By Ratnajeevan H. Hoole –
The purpose of having national heroes is to celebrate their lives and offer the younger generation models for them to emulate. I was therefore taken aback to read (Island, 1 March 2018) the suggestion by Hemantha Warnakulasuriya that the late Mr. Kandiah Neelakandan’s “Portrait must be unveiled in [a] special room called the hall of fame so that members will remember what a colossus he was.”
The national interest outweighs the need to be gentlemanly. Indeed, it demands ensuring that heroes are true exemplars for everyone.
Even before the report of the “UN Secretary General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka” reached us there was hysteria in Colombo, The BASL Executive Committee had a resolution by Jayantha Gunasekera, PC, dated 23 May 2011 condemning a report we had not seen. At the time, Gunasekera had argued (Sunday Observer, 24 April 2011) that he condemns Navaneetham Pillai on the grounds she is a Tamil who has to side with Tamils because “[a]fter all, blood is thicker than water.” Good sense prevailed and the resolution was defeated because nobody had seen the report. But after its release, the BASL dutifully condemned the report unanimously at meetings on 30 April and 7 May – by their own argument since blood is thicker than water, as Sinhalese they had to condemn the report.
But Tamils? At least three Tamils including, Kandiah Neelakandan voted Aye (S.R.H. Hoole, “Complaints against the Ban Ki Moon Panel, Daily Mirror, 4 June, 2011). As Tamils they surely knew the crimes of war.
However, to be “national” one needs to side with the Sinhalese even against Tamil interests. While denying the Mullivaikal killings, Neelakandan played to Tamil sentiments by oppressing religious minorities. He took the public position that the Vice Chancellor of Jaffna University must be a Hindu, stating so in many conversations and in a Virakesari interview. His willingness to serve the state also earned him a place as a Governor of Chandrika Kumaratunga’s Office of National Unity and Reconciliation. I have pointed out to Ms. Kumaratunga the inappropriateness of this appointment but it does not seem to matter to her. That poison Neelakandan sowed has now spread to senior positions to the ruin of Jaffna University where UGC Chairman Mohan de Silva, according to an affidavit by Carlo Fonseka, has justified the university’s right to recruit only Hindus and those who firmly subscribe to the iconic status of Arumuga Navalar – despite Section 30 of the Universities Act:
“[N]o test of religious belief or profession shall be adopted or imposed in order […] to hold any appointment therein or to graduate thereat or to hold, enjoy or exercise any advantage or privilege thereof.”
By pretending in formal affidavits that the UGC has no power to interdict unlawful actions by universities, the UGC Chairman has encouraged crookedness within the university – see article in The Island by Rajan Hoole on trees being sold The country is being looted at every level with total impunity.
The extent of religious discrimination in Jaffna is difficult to assess. At the recent local Government Elections, the ITAK candidate for Ward 4 of the Jaffna Municipal Council (Nallur) was the accomplished Christian woman Rahini Ramalingam. According to a complaint received by the Elections Commission, Douglas Devananda’s DD TV repeatedly aired a programme saying that Nallur is Rajathaani (the King’s Place) where it is inappropriate to elect a Christian. The Commission is investigating.
Happily, the hugely Hindu majority Ward voted Rahini in. It seems to me that upper class Hindus who compete with Christians are prepared to use religious discrimination to profit, whereas ordinary folk are more open and tolerant. This I believe is also the case with Sinhalese-Tamil relations.
That brings us to postage stamps issued to celebrate Navalar and Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan. According to The Morning Star (“The Absurdities of Caste,” 25 Nov, 1847) Navalar objected to the admission to the Wesleyan Mission School (now Jaffna Central College) of a Nalava-caste boy and walked off with half the school in protest. That almost ruined the school. Navalar berated the missionaries as Mlecchas (barbarians). Those who took refreshments at the mission Station were insulted in his book (The State of religion in Jaffna) as having drunk the Kusini Parayandai Kopi (Kitchen Paraya’s Coffee).
Navalar pushed for his protégé and Hindu leader Sir Pon. Ramanathan to be the nominated member of the Legislative Council. Ramanathan, like Navalar, did not want low-caste children educated and at best wanted them to sit on the floor outside the classroom, as detailed by Prof. K. Sivathamby. This Ramanathan connection gave Navalar an unquestioned status in the South. Pon. Ramanathan’s rival was his brother-in-law ATG Britto. Navalar went so far as to recommend Ramanathan dishonestly as “educated at Presidency College [Madra]”; whereas, according to his sympathetic biographer M. Vythilingam (The Life of Ponnambalam Ramanathan, 1971) Ramanathan had been dismissed from Presidency College and his name removed from the rolls there, adding that Ramanathan and his elder brother Coomaraswamy were sacked because of “youthful excesses” and spending time on body-building rather than studies.
According to tradition in my family – as my ancestor and first graduate of Madras Rao Bahadur C.W. Thamotharampillai was the brothers’ guardian in Madras – they were sacked for cheating at exams. There are also questions over Ramanathan being seen travelling by berth, accompanied by his admiring devotee prior to his wife’s death by drowning in their well.
The worst indictment of Ramanathan is by Kumari Jayawardena (Nobodies to Somebodies: The Rise of the Colonial Bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka, 2002, p. 219). She writes that the governor favoured Ramanathan over Britto despite Britto’s great public support because the Ponnambalam family had bought its way into power by lending money to British Governors and Colonial Secretaries (for which they were sent back in punishment).
Britto was a Christian. Vythilingam lambastes Christians for going after privileges. He then forgets himself and reveals Ramanathan’s maternal grandmother’s father, Edirmannasinha Mudaliyar, held the office of Governor of the Vanni District under the Dutch. Vythilingam seemed not to be aware (William Howland, Historical Sketch of the Ceylon Mission, 1865, p. 7) that the Dutch made “assent to the Helvetic confession of faith necessary to the holding of any office of profit or trust under the government.” Edirmannasinha Mudaliyar was surely of the Dutch Reformed Church.
Ramanathan, a deft politician in his own right, further strengthened his hold by taking the side of the Sinhalese against the Muslims in the 1915 riots when there was little to say that one side was right or wrong. This resulted in a grand welcome by the Sinhalese on his return from London. He permanently introduced cleavage among the Tamil speaking peoples by differentiating against non-Hindus within our community and insulting Muslims as low-caste Tamils.
Besides the above referenced two stamps, we have a designated series of 48 Sri Lankan stamps celebrating National Heroes. Among these are six Tamils. One of them, GG Ponnambalam (another unrelated Ponnamblalm), probably does not deserve the honour – certainly not when acclaimed Tamil Leader SJV Chelvanayagam and assassinated Leader of the Opposition A. Amirthalingam have not been honored.
Ramanathan was happy to marry a Christian woman who converted to Hinduism. It was his second marriage. In contrast, GG Ponnambalam’s marriage to a Christian wife, Rose Clough, was her second marriage and his first. The Cloughs were a rich Caradive (Kaarai Theevu) family of the America-Ceylon Mission. They had acres of rubber estates in Malaya. GG Ponnambalam through marriage gained access to her fortune. In marrying her, he went against Hindu Law, yet he remained fastidious about caste observations.
As related by Seeniar Gunasingham, an accomplished oppressed-caste leader, it was the contention of Pon Kandiah (CP-Moscow MP in the 1956 parliament and yet another Ponnambalam) that the factories established by GG Ponnambalam had kept out the oppressed castes and opportunities ought to be given to them too. GG Ponnambalam replied that there was no need since the oppressed castes had the best jobs in Jaffna. An astounded SWRD Bandaranaike asked where these jobs were. Toddy-tapping, shot back GG Ponnambalam. Anyone seeing the conditions under which the Nalavas lived would know it was rubbing salt in their wounds
The Hansard (25.08.1948, cols 1969-70) gives the division at the second reading of the Citizenship Bill. Ponnambalam was negotiating for a ministerial position with DS Senanayake after agreeing with Thondaman to vote Nay. He ducked voting by dissembling a fit of coughing and abstained, while SJV Chelvanayagam and others, unaware of the betrayal, stuck to the bargain with Thondaman and voted Nay. Thereafter, as Minister, Ponnambalam sold out the Indian Tamils by voting for the Indian and Pakistani Residents Citizenship Bill (3/1949) which denied them their franchise. J.L. Fernando (Three Prime Ministers of Ceylon, 1963, p. 27) writes “The Damila [Ponnambalam] bowed low before the Sinhala Lion,” DS Senanayke, “and was made a Minister, thereby striking one million Central Tamils off the electoral registers.”
Indeed, GG Ponnambalam even stalled the idea of the Tamil University in Trinco that the ITAK was successfully pushing for with the government, by asking for a “Hindu” University instead. The government just gave up.
Ponnambalam’s religious jingoism continues. In 2011, I arrived late from Jaffna at a party in Colombo hosted by Dr. Vasanthy Devarajan. Carlo Fonseka, chatting to Dr. Yogalakshmi Ponnambalam, beckoned me and said, “You know Mrs. Kumar Ponnambalam, don’t you. She says the Ramanathan Trust has a clause that no Christian can be VC/Jaffna. Is that so?” She was aghast. Her claim being contrary to Article 30 of the Universities Act, I said it is untrue. She slunk away and left the party telling our hostess that she would never have come if she had known I would be there. She had no objections to the Clough wealth.
How are these our heroes? Give our future generations real heroes they can model their lives on.