44th Death Anniversary of S.J.V. Chelvanayakam was on 26th April 2021
Mr. S.J.V. Chelvanayakam (Chelva) passed away on 26th April 1977. He was born in Ipoh, Malaya (now, Malaysia) on 31st March 1898. He was one of the founding fathers of Ilankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK), which spearheaded the Tamils’ struggle against persecution and majoritarian oppression by successive pan-Sinhala governments in Ceylon (now, Sri Lanka ). ITAK’s prime political objective was to secure regional autonomy for the Tamil-speaking habitats of Northern-Eastern Provinces under a Federal structure of government. For this reason ITAK was also called ‘the Federal Party’ (FP), mainly by the media and the Southern politicians. Chelva was the father figure and the moral force of the campaign for freedom from Sinhala suzerainty. Since he epitomised the core values of the Tamil crusade for freedom, equality and justice, Chelva was – and is still – adored by Eelam Tamils and the global Tamil fraternity as “Thanthai Chelva”.
At the 1947 General Elections Chelva was elected as M.P. for Kankesanthurai (KKS) electorate from the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) Party, led by G.G. Ponnambalam (GGP). GGP himself was elected M.P for Jaffna. That was the maiden General Election held under the Soulbury Constitution and the ACTC, with 7 M.Ps emerged as the main mouthpiece of ‘Ceylon’ Tamils while the Ceylon-Indian Congress (later, in 1950, rechristened as “Ceylon Workers Congress”) led by Mr. S. Thondaman, with 7 M.Ps, remained the sole representative voice of the hill-country Tamils (“Malayaha” Tamils).
On 4th February 1948, Ceylon attained ‘independence’. It was only a changing of the guards – rather, the masters. Sinhala Leaders, utilizing their racial numerical strength and exploiting the misplaced trust of Tamil leaders, assumed the role of new masters and became the sole arbiters of the affairs of the country. In the process, Tamils were relegated to live as second/third class citizens. The ‘blessed’ independence had unleashed evil forces of ultranationalist ethnocrats who were determined to brutalize the body politic of this country, maybe, till doomsday !.
Our first Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake, ostensibly called ‘the Father of the Nation’, had ulterior plans to politically eviscerate the ethnic Tamils. He started off auspiciously with deadly legislative assaults on Malayaha Tamils, rendering about one million Tamils stateless. Three pieces of legislation, Ceylon Citizenship Act of 1948, Indian and Pakistani Residents (Citizenship) Act of 1949 and the Ceylon (Parliamentary Elections) Amendment Act of 1949 effectively stripped the Malayaha Tamils of their citizenship and franchise. As a direct consequence, their seven M.Ps lost their seats overnight and, as a corollary, Sinhala representation in Parliament increased by 7 additional seats.
Advent of ITAK – Federal Party
When GGP, with his other M.Ps, struck a deal with D.S. Senanayake, accepted Ministries and supported these legislations in Parliament, two M.Ps – S.J.V. Chelvanayagam and C.Vanniasingham (Kopay M.P.) together with Dr. E.M.V. Naganathan (then, a Senator) protested against this betrayal and broke away from the ACTC. On 18 Dec. 1949, Chelva and his colleagues launched the ITAK (Federal Party) at the GCSU hall in Colombo.
At this inaugural meeting, Chelva enunciated the ITAK vision for a Federal State:
“This is then the solution that we ask for: a Federal constitution for Ceylon consisting of an autonomous Tamil speaking province and an autonomous Sinhalese province with a Central Government common to both. This is the minimum provision necessary to prevent the smaller Tamil-speaking nation from extinction, or of being absorbed by the larger nation…… A federal constitution is an ideal worthy of being achieved and works no injustice to anybody and certainly not to the Sinhalese people……We have no misgivings about the difficulty of the task ahead of us. The task must be done and can be done.”
Gal Oya colonization
Further, Chelva recounted the government’s various measures which politically debilitated the Tamils and posed an existential threat to them. He sounded an alarm on state-sponsored Sinhala colonization under Gal-Oya scheme as the thin end of the wedge. Tamils feared that Sinhala colonization would change the demographic structure of Tamil areas and render them minorities –an endangered species – in their own habitats. The Gal-Oya project had its savage spin-off:
Gal Oya massacre
1956 Gal Oya massacre was the first organized slaughter of Tamils in independent Ceylon. Sinhalese colonists and Gal Oya Development Board employees commandeered government vehicles, and weapons and went on a killing spree. The carnage continued for five days, from 11 June 1956, claiming the lives of over 150 Tamils. Gal-Oya killings followed on the heels of another attack on Tamils in Colombo on 5th June.
At the 1952 General Election, the FP suffered severe defeat at the hands of the ACTC, which was a UNP surrogate in the North. The pro-government ‘Thinakaran’ Tamil daily from Lake House carried the lead story in banner headlines:
“Samashdikku Saavumani” (‘Death knell for Federalism’). Even Chelva himself lost his KKS seat to a UNP proxy S. Natesan, who was backed by ACTC. It was agrim spectre for the fledgeling Federal Party. Mercifully for the FP, even in the midst of dense darkness, there were two sparks that flashed across the Tamil political firmament – one in the North and the other in the East. In Kopay electorate (North), sitting M.P. Vanniasingam won by a narrow margin of 210 votes and in Trincomalee (East), N.R. Rajavarothayam won by 586 votes. For Chelva and his colleagues the die was cast, and there was no turning back.
At the 1956 General election, even as SLFP-MEP swept the polls in the South, the FP emerged victorious in North-East Provinces. Henceforth, until 2020, either the FP or FP-led political configurations – be it the TULF or the TNA – remained the dominant voice of the Tamils. (BTW: Courtesy, Sampanthan-Sumanthiran-Senathirajah troika’s treacherous ‘Yahapalanaya’ cohabitation (2015-19), TNA lost its clout by 2020) . Tamil citizenry at large, cutting across partisan, regional or religious barriers, pledged their loyalty to Chelva and accepted him as their sole leader. It is to their credit, that they have resolutely remained as a secular nation. Chelva had been a practising Christian and it was never an inhibiting issue for his faithful flock – multitude of Hindus who constituted the majority of the Tamils.
Galle Face ‘Satyagraha’
In response to anti-Tamil measures introduced by ethnocratic rulers, the FP organized resistance campaigns following the Gandhian creed. On 5th June 1956 when SWRD introduced the ‘Sinhala Only’ Bill in Parliament, FP conducted a ‘Satyagraha’ (Sit-in) protest on the Galle Face Green, just across the (old) Parliament building. Hundreds of them, including Chelva, other M.Ps, Rev. Father Thaninayagam and party volunteers were engaged in silent peaceful protest. Even as armed police officers surrounded them and kept watch, scores of hoodlums led by K.M.P. Rajaratne (Welimada M.P) set upon them and beat them up. The mob attacked the ‘Satyagrahis’ with clubs, cudgels and stones and robbed them of their money, rings, wrist watches etc. Chelva’s son Manoharan, a bystander – who intervened only to help the ‘battered and bleeding’ volunteers to be taken to hospital – was pounced on and beaten up. Chelva remained stoically silent watching the attacks on his son. A ‘cannibal’ from among the hoodlums had bitten off a piece from the ear of a party stalwart, Chelliah, from Thunnalai, Karaveddy. Dr. E.M.V. Naganathan, attacked and stripped to his underwear, was chased down to the Galle Face Hotel. Some volunteers were carried bodily and dumped into the Beira Lake nearby. In full riot gear, the Police passively watched the ‘fun’ !
‘Wounds of war’
Thereafter, the mob invaded the downtown area and embarked on a looting spree attacking Tamil stores and business outlets. Parliament was in session debating the ‘Sinhala Only’ Bill. When Amirthalingam M.P. entered the chamber, with a head bandage for injuries sustained during the morning attacks, Prime Minister SWRD mockingly greeted him with the words, “Wounds of War!”.
The 1958 (22-29 May) anti-Tamil pogrom executed by savage mobs in liaison with rabid racist elements of ‘Pancha Maha Balavegaya’, claimed the lives and limbs of over a thousand Tamils, besides countless incidents of rape, arson and looting. Award-winning journalist Tarzie Vittachi, in his ‘Emergency ’58 ’ gives a detailed account of the gruesome events. The gory incidents are too many and are too distressing to recount here. While the carnage had deepened the division between the Sinhala-Tamil communities, some articulate sections of Tamils blamed the FP for their grief and losses. To Chelva, the brutal experience was ‘baptism by fire.’ Evidently, even in the shadows of despair Chelva had emerged unscathed. Let’s see what Tarzie Vittachi says:
“Only one shred of prestige still remained—the indestructible reputation for integrity that Federal Leader S. J. V. Chelvanayakam had earned. Even in the face of such an overwhelming adversity, this reputation held.” ( per Emergency ’58 )
Arrests & Detention
In the wake of the 1958 pogrom, the FP was proscribed and Chelva and Dr. Naganathan were placed under House Arrest while the other M.Ps were detained at Gall Face Hotel. Speaking of detention, in 1958 Chelva had served two weeks jail term in Batticaloa jail for participating in the anti-Sri campaign. In 1961, when Mrs. Bandaranaike sought to intensify the exclusive use of Sinhala in all areas of administration including as the ‘Courts Language’ throughout the island, the FP launched a Civil Disobedience Campaign in protest. The ‘Satyagraha’ which started on 20th Feb. 1961 went on- I guess- for over three months, paralysing the civil administration in North-East Provinces. On the 1st day of the campaign in front of the Jaffna Kachcheri, SP Arndt gave orders to his riot squad: “Hammer them out”. Many satyagrahis, including Amirthalingam, Dr. Naganathan, and lawyer S. Nadarajah (later, a Senator) suffered severe injuries.
The satyagraha was broken up using brute force. Chelva and other participants were arrested and detained in the Army Cantonment building at Panagoda. While under detention, the government allowed Chelva to proceed to London for urgent medical treatment. If I may strike a personal note, as a young student I have had the privilege of being detained at Panagoda with Chelva and others. Previously, in 1958, I had also participated in the anti-Sri campaign and spent a day in Jaffna police custody.
Spartan life of a Q.C
In his heyday, Chelva was one of the leaders of the legal profession – had received silk as a King’s Counsel (since 1952, a Q.C.). As a civil lawyer he had a lucrative practice, mostly pitted against legal luminaries like H.V. Perera K.C. in the Superior Courts. Chelva had spent a fortune on party activities. Perhaps, he was the only Q.C. who had lived throughout in a rented house, in Colombo. I had seen him commuting by CTB bus between Parliament and home. The introduction of ‘Sri’ vehicle numbers was in 1958. Until his last days, the only vehicle he owned was an old CY or CN series car. An anecdote: Chelva had a (Sinhala) driver working for him for many years. The driver took pride in working for a VIP, driving him around to meet VVIPs at high-end places. But, he had a nagging grudge – the poor condition of the vehicle and his friends had been teasing him and making fun out of it. He had brought it to the notice of Mrs. Chelva. But, his boss had dismissed the complaint with a smile.
Breach of faith
With a view to resolving the ethnic issue, Chelva had entered into solemn agreements with successive Sinhala leaders, based on implicit trust. To his dismay, they were unilaterally abrogated or abandoned by the government leaders. It has always been a foul history of betrayal and breach of faith on the part of Sinhala leaders. Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact (1957), SLFP – FP Understanding (1960), Dudley-Chelva Agreement (1965) are typical examples.
After 1960 (March) General Election, UNP formed a minority government under Dudley. FP refused to support Dudley to stabilize his government. SLFP, under its leader C.P. de Silva, asked for FP support to form a government, promising to revive and implement the BC Pact. Chelva refused, saying, “We have lost everything. Let’s now save at least our honour.” However, he was ready to oust the Dudley government and the understanding was that SLFP leaders would address the Tamil issue on the basis of BC Pact, after a fresh election. Dudley government was defeated in April 1960. By this time, Srimavo had got ready to assume SLFP leadership. At the 1960 July Election SLFP won 75 seats and the FP 16 seats (in a House of 151 seats). Now that Srimavo had got enough seats to cobble up a SLFP government of Sinhala nationalists, she ditched the SLFP-FP talks, damned the Tamil demands and proceeded to strengthen her Sinhala base.
Thus, Sinhala leaders’ treacherous traits were daunting. Their subsequent manoeuvres seeking to wriggle out of the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord and dilute the 13A (after promising to provide for 13+), repudiation of Ban-ki-Moon -Mahinda Joint Communique on Accountability, gimmicks at the UNHRC, brazenly reneging on previous Geneva commitments etc. have created a miasma of distrust and has gradually led to the trust deficit ever undermining Sinhala-Tamil relationship.
From my teen years I have had the good fortune of personally associating with FP leaders – initially with Mr. C. Vanniasingam. He was the life-wire of the FP, until his premature death at 47 (1959) . Dr. Naganathan had treated me like his own son. Mr. Amirthalingam and other frontline leaders had treated me with lot of affection. Aside from them, Chelva had a different, distinct personality. By a fortuitous bond, I had come under the spell of Chelva. On several occasions I had accompanied him to outlying areas for campaigns. When I was called to the Bar, my friends organized a get-together at Wellawatte and Chelva had graced the occasion with his presence and blessed me. His sagely leadership, resolute spirit, and selfless service for the emancipation of our people have carved out a niche for him in the annals of Tamil history. His political manifesto is still relevant and defines the aspirations of the Tamils. From his heavenly abode, Chelva continues to inspire his persecuted people.