Politics of Tamil mandates
For more than 7 decades, from 1833 and 1910, successive generations of Ceylonese notables were co-opted through the Legislative Council to serve the colonial master. They owed their modicum of political influence (not power) and social status to the generosity of the British Governor.
The Governor appointedCeylonese “unofficial” members at his pleasure if they ingratiated themselves with him and earned his favour. They were Ceylon’s first generation of political brokers.
They performed two important functions. First they were go-betweens who conveyed the aspirations of elites of their respective communities to the Governor. Second, they simultaneously defended the colonial regime’s interests by ensuring the respective elites expressed their ambitions without threatening the stability of the colonial regime. That was dignified as colonialism’s indirect rule.
Most of the Lanka’s flatfooted historians, however, regurgitated the bilge colonial rulers fed them, that the Legislative Council was the first altruistic step to tutor Ceylonese in so-called “self-government”!
Unrepresented elites jockeyed for their own brokers. The Governor turned the pleadings for wider “representation” to the regime’s advantage by selecting more supine Ceylonese satraps as unofficial members to broad base and further entrench the colonial regime. These Machiavellian machinations were dressed up as “constitutional reforms”, such as the 1910 McCallum and 1920s Manning Reforms.
The collaborationist politics of the Legislative Council’s unofficial members set the framework (or template) for what is well known as “Petition Politics”.
Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan intervened to defend Sinhalese leaders incarcerated for their role in the 1915 anti-Muslim violence.They included DC Senanayake, FR Senanayake, DS Senanayake, DB Jayatilaka, WA de Silva and FR Dias Bandaranaike.
When Colonial Governor Sir Robert Chalmers ignored Ramanathan’s plea to release the prisoners, at first he attempted petition politics. He delivered six resounding orationsin the Legislative Council pleading for the Sinhalese leaders. But Governor Chalmers was not impressed, for power is not intimidated by speeches!
To his eternal credit, Ramanathan shifted tack; he sailed to London. Apparently Ramanathan’s Chanakya tactic was to pit London against Colombo. He convinced the Colonial Secretary the Governor’s actions were short sighted, counterproductive, were inflaming passions and are likely to catalyse revolt among the subjects against the Crown. It appeared to have worked!
London recalled Governor Chalmers and ordered the lifting of Martial Law and release of incarcerated Sinhalese leaders. Both Tamil and Sinhalese elites felicitated Ramanathan as a national hero on his return to Colombo. However, the ominous silence among Muslims was deafening.
Our parents’ generation lauded Ramanathan for bravely sailing through seas during WW1 in the teeth of the hostile German navy; that was true. They also claimed he achieved much because he “commanded respect” in London; that was probably more myth than reality.
Be that as it may, one cannot deny that Ramanathan stood head and shoulders above the rest of the yes-men in the Legislative Council. He overcame the congenital limitations of being weaned on feeble broker politics and the psychological burden of a “subject” in Britain’s colony. He skilfully manipulated London’s geopolitical concerns and singlehandedly manoeuvred the Colonial Secretary to recall the Governor and lift Martial Law.
Ramanathan’s unqualified success revealed a thorough grasp of the dynamics of power and a consummate skill in real politikarguably unmatched in the history of Ceylon/Sri Lanka.
His Tamil contemporaries, steeped in “petition politics”, were blind to Ramanathan’s power politics.
They preferred instead to imagine Ramanathan “commanded respect” from, and “appealed to the good sense” of, British power. A cursory reading of Sir Winston Churchill’s racist rants against brown skinned Indians is sufficient to shatter notions of his British establishment’s “respect” for, and “good sense” towards, non-white peoples; he had contemptuously dismissed Indians as “a beastly people with a beastly religion.”
Regular parliamentary elections based on universal franchise introduced by the 1931 Donoughmore Reforms added an ideological imperative, of securing the “mandate of the people” as an indispensable criterion of political legitimacy.
Politics of mandates
Customarily a political party or leader obtained a mandate – “theauthority granted by aconstituency to act as its representative”– from the people by garnering a majority of their votes through the electoral process.
The organisation or individual who received the mandate is directly responsible to implement its terms.
The ITAK claimed to have secured a mandate in the April 1956 parliamentary elections from Ceylon Tamils resident in the northern and eastern provinces, to pursue a constitutional reform towards a federal systemof government. The party fielded 14 candidates and won 10 seats out of a total of 95 and set out to implement the federal mandate.
Tamils’ mandate gained immense importance after SWRD Bandaranaike’s Sinhalese political party SLFP (Sri Lanka Freedom Party), and his allies in the SLFP-led MEP (Mahajana Eksath Peramuna) coalition, legislated Sinhala as the sole official language – widely known as the Sinhala-Only law – in June.
But Chelvanayagam reached a dead end: there were no takers on the Sinhalese side.
Obviously ITAK had to apply countervailing forceto compel Sinhalese politicians to concede the federal mandate. The party’s Founder General Secretary and its radical minority faction’s leader, V. Navaratnam was convinced Tamils must launch popular resistance and urgently prepare for mass action to enforce the federal mandate.
He had been weaned on the decisive role of mass action in India’s independence struggle and instinctively understood power politics. He acknowledged Chelvanayagam’s utter commitment to Tamil nationalism and appreciated ITAK’s agitation against the Sinhala-Only law. However, Navaratnam regretted “it all consisted of platform speeches to which people would come, listen, and then go their own way”, which “was not going to have any impact on the government.”
What’s worse, Chelvanayakam “ridiculed [mass action] as impracticable and a useless waste of energy…he had no concept of the value of mass action” in politics; Navaratnam added further: “He had no knowledge or understanding of the personalities of the Indian National Movement” and nurtured “a childish belief in parliamentary institutions.”
The radical group – Navaratnam, C.Rajadurai and others –possessed a surer grip on the dynamics of power at the core of constitutional reform. Perhaps they imbibed the wisdom of Imponentes defendere libertatem non possunt– “Those without power cannot defend freedom.”They logically focussed on demonstrating and building Tamil peoples’ power, their capacity for mass action, by organising the successful Long March,in which Tamils from the two Provinces converged on the Trincomalee esplanade for ITAK’s August 1956 Convention.
The radicals mobilised Tamil people’s countervailing street powersince politics is invariably decided by the balance of power in the street!
The enthusiastic response across the two provinces, recounted Navaratnam, stunned members of the Chelvanayakam-led majority conservative faction. But they were incapable of graspingthe historic importance of Tamils’ mass upsurge; nor could they lead the burgeoning movement. They simply couldn’t fathom Navaratnam’s emphasis on power play, which in many ways was reminiscent of Ramanathan’s adroit manoeuvres in London.
The conservative faction, guided primarily by lawyer-cum-politicians, believed through sheer force of habit they were carrying a brief (mandate) to defend their client (Tamils) based on the law of the land. They naively imagined the issue was primarily a matter of law, to be resolved by their “men who know the law” in the Sinhalese-dominated parliament and courts.
Blinded by Liberal shibboleths of “equality before law” and “inclusiveness”, Chelvanayakam, N.R.Rajavarothiam and their conservative associates viewed constitutional reform as an innocuous “sharing” of political authority between the Tamil and Sinhalese elites. They failed to grasp securing Tamils’ rights is a matter of power;that it fundamentally involved reducing the Sinhalese elite’s power and correspondingly enhancing the power of the Tamil elite.
The Sinhalese elite implacably opposed the Tamil elite’s manoeuvres to diminish its powers, as all dominant elites do everywhere and always. Nationalist Sinhalese denounced federalism as “dividing the land”, which implied reducing the land available for the Sinhalese, and stoked fears for economic survival primarily their peasantry, who were weaned on hand outs under the Land Development Ordinance (see Part II).In this way the Sinhalese elite skilfully marshalled mass political opposition to granting Tamils’ rights.
When Bandaranaike suavely invited Chelvanayakam for “talks” in 1957, the ITAK’s main leaders apparently swallowed his glib story of a lofty wish to “avoid violence” in the streets. Instead they ought have recollected that Bandaranaike’s self-alleged aversion to violence was nowhere seen in June 1956 when he had unleashed his goons on protesting ITAK politicians on Galle Face Green and instructed his police to look the other way.
Unlike Chelvanayakam and his coterie, Bandaranaike in fact understood the power and political ramifications of the August 1956 Tamil upsurge in Trincomalee. He moved swiftly to decimate the challenge it posed to his power: he resorted to the standard counter-insurgency tactic; he proposed “talks”.
The ITAK’s leading conservatives took Bandaranaike’s ploy at face value, as his genuine desire to resolve the so-called “Tamil Problem”.
The starkly divergent approaches of Bandaranaike and Chelvanayakam are rooted in their differing political histories.
Both are said to have been classmates in school. The similarity basically ended there.
Bandaranaike waded into power politics in 1924 as Chairman of the Nittambuwa Village Council. He was elected to the 1931 State Council and was Member of the Executive Committee on Local Administration; in the second State Council (1936) he was Minister of Local Administration and chaired its Executive Committee.In 1947 he held the post of Minister of Health and Local Government. By the time he captured power in 1956 and anointed himself Prime Minister, Bandaranaike had been steeped in power politics for more than two decades.
In contrast, Chelvanayakam practiced law till he was elected to parliament in 1947. He held no ministerial position. He had gathered some experience in electoral politics by the time his ITAK emerged as the leading Tamil political force in 1956 but had no experience in wielding executive power and consequently knew next to nothing about the rough and tumble of power politics.
Consequently Chelvanayakam and ITAK’s conservatives seemed woefully unaware of a crucial lesson of history: that power concedes nothing unless it is firmly confronted by a demand backed by the implicit or explicit use of force. Even then, the knee jerk reaction of power will be to first attempt to crush the challenge and, if that’s impossible, then concede the bare minimum.
When Bandaranaike suggested “talks”, Chelvanayakam ought have reflected on his anti-Tamil Galle Face pogrom, on his earlier fascination with the Nazi ideology of racial supremacy (see Part II). He may have surmise Bandaranaike was scheming to ruthlessly undermine the growing Tamil resistance, which had prodded him to negotiate and seen through Bandaranaike’s altruistic claim to resolve the so-called “Tamil Problem” as self-serving gibberish.
Instead Chelvanayakam and his team, apparently lulled by Bandaranaike’s Liberal rhetoric, blithely strolled into the first session of “talks” like lambs to slaughter. They were utterly unprepared for what was in store.
For starters, Bandaranaike invited Chelvanayakam to his Horagolla residencein Veyangoda. He did not schedule the meeting in the Prime Minister’s office, which implied the discussions would notcarry the imprimatur of the MEP Government. Chelvanayakam ought have smelled a rat; he should have insisted the meeting be convened under the auspices of Government, for instance in the parliament complex that would lend an official standing to the “talks”. He didn’t, we suspect, because of a poor grip on hardnosed power politics.
In Horagolla Bandaranaike stonewalled on the Official Language by facetiously dismissing the law as hardly more than a “gimmick”; but he virtually shredded both ITAK’s federal mandate and the Trincomalee Resolution, which insisted the Government establishes an autonomous state for Ceylon Tamils in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.He conceded nothing!
Three days later Bandaranaike held the second meeting, again in his residenceat Rosemead Place, Colombo. By then the “talks” had lost the veneer, if any, of an official dialogue. Bandaranaike sent Chelvanayakam and his associates – some were reputed constitutional lawyers – on a wild goose chase to dredge up alternative but diluted constitutional models to satisfy MEP’s hardliners; and then he ruthlessly whittled them down to the point where they became virtually unrecognisable.
The ever-perceptive Navaratnam instinctively sensed Bandaranaike’s power play. For he wondered, “could it be that the whole effort was merely intended to put the [ITAK] off the track in its preparation for action in terms of the Trincomalee Resolution?”Subsequent events proved him 100 per cent correct!
The third and final meeting was held on 26/27 July 1957 in the Prime Minister’s office, obviously to lend a deceptive aura of legality. Bandaranaike needed an agreement to nip the Tamil nationalist upsurge in the bud and (Navaratnam suspected) apparently convinced the few dissenters in Cabinet to agree to ITAK’s almost fatally vitiated terms, insinuating that they are unlikely to see the light of day.
At the end of the “talks” Bandaranaike arbitrarily called in the press and read out, with palpable contempt, a so-called “agreement” from Navaratnam’s handwritten notes of the meetings’ proceedings!
Bandaranaike did not sign a formal agreement with Chelvanayakam!
Nevertheless Chelvanayakam misread the situation. He apparently assumed Bandaranaike responded to the “respect” he (Chelvanayakam) supposedly commanded and displayed “good sense” – the perennial myths of Tamil politics. That probably explains why Chelvanayakam – a lawyer – on Bandaranaike’s dodgy verbal declaration,threw away his only trump card: he announced the ITAK would notpursue the mass campaign against the MEP Government.
Bandaranaike completed the rout! Chelvanayakam returned home, without a signed document and leaving the Tamils’ mass movement dead in the water.
That night, Navaratnam burnt the midnight oil to salvage a measure of dignity from the humiliating defeat. He drafted a statement in duplicate of the terms agreed between Chelvanayakam and Bandaranaike, which the former took to the latter the following noon. Both parties signed the document, later dubbed the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam (B-C) Pact.
It was Navaratnam’s position that “the B-C Pact was in the nature of an international treaty between the Singhalese and Tamil nations.”That desperate positive spin is understandable though it unfortunately was a rather dubious stretch.
The B-C Pact wasbetween two individuals written on plain paperby Navaratnam. As far as we know, it had neither the Seal of the Office of the Prime Minister nor was it adopted as part of the official policy of his SLFP or of the MEP. We are not versed in law. To our eyes, however, the Pact was neither legally valid nor constitutionally legitimate! It was unenforceable!!
The ITAK’s leaders – many of them lawyers – must have known the Pact had no legal basis but nevertheless, to save face, continued to insist the MEP government was obliged to implement the Pact. But Chelvanayagam barely noticed his bargaining power slipping through his fingers as Bandaranaike used the Pact very effectively to eviscerate and destroy Navaratnam’s mass movement.
The balance of power decisively shifted in favour of Bandaranaike. Clearly he had handsomely won by grinding ITAK’s Tamil mandate into the ground and arresting the growth of Tamils’ mass movement. He was on the verge of being crowned the 20thCentury’s Duttugemunu!
That was not to be for Bandaranaike’s political nemesis, JR Jayewardene plotted to cut him down to size. Being a lawyer, Jayewardene too surely knew the B-C Pact was a toothless document, hardly worth the paper written on. But he skilfully exaggerated it as a historic sell-out of Sinhalese-Buddhists and whipped up anti-Tamil hysteria; he pointed to the tragically unwise self-aggrandisement by a few terribly unimaginative ITAK conservatives, who falsely alleged to their Tamil constituencies the Pact was the first step towards a federal State. Jayewardene also roped in Buddhist monks, the forerunners of today’s BBS (Bodu Bala Sena), and launched the Kandy March to demonstrate the street power of his UNP (United National Party).
Thereafter it was but a matter time before Bandaranaike chose an opportune moment to jettison the essentially worthless Pact while earning maximum political dividend. He tore up the document on the lawn of his Rosemead Place residence, witnessed by extremist monks; it was political theatre! The ITAK couldn’t challenge his arbitrary action because the Pact had neither legal validity nor constitutional legitimacy.
The next credible mass movement was to coalesce around the LTTE after almost two decades, from the mid-1970s. (More on that later.)
Politics of “a small chance”
The assassination of Bandaranaike in 1959 made the B-C Pact irrelevant. So both the SLFP and the UNP had the best of both worlds: they could cheerfully dredge it up to solicit ITAK’s political support without being bound by the Pact.
The March 1960 general elections threw up a hung parliament. The UNP and SLFP vied for ITAK parliamentarians’ support to cobble together a working majority. The ITAK claimed it had struck a “deal” with Bandaranaike’s widow and SLFP Leader Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike and voted to defeat the minority UNP government, which duly fell.
The ITAK’s conservatives and their Colombo-based advisers manipulated the balance of power. The infuriated nationalist Sinhalese media vilified Tamils as “King Makers” and urged Sinhalese to close ranks.
In the run up to the July1960 general elections the ITAK continued the balance-of-power game. It campaigned to support the SLFP, claiming under the pre-election “deal” there is “a chance” the SLFP would stand by the B-C Pact.
But Chelvanayakam had frittered away peoples’ power Navaratnam mobilised in Trincomalee three years earlier. He possessed no countervailing power whatsoever to enforce the “deal” after the elections. When the SLFP won a comfortable majority, the inevitable happened; the party’s leaders ordered ITAK parliamentarians to take a hike!
The thoroughly humiliated ITAK’s conservatives childishly accused the SLFP of “cheating”. Power politics is not a game of snakes and ladders. The Greeks spelled out the dynamics of power almost two thousand years ago. Historian Thucydides, writing on the Peloponnesian War, placed in the mouth of an Athenian the immortal words:“you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”
In the Mahabharata more than a thousand years earlier Duryodhana delivered a similar message to the powerless Pandavas, who then declared war and established parity of power.
Anti-imperialist revolutions in India, China, Vietnam and Cuba, for example, conclusively demonstrated how the less powerful could achieve parity of power and trump the more powerful by drawing from the wellspring of all power – the people.
Evidently ITAK ignored these lessons of history. Nevertheless Chelvanayagam, who by then had matured into the revered leader of Ceylon Tamils,belatedly sought to rekindle people’s power through the 1961 Satyagraha, “to bring pressure upon the government by non-violent means to make it realise the just demands of the Tamil speaking people.”
In other words, he attempted Mahatma Gandhi’s idealistic “direct appeal to the soul of the oppressor”,to reform the oppressor. In Ceylon, the Satyagrahis bravely demonstrated noble non-violent direct action at its best.
The party mimicked Gandhi’s Satyagraha against British colonialism. But in India the majorityof 400 million Indians challenged a minorityof British rulers and their Indian satraps across the length and breath of the country.
Instead, ITAK ought have drawn lessons from the Gandhi-led failednon-violent movement of the minorityIndian population against the South African Apartheid State, which brutally put the resistance down.
In fact, Martin Luther King’s experiments with non-violent campaigns similarly reached a dead end. He soon discovered it was ineffective since the African-American minoritycould not withstand the onslaught of the white-supremacist State. Some Black activists believe King had begun distance himself from non-violence and gravitated towards the Black Power movement and, especially, the Black Panther Party (BPP); that, they claim, swiftly precipitated his assassination.
In Ceylon, Chelvanayakam used a very similar unproductive technique; he marshaled a numerically smaller Tamil community against a State backed by the vast majority of Sinhalese. His category mistake was to expect Gandhi’s approach, backed by the overwhelming majority in India, to be equally effective in the diametrically opposite ground condition of resistance by the smaller Tamil group against the Ceylonese State.
To make matters worse, despite the overwhelming advantage in numbers and terrain, Gandhi’s success was dubious at best. Plaudits heaped on him ignore the pivotal contribution of Subhas Chandra Bose’s INA (Indian National Army), the violent mass uprisings against the colonial regime,and the debilitating impact of WW2 on British Power.
In short, despite the bravery and self-sacrifice, Tamils’ non-violent Satyagraha was destined to collapse as it did when the military violently swooped in to disperse the activists, incarcerate the leaders and place the northern and eastern provinces under a military administration.
The Tamil parliamentarians were left to drag the Tamil Mandate, by then diluted into the impotent B-C Pact, pleading the Sinhalese politicians to implement it. This political clowning was dressed up as “negotiations”, for ITAK was utterly bereft of political power; nor was it remotely capable of building armed power.
In the aftermath of the 1965 general elections, Dudley Senanayake too humoured ITAK when he sought its parliamentarians’ support to prop up his minority government. The go-between was a prominent Tamil lawyer Murugeysen Tiruchelvam.
Like Bandaranaike, Senanayake too dodged the issue of State-aided Sinhalese land colonization. When Navaratnam insisted on restricting Sinhalese colonisation, “Senanayake threw up his arms and cried, ‘then where are my people to go for land’”.
Clearly the UNP had not outgrown its congenital obsession with land distribution and opposition to broad based industrialization going back to DS Senanayake in the 1930s (see Part II). Navaratnam also noted Tiruchelvam had been bought over by the promise a Ministry, for he mumbled about making changes from within the UNP government.
The reality was that ITAK once again had no power to enforce the ensuing Dudley-Chelvanayakam (D-C) Pact.So the party deluded itself that Tiruchelvam, who by his own admission was neither an ITAK member nor an elected parliamentarian,ought be slipped in through the Senate and parked in the UNP government to ensure the Pact is implemented. It’s the old mindless tactic of sending “men who know the law”!
There is hardly any other action by Chelvanayakam and his associates that so comprehensively revealed their utter political naiveté. Senanayake let Tiruchelvam twiddle his thumbs in the Ministry long enough to keep his UNP government afloat with ITAK parliamentarians’ help. Then flushed them all down, together with the D-C Pact!
From 1965 ITAK and, later, its avatar the TULF (Tamil United Liberation Front) refined the politics of mandates by adding the theory of small chances. At every election it beseeched Tamils for their mandate. After every election they concocted a lie: that there is “a small chance” one or another Sinhalese leaders may grant “something” to Tamils. After all, if there were no chance at all, why would Tamils give a mandate?
The ITAK/TULF deceitful propaganda masked the obvious question: why on earth should Sinhalese leaders implement the mandate Tamils gave their own Tamil politicians? How often do Sinhalese politicians honour the mandate given by their own Sinhalese voters?
Every Sinhalese president from 1994 onwards, for example, asked for, and received, a mandate to abolish the Executive Presidency.Did any of them execute the mandate? Did any of them perform the bizarre political jugglery of asking Tamils to implement that mandate?Indeed, The collapse of the 1977 election mandate based on the Vaddukottai Resolution is emblematic of ITAK/TULF’s duplicity. Tamil parliamentarians thumped their chest and pawed the ground, that they were taking the mandate to the Sinhalese parliamentarians; they, as always and appropriately, contemptuously threw it out!
Memories also flow back of a 1993 conversation we had with a firebrand TULF politician at his residence. His party was gearing up for the 1994 parliamentary elections in which it hoped to secure a fresh mandate to hold “talks” on Tamils’ rights.
Quite out of curiosity we asked him what he intended to do with the mandate. “We’ll take it to the Sinhalese people. They must accept it.” “They won’t”, we interjected. Visibly annoyed, and perhaps expecting us to wilt as his party minions do, he vigorously slapped the table for emphasis: “it will be the democratic mandate of the Tamil people”; and wagging a thick finger (which inevitably drew attention to the subsidised parliament cafeteria), “they [Sinhalese] have to accept it.” We smiled but persisted: “perhaps; but they’ll not accept it.”
In 2016, a very senior ITAK/TNA politician said to us, with an aura of mystery, there is “a small chance” the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government “may” grant Tamils’ rights! He harboured the same childish belief in parliamentary manoeuvres as Chelvanayakam had done about seven decades ago. We could only feel deeply sorry for that man!
Tamil parliamentarians in ITAK, TULF and now the TNA (Tamil National Alliance) bamboozled Tamils to send them to parliament with a mandate in each election from 1965 to the present. They would fumble through “talks” where possible and return empty handed each time to weep about being betrayed by Sinhalese politicians. They have carried on this duplicitous charade for more than five decades while Tamils’ rights have been systematically denuded.
Tamils in the north and east could continue to give mandates to the same lot for the next five decades; but nothing will change for the better.
For how much longer would Ceylon Tamils in the north and east tolerate this political fiasco? How soon would they throw up a new, young leadership that can actually defend the rights of Tamils in the streets??