18 April, 2024


Revisiting Tamil Self-Determination Part I: The Baptism Of Fire & Establishment Of A Secular Tradition

By Rajan Hoole

Dr. Rajan Hoole

Dr. Rajan Hoole

The communal solution to the communal problem is a fatal remedy’ – Handy Perinpanayagam, The Kesari, 18th September 1947

I endorse Laksiri Fernando’s contention that “In resolving the ethnic conflict, while the recognition of ethnic identities is of paramount importance, all attempts should also be made to transcend them at least gradually by all parties and all communities. Humanity is more important than ethnic identity” (The TNA Demand for FederalismColombo Telegraph 31-Jan-2016).

One could in this context understand Fernando’s cautionary note that “the federal demand should not be put forward within an ideological framework i.e. ‘the right to self-determination’ or ‘homeland’ concept. It should be a pragmatic and a practical demand.” I claim, however, it is only through a conscious act of self-determination that the Tamils could become fully Lankan with dignity – given the systemic oppression they, beginning with the Hill-Country Tamils, have faced since the onset of Independence in 1948.

All of us belong to a multiplicity of identities – ethnic, regional and religious, which make demands on us. The early 20th Century was a time of decision for World Jewry, suffering persecution in Eastern Europe and discrimination elsewhere. Karl Kautsky, a Jew and European socialist leader, wrote in 1914 on the Zionist option:

“But, curiously enough, there had already been a Jewish state in Palestine, founded by Jews in exile, under the protection of a non-Jewish state; and even at that remote period – two thousand years ago – this state had not served as a very powerful attraction for the Jews living in the Diaspora. Most of the Jews chose to remain in Babylon, Damascus, Alexandria, Rome, and in other places of domicile, only a portion of them settling in Jerusalem. Most of them contented themselves with an occasional pilgrimage to the Holy City. They found that they prospered better when living as strangers among strangers than in the national state.

This was an act of self-determination by a significant segment of European Jewry, who committed their future to a democratic struggle for a socialist Europe, rather than to a ghetto state in Palestine. We focus on the Jaffna Youth Congress whose approach is aptly reflected in Harold Laski’s ‘Introduction to Politics’ (1931), cited by K. Nesiah (Community, 1963):

“…any society, at bottom, is essentially federal in nature. The state is – formal law apart – one with other associations, and not over and above them… [The state] should largely seek to register as law…the body of demands it encounters among them… And it should not attempt the making of law without an effort effectively to consult those who will be affected by the result of its operations. [We have to look for the enrichment of national life in the expansion of society rather than of the state. This would mean that voluntary associations] – “the spontaneous expression of felt needs in the experience of men” – fill an important role and receive the recognition and support of the state.”

The Congress and the Cooperatives

Until the late 1920s the Tamils, a caste-ridden feudal entity, did not emerge as a political community. It is colonial policy towards self-rule and universal adult franchise that came with the Donoughmore reforms of 1928 that made the crucial difference.

Instrumental in raising mass public consciousness in Jaffna were the two closely-linked developments: the Cooperative Movement and the (Jaffna Youth) Congress. Both drew strength and inspiration from the ongoing Indian struggle. Government policy aimed at facilitating self-rule and the appointment of W.K.C. Campbell as Registrar of Cooperatives gave the impetus for the first development. Campbell, upon assuming duties, appointed C. Ragunathan as assistant registrar for the Northern and Eastern Provinces. At the same time, the Congress took root in Jaffna College under Rev. John Bicknell and inspired among youth ideals of social justice.

K. Paramathoyan’s doctoral thesis (University College London, 1990) sketches these developments in detail:

“Ragunathan seems to have had a hand too in getting the services of the Rev. A. A. Ward, an American Missionary, to be the first President of the Cooperative Provincial Bank established in Jaffna in 1929. Significant, too, is the fact that the second President of the Jaffna Cooperative Provincial Bank was the Principal of Jaffna College, the Rev. John Bicknell…

…The American Mission with a network of village or native schools had also embarked on a policy of opening ‘the doors of English learning to the intellectually able but economically disadvantaged by the provision of free education in the Central Day Schools, and free board and lodging as well as free education in the Charity Boarding Schools and the Batticota Seminary. The Church Mission, as will be seen later, also followed suit on a small scale, but it was the American Mission that pioneered this kind of egalitarianism’. The American Mission’s influence was manifest in the activities of the Students’ (later Youth) Congress founded in 1924. Its main aims were to organise the youth, to work for economic and social upliftment, to revive traditional arts and literature and to (advance the call) for political independence. The leadership came chiefly from the teaching community, most of whom were alumni of Jaffna College, influenced by Gandhian ideals…

…Mr. C. (Orator) Subramaniam, retired Principal of Skandavarodaya College, another founder member, describes, ‘When I joined Jaffna College to read for the Inter Arts Examination, Handy (Perinpanayagam) Master had already gathered round him a sizable following among student radicals. The hardline traditionalists had branded him a revolutionary… He had employed an [untouchable] boy as his personal assistant, to [provide] his meals. He, alone of the teachers, had remained in school when all others had boycotted it on Rev. Bicknell admitting [untouchable] pupils to the school. Later, he had insisted on their having their meals at the same table… Handy Master (who championed the fight against injustice) soon became (the) symbol and essence, evocator and voice of the surge of national emotion that swept our land and we were all caught in it. The result was the birth of the Students’ (Youth) Congress.”

Self-Determination: a Baptism of Fire

The Youth Congress faced its major challenge in 1930, in the wake of the Donoughmore proposals of 1928 and the colonial government in mid-1929 decreeing equal seating for oppressed castes in assisted schools. The Congress had already in its first annual session in 1924 resolved to abolish caste discrimination. It pressed the issue again in its sixth annual session on 21st April 1930. The stage was set for a confrontation with the traditional elites.

Meanwhile, to counter the attacks on the Congress as a pro-Christian entity, Kalaipulavar Navaratnam, A.E. Tamber and Orator [Subramaniam] invited the sympathetic orthodox Hindu (later Saiva Periyar) Shivapathasundaram, principal of Victoria College, to preside over their sixth annual session.

The session went through despite filibuster, violence and arson by its opponents. I quote from Silan Kadirgamar’s Handy Perinpanayagam Memorial Volume: Orator, in his Chairman’s address, rejected attempts by conservative Hindus to give religious sanction to the caste system. “As far as the Congress was concerned the question that was first and foremost is that of social justice…the removal of the disabilities suffered by the oppressed classes was an essential condition for political unity. The existing state of affairs made it necessary for one part of the nation to seek the protection of an alien bureaucracy against the oppressors while an alien bureaucracy kept the whole nation in bondage. Unless efforts were made to eradicate caste oppression, all talk about renaissance, freedom, spiritual rebirth and national heritage were futile.” Thus Hindus and Christians working shoulder to shoulder established among Tamils a tradition of secularism that no political party has since challenged openly.

Characteristically, Orator praised the colonial government the Congress opposed politically, welcoming the steps it had taken ‘to enforce in public institutions equality of treatment irrespective of caste creed or race’. Shivapathasundaram who had remained unperturbed by the filibustering and violence, reminded the Congress that they had ‘gone through their baptism of fire at an earlier session and it was no wonder that brimstone followed’.

We have in Orator’s speech the Youth Congress’ main prescription for the realisation of self-determination, which is internal reform to secure ‘social justice’ without which all else would be ‘futile’. It is on the strength of this that the same 1930 sessions of the Youth Congress resolved that ‘swaraj’ (self-rule) is ‘the inalienable birth-right of every people’ and called upon the youth to consecrate their lives to an independent Lanka. This shook the rest of Ceylon, where a long period of British rule was taken for granted. Most found it hard to understand that the Youth Congress exemplified, as in the Cooperative Movement in which it part-took, a richer notion of federated governance than is admitted in power politics.

The Cooperative Movement, and the Northern Division Cooperative Federation (NDCF) with which it was closely entwined, continued to advance public spiritedness and a sense of a wider community. A model of achievement was the Moolai Cooperative Hospital initiated by Malayan pensioners including V. Ponnampalam and Ragunathan himself.

Such was its fame that from places as distant as Pt. Pedro mothers went to Moolai for childbirth: “Through a small group of nine active societies, cooperative hospitals provide an extremely useful service. The pioneer among these, the Moolai Cooperative Hospital, was registered in 1936 and has become a unique society in a class by itself… It started as a cooperative dispensary established by pensioners from Moolai and adjoining villages who had returned from Malaya. A doctor and two apothecaries who were pensioners gave their services free of charge.” (The Royal Commission on the Cooperative Movement in Ceylon, 1970).

Educational policy, which placed self-determination in its proper practical context, was framed at the first meeting of the Union Delegates in the Northern Cooperative Division held at the Regal Theatre Hall on 3rd July 1937, led by C. Ragunathan, Assistant Registrar, and V. Veerasingam, Head of the Northern Cooperative Movement, an alumnus of Jaffna College (vide Paramothayan):

It was envisaged that a secular foundation like the cooperatives would provide an ideal breaking ground for moral values to be learnt in actual day to day situations. In such [a dispensation]…authoritarianism would give way… [and enable] a free exchange of attitudes and values… [and an appreciation of their cultural heritage]…The…approach was aimed at educating people to gradually transfer their allegiance from traditional institutions to modern institutions and teach them how to make use of new institutions to their best advantage.”

It accords with Laski’s idea of ‘expansion of society rather than of the state’. Even as ethnic polarisation advanced, senior Congressmen stood their ground: ‘The communal solution to the communal problem is a fatal remedy’. They resisted any settlement that situated the Tamils and Sinhalese as two distinct nations (and historic enemies).

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comments

  • 13

    Dr.Rajan Hoole,

    Thanks for the contemporary essay and the thoughts there in.

    Yes, there should be dispersion of political, administrative and financial powers to the periphery in this country, in view of what has transpired in this country since independence. How this should be done has bedeviled us for an equal number of years, that have been a babtism of Fire for all of us, including principally the Tamil minority. The political environment deliberately engineered by polticians, so-called nationalists and the media has never permitted a rational and reasoned discussion on the why and how. The Soulbury Constitution that could have permitted a merging of common interests and a sense of Ceylonese/Sri Lankan nationhood was deliberately and wantonly sabotaged and thereafter buried in the name of a narrow nationalism expounded on behalf of a ‘ Majoritrian’. Majority. The visible minorities were excluded from this concept of nationalism and words such as self-determination and federalism were poisoned to an extent that they have assumed vicious meanings in this country, probably non-existent elsewhere.

    The poison injected into these words cannot be removed or neutralized now. To try would only fatten the rabble and their opportunistic masters. Using these words is not the means to an equitable solution today. I think Prof. Laksiri Fernando has built his argument based on this insurmountable fact.

    We should not be talking of minorities in terms of language, religion or any other identity while discussing solutions to our pernicious and perineal ‘National Problem ‘ . In a world that has entered the 21st century and is becoming a global village, it is important to recognize the concerns that would confront us as citizens of a very small island. What are these concerns:

    1. Finding our niche in a world that is becoming one in terms of economy, knowledge, security, environment friendly development and eliminating poverty. This is a process that will go ahead despite other disruptive diversions.

    2. Changing our attitudes and frog-in-the-well thinking that have become our burden and drag, and left us where we are, in relation to most of the world.

    In this context should we not be talking of on the modes of empowering all our people and unleashing their creative energy to take us, where everyone of us-Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim; Buddhist, Hindu and Christian want to be. Is’nt this our collective destination. All of us want to be healthy, educated,skilled, prosperous, in demand and live in a nature-friendly environment. Isn’t this our common goal?

    Why not discuss how all the people, provinces, regions, climatic zones, villages, towns, and cities can be empowered to find solutions to the problems that hinder their progress, and the modalities. Highly centralized management is an outmoded concept in any institution and more so for a country-large or small. Centralized management is insensitive, slow, cumbersome and hence inefficient. Power has to be dispersed in a manner that every citizen feels empowered and hence becomes responsible. The political system has to reformed to attract a better quality politician, answerable to the people, at every level. We have to have better persons to man our public services, not those who have come through the back door with the recommendation of politicians.

    It does not matter what labels we carry, but all of us have to progress, if this country has to progress. Imagine the money and resources that could have been saved, if not for the wars we fought to bring about mutual destruction. Imagine what could have been done with that money. Think of how our country has been maimed and dwarfed by the turmoil and wars. There is no better place to see this than in the northern province. A people have been set back centuries and it will take a century or more for them to heal and become what they should have been now!

    For me Northern Provincial Council has been a bitter pill that makes me sometime doubt whether devolution is the solution to the problems the Tamils confront today and will in the decades to come. When I hear a TNA member of parliament from Kilinochchi say that development has to play second fiddle to power sharing, I feel sad for the Tamils. Should such a person have been put forward by the TNA to become an MP in a parliament that is to deliberate on a new constitution for the 21st century?

    Would political power vested in insensitive and idiotic politicians resolve the mundane problems such as poverty, unemployment and lack of economic opportunities they face. Can ill-educated and stupid politicians educate them better? Would polticians insensitive to their pains, help them heal? Would liers and cheats with with devolved power, teach a people to recover their mortally damaged ethical and moral values?

    Such persons are like Mary Antoinette the Queen of France, who told the people demanding bread, to eat cake instead! I have spoken to some members in the NPC and was shocked to discern their quality. Could we benefit from any power-sharing arrangement that is shouldered by such? WE HAVE MUCH TO THINK DEEPLY ABOUT .”

    What was said by anyone, however profound, in the past, has been rendered irrelevant and hollow by the circumstances we are in now!

    Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

  • 13

    A fine article holding up the virtues of great men of a bygone era, who serve as role models to us, both young and old.

    However, one of the men named in this article and presented as great was the principal of a school said to have been established in 1894. He is at once a great hero for some the stands he took as mentioned in this article, and a child abuser who used to take a nightly walk to the hostel.

    Having been brought up to think of this mnan positively, I was shocked when I first heard of this weakness of his from a respected old boy and checked up with other “old boys” of his time. They looked at each other and smiled but said nothing. I then dug deeper catching them one-on-one. The son of a former principal confirmed this but claimed that he had done so much for the school that his greatness is beyond question.

    I am not sure. Some will argue that his sexuality is irrelevant. But criminality in abusing boys under his authority? When he is presented so positively, it excuses his criminality as if men who do great things in one area may be permitted some laxity to the extent of psychologically damaging little children in their charge for life.

    • 1

      You are side tracking the issue.
      Your criticism of an individual who is dead is unwarranted.
      I think you tamils are good at airing your personal vendetta when some important issues are under discussion and in my opinion thats the downfall of your community.

    • 1

      You are side tracking the issue.
      Your criticism of an individual who is dead is unwarranted. He cannot defend himself as he is dead it is immoral if not uncivilized of you to take up the issue now.
      I think you tamils are good at airing your personal vendetta when some important issues are under discussion and in my opinion thats the downfall of your community.

    • 9

      Dear Perinbam,

      “A fine article . . . by Rajan Hoole,” you say, and a very fine, balanced, sensitive and restrained response from you, I say.

      You also write so well that you have conveyed one of the the dilemmas that we often face, when we are forced to confront a seeming weakness in a great man. You have not even mentioned his name, but even a guy like me who has visited the Northern Province only twice in my long life, understands whom you mean.

      I consider paedophilia a crime even today, and it maybe that the man realised it himself. However, it may be that in this day and age when gay activity is so openly talked about, this man may have been able to find a consenting adult (from Sri Lanka’s cabinet of Ministers?) for him to give “expression to his sexuality”.

      I think that you ought to continue to consider the man “a hero”, but, certainly it is a difficult subject. I fear that many will react the way PROUDMAN does, but “Who are we to judge?”. Yes, there is something to learn from the present Pope’s way of talking.

      Going beyond that, the greater tragedy is that Sri Lanka did not evolve in keeping with this man’s vision. Let us do what little we can; and thank you Rajan for your article.

    • 1

      Oh dear!!
      Some of my friends have called me to ask whether I am the author of this scurrilous note by one who calls himself “Perinbam”.
      Of course I did NOT write this and wouldn’t dream of inserting such an irrelevant note into a political discussion.

      • 5

        Dear “sidharthan perinbanayagam”,

        That “Perinbam’s comment” is irrelevant to Dr Rajan Hoole’s main argument is very true. However, the tone of the comment that we refer to is so respectful of the person being discussed that it can hardly be described as “scurrilous”.

        In the South of Sri Lanka, too, apart from my own joke about our current cabinet such things have been said about a host of former leaders, including Prime Ministers, Cabinet Ministers, artists, artistes, and the like.

        I’m sure that you will be able to find plenty of articles of this sort on the Internet:


        However, important as that subject may be, wouldn’t it be sensible for somebody to write about these things elsewhere? Dr Hoole’s carefully researched and wonderfully balanced paper deserves much more objective and dispassionate consideration than will be possible if all these other issues are dragged in.

        Please, somebody, if you have much information, even about this facet of this particular man, that you feel must be discussed, explore it in a different set of articles. All this happened so long ago, that it can wait a month or two while you get your material and analyses together.

        Many years ago I had read about how the life of this man, Alan Turing (1912 – 1954), had been turned in to hell by the prudish public, and I think that he committed suicide. I don’t think that I’m going to find the time to carefully read this article:


        The views that Dr Rajan Hoole has been cogitating for so long, and that he is now presenting to us, seemingly as a daily dose, are of such momentousness to the future of 22 million people in our country, that we should focus on the main issues raised here by him. He himself doesn’t want to get embroiled in all these endless controversies.

        I know that I myself may seem to have contributed significantly to this controversy, but could we please focus on the main issues here. I, being a non-Tamil knowing Sinhalese, cannot contribute much. I want to just read the main issues on the socio-political issues discussed, and NOT go in to gender issues at this moment.

        What is here important is to see that the Youth Congress had the right vision for the political future of the country. “Fifty-fifty” was such an unnecessary cry. The villains are those who want to keep talking about such things, and those who will want to continue to cloud such public issues by bringing personal issues in to the discussion.

        • 2

          Sinhal Man:
          Okay: But the OED Says about “scurrilous”:
          Making or spreading scandalous claims about someone with the intention of damaging their reputation

          • 3

            Yes, he was “spreading scandalous claims”, but I don’t think that there was mal-intent.

  • 3

    In Sri Lanka religion has made a major impact in decision making. In the constitutional making the majoritarianism and not the citizenry that won the opportunity.

    SWRD brought the Sinhala only Act. Mrs B when introduced the republican constitution did away the protection had for the minorities by removing the Article 29 in the Soulbury Constitution. and for the first time the Buddhism was given the foremost place. Since then it was perceived by the rest as the constitution of the majority and not the citizens.

    So the religion and the race has played havoc in turning the country in to the present state of agony. That is why certain saffron robes people expect a status of impunity for them forgetting the the RUle of Law is essential to maintain peace and stability in the country. Still we are not far from this religious politics even in the midst of the proposal for a new constitution making.

    secularism should be order of the day in the country giving all its citizens the equal opportunity.

  • 1

    “Until the late 1920s the Tamils, a caste-ridden feudal entity, did not emerge as a political community. It is colonial policy towards self-rule and universal adult franchise that came with the Donoughmore reforms of 1928 that made the crucial difference.” – Rajan Hoole

    The above statement could have been worded better perhaps.
    But, as it stands, it gives credit to the colonial rulers for the development of Tamils as a community, and in the process blanks out the development of community consciousness among Tamils, in parallel with that among Sinhalese, growing out of resentment of Christian domination. The resultant consciousness was based on Buddhist and Saivaite identity rather than Sinhala and Tamil. They defined the evolving political communities that found expression in growing demands for rights and representation.

    Emergence of a group of people as a political community depends on the available political space. That space was not a colonial gift. On the other hand, self-rule and universal adult franchise were responses to growing public resentment and the need to preserve the loyal elite class which had served as a buffer. It should be noted that even after Universal Franchise, the elite wielded almost total control over those oppressed by caste, class and gender for decades.

    The Jaffna Youth Congress marked a turning point; but struggles against caste oppression took decades to bear fruit.
    The change in 1956 had an impact. The continued struggle against caste oppression in the North, unlike in the South, was closely associated with the Left and scored a major success in the campaign of 1966-1971. Notably, there was not a single elected Tamil MP from the depressed castes until 1977 but there was a nominated MP in 1970, thanks to the UF government. Jaffna is still a caste-ridden society despite pretences to the contrary; and despite remarkable victories against caste oppression, feudal attitudes still prevail.

Leave A Comment

Comments should not exceed 200 words. Embedding external links and writing in capital letters are discouraged. Commenting is automatically disabled after 5 days and approval may take up to 24 hours. Please read our Comments Policy for further details. Your email address will not be published.