By John Devadasan –
Yesterday was the 124th Birth-Anniversary of SJV Chelvanayakam, the late Tamil leader, fondly known as Thanthai Chelva. About 7 events were held in Jaffna to commemorate his birthday. As we remember him, it is fitting to honour him by ensuring that the CMS that produced him is also honoured by making it transparent and accountable, insist alumni of the school including myself. Two of yesterday’s events were by the Jaffna Christian Union (JCU) – one at 9:30 am at the Methodist Church’s Trimmer Hall and the other at the Anglican Church of St. John the Baptist where SJV would have worshipped while going to school next door at St. John’s College, named after St. John the Evangelist. Most churches sent representatives.
The two events were new for the JCU because previously the Anglican Archdeacon for Jaffna, the Ven. Sam Ponniah, allege members of the JCU, had some bees in his bonnet against Jaffna people. He had discouraged the event for the last few years. This event yesterday took place after a gap because of a new Archdeacon who is into social justice. So the theme at the two JCU events was getting out of the current economic mess.
The event at Jaffna Central College had the Jaffna VC as speaker and the occasion was one for aggressive Hindu expansionism, say those who attended, in stark contrast with the values of Thanthai Chelva.
The two JCU events reflected Thanthai Chelva’s commitment to an inclusive society. The speaker at Trimmer Hall was Mr. Selvyn, a retired Roman Catholic education official who was quite up to date on all dimensions of the ongoing economic crisis – exchange rate, the shortage of goods, the drop in exports and agricultural produce, the policies of officialdom that hurt farmers with price differences between markets 10 km apart, paying fees at the market based on what they bring in and then allowed to sell only a part after paying for marketing all that they bring, etc. He demonstrated mastery over the subject of his speech. As a result, his 2-hour talk was most interesting.
The 4 pm event at St. John’s Church followed by a discussion in the church hall, was better attended because it was a working day. Notable was the presence of SJV’s grandson, Chandrahasan Elangovan and TNA heavy-weight Mavai Senathirajah who came with his son. The former diocesan Bishop of the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India, The Rt. Rev. Dr. S. Jebanesan, gave the memorial talk. The church would have been regularly attended by SJV when he studied at St. John’s College, making the setting especially fitting.
The disappointment was that except for the Chaplain and Curate the Rev. Fr. Daniel Jeyaruban who directed the service, not one staff member was present from St. John’s College or Chundikuli Girls’ College, an annual event where the late principal S. Thanapalan was a force behind it. It reflected the lack of interest in society in the schools, an interest that had been the feature of the school for generations and a hallmark of the school’s products. The school is going through an upheaval according to an old-boy present. Academic standards are in free fall in terms of university admissions. The principal comes to work at 10 am showing the need for his close supervision by the school manager. And the Church Missionary Society (CMS) exercises unfettered authority and appointed a manger for the first time who does not live in Jaffna as if to give the Principal a free hand. He also appears to have no university or school experience. Even as the Supreme Court repeatedly declares that there is no such thing as unfettered discretion, SJV’s alma mater, the Bishop of Colombo (Dushantha Rodrigo) and CMS authorities are giving free rein to their tendency to appoint housewives to the CMS Board with few knowing who is on the Board and no announcement when vacancies exist for stakeholders to make nominations. Thanja Peiris, Chairing the CMS like a tinpot dictator, makes it function like a secret society. She wrote, “The appointment of the Managers of our CMS schools are by the Governing Body. We do not entertain or call for recommendations.” Her grammar reflects the drop in CMS standards. And there is no transparency or accountability in its governance. Ms. Peiris herself has no teaching experience and no university experience. It is as though she does not want anyone more qualified under her. And yet she governs some of our best schools with more qualified principals. The school’s alumni are very upset that thy were kept out of the process of appointing a manager, and feel the appointment of someone based in Colombo for the first time is to strengthen the principal’s lacklustre hands when he needs supervision.
Thanthai Chelva would roll in his grave as a man who stood-up against injustice and arbitrary decision-making. So would James Hensman whose English referred to below by bishop Jebanesan is done violence to. Thanthai Chelva’s alma mater and the CMS have been appointing to its bodies people who have only professional qualifications nothing to do with education and honourary doctorates that are improperly used to title themselves as doctor. In one instance the then Bishop Duleep de Chickera’s PA’s wife whose studies stopped at the AL was appointed to the CMS to supervise high powered Principals. To hide all this there is no CMS website to expose who is being appointed. The new manager of St. John’s has a “doctorate” from St. Andrews University International in Madras which on its website advertises an instant doctorate in one day,
You would be eligible [for an honourary doctorate] if you are focussing on a life platform for the past 15 years in a concept to be server in the society. […]
So call us to receive your Doctorate TODAY.
That surely is not a role model set by a school for educating children that gave us SJV Chelvanayakam, King’s Counsel.
Bishop Jebanesan in his folksy way, told us during his homily:
On 26.04.1977 SJV Chelvanayakam passed away at the Jaffna Teaching Hospital while receiving treatment. He who had injured his head after slipping and falling after breakfast had been receiving treatment for a month. Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister, M. Karunanithy had sent the famous neurologist Dr. V. Ram but to no avail; Thanthai Chelva passed away in his 79th year.
Thanthai Chelva was born on 31.03.1898 in Malaya. At the age of 4 his mother Annammah, with him and his two brothers, returned to Tellippalai so that they might receive a good education. Memories of his father, James Velupillai were always predominant in the young Chelvanayakam’s head. Thanthai Chelva would always enquire of his father whenever the opportunity arose. During the Second World War Christian Ministers were scarce in Malaya. When the father passed away it is worthy of note that it was a Saivite friend who arranged for the funeral by Christian rites.
Chelvanayakam’s education that had begun in Tellipalai continued at St. John’s where most Principals came from Oxford and Cambridge and passed on their values to the young Thanthai Chelva. I must note two of his experiences at St. John’s. The Principal at the times was Jacob Thomson. Two of his sons had perished fighting in the First World War. Governor Sir John Anderson brought the medals awarded posthumously to the sons to St. John’s to be given to the father. The boys assembled expected the principal to cry when the medals were put on him. But the Principal was so stoic that it formed a strong impression on Thanthai Chelva who took on that stoicity.
As for the second incident, this was the time that James Hensman studied at St. John’s. The knowledge of the English language, grammar and speech imparted to James Hensman, stood him well. He was the son of Velanai Naganathan (the name taken by E.M.V. Naganathan upon reverting from his family name, a founder member of the Federal Party and grandson of the first Anglican Tamil priest from Jaffna, John Hensman). James Hensman went on to become Professor of English and Principal of Kumbakonam College in India. He taught English to Srinivasa Shastri who is said to have corrected Sir Winston Churchill’s English.
From St. John’s Thanthai Chelva continued his studies at St. Thomas’. There he came to be associated with S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and Dudley Senanayake, among others.
After school, by his own effort, Thanthai Chelva became an Advocate and in 1944 was elevated to King’s Counsel. He entered politics in 1947, joining G.G. Ponnambalam, then considered the uncrowned king of the Tamils. At the time Thanthai Chelva contested for Parliament and was elected MP from Tellipalai.
The year 1947 was a major turning point in Thanthai Chelva’s life. That year the United National Party brought in the Indian-Pakistani Citizenship Act. He quit the Tamil Congress which supported the Act and formed the Federal Party. From 1956 when he was returned to Parliament as a Federal Party MP, to the time of his passing away, he was considered “the Saviour” of the Tamils.
Thanthai Chelva had all the attributes expected of a great leader. This included Stamina which was declared indispensable to a leader by US President Dwight David “Ike” Eisenhower. Thanthai Chelva was repeatedly cheated by Sinhalese politicians. Some Tamils were his most savage enemies. Many Muslim politicians left his fold. But he never lost his stamina in persisting in his efforts for and on behalf of the Tamil speaking people.
SJV had much political wisdom, and embraced and included young legal minds of his time, besides law students.
Born a Christian who lived to the end as a Christian, Thanthai Chelva had full faith and trust in God. It was his habit every morning to wake up early and pray on his knees for the needs especially of others. Being rooted in principle was his most treasured quality. He firmly believed that federalism or confederation afforded the best protection for his Tamil people against Sinhalese inroads.
It was the late Bishop Sabapathy Kulandran who once asked him whether the Saivites may not turn on and treat Christians cruelly under such a set-up. Responded Thanthai Chelva, “Indeed I know that it is inevitable. However, that should not stop me from doing the right thing. When a man is assiduously engaged in an effort, supposing one questioned him while his efforts were on those outside his family, ‘What would happen to your wife and children if you were to die?’ His reply would be, ‘Right now my job is to save those who are drowning.’ Likewise is my own response to questions over my dedication to my people’s drowning political life.”
It is now being asked what has been achieved by this great leader. In a political firmament filled with comics and cheats, if there is one man who walked as the representative of absolute truth, it is Thanthai Chelva. Prior to his advent in politics, the Tamil-speaking peoples were like a gunny bag of nelli (Indian gooseberry) whose ties came loose. We were scattered like such nelli let loose, divided by caste, religion and region. Thanthai Chelva’s dedication and straight forwardness stilled the voices of these divisive forces. Batticaloa MP Chelliah Rajadurai would begin his speech saying that he greets Thanthai Chelva prior to his own mother who gave birth to him. That is how he united the fissiparous Tamil tendencies.
It is 44 years since Thanthai Chelva gave up his life. The dream of federalism or confederation that he lit in Tamil hearts will never be snuffed. One day, surely, the Tamil people will achieve that dream.
The service was followed by an animated discussion led by Thanthai Chelva’s grandson Ilangovan Chandrahasan on the economic problems confronting us. Mavai Senathirajah gave a fascinating account of the Tamil National Alliance’s negotiations last week with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He described how they, the TNA, had asked for Tamil lands to be not settled by Sinhalese. The President had responded in dissembled surprise that he had stopped all that, and that it is no longer an issue. Mavai thereupon told the President of the 2000 acres East of the Palali Airport, the temples being taken over etc. The line by Mavai says it all about how sincere the government is: He expressed shock that settlements were still ongoing. But it was a dishonest expression of shock.”
The question was put as to whether there is any hope of the government being driven out just like Dudley Senanayake was forced to go with the Rice Hartal in 1952. Because of the role played by the army today, no one was prepared to gainsay the possibility. While going home, the hope of that possibility was kindled by the news from the President’s house in Nugegoda-Mirihana: Bus carrying soldiers set afire, police fire tear gas, STF opens fire, 9 persons including journalists injured, curfew in Colombo.
Hopefully the 6.9 million people who voted in the President have developed a new perspective, and the president will go the way of Dudley, said a retired gentleman attending the event, expressing his hope.