK leader S. J. V. Chelvanayagam and about 150 of its district leaders were placed under house arrest. The detainees included Muslims as well.

On January 1st 1961, Sinhala became the official and administrative language of the country in terms of the act. The implementation of the Official Languages Act, without any conciliation for the Tamils, had spurred the emotions of the Tamils. A large number of public servants opted to retire.

The resolution passed at the 1961 ITAK convention called on the Tamils of the Northern and Eastern provinces;

“to launch a direct action campaign by picketing Government offices and to refuse to co-operate with officials conducting business in Sinhala and to resist the teaching of Sinhala in schools in Tamil areas,”

is testimony to the emotional upsurge in the Tamil polity as a result of implementation of this act.

As the Tamil polity had failed in its entire endeavour to regain its status quo, the call by the ITAK for a “satyagraha campaign” was met with grate success. It generated tremendous enthusiasm among all sections of Tamil people and it brought together the diverse polity of the Tamils with one motivation.

The participants at the “satyagraha campaign” were strictly forbidden from resorting to violence either by deed or word, even under grave provocation.

The campaign, which started with about 200 volunteers of the ITAK in front of the Jaffna Kachcheri on February 20th 1961 drew a large crowd from various cross sections of people, including elderly. Tamil congress members, LSSP activists, Mayor of Jaffna T. S. Durairajah, professionals and businessmen; all threw their weight behind the campaign by direct participation with their supporters, in spite of severe harassment by police.

This is what Mr. Chelvanayagam said during the height of the Satyagraha Campaign;

“As the political parties in south Ceylon treat the Tamil question as a suitable issue to play upon the emotions of the Sinhalese voters and enthrone themselves on the seats of power, these parties or their politicians refuse, or are unable, to see the justice of our demands.”

“The Tamil Arasu Kadchi, which admittedly represents the Northern and Eastern Provinces and which claims that it is not merely a political party, but is a liberation movement, has one of three courses open to it. The first is to surrender, the second is to rise in armed revolt and the third is to adopt the Gandhian technique of Satyagraha and civil disobedience.”

“The first one of abject surrender will be a disgrace to our people and will be aiding and abetting the political crime of genocide. The second one of rising in revolt is both impracticable and immoral. We are thus left with the third, namely the Gandhian technique. What do our critics want us to do? Do they want us to give up the struggle for the vindication of our unalienable rights?”

“The Parliamentary means of objection have failed merely because the party was outnumbered by a communal majority. Therefore, the party wants to resort to extra-Parliamentary measures which are not normal. By adopting this method, the party subjects itself and its supporters to undergo suffering without hurting its opponents. The party members and its supporters know very well that they would be subjected to arrest, detention.”

The two months of “Satyagraha Campaign” was brought to a halt by police using force against Satyagrahis. They were trampled with boots, attacked with batons, kicked and dragged away. A strictly non-violent campaign to regain their lost rights was brought to an end by the use of violence; followed by declaration of curfew and the arrest of Tamil leaders.

The Times of Ceylon, the evening daily, in its editorial on 22nd February, 1961 about the police brutality reported as follows;

“It is noteworthy that Earl Russel’s and Federal Party’s were both non-violent demonstrators, but the significant difference was that while Russel and his followers had to deal with the disciplined London police, the Federal party had to reckon with Ceylon Police.”

S. D. Bandaranayake, a government MP at that time, who had been critical of the Tamil claims, after visiting Jaffna to assess the situation stated;

“It is the duty of patriotic Sinhalese people to grant the Tamils in the Northern and Eastern areas their rightful place in the use of the Tamil language; the only alternative to a settlement is division of the country like what has happened in Korea, Vietnam and the Congo.”

Acting GA, Nissanka Wijeyeratne, a Sinhalese, was quoted in the newspapers as saying; “The Satyagrahis are very well behaved gentlemen.”

The way the state handled the passive resistance of the Tamils to win over their rightful place had left behind un-healable deep wounds in the mindset of the Tamil community. It had left behind a deep scar amongst the teenagers of that time, who were onlookers of the treatment meted out to the elder generation of their community. These teenagers became militants in the next decade.

With all the violence unleashed against the Tamils, in 1956 and in 1958 by mobs and in 1961 by the forces in crushing a non-violent uprising, the Tamils by and large had not resorted to any form of violence. But they started to realize that the state cannot be depended upon to provide them with adequate protection against lawlessness.

In spite of all these bitter experiences, the March 1965 general election turned out to give a glimpse of hope to Tamils. The election was followed by an agreement between Dudley Senanayake and Chelvanayagam; an agreement, coupled with assurance from the ITAK to support to form the Government. It was a political marriage between the UNP and the ITAK, but the honeymoon did not withstand time.

This agreement conceptually embodied the underlying principles of the B-C pact, thus reiterated the acceptance by the Sinhala polity that, (1) devolution of power is the only means to ensure the political rights of the Tamils (2) there is a need to maintain the demography of the districts and provinces in land settlements (3) Tamils should be given ‘parity of status’ in the administration of executive and judiciary in the North and East.

As compared to the B-C pact, the D-C pact had acknowledged one more conception; that the Northern and Eastern provinces were the traditional habitat of the Tamils. It is evident in the pact by acceding to (a) land in the Northern and Eastern Provinces should in the first instant be granted to landless persons in the District; (b) secondly to Tamil speaking persons resident in the Northern and Eastern provinces; (c) thirdly to other citizens in Ceylon, preference being given to Tamil citizens in the rest of the Island.

Critics on the Tamils side expressed concern that the pact, if implemented, would result in glorified Municipalities. In spite of this criticism, the Tamil polity by and large was prepared to accept the pact as a compromise.

The first phase of the agreement was honoured by passing the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Regulations in January, 1966.

These positive signs towards honouring the agreement had generated immense enthusiasm within the Tamil polity. They were prepared to shelve their original demands for a compromise. The following historical events stand testimony to this notion.

1. The Tamils, for the first time since 1956, wholeheartedly participated in the Independence Day celebrations on February 4, 1966. Up to then it was a day of mourning and boycott of celebrations.

2. Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake was the guest speaker on the final day of the ITAK convention in Kalmunai, in June 1966. The first and only occasion where the Head of State was invited to address the gathering of a mainstream Tamil political party.

3. A new chapter in Jaffna’s history was witnessed on September 9, 1966; more than 100,000 Tamils gathered to welcome Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake. The ITAK and the Tamil Congress, the two rivals, sunk their differences and joined together to welcome the PM. It was a scene never witnessed before or after in Jaffna, where only black flags greeted the ministers in the past.

However, the events that took place subsequently proved that this assertion of the Tamils was wrong. The D-C pact met with the same fate as the B-C pact. The cause for that was also similar – the main opposition parties capitalizing on the sentiments of the Buddhist monks.

The unstinting support extended to the UNP during 1966 – 1968 by the ITAK without any political gain to the Tamils had led to severe criticism against the ITAK leadership. The Tamil youth of the late sixties were getting frustrated and losing tolerance. They saw failure on the part of ITAK leadership to redress the ailing ‘Tamil cause’ through their diplomacy of extra-parliamentary and parliamentary means of democracy.

There have been accusations from Sinhalese politicians and even intelligentsia that it was the ITAK leadership that prompted the youth to take up arms. It is a gross miscalculation. It was when the Tamil youths felt that their community was driven to the walls of discrimination and any reconciliation with Sinhalese was not possible, to draw a balance sheet that they were prompted to resort to violence as the only means left at hand.

Added to this youth sentiment was the introduction of the ‘ethnic quota system’ for the university admission, by the UF government of 1970. This ignited the emotions of the Tamil students and drove them to indulge in violence.

The triumphant of youth organizations with the slogan of ‘separatism”, pushed the ITAK to hurriedly convene a special convention in January 1972 and to resolve inter alia that,

“All the reasonable demands of the Tamils have been rejected and hence the Tamil race has been driven to the path of separation by the government. At this juncture the Convention demands that the Tamils be allowed to rule in their traditional homelands in this country”.

They also invited the other traditional Tamil parties including the Ceylon Workers Congress and formed a united alliance called the ‘Tamil United Front’ in May 1972.

The adoption of a new republication constitution in May 1972 without heeding to Tamils’ claim gave enormous strength to the emerging trends. The general feeling amongst the Tamil speaking people was that the ethno-majority rule had effectively pushed them to a second class status. They considered it a ‘Charter of Slavery’. The following provisos made them to believe so.

1. Removal of Section 29 (2) of the Soulbury Constitution.

2. Entrenching Sinhala Only Act in the constitution.

3. Special reference that that ‘The Tamil Language (Special Provisions) regulation, which was the only gain for the Tamils within the two decades of agitation, shall not be deemed a provision of the constitution.

4. Making Sinhala the language of the court in the entire country and failure to give Tamil a place even in the Northern and Eastern provinces. (The only concession granted was the right of interpretation.)

5. According of pre-eminent place to Buddhism In short, the Sinhala majority constituent makers had failed to accommodate the aspirations of the Tamil majority in the new constitution.

Swayed by the up-coming trend, the youth leagues of the ITAK demanded the TUF members to refrain from taking oaths under the new constitution. They insisted that taking oaths will tantamount to lending legitimacy to the constitution. Hundreds of youths invaded the venue of an action committee meeting of the TUF on June 25th, 1972 and demanded the Tamil MPs to quit parliament and launch liberation struggle. Unable to withstand the pressure, the meeting was adjourned.

Another incident at that time that tremendously hurt the Tamils’ feeling and particularly of the youths was the conduct of the police on the final day of the “International Tamil Research Conference” held in January 1974. The Jaffna people being proud of their language and culture strained all their resources to make that event a great success. The entire peninsula was in a carnival mood. The gathering on the last day of the event at the esplanade was so large that they had to stand across a road in front of the esplanade. A police jeep for unknown reason tried to move through that road. When the crowd did not give way for the police jeep to move, the police attacked and fired into the air. One of the bullet hit a live electric wire, which snapped and fell on the crowd killing nine instantly. Many more were injured in the ensuing stampede.

The TUF was compelled for a policy shift with a view to accommodate this emerging trend. They passed the famous ‘Vddukoddai Resolution’ on 14th May, 1976; a resolution moved by S.J.V. Chelvanayagam (ITAK) and seconded by S. Sivasithamparam (ACTC), which reads as follows,

“This convention resolves that restoration and reconstitution of the Free, Sovereign, Secular, Socialist State of the Tamil Eelam, based on the right of self determination inherent in every nation, has become inevitable to safeguard the very existence of the Tamil Nation in this Country.”

They also changed the name from ‘Tamil United Front’ (TUF) to Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) in the same venue to give a moral boost to their newly acquired policy. The most important point in the ‘Vddukoddai Resolution’ is the preamble to the resolution. Three important paragraphs from the preamble are.

“Whereas, successive Sinhalese governments since independence have always encouraged and fostered the aggressive nationalism of the Sinhalese people and have used their political power to the detriment of the Tamils;”

“Whereas, all attempts by the various Tamil political parties to win their rights, by co-operating with the governments, by parliamentary and extra-parliamentary agitations, by entering into pacts and understandings with successive Prime ministers, in order to achieve the bare minimum of political rights consistent with the self-respect of the Tamil people have proved to be futile;”

“Whereas, the efforts of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress to ensure non-dominance of the minorities by the majority by the adoption of a scheme of balanced representation in a Unitary Constitution have failed and even the meager safeguards provided in article 29 of the Soulbury Constitution against discriminatory legislation have been removed by the Republican Constitution;”

As a party functioning on the basis of democratic principles, the TULF made use of the general elections of July 1977 and placed its resolution before the Tamil Speaking People seeking their mandate. They got a landslide victory in the Northern and Eastern provinces. The overwhelming victory was a clear mandate for their new policy from the Tamil polity.

The following major events since 1977 gave added vigour and muscle to the growth of militancy and helped them to push the Tamil democrats to the point of no-return.

1. The unscrupulous behaviour of off-duty policeman at a carnival organized by the Lions at St. Patrick’s College, Jaffna, in August 1977 to put up a cancer hospital ended up in burning of Jaffna market by the police and island wide pogrom.

2. The adoption of the second republican constitution in 1978 by the majority Sinhalese without giving due consideration to the plight of the majority of the Tamils.

3. The way the elections for the District Development Councils were conducted in Jaffna in 1981 by bringing special officers from the south to conduct the elections.

4. The burning of the Jaffna Public library with about 90,000 volumes of books including invaluable manuscripts and out of print books by the Sri Lankan forces on the eve of the DDC election.

5. The “black July” of 1983, an event that had made an un-erasable imprints in the mindset of the Tamils and the massacre of Tamil remand prisoners at the Welikade Jail.

6. The unruly manner in which the security forces handled the situation from time to time.

7. The envisaged settlement schemes of “Mahawelli Project” in the Northern and Eastern provinces. (If implemented in full would have totally changed the demography of these areas, particularly the East. Settlements in one of these schemes were hardcore prisoners.)


It is the pertinent opinion flowing from my conscience that the numerically majority Sinhala polity in our country failed to understand and accommodate the feelings of the numerically minority communities who had aspired to live with equal rights as those of every other citizen of the country.

Constitutional changes, legislative enactments and administrative directives that were detrimental to the numerically minority communities were made by excising the power of the majority rule. This has alienated the Tamils from the mainstream politics of the country and forced them to look for alternative political arrangement to secure their rights. The political demand of the Tamils today is the resultant of what have evolved out of reaction to events.

The mishandling of passive Tamil resistance by the Sinhala polity, often by the use of state force and at times by unleashing communal violence, has sown the seeds for Tamil militancy. The failure, to date, to remedy the root cause for militancy and large scale migration of disheartened Tamils have contributed significantly towards the growth of militancy to the extent of a warring force.


The writer is a former Parliamentarianm spokesperson of the Eelam Peoples Democratic Party and represents the EPDP at the A.P. R.C. This article first appeared in “The Island”.


  1. Silva said,

    June 8, 2007 @ 12:12 am

    Sri Lanka is indeed the country of all commiunities including Sinhalese,Tamils,Muslims,Burgers etc who are citizens of the country.All these ethnic commiunities should have equal rights an any citizen is entitled to without any question.Sinhala and Tamil should have been the official languages of the country.Making Sinhala the official language not only affected the Tamils,but also many Sinhalese as well.Sri Lanka should perseive towards establishing a Sri Lankan culture for all ethnic commiunities could embrace.

  2. Ilamathy said,

    June 8, 2007 @ 12:39 am

    This is the condensed history of the Tamil’s struggle. Anybody read this article would have noticed the evolution of our stuggle. It is too late for Federal set up.
    As this article appeared in “The Island” I hope at least a few Sinhalese would have read this article and should have noticed the evolution.
    We should continue our struggle until we reach the parity.
    Thanks for republishing.

  3. Jeronimo Azavedo said,

    June 8, 2007 @ 1:54 am

    Thevarajah is composing history to support his arguments. True, Riberio writes of many kingdoms in Sri Lanka, but he also writes of an Emporer. All Portuguese and Dutch treaties mention this Emporer (In Kotte and later Kandy). All Portuguese and Dutch maps of Sri Lanka refers to many kingdoms and also to Imperio de Cota (Imperial Kotte)

    The first Tamil language inscription found in Jaffna is one by Parakramabahu I of Polonnaruwa.

    All these does not quite fit Thevarajah’s arguments.

    I suggest that Thevarajah and the Tamil cause should stop trying to abuse history to support the aspirations of what is today a 4% minority in Sri Lanka.

    You can fight for another 100 years, twisting history and terrorising everyone until the Tamil cause extinguishes itself.

  4. Thanabal said,

    June 8, 2007 @ 3:31 am

    “The mishandling of passive Tamil resistance by the Sinhala polity, often by the use of state force and at times by unleashing communal violence, has sown the seeds for Tamil militancy. The failure, to date, to remedy the root cause for militancy and large scale migration of disheartened Tamils have contributed significantly towards the growth of militancy to the extent of a warring force.”

    The above message should be LOUD AND CLEAR to GoSL in the days to come

  5. MBA said,

    June 8, 2007 @ 6:06 am

    Great and excellent extract from the history of Sri Lankan politics toward minority sufferance. As a simple and humble reader. I stress only on one thing that in the modern arena the birth right must be interpreted, that those whoever born in this great piece of the Island, is belong this nation. They are Sri Lankan like any other majority Sri Lankan…

    No peace will remain to this nation until and otherwise, the majority ethnic should call and recognize that every person born in this country are Sri Lankan, and they belong to this country and they have every right and every respect too…

    No word to say thanks to this writer… Its excellent keep it up

    unrivaled, peace loving non-political Sri Lankan.


  6. Thurai said,

    June 11, 2007 @ 8:33 am

    During the last forty years I have read so many articles and found that they are no use in bringing Sri Lankans to understand the basic idea of power sharing. This resulted in the militancy among the Tamils. I wished that there will be a federal solution but it appears that it is not going to be so.

    Failure to produce statemean in the Sinhala community to understand and produce a solution accepatable to the vast majority of Tamils will result sooner or later in the division of the country. The current governement has already accepted that there are two natrions namely Sri Lanka and Thamil Eelam by evicting Tamils from Colombo.

  7. Sundram said,

    June 15, 2007 @ 10:00 am

    Very good article.
    Many Sinhalese did not want to accept this true history of Lanka. They have been twisting the history to proof that whole of Srilanka only belongs to them.

    If they are real Budhdhist they must accept this truth, though that is bitter to them.

    Without Sinhalese there is no Srilanka. In the same way even without Tamils there is no Srilanka.

RSS feed for comments on this post

Leave a Comment