S.J.V. Chelvanayakam’s 41st Death Anniversary falls on 26 April 2018
Mr. S.J.V. Chelvanayakam (Chelva) was born in Ipoh, Malaya (now, Malaysia) on 31st March 1898. He passed away on 26th April 1977. He has been adored as the father-figure of the Tamil nationalist struggle and endearingly referred to as “Thanthai Chelva”. The antics and adventurism of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) notwithstanding, Chelva’s political ideology remains the bedrock of Tamil aspirations and agenda. From his eternal abode, he continues to inspire his faithful flock.
Chelva entered Parliament in 1947 as a member of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC), led by Mr. G.G. Ponnambalam. The ethnocentric Sinhala political leadership has been adept at practising trickery and treachery, vis-à-vis Tamil people. Thus, through solemn promises and sweet-talks, they had beguiled Tamil leaders and enlisted their support to gain Independence. Shortly after attaining independence, UNP government’s maiden legislative enterprise was to de-citizenize and render stateless almost 1 million upcountry Tamils and, further, to disenfranchise them. It was an atrocious double whammy.
Both, the Ceylon Citizenship Act of 1948 and Ceylon Parliamentary Elections (Amendment) Act of 1949 had eminently accomplished D.S. Senanayake’s malevolent mission. Indeed, it was only the first step in the process of blotting out the Tamil element from the body politic of the country. As a result, seven Tamil M.P.s representing the upcountry Tamils lost their seats overnight. ACTC became an appendage of the UNP. When its leader accepted a ministry, joined the D.S. Senanayake government and voted for the pernicious legislation, Chelva together with his colleagues Mr. C.Vanniasingam (Kopay M.P.) and Dr. E.M.V. Naganathan (then, a Senator) took a principled stand, voted against the legislation and quit the ACTC. Denouncing the treachery, Chelva admonished the Tamils: “Those of you who have a clear vision may foresee. If we do not resist and defeat this attack on the plantation Tamils, the next attack will be on the Tamils of the North-East provinces”. Prophetic words, indeed!
Federal Party – ITAK
On 18 Dec. 1949, the ACTC dissidents led by Chelva formed the Illankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK). The dominant feature of ITAK agenda was the establishment of a linguistic Tamil State, comprising the North-East Provinces within a Federal Union of Ceylon. Hence, the ITAK was a.k.a. the Federal Party (FP). Sinhala leadership had, ab initio, ensured that riddance of the British Raj was in effect synonymous with the establishment of Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony. Ultra-nationalist measures were introduced to synchronize with the dawn of the so-called independence. “National” anthem was adopted arbitrarily without consulting the minorities. An Advisory Committee was appointed to form ulate a National Flag for Independent Ceylon. Even before the Committee could reach any finality on the Flag by 4th Feb. 1948 for the 1st ‘Independence’ Day celebrations, Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake hoisted the Kandyan king’s Lion Flag at the Independence celebration held in Kandy on 12th Feb. 1948.
Chelva criticised the “medieval conception of nationality” prevalent among Sinhalese, who “propose to have the Lion Flag unaltered, as the main portion of the flag. Outside its pale, there are certain markings to indicate the tolerated presence in this country of Tamil and Muslim people“. Dr N M Perera, M.P. denounced the flag as a “fraud…perpetrated on the minorities. They [Sinhalese] are going to have the Lion Flag and these stripes are purely for the outcasts” (Hansard, Vol 9, 1951:1565-1684).
Lion flag was adopted as the national flag in 1951 in the face of series of protest meetings in North-East Provinces. Far from inspiring the young Tamils, fluttering Lion Flag has been an aggravating provocation like waving a red flag at a bull. The martyrdom of a young man, Nadarajan, of Trincomalee many moons ago would epitomize the emotional reaction of the Tamils. On an “Independence” Day – observed by the Tamils as a “Black Day”- Nadarajan climbed the clock tower and tried to replace the Lion Flag flying from atop with a black flag. He was shot and fatally wounded by the police. Nadarajan crashed to the ground dead.
Let me juxtapose another scenario presenting perfidious TNA theatrics – contrasting sharply with Chelva’s avowed articles of faith. On 1st May 2012, at the UNP May Day rally in Jaffna, Trincomalee M.P. and TNA supremo Mr. Sampanthan was seen gleefully waving the Lion Flag jointly with Ranil Wicremesinghe, in a show of servile solidarity. His exculpatory explanation was that FP (ITAK) never opposed the Lion Flag. Perhaps, Sampanthan had not yet read the first chapter of FP history !
1952 Elections – Chelva got defeated
In its first electoral encounter with the ACTC/UNP combine, the FP (ITAK) suffered severe losses. Even Chelva himself lost his KKS seat. Dr.Naganathan was defeated by G.G.Ponnambalam in Jaffna. It was as though the FP was completely wiped out. Thinakaran (Tamil daily from Lake House) which had campaigned for the ACTC/UNP, carried a screaming banner headline: “Samashdikku Saavumani !” (“Death knell for Federalism”) .
Even in the midst of defeat and despair, it was not all doom and gloom for the FP. There were two sparks – one in Northern Province and another in the Eastern Province. In Kopay Mr.C. Vanniasingam (FP) won by 215 votes and inTrincomalee Mr.N.R.Rajavarothayam (FP) won by 584 votes.
1956 General Elections
At the 1956 General Elections, even as the MEP coalition led by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike swept the polls in the Sinhala heartland, the FP under Chelva emerged as the dominant political force in the North-East provinces. The FP won 10 seats while the UNP managed to win only 8. Thenceforth, the FP progressively expanded its electoral landscape and Chelva emerged as the sole acknowledged leader of the Tamils. During his stewardship, Chelva and his team had striven to break down the regional, religious and caste barriers which had created divisions and dissension among the Tamils and welded them into a unified political force to fight majoritarian oppression.
Chelva symbolizes the secular credentials of the Tamil people. Incidentally, he was a Christian by birth and by practice. Tamils in Sri Lanka can legitimately feel proud that they have had a noble leader worthy of their adoration and reverent homage. As a practising Hindu, I notice that the Hindutva fundamentalists and fanatics among the Tamils in Sri Lanka are only a lunatic fringe. Nonetheless, there are nuts like TNA M.P. Yogeswaran who has often claimed in his public statements that only Hindus are Tamils and others are not. That is an outrageous discovery !. Going by his definition, even Chelva could not have called himself a Tamil It is a pity that revisionists and reactionaries have come to rule the roost in the TNA.
Taking a cue from Gandhian Satyagraha campaigns, Chelva introduced a new culture of non-violent agitations into the Tamil struggle for justice and equality. Thus, on 5th June 1956, when SWRD introduced the “Sinhala Only” Act in parliament, FP/ITAK M.P.s and hundreds of volunteers performed a protest Satyagraha on the Galle Face Green outside the parliament. Scores of hoodums and goondas – organized and orchestrated by Sinhala politicians- set upon the satyagrahis and severely beat them up, in the full view of the Police who remained as idle spectators. While his son was being beaten up, Chelva gestured to the restive volunteers to remain calm. Dr.E.M.V.Naganathan was kicked about and stripped to his undies. Even as Amirthalingam M.P. entered the House with a bandage for his head injuries, he was mockingly greeted by SWRD, the Prime Minister, quipping a sarcastic remark: “ Wounds of war!”
Civil Disobedience campaign – Chelva detained
In early 1961 Chelva launched a Civil Disobedience campaign performing dharna outside the several district secretariats/ kachcheris in North-East Provinces. Police brutality and baton charge could not subdue the Satyagrahis. Thousands of volunteers, taking turns, participated in the campaign. The civil administration was paralyzed in the two provinces for well over hundred days. Eventually, the Srimavo government declared a State of Emergency and deployed the armed forces to break up the campaign using brutal force. Chelva and other leaders together with many activists were arrested and detained at Panagoda Army cantonment. I was a student at that time and have had the‘honour’ of being a detainee for six months. It was my 2nd stint- previously, held only for a day in police cell ! .
Mr.Chelvanayakam Q.C., had been an inmate in jail even before the Panagoda episode. He took part in the anti-Sri Campaign in 1958 and served two weeks imprisonment in Batticaloa jail.Following the 1958 anti-Tamil riots, he was held in house arrest for six months.
Legacy of pain and pride
Unlike the careerists who have infested the TNA, Chelva and his comrades-in-arms were illustrious leaders of integrity and sagacity. During the initial phase of over three decades of non-violent struggle to liberate our people, they had rendered selfless service and made enormous sacrifices. The solid edifice of Tamil nationalism was erected, not by using mortar and masonry, but by the blood, toil, tears and sweat of hundreds of faceless foot-soldiers – the party cadres, volunteers and supporters. They had carried to their graves the physical/emotional scars of the sore wounds sustained during the struggles and strife. They have left behind a legacy of pain and pride. Today, almost all the leaders and the cadres are dead and gone. None of them is around to bear testimony to the seminal moments in the hallowed history of Tamil liberation struggle .
*To be continued …