By Rajan Hoole –
When we talked about the Police of 1958 and earlier, we are not saying that it was at any point an ideal police force. Far from it – there were a number of instances of police brutality towards the lower orders of society, of which Vittachi gives one example. A classic example now fading from living memory is the attack on the strikers of 5th June 1947, on the eve of independence.
The primary issue was the Left protest against the Soulbury Constitution for Independent Ceylon, for its failure to guarantee workers’ rights. Associated with it was the interdiction of T.B. Illangaratne, president, and 19 others of the Government Clerical Services Union for having held a meeting on Galle Face Green, in contravention of Public Service Regulations. 50,000 public servants prepared for trade union action.
At this point there was a development of considerable historical interest. The State Council headed by D.S. Senanayake, the prime minister-in-making, hurriedly passed the Public Security Ordinance, taking barely 90 minutes over it. We shall encounter the PSO again in the run up to the violence of July 1983. Perhaps the rulers in 1947 also thought it useful to have such an act on the statute book before independence, since, one is not surprised by such laws under colonial rule, while it would be awkward to present such legislation after independence. Interestingly, however, the most oppressive piece of legislation ever passed in Parliament – the one to make Tamil plantation workers non-citizens – could not have been passed under colonial rule!
Following the passage of the PSO, the strikers made their way to the venue of the public meeting in Ralahamigewatte, Kolonnawa, marching through Dematagoda. The procession was blocked by the Police. Dr. N.M. Perera, the LSSP leader, went forward to Police Superintendent G.H. Robins, to explain to him that the meeting was authorized. He fell on the ground after being struck on the head by a baton, and had to run away to save himself. The Police fired 19 rounds of bullets into the strikers, killing one and injuring 19 others, 5 of them seriously.
There were indeed many deficiencies in the Police of those times. But despite their prejudices and class affiliations, the Police as an institution had one saving grace. They were conscious of the Law as the standard and the ideal of enforcing it impartially. They were also sensitive to being seen falling short on professional standards. This in consequence had the merit of enabling the public to challenge them on the basis of the Law as the standard. But on the other hand the situation becomes quite hopeless when the Police acknowledge no standards, and for the most part become sycophants of the rulers.
Another event in the episode of the police action in 1947 foreshadowed the future. The body of the innocent clerk V. Kandasamy, who was killed by police firing, was dispatched to his family in Jaffna by the mail train. G.G. Ponnambalam, famed criminal lawyer and leader of the Tamil Congress, stood by the coffin when it was placed on the platform of Jaffna railway station. He told the crowd that had come for the occasion that Kandasamy was killed by the Sinhalese government. It was still British rule and it had not entered into the minds of the crowd that Kandasamy’s death had anything to do with his being Tamil.
The event was reflected upon many years later by a witness to it. This was in October 1986 when crowds filed past the corpses of nine Sinhalese soldiers killed in an encounter in the Mannar District and the two captured alive. They were exhibited near Nallur Kandasamy Kovil. The body of LTTE leader Victor killed in the same incident was carried from place to place in Jaffna while Kittu, the LTTE’s Jaffna leader, basked in Victor’s glory. The wise old observer reflected, “From the time Kandasamy’s body was brought to Jaffna, Tamil politics has been ‘corpse politics’ – politics for death and destruction and not for life!”
Not long afterwards, the same Tamil Congress leader G.G. Ponnambalam who said Kandasamy had been killed by the Sinhalese government joined the same UNP government of D.S. Senanayake’s to become a cabinet minister. He also lent his support to the deplorable Acts which rendered the Tamil plantation workers (of recent Indian origin) without representation. This caused a split in his party, with the faction led by Chelvanayakam, Vanniasingam and Naganathan, continuing to oppose the Acts and forming in 1949 the Federal Party. Mr. I.R. Ariyaratnam, a Left party leader in Jaffna, later asked Ponnambalam why he had after initial opposition supported the Citizenship Bills upon being made cabinet minister? Ponnambalam replied, “India is a big country 50 times our size. Her prime minister, Nehru, does not care for these Tamils of recent Indian origin. Why should I bother about them?” It was again a mindset, educated and brilliant in a way, but tragically deficient in foresight and moral sense.
The events of those two years in the late 40s which were centred about the country’s independence in 1948, contained many presentiments for what followed in the next half- century. While having the forms of democracy and legality, it was a political culture that was manipulative with few stabilising higher values.
At the beginning of this chapter, we adverted to the authoritarian instinct of rulers which led them to believe that physically humiliating their opponents would bring them round. It brings those who ought to be statesmen down to the level of village thugs. The public emotions engendered in the process, and the actions of party members and hangers-on, tended to drive things out of control. In turn, the victims developed the same mindset: – viz. “The only thing that would work with the other side is a good whacking”. In the heat of the events, the elite, who ought to have understood the long term damage, were unable to command the conviction to condemn violence by their own side.
This tendency among the Tamils was evident through the 1970s and had attained a certain fixity after July 1983. There was a lack of conviction about condemning the barbarous massacre of Buddhist pilgrims in Anuradhapura, in 1985.
The same lack of conviction was evident in Prime Minister Bandaranaike in May 1958, and in President Jayewardene in July 1983. It was more damaging because they had state power. On both occasions, someone who could take decisions independently and act with firmness could have done a lot of good. This was done by the Governor General, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, in 1958. In 1983 too it could have been done by the Army Commander, Chief-of-Staff or even the Commander-Operations, Colombo. It did not happen although it is unlikely that anyone would have risked trying to stop them.
Although the State bears principal responsibility for the tragedy of this country, the descent of the Tamil polity into self-destructive internal terror cannot be understood without the circumstances surrounding the political murder of Alfred Duraiappah on 27th July 1975.
*To be continued..
*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power – Myth, Decadence and Murder”. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To read earlier parts click here