25 May, 2022


From Inclusive Ceylon To Excluding Sri Lanka

By Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan

Prof. Charles Sarvan

From inclusive Ceylon to excluding Sri Lanka: Grandfather’s Letters. Letters by C. Suntharalingam (1895-1985), edited by C. Anjalendran, Sailfish Publishers, Colombo, 2016.

Time is unredeemable; what might have been is an abstraction ~ (Adapted from T S Eliot’s poem, ‘Burnt Norton’)

Chellappah Suntharalingam (1895-1985; known variously as “Sun”, “Sunth” and “Sunthar”) passed with distinction in Mathematics at Oxford University. He joined the Ceylon Civil Service but, energetic and restless; bored with signing gun licenses, he resigned. For a while, he was vice-principal of Ananda College (unthinkable for a Tamil in Sri Lanka today); later the first Professor of Mathematics, Ceylon University College. Entering politics and winning the Vavuniya seat, he was a proverbial “stormy petrel”; individualistic; fearlessly frank and outspoken. D S Senanayake, before he became independent Ceylon’s first Prime Minister, frequently visited Suntharalingam, and “Sunthar” personally knew many of Ceylon’s political leaders, both Sinhalese and Tamil: “I met Arunachalam in London in 1920 when he came as Leader of the Ceylon Reform” deputation.” I met Ramanathan in 1915 in London when he came to save the Sinhala people from the atrocities of British imperialism (p. 61). The book is not without humour: “educated and recruited in England”, young Suntharalingam on his return received proposals of marriage from some of the richest “Thamil” (see below) families of the day, but the prospective brides were fatter than their fat dowries (p. 19).

The cart-drawn journey from Jaffna to Colombo took five to six days. Suntheralingam was about fourteen when he travelled from Chunnakam to Urumpirai by train for the first time (p. 33). Though his mother was illiterate, “Sunthar” says she highly educated. A wise and strong widow, through careful planning and frugality, she educated five sons in then-faraway Colombo. As a child in Jaffna, “Sunthar” walked to school, sat on a floor smeared with mud and cow-dung, and wrote out the Thamil alphabet on sand. (He uses the phonetically more accurate “Thamil” rather than the anglicised “Tamil”.) Even as a Professor of Mathematics, he would mentally calculate in Thamil while lecturing in English (p. 30). He recalls that some children brought nothing to eat at school, and physical hunger affected their mental performance (pp. 46-7). He quotes with approval the Latin saying, ”Mens sana in corpore sano”. Before beginning homework by lamplight, he would wash, say his prayers and wear holy ash: the attitude to studies was almost reverential. Supper was served only after homework was completed. (No doubt, their cooking was done over a wood fire. I remember the short hollow tube, black with use and soot, through which my mother blew to encourage the fire, the flames casting a red glow on her.) As a child in Jaffna in the 1940s, I recall that if a pupil accidentally dropped a book, any book, she or he would pick it up and touch the forehead with it as a sign of contrition. If they were caned in school, children usually didn’t tell their parents for the reaction most likely would have been: “What! You gave the teacher cause to beat you?”

The way of life of a people, their values and attitudes (all summed up in the word ‘culture’) cannot be separated from the physical environment. The high value placed on education is not surprising. Jaffna didn’t have lush plantations nor industry and factories; the soil was arid, demanding much patient labour. It’s therefore not surprising that many “Thamils” moved out in search of employment (some beyond the shores to Malaya). Their self-discipline and industry led to a success that was felt to be disproportionate to their number, in turn exciting deep resentment and anger. (To blame British favouritism for alleged disproportionate Tamil success took away credit from one side and self-reproach from the other.) Comparisons have been made with attitudes to the Jews in the various countries in which they existed prior to the establishment of the state of Israel in May 1948.

The emphasis on studies did not exempt “Sunthar” from physical work. In many a Jaffna well, a man or boy would walk the beam (the “thula”) from which the bucket was suspended. As he walked forward, the bucket dipped into the water. When the man (woman, child) at the well began to haul up the bucket, the man or boy walked back, thus helping to bring up the now full and heavy bucket. This process was repeated until the garden or field had been watered. Whether the practice still exists, I don’t know but “Sunthar” writes: “I was trained to tread the well-sweep, to water the vegetable beds, to look after cattle and to drive a bullock-cart. On some days I had to tread the well-sweep between four and six in the morning”, have my morning meal, and run over three miles to school, “lest I be summarily caned for being late” (p. 45). A staunch Hindu but with an inquiring, wide-ranging, mind the first of many school-prizes he won was for his knowledge of Christian scripture (p. 199).

Under British imperial rule, there was “impartial recognition of Ceylonese merit” (p. 74), and students “were judged solely on our individual performances”. University scholarships were won, among others by, L. M. D. de Silva, P. de S. Kularatne, Gregory Weeramantry, D. J. Telesphor (later, Liyanage), and T. D. Perera, borther of H. V. Perea, QC, and Walter Samarawickrema (p. 73). So too, in politics: the only seat available at the 1911 Ceylon Legislative Council election was contested by (Tamil) Ponnambalam Ramanathan and (Sinhalese) Marcus Fernando. Ramanathan won. Students sometimes didn’t know to which community a particular fellow-schoolboy belonged (p. 38).

I quote Professor Suntharalingam: “It is not realised by many people in Ceylon that the Soulbury Constitution did not grant full Dominion Status to Ceylon. It was therefore necessary that in constituting the first Cabinet every step had to be taken to make it inevitable to have the Soulbury Constitution converted to a full-fledged Dominion Constitution at the earlies possible opportunity. The National Unit comprising Sinhalese, Thamils, Muslims, Burghers and others had to be a matter of show if not of substance: it had to be displayed to make the British Government believe that the demand for responsible government knew no communal difference. Oliver Goonetilleke and Lionel Kotelawala were D. S. Senanayake’s emissaries to persuade me to join the Cabinet” (p. 87, italics added).

Inclusive Ceylon soon metamorphosed into excluding Sri Lanka, and by the time Professor Suntharalingam realized his mistake and presented an appeal to the Governor-General (24 June 1950) it was woefully too late: see p. 163. His brother Nagalinam was acting Chief Justice and acting Governor General but could never be made permanent: “Yes, unfortunate days have fallen on the Thamils of Eelam” (p. 17). “In our day we could work hard and depend entirely on our merit to progress in life. But in your day, you may be thwarted for no other reason than that you are born an Eelam Thamil boy” (p. 60). Another brother, Amirthalingam, retired as Director of Fisheries and went on to become a professor of Zoology abroad. Seen only as a Thamil, he was not allowed to “give of his best to the land of his birth” (18): a feeling of deep regret shared by several others. Unlike in former Ceylon, what counts most in Sri Lanka is ‘race’ and, secondly, subscription to religion, specifically, Buddhism. One “cannot deny any more that there is no impartial recognition of merit, not only towards the Eelam Thamil boy, but towards the Sinhala boys who are not Buddhist” (p. 74). Erich Fromm in his Escape From Freedom distinguishes between ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’. The former can be seen as emancipatory while the second, building on this foundational freedom, gives scope to the individual, among other things, to develop and express her or his talents to their full potential. “Sunthar” would probably have said that though ‘freedom from’ still exists, there’s little of the ‘freedom to’ for Thamils in Sri Lanka.

Volatile, credulous and easily excited, the people were ever ready to take rumour for fact, and to disseminate it. The Governor-General phoned and asked “Sunthar” about poor Sinhalese fishermen being murdered in Mullaitivu. On investigation, it turned out that “not a single fisherman or any other had been harmed” (p. 147). During the 1958 riots, I was one of those who found refuge at Gampaha police station. From the window I could see a mob gathering, with Buddhist monks at the forefront behaving in a most un-Buddhist manner. As perhaps the only one of the refugees with whom he could talk, the officer once told me that a train was coming from Jaffna, each compartment packed like sardines with the bodies of murdered Sinhalese. “Why did your people do this?” Marooned, disorientated, I had no answer but of one thing I was certain: if there was indeed such a train, then when it steamed into Maradana station, I would be killed in Gampaha. Of course, the grisly, ghastly, train never existed. Looking back, what remains in my mind is the total conviction of that officer. Taking rumour for fact, his question was not whether but why. He believed the story because he wanted it to be true. In turn, it would confirm and justify his prejudice and hatred.

There are points in the letters at which one pauses: I mention just three. First, to engage in the “Ifs and buts” of History as Professor Suntharalingam does is futile because there are so many unknowns and variables. He reports what Bandaranaike told him in conversation, and what was generally believed in and expected: “Monck-Mason Moore will be Governor-General for a year, D. S. will succeed him and I will succeed D. S. as Prime Minister” (p. 91). If Bandaranaike had not been “ousted” he would not have resorted to the “Sinhala-Only” slogan, “a slogan especially invented by him to rise to power” (p. 92). But one wonders: Do politicians create venomous, divisive, group-emotions or do they cater to, incite and excite already-existing feelings in the populace? Isn’t it too easy to lay all the blame on politicians, and so exculpate ourselves? Then again Professor Suntharalingam urges his grandchild to remain true to traditional Thamil values and patterns of conduct (p. 20) but isn’t culture dependent on political, economic and social realities? Thirdly, following the Bhagavath Gita, he believes that when Dharma decays and Adharma prospers, there will be Providential intervention to right wrongs. Though such miraculous and dramatic incidents are related in all religions, they hark back to distant time. To my knowledge, there is no modern example of divine intervention in public-life and History. Again, it’s too easy to leave it all to god or the gods. Prayer must be prelude and preparation, and not a substitute for human endeavour.

The Editor, in a ‘Last of the Mohicans’ fashion, says in his Introduction that he is now the only one left in Sri Lanka of what was once a large and closely-knit family. (Etymologically, “diaspora” is derived from to “scatter”. You will be scattered in all parts of the earth: Deuteronomy 28:25). The title, Grandfather’s Letters, may lead readers to think this is a substantial, if not a comprehensive, collection of letters but they amount to only twenty in number. The letters are not dated and the reader must try to work out historical context by internal reference, for example, the assassination of Prime Minister S W R D Bandaranaike. Readers would also have been greatly helped by editorial exegesis relating to certain details and now-forgotten individuals mentioned by Professor Suntharalingam. However, these letters form a valuable document – interesting, informative and ultimately tragic. The Editor is to be thanked for attempting to preserve them for posterity.

Finally, I thank Mahesan Selvaratnam (retired Deputy Inspector General of Police) for kindly sending me a copy. We have been friends since Gurutalawa days in the early 1950s.

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Latest comments

  • 1

    Prof Suntharaligam got through Indian Civil Service examination as well as an advocate.

    During his last days he claimed that he was a polititian, farmer and a student in addition to various other qualifications .
    He is a multifaceted personality

  • 3

    Cohorts of JO or MR simply think that Tamils did well only because British favoured them.

    “Jaffna didn’t have lush plantations nor industry and factories; the soil was arid, demanding much patient labour. It’s therefore not surprising that many “Thamils” moved out in search of employment (some beyond the shores to Malaya). Their self-discipline and industry led to a success that was felt to be disproportionate to their number, in turn exciting deep resentment and anger. (To blame British favouritism for alleged disproportionate Tamil success took away credit from one side and self-reproach from the other.)”

    People were treated as humans or citizens of Ceylon then and not as ‘Sinhalese’, ‘Tamil’ or ‘Muslim’ as now,

    “the only seat available at the 1911 Ceylon Legislative Council election was contested by (Tamil) Ponnambalam Ramanathan and (Sinhalese) Marcus Fernando. Ramanathan won. Students sometimes didn’t know to which community a particular fellow-schoolboy belonged”.

    During the 1958 riot how hooligans butchered and burnt people believing the rumour.

  • 2

    C.Suntharalingam also qualified as a lawyer.


    He walked out of parliament to avoid voting for a bill to deprive Indian Tamils of citizenship.

    • 1

      Good man.

      G.G. Ponnambalam, of course did the opposite.

  • 3

    Dear Prof. Sarvan,

    I’ve got to hit the pillow!

    What wonderful writing on your part! What comes through are not the twenty letters. You’ve written movingly about the tragedy of the Jaffna Tamil. Yours is an article that deserves to be carefully read and digested.

  • 1

    Prof. Sarvan,

    When speaking of Prof. Suntharalingam, as kids in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s we heard about his ‘unbowed Tamils’ movement as well as his commitment to ‘Eelam,’ but didn’t know that he was a casteist who opposed Maviddapuram temple entry for the “depressed” castes. It was much later while in the West that we learned about this from writings by others.

    Another thing to note is that, when Anjalendran as a renowned architect was asked by an interviewer at an Asia society presentation in New York, “How was it possible for you as a Tamil, oppressed as you are in Sri Lanka, to produce work of this quality?” he had replied:

    “All right, I was born a Tamil but, I am a Sri Lankan and I have had every opportunity to engage in my profession and to achieve the heights of excellence as I have done. Nobody stood in my way. There was no discrimination. I was not threatened or discouraged and that it is the answer I am giving you.”

    And when G.L.Peiris, speaking at the same Asia Society building a few years later as foreign minister under Mahinda Rajapaksa, was questioned about the ill-treatment of Tamils in Sri Lanka, he responded there wasn’t any discrimination of Tamils, quoting “my friend C.Anjalendran’s answer” earlier at the same venue.

    Has Anjalendran ever addressed this issue–of being used as an elite Colombo prop to deny the obvious: discrimination against Tamil people in general?
    Given that his own grandfather talks about such discrimination in his letters, it would have been better to speak out about it. But I doubt he did so, perhaps preferring to stay quiet and give priority to his career. There is nothing wrong with it, but why then publish grandpa’s letters now?

    • 0

      The reality is there is no ethnic discrimination in SL

      • 5

        sachooooooooooooooooooooooo the stupid II

        “The reality is there is no ethnic discrimination in SL”

        The reality is that you haven’t realised that you have been sitting on your brain and standing on your head ever since you stated typing in these forums.

        Go find Nuisance’s padikkama.

    • 4

      Poor Anjalendran finds himself trapped in the generation gap. On the one hand, he has to defend a much distinguished grandfather, who by today’s standards, is an unyielding casteist who did wrong by his own Tamil people. The crime of the latter is they belonged to the lower ranks of the caste web. Had he lived today CS would have, very likely, not taken the same course. We cannot condemn one by today’s standards of relative morality and puratinism of the many shortcomings of yesteryear. Both Tamil and Sinhala society have come far from those days – as have the Brahmins of present Tamilnadu in their interaction with the much wider lower castes there. It is comforting, however, in that Battle between the Suntharalingam’s in the Maviddapuram controversy my friend the Policeman, Vellalan himself, not only prevailed legally but morally as well and thus earns a favoured place in history.

      If Anjalendran, as claimed in this anecdote, said “Nobody stood in my way. There was no discrimination” I am afraid CA causes much distress to many (Professional)Tamils of the time. For whatever reason, CA may have been spared, thousands of Tamils were not as lucky. It was that selective form of injustice that eventually gave birth to Prabakaran and his men. VP, despite the many faults we see in him today, came forward to right the many wrongs Tamils faced at that time – a factor the Tamil people will remember gratefully.

      It is also a painful fact due to the Temple issue the Lingam clan, despite much individual brilliance of the learned Suntharalingam, Nagalingam, Thiagalingam and many others remain somewhat unwept and unsung in contemporary Tamil society.


      • 3


        After G.L. Peiris spoke at the Asia society, probably in 2010, his quote about CA was widely reported in the press, including in The Island, I believe. I believe there should be videos at the Asia society website of CA’s presentation on his SL architecture and his experiences as a student of Geoffrey Bawa, so people with time to spare can verify it.

        As for the Lingam clan remaining ‘unwept and unsung,’ I think there are a few other reasons–

        1. CS didn’t join either the FP/ITAK or the TC, but held on to a tiny group that appeared kind of extreme even in those times of militancy.
        Indeed, when his group lost to the FP in Mannar, CS derided SJV, saying ‘cash, cassock and crookedness’ had won.

        2. Unlike Kumar/Gajen Ponnambalam, or even Chandrahasan, the Lingam clan’s next generation didn’t get into politics or even public service.

        CS’s son Gnanalingam retired as a physics professor in the US, and I happen to personally know two of his sons doing very well in the West, one in academe and the other in industry.

        3. A daughter of CS in Colombo in interviews to Colombo-based media in the late 1980’s praised her late father for his ‘intuitive ability to quickly grasp any issue’ which she said DSS had admired, but denied CS’s politics had contributed to the emergence of the LTTE. While that is a debatable claim, it seems CS’ own children had moved away from his political views.

        • 4


          In the late 1950s CS amused himself more by irritating the DSS clans, SWRD and the Sinhala political leadership in the House than laying the foundation of a future for the Tamil Nation. The fact may well be he could not foresee today’s politics then. There is enough evidence of his well known eccentricity in Hansard records of a man it was even said was invited to tutor Prince Charles in Maths at the Buckingham Palace. He did, however, bring Eelam into the political lexicon though a division of the island was hardly in his calculations. Much of his time, however, was spent in his beloved farm in Vavuniya.

          The next generation to his was enamoured with mundane matters. Some made it in Cricket with one going into tea exports and others to business. I knew some of them well. Of the next generation one carrying the name is prominent in the legal field though he has a penchant to make enemies by the day for his acerbic tongue and pugnacious nature.


  • 0

    “Time is unredeemable; what might have been is an abstraction”-
    Had he not supported the 1948 D.S.S’ government, I think, the fate of the minorities might have been different or a little better.

  • 0

    The word Ceylon comes from the word Singhalan.

    Some people want it back.

  • 0

    This book is an evidence that the current problem in Sri Lanka was a product of yesteryears high caste tamil politicians’ ego issues. And current day CV is the newest example.

  • 11

    Dear Prof. Sarvan,
    I was long contemplating replying to your essay ‘Tamils: a fatal historical unawareness’ when I saw the piece above. I am glad to make the connection that
    Mahesan Selvaratnam was your classmate. My uncle Dick Hensman, whom I believe taught him, had spoken about him. I consulted him by phone when I wrote Arrogance of Power and he spoke to me readily and courteously, although I have not met him.

    I can understand your perceptions and the heading of the article above through your experience at Gampaha Police Station in 1958, but there was no golden era of an inclusive Ceylon, unless seen through the eyes of the elite for whom hell descended only with the coming of Sinhala Only. If you look at the Council debates from the 1920s, hell was already upon us – in the form of the hatred shown towards Indian Tamils, not least by Bandaranaike and Senanayake. The Ceylon Tamils ignored it or were even indifferently part of it. Even the Youth Congress for all its wisdom largely ignored it. With all his education and experience behind him Suntheralingam voted for the 1948 Citizenship Bill before he resigned from the cabinet when the second bill was presented. What education do we have to be proud of?

    Suntheralingam’s subsequent politics (followed by the mainstream) where the Sinhalese were largely written off as people with whom we have to do, is directly and indirectly responsible for our debased state. It made us arrogant without basis and added to our folly of having been insensitive to the Indian Tamils. It created the rationale for educated Tamils to make a virtue of going abroad and to leave the Tamils here in a barren and helpless state. They made a virtue of armed violence and vicarious heroism through their material and moral support for the internally destructive violence of misled Tamil youth. They have no answer to give us now. I am sorry that your article justifies this expatriate mindset that offers nothing to the Tamils here.

    Rajan Hoole

  • 0

    Mr.Rajan Hoole:
    While I don’t want to dispute your general claims here. I am puzzled by one line:

    “It created the rationale for educated Tamils to make a virtue of GOING ABROADF and to leave the Tamils here in a barren and helpless state”
    How can Suntheralingam be held responsible for this?

    • 8

      I am referring to the consequences of Tamil nationalist politics. Combined with the fact that Tamils were discriminated against, it created among educated Tamils the feeling that we were too good for this country and it is by establishing ourselves abroad that we could teach the Sinhalese a lesson. They established links with Tamil nationalist politics at home and were looked upon as potential saviours. Consequently, we lost our civic sense; our institutions, including public, educational and church institutions became badly short of capable people to run them. It is now reflected in our politics, Jaffna University, Jaffna College and the general mediocrity that takes refuge behind chauvinism and religious extremism. This is not conducive to a political settlement, not least within the Tamil speaking people themselves. If this state of affairs is to be remedied, capable Tamils will have to return, in the knowledge that they may not get their due and functioning here is going to be an uphill struggle. I am sorry if my answer sounds incomplete.

  • 7

    I try to understand the Tamil point of view, and I made a couple of early comments. It was when “Agnos” spoke about Prof. Suntharalingam being a “casteist” that I began to recount our Sinhalese claims that he used to not allow certain people to enter a temple in Jaffna. I thought it was the Nallur Kandasamy Kovil.

    That was ages ago, when I was little more than a kid. And now we have the formidable Dr Rajan Hoole departing from usual practice by actually making a comment. It just makes one realise how complex these problems are. There are so few angels around, that it may be excusable for fools to rush in!

    Never mind, so long as we genuinely try to understand one another!

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