By Ram Balasubramaniyam –
The 39th Death Anniversary of Senator M Tiruchelvam, QC, a former Cabinet Minister and Solicitor-General of Ceylon.
The Hindus of Sri Lanka suffered colonialism longer than any other Hindu society. After 450 years of Christian rule, the Hindus became victims of a vicious ethnic conflict. Many Hindus perished due to an ethnic schism contrived by the Christians on both sides of the divide.
One should not ignore the Hindus who shone brightly in the darkness. The former Cabinet Minister Murugeysen Tiruchelvam QC was a selfless Hindu leader. He sacrificed much for the greater good of the Hindus and the country.
Tiruchelvam was born in 1907 in Jaffna and moved to British Malaya at the age of three months. His father Mr. Vishwanathan Murugeysen was the Post Master of the Kuala Lumpur Telegraph Officer. After the Great War ended in 1918, Murugeysen sent his two elder sons Tiruchelvam and Rajendra to St. Thomas College in Ceylon.
Murugeysen’s decision to send his sons was prompted by the son of one of his friends – SJV Chelvanayakam. Chelvanayakam’s father Mr. JV Velupillai was a friend of Murugeysen. Chelvanayakam, who later became a King’s Counsel and a political leader, was then a young man of promise. He was an old Thomian who was pursuing a legal career in Colombo. S. Thomas was better than any institution in Malaya. St. Thomas College had an exalted reputation as the Eton of the East.
Tiruchelvam and his brother Rajendra excelled at S. Thomas. They both entered the University College in Colombo, where they received degrees from the University of London. Tiruchelvam took two BAs in History and Law.
He joined the government’s legal service in the 1930s. He soon rose through the ranks as a district magistrate and a crown counsel.
In 1947, Tiruchelvam served as Sir Alan Rose’s (Legal Secretary under the Donoughmore Constitution and later Chief Justice) junior in drafting the Soulbury Constitution. Rose accepted the junior’s prompting on the need for minority protection.
Tiruchelvam’s Hindu consciousness was apparent when Ceylon got independence in 1948. The newly independent country was discussing a national flag. The Hindu leaders favoured a flag with the Nandi image. The Nandi is the sacred bull of Lord Shiva. It was also the symbol of the Jaffna Kingdom. This proposal was vetoed in favour the Lion Flag.
According to Prof. AJ Wilson, Tiruchelvam was defiant. “On Independence Day, 4 February 1948, Tiruchelvam boldly had the Nandi flag flying in his car, not paying attention to the consequence that could visit him. As one of the crown’s most skilled lawyers, he did not seek to conceal his nationalism for petty gain or rapid promotion.”
Mr. Tiruchelvam entered politics in 1960 after a stellar career as a government legal officer. He had been named a Queens Counsel, the highest honour that a lawyer could receive in the Commonwealth. Having reached the pinnacle of his profession, he set his sights on contributing to the greater good of the country as a politician.
Mr. Tiruchelvam became the chief advisor and principal strategist of the founder of the Federal Party- SJV Chelvanayakam, QC. Chelvanayakam, who was eight years senior to Mr. Tiruchelvam, had played a leading role in shaping Mr. Tiruchelvam’s education career. He was the guide and mentor to Mr. Tiruchelvam’s foray into politics.
His early years were shaped by civil disobedience. In 1961, a mass satyagraha was staged by the Federal Party to protest against the Sinhala Only Act. The SLFP government jailed Mr. Tiruchelvam and more than 30 other leaders of the Federal Party in Panagoda for over six months.
Today, the mass imprisonment of peaceful politicians would be condemned. But things were different in 1961. This wanton act of oppression was ignored. In 1965, the UNP and Federal Party entered into a coalition pact, after the Senanayake-Chelvanayakam pact. The press baron Esmond Wickremesinghe was the mediator between the two parties.
Mr. Tiruchelvam entered the Senate and was named in Dudley Senanayake’s UNP-led Cabinet as the Federal Party nominee. As the Minister of Local Government, Mr. Tiruchelvam played a leading role in administrative reforms. He was instrumental in the Tamil Language Special Provisions Act and the creation of the Jaffna University. The move to create Jaffna University was a giant leap in widening educational opportunities.
In September 1968, Tiruchelvam resigned due to a dispute over a Hindu shrine. The UNP-led coalition had already bitterly disappointed the Federal Party by failing to pass the District Councils Act.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was Prime Minister refusal to declare Fort Frederick in Trincomalee as a sacred area for the Hindus. Fort Frederick is the area in the town that contains the Tirukoneswaran temple. This temple is sited at the scene of one of the major battles between Rama and Ravana in the Ramayana. It is an ancient shrine that honours Lord Shiva and has been called the Kailash of the South of the Indian Subcontinent. The temple was built by the Chola dynasty around 1000AD.
A group of prominent Hindus wrote to the Prime Minister and Minister Tiruchelvam requesting Fort Frederick to be made a sacred area for the Hindus. Fort Frederick in Trincomalee a sacred site and the Prime Minister told Tiruchelvam to take necessary action.
Tiruchelvam, a devout Hindu, was directed by the Prime Minister to appoint a committee to look into the question. The appointment of the committee was gazetted on August 27, 1968 with the aim of “Declaration of Fort Frederick of Trincomalee, a Sacred Area”. Tiruchelvam appointed his Deputy Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa (who later became President) to the Committee.
Two days later, a Buddhist priest named Mangalle Dharmakirti Sri Damasgasare Sri Sumedhankara Nayaka Thera of the Trincomalee district complained to the PM. The Buddhist monk claimed that an “ancient place of Buddhist worship” would “get into the hands of those who are neither Sinhalese nor Buddhists”. The PM was an indecisive and insecure man. He succumbed to the threats of the Buddhists chauvinists. He immediately asked Tiruchelvam to suspend the committee.
Tiruchelvam was shocked by the PM’s somersault. He resigned from the Cabinet in November 1968, effectively ending the UNP- Federal Party Coaliton. Senator Tiruchelvam said that the PM’s volte face “brought to naught the unanimous wish of all Hindu religious bodies”.
His last years saw worsening communal relations in the country. Tiruchelvam was outraged by the 1972 constitution, which established a unitary state and gave Buddhism the foremost. The minority protection was removed from the constitution.
Despite the dire situation, Mr. Tiruchelvam was resolutely in favour of a united and plural Sri Lanka. He was opposed to the 1976 Vadukkodai resolution that demanded a separate state of Tamil Eelam. He advised his mentor Chelvanayakam against it, but it was in vain.
On the night of November 23rd 1976, Tiruchelvam breathed his last. His death was mourned by the Hindus of the island, as well as the rest of the country. He will remembered for his courage, intellect and patriotism.
*Ram Balasubramaniyam, Attorney-at-Law served as the Private Secretary to Senator M Tiruchelvam when he was Minister of Local Government from 1965 to 1968. Mr. Balasubramaniyam is the Editor of Senator Tiruchelvam’s Legacy (published by Vijitha Yapa in 2007).