By H. L. D. Mahindapala –
One of the oddities that casts a slur on the Tamil nationalist movement is the fact that it was not launched in Jaffna – the holy peninsula hailed as the heartland of the Jaffna Tamils. Instead, S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, the father of Tamil separatism, picked the Government Clerical Service Union (GCSU) Hall in Maradana to launch his separatist movement. Why was an event of such historical and political magnitude launched in Maradana and not in the heartland of the Tamils? The Jaffna Tamil leadership was not in exile. They had all the freedom and facilities to launch their “nationalist” movement on the soil which they consider to be their homeland.
Jaffna should have been the natural habitat for the birth of a Tamil nationalist movement. But of all places it was launched in a trade union hall of government servants which was located in the grimy, seedy quarters of Colombo. Why? Chelvanayakam did not even want to buy a house in Colombo like other Tamil professionals fearing that it would alienate his children from the roots of Jaffna. He feared that the cosmopolitan culture of Colombo would pollute the minds of his children. So why did he pick the GCSU hall in Maradana to launch his separatist movement?
There are several reasons for this decision. First, he selected the most influential section of the Jaffna Tamils who were predominantly in government service to plant his seeds of separatism. Anybody who was somebody in Jaffna was either in the professions – legal, medical, academic, etc – or in the government service. Prof. A.J. Wilson, highlighting the significance of the inaugural meeting of ITAK held at the Government Clerical Service Union in Maradana states: “In this organisation Ceylon Tamils clerical employees were a sizeable component; hence it was a significant venue.” (p.70 – S. J. V. Chelvanayakam and the Crisis of Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism, 1947 – 1977, A Political Biography, A. J. Wilson, Lake House Bookshop, 1994). The Jaffna Tamils also had a “craze for clerkship” (p.72 – Ibid) in government service. They were “attached to secure, pensionable public service employment”. (p.72 – Ibid). A popular saying among the Jaffnaites proclaimed that even if you want to raise chickens do it in government service,. The “clerk mentality” was ingrained in them. Another common saying that described the Northern culture said: “The son shines in Colombo while the father reaps the harvest in Jaffna.”
Second, Chelvanayakam craftily picked the GCSU hall in Maradana because he could focus primarily on the English-educated, Saivite, Jaffna Vellahlas (ESJVs) – the casteist elite that proved to be the most powerful, just not in Jaffna but in Sri Lankan national politics. The role of the Vellahlas has never been factored in as one of the most dynamic forces in Sri Lankan politics. Reams have been written on the Sri Lankan scene, focusing essentially on the south leaving out the critical input of the Vellahlas. It can be argued that Vellahlaism was the single most force that bedeviled and destabilized post-independent politics more than any other competing force.
From the shadows of feudal times they roared into the limelight to dominate post-independent politics with a vengeance. The politics of the Tamils was none other than the politics of the Vellahlas. It was the assertive, aggressive and demanding politics of the most privileged Vellahla caste in Sri Lanka that was projected as the politics of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka. Northern politics were linked mainly to language, jobs, land, and Tamil culture — issues that emerged from the socio-economic interests of the Vellahlas and not from the Tamil-speaking peoples as such. This will be demonstrated in due course.
But they managed to camouflage their caste/class interests by projecting it as the collective demand of the Tamil-speaking people. For instance, none of the issues touched the oppressed and deprived low-castes of Jaffna who had no stake in language, land or jobs in the government service. They were oppressed – almost as slaves – and not allowed to rise in the hierarchical order ruled by the oppressive Vellahlas. The Vellahlas virtually monopolized the English education – the only means for upward mobility — by burning low-caste schools and blocking the passage to higher education. This monopoly gave them the privilege of dominating the political and administrative decision-making processes in the British colony. The Vellahla battles, projected as Tamil nationalism, was essentially a movement to retain their feudal and colonial privileges. When they cried discrimination they meant the erosion of the feudal and colonial privileges held exclusively by the dominant Vellahlas.
Influential and decisive forces were generated and driven only by the Vellahlas who dominated strategic places in the political, professional, commercial and administrative fields, both inside and outside the peninsula. Nothing moved in Jaffna without the final consent of the Vellahlas. They constituted the only community which had risen to the highest rung in the power pyramid, occupying strategic places to influence and manipulate decisions that steered politics within the peninsula and beyond. By the time the British colonial masters left the shores the ESJVs had reached the peak of the colonial pyramid through the power of English-education, colonial patronage and the inherited Vellahla casteist prestige and power sanctified by Hindu religion.
Take, for instance, the government service. Prof. Wilson wrote: “On the whole, the Tamil Vellahlas have dominated the government service and the professions, with the occasional member from the minority castes.’ (p.140 – Ibid). The fact that Chelvanayakam’s separatism, disguised as federalism, was a Vellahla-driven force and not a mass movement is confirmed by Prof. Wilson who wrote: :”The Tamil public gave Chelvanayakam and his lieutenants a careful hearing – their meetings were well attended – but, apart from government servants and the Jaffna farmers (read: Vellahlas) many sections of the community remained dormant and apathetic or preferred to ‘wait and see”, hoping for the best; many too were plainly indifferent…..”( p.71 – Ibid).
Third, the dominance of the Vellahlas in politics, commerce, land and even Hindu temples ensured that Jaffna politics was held firmly in the palm of the Vellahlas. Every significant decision and act was initiated, directed and managed exclusively by the Vellahlas. They were the power-brokers and nothing moved inside peninsula without the advice and consent of the Vellahlas. Clearly, Chelvanayakam’s separatist movement was essentially a movement of the Vellahlas, by the Vellahlas, for the Vellahlas. The masses were roped in later. This explains why he decided to preach his divisive dogma to the Vellahla government servants at the GCSU Hall in Maradana and not in any part of Jaffna.
Unlike the anti-British religio-cultural movements of the South which evolved in the 19th and 20th centuries into a mass movement of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism that peaked in 1956 the Northern separatist movement was not propelled by a well-defined, organized or rationalized anti- colonial nationalist movement of the Tamil masses. In fact, the nationalist movement in the south began and developed as a multi-cultural, multi-religious, multi-ethnic force working collectively against British colonialism. Initially, the Tamils not only joined this movement but also played a constructive role in promoting non-racial nationalism. The English-educated Tamil youth of Jaffna were in the forefront of this common front. Even those Tamils who broke away from the growing nationalist movement – Ponnambalam Arunachalam and even G. G. Ponnambalam – did not articulate any doctrine / ideology of a separate state to assert their ethnic identity. “Tamil nationalism” was not a part of their political vocabulary.
The definitive expression of “the Tamil homeland theory” gained its final shape and form in the Vadukoddai Resolution passed on May 14, 1976 in the post-independent period as a movement against the Sinhalese. Until then the Tamil homeland theory had neither nationalistic underpinnings nor direction except in the rough outline drawn by S. J. V. Chelvanayakam in his Maradana statement in 1949 – the first of its kind. .
The absence of a viable and credible ideological thrust is demonstrated in the role of the then acknowledged leader of the Tamils, G. G. Ponnambalam who was the first to lead an anti-Sinhala-Buddhist movement dragging peninsular politics to the penultimate stage of mono-ethnic extremism. The ultimate stage was when his successor, Chelvanayakam, dragged Jaffna politics into separatism. Though Ponnambalam pioneered anti-Sinhala politics based on cries of discrimination when he entered politics in the 30s he was not leading a nationalist campaign promoting separatism. Northern Tamil politics was focused essentially on getting a percentage of power weighted in favour of the Northern Tamils. The main objective was to maintain their feudal and colonial perks, privileges, positions and prestige in government and professional services. Of course, the divide and rule politics of the colonial masters gave them a disproportionate share of power in the legislature and the administration.
At the heart of Tamil politics was the aggressive and arrogant claim of a minority pretending to be on par with the majority. This led to the politics of percentages demanding a disproportionate share of power, positions and perks in the government service. Politics of percentages was sponsored by G. G. Ponnambalam who was noted for claiming 50% share of power for a 12% minority of Sri Lankan Tamils. His formula, as proclaimed by him, was for the minorities (Jaffna Tamils, Batticoloa Tamils, IndianTamils, Malays, Moors and Burghers which constituted 25%) to grab a share of 50% from the majority which constituted nearly 75%. There was no consolidated movement of Tamil nationalism arising from a collective will of the Tamils of the north who were divided bitterly on casteist lines.
Neither the British who were controlling colonial politics nor the other minorities fell for the percentage politics of the Northern Tamils. Besides, the cry of 50-50 demonstrated the absence of a cohesive, united or inspiring ideology for the Tamils north to galvanize a collective mass movement of nationalism leading to a separate state. Politics of percentages collapsed totally when the British handed over power to a democratically elected government based on universal franchise. Accepting the new reality Ponnambalam joined the government led by D. S. Senanayake, the founding father of the nation, as its Minister of Industries, Industrial Research and Fisheries on July 1948 – five months after gaining independence. At this stage Ponnambalam realized his folly and distanced himself from any tendencies of separatist politics. As stated later, in opposing the District Development Councils proposed by Dudley Senanayake and accepted by Chelvanayakam’s ITAK, Ponnambalam came down heavily on separatism. He said that “the principles of this (District Development) Bill, as we seen in the White Paper, are bad for Ceylon and worse for the Tamils.” (Hansard, House of Representatives – Vol . 78, 1968, Col. 3100).
Reflecting on the prevailing Tamil ideology at the time of independence Prof. A. J. Wilson wrote: “Ponnambalam’s decision was not unique to him; it was a collective act on the part of Ceylon Tamils who advocated cooperation, at the elite and middle-class level, between Sinhalese and Tamils….The whole episode indicated the absence in the Tamil community of a consistent and coherent political philosophy or a sense of its goals…..(H)e represented, as we have seen a sizeable body of the Ceylon Tamil thinking at the time. (p.17 — S. J. V. Chelvanayakam and the Crisis of Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism, 1947 – 1977, A Political Biography, A. J. Wilson, Lake House Bookshop, 1994).
But Chelvanayakam, driven by the Vellahlas, defined the Vellahla agenda as “the new idea” of the Tamils who feared that their feudal and colonial privileges will be eroded under the rising democratic forces in the post-Donoughmore constitution. They also feared the undercurrents of the anti-Vellahla caste movement in Jaffna that went as far as stoning the statue of Arumuka Navalar, the father of Vellahla casteism, when it was taken from Udippidy to Jaffna. The anti-Vellahla movement challenged and clashed with Chelvanayakam’s “new idea”, threatening to derail his movement as a united front of Jaffna. The anti-Vellahala movement peaked in Maviddipuram Temple entry case. It is “the Sinhala-government” that had to send reinforcements to protect the Vellahla interests.
Chelvanayakam’s tactic was to divert attention to the bogus cry of discrimination against the Tamils by the Sinhalese. The Soulbury Commission which heard Ponnambalam’s 9-hour presentation on discrimination, dismissed it as stuff and nonsense. To cover up the oppression and denial of human rights to their own people by the ruling casteist elite of Jaffna Chelvanayakam took to mono-ethnic extremism which dragged Jaffna to the point of no return. After that there was nowhere else to go other than Nandikadal.
Chelvanayakam is rightly hailed as father of “Tamil nationalism” which was, in reality, a cover for Vellahlaism. Consequently, he should accept responsibility for dragging his people, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, all the way to Nandikadal. The Maradana speech was the first ideological stone laid by Chelvanayakam for his “traditional homeland” of the Vellahlas. They made it their homeland because Vellahlaism never took root outside Jaffna – not even in Batticoloa.
Maradana was the decisive point where the Vellahlas found a leader and an ideology to go with their political agenda. With it Chelvanayakam was aspiring to be the Jinnah of Jaffna. No other speech of any Tamil leader had argued so vehemently for a separate autonomous state as Chelvanayakam did at Maradana. As stated by Chelvanayakam, it “was a new idea”. which was opposed by Ponnambalam. He was a bitter opponent of Chelvanayakam’s divisive politics when it emerged as District Development Councils. Quite prophetically, Ponnambalam said that Chelvanayakam’s divisive politics, as contained in the District Development Councils, was “bad for Ceylon and worse for the Tamils”,..
Neither Ponnambalam nor Chelvanayakam lived to see this prophecy come true in Nandikadal.