In the bygone days of British imperial dominance a viceroy was the governor of a country or province who ruled as the representative of the king. If anyone thinks that these viceregal representatives of the imperial vintage have now become an extinct species, he/she may be wrong – at least when considering the antics and imperious attitude of Jeevan Thiagarajah, the Governor of the Northern Province of Sri Lanka.
Governor’s combative postures!
Northern Governor has declared war against the Jaffna Municipal Council (JMC) and has threatened to dissolve the democratically-elected Council (JMC). During his gubernatorial stint, which began in Oct. 2021, this is not the first time that the Governor assumed such combative postures, confronting Jaffna Mayor, Lawyer Visvalingam Manivannan. Unfortunately for the overbearing Governor, mayor Manivannan is not a lightweight or pushover, but a well-rounded person who is fiercely independent. The Governor continues to live in his own little universe!
While the country has fallen into a dark deep political abyss and an illegitimate political leadership is struggling to deal with the socio-economic crisis, turmoil and mass agitation, Governor Thiagarajah has chosen to engage the Jaffna citizenry with his gimmicks – throwing temper tantrums at the elected officials of the Jaffna Municipal administration. When the rest of the country is already strife-ridden and smoldering, why open up a new battlefront in the North, Mr.Governor?
The historic Ariyakulam tank, an important heritage site in the heart of the Jaffna town was renovated, beautified and tastefully restored by the Jaffna Municipal Council (JMC), with financial assistance provided by a Charitable Trust. It was declared open by Mayor Manivannan in Dec. 2021, for public use as an amusement park and recreation site. In fact, the monument commemorating the history of Ariyakulam, was unveiled in Tamil, Sinhala and English languages by Governor Thiagarajah as the Chief Guest on the occasion. I have since seen the place thronged with a rich variety of people, families with children and the elderly – a spot for a getaway from the hot and humid weather.
Now, what is Governor Thiagarajah’s problem?
Naga Vihara, the Buddhist shrine in Jaffna is located across the Pt. Pedro Road, on the opposite side of Ariyakulam. It is not a problem to anyone (except, perhaps, on a few occasions when some politically powerful honcho prelates at the Vihara opted to function as liaison officers of the government). Incidentally, the Buddhist lobby in Jaffna, backed by the army brass, appears to fancy that they could claim Ariyakulam site as a pond situate in their own (Naga Vihara) backyard and, therefore, belonged to them. But the real problem is that ever since the JMC restored Ariyakulam and turned an eyesore into a cynosure, Governor Thiagarajah has been itching to execute his own agenda – to propitiate the Rajapaksas, acknowledge his fealty to the royal family, and prove that he is more pious than even a Bodhisattva. After all, he was handpicked for the Governor job by President Gotabaya for a purpose.
Prof. R. Hoole has recently referred to the Governor’s grievance vis-à-vis the JMC: “At present the Northern Governor is threatening to dissolve the Jaffna Municipal Council because it will not allow the Jaffna vihara effectively to take over the Ariyakulam pond for the use of Buddhist pilgrims. Such dissolution would be totally illegal, but the Governor is in correspondence with the Election Commission for how the dissolution may be effected………” (Colombo Telegraph, 30 May 2022 “Sri Lanka Tamils: No Choice But To Join GotaGoGama……”).
During the Vesak celebrations at Jaffna Naga Vihara in early May, this year, the military establishment in Jaffna had planned to decorate Ariyakulam site with Vesak pandals, lights, lanterns etc. as an additional locale for their festivities. Maybe, the Governor had initially mooted / supported the plan without consulting the JMC. But, there was a problem. Citing a JMC resolution in effect prohibiting any religious celebrations at the Ariyakulam site. the municipal officials had refused permission. It seems that the Mayor was away in France about that time and the Governor had continued to pressure the Deputy Mayor and threatened to proceed with dissolution of the JMC. He was angry that his authority was challenged – overridden by officials functioning within his territorial jurisdiction.
The said resolution itself was a snub to the meddlesome Governor. He had clashed with the JMC officials even on a previous occasion. Soon after the Ariyakulam site was declared open to the public, the innovative Governor came up with his pet proposal – that the JMC arrange to play religious hymns or devotional songs on loudspeakers at Ariyakulam. It is not clear whether he wanted the multi-religious songs played 24/7. The politically-savvy councillors of the JMC, knowing the predilections of puppets, saw through the ploy and shot down the Governor’s proposal. The officials cited noise pollution, public nuisance, disturbance /distraction to students in the neighbourhood etc. as reasons to oppose the proposal. Also, there was ample scope for inter-faith feud. By formally passing a resolution, the JMC resolved to prohibit any religious or sectarian ceremonies or activities at the locale and to maintain Ariyakulam as a serene secular venue. In a fit of fury, the Governor had promptly dispatched an incoherent letter to the Jaffna Municipal Commissioner, couched in intemperate language. It is worth reading the missive, not so much for its depth, but for its diction. (Vide – Copy attached).
The office of (Provincial) Governors was created under the 13th Amendment as an adjunct to the establishment of Provincial Councils. But the constitutional provision has a sinister purpose -i.e., to oust / abridge the powers of the Provincial Councils and tighten Colombo’s grip on the PC administration. Apparently, Governor’s post has subsumed bulk of the functions of the erstwhile Government Agents(GAs).
New Avatar of Viceroys
The new Sinhala ruling class who succeeded the British were obsessed with the old dispensation. In their view, Government Agents were the post-colonial avatars of British Viceroys. Successive ethnocratic regimes had, in their effort to implement a pan-Sinhala policy – Sinhalaization-Buddhistization-militarization projects, willfully posted malleable or bigoted Sinhala civil servants as GAs to the predominantly Tamil North-East (NE). Nonetheless, among the GAs posted to Jaffna, there were men of new vision and liberal views who opted to reach out to the disaffected Tamil people and assuage their fears. To name a few, GAs Lionel Fernando, Nissanga Wijeyeratne, Vernon Abeysekere and Neville Jayaweera had established a rapport with the local population. Among them, Lionel Fernando stands out with his affable attributes.
Before zooming in on Lionel Fernando, a note on Mr. Neville Jayaweera to explain his dilemma dealing with an ethnocentric system.
Neville Jayaweera G.A.
Dr. Devanesan Nesiah, the distinguished civil servant and academic was the G.A., Jaffna, (I believe, in 1981-84) during a tumultuous time. In his review of Neville Jayaweera’s book, “Jaffna: Exorcising the Past and Holding the Vision”, Dr.Devanesan recaptures Mr. Jayaweera’s experiences as Jaffna GA – the instructions given to Neville by his boss, the much-feared N.Q. Dias (an evil incarnate, in his own right !) – and how Neville later changed course to amiably engage with the Jaffna people. (EXCERPTS):
(QUOTE) “Just before he assumed duties in Jaffna he was briefed by N.Q. Dias, Secretary of Defence and External Affairs and, more important, de facto Chief Advisor to Prime Minister Mrs. Bandaranaike, …on all matters pertaining to the ethnic conflict. N.Q instructed Neville on why he was handpicked to be GA Jaffna at this stage and what his task was. Neville was directed to force “confrontation” upon the Tamil parties at every turn possible, and to establish the Government’s “absolute ascendency” over them in every crisis. Neville was under his spell when he assumed duties in Jaffna.”
“As Neville confesses, being “chosen as the pivot of N. Q. Dias’s master plan to enforce the Official Language Act throughout Jaffna, to encircle the North with Military camps and bring the Tamils to heel, released in me a spirit of a Sinhala Conquistador resolved to plant the Lion Flag and establish Sinhala supremacy among a troublesome Tamil people … Uncharacteristically for an incoming GA, barring Ivan Samarawickrema the AGA, a Sinhala Officer, not a single local officer was on hand to greet us……“The wall of hostility was palpable and impregnable…The word had got around that I had been handpicked for Jaffna by the Prime Minister and her Permanent Secretary…. to do a hatchet job on the Tamils, which of course was pretty close to the truth!”.
“Not surprisingly at the first meeting with the Members of Parliament at his first District Coordinating Committee meeting in Jaffna , there was a crisis that brought the meeting to a premature close on a sour note. After much agonizing, Neville became deeply convinced that what was unfolding in Jaffna was unjust. Only a few months into his tenure in Jaffna, he telephoned the Prime Minister and requested an unofficial, personal and confidential meeting with her. She asked him to see her the very next evening. Neville went to meet her but was dismayed to find that she had also invited N.Q. Dias to that meeting.”
“At that meeting the Prime Minister asked Neville what problems he had in Jaffna that needed her intervention. Neville listed three problems:” (Edited out, to save space) “The wisdom and morality of enforcing the Official Language Act in Jaffna under which all registrations of birth, marriages and deaths, all correspondence with members of Tamil public, and the languages of the courts and court records should be in Sinhala.
That would be grossly unfair by the people and any attempt to force the issue would only aggravate hatred and conflict. At this point “N.Q. Dias butted in and insisted that the decision to implement the Official Languages Act in Jaffna cannot be withdrawn” Neville replied, “Sir, how would you like to have your children’s marriage certificates issued in Tamil, or your grand children’s birth certificates issued in Tamil or your own death certificate issued to your next of kin in Tamil?”. Neville went on to urge that the Government must allow the GA Jaffna to implement the draft Reasonable Use of Tamil Act (conceived by her late husband but not yet gazetted or passed in parliament) within his district at least in the spirit if not in the letter…………”
“In conclusion Neville assured her that before he completes his tenure in Jaffna he will create climate in Jaffna within which the government and the Tamil parties will be able to resume a dialogue .To Neville’s surprise she endorsed Neville’s proposal on condition that it was done discreetly and not publicised as a change of government policy.”
“Accordingly, on his return to Jaffna,….., he allowed the Official Languages Act to lapse within Jaffna and instead implemented the provisions of the draft Reasonable Use of Tamil Act. Although letters and telegrams from government departments in Colombo to the people resident in Jaffna continued to be in Sinhala only, it soon became clear to the people of Jaffna that the GA in Jaffna was not forcing the Sinhala only policy down their throats. ……This awareness defused the crisis and led to good relations and cooperation between Neville , the Tamil political leadership and the people of Jaffna till the end of Neville’s tenure in Jaffna; though the underlying political problem remained unresolved.” (Groundviews, 17 Sept.2014, “Review of Neville Jayaweera’s ‘Jaffna: Exorcising the Past and Holding the Vision’ ”) (UNQUOTE)
Lionel Fernando had the frame of mind to understand the anxieties and aspirations of the Tamil community and empathize with them. He maintained cordial relations with the TULF M.Ps and had cultivated an emotional bond with the local population. Jaffna was a hub of political activities and so was Naga Viihara. Under the stewardship of a politico-prelate the temple functioned as an outpost of the ruling establishment, slyly reporting to Colombo on Lionel’s close liaison with TULF leaders. Reportedly, Lionel and his friend (his name, I faintly recall, was Senarath), a senior Customs Officer stationed in Valvettiturai, had visited the prelate and chastised him for spreading misinformation and hampering their efforts to build bridges with the Tamil people and foster inter-racial amity.
Soon, to the dismay of the Jaffna people, the popular GA was transferred out of the North – after a brief tenure in Jaffna. For the first time in the history of the JMC, the civic body led by TULF Mayor Rajah Visuvanathan organized a grand Farewell Party to bid a fond “adieu !” to a Government Agent, who had captivated the hearts of the Jaffna citizenry ! The Farewell function was attended by prominent citizens of the North, including the TULF leaders, A.Amirthalingam and other parliamentarians.
Another misstep by J.R.
At a time of deep ethnic tension, police violence and repression in the North, President J.R. Jayewardene made another move to further alienate the Tamil population. In 1979 he appointed Yogendra Duraiswamy as Government Agent of Jaffna (which included Kilinochchi) district. It was intended to spite / checkmate the TULF. No doubt, Yogendra was eminently qualified to hold the position. In fact, in terms of scholarship, training and experience as a senior diplomat he was overqualified for the job. But then, he had a stigma. He was a loser at the hustings, roundly rejected by Jaffna people. He had contested 1977 Parliamentary Election in Kayts as an independent, with government backing, polled only a paltry 279 votes and had lost to TULF candidate K.P. Ratnam.
“Battle-hardened” Tamil citizenry
We have often heard the Southern politicians and the pseudo-patriotic media extolling the valour and ‘virtues’ of Sri Lanka’s “battle-hardened”soldiery. After all, the armed forces earned the plaudits and glory as brave and “battle-hardened” men only because of their exertion and experience gained, (not in World War II or the Russia-Ukranian war), but in fighting the LTTE ‘Baby Brigade’. In a real sense, the Tamil people of the North-East are equally brave and “battle-hardened”. For, they have courageously lived through the 30-year war, enduring pain and suffering – deaths, destruction, starvation and privation – and also had seen tens of thousands of their fellow men, women and children, including friends and families, being slaughtered in the final phase of the war at Mullivaikkal. They have suffered not only at the hands of the Sinhala armed forces, but also had endured the atrocities and abuses committed by the Indian army (IPKF).
They have also witnessed gory scenes and gruesome bloodletting during internecine turf wars between rival Tamil militant groups. Thus, the NE citizens can truly claim to be a tough, “battle-hardened”, resilient and redoubtable people of indomitable courage.
Sinhala suzerains in Colombo and their viceroys should realize that the Tamil people have had enough. They have gone through the babtism of fire. Please do not continue to taunt or torment the Tamils. These valiant people are on the rebound. Let them live in peace and dignity.When pressed to the wall, in desperation, they may hit back harder and their simmering anger may boil over into political unrest.